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What Love Is

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Adora hung her head, keeping her eyes closed. She didn’t need to open them to know where she was. The constant hum of the Fright Zone’s power grid, which had often soothed her to sleep as a child, was now a grim reminder. She had been defeated. Captured. She had failed to protect Bright Moon and her friends.

Glimmer, Bow… Mermista, Seahawk… Perfuma, Frosta, Spinderella and Netossa… Queen Angella…

She’d only caught one last, tear-streaked glimpse of them before blackness had descended. All she remembered was the sight of them rushing toward the runestone, desperate to protect it from the oncoming Horde. A flash of incredible pain — then, nothing.

Her body still carried reminders of the battle she’d lost. The scratches Catra had left between her shoulders stung when she moved. Her arms and legs were bruised, and she’d taken at least one lingering blow to the chest that made it difficult to breathe.

A cracked rib. You’ll live. But the others…

Tears welled in Adora’s eyes, but she squeezed them back. She didn’t deserve to cry. The Horde might be holding her prisoner, but at least she was alive. Her friends might not be. And it was all her fault.

If you’d fought harder… If you hadn’t lost your sword… If you’d convinced Catra to join you instead of pushing her further into evil. If, if, if…

Adora couldn’t hold the tears at bay any longer. She wept ugly, embarrassing sobs of equal parts grief and guilt. They echoed around the prison cell, drifting into nothing. That was what she was. Nothing. She-Ra was nothing without her sword, and Adora was nothing without her friends and the Princess Alliance.

Nothing. All my fault.

She sagged, descending further into hopelessness. There was no way out of this, just like there was no way out of the Fright Zone. Maybe she should have known that from the beginning.

Light Hope had warned her that her attachments would bring about her downfall. Instead, she’d been the one to bring about the downfall of her friends.

***

“Come on, Catra,” Scorpia said, with her usual a big, beaming smile. “You should be happy! Maybe we didn’t conquer Bright Moon this time, but we brought Adora back. That’s a big win, isn’t it?”

Catra flexed her claws, her upper lip curling over her fangs. Logically, Scorpia was right. It was a win. One of their main objectives, in fact. At the same time, it was so painfully frustrating that it didn’t feel like a victory at all.

Adora’s back here in the Fright Zone. Exactly where I don’t want her to be.

“Yeah, I guess,” she said, as drolly as she could. Scorpia was annoyingly perceptive, and she definitely didn’t want the force captain to realize the extent of her inner turmoil.

“You guess? It’s great!” Scorpia said, practically bouncing on her toes. “I bet with enough time, we could get her on our side again. She did grow up here, after all. And imagine how easy it would be to defeat the other princesses and get their runestones with She-Ra fighting for us?”

Catra snarled, slamming her fist against the wall. It sent a painful jolt through her arm, but she ignored it, raking her claws down the metal and leaving deep scores behind. “Adora isn’t one of us anymore. She’s the enemy, and we don’t need her.”

Scoripa’s eyes widened, shining with hurt, and her tail swished nervously behind her. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”

“Just go check on her, okay? Make sure she’s still in there or whatever. But send Entrapta in here first. I need to talk to her.”

“Okay,” Scorpia said, with a note of sympathy in her voice that made Catra’s skin crawl. “But if you wanna share your feelings—”

“Ugh. Will you go already?”

“I’m going. But if you need to talk later, you know where to find me.” Scorpia backed out of the room, giving Catra one last lingering look full of worry.

Catra huffed, clenching her paws into tight fists of frustration. Who does she think she is, acting all buddy-buddy with me? It pissed her off for several reasons — she almost would have preferred it if Scorpia was the ambitious type, a cunning force captain gunning for second-in-command status in competition with her.

But no. Scorpia had to be sweet. It was infuriating. Almost as infuriating as Adora’s presence here.

Catra had actually considered leaving her on the battlefield. Once she’d knocked Adora unconscious, she’d agonized over what to do for a split second. In the end, a curious emotion she still wasn’t able to name had overtaken her. Hollowness, maybe. Letting Adora fall off the edge of the cliff in the First Ones ruin had left her feeling strangely empty inside, and Catra feared killing her would make that void worse.

Furious with herself, she’d seized the only other option: hauling Adora’s prone form back to the nearest skiff before the sparkling girl and the silly boy with the arrows could reach them. Her only consolation was that she wouldn’t be handing Adora over to Shadow Weaver upon their return. She was in control now. No more trying to please her cruel ex-mentor.

“Catra?”

Catra snapped out of her thoughts, turning toward the voice. Entrapta stood in the doorway, twisting the ends of her hair around each other in what appeared to be barely-restrained eagerness.

“What?” Catra growled, hoping the ex-princess hadn’t seen too much. Although she’d asked Scoripa to send Entrapta in, her emotions had gotten the better of her once more. That’s happening too often lately.

If Entrapta noticed Catra’s foul mood, she didn’t let on. “Exciting news! I’ve been performing extensive experimental tests on She-Ra’s sword. Based on my previous encounter with Adora in Dryl, and the most recent set of results, I’ve come to several fascinating conclusions—”

Catra rolled her eyes. “Get to the point.”

“I believe She-Ra’s weapon may in fact be a runestone!”

That was clear enough for Catra to understand. Her eyes widened, then narrowed in thought, and she brought two fingers up to cup her chin. “A runestone…”

It was both good and bad news. Good because runestones were exceptionally powerful, connected to each other in ways even Entrapta didn’t fully understand. That meant, simply by holding onto She-Ra’s sword, they had a connection to all of the elemental princesses on Etheria. Bad because…

Catra suppressed a shudder. She had witnessed the Black Garnet’s effect on Shadow Weaver first-hand. Maybe Shadow Weaver was just a terrible person — that was definitely a strong possibility, supported by a lifetime of anecdotal evidence — but maybe the awful parts of her had been amplified by… whatever creepy stuff that thing could do?

If Adora’s dumb sword is a runestone, could it have changed her, too? Made her dependent on it? Made her leave?

The thought reassured Catra more than it should have. She hadn’t realized how hungry for an explanation she was, any explanation other than that Adora just hadn’t cared enough about her to stick around. It was embarrassing how suddenly and fiercely she longed to believe that Adora might have left because the sword had compelled her.

But it doesn’t matter now. She made her choice, and I’ve made something of myself apart from her.

Only then did Catra realize Entrapta was still rambling. “Yeah,” she said, interrupting the ex-princess mid-sentence. “So, what do we do about it?”

“More tests!” Entrapta said, clearly gleeful at the prospect. “Our experiments with the Black Garnet proved extremely successful, and all my data indicates that She-Ra’s sword is even more powerful.”

Catra nodded. “Okay. Do whatever it is you do, and tell me when you have something useful.”

A huge smile spread across Entrapta’s face. “Wonderful! I believe I can even incorporate some of the things I’ve learned about First Ones tech from examining the sword into some of my new robot designs—”

“Yeah, yeah. Just do it.”

Entrapta made a joyful noise and scurried out of the room, rushing to get back to her work. That left Catra alone. Alone with some very distracting unanswered questions. Her shoulders slumped, and she chewed on her lower lip. There was only one way to get answers, and it wasn’t an appealing prospect.

***

“I can’t believe we lost her,” Glimmer said, for what had to be the hundredth time.

“We haven’t lost her,” Bow repeated, also for the hundredth time. As much as he wanted to boost Glimmer’s spirits, cycling through the same conversation over and over didn’t seem to be getting them anywhere. “The Horde won’t kill Adora right away. I’m sure of it.”

“But what if they do?” Glimmer’s hands flew up to her face, partially covering her mouth. “What if we’re too late—”

“We won’t be too late,” Bow insisted. “We’ll get her back, just as soon as we come up with a plan.”

“Adora’s usually the one who comes up with plans, though…”

Bow’s heart sank. Glimmer had a point. Although he had taken charge a time or two in dire situations, Adora was their de-facto leader. She was always the one with the bright ideas. Always the first to rush into battle, putting herself in harm’s way to protect innocent people.

And look where that got her.

Bow shook himself. He couldn’t descend into hopelessness. Glimmer was already on the edge of doing so, and they wouldn’t be able to help Adora if they both lost themselves to despair. Adora needs us. She needs us at our best.

He received support from an unexpected place. Several figures entered the main hall, looking exhausted: Perfuma, Mermista, Frosta, Seahawk, Spinderella and Netossa. Although they’d changed clothes and tended to their most urgent injuries, the effects of the battle for Bright Moon were visible. They were bruised. Tired. Limping.

“We’re going for Adora, right?” Perfuma said, picking up her stride to reach them beside the long meeting table. Neither she nor the others bothered taking their seats. Bow understood why. The situation felt too urgent.

“Duh,” Mermista said. “Like, I’m so over the Horde taking our friends. And we’ve been to the Fright Zone once before. How much worse can it be this time?”

Bow frowned. He knew exactly how much worse. They’d left Entrapta behind to meet her fate, after all. But he appreciated Mermista’s confidence anyway.

It even put a weak smile on Glimmer’s face. “Really? You’d go back to the Fright Zone, even after what happened last time?”

“Of course!” Seahawk bellowed, placing his fist firmly on his chest. “We would never turn down an adventurous rescue mission. Not for our dear, brave friend Adora.”

As usual, Mermista rolled her eyes and edged away from him.

“You’ll have extra back-up this time,” Netossa said. She put her arm around Spinderella’s shoulder. “We’re in. Frosta too, right?”

Frosta’s icy eyes scanned the assembled party, but after a brief pause, she inclined her head. “She-Ra is a threat to the Horde. The Horde is a threat to us. We need to get her back.”

“All right.” Bow took a deep breath. “If we’re going to save her, we need all the help we can get." He straightened his arm, extending his fist. “For Adora.”

Despite the obvious pain on her face, Glimmer did the same. “For Adora,” she said, touching her fist to Bow’s. One by one, the others followed: Perfuma, Mermista, Seahawk, Frosta, Netossa and Spinderella.

“For Adora!”

***

Hungry. So hungry.

Shadow Weaver hunched on the floor of her cell, dragging broken fingernails over her mask. The gnawing emptiness inside her screamed. It had been ages since she’d felt the blissful rush of power from the Black Garnet. A torturous eternity.

Must… must have more…  so hungry…

With a groan of pain and frustration, she summoned what little strength she could, gaining a brief upper hand in the battle that waged within her. She was able to sit up, although she didn’t dare climb to her feet. Instead, she dragged herself over to a wall, bracing her back against it and panting heavily.

Would I have taken this power, if I’d known being deprived of it would hurt so much?

That was the question that haunted her waking hours. She wasn’t sure how long she’d been in this cell. Days? Weeks? Time blended together. There was only the ravenous beast within her, a beast that needed feeding before it tore her apart from the inside out.

Another wave of agony took hold, causing her to collapse and shudder. Her limbs twitched, and she huddled into a ball, burying her face in her arms. The ache was unbearable. It throbbed within her, calling, calling.

The stone…  Adora… the stone…

She had to have it back. Had to have them back. Had to get out of here, before she truly did go mad.

***

Adora’s dreams are haunted by ghostly faces.

There’s Glimmer a few yards ahead, covered in mud but standing her ground against an oncoming line of Horde robots. There’s Bow, firing arrows uselessly at their hulls, his eyes wide with fear. High above Bright Moon, Queen Angella raises her hands to the flickering runestone above her, desperately trying to keep its shield active.

“Glimmer! Bow! I’m coming!”

She tries to run, but her feet are stuck in the mud. She reaches behind her, but her sword isn’t strapped to her back. She’s frozen. Weaponless. All she can do is scream — but as Catra’s face appears before her, expanding to fill the horizon itself, even her breath is stolen. She can’t make a sound.

Catra laughs, and Adora’s ears ring with the cruel sound.

“When did you get so weak?”

“Huh?!”

Adora woke with a start, jerking up from the hard metal bench in her cell. Her right hand flew to her back, but just like in her dream, her sword was nowhere to be found. It wasn’t just a dream. I failed them.

Echoing footsteps approached, the sound of boot soles slapping on grating. Adora turned toward the noise, figuring it must have woken her. But who was it? For a brief moment, her heart leapt, and some stupid part of her hoped it might be her friends.

It turned out to be Catra. She emerged from the shadows, her tail lashing in a way Adora recognized. If that hadn’t given her irritation away, the sparks in her yellow and blue eyes would have.

Adora waited. Catra didn’t say anything.

“What?” Adora blurted out after several tense seconds, her impatience getting the better of her. “Aren’t you going to ‘Hey Adora’ me or something? Mock me for losing to you? Rub it in my face?”

Catra’s eyes narrowed. “Does that stupid sword communicate with you?”

Adora blinked. That was an unexpected question. She turned on the bench, standing up and stalking toward the electric green field that separated them. “Why do you want to know? If you’re trying to interrogate me, you’re doing a bad job.”

“Just answer the dumb question, Adora. Does the sword tell you to do things? How does it work?”

Adora folded her arms over her chest. She hardened her jaw, looking toward the wall.

“Come on! Okay, since you’re not answering, I’m going to assume yes. Did the sword tell you to leave the Horde?”

“What?” Adora turned back around. “No! I left the Horde because I watched them — watched you — burn a peaceful village to the ground and try to massacre the people there. I couldn’t go back after that.” She hesitated. “It scared me that you could.”

Catra clenched her fists. “You don’t get to judge me anymore, Adora. You’re my prisoner. I beat you.”

Adora didn’t answer.

“Ugh!” Catra threw her arms up in frustration. “This is pointless. But for your information, now that I’m Second in Command here, I’m in charge of you. I decide what happens to you.”

Adora merely snorted. “People in charge don’t usually have to say they’re in charge.”

“People in charge usually don’t get captured and let their “friends” down,” Catra snapped.

That hit a nerve. Adora’s lower lip trembled, and she stared at the floor, locking her eyes on her own boots. She sniffed, fighting back tears. Crying alone in her cell was one thing, but breaking down in front of Catra would be worse.

Not that things can get much worse…

“You’re pathetic,” Catra said. “Nothing like the Adora I used to know.”

Adora kept her gaze down. “I guess that’s one thing we agree on.”

“Forget this. Entrapta will find out what I want to know about the sword without you.”

“Entrapta?” Adora’s head snapped up. She leaned forward, bracing her hands on the buzzing green shield. “She’s alive?” By all accounts, Entrapta hadn’t made it out of the vents. That was what Bow and the others had told her. For the first time since her capture, her heart filled with warmth. “Is she okay?”

“Yeah, no thanks to you,” Catra grumbled. “Guess you’re turning the whole abandonment thing into a habit.”

“Let me talk to her,” Adora urged. “Please.”

“No way. We’re done here.” Catra turned away, giving one final lash of her tail. She took a few steps, then glanced back. She opened her mouth as if to say something, and for the briefest of moments, Adora thought she saw something soft in Catra’s eyes. Something like…

Worry?

Then it was gone, disappearing as swiftly as it had come. Catra whisked away, leaving Adora alone in her cell once more. Alone, but slightly more confident. If Entrapta had survived, maybe that meant her friends in Bright Moon had, too. Catra hadn’t mentioned the city. Surely if Hordak’s forces had conquered it, Catra’s competitive nature would have forced her to bring it up. To gloat over it.

If Bright Moon hasn’t fallen, maybe my friends will come for me after all. Maybe it’s not too late. Until then…

Adora sat back on the bench, bracing her elbows on her knees and resting her chin in her hands. She didn’t have a lot of options, but she needed to come up with some kind of plan. It wasn’t like she lacked time in her current position.