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caught in a one way street with the monsters in your head

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When he arrived home that night  Joe had rarely been so glad to see his house. A long day at work coupled with  an emotional day at the hospital had him bone weary and all he really wanted to do was sit down on the couch with a ball game on the television and a glass of bourbon in his hand. 

The house seemed silent as he hung up his coat which was a rarity but one he was grateful for tonight. Still though, it didn't hurt to check so he called, "Anyone home?" 

Footsteps overhead were ones he recognised, ones that made him smile, made his shoulders relax as the tension seeped out of them. "Just me," Caitlin said as she descended the stairs and he met her at the bottom step, taking her into his arms and pressing his lips to hers. 

After all, when he was planning the couch and the bourbon and the ball game on television, he hadn't been picturing it alone. 

When he pulled back, Caitlin's smile was bright, her eyes dancing. "Good evening," she said and he half groaned as he rested his forehead against hers. The tiniest frown appeared on her forehead. "Bad day?" 

Something about the way she said it, the tilt of her head as she looked at him, made him suspect that she already knew the answer. "It's good to be home," was all he said and she gave another one of those bright smiles. 

"Well, I hope you're hungry." Her tone was light and breezy and she looked immensely pleased with herself. Putting his detective skills to good use, Joe came to the only conclusion he could and he was so shocked at it that he couldn't keep it back. 

"You cooked?"

Caitlin's cheeks darkened and she looked down. "It's not so much that I cooked," she admitted, "as that I called ahead and ordered takeout and have it ready to heat up." He laughed at that, wrapped one arm arm around her shoulder and squeezed tight. "And I may have asked Barry and Iris to give us a little couple time." She glanced up at him like she wasn't sure how he would take that. "I hope you don't mind..."

"That sounds perfect," he said and it was.  She'd ordered all his favourite dishes and plenty of them and while she utilised her microwave skills, he poured himself a generous glass of bourbon, poured her an equally generous glass of wine. They talked as they ate, caught  on one another's days and it was only when their plates were empty, pushed to the middle of the table, that she laid a hand on his arm. 

"Iris told me she went to see Francine," she said softly. "That she told her she forgave her."

Joe nodded, took a sip of drink. "Yeah," he said. "I'm glad... I know Iris. Five, ten years down the road, I didn't want her waking up and regretting not seeing her. They've lost enough time..." A lump rose up in his throat and another sip of bourbon did nothing to wash it down. 

Caitlin glanced down, bit her lip. "I know we haven't talked about it..."

"That's because there's nothing to talk about." Suddenly the meal, the absence of Barry and Iris, made sense to him. "You don't have to worry about me, baby... I told you,  I told Iris when Francine came back... I dealt with all those feelings a long time ago." He reached out and took her hand in his, laced their fingers together. "You know that."

Caitlin's eyes met his, dark and serious. "No, Joe. You dealt with Francine being an addict, leaving you and Iris. You dealt with your guilt that you couldn't help her. That you couldn't find her. And now she's back, you find you have a son you never knew about... and she's dying. The woman you married, the woman you were going to spend the rest of your life with... and you're being strong for her and strong for Iris, and Wally, if he'll let you..." She stopped, sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly. "You're being so strong for so many people... I just don't want you to not take care of you."

His fingers tightened on hers. "Caitlin..."

"I know it's not the same thing, not nearly the same. But I know what it's like to lose a husband. And even when you move on..." Her free hand closed over their joined ones. "It can still hurt. And I can see that in you, Joe... and I don't think it's just for Iris and Wally's sake."

Joe held her gaze for a long moment, then looked away towards the living room, the array of family pictures on the tables and the walls. All of him and Iris and Barry in various combinations, none of Francine. He'd put them away after she left because Iris kept asking for her and while at the time he'd justified it with "out of sight, out of mind," he knew it hadn't just been Iris's sight he was thinking about. 

"We were so young when we had Iris," he heard himself saying. "Babies having babies... We got married because we had to, because that was what you did back then...and Francine... she was not ready. Not to be a wife, not to be a mother. Not her fault... Just one of those things. The drugs... I knew she used occasionally. Just turned a blind eye, told her I was a cop and she couldn't do that shit in the house... I didn't know how bad it was til her first OD. I tried to get her help, tried everything... but rehab never took. And then, the last time... after Iris made that phone call... I'd never seen anything like the look in her eyes when I told her what had happened." 

His voice, he knew, was shaking and when he looked back at Caitlin, her eyes were full of sympathy. "And then she was gone."

"Then she was gone," he echoed. "I tried everything to find her... and when I couldn't, all I could do was think of how I could have tried harder, done this or that... I blamed myself. And every time I thought of her, saw her picture... It was like a knife, right here." He laid down his glass for long enough to push a fist against his chest. "For years... years... I thought she must be dead... OD'ed some where that she'd done such a good job hiding her tracks that no-one could find out who she really was." He rubbed a hand over his face. "I'd tell Iris these made up stories, all the while remembering all the shit she put us through. But lately... Seeing her in that bed, talking to her about Iris, hearing her talk about Wally... That's not the Francine I've been remembering all these years."

Caitlin's smile turned soft. "It's the Francine you fell in love with."

"Yeah." He whispered the word through a throat full of tears. "And I can't help but wonder..." He covered his lips with the hand that wasn't enclosed in hers, suddenly realising who he was talking to, what he was saying. "Which is crazy, I know. I mean, I love the way my life is... I love you...."

"I know that." There was that soft smile still playing around Caitlin's lips. "And I'm not jealous. Or threatened, if that's what you're afraid of." She glanced down for a second and when she looked back up, her own eyes were far away. "It's just sometimes... no matter how happy you are... there's a song... or a picture... or a memory that just makes you think, 'what if?' And you can't help yourself... You just have to go with it til it goes away." She gave him one of those bright shaky smiles she tended to get when she got emotional, especially when she was talking about Ronnie. "That's what I think anyway."

"Yeah... that makes sense." 

There was a scraping sound of a chair against the tiled floor and then Caitlin's cheek was leaning against his shoulder, her hands still tight on his. "I know you can't talk like this to Iris or Wally," she told him quietly. "And I don't know if Barry would understand. But I do. And when you need to talk... I don't want you to think you can't come to me. Because I am here for you, Joe. Always." 

Unable to speak, Joe just turned his head and pressed a kiss to the top of her head and let his tears fall. And true to her word, she was there to catch him.