One tall styrofoam cup of American coffee and maybe a whole new life from the beginning. That was all. Seven months of tracking down the witch with the whispered name, another month of correspondence (all with careful secrecy, which made no appearance on Cain's short list of talents) and two hours of waiting in the too-small too-pungent Mala Strana tavern; and American coffee was all Cain Marko could find in himself to want. And the next day would be Christmas.
The tavern smelled oppressively like old wet wood and nothing seemed to move, only the dust particles wafting in the sunlight from paneless windows and the open door. A few old men sat around but they didn't move either, just sat with curved backs and muttered Italian, an occasional glance at Cain, for hours on end. Lazia, the witch, had told him over the phone when to be at the inn but he hadn't been able to clearly understand her heavily accented English, felt pissed off and anxious anyway, so he'd only said, "thursday, yeah, fine." He wondered now if he'd got even that right. It was the dull picturesqueness of the place that made the waiting torture. It was also Cain's tendency to want what he wanted when he wanted it and the thick abrasive European coffee.
On the other hand, when the sunlight in the doorway was replaced by a woman, dark hair, dark eyes, and the old men finally moved, to cross themselves or else leave through side exits, Cain thought that maybe more waiting would be nice.
She approached Cain's table in the corner. She wore a finely tailored suit of dark green, jeweled necklaces, rings, and earrings. Her face was serious and olive-toned. She inclined her head and said,
"Bella ciao, Juggernaut."
"Yeah," Cain said, frowning up at her. She sat down across from him.
"You Lazia?" he said.
"I am. Have you been waiting long?"
"All fuckin' day."
"You have had enough of waiting, then." Her mouth curved and the acrid taste of coffee in Cain's mouth sharpened. "Did you bring it?"
"I wanna get some things clear first."
She nodded. "You want to know about your payment."
"Did you bring the other things I told you?"
Cain took a tissue from his jacket pocket and carefully unfolded it on the tabletop; inside were three twigs, a few black hairs and some leaves. The tissue itself was spotted with blood from one of Tom's coughing fits. It hadn't been hard to get, the soiled tissues were everywhere around the house now.
Lazia poked through the contents with a manicured hand and then nodded. "This will do." She gathered the tissue up and put it into her own pocket. She looked at Cain and said, "I have a room upstairs," with a question in her beautiful face, and Cain hated her, hated that he could answer no and leave and not do this. He stood up and let the heavy wooden chair and table flutter in his wake. "So let's do it."
She nodded. She rose and led Cain to a stairway across the room. As they made their way up to the lodgings, voices started up in the tavern, and Cain didn't have to know very much Italian to know that they were saying things about god.
The room they came to was small but probably the inn's largest. A woven rug covered the floor, red and green, mismatched to the wooly bedclothes, which were themselves mismatched, and the stuffed chair in the corner. There was a small window shuttered only by a roll of thick cloth nailed into the wood above it, a corona of early afternoon sunlight leaking around it, and the room felt strange-- warm, half-awake, interrupted.
Lazia's stuff was already scattered across the bed and the bedside table. She motioned for Cain to shut the door, he did, and she said, "Show it to me."
Cain puffed a laugh. "I don't think so, sweetheart. First you do your hocus pocus, then we'll get to the good stuff."
"I am thief and murderer, but not liar. I said I will help your friend and I will do it."
"Then do it." Cain took a step towards her, loomed over her in the small room. The witch smiled and the flash was too wide and too bright for the dim light from the window.
"It will be easy to heal your friend, the spell is simple; but it requires a sacrifice."
"Fine," said Cain, thinking of the cluster of old men downstairs. He moved towards the door.
"It requires a sacrifice from your body," Lazia said. "It must be the Gem."
Cain turned back around. "Oh, that's real convenient. You're full of shit. I said you'd get it when the deal was over."
"It is part of the spell, sciocco. A hand or a foot might work, but the power of the Gem protects your hands and feet." She spread her long graceful hands and smiled again. "It is not my fault if you have nothing else to give."
"Fuck you." Lazia laughed, and they both waited. Then Cain said, "Fine. But you fuck me over and there ain't no magic in the world that's gonna keep your pretty little head on your body."
She nodded. "And there are a thousand ways for me to make you crawl on your belly through the gutters of Hell if you betray me."
"I'm shakin' in my booties," Cain said, mouth twisting. Then, after another moment, "Fine." He closed his eyes and cupped his hands together, one on top of the other. A red light ribboned through the cracks between his fingers. He opened his hands and the Gem of Cyttorak lie there, flickering, the size of an apple but dwarfed in Cain's large palm. He opened his eyes.
Lazia spread her hands and an inch of fire ignited on the rug in front of her, moved around her in a circle. "It begins." She took the tissue from her pocket. She muttered words that Cain couldn't understand. He cradled the Gem against his chest.
"What is his name?" she said.
"Tom Cassidy. Thomas. Black Tom."
She said the strange words again but this time Cain caught Tom's name. Lazia dropped the tissue with everything wrapped inside it into the fire and the whole room suddenly smelled like blood, Cain knew that it was Tom's blood. The house smelled like that all the time. Lazia said more and there was a sound of someone crying out, Tom's voice from somewhere.
Lazia raised her head. "What will you give?"
"Huh?" Cain's eyes were riveted to the twigs that Cain had carefully gathered from Tom's unconscious body twisting unnaturally in the fire.
Cain looked down at the Gem in his hand. It was warm and it didn't reflect the firelight but flickered independently, inside itself. He took two steps forward and dropped it into her outstretched hand. As soon as the Gem left his skin it turned a lifeless dull red, almost black.
The witch cupped the Gem in her palms. She looked at Cain. "I will take this from you."
He half-nodded. His eyes found other things to rest on. A red velvet sack on the bed, the empty stone fireplace.
Lazia shook her head. "No, you must say it. Do you give this to me?"
"Yeah," said Cain, low, "yeah, I'm giving it to you."
Something, then, movement at the joints of Cain's knees, elbows, wrists, knuckles; not trembling but an actual vibration. The room seemed to move. Lazia began to laugh and red light reignited in the Gem, shone onto her laughing face; and for a moment she wasn't beautiful, was old with sunken eyes and pointed teeth. She croaked, "Then say goodbye to baby."
The slight sun from the window vanished and the only light in the room was the fire around the witch and in her hands. Cain fell to his knees and tried to say, "What," but breath left him-- and anyway he didn't need to ask, had felt this before and knew what was happening. It was leaving. The one thing he had.
He slumped over onto his arm, but the arm collapsed beneath his weight and his face smashed against the rug, a blur of red and green. Strange syllables rang in his ears, spun the room. Lazia's voice grew louder, a sharp pain sliced into Cain's chest and he heard the sound again of Tom crying out.
Then it was over. The fire went out and light from the window seeped back into the room.
Lazia said in her normal voice, her stolen voice, "Your friend is healed. Now he is a man like any other."
Cain could make no response, on the floor. Lazia moved around the room, gathering her things while Cain breathed. Out of the corner of his eye, the witch looked calm-- the Gem was gone but the witch hadn't gotten taller or broader, had no armor-- her clothes ash-free and unwrinkled, her long beautiful black hair only a little tousled. She glanced at him.
"But what are you?"
Everything in the red velvet sack, she said some words over it and it disappeared. She paused beside Cain's body and pushed softly against his arm with her foot. "Sei storpio," she murmured. Then she left.
Cain stayed on the floor for some time. He tried to take slow, deep breaths, but it felt like he'd been punched in the chest. Worse than that, it felt like being punched in the chest had felt decades ago, bar fights when he was nineteen, or younger, hurt by his dad. Felt fragile. He pushed himself to one knee, planted a foot on the rug. He held onto the bedside table and stood.
The room didn't spin or pitch; but he grimaced against his new enemy, gravity, an enemy he shared with those old men downstairs, who shuffled along, lowered themselves carefully into chairs. He took a few steps--steps suddenly shorter, in a room that seemed larger-- and had to lean against the wall. After a decade and a half of opening doors, lifting cups, pulverizing trains with mystic energy, how much harder to use only his hand. He took a deep breath and pushed open the door.
Cain glanced down the hallway toward the staircase and sighed.
He managed to make it home by early evening: first by plane, then taxi then by slow steps up the stone path and into the side door. He didn't bother going upstairs, but slumped onto the couch in the den.
A few minutes later he heard Tom's voice from the stairs.
"Yeah," Cain yelled back. It made his chest hurt.
Tom appeared in the doorway but didn't turn on the light. "Where've yeh been?"
Cain held up a bag. He'd had the taxi go through the drive-thru. "Taco Bell." He'd forgotten to get coffee for himself. "Here." Tom walked over to the couch and took the bag but didn't open it.
"Somethin' happened, Cain."
Cain pushed himself up on the couch. He let himself grimace, since he figured Tom wouldn't be able to see it in the semi-darkness. "I know."
"What'd yeh do?"
"Nothin'," he said. "I found a lady who said she could fix you through magic."
There was a pause. Then Tom said, "sorcery isn't free. What'd yeh do?"
Cain said, "I traded her the Gem of Cyttorak," because it was stupid to try and not tell him.
Tom went back to the door and flipped on the light, then came back.
He'd been growing out his beard to cover up the ever-increasing gauntness of his face; but his face was full beneath the beard, pale but not ashen, and the long hair fell over eyes with no sunken dark circles. He wore one of Cain's shirts because his own were for a wasted body that wasn't his anymore. He gazed down at Cain.
"Yeh look different."
"I had my hair done."
Tom's mouth quirked, then he let out a long breath. He stared at Cain, and Cain stared back-- because if he couldn't break through walls anymore, the least he could do was hold somebody's gaze-- even though it was weird to see Tom's eyes clear and bright, not rheumy, not fogged with pain.
He said, "Are yeh dyin'?"
"No," said Cain, frowning, "I just gotta get used to it again." Then his eyebrows raised and he said, "No, I'm fine, I'm not dyin'. It wasn't that kinda trade."
Tom nodded. He sat down on the couch, set the Taco Bell bag beside him. "Yeh've no powers now."
"‘Cept for my good looks, no." Cain shrugged, and he was conscious of his shoulders being only a little bit broader than Tom's and of how much less room Cain now took up on the couch. "Don't really matter," he said. "You're back to normal and we've got plenty a'money anyway. And we can dodge the feds the old fashioned way."
"I'm back t'a little too much normal." He looked over. "My powers are gone."
"Aye. The vegetation bit's gone and so is everythin' else." He grinned. "In fact I think I'm might be right-handed now."
"That fuckin' whore," Cain said, and his hand curled into a fist. He might have slammed it against the back of the couch but he'd accustomed himself as Juggernaut to not punching things he didn't want to demolish. He'd punch walls and cars and good guys, sure, but not his own walls or his own cars, not the computers, not Tom. And that was a bright side, perhaps: he could go back to hitting the computer.
"Tha's not the bad news, Cain." Tom sighed and rested his elbow on his knee, his forehead in his palm. He said dully, "I've visited with Nick Fury today."
"Huh?" said Cain.
"Yeh've been granted full pardon for all your crimes, misdemeanors, and bad relations." He let out another long breath. "Happy Christmas."
"Wait, what?" Cain leaned forward. "What did you do?"
"I thought I was dyin' so it didn't matter. An' if I could bequeath yeh some peace an' quiet with my passin' then I wanted to do that. I thought that when whoever came lookin', yeh could act like y'didn' know what I'd done, an' they'd just kill me, which wouldn' matter ‘cause I was on my way out. An' you could . . " He cut off. "But now I'm not."
"What did you do?"
Tom ran a sturdy but shaking hand through his hair. "I told them everythin'. About everyone."
"Who's everyone," said Cain, but he was already shaking his head. He closed his eyes and touched a hand to them, leaned back against the couch.
"Everyone I could think of. Everyone they could think of."
"Everyone who's now gonna hunt our ratting asses down."
"Our newly defenseless ratting asses, aye."
Cain let out a breath to match Tom's. He thought about sting operations and calls being made all over the country, searches being run, dark-colored cars pulling out of driveways. He thought about going upstairs and packing a suitcase, maybe making a few calls of his own. He thought about his stepbrother. He thought about the four cars with untraceable license plates in the garage. But where would they go? They were the most fucked. Anywhere, they were the most fucked. Among the good guys, among the bad guys, they were the bad guys.
Finally he said, "hey, you want some coffee?"
Tom looked over and shrugged and said, "Sure."