Author's Note: A tag to the episode "Georgia Street Motors." With thanks to Deb and Lynn for the beta. The characters are not mine and no profit is being made. Oh, and I also took some uncanon-like liberties with Charlie Friedman.

The story so far: After hearing that one of the cons he sent up the river has refused to go on parole, Hardcastle makes a trip to San Quentin and discovers that some of his old cronies (cops turned judges) are going after 'the ones that got away' in a permanent and homicidal manner. In keeping with the homicidal theme, Hardcastle decides the best way to outsmart them is to lead them to believe he wants to join their little vigilante club and needs to kill McCormick to do so. The whole insane plan rests on the aptitude of a pickpocket Hardcastle once sentenced (who certainly owes Hardcastle no favors), and his ability to switch out the gun carried by the guy who 'should' be the one to shoot Mark with a gun loaded with blanks. Confused yet? Me too . . .

Method Acting

by Jaz

Hardcastle stared idly at the folder on his desk, trying not to drip water from the melting ice pack on his hand onto the several loose papers and newspaper clippings. The most recent of those came from yesterday's L. A. Times, announcing the arrest of Emmett Parnell, Frank Cadigan and Roy Teague. His gaze shifted to the yellowing black and white photograph of him and Emmett, standing side by side in cap and gown and looking far more advanced in years than the other graduates around them, and he sighed. This one was a little hard to swallow, no matter how you looked at it. The whole thing left a bad taste in his mouth. But the more he thought about it, he just wasn't sure if his emotional indigestion was over the actions of men he'd once called friends, or over his own actions during the past few days.

And that's the rub of it all.

The slamming of the door to the kitchen let Hardcastle know he was no longer alone in the house and saved him from further self-castigation. The footsteps in the hallway to the den propelled him into action. He hastily opened the bottom drawer, shoving the ice pack inside, being careful to do everything one-handed.

"You in here?" McCormick called out, poking his head around the half-open door as he stepped onto the landing.

"Of course I'm in here," Milt grumbled, closing the manila folder unobtrusively and pulling a stack of mail nearer. "Where else would I be? I told you I had stuff to work on."

"Yeah?" McCormick asked, dropping into the armchair next to the desk and pulling a foot up and across his lap in a position that couldn't possibly be comfortable. "Like what?"

Hardcastle wasn't about to let the younger man know the direction his thoughts had been taking, so he hedged with what he'd been intending to do. "Payin' bills." He thought that might not be enough, so he added in some grumbling for good measure. "I swear, my electric bill has gone up seventy-five dollars a month since you moved in. Do you even know how to use a light switch?"

"Sure," Mark grinned. "I just don't like to."

"Why?" Hardcastle shot back, "afraid of the dark?"

"Nah. Seems there's enough here in the bat-cave to be afraid of no matter what hour of the day it is." He shrugged. "I just like it light, that's all. Besides, it can't be that bad. Let me see it," he said, rising from the chair.

As Mark reached to grab the piece of paper from the desk, he inadvertently bumped the judge's arm. Hardcastle jerked his left hand away, too late to keep it from hitting the desk, and he couldn't stop the hiss of pain that escaped his lips.

"What?" McCormick asked, startled by the reaction. "What's the matter?"

"Nothing," Hardcastle said through gritted teeth. "Just bumped my hand."

McCormick gave him the eyebrow. "You bumped your hand? You're whining about a little bump?"

"I'm not whining. I just hit my hand on the desk is all," Hardcastle repeated, breathing through the pain shooting up his arm.

"That little tap? Come on. That was hardly enough to constitute a hit, Hardcase. Did you catch it on something sharp?"

"No," he huffed, "and I already told you, it's fine." He moved out from behind the desk, doing his best to keep from grabbing the offended appendage and cradling it close to his body. No way was he letting the kid see him do that.

"Don't you have anything better to do than harass me?"

Mark grinned again, overcoming the temptation to swing at the obvious meatball he'd just been pitched. "Not at the moment, no. Now c'mon, let me see the hand."

"Dammit, McCormick," the retired jurist growled. He glared at the younger man for nearly a full minute in what had all the potential of a stalemate, but finally held out the injured limb for inspection, albeit reluctantly.

Mark took the hand gently between his own, examining it with widened eyes. "Holy cow, Judge! It's swollen up like a balloon! How the hell did you do that?" He raised his glance up to take in the judge's grimace.

"I, uh . . ." Hardcastle fell silent. This was the very reason he hadn't wanted the younger man to know about the injury to begin with. Explaining how it had happened would undoubtedly not go over well. He raised his blue eyes to meet McCormick's, noting he was waiting expectantly for an answer. "I hit it on something," he finally mumbled, though the words were almost indecipherable.

Mark gazed at him suspiciously. "You hit it on something," he repeated. He raised a hand and rubbed his jaw thoughtfully, wincing as it came into contact with his swollen lip. "Hey, wait a minute," he said loudly, as the pieces fell into place. "You didn't hit it on something, you hit it on me!" The ex-con appeared to be waiting for a denial.

Milt exhaled loudly, knowing the kid had found him out, but not being happy about it. He dropped into the chair behind his desk, allowing himself the luxury of pulling the painful limb closer to his body. "Yeah, maybe, I guess I did."

Mark's eyebrows shot up into his hairline. He wasn't really expecting the admission.

"Huh." He thought for a moment. "You were fighting Cadigan too – you sure it happened when you hit me?"

Hardcastle nodded. "Pretty sure. I was already feeling it by the time I took on Roy, so I only hit him with my right."

Mark smirked. "Trying to convince me you beat him up with one hand tied behind your back? Anyway, come on. I'll drive."

"Drive where?"

"To the hospital to get your hand x-rayed."

"I'm not getting an x-ray!"

"Can you wiggle your fingers?"

They both looked down to the swollen hand and waited a few moments. When there was no noticeable movement, Mark stood up.

"Let's go, Kemo Sabe. You've got a date with a radiologist."

"But. . ."

"Ah! Don't even bother, Judge. We both know that hand is probably broken. If you come with me peacefully now, it will save you from having to listen to me say 'I told you so' later."

Milt glared at the ex-con, hating the fact that he was right. He'd known he was only delaying the inevitable by refusing to acknowledge the injury, and it made no sense to continue to do so now that the cat was out of the bag, but he still despised the thought of giving in. He sat at the desk, unmoving, determined to wait the other man out.

McCormick was infinitely patient, however, and he placed both hands on the desk and leaned in, his expression expectant. "Well?"

The glare he sent back was palpable, but the older man finally capitulated. "Oh, fine," Hardcastle uttered less than graciously. "But I'm not going to the E.R. I'll call Charlie and see if he can take me."

"Who's Charlie?" McCormick queried.

"Charlie Friedman. Family doctor," Milt said shortly, reaching for the phone with his right hand.

Mark straightened and headed towards the stairs. "I'll bring the truck around," he offered. "Somehow, I don't think you're going to want to be climbing in and out of the Coyote."

Hardcastle sighed with his hand on the phone as he was left alone once again.

He really hated it when the kid was right.

~0~

They made the first leg of the journey into Los Angeles in silence, in deference to Hardcastle's souring mood. There was no cause for it, as far as Mark could see, but he was willing to give the judge a little space for the time being. Though it seemed to him that if anyone had a right to be upset over the latest case, it shouldn't have been the guy sitting next to him. The fact that the jurist had been the one to be injured had just been a fluke – Mark was certain he had been voted 'Most Likely To Die' on this particular mission.

Good thing he wasn't always right.

Mark thought he put up with a fair amount of insanity when it came to Hardcastle and his schemes, but this one had to take the cake. Why he'd agreed to it was still a mystery to him – it wasn't even like the judge had pulled out his favorite 'do it or do Quentin' argument. He thought maybe they were pretty much past that, although he wasn't positive enough to test the theory just yet. Still, to just follow along blindly when the ridiculous plan had been laid out had to be an indication of a certain amount of insanity on his part as well.

Not that he hadn't tried his best to argue his way out of being set up for target practice. But as past experience had proven, once Hardcastle set a path in front of him, no matter how irrational it seemed, they were heading down it come hell or high water.

Still, at least he hadn't had to travel the path alone. Hardcastle had been right there the whole time.

On the other side of the gun.

Mark worked at ignoring that small, stubborn voice of self-preservation that was attempting to remind him of the injustice of the situation and glanced over at his companion. The judge was staring out the window, lost in his own thoughts, and it seemed he'd been left alone to stew long enough.

"Does it hurt?" Mark ventured, asking the obvious in an attempt to get the conversational ball rolling.

"Of course it hurts, you idiot," Hardcastle said.

"How bad? You know, like on a scale of one to ten?" the voice of experience asked.

Hardcastle gave him the look. "What are you, my doctor? It hurts enough."

"I'm just asking. You know that's what he's going to do."

"Fine. When Charlie asks, I'll tell him, since he's had years of practice on top of a medical degree. You, on the other hand, don't, so just keep driving and stop trying to play doctor."

Mark smiled at the irate response. "You feeling a little testy, there, Judge?"

"No, but I've had enough of you and that smart mouth of yours, so just stow it already."

"Now wait a minute! I just asked you if it hurts, that's all. How is it that translates in your mind to me having a smart mouth?"

"Because you've given me nothing but grief since the minute we started working on this one, kiddo! Don't know why I should expect anything different now!"

Mark shook his head gently. He had a feeling he was merely being used as a scapegoat in this particular instance, and he did his best to let it slide rather than bring the argument to a head. He could see where Hardcastle had to be feeling some rather deep emotions surrounding their whole misadventure, not the least of which had to be distaste over the hit his precious 'system' had taken when faced with the reality of cops turned judges turned vigilantes. 'Hunt 'em, hear 'em and hang 'em' took on a whole new meaning with these guys.

"Look, Judge," he began. "I know this thing hasn't been a lot of fun for you from the beginning, but do you have to take it out on me? All things considered, I think I showed a fair amount of restraint from the amount of wise cracks I could have been throwing at you, given how dumb your whole idea was. So how about a little credit instead?"

"Credit?" Hardcastle scoffed. "You think you deserve credit? The only thing you get credit for is your stellar acting debut up on the ridge when we came after you."

Mark grinned at the veiled compliment. "It was a rather fine performance, wasn't it?"

"Oh, yeah, it was something, all right. You mind telling me what that comment about the bullets being real was all about?" Hardcastle asked, perturbed.

Mark's grin grew as he watched the judge warm up to the argument. He had wondered if the older man would bring that up eventually. "That, my dear man, was method acting at its finest."

"Hah! I doubt you even know what method acting is."

"Sure I do – I was president of the San Quentin Drama Team, I'll have you know."

"Great. I'll add it to your resume. So, hotshot, what is it?"

"Acting," McCormick responded haughtily, "with a method to it."

"Hmph," Hardcastle snorted. "Not even close. You'd better brush up on your facts if you're gonna try and con me, McCormick. It refers to when an actor draws upon his own experiences to elicit the emotions necessary to play the part."

"You been hanging out reading the dictionary again, Judge? I keep telling you, it's bad for your eyes. Besides, I'd say that's exactly what I was doing – drawing upon my own experiences of being the target of your abuse for the past six months."

"Abuse, my foot!" Hardcastle sputtered. "You've got it so cushy, you don't even know what abuse is. The only experience you could relate to is slacking off and eating me out of house and home."

"Nag, nag, nag," McCormick commented, glancing over at the judge and noting the sour expression. "You know, you should be careful – your face could freeze that way. Oh, wait . . . it already has."

"McCormick," the retired jurist growled.

The younger man laughed, unrepentant. "Lighten up, Judge. It was just a joke."

"Making me wonder if I'd shot you for real is your idea of a joke?"

McCormick's eyes narrowed as he remembered the little scene at the end of the dirt road, and he felt a moment's renewed anger over being Hardcastle's personal clay pigeon. "Nope," he admitted, "that was payback. Plain and simple." His eyes drifted away from his passenger and returned to the road ahead of them, and he forced the anger away, assuming a lighter tone.

"That was a hell of a punch, Hardcase. You didn't really need to hit me so hard. No wonder you broke your hand."

"I didn't break my hand!" the injured man huffed.

Mark scoffed in disbelief. "Yeah? Well, I've got twenty that says you did."

Hardcastle looked away, disgruntled. "No bet," he mumbled.

The younger man looked vindicated. There was a pause in conversation as he navigated their way into the lot and found an empty parking place, but the chatter resumed the minute he was out of the pickup.

"At least in the bar you were pulling your punches. Why'd you have to clock me so hard anyway?" He gingerly fingered his jaw.

"Because they were watching me!" Hardcastle groused. "Wouldn't have looked too good if they'd caught me in the act of going easy on you. I had to make it look real," he explained, climbing out and using his backside to shut the passenger door of the truck. He kept his arm close to his gut. "I hit you with my left though – maybe you can be thankful for that?"

"Thankful?" Mark laughed. "You really expect me to thank you for that?"

"I'm just sayin'," the jurist pointed out, "if I'd hit you with my right, you'd have been down for the count instead of just nursing a little bruise."

"Well then, that makes me feel much better. Thank you, oh great and kind benefactor," he smirked. "You didn't have to hit me at all – shooting me wasn't enough?" he asked as he held open the door to the medical offices.

Milt did his best to ignore the questioning glance from the elderly woman exiting the building. "I didn't know I was the one who'd be shooting you – it was supposed to be Roy, remember?"

"Yeah, I remember. You sure did seem to be enjoying it, though. You emptied the whole clip into me."

"What was I supposed to do? Leave the blanks in there for Roy to find later on? I had to use them all up."

Mark thought that explanation over for a moment, unable to deny it made a certain amount of sense.

They entered the office of the family physician, and Hardcastle gave his name to the receptionist before returning to Mark's side. "Emptying the clip wasn't easy when I didn't know for sure if they were blanks or not. That crack of yours about the bullets being real was a low blow, kiddo, payback or not."

"You were worried!" Mark proclaimed once again, delighted. "I knew it!"

"Of course I was worried," Hardcastle admitted. He waited a beat. "Wouldn't have looked good if I killed the guy in my custody. No matter how much he might have deserved it," he added with a fake smile.

"Oh, come on! You are so full of it! You can't admit it even now?"

Hardcastle appeared to look genuinely puzzled. "Admit what?"

Mark took the seat next to him on the cushioned chair and waited, shaking his head. No confessions were forthcoming, and he finally admitted defeat. "Never mind, you donkey. I already know."

"You do, do you?" the judge asked. "Well, maybe we ought to have Charlie check out that head of yours while we're here. Because if you're thinking that I was worried about you, that hit you took must have addled your pathetic little excuse for a brain."

"Nice, Hardcase. Pick on the hired help, why don't you." He drew a leg across his lap and pulled idly at the swoop on his Nike. "Okay, so you don't give two hoots about me," Mark grinned, recognizing the lie for what it was even as he spoke it. "Can you at least admit this whole thing was one of the stupidest ideas you've ever come up with?"

Any hope he had of getting an answer to that question was shattered when Mark heard the nurse call out Hardcastle's name. The man at his side smiled and rose to his feet, heading toward the open door.

"Saved by the bell," Mark muttered under his breath. Aloud, he asked, "You want me to come in with you?"

"What, you think I need you to hold my hand?"

Mark watched his emotionally reticent friend follow the nurse toward the examination room. "If I'd held your hand back at the beginning, we wouldn't have to be here now, Masked Man," he called after Hardcastle's retreating figure.

~0~

The two-month-old issue of People was doing little to hold Mark's attention, even if it did contain the twenty-five most intriguing folks of 1983. He shifted in the chair again, the muted orange and brown upholstery scratchy against his bare arms. Hardcastle had been in there for over half an hour, and though Mark wasn't worried, he did wonder what was going on in the old guy's head, attempting to cover up a broken hand.

He knew Hardcase must be feeling a little guilty over the whole deal, and though there was no point in dragging it all out again, it would be nice to hear him admit that joining the Vigilante Retired Jurist's Club by killing his favorite ex-con wasn't the brightest scheme. Not that Mark had any hope it would change things for next time, but it would be nice to think that maybe they could be a little more cautious with Tonto's life.

"Mr. McCormick?"

Mark looked up at the sound of his name to see a short, slender man in a white lab coat.

"Yes?" he said, rising.

"I'm Doctor Friedman. Judge Hardcastle will be out in a minute. He's getting his shirt back on." He held out his hand.

Mark shook it. "He's okay?"

"He'll be fine. He has what we call a 'boxer's fracture' – a fracture of the fifth metacarpal. I put a splint on it for now to allow for the swelling and made him an appointment with an orthopedic colleague of mine for tomorrow." The doctor crossed his arms and gazed at the young man in an obvious evaluation. "You know, he's told me quite a bit about you."

McCormick wasn't sure if that was a good thing or not. "Yeah?"

"Yes. You've lasted longer than any of the others."

"Umm . . ." He didn't know what the expected response was, so he offered nothing.

Charlie leaned in. "Someday, you'll have to tell me exactly how you've managed," he said with a wink, and Mark felt himself relax.

"Listen," Charlie continued, "I have a prescription for him. Something to ease the pain and help with the swelling, but if I give it to him, it will sit in his wallet for the next month. I was hoping perhaps you could get it filled?"

Mark grinned at being made a co-conspirator. "You've known Hardcase a while, huh, doc?"

Charlie returned the smile. "You could say that, yes. So I can count on you to take care of this?" He handed over the written prescription.

"Sure, no problem," Mark said, taking the offered slip. "I mean, I can pick them up, but I can't guarantee he'll take them."

"Not to worry," Charlie responded as he moved away, sharing more of his infinite wisdom. "Just give them to Sarah."

~0~

The smell of the baked lemon-garlic chicken had been mouth-watering from the time they stepped back into the house, and now, fully sated, McCormick leaned back in his chair. Patting his gut in satisfaction, he watched as Hardcastle pushed the food around his nearly-full plate with his right hand, his left firmly encased in splint and sling.

"I could . . ."

"Don't! Don't even offer," Hardcastle snapped. "Having Sarah cut up my chicken was bad enough; the last thing I need is help from you."

"Okay, okay! Don't jump down my throat." Mark watched in silence for a few more moments while nothing was eaten, until he felt the need to chime in once again.

"Do you want . . . ?"

"What I want is to finish my dinner in peace and quiet! Is that too much to ask?" Hardcastle dropped his fork down and reached to take hold of his forehead, rubbing gently.

McCormick shook his head, tired of being pushed around. "Look," he said, holding up a hand as the judge appeared ready to bite his head off again, "Charlie said you shouldn't take those pills on an empty stomach, so you've got to have something. Are they making you sick?"

"I just took 'em, McCormick. How the hell could they be making me sick already?" The older man raised his eyes to look across the table, and realized his anger was unfounded. Or maybe misplaced. The kid was just trying to help, and he couldn't really blame him for that. It hadn't taken long to figure out that Charlie was the one who had put the kid in charge of Hardcastle's care. The retired jurist hated any form of illness or injury, perceiving it as weakness, and there was no way he'd be taking orders from someone as wet behind the ears as McCormick. As angry as he wanted to be, however, he realized that none of this situation was the young man's fault.

"I'm not hungry, alright?" he finally offered.

"Judge," McCormick began again, only to stop in resignation. "Never mind," he said, rising. "If you're done, I'll take that in and help Sarah with the dishes." He took the plate from the older man, who offered no protest.

It wasn't long before Hardcastle found himself back behind his desk, the file once again open in front of him. He wasn't even sure what he was looking for. Everything had been wrapped up fairly neatly, no matter what kind of circuitous route they'd taken to get there. The throbbing in his hand was easing slightly, though he thought maybe he'd prefer it remained. As penance went, it was a fairly constant reminder. But it wasn't the injury that had stolen away his appetite, no matter what he'd let the kid think.

He glanced up as the object of his thoughts made an appearance in the den, coming to stand in front of the desk. Milt stifled a sigh of annoyance.

"I thought you were helping Sarah out with the dishes," he remarked.

Mark shrugged. "She kicked me out."

"Break another one, huh?"

Mark gave half a grin and settled himself into the armchair near the desk. He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "You want to watch something?"

Hardcastle leaned back. "Nah. Not much on."

"Really? Nothing? Not even on the All-John-Wayne-All-The-Time channel?"

Hardcastle refused to dignify that with an answer.

Mark raised his head, attempting to get a look at the file on the desk. "Something new?"

The judge shook his head. "No. Just finishing up a few things."

Mark gave him a long-suffering glance. "C'mon, Judge. Enough with that one already. It's done, okay?"

"I know it's done, McCormick," he answered in irritation. "But sometimes going over things after it's all said and done can keep you from making mistakes next time."

"Mistakes?" Mark jumped on the word, as Hardcastle had known he would the moment it slipped out.

"Not that I made any," he hastened to correct the younger man's impression. "Because I didn't. It's just . . . well, maybe that little scheme wasn't the best idea I've ever had," he admitted grudgingly.

"Ha! Which part, Hardcase? That whole thing had to be the dumbest idea I've ever heard. Setting me up to get shot like that. Yeah, I'd say that qualifies as a dumb idea."

"Hey!" Hardcastle looked affronted. Even though he'd said the same thing himself just a moment ago, it somehow sounded worse coming from McCormick's mouth. "I didn't say it was dumb. Just not the best."

"Dumb, Judge. Dumb, dumb, dumb."

"If it was so dumb, why'd you say yes?" he threw back.

Mark's mouth dropped open. "I said 'No'!" he justified. "Vehemently. Repeatedly. You just weren't listening. Again."

"I was listening. And you may have said 'no', but you didn't mean it, or you wouldn't have done it."

"Oh, so now I'm just supposed to refuse to do what you tell me? No offense, but I'm trying to avoid that one-way ticket back to Quentin."

Hardcastle narrowed his eyes, and watched as the younger man dropped his in defeat.

Mark capitulated. "Okay. Fine. I knew you weren't going to send me back. And yes, maybe I did go along with it, even though I thought it was a pretty dumb idea."

"So why did you agree to do it?"

Mark appeared to ponder that for a moment.

"Well, Batman had a whole lot of dumb ideas in his single-minded pursuit of justice that put Robin's life on the line. Didn't figure it should be any different for me."

Skepticism was clearly written on Hardcastle's face, and he held his ground. He wasn't going to let the kid bluff his way out of this one. It was too important to him to know the answer. Because if the kid was willing to follow him into any hare-brained idea out of some sense of duty or fear of consequences, then maybe they hadn't come as far as the jurist thought they had.

Mark looked as if he wished he were elsewhere. He remained silent, staring at the floor. Finally, he raised his eyes to meet the judge's. Apparently the need to know was plainly written on the older face, because he shook his head resignedly.

"You know, Hardcastle – it's no secret that I don't always agree with your precious system, but when it does work, it's because of guys like you. People who toe the line and don't make up their own interpretations as they go. But Parnell, Cadigan and Teague – they're judges, Judge! Guys who have the full weight of the law behind them, but without the code of ethics to back it up. People like that are more than just a menace to society. They can cause the whole system to crumble." He shrugged. "I don't know. Stopping that seemed like a good idea."

Hardcastle could feel the grin spreading across his face. He couldn't have asked for a better answer, and he said so. "I was thinking the same thing, kiddo. Although," he conceded, "maybe I could have come up with a different way of doing it."

Mark smiled in return. "Of course, if I'd gotten shot up, it would have gotten me out of chores for a while too," he added.

"Sounds a whole lot less noble when you put it that way, though, huh?"

Mark's grin grew. "Damn straight." He sat back in the chair, looking Hardcastle in the eye. "Look, Judge, I'm sticking by what I said before: this whole plan was a dumb idea. But it worked. So you can stop feeling guilty, okay?"

"I'm not feelin' guilty!" Hardcastle huffed out. "I'm just trying to explain to you what I was thinkin', that's all."

Mark raised an eyebrow. "Whether guilt is the issue or not, I'm pretty sure I know what you were thinking. You went after the people on your side of the bars, in order to help the people on mine. That counts for a lot, Hardcase."

Milt shook his head slowly. "This isn't about sides, McCormick; it's about right and wrong. Being on one side of the bars doesn't necessarily mean you're one or the other."

McCormick's gaze narrowed as he processed the comment. "Careful, Judge. That sounded an awful lot like an admission that an innocent guy could end up behind bars for, oh, say a couple of years."

Hardcastle gave him a condescending grin. "You'd like that, wouldn't you, hotshot? But no, what I'm saying is that just because you're from one side of the bars and I'm from the other, doesn't mean we aren't on the same side, see? There are guys on the bars-side doing the right thing, and guys from the bench doing wrong. Sometimes it's not so black and white."

The logic was convoluted, but McCormick thought he knew where the retired jurist was going. "Maybe you could remember that the next time you pull out my file. Besides," he continued, seeing the retired jurist prepare to launch into the standing argument, "black and white have never really been favorites of mine."

At this, Hardcastle laughed. "Yeah, I can see where gray is really more your color. But maybe we can keep working on that, huh?"

"You're the boss, Judge."

"A point that seems to slip your mind with alarming frequency."

McCormick grinned evilly. "And I won't be repeating it, either."

"Doesn't matter – the camera Willis installed in the den here is still rolling. I'll be doing an instant replay of that remark for months to come."

The ex-con rolled his eyes, and Hardcastle felt a moment's pity for him. "For the record, kiddo, I may have been helping the guys on your side of the bars, but that doesn't make you like them. These guys were cold-hearted killers. They earned their death-row sentences."

Mark laughed. "Does that mean I earned you? Because I'm not sure who got the lighter sentence here, Hardcase."

"Knock it off, wiseguy, before I decide it's worth breaking my other hand."

"Hey, better your hand than my jaw."

Hardcastle fell silent a moment, lost in thought as a smile played about his face.

"What?" Mark questioned, intrigued.

"Give me a minute. I'm just imagining you with your jaw wired shut."

Mark stood in disgust. "Nice, Judge. Real nice."

Hardcastle's smile grew. "You have no idea."

~0~

McCormick couldn't help but feel pleased at the outcome of this conversation. Sarah had indeed kicked him out of the kitchen, but not because of a broken dish. She'd sent him off to see about getting the judge out of his funk, and with a moment's pride, Mark realized he appeared to have accomplished that. Wonders never ceased.

That still left him with one more delegated task, and he broached the subject now. "Hey, Sarah wanted me to tell you that she put your dinner in Tupperware for you, in case you want it later."

Hardcastle appeared thoughtful, then rose from his seat. "I guess I could eat," he stated simply.

The comment brought back the conversation they shared over burgers the night of his 'shooting', and Mark thought now was as good a time as any to bring it back up.

"I just want you to know, Judge, that I appreciate you at least admitting it was a dumb idea," he began.

"Never said that," Hardcastle insisted. "Just said it wasn't my best."

"Whatever," Mark grinned. "Just one question, though. You're still not going to admit you were worried about me that night? Not even a tiny bit?"

"Fine, McCormick. I was worried about you. Happy now?"

"Hah! I knew it! Now was that so hard to say?"

"Nope, not hard at all," the judge confirmed. "Because I was only acting." He walked off, leaving the young man shaking his head in disbelief.

Mark watched him go, still smiling, willing to let the stubborn old donkey think he'd won this round. Yeah, okay, maybe he'd only said it in jest. Maybe Hardcastle was only acting.

But if that wasn't method acting, Mark didn't know what was.