Almost six months after Seath was defeated, Eleum Loyce sends them a message. It's a peremptory, brusque summons, Sent to Kithri when she's staying at Fairpoint Hold, and when she passes it on, mouth tight in the middle of a quiet evening, Quil's stomach twists. Phi, next to her, may as well be a stone statue all of a sudden. Valira, across the table, makes a sharp motion like she's reaching for the staff that she doesn't keep next to her anymore.
“We'll go now,” says Quil, already half out of her seat and ready to get her equipment.
Phi finally moves, just enough to put her hand on Quil's arm. “He said morning will do well enough. We should all rest first, if it's not urgent. You still have a Teleport scroll?” Quil nods. “Then we'll be fine.”
Terry, who's been watching them all, breaks his silence. “I'll go with you, if I may. You might need an extra blade, if there's trouble. There's no need to do it alone.”
Quil turns to him, startled. Even now, with half a year between them and the worst of it, it's easy to think of everything as just the four of them—sometimes with help, of course, but when something goes wrong, Phi, Valira, and Kithri are the three she turns to. Terry is right, though, that they aren't alone. Any of Phi's brothers would come with them, and even Ewhoza, though he still sometimes stumbles through sword drills like he's not used to having limbs. Cordelia and the others might not be ready for it, but they're not low on help.
“Too many strangers might anger him,” Phi says after some consideration, “but one shouldn't hurt, and I'd be glad to have you there.” They exchange a warm look, one that speaks so much of comfort and support that it warms Quil in turn just looking at it.
Kithri shifts. “I've told him we're coming in the morning. We should sleep.”
“I don't think any of us will be able to sleep,” says Valira, wry. “But maybe we should try.”
None of them moves from the table for another half hour, even though worry has killed the conversation and none of them can sit still. Valira is the first to leave, and Kithri not long behind her, leaving Quil with Phi and Terry.
“It could be nothing,” she offers, as a cold kind of comfort.
“We'll all feel better when we know one way or the other, anyway.” Phi presses her shoulder for a moment, fleeting but a relief. “I'm still not going to be able to sleep.”
“Me neither,” Quil admits.
Terry stands. “I would say, then, that that calls for another drink.”
It's Terry's arrival that reminds her that things are much better now than they were then, reminds her that if something has gone wrong, they know more about what to do about it now. He comes dressed for a shift of guard duty, looking grim but not panicked, and he's the first to dredge up a smile. He turns it on her first. “You're the one with the scroll, I assume? I haven't traveled by Teleport before, so I hope it isn't too rough.”
“It shouldn't be.” Quil shakes off her moment of fear and looks around at them. She doesn't have to ask if they're ready to get nods in return. The first time she cast the scroll, there were better odds of failure than of success, and some of that nervousness remains while she uses the scroll.
She thinks she hears Terry gasp as the spell works, and a moment later she's blinking her vision clear in the courtyard of Skyreach Castle.
Eleum Loyce is waiting for them, and he seems unhurt and unworried, and some of Quil's worry dissipates.
Kithri's worry, it seems, is replaced by anger, because she stalks forward ahead of the rest of them, scowl on her face. “You couldn't have told us what you wanted us for last night?”
He's easy to offend, but today, there seems to be some peace in him, and that's enough to let Quil relax a little more. Phi seems to have that idea as well, and Terry takes his cue from her, both of their hands leaving their weapons. Valira is still clutching her staff, but she's tilting her head, looking puzzled. “I've brought you here to reward you for the service you have done me and my brethren,” he says grandly, and moves his tail aside to reveal Ava with two kittens. “She cannot care for both, and is willing to part with one only to you.”
Within a second, Valira's staff is on the ground and she's approaching, murmuring the familiar words to Speak with Animals as she does and throwing a question over her shoulder. “How did this even happen when she was underwater for centuries?”
“It seems,” says Eleum Loyce, disapproving but still fond, “that she found companionship while hunting demons.”
Phi is introducing Terry to Eleum Loyce, putting a hand on Kithri's shoulder to calm her when she seems inclined to give more of a piece of her mind, but Quil finds herself trailing behind Valira. There was a stray cat she used to feed in the alley behind her mother's shop, long ago, and she hasn't spent much time with cats since, but with Valira already stepping forward to make friends, she want to join in.
Valira makes a few soothing noises, reminding Ava who she is and asking if she can speak to the kittens, probably.
“Which one are we meant to take?” Quil asks, and after a few more murmured words, Valira nods at the smaller kitten, which is still larger than any adult cat Quil has known. “Can I introduce myself?”
Valira gestures her over, and Quil offers her hand for the kitten to sniff. It obliges her, and when she tries petting it, it allows her. Ava still sounds happy, the tenor of her rumbles and purrs as she and Valira converse quietly not changing, so Quil devotes herself to meeting the kitten, and only turns around to face the others when she realizes it's nearly silent behind them.
When she looks over her shoulder, Kithri is shaking her head, the anger replaced by her more usual exasperation. Phi and Terry are both smiling as Valira seems to have a serious conversation about kitten care with Ava and Quil pets the kitten as it butts its head against her. “Valira?” she asks, since Valira is the obvious person to take care of it if they're going to take it.
Valira shakes her head and puts her hands up in a warding gesture, though she's laughing. It's strange to start a morning off with so much terror and now find herself here with Valira laughing. “I have a whole farm full of sheep to check in on, and I shudder to think what would happen adding an ice tiger to the equation.”
“Don't look at me,” says Kithri. “It would eat Torrinn first chance it got.”
“I can't imagine what everyone at the hold will say,” says Phi, and Quil's heart sinks a little before Phi smiles. “But maybe Mrs. Whiskers won't mind.”
Terry just laughs. “I can think of nothing more fitting, and if people object, it's just another reason for us to build a house of our own sooner rather than later.”
There's something there that catches her attention, the way he smiles or maybe the way he assumes so easily that if Quil and Phi want the cat it's going to be in his household. She might think of it more, but Valira interrupts, with her face so straight she must be trying not to laugh. “Her name,” she says, “is Render of the Flesh of Gods and Traitors.”
“In your honor,” Eleum Loyce rumbles above them. Quil can't be sure, but she thinks he's laughing at them.
Render of the Flesh of Gods and Traitors, who seems to be more fur than teeth and who is breathing her cold breath against Quil's leg while she butts at it, expecting attention, makes a demanding noise.
After a moment, Phi kneels next to Quil, offering her hand for the kitten to sniff. “I suppose our lives are strange enough as it is,” she says quietly, and Quil laughs.
Lanra, of course, is the first one to stop calling the kitten by her proper name and start calling her Killer, and within an hour no one is calling her anything else. Well, Kithri refers to her at least half the time as “that damned cat,” but that's because she does give chase to Torrinn when he hovers too close to investigate her.
“We should introduce her to Mrs. Whiskers sooner rather than later,” Terry says when the furor dies down a little. Kithri is passing her flask around, and Valira seems to be having a cheerful argument about something with Iain, but Quil is nearby, and Phi is, as well as Killer, so he must just mean them.
They manage to escape without many people noticing, and Quil scoops Killer up to carry her through the unfamiliar halls even though she's bigger than a full-grown cat already. Her fur is cool and soft, and she's a little ball of frost against the warmth of Quil's chest, where she's used to feeling fire. She thinks she likes the difference.
Mrs. Whiskers, on the other hand, is dubious. First she mistrusts the huge stranger in her territory, and then when she realizes it's a kitten she's not sure if she should be feeling protective or annoyed. Killer, for her part, seems both delighted to have someone besides Valira to speak sense to and confused about why she's so small.
Within a few minutes, Mrs. Whiskers has decided that Killer isn't well-groomed enough, and Quil looks up from smiling foolishly at them to find Phi and Terry doing the same. “I'm afraid I wished her on you,” she says, far too late for it to be a real apology.
“We had every chance to say no,” says Phi, though Quil isn't sure of that. “But you wanted her, and I want her too. Even if we'll have to stoke the fire in winter.”
Now that the kitten is occupied, Quil has to make herself look at Phi and Terry, who are watching her, waiting for whatever it is that she has to say. “You mentioned keeping her in a new house, if people objected to having her here.”
“You know we'd never take her from you,” says Terry.
It means something a little different from the usual plans all of them make. They've talked before about houses next to each other, right next to Iain and Kal, about Valira building a home a short walk away, in the woods, for when she's not on the coast, and guest rooms in all those homes for Kithri, when she comes. This sounds like something else.
“I know,” says Quil, because she may not be sure where this is going, but she's sure of that.
“They're friends,” she says sternly, feeling foolish and wishing Valira were there to translate. Killer looks at her, so she keeps trying. “Friends. Don't freeze them, don't bite them.”
Quil sighs and decides that's the best she's going to get.
To her surprise, Killer is quiet while Quil checks the hive, making sure the supplies of honey are growing before winter comes. She won't take honey for herself, this first winter, not when her nearly-wild bees are still getting used to having a hive of their own, but she thinks there will be plenty for them, and they buzz around her and even Killer happily. Killer, for her part, puts her nose up against the entrance to the hive but only has to be scolded once about making things too cold before she seems to get control over her chill.
When the hive is checked and Quil is away from it a little, she sits down and lets Killer climb in her lap. She's already heavy, and if she gets as big as her mother, they're going to be hard pressed to keep her fed. Quil wraps her arms around her and feels the vibration of her purring. “I'm glad you listened to me. I think we'll get along well.”
Star, not in the midst of reuniting with any of her relatives and with her usual unconcern for being polite, is the one to notice Killer first. “Where did that come from?” she asks, cutting in over the conversations.
“We told you about Eleum Loyce and Ava the ice tiger, didn't we?” Quil asks, mostly asking the question of Cordelia, who still hasn't heard about the hardest parts of her journey but who at least knows that story. Cordelia nods, and so do the rest of the girls, with varying speeds. “It seems she was pregnant, and they decided to give us the cub.”
“Quil and Phi and I have been taking care of her mostly,” Terry offers, looking up from chatting with Wynne to give her a warm smile. “She's very friendly, if you want to meet her.”
Of course they all do. Wynne trips over herself to get there with an over-the-shoulder apology to Terry, and the others all come behind her, instantly shifting their attention. Even Star, usually given to standing around looking impatient during her visits to Fairpoint Hold when she isn't following Phi around, gives up on anything resembling dignity in order to drop to her knees next to Killer and scratch her on the chin.
Quil keeps an eye on things, hoping Killer doesn't decide to live up to her name, but Phi is close enough to pull her off if anything goes wrong, so when she notices that Cordelia hasn't gone with her friends, she isn't surprised to turn and find her watching Quil, a small smile on her face. “What?” she asks, suddenly self-conscious.
“Nothing. Just … the three of you are taking care of her, you said?”
Quil isn't sure how to interpret the look on her face, and hates it. When she doesn't know how to read Cordelia it reminds her too much of the years Cordelia spent burdened down with her soul, and even though Cordelia is much freer with laughs and words these days, sometimes there's a gap that's simply a function of all the time they spent apart. “Yes,” she says, a safe if not an elaborate answer.
Cordelia's expression resolves into a smile, and a wicked one at that. “I'm glad you aren't lonely. With the kitten, and with them. I know Valira and Kithri are gone often, and I know you feel bad about Mother when you and I are both gone now, but … I'm glad you have them.”
There are many things she could say to that, denials or acceptances or a hundred things in between, or even a return of sisterly teasing, since she's heard quite enough of Trilli's lyrics on their visits to have some suspicions. Quil looks over at Killer while she decides which response to make, and finds her butting her head against Wynne's chin while triumphantly sitting on her chest, and Star somewhere between laughter and trying to save Wynne, Trilli in the middle of a gesture as she sits nearby, Tesni with a hand covering her laugh. Standing over them are Phi and Terry, both of them smiling, and Phi looks up in time to catch Quil's look. She smiles even as she quirks an eyebrow in a question, wondering if something's wrong. Quil smiles and shakes her head. “I'm glad too.”
At first, she only comes when invited or at least when she's knocked, knowing how much Phi values the privacy that none of them got on the road, but it's only a few weeks before Terry greets her knock with arms akimbo and an exasperated expression. “You can just come in, you know, as long as you stay in the common room. Then Killer won't be torn about where she wants to be.”
“Killer doesn't have much sense of privacy,” she says, stepping out of the hall. “You two do.”
When she gets into the room, Phi has her feet up and Mrs. Whiskers and Killer are play-fighting in a corner. Killer is growing fast enough that Quil worries she's going to have to build a very large cottage very quickly, and the lashing of her tail seems likely to knock over the rack the fire poker is on before ten minutes have passed. “If either of us ever needs space, we'll tell you,” Phi promises. “But we want you around.”
“And if the two of you need space together and I come barging into your rooms?”
“You and Killer rarely come by at night unless you're staying. We can have sex then, if that's what you're asking,” says Phi, straight-faced, though the way Terry walks over to her in order to elbow her proves that she was teasing at least a little.
Quil knows she must be blushing, but she forges on anyway. “I just don't want you to feel like I'm assuming.”
They exchange a look. “You can assume a little,” says Terry.
Quil considers that, and the fact that they very rarely join her in her room, always giving her space without asking, knowing how much she valued her solitude in those lonely years. “You can too,” she offers, and turns her attention to the cats.
She finds she likes all her sister's companions and makes sure she writes to tell her mother so again, now that she knows them better. She likes Trilli, even if there was a very mortifying ballad at one of their early encounters, and likes how much Trilli likes Cordelia. She likes Wynne, all breathless enthusiasm and clumsiness, and Tesni, grave and thoughtful and working her way systematically through Fairpoint Hold's growing library whenever she comes to visit.
She even likes Star, who for all her prickliness is protective of her friends and clearly admires Phi, if not the rest of them, but she doesn't quite know what to say to her when she finds herself alone with Star and Killer in the kitchen one afternoon when she's chopping meat for Killer's dinner.
Star, though, seems to have some idea of what to say, or at least she says it abruptly after a long silence that seems to involve her trying to get Killer to ice over a bowl of water. “Trilli is writing another ballad. Just so you can prepare yourself.”
“Another one? The first one seemed ...” Quil searches for the right word. “Comprehensive.”
“She says it needs a follow-up.” Star wrinkles her nose. “Love ballad, I suppose. Someone should probably tell Phi and Terry too.”
Phi's brothers would no doubt find a performance of such a ballad entertaining beyond the telling of it, and Quil winces at the thought. “That's … kind of her, I suppose. But it's not true.” And if Cordelia's been telling tales, or even Valira, she'll have words with both.
“Well,” says Star. “That will be very awkward for you, then, won't it?”
Star is very carefully not looking at her, choosing to let Killer gently maul her arm instead, but Quil stares at her for a few seconds anyway. If it were anyone else, Quil would suspect her of being a romantic and hoping for it to be true, and the thought of Star caring about Quil and Phi's happiness is both a baffling and warming one. “Perhaps it's best if I warn Phi and Terry rather than anyone else,” she offers at last, and only gets a sharp nod before the awkward silence descends again. “Thank you,” she adds after a while, and gets such a horrified look for it that she has to laugh.
The weather is getting colder, which seems to suit Killer wonderfully, but Quil keeps herself wrapped in coats and cloaks and doesn't pay attention to the teasing she gets, especially since Allan agrees that the cold weather is always a misery. Last year, she was on a boat to the Boreal Valley during the coldest part of the year, and she doesn't relish the thought of winter again, when she'll be mostly without her bees so they can stay safe in their hive and no doubt shiver her way through the days in the stone halls of Fairpoint Hold.
One afternoon in Phi and Terry's rooms, she complains about it after sending Killer over to chill someone else's lap, and they exchange a thoughtful look before turning to her.
“Let me get something,” says Terry, and within a second he's standing and rummaging through some papers looking for something.
Quil turns to Phi, since he seems to have made a point of absenting himself from the conversation, at least for a moment. “Is this something I should worry about?”
“No.” Phi frowns and tilts her head, considering. “Or I hope not, at this point.”
Terry comes up with a few papers from the stack and brings them over to Quil, letting her spread them in her lap. She recognizes Phi's handwriting and the lines of her art, but bent to a different purpose than usual. This time, instead of a sketch of flowers or friends or Killer, there's a house laid out in front of her. A kitchen, a common room, a study, and three bedrooms, all neatly labeled. One for Phi and Terry, one for Kithri, and one for Quil, with a door into Phi and Terry's.
“All the doors should be big enough that Killer won't have trouble even when she's her full size,” says Phi. “I made sure of that, made note of Ava's size and assumed she won't be much larger.”
“When are you thinking of building?”
“Spring,” says Terry. “If you're amenable. And if you'd like to come with us.”
She taps the door between their rooms. “We talked about moving to the village, but not about being in the same house. It's not because of Killer, is it?”
“It started long before Killer,” says Phi, who knows just how long it's been. Nothing would have begun on the road, not when Phi missed Terry so much and Quil knew it, but she thinks sometimes of the two of them falling through a rift together, and how in the terrified night afterward, when Kithri and Valira were both gone from them and Quil was aching with fresh loss, they set up their bedrolls closer than usual. “If you don't want the room, you can have your own house. If you don't want the door, it's easy enough to remove that from the plans.”
“And either way,” Terry says, “you have the winter to decide. We don't expect anything today. But we want you to know that we're planning for you, if that's something you want.”
They've gone a long time without talking about it. They were healing, and she and Terry were learning each other, wary with the very different ways they knew Phi but willing to make the effort, and since then, it's all been easy and unspoken, but acknowledged nonetheless. It's in the way Cordelia smiles and asks quiet questions, and the way Valira laughs as she excuses herself for evening walks that Ewhoza as often as not tags along on, and even in the way Kithri sighs at them as she dishes up her latest pie. They haven't needed to talk about it.
Maybe it's finally time to, but Quil's courage deserts her enough that she fixes her gaze on Killer, pawing at Phi's leg, instead of on either of them. “I'm honored to be included in your plans,” she says, the best beginning she can make. “And I'd like to be in your home. Our home. Killer and I might get lonely on our own.” She looks back at the plans in her lap, at the wide doorways and thick walls to keep them all warm even when Killer is grown and could very well freeze them all if she lost control. “And I'd like … I'd like the door. I like you both very much.”
“We care for you very much too,” Phi assures her, instant and steady, and Quil finally looks up at them. Both of them are smiling, showing nothing but pure happiness that they're finally ready to talk about it.
“I'm so glad I got to know you,” Terry chimes in. “Phi wrote about all of you, of course, but she wrote enough about you that I knew I wanted to meet you.”
“I knew I'd like you too, if we got to meet.” Sometimes, especially on the boat on the way to the Boreal Valley, Phi would tell stories about Terry like they were bedtime stories, like she needed the comfort of a reminder of home when she was so far from it. By the time they reached their destination, Quil was half in love with him from the warmth and strength of Phi's love alone. “I don't know how to go about any of this, but I want to figure it out.”
“We've got plenty of time.” Phi makes a gesture, and after a moment Quil realizes it's to an empty seat next to her, an invitation. “For now, maybe you'd like to tell us if there's anything you'd like to have in the house when we build it. I know you'll care about the garden, for the bees, but is there anything else?”
Quil picks up the plans and goes to sit next to her, with Terry hanging over their shoulders behind, all of them looking at the picture of the house they'll hopefully be living in by the end of next summer, if all goes well and quickly. Killer, pleased that they're all conveniently together, sprawls out over Quil's feet, half on Phi's as well, and Quil lets herself lean into Phi for the warmth.
The three of them spend the whole cold winter afternoon making plans for spring, with Killer reminding them of the season but so affectionate Quil can't say she minds, especially with Phi and Terry keeping her warm, teasing her about not being able to take the cold like one of her bees and piling her with furs.
Before they leave to go down to dinner, reluctant to break up the peace of their afternoon but wanting the sustenance, each of them kisses her quickly, once each, like a reward long-awaited.
Killer is cold, winding around her legs, but she feels so warm that it doesn't matter it all.