She's just about to leave Hordak's chambers after a long debriefing when he calls her back.
"I have left something for you in your room," he says. "A gift, of sorts, positive reinforcement." He waves a hand in the air. "It can read your heart's desires and grant you a wish. A small one, mind you, it's not a very powerful thing. Resurrections are impossible, of course. If what you ask for is too out of reach, it will simply grant you an illusion. There are some exceptions to that but they don't apply here."
Catra nods, feeling proud of herself for having earned a reward for the first time in her life, and confused, because nothing he says makes any sort of sense to her.
"Go on, then," he says, dismissively, waving her out the door.
She walks back to her room in silence, thinking of what type of gift awaits her. The only person who's ever given her something before is Adora. It'd been a small string bracelet she'd made in secret, brown with a smell like wet dirt. Catra had loved it. She'd outgrown it, eventually, her wrist growing larger, too big for such a small string, but she still kept it in a drawer, under her clothes, hidden from view. A treasure she couldn't part with.
The gift Hordak left for her is nothing like a bracelet. She sees it almost immediately when she walks through the door. On Adora's bed, hovering right over the sheets, is something that shines very softly, like a light that's about to go out.
She walks closer to it, hesitant, and reaches a hand out, touching two careful fingers to the edges of the brightness. Nothing happens at first, the light warm, encircling her hand, but then it starts moving up her arm, over her shoulders, around her head. It's calming, relaxing, and she lets her eyes close, feeling it inside her chest, spreading through her whole body. When she opens them again, the light is back to hovering over the sheets, glowing softly, almost pink.
She tries to touch it again, wanting the warmth back, but instead of trailing up her arm, this time the light trembles for a moment, like it's about to explode, and then there's a sudden *pop*, and Adora falls out of thin air and into her own bed, hair all messed up like she's been inside a whirlwind.
"What the- Glimmer! This thing had me free falling for a good ten minutes!" She looks up, a pout on her lips that Catra has missed like a lost limb, and her eyes widen. "Catra?"
Catra takes a defensive step back. She thinks back to what Hordak said, It can read your heart's desires and grant you a wish. This is unfair, impossible. It's something she's only allowed herself to dream about when it's night, and she's under the safety of the darkness, her thoughts spiraling like unruly dogs, impossible to control. Adora, Adora, Adora, who's out of reach, running around with all her new friends, leaving Catra further and further behind, like a dark stain on her past.
"Ah," Adora says, kneeling on the bed and looking around with wide eyes, "I see," she looks at Catra, that one expression on her face that she always gets when she thinks she's figured something out, "it's not real."
Catra frowns. "What isn't real?"
"None of this is. It's the illusion Glimmer talked about."
Oh, Of course, Catra thinks.
She wonders if this is the light's way of telling her her heart's deepest desires are too big of a wish, that it could only give her a false image of Adora, so pretty, so sweet, but fake. The thing is, she doesn't need to be told, she knows she'll never truly have what she wants, it's too much to ask for, and she's never been allowed to ask for too much. Hordak said it had to be a small wish, but Adora's big, bigger than the whole world, brighter than the sun, making Catra feel so so small but pulling her in all the same, like she's the earth and Catra's the moon orbiting around her.
Of course it isn't real.
"Yeah," she says, shoulders dropping. She sits next to Adora, or this imagined version of her that the light must have replicated from Catra's own thoughts, and runs a hand through her hair, unsure.
"Heart's deepest desire, huh," Adora says with a sad and bitter smile. "Of course it could only be this."
"It's a weakness," Catra says.
"I know it is." Adora places a hand on Catra's thigh, fingers warm through the fabric of her pants. "But it's okay if there's nobody else around to see it, isn't it?"
Catra looks down at her hand, feeling conflicted, and then she grits her teeth and places hers on top of it. "Yes." She turns to face her. "You're an idiot and you left me. I hate you."
Adora squeezes her hand. "You're an idiot too. You hurt me. I hate you."
Catra laces their fingers together and lets her head fall forward onto Adora's shoulder. She turns her face, her nose bumping against Adora's neck, and breathes her in, the sweet woodsy smell that always clings to her in her memories. She drops a kiss on her skin, feeling Adora's pulse against her lips, thump, thump, thump. It almost makes her forget that she's an illusion pulled out of her dreams, sweet and soft, an Adora that lets Catra embrace her without a second thought.
"I've missed you," Adora says, and even though Catra knows she's not real, it still makes her heart skip a beat.
"Yeah," she says. "Me too." And it feels too honest, like gravel on her tongue, scratching its way up her throat. It hurts and feels like relief all at once.
Adora circles her arms around her, a small choked sound escaping her. "This is so messed up," she says, running a hand through Catra's hair. Catra digs her fingers into the back of her jacket, careful not to scratch, and presses her closer.
It really is messed up, and she's starting to think that Hordak's plan for positive reinforcement backfired, because she'd been doing just fine ignoring these feelings, pushing them so far down that they're nothing but a small speck of dust, but now they've all come back to the surface, making her suddenly miss Adora - the real Adora - so desperately that it's almost hard to breathe.
She hears a noise, the door knob turning, and suddenly her arms are empty and the light has slipped back inside a small purple stone. She turns around, her heart in her throat, a feeling of loss so unexpected she has to bite her tongue to stop herself from lashing out at whoever has interrupted her.
"Catra?" Scorpia says, her head peeking out from behind the door. "I was looking for you."
Catra gets up from the bed, combing a finger through her hair, her body tingling all over from the contact with Adora's illusion. "What is it?"
"Entrapta said she needed you for something."
"Okay, I'll be right there."
Scorpia nods and leaves, closing the door back up. Catra stares after her for a moment, making sure she's really gone, and then looks down at the stone, lying silently on the bed, like Adora wasn't there just a moment ago, her arms around Catra.
She picks up the stone, running her thumb over its smooth surface. "Come back," she whispers, but to her disappointment, nothing happens.
She slips it inside her pocket, sighing, and prepares to face whatever Entrapta has in store for her.
Entrapta needs something from the Whispering Woods, a rock of some sort that can conduct energy through a crystal that she's tinkering with. Catra isn't sure what any of it means, but she goes out anyway, if only to get a little bit of air after being cooped up at the horde for a whole week. The paper Entrapta gave her is supposed to have a drawing of the rock, but now that Catra is looking at it she regrets not having checked it before leaving the horde. The drawing is amateur at best, hard to make out and filled with pencil smudges from a hand, or hair, rubbing over the paper. Drawing is clearly not a skill Entrapta possesses.
"How am I supposed to find it now?" she asks herself, looking at the trees and bushes all around her. Maybe she can just take as many rocks as she can, and then if she's lucky, one of them will be the one Entrapta needs.
On a whim, she grabs the purple stone from her pocket, rubbing a finger over it. Nothing happens, which isn't surprising; she's come to expect it after a week of playing around with it, trying to get it to come to light with no luck. "Stupid thing," she mutters. Maybe it's time to give up, she thinks, looking down at the dirt under her feet, a nail taping against the hard surface of the stone. It's been a whole week and nothing has happened again, keeping it around will only serve as a reminder of what she can't have.
"Time to give it up, I guess."
She throws it on the ground and watches as dirt rises from the impact, twirling around her ankles, before falling back down onto the earth. It lies on the ground, unmoving, like any other ordinary stone you might find around the forest, like it didn't bring a false Adora to life out of wisps and pieces of Catra's memories.
She takes a step back, shoulders set, and then takes another, and another, and another. When she finally turns her back to it, she refuses to feel anything but relief, swallowing down the taste of bile rising up her throat. She tells herself it's fine, that it doesn't bother her and she didn't expect more, that she didn't get her hopes up, that she didn't believe, for a second, that she would genuinely get a piece of happiness for herself, even if it was an illusion. It's fine, it's fine, it's fi-
The loud yell startles her out of her thoughts, and she turns around, eyes wide, only to find Adora lying on the dirt, face down.
"What the hell," she whispers to herself.
Adora leans back on her knees, coughing, and starts dusting off her jacket. "Ah, there's dirt on my mouth!" She sticks her tongue out and crosses her eyes, as if trying to see it. It's so endearingly childish that Catra can't help but let out a snicker.
"Hello again, Adora."
Adora's head snaps in her direction, tongue still sticking out. She quickly pulls it back into her mouth, visibly embarrassed. "Catra? What are you doing here?" She crosses her arms.
Catra raises an eyebrow. "The stone, light, whatever, thingy."
Adora frowns, confused, and then a look of understanding falls over her face. "Oh, the wish stone." She uncrosses her arms, relaxing. "I thought it'd stopped working."
"So did I, but here we are."
She rises to her feet, looking around, and Catra takes a step closer to her, unable to stop herself. She touches a hand to her cheek, thumb rubbing up and down.
"Everytime I feel like I might be able to let go, you show up."
Adora places a hand over hers, closing her eyes. "That should be my line." Her lashes brush against Catra's fingers, and it makes her breath catch in her throat. It's ridiculous, that she thought she would be able forget so easily. The reality is that no matter how much time goes by, one thing remains unchanged: Catra is in love with Adora - and it feels like dipping a toe in scalding water and deciding to go in anyway, needing the warmth and ignoring the burns.
"Why the forest?" Adora asks, opening her eyes. She runs a thumb over the back of Catra's hand, and it makes goosebumps rise on her skin.
"I need a rock," she tells her, pulling her hand away and placing it on Adora's waist instead. "I'm not sure what it is."
Adora frowns. "A rock?" She looks around them. "There are plenty of rocks here."
"Yeah, but the one I need is special."
"Something about conducting energy," Catra says, shrugging.
Adora purses her lips, forehead furrowed in thought. "I don't know anything like that."
"Well, that's fine," Catra says, pulling her closer by the hip. She didn't expect her to know, considering this Adora is just a projection of her thoughts. If Catra doesn't know about it, then she can't possibly know about it either.
"What are you doing?" Adora asks, as Catra lifts a hand to her nape.
"I think," Catra says, leaning her head in. "That we should just relax for a bit."
Adora looks down at the small space between their bodies. "I don't know," she says, her voice cracking. "This feels...wrong."
Catra feels her heart drop to the bottom of her stomach. She lets her hand fall away from Adora's neck, taking a step back. "What do you mean, wrong?" she asks, feeling the rejection like a drop of lemon on her tongue, sharp and sour. Even a fake version of Adora doesn't want anything to do with her, it seems.
Adora grabs her wrist, a grimace falling over her face. "What I mean is, this isn't real." She looks at Catra, biting her lip. "Won't it just make it more painful in the long run? The real person doesn't even know about it."
Catra looks away, angry at how true her words ring.
"I get it," she tells her, pulling her wrist out of Adora's hold. "But isn't it alright to indulge in it, for a little bit?"
The thing she wants the most is right in front of her, how could she deny herself the chance to get a little taste of it? Adora will never know, and what she doesn't know, certainly will never hurt her.
"This is torture, you know that?" Adora says, rubbing a hand over her face. There's a wrinkle between her eyes, the one she gets whenever she's about to do something impulsive, something she thinks she really shouldn't be doing. "You're too much." She takes a step forward and grabs Catra's face between her hands. "Going to regret this," she whispers, almost like she's talking to herself, and then she dips her head and kisses Catra, soft at first, and then hot and frantic, almost desperate. Catra circles her arms around her waist on instinct, and tips her chin up, giving Adora easier access to her mouth.
Adora kisses like she's missed her for years, like her whole world starts and ends at the spot where their lips meet. She smells like trees and rainy days, and for Catra's heightened senses it's like overdose, making her dizzy and hot all at once. Her fingers leave hot trails of fire on Catra's neck, down her shoulders, over her spine. All of it, all of Adora, is intoxicating. Bad for her health. Deadly.
It feels like an eternity before they part, Adora resting her forehead against hers, breaths coming out in short gasps. She runs her thumbs over Catra's cheeks, soft and tender, and smiles.
"You're the prettiest, you know that?"
Catra feels her face grow warm, and instead of answering, she leans forward and pulls on Adora's lower lip with her teeth, sinking them in hard enough to break the skin. From Adora's wince, it must sting, so Catra runs her tongue over it to ease the pain. "You're an idiot," she says, kissing her on the corner of the mouth, and then on the center of it, pulling her into another deep kiss. Adora makes a low sound in the back of her throat, almost a moan, and it sends a shiver down Catra's spine, making her dizzy with want.
"Catra," Adora says, between kisses, "why," another kiss, "do you," another one, "taste like," another one, "strawberries?"
Catra pulls away, head hazy, body burning. "What?" she breathes out.
Adora shakes her head. "No, wait, come back." She pulls Catra back into the kiss, like she can't bear to be apart for longer than a few seconds. It makes Catra's heart race, the feeing of being wanted, of being needed by Adora.
They kiss, and kiss, and kiss, bodies pressed together like they're afraid to be broken apart. When they finally pull away from each other, it's because they've run out of air.
Adora's lips are red and shiny, curving into a soft smile, and her pupils are blown so wide the black almost swallows the blue. She's gorgeous, the prettiest thing Catra has ever seen, and it breaks her heart to know that she can't have her. This isn't real, Adora's voice echoes in the back of her head, reminding her that the real Adora wants nothing to do with her, specially now that they have so much bad blood between them.
"I love you," she whispers, knowing she'll never speak those words to the real one. She wouldn't be able to even if they were still back at the horde, waking up in the same bed every day. Catra has never been brave when it comes to Adora, has always felt like she could break with a single word out of her mouth. A weakness. A curse.
Adora's soft smile drops from her face and she hunches up her shoulders, pulling away from Catra. "I love you too," she whispers, her eyes shiny with unshed tears. "I knew this was a terrible idea." She wipes her eyes, a grim look settling on her face. "A mistake. I shouldn't have done this." She takes a step back, lips trembling.
"Wh- wait, what's wrong?" Catra asks, taking a small step forward. "Adora?"
Adora turns towards the sky, eyes squeezed shut. "Bring me back!" she calls out, her voice echoing all around them, loud and shaky. "I want to go back, bring me back!"
"What are you doing?" Catra says, eyes wide, a feeling of dread settling in her stomach. "Stop that!"
"I want to go back! Bring me back, please! I can't do this!" Adora yells. "Bring me back!"
Catra reaches a hand out, her fingers fisting the hem of Adora's jacket, but before she call pull her forward, cover her mouth, make her stop yelling, there's a great flash of light, and she's suddenly holding nothing but air, the space before her empty and cold.
"No," she whispers.
The dull surface of the wish stone stares back at her from the dirt.
She doesn't think it's such a bad idea at first. Sneak into the palace, check up on Adora, get the tight feeling of distress out of her chest that's been suffocating her since she watched the image of her disappear in a flash, and then leave. She knows, logically, that the real Adora is fine, that just because the fake one had this terrible look of heartbreak on her face when she disappeared it doesn't mean the real one will be like that too. But Catra never claimed herself to be a very rational person, and she needs to quiet down the paranoid little voice in her head that's been on repeat for the past two weeks saying 'she's hurt, you hurt her, it's all your fault, you've ruined everything again' .
So no, she doesn't immediately realize how easily things could go wrong when one sneaks into a heavily guarded enemy palace. In her defense though, she does come to her senses pretty soon after she steps foot into Adora's room. It's the middle of the night, and the room is dark but there's enough moonlight coming in through the windows that Catra can make out the large bed in the middle of it. Adora is laying half on top of the sheets, legs curled up to her chest and hands under her cheek. It's a sweet sight, and it leaves a bitter taste in Catra's mouth. How dare her be here, sleeping peacefully in a bed of feathers, when Catra has been agonizing for days, weeks, over her. Perfect Adora, pretty Adora. How unfair.
"I can see you, Catra."
She lets out a startled hiss, jumping back. Adora slowly sits up in bed, hair falling over her face for a moment before she pulls it back into a messy bun and looks at her.
"Why are you here?" she asks, looking tired and sad, and strangely unrattled by Catra's presence in her room. "I thought..." She leans over the side of her bed and checks something under the matress, letting out a soft sound of confusion before leaning back up. "Strange."
Catra hunches her shoulders, scowling. "No reason," she says, looking at the window, thinking of a way to escape without being caught. Adora is watching her, a thoughtful frown on her face, and there's definitely no way she can leap out the window without her seeing her; it also seems considerably high, and she might be able to jump from tall places but not this tall. Not without breaking a bone or two.
"Come sit with me," Adora says, tapping the empty space next to her on the bed.
Catra eyes it suspiciously, making a disgusted face to mask her confusion. "What are you playing at, exactly? I'm not gonna sit next to you."
Adora scratches her neck, looking uncomfortable. "You're being weird. Are you...glitching?" She turns to look at a spot on her blanket, seemingly coming to some kind of realization. "Maybe I overused it?" she whispers, and leans over again, digging her hand under her matress and pulling something out. When she opens her palm, Catra is shocked to see what looks like a mirror image of her wish stone, a flat purple color with smooth edges. "Maybe that's why the stone is still here," Adora is saying, rubbing a hand over her forehead. "Glimmer is gonna kill me if it's broken."
"You have a wish stone too?" Catra asks, feeling her heart race, her body overheating.
"Of course I have it. How else would you be here?" Adora says, looking at Catra like she's being purposefully obtuse. "Except now it's glitching or something, and you're being less...dream-like, I guess."
"Less dream-like," Catra repeats, voice flat. She has the terrible feeling she knows what's going on, something that would explain everything Adora has been saying since she woke up, something that would explain everything that's happened since she got her own stone from Hordak.
"Adora, when did you first use that?"
Adora rubs a thumb over the stone, her face twisting up with regret and pain. "Three weeks ago, give or take a few days." She frowns. "Shouldn't you know that? I thought you were part of it."
And Catra's suspicions are confirmed with a single terrible sentence.
She feels the world tilt sideways for a moment, her breath coming out of her in a rush; because Adora thinks she's an illusion of the stone, she thinks Catra isn't real. That's why she didn't think it strange that Catra would be in her room in the middle of the night, and that's why she thinks the stone is glitching, because - and Catra knows from experience - it always disappears when it works.
Three weeks, she thinks, around the same time she got her own wish stone. There are some exceptions but they don't apply here, Hordak had said. Is this what he meant? Was one of the exceptions two people making similar wishes at the same time with two different wish stones? Could the stones be connected, somehow?
"You're staring," Adora says, a soft look on her face. She's still very much the dream-like Adora from Catra's stone, warm and sweet, looking at Catra like she's the best thing that ever happened to her. Except this is the real Adora, and she's holding a wish stone of her own, and Catra didn't even bring hers along with her.
It's like the fragments of a broken glass coming together, and she can finally see her own cracked reflection and understand what's been happening all along. It was Adora, this whole time; at the horde, in the Whispering woods. It was the real Adora, kissing Catra, saying she loved her, making her feel like she was the center of her universe. It's impossible, frightening, breathtaking, but it's the only possible answer. She feels almost delusional just thinking about it, her head screaming Adora, Adora, Adora, her nails biting into her palms so hard they break skin.
"It was you," Catra whispers, taking a step forward.
She thinks of the last time they met, the way Adora had pulled away and the look of despair on her face, the desperate way she'd cried out to go back. Catra understands it now, she gets why Adora looked so completely devastated - she didn't know Catra was real, she thought she was an illusion, something she couldn't have in real life. But she can have all of Catra if she wants, she'd give her the sun and moon if she could, because it's Adora, and no matter how much Catra denies it to herself, Adora will always be above everything else; hardworking, earnest, and caring Adora, a light in the darkness that Catra reached for so many times she ended up snuffing it out.
"It was you," she says again, almost reverently. She climbs onto the bed, feeling the mattress dip under her weight and push her further in towards Adora. She presses her hands to Adora's shoulders, pushing her back against the bed.
"What are you doing?" Adora asks, eyes wide. She's dropped the stone somewhere on the bed, and her hands come up to grab hold of Catra's forearms, like a lifeline.
Catra tightens her fingers on her shoulders, hard enough that it must bruise, and Adora lets out a gasp, the fingers on Catra's arms spasming. "I hate," Catra says, leaning over her, their faces inches away, "that I can't get you out of my head." She lets the weight of her body fall on Adora, their legs tangling together, chests touching. "This is real, Adora. It's not the stone."
"It's been real from the start. Our stones must be connected, somehow."
Adora opens her mouth, looking like she doesn't believe her, but then she snaps it shut, her eyes falling somewhere over Catra's shoulder. "It's not glitching."
"No, it's not."
"You love me," Adora whispers, eyes wide in disbelief. She trails her hands up Catra's arms and rests them on her neck. "You said...you said you love me."
Catra bites her lip, lowering her head to Adora's collarbone to hide her face from her searching gaze. "I thought you weren't real," she admits, cheeks burning.
"Me too," Adora says, cupping her face with both hands and pulling her up so they're facing each other again. "I love you too. I love you so much." Her voice cracks and her lower lip trembles, as if she's about to cry.
Catra leans forward, eyes squeezed shut, and brushes their lips together. They kiss softly, nothing like their last time, and she can feel all the warmth radiating from Adora's body seeping into hers, filling her up. She places her hand on the small of Adora's back, pulling her up against her, and Adora lets out a soft sound of pleasure, dragging her fingers through Catra's hair and scratching her scalp in a way that makes a small rumble rise deep in her chest.
"Did you just purr?" Adora asks, pulling away. "Haven't heard that in a while."
Catra pulls her back into the kiss with a small grunt, trying to hide her embarrassment. Adora complies easily, smiling against her mouth and biting her lower lip playfully. They keep at it for a while longer, exchanging small and light kisses, indulging in each other's embrace, letting the warmth surround them. Whenever they break apart, Adora stares at her like she can't believe she's there, and if she's being honest, Catra can't believe she's there either, her arms around Adora, feeling the soft brush of her lashes against her cheeks when they kiss.
"Why did you come today?" Adora asks, later, when they're softly lying together, Catra's head resting on her chest. She cards her fingers through Catra's hair, the way she always did back at the horde, and it makes a warm and fuzzy feeling settle in her stomach.
"I wanted to," she stops, choking on the words, unable to admit she'd been worried about Adora, specially when it seemed like such an irrational worry, back before she found out it was the real Adora in the woods. "I just wanted to see you, it feels stupid now."
"It's not stupid. I wanted to see you too. I always want to see you."
Catra rubs her cheek against Adora's chest, feeling almost too happy. "We really messed things up, huh?"
Adora lets out a soft laugh and runs a hand over her tail, sending sparks of pleasure up her spine. "We did," she says. "But nothing here is beyond fixing unless you don't want to fix it."
Catra raises her head, meeting her eyes. "I...I want," She bites her lip, looking away.
"You," she says, feeling her ears flatten against her head. "I want you."
Adora smiles, a beautiful bright smile that Catra hasn't seen in so long she'd almost forgotten what it looked like. "You have me. You've had me since the day we met, Catra." She plants a soft kiss on Catra's cheek, the soft flesh of her lips warm against her skin.
"And...you have me," Catra tells her.
And maybe, despite everything between them - the fights, the horde, and all the things Catra can't bring herself to admit yet - this is enough. For now, it is enough.