He wasn't the first to notice, but he was the first to care.
Watching Loki now, he wondered, with no small measure of guilt, how he'd failed to notice the change. Subtle perhaps to all but those closest to the boy, and who was closer to Loki than Thor?
It occurred to Thor that perhaps he'd been less than the ideal brother Loki believed him to be.
The boy's face was drawn thin, colored with fresh bruises. Thor worried how many more hide from his view. Hollow eyes shone eerily in the electric light of the Stark device Loki watched so intently.
Normally Loki would have greeted him first, offering one of his boyish smiles that made the bitter past between them melt away. Normally he would have ruffled the boy's hair, hoisted him proudly on his shoulders, and let memory take him back to a time they were mere boys and Loki was his best friend.
Instead, they now sat in silence. Each aware of the other, neither moving to break the cold that settled between them.
In the weeks following his miraculous resurrection, for it could be called nothing less, he had become distracted, leaving Loki to fend for himself in a world that already hated him. He was undeserving of the brotherly adoration Loki had once lavished upon him. He found its absence a bitter taste to swallow.
Loki's fingers danced nimbly across the device and once more Thor found himself astonished by his brother's intelligence. A world that made so little sense to him, opened wide beneath Loki's deft gaze. He recalled the same zeal of his brothers' face as children. Many nights Loki had remained awake long into the night, reading. His mind now, as then, thirsty for knowledge.
Thor wondered what it was he sought now. A fierce anger had enveloped Loki since his return from the Otherworld weeks prior. He feared the hateful whispers to be true, that Loki of old had indeed returned. Gone was the innocent boy he remembered. It seemed fate was determined they should remain at odds. He just hoped he wasn't too late.
"What troubles ye, brother?"
Dull sunken eyes spared him a fleeting glance before turning once more to the electronic light of the Stark phone. To the untrained eye, the slanted glare would've served to strengthen the whispers. Those that knew Loki, knew hate hid a far more disturbing emotion - despair. Only once could he ever remember such pain in his brother's gaze; long ago, when Odin's lies unraveled. He'd lost his brother that night and had only found him again in the reincarnated form of a 13-year-old boy. He feared now that brother was lost to him as well.
"If you're here to lecture me on my actions in Otherworld, don't bother. The All-Mothers have already filled my ears with their disapproval."
Not for the first time Thor wondered of the details that transpired in the Otherworld. Unable to act openly, the All Mother had sent Loki in Asgardia's place to aid the Otherworld citizens against the Manchester Gods. Instead, Loki betrayed them, allowing the Manchester Gods to seize control of Otherworld. That is if the rumors were to be believed.
Knowing Loki, they were likely truth.
Still, he could not quell the feeling that there was something more. Some secret Loki was hiding which would explain the darkness consuming him. Thor needed there to be. Sif was right. He could not lose Loki to evil once more.
"Terribly busy Thor. Can you just cut to the part where you lecture me and I pretend to care?"
"My bad. I shall listen with upmost attentiveness as soon as I have a moment. Does Thursday work for you?
"You're not leaving, are you?"
Annoyed green eyes slanted his way. "Then speak brother, for my name I already know."
"We've been over this already."
"-are you well?"
"Oh dear, did word of the skirmish reach the mighty Thor? I assure you they were minor inconveniences. Already the bruises heal. By tomorrow my peers will find naught but fresh skin to re-abuse."
"It will pass."
"Yes, when I'm dead."
"You are of little wit this evening. Perhaps mead and bed would be a better use of your time. I'm certain Lady Sif would not object to-"
"What happened in Otherworld?"
A startled pain dulled the vibrant green for a fleeting moment. Had Thor not been looking for it, he would have missed it altogether.
"You already know. Everyone does," Loki muttered turning back to the Stark phone once more.
"I would hear you tell it, brother."
"If it's a story you wish to hear, Volstagg is a far better storyteller than I. Ask him about how he defeated The Serpent. It's an entirely gargantuous feast."
"Perhaps another time."
Silence divided them once more, Loki's attention again fixated on the Stark phone. Agitation creased his face as whatever answer he searched for eluded him. Cracks had already begun to form beneath the pressure of Loki's grip. The device would not last another tantrum. Thor wasn't entirely sure Loki could either. Anger hid a desperate frailty Thor had not seen in Loki before.
It frightened him. He had to find a way to bring Loki back from the edge of this madness before it consumed him completely. He had tried his hand at Loki's game of words, waiting for Loki to twist and turn lies to truth, but such games seldom played quickly and Thor had little patience for this particular game today. The stakes were too high, his brother's life too precious to lose. Gathering his strength, he gambled on the only clue he had.
"What did you sacrifice for us, brother?"
Loki stilled, visibly paling before his eyes. "I…nothing. I've no idea what-"
"You told the All Mothers you sacrificed something for Asgard while in Otherworld. What was it?"
Loki remained mute, wide eyes fixed on the Stark phone, though Thor doubted he actually saw the screen. Minutes stretched by and Thor had begun to doubt he would speak at all when a small voice broke the silence.
"If something bad had to happen because if it didn't something even worse would happen, then you would make sure it happened even if it cost you everything. Do you remember telling me that Thor?"
"Aye," he replied carefully.
"No good man would follow me. I had to make do with some less-than-good men and women. I made promises, Thor. Promises I had to keep. I tried my best to find another way but I ran out of time. Thor, I…I couldn't save her."
Loki's voice was little more than a whisper. "Leah."
[ Loki, Thor & Leah © Journey Into Mystery - Marvel ]