A/N: Set just after Rolling Thunder, during Mark's first weekend on the estate. Thanks to L.M. Lewis for a speedy and insightful beta.

The Key

by Jaz

"No."

The statement wasn't followed up by any kind of explanation, and it was certainly not the answer Mark was expecting.

"What do you mean, 'no'? Why not?"

"Because I said so. And that's all the answer you need."

"Come on, Hardcase. You let me drive home from Vegas alone, but you won't let me drive down to my apartment to pick up my stuff? How nuts is that?" He stopped griping long enough to swallow another forkful of mashed potatoes. "Where exactly is it you think I'd be going?"

"Nowhere, hotshot. Like I told you, you're staying home. That's it. Final. End of discussion." Hardcastle returned his attention to his meatloaf.

It was all Mark could do to hold onto his growing temper. He cast a quick glance over to Sarah, mindful of her presence, which was the only thing keeping him from laying down a blue streak. He took a deep breath and counted to five, which was about all he could manage. "Fine. Come with me then, if you don't trust me." He tried to make it sound reasonable.

"No. "

Mark felt his patience slipping. He was hot, and he was tired. He'd spent hours out under the blistering sun today, trudging back and forth all over that dumb lawn, pushing a mower that had to have been built before the depression. "That's it? Just 'no' again?"

"You want more? Okay, how's this? 'No', I don't trust you, and 'no', I'm not goin' with you. Not tonight anyway. Which means you ain't goin' either."

"Look, Hardcase, I only need an hour to go get some things." He struggled to keep his voice even. "I'm hot and sweaty, I smell like a pig farm, and I just want to change into some fresh clothes. Except I don't have any! I'm not asking to go out and do anything stupid. Just let me get my stuff, all right?" He put down the glass he was holding very carefully to compensate for the urge to hurl it against the wall.

"I don't want to have to say it again, McCormick," Hardcastle huffed. "You're not leaving the estate tonight."

"Give me one good reason why!"

"I don't need a reason!" Hardcastle stormed. "You're here in my custody, got it? Last time I checked, custody didn't include letting you traipse around all over downtown Los Angeles!"

"I don't want to traipse around; I just want my things!" Mark's volume rose as his words intensified.

"And I said forget it!" Hardcastle slammed his fist down on the table in much the same way he would have done a gavel. There was ice in his tone, and he glared over at the younger man, nearly daring him to continue the argument.

Mark glared back at him, knowing without a doubt the man was the biggest donkey to walk the face of the earth. He shook his head in disgust and almost tipped over his chair in his sudden haste to stand up. "Fine," he said, throwing his napkin down on the table. "Thanks for nothing." He turned and made for the doorway into the kitchen.

"Where the hell do you think you're going?" Hardcastle grated.

Mark turned back and pinned him with his gaze. "To the gatehouse. Or is that suddenly against the rules too?" He slapped his palm against the swinging door, pushing it open and striding through it angrily on his way out of the house.

Hardcastle watched him go, not saying anything to call the young man back. He vaguely supposed he could have handled that better. He noticed Sarah standing in the now open doorway, gazing at him enigmatically. He waited to see if she'd comment, but she simply returned to her work in the kitchen.

Deciding there was no point in coddling McCormick, he resumed his meal.

He would have sworn it wasn't true earlier, but the food now had a bitter taste.

00000

Hardcastle gazed into the mirror as he readied for bed. The weathered face staring back at him didn't seem to have any answers either. He wasn't sure he could explain his rationale to McCormick. Hell, he wasn't even sure he was being rational. All he knew was that he didn't like the idea of the newest resident of Gull's Way heading down into Los Angeles at night on his own. Something deep inside told him the precautions weren't necessary this time around. But, dammit, it had been less than a week, and there had to be boundaries somewhere.

Anyone who knew Milton C. Hardcastle would tell you he was a by-the-book kind of guy. He liked rules, he followed the rules, he made rules. In his mind, they weren't supposed to be broken. That's what the rulebook was for—a reminder for daily living.

When he'd outlined his little 'fast-gun' scheme to McCormick that day in his office last week, he'd made it clear. This was not supposed to be about them being friends. He'd had good reason for making that statement. Friendship clouded things. With the type of work he and McCormick were going to be doing, the results of that could be disastrous.

And yet, they'd worked unexpectedly well together down in Vegas. McCormick had surprised him. Hell, the ex-con had just about shocked his socks off. The kid was quick on his feet, had great intuition, and best of all, he seemed to have a pretty good grasp on what his little retirement project was all about. Hardcastle couldn't help but grin at the memory of McCormick asking for his Miranda card to use during Cody's arrest.

And all of a sudden, the jurist had found his little rulebook had been thrown out the window.

Letting his new Tonto drive back alone from Vegas had been a calculated gamble, and one that Milt had argued with himself about. On one hand, it would be a good test of the kid's ability to follow the rules, a chance to see what he was made of. On the other hand, it could have been like handing a cup of water to a man dying of thirst.

Or offering freedom to a man who wasn't free.

To say that Milt was relieved to see the Coyote sitting in the driveway when he arrived home last night was an understatement. During the long drive back he'd even drawn up a plan to put out an APB and haul the kid's butt back to Quentin. Finding out it wouldn't be necessary had been a welcome surprise.

More unexpected revelations had been in store today as the kid had spent the majority of the day working on mowing the lawn. He'd done a good job, and he'd even tuned up the mower at one point, stopping that annoying backfire. He'd whined and moaned his way through it, but he'd gotten the job done with a minimum of direction. Not too shabby for a kid from Jersey.

Milt had spent a good deal of time pondering these developments over the course of the afternoon. Staring at the two files before him, one on J.J. Beale and one on McCormick, he had tried to spot the difference. On paper, they looked virtually the same. Similar histories, similar rap sheets, similar number of appearances in his court. The only outward difference he could recall was that Beale at least knew how to hold his tongue, where as McCormick said whatever was on his mind. Some might think that would tip the scales in Beale's favor, but there was a transparency about his current ex-con in residence that Hardcastle liked.

His mind kept returning to the events that had spun out of control on Beale's first night at the estate. It had followed a rather mundane day for the young man—Milt was still on the bench at that point, so there'd been no case for them to immediately jump into. Instead, J.J. had spent the day doing yard work. He'd done it without complaint, but there had been something in his eyes—a resentment that was hard to miss. For all intents and purposes, this would be McCormick's first night here after a day spent in grounds keeping. Hardcastle wasn't a big believer in lightning striking twice, but he'd be crazy if the thought didn't cross his mind.

He'd spent the better part of an hour trying to convince himself that it would be different this time when Sarah had interrupted, calling him to dinner. As he had risen from his desk, he'd wondered what McCormick would be thinking after a long day outside.

The man in question had already been in the dining room when Milt walked in, though he'd waited until Milt took his seat before claiming a chair for himself. Dinner had begun amiably enough, with conversation limited to the upcoming Dodger's game and a few caustic remarks about the need for a new lawnmower. And he had to give the kid points for asking nicely about going to get his stuff. Truth be told, Hardcastle hadn't given a thought to the fact that his current guest was still living here with only the bare necessities. They'd gotten so caught up in this thing with Cody that he'd all but forgotten the need for McCormick to pick up his things and move himself out of his apartment. That would have to be rectified, of course, but it could wait until tomorrow. There was no way he was giving up watching the game just so the kid could change his shirt.

It was obvious to him that Mark had attempted to hold onto his anger, but it wasn't long before his mouth got ahead of his brain. They'd both said things that maybe weren't necessary, with the result being that Hardcastle had watched his game alone. Not that he really expected the young man would have wanted to hang out with him in his down time. But still...

Now, as he readied for bed, he glanced out the window toward the gatehouse. The light was still on, and he couldn't help but wonder what McCormick was thinking. He considered staying up for a while and keeping an eye on things, but decided against it. He'd deal with it if it happened, but he didn't really think McCormick would run. He was surprised to find that after only a few days, he trusted the young man more than a little. Not that he'd ever tell him that.

But maybe he could find some small way to show him.

00000

Mark wasn't sure how long he'd been sitting on the couch in the gatehouse, a small duffle bag containing his few possessions at his feet. He was staring into the dim light cast off by the fire glowing in the fireplace. Discovering it operated at the flip of a switch had been a pleasant surprise. In his few short days here at Gull's Way, he'd come to discover the place had a lot of perks. It beat the stuffing out of the cold grey steel and cement of San Quentin—there was no doubt about that. Hell, it beat pretty much every placed he'd ever called home, bar none. The house itself was amazing, but the grounds...

He'd gotten lost in the view for almost half an hour today. Hardcastle had been out on some errand, so Mark had taken a few minutes rest, walking over to the wall at the edge of the lawn and just staring at the ocean. Noticing the steps leading down to the beach, he'd made up his mind and taken them quickly before Sarah could get on his case for slacking off. Discovering the private beach down below, he'd stood there at the water's edge and wondered how he'd managed to be lucky enough to end up here.

This evening's dinner had been a reminder that nothing comes without a price, and Mark was no longer sure it was one he could pay. He must have been crazy to think he'd be able to keep a lid on his temper long enough to work for the man he'd hated for the better part of the past three years. The two of them were like oil and water, and there was no way they'd be able to get along.

The thing was, though, for a time Mark had almost believed it was possible. That crazy guerrilla basketball game showed him another side to the man, and it was hardly what he'd expected. Mark had given his down-and-dirty best on the court. To his surprise, Hardcastle, instead of putting him on the next bus to Quentin, had given it right back to him.

The judge had helped him nail Flip's killer too, and for that he had Mark's gratitude. And he'd almost blown him away, letting him make the trip home unchaperoned.

But the words at dinner tonight had hurt.

It was stupid, really, to allow the comments Hardcastle made to get to him. He knew if they had any chance of making this work, he'd have to let his skin thicken a little. Maybe it wouldn't have been so hard to hear Hardcastle blatantly declare he didn't trust his new fast gun.

Except Mark kind of thought maybe he did. Hoped, anyway.

A glance at the clock on the mantle showed him it was after midnight. He rose suddenly, deciding he'd debated long enough. A life on the run was really no life at all, but at the moment, it looked marginally better than his current 'indefinitely'.

He grabbed the duffle and slipped out the front door. The lights were off in the main house. He walked over to the Coyote and dropped the bag into the passenger seat. He'd have to push the car up the driveway to avoid detection. He walked around to the driver's side to slip the car into neutral, when the wind carried up the scent of the ocean past his nostrils. The smell of it stopped his movements, and he raised his eyes to see a glimpse of the water through the trees. Driven by a need he couldn't explain, he walked quietly down the drive to stand at the far side of the pool, gazing out over the uneven surface of the waves. Time passed as he stood there, lost once again in indecision.

"It's not worth it, you know."

The crisp voice in the darkness startled Mark, and his heart began to race guiltily. He turned, allowing a moment to wipe his face clear of any emotion, and he saw Sarah approaching the patio chairs. Deciding in this case, innocence was the best defense, he looked at her blankly. "What's not worth it?"

She gave him that look, the one he swore all women had perfected by the time they were twenty, the one that said 'I-know-exactly-what-you're-up-to-young-man-so-don't-think-you-can-get-anything-past-me'. He swore he could even hear the 'young man' as if it had been spoken aloud.

She sniffed. "What you're standing here contemplating doing."

He continued to stare at her uncomprehendingly.

"For heaven's sake, you really want me to say it out loud?" she huffed.

Mark immediately decided the innocence wasn't working and started laying on the ol' McCormick boyish charm. "Hey, you've got it all wrong, Sarah. I'm just out here, enjoying the view. It's a great night, you know." He thought that might not be enough. "I'm not contemplating anything," he added for reassurance.

Her eyes narrowed and her expression turned grimmer, if such a thing were possible. "Are you really going to lie to me?" she asked.

Mark swallowed audibly and hung his head, feeling about three feet high. "No, ma'am," he apologized. He figured if lying were off the table, he might just be better off not saying anything at all, so he held his tongue.

"If you leave here, he will find you—I can promise you that," she said, coming to stand next to him. "And there won't be any second chances. You'll destroy everything. He won't trust you again."

"Again?" Mark replied bitterly as thoughts of holding his tongue fled in the face of this injustice. "He doesn't trust me now. You heard what he said."

"I did," she agreed without further elaboration.

Mark stared at her, waiting for more, but the silence lengthened. He jammed his hands into the back pockets of his jeans. She was obviously expecting something, but he wasn't exactly sure what. "I just don't see how this is going to work," he finally admitted baldly. "Me and him, I mean. We're not exactly from the same mold, you know? I'm not even sure we're from the same planet," he added under his breath. He paused and then plunged back in. "Down in Vegas, I thought, maybe, maybe this ridiculous scheme of his had a chance. We were actually doing pretty well together. And believe me, I don't think anyone was more surprised by that than I was. And then when it was all over and Cody was behind bars, he just let me take off in the Coyote. What kind of guy does something like that? I figured that must mean he trusts me, at least a little."

Mark felt himself gathering steam as his uncertainties resurfaced. He hadn't intended to lay everything out like this, but once he'd started venting, it seemed impossible to stop. "You saw what he was like at dinner. He went nuts on me. It wasn't like I was even asking for anything major. I just wanted to go pick up some clothes. He made it seem like I'd just said I was going to heist an armored car or something! I mean, come on. If that's his opinion of me, how the hell are we supposed to work together? Him playing at being the Lone Ranger is crazy enough—you want to tell me how I'm supposed to watch his back if he can't even trust me to be out alone after dark?"

"Are you finished now?"

It was with a supreme effort that kept Mark from glaring at the older woman. He should have known better than to expect any sympathy from her. "Pretty much, yeah," he responded angrily.

Sarah arched an eyebrow in his direction, letting him know exactly what she thought of his attitude. He had the grace to look abashed.

The older woman took a few moments to gaze at their surroundings. "This yard is what makes this estate so special," she said simply.

The non sequitur gave Mark pause. He wondered if she would continue her train of thought.

"I'm sure when you were out here today, you noticed the rose bushes." She waited for his nod of agreement.

"Hard not to—those things are all over the place."

"Yes. Many of the bushes have been here for years, quietly adding to the beauty of this estate. But they didn't grow overnight. It took quite a bit of time and effort to bring them to the place there are now."

Mark saw what she was doing. "Yeah, I get it, Sarah," Mark said sarcastically. "I'm supposed to be patient while he treats me like garbage, right?" He shook his head in disbelief at the woman's simplistic approach.

She continued as if he hadn't spoken. "It won't happen overnight. But Judge Hardcastle trusts you more than he'll admit to, or you wouldn't be here at all. For now, he'll trust you with the things he can. The rest will come in time," she stated. "But not if you leave," she added, her voice stern.

Mark reached a hand up to rub the back of his neck, trying to work out the growing tension. He reconsidered when he encountered the sunburn there, compliments of the day's activities. "So, let me get this straight. It's not bad enough I have to stick around here, taking all the crap he dishes out, slaving away at all his stupid chores—now you're telling me I've got to pretend to be grateful because he lets me take out the trash all by myself? That I'm supposed to try and prove myself to him? This was his idea, in case you've forgotten. I'm the one who got shanghaied into this nightmare. Either he's going to trust me, or he's not. Why the hell should I have to work at it?"

If he expected her to take offense at his words, he was once again surprised. He saw a frown cross her face, but her next words were calm and efficiently practical.

"You seem like a smart young man, Mark McCormick. Surely by now you've figured out that the things most worth having are the things you have to earn?"

That stopped him for a moment, and his anger took a step back. He gazed out at the ocean's horizon in the darkness, unable to deny the truth of her words.

The silence continued. Sarah folded her arms across her chest and turned to face the young ex-con, giving him a quiet appraisal. "So?" she prompted.

Mark gazed back at her, all attempts at pretense gone. He needed to understand. "Can I ask you something Sarah?" he ventured.

She nodded primly. "You may."

He hesitated only a moment. "Why do you care?"

There was no immediate answer, and Mark wondered if he'd get one at all. He also wondered why it was important to him to know. He tried to qualify the question. "I mean, I'm just another ex-con to you. We're a dime a dozen around here, right? So what does it matter to you whether or not I sink or swim?"

He wasn't sure why it was suddenly so vital to him to know what she thought. But as he'd stood here tonight, with his future once again riding on the line, he'd desperately wished for someone to talk to, someone to offer advice. A diminutive old lady who appeared to be so lacking in warmth she probably couldn't melt ice in her mouth might not have been his first choice, but he'd learned long ago not to be too picky.

She captured his gaze with her steel grey eyes and held it. It was fleeting, and may only have been a trick of the light, but Mark could swear he saw a glimmer of kindness there.

Sarah's voice was soft. "Maybe I think it would be good for him," she answered, placing her hands into the pockets of her robe.

She released his gaze and glanced out over the darkened yard. "And maybe I think it would be good for you too."

Mark said nothing. He had no answer to give. He still wasn't sure what he was planning to do, though it seemed less likely now that he'd get away with any type of escape attempt tonight. Riding the bus back to Quentin wasn't on his list of aspirations, but he wished to hell someone would tell him how exactly he was supposed to make this work if he stayed.

As if in answer to his unasked question, Sarah spoke again. "I believe the key," she said thoughtfully, "is to look for the little things. They'll be there. You just need to learn to spot them when they appear."

The discussion was apparently over. She sniffed again and pulled the neck of her robe more tightly around her. "The lawn looks good," she said curtly, making the compliment sound distinctly like something else. Turning, she stepped around the lounge chair and headed back in the direction of the kitchen steps. "Breakfast is at eight tomorrow," she said over her shoulder. "I'm making pancakes."

Mark felt a smile form at the thought of the old biddy resorting to bribery, but it didn't last. Despite the insight from an unexpected source, he wasn't sure he felt any closer to a decision. He did know he'd be going nowhere tonight.

He just wished he knew if that meant he would stay.

00000

Mark gave two quick raps before opening up the door to the kitchen. He'd picked up the paper off the driveway on his way to the main house and held it out now as something of a peace offering. He had no way of knowing if the judge was planning to pick up their argument from last night, but he sincerely hoped it wouldn't be revisited.

He needn't have feared. Hardcastle simply grunted a good morning, taking the paper without comment.

"Morning, Sarah," Mark greeted the housekeeper.

Sarah nodded primly before returning her attention to the griddle. "Good morning."

Apparently there would be no acknowledgement of that conversation, either. It was slightly odd, but just as well. Her words came back to him, and he reminded himself of the resolve he gotten out of bed with, to do whatever he could to make this work. Sarah was right. He knew he needed to look for the little things. He just hoped they'd come with flashing neon signs. He grabbed a glass from the cabinet and went to the sink to fill it with water.

The judge moved around him to take out a mug from the shelf overhead. He filled it with coffee and inhaled the scent deeply, wrapping both hands around the mug. He turned to face the younger man. With a nod of his head, he indicated "that bag on the table there is for you. Something I picked up yesterday when I was out."

Mark put his glass down on the table and reached for the small paper bag curiously. He upended it and dumped the contents into his waiting palm. Two keys glistened in the morning light coming from the kitchen window. He looked up at the judge, a silent question on his face.

"For the gatehouse," Hardcastle explained.

Mark nodded. "Two? What, you think I'm going to lose one or something?"

Hardcastle snorted. "No, wise-guy. One's for the gatehouse, and one's for the main house."

Mark felt an inexplicable tightening in his chest as he closed his hand over the keys. "You're giving me a key to your house?" he asked quietly.

The judge gazed at him intently, his gaze narrowing. "Any reason I shouldn't?"

Mark couldn't help it. He felt his lips turning upward. "No," he answered seriously. "No reason at all." He stole a quick glance at Sarah, winking at her, and was pleased to see the hint of a smile before she turned away.

"Breakfast will get cold," she said as she grabbed the stack of pancakes from the counter, no trace of a smile in her voice. "Best you both sit and eat it before it does." She placed the platter in the middle of the table and went to grab the maple syrup.

The two men claimed their seats. Hardcastle reached for the newspaper and began unfolding the front section while Mark moved immediately to transfer several the golden brown pancakes to his plate.

The judge rustled the paper to get it manageable. "Once we're done eating, we can head over and get your apartment closed up if you want," he said, laying it down next to his plate.

"We?" Mark asked, feeling only slightly disappointed at the reappearance of the short leash.

The judge looked across the table at him. "Well, you can go by yourself if you want to," he offered. "I just figured it might be better with two of us."

Mark knew he meant the words literally, but at the moment, they held an altogether different meaning to him. In fact, it seemed like the key he'd been looking for. He nodded his head in agreement and grinned.

"Sounds like a plan, Kemosabe."