A/N: The characters aren't mine and no money is being made. The betas are off for the holiday, so the mistakes are all mine.

Winds of Change

by Jaz

Mark leaned back in the patio lounge chair, feeling the warm Santa Ana winds blow across his face as he stared across the yard in the gathering twilight. The sun was offering its final blaze before dipping beneath the edge of the horizon - he loved this time of day. Utterly relaxed, he wallowed in a feeling of contentedness that didn't come very often. Lifting the longneck bottle of beer to his lips, he closed his eyes and reveled for a few moments in the knowledge that there were no term papers or reading assignments waiting for him for the next two weeks. Life at the Hardcastle ranch was good.

There also seemed to be unspoken truce talks going on between Hardcastle and the world of crime at large – no files had been left surreptitiously on the counters, no midnight surveillance requests had been made. Things were at peace, and that was just fine with him.

The noise of the French door opening pulled him away from his quiet reflection. The judge ambled over and took up residence in the chair next to him, a beer in his hand. As if sensing the somber mood in the air, he remained silent, watching and waiting until the sun finally disappeared from view. He cleared his throat.

"Reservations are at seven," he remarked. "Gives us plenty of time to get a nice bite to eat before the rabble rousers come in and swarm the place."

McCormick nodded in agreement.

Hardcastle glanced sideways, taking in the younger man. "It's not too late to change your mind, sport. I really don't mind if you 'd rather find yourself a date for the evening."

Mark snickered. "Not like there've been many opportunities for that happening in the last few months. And it would kind of be last minute notice, don't you think? Besides, I really am looking forward to coming back here and just having a quite New Year's Eve at home." He looked over at the older man uncertainly. "Does that sound too weird?"

"Nah. You've been working pretty hard this semester. Seems pretty natural you'd want to take it easy for a bit."

"Good," McCormick responded, reassured. "That's exactly what I want. I mean, it's not that I'm not looking forward to the year ahead, it's just . . . "

"It's just that you don't feel like celebrating?" Hardcastle prompted.

"No, it's not even that. Things have just been going a little nuts since I started school full-time. I guess I just want a chance to catch my breath."

"Makes sense," the judge offered, taking a sip of beer. He watched the trees at the edge of the estate as they gently bent in the wind and felt himself being lulled by the quietness surrounding the moment. "So, got any big resolutions?"

Mark chuckled. "Wouldn't you like to know?"

"What, you never went in for that?" the older man asked.

"Sure. I used to, anyway. New Year's was always the perfect time to decide to start over, and it seemed like no matter where I was in life, that was always a pretty good idea. Unfortunately, reality had this bad habit of getting in the way. I never did manage to keep my resolutions very long." He ran a thumb over the label on the bottle, loosening the corner.

"That does seem to be the way things go sometimes," the judge agreed. "Every time New Year's rolled around, I'd resolve to get a better handle on my temper."

Mark's grin was nearly audible. "Worked out well for you, did it?" he asked, smirking.

Refusing to be baited, the jurist smiled serenely. "Actually, I've done quite well with it," he said archly. "You should have seen me before I made the resolution."

McCormick barked out a laugh. "Trust me, Hardcase, if I've got the new and improved version, then something tells me I was better off not having met the prototype."

Milt winked at the kid before taking another sip of his beer. "How about you? What were some of your outstanding resolutions?"

Mark crossed his ankles on the lounge chair, still smiling as he laid his head back and closed his eyes. "Oh, there've been some winners, all right. I always say, if you're gonna dream, dream big." He opened one eye to see if he had the judge's attention. "For instance, there was the year I vowed to take the CAN-AM circuit by storm," he recalled. "Of course, we both know that didn't come off quite the way I had planned. Then there was my last year in Quentin, when I knew I'd be getting out soon on parole. Now that was a banner year."

"Yeah?" Hardcastle asked, interested to hear the younger man speak about the normally forbidden topic. "What was your goal then?"

Mark smiled wryly in the growing darkness. "I swore I'd never do anything stupid enough to dump me back into the system. You can see how well that one turned out."

Hardcastle placed his nearly empty bottle on the patio beside the chair and crossed his arms. "Well," he offered, "I won't say you didn't take a round-about way, but I think you got where you meant to in the end. I'd say you could call that one a success."

Mark gazed at him out of narrowed eyes, surprised. He took a moment to think it through. "Yeah, I guess. Maybe," he conceded, raising his bottle for a long, thoughtful drink.

The shadows were lengthening and the breeze blowing across the estate had lost some of its warmth. Neither man seemed in a hurry to get up and going.

"Any others? Success stories, I mean?" the retired jurist asked.

Mark felt his lips twitch. "Well . . . there was the first year I was here at Gull's Way. In fact, I remember it pretty clearly. It was a night just like this one. Sarah had only been gone for a week or two by then, and you wanted me to pick up some of the slack. You had Frank and Claudia and Carlton and his girlfriend over here for dinner that night, which wasn't too bad, really. I guess you could say I was surprised. But later, after it was all over, I remember standing out here, staring up at the stars with an aching back and dishpan hands from all the clean up. I made a resolution, then and there, and I'd have to say, that so far, it's been pretty successful."

"Oh yeah? What was your resolution, hotshot?" the judge asked, already knowing he wouldn't like the answer.

"I resolved not to kill you before 'indefinitely' came along."

Hardcastle laughed in spite of himself. "I guess we can only call that one a partial success, kiddo. The jury's still not in on exactly how long 'indefinitely' is."

"Yeah, well, I figure I should at least get points for managing this long," Mark observed.

"You and me both," the judge muttered quietly.

"I heard that."

A quick glance at his watch told the judge that they'd have to get moving along shortly if they wanted to make their dinner reservations, but he was reluctant to end this quiet interlude. He stole another glance at the man to his left. "How about this year? You got your resolutions all lined up?"

Mark finished his beer but held onto the bottle, feeling somber again. "I don't know, Judge. Kind of been out here thinking about that."

"And?"

McCormick grabbed the corner of the label between his thumb and forefinger and began to pull absently. "I think maybe I'm better off not making any big goals this year. Too afraid that maybe I'll jinx things, you know? For the first time in my life, I've come to the end of the year feeling pretty okay with where I'm at. Not that I'm saying there's nothing to improve on. It's just . . . well, I figure if I can manage to keep on the path I've been on, I'll still be ahead of the game. Does that make sense?"

"Sure it does. Resolutions don't always have to be about change." The judge rubbed a hand over his chin, remembering. "Stick-to-it-ness," he said aloud.

"Huh?" Mark lifted his head to look at the judge, wondering if he'd heard correctly.

"Oh, 'stick-to-it-ness'. That was a word my dad always used for perseverance. He said it meant 'a long row hoed in the same direction'. Made sense to me, anyway. And I think maybe that's what you're aiming for. Not a bad goal to have, I'd say."

"Stick-to-it-ness," Mark tried out the word. "I like it. And yeah, I think that's what I'm aiming for this year."

Hardcastle swung his legs down and prepared to stand. "Well, I wouldn't worry about it if I were you, kiddo. You'll make it – you've got what it takes."

McCormick allowed his eyes to meet Hardcastle's, and even in the darkness, the uncertainty was evident on the younger man's face. "You really believe that?" he asked quietly.

The judge smiled in reassurance. "Yep." He stood, grabbing his bottle and moving in the direction of the house. He paused and turned back briefly to capture the gaze of his friend. "I always have."

Mark watched him enter the house and disappear down the hallway. He wasn't used to being the recipient of unshakeable faith, and he wasn't entirely sure it was deserved, but it felt good. If someone like Hardcastle believed in him, then maybe, just maybe . . .

He stood slowly to his feet. The judge's words had brought to mind another resolution. Not a new one – one that he'd first made over three years ago, but it was just as true today. He raised his empty bottle in a toast to the one person who'd become everything to him and repeated the words softly, part vow, part prayer.

"May I never do anything to disappoint that man."

He smiled in the darkness as he heard a bellow from inside the house.

"Let's go, McCormick, I'm getting hungry! Move it or lose it!"

Mark shook his head in amusement and called out a reply, "Relax, Hardcase, I'm on my way."

And inside the house, the older man smiled softly to himself. That you are, kiddo.