A/N: This is a little episode tag for Ultimatum that just wouldn't leave me alone. Next installment of Carousel should also be up in a couple of days, since I finally had some uninterrupted time to write.

The Couch

"Decaf."

"I see." Bradford pulled the door inward to allow him entry, eyeing the proffered paper cup. "Have a seat." He accepted the cup, but didn't drink. "You trying to charm me, Eppes?"

Don shrugged, taking a sip of his own coffee, holding up a yellow envelope. "A wise man once recommended it as a strategy."

"I remember." Bradford raised a thick file in answer to the envelope. "But we've passed that point by now. Don't you think?"

Don shrugged, circling the room, but not sitting. "I was thinking of it as a fresh start."

Bradford smiled, finding his own seat and opening the file. "Now you're hurting my feelings. I like to think of us as old friends." He skimmed a couple of pages. "Nothing in here you want to talk about, huh?"

Don shrugged again, fiddling with the baseball on display. "Y'know. Just another day in the life."

"Really." Bradford took a pull on his coffee. "Interesting life. Tell me about Edgerton."

Don glanced at him. "You remember him from the Crystal Hoyle thing."

"Mm hm. The one where you took the shot that should have been his. And here it looks like you pulled a shot that should have taken him down."

Don was silent a moment, twirling the baseball in its stand. "Yeah. Well."

"Guy looks like he's gone rogue, takes one of your agents hostage. What happened there?"

The silence was longer this time, Don tracing the baseball's stitching with one finger. "Like you said – I pulled the shot."

Bradford consulted the file again. "Granger. Granger was the agent?"

Don nodded, still intent on the baseball.

"Interesting."

"Yeah, I don't think Granger would agree."

"I meant interesting because you did the same thing for Granger once, isn't that right? Pulled a shot when he was on the run from the law?"

Don picked up the baseball, tossing it lightly from hand to hand. "You obviously got everything in that file there, right? So why you asking me?"

"I like the way you tell it better."

Don pushed away from the credenza, still tossing the ball. "Nothing to tell. I had Colby dead to rights and I didn't fire. I had Edgerton dead to rights – and I didn't fire." He shook his head. "I don't know. Maybe I'm losing it."

Bradford pursed his lips. "That's one theory."

"You got another one? Cause I don't love mine."

"I have a couple. But again – I want to hear what you think."

Don turned away, shaking his head. "I don't know what to think. I know the drill. I know what I'm trained to do. But I didn't do it, y'know? What the heck's the matter with me?"

"Well, let's start there. What were you thinking when you didn't fire? What stopped you?"

"I don't know. I been thinking…maybe I lost my nerve."

Bradford chuckled. "I don't pretend to know everything about you, Eppes, but if I were to name one thing you don't want for, it would be nerve."

Don studied him a minute. "I'm going to take that as a compliment. Seeing as I don't have any choice."

Bradford tipped his head in approval. "I like that. A positive attitude."

Don gave a short laugh. "Yeah."

"So. Say we eliminate 'lost nerve' from the possibilities. What else?"

Don blew out a breath, perched on the arm of a chair. "I just - I don't know. Colby. Edgerton. We worked together…how many times? Two guys I gave my back to. Two guys I trusted. Liked. Maybe - maybe when it comes to people I care about, I just don't keep my head." He stood up again, wandered over to the window. "In which case, maybe I should be looking at another line of work."

"So you're having trouble trusting yourself. Think you can't make the tough decisions."

Don didn't turn around. "Read the file."

"Okay." Bradford perused the file casually. "Tell me about Pete Fox."

The baseball dropped, bounced a stuttering path along the carpet before rolling to a stop. Don made a grab for it and missed, fumbled to his knees and scrambled after it, scooping it into his palms. He started to climb to his feet but fell back, huddled against the foot of the chair, ball cradled against his chest. When he looked up his gaze was wary; face bled of all color, the bluish grey of skim milk. "You bastard." He swallowed. "What about him?"

"That's a shot you didn't pull."

"Petey." Don's lips moved almost soundlessly.

"Looks here like he was your mentor. Somebody you gave your back to. Trusted. Liked."

Don didn't answer. When Bradford glanced at him over the file, he could almost swear he caught the shine of unshed tears. He waited. "But you shot him." Don flinched. "So. What was different?"

"He was dirty." Don's voice was filled with jagged edges. "Worse, he killed two of his guys – guys who gave him their backs – just – executed them. In cold blood. To hide that he was dirty."

"So that made it easy."

"God, no." Don's throat worked. "He was - the guy I always thought I'd be. That I thought I wanted to be. It was like - shooting myself."

"Enough to make a man question himself."

Don choked, a sound halfway between laughter and tears.

"So you shot Fox because he went rogue. What about Granger and Edgerton? It looked like they were dirty, too. But you pulled your shot, both times."

"But they weren't."

"You couldn't have known that."

Don was silent, forehead rumpled in concentration.

"So what was different between Fox…and Granger and Edgerton? You knew Fox a lot longer. Worked with him even more closely." When Don still didn't answer, Bradford closed the file and set it aside. "Let's look at this from another direction. Edgerton took Granger hostage. Where were you when that happened?"

Don frowned. "There. He grabbed Granger and I aimed – "

"So Granger was closer, easier to grab."

"Naw, Edgerton – " He stopped, brows raised.

"What?"

"Pushed me out of the way."

"Why? You'd make a pretty valuable hostage. If you were closer…"

"Colby said – Edgerton told him he thought he'd understand. Cause he'd been through the same thing. But – Colby thought he was playing him."

"Think he was?"

Don kneaded his forehead. "I - Edgerton is pretty cagey. He - turns out he set himself up. So I guess…"

Bradford prodded. "You guess?"

"Maybe he figured I'd wimp out on shooting. He knew about the shot I pulled on Granger."

"He also knew you jumped his shot with Hoyle."

"Yeah."

"So?"

Don narrowed his eyes at him. "You think he trusted me. Bet his life that I'd give him the benefit of the doubt - wouldn't shoot him."

Bradford waited.

"Charlie said something like that. That he bet his life on me."

"Like Granger did before him." Don remained silent. "Sounds like it was a pretty safe bet."

Don reached mindlessly for the paper cup on the small side table, took a sip.

Bradford didn't stop him or point out that it was really his cup. Instead he said, "So you shot Pete Fox because you had no choice - you knew he was guilty and he backed you into a corner. You didn't shoot Granger and Edgerton because you weren't sure they were guilty. You took a pretty big risk on them - just like they took a pretty big risk on you. What do you think it means?"

Don pushed the cup aside and let his head fall back against the arm of the chair. "I don't know. But I think I figured out one thing."

"What's that?"

"Decaf totally sucks."

Bradford laughed. "Decaf is like a lot of things - maybe not exactly what you'd like, but sometimes the only choice you've got."

Don snorted.

"Want to know what I think?"

"I think you're going to tell me."

Bradford smiled. "See what I mean? Old friends now. I am going to tell you." He got out of his chair and went to the credenza, retrieved Don's coffee and sat on the floor next to him to hand it to him. "I think it's good that you question yourself. There's a lot at stake in your decisions. I hope you never stop. However…"

Don's brows quirked questioningly.

"However…it can be overdone."

Don put the baseball down and wrapped both hands around his cup. "You wouldn't have a check list or something for that, would you?"

"I don't think you need it. Think Fox knew you were going to shoot him?"

Don twitched, took a slow pull on his coffee. When he spoke, his voice was husky. "He knew."

Bradford nodded. "So. Fox. Granger. Edgerton. Sounds like a lot of people put their trust in you - the life and death kind of trust. I'm thinking maybe it's time you put that kind of trust in yourself."

Don picked up the baseball again, turning it in his fingers, studying the stitching. "I've done some crazy things."

"It's a crazy job. But it's a lot like baseball - it's the end score that counts."

"You think I'm ahead with runs?"

"I think so. Hey - your brother seems to, too. And he's a genius."

"Yeah." Don grinned, lumbering to his feet. He shot his empty paper cup at the waste basket, grin widening as it landed neatly, without even touching the sides. "Time's up, huh?"

"Time's up." Bradford rose as well, a little more stiffly. "Just one more thought?"

Don paused near the door. "Man, you're relentless. Okay."

"Don't be a stranger."

Don shook his head slowly. "What about all this trust I'm supposed to have in myself?"

"Even so. A little reinforcement never hurts."

"Right." Don opened the door, then turned back. "Hey, Bradford."

Bradford looked up, shot up his hand almost before he registered the baseball flying at him, snagged it neatly out of the air. He held it there, up and centered, and their eyes locked.

After a minute, Don's eyes crinkled and he gave a short nod. "Why not. Guess every team needs somebody who can catch."

"You bet they do." Bradford raised his coffee cup in salute, then sent it arcing into the trash after Don's. A perfect shot. He smiled a little, rocking his head from side to side, watching as the door snicked closed behind Don. "So I guess I'll keep my catching arm primed." He glanced down at the baseball in his hand, shook out his stinging palm. He chuckled. "Bastard."

The End

(November 2009)