It started as an itch. But not the sort of niggling itch that demands to be scratched, or the burning ache that signals something may be seriously wrong – and depending upon the location suggests that one might want to consider a course of antibiotics and a rethinking of general dating strategy.
No, it was the sort of creeping itch that builds, the one you don't even realize is there until it's three in the morning and you've woken yourself up by enthusiastically itching your own foot half off in your sleep.
Not that Loki would ever stoop to giving in to that sort of petty harassment from his own body. He considered the body alternately a damn inconvenience and a marvelous plaything depending on his mood, but either way the only section of Loki's meaty bits that was ever in charge was his brain, and nothing else was allowed to make even minor decisions or suggestions, thank you very much.
And that allowed him to ignore the itch far longer than he should have, because he was simply unwilling to acknowledge its existence. He had books to read, a mathematician to troll over Fermat's last theorem, and all those papers about the Higgs boson were simply not going to laugh at themselves10. Beyond that, there was research to be done, plans to be plotted, waffles to be made, and he'd promised himself that this year he was finally going to do a watercolor for Doom's birthday, only he still kept putting it off.
In any process, whether directly related to world domination or no, going from the drawing board to actually getting started was always the hardest part. This did not change in the slightest when you happened to be a god. If anything, the problem only got worse because you had infinitely more fascinating avenues of procrastination available and eager for use.
This principle also applied when it came to acknowledging that there just might happen to be a problem. Because for a god, or at least something god-shaped when put side to side with the adorable evolved monkeys of Earth, it becomes increasingly difficult to peep around one's ego and admit that there might be the need for other people. Particularly people in a capacity other than chew toy.
Thus Loki was doctoring his morning coffee with a few drops of cream as the Brave Little Waffle Iron saw to his breakfast, and he found himself rubbing at the inside of his left forearm with his thumb, the sort of circular motion that denotes a desperate desire to itch without the necessary bravery to actually do so.
Loki put down his coffee cup with exaggerated care. Now that he'd actually acknowledged the existence of the sensation, the itch was undeniable, transforming quickly from a vague prickle to a steady, uncomfortable burn the more he allowed himself to notice it.
He frowned, which cased the waffle iron to let out a nervous beep, wondering if it had taken just a few seconds too long to crisp the waffle appropriately. But Loki waved a hand vaguely at the little device, like some sort of inappropriately handsome pope providing absolution. It disgorged the waffle and then hunkered down as much as an inanimate device was capable of huddling, dimming its power light in an attempt to not be noticed.
Loki did not pay attention to the nervous plight of his favorite kitchen appliance, however. He instead carefully rolled up the sleeve of his deep green sweater, revealing skin of the sort of extra pale hue normally not seen outside of systems administrators11. Only his skin was now marred by a red mark like a fading burn made up of unnatural, curling lines. And the sensation prickling at his nerves indicated that whatever the mark was doing, it certainly wasn't fading.
"No," he said, "it's far too soon."
Only he knew that was a useless denial, since it plainly wasn't too soon at all. If anything, it indicated that he might have underestimated the danger of his situation. And this was a Problem with a capital P, since Loki normally prided himself in giving opponents just the right sort of estimation, the kind that involved slotting them into appropriate place at the appropriate time for a train to run them over.
Except calling them opponents made the deal seem far more two sided than it had been, and he could admit that to himself so long as it didn't involve actually speaking out loud.
He caught himself scratching at the mark with blunt fingernails. Hastily he rolled his sleeve back down, mind working furiously.
The situation was different now, he told himself. It had to be. Things had changed. He had changed. But he still felt the press of panic at the back of his throat, gently urging him that Alfheim was lovely this time of year, and wasn't it about time he had a vacation, the sort that involved changing his name, face, gender, or combination of the three and leaving no forwarding address.
But if it had gotten to the point that the brand was materializing, it was too late for him. And quite possibly too late for Midgard. Which was a shame, really, since he'd just found a dry cleaner that pressed his suits the way he liked them.
Loki hesitated for a long moment, staring into his coffee cup, at the pale ribbons of cream he still hadn't stirred into smoothness. There were possibilities. No situation was truly hopeless, not even the sort that involved a black hole and spaghettification, though that was a bit to the more problematic side. He just had to find a solution, and marshal all of the pieces so that they were in the right place at the right time.
A small, often ignored corner of his mind offered that just maybe, he ought to contact his brother, or the Avengers in general, since this was just the sort of thing that was up their alley.
Yes, of course, because they'd happily believe any wild story he cared to tell them. Because he had no intention of telling the true wild story, since he'd found long ago that he couldn't do so without adding in a good deal of hysterical screaming and inserting a pointy object into the soft parts of some innocent bystander. This was the sort of thing that normally ruined an otherwise interesting story for everyone involved.
But, that voice of reason reminded him, smart men had backup plans, whether they ended up needing them or not.
Loki contemplated if it was feasible, perhaps with the aid of a screwdriver, to remove that annoying little part of his brain. But he also wasn't willing to dismiss it entirely. He'd seen far too often what happened to mad geniuses when they stopped even pretending to be reasonable. He'd just had new carpeting put in; a mob of angry, torch-bearing peasants would track in more dirt than even an expensive stainmaster could handle.
Loki went to his study and searched through the empty leather-bound journals stacked next to his desk – for some reason, that seemed to be the gift that everyone defaulted to when he was involved – until he found one that seemed suitable. Then he sat and wrote, filling it halfway up with diagrams and calculations, as well as long swaths of text. His coffee went stone cold, unnoticed on his desk.
When he was done, he rolled up the sleeve of his sweater again and inspected the mark. It was darker, more well defined.
Hands shaking a little, he pulled out his iPad and started typing out an e-mail.
10 – Loki found it both charming and endearing that the humans were stuck on sub-atomic particles as the answer to everything, when any magician worth his salt knew that the important part was the magic that told it all what it should or shouldn't be doing at any given moment. It wasn't so much about particles as sheer bloody-minded will, and as soon as the humans figured that out, they'd at last realize that physics wasn't so much a set of laws as a series of helpful suggestions that came with a little escape hatch labeled 'in case of boredom turn glass into toffee.'
11 – One might say that magicians are the systems administrators of the cosmos, what with the beards and knowing smirks and telling everyone else that a thing is impossible while blithely doing that very same thing three times before breakfast if the mood strikes them. Loki didn't have the beard, of course, but he'd certainly proven himself time and again in the field of tormenting hapless users, or as they were more commonly known, everyone else.