Disclaimer: These characters are not mine and I make no profit from them.

Rated: K+

Author's Note: More follow-through to the episode 'If You Could See What I See'. It comes after Delirious, Phantasmagoria, and Time After Time, and before Cheri's Words.

Thanks SusanZ, Owl, and Cheri, for beta-duties.

Chairs

By L. M. Lewis

". . . one for solitude, two for friendship, and three for society."

Henry David Thoreau

It didn't seem to matter what question he asked, the answer was invariably 'six weeks.' Okay, the orthopedist had said 'eight' when he'd asked about stick shift—that was on account of the splint on his wrist. But six was the apparent norm for resuming most activities.

He always asked when Hardcastle wasn't around. He kept hoping the answers might change; they never did. He hadn't yet phrased it the way he really meant it—'How soon can I get back to being Tonto?'—that would have undoubtedly gotten him a session with a shrink. But it was the real question.

He'd lost a couple of days between the shooting and waking up in the hospital, and he still wasn't quite over the fever. There was one of those calendars up on the wall in the hospital room—supposed to help him keep track of otherwise unidentifiable days—and there was no question, it was almost the middle of January.

Six weeks. Maybe eight.

And his parole would be up in just nine more.

He fidgeted, tried to find a comfortable position on the bed. They hadn't talked about that. He'd assumed that they might just go on with whatever they happened to be working on at the time. But that was before he'd been shot and thrown into a ravine. A month or two of forced hiatus would leave an awkward gap of just one week.

And it was possible that with a few weeks to put his feet up, Hardcastle might figure out that being a retired judge wasn't such a bad thing. It did seem as though he'd been dipping into the files a little less frequently the past few months.

Or, even more likely and worrisome, he might start taking that 'Lone Ranger' title seriously. Six weeks, or eight, without Tonto to ride shotgun—that would be plenty of time for the judge to see just how small a role his sidekick played in the operation.

Look at this last time. Hardcastle wouldn't have fallen for a stupid trick like that, gone wandering out of the party, got himself shot. Everything else in the case the judge had pretty much handled himself.He'd even trumped Mark's scoop on the offshore bank accounts.

He fidgeted again, and thought about Palm Springs, the month before. Maybe he hadn't stopped the assassin who'd been aiming for Hardcastle, but he'd at least slowed him down until the cavalry could arrive. He figured the judge would go right on with business as usual, but with no one to watch his back, there could be irreversible consequences. And that seemed the most likely possibility of all.

He frowned. He concluded that there was no comfortable position in this bed.

00000

Hardcastle, newspaper and magazine tucked under one arm, stepped off the elevator and turned right past the now-familiar nurse's station. It was there that he encountered Terri, the day nurse who had been taking care of McCormick the past two mornings. She gave him a look and then cast another one up at the clock, where the hands were poised at a quarter of eleven.

Well, he had jumped the gun on visiting hours by a little bit, as usual, but he'd quickly concluded that the rules were really just there to be invoked when needed. They'd even let him stay the whole night back at the beginning, and it wasn't like he was tiring the kid out—

"'Morning, Terri." He tried for his most ingratiating smile. He didn't think they'd send him back down to the lobby to start over again, but it never hurt to be nice.

The woman had one eyebrow raised, ever so slightly, and had nodded just a fraction at one of her colleagues, who'd flashed a knowing grin right back.

"Told ya," McCormick's angel of mercy said to her fellow angel dryly.

Hardcastle paused in mid-step and cocked his head, questioningly.

"I think he was watching out the window." The fellow angel crossed her arms. He thought her name was Alice.

"No," Terri shook her head, "he didn't even need to do that. He comes at the same time every morning." The judge saw her gesture casually toward him. "All he needs to do is watch the clock."

"What," he said in half-exasperation, "are you two talking about?"

"The chair," Terri said firmly.

"What chair?"

"The one next to the bed," Alice said primly, "that he absolutely, positively had to get up and sit in this morning."

"No waiting until after the pill rounds," Terri added, "no getting his temp taken, just straight to the chair."

"It took two of us. He's not supposed to put any weight on that one foot." Alice shook her head. "And the orderly was busy taking 307 down to x-ray."

"Couldn't even wait until he got back." Terri tsk'ed. "So, maybe tomorrow you could come a half hour earlier—"

"Either that, or tell him you'll be here at 11:15, and come at the regular time."

"Yeah," Terri agreed, "that'll work, too. Just sneak up on him. Then you can help him get to the chair."

Hardcastle nodded. He cast a dubious look toward the room. It did have a good sightline down to the parking lot, but why the hell had McCormick thought he needed to be sitting up?

'Course if he's in the chair, then you can't be.

He supposed that was a possibility. He had been hanging around much of the past couple of days. And nearly all of the two days before that. He felt a brief chill. It seemed hardly possible that the guy who was giving the nurses a hard time this morning had been at death's door not that many days ago.

Okay, so you've been kind of crowding him. He might need some space. Might be trying to send you a signal.

He looked down at the magazine, and then up at the two women again, almost apologetically. "Just wanted to drop something off for him."

Terri made a shooing gesture and he proceeded a little reluctantly.

The door was open and the bed unoccupied. McCormick was ensconced in the chair with only his bum leg propped up on the mattress. But the judge's tentative theory took a hit when he saw another chair, vacant, apparently cadged from some unoccupied room.

The older man stepped in hesitantly. Though he was sitting, Mark's head was back and his eyes closed. Some slight noise, maybe the door on its hinges, and he jerked slightly, winced, and squinted.

"You could probably do that better in the bed," Hardcastle pointed out.

"Wasn't asleep," Mark muttered. "And I'm tired of being in bed," he added grumpily. "Tired of being here."

The judge gave that a considering nod. It was kind of soon, he thought, but inevitable. Eventually things stopped hurting and started itching. He knew from personal experience that gratitude for being still alive could only stretch so far.

"Well," he held out the magazine and paper, "brought you something to read." He still thought his earlier assessment might be right. Spare seat or no, the kid didn't seem like he wanted much company. "I can come back later. Frank's been after me to run down to the station and give a statement."

McCormick looked startled, probably at the briefness of the visit, then maybe a little worried, though he quickly covered that over with a doubtful smile.

"You don't have to go." He hesitated, reaching up for the offerings. "Ah, I mean, he said he's coming here this morning." The smile settled back into something more pensive. "He wants one from me, too, I guess."

The judge sat down slowly, giving that some thought. Though he'd spent a fair amount of time with McCormick the past four days, the conversation, even after it had started making sense, had been random. He had not yet heard Mark's version of the shooting and what had followed.

He wasn't sure if he really wanted to, and he thought that might be mutual, if past occurrences were anything to go by. Mark rarely talked about the bad stuff, but how much of that was his preference, versus a pretty good understanding of Hardcastle's own comfort level—now that was the question.

The judge sat there, trying to look stalwart and nonchalant. "Well, fine, that'll be convenient and all."

"But he might not want to get 'em both together." Mark backpedaled pretty good for a guy with one bum leg. "I mean, might look like we, ah, colluded or something."

Hardcastle frowned, then said practically, "Kinda late to be worrying about collusion. We had four days to talk about it." But we didn't, he thought. Not at all.

All he got from McCormick was a slow nod and a thoughtful look, and no attempt, even now, at any collusion whatsoever. The younger man's eyes drifted shut.

"Hey," the judge nudged him gently, "I still think you can do that better in bed."

"I'm not sleeping. Just . . . resting."

"All right," Hardcastle huffed.

He entertained a brief notion of slipping out once the snoring started, but before Frank showed up. Maybe the second chair had been intended for Harper all along. He gave that a moment's thought and then shook his head, almost imperceptibly.

No, he thought, more likely the whole thing had almost slipped past being mentioned only because Mark knew he'd have been somewhere else, anywhere, given the choice. And maybe the kid had figured this was the only way he'd have a chance to tell him what had happened, how bad it had been.

He went through it; you sure as hell can listen to it.

00000

Frank exited the elevator at eleven-thirty on the nose, checking his watch against the clock and calculating how long it would take to get what he needed for the DA. Having bond set for Falcon and Price wouldn't be the end of the world, and certainly not the end of the case, he supposed, but the idea of those two walking out of county jail galled him.

The nurse behind the desk had given him a quick look and a half-frown, then said, "You're going to need another chair."

"Ah . . .?"

"You're that police officer who stopped by to see Mr. McCormick yesterday, right?"

Frank nodded.

"Well, he's got a visitor already, so you'll need another chair." She pointed to the lobby right behind him. "Maybe you could put it back when you're done?

"And," she added, "maybe you could keep it short? "

"Police business," Frank pointed to the notebook and tape recorder he was carrying under his left arm.

"Well, he doesn't look like he got too much sleep last night. The other guy is hopeless. Hints don't work."

Frank had to smile at that. He knew for a fact that Milt was fairly hint-proof. He nodded again and retrieved a chair. He carried it down the hall, putting it down briefly to give two quiet raps to the nearly-closed door of Mark's room. He eased the door open at an equally quiet acknowledgement from Milt and pulled the chair in behind him.

Mark was up, at least as far as sitting went. Except for that, he looked asleep. Frank frowned, set the chair down closer to Milt, and leaned over.

"Bad timing, huh?" He sat down, recorder and notebook in his lap. "The DA is yammering. Got the bond hearing coming up. He's still working on charges."

"I'm not asleep," Mark muttered. "Can't a guy close his eyes around here?"

"You were snoring for a couple of minutes," the judge pointed out.

"It won't take long," Frank interjected. "Just need the basics." Mark's eyes were open now, and Harper thought he'd caught a brief twitch from Milt.

"You want me to. . . ?" The judge gestured toward the door.

"Nah, I need 'em from both of you. I'll save you a trip to the station."

The twitch again, most definitely. Frank frowned. "It's pretty straightforward. The DA wants conspiracy and attempted murder."

Milt nodded his approval.

Frank turned the tape player on and gave the routine identifying information. "This is just a preliminary interview," he said to Mark, reassuringly. "You better start at the beginning."

"You mean, that night?" There was worry along with the confusion.

"No, I mean, well, did you guys have an invitation? Did Wendell Price know you were coming?"

Mark looked slightly relieved as he said, "Oh, that . . . yeah."

Frank flicked the recorder off and turned to Milt, a puzzled look of his own. "You knew we were getting warrants, right?"

There was a pause before the judge's nod. Mark looked edgy, too.

"Wish you'da just sat tight."

"They might've figured it out," McCormick said quietly. "It made sense to have someone on the inside in advance, in case they tried to destroy anything."

"Ah . . ." Frank looked at him dubiously. It had the ring of a lesson, studied but not quite believed. "I suppose." He looked down at the recorder but didn't turn it on again. "I guess you couldn't have figured that those guys would try something that desperate."

He was aware of the silence before he even looked up again. Silence, but a whole lot of body language—the tense kind that betrayed reams of words unspoken. He flicked the recorder back on at least partly to break the mood, to get a handle on things again.

"Tell me what happened after you arrived."

Some of the stiffness left Mark's face, though he still started slowly, as if it was an effort to remember 'before'.

"We were there; we split up. I was supposed to mingle and, you know, just keep an eye out. This guy came up to me, one of the servers."

"You could identify him?"

"Oh, yeah," Mark nodded, looking more comfortable at that line of questioning. "Thin guy, dark hair . . . He said Hardcastle wanted me to meet him in the pool house."

There was another pause. Frank gave him a moment to think before he prompted gently. "Then what?"

Tense again. Milt, too.

"I went."

For a second it looked as though that would have to suffice for a description, and Frank thought there was a helluva lot of truth to those two simple words. But then Mark had started up again, with a little more distance in his voice, as though he wasn't really speaking to Harper at all.

"I walked out back, past the pool," he said softly. "It was kinda dark, and there was mist rising, and the lights reflecting off the water . . . I don't know why I didn't figure it out."

"Figure what out?" Frank interrupted.

"Oh," Mark's expression snapped back to the here-and-now, "that it was a set-up." He shook his head. "Dumb."

The judge looked like he wanted to disagree. Frank turned the recorder off, shook his head, and said, "Nah, don't rake yourself over the coals. How the hell were you supposed to know they'd try such a bonehead move?"

Mark seemed to keep his gaze studiously away from the other two men. He said nothing.

Recorder on. "And then what happened?"

"Ah, it was kinda dark in the pool house. They were there."

"Who?" Frank prodded.

"Wendell Price and Dex Falcon. Price had the gun, Falcon jumped me from behind. We struggled. The gun went off."

Frank didn't exactly like the wording, but he supposed it was close to the truth, and a far distance from the version he'd heard Price's defense attorney peddling—that his client and Dex had been startled by an intruder, and merely reacted in surprised self-defense.

He was aware that Mark had fallen silent again. Milt was sitting there, looking at the younger man with grim concern. Frank thought it might be a good idea to just push right through.

"And after that?" he asked.

"Oh, kinda fuzzy for a bit." Mark frowned. "In and out."

"Anything?" Frank leaned a little.

"A trunk, and being hauled out of it, and falling." He said it all in a flat, undescriptive tone, one that belied reality.

"You heard anyone then? Saw anyone?"

"Wendell Price, he put me in the trunk. I remember that," Mark said firmly.

Frank gave this a thin smile and hit the stop switch on the recorder again.

"That should do it for now. I'll need a formal statement eventually . . . but, hell, dumping somebody off a cliff, not what you'd expect from an innocent victim of a home invasion. That and the corroborating testimony of the waiter who delivered the message—we'll nail this."

He felt a twinge of perplexity and gave Milt a sideward glance. "I dunno how in the hell you found that spot. I'd driven by it a couple of minutes earlier. I didn't see anything from the road. Falcon might've talked eventually, but Price never would've."

"Millie," Mark said quietly, and, after a pause, "she, um, sees things."

Frank stared at him long enough to realize it wasn't intended as humor. He shifted his gaze back to Milt, who wasn't doing anything to deny it.

"Come on," he finally said, and then, "Really? Like, you mean, visions?"

This time it was only a nod, but from the judge, not a guy Frank suspected of much credulity.

"Well," Frank took a deep breath and conceded to the unexplainable, "you hear about stuff like that, I guess." He snuck another quick look at the two men, half-hoping to be clued in on an elaborate joke. Both of them still looked serious, even solemn.

"Too bad she couldn't have maybe seen it coming beforehand." he added practically, "Would've been a lot easier. Would've saved us all a bunch of grief."

He was looking, quite casually, at Milt when he'd said it. This twitch, the third, was readily apparent, that and there was a tension in the man's face that was rising by the minute. Mark, who had been sitting stock-still, now made an abortive gesture, but not before Frank had gotten the first surprised words out of his mouth.

"She did?"

No careful character reading was necessary to know that that was true. The truth was written on both men's faces. Frank recaptured his composure and rewound the data with this new element plugged in.

"But, anyway," he said consideringly, "why the heck would you believe her? I mean, before you knew she had this weird gift."

He thought about that even as he spoke the words. Milt was the hardnosed, unemotional type. Only proof would suffice. But Mark at least half-believed in portents and signs. He might joke about such things, but he'd listen.

He had believed.

Suddenly, 'I went.' took on deeper shades.

Frank sat back. Mark looked pale; both men looked weary. He had enough for his immediate purposes. He'd heard more than he'd wanted to. He made an elaborate point of checking his watch, and gathering up the recorder and notebook. "I'd better get this transcribed," he said quickly. "I can get yours tomorrow, Milt, okay?"

He was on his feet before the judge could even nod. Frank gave the both of them one more worried look.

"We'll nail 'em," he said firmly. "I promise."

He took two steps toward the door and then, remembering, turned back and grabbed the chair.

And he left.

00000

Hardcastle watched Frank's retreat. There'd been an air of embarrassed confusion, covered over by briskly official duty. Can't blame him for that. Calling what he'd done 'callous disregard' might be about the mildest reprimand he was entitled to. He knew that, and Mark certainly did, though he'd studiously avoided bringing it up before now.

"Thank you."

He tore his gaze away from the door and looked back at the man beside him.

"Huh?"

"I never got around to thanking you," Mark said quietly. "In fact, I sorta remember giving you a hard time when you first got there. I didn't mean it."

The judge sat there, mouth slightly open at the utterly unexpected confession. He finally found his voice, though it was only to say the obvious.

"You're thanking me?"

"Yeah. You listened to Millie. I know you don't believe in all that hooey."

There it was, the thing in a nutshell. Forgiveness, understanding even, neatly packaged and delivered as thanks. Hardcastle wasn't buying any of it.

"Hooey?" he said harshly. "Dammit, she was right all along."

"Well," Mark sounded reluctant, "I guess, but you had no way of knowing that. Not before, at any rate."

"But you believed her."

"No," McCormick said, flat and quick. The judge was almost certain it was a lie. "I didn't." He sat rigidly in the chair, exhaustion etched deep in his face, defying the older man to call him on it.

Hardcastle wasn't going to. It wouldn't do either of them any good. If Mark wanted to give him a gift, undeserved though it might be, he thought he should have the grace to accept it. He felt the storm of self-anger pass, at least for now.

He saw Mark starting to close his eyes again.

"Okay, that's it," the judge said sternly, pointing toward the bed. "Enough showing-off for one day." He was relieved to get a drowsy nod of agreement.

00000

He'd fallen asleep almost as soon as Hardcastle had helped him into the bed. Small progress, though—now, when he slept the better part of the afternoon away, he would lie awake at night. The room was dim and silent. The lone remaining chair stood empty in the corner, pushed out of the way before Hardcastle had left for the evening.

One step forward, two steps back. He hadn't even realized that the judge felt guilty about the whole debacle. Angry, yes—angry at Price and Falcon for having the audacity to commit a crime right under his nose, angry about the inconvenience of having his sidekick sidelined, maybe even angry at Mark himself, for falling into their trap.

But guilt? He frowned. He puzzled over it. He recognized it as one more obstacle that would need to be gotten past. He'd maybe made a start today, but he held no hope that he'd accomplished more than a little. Donkeys could be very stubborn about these things.

Six weeks, or maybe eight.

In the morning he would get up again, and sit in the chair, one day closer to normal—normal, of course, as always, being a relative term. And, when Hardcastle got here, he would try to make him understand that he hadn't been anywhere that night that he hadn't been willing to be.

He finally closed his eyes again.

And opened them, squinting at the morning light and seeing the chair already pulled over next to the bed, and occupied.

"What time is it?" He blinked blearily, then remembered the judge had lent him his watch a few days ago. He looked at his good wrist. "Ten-thirty?"

"Figured you'd probably want to show-off again today." Hardcastle put his newspaper down, got up and stretched slowly. "I'll go get another chair."