The sound of a gunshot echoing through the chamber makes time slow down, as it always does.
Joe turns. Sees his partner standing with a glazed and shocked expression face, colour leeching from his cheeks as he looks down at the crimson stain already spreading over his white shirt.
Joe moves as fast as he can but it's not fast enough. Eddie is already slumping to the ground by the time he gets there. Joe catches him in his arms and helps lower him gently to the ground, his movements at complete odds with the harshness of his voice - "What did you do? What did you do?" He tries to cover the wound with his hands but there is too much blood and he doesn't have a weak stomach but between the blood on his hands arms the look on Eddie's face, the coppery scent of blood and the acrid smell of cordite, bile rises up in his throat and he has to swallow hard to keep it back.
Things get worse when he hears Iris's footsteps rapidly running towards them and he doesn't have to look around to know who it is, he knows his baby girl's footsteps. She is crying, sobbing as she kneels beside Eddie and Joe finds that worse than his own pain, finds it harder to deal with. He's spent his whole life trying to save her from pain, he'd even floated this very possibility by her, back when he'd first found out about her and Eddie.
Just as he thinks that, Iris's head snaps around towards him. Her eyes are narrowed in unmistakable anger. "You let this happen," she accuses. "You were supposed to keep him safe."
Joe's mouth opens but no words come out and Iris spits out words that are a knife to his heart. "I hate you."
He wakes then, wakes with a start, looks around him wildly. He's no longer in the bowels of STAR Labs, is in his own living room, sacked out on his own couch. There's a ball game playing quietly on the television that's three innings further along than he remembers it being and as he stares at the screen, runs a hand over his face trying to make sense of it all, he hears another set of footsteps coming from the kitchen.
Drying her hands on a dish towel, Caitlin enters the room on tiptoe, a smile initially coming to her face when she sees him awake. When she looks at him properly however, the smile fades and she turns neatly on her heel - quite a feat when barefoot - and goes over to the cabinet where he keeps his alcohol. She takes out two glasses, pours an extremely generous splash of bourbon into one, pouring a much smaller portion into the second. Without a word she comes back and sits down beside him, hands him the first glass and waits for him to take a drink. Only when a large gulp has been consumed does she speak, her voice gentle.
He nods, takes another sip - a small sip this time - of his drink and elects not to tell her about the times that the dream has been less rooted in reality, the times that she's been the one lying bleeding in his arms, or worse, the one who turns and says she hates him. He has a feeling she already suspects but he doesn't want to confirm it, doesn't want to speak those words out loud. "How long was I out for?"
"Not long." Her free hand moves to the back of his neck and upwards, rubbing gently. "I was tidying up when I heard you snoring..." There's a teasing lilt to her voice and he knows she's trying to make him smile, trying to lift his mood. "Then I heard you muttering... I kinda recognised the tone."
Joe closes his eyes as he draws in a deep breath. He holds it for a count of five before letting it out slowly, concentrating on the touch of her fingers, the sound of her breathing. It calms him, centres him and when he opens his eyes again, looks into her face, it's easier to smile, if only a little. "I'm sorry," he hears himself saying and Caitlin shakes her head, her eyes narrow, her gaze fierce.
"There is nothing to apologise for," she tells him and if it was anyone else talking to him that way, if he were anyone else hearing her talking like that, he'd be shrinking back, agreeing with whatever she said. But she is her, and he is him so instead he looks down, unable to keep back a sigh.
And because she is her, she places her glass down on the table, takes his hand in hers. "You're not the only one who has nightmares, Joe," she tells him, voice having swung all the way back to gentle again. "And you don't have to be so strong for everyone all the time."
He lifts an eyebrow, thinks of Barry, out all the hours God sends being The Flash, as if he thinks that running as fast as he can will let him outrun his memories, his pain. Thinks of Iris, his baby girl, and the pain in her eyes, how she thinks he doesn't hear her cry herself to sleep every night. And he thinks of Caitlin and how she too lost someone she once loved that day.
"It's not fair on you," he begins but she doesn't let him get any further than that.
"Joe, there is nothing about this that is fair. This whole last year of our lives... the particle accelerator, Doctor Wells, Eddie... none of this is fair. And I know... you think that because of Ronnie, you can't say anything to me... but Ronnie and I, we were in a good place when he died. He knew I love you and he respected that. I miss him sometimes... I wish things could have been different..." She swallows hard, her fingers tightening convulsively on his. "But I love you. I loved you before Ronnie came back and if I had to make the same choice, I'd do the same thing all over again."
Her eyes burn with conviction and a lump rises in Joe's throat. "Caitlin..."
Once again she interrupts him. "Another thing that's not fair? You trying to carry the weight of the world all on your own. You're not Atlas, Joe... so let me help you."
Joe leans forward, places his glass on the table beside hers. When he turns back to her, he cups her face in his hands, brings his lips to hers. It's a small kiss, almost chaste by the standards of some they have shared, and when he draws back, he rests his head against her forehead. Her hands move up to close over his wrists and her smile is more than a little wobbly. It's still one of the greatest sights he's ever seen.
"I don't know how you put up with me," he whispers, "but, baby, I'm glad you do."
"We're a team," she reminds him, and this time when he brings his lips to hers, it's far from chaste.
Which is fine with him - there are worse ways to chase the nightmares away.