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Saddle Up

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Rawhide's in the closest the Black Lectroids have to stasis, which seems to equal being covered in some sort of slime. It's really pretty gross, but Buckaroo's asked for a sample for the Professor anyhow. Perfect Tommy and Reno haven't been able to go past the room he's in since they got him settled. Reno detours through the garage and Perfect Tommy spent a week mapping out the ways to get anywhere in the complex while avoiding the medical wing entirely.

Penny mostly avoids medical too. But Penny's been avoiding a lot of things for a long time, so she's an expert at doing it without getting noticed.

Big Norse and Pecos are still on assignment. Mrs. Johnson keeps tabs on them and posts updates in the front hall every morning.

Billy's disappeared. He left a note though, so no one's really worried.

New Jersey's holed up in medical with the Professor and two Lectroid doctors sent by John Emdall, existing on the thrill of new research and the urgency of their task. And plates of sandwiches provided by Mrs. Johnson and sometimes Penny, who pops in out of nowhere every so often, makes a comment or two on whatever they're doing, then drifts off to watch some of the Irregulars training.

And Buckaroo watches Rawhide. He watches for hours every day, keeping vigil with a notebook full of equations and chemical reactions in his lap.

One of the newest Irregulars ventures to ask why Buckaroo's in there with Rawhide. Wouldn't he do better in a lab or something? Maybe with the Professor and New Jersey? Pinky slaps the kid upside the head as Reno pulls on his headphones and Perfect Tommy hops out of one of the bunkhouse windows to climb up to the roof.

The kid is gone the next morning, and good riddance, they all agree.

It is two months since the attack, and Rawhide is still slowly dying, and Buckaroo is still watching each agonizing second with a calm everyone else cannot begin to fathom.

"He was the steadiest shot I've ever seen," Perfect Tommy says. He should be close to drunk, but somehow he's not. He's been perched on the edge of the roof for the past two hours, watching fans come to the gates only to be turned away by whoever's on duty.

Despite not being too fond of heights, Penny has climbed up to join him. She reaches over and takes the unlabeled bottle he's been drinking from. It smells vile, but she takes a swig anyhow and lets it burn its way down to the pit of her stomach. She thinks about how far she's come since Buckaroo bailed her out and Tommy gave her his coat and her life got really interesting. Interesting enough that this is the first drink she's had since the club.

Tommy's still talking about Rawhide, so she listens as he describes a man she doesn't know. A man closer to Buckaroo than she could have guessed. A man she wishes she'd had time to impress, or at least to mitigate the embarrassment of tagging along and running her mouth off and getting caught and almost ruining everything.

"Once saw him wake up out of a dead sleep, shoot a rattlesnake in two, then go right back to bed in his sleeping bag, calm as you please," Tommy tells her. "He and Buckaroo? I figure they just keep the rest of us around for kicks, cause they need more folks in the band. Except, you know, they keep me around cause I'm perfect."

"Of course," Penny agrees, taking another swig before handing the bottle back to Tommy.

"Rawhide's pretty perfect too, but don't go telling anyone I said so," Tommy adds. "He wouldn't like that. It's just the sort of guy he is."

Penny notices the present tense and doesn't comment. Tommy uses it intentionally, hoping it will slap some of those new kids right in the face.

Reno is terrible with cars. He's a lot better with instruments and cards and games of chance. Mechanics just isn't his thing. But it's the last place people come looking for him. Or it used to be. Now they know where he's spending his time when he's not in the bunkhouse. They know he's hunched over a workbench full of wires and little metal bits that are supposed to all go together, if only he could think about them long enough to figure it out.

Pinky finds him there and leans over to swap two wires.

"Hey, remember when Rawhide got that old Mustang in here?" Reno says after staring at what Pinky did and wondering why he hadn't thought to switch those wires himself. "Spent two weeks in here with Buckaroo, refitting it."

"Oh yeah!" Pinky says, fitting a few more pieces into place. "Buckaroo helped him out, didn't he? They did that just after I got here. That was a sweet ride."

"Funniest thing," Reno says, sitting back to watch Pinky, who is a hell of a lot better at this than he is. "You could come in here, see Sam working on something and he'd be talking to anyone in the room, you know? Or whistling. You come in here and see Buckaroo and Rawhide? They're just two sets of legs sticking out from under the car, handing each other tools without a word."

Pinky nods. "Yeah, sure sounds like them. What happened to that Mustang?"

Reno looks around, wishing that the Mustang was still in the garage, even if it was under a tarp or parked in a corner, but it's not there. They hadn't been refitting the car to keep it and drive it. He's pretty sure they did it because they could. Because it was fun. Yeah, he doesn't get it, but they obviously did.

"Donated it to some charity," he tells Pinky. "Rawhide drove it out to Wyoming last fall, remember?"

"That's where he was? Man, I thought he was doing something important."

And now it's Reno's turn to smack Pinky upside the head, except he doesn't. He just shakes his head and gets up from the workbench. "It was important to him, dumkopf."

The Lectroid doctors are John Kildare and John Eligius, and they're really very helpful, even if New Jersey keeps seeing John Kildare out of the corner of his eye and having to remind himself that the Lectroid doctor just likes purple plaid and green argyle. John Eligius is dressed a little less eye-smartingly and he's working over on the other side of the lab.

They're all stumped. The Lectroids seem to be doing better than either New Jersey or Professor Hikita, but they've been working on this for a lot longer, and they've had good reason to want an antidote. Every time New Jersey thinks he's made a breakthrough it turns out to be a dead end. It's demoralizing and even though he knows time is tight, he has to stop and take a break.

"You know, I never knew it would be like this," he tells the Professor.

"Like what?" the Professor asks, looking up.

"Like this," New Jersey says, gesturing around the lab, at the samples of the toxin that's claimed three of their comrades and the slime that's keeping one of them alive. At the Lectroids who are conversing about something over by the fume hood. At the untouched plate of sandwiches someone, he thinks it was Pinky this time, brought a couple of hours ago. "It's like med school all over again, but with more stress."

"Ah, yes," the Professor says, nodding before going back to his microscope. "I remember, years ago, Buckaroo was poisoned by one of his enemies. A very bad man. He snuck a toxin he had made into Buckaroo's dinner. It was an award dinner. He doesn't go to those now."

New Jersey frowns. He remembers seeing Buckaroo's name in the papers a few years back. Something about being carried out of an award banquet. The Professor frowns too, remembering how close it had been.

"Rawhide carried him back here," the Professor tells New Jersey.

"Well, yes, obviously he was okay in the end. Obviously," New Jersey mutters, turning away to go back to his work. "Rawhide'll be okay too," he says over his shoulder to the Professor.

"Of course," the Professor agrees, and New Jersey isn't sure which one of them is doing the reassuring and which one of them needs to be reassured. The Professor isn't sure either. But they are both counting on Buckaroo. It's an unspoken assumption between them, and maybe between the Lectroids too. Buckaroo won't let Rawhide go. Not without a fight.

It has been two months, and Buckaroo knows that some fights happen on the inside. Rawhide looks frozen in place under the Lectroid stasis slime, but Buckaroo is certain that a war is being waged in his body. Rawhide is the steady core of the Cavaliers. He's never let Buckaroo down. But Buckaroo isn't sure if this is a struggle his friend can win alone.

When anyone looks into the room, Buckaroo knows he looks like he's meditating, and he is. He thinks on years of friendship with Rawhide and the number of times his friend has pulled him out of trouble. He thinks on everything they've done together, flipping through moment after moment, from the exciting to the mundane.

Sometimes the useful parts are the ones that seem unrelated.

Mrs. Johnson peeks into the room, but Buckaroo doesn't notice. He's remembering something Rawhide said once when they were setting up for a show. They'd been practicing a new number and it wasn't working.

"Keep it simple," he had said. "Let's drop the new one. Go back to the old stuff. Stick to what we know tonight, go for what we don't know tomorrow."

Buckaroo tosses his notebook to the floor, sending his pen skittering across the room. "That's it!" he shouts, surprising Mrs. Johnson as he races past her. "Mrs. Johnson!" he calls back as he runs down the hall. "Get Penny!"

Stick to what they know. They know Penny was subjected to Red Lectroid toxins. They know Buckaroo managed to revive her with a residual spark from the Black Lectroids. They don't need anything new. They need what they have.

It doesn't take long to get everything put together and when it's done Buckaroo races back to Rawhide as fast as he left in the first place.

The spark from his fingers to Rawhide's temple sizzles away the slime there. Buckaroo is aware that a crowd has gathered at the door, collectively holding its breath while Buckaroo watches Rawhide for signs of life or signs of death.

Signs of life come first with the kick of a leg, then a heavy groan. Rawhide's eyes open and he finds Buckaroo without hesitation.

"Hey there," he says. "We got a set tonight? Let's go. Saddle up."