A/N: A response to the challenge for the episode Man in a Glass House. The characters are not mine and no profit is being made. With thanks to Owl, the Hyphen Queen, for a speedy beta.
Milton C. Hardcastle was not a big fan of surprises. It came from growing up with Gerald, he supposed, since he was never quite sure what would be landing on his doorstep, but it rarely turned out to be a positive thing.
He hadn't outgrown that feeling upon entering adulthood. When Nancy had tried to throw him a surprise party for his fortieth birthday, he'd walked into the darkened room and instinctively drawn his weapon at the shouts of greeting, causing poor Aunt May to go into immediate heart palpitations. Since that time, it had become well known among his peers and colleagues that the best way to handle things with Hardcastle was in an up-front and fully forthcoming manner.
Which was probably why the number of surprises Milt had been dealt since bringing home his latest ex-con had been unsettling to him at the very least. And the jury was still out on whether they were good surprises or not. Not that they were all unexpected – he knew there was a certain period of adjustment that resulted from any enforced co-habitation, and there were bound to be frequent moments of revelation during that initial stage.
He sat on the bed, pulling on his ragged tennis shoes and pondering the surprises of the last few days. One of the expected ones, or at least one that should have been expected, was the presence of the small black leather case. It was well worn and had been slipped from the pocket of a black jacket with little fanfare, and no attempts at covertness, which had given Hardcastle pause. He wouldn't have thought the kid trusted him enough yet to risk being turned in for the obvious parole violation, but he was apparently wrong.
However, since the Breaking & Entering they were pulling was at Hardcastle's instigation, there hadn't been a lot of incentive for the jurist to take the moral high ground, and other than a few pointed remarks, the incident had been mostly overlooked.
He stood up and stretched, his hands reaching around to support his lower back as he moved his shoulders from side to side before heading for the staircase. The sun had started its rise more than ten minutes ago, and there were no signs of life on the estate yet, except the background noises of Sarah working in the kitchen. He'd take care of that soon enough, stopping by the front closet long enough to grab the basketball.
As he made his way out the door, he realized the surprise of the lock picks took a back seat to finding the kid waiting out in the garage in the dark of night to help him break into the impound lot in the first place. He hadn't asked for that, and he certainly hadn't expected it. When he'd explained the 'it takes one to catch one' plan to McCormick, he hadn't made the offer on the stipulation that the convicted thief would be called upon to actually put his criminal skills into practice.
Of course, being recently retired from the bench, he hadn't expected to be in the position of needing them, either.
As he headed over towards the basketball hoop, trying valiantly to convince himself that the younger man's aptitude stemmed from his days in car repossession and not from more questionable activities, he saw the object of his thoughts down the driveway a spell. Changing course, he worked at keeping the surprise from his expression. A quick glance at his watch confirmed it was just after six a.m., and finding his reluctant gardening staff of one already down on his knees in the dirt was unexpected, indeed.
"What the hell are you doing?" he called as he got closer, irritation naturally slipping into his tone.
McCormick looked up and gave him an impish grin. "Good morning to you too, Your Honor."
"Morning," the judge gave the obligatory reply, feeling put out. "What the hell are you doing?"
"What's it look like I'm doing?"
"It looks like you're mangling my azalea bushes."
"Nope. Guess again."
"McCormick . . ." Early rising and hard work were one thing, but insipid cheerfulness at this hour was not to be tolerated.
"Okay, okay. You did the mangling. I'm doing the replacing. These are beyond salvation. Gonna have to rip 'em out and buy some new ones." He leaned back onto his heels, resting his hands on his thighs. "You know, maybe you should have someone take a look at the steering on the 'Vette. Seems like it wasn't working too well." The grin grew.
"I'm gonna replace you, if you don't watch the lip."
"Never happen," McCormick replied confidently, rising to his feet and wiping his hands on his dirty jeans. "As we've recently discovered, you apparently need my, uh, finer skills." He pointed toward the decrepit shrubbery. "And I don't mean in gardening."
The retired jurist refused to comment on that observation. He tossed the ball to the unsuspecting man. "You gonna shut up and play basketball, or what?"
"Play basketball, yes. Shut up, not a chance." He stepped onto the driveway and began idly dribbling the ball as they walked toward the hoop.
Hardcastle snorted. That was no surprise at all.
They reached the court, where McCormick sank an immediate three-pointer, making it look easy.
"You know, Hardcase, I been meaning to tell you," he began, snagging the ball again as it rebounded, "I think we should get a car phone for the Coyote."
"Oh, you do, do you?"
"Yeah, I do. Do you have any idea how many times I had to stop to try and call you when I was tailing Cadillac? I almost lost him every time I stopped at a payphone, and all I got was elevator music."
"You got in touch with me, didn't you?"
"Only because the cop tried to ticket me! I'm just saying, if you're going to be sending Tonto out solo after the bad guys, then you should at least make sure he has the right tools for the job."
"Okay. I'll buy you a hatchet."
"Oh, that's funny. You know what I mean," he replied petulantly.
"Tell you what – you want a car phone, you pay for it."
"How the hell am I supposed to do that on the measly allowance you pay me?"
Hardcastle stole the ball and sent it bouncing off the backboard, completely missing the rim. "I guess maybe we'll just have to make sure Tonto's not going out solo anymore," he responded. "Now shut up and play."
Sarah placed the platter of French toast on the patio table, and bustled off, disappearing back into the kitchen with an inaudible tsk. Seizing the moment, Hardcastle decided to approach the subject that had been on his mind earlier.
"You know, kiddo, I think we need to have a little talk."
McCormick halted his reach for the food and gave the judge a long-suffering glare. "Not again. What'd I do wrong this time?"
"Why do you think you did something wrong? Got a guilty conscience?"
The young man narrowed his eyes. "Not a bit," he assured readily. "But every time you start off the day with one of these 'little talks', it usually means you think I've done something wrong, and that ticks you off enough to give me the two-dollar lecture. If I'm going to be subjected to your ranting, I'd at least like to know what the topic is."
"Fair enough. The topic, for your information, is your recent display of criminal aptitude."
"My 'criminal aptitude', as you call it, is what saved your judicial butt from getting turned into doggie kibble, so I'd be a little more grateful, if I were you."
Hardcastle just wasn't in the mood for smart remarks, and his words took on a menacing tone. "Oh, you would, would you? Well, let me tell you, I didn't ask for your help! I'll have you know I would have done fine on my own, thank you very much!"
Mark grabbed the platter and stabbed several pieces at once, dragging them onto his plate. "Ha! If you had tried that second-story job on your own, you'd still be down in the county cooker, because it would have taken about five minutes for you to get caught, and I sure as hell wouldn't be bailing you out." He reached for the syrup and poured a healthy dollop onto the toast.
Hardcastle poured himself a glass of orange juice, working to hold onto his temper. "I didn't get caught, did I?"
Mark looked at him in astonishment. "Because I was there! And because you got off on a technicality, which just goes to prove there's absolutely no justice in this world.
"No, that just goes to prove that Lady Justice is smarter than your average bear."
"Just because we didn't have time to wait for her to get all the right information doesn't mean that she wasn't going to pull through for us in the end. We weren't even committing a crime, so there's no need to take it out on her."
The young man nearly dropped his fork. "But you didn't know that! You broke into that impound fully believing you were breaking the law! I'm not saying you weren't doing it for a good cause, and yes, I do believe motives have to count for something. But in the eyes of the law, you should have been just as guilty as a kid caught shoplifting, or the guy who pulls a B&E at the local liquor store. And you were far more guilty than the guy arrested for stealing his own car. Apparently, though, Lady Justice looks out for her own." He returned his attention to his plate, cutting through the French toast with a vengeance.
Hardcastle was silent as he mulled over the kid's words. He was loathe to admit that McCormick might actually be right, but he was having a hard time coming up with evidence to support his own position.
McCormick took the sudden silence for agreement and gave him a wolf-like grin. "Little hard to proclaim moral supremacy when you're on my side of the fence, huh?"
Hardcastle glared at the younger man, his finger already jabbing in the air. "Listen, wise-guy, it's not the same thing! Okay, yes - I did something wrong, but I took ownership of that fact, and I went and confessed to it. You got caught. There's a difference."
Mark couldn't keep the astonishment from his face. "Yeah! The difference is that you were guilty and I wasn't!"
"You were convicted! You stole that car!"
"It was my car to begin with!"
Hardcastle glowered at the younger man, feeling his patience rapidly slipping. "Are we gonna do this every time?" he asked angrily.
Mark counted to ten and drew in a deep breath, sitting back in his chair as if to physically remove himself from the argument. "Not if you admit you were wrong," he answered philosophically.
"Not gonna happen, sport."
"Then, yes, we're going to do this every time." He offered the hint of a smile to ease the mounting tension.
Hardcastle appreciated the effort, and gave the ex-con credit for the attempt to back off from the expected argument. Seemed the kid was full of surprises today. He stared across the table at him, assessing. "Fine," the retired jurist finally grumbled, willing to meet him halfway. "Then can it at least wait until I've had coffee?"
The smile returned to the young man's face, and he shook his head gently. "Donkey," he remarked idly.
Taken aback by McCormick's sudden return of good humor, Milt found himself grinning in return. "I'd be careful who you're calling a donkey, kid. Might come back to haunt you someday."
Mark raised an eyebrow. "You mean more than it has already? I don't think that's possible. I'm already living a twenty-four hour a day nightmare." He stuffed another forkful into his mouth.
There was no sting behind his words, and Hardcastle found himself chuckling. "You and me both."
The incessant drone of the lawn mower had finally ceased, and the late afternoon sunlight was casting lengthening shadows outside the windows. Hardcastle looked up from his paperwork to see Mark standing in the entrance to the den. The young man had on his jean cutoffs and a sleeveless t-shirt, giving him a youthful appearance that belied his years.
"Can I have the keys to the pickup?"
The question, so innocent in nature, brought with it a sharp pang of déjà vu, and for a moment, the older man was drawn back in time. It had been a higher-pitched voice, another set of eyes that had asked the same question, and the remembered pain was swift and intense.
It must have shown on his face, for the younger man took an involuntary step backward and gazed at him hesitantly.
"I mean, if it's okay that I take it. I wanted to get down to the garden center before it closed and pick up the new bushes. Unless you want to drive?"
Hardcastle could tell that last part was uttered as a concession to whatever was written on his face, and he forced himself to assume a neutral expression. He reached into his pocket for the keys and tossed them over the desk.
"No, you go ahead. I've got stuff to finish here. And make sure you pick up some peat moss for the planting," he added gruffly.
"As you wish," Mark said, giving a haphazard salute before escaping out the door.
His departure left Hardcastle alone to deal with the unwelcome reminder the words had stirred – memories that were still burning embers thanks to Joe Cadillac. Though the mobster's intrusion into his private life had caused a swift and sudden fury, it was how the judge had handled things with McCormick after Cadillac had left them alone that now weighed heavily on his tired mind.
No substitute? Exactly where had that come from? Not what he'd intended to say, and more than likely not what the young man had expected to hear. There really weren't any similarities between the two, other than the age. And maybe the enthusiasm for life, something Hardcastle remembered in his son.
Anyway, thanks to Cadillac, it was out in the open now, and there was a part of Hardcastle that was glad. Not that the kid had a right to know – he didn't. He'd only been here a few weeks anyway. Long enough to unpack, settle in, shirk off as many chores as possible and thoroughly shoot his mouth off. But having him know now was easier than letting it get too far down the road – it wasn't the kind of thing you could casually slip into conversation.
And damned if McCormick hadn't managed to be respectful about the startling revelation. Hardcastle could tell he'd been surprised, but the inquiry that had followed Cadillac's revelation hadn't been prying – just curious. Hardcastle hadn't exactly shut him down, but he wasn't ready to open up about it either. He might never be. And somehow, he thought maybe the younger man understood that.
While Hardcastle could be tempted to label that as the biggest surprise of all, he knew he'd only be lying to himself. No, that revelation had come later, after it was all said and done and the fat lady had sung. Father Atia was safe, Joe Cadillac and his incriminating files were in the hands of the authorities, and he himself was about to right a wrong, with a flagrant necessity defense carefully tucked up his sleeve, ready if he needed it.
Sure, he'd goaded the kid to own up and do the right thing, but he sure as hell never expected him to actually do it. Even now the thought sent a shiver down his spine as he thought about the consequences of what he'd asked McCormick to risk. Not that he'd have let the ex-con take a fall for him – his sleeves were big, after all, with plenty of legal verisimilitude at his disposal. Had they been talking to an officer other than Carlton, though, things could have been sticky indeed, regardless of whether Judge Hightower had gone to the opera that night or not.
But Mark had come through. He'd busted the door open and walked in, standing shoulder to shoulder with the judge and readily sharing the blame. He hadn't left Hardcastle standing alone, and that was something the jurist wouldn't soon forget.
Of all the possible reasons why the young man might have been willing to do that, there was only one that kept coming back to Hardcastle.
McCormick had an innate sense of right versus wrong.
And that was by far the biggest surprise of all.
Of all the convicted felons, hardened criminals and repeat offenders that Hardcastle could have chosen for his new Tonto, he'd managed to land one that actually had a conscience.
That wasn't something you could rehabilitate into these guys. In most cases, you couldn't teach it to them even if you started when they were knee-high to a grasshopper.
It was something they were born with.
Even now the thought brought a smile to the weathered face. He'd been fairly confident that he'd chosen wisely with this one, but there had still been room for doubt. It was nice to see he hadn't missed the mark after all.
As surprises went, he thought maybe this was one he could live with.
The rumble of the truck returning drew the judge away from the paperwork he'd been playing with for the last two hours, and he stood, determined to cease his ruminations regarding recent revelations. He headed up the steps and out the front door, offering a hand to a surprised McCormick. They worked together to unload the bushes and get them situated for planting the next morning before he declared the day's work at an end, knowing he'd get no argument from the young man at his side.
The two men walked up the steps and entered into the kitchen. As Mark made an immediate detour to the refrigerator and poked his head inside, Hardcastle placed the returned keys on the counter, heading to the sink to wash his hands.
He spoke over the sound of the running water. "You know, with Sarah out tonight, I figured maybe we'd order some pizza instead of trying to cook."
McCormick's face reappeared, looking considerably more upbeat. The promise of food had the tendency to do that. "Yeah?" he asked. "Great! I'll call it in." He grabbed a glass from the cabinet, filled it with water and gulped it down, dragging a dirty hand across his mouth. "So, what do you like on your pizza?"
Hardcastle smiled to himself.