Author's Note: It's been a long time and I missed a lot of holidays but I'd like to greet everyone a belated Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

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Charlie beamed, all teeth and malice that made the hair at the back of his neck stand on end. "Such defiance," he hummed. "How long would it last I wonder?"

Tony smirked at him humorlessly, crossing his arms over his chest, the band around his wrist he used for his Iron Man suit glinting ominously in the minimal light overhead. Pregnant or not, he was still more than capable of fighting in his suit (he'd have brought the other one but it had to be tested more). "Wouldn't you like to know?"

His smile (if someone could call it that) widened and it just hit Tony then. The pressed Armani suit, the polished Testoni dress shoes and the diamond tie-pin couldn't hide that there's something dangerous hiding just underneath the surface. Tony had definitely been under scrutiny of various degrees of both hostility, grudging admiration and lust (especially lust, really) but the way Charlie stared at him felt too familiar and somewhat left him feeling like he needed to soak himself in boiling water and scrub himself clean with steel wool.

They stare at each other and he wasn't one to back down even though every cell in him that had even an ounce of self-preservation screamed at him to get the hell away because this was not Charlie no matter what it looked.

"Mr. Stark? There you are! Miss Potts has been looking all over for you!"

They both turned and Tony saw Natasha saunter over in a gorgeous, low-cut black dress, her smile wide though her eyes were sharp and cold as her gaze flickered to Charlie before going back to Tony.

"You won't believe who just arrived," she continued, her tone light and airy and her hand touching Tony's arm and subtly tugging him closer to her. Then, she looked at Charlie making it show as if she'd just noticed him in her excitement (she looked convincing enough but Tony knew better) and she beamed at him, gushing as she strategically placed herself in front of Tony. "Oh, Mr. Anderson, I apologize," she said to him, beaming brightly. "I didn't see you there."

For a moment, Charlie was wary before it melted away and he smiled. "It's nothing, Miss…?"

"Rushman," she said, lifting her hand up. "Natalie Rushman."

He looked at her hand curiously before taking it in his own and if that didn't prove him right that there was something definitely wrong in this picture (Charlie was a social butterfly, after all, and he liked his women), Tony would eat Dummy. He cleared his throat and as if to cover for his mistake, he smiled at Natasha with every bit of charm he could muster, giving it a quick squeeze before letting go.

"Well, I should leave you to your conversation," he said switching from her to Tony, his gaze lingering long enough for him to feel distinctly uncomfortable and inexplicably dirty (and not in a good way) then back again. "I should be getting back to my guests. It is a pleasure to meet you, Miss Rushman," and he turned to Tony again with a sly smirk, "and to talk to you, Tony Stark. Perhaps we will see each other… later."

He gave them a nod and went out of the room. The tension bled out with him and Tony let his shoulders slump.

"Shit," he mumbled to himself as soon as he was out of sight and earshot. "I get the feeling he's out to kill me or something."

"Or something," Natasha grumbled.

"That's what I'm afraid of," he replied grimly because Natasha was best at the whole body language thing and while he was curious, he kinda didn't want to know what she found out.

She shook her head, looking as unflappable as always. "In any case, I wasn't really lying. Pepper was looking for you because he's here."

Tony hummed and he kinda hated that he was being needy but he was more than a little relieved that Loki was here.

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"I'm really starting to regret coming here," Potts sighed as she lifted her champagne flute to her lips and drank it down in two large gulps before she grabbed another one from a passing server.

Loki, under the guise of his alternate identity (blond hair, dull, blue eyes and forgettable features - yet tastefully dressed in the suit Tony had purchased for him), had taken one of the stronger spirits offered from the bar before he joined her, swirling the crystal glass as he eyed his surroundings warily.

He agreed with her wholeheartedly and had Tony been anywhere else but here (preferably at home where he was safe), he wouldn't even think about coming here at all. It reminded him far too much of Asgard's dining halls where the warriors feasted and how he had felt different, felt alone, even then.

The music was extremely loud, the beat pounding an incessant rhythm in his ears and the cheery melody grated on his nerves far worse than hearing Fandral's braying laugh. The room itself was brightly lit, large and gaudily decorated in vibrant green, red and gold but heavily crowded, the countless, indistinguishable faces with the plastic smiles drifting in and out of his focus, the voices spewing empty niceties going in one ear and out the other.

"You know," she began, giving him a sideways glance, "in all the excitement, we never really got to talk to each other."

Loki looked at her, raising a brow sardonically. "If you are planning to threaten me, I will have you know that I have already heard it all."

Potts burst out laughing. "I can imagine but that's not what I'm talking about." She took a calming breath and looked at him, straight in his eyes. "You know, Tony can seem like a very accommodating person but he's actually very picky when it comes to people he trusts. He had a few hiccups but that's just part of being human.

"I'll be honest with you," she said, her gaze somber as she took a deep breath as if bracing herself, "when I first heard about you and him together, I thought it was probably the worst thing that Tony could have done. All I could think of was how this was going to be one huge disaster. And then there's the baby and I was worried that Tony wouldn't be up for it – it's too much responsibility and he's always done whatever he wanted.

"It's strange and I've known Tony for a long time but I can see that well, surprisingly, you're really good for him. I trust you but not completely, not yet," she added, "and I don't want to have to regret it in the future. Don't give me a reason to."

"I'm happy that you think so, Lady Potts," Loki murmured and he was surprised to note that it was true, that this human's opinion of him actually mattered. "I'd be worried for you if you trusted me so easily," he added nonchalantly though he knew that they achieved a level of understanding that they hadn't had before when she kept her distance and was civil (not actively hostile but definitely not friendly either) to him.

"Yeah, well, you're good for him and it's Pepper. You'd better learn to call me that if you're planning to stick around," she said and there was a challenging look in her gaze daring him to argue.

Loki found that he could grow to like her in time and he grinned. "I think you'd be tired of me before long."

She gave him an answering smile and went back to drinking before scanning the crowd again and this time, the silence between them (amidst the so-called jingles and the laughter) was comfortable and not as stilted as it once had been.

"Maybe I should go find him," Potts – Pepper said as she craned her neck to look beyond the throng of people laughing past them. "He could have been distracted by something on the way. It wouldn't be the first time."

"Oh? Do tell," Loki said as he raised an inquiring brow at her. Tony always had a healthy dose of curiosity and when he finds something of interest, he would be enthralled completely. It was the first time he found out that he had more than a passing interest in art, though.

She gave him a small, conspiratorial smile. "Tony will be the first to tell you that he doesn't care for art because they're not cool or whatever but he actually really likes them." She sighed, both fond and exasperated. "He can get lost in a museum like this for hours if you leave him alone looking at some pieces."

"Except abstract art because I hate those outside of decorating purposes. Total random shit on a canvas like someone drunk, stoned or both threw up on it."

They both turned to find Tony and Romanov standing behind them, the former looking quite satisfied with himself if the smirk was anything to go by and the latter casually looking around them. Something in Romanov's stance made Loki flick a cursory glance around the room himself but found nothing amiss yet something didn't feel quite right either. The warning she had given him before he left Asgard played ominously in his mind.

Potts snorted indelicately. "You'd think that. I remember how you made that one artist cry."

Tony grinned at her, all teeth with a not a little bit of sadistic mischief in his eyes, and said, "that 'artist' tried to sell me a blank canvas, Pep. I don't have an art degree but I think I do have eyes. You can't possibly say a blank canvas is a masterpiece. I'll be really disappointed in you."

Pepper rolled his eyes at him. "He sold that piece for about half a million dollars."

"I don't pity the poor sucker who bought it." He turned his attention to Loki. "Hey, there," he started, raking his eyes over Loki's form. He'd seen it before, of course, but made it known that he liked his usual appearance more. "You look a little washed out there, bud. Love the suit though. Whoever picked it has good taste."

Loki rolled his eyes because they both knew the suit was on their bed when he arrived. It was one of Tony's favorites in the entire collection from Fioravanti. The jacket and vest were black and fitted Loki's form closely. The shirt underneath it was a startling white. He wore a dark, green tie around his neck and gold cufflinks (designed to look like his helm – Tony's idea of a joke) on the sleeves.

"Anyways, I'm thinking I've been here a lot longer than I should be so why don't we scram, buy some take-out and watch a few movies?" Tony suggested as he wiggled his eyebrows and adjusted the tie around his neck, slipping a finger in the knot and tugging it to loosen it a little.

He didn't wait for a reply and walked ahead of them, arguing with Pepper that he did not want to say goodbye to their host, "screw being rude" as he led them back to the crowded and noisy room where the annoying music had already stopped and a speaker was urging the guests to take their seats to start the auction.

Loki was immediately aware of Romanov slipping at his side. He spared her a glance and found her looking at him. She raised her brows at him, tipping her head almost unnoticeably in Tony's direction, her eyes glancing swiftly at Tony before switching back to him.

A warning?

It made his shoulders rigid because, as little an indication it was, the feeling he had of danger was reinforced tenfold from that one gaze alone. He pushed his senses and did not feel anything around them and he'd made sure to check that first of all upon stepping foot in this place.

So preoccupied was he that he did not pay attention to much of the conversation around him, his body almost instinctive in the way it followed Tony and stopped when he did.

"Ah, a new guest? I don't think I've met him before."

"You wouldn't have. He's not from around here and he's my plus one."

"I see. It's certainly a shame that you have to leave so soon. The night is still young and the auction is just about to start."

"Yeah, well, art's really not my thing, you know? Busy day tomorrow – schedule's bursting with meetings and business trips. You know how it goes."

"Of course. I have some of mine to go to as well."

"Yep, so really sorry that we have to go but…"

"Of course, I understand."

A man stepped into Loki's line of sight, far closer than what he deemed appropriate and Loki was not pleased.

"Good evening, I'm Charles Anderson," he said, his voice making Loki bristle almost instinctively as he held a hand out.

Their eyes met and he knew.

"I am not as powerful as I once was and all the knowledge of our race Laufey had kept to himself. I have no doubt that he is much stronger than I. Do not let your guard down."

"No, you are not," he whispered, eyes hard as he gripped hard on the offered hand and saw the telltale spread of blue on both of their hands, inching past their wrists and under their clothes. "Byleistr."

Byleistr smiled, crooked and hostile, their hands remaining clasped together and he felt a strange wave of magic electrifying the air, familiar but unwelcome. It was that same energy he had sensed a few months ago – on Tony.

"It was you," he hissed and before he could stop himself, he had released a spell of condensed and pure magical energy at the disguised Frost Giant with his free hand.

The spell hit its mark and Byleistr was wrenched away by its strength, slamming him on the far wall with an audible crack that more than half of the guests heard.

"What the hell?" Tony exclaimed.

And everything descended into chaos.

There was screaming and panicking from the humans who fought to get out of the museum but Loki took no heed of them. Instead, he pushed Tony behind him as he charged at the man (no, it was definitely not a man) who slid to a crouch on the floor.

"Evacuate the guests, that's our first priority," Tony shouted amidst the endless barrage of noise. "I'll be right back," he said to Loki before he ran off.

Pepper and Romanov were already directing the crowds out of the nearest exits with Tony right behind them helping those who had fallen, guiding them out of the building.

Loki shook his head and braced himself, forcefully keeping his mind off Tony. He could not afford to be distracted at a time like this. While he usually preferred using magic and his knives when fighting, he was not against using brute force to deal with a threat quickly. He did not want Tony to come anywhere near him and this giant while they fought. He raised his fist, intent on knocking the other's jaw off his head but it was caught in one large, blue hand.

His transformation was quick and instead of a human, Loki found himself face to face with a Frost Giant who pulled him easily that their faces were mere inches from each other.

"Well met, Loptr, my dear, older brother," he whispered before he cast the same spell Loki had, the strength of it throwing Loki back and had him crashing on a table.

"You are not my brother," Loki retorted. He was immediately on his feet and they were charging at each other once again. Their magic collided and exploded into a powerful wave that threw everything within ten feet of them away – tables, chairs and even people. They met each other in a flurry of fists and magic until both punched and sent each other skidding on the floor, several feet separating them.

They stood facing each other, gauging. Byleistr smirked as he brought his arms down at his sides, his stance relaxed while Loki tensed further.

"This was quite entertaining, brother," he murmured, "but I am afraid I cannot stay any longer. We shall see each other soon enough, I wager."

The image of him blurred and vanished.

"Son of a bitch!"

Panic gripped Loki as he swiveled to find Byleistr in front of Tony, his large hand easily covering Tony's forearm as he was tugged forward much like he'd done to Loki earlier except Tony was held closer. Everything around him seemed to stop though as Byleistr tipped Tony's head up with his free hand and claimed his lips in a kiss.

He saw Tony shut his eyes, his free hand pushing ineffectively against Byleistr's chest and with a fury he had never known, Loki advanced with a roar, aiming to slash his neck with his knife. Byleistr pulled away, chuckling darkly.

"I think I like him more now, brother," he said with a leer at Tony who gagged and coughed from Loki's side. "He tastes so sweet… I have decided I'd like to keep him to myself. Next time I shall take more than a kiss."

"There will never be a next time," Loki announced as he thought to summon a weapon, thinking that it would be Odin's spear but instead a cube was in his hands – the Casket of Ancient Winters.

Guided by his will and Fury, the casket opened, releasing a strong, biting wind and a flurry of ice and snow, its power so great that before long, it had covered the floor in a foot of solid ice, trapping the Frost Giant and the humans left inside including Tony, Pepper and Romanov. Loki remained untouched by the ice.

All humor vanished from Byleistr's face. "So you have it, after all," the Frost Giant murmured as he stared at the ancient artifact in Loki's hands. He sneered as he pulled one leg up then the other, the sound of ice cracking and shattering clear in the sudden silence that descended upon them. "Not only did you murder our father and brother, not only do you side with our enemy, but you have also taken possession of our treasure.

"I shall relish every moment taking everything you hold dear and make you suffer before death, brother. Not right now, but very soon."

With another taunting laugh, he faded away into nothing.

"Someone mind defrosting this place? I can't feel my legs anymore," Tony quipped just as sirens blared outside.

After a burst of heat, the ice melted into water, the sudden change had the remaining guests tumbling and splashing at the loss of balance, falling in a tangled mess of limbs, soaked gowns and suits. Water rushed around them, looking for its nearest exit and Tony almost toppled over by the current but was readily caught by Loki's arm.

"Okay, who the hell was he and why the fuck did he kiss me?" Tony asked him, his deadpan tone belying the fury in his eyes.

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In an undisclosed location that became SHIELD's home base, Fury sat at his desk, shutting his phone with a sigh as closed his eye and rubbed his temples to keep an incoming headache away. Cleaning up had always been the most annoying part of his job and he hated the hassle that came with it even if it was necessary. Not only did he have to deal with the media clusterfuck and silencing the witnesses, he also had to deal with the Council breathing down his neck (the worst of the assholes were gone but that didn't mean they were all dismissed).

A lot of things were hidden from the Council, considering what had happened last time. Due to the almost destruction of New York by nuclear bomb, the higher ups had decided to put him in charge of SHIELD operations with little to no involvement from the Council other than to offer their views on certain issues. The final decision would always fall to Fury for approval.

Although with what had happened tonight, it was inevitable that they found out that Loki was back on earth and as a result, his leadership and capability was called into question along with his Avengers. He'd been on a conference call for nearly four hours, listening to the Council (what's left of it) and some higher members of the government, reassuring them that no, he did not know Loki was here and yes, he would find out what was going on and report back.

Of course, none of that was true. He'd probably give them a cover story later, something generic, close to the truth but not really.

He was more than a little thankful for the flooding. Passing a fight between two powerful aliens off as a bomb going off in the museum's plumbing system would be a lot easier for the general public to accept even in a world where aliens, mutants and other kinds of beings were becoming common place.

That and he had to explain the sudden disappearance of Charles Anderson, Jr.

"So how did that go?"

Fury looked at Coulson, raising his brow but accepting the cup of coffee offered to him – and the half dozen or so folders in his other hand.

"That bad or is it above my pay grade?" A slight pause then he said, "Sir," like he'd just added it as an afterthought.

Fury took a long drink. Coffee tasted like crap as always but it did wonders for his headache. "Not a lot of things are above your pay grade and you know it. If you're curious enough, you can have my job. You're qualified."

Dealing with the higher-ups, maintaining peace to the country and, by extension, the world, keeping tabs on super-powered beings and babysitting his own team – the answer was easy. "No, thanks, sir."

Fury scoffed. "Figures. I wouldn't want to be stuck in my job right now either."

Coulson chuckled but sobered almost instantly. "Any news on what really happened?"

"Romanov will be delivering her report," Fury answered. "Something tells me this is gonna get a lot worse."

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"So this time, we're dealing with your biological brother who happens to have some kind of inferiority complex who also happens to be my stalker from a few months ago?"

"Yes. Put that way, it sounds so juvenile."

A sarcastic roll of eyes. "Oh, sorry, I forgot that he's also current king of another realm."

Loki didn't say a word as he watched Tony putter about in the workshop, carrying a blow torch with his mask pulled up over his head.

"I'm gonna kill that fucking asshole," Tony growled as he pulled the mask over his face and turned it on, using it on an innocent piece of metal. He was still pissed off. They'd been home for about a few hours, it was already late but he still couldn't go to sleep. He was nearly shaking in his rage and he wanted nothing more than to drink a gallon of mouthwash because that slimy bastard had his tongue down his throat and he wanted to throw up. "I knew there was something wrong with the guy. He just wasn't the Charlie I met before."

Loki hummed. "It is more likely the real one is already dead if Byleistr had taken his identity."

Tony hissed. "He didn't deserve that. He might have been a douche but he didn't deserve that."

"Nobody does," Loki agreed. "But what is done is done."

"God, this year's Christmas sucks."

By the next day, everyone knew the story about a bomb going off in the men's bathroom of the museum. Charles Anderson's disappearance was noted as a kidnapping though most of his relatives think that it was more than likely he was already dead.

"Charlie is a brilliant young man but quite ruthless," a random relative had said in an interview with the morning news. "I hope for the best but he made a lot of enemies since he took over his father's company."

Another relative had only snorted in disdain. "The guy's an asshole. I don't blame anyone from wanting him dead."

Tony couldn't watch anymore and just shut the TV off. He really didn't want to ruin his mood. It was Christmas Eve, they were supposed to have dinner at home, watch A Wonderful Life and classic Christmas shows on TV before they all went out and did their own thing.

Surprisingly, the day passed almost quietly until the Avengers were called in for a hostage-taking situation at an orphanage down in Queens. Steve and Thor didn't take too long to get the situation under control and Tony honestly wondered why they were needed in the first place but just chalked it up to the local police needing their own downtime during the holidays.

Christmas morning was a different matter altogether.

Tony was in the workshop. He and Loki were up early and they were the only ones at home; everyone else was still out. He was just about finished installing smaller repulsors on JB's stroller when a harsh sounding crash echoed from upstairs.

"JARVIS, visual!" He commanded and immediately, a hologram of a screen widened in front of him, focused on the living room where Loki stood facing a very pissed off lady swinging her sword around like a twig. Behind them was a mess, his new table was destroyed and several frames were shattered on the ground. His couch even had several long gashes on the cushions.

"Shit. Christmas this year really sucks."

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Author's Note: Again sorry for the long wait. I am currently battling writer's block (which was why I wrote other pieces to get my mind in order) and lost my laptop which had everything. This chapter is a lot shorter than my previous ones but that will all be explained why in the next chapter.

Thanks very much for your patience and understanding and as usual, comments and suggestions are always welcome.


"Where did you even get this?"

"Your mother."

"My mother?"


Dread like nothing he'd ever experienced gripped Loki. "Is she even aware of what you were planning to use it for?"

"Loki, your mother is older than me and has been married for more than, give or take, a couple of thousand years," Tony deadpanned, rolling his eyes. "They had to have experimented at least once or twice. I think she would know exactly what I'm gonna use it for."