"…why we all must die a little before we grow again? I do not know the answer, I merely know it's true. I hurt them for this reason, and myself a little bit, too."

-El Gallo, The Fantasticks


El Gallo staggered out of the bar, clutching his blood-soaked side and trying to ignore his anemic dizzy spell. "A little more," he rasped, stumbling down the road and sending pedestrians flying away from him. El Gallo ignored them, straining his eyesight to see the time the sun was dictating. "Shit," he cursed, trying to stumble forward faster. It didn't work; El Gallo tripped and fell, landing with an undignified 'oof' in a heap on the sidewalk. El Gallo sighed heavily, his dizzy spell making elephants of the cement path, and considered giving up. By the sun's rays, it had been at least a day since he last set foot outside, possibly longer. By all accounts, El Gallo should be dead by now.

El Gallo sucked in his breath harshly, using the hard edge it provided to push himself up. "A little more," he panted, "just a little bit longer." Because El Gallo wasn't dead yet; he couldn't be. Because he needed to go a little bit further. Wheezing and gasping all the while, El Gallo forced himself down the gray path to where harsh cement became packed dirt, to where the dirt became grass, and where the grass became a flower and vegetable garden, surrounding the picture-perfect house El Gallo had promised and yet swore never to return to. Blinking spots and terrifying darkness out of his vision, the man lifted his fist to knock on the freshly-painted front door. He hoped he would be well received. After all, oaths were oaths, but promises came first. Perhaps that was why his knock was so heavy, El Gallo insanely deduced.


Luisa was in the living room, intensely knitting a mismatched set of socks, when the knock at the door came. Well, it was less of a knock and more of a pound, but Luisa was polite enough not to comment. Instead, Luisa carefully shifted her knitting knots and stabbed the needles into her yarn, ensuring everything would be in place when she returned. It's probably Papa, back with those pickled tomatoes, Luisa thought absently, tucking a strand of dark hair behind her ear as she made her way to the entranceway. Luisa smiled at the fresh paint; it wasn't much, and Matt had barely been able to spurge on it, but he had insisted on creating the palace of their dreams. Luisa's smile turned wistful, thinking of the prince that swept her off her feet and gave her the world.

Still smiling, Luisa opened the front door. "Papa-" she started, before her brain caught up with her eyes and she gasped, staring wide-eyed at her guest. El Gallo, her black knight, smiled weakly, "Hello Luisa," he said quietly, leaning heavily on the doorframe. To Luisa's shocked being, the blood that stained the fresh white paint was nothing short of a horror story. El Gallo coughed wetly, and Luisa's eyes jumped to his face, seeing the straining smile and leaping into action. She quickly ushered him inside, taking on his weight when the man stumbled forward, feeling with sickening knowledge the blood that seeped into her blouse, and securing her walls against the horror that threatened to overtake her. Goodness knew, Luisa had seen worse while she was with El Gallo at that thrice-damned party.

Carefully, studiously, Luisa led El Gallo into her washroom, gently tugging him towards the back table, where her medical supplies were. El Gallo slumped against the wooden table with relief, his legs turning to jelly under him. He watched as Luisa turned intense eyes onto her bandages and potions, trying to find the best sort to cure El Gallo of his various afflictions. The man smiled goofily, drunk on pain, and lurched forward, planting a sloppy kiss on the corner of Luisa's mouth. She drew a harsh breath as El Gallo leaned back, smiling benignly.

Slap! El Gallo's head snapped to the side, and took a moment to flex his jaw, trying to blink the extra spots out of his vision. After a few blinks, the man's head lolled to face Luisa. El Gallo eyed the unshed tears in Luisa's eyes, the hand frozen in defiance, and huffed dryly, but abated. Luisa saw the submission as it was, and nodded smartly, turning back to her potions.

Out of the corner of her mouth, Luisa instructed El Gallo to take off his shirt, and studiously ignored the man as he smirked flirtatiously, taking the time to flex his (impressive amount of) muscles. Luisa looked up from her growing collection of selected remedies as the strip tease ended on a hiss, El Gallo's shirt pulling on what little clotting had taken place. Luisa batted away the man's hands and amusement, examining the wound with growing dread. It was, quite simply, terrible.

El Gallo's entire side plus some was a gory tapestry of rich red smears, black valleys, weak streams of blood, and the pale pink of infection mixed with the ghoulish yellow of pus and bruising. Just looking at the wound was making Luisa want to throw up, but she couldn't even imagine how painful it must be. Luisa glanced up at El Gallo's eyes, which were dark with childish impudence. Luisa looked back down, hiding a smile. Of course this wouldn't defeat El Gallo, what was she thinking?

But getting back to the matter at hand, the wound really was a handful. Maybe even enough for two handfuls. And, Luisa thought wryly, hearing a sharp intake of breath from the doorway, they had those two hands. Luisa looked up at her father's harsh footfalls. Amos Bellamy was glaring heavily, his hatred directed towards the man Luisa now tenderly attempted to care for. Amos wasn't stupid; he knew the filthy bandit had something to do with the maturity Luisa had shown since Matt returned. If El Gallo had lain a single un-paid hand on Amos' daughter…

Before the tension in the air could break out into a brawl, Luisa stepped in front of El Gallo, pushing the defensive man back down, "He's hurt." Luisa met her father's eyes squarely, showing no fear in the face of Amos' anger and displaying an innocence both men had thought long lost. Amos hid a grin; how his little girl had grown. El Gallo was less abashed, grinning outright and trying to give Luisa a hug. Under Amos' sharpening gaze, Luisa easily fended off the man's efforts, and turned to her father. "Please," Luisa stated.

Amos played with Luisa for a moment, watching her and El Gallo with considering eyes, before huffing and moving forward to help. Luisa smiled and met Amos halfway, explaining the injury as the two put their heads together to discuss treatment.

Off to the side, El Gallo smiled wanly, about to faint but unwilling to admit it. He'd endured this far, but this far was as far as his body could make it. He was safe, El Gallo thought drowsily, what need did he have of being awake?

Another sharp intake of breath was El Gallo's answer, and he dutifully lifted his head towards the sound, finding Matt standing on the threshold, gaping. The man had put on some weight, El Gallo duly noted, his world tunneling and sound drifting away as the blood loss and lack of adrenaline started to rip the man away. El Gallo watched silently as Matt snapped out of his stupor, the other man looking to be on the edge of a fit as he grabbed his wife by the arm and dragged her through the doorway and back towards their living. But El Gallo wasn't thinking about the coming storm, his serious need to pee, or the invasive poking of Amos Bellamy below him. No, El Gallo was thinking deliriously of the blond beard starting to form on Matt's jaw, the flash of fear in Luisa's eyes as she went off with her husband, and the ache in the heart at being left behind. If Amos noticed El Gallo's fluttering eyelids or suspiciously wet eyelashes, he gave nothing away. El Gallo could appreciate that.


Matt didn't say anything as he pulled Luisa into the sitting room, and that was almost worse than yelling, Luisa decided. But still she said nothing, too scared to make a sound. As soon as they were in the sitting room, Matt turned sharply, holding Luisa's forearm tightly, practically spitting fire. "Why is he here?" Matt hissed, unconsciously tightening his grip on Luisa's forearm. When Luisa winced, angling herself away from the arm, Matt dropped her arm like he'd been burned. The couple retreated away from each other, each nursing their wounded hearts. The silence stretched its maw wide, seemingly impossible to cross.

But Luisa was nothing if fearless, "He called on us," she said quietly, "He came in like that," Luisa watched impassively as Matt shuddered, softening despite herself. Not even Matt would wish that kind of affliction on, in this case, his worst enemy. He hadn't seen the full thing, but the smell had hit him like a physical blow. Matt shuddered again, fingering the book he had in his hand to distract himself.

"It's just," Matt tried, struggling to patch the wound he inevitably created, "I…" As Matt hesitated, he looked up, looking right at Luisa as he said, "I-I can't stand the thought of losing you." Matt winced, acknowledging that he'd done that once before of his own volition, watching Luisa with guarded eyes. For her part, Luisa found herself warmed by Matt's childish worry, and crossed the gap between them easily.

"You silly boy," Luisa murmured, wrapping Matt in a hug with her mouth by his ear, "You could never lose me. Not really," she acknowledged as well, her past and recent grievances with El Gallo burning bright in her mind's eye. But Luisa was shaken out of her thoughts as Matt hesitantly hugged her back, still unsure of how to treat the diamond that had been gifted to him. But this was the right way to treat her, Matt realized, as Luisa relaxed against him.

Matt and Luisa stood like that for a while, enjoying their shared warmth, before a cough pulled them far enough out of their world to notice Amos smiling softly in the doorway. Luisa blushed and tried to disentangle herself for her father's sake, and blushed brighter when Matt refused to let go. Thankfully, Amos only chuckled, putting his hands in his pockets in well-practiced motion. "Lovebirds aside," here Amos winked, bringing a dusting of pink to Matt's cheeks as well as deepening Luisa's flush, "About El Gallo…"


When El Gallo woke up, the sun was in his eyes. He groaned, rolling away from the light before freezing with clenched teeth as the man's side rippled with pain. Damn, he'd almost forgotten about that.

Somewhere nearby, someone huffed lightly with amusement and stood up. El Gallo didn't know who they were, blinded as he was, but he listened as the stranger moved a chair and walked to El Gallo's left, where the window shade must've been, as the sunlight faded enough for El Gallo to open his eyes. He blinked a couple times, adjusting to the shadows, and turned carefully to the left. El Gallo blinked in surprise, seeing Matt smirking at him from by the window. "Hello," the man said lightly. In response, El Gallo only grunted.

Stretching delicately and keeping his eyes on Matt, El Gallo asked, "Where is Luisa?" El Gallo watched as Matt's smirk quirked downwards but held. It was strained and kind of painful to see, but it held all the same.

Matt pushed himself off the wall, continuing lightly, "Not anywhere near you, you bastard." Matt watched quietly as El Gallo winced, but conceded to the barb. 'Don't bite the hand that feeds' and all that, El Gallo thought dryly, choosing to stay silent. Matt too was silent, both men studying each other with assessing eyes. Matt's eyes glinted darkly, 'You hurt Luisa,' his eyes seemed to accuse.

El Gallo hid a grin, thinking that Matt was a lot like a loyal dog or retainer defending his master. El Gallo cocked his head to the side, his eyes stating, 'Nothing you did not do as well.'

Matt's eyes sparked with guilt-tinged anger, 'You made her cry.' His eyes accused.

El Gallo's gaze sharpened, 'Do not think me alone in that folly, boy.' El Gallo stressed, reminding Matt his maturity was severely lacking at times.

Matt flinched, previously unaware of this. 'I made her cry?' His panicked gaze seemed to say.

One of El Gallo's eyebrows quirked downwards, "You didn't know?" he asked out loud. Matt flinched again, shaking his head violently. Already, guilt was consuming the man, shining brightly in his eyes and in his hunched posture by the window. Idly, El Gallo wondered if the younger Matt would've left Luisa to cry, had he noticed.

Watching Matt react now, El Gallo decided it didn't matter. The man looked away from Matt, stating quietly, "You stuck around." Out of the corner of his eye, El Gallo saw Matt jerk upwards.

"You didn't," Matt said bleakly, but his words held no accusation. It was, El Gallo painfully conceded, the truth. El Gallo bristled a little, but said nothing. Matt was also guilty of the accused crimes. And, in the minds of both men, that put them on even ground. The silence that ensued gave both men enough time to reconcile the idea and adjust their philosophies accordingly.

Matt was the first to say something, chuckling lightly, his smirk returning with a friendlier note, "I don't pity you," he teased, "You're going to be subjected to not only Amos', but Luisa's mothering too." Matt smirked as El Gallo blinked at him.

"Is it really that bad?" El Gallo asked, already considering the possible benefits of having Luisa as his nurse.

Matt chuckled, guessing where El Gallo's thoughts had gone, "You won't be able to do anything without their permission," the man jeered without heat.

Matt watched as El Gallo's brow furrowed minutely, "But what if I have to use the bathroom?" The man asked, conceding that, as a patient, he was in much of a position to demand things.

In response, Matt grinned, wanting to snicker, "That's what I'm for." Matt watched excitedly as El Gallo's face clouded in confusion before shining with understanding that quickly shot down to an ashen visage. Both men grimaced. "Yeah," Matt muttered, standing idly by the bed, "I don't know what they were on when they decided that was a good idea."

Matt watched curiously as El Gallo rigidly turned his head away from the blond man, the other's cheeks tinged with pink. Matt blinked, "I'm not going to peek, if that's what you're worried about," he pointed out, confused as El Gallo only flushed darker. Matt blinked a few times, confused, before a glance at the time helped him to understanding.

Instantly, Matt grimaced, feeling sorry for the man, "You have to pee now?" What little Matt could see of El Gallo's face and ears flushed their darkest yet, revealing a whole new predicament to the two men. An awkward silence ensued.

Finally Matt sighed, sitting down on the creaky bed. "Hey," he said, waiting for El Gallo to be looking at him before he continued, inwardly smirking as El Gallo tried to beat back the man's burning blush, "We can take it slow." El Gallo considered the statement, turning it over in his head and noting the dubious reference to either their newfound acquaintanceship or going to the bathroom.

Shaking himself out of his thoughts (that was what got him in trouble in the first place), El Gallo responded quietly, "Sure."

Matt blinked, surprised the man's ego had let him let it go so fast, and then sat there awkwardly, trying to figure out how to do this. The man in the bed was steadfastly refusing to help, Matt noticed with a huff, before the blond decided to hell with it all.

El Gallo startled a little when Matt put his hand on the other's shoulder before reaching over to El Gallo's opposite hip and tugging El Gallo gently to the edge of the bed. There, both men had to stop for the raging blushes rippling across their cheeks. Matt was struck by the irony of helping his formerly-worst enemy, while El Gallo was trying to force down the need to push Matt as far from his injured person as possible. Thankfully, both men were too preoccupied with their problems to notice the other's, though with blushes so bright, their continued ignorance was nothing short of a miracle.

Shaking himself out of his thoughts, Matt faced El Gallo squarely, "I'm going to lift you up now," he said simply. He waited until El Gallo nodded shortly before gathering the man up between his two holds and pulling both of them to standing. They both swayed, El Gallo unused to standing and Matt unused to El Gallo's weight. But they adjusted, and limped slowly across the room towards the door.

Matt made sure El Gallo could use the wall as a support before the blond let go with one hand to open the door. El Gallo tottered dangerously, but stayed upright long enough for Matt to get the door open. They readjusted before stumbling across the hall to the thankfully-open bathroom. Here, both men turned again towards each other with burning faces.

"So," Matt mumbled, head tucked down, "How do you want to do this?" Above him, Matt heard El Gallo sigh heavily. Apparently, the man wasn't going to let a little thing like social awkwardness keep him from doing his business. Matt blushed harder as El Gallo directed him to stand next to the man as he used the facilities, but Matt respected El Gallo's stance.

El Gallo for his part was stone-faced and unendingly relieved (no pun intended) when Matt looked away so the man could pee in peace. While Matt was looking away so El Gallo could fumble with his fly, the man looked longingly at the bathtub, but gave it up as impossible. El Gallo didn't think he could survive soaking his injury in water right now, let alone soap.

When El Gallo was done with his business, Matt closed the lid on the toilet and both men adjusted for the journey back. Matt helped a tiring El Gallo back across the hall and into bed, surprising both men when the blond tucked in El Gallo's threadbare blankets. Matt looked away, his nose pink, as El Gallo snickered shallowly, trying not to yawn.

When Matt had regained his composure, he grinned at the bedridden man and moved to the foot of the bed, where there was a chair and pile of papers pushed up against the wall. Idly El Gallo wondered how long he'd been out, but was pulled out of his thoughts as Matt told the man he could sleep if he wanted. El Gallo grinned tiredly, tempted to argue, but not finding enough energy in himself to care. El Gallo rolled carefully onto his good side, blinking sleepily. He closed his eyes, breathing deeply.

El Gallo was halfway to dreaming when someone knocked on the door, startling not only the man, but Matt too apparently, if the scrape of the chair was anything to go by. Blearily, El Gallo opened his eyes, blinking up at the man in the doorway, someone he vaguely recalled as Amos Bellamy, the father of Luisa Bellamy. Well, Luisa Hucklebee, El Gallo belatedly corrected, his lips quirking downwards sourly for a moment.

For his part, Amos only chuckled, taking the bowl of soup and tray he'd been given by his daughter towards the man Luisa was determined to help. Despite himself, Amos couldn't hurt or really hate El Gallo when he was like this, all cute cowlicks and sleep-addled eyes. Amos continued to chuckle as El Gallo smelled the food and perked up, levering himself carefully into sitting position. Absently, El Gallo dismissed Matt's unspoken offer of help, and managed to get himself into an acceptable posture by the time Amos was close enough to put the breakfast/lunch/dinner tray down in El Gallo's lap. Out of the corner of his mouth, El Gallo thanked the man for bringing his meal, before putting El Gallo's peddle to the mettle and practically scarfing the soup down his gullet.

Amos smiled, stepping back from the bed, as Matt snickered in the corner. Still smiling, Amos turned to Matt. "If you want to switch," he said, "now's the time."

Surprisingly, Matt shook his head 'no'. Amos watched, intrigued, as Matt grinned and said, "He's fun to watch." When El Gallo snorted into his soup and Amos' eyebrow rose questioningly, Matt hurriedly added, "And I can get all of my work done like this." El Gallo looked up briefly at that, a question in his eyes, while Amos nodded. It was a fair excuse, he decided. For his part, Matt responded to El Gallo's furrowed eyebrow with an 'abort, abort!' motion, which the man reluctantly conceded too. He'd get it out of Matt later, El Gallo decided.

Turning back to the soup, all three men were surprised at how fast the rest disappeared, though Amos covered his surprise with a loud laugh and a thanks for the compliment to his cooking. El Gallo's brow furrowed minutely at that, wondering where Luisa was and why she wasn't cooking for him, but a sudden wave of exhaustion crested and suddenly El Gallo was in no state to be asking questions. Both Matt and Amos exchanged glances, before Amos shrugged, taking the empty tray and leaving. For his part, Matt snickered quietly before returning to his work, occasionally glancing up to check on El Gallo's state. Swarthed in warm blankets and safety, El Gallo slept on, oblivious to it all.


When El Gallo woke up next, the only light in the room was a solitary candle lighting Matt's work for him to see. But when Matt heard rustling from the bed and looked up to see El Gallo watching him, the man smiled and put away his papers. El Gallo watched as Matt stretched languidly before strolling across the room to sit next to El Gallo. "Hey," Matt said simply. El Gallo blinked owlishly at him, right before his stomach growled loudly. El Gallo flushed as Matt grinned. "Wait here," Matt said quietly before standing and leaving the room, presumably to find something to eat.

I'm bedridden, El Gallo inwardly grumbled, I can't exactly go anywhere. The man sat in the bed for a moment, fuming, before boredom won out and he cast his eyes around, trying to find something to do. El Gallo's eyes landed on the candle and the mysterious papers below it. El Gallo considered the path; there were plenty of objects that could be used as a lever, he supposed, if he counted the wall. It probably wasn't a good idea to get out of bed so early in his treatment, especially if what Matt said about Luisa and Amos was to be believed, but El Gallo was bored. He wasn't used to sitting around, waiting for someone to come help him, nor did he particularly like the feeling.

Mission decided, El Gallo pushed and pulled his way to the edge of the bed, where he had to take a breather, already breathing heavily. Maybe this isn't such a good idea, El Gallo considered, gasping a little. But El Gallo was nothing if pig-headed, and he stubbornly pushed himself off the bed, doing a calculated fall that landed him on the wall and on his injury. Here El Gallo had to pause again, breathing harshly against the white pain that had flared and was still flaring, but to a lesser extent. It took a moment, but El Gallo recollected himself and started down the wall, trembling as he was. Every few feet El Gallo had to stop for want of a break, but still he pressed on, until at last he was close enough to the chair and the papers. Just like before, El Gallo executed a calculated fall that landed him right on the chair, on his good side thankfully. Unfortunately, El Gallo's fall upset the candle, sending it tumbling from its perch and spilling hot wax on the man's fingers.

El Gallo hissed terribly, jerking away from the candle which, mercifully, didn't land with its flame on the wooden boards below. Gods, but El Gallo would never live it down if he burned down Luisa and Matt's house just because he was too pig-headed to stay in bed. As it was, the candle was resting precariously on a stack of Matt's papers. Gingerly, using his good hand, El Gallo reached out and grasped the candlestick, setting it firmly back upright and in its holder. Just to make doubly certain, El Gallo nudged the candle away from him. He would rather deal with poor lighting than a burning house.

Breathing deeply to steel himself, El Gallo pulled and lurched into the chair, slamming it back into the wall with a loud 'crash'. Panic flared in El Gallo's breast, prompting him to consider recklessly charging back into bed and blaming the noise on the creaky house. Matt probably wouldn't buy it, but he wouldn't have enough evidence to accuse El Gallo of getting out of bed. Especially considering how poor in health El Gallo is, and the chances of Matt remembering exactly where he put his candle, El Gallo pondered, watching the candle flicker with the various drafts in the room.

In the end, El Gallo decided against a mad dash for the bed. He wanted to get at least something out of this semi-adventure, El Gallo decided determinedly, already reaching for one of Matt's papers. Squinting in the poor light, El Gallo started to read;

'It was a stormy, sordid affair, the likes of which the captain had never seen. It ravaged his crew and his town, turning what had been a splendid night into the stuff of nightmares…'

El Gallo blinked, unsure of himself. He could hardly say he's read every book in existence, but with writing this good, the man was sure to have at least heard of this author. El Gallo's brow furrowed, Unless… Suspicions raised, El Gallo leaned down again gingerly, riffling through the assorted papers until he found what he was looking for;

'Dear Mr. Hucklebee,

We were delighted to read the draft you sent us, and if you so wish to publish…'

There was more, but that was the point where El Gallo's brain short-circuited and he heard pounding feet racing down the hall, right up to the entrance of his room… El Gallo looked up at Luisa and Matt as they appeared in the doorway, both of them out of breath from running so hard. El Gallo's brow was still furrowed as he raised his two pieces of paper, Matt recognizing them and paling, "I didn't know you wrote stories for a living. Why didn't you tell me?" There was an awkward pause, before Luisa exploded into a fury the likes of which El Gallo had never seen.

First her face turned puce, "You bloody idiot!" she yelled, marching squarely towards a frozen El Gallo. He sat in the chair, paralyzed by Luisa's fury as she continued, "You got a bloody hole in the side of you!" Luisa yanked the papers roughly from El Gallo's unresisting hands, electing a yelp from Matt that was quickly silenced by Luisa's glowing glower, which she then turned on El Gallo, "You're not supposed to be up and about for at least another week! Honestly, I ask you," here she shot Matt a withering glare, as she pulled El Gallo to his feet, surprising the man with her strength, "is it that hard for either of you nincompoops to get a bloody thing right?!" Luisa continued to rant as she dragged an unmoving El Gallo across the room, "I asked y'all to keep him in bed, unless it's an emergency! But noooo," she hissed, terrifying El Gallo enough to raise the hairs on the back of his neck, "y'all have different ideas of what is and what isn't proper!"

At this point, El Gallo was shoved into bed and tucked in by a fuming Luisa and a timidly helpful Matt. El Gallo didn't even get a word in edgewise before Luisa was sending Matt scuttling down the hall to bring more soup, and then Luisa was pulling something delicately out of her pocket, which she then proceeded to shove down El Gallo's throat. It was only the fierce look on Luisa's face and El Gallo's newfound fear of the woman that the pill went down instead of being coughed back up.

The silence between the two was tense and absolute, as Luisa glared at El Gallo for the duration of Matt's absence. El Gallo, for his part, was silent even when Matt arrived with the food tray, eating quietly and quickly before being pushed back on the bed so Luisa could check his injuries. Matt was dismissed to dishes duty during this delightful time, wherein Luisa peeled back El Gallo's bandages and scrapped away some of the herbal gunk there to see how the wound was doing. Treated as roughly as he was, El Gallo couldn't help but wonder if Luisa would be more gentle if he feigned weakness. Seeing the hard edge to Luisa's jaw and will, El Gallo decided against any acting.

Matt returned and sat quietly on the bed, both men waiting as Luisa's temper cooled down to normal. After that, the silence was much more comfortable and Luisa's rough treatment dimmed, though she still poked El Gallo unnecessarily, hoping to keep him from such stupid actions again. When she was done Luisa sighed, rolling down El Gallo's shirt and biding both men goodnight, though she implied that they should go to bed soon. After seeing her temper flare so recently, neither El Gallo or Matt were likely to go to bed last tonight.

But Matt stuck around, tucking in the few edges Luisa missed in her red fury, and re-organizing his station by the wall. For his part, El Gallo was too fragmented and drained to do anything but stare at the ceiling. On his way out, Matt grinned teasing at the injured man, winking cheekily, to which El Gallo returned with a baleful glare. He was down, El Gallo admitted to himself, but he wasn't out. Just nailed to the bed by Luisa's fury. El Gallo rolled onto his good side, turning his back on the window. In no time at all, he was asleep.


When El Gallo was woken up next, Ben Hucklebee was glaring down at him. Out of instinct and in the face of such animosity, El Gallo froze, his breath the only thing that stirred in the room. Above him, Ben was frowning something fierce, his eyebrows pulled down while his lips did the same far below. The dark-haired man had grown a beard, adding to the fierce image Ben provided, and which kept El Gallo from getting up or asking the man to back up.

Thankfully, Ben whatever had been looking for was apparently found, for the man grunted and moved back, allowing El Gallo to get up. Gingerly, El Gallo moved up and back, settling his back against the headboard. The man twisted a bit, pulling his pillow up to support his back as well as to hide from Ben's heavily stare. But once the pillow was in place, there was nothing else to keep El Gallo from looking awkward as Ben continued to drill holes into the man.

An uncomfortable silence descended; El Gallo awkwardly fiddled with his duvet while Ben held that penetrating stare. El Gallo coughed and shifted. Ben's glare sharpened. El Gallo turned his head towards the window, which was mercifully closed, studying the wallpaper. But the daggers Ben was sending still hit spot-on. El Gallo tried to ignore the man, but it nigh on impossible, even for the infamous bandit.

Thankfully, a knock on the door frame distracted Ben enough for El Gallo to breathe a sigh of relief before he too glanced up. Standing in the doorway, her lips twitching though her gaze was stern, Luisa held a meal tray with both hands. Careful not to spill, Luisa maneuvered around the room and Ben, setting the tray down in front of El Gallo, who thanked her quietly.

Mercifully, Ben's stare lessened in Luisa's company and El Gallo was able to eat his meal in peace… somewhat. What little equilibrium El Gallo regained was cut short as Luisa forced the man to eat yet another her nasty herbal remedies. While El Gallo was still grimacing, his shudders visible, Luisa giggled innocently and left, taking the tray with her after an exchange of nods with Ben. For his part, Ben remained stonily silent, though there was an edge of sympathy to the man's gaze. No one who had suffered through Luisa or Amos' treatment could ever look at them the same again, as Ben was well aware.

Ben sighed, relaxing a little. Perhaps he had judged the bandit too harshly, too quickly; after all, he was still a man, subject to his whims and his wants, never mind the people who got hurt in the aftermath. Ben's mood soured, remembering the way El Gallo had stood by, watching, as his son and daughter-in-law were hurt by the man's games. Ben resisted the urge to punch the bedridden man, if only because that was unsporting and in any case, he would have his chance once El Gallo was better. Speaking of which, Ben watched El Gallo critically, watching every move the man made and didn't make. Ben had been on prison detail before, when he was in the navy, and that was exactly Luisa had entrusted to Ben: a prisoner. Caged to his room and tied to his bed, El Gallo wasn't going to be going anywhere anytime soon.

Privately, Ben pitied the man. Not only had he inspired Luisa's fury, costing him any help or guidance from the kindly Amos or Matt, but El Gallo was also stuck. To a man, any man, who enjoyed the outdoors as much as El Gallo evidentially did (whenever Ben had spotted El Gallo in town, it was almost always in the tallest of trees), this must be torture. In spite of his good reasons to hate the man, Ben found himself easing slightly. Sighing quietly, he decided to give the man a chance.

For his part, El Gallo had been trying to endure Ben's heavy gaze without snapping when the man suddenly sighed and got up from his chair, padding quietly to the dresser by Matt's forlorn pile of papers, and pulling a box off of the top. It was big and bulky, but the man carried it carefully, like it was a treasure beyond worth. Despite himself, El Gallo found himself curious, though he held his in tongue in fear of a verbal lashing. Coming from Ben, El Gallo felt that the attack would be particularly unpleasant.

As it was, Ben merely sat down heavily, his attention on the locks keeping the box closed. When they were undone a huge cloud of dust swamped both Ben and El Gallo, causing them to nearly hack out their lungs before they could see again. El Gallo watched curiously as Ben reached into the box, tenderly taking what was inside and bringing it out.

El Gallo blinked; it was a chessboard. Confused, El Gallo watched as Ben brought out the chess pieces, polishing each a little before placing the piece on the board. El Gallo blinked as Ben finished and smiled genially, although there was a wicked edge to the older man's eyes. "Now," Ben said, "Do you want to play a game?"

El Gallo blinked, thrown off balance. His brow furrowed, trying to figure out why Ben was suddenly being so nice to him. As far as El Gallo could tell, Ben hated him with a passion that was, El Gallo conceded, well deserved. But why the sudden turn around? As El Gallo continued to puzzle over the sudden change of demeanor, what little patience Ben had began to fray.

El Gallo jumped as Ben slammed his pawn down, two spaces out. "Look," he said rudely, "are we going to play or not?" El Gallo blinked, carefully surveying the board before hesitantly pushing his pawn out to meet Ben's. Ben grunted, smoothly moving forward with another one of his pawns. When El Gallo went to counter, the man promptly lost his second pawn. El Gallo glared as Ben fingered the dark pawn, the unspoken challenge answered with strength; El Gallo would not lose.

Unfortunately for El Gallo, he did lose, though not by much and only because he hadn't learned all the tricks in the rule-book. Ben snorted when El Gallo cursed under his breath, delicately setting up the board once more. The man smiled at El Gallo, "Another game?" he asked.

El Gallo returned with fire in his eyes, a taunt on his lips, "Si." Ben twitched, but said nothing, merely moving his knight out in a bold first move. El Gallo considered long and hard before moving his pawn into an offensive position, forcing Ben to move sideways. When El Gallo moved his pawn forward once more, Ben moved forward to meet him, forcing El Gallo to pause long enough to set up a guard. By that time, Ben was threatening to off one of El Gallo pawns.

El Gallo cursed under his breath a lot more this game, but Ben also lost a fair few of his pieces. By the time Ben had taken El Gallo's king, more than half of each man's forces were missing and Luisa was standing in the doorway again, smiling and carefully offering lunch. After lunch Ben left the room so Luisa could tend to El Gallo in private, and so the man could pee. Dear god, but he'd been sitting on his bum for the last three hours; Ben needed a break!

After a thoroughly relaxing bathroom break and book snatching, Ben returned to El Gallo's room just as Luisa was leaving. Ben was frowning, thinking about the possible consequences of hosting a criminal within their walls, but his lips quirked for Luisa's upbeat greeting, and for Matt, who was hiding down the hall until his wife was gone. Evidentially, his son had made his peace with El Gallo and wanted to see how the man was doing. Chuckling, Ben waved his son into the room, setting himself down in the chair by the bed and his book next to El Gallo.

For his part, El Gallo looked a little pale after his confrontation with Luisa, but glanced up at the Ben with a friendly, if a bit strained, smile. Quickly, El Gallo rearranged the chessboard for the next game, though he eyed the book Ben brought curiously, "What's that for?" He asked, just as Matt snuck into the room, having been checking to see if the coast was clear.

Ben considered the board in front of him, a faint smile rippling across his face, "It's a book on chess. I thought it might be a good gift," the older man said casually, although from Matt's wide eyes, El Gallo took the book to be much more important than a mere 'gift'. But Matt said nothing, instead sitting down on El Gallo side, both of them respecting Ben's privacy. Same as the last two games, Ben went first and El Gallo responded, with one or the other occasionally getting in the lead only to fall back into the murky middle again. However, this time Matt was there, and about halfway through the game he started murmuring little suggestion to El Gallo, things Matt had learned after years and years of playing chess with Ben. With that advantage at his side, El Gallo soundly beat Ben, who groaned good-naturedly as El Gallo and Matt crowed their victory over the older man, honestly excited. Ben chuckled, admiring the smiles both men were proudly displaying. He was right about El Gallo in the best kind of way; El Gallo was, quite simply, merely a man.

So lost in festivity were the men that it took the person standing at the door clearing his throat for them to notice the newcomer. Back leaning against the door frame and smiling widely, Amos asked cheekily, "Am I allowed to join in on the fun?"

Ben grinned, a gleam in his eye that put the younger men on guard, "Of course you're welcome," the gleam in Ben's eye became decidedly evil, in Matt and El Gallo's honest opinions, "You're just in time to help me beat these rascals."

Amos laughed, pushing off the door frame and joining Ben's side. "I'm afraid I haven't played a lot of chess games," Amos admitted, putting the energy back in Matt and El Gallo's posture.

"That's fine," Ben said, smiling genially, everything about him amicable except for the gleam in his eye which Matt associated with miserably enforced camping trips and El Gallo associated with devastating chess attacks, "I'll teach you." Amos chirped happily, oblivious to the looks of horror and pity being sent his way.

True to his word, Amos was a poor player to start, causing many arguments with Ben, and true to Ben's word, he managed to whip Amos into shape by the middle game. After that, it was up for grabs who was going to win, Matt and El Gallo whispering furiously over Ben's gift just as furiously as Ben and Amos were arguing strategy across the way.

Just as the game was drawing to close though, there was a polite cough from the doorway. Guiltily, all four men looked over at Luisa, who raised her eyebrow in question. Two of the men there weren't supposed to be there at all, the one supposed to be in charge wasn't doing anything to chase away the others, and the last one was supposed to be resting. Luisa hid a smile, wondering if this was what having children was like, while keeping her eyebrow raised.

Amos was looking down, turning his hat in circles; Ben was blushing faintly; El Gallo was steadfastly looking away, determined not to make eye contact; and Matt was smiling sheepishly, fiddling with a book. Surprisingly, it was the last who broke the silence. "He hasn't left his bed all day," Matt said, looking at Ben for support. Luisa also looked to Ben, and he nodded, showing that El Gallo had followed her instructions, if not her wishes.

When Amos wriggled in his seat, Luisa turned her gaze on him. "He's been good the whole time I've been here," he said earnestly, his eyes honestly concerned about his newfound friend. Luisa hid a smirk, considering who her father had befriended, and the way in which Amos had originally greeted El Gallo.

Luisa's eyes twinkled merrily in memory, relaxing the men before her as she turned on her heel. "Dinner will be ready in a little bit," she said, mock-stern with El Gallo, "So stay in bed, you hear me?" There were chuckles all around as El Gallo nodded fervently, wary of attracting her anger again.

"Um," Luisa turned back to face Ben, who hesitated but met her eyes squarely, "Do you mind if we moved El Gallo outside? It's a such a warm night, it seems like a shame to waste it," Ben added while Luisa considered it.

Luisa blinked, looking towards El Gallo, who was very quiet. "Would you like to go outside?" Luisa asked. Seeing El Gallo nod with seriousness in his eyes, Luisa nodded towards the other men. "Go right ahead," Luisa said, grinning, "I'll bring everyone's supper out soon enough." With that Luisa left, leaving the men to grin at each other excitedly.

Since Matt was the most experienced, he was the one to support El Gallo on the way out, while Ben shadowed him, opening doors and steadying both men when they needed it. Both El Gallo and Matt mumbled their thanks multiple times, to which Ben merely nodded. For his part, Amos went out to set up the rocking chairs, clearing some slush off the porch and fetching blankets for everyone. In the midst of it all, El Gallo smiled softly, warmed to his core by the concern and affection these men, former enemies, afford him.

Outside it was crisp and clear, the early March weather balmy after a freezing winter. There were still some snowbanks, particularly in the ditches by the road, but everyone could tell that spring was in the air. It was practically a scent, a promise made by God that everything was going to be okay. It was this almost-scent that El Gallo took great big breaths of, sending chuckles through the group as the other men discreetly did the same. The birth of spring after a hard winter was something to be celebrated after all. What better way to celebrate than to breath in God's best gift to mankind?

After all of them had filled their lungs with the life-giving air, Matt moved to one of the rocking chairs where, after much maneuvering and fussing, El Gallo was soundly trussed up on. El Gallo wriggled his hands experimentally, watching the outside of his cocoon critically for any signs of the movement. There was none. Glancing up, El Gallo sent a withering glare around the group, causing the others to chuckle humorously, although Matt was little more sheepish than his fathers. Sighing, El Gallo resigned himself to immobility, and instead leaned back into his chair, enjoying the view.

Over yonder, there was a small stone wall, big enough to block the Bellamy garden from view, but not big enough to hinder traffic, or to block Ben's beautiful garden from the porch. While much of Ben's garden was covered in wet leaves and snow, he obviously kept a winter garden, if the beautiful colors bursting out from under the wall were anything to go by. El Gallo smiled, admiring the explosions of sea-going blue and sunshine yellow packed underneath proudly-flowering, tall purple flowers. El Gallo nodded towards Ben, who looked down from his guilty cloud-gazing. "Your garden is beautiful," El Gallo said simply, watching the pleased smile and proud glint ripple across Ben's face as the man profoundly thanked the other.

El Gallo made to continue the conversation, but was interrupted by a bouncy Amos. "If you think Ben's garden's good," Amos grinned cheekily as Ben frowned competitively, "you'll love mine!" Excitedly, Amos hopped up, trying to nag the others into going over the wall to see the man's garden. Thankfully, Amos' daughter intervened before he could drag El Gallo reluctantly out of his cocoon.

"Papa," Luisa said, smiling as Amos abruptly stopped pulling on Matt's arm, paling slightly, "El Gallo can't go over the wall; he's injured, remember?" Amos blushed as Matt chuckled, the latter sharing a tender smile with his wife, which she returned. As Luisa walked forward with a food tray heaped with a soup pot, bowls, spoons and bread, everyone other than El Gallo moving aside or to help carry the tray. El Gallo, being physically bound as he was, was unable to do anything.

But Amos was nothing if determined, and he continued the conversation even as Luisa and Matt started to serve supper. "Well," Amos continued stubbornly, "we can always go later, when El Gallo's healed."

Ben snorted at Amos, accepting his bowl of soup thankfully. "Your garden has nothing but lettuce and cabbage at the moment," Ben commented quietly, causing Amos to puff up.

Matt quickly intervened before another argument about whose garden was better could start up. "Then why don't you," here Matt gestured to Amos, "wait until next autumn, when everything's in bloom? September is a good month for vegetables," Matt grinned, cheekily misquoting something he'd heard El Gallo mention once upon a time, back when Matt still thought that the world was exactly as it was in books.

For his part, El Gallo was frankly overwhelmed. Not only because he was physically bound against eating (Luisa was trying to help him with that, but apparently Amos' mothering manifested as ridiculously tight blankets), but because he was being emotionally bound to this place, and by other people at that! Most attachments El Gallo had to form by himself, and even then, rarely did those end well for him. Case in point: the attachment El Gallo formed with both Matt and Luisa when he was helping them with their 'love problem'.

Matt and Luisa had been like the younger brother and sister El Gallo had never had, making it physically painful when the man not only hurt them, but was left behind by them. Seeing them happy had been what El Gallo had been aiming for the entire time, but in the new tableau they formed, El Gallo wasn't there. Granted, he hasn't been altogether there the first time, but now there was no need for El Gallo the Bandit.

In defeat, El Gallo went away, swearing never to return, only to come crawling back on his last legs after an encounter that still had the man shaken. After leaving in such misery, it was an honest surprise to be not only taken in, but welcomed to come back again. It was mind-boggling to El Gallo, and he didn't know how to deal with it.

Standing as close as it took to try and unravel El Gallo's arms, it was impossible for Luisa not to notice the strange look in El Gallo's eyes. Luisa frowned, worried. "El Gallo," she asked quietly, "What's wrong?" At this, everyone else looked up, curious, and not a little bit worried for their newfound comrade.

Faced with the hefty stares of everyone gathered, all emphasizing the difference El Gallo's weakness had caused in their relations, El Gallo found his tongue tied down with iron cables. He shook his head, unable to say, worrying his companions even more. Luisa's brow furrowed, another question on her tongue. Before she could ask it however, El Gallo managed to say, "I was wondering why someone would grow lettuce in the winter."

It wasn't an answer, at least not to Luisa, but it was enough to set off Amos, who started to rant on the various uses of lettuce. Amos was interrupted by Ben, who questioned Amos' sanity for eating so much lettuce, and the whole thing went pear-shaped as Matt tried to step in and enforce his supposed authority. Luisa was forced to leave El Gallo as she threw her weight around, bringing the men to heel, a duty that continued throughout dinner, preventing her from confronting a suddenly-quiet El Gallo.

After dinner, El Gallo maneuvered the others between he and Luisa, effectively rendering her disable as the man claimed that he needed a bath. After Amos theatrically sniffed one of El Gallo's armpits and pretended to faint, it was agreed that the men would take care of El Gallo for the evening, for the sake of Luisa's purity. Luisa rolled her eyes at their antics, but relented. She figured she could catch El Gallo right before bed. But by the time Luisa arrived in the doorway, a warm cup of milk in her hands and an herbal pill in her pocket, El Gallo was fast asleep. Seeing how relaxed the man was in sleep, his tense shoulder finally resting comfortably, Luisa didn't have the heart to wake the man and left him alone. For now; she would try again in the morning.


The first thing Luisa did when she woke up next to a quietly snoring Matt the next morning, was race to El Gallo's room down the hall. Finding him asleep, Luisa breathed a sigh of relief, a bad dream lingering on the edge of her sleepy perception, and closed the door to El Gallo's room. Stuffing her hand into her robe pockets, Luisa yawned tiredly and smacked her chops, a habit she'd picked up from her father. Luisa tottered down the hall towards the kitchen, not even bothering to tame her flyaway hair.

In the kitchen, Luisa went about making herself a cup of tea, pausing only momentarily when Matt stumbled in, yawning widely. Quietly, Matt requested a cup of blueberry tea as the man opened the front door, reaching down to collect the week's delivery of frothy milk. As Matt went about rubbing the sleep out of his eyes and putting away the milk, Luisa bustled around her husband, pulling down tea bags and mugs, setting water to boil and finally sitting down at the table next to Matt. For his part, Matt wrapped his wife in a one-armed hug, still trying to wake up. "Bad dream?" Matt asked quietly. He started to wake up more as Luisa remained silent. Worry flared in his chest, "Hey. It was just a dream," Matt comforted, rubbing soothing circles in Luisa's arm until she relaxed against, taking in his body heat. Still, she said nothing.

After much consideration, Luisa broke her silence. "Do you remember when we were kids," she said, missing the smile Matt hid at the description, considering how long it had been since their immature romance, "and I said I had I dream about a forty-year-old man attacking me, and then you saving me?" Luisa glanced at Matt, who frowned.

"I think remember that…" He allowed, wondering where this was going, and why it was enough to put a spark of fear in his strong-willed wife's eyes.

"Because…" Luisa stopped, biting her lip. Matt continued to rub circles into her arm, moving his hand up to massage his wife's tense shoulders. Luisa groaned, relaxing against her husband, who chuckled lightly, pleased to help. "Because," Luisa started again, regaining her confidence, "that dream came to pass. El Gallo is almost forty," she added when she saw Matt's confusion. Matt's confusion cleared and he blushed, remembering the boasts the man had made after the staged rescue. If Luisa's smile was anything to go by, she was also thinking of that, Matt noted and flushed darker.

Chuckling lightly, Luisa enjoyed the moment before regaining her seriousness. "This dream caused the same feelings of terror," she said simply, "I was so scared, but it wasn't for me. I was scared for El Gallo," Luisa bit back a sob, remembering the intense, intense dream she'd just had. Matt continued his mindful ministrations, trying to comfort Luisa without pushing her to speak. "But the thing is," here Luisa looked up at Matt, true terror shining through, "I don't remember my dream. I can't help him," at this point Matt had to intervene, Luisa breaking down in his arms as he shushed her, rocking her gently.

The tea pot began to whistle, but Matt ignored it, too focused on his wife. But as the whistle continued to go higher and higher, Matt had no choice but to get up and take the pot off the stove, giving Luisa a chance to recompose herself. Back still turned, Matt asked, "Tea?"

There was silence, where Luisa must've nodded before realizing Matt was allowing her what privacy he could give because she answered positively. For his part Matt poured the hot water into the two mugs, each already set with their preferred tea bags, before setting aside the tea pot. Careful not to spill, Matt took both mugs in hand and walked back over to the table, setting both cups down to seep and cool.

Matt turned to Luisa, finding her face to be a miserable tapestry of ashen flesh, salty tears, and unseeing eyes. "Hey," Matt murmured, taking Luisa's hand in his own, "being prepared is half the battle. Even if it's only a little, we can still prepare," Matt continued, stopped only by Luisa's wide eyes. "What?" Matt asked, self-conscious.

Luisa smiled beautifully, her face losing years despite her youth, "Nothing." On impulse, she leaned over and kissed Matt soundly, happy to be believed. For his part Matt was really confused but happy to be kissed, or at least he was until his father walked in, stopped short, and asked them what the hell they were doing at bloody eight in the morning. Matt blushed deeply, Luisa hiding her burning face in his chest, and pointedly looked away from Ben, who merely chuckled before using the hot water for his own cup of tea.


When El Gallo woke up, he was ensnared by his many blankets, curtesy of overprotective friends (El Gallo still marveled over the fact he had bloody friends) and a bad night's sleep. Giving up on disentangling himself, El Gallo looked up to find Luisa sitting at his bedside, reading a book. The cover was facing towards him, but for the life of him couldn't recognize the title. Absently, El Gallo wondered if it was one of Matt's published works. El Gallo glanced towards the foot of the bed, where Matt's many papers still sat. It was very likely that the manuscript for the book Luisa was currently reading lay there, smeared with candle wax.

The sound of the page turning brought El Gallo back to Luisa, who he watched curiously. It must be a damn good book, if Luisa could ignore El Gallo's tussling. Quietly, El Gallo reached over and tapped Luisa on the shoulder. Her reaction was immediate: a startled jerk and a fast punch which El Gallo barely managed to avoid. An awkward silence ensued, as both El Gallo and Luisa tried to recollect themselves.

El Gallo managed faster than Luisa. "That was an impressive punch," he complimented, "perfect form and everything." Luisa blushed at his words, but accepted the compliment as it was. It went unsaid that El Gallo's reflexes had to be damn good to get out of that mess without a sore jaw. The silence continued for a little while longer, Luisa fiddling idly with her book and El Gallo looking out the window to world outside, wishing he could be out there.

Luisa noticed the longing stare El Gallo directed towards the window. She smiled, "Would you like to go outside?" When El Gallo turned towards Luisa, an excited gleam in his eye, she laughed and told him to wait while she grabbed their coats. Before she left Luisa marked her page and tenderly laid her book on the nightstand. When Luisa was gone El Gallo scooched over, curious as to what author had captivated Luisa so much. When he saw the name at the bottom of the cover, El Gallo had to suppress a grin. He was right; not only was Matt publishing, but his books were popular too. This one, The Grand Mare and the Circle, had won an award for best adult's science fiction of the year.

El Gallo chuckled, turning to the first page of the story. Matt was going up in the world, he thought, which was amusing, considering the snot-nosed brat the man had been when he first set out into the world. Clearly, people can change.

All thoughts of redemption were quickly chased out as El Gallo was sucked into the tale of a horse and a woman with a hive mind and a goal to defeat the Queen Bee's Council. It was a remarkably good story, one that El Gallo quite enjoyed, but there were a few errors that him casting his gaze around for a pen. During one of such episodes, Luisa returned bearing garments and already wearing her coat. Luisa looked at El Gallo curiously, smiling knowingly as he reluctantly lowered the book. "What are you looking for?" Luisa asked.

El Gallo sighed, gesturing for Luisa to join him. She wandered over, setting the warm clothes on the edge of the bed, before peering over El Gallo's shoulder. Once he was sure he had her full attention, the man gestured to his current passage, which was describing the cell the woman was currently locked in. "This is all very well done," El Gallo conceded, "but if this point of view was done from the horse's perspective, thereby showing that the hive mind can be useful and the system not entirely corrupt, but how Effrayant reacts to such a situation, Matt could deep the characterization and plot of this story to previously unachieved levels. Furthermore…" El Gallo continued for a while longer, pointing out a few places where changes could be made, changes that Luisa admitted would only make the story better, before Matt interrupted the two.

Matt was in awe of El Gallo. "Can I get all of that on paper?" He asked seriously, considering making the man his editor (if El Gallo was to be believed, Matt's current publisher was absolute shite). Already, ideas of further stories, a bigger kitchen for Luisa, and a fake name for El Gallo were spinning around in his head. Matt nodded decisively, mind made up. "You're living here until the day you die," Matt told El Gallo seriously. Said man sputtered incoherently, beyond disbelief, as Luisa started to laugh, a full-blown sound of genuine enjoyment. When she finally stopped, wiping a tear from her eye, Luisa had both men staring at her.

She shrugged, still on high from her laughter. "I think it would be a great idea," Luisa said, smiling. She chuckled as Matt whooped in excitement, dashing to his corner for pen and paper that were shoved into El Gallo's hands, Matt demanding the edits be written out so he could fix his story. But by the time Matt came back with pen and paper, bouncing all over the place, Luisa's smile was turned upside down. It was only for a second, but she had seen that strange look from the night before cross El Gallo's face. She had her suspicions, but for them to be true…

Luisa waited until Matt had his edits before moving forward to start bundling El Gallo up. El Gallo was cooperative, excited to get outside, although nowhere near as excited as Matt about his edits; the man had practically sprinted from the room, surprising Ben by the sound of it, and putting smiles on the room's remaining occupants' faces. Once El Gallo was bundled up and ready to go, Luisa carefully helped him to standing, copying the strategy she'd seen Matt use the night before. But since Luisa was not as strong in body as her husband, she and El Gallo were forced to use the wall as a third member of their group, supporting El Gallo and Luisa until they were outside and seated on the porch.

While El Gallo flexed his fingers, enjoying the sensation of power previously robbed of him, Luisa considered how to broach the subject. Obviously, it was a delicate topic, and if mishandled, El Gallo's feelings could be hurt enough to keep El Gallo far, far away from Luisa and her family. Luisa didn't want that; she wanted El Gallo to be with her and Matt and Ben and Amos and anyone else that was added to their family. Luisa paused, smiling as she thought of the children Matt and she would create and nurture. They had decided to hold off at the moment, until Matt could provide a more steady income than one or two best-selling books (which in itself was nothing to sneeze at, but publishing cost a lot of money).

Luisa sighed happily, lost in her personal bliss. "What kind of children do you think me and Matt will have?" She asked El Gallo dreamily, picturing blond girls with dark eyes or dark-headed boys with her father's green eyes.

There was pause, something that vaguely registered with Luisa as a problem. Then, "I'm not sure I'm the best person to be asking that," El Gallo said quietly.

Luisa blinked at him, looking at him oddly and causing El Gallo to squirm. Her eyes were searching him, noting his hesitancy towards staying put, the tenderness with which he considered Matt and Luisa, and remembering the pain El Gallo had caused them. "You're afraid," she stated. El Gallo nodded curtly, looking away, across the yard and towards the end of the drive, where the snowbanks were. The man frowned, there was a shadow lingering there…

"You think we're going to just let you go?" Luisa's question jerked El Gallo back towards her, back to her and her fury. El Gallo wilted as Luisa frowned fierce, a challenge in her eyes, "Do you?" she prodded.

El Gallo floundered, looking between her and the strange shadow that was getting closer and closer to the drive, "I-I," he started, before bowing his head in submission. "Yes," El Gallo nearly whispered, looking up before Luisa could begin her tirade, "Haven't I hurt you enough?" He asked roughly, seeing just enough of Luisa's shocked and crumpling face before he jerked his head away, resolutely studying the figure on the edge of the path. Wait a minute… El Gallo realized, his eyes going wide and his jaw going slack.

"Well I don't see how that's-" Luisa began, before El Gallo shouted her name, turning in a panic and scrambling to standing, only to crumple to the ground as El Gallo's side lit up in agony.

Moaning in pain, El Gallo looked up at Luisa's white face, gesturing with one hand towards the figure already retreating from the drive, having found what was sought. "E-e-nemy," El Gallo rasped, trying to hold onto reality as the pain in his side flared worse than it had in days.

To her credit, Luisa leapt into action, hauling ass and El Gallo into the kitchen, where Matt scrambled up from his papers, whitening as he took in the man who had come to be his close friend. Matt quickly took El Gallo off Luisa's hands as the wife sprinted for her remedies. On her way out she passed Ben, who popped his head in, eyes widening at the poor scene, before running off to collect Amos. Ben had a feeling they were going to need the man as soon as possible.

In the kitchen Matt pushed a gasping El Gallo into a chair, demanding to know what happened. Looking up from his wound, which was starting to bleed again, El Gallo panted, "Enemy. Past," a ripple of pain so bad had El Gallo nearly biting his tongue off, "p-past rival. Wants to kill," El Gallo groaned as Matt silently pulled the other's layers off, both of them white as sheets, "me, and you too," here El Gallo's brow furrowed in pained emotion, "Sorry."

Matt stopped in his work, looking up at El Gallo. "Do you really mean that?" El Gallo grunted, giving a shallow nod. He was not prepared for what happened next: Matt launched himself away from El Gallo with a hiss just as Luisa ran into the room, bewildered but more worried about El Gallo bleeding out. Through the haze of pain Luisa elicited in her hurry, El Gallo distantly realized Matt was yelling. With a little more focus, El Gallo was able to tell what the man was yelling about. "… not going to leave you to die! You're family you bloody idiot, and we're not going to leave you! Not ever! So don't you bloody dare say sorry to me!" Matt finished, panting heavily. His wife said nothing, but the unshed tears in Luisa's eyes warmed El Gallo more than ever before. They cared. They utterly, stupidly, completely cared.

El Gallo sniffled, "You guys…" his heart beat tenderly, warming him from head to toe. But any warmth El Gallo may have felt quickly fled as a cold tenor cut through the room like a knife.

"My, how… sweet of you, to actually care about my… despicable little brother," a smooth voice said, polished as it was for pleasing officials and gaining El Gallo's bastard of a brother higher prestige. And there he was in all his pompous glory, staring down his nose at Luisa and El Gallo. There was a blade in those hands, and that blade was right above Luisa's head…

Twin intakes of breath caught in the couple's throats as they realized just how poorly this could end. Luisa looked over at Matt, beginning him with her eyes to save her. Matt was crying, Luisa was crying, and El Gallo was so damned not going to cry. Brutally, he shoved his emotions down, glaring coldly at his towering elder brother. It was up to El Gallo to give these two the happy ending they deserved, just as he always had and they always did, so damn it all if he was going to crumple in defeat now.

El Gallo sneered, "Back for more, brother dear? I remember a certain crushing defeat the last time we met," El Gallo noticed with satisfaction as cold fury sparked in his younger brother's eyes. Good, the angrier the other man was, the easier he was to manipulate. And in El Gallo's position, that was the only thing keeping Matt and Luisa alive.

El Gallo smirked cruelly, bringing out his inner villain, "What? Cat got your tongue? Or rather," El Gallo chuckled sadistically, raising hairs around the room, "cat got your lung?" El Gallo was actually surprised to see his brother up and about so soon; a couple days ago the other had been a gasping wreck on the floor of his drug cartel's HQ. El Gallo had been the one to put his brother there, with a stab in the chest and a shout that the girls should run.

El Gallo had always been the better swordsman, though it was hard to tell who would win a duel should it happen right now. Both of them were seriously injured, the other more than El Gallo, but El Gallo had family to protect, true family that would kill him to see hurt. El Gallo's brother, with his blade fingering Luisa's life, must've guessed this. After all, how important must this family be, for El Gallo to come running to them on his last legs?

Pretty damn important, El Gallo knew, and his brother knew too. Which is why it was so crucial for El Gallo to keep the other man off kilter, to abuse the man's emotions, to manipulate him into losing. Even if it cost him his heart, El Gallo would keep his family safe.

El Gallo grinned, moving Luisa's frozen hands away gently, and sat up. He laughed, "How's your breathing, dear brother? With that rasp, I'd thought you'd caught a cold," El Gallo's features twisted cruelly; "I bet I could beat you right now with my eyes closed!" It wasn't true; just sitting up was exhausting, but his brother didn't know that, and El Gallo didn't intend to tell him.

With El Gallo's confident boast, his brother was starting to doubt himself, doubt his ability to kill his brother, whom he knew to be skillful with tongue and sword. Perhaps he was holding the family hostage, the brother pondered, shrinking into himself, and trying to kill one of them would merely make enough time for El Gallo to strike the killing blow. The younger brother shuddered, remembering the utter lack of remorse El Gallo had shown when the man, with his side cut open for the world to see, plunged his sword into the brother's right lung. The brother remembered too, the feeling of drowning on dry land, and trembled, backing away from his vicious elder brother, who smiled now with nasty teeth.

But just as the younger brother was about to beat a hasty retreat, his backing sword caught on the girl's throat, causing her breath to hitch and emotion to flare in El Gallo's previously-cold eyes. The younger brother stopped, considering what a fool he'd been. These people were, now without a shadow of a doubt, intensely important to his brother. The brother chuckled lowly, watching with satisfaction as fear unwillingly flashed through El Gallo's eyes. He had his advantage back.

"Dear bro-" BANG! El Gallo blinked, stupefied, as his brother's eyes glazed and he fell forward, revealing a pale Amos with his shovel raised. El Gallo had never been happier to see the man, but he was also intensely reminded of Matt's warning not to piss off his father-in-law.

But however intimidating Amos might have appeared, watching him get bowled over by Ben as the man rushed over to his son (who promptly started sobbing into his father's arms and reaching for a similarly-affected Luisa) quickly dispelled the spell. Instead, the spell was of hurt, as El Gallo watched Luisa, Amos, Ben and Matt reach for each other, seeking what little comfort could be given. El Gallo looked away, mumbling about taking out the trash as gasped his brother by the armpits and hauled ass back out the porch, ignoring the pain in his side and heart.

Beside the rocking chair from last night El Gallo found a few leftover blankets, and mimicked Amos' technique to keep his brother tussled up like turkey. Ben will probably take him to the police station in the morning, El Gallo thought, stepping back with a hand keeping his innards in. He sighed heavily, looking out across the way. Ben's garden was just as beautiful as it had been the night before, but now El Gallo found his gaze no longer captivated, found himself looking beyond to the end of the drive. The man considered running away. Goodness knew he'd done it before, so why couldn't do again? He'd done to this family before, so why couldn't El Gallo get his feet to move off the porch?

El Gallo's gaze turned back towards Ben's garden, considering. Perhaps this was why he couldn't leave, because there was so much beauty here that going on beyond the wall seemed like chore in comparison. And yet…

El Gallo sighed, taking the first step away. And yet, he was always crafting the happy endings, giving the bursts of color, to everyone but himself. El Gallo took another step, then another, and then he was off the porch, walking towards the end of the drive. He waved idly to Ben's cheerful garden, already saying goodbye to that life, and considered what to do next. He could chase down the last of his brother's cartel, tearing it apart and giving someone else a chance-

El Gallo was ripped from his thoughts as a body crashed into him from behind, sending searing pain through his side and pushing the both of them to tumble onto a nearby snowbank. El Gallo shook his head, trying to catch his breath and his bearings, when he heard it; "Please stay…"

El Gallo huffed, answering despite himself, "And what would happen? Another old enemy stops by and you nearly get killed?" El Gallo's tone was distinctly bitter, and he knew the other was still trembling from the encounter, but there was the shaking of a head rather than a body against El Gallo's body.

"You can live with us," the other continued in a small voice, "Stay with us; play chess, edit stories, plant flowers and vegetables…"

"You're rambling," El Gallo commented softly, putting a stop to the other's words. But still they rang in his head, his own happy ending, and it was right there in front of him, being served on a silver platter. Who was El Gallo to refuse? Well, the man thought, I'm El Gallo.

Bitterly El Gallo said, "You still haven't answered my question. What will you do when my enemies come a-calling?"

The other trembled in recent memory, but their answer was strong, "I'll fight next to you. I won't be defenseless next time," the other continued over El Gallo's derisive snort, "and even if I am, you'll be here." Quietly, the other added, "I trust you." With that, El Gallo was stopped short, pulled up like a fish out of water and left to flounder, gasping for what had been the norm before now.

Over his sputtering, El Gallo heard laughter. Heatedly he fired back, "Why do you trust me so much?"

The other replied simply, already tugging El Gallo to standing, "Because I do." El Gallo grunted, not likely the indirect answer, but complied with his and the other's wishes, going back into the picture-perfect house with flowers all around, and allowed himself this happy ending.


A few months later, a new face appeared face in the neighborhood. His name was Fiorenzo Rossi and he was a charming Italian* with close ties to the Bellamy and Hucklebee families. Naturally, the neighborhood accepted the man, especially once he'd hosted his first dancing party. His bouncy music set feet stomping and people moving, quickly erasing any doubt of Fiorenzo Rossi not being a part of the community.

When a couple months later, Fiorenzo was revealed as Matt Hucklebee-Bellamy's new editor, no one was surprised. With the amount of time Fiorenzo spent at the Bellamy-Hucklebee households, it was a wonder he had a house away from that lot. Matt's fortune was increased by Fiorenzo's help, adding happiness and new additions to the Bellamy-Hucklebee home, and further installing the Italian as an essential piece of the community. When Fiorenzo released his first album, the community collectively groaned and said it was about time! When Fiorenzo was named godfather to the Bellamy-Hucklebee twins Ellen and Cedric, the party afterwards lasted well into the night and into the wee hours of the morning.

When Matt scored big with a major award nation-wide, Fiorenzo was right there, shouting 'cheers' and laughing as Matt got drunk off his ass. When Matt fought with Luisa, Fiorenzo was right there, ready to lend a hand and to send the man tumbling back to his wife. When Matt broke down because he didn't know how to deal with toddlers ruining his deadlines, Fiorenzo was right there, extending Matt's deadline and taking an extra shift with the kids so Matt could work. When Matt accidentally stepped on Ben's prized Christmas roses and couldn't sleep in the house for fear of being murdered, Fiorenzo was right there, letting Matt stay with him and talking to Ben with Matt, trying to fix everything.

When Luisa had her first child and was so scared that puking came naturally, Fiorenzo held her hand and took her out for ice-cream. When Luisa needed an herb that was so expensive Matt paled at the price tag, Fiorenzo held her hand and helped her through the negotiations with the others. When Luisa was out of town for Ellen's first period, Fiorenzo held her hand and told her she would be fine. When Luisa named Fiorenzo the guardian of her children in her will, Fiorenzo held her hand and hugged her, crying.

Whenever Ben wanted to play a game of chess, Fiorenzo was there. Whenever Ben wanted to garden, Fiorenzo was there. Whenever Ben wanted to go camping, Fiorenzo was there. Whenever Ben need or wanted a break, Fiorenzo was there. Whenever Ben decided that he was human, Fiorenzo was still there.

When spring came around, Amos dragged Fiorenzo to the market to look at bulbs for this year's garden. When summer came around, Amos dragged Fiorenzo down by the stream to swim with the family, from high school students Ellen and Cedric to sweet little Berry (who still called Fiorenzo 'Uncle Fire') to the old-timers of the bunch. When fall came around, Amos dragged Fiorenzo out to the woods to collect chestnuts with the kids. When winter came around, Amos dragged Fiorenzo outside to be wrapped tightly in blankets and while away the hours, talking.

So important was Fiorenzo Rossi to everyone who knew the man, that when the police came by to accuse the man of being El Gallo, the infamous bandit, everyone denied it. Fiorenzo didn't need to say a word, so adamant were all his friends that he was exactly who he said he was. In the face of such fervor, the police were forced to look elsewhere. So that when Fiorenzo died, an old wrinkly man with many happy years behind him, he was surrounded by the warmth of a family he'd almost never had. With a smile El Gallo passed on, truly glad to have had his happy ending.


* El Gallo can also refer to Gallo-Rome, which included a part of Italy. It explains Fiorenzo's dark hair and why his words sound like he's singing.

Anyone guess who stopped El Gallo from leaving? I've purposely left it open to interpretation. ;)

I wrought this behemoth after twelve intense hours. My father was wowed, and I did nothing else after nine-thirty on Saturday night but write, eat, drink, and sleep. I took breaks, but they never lasted long. I scare myself sometimes, but I'm also really proud of my work~!