Author's Note: These characters do not belong to me and no profit is being made. Thanks go to Owl for helping me keep my 'who's' and 'whom's' in the right places.

Pathways

by Jaz

"Take my word for it – it's easier when you have somebody to hate." Mark McCormick, Rolling Thunder

~0~

Mark dropped heavily onto the bed, his feet on the floor, the basketball still in his hands. The loft was illuminated only by the small lamp on the bedside table; the glow barely cutting through the darkness. His thoughts at the moment were equally dim.

That had been . . . unexpected.

Not that anything about this day had been expected - nothing in the last week really. From the moment he'd first learned of Flip Johnson's death, his life had seemed to be on a path that was no longer in his control. Though if he thought about it, things had been that way for most of his life, but it had been going a little better since his release from prison. He'd begun to think that maybe he might still be able to pull things out of the fire and get back on the right track.

He shook his head and gently dropped the ball to the ground, giving it a shove with his foot. He watched it roll away, coming to a rest under the armchair across from the bed.

Going over the chain of events that had brought him here tonight was probably only going to increase the certainty that insanity was in his future, but he seemed powerless to stop the direction of his thoughts, and he wondered, not for the first time, what in the hell had possessed him to listen to Barb long enough to steal the Coyote. He'd known what he was risking. At least he'd thought he had – a one-way trip back to Quentin, do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars.

This scenario had never even entered his mind.

What kind of a lunatic invites a known felon into his home to join him on some kind of a hair-brained, no-holds-barred crusade for justice?

And what kind of a lunatic says yes?

When Hardcase Hardcastle, the man who'd held the top spot on Mark's personal black list for the past two long years, had initially approached him with the invitation, Mark had been too full of shock, too full of anger, and too full of hatred to even consider saying yes. He'd turned him down flat, with flair even, and had been dragged back to his cell long before he'd been given a chance to regret his impulsiveness. This was Hardcastle, after all – the man who'd sent him to prison for driving his own car. The man who'd tossed him away like an old gum wrapper. The man who had consumed Mark's thoughts daily in the joint. The man whom Mark had hated with a passion.

The man with whom he'd just played a game of street-rules basketball – and he'd had fun doing it.

So what the hell was he supposed to do with that?

Mark had meant it when he told Barb that it was easier when you had someone to hate. He'd been down that road many times, and hatred for the judge had fueled his time inside – it had given him a reason to get up in the morning, if only to show the old donkey that there was more to Mark than there was to most of the guys in here. Hardcastle had looked at him that day in court and seen nothing but a two-bit hood – a car thief who'd never amount to anything,

Mark McCormick would prove him wrong. He'd do his time; he'd serve his sentence, and once he was released, he wasn't ever going back.

Too bad it didn't work out that way. Six months was all he had managed before he'd done something stupid enough to land him back inside for the next decade.

Mark sighed, standing only long enough to remove his trousers and drop them in a heap on the floor. He switched off the lamp and lay down on top of the covers, folding his arms underneath his head. It had to be well past three o'clock in the morning, but sleep wasn't coming yet. The pounding on the backboard outside his window had been replaced by a pounding inside his head, and pleading for quiet now wouldn't help him any more than it had done forty-five minutes earlier. He smiled grimly, wondering why he'd thought reasoning with the recently retired jurist about the noise level would have gotten him anywhere.

He knew plenty of guys like the Honorable Milton C. Hardcastle. Guys for whom everything was either black or white – they were inflexible, unforgiving, convinced they were right, always seeing the worst in others – there was no room for error in their world. And when error occurred, judgment and punishment were meted out, swift and final. Two long years had given Mark plenty of time to review those facts in his mind. And yet . . .

"I'm gonna file that under 'who gives a damn'."

Even now those words caused the smile on his face to become a bit more real. Once he'd gotten over his annoyance, the thought of the old guy out there at two-thirty in the morning, shooting baskets just because it was his routine had amused the hell out of Mark. He had offered to teach Hardcastle a lesson, but it seemed McCormick was the one who'd learned something.

The question was, what would he do with it? That hatred he'd held onto for so long had almost become a part of him, and he wasn't sure he was ready to lay it aside. But he'd given his word, and since that was pretty much all he had to call his own, he wasn't about to go back on it. Hatred or not, he was committed to Hardcastle for the foreseeable future.

But how do you hate a guy who overlooks an elbow to the gut? That alone could have earned the parolee a trip right back down the road they'd just come up. Instead, all it earned him was a face full of mulch and a chance to lecture an officer of the court on the subtle difference between car-repossession and actual theft.

That kind of unexpected behavior left Mark with all kinds of questions. But maybe the questions had started earlier, back in his cell, when he'd been rudely awakened, only to find that the offer was being renewed, but with a twist. It was that twist that had set the hook. That, and the cold reality of staring at a cement ceiling while lying on a paper-thin mattress in itchy, ill-fitting denim. He'd have made a deal with the devil himself at that point – anything to get out from under the reality of ten long years locked away.

Though at one time he might have seen him that way, Hardcastle didn't seem quite as much like the devil now.

Not after the jurist told Mark they'd go after Cody.

Not after he promised to help the ex-con seek the vengeance that Flip deserved.

Not after the judge believed him.

That was really what had planted the seeds of doubt now wrapping around his carefully nurtured hatred.

That was what made McCormick see there might be more to this man he'd loathed for so long.

That was what made him say 'yes' to this whole crazy idea.

The basketball game had just been another piece of the pie.

~0~

Mark breathed in deeply and exhaled loudly before rolling onto his side and pulling the previously discarded blanket over him. The comfort of the mattress was beginning to get to him, and he was more than willing to put this day behind him. Who knew what tomorrow would hold? This road of hatred he'd been on had been a long, lonely path, and while he wasn't sure he could just toss it aside, it hadn't brought him a whole lot of luck so far. But thinking about it tonight wasn't getting him anywhere. Maybe he'd just have to wait and see. Maybe things would be clearer with the start of a new day. Maybe there would be a new path waiting for him.

Maybe, just maybe, his luck was about to change.