The Third That Walks Beside
by Käthe

They found him in a dusty bar near Tobruk, slumped over a table, a glass of an unknown amber liquid grasped tightly in his right hand.

Outside, Rawhide nodded in the general direction of the young man. "This is the one we came for?"

Buckaroo looked back, the corners of his mouth quirking up in a small smile. He nodded once and stepped inside.

With that simple look, Buckaroo had reminded him one of the first rules of the Institute: It takes all kinds.

"Even a mercenary drunk by the look of things," he muttered. Rawhide trusted Buckaroo more than he had ever trusted any man, but he couldn't help wondering if Banzai could be wrong, just this once.


This was not how his life was supposed to end, Tommy thought. He'd been the golden child, the hometown pride, Phi Beta Kappa, and the most charismatic prodigy to grace the halls of MIT in the last fifty years. He wasn't supposed to wind up a fugitive from the Egyptian authorities and running guns for the Foreign Legion, but that's exactly what he was doing, sitting in a black market bar in Libya, waiting for his contact.

The door opened and bright light washed into the dark room. Tommy raised his head just enough to see two men, both hesitating before stepping through the doorway. He had time to blink once before one of the men stepped through, leaving the other to wait outside. As the light continued to frame this man, blacking out any distinguishing features, Tommy was reminded of the stories he'd heard as a child, where Jesus would appear to a broken man offering salvation.

Tommy blinked as the man sat down at his table. When he opened his eyes, the Jesus figure had dissolved, revealing an ordinary man close to Tommy's age. The stranger had the dark hair and almond eyes that spoke of Asian heritage, and yet Tommy instinctively knew that this man was an American like himself. His suspicions were confirmed when the other man spoke for the first time.

"Thomas McNeil?"

Tommy nodded. This man was no cop, especially no Egyptian cop. He felt safe in confirming his identity. What did it really matter at this point, anyway?

"I'm Buckaroo Banzai. I'd like for you to come to work with me."

Over the next half hour they discussed Buckaroo's foundling Institute, Tommy's work on rocket propulsion at MIT, and the controversial genius of Pete Townshend.

As the conversation drew to its natural conclusion, Buckaroo extended his hand, expecting Tommy to turn down his offer. Instead, he found a strong hand clasping his own in a sign of brotherhood.

"I'm Perfect Tommy," he said, smiling. "Find me."

Maybe Buckaroo wasn't Jesus, but Tommy had never really gone in for Sunday School anyhow. But salvation was salvation, and this enigmatic man was Tommy's.

He didn't stick around long enough to meet his contact.


Rawhide didn't want to like Perfect Tommy. In fact, for the first six months that Tommy lived in the Bunkhouse, Rawhide spoke to him a total of five times outside of missions; he knew, he kept count.

Perfect Tommy was everything that Rawhide wasn't. Smooth, instantly charming, quick to temper and first to laugh at one of Pinky's jokes; he was sharp, cunning, and dangerously mercurial.

While Tommy was the flare, Rawhide was the rock of the group. He liked to think things out, to study and plan. He wasn't quick to anger, nor did he regularly join in when the boys got restless and rowdy. He was as steady and timeless as the harsh West that had borne him.

Although secure enough to recognize these differences, Rawhide wasn't quite Zen enough to accept all of Tommy's faults like Buckaroo seemed to. Then again, no one was as Zen as Buckaroo. The rest of the Institute fought every day to gain one more ounce of inner peace and understanding, following their leader's example.

Even Perfect Tommy.

So while Rawhide didn't want to like Tommy, he couldn't help but fall under the man's spell along with the rest.


The alarm went off at 0318 Zulu. By six am local time (Tommy only thought in Zulu during crises, the rest of the time he tried to keep things as normal as possible.) they had their target objective: Tunis.

Tommy had avoided returning to North Africa since leaving it as a member of the Hong Kong Cavaliers years before. As far as he was concerned, it was a place for battles, a place for death. The body of Thomas McNeil was buried there. Perfect Tommy had no intentions of visiting the grave.

Somewhat unwisely he grumbled as much to Rawhide as they prepared the gear they'd need.

"So what happened to your soul?"

Thrown for a moment, Tommy didn't respond. He turned to look at Rawhide, currently stacking coils of black rope on a table. Rawhide hadn't changed much over the years, he noticed. He still had the same artful twang and the same wind-weathered face that he'd first seen that day in the outskirts of Tobruk. Tommy had come to think of it as the face of the first real friend he'd had since childhood.

"Those archeologists aren't going to rescue themselves, Tommy. I'm surprised Xan's left them alive this long. Get a move on." He nudged Tommy to make his point.

"What? Oh, yeah." Tommy loaded the new ground penetrating radar system into a crate. "I guess I kept my soul," he said, returning to the earlier question.

"Reincarnation in the same lifetime?"

"Something like that."

"You're saying that you became a completely new person by sheer force of will?"

"Yeah. And with a little help from Buckaroo. And you guys," he grinned at Rawhide, teasing.

"Ladies and gentlemen, thousands of years of philosophy trumped in an instant. I present to you, Perfect Tommy!" In a rare show of levity, Rawhide mimed cheering crowds and screaming girls. Tommy chalked up the odd behavior to sleep deprivation and kept packing.

"The old demons don't come back to haunt then?"

Tommy stilled. "Of course they do. Don't yours?" As if called up by Rawhide's question, Tommy could feel his natural accent deepening.

"They're my constant companions, amigo. But I'm not the one that went and disavowed his previous existence as a -- " he stopped himself short.

Back up, Tommy asked, "As a what?"

"As a drunk and a mercenary."

By some unwritten agreement, they never spoke of that day, just as they never spoke of the particulars of their previous lives.

Eyes narrowed, Tommy leaned forward into Rawhide's space. "You don't know what you're talking about, Rawhide." Tommy's voice was low and raw; Rawhide wasn't looking for a fight.

"I only know what I saw."

"Yeah?" Tommy laughed. "I saw Buckaroo and thought he was Jesus come to save me."

"Didn't he?"

"In a way, but my salvation," he said, biting out the word. "Well, the credit can't belong solely to Buckaroo." Tommy locked eyes with Rawhide. "It had as much to do with you -- "

Rawhide managed to choke out a whispered, "Me?" before they heard Pecos' sharp indrawn breath behind them.

"Guys," she said in a shaky voice, recovering from the moment she'd inadvertently broken in on, "Buckaroo's waiting for that gear."

Tommy stepped back and inhaled deeply, trying desperately to remember what it felt like to be that close to Rawhide. He didn't want to forget that heat and tension any time soon.

"We'll be there in a minute, Pecos."

As soon as she was gone, Tommy looked at his friend. Rawhide looked serious.

"Why didn't you say anything?"

Picking up a few boxes, Tommy shrugged and started for the door. "Why didn't you?" he called back, exiting.

He knew Rawhide wasn't going to let this go unresolved for very long. In fact, if they both survived the date with Xan's Bravos, Tommy fully expected to be having a very revealing conversation that evening by the silvery light of a Libyan moon.


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