A/N: Yes, it's another one of those plotless conversations I seem to be in the habit of doing. This one was spurred on by the recent story from L.M. Lewis, Generations. It got me thinking - like LML, I believe Mark eventually ended up walking down the aisle with Kathy Kasternack, but we never saw her again in canon after One of the Girls from Accounting, and I wondered why (other than the obvious difficulty in one of the guys having a steady girl throughout the show). This story takes place about six months later. Thanks go to LML for doing the beta and for always offering encouragement. The characters are not mine and no profit is being made.

Baggage

by Jaz

It was a quarter past dusk when he finally found him, though there hadn't been all that much searching necessary. No rock skipping this time, just a lone figure perched on the rocks with his arms wrapped around his drawn-up knees. He was staring out at the water, but Hardcastle doubted that was really what he was seeing. He continued his approach, clearing his throat to give fair warning, but the younger man never turned in his direction. Hardcastle remained a level beneath him, standing on the sand and turning his gaze to the ocean.

"You missed dinner," he commented with no more emotion than he might have used to remark about the weather.

Though no reproach had been intended, guilt was still the result. The man on the rocks glanced briefly in his direction. "Sorry," he offered quietly.

Hardcastle gazed at him more intently. "Not hungry, huh?" he replied, easily letting the other man off the hook.

Just a shake of the head in return, and then the somber eyes were drawn back to the ocean, as if the answers to life's great mysteries lay somewhere within its depths.

Hardcastle knew the answers the younger man sought weren't out there. Truth was, he'd like a few of those answers himself. He'd really thought this was it. Even McCormick had been so sure that Kathy was The One. Of course, as recent events had shown, McCormick had at one time thought Kiki Cutter was also The One, so he wasn't exactly batting a thousand in the character judgment department. But the retired jurist liked to pride himself in that area, and he'd had a feeling that Mark McCormick had met his match in Kathy Kasternack.

She'd been so different from the girls McCormick usually paraded around the estate. And the two of them had been spending quite a bit of time together lately, enough to make the judge think there might be wedding bells ringing somewhere down the road in the rather distant future.

Apparently Kathy hadn't felt the same way, and that had surprised both of them. A job offer had come, giving her a chance to stretch her new CPA muscles, and it had required a move. She'd let the kid down gently, but the result was still the same. McCormick was the one left feeling his heart had been ripped out of his chest.

Hardcastle was just the one left to pick up the pieces.

Which he was determined to do, if only to get his Tonto out of the dumps and back on the trail. But, damn, he wasn't good at this kind of thing. Normally, it wasn't a problem. Whenever McCormick had broken up with his latest girl-of-the-week, Hardcastle would immediately be subjected to more details than he had any interest in ever knowing. But the breakup had occurred three days ago, and Mark hadn't said a word. Hardcastle only knew it had happened because Kathy had called to tell him goodbye. And because the younger man had been walking around in an uncharacteristic funk ever since.

He cleared his throat again. "I was thinkin'," he began, and then stopped, suddenly unsure it was a good idea to share his thoughts. He let the words hang there briefly, then shook his head. "Never mind. Doesn't matter."

McCormick's interest had been momentarily piqued, and he turned his head toward the older man. "What?"

"Nah. If I say it, it's only gonna make you mad."

There was a ghost of a smile. "Since when has that ever stopped you?"

Hardcastle smiled back. Glad to see a little spark still there, he was determined to fan it. "Good point," he conceded. "It's just, well, I was thinking that maybe it's not such a bad thing. To have ended things, I mean. Better now than later, anyway, when you got too far down the road."

The young man didn't seem surprised at the choice of topic, but the smile dimmed. "We were together for over six months. I'd say that's pretty far down the road."

"Yeah, I guess." He hesitated before asking the obvious question. "So what happened?"

McCormick slowly shook his head. "You got me. I thought things were going okay. Mostly, anyway. Except for the last little bit."

Hardcastle waited silently, giving the man time to gather his thoughts, confident he'd share them when he was ready.

The younger man cast his gaze out over the ocean. "I don't know. She seemed a little distant lately. Getting upset over the slightest little thing. She said she was just tired, but . . . obviously it was more than that."

Hardcastle's mind started whirring, and he didn't like the direction it was taking, but he was unable to keep his suspicions to himself. "You don't think she could have been – um, you know?"

Mark turned and stared at him blankly a moment before the knowledge dawned in his own eyes, and his cheeks began to redden. "Judge!" he exclaimed. "No! She wasn't."

"You sure?"

"Positive." If anything, Mark's flush deepened. "We didn't – we never – I mean –"

Hardcastle felt his eyebrows crawl toward his hairline. "Never? In six months?"

"Yeah, well, you're the one who said to take things slowly."

"Slow's one thing. We're talking frozen molasses here. At least for a guy like you."

"What's that supposed to mean?" McCormick asked, taking offense.

"Oh, relax. I'm just saying it's not your usual style, if I'm supposed to believe all your previous conquests."

McCormick sighed, backing down slightly. "Yeah, I guess. It's not that I didn't want to, you know? I just figured, if you do what you always do, you're going to get what you always get. I thought this time I'd try something different. Except it didn't work out so good, huh?"

Hardcastle pondered that briefly, thinking it might not have been such a bad plan. "I'm not sure you did anything wrong, sport. Seemed to me the two of you were heading in the right direction. Maybe the job offer was just too good to pass up." He shifted his position, leaning against the rock and folding his arms.

Mark fell silent, but the retired jurist could feel the difference of opinion emanating off him in waves.

"You don't agree?" Hardcastle asked.

"It wasn't the job, Hardcase. It was me."

The older man took that with a grain of salt. "She tell you that?"

"She didn't have to. S-S-D-D."

"How's that? What's S-S-D-D mean?"

Mark rolled his eyes. "Same s – story," he substituted, "different day."

Hardcastle nodded, though he wasn't in agreement. "And you figure there's something wrong with you, huh?"

"Well, there's only one common denominator in my relationships. And it's something most women seem to have a hard time getting past." He swung his legs around, leaving them to dangle off the rock's edge to face the jurist. "I just, I don't know, I figured Kathy was different. She didn't seem to mind at first. But I guess it gets to everybody sooner or later."

The look Hardcastle threw at McCormick was genuinely puzzled. "What does?"

Mark shrugged. "You're a bright guy, Judge. You figure it out."

The older man thought quietly for a few minutes, but there was really only one possibility. "You really think that's it?"

McCormick nodded, his face full of world-weary wisdom. "Happens all the time."

He placed his palms on the rock, using them to propel himself to the sand below. Without another word, he began to walk down the shoreline.

Hardcastle joined him, uninvited but not unwanted. "I don't know, kiddo. That doesn't make sense. She knew about your past right from the beginning, and it never seemed to bother her. She had a good handle on it, I thought. I don't think that's it."

Mark felt a smile tugging at his lips. "You don't, huh? Any reason behind this remarkable insight?"

Hardcastle shrugged. "Nothing I can put my finger on."

The smile disappeared. "Well, trust me, Judge. You're talking to the voice of experience here. She may have hung in there longer than most, but the outcome's still the same."

The waves crested the shore and crashed to the right of them, the tendrils of water slowing long before reaching their feet. They trudged along in silence, mindless of the beauty that surrounded them. Hardcastle shoved his hands into the pocket of his sweatshirt, stealing a glance at his companion. "What was it you said before? About doing what you always do?"

Mark gazed at him through tired blue eyes. "You do what you always do, you're going to get what you always get," he repeated.

"Yeah, that's it. Makes sense, I guess. And if that was what you were aiming for, I think maybe you might have missed the boat."

"How so?"

"Well, maybe you kept yourself from doing certain things, but I'm thinking you might have still brought the same baggage to the relationship."

Anger became apparent in the younger man's expression. "The baggage is always going to be there. I'm an ex-con. I can't change that," he defended himself.

"No, you can't," Hardcastle agreed. "It's a part of your past. But you don't have to let it define who you are in the present."

Mark shook his head in disbelief. "And just how the hell do I keep from doing that?" He stepped quickly to his left to avoid a rogue wave, careful not to knock into the man at his side.

Hardcastle sighed. "I don't know. This may surprise you, but I really don't have all the answers. But I think if you see yourself as an ex-con, those around you have no choice but to do the same. And you're more than that. Have been for some time now."

Silence followed his comments, broken only by the sound of the gulls crying overhead and the waves continuing their endless journey to nowhere. The men slowed their trek as Mark mulled the idea over in his mind. After several moments he spoke, his voice hesitant.

"You really think that?"

Hardcastle wasn't sure if McCormick was referring to the idea that he carried his baggage with him, or that he was more than just what his past dictated. Didn't matter, really. The answer to both was the same.

"Yep."

McCormick chewed on that thought for a while longer before speaking again.

"So what am I, exactly?"

The older man let out a chuckle. "Not sure we have enough beach left to answer that one, McCormick," he said, angling their path toward the stairs to the house.

The younger man sighed. "No, I suppose not."

Hardcastle laid a hand on his friend's shoulder, offering more than guidance. For reasons he had yet to explain, and ones that he wasn't anxious to admit to the man beside him, he had a feeling they hadn't yet heard the last of Kathy Kasternack.

"We got time, kiddo. We'll figure it out."