When Cisco opened his eyes, the first thing he saw was Caitlin sitting at her computer.
He was always shocked by her pale hair, even though he'd been looking at it for two and a half months now, ever since she'd come back to Central City. It always seemed as if she should be able to shed it like an unflattering wig and be old Caitlin again, dark reddish hair and no powers at all.
But she couldn't, of course. This was who she was now.
She held something in her hands, rubbing her thumbs over it.
He shifted in the bed and couldn't stop the groan of pain. Everything hurt. Everything. Especially his head. Man oh man, why could his head never win a game of Skull vs. Concrete?
Caitlin's head jerked around, and then she got to her feet, dropping the thing she held next to her keyboard. It was something on a chain, slithering silvery out of her fingers. "Stay still," she said, checking things on the machines he was hooked up to.
"Not a problem," he mumbled.
She reached out toward his face. He jerked away and then wished he hadn't, because it made his head bang like a drum, and her face had gone curiously still.
"Your fingers are cold," he said, although she hadn't managed to touch him.
"Yes," she said. "They are."
She dropped one hand to her side and lifted the other a little higher, with the penlight in it, flicking it into his eyes. Checking for uneven pupils or delayed dilation. He held very still even though he wanted to flinch again.
She clicked the light off and dropped the penlight into the pocket of her lab coat. "Do you know your name?"
"Francisco Armando Ramon," he recited. "I'm on Earth-1, in Central City at Star Labs. The date is October 12, 2017. I'm in my right mind."
A year ago, she would have sniped "Debatable" if she'd thought he'd taken a ridiculous risk, and it was always her opinion that his risks were ridiculous when they got him hurt.
Now, she just said, "Anything else hurt besides your head?"
"Yeah, but not in the broken bone kind of way."
"Just in the general bounced-off-the-street kind of way?"
"I'll get you some pain meds."
He glanced over at the sliver of the cortex he could see. It looked like evening, or the middle of the night. He frowned, which made his temples throb. "Hey, how long was I out?"
"Over three hours."
He gulped. "That's not good, is it?" The longer you were out after hitting your head, the more of a chance you wouldn't wake up. He knew that after Dante -
Well, anyway. He knew that.
"Better now that you're awake," she said. "But I'm going to be monitoring you." She stepped out of the room, and he heard her sternest voice say, "Five minutes."
Barry and Wally both swarmed in, talking like speedsters, apologizing, asking how he was doing, telling him how awesome he'd been in the fight before he'd gotten bounced off the street. All that was pretty nice, but it was making his head throb again, so when Caitlin glared her iciest glare and they both left, he breathed a very small sigh of relief.
"Pain meds," she said, and handed him two pills and a large glass of water. He gulped both down, praying for them start working ASAP.
She took the glass back. "Do you want me to contact Cindy?"
The water had hit his stomach like a bowling ball. Maybe chugging it had been a bad plan. He rubbed his belly. "How? She's on 19."
"I don't know. Don't you have ways?"
"Yeah, opening a breach. And I don't think that's a good idea right now, do you?"
"I'm just saying, I think she'd want to know that you got hurt."
Cisco tried not to clench his teeth. She hadn't been around for most of Cindy's time on Earth-1. Why was Caitlin acting like she knew his girlfriend now? "She has her ways of knowing when I'm in real danger. Actually, the fact that she's not here is a good sign."
"Oh, is it?"
"Mmmhm. I'll let her know what happened later, when my head's better."
She held her hand out. He put the glass in it. She took it away.
He rubbed his stomach some more and scowled.
The thing was, he had a gadget in his lab that could toss a targeted message in a bottle through the dimensions. He always felt the effect of it, like a brief gnawing on his brain stem, and it would probably be worse right now. But he could do it.
He didn't want to worry Cindy, though. She was tracking a rough customer right now, and he wasn't about to distract her in the middle of that. Like he'd told Caitlin, if he was in real danger, Cindy would know.
He ignored the thought of how pissed off she'd be when he finally did get around to mentioning it.
He glanced at the door, then slipped off the bed. For some reason, he was incredibly curious about what Caitlin had been looking at when he came to.
It sat next to her keyboard, a dark-blue enameled Star of David on a sterling silver chain that squiggled around it like a moat.
He caught his breath.
He'd bought it at a farmer's market, one day when they were cutting through for - actually, he didn't remember. He did remember her pausing at the jewelry stand, lingering over this pendent the longest before saying, "Come on, we'll be late," and setting off again. He'd delayed long enough to buy it before chasing after her.
She'd said, "Oh, Cisco!" and "No, it's too much," and he'd finally gotten around her objections by reminding her that he'd forgotten to buy her a birthday gift the previous year. She'd taken it and put it on then, and for the rest of the afternoon, she would touch it with two fingers and a little smile.
Her voice said, "You shouldn't be out of bed," and he jerked. The necklace slithered out of his fingers and fell to the floor.
She crouched to pick it up. He stared at the side of her head, at the ice-white curl that had escaped her barrette and fell against her cheek. There was a wound turning to a scar on the side of her neck, livid against the pale skin. It hadn't been there when she came back, but it had appeared not too long after. Every time he asked what had happened, she suddenly developed temporary deafness.
The six-pointed star swung from her fingers, a holy pendulum twisting in the air.
"I didn't know you still had that," he said awkwardly.
"It was in a drawer," she said. "Back in the corner. You must have missed it when you cleaned out my desk."
"I - " he said. "We didn't know when - or if - "
"I didn't ask," she said, and put the necklace back in her top drawer.
He turned his back and went to the bed, climbing in, deliberately not lying down because he was doing just fine even if the pain pills had only cut the headache in half.
He watched her check numbers and make annotations, and seethed with a resentment he didn't completely understand.
Of course she hadn't asked why they'd cleaned out her desk. Just like she hadn't asked why they hadn't contacted her when Barry went into the Speed Force, leaving him and Wally trying to keep a lid on Central City all by themselves. Or why Cisco hadn't told her mother what had happened or where she had gone.
She didn't ask for anything anymore.
"So, why were you looking at it?" he asked in a hard voice. "Were you praying or something?"
He didn't know why he said that. She hadn't been very observant even before Killer Frost, and that wasn't what it was for anyway. Maybe something about the way her head had been bowed.
She shook her head. "No," she said. "More like having a word."
He frowned. "With - ?" He pointed upward.
She looked at him sidelong as if to say, Who else?
He digested that. "So, what was the word?"
"It doesn't matter."
"The logical scientist having a word with the man upstairs? No, I think it matters, actually."
"Fine," she said. "If you must know, I was giving him fair warning that if you died, I was going to rip down the gates of heaven to get you back."
He didn't know what to say.
He settled on, "Oh." And then, "Will you need to?"
She looked at her numbers. "No, probably not."
"Good to hear."
She fussed with something on her desk. How often had he watched her fussing with something just like that? How many times had he waited for her to crack and tell him what was wrong?
That was before, though.
He said, "Caitlin - "
She said, "You can forget I said that if you want."
Then he really didn't know what to say
She shut down her computer. "I'm going to work in the next room."
"I thought you were going to monitor me."
She held up her tablet, where all his machines fed her data. "Hit the button if you need me," she said, and stepped into the next room.
He sat on the bed for awhile, feeling the pain in his head ebb like the outgoing tide. He kept hearing her voice, promising to bust him out of the afterlife when they barely even talked most days.
He slid off the bed again and went to the door between the two rooms.
"You know," she said without looking up. "I don't say things like you should be in bed and stay in bed and you need your rest to exercise my vocal cords."
"You need to give me time," he said.
She did look up then, staring at him out of those familiar root-beer-colored eyes. He'd seen them awash with tears and wide with horror and crinkled with laughter, but now they were a stranger's eyes, flat and unreadable.
"I look at you," he stuttered. "And I - I see both of you. Caitlin, my best friend, and - and - "
"Killer Frost," she said, when his words lurched to a halt. "The monster who tried to kill you and all your friends on multiple occasions."
He swallowed. "It's not fair. I know it's not. But I can't stop seeing both of you, and it's like those old-timey 3-D movies, where you had to put on the special glasses, and if you didn't there were these two pictures just a little offset, in different colors, and they sort of gave you a headache and they sort of made you motion sick."
"Always nice to hear that you induce nausea," she said.
"You need to give me time," he said again.
She rested her head in her hand. "What do you think I've been doing, Cisco?" she asked, and her voice wasn't the cool, detached, occasionally sarcastic voice she'd been using ever since she'd returned. It trembled, as if tears nibbled at the edges of her throat. "I've been giving you nothing but time."
He shook his head. "Not true. You've been giving me space, too. Way too much. It feels like you're on the moon even when you're two feet away." And I miss you.
"What else should I do, when you can't even stand for me to touch you?"
He remembered flinching away from her earlier, and bit his lip. "Not just physical space. You're doing that turtle thing you do. Closing yourself in. And I - " This was hard to admit. He had always been able to do this. "I don't know how to coax you out again."
"Are you sure you want to? Or is this just misplaced sentimentality for the person I used to be?"
"Cut me a fucking break," he said impatiently. "You've been busting your ass for this team. Double duty 24/7, kicking butt and then putting us back together again. People have done worse to us than you did, and we still worked with them even when they didn't so much as say sorry. We're tender-hearted idiots who believe in people. It's our thing."
"But you never trusted them. Not really."
"None of them were you. And Caitlin - even if we never talk anymore, even if I'm still struggling with reconciling the two pieces of you - listen to me. I'm not lyin' here." He looked her in the eyes. "I'd still rip down the gates of heaven for you."
Her eyes widened. She closed them and swallowed. He watched the swallow move down her throat, flexing the mysterious scar.
She opened her eyes again. "I want to believe you," she said. "But I'm not the person I used to be. That person was your friend, and I'm - "
"Different," he finished. "Yeah, I know. But we never signed an oath in blood that we'd stay exactly the same for the rest of our lives. That's not a condition of friendship. How much have I changed, just since we met? A lot, I bet."
She worried her bottom lip. God, how familiar was that little tic?
He was so tired of trying to figure out which one she was at the moment, Caitlin or Killer Frost.
He wanted to see her, he realized with a jolt. The real her. Not his memories of Killer Frost or of old Caitlin. Both those women were gone. Maybe forever. And this woman here in front of him - she was who had come back. And he wanted to learn who she was.
"Come back in the lab," he said. "Hang out with me for a little while. We'll watch a movie or something, I don't know. Just let me get to know the person you are now, because I have a pretty good feeling I'll like her."
For a minute, he thought she was going to stay where she was, stuck in her chair, too far away. And he didn't know if he had the strength to drag her out the way he had so many times before. All those times, the chasm hadn't been between them. This time, it was.
Then - "Okay," she whispered. "Okay."