Author's note: With thanks to Owl and Ceebee - without their encouragement, this story would never have seen the light of ff-dot-net.

The Choice

by Jaz

Mark stepped into the main house and was immediately drawn deeper in by the amazing aromas coming out of the kitchen. Following the scent, he pushed open the door to find Sarah leaning over the counter, busily putting the finishing touches on what appeared to be . . . a Santa Claus.

"Cookies?" Mark said hopefully.

"Well-spotted," came the low-pitched grumble, and it was only then that he noticed the judge seated at the kitchen table, newspaper in hand.

"Christmas cookies," Sarah illuminated, a hint of a smile on her weathered face.

"Really?" Mark asked, sounding surprised as he grabbed a glass out of the cabinet. "Let me guess. For the Ladies Guild, right?"

"No," Sarah answered, not offering anything further.

"Church choir? Local underprivileged youths? Halfway house?"

Sarah laughed lightly, a sound so unfamiliar to Mark that he stopped and stared.

"No, just for us. After all, Christmas will be here before you know it. Here, try one." She picked up a green Christmas tree and handed it to the young man.

Mark bit off the top half of the tree and closed his eyes in delight. "Sarah, these are fantastic. . ."

"Halfway house sounds about right," Hardcastle interrupted. "And stop feeding him all my cookies!"

"Not to worry, your honor. There's plenty more." She took a plate and loaded up another several cookies, placing it over on the table near the judge.

Mark finished his trip to the fridge, grabbing the milk and pouring himself a glass. He came and settled himself next to the judge, confiscating another two cookies.

Hardcastle glared at him, but didn't comment. He laid the paper down next to his plate and reached for one himself. "You done with the lawn yet?" he asked, biting off Santa's head.

"Just about. Need to finish the section behind the gatehouse, but we're out of gas."

"Good enough," the judge said. "Bring the can. We'll fill it up while we're out getting the tree."

"What tree?" Mark asked, envisioning having to plant a new monstrosity somewhere on the estate.

"The Christmas tree, you idiot."

Mark swallowed his cookie wrong, and erupted into a fit of coughing that took a minute to control. He took a drink of milk before asking, "We're getting a tree?"

"Of course we are. Why wouldn't we? You don't like Christmas trees?"

"I never said that," Mark protested. "Just haven't had one in a while."

"Ah," the jurist acknowledged. "Well, all the more reason to do this Christmas up right, then, since you spent the last two in prison."

"Three," Mark corrected. At the judge's raised eyebrow, he continued. "The last two were in San Quentin; the one before that was in County, awaiting trial and hoping for a reasonable judge." He gave the retired jurist an artificial smile. "That's when I stopped believing in Santa Claus."

Hardcastle harrumphed. "Not like you would have been on his 'Nice List' anyway."

"Ha. I'll have you know I was a model citizen."

"Which is why you ended up in prison."

"For driving my own car!" Mark prepared to launch his favorite argument, but the judge interrupted him with a question.

"They did celebrate Christmas in Quentin, didn't they? I mean, there were at least some decorations to go along with the lumpy mashed potatoes?"

Mark allowed a very brief reflection. "Yeah, there was a tree in the common room. No lights on it though, at least not after the first year."

"Why? What happened?"

McCormick took a long drink of milk, pausing to wipe off the resulting mustache. "No-Nose Barkley tried to light up Jimmy Sawicki. After that, the guards took off anything that might be used as a weapon. All we had left were some paper chains."

Sarah put down her sprinkles. "What do you mean, 'light up', Mark?"

Mark gave her a sideways glance, suddenly nervous to be sharing any tales. He'd forgotten she was there. It was true she'd warmed up to him some in the three months he'd been here, and he didn't want to jeopardize that. He decided to give an abridged version.

"Well," he began, "No-Nose caught Sawicki trying to steal his smokes. So he unscrewed a bunch of the bulbs from the strand and shoved Jimmy's fingers in the sockets. Unfortunately, Jimmy had this nervous habit of sucking on his fingers, see?"

Hardcastle grimaced. "Ouch."

"Yeah. Jimmy got two days in the infirmary, and No-Nose got ten in solitary. And the rest of us got a paper-decorated tree."

Sarah tsked and returned her attention to the cookies, shaking her head.

"Well, I think we can probably do better than that, sport. Go grab the gas can and meet me out by the pickup. Sarah, you need anything from the store?" Hardcastle asked, rising to his feet.

"No, your honor, I think we're all set."

"All right, then, let's go get a tree!" He slapped McCormick on the shoulder and headed out the door, whistling as he went.

Mark stood up looking slightly bemused and carried his glass over to the sink. Hardcastle never stopped surprising him, and this sudden Christmas cheer left him puzzled. Deciding quickly that it couldn't be a bad thing to put the files away for a while, he smiled, finding he was starting to look forward to the holiday. "Thanks for the cookies, Sarah," he said, whistling a tune remarkably similar to the judge's as he made his way outside.

00000

"Dang it, Teddy, are you positive?"

The words coming through the phone line were a confirmation, though it was not what Mark wanted to hear. He thought about it a moment, knowing his next words could get him into serious trouble. Deciding that was nothing new, he forged ahead. "Okay. Give me the address."

There was silence from the other end of the phone. Then a muffled, "You sure about this, Skid?"

Mark sighed. The only thing he was sure about was that he wasn't sure at all. "Yeah," he lied. "Just give it to me." He grabbed a pen and wrote it down as Teddy rattled it off, then hung up the phone with assurances that he wouldn't do anything stupid.

He walked slowly over to the gatehouse sofa and dropped onto it, lifting his legs and plopping them on the coffee table. He glanced at the pad held in his hand. The address written there stared back at him accusingly, as if it knew what he was contemplating.

Christmas shouldn't have to be this hard.

He'd been surprised last week when Hardcastle dragged him out to get the tree. He wouldn't have thought the judge even celebrated the holiday. Not that he thought the old guy was a Scrooge or anything, but he figured with the judge's family gone, maybe Christmas was something he preferred not to think about. Since it had never really been a big deal to Mark, he wouldn't have minded much if they'd ignored the day all together.

But they'd brought home a Douglas Fir and decorated it, and with Christmas tunes playing in the background, Hardcastle had allowed Mark a brief glimpse into his past as they sorted through the ornaments and other decorations. McCormick had found he'd enjoyed himself a great deal, and for the first time in quite a while, he discovered he was looking forward to Christmas Day.

Until he realized he'd need a gift for the judge.

That notion had occurred to him three days ago, and he'd spent every spare minute since then trying to come up with an idea for a gift. It was the proverbial case of shopping for the guy who had everything, and nothing Mark thought of seemed like it would be right.

The gift was important. He'd never given a lot of thought to Christmas shopping, but somehow the typical gifts of the season just seemed too impersonal. They'd been in quite a few tight spots over the past couple of months, and Mark had quickly learned that Hardcastle was someone he could put his faith in. He thought maybe that deserved more than a shirt or a tie.

He sat on the sofa, lost in contemplation for almost an hour. Darkness had already fallen, and if he was going to go, now was the time. Not allowing himself to think about it any further, he climbed the stairs to the loft and threw on his black sweater and pants. Grabbing the backpack from the back of the closet, he headed out to the car as quickly and as quietly as he could.

It had taken quite a bit of persuasion to convince Teddy he needed to help him track down the championship basketball that had been one of Hardcastle's prized possessions. It had been the only item Teddy had stolen during his brief stay in the gatehouse that hadn't been recovered. Mark wasn't above laying a little guilt onto his ex-cellmate, and in this case, it hadn't taken much. After all, Hardcastle had done a lot to help Teddy get back on his feet. Teddy had employed a few of his less-desirable contacts, and Mark had ended up with an address of a pawnshop.

He knew going down there intending to retrieve the ball was a pretty dumb idea. If Hardcase ever found out the means by which he'd procured this gift, there was no doubt Mark's head would roll. But Mark figured you couldn't really steal something that was already stolen. This was more like repossession, something with which he was well acquainted. Trying desperately to maintain that line of thinking, he drove off towards downtown LA, hoping he wasn't heading for a big mistake.

00000

The moon was high in the sky by the time Mark shut off the engine of the Coyote and coasted his way around the fountain, coming to a stop behind the pickup and hoping that Hardcastle had already retired for the night, leaving Mark to make it to the gatehouse undetected.

No such luck, he discovered as the front porch lights pierced the night and Hardcastle was suddenly standing on the steps, staring down at Mark's all-black ensemble with a face hardening into stone.

McCormick sighed. This night hadn't gone as he'd planned, and he knew it was time to face the music. Going by the look on the judge's face, it wasn't going to be 'Silent Night'.

00000

Hardcastle had watched distractedly as Alistair Sim finished his portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge sharing his newly found mirth with a wary Bob Cratchit in the only version of 'The Christmas Carol' worth watching. He'd planned on spending the evening with McCormick, only to have found the younger man had disappeared shortly after dinner. As the evening wore on, his irritation with McCormick's thoughtlessness increased. It was Christmas Eve, and Hardcastle had not wanted to spend it alone. Too many memories were crowding in. So many of them were good, but they brought their own pain with them, and the past was not where he wanted to dwell tonight, when for the first time in many years, he'd been expecting something different.

The credits were just starting to roll when he heard the Coyote pull in from off the PCH. Judging by the lack of increasing noise level as it approached the house, Hardcastle determined his errant ex-con was trying to make his way home unnoticed, which only served to fuel his ire. He shut off the TV and hurried to the front door, flipping on the lights and stepping out onto the porch.

McCormick was dressed in black. All black. A backpack that had briefly been on his shoulder disappeared back into the car in a swift move, and any hopes Milt held that the man might have merely been visiting an old friend were swept away.

"In the house. Now," he grated out, holding the door open impatiently. He saw the look of resignation on McCormick's face before he turned away from the car and walked into the house.

Hardcastle came and stood behind his desk, too agitated to sit. Three months. Three months the kid had been in his custody, and he'd thought things were going well. Surprisingly well, he'd have said if anyone had asked him. Sure, Mark tended to be hotheaded and impulsive from time to time, and he definitely operated on his own set of rules, but Hardcastle would have bet good money that the kid didn't have a truly felonious bone in his body. Criminal aptitude, most definitely, but the intent was sorely lacking.

It bothered him more than a little to think that the kid would throw away what they'd been working towards for simple monetary gain. More than that, it just didn't fit with the Mark McCormick he'd come to know. Realizing that, he took a step back from his anger. They weren't working on any cases right now, so the kid's late night escapade couldn't be tied in with that, but the judge suddenly knew without a doubt that whatever McCormick had been up to, he'd have a reason for it.

He exhaled loudly and sat in his chair, rubbing a hand across his stubbled chin. "Explain," he said quietly. "And it had better be good. . ."

The threat of consequences lingered in the air. Mark reluctantly came down the steps into the den and crossed over to stand in front of the tree, reaching out and fingering a branch idly.

The silence lingered long enough that Hardcastle wondered if he was going to have to resort to something a little more drastic when the young man finally spoke.

"I didn't get you anything for Christmas," Mark said softly.

It was not the opening Hardcastle had been expecting, and he wasn't sure what to do with it. His brow wrinkled as he watched the other man. "Okay. . ." he prodded, waiting for the rest.

"I wanted to," Mark clarified. "I just had no idea what to get. I figured it should be something special, I guess. I mean, how weird is that, anyway? Me worrying all this time about what to get for the guy who sent me to prison." He allowed a wry smile and a sideways glance at the judge. "It wasn't exactly one of my top concerns last year, you know?"

Hardcastle nodded. He could understand that.

"I haven't celebrated Christmas much in the past few years, even back before I was inside. But this has been great – all the decorations, the cookies, the music, and well - just feeling this year like there was somewhere I belonged." He paused. "Anyway, I've been kind of tapped out too, and anything I thought of, well, it was either too expensive, or just not right. I wanted it to be – I don't know. Something that maybe could say 'thanks'."

He didn't elaborate on what the thanks was for, but he figured the judge already knew.

Mark moved away from the tree and settled himself in the armchair, resting his elbows on his knees and staring down at the floor. "I finally came up with an idea. It wasn't easy. Took a little digging, but I found it. Your basketball. The one from the Lakers' Championship."

"You found it?" the judge asked, surprised.

"Yeah. Well, Teddy did anyway. It ended up in a pawn shop on West Fourth Street."

Hardcastle pondered the implications of this for a moment. "I don't think I want to know how Teddy managed to track it down, do I?"

"Nah, probably not," Mark conceded with a grin. "And I know I sure don't want to tell you." He sobered. "The guy wanted a fortune for it, and he wouldn't believe Teddy when he told him it was stolen property." Mark paused. "I didn't know what else to do. . ." he trailed off, allowing the judge to draw the obvious conclusion.

Hardcastle felt his heart climb into his throat. "Oh, kiddo," he lamented. "Tell me you didn't."

Mark finally looked up at him. "No. I didn't." He leaned his elbows on his knees and held the judge's gaze. "I was going to. Even told myself it wasn't really stealing, it was just retrieving stolen property. Drove all the way down there, parked a block away and walked over to get the job done."

"But. . . Hardcastle prompted, hoping desperately there was a 'but'.

"But I couldn't do it. Couldn't get past the part that while it might not be stealing, it was definitely breaking and entering. And somehow, that didn't seem like the right thing to be giving you for Christmas. Stupid, huh?" he shrugged and returned his attention to the floor.

Hardcastle smiled, feeling his heart settle back down. He had no reason not to believe McCormick, and he thought he might be prouder of the young man right now than he could possibly put into words. With the best of intentions, the kid had found himself face to face with a choice between right and wrong, and he'd ended up on Hardcastle's side of the law. If that wasn't proof that this little experiment of his was working, he didn't know what was.

He realized that Mark was still looking at him in hesitant expectancy. He cleared his throat roughly. "No," he said thoughtfully, "not stupid at all. You, uh, you did good. Made the right choice. The one I would've wanted you to make, anyway."

Some of the tension eased out of Mark's face. "Yeah, I kinda figured. Somehow the thought of you having to bail me out on Christmas didn't seem like the best way to celebrate our first one together. Heck, I doubt even you could've sprung me if I went down for doing something that dumb." He sighed. "But I'm still sorry I don't have anything to give you for Christmas."

"I wouldn't be too sure about that, kiddo. I think you did pretty good. In fact, I'd say it was just what I wanted – the perfect choice."

"Yeah?" Mark asked, sounding relieved.

"Definitely. And it beats a tie any day," the judge grinned.

"Hah. Well, that was my second choice, so I guess you lucked out."

"I don't know – I'd say maybe we both did." Hardcastle allowed a rare moment of real emotion to show, hoping the younger man would get the message. He could see by the softening of Mark's eyes that he understood.

The clock in the hall started the first of its twelve chimes. Mark turned his head to gaze upon the angel standing watch at the top of the tree. He reached inside his black sweater and pulled out the chain around his neck, fingering the medallion thoughtfully. "My mom always told me that Christmas wasn't about what you got. She said it wasn't even about what you could give. Christmas was only supposed to be about God's gift to us." He smiled at the remembrance. Turning back, he allowed his eyes to rest on the face of his friend. "I think I finally figured out she was right. Merry Christmas, Judge."

Hardcastle smiled contentedly, surrounded by the peace of the moment and the reminder of the true meaning of the season. "Merry Christmas to you too, kiddo."

ooooo

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men." Luke 2:8-14