A/N: So, I'm jumping the gun on the Goin' Nowhere Fast challenge, with a tiny little ficlet that follows the end of the episode. As always, the characters are not mine and no profit is being made. And thanks go to Lynn for the beta.

Bad Judgment

by Jaz

Mark grabbed another handful of popcorn, noting that the bowl was still more than half-full. He wasn't all that hungry himself, and he hadn't had to beat off the hand of jurisprudence in over an hour. Though the movie was still running, Hardcastle had given up on it long ago, moving over to the desk and pulling out the file that had been constantly in sight for the last seventy-two hours.

The ceiling had been plastered, the window was replaced, and the Corvette was due back from the shop tomorrow – but apparently some things took a little longer to fix.

Mark could see that there was a lot still unsettled for the retired jurist, but he wasn't sure he could do anything about it. Honestly, he wasn't even sure he wanted to. The last few days had been no picnic for him either – if he heard one more word about the illustrious J. J. Beale, there was likely to be a death involved – he just hadn't figured out whose yet.

Starting with the trip back to his old stomping ground, Strykersville, he'd been put in his place with constant reminders of his unflattering comparison more times than he could count, which hadn't been a whole lot of fun – though giving some attitude back to Schaeffer and the warden had at least brought a smile to the ex-con's face. There were a few perks to being the sidekick of a judge.

Now, though, he was tired. Physically, of course – losing a night's sleep took a while to make up these days. But more than that, he was tired of seeing Beale still maintaining a hold over the man on the other side of the desk. Yeah, okay, so the guy had managed to ruin Hardcastle's perfect record of character judgment. At sixty-something, it was bound to happen at least once, and Mark thought the judge just needed to get over it already.

But the file stayed open, as if somewhere within it were answers to the questions the retired jurist couldn't ask out loud.

The credits began rolling on the screen, and though Mark realized he had no idea exactly how the movie had ended, he was too tired to care. He unfolded his legs and stood, stretching. Grabbing the popcorn bowl, he headed toward the steps of the den, glancing over at the man lost in thought.

"'Night, Judge."

Hardcastle looked up in surprise. "You going to bed already? Movie's not even over yet."

"It just finished. Though I'm not sure I could tell you how it ended. Wasn't doing much to hold my attention."

Hardcastle rubbed a hand over his mouth. "Oh. Well, I guess it wasn't really one of his best."

Mark smiled at that, keeping his opinions on the topic of John Wayne to himself. Perhaps it was an acquired taste. He watched as the retired jurist returned his attention to the file, flipping over another loose sheet of paper, absorbed in the past.

McCormick leaned a shoulder against the door jam and decided he could at least make the effort.

"You okay?"

The quiet words pulled Hardcastle's eyes back to the earnest face in front of him, where the concern was not quite hidden.

"Sure," he bluffed, "I'm fine. Just making sure all the 'I's' are dotted and the 'T's' are crossed before I put it away." He dropped his gaze, unwilling to hold the younger blue eyes staring back at him.

McCormick shook his head at the typical donkey response and decided to jump in. He walked back down the steps and placed the bowl on the edge of the desk.

"Look, I don't think you should keep beating yourself up over this. There was nothing you could do differently. Nothing you should have done differently. One case of misjudging a person doesn't mean you're not a good judge, Judge."

Hardcastle gave him a half-smile, appreciating the thought behind the words. "I suppose you think you're an expert on that, huh?"

"On bad judgment? Yeah, I think I've got that one nailed."

Hardcastle said nothing.

"Seriously, Hardcase, you need to stop thinking about this. You weren't the only one taken in by this guy."

"No?"

"Nope. And I'm not even counting Donna May. I mean, think about it – you've got a guy who's a repeat offender out on parole, and he steals a judge's car and goes off on a crime-spree, launching an interstate posse. He gets caught, re-sentenced and he still manages to make Trustee in less than six months, with unsupervised access to the warden's wife? Now, either you've got some pretty dense guys running the show at Strykersville, and I'll reserve comment on that, or it's like you said – this guy is good."

The judge appeared to mull over that notion, having to give the idea credence. He'd already managed to arrive at nearly the same conclusion on his own. There was no denying that it did seem more than suspect that Beale had managed to accomplish that in such a short time, but then, that was J. J. Beale.

McCormick watched quietly, having made his point. He could see that he'd at least given the retired jurist some food for thought, and he wasn't really expecting an immediate capitulation to his view of things anyway. Picking up the bowl, he retraced his path up the steps.

Hardcastle watched the younger man prepare to leave and threw out a question he was more than curious to know the answer to. "So you're saying he's a better con than you are?"

At this, Mark turned and gave the older man a impish grin. "Not a chance." He paused, looking the older man directly in the eye. He sobered slightly.

"But maybe he just wanted it more."

He left the judge with those words, heading down the hallway and off into the night.

~0~

Hardcastle's gaze followed his protégé as he made his exit. He had to give the kid credit – he had made sense. It did help to know he wasn't the only one who'd been bamboozled by Beale, and he figured that was all the kid had been trying to point out.

He reached into the bottom drawer and pulled out another file, slightly less thick but just as well worn, and found himself once again comparing the two. There were some similarities, there was no doubt about that. But there were a hell of a lot of differences too, and it was that thought that brought a sense of peace.

Beale may have wanted it more, but he wanted all the wrong things. Revenge, greed – these were the motivations behind his actions.

He thought for a while on what it was that McCormick wanted. Staying out of prison would be the obvious answer. But it went much deeper than that. The ex-con had agreed to their arrangement only after Hardcastle had promised him they'd go after Cody. So what had he wanted then?

A chance to right a wrong.

And once again, the basic difference between Beale and McCormick was staring the judge in the face.

He'd given Tonto a pretty hard time the past few days, always touting Beale and his accomplishments. McCormick had hit the nail on the head when he had said that Hardcastle was only doing that to ease the sting of being taken in by the con man. The kid was pretty damn perceptive when he wanted to be.

Still, other than the stupid stunt with getting himself arrested, McCormick had done a pretty standup job on this one. Despite being constantly put down, he'd had Hardcastle's back the entire time, and he didn't even hesitate when it came to time to lay it on the line to rescue Sarah.

Hardcastle had said it would be six months before he trusted the ex-con.

He thought he might have called that one a little long.

Still, no point in telling that to the kid – wouldn't do for him to think he didn't need to work at it a little. But he could see McCormick was dragging a bit, and he felt a little guilty about that. Maybe he'd let him sleep in a bit tomorrow. Couldn't hurt, and probably would make him a little easier to live with.

Decision made, he closed both files with finality and placed them securely back in the drawer.

Beale may have been the prototype, but McCormick was definitely an improvement on the original.

It was time to get his head out of the past and get things back to whatever passed for normal around here. He'd pore over the files tomorrow and find them their next case. First though, he thought maybe he needed to boost the young man's spirits a little. He stood, stopping by the front hall closet on his way out the door.

A game of basketball would do the trick.

Maybe he'd even let McCormick win.