Something was off with Caitlin.
Joe couldn't work out exactly what it was and any other time he might have put it down to too many gigs played too close together, to a too early morning after a too late night, to too many miles on the road and too few nights in their own beds.
But they were back in Central City, they hadn't had a gig last night and they were rehearsing in the middle of the afternoon.
And yet something was definitely off with Caitlin. From the first time they'd sung together, their voices had meshed perfectly - not today though, and Joe could see the frustration in her face. He'd called for a break and she'd disappeared into the back of the nightclub they were rehearsing in, left Cisco noodling on his keyboards - he'd taken to that lately, claimed that the way Caitlin and Joe sounded when they sang together was all kinds of inspiring - and left Barry and Iris whispering with their heads together and he really didn't want to think too much about what they might be saying. His phone had provided distraction for a little while, catching up on the baseball scores and the latest news but when he looked up and his three kids, as he thought of them, were still fathoms deep in their own activities, he decided to leave them too it for a little while. They could probably all use a little break, him included.
He called over to Iris that he was going out for coffee, wasn't surprised when she waved him off when she was asked if she wanted anything. Barry just shook his head and Cisco didn't even look up from his keyboard so Joe headed for the stage door, jumping when he opened it and saw Caitlin standing at the opposite wall of the alley. She turned quickly when she saw him standing there but not so quickly that he didn't see the tracks of tear stains on her face. He stood there for a long moment debating what to do, what to say, because he couldn't just ignore her, but he hadn't known her that long so he didn't want to overstep his bounds.
He could tell that she was wiping her eyes and when she looked at him, the tiny smile that she tried to give him made something pull painfully in his chest. "You want me to get someone for you?" he asked, cutting right to the chase because there was no point asking if she was all right, not when it was obvious she wasn't. "Iris?" Because goodness knows, the two of them had got very close very fast. A shake of the head greeted that. "Cisco?" he tried, because Cisco had been the one who suggested they needed another singer, suggested Caitlin for the job.
So it was a surprise when her eyes grew wide and her head shake became more vigorous. "No." The word was definite, almost desperate and Joe blinked, taken aback by the vehemence. For a brief second he pictured Cisco and the way he looked at Caitlin, wondered if he'd done something, said something, maybe even tried something on - Joe had been around music for a long time, knew that musicians could be a selfish lot who often didn't like hearing no - but seeing that Cisco was something of the human embodiment of a puppy, he found that hard to believe. Still, stranger things had happened.
Except that as soon as she said the word, Caitlin dropped her head, fingers pinching the bridge of her nose. She took a deep breath, shoulders rising somewhere around her ears, let it out slowly. Then she looked at him again and her gaze was steady, even if her voice wasn't when she said, "Please don't tell Cisco... I don't want him to worry."
Which implied there was something to be worried about and Joe made the decision in an instant. Inclining his head in the direction of the street, he told her, "There's a coffee shop down the street... I was gonna grab a cup, walk around a bit, get some fresh air... you wanna come with?"
Caitlin bit her lip, glanced to the door he'd just come through, then to the street. "My purse..." she began and he chuckled, knowing the decision had been made.
"My treat," he promised and the smile she gave him as she fell into step beside him was the real deal, the one she'd given him the first time they'd duetted together inside this very nightclub, the one that he'd grown used to seeing in the weeks since.
Having seen her tears, he found himself thinking he much preferred the smile.
It was a nice day so they ordered their coffees to go, found a park a little way down the street with a quiet bench where they could sit and watch the world go by. Joe had done this in little towns and big cities all over the country: this was the first time he'd ever had company, even if it was the silent type.
"I'm just gonna ask..." he said eventually because he didn't want to pry but on the off chance he was wrong, he had to know. "Did Cisco... did he do something..."
"No!" The response was so quick, so appalled, accompanied by a head snap in his direction that had her hair whipping all around her face, that it could only be the truth. "Why would you..." She stopped talking when Joe lifted one eyebrow and tilted his head.
"I didn't think so," he told her, raising his coffee to his lips and taking a sip. "But you seemed pretty damn set on not wanting to see him."
"Because he worries." Caitlin's voice sounded tired and when she closed her eyes, she looked it too.
"He got something to worry about?" Again, Joe didn't want to get into something that wasn't his business but if was something that was going to affect the band, he needed to know.
Caitlin's lips were pressed into a thin line as she glanced over at him. "I'm just being silly..." she told him and he cut her off before she could go any further.
"Nothing that upsets you this much is silly."
For just a second, he worried that the flat tone of his voice would upset her, offend her. Instead, she just looked down at her joined hands, fingers twisted together and when she looked up, she began to speak. "It's the new song," she told him and he had to think for a second.
"My Funny Valentine?" In his mind's eye, he saw her singing it with him, eyes on the sheet music the whole time, which was unusual come to think of it. Caitlin was good enough at sight reading to only need an occasional glance and that was with Cisco's original material. Her voice hadn't been up to its usual standard either, he realised now, and it wasn't like the song was that rare that she'd never have heard it.
"I love that song." Her smile was very sad and very far away, just like her eyes. "It was our first dance at our wedding."
That was information Joe hadn't known and he looked at her sharply, frowning as he did so. "Wedding?" he echoed, and the smile took on a faintly more humorous tinge. He was so happy to see the sad expression lessening that he didn't even care if it was at his expense.
"His name was Ronnie," she told him. "And that was our song." She took a sip of her coffee, played a little with the plastic lid before she spoke again. "He died last year... and it was sudden and tragic and horrible..." A shudder coursed through her body, shook her from head to foot and she was staring straight ahead now, not looking at him. "And for a long time, all I wanted to do was go after him."
"Caitlin, I'm sor-"
He spoke when she'd been silent for almost a full minute but she didn't let him finish. "I didn't try... I mean, I wouldn't have, if that's what you're wondering. But I missed him so much... we'd been a team for so long, we did everything together and then I was just... alone." She drew in a deep breath, sat up a little straighter. "Cisco and Ronnie, they were friends... they used to sit up nights in our little apartment writing songs and dreaming about hitting the big time... After the funeral, Cisco started looking out for me. He'd send me these emails and text messages from the road, about things that had happened and things people had said, YouTube links to songs... and when he thought you needed a singer, he got me the job." She looked at Joe then, gave a little shrug. "I didn't realise how far I'd come until today, hearing that song again... It just took me back... and for a minute, I felt like I'd lost him all over again. I know it sounds stupid..."
"No." He squeezed her hand and the movement surprised him because he didn't remember taking hold of it in the first place. "Not at all."
Her cheeks darkened and she ducked her head. "I'll be ok," she told him. "I'll work on the song-"
It was his turn to interrupt her. "The song's out," he told her and when her eyes went wide, he continued, "Caitlin, you're part of the family now. We take care of our own. So if the song's upsetting you? It's gone, I don't care how many requests we get for it. The day comes you want to give it another try, let me know. Until then, there's a dozen other songs we can do instead."
Her eyes were suspiciously bright but her smile was back to normal so he didn't really care.
"And by the way? Cisco got you the audition. The job, you got all on your own. And you're keeping it that way too. Just so you know."
Now her smile was brighter than normal. So were her eyes, even more now than seconds earlier, but he pretended not to notice.
"Ready to go back to work?"
In reply, she squeezed their still joined hands. "Ready."