The next time he awoke, Steve was alone in the bed. There was a clink of metal, a scent of warm raspberries and fresh bread. When he raised himself to an elbow, looked out at the rest of the room, he found his wife – his wife, how about that? – setting out covered plates of breakfast on the low table.
She’d swapped her evening gown for something a little more Asgardian, but it wasn’t the armour she wore as a man: Skin tight green leather trousers and tall boots with a little kick heel, a blouse that was half corset, half plate mail, yet still did nothing to conceal that magnificent cleavage. She must have just come from the bath, for her raven hair was beginning to dry into tumbled curls. Golden ornaments clipped into it shimmered as she moved and were echoed by the delicate golden chains she’d wound around her hips.
And how strange it was – yet why was it strange? – that she looked so womanly, so comfortable in that body, when (he?) had looked so confident, so elegantly, deadly male in the other.
Somehow the prospect of getting up, eating, bathing, moving on with his life brought everything home to Steve. When they had woken up first, she’d obviously got there ahead of him in terms of figuring out what a God damned mess this had made of both their lives. He’d been too busy reassuring her to think deeply himself. And then there had been the sex.
She’d led him through that with patient, imaginative and unsparingly detailed instruction. He’d been too distracted, split between excitement and cringing embarrassment to worry about anything else, though the thought of where she must have acquired her encyclopaedic knowledge still disturbed him more than a little. But now, now there were no more distractions and the sheer enormity of the rest of his married life clamoured for his attention.
As he slid out of bed, she looked up and smiled. No tears any more, this was the inscrutable smile he was used to from his friend – the one that said “I know something you don’t. It’s ever so funny, but I don’t feel inclined to share.”
“You seem,” he tried, feeling the situation sifting through his fingers like sand, “a bit more yourself. Is it OK if I... if I get cleaned up?”
“Of course,” she sat with the same quiet graciousness she had used when (he?) had rescued Steve that first time, healed and restored him in (her?) supervillain lair. “I’ll leave you at least half of breakfast, though if you take too long it will be the worst half.”
Last night, when they’d been dancing together, even this morning when she wept like any ordinary woman, he had been able to think of her as a separate entity – a pretence, a disguise put on by his friend that was different in some fundamental way from the real thing.
But with her poise restored, the riddles back in those green eyes and the twist of that habitual smile – even on lips redder and fuller than he was used to – it was becoming harder to keep the two versions apart, either in his head or his heart.
That shouldn’t come as quite such a puzzle. Shaking his head, because he couldn’t get the thoughts to settle into any kind of realisation, Steve swathed himself in a sheet and took his sudden attack of philosophy to the bath.
An elvish bath, shaped out of one huge diamond and lit by a skylight that allowed the sun to beam onto the pool and fill the room with rainbows that split and shattered and swam across the walls with every ripple of water. Steve’s incipient dark mood couldn’t survive the radiance, and after five minutes immersed in light he found all his misgivings dissolving away and a great buttery lake of satiated smugness taking their place.
OK so this was not how he’d imagined his future would go, but oh boy, it had its compensations.
He was whistling as he emerged and knelt by the table to discover he’d been left all of the bacon and the sausages, half of the bread, none of the raspberries, and about a half a mouthful of small beer sloshing forlornly on the bottom of the tankard. Watching him squint at it, she gave a winsome smile that worked on Steve a great deal better in her new form than it had in the old, and shrugged. “I forgot.”
“So,” Steve got water from the bathroom instead. It had a slight fizzy tang of sulphur and hot springs, but that only made it more refreshing. “Where do we go from here?”
“Firstly,” she leaned forward onto her spread elbows and watched with apparent amusement as Steve’s gaze slid from her interlaced fingers to her chest. Snapping her fingers in his face, she let her long sharp nails rest – half threat, half promise, just dimpling his lower lip.
“Firstly I destroy the Queen of Elfland for perpetrating this little joke on us.” She narrowed her eyes as if finding it hard to pick between two equally stylish dresses. “And possibly grind her entire realm to dust under my heel. Conquer or annihilate? It’s such a difficult choice.”
And yeah, you know what, it suddenly became crystal clear to Steve that Loki as a woman was neither more nor less Loki than he ever had been.
He didn’t quite know what to think about the fact that that came as something of a relief. So instead he focussed on the more familiar situation of being Loki’s external conscience and gave a snort of laughter as if the suggestion could not possibly be taken seriously. “I’m pretty sure she did it because she thought it would be nice for you. Give you someone to talk to, you know? Someone to be on your side. She owes you, after all.”
Loki’s sideways jerk of the head made all the ornaments in her hair jingle. Her mouth went surly-hard. “She thought it would be nice for me if she placed my only friend in mortal peril?”
“I’m sorry?” in the absence of a magical wardrobe of his own, Steve struggled back into his tux from last night. “I thought we’d agreed that ‘married to Loki’ was not a fate worse than death, so you could lay off the ‘putting him down for his own good’ thing.”
Though Steve was probably Earth’s greatest expert in the meaning of Loki’s expressions, that wasn’t saying much at the best of times. Less so now, when they had all become unfamiliar by virtue of her new face. But he was pretty certain he saw a flash of surprise before all the shutters slammed closed and she applied a smile stolen wholesale from the Mona Lisa.
A swooping fear, Damn! Did she poison breakfast? was shouldered aside by concern. Ninety percent of the time, Steve knew Loki’s mask concealed either “don’t bother me now, I’m plotting the apocalypse,” or “I am so hurt I can’t bear you to see.” Sometimes both at once. Steve didn’t know which it was this time but he wasn’t happy with either.
Kneeling next to her, he took her hands in his own. Long fingered hands that felt delicate and breakable in his larger grip. Not letting thoughts get in his way, he squeezed them gently, surprising her into looking at him. And under that luminous gaze, the beauty that made awe and lust tie his tongue in knots between them, it was a lot easier to carry on simply not thinking at all. “Hey. It’s OK. Whatever it is, we’re in this together. OK?”
She took a breath, her tight Asgardian top making it do interesting things to the mounds of her breasts, and her blankness passed into a look of such affection it startled him. There were actual dimples in her cheeks as she leaned in and kissed him soft on the corner of his mouth. “I have been worrying about how to shield you from my enemies,” she said, in partial explanation.
“Most of your enemies are SHIELD,” Steve touched the corner of his mouth tentatively with his fingertips, feeling it curve up in a wondering smile. The sex had been great, of course, and he was very grateful for it, but this... this made him ache a little closer to the heart. She was capable of love – he knew that already – but this was the first time he’d let himself wonder if she was capable of loving him. “And they’re my friends.”
“Indeed. Perhaps you are right – the Avengers should be tackled first. The Queen of Elfland can wait to find out what I thought of her little surprise. I’m sure she will enjoy the anticipation almost as much as the eventual response.”
“My wife the supervillain,” Steve laughed, disturbed at himself for being so amused, but Loki seemed to take the sentence for rejection. She flinched, and Steve watched with concern as she backpedalled, covering her tracks, trying to pretend she’d never reached out and made an unguarded gesture of warmth.
“We do not have to tell them. It might be wiser not to. I can invent a reason, a dozen different reasons for changing sex, or give none at all, and we can continue as before. No need for them to know we are anything more than—”
And Steve couldn’t stand to hear it any more. “I’m not ashamed of you.” He pulled her into a fierce hug. After a while her arms unstiffened and rose to wrap around his waist. She tucked her face into the junction of his neck and shoulder, held on tight.
“I’m not ashamed,” he repeated, more gently, and if perhaps there were elements of what he said that were not strictly true, he intended to make them true, fast as possible. “I’m proud to have you as my wife. I want to tell the guys straight away, and they’d better treat you right, because if they don’t—“
She didn’t raise her head, just murmured it into his collar. “I don’t need your protection, Steve Rogers.”
It made him want to laugh and cry at the same time. “I know you don’t, sweetheart. I know. But you’ve got it anyway.”