A/N: When the challenge was offered at Gull's Way for a Fourth of July story, this very short little scene is what immediately popped into my mind. The characters aren't mine, and no profit is being made.

Response Time

by Jaz

"It was reaction. Plain and simple," the young man muttered, his face reddening once again.

"Sure it was," the older voice agreed amiably. "Probably happens all the time."

"Exactly. At least living here in the bat-cave, anyway."

They continued walking across the beach, heading towards the path leading up the hillside where the tall grasses swayed in the evening winds.

"How's your shoulder?" Mark asked hesitantly, giving him a quick sideways glance.

Hardcastle gave it a test run, rotating it gingerly in the socket and feeling only a modicum of pain. "Not bad. Nothing a good night's sleep won't fix."

They silently trudged along, the noise of the patriotic masses continuing in the distance.

The sigh came first. "Sorry. Didn't mean to take you down like that."

"Well, like you said, it was reaction. Who knew the Nesbitt kid was going to light up those M-80's right at our feet?"

"Dumb kid," Mark agreed, eager to lay the blame for the mishap at someone else's feet. "Shouldn't be playing with illegal fireworks anyway."

Hardcastle raised an eyebrow but said nothing, allowing the man at his side to maintain his position of moral superiority. Though the devilish part of him was sorely tempted to do whatever he could to add to McCormick's embarrassment over the situation, another part of him knew he should be grateful. It was that element he called upon to offer up some encouragement.

"It's not like I don't appreciate it, you know. What you did."

"You mean throwing you to the ground with a flying tackle and nearly busting your collarbone in front of about seventy-five of your closest friends and neighbors?"

Milt rubbed a hand over his mouth. "Well, I maybe could've done without that part. But it's the thought that counts. And I know you were just watching my back."

"Yeah, well . . ."

The young man seemed bound and determined not to admit he'd been looking out for the well-being of the retired jurist by unhesitatingly taking him down at the echo of what had admittedly sounded like gunfire. With the number of times they'd been under fire in the past two years, Hardcastle could hardly blame him.

They mounted the first of the steps to the estate, intent upon their quest for lawn chairs. It had been the kid's idea to watch the fireworks from the beach tonight instead of from their usual perch by the pool, but the sand had been damp from the afternoon's rain, and the judge didn't relish the idea of sitting around in wet sweats.

Mark gave a quick glance at the beach behind him, noticing some of the younger kids racing with their sparklers in the gathering twilight. He shook his head.

"I'm telling you, it was just reaction," he started over again.

Hardcastle nodded with the patience of a saint.

"Sure it was," he said amiably. "But just so you know . . ."

"Yeah?"

Hardcastle smiled, secure in the knowledge that the devilish side of him was also going to be seeing some vindication. "Frank's never gonna let you live it down."