Disclaimer: The characters are not mine, I make no profit of them.

Author's note:

I wrote this to show, there are still visitors at Gull's Way.

This is my very first story in english and it is not my first language, so please go easy on me.

All mistakes were handmade with love by myself.

Hammer to fall

by Molly Grue

From the moment Mark McCormick climbed out of the Corvette he knew, something was wrong!

His shoulder was burning like fire and there was a sharp pain in his rib cage every time he took a deep breath.

He leaned against the passenger door and looked around him, where hell had broken loose.

Police cars arrived and officers were running around everywhere, shouting orders while they arrested the two men that had climbed, or had been pulled, out of the old truck.

"Oh no! He's gonna kill me!" the ex-con mumbled as he mustered the Judge's priced car next to him and the old truck that had wedged into the drivers side.

At that moment another police car came to a skittering halt right behind the two cars and Mark flinched as he heard the rumbling voice calling his Name:

"MCCORMICK!? WHAT THE HELL HAVE YOU DONE TO MY CARS?!"

The parolee tried to look as innocent as possible and replied:

"I… umm… stopped them."

As he shrugged he made sure he only moved his right shoulder and he turned a bit away from the Judge for that the older man could not see the tight to the ex-con's left side sticking, unmoving arm.

Hardcastle's face turned red and he barked:

"You what?! You totaled them, McCormick!?"

"Ahh...No! Judge! Look, it is not that bad. I mean…"

but before he could end his sentence the older man had been distracted by the young officer who arrested one of the two crooks and told him his rights, without the Miranda-card in his hands.

"Hey, Rookie! What do you think you are doing there?" Hardcastle shouted and hurried over while he pulled a crumbled card out of the back pocket of his jeans.

McCormick knew the Judge would be hovering over every further movement the cops and the captives would make.

So he took his chance to clear off and he tried to move as normal as possible, just in case someone watched him.

On his way away from the whole scene, he ran into Lieutenant Frank Harper who had arrived just moments earlier.

"Hey, Mark."

the officer greeted,

"It seems like everything is under control."

he assumed.

"Hi, Lieu...Frank."

Mark replied.

He had been introduced to Harper a few weeks ago and he liked the guy right from the start but it still was hard for him to use the officer's first name.

Every time one of LA's finest turned his attention towards him, it made him shiver to the bone.

Of course, he wouldn't admit that out loud!

"Yes, everything's under Control except of Hardcase." the curly haired man said and pointed his chin in the direction where Hardcastle followed one of the captives and a young officer who was reading the Miranda while the older man's lips moved synchrony to every word.

Both, the officer and the crook, had an annoyed look on their faces.

Frank grinned slightly and shook his head than his gaze trailed over to the collided cars and his eyes widened as he saw that the truck has crunched the driver's side of the Corvette.

He didn't say a word but he turned his questioning look back to McCormick who took a small step back and said:

"They came to the estate, waving around with their guns.

Must have been Corletto's last desperate try to get away with his drug operation.

Anyhow, they came and I was in the garage changing tires at the Coyote.

Then everything happened very fast.

Hardcase must have heard them and he came running with a shotgun in his hands, firing at them and shouting.

Bullets were flying everywhere and the two of them had no chance but to flee.

Hardcase took a shot at the tire of their car so they jumped quickly into the truck which stood next to them.

The key was in the ignition because I've moved all cars just minutes ago.

They took off.

The donkey brayed:

"Go! Get them!?"

Mark said in his best imitation of the Judge and went on with a little sigh of annoyance:

"You know how he is when he gets full Lone Ranger…"

Frank laughed.

Oh, yes! He knew exactly what Mark was talking about.

"So I did the only thing I could've done:

I jumped into the Corvette and followed them.

I had no trouble to outrun them but only one chance to stop them.

I overtook and cut them off.

Honestly I don't know what they were thinking or if they were thinking at all.

Maybe they thought they could just ram me out of the way?"

with a helpless gesture he pointed towards the battered cars.

Frank nodded and lifted his eyebrows in a questioning manner as he mustered Mark from his wet shoes to his dripping hair.

The curly haired man followed his gaze, looked at his soaked pants too and explained:

"I tripped over the waterbucket…"

"Uh-huh" was all Frank had to say to that.

Both men looked over to the scene where Hardcastle still was following every movement that was made.

Mark shifted nervously and wondered how long he could keep pretending he was ok.

Luckily the Lieutenant's focus was on the scene of the accident, so he took his chance to get away.

"Look Lieutenant, I gotta change these wet clothes. For the extreme unlikely case Hardcastle will not have me executed for wracking his beloved 'Vette, I don't wanna catch a cold.

If he asks where he can shoot me, just tell him I went to the Gatehouse to take a shower, ok?"

Frank grinned in sight of the kid's sarcastic humor.

"Yes, of course.

Just go on.

Maybe it's a good idea to let Milt cool off a bit…

I will drop by for the official statement this evening. Make sure you are there, ok?"

he said but his attention was still on the scene in front of him and he didn't watch Mark go.

He just heard the words:

"Sure.

You will find me right under the freshly banked up earth in the backyard…"

-~*""*~-

It took Frank some effort to stop his chuckling and put on a straight face as he approached the Judge.

That McCormick amused the hell out of him when he started to smart off.

No surprise though, the parolee kept Milt on his toes constantly.

Frank couldn't help himself, he enjoyed watching his old friend running around snapping and barking and giving advices, no one wanted to hear.

It must have been years ago that he actually saw him so full of life and the Lieutenant must admit that the spark had returned back into his friend's steel blue eyes when Mark did appear at Gull's Way.

"Heya, Milt!

I see, you've wrapped up everything here already.

Anything left for me to do?" he greeted his friend grinning.

The Judge, who mirrored Frank's expression, didn't bother to answer the obviously rhetorical question.

Instead, he clapped his hands together and said with satisfaction:

"This is the last nail to Corletto's coffin!

He send his goons after us to stop me from testifying against him in his upcoming trail.

One of his Bozos is already singing like a bird on a sunny morning in spring.

Now Corletto will be going up the river for a loooong time!"

"Congratulations to this one, Milt.

I know you wanted Corletto for a long time but it seems like your airtight case didn't come without a price tag…"

Frank replied and nodded towards Hardcastle's cars.

The Judge made a face and sighed:

"Well, nothing in life is for free, isn't it?

Honestly, compared to Charles Corletto behind bars this is small potatoes."

he waved in the direction of the Corvette and added:

"Nothing what Fred from the Garage downtown couldn't fix in a few weeks! But…"

Hardcastle crossed his arms in front of his chest and now leaned forward to whisper conspiratorially:

"Don't tell McCormick I said that!

He gives me so much grief about his chores, I want to rattle his cage a bit."

The jurist blinked his eye and Frank chuckled and shook his head.

Milt's expression sobered and in a louder tone he went on:

"It's not like I'm not mad, because I am mad!

Look at my beautiful car.

Oh, man. It will cost me a fortune to get that fixed!

And McCormick…

What was he thinking? Trying to block a truck with a convertible? He could've hurt himself or worse!?

Where is he, anyway?"

Interrupting his own tirade he started to look around hoping to find his missing sidekick.

He frowned and felt a twinge of guilt as he looked at the damage on the Corvette once again and thought about his own words.

He realised, he hadn't even asked the kid if he was ok.

"I met him just a few minutes ago." the Lieutenant answered.

"He was on his way back to the estate.

He told me to tell you, he is going up to the Gatehouse to get a shower and change.

He had been wet from head to toe."

Frank had decided not to give on the exact words McCormick had used.

He thought it might be a good idea not to mention executions and graves in his friend's backyard right now.

No doubt the Kid would be running his mouth at Milt on his own as soon as the two of them will meet.

"He went home?" Hardcastle said in disbelief

"He just went home… he totaled my cars and then he jumped out of the wrack and went home?

Oh, this kid got nerves!

Wait until I get him into my hands…"

"Milt…" Frank interrupted him

"he was dripping wet and cold and you have been running around, ahmm…taking care of everything.

Maybe he just didn't want to be in the way.

Besides, the flying bullets, the chase and the accident might have shaken him a bit, don't you think?"

Milt blew out a breath:

"Yes, you are right Frank.

But he could've waited just a bit.

It doesn't look like the truck had been damaged too bad. She looks drivable.

I would've taken him home.

There was no need to walk up all the way."

he said lame.

Frank bit back a smile:

"Well, you have been busy and he wanted to get rid of the wet clothes as soon as possible.

That's all."

'and he probably didn't want to sit in a car, alone with a steaming judge, even for the few minutes the ride would take' he thought but new better than to talk it out loud.

" And it is just a 10 Minutes walk back to the estate, anyway."

he clapped his hand on his old friend's back and added:

"Now let's have a look at the truck and see if you can drive it home."

It turned out he could and a few minutes later, Milt was back at Gull's Way.

-~*""*~-

It seemed like no one missed Mark at the scene and he made a clear get away.

He walked up the hill and when he turned a corner and was out of sight, he leaned against a tree and allowed himself a sigh and a grimace of pain.

His shoulder and his side were aching but it wasn't that bad.

It simply couldn't be!

He would go up to the Gatehouse and take a hot shower.

Maybe the muscles will loosen up a bit and he'll be fine.

He held on to this hope and walked on.

Half an hour later, Mark McCormick stepped out of the shower.

He tried to grab the towel and to wrap it around himself but he failed.

A grunt escaped his mouth and he had to face the facts: He wasn't able to move his left arm and the pain wasn't going to disappear. It was getting worse.

He swallowed hard.

"Dammit!" he cursed and flinched as a loud bang on the bathroom door startled him.

"McCormick!" he heard Hardcastle ramble.

"What the hell are you doing in there?!

Trying to grow gills, or what?"

Mark rolled his eyes:

"Geez, Hardcase! Can't a man take a shower in peace around here?

Oh, wait! Don't tell me there are more morons out there who you want me to go after?

In that case I have to tell you that the fastgun trade union only allows one relentless pursuit a day.

Maybe you can ask them to come back tomorrow?"

The Judge sighed:

"Yeah, yeah. Simmer down, McCormick!" Hardcastle shouted back and he added much quieter:

"I just wanted to make sure you're ok…"

'What?"

Mark snapped back

"I can't understand your mumbling.

Just leave me alone now.

We can talk later, ok?"

There was no answer.

Mark heard the door shut behind the Judge and moaned.

Great!

Now he had managed to tick off the donkey even more.

God, Hardcase could push his buttons like no one else!

The ex-con took a step towards the mirror and looked at his shoulder.

It was swollen, oddish somehow and an enormous bruise had already formed around it.

The left side of his ribcage was getting more and more blue and black too.

He gritted his teeth and prepared himself for the pain it would force to get dressed.

A while later he was sitting on his couch, drenched in sweat again.

Oh man, did that shoulder hurt!

Instead of getting better, as he had hoped before the hot shower, it was getting worse.

At the same rate his pain increased, his panik was raising.

There was no way he could hide his injury from old Hardcase.

Sure he had taken in some blows before and the Judge alway had been leniently about that.

Once he even had brought him an ice bag and a beer after he had sent the ex-con onto the pavement pretty hard, during a gorilla-ball match.

The Judge always asked him if he was alright after Mark had been punched by some goon or by Hardcastle himself for that matter.

He always seemed to care about his sidekick but what was the Judge going to say if an injury turned out to be more serious?

What if Mark can't go after bad guys or even work at the estate for several days or weeks?

Not to mention that this could happen after he had crashed the Judge's car.

So he wracked two of the Judge's toys in only one try.

The Corvette and his Tonto…

'Make that three..'

Mark mumbled into his hand as he thought of the old truck what would have dents and scratches too.

He felt a knot forming in his stomach.

One half of the ex-con was pretty sure, the Judge was a decent and trustworthy person.

No matter how pissed off Hardcastle would be over the 'Vette, he wouldn't send Mark back for getting hurt.

That was ridiculous!

The other half of him was thinking of the older man talking about tough guys and real men.

About pulling himself out of whatever at his own bootstraps and the weakness of the young people today… and into all of that Mark unawarely mixed in the experiences he had made on his own when he was a child and he panicked even more.

He shook his head and tried to think straight but the only clear thought he could make was:

There was no other way, he would have to tell the Judge the truth and ask him for help.

After that he would surrender to Hardcastle's judgment and stand the consequences.

'Not that the last time I did that, had worked out very well for me'

he thought sarcastically.

Mark pushed that thought aside and tried to be pragmatic.

He was still sitting on the couch and he finally found a position in which he could breathe without too much trouble.

His shoulder was aching and throbbing and it seemed to get worse by the minute.

Because of that and the panic he was still trying to fight down, his heart was pounding rapidly in his chest and he was sweating.

In this condition it would be a challenge to get up and walk over to the Mainhouse without falling flat on his face.

He picked himself up and trudged carefully out of the door.

Hardcase would help!

Whatever will come afterwards, the ex-con planned to cross that bridge when he comes to it.

-~*""*~-

Hardcastle drove up his driveway and parked the old truck in front of the main house, dealing with mixed emotions.

He was pleased, that Corletto's plan to silence him had turned out to become the key to a very long sentence for the drug dealer himself.

There was no better feeling than bringing a nasty criminal to justice, that was for sure!

The kid had done well to stop Corketto's men from getting away.

Hardcastle was pleased about how quick and fearless his fastgun had reacted, when the older man had told him to go after them.

No questions, no arguments, just reaction.

That's how the retired jurist had always imagined his sidekick should be.

This one really might work out…

On the other hand, there are only a few things that could tick off the Judge more, than crooks coming to his home to bring him down.

Unfortunately, damaging his priced Corvette was one of those things…

Normally, when the Judge thought about "damaging the Corvette", he thought about a dent in the bumper , a busted taillight or a scratch and not about punching in the whole damn side!

That hadn't just been damaging the car that came close to destroying the car.

Hardcastle felt the flame of anger rising in his guts.

The outcome was worth the price but still he was a little mad about it.

Maybe it was because of the danger the kid had put himself into, by stopping the goons as he had done, too.

The jurist had been pleased, when the ex-racecar driver had followed the older mans call without hesitation but to see how willingly the young man had literally thrown himself into the way, triggered a whole bunch of feelings.

He was pleased and proud but he also was mad and worried.

If Tonto follows the Lone Rangers orders in such uncompromising manor, that means a lot of responsibility for the superior.

Despite these deep and controversy thoughts he couldn't help to hear a nasty little voice inside, when he looked into the garage where the Coyote stood, waiting to get her tires back on.

It whispered:

'Would've McCormick done the exactly same thing, if he had been driving his own beloved car instead of the Corvette?'...

The Judge shook his head and frowned.

That wasn't fair!

The kid had done all right and the 'Vette would be as good as new after Fred would've taken care of her and that was that!

Still, he wasn't planning on letting the opportunity to yank McCormick's chain pass.

After a short trip to the Gatehouse and an even shorter, therefore louder, conversation through a closed bathroom door, Hardcastle reached the den and took a seat behind his desk.

McCormick had run his big flap when the Judge had asked if he was all right.

Well, he hadn't exactly asked if the kid was all right…he more like…checked on him.

Heck, he never had been good at these kind of things.

McCormick would have to get used to that!

Looking back, Hardcastle was a bit surprised considering the kid's lip.

The jurist had expected McCormick to be more crestfallen.

Otherwise, the ex-con always tended to smart off, when he gets under pressure.

In that light his behavior fits the situation.

While the jurist was still thinking, he heard the kitchen door slam.

He knew it must've been the ex-con, because Sarah went to visit her sister and had taken a week off.

To confirm his thought he heard a:

"Judge?"

out of the kitchen.

It sounded a bit more restrained than usual, not the house shaking hollering, the young man normally used to make his entering noticeable.

"In the den!" Hardcastle shouted back and a moment later the curly haired man showed up in the doorway.

"So, you're done flooding my bathroom?" the jurist asked rhetorically.

"Ahh, yes." was the hesitating answer.

"You gonna come down here and sit, or what?" Hardcastle said in an impatient tone.

"Ahh, no." came the answer.

The older man looked perplexed at the man on top of the stairs.

Mark had taken a step into the room and was standing there with one hand resting on the railing, looking down at Hardcastle.

'Something is definitely off here!' the jurist thought and leaned back in his chair, his arms crossed in front of his chest.

He raised his eyebrows and stared questioning at the younger man.

Something with the ex-con's body language wasn't right at all.

'He couldn't be that scared, could he?'

thought Hardcastle

'First he lashed out on me like there was no tomorrow and now it is "yes" and "no" like a schoolboy in front of the principal's desk.

The next thing happening is him calling me "Sir"!'

"Judge," McCormick straightened up a bit:

"I need you to do me a favor." he finished.

"Oh? Do you now?" the Judge replied

"Yes." Mark said

'Sir' the jurist added in his mind and didn't like it one bit.

"Actually, it's two favors." the young man went on.

"Uh-huh." Hardcastle responded dryly

"I…I need to go to town and…I can't drive the Coyote, so…"

"Hold it right there, Kiddo!" the Judge interrupted him:

"Are you telling me, you want to borrow my truck?" he asked drawled.

Another 'Ahh…' came out of Mark's mouth but Hardcastle ignored that and went on:

"Because if you do want to borrow my truck, I've got to inform you that the Lone Ranger-trade union only allows one wracking a day!"

"Ahhmm…I.."

"Oh, stop stammering McCormick!" the Judge barked

"You want my car and what is the other favor?"

Hardcastle's patience was wearing thin.

Mark swallowed, then answered:

"Frank wanted to come over this evening to get the statements.

Can you call him and ask if he could come tomorrow instead?

You know, because I have to go to town and most likely wouldn't be back in time." he explained and he corrected:

"I don't want to borrow the truck, I ask you to drive me."

Hardcastle had gotten up and wandered around in the room.

He stopped his tracks with his back to Mark.

The Judge threw his hands in the air and said loudly:

"Oh hoho! Not only to call a Lieutenant from the LAPD to tell him my ex-con can't give his statement tonight because he has better things to do, I also should play the chauffeur for you?"

Now all his accumulated anger bursted out and the older man rambled on:

"Ha! Maybe it's better that way.

The last time you took one of my cars, you totalled it!

Oh, and by the way we have to have a serious talk about your stunt out there!

Not only you wracked the car, you could've hurt yourself and…"

'I DID!?" came the even louder interruption from the younger man and it took Hardcastle by surprise.

He shut his mouth immediately and spun around.

Now he took a step towards his young charge:

"You, what?" the jurist asked suspiciously.

The answer came quietly and with eyes fixed to the floor:

"I did hurt myself…" Mark admitted

"That's why I need you to drive me to town, ok?

I think I need to see a doctor."

There!

He'd said it!

Now that it was out, Mark couldn't keep his face straight.

He grimaced in pain, took a step back and leaned against the doorframe with an exhale.

In a moment Hardcastle was standing in front of him, one hand resting gently on his right shoulder and talking in a soft, deep tone:

"Where are you hurt, Kiddo?"

"My shoulder" Mark answered faintly and the Judge pulled back his hand, like he had touched a stove hotplait.

"No, no." the ex-con chuckled softly.

"The other one."

The Judge nodded:

"Lemme see that." he didn't bother to wait until Mark was moving into action but instead just started to open the first buttons of the button down shirt the ex-con wore and pulled it gently aside to get a look at the spectacular bruised and swollen shoulder.

Mark just stood there and let him do that.

Hardcastle made a face and winced in sympathy:

"Oh, dammit Kiddo!

You should've said something earlier!?

Anywhere else?" the older man wanted to know.

"My side. My ribs are burning and there is a sharp pain when I breathe in too deep."

"I see. But…

You aren't bleeding or something else, are you?"

with these words the jurist made a step back and looked Mark down and up again.

"Define or something else." Mark retorted

"Don't you gimme that lip of yours McCormick!

This is serious!" the older man answered angrily.

"Tell me about it…" came out of Mark's mouth before he could help himself.

"OK, son. Let's go." was the Judge's short and simple reply and he gently led Mark to the front door.

The ex-con was incredibly relieved that the Judge was willing to help him out but still his heart was pounding so hard, he could hear his own blood rushing in his ears.

Hardcastle hesitated when they reached the old truck.

"Wait a sec, kid." he said and turned to the garage.

When he came back he carried a wooden box.

He turned it upside down and placed it on the floor right in front of the open passenger side.

Mark snorted quietly but on his inside he was thankful and climbed carefully into the truck.

-~*""*~-

The Judge fired up the engine and the younger man closed his eyes for a moment and leaned his head back but he wasn't able to enjoy his rest for too long.

Even before they reached the end of the driveway, Hardcastle began to rant and rave at his young charge again.

Mark only paid slight attention to that.

His head was still spinning and he wasn't able to cope with the whole situation.

He had a hunch that he was running on autopilot right now.

Mark knew, he had messed up but that was no news to him after all.

He had told the Judge, that he needed help and the Judge hadn't refused.

That was a good sign, wasn't it?

The old guy was driving him to the ER and he still was shouting at him.

That was ok, all part of the game.

He was going to make it through this!

"Hey! You're with me?"

The Judge's gruff voice intruded his thoughts.

"Hu? Yeah, yeah. I hear you. Heck, the rest of Malibu can hear you, Hardcase!" he snapped back, more out of habit.

"Then give me an answer, McCormick!

I asked you, why the hell you didn't say something earlier?

Why did you lie to me?"

"Judge, I didn't lie to you…"

"Oh, yes you did!?

You pretended to be ok when I came there!

That's lying, McCormick!?" the jurist shouted but knew damn well, that he never had asked the kid if everything was okay, he'd just barked at him…

Pushing that aside he rambled on:

"And instead of letting me drive you, you took off on your own and wandered all over creation!"

"Judge," Mark tried again:

"I wasn't wandering all over creation as you put it, that had only been a ten minutes walk up the street and I didn't know I was hurt that much.

Didn't feel that bad at that time." he added morosely.

The ex-con knew, the Judge just wanted to hear him talking, to make sure he didn't pass out on him.

So he let the older man grouch on and he replied from time to time.

Just rolling with the punches…

After a while they came closer to the hospital and the ex-con braced himself for the next act.

Mark knew the drill.

He had practiced it several times before.

Sure, that had been years before when he was a child but he had been well trained in these days and as all the memories kicked in and he reacted automatically.

'Don't think too much, just keep going!' he told himself.

They reached their goal and Mark was startled when he noticed Hardcastle was about to enter the grounds of the hospital.

"Uh, Judge… that's okay, you can just drop me off here. I can walk over there." he said uncertainly.

The jurist shot him a quizzical look:

"Don't be stupid, McCormick! I can drive much closer to the entrance."

Mark answered nervously:

"But there are cameras all over the place, you know?"

The Judge's frown deepened:

"So? You're afraid our shirts don't match, or what?"

he shook his head and drove on.

'Maybe the kid hit his head in the accident' he thought with growing concern.

Mark clenched his jaw and didn't answer.

His panic came back full force.

That wasn't right but okay, sometimes little things can change without breaking the whole pattern.

'Just a little irritation, that's all' he assured himself.

The older man pulled the truck into a parking lot and climbed out.

Mark's irritation grew as Hardcastle again set the box in place and helped the younger man out of the vehicle.

"All right, thanks." the ex-con said

"I…Uh… I can manage from here. You just go ahead." he waved vaguely with his hand:

"I'm sure it will be a while.

I will be much better, after they'll have patched me and I got some money on me, I'll take the bus back.

Thanks again." and with this words he turned and trudged in the direction of the entrance.

Hardcastle watched him if he had grown a second head.

He opened his mouth to ask McCormick what he was talking about but decided to simply shut it again.

He was in a loss of words…

What was wrong with the kid?

Suddenly the older man had a flash of hit:

Somehow McCormick seemed to be embarrassed by the Judge's presence.

Either it was because someone could see the younger man accompanied by him or he didn't want Hardcastle to see him in this condition.

The jurist wasn't quite sure about that, so he decided to take a step back and to just stay in the observer's position for now.

For a short moment he even considered to do what McCormick obviously wanted him to do.

Not driving home of course, there was no way he would let the kid take the bus home and walk the rest of the way when he was hurt!

But maybe he should wait for him in the car?

'Nonsense!' he told himself.

Though the ex-con didn't seemed to be hurt that badly but he was so clear out of character that Hardcastle didn't have the heart to leave him all alone.

-~*""*~-

All the way inside and towards the registration desk Mark had taken glances out of the corner of his eyes and every time he had seen Hardcase following him.

Now he had reached the desk, the jurist was still there.

Why was he still there?

Mark had no clue.

That was kind of wrong!

The older man should've dropped him off and scooted.

That's how things were supposed to be.

Mark had no idea how to deal with this situation.

Maybe the Judge wanted to hear for himself what was wrong with McCormick's shoulder so he would be able to decide what comes next?

Or maybe the old coot just wanted to step out of his fancy estate to see how the other half was treated?

Well, in that case Mark wouldn't give him the satisfaction to wine about that.

Sure he had to ask him for help to get here and to explain to the police why he wasn't available this evening, but he would be damned if he gave up his dignity!

It was like it was.

He was an ex-con without much money and he would pay for the treatment as much as he could and there was no shame in that!

Mark tried to straighten up as good as he could, described his injury to the nurse when she asked him about it, took the printed form one handed and marched over to the waiting area.

-~*""*~-

Hardcastle followed in astonish confusion.

McCormick obviously had decided to ignore him and to handle things on his own.

That was okay with him for now.

Which grown up man wanted to be taken by his hand, especially by his parole-officer, to handle personal needs?

Of course the jurist had taken it for granted to help Mark out but for some reason the younger man didn't seem to feel the same.

That was… interesting.

Annoyingly but interesting.

He watched McCormick filling the form and managed to look uninvolved.

He really had to keep himself from interfering when he watched the injured man trying to balance the clipboard on his knees and to write while avoiding to bend down too much and only able to use one arm.

When the clipboard finally clattered to the ground the jurist sighed.

He picked it up and snatched the pen out of the not any less annoyed looking man's hand.

"That's it McCormick! Gimme that!" he snapped

"Look, I respect that you want to do things on your own, but that's plain stupid.

You just sit here, I'll take care of the paperwork!

And I'm going to call Frank."

his tone tolerated no dissent and he just turned and marched back to the nurses desk.

Mark didn't argue.

He didn't feel the need to fight with the Judge in front of all those people in the packed waiting room.

Should the donkey go ahead and bring the form to the nurse, he had been nearly done with it, anyway.

There would be plenty of time on their way back to let the old guy have it.

For the moment his shoulder and his side were just aching way too much.

Hardcastle could understand that a parolee could get a little testy in the independence-department but that was just ridiculous!

He walked out of the waiting area, around the corner, towards the nurse's desk when he glanced down at the form and froze in his tracks.

He shot a look over his shoulder to make sure he was out of McCormick's sight, then he risked a closer look at the clipboard in his hands.

It hit him like the truck must've hit McCormick.

He blinked and felt incredibly stupid for not getting it earlier.

How would an ex-con without noteworthy reserves pay for medical treatment?

He would go to the ER and ask for free medication or maybe he would offer the little money he owns?

Hardcastle had no clue how this usually worked he had had the good fortune to never be placed into this unpleasant situation.

No wonder that the kid had tried to get rid of him!

Obviously he didn't want to ask the Judge for money.

Hell, he didn't want him to know about his injury at all.

He shook his head in disbelief.

Such a bone headed idiot!

Didn't McCormick know by now that Milton would always try to help him?

Especially when he gets hurt on a mission the Judge had sent him to in the first place!

All that fuzz about a bill from the hospital?

Unbelievable!

He shook his head again, walked over to the desk and added the forms where it was necessary.

Then he went over to the payphones and called Frank.

Hardcastle was grateful as he heard the true concern in his old friend's voice when he told him he was at the hospital.

He was even more grateful as he noticed the concern was still there when he told him it wasn't because of him but because of Mark.

A smile began to tuck at his lips when he heard the Lieutenant cursing about McCormick not telling him when they met at the street right after the accident.

Looks like the kid was going to get the lecture twice.

-~*""*~-

When Hardcastle came back to the waiting area, Mark was still sitting stiffly on the chair with his left arm clenched tightly to his side.

The older man gently squeezed the injured man's right shoulder, when he sat down next to him.

"How are you doing, Kiddo?" he asked quietly.

"Being better. But that's okay."

Mark answered through gritted teeth.

The jurist frowned worriedly when he took in his friend's clenched jaws, the thin layer of sweat on his forehead and the white knuckles.

To distract him and maybe to lighten the mood a bit the Judge said:

"You haven't filled the forms completely, so I added the missing informations."

McCormick looked even more alarmed so the older man hurried to carry on:

"I added my Name and address because… you know…" he gestured vaguely in Marks direktion:

"the whole thing is kind of an occupational accident, right?" he avoided Marks side glance at him and was busy to sound incidentally and to look innocent.

Slowly McCormick began to relax a bit but still the pain had a firm grip on him.

"Oh, and I called Frank." Hardcastle went on

"Don't worry, he'll be over tomorrow.

No sweat."

The younger man nodded.

The jaws loosened up some but the knuckles stayed white.

For the rest of the time they waited in silence.

They waited until both men were absolutely sure they couldn't stand it just one minute longer and then they waited some more.

At the time when Mark was about ready to pass out, he was called through to next free cubical.

-~*""*~-

A middle aged nurse came and helped Mark to get his shirt off and Hardcastle tried hard not to hiss too loud when the young man's upper body was bare and the bright neon light showed the damage to the whole extent.

The nurse asked some questions, took some notes and was gone again.

Only a few minutes later a young man in scrubs walked in and greeted happily with eyes fixed on the clipboard in his hands:

"Hey Skid! It's nice to see you again! What brings you here today?"

Then he looked at Mark and added:

"Whaow, Dude! That looks…colorful!

Let's have a closer look.

Hurts, ha?"

"You bet!

Hi Sam, good to see you." answered McCormick through still gritted teeth.

The young man examined Mark carefully and explained:

"Ok, Skid. From the first look I can tell that your shoulder is dislocated, to check if there is anything broken too, we'll have to take some x-rays.

To get the joint back into place, you will need a short anesthesia to make your muscles relax and to spare you the pain. You understood everything so far?"

Mark nodded and the other man kept on:

"Fine!

Now we are going to connect you to an IV and we'll start with reducing the joint.

And we'll take the x-rays afterwards because we'll have to stretch your arm out to get a closer look at your ribs.

Oh, and by the way, how did the other wound heal up? I really did my best to let the scar look good, you know?

Can I take a look?"

McCormick lifted his right arm to show the inner side of his right forearm and the Judge could see a fine, light red line about the length of his index finger, right next to the elbow.

"Looks good!?" the young doctor cheered.

The energetic young doctor started his work.

To distract his patient he kept the smalltalk going:

"Are you still working for that crazy Judge?"

"Yes, he does!" was Hardcastles dry response and Mark rolled his eyes, while the doctor looked startled.

He had completely overlooked the older man in the corner of the small room but if his presence irritated him, he didn't let it show on his face.

Hardcastle himself choose to stay in the background, he didn't want to be in the way.

Of course, he was curious about how the two young people got to know each other and also about the scar on McCormick's arm but he decided that could wait until the kid was feeling better.

The jurist could keep himself from asking but he couldn't keep himself from thinking.

He had to admit, that he was miffed about the fact he hadn't noticed the red line before.

Jet another thought creeped into his mind:

What if the negative attempt from today hadn't been McCormick's first try to hide an injury from him?

Considering the still quite fresh looking scar, his sidekick's last attempt hadn't been unsuccessful at all.

When the ex-con could keep things from him that way, what else could or would he hide?

Trust was a tricky thing.

The Judge had promised to himself that none of the ex-cons would be able to betray him like J. J. Beal managed once.

He had planned to keep a very close eye on McCormick when he brought him to his house.

Somehow the young man had managed to get under the Judge's skin quickly and he had made the older man trust him with a lot of things.

Somehow they had grown into being friends.

This whole thing here had awakened a suspicion in Hardcastle that he thought he had left behind him and it showed that there still were lots of things he didn't know or understand about the kid.

No, that thinking about betray and lying wasn't fair!

McCormick was a good kid and he had proofed himself being a reliable and trustworthy friend.

He had been a great Tonto and there must be some reason for him acting like he did and the Judge was planning to find out what was behind this and he…

Hardcastle thoughts were interrupted by the doctor's loud and annoyingly happy voice:

"Ok, Skid! You're ready?"

"How long do I have to stay here after the anesthesia?" Mark asked

"Oh, not that long. It's not like you're gonna sleep really. It's more like a kind of dozing off.

You won't remember much after the procedure.

We take the x-rays and we make sure there are no internal bleedings or anything.

If the Judge here is willing to look after you, you can go when the medication has worn off a bit and you make sense again."

"Oh great!" Hardcastle sighed

"In that case, they will have to keep you here for life, McCormick!"

The doctor laughed aloud and heartily:

"I like that guy, Skid!"

Mark made a face and said:

"Judge? Seriously.

You'll bring me back to the estate after the treatment, right?"

"What kind of a silly question is that, McCormick?!" the jurist barked

"Of course I'm going to look after you!

Besides, Frank would have my head if I would just let you wander around on your own and you'd end up drowning in the pool or something.

He hasn't got your statement, yet!"

What had been supposed to be a joke came out a bit flat and coused a quick flash of sadness on the injured man's face.

Hardcastle noticed that and added quickly:

"Hey. Don't worry, ok McCormick?

I'll talk to the doctor after he is done with the treatment and then I'll take you home right away."

He leaned forward and padded him awkwardly on the right shoulder.

Then he leaned back and nodded to himself.

Yeah, he'd handled that good…or at least okay.

-~*" *~-

The treatment took place quickly.

After drugging up McCormick, the young doctor reduced the joint.

With a twist and a strong jerk, accompanied by a pity full, guttural sound from Mark and a nasty snapping sound which made the hair in the Judge's neck stand on end, the shoulder got back into place.

A nurse took the ex-con with her to get the x-rays done and again the Judge sat down to wait.

The jurist's mind still raced, trying to solve the riddle named Mark McCormick.

In the past weeks he'd already learned a lot about his young charge but this situation was new.

The young man seemed to be thrown back somehow.

One of the kid's best attributes was that he was able and willing to face the inevitable.

Sure he tried to wiggle himself out of uncomfortable situations and he often was looking for shortcuts but there was no doubt about that: when the chips are down, McCormick faced every situation that had to be dealt with.

Mostly he does it with a note of humor and a healthy dose of his smart mouth but the Judge had seen a serious and unequivocally clear approche too.

He remembered a short and seriously conversation between the two of them short after the Cadillac-case:

The Judge had made one of his usual remarks about Sarah spoiling the kid by baking cookies for him and about how all the fuzzing had gotten him into trouble in the first place.

He remembered himself saying something about "the joyride, McCormick had had as a kid" and that that "hadn't helped him any" or something likewise ignorantly.

The younger man had asked the Judge for a private conversation after that.

During this conversation Mark had gotten uncharacteristically serious.

He hadn't got up from his chair but he leaned forward and looked right into the Judge's eyes when he'd said:

"Look, Judge.

I've learned something very private about you and I respect that you prefer to keep this to yourself.

Now I'm asking you for the same respect.

There had been things in my childhood, wich are not in your files and maybe one day I'll be ready to let you know about them but for now I'm not.

For now, I want you to stop telling me about myself being spoiled rotten as a child.

I ask you, whenever it comes to your mind, to tell me what a joyride my childhood had been:

Don't. Tell. Me.

Honestly, please Judge.

Just, don't."

Taken by surprise but recognizing the sincerity of these words, the Judge had stuck his hand out to the, in the meantime upright standing, McCormick to shake it, holding eye-contact the whole time while he'd simply said:

"Okay, Mark.

I'll do that."

The two pair of locked, blue eyes had let go of each other and the jurist had padded the younger man's upper arm when they'd departed.

His own awkward version of 'I'm sorry, kiddo'.

The Kid had been very respectful when he'd learned about the Judge's son and Hardcastle would be damned if he wouldn't do the exactly same thing for the young man and he never mentioned the joy-ride-thing again.

Now in this whole strange situation, especially after the kid sounding so much like a frightened boy while asking the Judge for bringing him home afterwards, the thoughts about McCormick's childhood came back to Hardcastle's mind.

Why had the ex-con been so eager to hide his injury from the Judge?

Just because of the bill?

Why didn't he trust the Judge to help him out?

Why on earth had he been so surprised? about the Judge staying with him here?

And why the heck had the kid been so convinced and frightened of being simply left here on his own but had tried to get rid of him at the same time?

The whole thing didn't make any sense to the Judge!

'But now: First things first!'

he thought.

McCormick needed him and he didn't plan on letting the kid down!

-~*""*~-

Mark opened his eyes and blinked into the early morning sun, falling through the windows.

For a short moment he was konfused:

Where was he?

This wasn't the Gatehouse and neither a hospital room.

Then his memories flooded back into his brain:

He was in a guestroom in the Mainhouse.

Hardcastle had insisted on him staying here when he had brought him here after their trip to the hospital yesterday.

Their trip…

Indeed, the Judge had been there with him all along and he had taken him back to Gull's Way afterwards.

That still felt kinda wrong but, the ex-con had to admit that, it also felt good.

Somehow…secure.

He smiled slightly by this thought.

Dr. Sam Morgan had been on duty when Mark came there.

The young doctor had explained the following treatment and…after that Mark's memories were a bit fuzzy.

He remembered that Sam had cleared him after the nurse had put a sling on him, that held his left arm close to his body, not allowing any movement of the injured shoulder.

The doctor also had told him, one of his ribs was cracked.

He vaguely remembered the ride home.

It had been unusual quiet, because of the lack of Hardcase's timpani.

It also had been unusual short, which made him presume he had dozen off a few times.

Mark also remembered coming back to the estate.

Hardcase had used that ridiculous box again to help him out of the truck.

To the ex-con that had been so funny that he hadn't been able to stop giggling for a while.

The Judge hadn't shown much of a reaction, he'd just kept pushing the younger man gently into the house and upstairs to one of the guestrooms.

There he'd told Mark to sit down in a chair and wait until the older man had prepared the bed.

After that, only some images were left in his brain.

The Judge, helping him out of his clothes.

The pillow, so soft and freshly smelling under his head.

A man in a black, robe glaring down at him.

The clattering sound of a closing lattice door.

A racecar and the urgent feeling to flee with it but from what he couldn't tell.

His mom, smiling at him.

He remembered, someone (Hardcase?) placing gently a pillow under his elbow and tugging a blanket around him. So warm…

And then:

Steve, oh god, there had been Steve.

So close, shouting at him, coming for him to beat the living daylight out of his misguided nephew.

Mark couldn't hide. There was no place to go, no help, no shelter at all.

All he could've done was closing his eyes, holding his arms (no just one arm) protectively over his head and waiting for the world to go black.

And between all this crazy scenes:

The Judge, over and over again. Why?

Now he felt much better.

Mark sighed and got up slowly.

Today, he expected the hammer to fall…

-~*""*~-

Judge Milton C. Hardcastle stood in his kitchen, preparing breakfast, when Mark McCormick entered the room.

Obviously the young man had managed to shower and dress himself, now he stood there fiddling with the sling around his arm and body.

"Morning, Judge." he greeted

"Morning, kid." answered the jurist and helped Mark with his sling.

After he'd adjusted it properly he looked down at the kid's shoes and noticed that they were untied, so he dropped to one knee and started to tie them.

Mark balked a bit but covered it quickly with a smirke, looked down at the kneeling Judge in front of him and said:

"Geez, Hardcase! Don't you think you should've asked me out for dinner, first? You didn't even bring flowers!"

The Judge slapped him on the ankle, got up again with a grunt and with a sweet smile and a shrug he replied:

"Well, I did make you breakfast, so what do you want from me?!"

Both men grinned and for a moment everything felt almost normal but the lightened mood, after the banter and the shared joke, was short lived.

Quick Mark's expression sobered again and the frown appeared back on Hardcastle's face, as the two men sat down at the already setted breakfast table.

Mark looked at the eggs on his plate.

Scrambled.

That would be no problem.

His gaze became a bit uneasy as his eyes shifted between the toast, the knife and the butter.

He blinked surprised when Hardcastle snatched the toast off Marks plate and replaced it with his own which he had already buttered.

The older man smiled wryly and said:

"Just say if you want another one."

"Thanks, Judge." answered Mark and noticed a warm feeling inside.

It had been a very, very long time since someone had treated him like that.

Hardcase had taken him to the hospital and had stayed there with him.

He had looked after him when he came back here, to stay in the main house and even if Mark couldn't remember everything properly he was quite sure that the Judge had been in his room several times during the night.

The old guy really made sure, Mark was safe and got everything he needed.

Strange, unfamiliar but…nice.

No.

Mark hesitated.

'Nice' wasn't the right word.

And while his search for the precisely description came to a sudden end, his fork stopped midway on it's way to his mouth:

'Home…' he thought

It almost felt like a real home!

-~*""*~-

Hardcastle yawned and rubbed his face when he entered the kitchen to prepare breakfast.

The night had been short and he took that for an excuse to skip his basketball training today.

It wouldn't be fun without the kid, anyway.

If he liked to admit it or not, he really had gotten used to the company of the ex-con in his custody.

It wasn't only his strong sense of responsibility for the man in his judicial stay, it was a heartfelt concern that made him care for McCormick.

He really liked the kid and he liked to believe that this one has a very good chance to come around and to get his life back on track.

Yesterday, after the visit to the hospital, the kid had been pretty out of it.

After chasing Corletto's goons down, the accident and acting goofy all afternoon, the ex-con had been finally got drugged up for the treatment and as a result of all of that, Hardcastle had felt the need of spending most of the night keeping an eye on his fastgun.

The younger man's sleep had been haunted by bad dreams and something that seemed to be flashbacks.

Hardcastle remembered with horror when he'd come into the room and Mark had looked at him like he was the devil in person.

The young man had tried to crawl away from him and as he'd reached the wall at the end of the bed, he'd curled up as tight as his injuries had allowed it and had pulled his good arm over his head, trying to protect himself from whatever he'd expected to come over him.

It had been disturbing and heart wrenching to see the kid like that and the jurist had feared for Mark to hurt himself even more, so he'd stuck out his hands, palms out, and retreated back to the door.

Mark had calmed down quite quickly again and slept through the rest of the night.

That had been the great final of the kid's odd behavior all day long.

The Judge had been very relieved when McCormick had entered the kitchen and did look mostly like himself.

Even his smart mouth worked as usual.

Nevertheless, the tense atmosphere carried on and after a while both men started to talk at the same time:

Hardcastle said: "You're feeling better today?"

and Mark said: "No Basketball today?"

Both men cringed and answered, again together:

Hardcastle: "No, 'cause the night'd been kinda short."

McCormick: "Yes, but the night had been kinda long."

Each man smiled slightly.

They kept on eating and the silence became thicker and thicker again.

Some minutes later both of them started a new try and ended up talking at the same time again:

Hardcastle pointed to the pill next to McCormick's plate and said: "You're supposed to take that Pill with your breakfast."

and Mark pointed at the same Pill and said:

"Thanks for getting my prescription filled."

Both men shut their mouths, looked at each other and a liberating laugh resounded through the kitchen.

The Judge managed to sober first, clapped his hands together and chuckled:

"Ok, McCormick. We have to stop that and talk things over.

Finish your breakfast, take your pill and meet me in the den." he ordered.

Still grinning, he put his plate into the sink and headed for the den.

Mark followed him after a few moments.

-~*""*~-

The Judge waited behind his massive desk until McCormick had settled down stiffly in one of the chairs opposite of him.

Before he began to speak he looked into the younger man's eyes to prevent a comeback of their awkward chorus.

Then he started:

"Well, how are you feeling?"

Mark shrugged half sided:

"Much better. To be honest, the cracked rib is worse than the shoulder but as long as I move carefully, everything's quite alright. Bending down to weed the garden could be a bit of a problem the next time, though." he added with an apologetically smile.

The jurist waved him off:

"Ah, don't worry about that kid. The weeds aren't going anywhere, they'll still be in their place, waiting for you, when you're better."

the older man said with a sweet smile.

McCormick snorted but remained silent, waiting for the Judge to work his way all through to the main point of this conversation.

"You'd been pretty thrown off, yesterday." the older man went on.

The lack of specifications didn't fool the ex-con.

He knew exactly what the Judge ment by that.

Nevertheless, Mark tried to avoid explaining why he'd acted like he did after the accident just a little while longer, so he replied:

"Yeah, I only remember bits and pieces of the treatment and everything that followed, until this morning.

Sam had surely given me the good stuff!

I truly hope, I haven't done anything stupid and traded the Coyote against that old piece of iron wich you call a truck?!"

The grin on his lips froze immediately as he realized what he'd just said.

He had made it straight to one of the sore points.

To the young man's surprise, the Judge ignored the last comment and stuck to the mentioning of the young doctor who'd been on duty the day before.

"Sam, ha?" he said casually

"You two knew each other. He said that he had treated you before. Wanna tell me when and why?"

Mark knew an order when he heard one so he gave in to the unavoidable:

"Yes, we've met before.

It was a few weeks ago.

I've managed to rip my arm open and I couldn't stop the bleeding properly, so I decided to go to the ER to get some stitches.

We talked about cars and Sam recognized me from my racing days.

That's all.

No big deal." Mark told his knees.

Hardcastle's expression, if Mark would have seen it, gave nothing away.

He still glared at the young man in front of him.

" And how exactly did you manage to rip your arm open?" the jurist carried on with his inquisition

"I…ahm...I cut myself on a piece of glass." Mark stammered

The older man wasn't going to let it go:

"So you broke a glass and while picking up the pieces you did cut yourself at the inside of your elbow, or what?" he barked

Mark still preferred talking to his own knees:

"It wasn't a glass, it was a window."

"So you broke a window? Where?" Hardcastle asked

"Around here." the ex-con replied and waved vaigly at their surroundings.

"You broke a window here? How come I don't know about that, and how'd you cut yourself?" the Judge persisted to know.

"Oh, you know about it.

Actually, you told me to.

I...kinda jumped through it…and then I landed on the floor in the shattered pieces.

That's when I must've cut my arm." Mark shrugged

Hardcastle's mind was racing and it didn't take him long to remember the event.

Sarah got hold hostage by J. J. Beal and Mark and the Judge had been trying to surprise the goons and to rescue the housekeeper before J. J. could hurt her.

Hardcastle himself had instructed McCormick to break through the window at the same time the jurist kicked the door down.

Right after his fastgun had been crushing through the window, Milt had sent him after Beal who tried to get away in the Judge's Vette.

…Again!

He remembered the end of the chase, the big satisfaction he had felt as he told the punk that nobody would kick him twice, the puls bet he'd lost and of course, the damage the seewater had done to his car.

What he didn't remember at any time, was a possible injury of Mark.

His gaze had been wandering absently to a spot on the carpet near the window and he remembered Sarah on her knees the next day, scrubbing at a stain in the carpet.

'Blood is always so hard to get out…' she'd said and both thought it had been from when one of the goons had got clobbered.

No one thought of McCormick and his window-stunt.

And again, Hardcastle had to admit, that he had sent the kid after some bad guy and didn't bother with asking him if he was okay, afterwards.

He'd been so caught up between his concern for Sarah, his rage at Beal and later his victory, that he had completely forgotten about his sidekick.

Dammit!?

-~*""*~-

When Hardcastle's gaze fell back on McCormick, the young man had finally lifted his eyes and looked at the older man.

Obviously, the jurist's journey through remembering, disbelief, rage and regret, had been written all over his face and it was also clear that McCormick didn't know what to do with it.

So the Judge said:

"No big deal, ha?

Look kiddo, I don't know what gave you the impression that it is necessary to hide injuries from me that need medical treatment.

And, to be honest, I'm shocked to find out you feel the need to go behind my back instead of asking me for help.

I really thought we were getting along good."

"Ah, Judge…look…" Mark began but was interrupted by the older man:

"Shut up McCormick and lemme finish that, will ya?!" he growled

"I am not very fond of your whining about a broken nail just to get out of work.

And it is going on my nerves immensely, when you try to soften me up just because of a little shove during a game of one-on-one but I am also not very fond of the idea of you getting hurt in one of our cases.

I don't want you to get hurt and of you do, I want you to tell me.

We're in this together, you know?

There's no sense in dealing with the consequences all on your own.

I'm here for you, you got that?"

"Yes." was the quiet answer

"And would you please stop giving me that inaudible SIR of yours, will ya?!" the jurist hollered and then added quieter:

"What was it with that 'Just drop me off here, Judge'-nonsense, anyway?"

Mark shifted a bit nervously.

"Well, that was…I was kinda running on autopilot at that time.

I wasn't thinking clearly.

You know, the chase, the crash, the adrenalin and all that. I felt so kissed by a train, that I lost it a bit! Sort of…" he said lamely.

"Uh-huh." retorted the Judge.

"Autopilot, ha?

Well, that indicates that there had been written a program for this particular situation somewhen in the past, right?"

Mark sighed and looked at his knees again.

"Could be." he answered quietly

"It's okay with me if you don't want to talk about it, kid." the older man said

"But if it is something that will keep you from letting me help you in the future, it might be better to talk it out, don't ya think?"

"Could be." Mark answered again

The Judge said nothing, he knew better than to push the young man now, so he just waited patiently for the ex-con to go on.

Finally, with a sigh McCormick said:

"I don't want to go into all the details, Judge.

It is just…

You know I came to live with my aunt and uncle for a while, when I was a kid.

Let's just say that everything hadn't been hunky-dory at that time.

My uncle had every right to be mad at me and it had been hard for him to get a grip.

Sometimes his anger for me carried him a bit further than he had planned and then we had to involve strangers into our private business.

Steve had established some dos and don'ts for that case.

The first rule was: Take care of your own business!

Which meant, you only search for help when it is absolutely unavoidable.

The second rule was: Protect the family!

Which meant, don't bring any problems home.

Bills were big problems these days.

Everytime I needed help, in form of medical attention, I would never have told my name.

Go in, get the treatment you need, take off.

Quite simple.

Yesterday, when I saw the damage of the Vette and thought about the hospital bill and about getting useless to you for the time healing up would take, I…I panicked and the well studied pattern just kicked in, I guess.

I'm sorry, Judge, I really am."

-~*""*~-

Judge Hardcastle listened carefully to McCormick's words.

Years of experience in hearing statements came in very handy in such moments but it was different when he'd heard such stories in his court room, with his robe on and all, or if he heard them here, in the privacy of his own den, not from a stranger but from a man he liked to call his friend.

He knew, this was an important and at the same time very sensitive information so he concentrated hard to miss no word, spoken or unspoken.

He listened to the unemotionally report of the past events and he felt a pang in his heart when he got a clear and close look at the old scars on Marks soul.

'my uncle had every right to be mad at me' echoed in Milt's head.

What crime could the child have committed, to feel like he deserved to be treated like that?

Aloud he asked:

"When you say 'private business' you mean he beat you up?"

To the Judge's surprise the ex-con answered without hesitation but his tone was still disturbingly distant:

"Yes, sometimes he did but it wasn't like he'd beat me up hospital rig every week.

More like, he slapped me and I tumbled down the stairs, or I fell down and hit my head somewhere."

"Oh, I see." said the jurist

"He didn't hit you, you ran into his fist, ha?" he had more and more difficult to keep his temper under control.

McCormick's head shot up and he looked at Hardcastle when he said:

"I know how this sounds but I assure you, he had his reasons and I had my responsibilities.

Don't judge!

You don't know how it had been back then."

"Yeah." growled the Judge

"And I don't think you're gonna fill me in, right?"

Mark smiled sadly and answered:

"No, Judge. I don't."

Hardcastle accepted that with a:

"Hmm!"

And he went on:

"You said his first rule had been.

So, you had some rules of your own then?"

Mark snorted and said:

"Of course!

My first rule had been to stay out of my uncle's sight when he was drunk!?", followed by a laugh without humor.

"That made sense." retorted the Judge dryly

"See? And if I had to break my own rule, I made damn sure to stuck to his!"

"How old have you been when you moved in with your aunt and uncle?" Hardcastle wanted to know

"I was ten, going on eleven."

"This is a very young age for such strict rules." the older man tried to keep the conversation going

Mark shrugged:

"There hadn't been much more of them. Most of the time I had my peace."

"Doesn't sound very peaceful to me…" meant the Judge and he could tell from the kid's body language that this glimpse at McCormick's past was all the Judge would get today.

So he let the young man off the hook gently and nodded slowly before he lifted his head and looked directly into McCormick's eyes.

He still shuddered inwardly by the picture of Mark, trying to protect himself with his bare hands against an imaginary uncle.

'our private business, my foot!?'

he thought with rage.

To calm down he took a deep breath before he started to talk:

"This is probably not what you wanna hear from me but:

I'm sorry, kiddo!

I'm sorry you had to live through all this but I guess there is nothing we could do about it now.

Let's just make some things clear for the future, ok?

I'm not going to walk away on my responsibility.

That means I'm not going to throw you out of your home just because you can't mow the lawn for a couple of weeks.

Once again, kid:

You get hurt, you tell me!

No reason to hide it, okay?

You need to see a doctor, I'll take you there.

Got it?"

Mark smiled slightly, glad this inquisition was over:

"I got it.

If I need someone to tie my laces…"

The Judge grinned at him:

"I'm your man!"

-~*Ende*~-

A following story is in progress...