Political Liabilities

By Jaz

A/N: A little missing scene from the episode "Hardcastle for Mayor." Big thanks go to Owl for the beta and to all the folks at Gulls Way for welcoming the newcomer. The guys aren't mine and my only compensation is getting to play...


It's amazing how much could change in such a short time.

Two and a half years, to be somewhat precise. Although if you'd asked him four and a half years ago, still at the beginning of his time inside compliments of the State of California, he would have said that two years was on a par with eternity.

But that had changed.

He'd changed.

He was leaning against the hood of the pickup lost in his thoughts when Hardcastle exited the building that housed the campaign office. Straightening as he saw the judge approaching, he couldn't stop the small wry shake of his head as he considered those two words: 'campaign office'. Who ever would have thought Hardcastle would run for mayor? Not that anything about the old geezer surprised him anymore—well, maybe that wasn't entirely true. After over two years in Hardcastle's 'judicial stay', McCormick was pretty sure he knew more about how the judge thought and operated than he'd ever known about anyone else in his life. Occasionally, though, Hardcase still managed to make his jaw drop.

And though he'd done his best to talk the older man out of running for office, he wasn't surprised to find out this morning the judge hadn't listened. A perpetual do-gooder was hidden inside the gruff, cantankerous retired jurist, and that apparently wasn't limited to his Lone Ranger escapades.

The comment Dutton had made a short time ago about Mark needing to keep his distance from Hardcastle for the duration of the campaign had cut deep. After all, nobody was more aware than he was of his status as an ex-con. But it had been quite a while since he'd felt that sharp pang of regret over his past. Quite a while since he'd even seen himself as the parolee he still was, much less a 'known felon'.

And he had Hardcastle to thank for that.

Right from day one, the judge had shown the former racecar driver that his being an ex-con was something the older man could overlook. Sure, there had been the occasional odd remark or the threat of prison used as blackmail (though even those were non-existent these days), but Hardcase had always seen the man inside the label—a view McCormick had struggled to return early on, when he discovered his own ideas about the judge who'd sent him up needed some serious revision.

McCormick kept his face neutral as the judge approached the car, though his emotions after his recent encounter with Hardcastle's new press manager were anything but. He pushed himself away from the truck and stood to his full height, determining then and there that this black mood that had overtaken him was not something he'd be sharing with Hardcastle. Seeing the judge this happy was something he didn't want to take away.

"Hey, kiddo," Hardcastle said as he approached, "you should have hung around inside—you could've seen all the neat stuff they got put together for this."

Mark's lips curved slightly upward as he thought of the poster with Hardcastle's judicial picture on it—he was pretty sure it was the one the older man said he should have gotten rid of back when he was nominated for the Supreme Court. "Nah. All that noise in there was giving me a headache. Besides, you seen one campaign office, you've seen 'em all."

"Oh yeah? And exactly how many campaign offices have you seen, hotshot?"

Mark glanced sideways at the judge. "Including yours?"


"One. Which means…"

"That you've seen them all. Yeah, yeah, I got it. Just get in the damn truck. You drive." Hardcastle gave him a shove in the direction of the driver's side as he opened the door to climb in.

Mark walked around the hood of the pickup and waited for a passing car before he pulled open his own door and slid behind the wheel. "Damn truck? I don't know, Judge. Seems to me that a candidate for mayor shouldn't be using such strong language. Might be bad for your public image, you know? Nobody's going to want you kissing their baby with that mouth." He pulled out his keys from his sports coat pocket and left no time for the judge to reply. "Where to, kemosabe?"

"Home, I guess," the judge replied. "They put together this crazy schedule for me; that's what we were going over in the office, but it doesn't start until the press conference at three. So we might as well head back and grab some lunch before we have to be there." He sighed slightly. He wasn't looking forward to doing some political dance in front of the cameras.

Mark's gaze narrowed at the mention of the press conference, though he kept silent. Hardcastle's use of the word 'we' led him to believe that Dutton had not been as forthcoming with the jurist regarding the necessity of keeping his distance from McCormick. No, that one had been dropped in Mark's lap, and it was safe to assume he was expected to play by the rules. Not that he wouldn't; as much as he would have liked to tell Hardcastle's new political advisors to shove it, he wouldn't do anything to hurt the judge's chances. Despite all the older man's protests and 'I'm not sure I'm going to run,' comments, he knew the judge was excited about the possibility of being elected.

And that alone was enough to keep Mark from crossing any line.


Checking his side mirror, Mark waited for the traffic to pass before pulling smoothly out into the roadway. He rolled down his window and allowed his arm to rest on the door. "So they've got a big schedule all set for you, huh? What kind of stuff have you got to do? Cutting ribbons at brand new halfway houses? Attaching 'Vote for Hardcastle' tickets to all outgoing subpoenas? Maybe you can even invoke a fine for anyone who doesn't vote for you…"

"Very funny, wise-guy," Hardcastle replied, rubbing a hand across his mouth to cover the grin. Damn kid could always make him laugh, right from the start, but he didn't want him knowing that. "Nah, they got all these fancy ideas about the way a campaign is supposed to be run. Sure ain't the way I pictured it going. It took me ten minutes just to convince them I wanted some time to just go out and meet the people, you know, shake some hands, stuff like that."

"So are they gonna let you?"

"Yeah, I talked 'em into it. But I definitely got the idea they were just doing it to appease me," Hardcastle grumbled. "I know they're supposed to be the political hoo-hahs, but they got another think coming if they think they're just gonna run roughshod over me. I can make up my own mind; always have." His ire was rising just recalling the recent conversation.

"Really?" Mark asked sarcastically.

"Yes, really!" Hardcastle fumed. "And don't give me any of your lip. You know damned well I don't want to be handled. You wouldn't like it either."

Mark smirked. "Judge, I've spent the better part of the last decade being 'handled,' as you so delicately put it, in one way or another. And the last two and a half years, no, five, have been courtesy of yours truly there, so you'll have to forgive me if I'm not totally sympathetic to your situation. Besides, it might be a good thing for you to be on the receiving end for a while." Mark pulled his gaze off the judge and returned to road ahead as they approached the entrance ramp to the freeway.

"For your information, kiddo, the only reason you've been 'handled' is that you can't be let out without a keeper!" Though the judge's tone was all bluff and bluster, the twinkle in his eye would have given him away to anyone practiced enough to see it. Very few things left him feeling as alive as these 'arguments' he had with McCormick. The younger man could take anything he dished out and never hesitated to give it back full throttle. It kept the judge on his toes, and he thrived on it.

McCormick barked out a laugh and glanced again at the man in the passenger seat. "Me?" he sputtered. "I'm not the one who needs a keeper. You've got half of L.A. wanting to take you out! If the other half doesn't, it's only because they haven't met you yet. It's a good thing we cons aren't allowed to vote, or you wouldn't stand a chance. It's also a good thing you got Tonto around to keep you out of trouble. Tonto know how to handle masked man."

Hardcastle snorted. "Some handling you did in there just now, leaving the masked man to ride alone with Sykes and Dutton."

Mark sobered slightly, feeling once again the sting of Dutton's words. "Yeah, well, Tonto no like white man's politics," he muttered.

"Besides," Hardcastle continued as if the other man hadn't spoken, "I just said nobody needs to handle me until I'm too old and senile to take care of myself." He settled back into his seat and folded his arms across his chest, putting the debate to rest.

Mark felt his lips turning upward once again. "If the shoe fits, Hardcase, if the shoe fits…"


The men lapsed into silence that grew uncomfortable as the drive continued. For his part, Hardcastle let his thoughts dwell on his meeting with Sykes and Dutton. There was still a bad taste in his mouth, though if pressed for a reason why, he wasn't sure he could formulate an answer. He was fairly certain the two men meant well, and it could indeed be that they knew better than he the best way to run a campaign in today's world. But that didn't mean he wanted his own plans tossed out the window. His style might be what some considered old fashioned, but, dammit, that's who he was. And that was who he needed people to be voting for, because he wasn't about to change if he were sworn into office.

The judge's gaze took in the man behind the wheel as they made their way up the Pacific Coast Highway towards home, taking in Mark's uncharacteristic silence and the tension in his face. Hardcastle's Something Is Not Quite Right radar was pinging slightly. Though not obvious, whatever was going on in the younger man's head had him worried. He thought back to the conversation they'd shared just after the judge had his lunch with J.J. Norcross, when he told Mark he'd been asked to run for Mayor. McCormick's disbelief had been apparent, and though he'd made a few smart-aleck remarks, he'd also gotten serious enough with the judge to bring up some valid concerns. His comment about compromise not being in line with what Milton C. Hardcastle stood for was spot-on, that was for sure.

When was it exactly that the man had come to know him so damn well anyway?

And though Hardcastle hadn't shared his decision to actually take on the mayoral race before they got to the campaign office this morning, he was fairly certain he had McCormick's support. But now, lingering doubts remained.

They pulled into the drive and around the fountain with nary another word between them. Hardcastle checked his watch—only quarter to eleven. Plenty of time to get things straightened out. Neither man would be comfortable with an out and out conversation—they both handled their emotions by keeping them close to the vest—but maybe under the guise of a good game of one on one… besides, they'd missed out on their daily ritual in order to get on the road early enough for the meeting at the campaign office. He was just about to suggest it when McCormick shut off the engine and climbed out of the cab. He opened his own door and hustled out, watching as the younger man started towards the gatehouse.

"Where you goin'?" he asked, wincing inwardly as it came out gruffer than he intended.

Mark stopped and looked back over his shoulder at the judge. "We got some time before lunch. I thought I'd get started on the north lawn."

"I thought maybe you'd be up for a little basketball." The tone stopped just short of whining.

Mark gave half a smile. "Nah, I'd better not. The lawn's been getting pretty high, and they're threatening rain tomorrow so I want to get to it. I'll head over to the house later and put together some lunch."

The judge sighed, giving in less than gracefully. He could hardly yell at the kid for wanting to get some work done, though that in and of itself was a sign that something was off. "Don't worry about it," he said, waving his arm half-heartedly. "I'll take care of lunch. " He turned towards the main house. "I'll call you when it's ready," he finished with a grumble.

Mark watched him walk away for a half-second more, then headed off to his own place to change.


The sandwiches the judge had made for lunch had been eaten on the patio with a minimum of fuss and even less conversation. Though a few attempts had been made by Hardcastle to draw Mark out, even the most basic of topics was met with short, hurried answers evident of distraction. He'd watched as the younger man ate at a pace that was sure to give any normal person indigestion before grabbing his now empty plate and glass and tossing out a studiously casual comment about getting back to the lawn.

Hardcastle wasn't surprised by McCormick's attempted retreat, and he was willing to let him go for now. "Just make sure you're ready to leave by 1:30, okay, sport? I want to get there a little ahead of time for the press conference."

Mark let go of the plates and let his hands rest on the table in front of him. "Judge—I…well, I was thinking maybe I'd just stay here and get the rest of the yard done. That rain looks like it might be coming sooner than we think," he stalled.

Hardcastle's only response was to raise an eyebrow and point up at the cloudless blue sky.

"Yeah, well, you never know," Mark grumbled, knowing he'd been called out. Dutton may have told him he needed to lie low for the duration of the campaign; it would have been nice if he'd told him exactly how to accomplish that. One of the things Mark had learned early on was that Hardcastle generally preferred it if his trusty young ex-con in residence was never more than an arm's reach away. In the beginning, Mark had figured it was a short leash based on limited trust. Truth be told, he never gave much thought to it these days, even though the reasons had most certainly changed. But since it now worked both ways, as he generally preferred staying within arm's reach of the older man himself, it didn't bother him much.

"Look, if you don't wanna come with me, fine. It's not like I need you there anyway," the judge said sharply. The underlying hurt caused by McCormick's apparent lack of support was a bit closer to the surface than he'd care to admit.

"No, Judge, it's not that," Mark trailed off, unsure what to say. The truth, that the mistakes he'd made years ago were once again returning to haunt him, was a painful reminder that he'd never be completely free from his past and something he didn't want to get into right now.

"Then what?" Hardcastle groused loudly.

A fleeting darkness passed over Mark's features. He shook his head as if to force it away before standing and walking to the far side of the pool, his gaze searching beyond the trees for the ocean. Even the scent of it was enough to calm his spirit, and in the silence, he could make out the sound of the surf crashing on the rocks below.

Hardcastle watched him closely for a minute before moving to join him.

"You wanna tell me what's going on in that mind of yours, McCormick?" he asked as they stood shoulder to shoulder.

"Nothing, Hardcase," McCormick grinned, shrugging off the judge's concern. His eyes told another story—there was a glint in them, a hardness that Hardcastle hadn't seen in quite a while.

After two and a half years with nothing but constant chatter coming from the ex-con, Hardcastle knew that silence couldn't mean anything good. The older man also knew that sometimes the best way to get McCormick talking about something he didn't want to was not to pressure him. Waiting him out was only the first of many tricks up his sleeve, and the judge was determined to find out what was bugging him.

As the silence stretched on, McCormick risked a glance at the man at his side before returning his eyes to the horizon. He hated it when the judge was patient with him. He'd have liked to say it was out of character, but that wasn't true. Hardcastle's brand of patience was often well disguised, but it was there regardless, and it usually left Mark defenseless. Even now he could feel the truth crawling up inside him, itching to get out, and he knew he'd be spilling his guts in seconds. It was always the same. Hardcastle had told him not long ago that he was the most facile liar he'd ever known. Too bad that didn't seem to be the case where the judge himself was concerned. Nothing but truth was an option with him.

Taking a deep breath and hoping to forestall the inevitable, Mark released it slowly. "Look, Judge, it's nothing, okay?" He smiled again, doing his best to make it as real as possible.

"You think I'm nuts for doing this, right? Running for Mayor, I mean," Hardcastle guessed quietly.

"What? No! It's not that. I mean, I know I said all that stuff about you and politics before, but I meant that about the whole campaigning thing. If you get elected, when you get elected, I think you'll do a great job." There was enough earnestness in the man's voice that Hardcastle couldn't doubt his sincerity.


Mark hesitated. "I…I just think maybe I should keep a low profile for a while, that's all. I mean, let's face it, Judge, you hanging out with me is something a lot of folks won't understand."

There was an evasive quality to Mark's answer, enough for Hardcastle to know it was the truth, but maybe not quite all of it. He thought they'd put all this behind them—McCormick's tendency to feel he didn't quite measure up due to his past. In fact, they hadn't dealt with this in a long time—maybe not since he was up for the Supreme Court nomination. He puzzled on that for a moment, taking in the tenseness of the man standing next to him, and realized this issue only seemed to come up when he himself was placed in a position that your ordinary average guy wouldn't be. McCormick was okay with his place next to Hardcastle as long as Hardcastle kept his own feet on the ground.

Hardcastle realized Mark was still waiting for a response. "You got nothing to be ashamed of, kiddo. Sure, there might be folks who don't understand but who gives a damn about them?"

"You do. At least you should. They're the voting public, and you won't get far in politics without them."

"Yeah, but not everybody's gonna care about something like that. And the ones who do can go jump in a lake," Hardcastle said firmly.

"Not sure everyone shares your opinion," Mark muttered under his breath.

Something about the way he said it tugged at the older man; suddenly, the pieces all fell into place. "Dutton."

The fierceness with which he said the man's name hung on the air. McCormick said nothing, neither confirming nor denying his friend's suspicions.

"Alright, let's have it. What the hell did he say to you?" The growl was unmistakable.

Mark backtracked, recognizing the judge's protective tone and aware that it wouldn't help the candidate to want to pummel his political advisors before the campaign had actually begun. "Judge, I don't know what you're talking about," he said with a hesitant chuckle. "What makes you think he said anything?"

"Because the minute we set foot into that office, he said he needed to talk to you, and then you pulled your disappearing act, and you been moping around ever since!"

"Moping around? I have not been moping around! I've just been getting some stuff done, that's all."

"Dammit, McCormick, any time you do your chores without me nagging you non-stop, without me even telling you to, I know you're moping. Don't try to tell me any different. Now what did he say?"

Mark filed the information about his doing chores away for later and realized the jig was up. He'd known it was only a matter of time before Hardcastle got the truth out of him anyway. Sometimes he wondered why he didn't just give in from the beginning. But he figured they'd both miss the game. He shoved his hands into the pockets of the cutoffs he word for yard work and shrugged.

"He might have said something like 'a candidate for mayor cannot associate with a known felon.' That I'm a political liability." Mark's words trailed off into a mumble.

There was a bitterness in McCormick's tone that left the judge in no doubt that what he'd just heard had been quoted verbatim. "That son of a …." he muttered to himself. He took a deep breath. "He had no right to say something like that to you, kiddo."

Mark raised an eyebrow. "No?" he asked, dripping sarcasm.

"No! Known felon, my sweet aunt! You know that's not true!"

"Which part, Hardcase? The 'known felon' or the 'political liability'? Because I'm pretty sure they both apply."

"No way," Hardcastle replied adamantly. "You're an ex-con. Get it? Ex-con. You did your time, that's over."

"Ex-con, yeah, I'll buy that. But I don't think I get to be an ex-felon, judge. Once a felon, always a felon."

"Nonsense. Dutton's full of crap; he doesn't know what the hell he's talking about. You made a mistake and now you're putting your life back together, that's what matters." The jurist harrumphed and swiped a hand over his mouth, as if to wipe away any traces that something nice might have been said.

Mark could feel the downward spiral of his thoughts slowly churn to a halt on hearing the judge's anger on his behalf. He stared down at his feet, feeling the beginnings of a flush creep up the back of his neck.

"Listen," the judge continued, heedless of the other man's embarrassment. "People like that, they're never gonna understand. They see somebody like you and they slap a label on, never once taking the time to look deep enough to see the person underneath it. And that's their loss, okay? You've had some lousy breaks in your life, and, yeah, you screwed up a few times…"

McCormick snorted, slowly shaking his head.

"But that doesn't mean you can't start over," Hardcastle finished with a glare. "You're not the same guy you were when you first came here, and I…you should be proud of that."

Mark looked up at the judge and saw the telltale flush on the back of the other man's neck as well. The downward spiral had reversed itself now as he felt the warmth within take hold. His eyes softened as he took in the judge's own embarrassment over sharing his thoughts.

"Careful, Judge. Someone might actually think you were paying me a compliment." His smile grew. "And I appreciate it. I really do. But maybe it's better if I stay home this afternoon anyway. Just to be safe."

Hardcastle pulled his gaze from the horizon to face the young man at his side. "Nothing doing," he huffed. "You're gonna be there because I say you're gonna be there, and to heck with anyone else. After all, who else will tell me if I looked like an idiot or not?"

McCormick saw the judge's statement for what it was; a request, however thickly veiled, for a little moral support, as well as a chance to put this political liability issue aside. Willing to meet him halfway, Mark allowed a grin.

"Yeah, but Judge…you know I'm going to tell you that you looked like an idiot no matter what…"