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“How do you even manage to reach back here?”

Carnival doesn’t even turn back to look at her, but her pinion feathers fan out in what Rachel’s pretty sure is annoyance. At the question or at Rachel’s tone of disgust, she’s not sure. Given Carnival’s volatile temper it could be either.

“Practice,” Carnival says at length. Silence. Then: “Creativity.” She spits the words out like a malediction, vindictive and almost proud.

Rachel makes a noise through her nose and gets back to work.

They’re holed up in one of the empty houses left over from the great exodus away from Deepgate. Big battles do tend to scare people off, Rachel supposes. Caravans are still creeping off towards the road, but they’re transporting the villagers from further away—those who wouldn’t have to look out the window and see the empty abyss where a city used to perch.

Either way it’s convenient for them—Dill’s been in a panic, in no state to go anywhere. Rachel can’t very well leave him when he’s her responsibility, and why Carnival’s still sticking around is anyone’s guess. Camaraderie, maybe.

Dill himself is asleep in the windowsill, though Rachel guesses that won’t last for long. He tends towards naps rather than long hours of rest, lately; Iril must be stalking his dreams.

But there’s no excuse to not take advantage of the moments he is napping. So.

It amazes Rachel that there are any patches of skin on Carnival’s body that remain untouched by blades, but. There are always places that are hard to get to no matter how you contort yourself. Rachel had thought herself used to the scrambling graffiti of knife marks, white and brown and dull red, but the few stripes of scar across these otherwise unmarred patches of soft girl-skin are shocking.

Carnival is a kid. Still. Leech, wraith, soul-thief, ancient, yes; but a child also, under the tally marks of the lives she’s taken. Not much older than Dill, where it counts. Certainly not much older than the foolish girl Rachel had been, ten years ago, stupid enough to join the Spine. Rachel feels like she’s accidentally peeled off the layer of scars to find the ghosts of three-thousand-year-old bruises.

“Are you just going to stare like an asshole or are you going to fucking finish up back there,” Carnival growls, shrugging her wings and flexing the muscles down her back.

“Maybe if you would stop fidgeting so much,” says Rachel, and the pangs of regret start before Carnival tenses. She needs to remember, now that they’re out of the city of Deep, not to fall into old ruts. Carnival isn’t the killer here, Rachel is. Carnival isn’t the adult here, that’s Rachel too. “No, I’m sorry, I’ll finish up quick. I’m not good with buttons, is all.”

The ropy muscle under Rachel’s hands doesn’t untense, but Carnival isn’t growling yet, so Rachel goes back to fiddling with needle and thread. They’ve fought for long enough that Rachel knows not to expect violence from Carnival unless the angel is hungry or threatened. She’s neither right now. The worst she might get is maybe a slap from a wing or being bathed with invective, if she fumbles the needle and sticks Carnival in the back.

The two things Rachel had discovered about this house when the three of them had claimed it as temporary base of operations were that its previous owners had left in a hurry, and that they had been relatively well off. The leftover clothes and belongings are fine, soft, sturdy, free of patches—and for all that there were long struts of absence along the beams and poles in the closets, there had been plenty of them left behind.

This is convenient for a number of reasons. Primary among them is that she and Carnival and Dill had all been so covered in grime and gore when they’d clawed their way up out of the abyss and dealt with Devon that there was no saving everything they’d been wearing. Deepgate falling means that all their possessions that they hadn’t carried with them in the disastrous trip down into Deep are lost. Rachel has salvaged her weapons and most of her armor, but the raiment of war does not a wardrobe make.

As for Carnival, her clothes had been centuries old, threadbare, and mostly patches anyway. There is plenty in this house that’s her size, so all that’s left to do is alter the shirts so that there’s room for her wings and an easy way to get in and out of them.

(She doesn’t think Dill ever noticed her having seen his puzzlement over the various fastenings of his uniform. She’ll put the trial and error from her current stitchery to work for him, too, when he wakes up and is lucid enough.)

Carnival’s hair gets in the way sometimes, but Rachel flicks it away and keeps working without telling her to move the stuff. Washed, it is a shiny blue-black, falls in thick loose curls, and soft to the touch.

Rachel may just be enjoying the feel of something soft against her hands. She’s gone for too long without holding much other than weapons and Dill’s bony wrists.

It’s not like she’s going to admit that to Carnival out loud.

“I’m only saying so because I’m curious,” she says instead, “but why don’t you ever put this stuff up? It’s been a long time since I’ve worn my hair as long as you, but I remember it getting in the way when I was a kid climbing trees if I didn’t braid it out of my face.”

This does make Carnival turn around, the rope burn along her neck pulling and straining with the motion. Rachel can’t see the set of her mouth—Carnival’s had her face in her hands, and the hard arch of her fingers still rests along her jaw—but her eyes are half-lidded in an absolutely withering expression.

They’re deep, deep gray-blue—the color of a clear night when it’s almost moondark—but not killing-intent black. A month ago Rachel would not have been able to make the fine distinction.

People have been so very wrong about this girl in so many ways.

Gold glints at Carnival’s temples. It’s not the first thing she did upon their commandeering the house (swear about the light and find a dark room to sleep in) or the second (take a bath and wash grime and blood off her skin and hair, pausing only to curl up knee to armpit and swear herself blue when Rachel and Dill opened the door). But once Rachel had started to explore after getting Dill settled, she’d paused in a doorway to find Carnival perched on a bed like a little bird, picking through a jewelry box filled with clips and pins and combs.

Gold, brass, and enamel; colored glass and flawed jewels. Leaves and hummingbirds, tiny gem-encrusted bees, berries. Flowers.

Rachel’s seen Carnival with ribbons in her hair before—awkwardly tied, looking like they’d got caught there during one of the fights with Spine that tear up (tore up) entire rows of buildings. Flowers, too, but usually ones that were already half-dried.

“You’re like a crow with those,” Rachel says, pointing at the pins Carnival has at her temples. She could observe out loud that they must be easier to handle for someone clumsy with such things, but she knows by now which of these things would actually wound Carnival’s pride.

Carnival lets her hands slide away from her face, twists her waist. Her head is cocked to the side, she’s squinting, and the bridge of her nose is scrunched up so that the scars across it are drawn tight.

“What does that even fucking mean,” she says.

“It means turn back around or we’re going to be here for another half hour because you’re pulling the stitches out of this buttonhole that’s almost done,” says Rachel back.

Carnival rolls her eyes and huffs. She does not quite flounce back to her previous position, but the lines of her wings are tense like she wants to mantle.

You are absolutely still sixteen, is what Rachel wants to say. She doesn’t. Atop the list of argument-inducing questions she doesn’t want to answer is why that thought makes her want to cry as much as laugh.