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Arts, Plenties and Joyful Births

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Saturdays at the nursery were generally quieter than weekdays, but today was somewhat different. This was the lead up to the holidays, and even on OB4, where no one culture predominated, the patchwork midwinter festival that went by various names - Christmas, Diwali, Hanukkah, Yule, Saturnalia - was a highlight of the year. Women of all creeds and races joined in. Most were from such a mix of origins that it was of no matter; all the population participated in general festivities. So it followed that Loki and his colleagues had their hands full as mothers took advantage of the special rate offered for girls to spend up to three hours in the Holiday Shopping Crèche. The toddlers’ room was full of squeals as chubby cherubs chased each other around on hobby horse reindeer or squabbled over Santa toys; the older children were mostly engaged in colouring in or making greetings cards for their parents; Loki’s domain on this particular day - the infant section - was rather quieter as he fed the youngest and rocked another with his outstretched foot.

His mind was only partly on what he was doing. He was recalling how he felt on waking earlier that morning, his arms around Hannah, his hand resting on her belly. The baby had kicked against his palm, making his heart swell with love for her.Was this how it had been for fathers in times gone by? Did they love their children so deeply, even before they were born? Was that because, like me, they loved the children’s mothers more than life itself? He had nuzzled Hannah’s neck, making her sigh and stretch and moan with pleasure, and he had wondered if he was worthy of such joy.

The little girl he was feeding had emptied her bottle and was more or less asleep, so Loki stood up carefully and put the child down in an empty cradle. He smiled as he tucked the blanket around her, imagining his own daughter in the cot he had made with his own hands, against the wall he had decorated with such love and care. He could not wait for Hannah to see it; the grand viewinghe had planned was the perfect distraction for tomorrow, an excuse to get her out of the living room and occupied while her friends transformed it for the shower. A plaintive wail broke through his reverie and made him step swiftly across the room to lift up the grizzling little girl before she woke the rest.

Julie watched Loki through the large windows that divided the infant nursery from the lobby. She was at the reception desk, her task today being the taking of details and getting mothers to sign the necessary electronic forms. It had elements of tedium and repetition, but she didn’t mind too much. She loved working there and meeting other parents and their daughters, and everyone was in a jolly mood. These days she spent half her week or more on her Archive work, so the occasional weekend shift at theCentral Nurserymade a pleasant change of pace. A soft bong made her glance at her tablet. Edward was letting her know that all was going well in the preparations for the party. He was busy making canapés and assembling the ingredients ready for her to bake the cake when she got home. Julie smiled to herself and looked over at the God of Mischief again. He appeared less than regal at that moment: a baby had thrown up on him and he was wiping at his sleeve with a cloth, his mouth set in a grim line.

Laughing quietly, Julie turned to check down the list and see who was due to be collected next. As she did, her mind wandered to the conundrum that Loki presented. Who would have imagined that he, who had always seemed to resent the little girls of OB4, would make such an accomplished nursery nurse? And, no doubt, such an excellent father? He seemed as arrogant as he ever had, and yet, there he was, dabbing at baby posset, soothing a grumbling infant, and preparing to welcome his own daughter in a week or so.

Julie was waving goodbye to adorable red-headed twins when Loki materialised beside her.

“All is well, Miss Julie?”

“It seems so, Loki.” She raised her eyebrows.

“The little ones are all asleep for the moment. No further feeds are due before the mothers return.” He leaned an elbow on the counter, eyeing her in that appraising way of his. “Is the food prepared for tomorrow?”

“Mostly. Edward has been hard at it all day. I just have to do the cake later. I might make some cookies, too, when he’s out. He tells me there’s some sort of meeting tonight.”

He frowned before replying. “Yes, so I have heard. I am not sure of the purpose, but I have been asked to attend.”

“Oh really?” Julie was puzzled. The OB4Companions sometimes talked to each other as a group, but generally electronically. This was a departure, uniquely so as far as she was aware. She hadn’t a clue, because Edward had been uncharacteristically evasive. And Loki generally knew everything that was going on, especially if it involved him. A nerve at the back of her neck began to tingle; the baby was nearly due, so maybe…

*******

There are some advantages to being an artificial person, Edward thought to himself as he piped cream cheese and smoked salmon into tiny pastry cases, stirred a batch of vegetable soup for Phoebe’s lunch tomorrow and reviewed the video file Adam had sent him, all simultaneously and without any apparent effort.

  • That looks really good, Adam
  • Convincing, at the start I mean?
  • I’d say so. It should fool him long enough to get caught on the hook, anyway
  • What does the King think?
  • Hasn’t he replied to you yet?
  • No. He acknowledged receipt, but then went quiet
  • Not to worry. I expect something is keeping him busy at home. What with those 2 girls to occupy him
  • Well, I hope it’s OK. Let me know how it goes. I’m going to be on a date
  • Of course. Thanks Adam.
  • De nada. Can’t wait to hear how his lordship takes it.

Edward grinned as the connection terminated. Loki had made few friends, judging by the alacrity with which other Companions jumped on board to offer their assistance. It seems that everyone wanted to see his ego deflated. What they had planned was quite gentle, but nonetheless a reminder to Loki that he was not a god, no matter how he might see it. Edward wasn’t totally happy with Henry’s plan, but he did agree that it would be a good idea to show Loki that he needed to have a rethink, now he was becoming a parent. But for the moment he must get to it; there was more finger food to make and Phoebe would be waking from her nap any minute. Even a Companion can’t be in two places at once!

*********

Henry had not replied to Adam because he was indeed busy, but not at home. He was standing outside the children’s store on Verdi concourse, his eyes closed and his jaw clenched tight. He was trying to recall if he had ever been so abused before. The humiliation, the boredom, the pointlessness of it! How was the Christ Mass marked in my childhood? Not like this, surely, with an orgy of commerce? Snow, frost, roaring fires in chill halls, holly and ivy, feasts and minstrels, that was it. Visitors, diplomacy, politics, learning the art of kingship by watching my father...The sound of Cate’s voice brought him out of his temporary escape.

“Henry, did we get anything for Daisy yet? I can’t remember…”

“We did, my beloved. Some fabric books and a puzzle, I believe. Now, can we return home? I have to leave for-”

“In a mo, love. Just a couple more bits.”

“But Cate-”

It was too late; she had ducked back inside and he was left standing there alone with the multitudinous bags, little more than a glorified packhorse while his wife and daughters continued to browse shelf upon rail of toys and baby clothes. He sighed heavily. The sooner I find a fruitful occupation of my own the better…

*********

Mid-evening, and he was back in the safety of his home, but Loki’s cheeks were still burning. If he closed his eyes he could see only the screens that covered the walls of the room, filled with images of the absent Companions laughing; he could still hear Henry and Oakley. At least Edward, Magnus and Caius had the good manners not to join overtly in with the mocking.

He had been fooled - they prepared the bait, dangled it in front of him and he had been caught, hook, line and sinker. There had been white-hot anger for a fleeting moment, but then he had remembered the very public humiliation he had given to Henry. This was a more subtle prank, less grand guignol… And a joke shared among his fellows only; perhaps their women knew, but not the whole of OB4. He grimaced to think how easy to deceive he had been, how readily he believed what they were telling him. But that was eight years past! How patient Henry had to be... what was that Midgard saying? Revenge is a dish best eaten cold…

“So?” Hannah had been watching him closely from the day bed when he came in. He seemed upset, but calm. Something had happened.

“You are awake my darling?”

“Sharp as a tack, as ever, Loki. Now, what…” The words died in her throat as she saw his expression. She sat up and reached out to him. “Whatever’s wrong, darling?”

Loki’s face had fallen at her sarcastic comment and he looked thoroughly miserable. He didn't want to tell her, he preferred not to share his failures with his beloved, but he knew her too well. She would not rest until she had wheedled it out of him. He shrugged his shoulders. “They tricked me. Yes, me, the Trickster, the God of Lies… They lied, and they made a fool of me.”

Hannah scooted over to make room for him next to her, patting the space. Loki sat down gracefully and reluctantly looked her in the face. His eyes were damp, but her voice was a silken cloth to dry his tears. “What happened, my love?”

*********

It was still early, not yet nine pm, as Oakley skipped along the corridor towards the apartment he shared with Amanda and little Daisy. He was still chuckling to himself as he strode through the door to see his beloved awaiting him, stern-faced, hands on hips. His smile widened - brazening it out was his usual approach when he knew he was in trouble. He swooped in for a kiss but she swerved away. His face fell and he adopted his most innocent expression.

“Something wrong, Mands?”

“What did you do to Loki?”

ME? Nothing. It was all Henry’s show, like I told you before. I was just there to make up the numbers.” Her frown deepened. “Well, I did a bit of messaging, shifting of furniture, you know, portering, that sort of thing… Henry’s the one.”

“Oh yes? Well I’ve just been talking to Hannah. She is upset, because Loki is upset. What did you - plural - do to him?”

Oakley looked around the room, wide-eyed and nonchalant. “Daisy go off alright?”

“Don’t change the subject, Oaks. What. Did. You. Do?”

Oakley couldn’t stop himself from grinning. He shrugged. “We called the first meeting of the android section of the C.E.A.

“Huh?”

“You know, that organisation that wants to give us equal rights.”

“I know what it is, but do you mean to say you’ve joined it?”

“Not really, it was a ploy, a set up to get Loki. It was all Henry’s idea.”

Amanda shook her head. She was struggling with the concept of Henry misbehaving, even though she was sure he still harboured a grudge or two against Loki. “I find it hard to believe you didn't have a hand in it.”

“Oh I made a few suggestions, but honest, it was Henry’s gig, start to finish.”

Cate did say he’d seemed preoccupied lately…“How does that ‘get’ Loki?”

“Ah, well, that’s the clever bit. You know what an ego he’s got. The whole ‘benevolent god’ bollocks, like we should all kowtow and treat him as if he was royal or something? Worse than Henry, even.”

“Oh, Henry’s better these days, Cate won’t let him get away with that now.”

Oakley pulled a face. “He still has his moments. Anyway, old Harry used that against him, I tell you, it was a stroke of brilliance!”

*********

Hannah lay back and pulled Loki gently down so his cheek rested on her bosom. Always ample, it was larger than ever and made a comfortable pillow. Not that he was able to appreciate it at that precise moment. He was still in the mire of self-pity that the mockery had condemned him to. He could not tell her, not yet. Perhaps, when he had taken the time to absorb the lessons of this evening, to assimilate the experience, he could talk to her about it, but not now. For now, he needed to take comfort as his brain re-ran the events of earlier.

 He opened the door to find the meetings room was softly lit and largely empty. Screens on all four walls were dark. He could see a huddle by a table: Henry, Oakley, Magnus, Caius Martius and Edward. He raised a hand in greeting to the others as Henry walked over.

“Prince Loki, so good of you to join us.”

“What is this about, Henry?”

“You are aware of the Campaign for the Emancipation of Androids?” Loki nodded, even more puzzled. “This is the inaugural meeting of the Android Section.” The meeting agenda appeared in Loki’s internal message holder. He skimmed it; it seemed worthy if unremarkable.

Loki smirked. “What, all five of you?”

Oakley stepped forward. “Oh no, there are many more of us than that.” The screens around him lit up and he could see figures: groups of Companions on each, as far as he could tell nearly all the OB4 actives, and Page and Pine, too. “They’re unavailable, but listening in.”

Henry invited him to take a seat at the table. “We cannot expect others to campaign for us without participating ourselves. That would be wrong, not to mention foolish. How can we take an active part in society unless we involve ourselves in such a way? How else do we come to informed positions on political matters? If the campaign is successful, we must ready to take part in public life.”

Loki looked at the others, their faces serious, their eyes fixed on him. “I can see the sense in what you are saying Henry, but what do you want from me? I might be persuaded to join-”

“Ah but Prince Loki, we need a little more from you than that.” Henry stood up from his seat at the head of the table and began to pace back and forth. His face was stern, and he spoke as if measuring his words carefully, pausing at times to search for the precise phrase. He gave every appearance of wishing to get this exactly right. “You are a great leader, Loki. You were born to it, as was I. But you have proven yourself most worthy, by leading your people to safety, by preserving the peace in your realm. It is that level of statesmanship that we Companions need now, at such a turning point.”

Loki felt his chest swell a little; it is true that he had acted heroically when called upon. As Hela attacked, as Surtur burned the Celestial Realm to oblivion, he was there to save the day. And before that, even if not exactly being 100% honest with his subjects, he had been a good king. Asgard had not known such tranquillity nor so much fun in millennia.

“What would such leadership entail? As of now, we have no political status.”

Henry crouched down beside him and rested his hand on Loki’s forearm. Their faces were close and Henry looked into his eyes. Blue on blue, they seemed to be connecting. “But we will, one day soon. That is the direction in which history is taking us, I am sure. And we must have someone who can speak for us all. A representative; a true leader: a spokesperson we all trust.”

Loki glanced around him. All eyes were on him. Oakley and the others were nodding vigorously, the heads on the screens likewise. “I see.” He stood up, nodding. “In that case, of course I accept.”

It started very slowly and subtly. Edward’s expression gave him the first inkling. It was sad, regretful. Then Loki saw something in his peripheral vision, a movement which he recognised as silent laughter: Oakley’s shoulders were quivering with suppressed hysteria. This seemed to become infectious; soon all the Companions were laughing, except Magnus, Caius and Edward, but even they appeared to be stifling smiles. Henry had no such compunction. He threw his head back, arching his back and holding his flat stomach as if in pain. The agenda reloaded... Item 2: Loki’s Lesson… Eventually, after some time during which Loki’s cheeks had flared fiery red with humiliation, Henry got a grip and was able to speak. He fixed Loki with a fierce glare.

“Do you seriously believe that we would ask YOU to represent us, God of Lies?”

Loki said nothing, just stared at the King through tears of shame.

Henry continued: “Of course not. How could we trust one as duplicitous as you? One who did not hesitate to deny and betray his own brother? Even if, one day, there were to be such a section of the CEA, I doubt you would be admitted. Unless, that is…”

“...you change your fucking attitude, mate.” Oakley could not resist adding his two-pennyworth.

Loki was frozen. He had felt this way before, more than once: when Volstagg mocked him at the Bifrost; when Odin dismissed his intervention during the banishment of Thor; in the thousand small indignities he had been subjected to by the Warriors Three and his oaf of a ‘brother’... The cold grip of humiliation, the pain that comes with always being the butt of the joke. But then he saw it, in Edward’s eyes, and from Magnus, too: they were imploring him to learn from this.

He turned away, mustering what he could of his battered dignity. He wanted to say something, but the words would not come. He would have to face some of these men tomorrow at Hannah’s party, and knowing that made him determined to leave immediately. He swept through the door with a modicum of his normal swagger, but it lasted only until he was out of sight.

*********

“Daddy?”

Nell’s voice made Henry look up from his tablet. He had been feigning reading to avoid another of the black looks he had been enduring from Cate since the night before. His eldest daughter had stopped colouring in the card she had made for Hannah and Loki and was regarding her father seriously. “Yes, dearest?”

“What does ‘despicable’ mean?”

Henry tried not to smile. No doubt the princess had overheard her mother speaking to a friend, or perhaps muttering under her breath. “Well, my sweetling, it’s a word I hope you never require. It is used to describe a person, or sometimes an action which is dishonorable.”

Nell frowned, trying to remember if she knew the meaning of ‘dishonorable’. Her face lit up as she recalled a previous conversation. “You mean like what Uncle Loki did to you that time, just before I was born?”

“Yes, Eleanor my clever one, precisely.” The royal smile illuminated the room.

If looks had the power to kill or maim, Henry would have been mortally wounded. As it was, his queen had to satisfy herself with a glare of such iciness her husband checked the thermostat. Huffing audibly, she returned her attention to the green and gold blanket she was finishing. A labour of love, she had been crocheting and then embroidering it for months. She wanted Hannah to have something unique and personal from her, a special gift that would be a permanent reminder of their close friendship and mutual love. The final few stitches were done and she stood up.

“Oh Mummy, that’s so pretty!”

“Thank you, Nell. Do you think Auntie Hannah will like it?”

“Oh yes!”

Nell’s sister Kitty came hurtling in from her room at that moment, her mop of ginger curls in an uproar, a crumpled sheet of paper in her hand. “Daddy! Mummy! Isthisokpleeze?” Her face had a familiar look of defiance on it; the one which told her parents she was challenging them to defy her. Her father smiled to himself: though she be but little, she is fierce...

Cate took the artwork from the paint-stained hand and did her best to smooth it out on the table. In the centre of the painting were recognisably Loki, Hannah and a green blob, no doubt signifying Frigga. There was a Christmas tree at an interesting angle, apparently on the ceiling, and some other figures on one side her mother couldn't identify. “It’s lovely. Who are these people, Kitty love?”

“That’s Auntie Han’s Mummies and Uncle Loki’s Mummies. They’re watching over the baby.”

Cate swallowed the lump in her throat and looked at Henry more kindly this time. He looked as moved as she felt. “That’s so good, darling. But you know that Loki had a Mummy and a Daddy, like you. And a brother.”

“I know.” Arms folded, Kitty frowned at her mother. She waggled a stubby finger. “Uncle Loki told us at Storytime.” She reached for the picture. “I forgotted Thor. I’ll put him in now.”

Cate felt Henry’s hand on her shoulder, his warmth against her back. “She listens, takes it all in, doesn't she?”

“She does, Harry. She might be a tomboy, but there’s a sweetheart’s soul in there. Such a kind thought. Hannah will love it.”

“Loki will too.”

Cate allowed her husband to stand her up so he could take her chair and pull her onto his lap. She frowned at him but nevertheless she draped her arms over his shoulders and tolerated his soft nuzzling on her neck. “You’re not getting round me that easily, Harry.” She sighed as his lips brushed her skin and his whiskery chin grazed her collarbone. “It was cruel, even if he did deserve it a bit.”

“A bit? What we did was mild, a mere pinprick to his monstrously inflated ego. Not to mention measured against what he did to me.” He sucked softly on the sensitive spot where neck becomes shoulder and Cate wriggled deliciously against him.

“That’s as maybe, you still need to apologise.”

Henry broke off from his canoodling to lean back, an outraged expression on his beautiful face. “Apologise?!”

Cate returned his shocked stare with a calm look. “To Hannah. Loki can look after himself. He’ll be fine, but she was seriously upset last night.” Her chastened husband nodded.

“In that case, yes. It was never our intention to distress the Lady Hannah.”

“Right. Now, put me down, Harry darling. I need to finish wrapping the gifts and I promised Julie you’d help them with transporting the food.”

Henry looked into the corner of the room at the giant teddy bear which Nell and Kitty had chosen as their present. “I think I will be required to carry that, though, do you not? I will ask Caius or Jonathan to lend a hand to Edward.”

“Ah yes, I hadn’t thought of that. Good plan. But either way, we must get cracking. The girls need to change into their outfits.” She stood up, picked up the hand-stitched blanket and headed for the door, “And so do you, gorgeous.”

Henry grinned and caught the eye of his eldest daughter. He winked at Nell. She has forgiven me already.

*********

“I know you’ve worked hard on this, Loki, but don't you think dressing up is a tad OTT?” Hannah was sitting on the bed watching him put on his best armour. He was fastening the vambraces as he admired his own reflection. She was wearing a simple long dress in cream and pale green which complemented his formal garb.

“I do not. This is a special occasion, my lady, and I wish to record it for little Frigga to see when she is grown.”

He had her there; as usual these days, he seemed to have thought of everything. Hannah watched him closely, but he gave every appearance of having completely brushed off yesterday’s humiliation. He did not mention it at breakfast, only discussing the ‘grand unveiling’ of his project. And Hannah had encouraged his enthusiasm. It was so much better than his introverted silence of the evening before. “What a lovely thought! This one is so lucky to have such a father.”

Loki’s reflection smiled broadly at her. “Then she is twice blessed, as her mother is not only beautiful but brilliant.”

“Oh shut yer face and come over here and kiss me!”

“With great pleasure, my darling.”

Loki was watching the clock carefully, and monitoring the approach of the party guests. He had to time this just right, to usher Hannah into Frigga’s nursery and keep her busy long enough. After a vigorous snogging session, he helped Hannah to her feet and bowing, he offered his arm. She sniggered but nonetheless took it and allowed him to guide her with great ceremony across the living room to what had once been Cate’s room, later repurposed to be Hannah’s study.

The first surprise was in situ: while she wasn’t looking, Loki had placed a carved wooden motif on the door. It was Frigga’s name through which was intertwined a stylised wolf. “Oh darling, is that Fenrir?”

He nodded, smiling. “He will guard her.” The door opened and he stepped aside to allow her to enter first. The small room was bright; the walls were pale, with just a hint of green. Against the furthest was a golden yellow storage unit with drawers and a cupboard below. He had placed a few baby items on the top, and beside it on the floor was a pretty changing mat. So far, so normal. Hannah was just wondering why he had made such a fuss when, as she turned, her eye was caught by a sinuous shape.

Against the opposite wall, just inside the doorway, stood a handmade applewood cot. It was wonderfully carved, the bars and rails looking like curving branches, the head and foot shaped to resemble the great Tree of Life, Yggdrasil. And on the wall above it, where Frigga’s gaze would rest, was a mural. In the centre was a lifesize image of her grandmother and namesake, with Odin just behind her on one side, Thor by her other shoulder. Next to her was the likeness of Hannah’s two mothers. Each face was perfectly painted, the expressions benevolent. In the background were scenes of Asgard and OB4.

Hannah could not speak; she could barely feel her body. Her chest was full, her face felt numb. She caressed the warm wood of the cot with one hand. With the other, she reached over it to touch the faces of her dead parents. Tears were coursing down her face. Loki was crying too, moved by her reaction. “Do you like it, my darling?”

Hannah nodded. “Mama,” she whispered, “Mummy…” A sob broke from her and Loki wrapped his long arms around her gently, pulling her back against his chest.

“Shhh, my darling, shhhh. I didn’t mean to make you cry-”

“No, it’s lovely, Loki. It’s beautiful and…” She turned in his arms and kissed his mouth softly. “...perfect. You made the cot? You painted this?” He nodded, his chest swelling. A good feeling; a justifiable pride. “Thank you.”

“I wanted her to have her family watch over her.” Hannah nodded. “I want them to be real for her. To be a part of her life. I know you want that too.”

Hannah stroked Loki’s face. He had grown so much, come so far. He had learned from what had happened, from his mistakes. She suspected that Henry’s tease had been aimed at his one remaining true flaw - his arrogance. Was it too deep-seated to change? She thought not. He already appeared chastened by last night’s events. She cupped his face and pulled him to her lips, sucking softly on his when she felt the vibration of his message unit under her fingers. “Is someone talking to you, Loki?”

He smirked against her mouth. “Indeed they are. All is ready.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You’ll see.”

The door, which Hannah did not notice was closed, slid open. He turned her to face it and spoke softly: “Surprise!”

The living room, which a few minutes earlier had been deserted and largely cream and beige, was awash with people and colour. A large banner welcoming Frigga Lokisdottir was draped across one wall, and everywhere there were garlands of green, gold and white paper flowers, balloons and streamers. Against one wall was a table covered with a cream cloth and laden with food, the centrepiece being a two-tiered cake iced in the same colours as were adorning the room. Hannah scanned the faces. It seemed that all her closest friends were there with their families. Cate took her hand and they kissed each other. “We thought you could do with a little pick-me-up, darling.”

Hannah turned to Loki, who was smiling broadly. “Your idea?”

“Oh no, this one is all on them. I just agreed to get you out of the way long enough.”

“Traitor.”

Cate laughed and Hannah felt something being pressed into her hand. She looked down to see Kitty trying to give her a damp sheet of paper. She took the seven-year-old’s other hand. “What is it, Kitty?”

“It’s a picture I did, Auntie.” Hannah took it and saw an approximation of Loki’s mural, if in a somewhat more naive style. She showed him, and he grinned. “Did she know..?” He shook his head. “What a lovely picture, thank you darling! Remind me to show you a picture Loki did, later.”

Once Hannah had greeted everyone properly, been persuaded to sit down and put her feet up (Miriam was most insistent that the party would be terminated immediately if she did not), and Henry and Edward had opened the bottles of bubbly (Prosecco for the grown-ups, apple juice for the children and the mothers-to-be), it was time for gift-giving.

Nell would not be denied. “Us first!” Henry was sent to retrieve the enormous teddy from the kitchen where he had stashed it. Hannah laughed and hugged the girls.

“It might be a while before Frigga is big enough to play with him, but thank you, darlings.”

Nell looked serious for a moment. “We can show her how to play with her toys.”

“No!” Phoebe Knighton didn’t like the sound of that. This baby was her domain.

Julie winced and smiled apologetically. “Come along Phoebe, give Auntie Hannah the baby’s present.” Phoebe looked at Loki for a moment. He smiled encouragingly and she grabbed the parcel and passed it to Hannah. It contained a selection of clothes: several Babygro’s and a lovely dark green dress with a matching hat.

Edward and Julie had an additional gift, which they handed to Hannah and Loki together. Edward smiled awkwardly. “It’s a book of tips, from us. Things we’ve learned, ideas, ways of coping. Inspirational quotations...you know the sort of thing. For those middle-of-the-night moments.”

Loki took Edward’s hand and pulled him close enough for a manly hug. “Thank you, Edward.” He bent down to kiss Julie’s hand. “Such a thoughtful gift, Miss Julie, and so personal.”

Julie blushed as Hannah winked at her. “We’re so glad you like it. We could perhaps add to it, you know, as time goes along…”

Hannah beckoned her closer for a hug. “Thanks so much, Jules. For everything.”

Mary’s little girls had made pictures, too, and their mother’s gift was a selection of tiny t shirts with feminist slogans. Loki was theatrically aghast, and Hannah laughed long and loud. The ‘girl power’ one was her favourite. The Pines had brought two parcels: Miriam had commissioned a set of wooden ‘scientific instruments’ from Sir Thomas: a microscope, a rack of test tubes and a medical ‘kit’, which he had made with such care to detail that they delighted everyone. Jonathan had painted a small canvas with a playroom scene, which would look lovely on the blank wall in the nursery.

Janet’s gift was a little more predictable: Caius had made some delicate jewellery for the baby, a necklace with a green letter ‘F’ in a Nordic style and a sweet silver bangle which could be enlarged as Frigga grew. Daisy had climbed up onto the couch with Hannah and watched with interest as she opened Amanda and Oakley’s package. The women all noticed the way Oakley tried to avoid eye-contact with Loki. The Norse God, however, seemed relaxed and happy. But so far there had been no actual words between him and any of his tormentors, the mild-mannered Edward excepted.

“This one’s just for you, Han,” said Oakley, with a smirk.

“Well, I’d say it was as much for you, Loki, actually.”

“Indeed, Miss Amanda?” He soon saw why. It was a set of extremely glamorous lingerie in dark green silk with black lace. Hannah roared with laughter.

“I thought I’d get you something to remind you you’re still a woman. Because, you know, there’ll be times in the next few months…”

“I know. Thanks, Amanda. Thanks, Oaks.” Hannah kissed them both and she saw that Loki shook the young man’s hand, it seemed warmly. Loki then picked a wriggling Daisy up and sat the little one on his hip. She giggled happily and took the chance to have a proper look around the room before she began pulling at the decorative elements of his armour. Phoebe Knighton watched from her father’s side, her face pale with dismay.

Claire and Freddie had been standing a little way back, behind the others, feeling out of place. Neither was a parent, and Claire was that bit older than everyone else. But now it was her turn. She sat down next to Hannah and handed over a small box. “These are for little Frigga.” Hannah opened it and saw four envelopes. “There’s one each for her fifth, tenth, fifteenth and twentieth birthdays. Just a few words from an old lady, things for her to think about as she grows.”

Hannah wiped away the tears and kissed Claire. She whispered in her ear. “Thank you. You’ve done so much for us already. We might not even, you know...if it wasn't for you.”

“Nonsense. You’d have got there, and I’m just part of a team, anyway.”

Hannah accepted Freddie’s gallant kiss to the hand and saw Loki greet him in a friendly manner. But the trickiest encounter was yet to come. Cate was next.

“So, that ridiculous bear was from the girls, but this is from Henry and me.”

Hannah was overcome when she saw Cate’s handiwork. The delicate blanket bore Frigga’s name and those of her parents, interspersed with runic symbols and Norse motifs. Loki was moved, too. “My lady, this is exquisite! How clever you are! Thank you, thank you both.” He stood up and offered Henry his hand. There was a beat’s pause while their eyes locked, then Henry returned the gesture and they shook firmly. No hug, but that was for Henry’s benefit, Cate thought to herself. Maybe a step too far, at least today.

Gift-giving over, some guests helped themselves to the buffet while Loki showed others what he had done in the nursery. Edward was blown away by the mural - “Could you do something like that for Phoebe, maybe? I had no idea...WOW!” - and everyone who saw it was impressed. Even Kitty, although she said hers was better. Daisy tried to put her sticky fingers on the wall but her father intervened in time. Caius loved the design of the cot - “You should think about doing some jewellery sketches. I could make you something special and beautiful for Hannah’s birthday.” - and he made a mental note to talk to Loki about possible future collaboration.

Miriam made sure that the very-soon-to-be-mother didn’t get overtired and shooed the stragglers out after three hours. She checked Hannah’s blood pressure before she left and gave Loki strict instructions to ensure an early night. After he had bid the doctor and Jonathan goodbye, he sauntered over and stretched himself out next to her. He looked into her face.

“Happy, my beautiful one?”

“Deliriously.” She pecked him on the end of his nose. “Thank you.”

“I told you, not my idea, I was just an accessory before the fact.”

“Well, either way, thanks. It was lovely. And the gifts! I have such kind friends.”

“You do, but it’s no accident. You have lovely, kind, thoughtful friends because you are lovely, kind and thoughtful.”

Hannah eyed him sceptically. “What are you after?”

He sat up, clutching his chest. “You wound me, madam! As if I would pay an empty compliment!”

“Shut it, Lokes.” She was starting to laugh. “Seriously, though, are you going to be ok with Henry and Oakley now?”

He nodded gravely. “I believe I am. I can’t say that I agree with what they did, but...”

“They were right about you?”

He shrugged, a half-smile on his lips. “Up to a point, yes. I do need to accept my position here, the reality of my life. I am about to become a father, and that requires a degree of humility of me.”

“Of us both, Loki.”

“Indeed, my lady.”

**********

A week later it was the morning of Christmas Eve. Across OB4, the excitement was building. Weary adults checked their lists to ensure all was prepared for the festival; mothers explained to credulous small children how Santa could pass safely through the outer walls of the station to deliver their gifts; those with older daughters piled parcels under artificial trees; on the OB4 concourses, in the cafés and bars, the staff restocked, ready for the busy evening to come. This was how it had always been, for as long as any could remember, but this year there was an extra thrill passing around as word spread: a day or two early, a new member of the community had arrived in the night.

In one of the Med Centre postnatal rooms it was comfortably warm and the lights were low. The chief midwife Maggie was keeping watch from the doorway in case her counsel was needed while still allowing the new family to get to know each other. The only sound was gentle snuffling as Frigga Lokisdottir, the first child born into the Odinson family in many centuries, took her first meal. Her father was helping to hold her carefully, his large hands underneath making sure none of her weight pressed on her mother’s fresh wound. He felt as if his heart might burst, it was so full.

Hannah’s voice caused him an extra surge of emotion as she sighed and lifted the baby from her nipple. “I think she’s done, Loki. See?” He looked at his daughter’s pink and crumpled face. Her lids were drooping, almost closed over her green-blue pupils, and her hands, still in little fists, had stopped moving. Maggie nodded and slipped out, closing the door silently behind her.

“Yes. She sleeps, my darling.” He lifted Frigga up and cradled her against his chest, leaning down to place a kiss on her wispy black hair, still damp from her first wash. Tears filled his eyes.

Hannah looked at them both. Two of the most precious, most beautiful creatures she had ever seen; her own family. “Isn’t she perfect, Loki?”

“Naturally. How could she be any different, given the quality of her parents?” He smirked, happy to have regained some control as he walked slowly over to place her in the crib, stepping lightly to avoid the merest jarring, and covered her with her special blanket as gently as he could. But there was no risk of waking her: Frigga was already deeply asleep as her little body absorbed the colostrum her mother had given her and she adjusted to this new, very different environment.

A soft ‘ding’ signalled visitors at the door.  Loki smiled. “I think Cate is here, my darling. Are you up to a visitor - or four?” The door had opened at his command and the whole of the Monmouth family were waiting, smiles on their faces. Nell and Kitty were in front looking fit to burst, but their parents’ hands on their shoulders held them in check. They had been warned that they must be quiet and well-behaved on pain of severe retribution.

“Oh yes, please, come in, Cate, Henry, girls…” Hannah sounded tired but happy.

Cate went straight to her and they embraced. She had brought some sweets and a bottle of Hannah’s favourite cordial. The girls meanwhile looked at Loki with their most pleading expressions; he could never refuse them and so stepped aside so they might look into the crib at the baby. Nell had brought her favourite toy rabbit and she placed it next to Frigga. Kitty was straining to see over the side so Loki lifted her up. Her nose wrinkled. “She looks funny.”

“All newborns look like that, Katherine.” Henry kept his voice low but the scolding tone was unmistakable. He took a stride closer and peered over Nell’s shoulder. “On the contrary, I think she is quite enchanting, Prince Loki, Lady Hannah.”

“Come and see Auntie Hannah now girls. But mind her sore tummy, remember.” Cate got off the bed where she had perched and walked around and her daughters took her place. She gave Henry a long look and he nodded almost imperceptibly.

While his wife cooed over Frigga, the King took Loki’s hand and shook it warmly, his other hand on the Norse demi-god’s shoulder. “`Your daughter is beautiful. Congratulations, Loki.”

The two Companionsregarded each other for a long minute. Their wives watched as they communicated. Then Loki nodded and looked down, obviously moved. Cate grinned and stepped over to take her husband’s arm. “Come on girls,” she said in a low voice, “we must go. Auntie Hannah and Frigga need to rest. Loki, too, probably. We can come back for a longer visit later.”

As they left, Henry saluted Loki, who bowed his head in reply. Hannah, who wanted little more than to close her eyes, murmured as she settled down for a sleep. “All straight between you two now?”

Loki chuckled darkly. “I believe it is, yes. He tells me he has plans for the future and he would welcome my support.”

“That’s good…” She was close to dropping off. Loki stretched himself out on the bed beside her, between her and the crib where their daughter lay. He chuckled when he noticed that Cate had placed a little woollen hat on Frigga’s head. It had a slogan in the stitching: Frigga’s First Yule.