The smell of stone and chalk and ritual herbs fades around her, the still air of the teleportation chamber coming alive with a breeze that carries on it the scent of trees and grasses and the fragrance of flowers so achingly familiar that, for a moment, it stops the breath in Quil's throat.
Phi's hand is still solid in hers, and Terry's grasping firmly to her other, and she squeezes them both as she fills her lungs with the perfumed air and opens her eyes.
The sun is slightly lower here, its light filtering dappled through the leaves overhead but at a shallower angle. Quil laughs a little, a shocked burst of sound that startles a nearby sparrow from its bush, to realize where she's brought them. Not the front step of Phi and Terry's cottage, like she'd meant, not the cleared space before it with the flower gardens she can smell on the breeze, but the flat stone a short walk into the woods, where she'd sat so many times with Terry, with Allan, with the much-abused quilt wrapped around her shoulders and her heart in her throat, her fear and desperation welling up in her like flood waters.
Terry's hand tightens around hers briefly, and she glances at him and finds his gaze on hers, warm and knowing, and whatever it is that he's remembering of this place, it makes him smile, makes his whole face glow like a fire as he seeks her gaze and holds it, and Quil feels warmed, feels the weight of all the pain and fear of those weeks recede until she can breathe past it, until she can smile back at him, and even mean it.
Phi, when Quil glances at her, is warm too, has her gaze on Quil too, though she doesn't know the significance of this place in particular.
"I Sent to you from here, most times," Quil says softly, and Phi's face brightens with a fragment of understanding.
It's almost easy, with the two of them there, smiling at her, standing close and holding onto her, to remember the warmth of Terry pressing against her side, rocking his shoulder against hers, offering her a hug, to remember the giddy, ebullient relief of making Sending work on purpose, and hearing Phi's voice as though she were standing right there beside her, like she is now, to recall gladness and joy instead of desperation, and to smile with them at the memories.
She steps down off the stone, and they keep hold of her hands like they're steadying her, though her footing is sure. But when she turns back to face both of them, both of them smiling at her, both of them here, she's glad for their strength. She takes a series of deep, fortifying breaths, but even so her voice wobbles when she says, very softly, "It wasn't supposed to go like this."
Phi and Terry exchange a glance, and trade smiles, and it's Phi who says, gently, "Are you surprised they've come to love you?"
Quil's brow creases with consternation. Phi sees it, of course she does, and her gaze drops to where Quil's tail flicks from side to side without her meaning it to do so, and it makes her warm, bright expression cloud with sadness. Quil sucks in a breath and wishes she could take it back, anything to keep Phi from looking like that, like her heart is quietly breaking and she can't understand why.
"Are you?" Terry echoes her, tinged with bewilderment.
Quil swallows and doesn't answer, because she won't lie and he won't like the truth.
His expression shifts, transforming from bewilderment to incredulity. "You are ind, and god, and you try so hard. Why wouldn't they love you? You're the best monarch this country has seen on its throne in living memory."
"That's not a reason," Qul says faintly, because anyone would seem an improvement when Seath was the standard they were held to, wouldn't they? "That's not a good enough reason. It was supposed to be Gari." And then, more plaintive than she means to be, she adds, "I was supposed to be done."
Terry's expression transforms again, softening with sympathy, but Phi's hardens. "You are," she says, firm, unyielding, and shifts her hand in Quil's to thread their fingers together. "For a year, you are. You've earned that much, at least."
Quil laughs a little, a little desperately. A year. It feels impossible, a fantasy. How is she supposed to leave the work behind for a year? How could she hope to? She's hardly felt as though she could leave it behind for a minute, since the moment she stepped through the teleportation circle and Gari told Seath's magisters that their king was dead.
"You've earned it," Terry echoes Phi, and releases Quil's hand to curve his around her shoulder and turn her about, to face away from the stone amongst the trees, to face toward the cottage, half-glimpsed through the veil of leaves. "You've earned your rest."
There's a protest poised on the tip of her tongue, because that's not what this is, that's not what it's meant to be. But Phi, Phi who understands her better than she thinks she deserves, sometimes, speaks before she's able, and says, "You've work to do here, besides. Work that needs you."
It's near enough to the point that she was going to make herself, but when Phi makes it, it makes her frown. "Five minutes' work a day," she says. "A bit of magic. It's nothing."
"You've earned it," Terry repeats, firm, and they guide her together through the trees, to the cottage and its twin flower patches, grown a little bit dense and wild without her or Iain there to tend them.
"And it's work that needs you," Phi adds. "There's no one else who can cast the spell. Allan can't do it, not yet." Her voice warms with a smile, and Quil wants to wrap herself in it like their quilt. "There's no one else we'd trust with our home for a year, besides."
Quil shakes their hands off gently at the clearing's edge, and they fall back, knowing. She can feel the weight of their attention on her, the warmth of it, as she steps forward and crouches to draw the sigil sequence they'd decided on in the earth, runes for safety and peace and home, a talisman of hope to preserve what it is, what it has been to them all, even as they open it up to those who would come to visit their new-elected leader.
Her magic seeps into the ground, following the shape she traces, and glows there a moment in her mind's eye before sinking down like water into parched earth. She lays out stones to mark the edges of it, to ensure that she'll be able to cast it in the same place again and again, for the year to come. And then she stands from her crouch, and dusts her hands clean, and smiles at them both, and they take it for the invitation she means it to be and come to her, stepping carefully around the runes and the stones.
They fold her in their arms, Phi's chin hooked over her shoulder, Terry's face turned in against her throat, and she holds onto them in turn, and they all three stand there together, leaning in against one another, and Quil thinks that they're breathing just as deeply and carefully as she is.
"Welcome home," she whispers to them, when she's found her voice again, one hand slipping deep into the cool weight of Phi's hair, the other pressing over Terry's where he's laid it against her waist.
Phi laughs a little, soft and wondering, and Terry presses careful fingers to the side of Quil's jaw and turns her face towards him, kisses her gently and draws back just enough to speak, his lips grazing hers as he murmurs and echoing, "Welcome home."
It makes tears prickle in her eyes, makes her breath stutter through her lungs again. She's lived longer in the palace than the few weeks she spent here in the woods with Terry and Phi's siblings, even not counting the years she spent trapped there as Seath's ward, and she's grown more comfortable in it in the years since. But even with Phi and Terry there with her, even with the endless cycle of Phi's siblings coming and going, for business or to visit or at her request, to offer their counsel, it's never felt like home, not the way their cottage does, with its memory of warmth and care and welcome, of half a dozen people pressed knee-to-knee as they ate together and joked together and filled it so full of love -- for each other, for Phi, for her -- that it seemed a marvel that it didn't light the air up like a fire's glow, as bright and sustaining as the sun.
"Do you want to go inside?" Terry asks her, and she does, she thought she did, but she finds herself shaking her head, to her own quiet surprise.
"Not just yet," she says, and she wraps her arms around each of them, so they'll know she doesn't want them to go far, and draws them with her to the cottage's front steps, draws them down until they sit with her, pressed close so that they'll all fit.
The woods are deep and dense before them, shadowed and whispering as the breeze sifts through the boughs of the trees, and it sounds like they're sighing an echo, "Welcome home, welcome home, welcome, welcome, welcome."
She gropes blindly for their hands, isn't surprised at all when they slip into hers like they knew what she wanted before she even registered the thought, or like they wanted the same. She tips her head over, leans it on Phi's shoulder and breathes in the smell of the woods and their home, and both of them, smelling like leather and soap and the faint, lingering traces of the herbs that she'd used to bring them home. Let's just sit here a minute."
They murmur assent, and lean in beside her, and across the clearing a few wild bees hum as they flit between the flowers she planted with Iain, and Quil smiles and frees one of her hands from theirs to wipe away the tears that well in her eyes.
Terry turns his face towards hers and presses a lingering kiss to her cheek, and then stays there, his brow pressed to her temple, his breath warm on her skin. He lifts a hand and wipes away one of the tears that cling to her lashes. "Aren't you happy?" he asks her, softly, worried like he thinks she could be here, be here with them, and be anything but.
"I am," she assures him. "I am, I don't have room for so much happiness inside me."
Phi hums, a little glad, a little not, and tightens her hand on Quil's. "We have a year to get you used to it. To this much, and more."
A year. It feels like a minute, and a lifetime. It feels like a gift either way.
She smiles, and she feels brilliant with it, feels incandescent. She soaks in the warmth of them beside her and the peace of the woods around them, and she breathes, and for the first time since the votes were calculated and Allan looked up at her from his tabulations, his expression twisted with chagrin and bemusement and an entirely unsurprised sort of fondness, and she somehow knew, before he even spoke a word, for the first time since then, since her heart plummeted down into the pit of her stomach and she saw the long years of work she thought she'd nearly finished spooling out before her once more, she feels like it's more than just possible. She feels like it's true.
She's going to be happy. She has a year, and the both of them beside her beyond that, and she's happy, and she's going to be. How could she be anything else?