Title: There's No Going Back

Author: Jedi Buttercup

Rating: T

Disclaimer: The words are mine; the worlds are not.

Summary: They were strangers to each other, now. 1700 words.

Spoilers: Sorcerer's Apprentice (2010)

Notes: 24 Days of Ficmas 2011, Day 6: for Morgyn Leri. Prompt: "Balthazar/Veronica / or & Horvath. Quote: 'For all that we know and all that we are, we're still lost and incomplete, helpless and unknowing.'"

Funny thing about waiting more than twelve hundred years to rescue the love of his life. It was a really, really long time: long enough for the rough edges of Balthazar's memories of Veronica to wear down, for foibles to be forgotten and virtues enhanced, for the treasured memory of the day he'd chosen the necklace for her to become the sort of enshrined image no mortal woman could possibly live up to. Not even the woman herself.

It occurred to Balthazar, approximately half an hour after he woke, chest aching, to the sight of her face, that he had no idea where to go from there- and that she had to be even less certain of him, after everything that had happened. The world had changed so much; he'd changed so much, adapting to far different circumstances than those she'd faced while she'd been locked inside the Grimhold. Veronica had spent a millennia matching soul and will against Morgana's, while time and the quest had carved away at Balthazar until very little of the sorcerer who'd been Merlin's youngest and most carefree apprentice remained.

She still loved him; those first exchanges as they'd fought Morgana had reassured him of that. And he still loved her, without question; he couldn't not. But with every slight, frustrated frown she gave as he promised to explain some tangled facet of modern technology later, every wrinkle of her nose at the taste of the sandwich he bought for her first modern meal, and her disappointed sigh at the sight of the couch he'd been sleeping on in Dave's lab, it became clearer that he'd neglected a few vital truths in his daydreams about their reunion.

They were strangers to each other, now. They might have familiar faces, and might still want nothing more than to build a future together... but they didn't, or at least he didn't, have the slightest idea how to bridge the gaps between here and there.

He stared into her lovely, long-lashed dark eyes, and swallowed at the sudden realization that he knew more about Horvath, of all people, after the centuries they'd spent chasing each other around the world. Nevermind those ten uninterrupted years in the Emperor's Urn, breathing each other's stale air. He knew Horvath's favorite color; he knew how the man took his tea; he knew the best way to turn a barbed phrase to drive it home... and he'd come to realize that it had never so much been Veronica choosing Balthazar that turned him from Merlin's path, but them choosing each other, and his perception that their Master's favor had passed him over.

It was no wonder, really, that Morgana had gotten to him. Not that it was any excuse, not for everything he'd done; but Balthazar had learned of the bitter bite of loneliness, since. Horvath had never really discussed the circumstances in which Merlin found him during one of the succession struggles in seventh century Onoguria, but whatever his upbringing had been, his priorities had never quite been the same as Balthazar's or Veronica's. He clung much more tightly to people than to institutions or ideals, a trait that carried over to negative emotions as strongly as those more positive. He'd hated because he'd loved, only to feel himself betrayed- something Balthazar hadn't understood at the time.

"How about we find somewhere a little more... comfortable to stay the night," he murmured, with a faint smile. "I'll just veil the Grimhold here and reset the wards in case Dave comes back before I do; Horvath and his apprentice shredded them earlier. Then we'll go."

Veronica glanced at the blank doll in his hands, brow tightening, then nodded. "Shall I assist? I learned much of Morgana's methods these last years; I would appreciate the chance to put the knowledge to positive use."

Balthazar smiled in relief at the offer. "That would be wonderful."

They'd met because of their magic, and come to know each other through years of lessons taken under the same Master, though time had erased so many of the little day to day details that had brought them together. It should make a good place to begin again.

...And it had another benefit, too: Horvath never had been able to defeat anything they cast together.

She smiled back, a ghost of the delight she'd shown in the park illuminating her again. "Where shall we begin?"

It was in that fragile moment that the access door for the old subway roundabout banged open again, shattering the mood.

Veronica turned away, bringing her ringed hand up protectively in front of her, and Balthazar pinched at the bridge of his nose. He'd half expected Dave to give up on his ill-thought-out attempt to fly to France once he realized just how far away it was, but he'd also hoped the boy would have had the sense to treat Becky to a more local date rather than return to the lab that evening.

"What are you doing here, Dave?" he asked irritably of the silhouette at the top of the stairs.

"Dave?" their guest replied, in a voice distinctly not that of his apprentice. "Is he really advanced enough for a shape-shifting spell already? After the rather pedestrian- if powerful- way he defeated Morgana, I should have thought not. And if he is... well, I have to wonder what possible reason he could have for coming to you in my guise." Horvath lifted his eyebrows at them as he came down the stairs, a suggestive curl at the corner of his mouth.

If Balthazar hadn't known and fought the other sorcerer for so long, he'd never have spotted the tremor in the hand skimming the stair rail, or the pinched thinness of the skin at the corner of his eyes. Even though he'd expected Horvath to come for the cane, his choice of a direct approach was a surprise. "Perhaps you should stay and find out," he baited in return.

Veronica made a surprised noise at his side; when Balthazar broke away from matching glares with Horvath, she'd lowered her casting hand and was glancing between them with an assessing expression that made his skin prickle uncomfortably.

Horvath looked, too; then swallowed, expression wavering between a sneer and something far hungrier. "Perhaps I should," he said. "Or perhaps I should merely take what is mine, and leave you to it. Unlike the both of you, I have never felt any desire to play the martyr."

"No, only to strike before you could be hurt in turn," Veronica replied, shaking her head.

"And do you mean to tell me I didn't have good reason?" he objected. "The cane please. Now."

"Or you'll what, Horvath?" Balthazar goaded him, tightening his grip on the object in question.

"Or I'll not tell you where to find the two Morganians whose souls are still bound to it," he replied, smugly.

Veronica's eyes widened, then, and she turned to reach for the cane with a horrified gasp. She laid a finger against the little pentacle amulet fused under the silver and glass knob, then brushed over the skull ring and shot Horvath a wounded look. "Do you truly know what it is you have done?" she asked.

"Of course I know," he snapped back. "And I'd still be drawing from them even now if I hadn't lost hold of them. As it is, they do me more good as a bargaining chip. Take them off. Throw me the cane. And I'll tell you where you can find their bodies. If you reverse the decay soon enough, you may even be able to reunite and revive them. I know very well how Balthazar feels about the waste of young lives."

There was enough acid in the statement to inspire Veronica to glance between them again, alarmed; Balthazar just shook his head. This wasn't the time to enlighten her. "And then what? You go after my apprentice? You find another one of your own, and try the Rising again at some other confluence where I can't stop you?"

Horvath snorted. "And why should I do that? Morgana's dead now, thanks to your so charming apprentice, beyond where even the Rising would call her; and if she's not there to control the others, well. I rather like this world the way it is. I'd just prefer it without you in it. And as for Dave..." He shrugged. "It's still two lives for one."

Balthazar bristled. "If you harm so much as a single hair on his head..."

Veronica laid her hand on his arm. "Balthazar. Horvath! This does no one any good. You will take us to the children; we will do what must be done. And then we will discuss this further."

Horvath tightened his hands into fists. "Perhaps I'll just create myself a new focus and leave them to rot."

"And perhaps I should have taken care of you a long time ago," Balthazar growled, channeling enough energy to his focus ring to make it glow.

Horvath stared back for several long seconds, then threw Veronica another half-furious, half-longing glance and visibly deflated. "I can see that I have no choice."

"There are always choices," Veronica replied in a gentle tone.

Horvath just sneered, and turned to climb back up the stairs. "Coming, then?"

As soon as he was out of earshot, Balthazar narrowed his eyes at her in question.

She seemed resolute and distant in that moment; unlike anything he remembered, though not this time- he thought- due to the passage of years. "As I said," she shrugged, eyes dark with something he didn't want to examine too closely. "I have learned... much... of Morgana's methods."

Balthazar's stomach twisted a little at the implications. "I don't think anything could make me trust him again," he said, frowning. "But... I do trust you."

She reached up to cup his cheek with one hand, eyes softening. "Perhaps you shouldn't," she said, with a soft, sad smile. Then she stepped away, grasping her skirts to ascend the stairs in Horvath's wake.

Balthazar pinched the bridge of his nose again, then set the Grimhold down, veiled it, and followed them out into the night.