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The Man Behind The Mask

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"This is the last time I'm doing Emergency OT with you, Strange."

"You need to lay off the coffee, Odinson." Stephen gave the hovering anaesthetist an evil glare. "Your irritability is affecting my patient."

Loki clucked his tongue. "Your patient's labile blood pressure has less to do with me than your ineptitude at controlling the bleed."

The surgical nurses turned their faces away to hide knowing smiles. Stephen ignored the jibe, he was used to people making fun of him; haters gonna hate, and all that jazz.

"Would you like to swap places with me, Doctor?" he asked, tone syrupy-sweet.

Loki craned his neck and peered into the patient's abdominal cavity. Even from behind the mask, his displeasure shone. "You told me this was a half-hour job."

"I said maybe."

"Nic West did it in less than twenty minutes yesterday," Loki goaded. "Ooh, you’re too close to the common bile duct there. Ooh, that’s a near-miss. Are you sure you know what you're doing?”

Stephen sighed. He called out to the runner nurse, "Jenna."

"Yes, Doctor?"

"Can you turn up the music, please?" Stephen murmured. "There's a bit of a noise pollution going on up here."

The familiar beats of Earth, Wind and Fire's 'Fantasy' blared from the speakers, and Doctor Loki Odinson threw his head back, cackling silently.

Finally, Stephen thought. Some peace and quiet.

 


 

Located at the far end of a largely deserted corridor, the storage room housed stacks upon stacks of boxes filled with years-old case notes no one needed anymore, but could not legally get rid of. 

No sooner had Stephen put the last stitch into his patient than he had Loki pinned against one of its walls.

"Now we've only got ten minutes to spare, no thanks to you," Loki sassed.

Stephen hummed as he dry-humped Loki with a rhythm they had both become accustomed to. "If you rim me, I can end this quicker."

“Oh, you wish,” Loki moaned as Stephen attacked his neck next, nibbling here and there but expertly never leaving a mark. "Stop fucking around and put it in, damn you.”

Stephen tutted. "Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?" 

"My mother's dead," Loki said cheerily. 

Stephen pulled back; his expression wavered between mortified and appalled, and his frotting slowed. "I'm...sorry."

"Of all the things you could apologise for," Loki tsk-tsked. "What are we talking about dead parents for, get a move on!"

“So impatient, Doctor,” Stephen chastised. He wrestled with the drawstrings of Loki's waistband, whistling aloud. "The Aberdeen knot. Tricky."

"Sexy," Loki corrected, bucking his hips, his erection taut and quivering. "Quickly, now. Clock's ticking."

It took Stephen a few seconds to unravel the knot, but once he did, he pulled Loki's pants down with the triumphant roar of someone unwrapping a much coveted prize. 

"So you timed Nic West," he continued, "Now you're timing me?"

"Just - an observation," Loki gasped. "He's got nimble fingers - "

Stephen stuck his fingers in his slick hole without warning, and Loki yelped, "Very nimble fingers!"

"I'll show you nimble," Stephen grunted. "I'll make you come before you know it."

"Is that a challenge, Doctor Strange?"

Stephen kissed the smirk right off Loki's lips, catching the taller man off guard -

And he took the golden opportunity to heft Loki up by his milky-white thighs, and slide right in. 

Loki's skin had always been cold to the touch - crap circulation, he once said - but his snug little passage was slick and unbelievably warm, and Stephen could not hold back his moan.

Loki's nails dug into his back - a sign that he should hurry - and Stephen was only too happy to oblige. 

"Faster," he heard Loki whisper, light and wispy like in a dream. "Faster, Stephen."

It must be a dream for Loki had never called him by his given name before, but the effect was instantaneous. 

All the blood rushed to where Stephen needed it most, and he slammed down harder and harder against this stunning creature who could only love him when no one was looking. 

With the final release came a euphoria so complete, so perfectly finished Stephen's knees lost all strength and he slid down, only for Loki to hold him up by the waist, his lolling head by the chin. 

An all-encompassing peace descended upon Stephen as the shroud slowly lifted, receding till he met eyes so bright, so piercing a single gaze could strip anyone's soul bare, and Stephen had no idea how long he had been staring into them.

"Odinson," he murmured. "That was - "

"Shhh." Loki pressed his long, tapered fingers against Stephen's lips, keeping them closed. "No sentiments. That was the deal."

"I was just gonna say pleasant."

Loki's eyebrow quirked. "Pleasant?"

"Passable, then. Wouldn't want to disturb your minimalistic sensibilities with an unwelcome compliment."

"It wasn't," Loki acceded.

"Wasn't what?"

Loki tied the drawstrings around his waistband deftly.

"Unwelcome," he said, his smirk devilish against the halo of his unruly, black hair. "If a little protracted."

Stephen rolled his eyes. "Look, I got shit to do. You got shit to do. If you could just stop timing everything, we could have been done sooner."

"But timing is everything," Loki insisted. "When you say half an hour, it's gotta be half an hour. Patients don't run on your time, you know."

"Save the lecture," Stephen muttered. "I get enough grief from the surgical chief as it is."

Loki said nothing, his curious gaze vacillating between his phone and the man shuffling his feet awkwardly in front of him.

"The cafeteria's doing the buy one get one free thing again, if you wanna go grab a sandwich?"

"Thanks, but no thanks," Loki muttered just as he finished checking his backlog of messages. "A registrar's shadowing me today. He's a bit of a smart-arse and I need to know my ICU patients better than he does."

"Why? I'd love it if anyone could do my ward rounds for me."

Loki shrugged. "How else am I going to catch someone out for lying?"

"You're such an asshole," Stephen said with a snicker.

"No more than you, Doctor," Loki countered. "You don't let anyone near your patients."

"No one's ever good enough."

"Or you're just a possessive arsehole." 

Stephen would have defended himself had Loki not already made his exit from the storage room. 

"Coast is clear," Loki murmured.

Stephen stared at the back of Loki's head. An errant curl was sticking out and it was killing him that he could not just reach out and pat it down. 

He cleared his throat instead. "Your roster out yet?" 

Loki raised an eyebrow. "For next week, you mean? No, but I'll try my best to swap around if I see your name next to mine."

"You fucker." 

"Right back at ya." Loki began to walk gingerly on his tippy toes in the attempt to hide an obvious limp. "Try not to forget the lube next time. God knows the surgical department hoards all the KY jelly in this place."

 


 

"The chafing looks pretty bad," Stephen said, upon inspection of Loki's inner thighs later that night. He did a daring thing tonight, coming over unannounced with some Chinese take-out. He convinced himself it was largely Loki’s fault for having made the mistake of taking Stephen home once. 

"It's your fault, you know. Thigh jobs aren't as easy as you think," Loki complained, pushing himself up onto his elbows. 

Stephen mock-gasped. "How else do you expect me to stay awake during long hours of surgery?"

"You can drink coffee like the rest of us high-functioning humans," Loki suggested sweetly.

"Can't. Too much caffeine makes my hands shake." Stephen glanced at his companion. "You should probably lay off coffee too."

Loki made a disgusted face. "Do you want to kill me? Actually, that's not a bad idea. The head of department does a roll call every morning and the idea of zoning out sounds lovely."

Stephen applied the petroleum jelly he'd brought with him to the reddest area around Loki's perineum, before working his way outward in slow, concentric circles. His eagle eye caught the way Loki kept rubbing the spot below his sternum. 

"Might help with your stomach problems too."

Loki's forehead furrowed. "What stomach problems?"

"Odinson, you barely touched dinner. And the only thing I ever see you eat is the free biscotti you get with your coffee every morning,” Stephen said. “That, and the Tums you keep popping like they're some kind of candy."

Loki snorted. "Just a touch of reflux. It's not like it's cancer."

"That's a shitty thing to say." Stephen glower turned into a look of alarm. "Why, does it run in your family?"

"I wouldn't know," Loki said vaguely. He knew some things were trigger words for a surgeon, but it wasn't like Stephen's interest in his well-being was anything more than academic. 

"Care to give me a stool sample?"

"Not in a million years," came Loki's swift answer. 

They spent the next five minutes in relatively companionable silence. It was yet another routine they had unconsciously added to their repertoire; a little TLC after a rough romp to ease the body and calm the soul for the next fix, whenever it would come. Anytime could be their last.

Stephen did not know when things started to change, but he was a man of intuition. Sex was sex, and it was great for the most part, but it need not be the be-all and end-all…right?

"You okay?" Stephen asked casually, as he screwed the cap back onto the tube.

The wince Loki had been hiding in plain sight for the last five minutes smoothened. "I'm fine."

"You stressed about something?"

"Why are we talking?" Loki snapped. "Shouldn't we be fucking right now?

Stephen sighed. "This doesn't have to be just about fucking."

"I beg your pardon?" Loki’s voice had become dangerously soft. "What do you mean by 'this'?"

Stephen's lips thinned. "Us."

Loki let out a scoff, mocking and full of distrust. "What, now you want more?"

Forced into silence, Stephen could do little but wait for Loki to finish. 

"I walked into 'this' with my eyes open, Strange. No expectations, no strings," Loki said, his tone taking on a razor-sharp edge. "You can't change the rules just because you feel like it."

"I am not making a power play here, Odinson."

"The hell you're not, Strange," Loki said, catapulting himself out of bed in seething rage. "Why must you do this?"

"I am not doing anything - "

But Loki was no longer listening.

"When I finally have something good - " Loki's voice caught in his throat. "Why must you fuck it up?"

His head spinning, Stephen could only watch dumbfounded as Loki pulled on his boxers with hasty, jerky movements. "Loki."

Loki shivered at the sound of his name. It was the last straw. "Get out."

 


 

Stephen went into work the next day feeling dreadful and uneasy. The morning passed in a blur; he barely remembered the patients he saw at the clinic, the things he said to them. He could only hope he had not signed anyone’s death warrant giving the wrong advice in his fugue state.

Every so often, his eyes would stray to the roster on the wall, landing specifically on the first two names printed in bold letters on the list of the personnel on duty for afternoon surgery.

Theatre 1

General surgeon: Doctor Stephen Strange, Anaesthetist: Doctor Loki Odinson.

Usually, his heart would sing at the sight of their names, written side-by-side like the unstoppable team that they were. But today, there was only trepidation. 

No strings, Strange.

He knew exactly what Loki meant, the hurt in those expressive green eyes had said it all.

No strings. No pain.  

In the locker room, Stephen changed out of his suit and into his scrubs on autopilot, tuning out the hustle and bustle of activity around him. The elective OT list today was a short one and if he was lucky, he could get away with exchanging the barest of greetings with the anaesthetics team. He was a goddamn professional, and he could certainly act like one. 

Stephen strode into the operating theatre and stopped short upon seeing who it was sitting on the stool at the medicine trolley. 

"MacDowell?" 

The woman raised her head from the chart she was scribbling on. 

Taken aback, Stephen cleared his throat to regain his composure. "I, ah, wasn't expecting you."

"Your friend called in sick today," the replacement anaesthetist replied, dark annoyance in her voice, as dark as the bags under her eyes. "Please don't take forever. I just got off nights."

"It's just a routine cholecystectomy, I can do it in my sleep," Stephen muttered.

MacDowell snorted. "Right."

 


 

The shift could not have ended fast enough. Stephen drove straight to Loki’s apartment complex and before he knew it, he was standing in front of Loki’s door.

“What the hell am I doing here?” Stephen muttered.

What’s the worst thing the jackass can do, kick you out again?

He was here already. He might as well knock on the door.

“Odinson,” he called. “You there?”

After a few minutes of knocking only to receive no answer, Stephen mulled turning back, but his gut feeling was telling him the opposite. Something was not right. 

His gaze fell on the digital door lock. On its own volition, his hand reached up -

This is breaking and entering!

"Semantics. I call it a welfare check," Stephen said to himself loudly. 

Loki's going to kill you!

"Only if he's home," Stephen muttered, and keyed in the access code to Loki's apartment. 

He walked slowly across the living room and past the kitchen. Nothing appeared to have been touched since he was last here. 

Stephen allowed himself some relief. He had no doubt Loki could hold his own in a tussle, but some burglars could really hurt you if they wanted to, especially the desperate ones. 

He found Loki lying down in the bedroom, cocooned in a thin blanket. 

“Hey. Don’t be mad but I, uh, let myself in.”

Loki’s only response was a sullen grunt.

Stephen leaned against the door frame, wondering if he should leave, now that he had ascertained that Loki was still alive. "We've always remained professional. Skipping work, that's not like you."

The lump on the bed did not move.

"Seriously. You're actually giving me the silent treatment?"

"You talk enough for the both of us."

Loki's voice rounded rough but garbled at the same time, like there was too much saliva but too little water. 

"What's going on with you?" As Stephen inched closer, a scent he was all too familiar with wafted over. "Are you sick?” 

“...no.”

“Why didn't you call me?" Stephen demanded. "What are the symptoms? Quickly, and don't lie."

"Stop yelling."

"Symptoms," Stephen growled. "Now."

"Nausea,” Loki mumbled. “Pain.”

"Pain," Stephen echoed. "How bad?"

"Bad," Loki admitted reluctantly, his hand lightly grasping his upper belly. "Worst is here."

“Can I examine you?”

Loki shook his head vehemently. “Hurts more if you touch it.”

"Do you think it's your appendix?" Stephen asked in alarm.

Loki shuddered. "Wrong site."

“When did it start?”

“Last night.” Loki licked lips as dry as sandpaper. “Got worse and worse.”

“Odinson. Did you pick a fight with me because you weren’t feeling well?”

“Don’t flatter yourself.”

“Well, did you?” 

When Loki did not answer, Stephen shook his head and cursed silently. “Unbelievable.”

Something was niggling at the back of Stephen’s brain. “Nausea. Were you sick at all?”

“Some.” A hand poked out from underneath the blanket and waved in the general direction of the space under the bed. “Not much. It mostly hurts.”

Stephen crouched down to pull the makeshift trash bin out and his eyes widened at the sight of what it contained.

“Who are you calling?”

“An ambulance, who do you think?”

“It’s just heartburn, Strange, no need getting your knickers all in a twist.”

“Heartburn, my ass,” Stephen snapped. “This is acute abdomen until proven otherwise.”

Loki finally emerged from his burrow, revealing a face as white as paper in its entirety. “You’re joking.”

Stephen tilted the bin so he could see. “That’s coffee-ground vomitus, you idiot.” 

Loki let out a string of expletives and curled tighter into a ball. “Fuck me.”

 


 

Loki's condition inevitably worsened. His conscious level dropped enroute to hospital, and by the time the ambulance arrived at the emergency room, he was out cold. 

On the bright side, he was spared the wrath of one Doctor Stephen Strange, who would not stop barking orders up and down the hallway, at anyone and everyone. 

No one could work fast enough. 

"Where is that portable X-ray machine?" he ranted. "You, how long does it take for you to get a fucking line in?"

Terrified, the junior doctor could only stammer as he dropped Loki's hand onto the bed like a piece of hot coal. "I can't get one in, I've tried like five times. All his veins have collapsed."

"Move," Stephen ordered, pushing the intern aside and grabbing the largest bore cannula off the tray. He prodded Loki's groin, intent on gaining intravenous access through the femoral vein. 

"BP's crashing. He needs blood. Call the blood bank again, tell them to send up all the O-negs they have."

The junior doctor scurried, all too happy to leave the very tense room.

"You okay there, Doctor Strange?" The ER resident asked sharply from where he was holding an oxygen mask over Loki's face at the head of the bed.

"I would be if your people weren't so incompetent!"

"Because you're breathing down their necks, and it isn't helping," the doctor said simply. "I suggest you get it together, or step outside if you can't."

Stephen's face turned white with anger. "I'm surgical consult."

"I can call in another one," the doctor threatened. "You've thrown people out of your OT for far less."

 


 

Stephen snatched the X-ray film down from the viewing box with a snarl. “Perforated peptic ulcer. We need to go in.”

For all the angry waving Stephen was doing, Loki could clearly see on the film the collection of air under the diaphragm where it definitely did not belong. His diaphragm. 

Boy, was he in a lot of trouble. 

“Who’s the surgeon on-call?” Loki hated how weak his voice sounded, but he had to know. 

“I don’t care who,” Stephen growled. “Still gonna be me.”

“Strange…”

Stephen braced his hands on Loki's tray table and hung his head as he inhaled deeply. “Not gonna hear it, Loki.”

"Stephen," Loki called quietly. He held out a hand. 

Stephen's first instinct was to scoff at the sight of it. They had never been one for public or private displays of affection, but had Stephen not been the first to break the rules, calling Loki by his given name? 

He walked slowly over to the bed and took Loki's cold, cold hand, when a small piece of paper slipped into his palm. 

Stephen almost laughed out loud at his own vanity, but the shard of devastation only sharpened at Loki's next words. 

"My mother," Loki mumbled. "Frigga."

Stephen looked up from the string of numbers he had now committed to memory, his furious eyes demanding an explanation.

Loki’s smile was sad, apologetic. "Didn't I tell you? I'm adopted." 

"And you're telling me now? Why?"

"Just in case," Loki murmured. 

"Don't be ridiculous," Stephen berated. "Nothing's gonna happen to you."

"You forget, Doctor. I've sat in your theatre more times than I can count," Loki chuckled lightly. "All sorts of shit happen in there."

"But all my patients come out alive," Stephen said, trying his hand at being optimistic and failing. 

Loki had never looked more pale. He was bleeding inside and had been bleeding for God knew how long and if only Stephen had gotten to him sooner -

"This is not on you," Loki said. Years of working and months of sleeping together had paid off, for he could now read Stephen like a book. 

Stephen sniffed furiously. "Told you to lay off the coffee." 

Loki's trademark smirk looked washed out against the grey pallor of his face. "When have I ever listened to you, Strange?"

The anaesthetist poked his head into the induction room. "It's time." 

Loki’s eyes grew wide as saucers, his breath quickening. 

“Don’t be afraid,” Stephen said automatically. “I’m here.”

“I’m not afraid,” Loki said numbly. “I am not afraid.”

“Attaboy,” Stephen gave a little cheer. “I’ll try to make it quick.”

“I know.”

“I only take my time when it’s you.”

“I know.” Loki may be smiling a little but his eyes were shiny with unshed tears. “This is it.”

“I’m going to put you to sleep now, okay?” At Loki’s nod of consent, the anaesthetist covered his face with a mask and said in a lulling voice, “Just relax, Loki. Take a breath, as deep as you can.” 

Noticing that Stephen was still standing there, the doctor glanced out of the corner of one eye. "Aren’t you going to scrub in, Doctor Strange?" 

"No, yeah, I'll be there in a sec." 

"You don't have to watch."

I do.

Stephen had never been much of a prayer, but as Loki’s lashes fluttered to a close, he prayed to whichever God was listening.

Please God let this work.

 


 

It was dark outside when the surgery finally finished. 

In all of his career, Stephen never once lingered around longer than was necessary but this time, he could not tear himself away from Loki’s side.

Ignoring the curious looks and gossipy talk, Stephen sat in morose silence in the recovery area, waiting for Loki to regain consciousness. 

He had almost dozed off himself when a sudden voice jolted him awake.  

"You saved my life."

Stephen jumped to his feet. As he pulled the curtains around them for a bit of privacy, his eyes roamed Loki’s face. It was still pale, but no longer marred by the lines of pain, and that was all that mattered. 

"Barely," Stephen said. "It was touch and go for a while."

Loki’s hand, busy with lines and tubings, gently felt the bandage over his abdomen. “Laparotomy?”

“Upper midline,” Stephen explained. “Would have done it laparoscopically but you were an absolute mess inside.”

“You’re not the first to tell me that.”

An awkward silence fell over the cramped confines of the space, the soft beeping from the myriad of monitors breaking the monotony every few seconds.

"Why didn't you tell me you've been having all these symptoms?" Stephen asked quietly.

"That would have required talking, wouldn't it?” Loki’s cracked lips curled in distaste. “I don't like to talk."

"Neither do I," Stephen said. "But I like losing friends to something I can easily fix a lot less, I can assure you."

"Is that what we are,” Loki wondered aloud. “Friends?"

"I don't have very many," Stephen retorted. “You don't like it? Too bad.”

"Whatever you’re thinking, Stephen…” Loki said gently, “It’s not a good idea. Everyone who gets too close, gets hurt.”

Stephen shook his head slowly. “I wasn’t close enough. And that got you hurt.”

Loki averted his eyes. His fingertips toyed with the frayed hem of the flimsy hospital blanket. “So what happens now?”

“You’re going to be here for a couple of weeks, maybe longer, depending on your recovery - ”

“No, that I know,” Loki interrupted. “I mean, what happens to us?”

“It’s your call, Loki.” 

“Can’t be mine alone.”

“When you said we had something good, did you mean it?”

“Every word,” Loki confessed. It could very well be the aftereffects of the drugs pumping in his veins, but that could only work in Loki’s favour; he could say anything he damn well pleased without being held accountable for it. “You’re the one thing I look forward to everyday.”

“Right back at ya, Loki,” Stephen said with a thrill.

And this time when their lips met in a kiss, it was the first real kiss, the kiss both of them dreamed of when they were alone, the kiss they both had yearned for so long, one that would have been given freely had one of them only asked. 

As Loki once said, everything was about timing. And the timing could not have been better.

“So we’re doing this, yeah?” Stephen murmured in between kisses. “Dates, and flowers, and binge-watching silly shows on TV like other couples do?”

“Oh, we’re so doing it.” 

 

THE END.