A/N: A little observation from the episode The Crystal Duck for this fortnight's challenge. I had the joy of this story being double beta'd from LML and Owl. Big thanks go to the both of them for the many things they teach me! The characters are not mine and no profit is being made.

Strings and Things

by Jaz

Mark McCormick had yet to figure out if there were a pattern to the mealtime arrangements here at Gulls Way. As a resident of the estate for the past several weeks, he thought he had breakfast figured out – on the patio if the weather was nice, in the kitchen if it wasn't. Lunch was usually in the kitchen, and often handled in self-serve mode with plenty of fixings to throw together a good sandwich. He gave Sarah credit for that – she ran a well-stocked kitchen, and after six months of living hand to mouth, he found he was enjoying the sensation of having a stomach that was at least occasionally full.

Determining the location of dinner was a still a crapshoot. Seemed like every time he thought it would be in the dining room, it was in the kitchen, or vice-versa. He'd taken to doing a quick recon before showering after the day's activities – stopping in the house long enough for a drink and to see if he could observe where the place settings were going, but even that wasn't foolproof. If asked, he would have said he preferred the kitchen. Things were a little less formal there than in the dining room, and even Sarah relaxed enough to join them at the table, if you could call anything about Sarah Wicks relaxed.

Time spent trying to figure out the elderly housekeeper was more of an exercise in futility than trying to figure out the location of dinner. She was a mystery, and Mark doubted if even ol' Hardcastle knew her inside and out. Every time Mark had decided she was interminably cranky, she'd go and do something nice. He had yet to determine exactly where he stood in the diminutive woman's eyes, but he wasn't above laying on the McCormick charm a little thicker whenever she was around in hopes of softening her up a tad.

Which was why he was now in the kitchen, offering assistance in setting the table, while being careful to stay out of her culinary way. She gave a curt nod in response, indicating the plates stacked on the counter next to the required cutlery. He took a stab at the pattern. It was just the three of them, but still, it was Friday night, so . . .

"Um, dining room?" he queried.

"Not tonight," she replied, making it sound as if he never should have asked.

"Oh. Okay," he said, secretly pleased. With Teddy off for his first shift at the restaurant, Mark had been hoping they'd be a little more laid-back tonight. He grabbed the plates and headed toward the kitchen table, only to be halted by a hand on the elbow and a shake of the head. He turned confused eyes to her face.

"Outside," she said simply.

"Really?" he asked, surprised. "For dinner? We never eat outside for dinner."

Sarah regally raised an eyebrow.

"Well, I mean since I've been here, at least," he amended.

"Too beautiful a night to waste," she sniffed. "Now get moving, or dinner will be ready and we'll have no place to put it."

"Yes ma'am," he responded, convinced he'd never figure things out.

It was difficult enough trying to remember all the rules on the estate, without having to worry about navigating the minefield of dealing with curmudgeonly emotions as well. It was hard to say which of the two resident senior citizens had the upper hand in that department, but he knew which one he was afraid of, and it wasn't the two-hundred pound gorilla in the Yankees cap.

But they both had enough rules to keep Mark bordering on the brink of insanity for months to come. Sarah laid hers out plain as day – pick up after yourself, rinse the dishes before putting them in the dishwasher, beds were to be stripped on Friday mornings – the list was endless, and he was guaranteed to break at least one or two on a daily basis.

With Hardcastle, however, Mark usually only knew there was a rule after he'd already broken it. The retired jurist had not laid a laundry list of items on him, but he was sure to let the young ex-con know after the fact if any invisible lines had been crossed, and there was generally a lot of yelling involved.

Really, there had been only two rules Hardcase had verbally informed him of, and both of those had been within his first twenty-four hours on the estate. He could hear the rumbling voice even now; it seemed to be embedded on his brain. 'Don't take off,' had been the first, followed shortly by, 'Nobody drives the 'Vette but me.'

It was the second one that Mark was currently stumbling over. It wasn't even that he couldn't understand it, because he certainly could. Having been recently endowed with the Coyote, he could appreciate the slightly unbalanced sentiments a guy could have over a nice car. And the 'Vette was more than a classic, she was a beauty, so he could see why the judge didn't want anyone driving it.

So why the hell had he loaned it to Teddy?

Though he wasn't crazy about admitting it, there had been more than a pang of jealousy when Mark had seen Teddy pulling in the driveway in the sleek black convertible. That wasn't something he wanted to take out and look at for too long. Knowing the old donkey had handed Teddy the keys to the 'Vette after telling McCormick it was off-limits had rankled, and it wasn't just because he was a professional driver and Teddy was flaky on a good day.

But damned if he was going to come right out and admit that, even to himself.

~0~

After only a few minutes of sitting in the soft evening winds with the sun descending while they ate, Mark decided that his favorite place for the evening meal was outside, hands down. He even complimented Sarah on her selection, to which she almost smiled.

The serenity of the atmosphere led to subdued conversation, and with only the three of them there, the talk centered around the needs of the estate, rather than the events of the past few days. McCormick found he was glad Teddy was gone for the night. It was time for his ex-cellie to become his ex-roommate once again. With tomorrow being Saturday, he thought it was the perfect time to move Teddy out and back into the digs he'd paid for through the end of the month, and he said as much to the judge as they laid down their forks.

"Probably a good idea," Hardcastle agreed as McCormick had expected he would. "No real reason for him to hang out here anymore, and no doubt the two of you would only find more trouble to get into."

"Hey, Quinlan's the one who screwed things up for Teddy. It's not like we were looking for trouble," Mark defended himself.

"No, more like it came looking for you," Hardcastle agreed dryly. "Violating your parole by inviting your newly-released ex-cellmate to shack up with you didn't give you a clue, huh?"

McCormick looked sullen. "He needed a place to stay," he mumbled.

"And you just had to offer him yours? Not too bright, McCormick."

"Yeah, well Teddy's always had this way of getting under a guy's skin to the point where you'd give him the shirt off your back. I mean, look at you – you'd only known him a day and a half before you were loaning him the 'Vette!"

"What the hell are you talking about?" the jurist growled. "I never loaned him the Corvette! He took the pickup!"

"Sure, tonight he did. But when he went for the interview the other day, he took the convertible."

All expression drained from Hardcastle's face, leaving it etched in stone. "He took my car?" he asked quietly.

Mark gave into an irrepressible urge to smile, as the events surrounding the loan of the vehicle suddenly became as clear as a crystal duck. He leaned forward slightly in his chair and lowered his voice conspiratorially. "Uh, Judge – when Teddy told you he needed to borrow a car to get to his job interview, did you tell him to take the truck? Or did you just say 'take mine'?"

When the older man spoke, his lips barely moved.

"I told him to take mine."

"And then you tossed him your keys, right? And there's a set to both the car and the truck on your key ring?" The grin grew, unimpeded.

"McCormick . . ." the voice was deep and threatening.

A laugh escaped from the younger man. He was suddenly finding a wealth of enjoyment in this conversation. "Yeah, see, I probably should have explained a bit about Teddy. You see, the thing is that unless you spell out what he's not supposed to do really clearly to him, he's going to follow his instincts and ask forgiveness later. And you maybe could tell, Teddy's instincts aren't really that hot."

A judicial eye began to twitch, and Mark had to strain to hear the whispered words.

"Are you telling me that idiot was out driving my Corvette?"

"Yep."

The chair the judge had been sitting in nearly toppled over as the older man jumped to his feet. "I'll kill him," he muttered, heading towards the side of the house.

"Where you going?" McCormick called after him, noticing a vein on the jurist's forehead that seemed to be bulging in rhythm. "He's not even here – you're going to have to hold off on sending him to the chair."

"I'm going to check out my car! So help me, if I find as much as a speck of dust on that thing, I'll send him away for the next twenty years!" He blew around the corner and out of sight, the bushes shuddering in his wake.

Mark continued laughing to himself, reaching for another biscuit. He couldn't explain why it gave him such a good feeling to know that the jurist hadn't entrusted the prized vehicle to Teddy, but he wasn't going to deny that it did. And if that made him a smaller person, than so be it.

He noticed Sarah shaking her head in disapproval at the judge's sudden departure, and decided to jump on the bandwagon. Perhaps a mutual disapproval would earn him some points in her book.

"He'd do it too. When they told him they had a warrant for me, he just stood there - didn't lift a finger. Nice, huh? Here I am, busting my . . . well, slaving for him day after day, chasing his bad guys, and he's ready to let me ride back up the river instead of helping me out. I asked him for a hand, and you know what he said? He said, 'I don't pull strings, kid'."

Sarah looked down her disdainful nose at him. "And I suppose you think he should have?"

That stopped Mark. He had thought that, yes. But apparently Sarah didn't hold the same belief that the guy serving at the judge's beck and call should warrant any special consideration because of it. He persisted anyway.

"Well, yeah. The least he could have done was make a phone call or something, you know? I hardly think that would be asking too much." He took a bite of the biscuit in his hand and reached for his glass to wash it down.

Sarah's previous disapproval took a rapid detour, shifting from the judge. Mark suddenly found himself facing a head-on collision. He swallowed and tried not to visibly shy away from the expected tongue-lashing.

Amazingly, it never came.

"You hardly think, hmmm? Sounds about right to me," she sighed. "Tell me, Mark, just how do you suppose you got out of jail this time?" she asked.

Though McCormick didn't care for the subtle reminder of the frequency of his visits to the incarceration facilities, he pondered this briefly. He hadn't really asked a lot of questions at the time, but come to think of it, he'd been in and out of Men's Central with surprising speed.

"The charges were dropped," he answered dutifully. "Teddy said he took a lie-detector test."

Sarah raised an eyebrow at the young man. "And does your Mr. Hollins seem like the kind of individual who would initiate such a proceeding of his own accord?"

That one didn't take much thought at all. "Not so much, no," Mark replied quietly, beginning to see where she was going. "Guess Hardcase must have talked him into it, huh?"

"Judge Hardcastle most certainly did. But that was only after he'd already been down to talk with Judge Gault, to ensure he'd be willing to drop the charges to begin with." She stood and began gathering up the dishes. "He did his best to convince Judge Gault that you were innocent from the beginning, but he said that Gault refused to rescind the warrant unless Hardcastle could get him proof."

Mark clambered to his feet to help with the clearing, following the older woman into the kitchen while she continued her diatribe.

"And if it weren't enough that he had to make nice to that insufferable little man, then he had to roust up Lieutenant Harper in the middle of the night to arrange the lie detector test for that ex-con who took the Reubens."

The tone of her voice left Mark in no doubt of her opinion of Teddy Hollins.

She paused before she entered the kitchen, waiting for Mark to get the door for her.

"I don't know what your definition of 'strings' is, young man, but it seems to me that there was an awful lot of pulling going on around here in the last day or two. Perhaps it wouldn't hurt you to be a bit more grateful. Not that His Honor would want you to."

She put down the platter she'd carried in and looked McCormick directly in the eye. "But maybe you can at least appreciate it enough to give him a little less of your fresh talk."

McCormick felt pinned under her gaze, and had the decency to drop his eyes. "Yes, ma'am," he said quietly. He knew better than to argue with her, and she had given him something to think about. He reached around her to grab the dish soap out of the bottom cabinet and took the remaining plate from her hand.

"I'll get these, Sarah," he offered in an attempt to make peace.

She took the dish back and waved him away. "Nonsense. With that hand of yours still swollen like a balloon, we'd lose more plates than usual. Just bring in the rest from outside and be done with you."

He went back out the door to follow her orders, taking a moment to stand by the pool's edge. It seemed Sarah's definition of what pulling strings really meant was different from his.

Mark smiled. Of course, it seemed like Hardcastle had a different definition too.

~0~

Hardcastle had pulled the 'Vette out into the driveway and was kneeling down by the front wheel when Mark found him. To Mark's eyes, he appeared to be moderately calmer. He could see the judge was trying to get a look at the car's underside without much luck, and he figured getting under a low-riding convertible at the jurist's advanced age couldn't be all that easy. Without making the offer, Mark dropped down on his back and scooted up near the front wheel-well.

"I doubt he could have done any damage to it in the time he had it, Judge," Mark tried to be reassuring as he edged his head underneath, "but maybe you should take it for a drive just to see if the alignment seems out of whack."

"Hmph. It's his head that's gonna be out of whack when he gets his butt back here," the older man grumbled, though Mark could tell at this point it was mostly for show. "What kind of idiot thinks he'd be allowed to drive a classic automobile like this one? You're damn lucky nothing appears to be wrong."

"I'm lucky?" Mark asked in disbelief. "How is any of this my fault? You're the one who went all softhearted and loaned him your ride."

"And you're the one who was hiding him out in the gatehouse, so save your breath proclaiming your innocence." He stood upright and looked down at the younger man. "You see anything out of place?"

McCormick raised himself to a sitting position and accepted a hand up from the judge, pausing long enough to wipe the dust off. "Nope. It all seems fine to me. But like I told you, you need to drive it to be sure."

"You think the alignment's bad?"

"I doubt it. But it doesn't hurt to check." He stepped back to allow the older man the opportunity to open the driver's side door.

"Well, if there is something wrong, you're going to be the one to fix it, kiddo." He fished in his front pocket for the keys, pulling them out and dangling them from a finger. "Here."

Mark felt his heart rate speed up, and he looked uncertainly at the face before him. "Judge?"

"You drive. That way you'll be able to tell if anything needs to be worked on." He handed the keys over, walked around the back of the car to the passenger side and climbed in.

McCormick stood still, lost in a moment of disbelief. His fingers closed tightly around the keys, giving them a little squeeze, before he joined Hardcastle in the car. He ran a hand appreciatively over the steering wheel before inserting the key in the ignition and allowing the car to roar to life. There was no stopping the smile on his face. He put the car into gear and pulled out onto the long driveway, enjoying this rare feeling of being trusted with something precious.

"That speedometer crosses over the thirty miles-per-hour line and you're walking home, kiddo," the judge informed him in a matter of fact tone.

Mark shook his head and let out a laugh, determined that nothing would spoil this moment.

"Whatever you say, Kemosabe."