In the end, it had been a Russian faction running a conspiracy to kidnap the greatest minds in neurosurgery, to save the life of the faction leader’s daughter, who was suffering from stage III brain cancer. Everything was high speed car chases, heartless murders, hostage negotiations… and then it was over.
Buckaroo and Sidney had done the girl’s surgery together, in the operating theater of the Banzai Institute Emergency Medical Center. The whole thing had been a nail-biter, the tumor pressing up against the parietal lobe so that the slightest error in surgery would risk leaving the girl deaf for the rest of her life, let alone the risk of a major error leaving her dead. If it had been anyone other than Buckaroo leading the surgery… Sidney doubts their patient would still be alive.
Because Buckaroo took the lead in the operation, Sidney offered to handle the post-op alone. The CAT scans and bloodwork to make sure the cancer was really gone, the bedside conversations with the girl and her translator to make sure she understood that she’s going to be okay, that they’re taking good care of her… The girl kept asking after her father. Sidney spoke in low tones to the translator that her father was currently in FBI custody, but that he didn’t want to upset the girl, she needed to rest…
Through all of this, Sidney was trying not to think about what happened to Perfect Tommy.
Because, intellectually, Sidney knew that Tommy’s gonna be fine, of course he is. His injuries were… substantial, but nothing close to fatal and Sidney really needed to be professional, here. It’s the first Cavaliers op in which Sidney was a major player, and he couldn’t let himself relax and think of personal concerns until he was sure that he’d done his job.
But now it’s over. And, sort of in a daze, Sidney wanders out of the oncology wing and towards the general ward.
Tommy’s out of the ICU now – thank God, because Sidney would not have been able to handle seeing him in the ICU hooked up to the dialysis machines as they filtered the sketchy Soviet toxins out of his system.
Sidney remembers the terror that settled in his chest three days ago, when the team realized no one had seen Perfect Tommy since the last firefight. They had all assumed the attack on the Institute was just another scheme by the World Crime League to take out Banzai infrastructure, but it turned out that the wave of armed attackers had just been a distraction for the Russians to kidnap Tommy.
Then, two days ago, when Tommy had already been missing for twenty-four hours, one of Ilyich’s men had arrived on the Institute’s doorstep with an envelope. Inside, a ransom letter and a video cassette. Save Elizaveta’s life, or American perfect boy dies.
In the video, there was glassy-eyed Tommy on a mysterious IV drip, cuffed to a chair, while foreign agents took a crowbar to his right leg.
He’ll be fine, though, he’ll be fine, Sidney reminds himself. They didn’t even break anything. Ilyich didn’t have a strong stomach for violence; he’d pulled his punches. Tommy had been battered and bruised and drugged out of his mind, but he’s going to make a full recovery, that’s what Reno had said while Sidney and Buckaroo were scrubbing up for surgery. Reno had told them that the Apache team had rescued Tommy, that he’d be fine, and that now their minds could be at ease while they handled the girl (not for ransom, but for the sake of ethical medicine and goodwill).
But what if Reno was lying? What if Reno just said it to make them feel better, maybe Tommy was dead, dying, and everything would—
Sidney finds Tommy’s room in the general ward, and he sighs, letting the terror fade away. He takes off his hat, and holds it in front of his chest, worrying the felt rim with his thumb as he opens the door.
Tommy’s just another patient in white sheets; it takes some time for Sidney to reconcile himself to the fact that it’s Perfect Tommy lying there unconscious, pale, the cannula tubing wrapping around his perfect face, the IV taped down to his forearm. Tommy always wears such big coats, so maybe that’s why this sight twists Sidney’s stomach so badly. Tommy’s only a touch shorter than Sidney but in the thin hospital gown he looks small. At least Reno had been telling the truth; no big casts or anything on Tommy’s legs. It must have just been bruising.
Sidney lets out a long breath. He hears Tommy’s drawl in his head, it’s all gonna be okay, cowboy.
“Hey, Jersey.” Sidney flinches at the voice, and that’s when he notices Buckaroo. Relaxed and lounging in a metal chair, Buckaroo is just beneath the window, arms crossed over his chest and legs stretched out in front of him. “How’s Liza?” he asks.
Sidney glances at Tommy’s unconscious form, and then back to Buck, his mind sputtering for a second before remembering who Liza is. “Oh, uh, she’s good, really good. Initial bloodwork came back clean and… I looked at the CAT scan, I felt good about it. Did you want to take a look? I didn’t bring the files down here with me, but—”
“Maybe later,” says Buckaroo. He looks a little tired, his eyelids drooping and his posture slid down low in his seat. There’s another chair in the room against the adjacent wall, and Buckaroo nudges its leg with his shoe. “Take a load off, cowboy.”
For a moment, Sidney doesn’t move, because he’s distracted by the familiar rhythm of the vital signs monitor. He reads it from across the room; everything looks normal enough given the circumstances. But, of course it does – Buckaroo’s here, and he must be keeping an eye on it too.
Sidney collapses in the chair. This makes Buckaroo smile, before leaning back again and resting his eyes.
The op hadn’t been easy on Buckaroo either, Sidney remembers. For the last few days, the man’s just been a load of adrenaline, from motorcycle to pistols to running after Ilyich’s goons on foot… Buckaroo always gets really tense, when it’s one of their own at stake. He barely sleeps. He doesn’t joke around. His usual easy confidence fades into a stoic mask.
And here he is with Tommy, still keeping vigil.
“Where are the others?” Sidney asks eventually, soft enough that he won’t wake Buck up if he’d fallen asleep.
Buckaroo cracks open one eye to peer at Sidney, but then he shuts it again. “You know, Sidney,” he says, “in a job like this, we end up in hospitals a lot.”
“You mean, being a surgeon?”
Buckaroo gives a little snort. “No. I mean being a Cavalier. Putting our bodies in front of the forces of evil, to protect what’s good in the world.”
“Oh. Yeah, yeah I guess you’re right. Do you mean to say I should get used to it?” Sidney looks over at Tommy, vulnerable and sick. There’s some purple bruising up and down his left arm, where Illyich had fed the IV.
Sidney could never, never get used to seeing Perfect Tommy like this. No, sir.
Buckaroo shrugs. “The guys have a kind of agreement, about hospital visits. Since it happens so often, you know… if they know you’re gonna make it, they probably won’t stand around and watch you sleep.” He tilts his head back, stretching his neck. “When Tommy wakes up, they’ll swing by with food or something. If he was worse off, they’d bring him his guitar or his jacket, but… the Docs say he’ll be out of here in a couple of days.”
“Thank God,” Sidney murmurs.
Perfect Tommy is… That is, to Sidney, Tommy is… well, he’s just the light of Sidney’s life right now, and it terrifies Sidney to think of anything bad happening to him.
“Mmm-hmm,” Buckaroo hums, and he crosses his ankles. He kind of looks like he should have Sidney’s hat over his face, and a strand of wheat in his mouth.
Sidney studies him. After surgery, Buck changed into clean clothes, but he still looks rough around the edges from the last few days. He’s a little ripe, and his curls are pretty oily. “So, if the guys went home, why are you here?” Sidney asks.
Buckaroo squints at Sidney. “Job like this, we end up in hospitals a lot,” he repeats, and then he shuts his eyes again. “I’ve gotten real used to sleeping in these chairs.”
“Sidney,” Buckaroo says firmly, “God forbid, if anything happens to you, you better believe I’ll be here when you wake up.”
Sidney’s arms break out in goosebumps under his shirt. He loosens his kerchief, nervously, and then he stands up. “I’m gonna get some coffee.”
He returns fifteen minutes later, with his hat in his teeth and a paper cup in each hand. He uses his wrist to work the door handle, and inside he sets the cups and his hat on the table. Buckaroo hasn’t moved an inch, and when Sidney looks over at Tommy, he’s disappointed but not surprised that Tommy’s still completely out.
Sidney refocuses on the drinks, peering down into the holes in the lid. “I forgot which one’s which,” he whispers, then, “um… okay yeah, this one’s for you, Buckaroo. I know you don’t do coffee, so there was, um, this tea…”
Buckaroo sits up in his chair as he takes the drink, smiling. “Thanks, New Jersey,” he says, and then blows into it to cool it off.
“There’s honey in it,” Sidney says, feeling silly, “do you like honey? Or would sugar be better? I can go back and—”
Buckaroo takes a small sip. “It’s perfect,” he says, warmly, but Sidney thinks he probably would have said that no matter what Sidney brought him.
Buck wasn’t like this, when Sidney knew him in college. That is… he was wicked smart, and he was a nice, outgoing guy with a lot of kindness in his heart, but he wasn’t a hero. He wasn’t a leader. But maybe that’s only because he hadn’t had anyone to lead, back then, not in an obvious way like with the Cavaliers. Group projects with Buck had been really… easy, because he was so organized, and he knew how to play to each individual member’s strengths, and… there was that time he stuck up for Sidney, when that thing happened with the anti-Semitic professor…
No, maybe Buck has always been this way, and it’s just unnerving to see it up close, this kind of… reliable loyalty.
Sidney isn’t sure how it makes him feel - warm and flattered, because he’s so lucky to count himself among Buckaroo’s closest friends, or frightened, because there’s every chance that Buckaroo would martyr himself to save all these people he loves.
For now, though, he watches Buckaroo gaze at Tommy, sipping his tea and breathing calm.
It’s all gonna be okay, cowboy.
“You know, the bad guys always like picking on Tommy, kidnapping him,” Buckaroo says fondly, scratching his chin. “I think it’s the hair, it’s, it’s like a beacon. Makes him our damsel in distress.”
Sidney chuckles. “I, uh, I don’t think he’d appreciate being called a damsel.”
“Probably wouldn’t like ‘in distress’ much, either,” Buckaroo admits with an easy grin. “I told him that, once. That maybe he should let his roots grow out, so he’d look like less of a target; joking, of course. You know what he said to me?”
“He said, ‘Are you crazy? I don’t want any of you to get nabbed.’”
Sidney laughs, almost involuntarily. His coffee is bitter, but at least the heat is helping him stop shivering. “He’s really brave,” he offers.
Buckaroo makes an indulgent face, muttering, “He’s reckless is what he is.”
“He isn’t the only one,” Sidney reminds him.
And Buckaroo, he… he sticks his tongue out, at Sidney, which is just so unlike him – it startles another laugh out of Sidney.
Confident, comfortable fraternity had never come easy to Sidney Zweibel. He’s in his thirties, now, and this is the first time he’s ever been part of a group like this. He’d always longed for it, lingering around the outside of all these friend groups like a parasite. He’d dreamed of it, this image of cowboys and rodeos and this sense of brotherhood that was always so untouchable in his day-to-day life.
He’s almost afraid to enjoy it, because now that he knows what it’s like, it’s going to hurt so much worse when it inevitably ends. Someday.
“So, Perfect Tommy’s from Louisiana,” Buckaroo says, then sips his drink. “Don’t know if you knew that, Jersey.”
“Not specifically, no.”
Buckaroo nods. “From what it sounds like, he comes from traditional southern Christian stock. People who tell you how to act, what to do, who to be. And Tommy, he’s this brilliant kid, fascinated by materials engineering and particle physics, but he’s got an attitude. So that town, they decide he’s a delinquent, he’s stupid, he’s a nobody. And that’s what he becomes.”
Buckaroo glances over at Sidney, and then he tilts his chin towards Sidney’s hat sitting on the table. “Did your parents let you take rodeo lessons?”
Sidney smiles, and coughs into his fist. “Yeah, um. Riding lessons, at least. And I was a cowboy for Halloween every year, except for the one time I was Dorothy, but that was, um, my Mom’s idea, because of my haircut that year.”
There’s a twinkle of something mischievous in Buckaroo’s eyes. “Are there pictures?” he asks.
“Uh, yeah, yeah I think so. Somewhere.”
Buckaroo winks. “Don’t tell Reno.”
“Why… why not?”
Buckaroo ignores this. “Anyway,” he says, smoothing out his pant leg with one hand, “you and me, Jersey, we were lucky. Our parents set us up for success the best they could. Tommy’s parents spent the first fifteen years of his life telling him he was a failure. And it didn’t get any easier when he struck out on his own. When I met him, and I heard about his life, I realized, you know, this man has been living in a completely different world from me, with none of the advantages I had, and yet here he is designing fixes for my jetcar that I’d never dreamed of. And he’s no slouch at rhythm guitar, either.”
“Heh,” Sidney smiles, “no kidding.” Before this, all Sidney knew of Perfect Tommy was that he was perfect and… and kind. When he wasn’t joking around or teasing the others, Tommy was soft and genuine with Sidney, helping Sidney figure out his way around the bunkhouse, or teaching him how to shoot on the firing range. Getting a smile or a fond pat on the shoulder from Perfect Tommy sets Sidney’s whole day lopsided with giddiness.
The way Buckaroo talks about him, with this kind of… fraternal pride, it adds a whole new layer to Sidney’s picture of Tommy.
And it’s a good distraction from how sickly Tommy looks at present, in his hospital bed.
“He saw so much of the worst of the world,” Buckaroo says softly, “and he came out of it whole, and good. He’s my… my knight of the lesser boulevards. He’s perfect.”
A mumbling sound from Tommy’s bed makes Sidney jump. Tommy seems to be waking up, groggy, and wincing against the bright lights of the hospital. He says something, but his words are slurred and Sidney can’t make it out. “What was that?” Sidney asks, standing to move closer.
Buckaroo stands, too, and teases knowingly, “I think he said, ‘thanks, Buckaroo, for sticking by my side in the hospital instead of going to bed!’”
“No,” Perfect Tommy groans, his voice hoarse, “no, I said ‘quit talking about me behind my back, you ass…’” He tries to rub at his eyes, but that jostles the IV and he breathes in sharply. “Shit,” he says.
“Technically we were talking about you in front of you,” Buckaroo says, smirking, and he lets out a delighted laugh when Tommy flips him the bird. “There he is!” says Buck, “Good morning, glory.”
“How are you feeling?” Sidney asks, glancing up again at the vitals monitor, though it looks basically the same. Then Buckaroo catches his eye, makes a motion. Together, Buckaroo and Sidney help ease Tommy up into a sitting position, and then Sidney stacks the pillows behind him. Despite looking like he just woke from the dead, Tommy’s skin is reassuringly warm.
“New Jersey,” Tommy croaks out, “th’ hell are you doing here?”
“He was worried about you,” Buckaroo answers. “Here, he even made you some tea, you want some? There’s honey in it.” He pushes the paper cup into Tommy’s hand.
“What – uh, okay, thanks, Jersey,” Tommy says, squinting down at the cup. “Why’s it half-empty?”
“I drank some,” answers Buck.
“Man, fuck you,” Tommy mumbles without much force behind it, and he sips from the tea. He chokes on it at first, and Sidney catches the flash of fear on Buckaroo’s face as he steps in closer and starts rubbing Tommy’s back while Tommy coughs. Sidney fiddles with the pillows and tries not to look, because it feels too intrusive.
Sidney’s relieved that Buckaroo’s here, because if Sidney were alone with Tommy in a state like this, he would probably panic, and call in the nurses or something.
“How much do you remember?” asks Buckaroo.
“More than I’d like to,” says Tommy, scratching his forearm around the IV. “I feel like I’ve been bulldozed.”
Sidney nods, and his mouth starts talking before he can remind it to shut up, “Well, uh, that’s, that’s normal. Ilyich was using something, uh, heavy to keep you sedated, so it’s normal to feel uh, headache-y and weak as it wears off, not to mention the bruising…”
Tommy furrows his brows at Sidney, looking between him and Buckaroo with a kind of suspicious concern. “What did he tell you?” he asks Sidney.
Sidney sputters, “Nothing, um, nothing untoward, I’m sure…”
“We talked about Louisiana, that’s all,” says Buck. He still has a hand between Tommy’s shoulders, rubbing circles there. “Drink your tea, Perfect Tommy. You know I wouldn’t…”
“Yeah,” says Tommy, quietly, “I know.”
Again, Sidney feels like he’s intruding on something. Why is he still here, really? He should have left them alone, they clearly have a special… a special bond, and Sidney would hate it if his presence here was somehow making Tommy feel worse after waking up from such an ordeal.
“Um,” Sidney says, “I’m really, uh, I’m really jazzed your awake, Perfect Tommy, why don’t I go and call the, uh, the rest of the guys—”
“This is so fucked up,” Tommy shouts.
Sidney flinches, and he’s about to reflexively ask, what is? But Buckaroo catches his eye meaningfully, and Sidney closes his mouth.
Tommy tugs the IV needle out of his arm, and throws it violently towards the floor, like a kid throwing their baseball mitt on the ground and stomping on it after a loss. Then he puts his hands over his face. “It was like,” he says, muffled by his fingers, “Demerol or something, it wasn’t even good.”
Buckaroo lets out a breath. “Would you rather it had been good?”
“No,” Tommy concedes. “I just… it wasn’t even worth it. I hate that they could screw up my life with something that wasn’t even worth it.”
Buck takes one of Tommy’s hands away from his face, to hold it. “It’s about making choices, Tommy,” he says. “If you weren’t the one to make the choice, then it doesn’t count. You didn’t do anything wrong, and you can go right back to the way things were.”
Oh. Sidney’s catching on, now. The realization lands like a rock in his stomach. Sidney had been so worried that Ilyich would break Tommy’s legs… it hadn’t even occurred to him that they might have broken his sobriety. Sidney hadn’t even realized he’d had a sobriety to break in the first place.
“Buck, I’m sorry,” Tommy whines out.
It’s going to take some time for Sidney to reconcile his image of Tommy – bright, confident, hale – with his image of addicts, but Tommy’s appearance in this moment, pale and ill, begins to bridge that gap. Sidney hates thinking of him that way.
Sidney hates how upset Tommy looks, and he’s suddenly grateful that Buck’s here because… it’s not like Sidney could do anything to really comfort Tommy.
“Hey, hey, hey,” Buckaroo gets a knee on the bed, gathering Tommy into his arms and pressing his mouth against Tommy’s dyed hair. “Not your fault.”
Tommy leans into Buckaroo’s hug, but he still can’t pull his hands away from his face. “I know,” he chokes out, “I know, I just. I don’t think I can be alone right now. I can’t… can’t trust myself, you know? I’m so sorry.”
A kind of longing takes root in Sidney’s heart as he watches this intimate moment, but he’s not quite sure if he envies Tommy Buckaroo’s affection, or if he envies Buckaroo the confidence and familiarity with Tommy to be able to offer that support in the first place.
“It’s okay,” says Buck, “it’s… you’re perfect. Do you need me, or do you think it’d be okay with the guys here? Either way is fine,” Buckaroo meets Sidney’s eyes over Tommy’s head with a bashful smile as he says, “but if I stay here, I might fall asleep on you.”
Tommy pulls away from him, to really look at Buckaroo’s face. “Christ,” he says, “you look like shit.”
“Well, no one can compare to you, Perfect Tommy,” Buckaroo replies cheekily.
Tommy hesitates. “I’ll,” he says, “I’ll be okay with the guys, yeah. You can go rest. Thanks, Buck.”
“Always,” Buckaroo promises. He presses a kiss to Tommy’s forehead – to Sidney’s awe, nothing about the gesture seems unnatural or forced. Then he stands, and Sidney straightens up with him. Where are you going? Sidney wants to ask, Am I supposed to stay here? Alone with him?
“The tea was good, huh?” prompts Buckaroo, as he picks up his coat.
“Uh, yeah,” says Tommy absently, rubbing his face.
“I bet Jersey’ll make you more if you ask nicely.” And then Sidney feels a firm hand clap on his shoulder. He looks up at Buckaroo with alarm, but Buckaroo just smiles at him. “See you later, Sid. Thanks for everything. The guys will be over here soon, and then you should come back to the bunkhouse too, okay? Get some rest.”
Sidney nods dumbly. He doesn’t know how to ask but why are you leaving when Tommy wants you here more than me?
And then the door shuts behind Buckaroo, and they’re alone.
In the silence that settles over the room, Sidney tells himself that he’s here for Tommy’s sake. Even if he isn’t the best person to be here, even if he embarrasses them both… well, it’s all for Tommy, so he should just… try to be the best person he can be for the job. “Do you want more tea?” he asks, quietly. “Do you want me to get the nurse?”
The warmth of the drink has returned some of the color to Tommy’s face, the familiar little painted-doll blush of his cheeks that Sidney gets to noticing whenever he stares for too long. But the tiredness, which had abated slightly with Buckaroo’s teasing, has returned to Tommy’s eyes. It almost looks as though he’s in a daze, staring at the wall behind Sidney. He seems to snap himself out of it enough to say, “No… no, I’m fine.”
Sidney pulls his chair a little closer to the bed. “In, um,” he says softly, keeping his eyes lowered so Tommy doesn’t feel obligated to listen if he doesn’t want to, “in med school, I had a professor who specialized in the physical, neurochemical side of addiction. We know, um…” Sidney gestures vaguely to his own scalp, “we know about how, with opiates, when you build up a tolerance, your body creates, uh, more receptors in your brain for the chemical, so it takes more of the substance to fill up all the new receptors and create the same high. But, when you stop taking the opiate, those new receptors disappear, and you lose your tolerance.”
Sidney crosses his arms in front of himself, staring intently at the metal machinery at the base of the hospital bed. “I guess what I’m saying is, um. You don’t have to worry about going through withdrawal again. Your body won’t have the same physical cravings as before. I don’t know if that’s… much of a comfort, really? I know it must be different on the, the psychological level. I’m really sorry, Perfect Tommy.”
Tommy puts the paper cup down on the nightstand. “You got nothing to apologize for, cowboy,” he says, and he doesn’t say anything else.
He doesn’t look at Sidney.
And this… this makes sense to Sidney, the fact that Tommy isn’t as forthcoming with conversation now that Buckaroo is gone. Sidney’s been through the same thing, where there’s this one person who makes you feel good about yourself, and you just want to be able to stay near them, stay in their orbit like a planet chasing the warmth of the sun. “I… I know you wish that it was Buckaroo here, instead of me.”
Tommy gives him an intensely guilty look. “It’s not…” he says to Sidney, his voice hoarse again, “I… I really appreciate you being here, Jersey, I’m sorry if I—”
“No, no,” Sidney waves him off, offering a bittersweet smile in return, “I get it. I’d feel the same way in your position. Buckaroo is a very special person, and you two have a, a history together.” Sidney ducks his head. “If it makes you feel any better, he was… while you were gone. I’ve never seen him like that. Granted, I haven’t, um, I haven’t been a Cavalier for very long, but I’ve never seen him so… tense. He was really worried about you. We all were, but, you know, I worry about everything and everyone, so it’s not… not exactly the same.”
For a moment, Tommy stares at his hands in his lap, and then he smiles and rubs his forehead with one hand. “You’re really something else, Jersey. Anyone ever told you that you’re too sweet for your own good?”
“Um. Thanks, I think?”
Tommy leans back against the pillows, shutting his eyes. “Things with Buckaroo are… complicated. Everyone… everyone needs him, and he can’t be everywhere at once. And it feels… selfish, to want his attention when he’s already giving so much of himself to the world. He’s still a person, you know? People don’t realize he’s just… he’s just a guy.”
Sidney nods. “Yeah,” he says, “yeah. I saw that. He ran himself ragged.”
Tommy hums. “But you… you’re a kind man, Dr. Zweibel,” he whispers. “You stayed, and that… that really does mean a lot to me. I appreciate it.”
The nervous energy that Buckaroo’s absence had shot through Sidney’s heart disappears, now. In its place, a warmth, a sense of pride. “Call me Sidney,” he says.
A few minutes later, before the rest of the Cavaliers arrive, the doctor comes in to check on Tommy’s status. With a sigh, she picks up the IV needle from the floor and switches it out with a sterile one. It’s just saline, she tells him, and he’s dehydrated; it’s the best way to get him back on his feet.
Tommy looks at her ruefully, as she waits for him to offer his arm so she can feed him the IV again.
“Hey,” says Sidney. He doesn’t say anything else, but he offers his hand, and Tommy takes it.
Tommy’s fingers are cold, but he squeezes Sidney’s hand, and the smile on his face is… it’s just perfect, it’s perfect. The doctor does the IV while Sidney holds Tommy’s gaze, squeezing his hand back, wordlessly.