Title: Out of the Shadows of History
Author: Jedi Buttercup
Disclaimer: The words are mine; the worlds are not.
Summary: When the Tesseract entered Balthazar Blake's city, Merlin's youngest and arguably most eccentric apprentice was standing in the entryway of his shop, sorting the day's mail and turning the advertising circulars into butterflies. 2100 words.
Spoilers: Post-Sorcerer's Apprentice (2010); begins during The Avengers (2012).
Notes: For graycardinal, for Day 11 in Wishlist 2012, for the prompt: "Balthazar encounters Loki, probably during or shortly after the battle for New York. Deviousness ensues, by no means all of it on Loki's side of the ledger." Contains some of my own SA fanon worldbuilding and a glancing reference to the events of 9/11.
When the Tesseract entered Balthazar Blake's city, Merlin's youngest and arguably most eccentric apprentice was standing in the entryway of his shop, sorting the day's mail and turning the advertising circulars into butterflies. Technically, it was a waste of energy, something he'd scold Dave for if he caught his own apprentice at it; but using the fundamental forces of life and creation for actual life and creation had never got old, not in all of Balthazar's long existence. Plus, it always made Veronica smile, and he'd never been able to refuse her anything.
It had taken them several months to reopen the Arcana Cabana, mostly due to the difficulty of finding suitable real estate in Manhattan. The original building had been sold and repurposed while Balthazar had been stuck in the Urn, so they'd decided to view it as a fresh start, a chance to build a new life together rather than start over amid the debris of twelve hundred years of bachelor habits. But finding a shop with similar characteristics to the first, both in terms of location and ley line access, had been something of a challenge. And once they had found it, processing the paperwork for the purchase had proven much more complicated than the last time he'd acquired property in the city.
There'd been trouble with their identities, for one thing. Balthazar had been missing for ten years, more than long enough to have been officially declared dead, and Veronica's last breath of free air had occurred long before the country that wanted to double-check her ID had even existed. The local financial climate had been a lot poorer than Balthazar had expected, too; he'd been shocked to discover how thoroughly the burst of the dot com bubble and all the turmoil overseas had sucked the strength out of the robust American economy.
...And then there'd been the lingering effects of the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers.
Balthazar had spent a long, numb afternoon alone at Ground Zero after he'd found out. Veronica had had no frame of reference for what the city had been like before, and Dave and Becky had been too young to really feel the impact, but New York had been Balthazar's home for eleven decades. The quest for Merlin's heir had kept him constantly traveling, but he'd returned to the Arcana Cabana to rest and recharge on a regular basis, and he'd known the city's moods and rhythms like the back of his hand. They'd changed during the decade he was imprisoned, soured and reshaped by more than just time: by years of recovery from a terrible, devastating loss.
So many souls, snuffed out in one untimely instant. They were lucky that Morgana and Horvath hadn't found out about it before the confrontation at Battery Park; the battle would have been a lot nastier if the megalomaniacal sorcerers had managed to tie the Rising into the reverberating echoes of that loss. Balthazar had seen that kind of thing before in older times, in other places stricken by plague or disaster, and had never grown inured to the horrors that could result.
But that hadn't happened; instead, Balthazar had opened his eyes after what should have been his death to find his beloved at last returned to him, and his apprentice, against all odds, triumphant. If there'd been any justice in the world, he would have been able to spend the next ten years of his unnaturally extended life helping to heal the wounds that had been inflicted on his city, teaching his awkward, smart-mouthed, unbelievably powerful new student how not to blow himself up while he learned to use his heritage to become a force for good, and reacquainting himself with Veronica in all possible ways while she figured out what she wanted to do with her newfound freedom. And healing himself, too. It had been a long, long time since he'd been able to rest.
Instead, it looked like his vacation was already over- after less than two years.
Well. Better than nothing, he supposed, staring out the window as a lance of wrongness pierced his awareness of Manhattan, a foreign magical intrusion that felt a lot like that Morganian renegade who'd gone mad and started playing with old Norse magic during World War II. Probably his own fault for trying to retire atop one of the biggest crossroads of the modern world.
He shook one last butorflēoge free of his fingertips, then dropped the rest of the bills on the counter and called out to his wife.
"Honey? Round up the kids, would you? Something powerful just broke the outer wardlines."
Veronica's brow furrowed, worry shining out of dark eyes, but she'd read through the last millennia's worth of his history in the Incantus, and thanks to her long merging with Morgana in the Grimhold she knew more about dark magic than any other sorcerer alive.
"David and Rebecca will be in the lab at this hour," she said, moving out to the center of the shop to sweep a hand through the air over her head. Her ring glowed brilliantly violet at the apex of the arch, and a line of runes painted into the molding around the ceiling picked up the color in turn, activating the shop's notice-me-not and anti-theft security measures. "I'll have them raise the circle and start waking the city's guardians. Where shall I find you?"
He moved to meet her, cupping her chin in one hand to facilitate a lingering brush of lips. "Don't know yet, but I'll call when I need you. Don't forget to take your cell phone."
Veronica still tended to treat such products of advanced technology as complex magical constructs, but since magic worked with science contrary to all the disinformation campaigns that had been spread as fiction over the years, that attitude had actually helped with her adaptation to modern life. She nodded, searching his face with her eyes, then stretched up for another quick kiss. "Be safe."
"Always," he replied, waving a hand to summon his hat and giving her his best approximation of a dashing smile. Then he snagged a dowsing rod off one of the shelves and ducked out of the shop, intent on tracing the path of the alarmingly familiar energy through the city. Duty called.
It took some time to get a clear fix on the intrusion; the passage of so many other cars through the concrete and asphalt veins of the city diluted the track considerably. But it could not completely disperse it; eventually, he was able to find its entry point in the Holland Tunnel and follow its route through a forest of glass and steel buildings. The echoes of past tragedy made his skin crawl: a focal point of the chill energy he'd last felt on decades-old battlefields, only somehow more intense, seeking to make its mark on the same island that had witnessed the deaths of thousands only a decade before.
Balthazar doubted Johann Schmidt's favorite pet project had suddenly popped up again for benign reasons. Especially given the name on the side of the specific tower he tracked it to. Maria Carbonell's son might be many things, but Balthazar highly doubted that either sorcerer or HYDRA sympathizer was one of them. Target was far more likely, unfortunately.
He thought about it for a moment, then decided a little prudence might be in order, and regretfully discarded the idea of reappropriating his friend the eagle from the Chrysler building. He swept himself up in a chameleon veil instead, then headed for the nearest public door to Stark Tower.
He was ready and waiting on the tower's balcony a few hours later when a man clad in green and black dropped from a swift-moving object overhead. He had a staff in his hand that resonated with the same energy burning at the heart of the assemblage up on the roof... and an unexpectedly familiar face. Puppet and machine alike had stunk of madness and the frozen cold between stars; he'd been expecting to find someone like Morgana or Schmidt pulling their strings. But this...
Even his lengthy argument with the tower's resident guardian spirit had not prepared Balthazar to face this foe.
"Ƿōden's son," he said, staring at the pale face and wild eyes of a being he hadn't seen since his earliest century of magical study. A man he'd incidentally learned no few tricks from, while his father and Balthazar's master had held some kind of acerbic, forceful argument. Hrvat and Berenike, as they'd been known in those days, had been distracted by the elder of the two princes, the charismatic Þunor; Balthassar and Loptr had been left to fend for themselves. They'd made no small amount of mischief together during that visit. "Sipping from your father's cup, are we?"
Balthazar had not realized what the argument must have been about until the Danes began invading England's shores, half a century after Merlin's death. He'd always wondered if the powerful, one-eyed magical entity had been in league with Morgana, or had simply taken advantage of the power vacuum resulting from the collapse of Merlin's protection to benefit his own people. Despite his doubts, however, Balthazar had remembered Loptr- Loki- with a wry sense of fondness.
Loki reacted as though he had been struck by his brother's lightning, flinching dramatically and pointing the staff in Balthazar's direction. "You," he said. "He is not my father. And I will be a better king than he ever was!"
Balthazar raised his right hand, green diamond glowing on his finger as he readied his will in defense. He wasn't looking forward to this fight. But he would fight, if forced to. Old memories might flinch at the rage and desolation in Loki's voice- but a millennia of instinct developed standing between the shadows and the light automatically pointed out chinks to exploit in the enemy's gaudy armor. "If you say so. Which country do you mean to take first, then, while everyone is staring at this distraction?"
"Country? Distraction?" Loki said scornfully, lashing out with a bolt of energy. "I mean to conquer the Earth."
"Clearly," Balthazar replied, voice dripping with scorn. With some effort, he threw off the corruptive tentacles of magic trying to writhe their way through his energy shield, then began forming a plasma bolt in one hand.
No matter how much his mental state had deteriorated, his magic was even more complex than Balthazar remembered. What the hell was going on in Asgard? Had something happened to Thor, to send his brother so far off the deep end? He'd thought they'd mostly retired from mortal affairs these days, but if he'd fallen afoul of something unexpected that could be laid at Odin's feet...
Loki promptly split himself into half a dozen illusionary avatars, all of them grinning with fiendish delight. He meant to draw it out, then; a vicious version of the play they'd indulged in so long ago.
Balthazar split the bolt last-second into a swarm of firefly-sized shafts and rolled, just in time to avoid a strike from behind at his feet. The whole tower rumbled at the hit; for a second, he wondered if the entire balcony had been destroyed- and then he caught sight of a red and gold figure, dropping slowly from roof level on faltering jets.
Stark had arrived. Just the complication they needed.
"You're secretly a Mogwai, aren't you?" the armor-clad vigilante announced, dropping down to an arrival platform just above the balcony's curve. "Did someone splash water on you? Feed you after midnight? Pity sunlight doesn't seem to be having any effect."
Loki snarled, all but one of his forms flickering out in reaction, though he didn't turn to face the new arrival. "This was not your fight. You were not meant to be here!"
"You're in my city," Balthazar snarled back. "Do you expect me to ignore what's happening here?"
"Should I pop some popcorn, or what? Maybe come back later? Keep tally?" Stark interrupted, strolling through his armor removal process as carelessly as though he wasn't baring himself for attack. "Though I'll need to know what to write on the scorecard; I recognize Reindeer Games, of course, but the Lone Stranger is new."
Loki took that moment to leap- toward the roof, coat flapping in the wind of his passage. Balthazar hoped Veronica and Dave were ready.
"You might want to put that back on, Mr. Stark," he sighed. Then he clenched his fist, transforming the section of balcony under his feet into a flying carpet, and followed.