This takes place between "You don't hear the one that gets you" and "The birthday present".
As usual, I don't own the characters; I'm only borrowing them. And please let me know what you think. Enjoy!
It was a long drive back from Arizona. Hardcastle was worried about Mark. The younger man had slid into the Coyote and then tucked himself into a corner of his seat, with his bad shoulder braced against the side of the car, and closed his eyes. The judge knew Mark was awake, but the body language was absolutely clear on the fact that Mark didn't want to talk. Talking would be good, in Hardcastle's opinion. If nothing else, it would reassure him that Mark would be able to bounce back from this latest disaster with his trademark optimism still intact.
Winning a race like the Arizona Modified had been the kid's dream for years, and although Hardcastle didn't know much about racing, he knew enough to recognise true talent when he saw it. Certainly, racing well was a skill that could be learnt, but Mark seemed to operate as much on instinct as practice. That kind of gift was rare, and deserved to be nurtured and cherished. Unfortunately for Mark, a combination of poor circumstances and bad choices had stalled his career just as it had been starting. This race had been another chance, possibly the younger man's last chance, to do what he had always wanted to do. And now, thanks to two selfish and greedy people, Mark's dream had been shattered again. Sometimes, the judge wished he'd chosen a profession other than the law; he would dearly love to smack some sincere regret into the people who'd caused Mark's current state of misery. Snorting indelicately, he admitted privately that Mark had long since stopped being just another ex-con to him. He cared about Mark like another son, and he wanted Mark to be happy, to the extent that he was willing to do whatever was in his power to make that happen. Replacing twenty thousand dollars, though, wasn't one of those things.
Sighing sadly, he glanced over to see two weary blue eyes watching him. Mark lifted an eyebrow at the judge's snort, but when Hardcastle simply shook his head, Mark dropped his head back against the side of the car and closed his eyes again. He knew his silence was hurting the judge, but he just couldn't find the energy to make the effort to be more like his normal self, not even to make the judge feel better. All he wanted was to get through this trip home, and then sleep for a week. Like Hardcastle would allow that, with yard work waiting to be done. Amused in spite of himself, Mark resigned himself to just one night's sleep. Perhaps enough uninterrupted sleep and enough physical distance from the scene of the crime would dull the edges of his disappointment enough to let the judge see that things would get better in time.
Mark appreciated the concern he could sense in the older man, and actually thought that it was quite sweet. Not that he would ever use the word 'sweet' in front of the judge. He didn't really have a death wish, despite the almost reckless stunts he could pull when driving a racing car. In all his adult life, he'd never had someone there who cared whether he hurt, or tried to make things better when everything fell apart. Hardcastle cared, deeply, although he wasted huge amounts of energy hiding that fact behind bluster and bad tempered ranting. It had taken a while for Mark to realise that the judge was just afraid of being hurt again, and that the words he said actually bore almost no resemblance to the sentiments behind them. Thinking about it now, Mark realised that his understanding of Hardcastle's true motivations had been the start of their current relationship. The fact that he hid his own true feelings behind endless chatter and trivial facts just made the realisation all the more ironic. Of course, the fact that he wasn't chattering aimlessly this time was probably the reason the judge kept throwing him those worried looks he knew he wasn't supposed to see.
Mark shifted slightly and winced at the ache in his shoulder. The bullet wound felt rather warm and throbbed in time with his pulse. Perhaps throwing the doctor's prescription away hadn't been his brightest moment, but he'd been angry. Anger always led to bad decisions. An infection would be the perfect end to a really bad few days. He'd had such high hopes going into this race; he'd hoped to do well, although he hadn't expected to win the race and the money. He'd been hoping for a finish in the top three, high enough in the rankings to make the judge proud of him. Hardcastle had supported him in his desire to race again, and he'd wanted the older man to know he intended to make the most of the opportunity. Winning the race and getting the prize money had been an added bonus.
He'd had such huge plans for the money, once he'd realised it was really his. Hardcastle had supported him financially since he'd agreed to their partnership, and the judge had borne the brunt of the cost of repairs to the Coyote, not to mention damage to Gulls Way, and the frequent doctor's visits they both seemed to need. He'd wanted to repay some of what he felt he owed the judge, even though he knew the older man didn't expect it. And he'd really been looking forward to having enough money to get the judge something really special for his birthday. He admitted to himself that this last disappointment was the main cause of his depression and silence. But he couldn't tell the judge that, not without embarrassing them both.
A change in the sound of the car engine had his eyes popping open to check the road ahead, only to find the judge had pulled into a gas station. Pulling himself upright in the seat, he flinched at the sharp stab of pain in his shoulder. Looking over to Hardcastle, he raised an eyebrow, "And?"
Hardcastle simply shrugged and switched the engine off, deciding that now wasn't the best time to mention Mark's obvious pain. "Not all of us were made to sit in a car all day, kiddo. Especially one as tiny inside as this one. Some of us need the odd break to get the kinks out."
Stepping out of the car, Hardcastle made a show of stretching his arms out and rotating his neck. Mark smiled at how the judge was trying to make it easier on Mark to admit that he needed to move as well. Climbing out of the car was more difficult than usual, with only one fully functional arm. Hissing slightly at the stiffness in his muscles, Mark made it upright and leaned on the car, tipping his head back to work the tightness out of his neck.
Hardcastle watched the younger man move slowly away from the car, taking a quick step towards Mark when he saw the slight stagger, but Mark recovered quickly and made his way towards the restroom. As the door closed behind Mark, Hardcastle started to top up the gas tank in the Coyote. Finishing the job quickly, he headed towards the tiny convenience store to pay for the gas and buy something to drink. The gas station owner, a strange looking fellow named Clive, was only too willing to take Hardcastle's money. "Mighty nice car you got there." Hardcastle nodded quickly, smothering a grin at the sound of the man's voice, before turning to leave. "Where'd you get it? Can't say as I've ever seen anything quite like it 'fore now."
Rolling his eyes at that, Hardcastle turned back to the man politely. "You won't find one anywhere else. It's a one-of-a-kind special. Priceless. And it's not mine." Glancing out the window, he tipped his head in Mark's direction. "It's his." Clive looked over at Mark, who was now leaning against the side of the car, then gave Hardcastle a considering look. Hardcastle could almost hear him wondering why Mark wasn't driving his own car. Turning around again, Hardcastle headed for the door, his steps speeding up as he saw Mark rubbing his bad shoulder again. Clive's voice followed him, "You take care of your son, now. He don't look so good." Hardcastle considered telling the man that Mark wasn't his son, but considering how often he found himself treating Mark like a son, he just nodded his head. "I'll do that." Stopping just outside the screen door, he watched Mark lean wearily against the car.
Hardcastle headed over and stopped in front of Mark, then handed him a bottle of water. Forestalling the inevitable whine about wanting something else, he held up one hand, "No complaints, Mark. You're not well, and until you are, that's the best thing for you."
"I'm fine, Judge, the shoulder's just a little sore. Honest, it's not that bad." The look on Hardcastle's face almost made Mark confess just how bad his shoulder felt. "Judge, really, would I lie to you?" Hardcastle's laughter startled the innocent look from Mark's face. "Sure you would, kiddo, if you didn't want me to worry about something." The look of dawning insight on Mark's face just made the judge laugh even more. "I wasn't born yesterday, Mark. You talk a good line most of the time, but you must know I've heard most of it before."
Mark's contemplative look showed that he hadn't actually given the idea much thought before. Reaching into the car for his jacket, Hardcastle started rooting through the pockets. "Well, while you consider that for a while, how about you take one of these?" He tipped one small blue pill out of the bottle he'd retrieved from his jacket, and placed it in the palm of Mark's hand.
"What is this, Hardcase? You know I don't like pills." Mark tried to hand the pill back to the judge. "That's your prescription from the doctor who patched you up. I can't make you take the pain pills, even though I think you should. I know you're hurting. But that's your antibiotic and I think you need it. You look a little flushed to me." Mark's look turned mutinous. "I threw that prescription away, Hardcase. Are you going through my garbage now as well?" Pain had always made Mark short-tempered, but Hardcastle knew that well enough by now to let it slide. "No, I'm not going through your garbage. God knows what I might catch!" The joke fell flat. "You missed the trash can. You know what happens when you don't concentrate on the follow-through. How many times have I beaten you on the court for that very reason?" Hardcastle smiled gently, "Nope, I just picked it up, just like I pick up the ball on the court."
"But why …" Mark's voice trailed off, and for a moment he seemed to lose his train of thought. "I had a feeling you'd need them before we got home, kiddo, so I made sure I got the prescription filled before we left. And now, would you please just swallow the dratted thing?" Hardcastle's tone hovered between exasperation and pleading. Mark nodded and swallowed the pill with a gulp of water. Leaning back against the car, he sighed loudly then gathered himself for the effort required to get back into the car. As he moved, Hardcastle was there to support him and hold the bottle of water. Sliding back into the car, Mark forced himself to relax against the seat while he waited for the judge to go around the car and climb in. He hated being the passenger in his own car. And that was just another thing he owed the judge a debt for; the judge had found his car and got it back for him. There was no way he'd ever be able to repay even the smallest part of the debt he owed the older man.
Sliding back into the driver's seat, Hardcastle grimaced at how uncomfortable it was. He'd never really appreciated just how hard it was to drive Mark's car for a long period of time. He'd joked about it being tiny inside, but truth be told, it wasn't really a joke. The Coyote hadn't been designed for comfort, and he really preferred being able to breath without feeling like a sardine in a can. Not to mention, he found driving on the long open highways through the desert very tiring, which was never a problem when the kid was in charge of the transportation side of things. Actually, there were a lot of things that were more enjoyable now than they had been in years. Perhaps he should think about finding a way to let the kid know how much he appreciated his company. If he could just get Mark to open up and deal with the aftermath of the race, and start talking to him again, he might be able to work his appreciation in without being too obvious about it. It would never do to let the kid realise how important he'd become in Hardcastle's life.
Pulling back out onto the highway, Hardcastle glanced at his watch to check the time. "Hey, kiddo, what do you say? Think we can make it home in three hours?" Mark glanced at his watch, and nodded. "Should do, even with you driving." Hardcastle hid his pleasure at the sniping behind a gruff façade. "Are you implying that I don't drive as well as you?" The comeback was a little slower than usual, but it was there, "I'm not implying anything, Judge. I'm saying it outright." Hardcastle couldn't stop the laughter at that. Maybe Mark was really going to be okay, after all.
Deciding to keep the conversation going to cut the monotony of the long, straight road ahead of him, Hardcastle cast about for a new topic. "Hey, kiddo, did you see that guy at the gas station?" Mark shook his head, and tipped his head questioningly. Hardcastle launched into a description designed to get Mark laughing. "He looks like he's been there since the creation of time, thin as a rail. This head of wild, white hair, standing up like he's just stuck his finger in the electric socket. This old coverall that's all faded and covered in grease," Mark was starting to smile, now, so Hardcastle added his final touch, "and then, hand embroidered in neat little red cursive letters on the left side of the coverall, there's his name, 'Clive'!" Mark couldn't help laughing, by this point. The picture Hardcastle painted was just too amusing.
Really warming to his topic now, Hardcastle mimicked the man's sepulchral tone of voice and achingly slow delivery, "He looks at the Coyote and says 'Mighty nice car you got there. Can't say as I've ever seen anything quite like it 'fore now.' Told him he never would, either, it's a priceless one-of-a-kind special."
Mark gave up the fight and roared with laughter at that. Finally catching his breath, he reached over to pat Hardcastle's shoulder with his good hand. "Thanks, Judge. I really needed that. But, come on, you've got to be yanking my chain here. No-one sounds like that for real." The laughter returned in full force when Hardcastle simply nodded his head emphatically. When the laughter died away, Mark shifted uncomfortably in his seat and cleared his throat.
"Judge," he started hesitantly, "I know I've been a bit … difficult … to cope with the last few days. And I haven't …" His voice trailed off. Taking a deep breath, Mark started again. "I just wanted to say thank you. You know, for looking after me when … everything went wrong." Hardcastle nodded, content to let Mark take his time. "And thanks for getting the Coyote back. I don't really want to think about life without it. It's about the only thing I have of any value." Mark sighed and lapsed into silence.
After a few minutes, Hardcastle figured it was safe to speak again. "I'm sorry about the money, kiddo. I know you really wanted it. If I could've found a way to save it, you know I would have." Contrition was an odd tone for the judge, and Mark reacted before giving it a second thought. "I don't care about the money, Judge." A disbelieving snort met his comment. "Okay, I didn't say that right. What I meant to say is, I'm sorry it's gone, but only because of what I wanted to do with it. I didn't want to just stick it in the bank, Judge. I had stuff I wanted to do with it. Plans."
Hardcastle looked interested in hearing more, but Mark ignored the question on the other man's face for a moment. Looking away from the judge, he took a deep breath and tried to organise his thoughts. "You've been great, Judge, ever since I met you. You've looked out for me, kept the Coyote running, and a whole bunch of other stuff. I just wanted to be able to repay you for some of that. I know this car isn't cheap to look after, and I was just glad that I was going to be able to pay my share for a while."
Catching the stunned expression on the judge's face, Mark could feel his temper starting to rise. "What, you thought I was just going to let you pay for everything forever? What kind of person do you think I am, Judge? I wasn't raised to take advantage of people, especially not my friends!" Hardcastle's stunned look turned to one of embarrassed pleasure, "You think of me as a friend, kiddo? You've never said so."
Mark couldn't meet Hardcastle's eyes. "Could we just forget I said that, Judge. Please. Put it down to me not feeling my best at the moment." Hardcastle just shook his head, smiling broadly. "Nope. But I'm not the sort to take advantage of my friends, either, so I won't use it against you in the future. Deal?" Mark's highly relieved and enthusiastic nodding made the judge laugh quietly to himself. "And, for the record, kiddo, I don't think you're the sort of person who takes advantage of people." Hardcastle bit his lip, and then decided that he may as well go on, "But I do think you have trouble, sometimes, accepting the fact that not everyone expects to be paid back for doing something for you. Friends do things for each other simply because they can. Because it makes them feel like they can make a difference to someone else's life. And hey, maybe they just enjoy seeing someone else happy too. Ever think of that?"
Mark slowly shook his head. "So, you really don't mind that I don't have the money anymore? You just want me to be happy." Mark's wondering tone was cutting too close to the judge's emotions. "I'm talking in the abstract here, McCormick. I expect you to do the yard work, just like we agreed. And to chase the bad guys with me. Every member of the family had to do their share when I was growing up. That's your share." Mark smiled at that slip. The judge considered him family. It was always nice to know where you stood with the people you cared about the most. But mentioning it might not be the best option at the moment. Just goes to show, he mused, he had learnt something useful from the old donkey over the last couple of years. Who'd have ever figured that Mark McCormick would understand the concept of discretion?
Rotating his shoulder gently, Mark hissed at the ache. H
HHe was never going to make it all the way back to Gulls Way at this rate. "I don't think there's going to be any yard work in the next few days, Judge. You didn't happen to fill the other part of that prescription as well, did you?" Glancing sideways at Mark, Hardcastle nodded towards the gap behind the seats. "Sure did. Just grab my jacket and check the pockets. There's another pill bottle in there as well."
Reaching awkwardly behind the seats, Mark snagged the jacket and quickly rifled through the pockets. He found both pill bottles in one pocket, along with some folded papers. Taking everything out, he unfolded the papers, only to find a copy of the official race programme from the track. Tucked inside that was a report from the local newspaper, listing him as the winner of the race. While he was contemplating whether or not to say anything, he popped the top off the bottle of pain killers, tipped one pill out and swallowed it down. Putting both bottles of pills back in the judge's jacket, he held onto the papers.
"Judge." Hardcastle glanced at him, saw the papers and looked away again. "Yes?" Mark thought twice. "Never mind, it's not important." The slightly uncertain tone undid Hardcastle's resolve. "What did you want to know, Mark?" The use of his given name gave Mark the courage to get the question out. "Judge, why did you keep these?" Hardcastle let the silence settle as he considered the best way to answer the question. Mark had almost given up when the older man started to speak.
"Have you ever heard the term 'bragging rights', kiddo?" Bragging rights. Mark hadn't heard the term since his mom had died. No-one had ever wanted to brag about anything he'd done since then. At Mark's nod, Hardcastle continued, glad that he wouldn't have to get into how much he wanted those rights for the rest of his life. "Well, those papers are my bragging rights. Some of the people you know want to know how things went; people like Frank and Claudia." Mark nodded, "But they'd believe what you tell them, Judge." Mark waved the papers, "You don't need this for them."
"True. But then there are the people who thought it was a bad idea, me and you chasing bad guys; you living at the estate. They thought you'd never be able to change, that you'd steal me blind. Nothing I said made any difference to them. And I'm going to enjoy rubbing their noses in it: how well you're doing, and how you turned out to be even better than I said you'd be." Suddenly realising what he'd said, Hardcastle risked a glance at Mark. The younger man was studiously ignoring the judge, concentrating on the printed pages he held.
Quietly, Mark spoke, keeping his gaze fixed on the front window of the car. "Bragging rights. Glad I could help you out with that, Judge." The gentle sarcasm only made it clear that Mark was more touched than he could bring himself to say. Somehow, the judge always seemed to be able to make things look better. Suddenly, the loss of twenty thousand dollars didn't seem so bad, balanced against the place he'd obviously been given in Hardcastle's life. What he had now, the life he shared with the judge, was priceless. And so much more than he'd ever believed he could have.
He was sure he could find some way to show Hardcastle his appreciation, without having to spend the money he no longer had. The judge's birthday was coming up soon. Maybe he should do a little quiet digging in the judge's files. Find some new evidence on a nice, simple little case and give it to the judge as a gift. Hardcastle had helped him to race again, and made one of his dreams come true. The least he could do was to return the favour and help the judge take one more criminal off the streets.
Glad to have that settled in his mind, Mark let his head drop back against the seat. He could feel the pain killer starting to work, and exhaustion was hovering nearby. "Bragging rights. Nice. Thanks, Judge." The quiet, satisfied tone was enough to make Hardcastle smile. It sounded like the kid had finally realised how much he meant to the judge. Seeing the younger man doze off, Hardcastle murmured quietly, "My pleasure, kiddo." The lack of response caused Hardcastle to risk a sideways glance, only to see that Mark was well on his way to dreamland. "You're a one-of-a-kind special too, kiddo." A soft sigh met his quiet comment, and turning his head slightly, Hardcastle could see a small smile creeping onto Mark's face.
It was a long drive back from Arizona. And Hardcastle whistled tunelessly for the rest of it, a huge smile plastered across his face.