All the usual disclaimers apply: none of the characters are mine, and neither is the show.

I have an episode listing which indicates that "If you could see what I see" was followed by "Hardcastle for Mayor". This story would take place after both these episodes, and assumes that this is the correct screening order.

Without fear

Love isn't really love without fear.
Richard Marx, 'More than a mystery'

Things were going to change. Mark McCormick sighed as he settled his hat more firmly on his head, shading his eyes. The sun was bright but the day was only pleasantly warm, and Mark found himself appreciating the simple warmth of the sun more than he had done for most of his life, as he slowly pushed the lawnmower across the large expanse of lawn near the cliff edge. He supposed it made sense that he'd appreciate the world a bit more than usual at the moment; after all, it had only been a month since he'd been lying in a ravine, slowly bleeding to death, tossed there by Falcon and Price and left to die. Even now, thoughts of that night were confused; dark, cold, and despairing, broken only by the sound of Hardcastle's voice, arriving with the dawn and guiding Mark back to safety.

Hardcastle. The judge was continually surprising Mark, even after the years they'd spent together, but seeing the older man arrive at his side just when he was ready to give up all hope of being found, was one of the most amazing things that had ever happened to Mark. Memories of his stay in the hospital weren't clear either, just hours of disconnected sounds and events; voices of nurses and doctors, undertones of doubt and despair saying things they obviously couldn't bring themselves to say to Hardcastle's face, needles pricking his arms, burning pain where he'd been shot, and a permanent sensation of coldness. But along with the bad memories were better ones: Hardcastle's voice, calm and steady, an anchor in the darkness, filled with the belief that Mark would prove the doctors wrong, the sound of Millie and Frank talking to the judge and trying to convince the jurist to do something Mark couldn't quite follow, and the gentle warmth that seeped through him at night when Hardcastle held his hand and willed him to recover. Mark knew that Hardcastle's mere presence had made all the difference during his time in the hospital, but since his release, things had changed.

Coming full circle back to his original thought, Mark switched the mower off and moved to stare out over the ocean. Something was off about the judge's behaviour lately, but Mark was having trouble putting his finger on the cause of the change. Most of the time, Hardcastle seemed the same person he had always been, but his sudden decision to run for mayor had been completely unexpected. And when that plan had fallen through, he hadn't really seemed upset about it, which made Mark wonder why the judge had decided to run in the first place. Somehow, politics had never seemed like something Hardcase would want to be involved in; there were too many lies and too many people who'd let their ideals be corrupted by money and power. Hardcastle definitely wasn't one of those, and although he liked to preach the gospel of one man making a difference, Mark knew the judge wasn't naïve enough to believe that the entire political system could be changed by one retired judge. So that simply meant that there had to be some other reason for the judge's behaviour, for the strange decision to run for political office in the first place.

Mark shook his head in silent disgust at being back at the same point again, then took hold of the mower and trudged back to the garage to put it away for now; his side ached slightly and he still tired more easily than he would like, but the doctors had warned him that the exhaustion would take a month or two to ease completely. Excessive blood loss tended to cause exhaustion, and then he'd gone around 'retrieving' documents for the judge just a couple of weeks later. He didn't think that was what the doctors had had in mind when they'd said to take things easy. Glancing at the main house, he caught a glimpse of Hardcastle watching him from the patio, before the older man started guiltily and ducked back into the house. Enough. As soon as he'd cleaned up a bit in the gatehouse, Mark was going to have this out with the older man; whatever was going on was stopping today, or Mark would know the reason why.

Hardcastle sighed in exasperation as he ducked back into the dimness of the house; he was losing his touch at sneaking around his own estate. Every time he let himself watch the kid moving around, every week regaining a little more grace and strength, he'd get distracted by the fact that just watching Mark breathe was a miracle. And then, the younger man would turn around and spot him watching. He knew he was making Mark uncomfortable, but he didn't seem to be able to stop remembering that he'd almost lost the younger man a few short weeks ago. In fact, the doctors had been convinced that Mark was going to die. Nightmares about finding Mark too late for it to matter had been regular nightly visitations since the shooting.

Hardcastle had known that Mark had been uneasy about Falcon and Price from the start, and that Millie's visions had only made things worse. Mark was a collection of contradictions: he believed firmly in God but also in the idea that every man could help himself without waiting for God to lend a hand. He claimed not to be superstitious, but wouldn't go anywhere without his St. Jude medal, seeing it as his only link to his mother. And for a guy who claimed not to be superstitious, he'd been convinced that Millie's visions were going to come true, based on nothing more than one award falling off the corner of Hardcastle's desk.

Hardcastle had found himself wondering, as he sat by Mark's bedside during the long nights after he'd found the kid, what precisely had convinced Mark to hang on until Hardcastle had found him. Mark's confused mumblings had offered clues to the younger man's state of mind, but nothing had made much sense except for the fact that Mark had been cold. Practical as always, Hardcastle had tucked another blanket around the shivering body and settled in to hold Mark's hand until the additional warmth had soothed the younger man back into a fitful sleep. Some of the words he'd been able to pick out made him think that Hardcastle himself had played some part in Mark's ability to hang on long enough to be found. If that were true, then Mark's wellbeing would have to become the judge's first priority, and that would require changes.

In some ways, JJ Norcross' offer of Hardcastle running for mayor had seemed like a godsend to the judge. It would be a way to make a difference to many peoples' lives, to uphold the law, but without any risk to Mark's life or his own. Not that his own life was as important to him as Mark's was; after all, he'd already had a long life, filled with a wife, family and career that he'd loved, while Mark still had most of that ahead of him and deserved a chance to build a store of good memories to look back on when he was Hardcastle's age. The only problem with being mayor, aside from the fact that he'd never really been meant to win the election, was that Hardcastle was sure he'd have found the job boring. There would have been endless meetings, too much negotiating, and too often, he would have had to settle for less than the best solution to a problem, because that was how politics worked. But Hardcastle had been willing to settle for that, if it meant keeping Mark safe.

Even now, after the dust had settled, Hardcastle found himself pondering what to do with his days, as Mark slowly gained back his strength, and the estate started to look shipshape again. The basement and the filing cabinets called to him every morning, a siren song he'd always found it hard to ignore. He was also finding it harder and harder to come up with reasons for not digging out a new case, and Mark had actually asked him this morning what was next on their roster. But every time his resolve wavered, Hardcastle simply had to look out the window and see Mark moving around the yard, soaking up the sunshine, and he found another cupboard to clean out, or another reason to invite Frank to dinner. He would change everything about his life, as long as Mark was still around to be a part of it.

Hours later, Mark made his way across the lawn to the kitchen door. He'd intended to come and settle things with the judge as soon as he'd cleaned up, but he'd dropped onto the sofa for a quick rest, and ended up falling asleep for hours. This tendency to drop off at the slightest opportunity was starting to get annoying, in spite of what the doctors had said, but at least he wasn't sleeping whole days away anymore. Another couple of weeks, and he might not doze off at all. Then maybe he could get Hardcastle to start hunting down bad guys again. Starting tomorrow, Hardcastle was going to find them some nice simple cases in his bulging file cabinets. After all, not everything had to involve fist fights and car chases.

Hearing voices, Mark made his way to the den, not surprised to realise that the visitor was Frank. Mark knew he should have expected Hardcastle to call Frank; every time he'd caught the older man staring at him, the judge had invited Frank around to dinner. It was almost as if the judge had an inkling that Mark would want to talk about things, and was roping Frank in as a defence against the inevitable discussion. Well, this time it wasn't going to work.

"Hi, Frank. You staying for dinner this time, too?" With a nonchalant nod towards the judge, Mark made his way into the room and dropped into his favourite chair. Hardcastle's hopeful look didn't escape Frank's notice, but the concerned look Mark shot at the judge made Frank re-think his nearly automatic agreement. Sometimes, it was best not to get too deeply involved, and Frank quickly decided that this was one of those times.

"No, actually not this time, Mark. I just dropped in to see how you're both doing." An appraising glance swept Mark from head to toe. "You're looking much better. And Milt says you're back to doing the yard work again." Frank's smile was warm and open. "So I guess that means I'll soon be seeing you two at the station again, sticking your noses into places they shouldn't be and hunting down more of Milt's most wanted list." Frank's glance flipped between the two men, and so he missed the sudden flash of fear on Milt's face, but Mark had already seen what the older man was trying to hide.

"It might be a while longer, Frank. We've still got to hunt out some likely suspects." Mark hedged, his voice untroubled, but Hardcastle caught the note of uncertainty hidden in the words. Jumping in quickly, Hardcastle tried to head trouble off at the pass. "I've been busy lately, Frank; you know, lots of cleaning out and tidying up to do. I'm not real sure about when I'll get into the files again. But don't worry, you'll be the first to know what we're up to." The smile was less reassuring than it should have been, and Frank realised with sudden clarity that he was being lied to. Milt had never outright lied to Frank before, but instinct warned that now wasn't the time to call the older man on the change.

Heading for the door, Frank wondered what to do about his revelation, and how to figure out what was bothering Milt. Mark would most likely be able to get an answer, but getting the younger man alone would be difficult. Since the shooting, Milt had been extremely protective of Mark. He'd decided when Mark could have visitors at the hospital, how long they could stay and whether or not Mark was too tired to see people. Now Hardcastle was controlling what Mark could eat and even trying to enforce a curfew. To anyone who only knew Hardcastle by reputation, the mother hen behaviour would have been hysterically funny, but to Frank, who knew the real man behind the façade, the behaviour had been completely in character. There was nothing Milton Hardcastle wouldn't do to protect those he loved.

"Milt, do you mind if I borrow Mark for a couple of minutes before I go? There's this weird noise in the engine, and you know what mechanics are like; if you don't have some idea of what's causing the noise, they think you're stupid enough to pay whatever they charge." Frank shared a quick smile with the judge, who nodded at Mark. "Off you go, kiddo. I'm sure you can save Frank some aggravation." Mark's eyes lit up at the thought of getting his hands dirty in a car engine again, and he headed off with Frank. Hardcastle found himself smiling foolishly at the sight of Mark's happiness, and he headed off to the kitchen to get started on dinner. The kid needed proper food to make sure he got his strength back, and that meant taking a bit longer over preparing meals.

Waiting until they'd got all the way to the car, Frank laid his hand on Mark's arm. "Mark, what's going on here?" Mark turned puzzled blue eyes to Frank, "What are you talking about, Frank? Nothing's going on." The half-glance back towards the house showed that Mark had at least some idea what Frank meant, and the older man pressed the advantage. "Don't mess with me, Mark. I know you know what I mean. So spill it."

Mark sighed and leaned against the car. "I wish I could tell you, Frank. But I really mean it this time, there's nothing going on here at all." Inspiration struck suddenly, "As a matter of fact, I bet that's the problem!" Frank looked confused at the sudden change in Mark's attitude, but the younger man rushed on with rising energy and enthusiasm. "Nothing's going on: that's his problem. He's got no bad guys to chase, he's not digging in the files, he's not out looking for trouble."

Frank nodded slowly as he realised the truth of what Mark was saying. Mark's mind was suddenly flying, moving faster than Frank could follow. "Now, all I've got to do is figure out what's stopping him and fix it. Then we can get things back to normal around here." Reality crashed in as Mark took a sudden deep breath and winced. Occasionally his side still pulled, another unwanted reminder of being left for dead. Shaking his head in answer to Frank's unspoken concern, Mark sighed, "It's just a twinge, Frank. Nothing serious. The doctors warned it would take a while to get back to top form."

Mark's thoughts immediately turned back to Hardcastle. "Now, I just need to get that stubborn old geezer to tell me what's going on. Any suggestions?" Mark's eyes settled on Frank's face, only to see the other man looked uncomfortable, as though he'd just bitten into an extremely sour lemon. Frank turned to look at the house, turning the unexpected revelation over in his mind, and then turned back to Mark. Hardcastle's motives had crystallised in that moment, and Frank wasn't sure that this was something Mark was ready to deal with. Open concern wasn't a common thing between Frank's closest friends, even though it was obviously there in every action. Suddenly deadly serious, Frank's words were quiet and solemn, "Mark, go slowly with this. Milt has his reasons for what he's doing. Don't push him too hard." Mark raised an eyebrow, confused by Frank's sudden about-face.

"You know something about all this, don't you, Frank?" Frank glanced away just long enough to confirm Mark's suspicions. "Come on, Frank, help me out here." Mark's pleadings fell on deaf ears. Frank shook his head thoughtfully, "You were very ill a few weeks back, Mark. Falcon and Price could have killed you. I don't know what you remember …"

Mark shook his head slowly. "Almost nothing, Frank. Mainly things are just confused, a mix of images and sounds, a feeling of being really cold, except … Hardcastle. He was always there, Frank, this constant presence; even when I wasn't really aware of anything else, I knew he was there." Frank nodded, a slight smile creasing his face and lighting his dark eyes. "Just keep this in mind, Mark. The doctors thought you were going to die that first night. The only person who wouldn't believe them was Milt. Just promise me that you'll think about that for a bit before you do whatever it is you're planning to do."

Frank laughed at Mark's suddenly innocent expression. Only the most gullible would have put any faith in that choir-boy expression. Mark smiled in return though, his voice carefully neutral, "I promise, Frank. Whatever I do, I'll be careful." Meeting Frank's gaze directly, Mark nodded once in confirmation, "I won't hurt him, Frank, no matter what. Trust me." Frank's nod was a welcome sight, and Mark accepted it as a sign of Frank's support. Waving goodbye to one very good friend, Mark headed back into the house to start straightening out his best friend.

As had become the norm over the last few weeks, Mark found Hardcastle in the kitchen, debating over whether carrots were better than squash, or whether Mark needed the iron in the spinach more than he needed green beans. Biting back a snicker at the sight of a domesticated Hardcastle, Mark sidled up to the counter and swept the carrots into a pot. "And green beans, Judge. I don't really like spinach, you know." Hardcastle had hardly opened his mouth to answer before Mark cut him off. "Don't even say it, Hardcase; I didn't like Popeye, either!"

At that, Hardcastle laughed out loud. Sometimes Mark was more amusing than a barrel-load of monkeys. "Okay, hotshot, but don't complain to me when it takes too long to get your strength back." Mark shook his head and smiled back, glad to see Hardcastle joking again; things had been too serious around the estate for much too long. Tonight would be the first step back to how things used to be.

Mark began to chatter on about the garden and what needed to be bought from the nursery. In Mark's opinion, Hardcastle had let things slide in the last month, and it was time to get things back on schedule. There were plants needing pruning, and the regular mulching was due to start in just a couple of weeks. Hardcastle let himself relax into the conversation. Listening to Mark talk, Hardcastle found his attention wandering from the details of what Mark was saying, focusing instead on the pleasant sound of Mark's voice, and the warmth of Mark's presence in his life, while Hardcastle nodded and made all the right noises as Mark continued to talk.

"I think old Mrs. Benton is growing pot in her herb garden, Judge. She's too happy all the time for her not to be on drugs of some sort." Hardcastle nodded.

"You're not hearing a word I'm saying, are you, Judge?" With fond exasperation filling his voice, Mark was about to wave a hand in front of the judge's eyes, before he realised that he could use this to his advantage. "Do you know that you've sprouted little green feelers this afternoon, Hardcase? You always wanted to meet a little green man from outer space, didn't you, and now you've turned into one." Mark kept his tone neutral and had to bite his lip hard not to collapse in laughter as the judge nodded again and made an affirmative sounding grunt.

"Okay, then, Hardcase. So tomorrow morning, first thing, we're going down to the filing cabinets and looking for some nice little case to get us started again." Another placid nod greeted this statement as well. Mark's sudden whoop of satisfaction made Milt realise too late that he'd just agreed to do the one thing he'd been consciously avoiding for weeks. Retracing the conversation in his head, he realised that Mark had done it deliberately. "Not a chance, kiddo. And no, I don't think I'm a little green man from Mars!" Although the image was enough to make Milt laugh aloud.

"You said you would, Judge. I heard you, and you're not going to back down on your word, are you?" The plaintive tone in Mark's voice would have broken harder men than Milton Hardcastle. Shaking his head in disgust at how easily he caved in to Mark's every whim, Hardcastle took a stand. "Not tomorrow, kiddo. I've got stuff lined up to do, and there's plenty you can help with, as well. The files aren't going anywhere, they'll still be there when we get the time to get back to them." The lie was almost smooth enough to convince someone who didn't know Hardcastle well, but Mark had become an expert in the unspoken language of Hardcase. The slight tilt of the head, and the suddenly wandering eyes were telltale signs that the judge was trying to get Mark to drop the subject.

"Sorry, Judge, I'm not buying whatever it is you're trying to sell. Now how about you tell me what's really going on here?" Mark was more determined than ever to find out what was going on in the older man's head, and Hardcastle sighed in defeat as he locked eyes with the younger man. "Nothing's going on, as you put it, kiddo. I've just done some thinking over the last few weeks, and maybe this isn't the healthiest way to spend my retirement." The snort of disbelief told Hardcastle that he was going to have to work much harder to get Mark to believe anything he was saying. "I've even been thinking about maybe starting a career in politics. I could run for mayor again when the next election comes around, and from there, who knows?"

Mark looked at Hardcastle as if the older man had suddenly grown a second head. Maybe he should call Charlie Friedman in, as it sounded as if Hardcastle had finally slipped over the edge of madness. "Pull the other one, Judge. I can't understand what made you run for mayor this time. You know you'd hate being a figurehead, without any real say in how anything gets done, and now you want me to believe that you're really looking for a career in politics? You must think I'm as nuts as you seem to be at the moment! You'd be bored to death inside of two weeks."

Mark's voice had risen with each sentence until he was almost shouting at the judge, and all the second-guessing suddenly became too much for the older man. Days of worry and uncertainty, followed by weeks of watching Mark's slow recovery, tipped Hardcastle from hard-held patience headfirst into the fear and anger he'd kept bottled up since finding Mark in the ravine. "You don't have some sort of divine insight into my behaviour, McCormick. Just because it's not what you want to see or hear doesn't mean it isn't what I want. For all you know, I've always planned on having a career in politics, and besides which, anything that keeps you safe is worth the price!" As his anger faded, Hardcastle was appalled to realise what he'd just said. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valour, he made a beeline for the door and headed out into the back yard.

Mark stood agape next to the kitchen sink. Hardcastle was doing all this to keep Mark safe? All the out-of character behaviour, and avoiding the files. It was all for Mark? Sudden warmth flooded Mark's heart and he could feel tears gathering in his eyes. No-one had ever cared this much about him, had gone to such lengths to ensure his welfare. Not since his mother had died. He'd always known that the judge cared for him, and he'd come to love the older man dearly. It just wasn't something he ever felt the need to say out loud, figuring that it was just too embarrassing a subject to discuss. Now he realised that Hardcastle must feel the same way about him, and no doubt was just as mortified at having let it slip. Quickly switching off the plates on the stove, Mark made his way into the yard. Spotting the older man standing at the sea wall, eyes locked on the ceaseless ocean waves, Mark took a deep breath and started across the lawn.

Resting a foot on the sea wall, Mark studiously kept his eyes fixed on the ocean. "You know, I could get hit by a bus crossing the road in town, Judge." Quiet, conversational, and totally non-confrontational. Anything to get the older man to say something.

Hardcastle sighed hugely, and nodded. "I'm not completely daft, yet, McCormick. I know that's possible. But maybe I don't think we should tempt fate more than necessary. Sometimes it's not worth the consequences." Mark shook his head quietly in semi-despair. How could someone so bright be so dense at times?

"In some ways, Hardcase, I don't think I ever really understood before now why you do what you do. But I've got to say, things are much clearer now. The idea of being a technicality myself, and seeing someone like Falcon or Price walk away scott-free … now that's a reason to make sure that cases are airtight the first time." A quick glance to the side showed that Hardcastle was listening, even if the puzzled expression showed he wasn't quite keeping pace with Mark's unusual logic. One word was enough to set Mark off again. "Technicality?"

"Sure, Judge. If there were no body to find, what evidence would there actually be that they'd committed murder? Okay, there'd be your word, but much as the DA's office loves to have you as a witness, even they would have had trouble getting a conviction on those two with nothing more than you saying that they did it. So that would make me, as the missing victim, a giant technicality. And technicalities are the reason you started your little retirement hobby in the first place." Dawning comprehension filled Hardcastle's eyes, although Mark could see he was trying hard not to recognise the truth in Mark's words.

"Okay, kiddo, say I agree with that line of reasoning. I'm not saying I do, mind, just that you might have a point worth considering. At least in this case. But there's no reason to keep on doing this sort of thing in future; don't you want me to see you live to a ripe old age?" The question was plaintive, highlighting the fact that Hardcastle was worried about Mark, but couldn't quite bring himself to say the words out loud.

Mark smiled gently at that. Finally, an argument he knew he could win, hands down. "I know exactly how you feel, Judge." Mark could see the judge gathering himself to debate the point, and ploughed on doggedly. "When Weed Randall shot you, how do you think I felt? If I could have wrapped you in cotton wool and confined you to the estate for the rest of your life, I would have. The time you spent in the hospital was the only time I felt that you were safe. Remember how I hovered when they sent you home; I nearly drove you nuts! And then I sat myself down one night, and did some serious thinking."

Hardcastle looked thoughtful now, and Mark only hoped he was getting through. It would be so much easier to win this argument if he could get the judge to follow his train of thought, without feeling the need to derail it just because he could. "If I stopped you digging in the files and chasing down bad guys, you wouldn't be the same person I've always known, and you wouldn't be the person I … care … about. And if I tried to take something like that away from you, you'd end up resenting me and my interference." Mark had spent months learning to ignore that nagging little voice that reminded him of how every situation they went into could be the reason he lost Hardcastle. Maybe it would never be possible to live without the fear entirely, but for the most part, he'd succeeded; and now it seemed Hardcastle needed to learn the same lesson. Mark sighed and shifted position, turning slightly to get a better look at Hardcastle.

"You're always afraid for the people you care about, Milt." Mark hoped that using the Judge's name would make it clear that by 'care' he actually meant 'love', but if it came to it, he supposed he would say whatever it took to make his case. "If you didn't care, you wouldn't worry; you wouldn't be afraid to lose them. But you can't live like that; you'll be too afraid to do anything at all. Rather let them do what they love; and try to understand their reasons. You shouldn't have any trouble with that, you know: our reasons are pretty much the same, I think."

Hardcastle's snort was more in agreement than argument, and Mark could see some of the tension leaching out of the older man. Taking a deep breath, Milt turned to look Mark in the eye. "So, what you're saying, Mark, is that if I don't go digging in the files tomorrow, you'll be in there without me?" The sudden grin lighting the judge's face made Mark laugh.

"Exactly, Judge." Mark relaxed as he realised that Hardcastle had finally understood what he'd been trying to say. "So how about you just come with me and we do some digging together, instead? It'll be much less messy with you telling me where to dig. Otherwise you might have to spend days re-organising everything I'll mess up." The glint in Mark's eyes made it clear that any mess would be intentional; he'd been around the files too long not to know how everything was organised.

The mischievous glance lightened Hardcastle's heart. Somehow, he'd never anticipated that Mark would come to share his passion for justice, for the same reasons and with the same intentions. Finding someone like Mark had never been his plan, either, but sometimes Fate stepped in and offered you more than you'd dared to hope for. And now, instead of hanging on with both hands, Hardcastle was about to let everything slip away because he was afraid to lose Mark. Seen in the clear light of day, that was a ridiculous thing to do. Hardcastle gave himself a stern mental glare; he'd been about to drive Mark away because he was afraid to lose the younger man. The lack of logic in his behaviour was almost comical.

Feeling the weight of the last month finally lift from his heart, Hardcastle reached out and gave Mark a gentle shove in the direction of the house. "If you want everything back to normal, kiddo, then I guess it's your turn to cook. And before you ask, pizza is not an acceptable choice."

Mark grinned and headed off gladly, calling over his shoulder, "Maybe not tonight, Hardcase, but we'll see about tomorrow. And I'm warning you now, that spinach is never going to see the light of day again!" Hardcastle's laughter followed Mark into the kitchen, a welcome sign of things finally changing for the better.