Disclaimer: I don't own these guys, wish I did...the show would have lasted for a lot more years!
Summary: Epilogue to Love the Picture, Hate the Frame; begins at the very end of the episode.
Feedback: Always welcome
Word Count: 6561
With thanks to LM Lewis for your wonderful beta support.
"Ho, ho, ho!" the deep voice sounded out of nowhere in the dining room and, startled, Mark looked up and around. Milt, the very picture of innocence also looked to the ceiling and glanced at the doorways, but Mark wasn't buying it. With an amused snort and a thin-lipped grin, he shook his head and applied his attention to their belated Christmas feast. Hardcase could be such a kid at times. Well, maybe not a kid, exactly, but a guy who dearly loved playing Santa, that's for sure. It was a blast to see Hardcastle so happy.
The food from the caterer was fantastic: tender, moist turkey, savory dressing, rich gravy, tasty roasted vegetables and whipped potatoes without a single lump, firm peas, cranberry sauce, coleslaw and melt-in-your-mouth rolls. And then, to top it all off, there was the delectable cranberry crumble with a crème fraiche sauce.
With a groan of utterly satisfied repletion, Mark sat back and rubbed his very full stomach. "Man, that was great," he sighed.
"For what it cost, it should be," Hardcase grumbled, once again picking up the invoice and eying it dyspeptically.
"Oh, come on," Mark challenged playfully. "I saw you digging in and loving every morsel. Admit it – the caterers did a better job than we ever could, and besides, you could still be dining on the State! Anything, at whatever cost, has to be better than that."
"About that," Hardcastle replied, flicking a look up at Mark and then away again, as if he felt uncomfortable. "I've meaning to, uh, well, thank you for hocking the Coyote to get me out. Things were getting a little tense in there."
Sobering, Mark grimaced and nodded. "I know. I'm just sorry it took me so long to arrange the bail."
Shrugging, Hardcastle carried on. "Well, you did the best you could, an' I appreciate that. I know that overgrown tinker toy represents some pretty big dreams for you." Once again studying the invoice, he shrugged and said with more nonchalance, "But, I guess, when dreams are stacked up against your day-to-day meal ticket, well, the dreams take a kicking."
Mark blinked and straightened, and all expression bled from his face. "Meal ticket?" he echoed with a slight shake of his head, wondering if he'd heard wrong or if maybe he'd eaten so much his ears were all plugged up.
"I'm just saying –"
"I think I know what you're saying, Hardcase," he cut in, not wanting to hear it clarified. Standing, he began stacking the dishes.
"You know what I mean," Hardcastle began again.
"Yeah, yeah," Mark grated. "Robin would be starving on the streets, right, if good old Batman hadn't taken him in? And Tonto obviously couldn't find a game trail to save his life, unless the Masked Man pointed out the tracks. I get it, okay? Thanks for the meal, Hardcase. It was great."
With that, hands full, he turned away from the table and shouldered his way through the swinging door into the kitchen. The sound of water rushing into the sink and the clatter of crockery made it clear that he wasn't coming back anytime soon.
Grimacing, Milt scratched the back of his head. "I was only kidding," he grumbled. "A little quick on the hair-trigger there – but it's been a rough few days; maybe somebody needs a nap." Sighing, he got to his feet and, sticking the invoice into his pocket, he gathered up the remaining bowls and platters. Entering the kitchen, he tried again. "Look, kiddo, I –"
But Mark held up soapy hands and tightly shook his head. "I got it, Judge," he seethed. "You don't need to drive the point home with a sledge hammer."
Annoyed at being repeatedly cut-off, Hardcastle griped, "Okay, fine! When you're ready to start acting like a grown-up again and let me finish a sentence, I'll be in the den." Dumping the dishes on the table, he stalked off.
"Merry Christmas to you, too," Mark muttered sarcastically. "Ho, ho ho."
Meal ticket? Mark shook his head as he finished the dishes and hung the tea towel to dry. Was he kidding? Maybe he was kidding. Scowling, Mark bit his lip. He didn't sound like he was kidding. Not ready to see Hardcase, in case the man hadn't been kidding, McCormick went out the back door. On his way to the gatehouse, he paused and looked back over his shoulder at the garage. If Hardcase thought he was just leeching off him, would Milt have given him that dirt bike? Didn't make any sense.
His pace slow, his shoulders slumping dejectedly, he continued on down the path and into his own abode.
Where he lived courtesy of the Judge's generosity.
Providing he did the chores and rode shotgun – without the shotgun.
His gaze went to the card on the mantle and, like metal filings to a magnet, it drew him closer. Sighing, he picked it up and again looked at the signature. 'Love, Milt.' His gaze fell away and he swallowed. When he'd read it the first time, he'd felt a rush of joy. Oh, he'd known for awhile that the old donkey cared about him but – love? He'd thought it had meant something. That … that it was an acknowledgement that they'd become fast friends; maybe even family, in a weird kind of way.
Now, he just wondered if the Judge had signed it with absentminded abandon, not really meaning the word or the sentiment it signified. Or maybe it had just been a weak moment, one Hardcase was evidently already regretting.
Rubbing his mouth, he put the card back on the mantle and turned away, not noticing when it fell to the floor behind him. Grabbing his jacket, he headed back outside. He needed to take a ride, clear his head. Get some distance until the anger and … and hurt wouldn't be so obvious. On one level, he knew the Judge couldn't have meant it the way it had sounded, as if all Mark cared about was what Hardcastle gave him. But … even if he'd been kidding, well, he must believe it to some extent for the thought to just pop out like that. But … after all this time, after all that had happened over the past more than two years, how could Hardcase ever think anything like that, even in passing? Even as a joke?
God, didn't Hardcastle know by now that he would sell a whole lot more than the Coyote to keep the crazy old coot safe?
Hell, he'd sell his soul.
Loping up the walkway to the Coyote, he slid inside and roared up the drive. Caught up in his ruminations, he didn't notice the dark vehicle that pulled off the shoulder behind him, and followed him north up Pacific Coast Highway.
When he heard the deep roar of the race car erupt and disappear up the drive, Milt grimaced and rubbed his mouth. How had they gone from a warm-hearted, if belated, Christmas feast to acrimony so damned fast? Sighing, he supposed it was his misbegotten attempt at humour. He hadn't meant what he'd said, not about the 'meal ticket' slam. But he had meant every word of his gratitude that the kid would sell his dreams to get him out of jail. Such a – gift – was staggering; more than anyone had ever put on the line for him before. He'd been embarrassingly close to revealing his emotion so he'd tried to lighten the moment. Lighten? More like dumped a ton of concrete over the cheerful ambiance of their celebration.
Ah, well, he supposed he'd just have to apologize when McCormick got back.
Restless, he left the house and wandered the grounds for awhile, admiring the gardens and hedges, smiling to himself at what a good job Mark was doing with the place. Lonely, he ambled to the gatehouse and then inside. Spotting the card on the floor, he frowned and then bent to pick it up. With a crook of his lip, he read the card and gave a little shrug before setting it carefully on the mantle. Such a simple word and yet one so filled with meaning that he couldn't ever seem to actually say it out loud. But he'd meant it when he'd written it. Meant it from the bottom of his heart.
He was about to let himself out when the phone rang. He debated a moment, not wanting to intrude too far into McCormick's privacy but, thinking it might be important, he picked up the handset. "Hardcastle," he rumbled.
"Milt?" Lieutenant Bill Giles replied. "I just tried to get you up at the house. I'm glad I caught you. I just found out that Martin Cherney and his stooge, Granger, made bail five hours ago."
Rolling his eyes, figuring Cherney hadn't had to have a friend hock his dreams to spring him loose, Hardcastle snorted softly. "Well, it's their constitutional right," he allowed, trying not to sound grudging.
"That's not the biggest problem," Giles said darkly. "Sergeant Ferguson was attacked about two hours ago, her car forced off the road. She's alive but unconscious, and she's pretty badly hurt; not sure she's gonna make it. I've got a guard standing watch over her at the hospital."
"Ah, no," Milt moaned softly, closing his eyes. Dana was a good kid and had only been involved because he'd asked for her help. "I'm real sorry to hear that," he sighed.
"Milt, I'm afraid Cherney is trying to get rid of the witnesses against him; without all of you, that tape isn't worth a whole lot. Hell, he could argue it's an elaborate set-up to get the heat off you. I'm going to send a squad car around to keep an eye out, and give you and Mark some protection."
"Mark's not here," Hardcastle replied with a worried scowl. Two hours? Those bastards could be anywhere. "He, uh, went for a drive."
"You know where?"
"Oh, probably up the coast – about twenty minutes from here, there's a pullout overlooking the ocean that he likes," Milt said as he anxiously rubbed the back of his neck.
"You want me to put out an APB?"
Thinking about Sergeant Ferguson, Hardcastle nodded unconsciously. "Yeah, probably a good idea. These guys are already facing murder one. They got nothing to lose."
Once he'd hung up, he made for the door, intending to hasten back to the den and load up his shotgun – but just as he was about to step outside, he heard a car in the drive. Pausing, he peeked around the lintel and then pulled back out of sight.
Cherney had just pulled up and was getting out, a revolver in his hand.
And now he was between Milt and his weapons.
As he drove the winding curves, Mark told himself he was being a bigger jackass than the donkey had been for making that cutting comment. No way had Hardcase actually meant what he'd said – had he? Not after more than two years of ever-growing friendship and all the tight spots they'd been in. Milt knew, had to know, that the 'judicial stay' nonsense had never really held him, and had ceased to hold any real threat a long time ago. They were friends, good friends – the best.
But, for all that, the comment had stung, badly. Why? Mark's lips thinned as he slowed and signaled the left turn across the two-lane road. Because he'd been so damned worried about Hardcase for so many days and nights? Jail just wasn't a place the Judge could afford to spend much time. Because he'd been so relieved that everything had worked out fine? And he'd been expecting a gruff expression of gratitude, not a slam upside the head?
Mark crossed the highway and, facing the ocean, slowed to a stop on the wide gravel lookout. Leaving the engine running, he stared moodily out at the endless indigo ocean to the far horizon. Or, was it more than that? Was it that, in his mind and heart, things had changed between them? That, somehow, Hardcastle had become more than his best friend? Shaking his head, he sighed. When had Hardcase become his family? When that bullet had ripped into the Judge's chest last summer, in that pathetic excuse for a courtroom? Was that it? So the cutting remark about relying on the old donkey for a meal ticket had sliced deeper than Milt would ever have intended? Because it distanced them? Because it put him in his place? His old place – the place of pool man and gardener, ex-con and, okay, maybe a friend, but never anything more.
Blowing a long breath, he sniffed and grimaced. How he felt was his responsibility, not Milt's. It wasn't Hardcase's fault if he didn't feel the same way. And, hey, he'd given him that terrific dirt bike, both an incredibly generous gift all by itself and a heartwarming way of saying they'd go out to the dunes and have some fun together. So, okay, he could do friends. Best friends. And he could count himself lucky to have that much.
When a dark sedan pulled up tight beside the Coyote, Mark was annoyed. The lookout was a large flat of land and there was no need to crowd the only other vehicle already there. Irritated, he glanced to the side, aiming an evil look at the driver –
– and gasped at the sight of Granger leveling a revolver at him.
Instinct took over and he had slammed into reverse, gunning the engine and spinning the wheel before he quite realized what he was doing, even as the weapon exploded and part of the windshield shattered. Oblivious to the sting of flying shards of glass, he was moving fast, already behind the sedan, nearly on the pavement, shifting into first and angling back onto the highway. Swiftly, he shifted up through the gears as he floored the accelerator, his expression taut as he divided his attention between the vehicle roaring onto the highway behind him and the winding road ahead.
Granger was already out on bail? That meant Cherney had to be out, too. If they were gunning for him, they'd be after Hardcastle for sure. Sonofabitch. What a time for him to be mooning over the ocean like an unhappy teenager who didn't feel appreciated – or loved – enough.
The dark sedan, unmindful of the hazardous curves, was speeding dangerously on his tail, drawing closer when he downshifted for a curve. "Maniac," he muttered as he swiped away the warm, sticky blood that was dripping into one eye. Shaking his head tightly, he hoped there weren't any vehicles coming at them from the south as the sedan pulled out beside him on the blind curve. A shot rang out, and he ducked reflexively, accelerating out of the curve and once again edging ahead.
But another curve was coming up and there was nowhere to go – a hard, granite wall on the left, a sheer drop-off to the sea below on the right. They whipped around three more blind curves, Granger doing his level best to either shoot out a tire or, when he was alongside, to slam the Coyote off the road. Again and again, Mark wrestled with the wheel to maintain control, hauling his vehicle back off the thin strip of gravel along the guardrail and onto the road. But their luck in having a clear run couldn't last forever; it could only be a matter of time before it played out – and Mark sorely wished some opposing traffic would show up to keep Granger back on his tail.
And then, as he whipped around yet another curve, only slightly ahead of the killer in the left lane, Mark saw the transport first. He slammed hard on his brakes, the wheels squealing and smoking as he applied all his strength to hold the Coyote straight and keep her from skidding off the pavement and into the guard rail. The sedan shot in front and turned hard into the lane ahead of him in a desperate attempt to avoid a head-on collision with the semi.
Too hard, too fast.
Granger couldn't hold the rampaging two tons of metal steady, and the car shimmied, skidded, and then shot through the guardrail to arc out over the sharp rocks and the sea before it plunged out of sight.
The transport's air horn was still blaring as it barreled past. Having come to a full stop on the edge of the highway, Mark heaved ragged breaths and rubbed his hands over his face, grimacing as he wiped away runnels of blood. He could feel the sharp sting of glass fragments in his face but didn't have the time or means to deal with them. Grimly, afraid for Hardcase, he once again shifted gears, popped the clutch and sped down the long curves as if he was heading for the checkered flag at the end of the race of his life.
Milt slipped out the French doors into the backyard and, keeping low, he dodged behind a hedge for cover. With luck, Cherney might decide he was away from the house and either take-off or hole up inside and wait. The patrol car Giles was sending couldn't be far away. All he needed was a little backup.
Keeping an eye on Cherney, he tried very hard not to wonder where Granger was – and if Mark was safe.
He watched his adversary check the garage and then duck into the main house. Moments later, Cherney was back on the drive, slowly making his way toward the gatehouse. "Hardcastle!" he yelled tauntingly. "I know you're around here somewhere. If you're waiting for your trained con to show up, forget it. Granger will have nailed him by now. It's just you and me."
Fighting back a fierce flare of fear at the bald statement that Mark had already been killed, Hardcastle sternly told himself the kid wasn't that easy to take down. Carefully, keeping low, he moved along the hedge away from the gatehouse, heading toward the back door. All he needed was a brief distraction to let him get across the open ground around the pool without being seen. And then he could get to his shotgun.
When he heard the full-throated roar of the Coyote approaching along the drive, abject relief flooded him. But it was short-lived. Cherney was still the only one with a weapon and Mark was driving right into his sights. Where the hell were the cops? And where was Granger? Was he riding the kid's tail?
Milt lunged toward the back of the house.
Mark abruptly braked and was halfway out of the car when he saw Cherney coming toward him from under the shadows cast by the trees near the gatehouse.
"Where's Hardcastle?" he shouted furiously. "What have you done to him?"
Eyes narrowing as he lifted his gun toward Mark, Cherney called back, "Nothing yet – he's hiding around here somewhere. Where's Granger? He was supposed to deal with you."
"Yeah, well, things didn't work out the way he planned," Mark snapped, warily watching Cherney stalk closer, his gaze bouncing from the weapon to the man's cold, flat eyes. When Cherney sneered and the revolver came up a fraction more, Mark dropped back down into the Coyote and ducked even as the shot rang out, shattering more of the windshield.
Nearly frantic with fear for the Judge, Mark hastily considered the situation and his limited options. Milt was around somewhere – if Cherney hadn't lied and already killed him. He couldn't back away up the drive and leave Hardcastle at risk. Cherney shot at him again. Damn – he only had one weapon; one way to get the murderer to back down. Hell, if he was going to be a sitting duck, he might as well make it interesting. His expression rigid with determination, blood smearing his face, Mark gunned the engine, slammed it into gear, and hurled – like a bat out of hell – toward the killer. Hastily backing away from the charging car, Cherney fired again, and again.
Out of the corner of his eye, Mark saw Milt race out of the house, shotgun in hand. He slammed on the brakes and threw the car into a skid, doing his best to keep it out of the Judge's line of sight without running down the guy shooting at him. The Coyote jolted to a halt as he heard Hardcastle bellow at Cherney to throw his gun away.
Gasping as the adrenaline that had been driving him faded, awash with relief to know the Judge was all right and that he wasn't going to have to run Cherney down to stop him, he slumped in his seat. In the distance, he heard the welcome sound of sirens.
When the Coyote skidded away and was no longer a threat, ignoring the Judge's warning, Cherney wheeled to shoot at him. Having no choice, Milt triggered the shotgun, blasting the killer back to crash onto the ground. For a moment, he stood absolutely still, staring hard at the body, his eyes narrowed and his mouth tight. He could hear the sirens getting closer as the patrol car sped down the long drive.
And then it registered.
Mark hadn't gotten out of the car. Peering at the vehicle, all he could see was that the windshield was shattered and the kid was sitting slumped in his seat and not moving.
"McCORMICK!" he shouted, sudden fear twisting in his gut as he ran toward the Coyote.
When he got close enough to make out details, he nearly froze at the sight of all the blood smeared and streaming down Mark's ashen face. "My God," he breathed, hastening closer. Fumbling for the catch, he opened the door and was lifting it high just as the squad car pulled up. "Get an ambulance!" he bellowed before dropping to one knee and leaning inside.
"Don't need an ambulance," Mark muttered. "Looks worse'n it is, I think. Just a few scratches." But his voice sounded strained, distant, as if he wasn't really focusing.
"Scratches, huh?" Milt grunted as he gently fingered what looked like the worst wounds, a couple deep gouges high on Mark's brow. But when McCormick hissed, he desisted. Leaning closer, he could see small fragments of glass, nearly obscured by blood, embedded in the kid's skin. "You hit anywhere besides your face?"
"Umm, think a bullet grazed my right shoulder," Mark replied slowly. "Kinda hurts." He started to shift, as if intending to get out of the car, but Milt pressed a hand against his left shoulder.
"Just hold on a minute," Hardcastle cautioned him. "You got a few bits of glass near your eyes. I think you should just stay still for now."
"Okay," Mark agreed hoarsely, unusually passively. "Works for me."
Shifting to check on his right shoulder, Milt's lips thinned at the sight of blood darkening McCormick's shirt and sleeve, but he couldn't tell whether it was runoff from the head wounds or from another wound.
"'m tired, Judge," Mark murmured dazedly, and shivered. "An' a li'l cold."
Turning to one of the uniformed cops who had approached and was standing behind him, Milt ordered grimly, "Get me a blanket; I think he's going into shock." Looking back at Mark, he squeezed the kid's shoulder. "Try to stay awake, kid," he urged. "Tell me what happened to Granger."
"Granger?" he echoed, squinting with the effort of focusing his thoughts. "Oh, yeah. He, uh, he tried to force me off the road an' lost control of his car. He went over the side 'bout a mile south of Sunset Point." He paused and then asked, "Cherney?"
"He won't be botherin' anybody again, either," Milt told him.
Mark sighed. "Some people just never quit, huh, Judge? Don' know when it's over."
"He got off lucky," the emergency physician told Hardcastle. "None of the glass fragments penetrated his eyes and most of the wounds were superficial. One, though, had cut a small artery and we had to put in a couple stitches. It wasn't a fast bleeder, but a persistent one; I understand he'd been bleeding for almost an hour before he got here, so he lost a fair amount of blood. The shoulder wound is superficial. He's obviously strong and healthy; with a little extra red meat – steak or liver – in his diet over the next while, he'll be fine. We've given him something to ease his discomfort, and once the bottle of saline we're transfusing into him is finished, you can take him home."
"Thanks, Doc," Hardcastle replied with weary relief. "Can I see him?"
"Sure, you can go sit with him, in treatment room four," the amiable doctor replied. "He's a bit drowsy but will probably be glad of the company."
Hardcastle shook the doctor's hand and then strode down the hall. When he found Mark, he thought the kid might have fallen asleep. But at the sound of his footsteps, McCormick opened his eyes.
"Hey," he muttered. "They gonna let me go home soon?"
"Yeah, not long now," Milt told him as he drew up a stool to perch beside the treatment table. "How're you feeling?"
"Not bad; just a little tired." Mark hesitated, looked away. "Helluva time for me to take a ride up the coast, huh?"
Hardcastle gave him a quizzical look but, recalling the tension between them before McCormick had taken off and not sure what to say about that, he refrained from comment. In the silence, Mark closed his eyes and dropped into a light doze.
Twenty minutes later, as they were leaving the hospital, they ran into Lieutenant Giles. "Heard what happened," he said, frowning as he studied McCormick. "You alright, Mark?"
"Yeah, I'm fine," he replied. "Just a few scratches from flying glass."
Giles nodded. Shifting his gaze to Hardcastle, he gave a spare smile. "I just came from upstairs. Sergeant Ferguson has regained consciousness and it looks like she's gonna be okay. Be off work for a couple months, till the broken bones heal, but there's no permanent damage."
"Hey, that's great news!" Milt replied heartily, meaning it. "I'll drop in to see her in a day or two."
"We both will," Mark interjected with a wan, but game, smile, apparently enjoying the idea of getting to know the pretty police officer better.
"Okay, Casanova," Hardcastle teased. "Let's get you home before you fall on your face."
"Sounds like a plan, Hardcase," he replied with a goofy grin. "They gave me something for 'discomfort', and though I hate to admit it, I'm a little woozy."
"Woozy, huh?" Milt snorted softly and shook his head. "See ya later, Bill," he said as he put a steadying arm around the kid. "Or you can stop by the house to get my statement and a beer at the same time. Up to you."
"A beer sounds good, Judge," Giles chuckled as he waved them on their way. "I'll be by in an hour or so."
McCormick cast a woeful look at the shattered windshield and bullet holes puncturing the smooth finish of the Coyote as the Judge walked him down to the gatehouse. No way could he afford to have the damage fixed without help from Hardcastle. But, with the residual disquiet of having been accused of using Hardcase as a meal ticket, he simply grimaced and looked away. When the Judge said matter-of-factly, "I'll pay for the repairs," he nodded stiffly but remained mute.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Hardcastle cast an anxious look at him, but Mark kept his face turned away, mostly because he was a tad humiliated to need the support of the strong, steady arm to make it to the gatehouse. But mixed in with the embarrassment was a deep glow of abiding warmth that sprang from the sure knowledge that the Judge sincerely cared about him and didn't mind helping him. It had taken him a while, a long while, to trust that Hardcase really did care about him – at least as a friend – but he had no doubts anymore.
Once he got home, all he wanted to do was crash. The emotional upheaval of earlier in the day combined with the adrenaline rush of the deadly high-speed chase, the shock of seeing two men die and of facing too many bullets himself, not to mention the blood loss and whatever was in the pain-killing cocktail they'd given him at the hospital, left him reeling. Hardcastle seemed to understand and simply quietly helped him up the steps and into his bed.
"See ya later, kiddo," Milt murmured as he pulled up the blankets and tucked him in.
"Thanks, Judge," he mumbled and dropped like a stone into sleep.
The next morning, from the homey scents of coffee and bacon drifting up from the kitchen, Milt realized when he woke just after seven AM that McCormick was already up and making breakfast. Rubbing his face with his hands, he sternly told himself he had to clear the air between them. Mark's unusual silence since the confrontation with Cherney just wasn't like him – being injured or shot at usually only made the kid run off at the mouth even more, like a safety value letting off the steam of residual fear or pain. Silence from McCormick wasn't ever a good sign.
But it was a good sign that he was making breakfast and not hiding out at the gatehouse or burying himself the endless chores that being a groundskeeper for the estate entailed. The olive branch was being held out and Hardcastle was determined to grasp it solidly. Filled with good intentions, he got up, showered, shaved and dressed.
"Morning," he greeted with hearty cheerfulness as he entered the kitchen. "Smells good, McCormick."
"Morning, Judge," Mark returned warmly, though he kept his eyes on the frying eggs. "Thought we'd eat out by the pool today. It's a beautiful morning."
Smiling with understanding, he nodded, noting the still-angry red scratches on the kid's face – and the fact that he'd already ditched his sling. "And it's good to be alive, huh?"
"That it is, Hardcase," Mark agreed with a bright smile as he was sharing out the food onto two plates. "That it is." He finished dishing up the bacon and eggs, and then led the way outside, where Milt found the patio table already set with juice, a carafe of coffee, toast and preserves.
"Bill Giles'll need to see you later, to get your statement," he said, as he tucked in.
"Yeah, I know – I'll go downtown later this morning," Mark replied as he filled two mugs with coffee, his tone easy, but Milt noted that he still wasn't making eye contact.
Grimacing, Hardcastle probed his cheek with his tongue. Sniffing, he decided it was best just to get it over with. "You still upset about what I said yesterday?"
"Upset?" McCormick echoed, looking mystified. He shrugged, shook his head, looked around at the pool and the hedges as if they could give him an answer, and then said, "I wasn't upset. Why would you think that? Because I went for a drive? Hey, after all that food, I just felt like I needed some air, you know. Why would I be upset?"
Heaving a sigh, his lips twisting unhappily, Hardcastle set down his knife and fork. "Would you just stop tap-dancing around? We both know you were upset, okay? And … and that's okay. 'Cause you had reason to be."
"I did?" Mark replied, meeting his gaze for the first time that morning.
"Yeah, you did." Milt sighed again. His shoulders slumped for a moment as he stared balefully at his plate and then he lifted his chin. "What you did – hocking the Coyote – to get me out of the hoosegow was … was a pretty great thing. That car is all you've got an' you were willing to risk losing it to help me out of a tough spot. Nobody's ever done something that generous for me, ever. "
"Judge, it's just a car," Mark interjected softly.
"Will you just let me finish here," Hardcase half-bellowed. "This stuff isn't easy to say, ya know. Leastwise, I don't say it very often. Maybe not often enough."
"You don't have to –"
"Yeah, I think I do," Milt cut in. He took a breath and studied Mark's earnest face and the vulnerability he saw in the steady gaze tugged at his heart. "I'm sorry I made that crack about the meal ticket thing. It was uncalled for and I know it's not true. I was just …" he looked away briefly, "embarrassed, I guess, that you had to do that for me. I mean, I knew you were doing your best to make bail, an' that wreath you sent was pretty nice – let me know that, well, you hadn't forgotten about me and were doin' what you could." His lips thinned and he shook his head. "It never occurred to me that you'd sell the Coyote …."
"You didn't belong in there," Mark said soberly. "It was too dangerous, and … and I was worried about you."
"I know you were," he sighed. Looking up into McCormick's eyes, he said sincerely, "And I'm grateful to you for that. Grateful to know … to know there's someone I can count on. An' I know I can always count on you. You've proven that time and time again. You're a damned good friend, Mark. Thank you."
A small smile played around Mark's mouth. "You're welcome," he said with equal sincerity.
But his gaze fell away. And Milt thought the smile looked sad – wistful. Frowning, he wondered what that meant. What he was missing. Rubbing his mouth, his gaze narrowed as he first studied Mark and then looked away across the lawn to the sea. "What you did," he murmured thoughtfully, "well, it was more than could be expected of any friend, however good. What you did is what … what family do for one another. Lay it all the line, if that's what it takes."
He glanced back at McCormick and saw the kid nodding slowly, as if he wasn't aware of his mute agreement with the words, and his gaze remained downcast. Milt's expression softened and he found he had to swallow hard. Clearing his throat, he reached for his coffee and did his best to speak with a light tone. "Ah, well," he said, hoping he sounded philosophical, "sometimes the best family isn't the ones related by blood. Sometimes, it's the ones who choose to be family. 'Cause, well, because they make the choice because they care, not 'cause they have to, if you know what I mean."
Mark tilted his face up, looking through the fringe of curls on his forehead. "Yeah, Judge," he said very quietly, sounding almost fragile, "I know what you mean."
Nodding decisively, hoping the kid did know, did understand, he said heartily, "Good, that's good." Picking up his mug of coffee, he went on, "So, what're you doin' for New Year's?"
Blinking at the change of subject, Mark straightened. "Well, uh, I haven't had time to think about it, you know? Been a bit busy the last few days."
Chuckling, Milt nodded. "Yeah, I know." Leaning forward, he suggested, "Maybe we should have a party here. What do you think?"
"A party?" Mark replied with a slow grin of amusement, and then went on sarcastically, "You mean with the judiciary mingling with ex-cons and race car drivers? Yeah, Hardcase, I can see how that could be a lot of fun."
Sighing dejectedly, Hardcastle shrugged. "Maybe you're right." But he brightened again as he offered, "I know, we could take our bikes out to the dunes, I could show you a few tricks – an' we could go out to dinner, some place with good food, maybe some music. How 'bout that?"
His smile widening, Mark nodded. "Now that sounds like a plan I could get behind," he agreed enthusiastically. "But you might find that I'm the one showing you a few tricks," he teased.
Snorting, Hardcase replied wryly, "Yeah, like how to evade pursuit."
Mark laughed. "Amongst other things," he allowed with a grin. "But, seriously," he went on as he reached for his mug, "I think that sounds like a great idea. Fun." He hesitated and then said with rueful discomfort, "But, um, dinner? I … I'm kinda tapped out. Spent all my money on a bunch of wreathes …."
"Oh, that's okay," Milt drawled as he waved off the concern. "My idea, my treat. There's this club I've been wanting to check out."
Mark's brows lifted and then he started to snicker. "Oh, no, don't tell me – you've got your eye on some hood who launders his money through a nightclub, right?" He shook his head woefully, "Hardcase, what am I going to do with you? What? We can't go out for a night on the town like everyone else and just have a good time?"
"Well, it'll be a great dinner – an' there'll be music," he replied, a grin twitching at the corners of his mouth.
"Uh huh," Mark drawled as he slouched back in his chair. "And you'll be calling the tune."
"Well … maybe, yeah," Milt agreed with a wide smile as he sketched the air like an orchestra conductor. "So, you game for a little fun New Year's Eve?"
Laughing, Mark gazed at him fondly. "You're a real piece of work, Hardcase. Sure, why not?" he said indulgently. "Start the year as we mean to continue – crime fighters extraordinaire, the Masked Man and Tonto, out to rid the world of black hats and save the pure and innocent. Sounds like a blast!"
"Now yer cookin'!"
With a closemouthed grin, Mark shook his head and then lifted his mug in a salute, "To the New Year," he offered, his tone laughing, but fondness shone from his eyes.
"To the New Year," Milt echoed, chuckling as he lifted his own mug, but his tone was warm with affection as he added, "You just stick with me, kiddo, and you'll see – it's gonna be great."
"Oh, I'll be right behind you all the way, Kemosabe," Mark assured him. "You can count on that."
"I know, kid," Milt said, all teasing gone, his tone grateful, his words a promise. "And you can count on me."
Mark looked at him for a long moment and then, with a broad smile that Milt matched, they clinked their mugs and drank to their coming year together.
Happy New Year from Milt and Mark!