Actions

Work Header

A Kingdom With No Royalty (or, The War Is Over, Go Home)

Chapter Text

//

TRYING THE SAME THING TWICE

//

They went for the prisons first. Adora felt it was a predictable move, assuming Catra knew they were launching a stealth initiative, but it was still the most reliable way in. For one thing Adora wanted to spring everyone in it out, give them a chance to get out of the Fright Zone since the... power shift. And for another, it wasn't as though the likes of Kyle were smart enough to beef the prison security intelligently after one break in. They'd just add grills to the sewers, or add more people -- which only meant having to steal some uniforms. The oldest, most reliable trick in the book. The uniforms were scratchy, as both Glimmer and Bow complained, but they did the job. Nobody had caught on to them yet.

The Fright Zone itself had not changed that much. The sky was still an angry red -- strange how she thought of it that way now; it was the only sky she knew for sixteen years -- and everything still smelled like smoke and metal. The thunk of her boots on metal plating still felt right. As the Best Friend Squad marched, it was easy to remember how everything used to be. Thunka-thunka-thunka -- she used to know how many people were coming after her and Catra, just by the sound of everyone's regulation boots.

"Guh," she said, running into Bow's back, knocked out of her reverie.

"Adora!" Glimmer whined behind her. "We need to stay in formation!"

Right. A straight line. They were already in the prison, and just needed to get to the cell blocks. The corridor they'd been walking down finally opened up into the main block -- into nothingness. The lights were dim in the central hub. The thrum of electricity that went through every building was a distant thing, stopping at the corridor.

"The cell block is completely deactivated," Adora said. "Maybe they're using other blocks?"

"We could hack into their system and find out."

"It's not the same as First Ones tech, Glimmer," Bow said. Adora wanted nothing more than to bury her head in her hands. Getting to the other sectors of the Fright Zone would be harder. They should have tried to conduct an aerial survey to check. Given the change in power, it was possible that they'd cut power to less important areas and pumped it elsewhere... but why keep the prisons empty? Unless Catra had decided to do away with prisoners and just... dispose of dissent wholesale.

"Oh boy," a voice behind them said. "That's five bucks, Catra told you it would be the Best Friend Squad."

The trio turned to face Scorpia and Lonnie.

"Damn! I thought for sure they'd bring all the princesses!"

Before Adora could even say "it's a trap!" someone had blasted them with a sticky gob that left her swordless, the sword retracting into the darkness. Glimmer counteracted with a blast of light which barely fazed Scorpia -- the blast of magic fizzled around her, revealing a force field. With a bang and a blinding light, the same force field surrounded the squad.

"I guess that means Catra's taking the entire pot!" A third voice joined the fray from behind: Entrapta. "She guessed the date, the time, the method, the place..."

"Guessed? Excuse you, I don't guess. I learned how to hy-po-the-sis."

"Hypothesize," Entrapta corrected, but without much strength.

From several floors up, Catra jumped down, landing with barely a sound. She circled around the force field, winking as Bow and Glimmer exhausted their magic and arrows. Glimmer tried several times to teleport, but a zap of red would always jolt her out of her magic. She was shouting too, but everything seemed distant -- all Adora could think was: she's really alive.

And really in charge.

Catra's voice cut through the screaming, cut through the yelling, cut through all the noise like she was the only one in the room: "Kiddo, please, you come in my kingdom, knock out my guards, assault my advisors, and have the gall to be mad at me."

Catra looked straight at Adora then. "Is this princess etiquette, huh? You know all that stuff now, right?"

Adora didn't say "Let us out," she might once have. She didn't say anything, having learned her mouth was the least useful thing about her.

"Oh wow, you're quiet," Catra said. "That's new."

"We did say she got less talky as the war went on," Scorpia said.

"Yeah, you did say that."

Adora catches herself before she says "give me back my sword." Catra would do no such thing. But she says something more obvious instead: "You're alive."

Duh," Catra says. "And I don't have the fancy cape, but I pretty much run this place."

"Oh yeah, Queen of the Prison Cell, huh," Bow says, his arms at the ready to take an arrow and seize whatever chance they'd get.

"Could someone shut the twunk up, please?"

"Um," Entrapta says, "That's a forcefield, it wouldn't be a good one if we put a hole and let some sleeping gas in for the BFF Squad."

Catra groaned. "Why did I let you decide how to restrain them..."

"Because you said we don't want to hurt them," Entrapta replied promptly, loud enough for everyone to hear.

"That was a rhetorical question," Catra said, but the damage had been done.

"You knew we were coming here," Adora said. Again, stating the obvious, but she needed some way to get Catra's attention.

"Next time, get a one-way forcefield, okay? They're in the armory, you know," Catra said, choosing to chastise Entrapta. "They're how all our prison cells literally work. You know, how we actually get food to the prisoners while they can't get out?"

"Horde tech can be so... barbaric sometimes, okay?"

"Oh no, barbaric tech. Still works. Like fire, right?"

"Are we going to keep arguing or... do something about the prisoners?"

That was Lonnie. Scorpia seemed content to have Catra and Entrapta bicker all day.

"Okay, we move the forcefield along till we hit the back of a cell. For now."

The forcefield started to move, a half-sphere propelling itself towards a ground floor cell. Bow and Glimmer, still somehow yelling against everything, tried to put their weight against the moving wall of the forcefield. Adora came quietly, thinking only: Catra's alive. Really alive.

And:

Catra doesn't want to hurt us.

//

//

//

Military victories stopped feeling good a long time ago to Catra. But winning in bets was somewhat more entertaining, even if the money just went back to the 'government' -- cuz she won most of the time.

"Is it like, a telepathic bond?"

Entrapta again, with the social/human experiments and data gathering.

"No," Catra said. "We just grew up together."

"But she should have known that the jail would be better fortified."

"The Horde wasn't exactly a shining beacon of intelligence before I took over," Catra muttered, thinking (rather unkindly) of Kyle. She thought of herself when she started out, asking Entrapta about every little thing. "What does that mean? What does this mean?" And yet... she'd crawled her way here: a former battle room now being used as a rec room for whatever shock troop was lucky enough to book it for their Purges and Princesses campaigns. In this case, however, they were using it to celebrate another round of bets about the next moves of the Princess Alliance.

Entrapta's robot was computing everyone's winnings and tossing a spray of confetti into the ventilated air for even the tiniest winning won. Kyle, who had guessed that the Trio would knock out the guards, had also won a credit or two. Catra, at the head of the long table, her half-cape slung around the chair, watched and occasionally clapped as needed. She tried not to be too droll about it.

"Everything good?" Scorpia asked.

"Yes," Catra said, because while Adora hadn't learned princess etiquette, Catra had learned how to talk to people. Even people like Scorpia, who had no concept of personal space.

The loud cheering, drowning out the hum of the lights and air conditioning, almost seemed to echo. This was not a place for loud noises; it was contained and the air vents were too filthy, trapping everything inside and mucking up her nose. One day, she thought to herself, staring at the table that hadn't been powered on to show a military simulation in a year, someday, she'd put windows in this place. Or someone after her would. Or maybe it wouldn't work, since the Fright Zone was dark and scary and no light would ever shine onto it. She didn't know.

"Boss!" Entrapta screeched, barely giving Catra enough time to look out and jump away from an onslaught of water. Entrapta’s stupid super soaker. "You're down and broody again!"

Two years ago Catra would have been angry, would have hissed, would have sulked out. But then, a lot of things had changed. "I'm tired! I'm going to sleep."

//

GET WITH THE PROGRAM

//

The next day, Catra had Kyle put on a transmission to all kingdoms:

(1) That they had requested to be left alone in the Fright Zone and that they had abandoned all military campaigns, only to be stealthily attacked by the Princess Alliance and She-Ra.

(2) That She-Ra and her friends were unharmed in a prison cell and that the terms of ransom for Bright Moon Citizens would be so many tonnes of seedlings, to be delivered by land to the Horde.

(3) That the neutral ground for the exchange would be the Whispering Woods, closer to the Horde side.

(4) That they had 24 hours to accept the Horde's very generous terms and one week to prepare.

The week turned out to be unnecessary. As with the last time a princess was captured, Angella agreed within the day and by evening Perfuma's kingdom was delivering seeds to Bright Moon. It would take about two days to march to the halfway point for Bright Moon.

"Do you trust them?" Scorpia asked, at a meeting of all Force Captains and advisors.

"No. They'll have a lot of backup. We have the princess and She-Ra, she's totally going to be on her guard. Plus, we only asked for seeds. They will be suspicious we didn't ask for more."

Rogelio, who almost never said anything, grumbled. "Why is being nice so hard?!"

"We're not being nice, we're being strategic," Catra countered. "And that's not easy. I'm guessing Number Six has figured out a way to Bright Moon by now with his battalion. They will deliver data to the Princess Alliance about us and insist on continuing the war. We need to prepare for that eventuality."

"With seedlings."

"With a food source that doesn't have to be pillaged constantly from neighboring villages."

"Ohhhhh."

Catra didn't usually pace, especially not in front of a crowd, but these days, she did. "How many battalions were you thinking, Scorpia?"

"One. And a tank company."

"Okay. We can expect retaliation when they learn how to read the terms tomorrow. Are the BFFs in stasis?"

Entrapta: "Kind of overkill to freeze them, but yeah."

"We do NOT want them waking up in the middle of the ransom."

"Yes, yes!"

//

//

//

On the morning of the ransom, the horde parked the tanks well out of sight, some distance away from the neutral clearing in the Whispering Woods. On one end was Queen Angella, and on the other side was Scorpia and an armored carrier. From within the horde tech headquarters, Entrapta controlled green drones parked atop the forest trees. "Feed is... clear," she said, testing their visuals, her eyes shining bright against the light of the terminal. They had four angles with which to watch the exchange. Experimental and lightly armored, the drones were easy to destroy; even easier to lose were the relays that carried the signal from the Whispering Woods to the Fright Zone. Regardless of how the woods would eventually destroy the signal, they needed the feed, so the experiment continued, to Entrapta's glee.

Catra, from another mobile/terminal she carried on her person, crackled a "great job." Uninterested in the whole affair, she instead walked by Adora's cell. Most of the prison remained dark but for the lights embedded on the floor and walls leading up to the prison's only occupant. Inside her cell, Adora seethed, which was pretty much how things had always been between them since the war.

"What have you --"

"Done with my friends," Catra finished. "They're getting ransomed. You're staying here."

"What! Angella would never agree to..."

"To leaving you? Apparently no one knows how to read or listen. Or whatever. You see, the terms were for Bright Moon citizens. You're... a Horde soldier by birth and I believe that as a Princess, She-Ra would have her own kingdom or domain or whatever, and is technically not a Bright Moon citizen. You can't be the citizen of a peer, a princess, being one yourself."

Adora banged on the wall. She was still so easy to rile up. "They..."

"Won't agree to it once they realize my deception," Catra said, again finishing all the words for Adora. "There's nothing deceptive about it, they didn't ask any questions and they just don't know how to read. There's a difference. Not that you'd be smart enough to know that. We have a tank company and a battalion that will provide a deterrent to immediate violence. They will take what they can get and likely will regroup first before considering another move; if they try something dirty with the seeds they're sending to us we can recover from that. But it's risky to start a fight with us while Glimmer and Bow are knocked out. They will only wake up 24 hours after today." Catra dropped the dry, disaffected tone. She needed Adora to understand what made her a prisoner of the Horde.

"When I assumed power in the Horde, about half the force captains insisted on a trial by battle. This was, of course, a plan to try to dethrone me ASAP and maybe try to salvage Hordak from the scrap heap I dumped his cybernetic body in. He's been recycled, by the way, and you'll have to take my word that I wanted him as dead as you never wanted to admit to yourself. Anyway, the older force captains proposed that the leader should be the winner of their tournament. I disagreed, since, y'know, I did all the work in getting rid of him AND Shadow Weaver. So I told them they could surrender and pledge loyalty to me or they could leave."

"Half left," Adora said.

"As I said, yeah. Mostly Force Captains 6 to 10. I did this because there was a possibility some of them would simply take their soldiers and build a village close to Bright Moon. They're not all bloodthirsty. So there was no reason not to give them that chance."

At Adora's face, Catra snorted.

"What?"

"Your face looks dumb," Catra said. "Like you're thinking how to put things together and nothing's coming up."

"It's true that Hordak's gone?"

"Everyone who ever gave me a hard time is gone," Catra said. She didn't say it to gloat. It was the truth. "I told you when you left: that we'd be in charge of things one day. Well, I'm in charge of things now."

"I never thought that you'd... be disloyal."

"To Hordak? A cruel, creepy skeleton of a person that constantly upped the things I had to do to 'prove my competence and loyalty' to him? To Shadow Weaver? Who hated me? Did you think I wanted to stay in the Horde, growing up, when I wasn't the perfect soldier? I wanted to leave. But even just thinking that made me feel disloyal... to you. So I stayed."

Catra let that sink into Adora for a beat, then continued. "About the Force Captains, the fight-y ones are likely to try to convince Angella that I'm some cruel despot that tortured you and your friends and is keeping you in pain and agony. They're going to try to break our 'stalemate' and convince the Princess Alliance to start fighting again."

"You should have returned me to them!"

"Their pitch would have been exactly the same thing. Sure, your being a prisoner can be used against the Horde, but if I had passed you back, they would have sold you the same pitch. I mean, sorry Adora, but I kinda see you falling for it. A sword started talking to you and you totally went off believing you had some destiny."

Adora had nothing to say to that.

"Now, I have you, and I've told you everything that's happened in the Horde. You know what is at stake. At least I hope you get it. You're going to say that you're not being tortured, and that you are willing to stay in the Horde as our ward and surety that we will not be invaded by the Princess Alliance. That will give us enough leverage to keep the peace in Etheria."

"No," Adora said.

Catra's ears had stayed straight the whole time she had been speaking. It did not twitch now. "I can't have She-Ra on anyone's side, threatening what fragile peace the Horde has now. You're a weapon. Whenever someone sees you on their side they're emboldened to do things, to try to manipulate you for their end. With you in the Horde, I obviously can't use She-Ra, and neither can the Alliance. With you in the Alliance, who knows whose story you'll believe."

"You make it sound like I can't think for myself!"

"The Horde proved it was evil so many times when we were children and you never saw it. You have the perception of an ... I don't know! A blind elephant. If those things really did exist. Cruelty isn't just in war with grand gestures of destruction. It's in how Shadow Weaver raised us."

That had gone on for much more than Catra intended. She got back on track. "I cannot have She-Ra on any side, but I can have Adora in the Horde, where we know she'll never use the Sword. If you refuse my terms, we'll kill you and make sure no She-Ra is born again, either by hacking the core of Etheria or by destroying the sword. Either way. You have a week to decide. The choice is yours."

"And," Catra added, as she pushed a button on her portable console. "We're obviously moving you so that nobody can try to rescue you."

Adora couldn't get a word in as sleep gas flooded the cell.

//

//

//

TBC

 

AN:

Catra is 20 in this story, Adora is a little younger at 19.

Wrote this in about two hours, so I hope it's still okay.

Chapter Text

IN THE DARK

 

Catra's last punch was a long, wound up affair. She slung her shoulder back, bent her right arm. The punching bag swung towards her as she rammed it with everything she could give.

 

The punching bag did nothing more than absorb the force with its mass, and stop. With a snarl, Catra's claws swiped through the material until the stuffing came out.

 

The rest of the training hall was just as clawed up. Training dummies everywhere were decapitated, weapons were everywhere; she’d pick one up, swing it around, toss it until the whole floor was littered with staves or batons. Catra was sure the clean up crew would whisper, would talk. She knew she should have cared more about the equipment. She could see it now -- the cleanup crew would show up, toss each other a look that said "our new boss is a psycho bitch," and the fragile allegiance she had with some of the younger force captains could potentially splinter. And yet of those who remained, none of them had defected yet to any other ex-Horde faction. Catra couldn’t take all the credit for that.

 

The door thudded.

 

It was Scorpia, Catra could tell by the sound. Scorpia let herself in while Catra ignored her to jump and punch some targets at an obstacle course -- already demolished an hour ago -- some distance down the long training hall. By the time she'd finished jumping to the top platform and re-swiping the last training dummy (already clawed up from a previous run and hanging by a wire from the top),  Scorpia had finished with the staves and was picking up dummy heads, impaling them back in their place on dummy bodies.

 

"So, I guess reconnecting with your friend didn't go so well?" Scorpia waggled her eyes. Catra only forgave her because it was, well, her.

 

"That's not why she's here," Catra said, curbing a wild urge to throttle Scorpia.

 

"What! I thought she was here the whole time so the two of you could talk!"

 

"No! We need her to secure the peace of the Horde, dammit!"

 

"I thought that was just an excuse," Scorpia joked. Catra punched a dummy’s head that Scorpia had just reattached. It flew clean off and thumped around the room. Scorpia pouted. "Okay, I'm sorry. What happened?"

 

I made an empty threat. Hordak and Shadow Weaver taught her never to do that. It weakened her position, even Adora knew Catra wouldn't risk murdering her when the rest of the rebellion was so freshly 'deceived' (by their own carelessness) with the ransom conditions that had just finished a few days ago.

 

She’d made that empty threat because she’d been angry. It was a cold anger, sure, but it was not going to help her keep winning.

 

To Scorpia, Catra only said, "You'll be in charge of informing her of her options and negotiating with her terms as a ward. If she agrees to it. And if she doesn't... she can stay in that cell and rot in there."

 

"Wait, what?"

 

"That's your assignment this week, Scorpia!"

 

The less she dealt with Adora, the better. Catra resolved not to return to the Ward's wing. Adora wouldn't see her -- which was really the plan, anyway.

 

//

//

//

 

Adora had spent most of the first day in her new cell screaming and kicking and exploring every nook and cranny, once she'd come to. She'd sniffed the place -- the air was stale, as though they'd just opened up the room. It didn't smell like anything, either. As far as she could tell it was a regular barracks room, maybe even for a lieutenant or platoon squad leader. The room even had its own bathroom, with a shower. And a table with a pitcher of water. But the walls had been thick and reinforced instead of the mouldy partitions she was accustomed to. With nothing better to do, and no windows, she eventually fell exhausted to her bed, despite the strangeness of everything. She was alone; without even a guard, though she suspected she was being recorded. But not a single person passed by her corridor, not a single footstep could be heard. The lights down the corridor eventually faded into nothing. When she got hungry, no food came -- maybe Catra was going to starve her out for intel. But she could scream or shout, and she did, until she realized that no one would hear.

 

Sensory deprivation? And starving her? How was she supposed to even think about Catra's "offer" of having her as a ward to ensure the peace? It sounded so slick, sickeningly manipulative...

 

It reminded her of Shadow Weaver. Then again, she was in the Fright Zone. It was hard not to remember, hard not to think about it, even if she tried to forget.

 

Was it even fair to think of Catra and Shadow Weaver in that same way? All Horde campaigns had ended since she came into power more than a month ago. But how was Adora supposed to trust that the peace would go on? Other princesses only called it a stalemate, convinced that Catra would resume after her coup, that she was only buying time until she'd regained firepower. And now Adora had no way of knowing what was happening, despite being in the heart of enemy territory.

 

In most days, fighting for the alliance, Adora could tell herself that she could live with those decisions. But in the dark, in the dim, artificial lights of the Fright Zone, she wondered if she'd ever killed anyone she'd known here.

 

"C'mon," she told herself. It was her duty to stay her course till the end. Catra was just trying to faze her, make her crack. And it had only been a day (or more?) and already Adora couldn't hold her sins at bay.

 

A stray thought made its way to the surface of her mind. This is why you keep failing.

 

Catra must have known she was this weak. Catra must have counted on it.

 

//

//

//

 

"You mean to tell me no one's fed her for 36 hours?"

 

Rogelio gulped. Scorpia knew he wasn't used to thinking about logistics or anything remotely like it. But in Scorpia's head, Adora was already a ward. And princess etiquette very clearly stated that wards were members of the group, and under the Horde's protection. They were not prisoners of war.

 

"He says we'll have a nice lunch ready for her," Kyle said, patting his buddy's shoulder. "We've just never really had a prisoner. That we'd cook food for. So we forgot."

 

"Our nutrition program is new," Scorpia conceded. "Man, and for years we had to eat that weird stuff! I was scared to find out what it actually was."

 

From the back, one of the newly appointed cooks yelled back: "Hey, our rations were synthesized for maximum nutrients! But yeah, the new stuff is... nice."

 

Nice was putting it mildly. The new food smelled good. On the day the Horde discovered garlic, Rogelio put it on everything. People made excuses to drop by the kitchen just to get a sniff of the stuff. And as Rogelio had to cook every day, nearly every hour for large enough batches to cover everyone in the Horde, everyone had gotten addicted to the smell of broth and salt and garlic.

 

"I think that guy has a permanently busted nose," Kyle whispered as he led Scorpia out. "Nice? NICE? Rogelio's stuff is like twenty times better! How did we even live without this stuff for so long? Is this what the princesses had been keeping from us?"

 

Scorpia laughed.

 

//

//

//

 

Originally it should have been the plan to just dump the food into the receptacle in the Adora Monitoring Room and wait for a slot to come out on Adora's side. But based on the videos Adora had spent the last day trying to find cracks in the walls. She probably needed company, and the Horde did not have unlimited resources to spend on ripped walls.

 

"Hi there!" Scorpia said. Through the green haze of the forcefield, she could see Adora scrunched up in bed.

 

"We've got lunch! Some green stuff on the menu. And uh, synthesized protein. For old time's sake. But it has garlic on it! And salt!" Scorpia held out the tray, beyond the boundaries of the one-way forcefield.

 

The smell must have finally made it to Adora, because she got up. She walked over and took the tray, and for a second, it looked like she was going to try punching the forcefield, but instead unballed her fist. "W-What is this?"

 

Scorpia repeated herself.

 

"Is this some kind of poison? The Horde never serves this stuff!"

 

"Ouch, oh, better not let Rogelio hear that. He put extra effort into this."

 

"Rogelio!?"

 

"Yeah, apparently whenever we go out to Princess controlled territory some of the guards funnel black market items. And food like this is one of them. They call the ingredients seasoning? I don't know. Since Catra took over, everyone does it in the open now. So the Horde High Command gets to try it out too."

 

"Right, the seedlings. So the Horde has a garden?"

 

"Kind of? It's all artificial light and soil from the edge of the Whispering Wood. Too soon to say, though. We only started it. The garlic was an import."

 

Adora gave in and tried it. Hungry, she filled her spork with the greens and mushy protein. And ate. And chewed. And then she went to her table and ate some more, standing up the whole time.

 

She didn't say a word, but she was a noisy eater, crunching on the vegetables like she'd never eaten them in the Princess Alliance.

 

After Adora's last, hasty swallow, she said, "I never knew Rogelio could cook." This time she went to the front of her cell willingly.

 

"We didn't either! And neither did he, he's just learning. But we're really happy he found his place in the kitchen."

 

"So he's," Adora paused, and Scorpia guessed she was thinking it over, "-- the head cook now."

 

"Yup." For good measure, Scorpia added, "And Lonnie's a force captain, and Kyle is our external communications officer." She knew that Adora might like it more to hear what had happened to her old team. Everyone knew who her team was -- all covered in Force Captain Orientation, under the new curriculum.

 

"I... see."

 

"Catra told me you guys had a fight again," Scorpia said. "She was just trying to help. She really thinks that having you here will keep any conflicts localized. That's what she said. She even read up on Etherian law to understand what options we had. Options that, y'know, didn't involve immediately murdering everyone."

 

"It's just so strange. And why are you being so nice? And... why haven't I seen you in a while?"

 

"I was reassigned," Scorpia said. "I did most of the supply route work. Because I'm a tank, Catra says. I'm better off making sure our supply lines are unbroken."

 

"So you weren't in the front lines."

 

"Sometimes, I was. But we were told to avoid direct conflict with you. Too risky. Especially when you started mastering your powers. There was a radius we'd draw around you, based on the amount of magic you could already throw."

 

It was okay to say that, right? Because they weren't enemies any more.

 

"So uh, got any more questions? I could do this all day." She sat down on the floor. Adora followed. Scorpia smiled. Progress.

 

"H-How are my friends?"

 

"Our drones reported that they're back in Bright Moon, so they should be waking up by now. We had to keep them in stasis in case they woke up in the middle of the ransom and started shooting stuff up."

 

"How do I know that's not a lie?"

 

Scorpia gave it some thought. "How about I let a line patch through to Bright Moon, and you can talk to your friends?"

 

"Really? You can do that? Won't Catra, I don't know, shoot this whole idea down?"

 

Do whatever you have to do to keep her here.

 

"She might be okay with it. And besides, you have to accept our wardship. So you'd have to make an announcement too. Oh! We could do it at the same transmission."

 

Adora scowled at that. "I'll never agree to being a prisoner of the Horde."

 

"Aww, c'mon, you're a princess. You know a wardship is more than that. You wouldn't be a prisoner. We wouldn't treat you like one. You just have to make it official."

 

Adora still looked like she wasn't convinced. Dang it! Scorpia always came on too strong. "Look," she said, trying to regain her footing. "You have two choices. You could be a prisoner here, and never talk to your friends, or you could accept your place here and we'd let you even roam around the Horde, maybe even get a job. I know it's sudden," but then, Scorpia thought to herself, everything was sudden in war, "but please think about it. Catra said she could wait one or two weeks. She probably told you 'just one week!' but she always gives extensions when we're late for our reports. But if we don't have a transmission, we're sure Bright Moon won't take your silence lying down, and we might have another battle. We're trying to avoid that."

 

"Because the Horde would lose, wouldn't they," Adora said, suddenly turning the tables. Uh oh. Scorpia hadn't said that right. Pressing her advantage, Adora added, "I know there's only 50% of you left. It would be easy for Bright Moon to take over."

 

Great, now Adora was forcing that card.

 

After some careful thought, Scorpia said, "You come from the Horde. You know we won't surrender. And you know Catra." As painful as an old memory was, Scorpia knew Catra when she fought: "Catra fights like she's possessed. If we fight for the Fright Zone, she would sooner destroy this place than let it go down under Princess rule." Scorpia didn't know if that was actually true. But surely, Catra would fight till her last breath if she got cornered.

 

"S-So what?"

 

"Do you really want that?" Scorpia said. "Did you ever really want to fight against Lonnie and Kyle?"

 

"No! But I had to. And I will again if i have to."

 

"That's what I'm saying! Fighting isn't our only option anymore. Everything could be neatly fixed if we just..."

 

"I don't believe that. The Horde lied to me for years."

 

"That's not Catra's Horde. Weren't you two best friends? Shouldn't you trust her?"

 

There, she was being as smart as she could about her negotiations.

 

"We aren't friends," Adora said. "She said that herself."

 

Scorpia groaned. Why did that kitty cat have to make everything hard? Scorpia nearly had Adora agreeing to be a ward. She should have focused on the great food. No, this conversation was a dead end.

 

"I'm sure I gave you a lot to think about," Scorpia said. "I'll ask Catra if I can show you around, okay? I swear to you Adora, the Horde is better. I'm glad we have lunch now! with real food."

 

TOUR GUIDE

 

Catra gave the go-ahead to give Adora a tour. She didn't ask about how the first meeting went. When Scorpia brought up a transmission and message for the BFF Squad, Catra agreed. "It doesn't really matter. As long as she's here, she's separate from the sword, we're good."

 

"And we're keeping them...forever?"

 

"If the Horde separatists destroy themselves we can release Adora," Catra said. Unspoken, everyone knew that she meant sure, release Adora, but keep the sword. "Our best case scenario is that everyone hated everyone and they'll all try to off themselves and use Bright Moon for their petty in-fighting."

Entrapta, at the corner of the room staring at graphs, piped up. "Ah, but our most realistic scenario is that the separatists will use the Princess alliance against us, first. Because we're the biggest target and everyone's common enemy."

 

"Which is why for now having Adora say whatever we need her to say is so important," Catra said. "Since yeah, we have to defuse the situation before any separatists convince the kingdoms to fight us. But the longer this draws on, the less we'll need her."

 

Scorpia frowned at that. One of the best things about the end of the war was that Adora and Catra wouldn't be on opposite sides any more. But it seemed as though Catra was dead set on staying away from Adora -- and yet keeping Adora close enough to watch. After two years, Scorpia knew it was Catra's style with those she liked, this whole arm's length thing, but it was still really, really annoying.

 

//

//

//

 

It was Lonnie who came with dinner. She didn't say anything, just set the tray on the floor and kicked it past the forcefield.

 

"Lonnie, wait!"

 

Lonnie turned again. Adora couldn't see her that closely from the haze of the forcefield but something seemed different. She didn't look very patient, so Adora said the first thing she could think of.

 

"You're taller," Adora said.

 

Lonnie shrugged. "We get older."

 

"And you're a force captain now."

 

"Yup."

 

"... I haven't seen you in months."

 

"Can't say you were missed."

 

"For almost half a year, I wasn't even sure if Catra was alive," Adora said. "She stopped fighting on the front lines."

 

"She did fight on the front lines," Lonnie said. "She just stayed out of sight unless we needed her as a diversion. But you wised up to that, so..."

 

That explained it.

 

Adora caught a faint smile from Lonnie, on the other side of the haze. "You trying to pump me for intel?"

 

"What! Um. No!"

 

"It doesn't matter. Because you're staying here."

 

"And everything is true, about Shadow Weaver and Hordak and..."

 

"Yeah. When Catra had her coup, it was over within a few nights. Kinda hard to lose when the whole power grid depends on the giant crystal in your room, right? Kinda hard to lose when your technical advisor is a princess with an affinity for First Ones tech."

 

Then she scowled, suddenly deep in thought. This time, before Adora could say anything, she left, and Adora knew that calling after her wouldn't get her anywhere.

 

//

//

 

Adora hadn’t wanted to think hard about the news that Hordak and Shadow Weaver were dead. But Lonnie’s brief answer hadn’t explained anything. Who died first? Did Catra really kill them or did she use them to kill each other? She could get the answer from Scorpia, who’d probably feed her the official story. And Adora was sick of being taken for a ride with those. No. She needed to know the truth from Catra. There was that nagging thought that Adora wouldn’t be able to tell if Catra was lying or not, that all these years, she’d never been able to tell, but Adora ignored it. It was still her only chance.

 

And the ward thing. Catra made it sound like there was no real benefit to the Horde for Adora to be cooperative, that it was bigger than just one military force. But it was obviously important enough for her to have Scorpia try to talk to Adora. Being a ward couldn’t be as simple as just taking someone as a guarantee to stop a war. Could it?

 

She missed Queen Angella, or even Castapella. They knew how to explain a situation, break it down. Catra wasn’t obviously going to tell Adora anything unless it was good for the Horde.

 

And her sword. It had been a part of her for two years. The lack of it felt so keen, she wondered if what she felt was what addicts felt, that feeling of withdrawal. It felt like something had been ripped off her back, that a finger was gone. Her hands clenched and unclenched, expecting the hilt and grasping only air. Lying down in bed, she could feel her heart pumping. Everyone here behaved as though she’d be safe with them. Easy for them to say at their home court.

 

//

//

//

 

Over the next few days, Scorpia toured Adora around. The Fright Zone smelled the same; her boots still made the same sound against metal; there were still weird dripping pipes which clearly needed replacing; but some things were different too. Outside the barracks, off-duty guards hung out wearing civilian clothes. Several buildings around the perimeter of the Horde -- including the jail block -- had been abandoned for some reason or another and so everyone was closer to everyone else, and people actually walked the 'streets' rather than using hovercrafts as they transported goods. The amount of activity wasn't all that different but --

 

"Nobody's in formation."

 

And they were loud as they worked, too. That was it. They complained about what they were doing, or yelled at each other. None of the usual military precision, and less taskmasters around. On the sidewalks, people were dismantling parts for broken hovercrafts, or fixing up lights.

 

"They're just transporting stuff, y’know, working."

 

"They're not wearing their blasters."

 

"They're not on guard duty."

 

"What if someone..." Adora drifted off when she realized nobody would attack the Horde. Then she asked herself why, what had led her to that conclusion, and came up with nothing. So to cover up the sudden pause, she said,  "Well, they might not attack now..."

 

Scorpia just hummed in response. What that meant, Adora had no idea.


//

//

//


The next big change were the screens embedded in the central streets. They were showing tournaments, some clearly based on the CQC training Adora had had, some obstacle course type of show -- and then a game played on a board. The Horde was noisy. Like a town, almost. Close to one of the entrances to the commissary, the guards were betting on a match they were watching on their portables.

 

"Right, I asked Catra if you'd get one."

 

"One what?"

 

"Trapta calls it a 'mobile'. They're what we use to communicate. I tried to tell her our tablets were fine and she was like 'we can do better!' So she reduced the size of it to like, fit in your hand. Well, a regular hand," Scorpia said, pinching and flexing her claws.

 

"What the heck are they watching?"

 

"From the sound, probably the training simulation championships. Senior cadets are on."

 

"Whose idea was that?"

 

"Oh, one of the new force captains asked me about it, and I said yes."

 

Adora realized she'd never asked Scorpia what she was in charge of.

 

"Right, I'm the Chief Operations Officer, but more on internal operations. Trapta is our Chief Science Officer. Catra's just the Commander. She pretty much vetoed Lady or Lord or Queen..."

 

"Kind of like a... triumvirate, huh?"

 

"Yeah, Catra said the same thing! But she’s usually not around. So there's tons of gossip on Horddit about her ‘cuz nobody sees her! I keep telling her to get out of Command HQ and she just sits in front of screens and sulks -- gosh, I’ve never seen someone sulk as hard as her -- Trapta at least, people see her when she's upgrading our systems."

 

"I can't really imagine Catra staying put."

 

"She still works out a lot, that's all she does when she isn't working. She has her own floor for training. Scares the heck out of the clean up crew. They’re convinced she can make herself invisible. They’re convinced Shadow Weaver gave her some kind of magical, supernatural power."

 

The whole idea, in Adora’s head, was ridiculous, but now wasn’t the time to think of that. They’d made it to their destination. Adora recognized the building; it was the training center. Various metal pipes served as walkways between the featureless training center and her own, old barracks, situated on the left.

 

Inside, Scorpia’s voice reverberated. "So we actually shut down some of the halls since we don't have like, 100% of the Horde --"

 

Adora inhaled. That was definitely not the smell of the training hall. They were still in the antechamber, the huge room that broke off into corridors leading to the simulation halls and lockers -- and one of the rooms was different. Some of the corridors were lit; some weren't. This one was, and it was filthier than the other corridors. On closer inspection, the dirt on the ground was soil. Tracks of it, too.  

 

"What is this place?"

 

"That's our garden," Scorpia said. Something in her tone made Adora look at her -- was Scorpia abashed? "Well, we're trying anyway."

 

They walked down the corridor, which opened into the briefing room. Instead of an instructor, an open portal greeted her -- usually those were closed to set up the course -- and for the first time Adora could really see just how huge the Horde's training halls were. "Woah, I had no idea," Adora said, stepping into the hall. The floor was filled with soil and dirt -- would that even work? and the ceiling -- maybe five or so stories high -- had been fitted with yellow lights, strong enough for Adora to feel the heat. On the far end of the hall, kids were playing around. No, they were cadets, Adora observed, and they were soaking each other with blasters that shot water, dashing around shelves and shelves of potted plants and seed beds. But for the most part, the hall was still empty, as though the experiment was still starting out.

 

"Yeah, we turned one of the halls into a warehouse, y'know, cuz they were so big."

 

"Right, we're growing beans, and the rest of the hall isn't used yet because we're still figuring out if we can grow other stuff. We’ll probably take out the floor. And maybe the walls. Wait, " Scorpia said, as though she were thinking as she spoke, “that’s just stupid, right? We should just build it outside, we know, but all the roadwork’s going to be awful for transportation…”

 

Adora looked up to where the beans had been planted, watching the kids shriek at each other as they doused each other in water. She looked around. There was no trainer in the room.

 

"They're unsupervised."

 

"It's fine. They get to have a little break in between chores."

 

Chores.

 

Cadets didn't have chores. They trained all the time and got homework, sure. But labor was something assigned, you didn't do it regularly.

 

"Where'd you guys get ideas for all of this?"

 

"Mostly by observing villages, actually. And uh, pillaging them and taking their farmer's almanacs and libraries and stuff. And uh, maybe capturing village elders and asking them for tips. That was during the war, though. We don't have any prisoners now. Besides, what do you think the average soldier does when we occupy a town? Some of them draw maps, work with the local government, I mean, we can't raze every village to the ground."

 

Just most of them, huh? But Adora bit back her retort. It was pointless to argue with Scorpia. The woman wasn't evil, but she was at least brainwashed. But she was with Catra now, and Adora didn’t know what to make of it.

 

Adora knelt and poked the dirt. How deep was it? Was this whole thing going to work? The Horde was looking less and less like a military force and more and more like a regular town. The only thing that had stayed the same was the sky. Even the ground would change, if they kept trying to be agriculturally sufficient.

 

//

//

//

 

On days when Adora hadn't tried to make a run for it (she'd tried that only twice, to be fair, and both times Scorpia had completely expected it and wasn’t mad at the least), Scorpia would let her have dinner on the top floor of her building. She’d even give Adora her privacy to stare at the sky. In an hour, someone would come to fetch her. The first time she was left alone, she tried to swing down one cord to the other, remembering another person who could beat the elevators to the ground floor, but she’d just fallen to the balcony about two stories below, where Scorpia knew she'd end up after trying a very predictable escape. Scorpia hadn’t gotten mad, but for that day, didn’t leave her alone -- possibly also because Adora had a very bruised butt.

 

But for the past week Adora had gotten her outbursts under control. She’d given up on trying to rip the walls when she was in her room. Her hands were still antsy, nervous things that sorely, sorely needed anything to hold. Being alone with her thoughts made her jumpy, made her reckless with worry for her friends at Bright Moon. She wondered how they were doing, thinking that she couldn't even tell herself they shared the same stars, at least. Bow and Glimmer had taught her how to read the stars to steer a ship but the fog over the Horde obscured all that.

 

If she kept on thinking about Glimmer and Bow and everyone at home, she wouldn't be able to think. She had to be smart about her situation. She was still in enemy territory, with no way out to escape. If that were the case, then her next move ought to be to survive -- and being locked up in a cell because she was too stubborn would cost her every chance to get back to Bright Moon with intel.

 

Just think of it as an undercover mission .

 

There was one other reason she wanted to stay: she hadn't seen Catra since the first meeting. It had been twelve days ago, at least according to what Scorpia told her. Adora was supposed to have accepted the wardship earlier but Scorpia had been more generous with the timeline and Adora had made the most of it. Not once, however, was Adora allowed into Command, and Catra apparently had turned into some kind of recluse since her takeover.

 

Catra.

 

Had she grown taller, too? Adora hadn't been paying attention, and nearly every time she'd seen Catra, she'd seen the woman through forcefields. Her hair had seemed... shorter, a little, but every recent memory of her her was clouded by thoughts popping up everywhere. On some days Adora wanted to see her, and on others, she wondered what she could even say.

 

We don’t have to fight. If the war is truly over.

 

And to her shock: I’m still glad you’re alive.

 

But Adora was sure Catra didn't give a shit for any of it. Had she, Adora, given up on Catra, during the war? Was that even the right way to think about it? Was that even fair to Adora, with all the weight of She-Ra pressing down on her? Fighting halfheartedly for the alliance would mean losing more people. What was the value of a civilian's life weighed against the death of a friendship? And Catra had come to a similar (or more selfish?) conclusion. Personal affairs on the battleground didn't mean much when the war started -- their early tussles, Catra returning the sword -- all of that proof that they still didn't know where they stood with each other in their early days.

 

But things turned brutal the longer the war drew out. Neither of them could afford to talk, though Catra disappeared more and more from the battleground anyway, so the option wasn't there. And truthfully, Adora thought of the scars on her back and wished she didn't want to talk to Catra. The war had swelled in size and destruction and just as the war machine had gotten into full swing, Catra swept in and said: It's over! No treaties or inter-kingdom meetings, either. Just a sudden withdrawal of the Horde. Etheria was still waiting on the next episode with bated breath, untrusting of the situation. Adora had to assess the whole thing as objectively as she could: what was Catra really after? Because after all that death on both sides, surely the notion of peace was meant to be a slap in the face. A bully that said it would stop bullying wouldn’t be enough for the pain to stop -- it wasn’t an apology. Angella for one expected a counterattack. Catra hadn't, after all, agreed to meet with anyone. There was an element of trust missing, or an olive branch.

 

And that was why Adora was here, maybe. Catra was using her to cut the peace process short. No need for tedious discussion. Adora realized with a jolt that Catra would have no need for reparation, either. So it wasn’t just about ‘guaranteeing the peace’. It was that Catra wanted to keep the Horde without having to pay for its war crimes.

 

//

//

//

 

“I just realized something,” Adora said over dinner with Scorpia, trying not to give away that she’d been up since yesterday thinking about peace treaties.

 

“And that is?”

 

“You guys are using me as leverage so you don’t have to do anything to fix what the Horde has destroyed.”

 

Scorpia blinked. Adora pressed on, “I won’t agree to being a ward. I’d rather be a prisoner so you can’t use my… compliance as some kind of token or whatever.”

 

Scorpia groaned. She picked up her mobile. Dialed a number. “Boss, I really need you to talk to her.” Pause. “I don’t know, she’s talking about leverage. She said something about leverage and not fixing what the Horde’s destroyed… yeah, that’s the word, reparations.” She turned to Adora, “Okay, I’m putting her on video.”

 

“Adora,” Catra said, her face coming and out of focus as Catra moved to sit on a broken chair -- was that Hordak’s throne? -- “You’re seriously thinking this is about reparations. You idiot. Why would the Horde make reparations? That’s only for the losing party. We technically don’t owe anyone anything unless they can make us pay.”

 

It was amazing how Catra could make her feel stupid sometimes. Here she was, fighting for her freedom with a sudden negotiation out of nowhere, and that’s what she was thinking?

 

“So your final decision is to remain a prisoner,” Catra said. “Fine.”

 

“No,” Adora said, quickly turning around her next strategy. “It’s still a major symbol for me to accept staying here. There’s a big difference in me being a prisoner and accepting a wardship. I’m still a political pawn. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to let you use me just like that.”

 

Catra said nothing. Adora took a breath and continued. “Everything I asked from Scorpia is still on the table. And I need to know who killed Shadow Weaver. And how. And same with Hordak. And I don’t want some… I don’t know, some text book or some fake history lesson or whatever you tell everyone!”

 

“Hordak’s death was recorded on a screen and played live as I fought with him,” Catra said in reply. “You have witnesses all around you. And Weaver died trying to suck up energy from the Black Garnet. She was a prisoner, she got out, was jealous of my new position, went straight for the Black Garnet, and failed to figure out that our changes to it would fry her.”

 

“And you had nothing to do with that?”

 

Catra shrugged. “I didn’t tell her to suck energy.”

 

Adora glared, unsatisfied. She didn’t need to say anything. On that last point, she wouldn’t be budged. Catra turned away, as though something out of the frame had gotten her attention. A flicker of light came on, accenting her face. She read something for a moment, then turned to Adora. “I’ll get you a line to Bright Moon every other month, letters every two weeks. And I’ll talk to you in a year, everything you want to know.” She made it sound as though she was being very generous.

 

Adora wasn’t sure if any of this was true. Without thinking, she said, “And we’ll get this all in writing.”

 

Catra blinked as though she were dealing with a child very new to the ways of grownups -- Adora knew that flat expression. “Obviously. We have to send word to every damn kingdom. Look it over tomorrow, we’ll write you what you have to say when we patch a line.”

 

Catra fizzled out into black. Scorpia swooped Adora into a tight, bone crushing hug.

 

“I knew you’d join us!”

 

Adora could only feel that she’d done something very, very wrong.

 

A year?

 

//

//

end chapter
//

//

 

//

Adora: I don’t want The Thing

Catra: Okay you don’t want The Thing

Adora: No I want the Thing

Adora:

Catra:

 

This chapter was light on the Catra/Adora stuff but we’re getting there.

Chapter Text

//

pride was too much to ask for

//

 

Catra woke up with a gasp. She blinked the dreams away a few times, rubbing her eyes. She patted the mattress around her for a blanket she'd kicked away hours before. In the dark, she could feel her sweat falling on her neck and her hair, matted and mussed. With a wave of her hand, she found her side table and switched on the lamp there.

In the moments between waking up and sleeping, she'd see Shadow Weaver out of the corner of her eyes.

It happened all the time now. Catra called up a screen with a gesture, breathing hard until the audio lulled her heartbeat back to normal. They were nothing more than routine reports from patrols lined with the buzz of static, or hour by hour weather forecasts of the area surrounding the Fright Zone, but they reminded her of where she was.

She laughed to dispel the shadows in her head. "Some Commander of the Horde you are," she murmured to herself. But her voice stayed trapped in her stale room. It was a feeble retort against the rest of the other voices in her head.

You've kept Adora in the Horde, just like she would.

Catra closed her eyes in pain at the thought. Shit, she thought. No, she wasn't anything like Shadow Weaver.

Oh, but you are just like me. You're just like Hordak. That's why you win. You don't play fair.

Catra opened the windows by her bed. The night breeze helped. As she’d done so many nights before, she climbed upwards, to the top of Command HQ.

Even as she clawed her way up the face of the HQ, she couldn’t entirely shake off her dreams. She'd seen the glazed stares of other soldiers; she'd heard them screaming. If Catra wasn't careful, she'd end up like them, too crazy for active duty. And then the rumors would say that she'd lost her mind because of the remnants of Shadow Weaver's magic. They'd say that's why she didn't enter Shadow Weaver's room.

To a certain extent, they weren't wrong. There were ghosts, definitely. But they weren't literal ghosts, spirits or whatnot. They were all the memories in her head, that conjured up dreams that wouldn't let her sleep. Finally at the top of Command, Catra jumped over the railing and sat against it. The vast, flat rooftop was the one place she was sure she would be alone.

Catra's mind wandered to the Horde's ward. Of course Adora wouldn’t have any trouble sleeping. Adora couldn't smell the death off of Shadow Weaver's body the way Catra would always be forced to remember, now. Catra was carrying two dead people in her head, and plenty more if she went down that lane. Plenty of people she didn't know, and plenty of people who she did. But Shadow Weaver and Hordak's personalities stood atop all the dead bodies, unwilling to be forgotten.

Adora could sleep. She had enough of that sparkly princess magic to keep the demons off her back. That shining, radiating light that flowed off of her like waves. Adora was always going to be the good guy, and the Sword of Protection was proof of that. Good guys got to sleep. Bad guys got ghosts.

 

//

stranger in a strange land, the land of her birth

//

 

On some days, Adora thought she was splitting into two people. There was She-Ra, ward of the Horde, and Adora, ex-soldier on an undercover mission on Bright Moon's behalf. Or was it the other way around? Was she Adora, ward of the Horde, and She-Ra, champion of Bright Moon? The split wasn't neat, but it was there, and it grew only as the peace of Etheria deepened. Adora realized, after everything sank in, that there was nothing else to do but think, and thinking wasn't her strongest suit.

One thing was clear to her -- that she wasn't herself without her friends, without Bright Moon, without every order from the Alliance she'd followed for the past two years. She'd suddenly been flung into another role and the only thing keeping her tethered to herself were the routines Scorpia let her have: the freedom to wake up early, to train, to eat along with senior cadets (though none of the cadets would sit with her). She was easily the eldest in the training halls; Adora wasn't sure how or when active-duty soldiers drilled, but she was being kept far away from them.

"It's honestly more for your protection," Scorpia said. "Nobody will look twice at you with me walking next to you, but ah, I do have a job. With only your tracking bracelet, you're kind of a target. We'll keep you with the cadets."

"They don't know who I am?"

"Of course they do. But they're scared of you, and scared of getting punished if they try anything on you."

"And the average Horde soldier... of course they hate me."

"As a ward," Scorpia said, more carefully than usual, "you're under our protection. But yeah, let's not test it. Nearly every soldier over eighteen has seen you on the other side."

It was one thing never to have seen her on the battlefield, only to be told to hate what she stood for, and another thing entirely to have lost a platoon member to her. Punishment might have been the worst thing to a cadet, but to a regular soldier, it was an easy price to pay to get back at her. The bitter smile she wore felt alien to her. After all, the Horde wasn't a place where Adora thought she'd reflect on her sins. She was being punished here, and for what? Hadn't she done the right thing? How were they able to make her feel this way?

You were supposed to save the world -- did that include the Horde? Who got to decide who was at fault, and who would pay? Were the soldiers who fought for Bright Moon good because they were born fighting for the right side? And were all the kids in the Horde evil because they'd been born into a conquering force?

She'd made her choice to leave, and she knew first hand it wasn't a choice anyone else could make. She had hoped it would have been easier for Catra to turn, that she could at least convince her since they were strong together, but she didn't blame the average soldier their inability to leave. And even in the end, you couldn’t convince Catra.

//

//

//

The training halls allowed her to scream without anyone thinking she was falling apart. That in itself was one of the greatest mercies Scorpia had given her. Every day that she asked herself what good she was in stalemate, in this world without a war, she got to bash out her feelings in outdated simulations of grinning, evil Princesses. Sometimes, alone at night, even after all the pushups, the lap-running, the blade drills, she'd still scream and cry and her heart would gallop in fear, trying to outrun the knowledge that she was an ornament now, and not a tool. Her tears would trickle through her fingers, a sudden sense of weightlessness.

Strangely enough, the fact that she was in an entirely hostile place, that active-duty soldiers would take shots trying to kill her if they could, made her feel better. It was the familiarity of it. And yet as she wasn't attacked, as she was surrounded by children, alien in a world she'd grown up in, she felt despair, having nothing to rail against. Everything was at once a hard wall and a soft pillow that bounced back all the things she knew to do to solve her feelings, her problems.

She couldn't fight her way out of her thoughts, the daily sight of teenagers who she expected to be more disciplined while she also knew that no one should have grown up the way she did. Every contradiction she'd had to face during the war was still here, a daily sight that jarred her, made her feel like she was walking in and out of a dream, awake or asleep.

What do you want from these kids, she asked herself. Did she want them to be civilians, like what she'd learned kids could be outside the Horde? Did she want them to be better soldiers? But why, and for who?

At least the older crowd knew exactly what they'd do with her if they got their hands on her. And Scorpia knew, and Entrapta, and Catra, and Lonnie... that was, at least, a part of the world she understood. And even if she knew it was fucked up, it was something familiar, something comforting, to know that they hated her. Was it because it was the way things were meant to be? Did that mean that the kids in their sloppy uniforms, unafraid of physical punishment -- did that mean that that was not the way things ought to be?

And she had signed up for this because -- because she had read the situation wrong, or right, or because she could only choose between no freedom and almost no freedom. The transmission line she'd had with Bow and Glimmer, begging her to be strong, was a memory that faded fast against the walls of the Horde.

The thought made her think of Catra and how there would be no negotiation if Catra were Shadow Weaver and Adora was only She-Ra and not the favorite. If Adora were anyone else, she'd have no choice; she'd just be dead. Even with that thought, that she should be grateful, her heart still beat wildly like an animal lost in a forest, surrounded by hunters.

You're under our protection. But yeah, let's not test it.

She wondered how popular Catra's decision to keep her alive was.

//

//

//

As part of the contract, Adora had a quarterly transmission with Bright Moon. She'd had two calls, so far, the last one just a month before. The whole wardship affair had lasted a day of negotiations between the Alliance and Catra, followed by Adora's speech the next day. Her first transmission, the emotional line taut with relief in one direction and fear on the other, was entirely scripted, which kept her from falling apart. She had to hold it together, especially with Scorpia and Kyle and Lonnie at her back. On the other side were Queen Angella, Mermista, Perfuma, Frosta, Glimmer and Bow. Queen Angella must have said something to her friends, because they too were as stiff as she was, even though they slipped a few words of encouragement. She found herself too tired to cry after all of it, and after a week, the numbness set in and lingered. She was saved, once again, by a reminder from Scorpia that she could write twice a month, as letters were still a more cost-effective and trusted way of communication, as opposed to transmissions carried from the Black Garnet to the Moonstone.

"You'll be reading everything I write, won't you."

"Me or Kyle," Scorpia replied. "Just to make sure you're not giving them detailed plans of our sewer entrances. They're pretty gross, so maybe don't do that."

Her first letter was an assurance she wasn't being mistreated. And it was true: she wasn't being tortured for information. In fact, it sounded like the Horde hardly needed her for what she knew. They needed her for what she represented. It didn't matter that she was Adora, only that she was She-ra. She'd never felt more devalued in her life. Even with the option to write more than one letter a month, she found herself unable to do more than one; days would pass where she'd write something then tear it up. She found that she had nothing to say; asking for help would have been pointless and would jeopardize a political situation, but she couldn't bring herself to lie, either.

//

//

//

Adora had been training for about an hour, going through the levels of the Whispering Woods simulation, when the whole thing crashed. She heard it first, the melting of the sound to a low pitch, followed by the dissolution of the graphics around her -- the leaves, then the trunks, the rocks, the "princesses." Only her baton remained. She spun around, waiting for the simulation to right itself -- this had happened a few times as cadets, usually after a power outage.

This time, however, the simulation had changed to an entirely new map. The ground shook for a moment as platforms of varying heights burst from the ground. A mountain map... perhaps the mountain ranges of Mystacor. Low visibility, firm soil on the lower levels and clay on top. Tree cover wouldn't be as dense as with the Whispering Woods --

In the distance, she heard the harsh break of glass against a baton. Ducking low for cover, Adora went through the bushes as she she searched for the source. Soon she could hear children. She climbed up a tree to surveil.

A team of six had taken over her simulation. They were midlevel cadets, about twelve or eleven. The smallest of them carried the baton with two hands. They were about as uncoordinated as Adora would expect of eleven year olds, bashing a "Titan"-type robot on the legs.

"Go for the head!" Adora shouted.

Five heads turned to face her, while the sixth was picked up by the robot and tossed into the tree. They fell facefirst into the ground, their chestplate beeping to alert their teammates they were short a member.

"That's the traitor," the tallest of the squad said. "Don't listen to her."

From her tree, Adora groaned. The remaining five continued bashing the most armored part of the Titan. They'd scatter when the robot tried to swoop in to take another member, but apart from that, they weren't getting very far. In the distance, Adora heard the telltale creak of shutters opening to let in more critters. If this was a standard level, waves of lower-tiered monsters and threats would come in to help pick the team off. They were on a goddamned mountain simulation. They were supposed to use the trees and the uneven elevation.

"Incoming 9'o clock," Adora shouted, when the first wave of crawlers came in. They were half-assembled humanoid robots that crawled with their arms and shot lasers out of their red eyes. The cadets, out of instinct, snapped up to the northwest. Upon verifying the wave, the leader ordered everyone to scatter.

Adora groaned again. The correct order should have been 'take cover'. The waves were supposed to reinforce the correct strategy to use on the main opponent in the event that the platoon couldn't figure it out. Scattering wasn't enough. Without even having to look, Adora heard the tell-tale pew pew! of the lasers and the beep of two other fallen platoon members.

Oh boy. Within a few minutes, everyone had fallen to the ground, their chestplates marked with glowing x's. Then the simulation ended gracefully. Adora heard a second chorus of oofs! as the simulated elevation reset to default. The platforms retracted sharply into the ground, leaving everyone falling a second time. Adora herself had gracefully jumped off her tree as it dissolved, then jumped a second time before her hexagon-shaped platform disappeared from under her.

"Well," she said, approaching the team, "that was a pretty good try."

The leader had gotten up and dusted herself off. "We don't need anything from a traitor."

"Hey," Adora said irritably. "You guys overwrote my simulation."

"Excuse me," the leader said. "The schedule was empty at this time. It's always empty at this time."

Yeah, Adora thought. Because that's my time.

Ah. Adora supposed it made things easier, to keep it unmarked. It would have been pretty awkward if Scorpia had to explain to everyone that they were helping their ward stay battle ready. And they'd chosen the time most kids were out doing 'chores', essentially the free time the kids usually used to goof around at the greenhouse. No kid would normally do training when they weren't required to.

"It's empty because it's mine," Adora said, still unwilling to give up the one thing that had kept her from going mad.

"We didn't want to do this anyway," a boy at her left said.

"Zek, shut up," the leader said irritably.

"But I'd rather hang out with everyone else."

"Ugh! What about Prelims? We're going to get murdered out there if we keep sucking this bad!"

They continued to argue, ignoring Adora. They went on even as they left the training grounds and went back to the lockers. There was some kind of Prelims or Exhibition for the current crop of cadets and they were in the lowest rank. Which was probably the only situation wherein a bunch of kids would do extra work. The bottom five teams of the year would be required to do extra credit for the whole year, so it made sense that they'd rather work their butts off now rather than later.

"Okay, how about we split the two-hour session? You guys get an hour, I get an hour."

Before their leader could complain, the smallest one, who'd used a baton like a staff, said "Please, Cam? And maybe we shouldn’t be training everyday, either, they’re gonna notice."

Their leader sighed. Then glared at Adora. "We'll take over every second half, every other day."

//

//

//

Training sessions felt less terrible after that. Even being told off by a brat that couldn't hold a baton properly was still better than being on her own. Plus, Squad 14 found her old training tapes and would occasionally listen to her when she suggested a different tactic. And it felt good, even, when a bunch of uncoordinated twelve-year-olds managed to beat their first spider or ace an obstacle simulation.

"Prelims is next week," Zek said. She had mostly gotten everyone's names, but his was the easiest to remember. "You should watch us and tell us how to kick ass."

Adora knew it couldn’t last for long, but she said she’d go anyway.

//

//

//

Being 'allowed' to watch Prelims was less of an issue than Adora thought. "You'll have to be escorted," Scorpia said, "But I was gonna go, anyway."

The Prelims turned out to be something like a sporting event that also determined the ranking of every squad. It took place on a large field used during Adora's time for large-scale field and marching drills. It always had some seating, for the occasional ceremony, so Adora guessed it had been repurposed somewhat. The field was flanked on all four sides by barracks and training buildings and some newer structures Adora wasn't sure of. For the younger cadets, the tournaments didn't mean anything permanent or serious, but for the senior cadets, whose graduation had just finished a few months before, it meant determining who got what kind of duty. A lower rank meant having no choice in what branch of the Horde a soldier could join. Most of the higher-ranking soldiers usually joined the Internal Police, while lower ranking cadets wound up patrolling the borders of the Fright Zone. Had the war gone on, being able to choose where one went meant the difference between dying on the field or surviving behind a tactician's screen. But then, that was a problem for the older cadets. For the younger set, winning only meant doing less chores and drills.

 

//

way before the war began

//

 

During the day, it was easy for Catra to function. As long as she kept herself busy, she'd stay sane. Today that meant watching the prelims -- Scorpia and Entrapta had been nagging at her “to make an appearance”, so here she was.

She looked out over the  field, bounded by bleachers, several stories tall. On the far end opposite her was the cadet entrance -- where the teams would start from. Depending on the type of test or course, the kids could either be fighting each other or securing ground or going through an obstacle course, which ended at the ‘front’ of the field, where the upper boxes for senior horde officials -- such as Catra -- watched. One box below her, Force Captains were welcome to watch if they didn’t have any duty during the timeslot.

"Why am I watching this again?" Kiddie training comps weren't her thing. Their grades were very much in flux; what mattered was who they'd be when they graduated.

"Because no one outside of Command seen you for months and the rumors about you get weirder every week."

It should have been funny hearing "weird' come from Entrapta, but the new Horde had been putting out fires and Catra didn’t want to be the reason for yet another issue. Things were complicated enough with the news that some of the separatist “armies” were successfully trading with some towns and kingdoms.

You’re not here to think about that… focus on the damn internals.

"So what's the latest rumor?"

"That Hordak's spirit has possessed you and that's why you've turned so reclusive and you only show up in screens now."

Wow, that was almost as bad as the last one that Shadow Weaver had trained Catra in dark magic, which allowed her to ambush Hordak. Catra sighed but eased into her seat at the top box. If she had to wave and be paraded around to assure people she wasn’t crazy, she’d do it. She’d hate it, but she’d do it.

"Since when were the Horde such a bunch of superstitious folk, anyway?"

"My hypothesis is, due to the lack of facts and otherworldly nature of your education about princesses, soldiers in the Horde are more likely to fall for logical fallacies such as --"

"Yeah, 'if we don't understand something, it must be due to magic.' Geez. Well, think about it this way, two seconds-in-command tried to murder Hordak, to no one's shock, his latest successor isn't going to risk it."

Even as a less shitty Force Commander than Shadow Weaver (a low bar, really), Catra didn't have everyone's love and adoration, and there were still Force Captains, ones greener than her even, that thought, hey, someone can kill the Horde Commander, maybe I can too. Good thing the bulk of active-duty soldiers hadn’t forgotten every battle she’d fought with them. Still, Catra kept her distance -- she didn’t want to show off and fight or engage in whatever dick-measuring contests her lower officers engaged in. Staying away from them was the next best alternative.

"Commander Catra doesn't feel safe in the Horde," Entrapta said, very loudly, into her recorder.

"Do you want to get me assassinated or what?" Any word of weakness would be taken as an open invitation to test her mortality.

And you're pretty damn mortal, aren't you... she thought to herself.

"No," Entrapta said. "But this is something we need to work on, if you don't feel safe here. We'll think up of something. Improved defenses, maybe."

The thing about Entrapta's guilt was that it made Catra guilty. It was hardly Entrapta's fault that the Horde was just that -- a military operation pretending to be a functioning town or whatever. Being part-time civilians was hard.

"I don't need more defenses," Catra said. "Everyone’s getting used to the new administration. Of course it’ll take some time. It's not something you need to think about."

"But it is a problem," Entrapta said. "And science deals with the solving of problems."

"Entrapta," Catra said, "One day, you're gonna learn, there are plenty of problems you can't fix."

"I know that," Entrapta said. "I just don't want to keep adding problems to that list."

Catra sighed. Entrapta really knew how to make her feel terrible. "Whatever. I'm gonna watch the prelims, people are going to believe I'm still alive, we're going to dispel any rumors that Hordak's possessed me, and I'll go back to Command. Okay?"

"Okay."

After a brief pause, Entrapta spoke again. “Commander,” she said, quietly this time. Catra perked up a little -- Entrapta sounded serious, and she rarely used Catra’s title that way.

“Yeah?”

“I have an observation.

Oh boy.

“You haven’t been sleeping again?”

Damn. Entrapta’s scientific powers of observation usually served Catra well, but not when she pulled a Scorpia and tried to pry. She wondered what gave it away.

“I’m fine.”

“Are your legs...?”

“It’s not my legs, they’re not itchy or anything, geez. Again, it’s not your problem to fix. It’s just work.” When Entrapta tried to speak, Catra cut her off. “Look, let me just get through this, okay?”

Entrapta looked as though she were going to press the matter, but thankfully she only said, “Roger.”

//

//

//

The kids these days were absolute crap at the drills. She wasn't sure if it was because they were nervous, but even just tossing a couple of Robo-Rhinos into an obstacle course was enough to scare the bejeezus out of them. They'd coordinate so poorly that they'd forget the goal and go for the Rhinos. Catra groaned. No, you idiots. It's an obstacle course! Get to the flag and end the simu -- BEEP. Okay, that's the last kid, right?

"Entrapta," Catra said, putting down her binoculars and turning to her right. "Have the Drillmaster lower the difficulty setting for the scripted Battle events." It would be unfair to change them for the current event as about half the cadets had gone through the higher difficulty setting, so Catra had the rest of the events for the day adjusted instead.

"Aye aye," Entrapta said. That was a good sign. When Entrapta agreed with her, that usually meant they came to the same conclusion.

"By the way," Entrapta added, "Adora's here."

Catra's eyebrow shot up. "She is? No, don’t use your laser pointer, dammit."

With some tact, Entrapta put away her laser pointer and instead gave Catra directions. "Fourth row, close to the front..."

That was Adora all right, sitting next to Scorpia. Her hair was down. She let it grow out...

"Huh," Catra said. That was something she'd have to ask Scorpia about. Adora’s attendance, not the hair.

//

//

Catra showed up at the eliminations, a month later, as well. At the end of it, Adora had managed to pull up her squad -- squad number 14 -- to a high enough ranking not to be eliminated. "They were the runts of the litter, too," Scorpia said.

"I think receiving extra training from an ex-Force Captain sounds like cheating," Entrapta said.

"I agree with Entrapta on that one," Catra said. "They've already gotten pretty far. How do you know the rest of their batch hasn't figured out they're getting extra training?"

And, kids being kids, how long would it take before the rest of their batch ganged up on them over an unfair advantage?

"You sound like you've already made a decision," Scorpia said. "So just... say it."

Yup, Scorpia was upset. But she would live. Maybe this was Catra's fault for not nipping it as soon as she heard that Adora was giving free lessons. Adora could still throw her a curveball, sometimes.

"Is it possible to move Adora's training schedule to another time? At a time when we know for sure no pesky kids are going to be training?"

"Like, 2 in the morning?"

"If it has to be 2 in the morning," Catra replied with a shrug.

"Is there anything else you... want?"

"I'm thinking," Catra said. After a pause, she added, "You're going to have to tell the kids why Adora won't show up anymore."

//

//

//

Two weeks after that, Squad 14 lost their footing in the formal tournament against other teams. They weren't at the bottom, but it wasn't enough for them to continue to the next round. Adora was still there, watching, along with off-duty Horde soldiers and the rest of the cadet batch that had been eliminated. At the end of the competition, once most of the spectators had left, Catra went down to the field. There was no particular reason behind it, only that it was dinner time and Catra felt relatively alone and free of the constraints of her position -- nobody would be looking for Her Darkness the Horde Commander when dinner came calling.

A breeze toyed with the dust and earth on the field. Above, the floodlights had been dimmed. In another hour, they'd be off and the guards would close the gates. Until then, Catra was going to take a look. The Fright Zone had been built atop the badlands -- most of the soil had been stripped and the ground was infertile. Whatever minerals there were had been stripped by mining operations from the earlier days of the Horde. She hadn’t really gotten involved in the plans to fix the ecosystem -- that was assuming that the Fright Zone hadn’t always been like this. Regardless she okayed whatever Entrapta’s ideas were, and judging from the patches of grass that hadn’t gotten trampled on, they were taking to the new soil fine. About half the field tried to copy actual conditions that the cadets would encounter in the rest of Etheria while the others were metal panels from which platforms could emerge, keeping the conditions of the tests a secret from the cadets. Out of everything Entrapta designed, it was obvious she enjoyed working on this bizarre combination of tech and nature. Like the greenhouse, it was one of the few structures that didn’t smell like oil or grease or something burnt or rotten, which was a welcome change to Catra’s sense of smell.

After walking the length of the field, she made her way to the player’s lockers, opposite the box she’d been watching the comp in. Out of habit, she went for the left-side entrance, the same side as her squad’s lockers in the Training building. As she rounded the room, she caught a blonde sitting on a bench, inside, deep in thought.

Of course Adora would be there. Just when Catra thought she'd have some peace to herself.

She turned to leave.

"Hey Catra," Adora said.

Catra scowled. She was usually quiet enough that not even her Force Captains would notice immediately if she were in a room. But Adora had made the first move. Catra couldn't back down.

She turned around again and went no closer than the threshold between the corridor and the locker room. "Hey Adora," she said.

Adora looked up at her. It was the first time they'd really seen each other in months, maybe in even a year. To Catra, nothing much had changed about Adora's appearance: she was wearing her ponytail this time; she still slouched the same way. But she was, of course, taller and all-around just... bigger. Her shoulders had broadened, and she carried herself with less bravado and more caution. Well, she was sitting across her greatest enemy, unarmed and helpless. That could have been it. Catra preferred the caution on her face, it was less annoying than the bravado, the yelling, the posturing, all of which came with Adora when she held the sword.

When Adora didn't say anything, Catra tossed the next volley. "What, cat got your tongue?"

"I... can't tell if you've grown or not."

"I haven't," Catra replied. "Or so my clothes tell me." After another pause, Catra continued, "Here I thought you'd be angry I took your squad away from you."

"I knew it wasn’t permanent. If we found out that any of our competition was getting any extra help, we'd beat the shit out of them."

"We? You mean me and everyone else. You'd keep your hands clean. Or, you'd try to keep us out of trouble, but we wouldn't listen. Something like that. Then, we'd get into trouble, or more accurately, I'd get into trouble." Catra laughed to keep the bitterness off her back. For a split second, she could still feel the paralyzing buzz of magic wind around her, even if Shadow Weaver could never hurt her again.

But your mind still remembers.

Catra's ear twitched to will the memory away.

There was another long, pregnant pause between the two of them. Not having a war just made things confusing, Catra thought. Roles were constantly shifting. It was hard to keep straight in her mind that she wasn't here to fight Adora. Harder still to keep at bay were other thoughts, vague imaginings and what-ifs that were pointless and led to nowhere.

"The war's over," Adora said. And, when Catra didn't refute it as a mere stalemate fast enough, Adora pressed on. "We could be friends again."

It was an incredibly naive thing to say, and Catra hated her for being able to say it so easily.

"Oh Adora," Catra said. "What fucked us up went on way before the war began."

Out of patience, her peace totally destroyed, Catra turned and left.

Chapter Text

//

the story so far:

//

Pt 1

  • Diverging from S1, the war between the Princess Alliance (PA) and the Horde escalates for two years until Catra usurps Hordak's place as Commander of the Horde.
  • The short-lived quiet ends when the BFF squad investigates the Fright Zone; they are captured & Bright Moon citizens are ransomed and returned.
  • On a technicality, Adora is not a BM citizen and is instead kept as Ward of the Horde, swordless, and used as leverage by the Horde to prevent an invasion from the PA.
  • Adora learns about the New Horde's politics and structure: Catra has turned into a recluse, feared and respected; some Force Captains have stayed while others have defected to their own territories.
  • Her murder of Hordak and Shadow Weaver has led to baseless rumors of her strength and magic powers (she has none.)
    Adora asks for the truth behind SW's death.

 


 

//

the shoe drop

//

 

Over a year ago

 

Entrapta poked her head out of her lab. A tendril of hair raised her welding mask for a better field of vision. Down the corridor, officers argued over shower times. From the smell, Entrapta knew they’d travelled a long way from the field. For a few minutes, she waited outside her lab. After a few looks from the soldiers passing by, Entrapta went back inside. It had been an important mission; though Catra usually hit the lab after a mission (always smelling fresh too) she shouldn’t have assumed that Hordak wouldn’t call for her and/or Scorpia, who usually came with. Their best times were usually after a battle; win or lose Catra and Scorpia always had some interesting tidbit, data, or finding about First Ones tech or simply the history of Etheria.

But still. They’d been deployed a week ago and the purpose of the deployment had been to specifically test her First Ones x Horde crossover cannon. She wanted to hear if it worked against force fields (magical) and walls (mechanical), if the First Ones code played nicely with the payload, if the timer had worked, and so on. There were plenty of moving parts to the cannon, which was why only Catra had clearance and training to use it.

Entrapta went outside again. This time she asked a passing soldier, “did we win?”

The guy gave her a funny look. “No,” he said, before walking away.

Entrapta couldn’t shake off the look on the soldier’s face. She should have been able to be patient, as Hordak could have asked for Catra’s report first, but after sulking back into her lab and fifteen minutes of failing to concentrate on her welding, she picked up a handset and called Scorpia. After a minute of trying to connect, the darn thing disconnected.

 

//

//

//

 

With a click, Entrapta's recorder started replaying an old log. “The Cannon discharged prematurely,” her voice from more than a year ago intoned. “I have been unable to interview Catra about this. She is not in the medbay. But Scorpia says she’s ‘okay’. Beyond that, she hasn’t been able to tell me. I suspect that she doesn’t want to tell me but I am unable to assess Catra’s condition myself. That is typical of Catra, she hates physical examinations.” The voice went on to record Hordak’s displeasure, the great dip in morale, et cetera, et cetera.

A tendril of hair flicked the off switch with more force than necessary. The whole affair was one of Entrapta’s greatest failures and a major enigma besides. Just as great as the mystery of Catra’s accident -- the most competent operator Entrapta knew -- she also couldn’t name how the whole thing made her feel. She knew she felt “bad” about it, but it was a vague and unhelpful feeling as it hindered her from asking Catra what had really happened on the battlefield. Asking should have been easy; between the three of them, it was a simple fact that they had the good rapport needed to keep the Horde running.

But she didn't ask. For a long time, she filed that under the unknown, things that she couldn't quantify. They would have to stay there until further scientific investigation. At the same time, Entrapta wished she could say something. It was one of the few experiments that were left hanging, without a definite result. And they watched each other's backs, the three of them -- somehow, she got the impression that she was not doing a good job of watching Catra’s back. She wasn’t sure why, and the unknown inside of her grated at her, something that she kept constantly at bay by keeping busy.

On her left a console came to life, the light of the screen pulsing madly. Entrapta turned, flicked a switch, listened to the message, then tapped the intercom.

"Mystacor's under attack," she said.

 

//

//

//

 

Catra replayed the audio-only message Entrapta sent to the Battle Room.

" 'It's the Horde! ', wow, really? Damn, I was hoping the separatists would use a different uniform." Catra was irritated she didn't think to change the Horde's look sooner. Anything to distance themselves from the past.

The rest of the room fell silent as more details petered out -- there was something about an Alliance meeting, which gave the assault some context, as it was the chance the separatists needed to take out the most number of princesses with the least number of battles. "Kyle -- send word that we condemn the attack and we have nothing to do with it and would like to request a transmission with Bright Moon at their earliest convenience or whatever. We can't run a transmission between the Black Garnet and the Moonstone without them preparing for it in advance, so the messages have to be sent now ." Through carrier goddamn pidgeon, too, because Etheria didn’t have radio towers like the Horde did.

He left running after she dismissed him with a wave, the room so silent they could hear his footsteps. Then the doors hissed shut and things were quiet again.

"We don't know which Force Captain is behind this," Catra said, more to herself.

"This has number 6's style all over the place," Scorpia said. "Fighting at night, out of nowhere, quickly: that's Skeletor."

Lonnie: “So that means… his talks with Queen Angella didn’t go very well, huh.”

No shit, Lonnie , Catra thought but didn’t say. That was the whole point of letting Adora communicate with Bright Moon.

“Yeah, but he may have been able to get Mystacor’s location through some bad judgement on Angella’s behalf. Or he could have stolen the location while pretending to negotiate.”

"You sure it's not Leech?"

"Leech is probably working under him," Scorpia replied.

Scorpia’s judgement lined up with her own. Catra nodded. "Yeah, Mystacor's not winning that fight. They're all magic there; they don't have a standing army, 'cuz they think their fancy cloaking tricks and shields are enough."

When Catra didn't say anything else, Lonnie finally ran out of patience. "And the plan is?"

"Oh. We're not getting involved."

"I dunno, boss..." Scorpia started to say.

"They'll use Mystacor's geography to their advantage," Entrapta said, tapping a few buttons on the table’s console. A map appeared on the screen at the table. 

"Mystacor is between Bright Moon and the Fright Zone, atop a forest no one can navigate. They'll have trouble keeping it," Catra said. "We should sit and play the long game. Maybe deploy those drones Entrapta tried once."

Lonnie argued back. "They're still halfway to either of us. They could attack Bright Moon or the Horde from Mystacor in a day."

"So we attack them when they leave for Bright Moon."

"... You're assuming their target is Bright Moon." Entrapta tossed her a look. And you know that's not true.

Lonnie puffed up. "We're the obvious target, they know we're in no shape to really win a fight. I mean, next to them, we suck. They came with Hordak when Hordak first arrived here. After Mystacor, for sure Bright Moon will have fortified itself with the rest of the alliance armies. We don't have that." When nobody had an answer, Lonnie pressed on. "We should have had an alliance. With anyone else. We had six months to shut these guys down. We knew they were trouble."

Catra tried not to roll her eyes. "You need trust for an alliance. We just took She-Ra and forced a stalemate. Nobody, not even more neutral towns, would have bit. Also, there's that little issue that we're literally still the Horde and we're still, as far as anyone is concerned, the reason for most of Etheria's destruction."

"What about... coming to their aid?" And there was Scorpia, always with the compassionate approach.

"That's going to a be a waste of resources. Mystacor is half a day away if we send a company or two, longer if we march the bulk of our army, assuming that the Whispering Woods suddenly likes us. We don't have enough skiffs, we don't have enough air transport. the only way for the Horde to win a battle is to play to our strengths. that means fighting them on our land.

"So we do nothing."

Catra groaned. Now would have been a great time for those drones of Entrapta's that could transmit audio and visual across the damn continent. But no, transmitters didn't grow on trees and Entrapta had been taken up with terraforming and the Whispering Woods would eventually reshuffle, fucking up the relay of data -- which happened the last time they tried. Outside of the cell tower the Horde used to transmit information to mobiles and terminals, there was no easy communication. Again, they returned to the problem of being excluded from the rest of Etheria. Catra couldn't even guarantee that Kyle's message would be received in time by the different kingdoms.

"The fastest thing to do is to send scouts and come back with information." They did have aircraft, one of their exclusive advancements beyond current Etherian tech, not counting the flying horse.

"I'll have the runway set up and air traffic control alerted."

"... What do we tell Adora?"

Dammit, Scorpia. "She's not a part of this conversation," Catra said irritably.

"Maybe she should be. She could know things about Mystacor."

"Adora's a soldier and there's no intel she can give us that will magically solve our distance problem. Unless she can tell me that there are tunnels underneath Etheria, or some kind of teleportation tech that lets non-Princesses travel -- and we know this magic or tech doesn't exist -- she has no tactical value and telling her will do nothing but upset her."

"So if Skeletor does march on the Horde she'll just be kept in her room? Without word?"

"If Skeletor knocks on our door we have plenty of time to brief her. Look, we're going to start a second meeting with the rest of the Force Captains, prep the Fright Zone for high alert, and call for the pilots. Let's get moving and let's not be distracted by... feelings or politics or whatever."

 

//

//

//

 

A scant hour later, a lone scouting plane somehow took off from the Horde. Air traffic control had left the runway open and lit while they sorted out the protocols for actual missions. "Hey, wait!" the operator yelled at the transmitter, "We haven't authorized any flights yet!"

Behind her, Scorpia put a claw on the girl's shoulder. "It's fine. She's flying ahead for us. I'll authorize it."

The operator didn’t question whoever the pilot was.

An hour and a half later, the news finally made it to the Commander herself. Scorpia had been waiting for the call in her own office, where she was picking out who was scouting and who wasn't. "Hi, Catra," she said, tapping the mobile to go on speaker. Scorpia picked up a few papers, as though going through the motions would make the call nothing more than a rote follow up.

"You told her and you let her go."

Scorpia sighed and dropped the papers back to the desk. She sank into her chair and leaned back.

"I did," Scorpia said.

On the other line, she heard something fall and break. "Battle Room One. Now."

The line went dead. Scorpia leaned against her chair and sighed. She dialed another number. "Yeah, she found out already. It's okay," she said into the receiver, getting up and walking out of the room. "I'll take care of it. No, just stay where you are."

 

//

//

//

 

"Wait, what's this about Adora being gone?"

Entrapta moved a step back. She knew she'd hit the wall of their narrow corridor if she kept backing up, and that Lonnie was likely to shove her against it if she didn't answer right away.

"We had to let her go. W-we thought it out, Scorpia and I, and we... came to the conclusion that returning Adora could potentially fastrack the peace process. We need allies, you know we don't have enough manpower or experience to fight."

"Taking Adora was supposed to keep the peace. And we just gave her away? Back to Bright Moon, of all the non-neutral kingdoms to go for? Even Salineas would have been -- "

"The situation has changed! And Bright Moon, yes, because that's where support for Adora is strongest. They’ll trust her."

"Damn!"

Entrapta backed up once more, trying to find a way out. To Lonnie's left was Kyle, who was looking at Lonnie as though she had a clue how to fix this.

"When Catra hears -- "

"She already has. She's --" Entrapta glanced at the door.

Lonnie walked over. "Locked," she murmured. From inside, they all heard a dull thud. Kyle’s eyes darted back and forth the two girls.

"That would likely be Catra," Entrapta said, feeling a sharp stab at her heart that Scorpia had ordered her to stay and wait and that she hadn't said anything, hadn't insisted on joining. She could see Catra banging a fist against the table, yelling, even, but from the other side of the door, almost nothing could be heard. You did what she asked you to do, she thought, and you're still wondering if it's the wrong thing.

"This is technically treason," Lonnie said.

We can't always do what we're told. Something Catra knew, almost by instinct. Something that Scorpia had picked up from Catra, of all the crazy things to learn from her.

"We had no choice," Entrapta said, remembering Scorpia's reasoning. "Yes, we could have gone and run our plan through the Commander, but we'd risk having her shoot it down and taking too long before we'd do something proactive." And time was a major factor. Adora, especially when Catra had to make decisions about her, was a wild card. Whether or not Catra would have allowed it, the only way to make sure was to go ahead and just do it.

From inside the meeting room, the pneumatic tubes hissed as they pulled apart. The door opened upwards, disappearing into the walls. "Entrapta, get me the jet," Catra said, walking outside. "Scorpia has my orders." Upon seeing Lonnie and Kyle, she said, "get your assignments and we'll disperse the rest of everyone's roles. Entrapta -- we leave the Horde in twenty minutes. And nothing leaves this corridor, dammit. If anyone finds out that letting Adora go was unauthorized --" Catra didn't bother finishing the sentence, still angry as she walked away.

Inside, Scorpia's head was bowed. Entrapta walked in, her hair all frizzy, mirroring how unsure she felt. Did it go well? From the looks of it, it didn't? But Catra said they were leaving... should she tap Scorpia's shoulder? Her hair ended up deciding for her with a rub on Scorpia's back. "It's fine," Scorpia said quietly, looking down at the desk. "She’ll go along with our plan, kind of. But I won't be leaving with the two of you."

 

//

//

//

 

"You said earlier that there was no trust between us and the rest of Etheria. We need to start somewhere, with a strong enough show of intent. So I thought that returning Adora with intel about Skeletor would be enough proof, would give us enough distance from the separatists. We're all lumped in together, like you said. About the communication issues, Adora's going to be faster than the carrier pigeons that the rest of Etheria use, and there's no way the Alliance can ignore her return."

"You’re assuming Adora won't die between here and Bright Moon. Gee, if only there wasn't a warzone that would tempt that martyr-complex-having dipshit."

"I have faith in Adora. She knows getting the intel and herself to Bright Moon is what will safeguard us."

"Oh yeah, that's another point in favor of 'launch myself into a warzone' for her. You think she wants to safeguard the Evil Horde's future?"

Scorpia met Catra's gaze -- that was her answer. The gaze said: Do you really think she doesn't want to?

"Y'know, Adora never even finished one actual mission with the Horde," Catra said at last. "No, blind faith isn't going to help us. There are two things going on here. She could go to Bright Moon, follow orders -- we have no guarantee that Angella won't screw Adora -- and us by extension -- over. There's no official carriers, with her, you didn't go by official channels. Angella could take the intel and keep Adora, leaving us with one less bargaining chip. Adora isn't She-Ra, after all. Without the sword she can't do anything, she can't run off and do her own thing. We need to collect her, send a carrier to make sure she makes it to Bright Moon and has enough cover from us. She's our pawn, not theirs. We'd need to make your move official since you've already started to play that hand. When Adora comes in, by herself, without any writing from us, but all the intel we have on Skeletor, that seems suspicious of us as well. Like we're using them. And Angella won't be inclined to risk something based on good faith alone.

"The second thing that could go on is that Adora gets sidetracked by Mystacor -- and I'll bet you this is what's going to happen. She'll get herself killed there unless she finds her friends in time. She doesn't have the sword, you put her in a goddamn carrier--"

"--with a skiff stowed in it, and some firepower." Scorpia said.

"So what?" Catra flared up. "It will be the first time on the battlefield that she's at a major disadvantage. And she's spent half a year away from actual combat. Adora's never fought as a regular grunt, foot soldier, whatever. Even with her strength, she's outnumbered and this isn't some fight with robot spiders. This is a battle with the remains of an invading army from another world."

 

//

//

//

 

Catra was coming with the guard, in her own craft. Entrapta was piloting 

They hadn't been expecting that. Entrapta had theorized that Catra would work with Adora being sent back -- she was good at working with the parameters given to her, she was good at adapting; that in having no choice, she’d be forced to come around, but Entrapta hadn't been expecting that Catra would add weight to the negotiation by coming herself. By taking the last jet, there would be no air support left in the Horde.

"Yeah, but I won't be coming with you two. I'm to make sure nothing goes wrong here." Scorpia said.

Catra making decisions out of anger and pettiness wasn't new, but Scorpia had almost never been on the receiving end of that -- at least, not when it mattered. It was a paper-thin excuse. True, the Horde needed someone who could make command decisions, but Lonnie and the rest of the Force Captains weren't incompetent, especially not when united against a common enemy. And usually Scorpia went with Catra, respecting that Entrapta preferred to stay out of the action.

"Guess I should be glad she didn't have me drawn and quartered, huh?"

And then:

"Are you going to be okay?"

Everyone knew that Entrapta did not fly out on missions. Nor did she brief soldiers. But Entrapta nodded. "This is... far better than we expected, I think. She's making sure that she's behind our plan. That the Horde's coordinated and that the outside kingdoms know that."

 

//

I wanna get a new look

//

 

Before they left, Entrapta gave the cadets a set of uniforms. "So this will probably not fit very well," she said, handing clothes out to the pilots in the assembled room, "but please work something out between your teams." How Scorpia made talking to a room full of teenagers easy, Entrapta would never know. She went from row to row, her hair tossing uniforms to everyone, whether they were ready to catch them or not 

"Are these new uniforms?"

"Yes! Scorpia made them way before we, ah -- before this mission. Because we need the rest of the world to know we're not the same faction as the aggressors."

Truthfully Scorpia had drawn the uniforms during a meeting sometime before the coup. But Entrapta remembered in the nick of time that this was not the place to reveal that. These uniforms were black for covert missions. "Right, so, the runway will open up in fifteen minutes. Let's all get to our aircraft by then..." Entrapta trailed off. "Dismiss yourselves once you've traded uniforms?" It seemed that everyone had understood, so she nodded to herself in a room full of teenagers taller than her, and left.

 

//

//

//

 

The ‘jet’ was not a jet at all, but a scouting craft refitted with less heavy metal and a more efficient design on the wings and sides, which made it the fastest in the fleet. Entrapta ran a tendril of hair over the side of the plane, breathing in the smell of oil and grease and chrome, before letting her hair lift her up to the cockpit. As a scouting craft, it had been designed for two pilots side by side, though the autopilot would be enough to cruise through the air after liftoff.

At the pilot’s seat, Entrapta fit then rotated a lug wrench, loosening the control wheel. The original yoke had been intended for Scorpia, made to make it easy for her claws to hold on and steer the ship. Entrapta picked up the spare and adjusted it to fit, then pressed a lever to her side to move the chair closer. Lastly, she flicked a button, paying attention to the traffic control lights above her. The radio operator stammered out the last few checks and commands. She had never had to say them outside of a simulation, and certainly not to one of the highest ranked officials in the Horde.

Catra jumped in with a whump and closed the hatch. Inside, there was about as much space as a tank: enough for two, cramped for four. “Let’s go,” she said.

Out of the corner of her eye, Entrapta noticed the bulk at Catra’s back. Dirt clung to a burlap sack, falling off in bits onto the metal floor of the plane.

“You’re taking the sword?”

Catra unslung the bag, sat on the co-pilot’s chair, and buckled up. “She’ll need it.”

 

//

//

//

 

Throughout the flight, Adora bit back her screaming instinct to run for Mystacor. She had no idea how Skeletor could have bypassed Mystacor’s fields. By the end of the first hour of the trip, after poring over the intel Scorpia had given her to pass to Angella, Adora had also figured out that Mystacor was the ideal target for its geography and its use as the Alliance’s meeting point. Skeletor would only hit that hard if there were enough targets to warrant an attack on a city floating in the sky. That meant Princesses. That meant Bow and Glimmer, for sure, while Angella was too important and would stay (as she always did) protected in Bright Moon. Adora wondered if mother and daughter still fought over being allowed to go on missions. She wondered if news had reached Angella, if Angella regretted indulging her daughter. It was a mom thing, Adora had slowly learned.

Adora stayed on course, telling herself that a figurehead was worth more alive than dead. That Mystacor was worth more conquered rather than destroyed. And what about everyone else? What about the surrounding towns on the surface, the people under the great lords and ladies of Etheria? But Adora couldn’t transform into She-Ra, and she could offer no one any protection only as one Horde soldier against many.

Still not good for anything outside of She-Ra, huh?

She heard that thought in Catra’s voice. She’d been hearing that thought, in that voice, through long nights when she couldn’t sleep. The helplessness of it would have, at one point, pushed her to prove herself. But then the stark reality of the past six months was this: that she was only able to do anything for anyone because of various players in the Horde. Even now she was but a messenger in the game the queens and self-styled new rulers were playing.

And her job was nothing more complicated than to stay alive and follow the course Scorpia had laid out. You can do that, right? Again, it was Catra’s voice.

To distract herself from that taunting tone, Adora scanned the scrolls she’d been ordered to deliver. Force Captains one to five were all names she didn’t really recognize, except Lonnie -- Force Captain one. Outside of their names there was nothing else. On the other hand, force captains six to ten formed the bulk of the reports.

 

Force Captain 6: Keldor (Skeletor) -- HOSTILE -- Vanguard

Force Captain 7: Leech -- HOSTILE -- Rear Guard

Force Captain 8: Octavia -- NEUTRAL, LOCATION UNKNOWN -- Artillery

Force Captain 9: Mantenna -- NEUTRAL, LOCATION UNKNOWN -- Engineer Corps

Force Captain 10: Modulok -- NEUTRAL, LOCATION UNKNOWN (SALINEAS?) -- Naval Operations

 

Under each heading was a longer brief. Most of these, Adora suspected, were already things that she’d shared with Bright Moon. After all, she was a Force Captain candidate. It was a gesture, but didn’t compromise the New Horde’s own safety by playing its hand.

How soon to Bright Moon? 

Total run time, according to the readout, was nearing three and a half hours. That left another four hours before she reached her destination, because of the roundabout route Scorpia had drawn up for her.

“You promise you’ll stay away from Mystacor, okay? The Horde’s depending on you.”

 “But Catra doesn’t know about this…”

"We’ll tell her after. Then she’ll kind of have to roll with it.”

“What you’re doing sounds like something Catra would do,” Adora said, spelling out the irony.

“Well, y’know, I learn from the best,” Scorpia said, as cheerful as ever. Adora had learned in six months that Scorpia’s good cheer was her armor, tougher than her claws.

Adora nodded. “I won’t let you down.”

And who else had she said that to and failed?

How long are you going to dwell on that? You’re either going to do your job or not.

Adora looked out at the vast darkness of Etheria’s night sky. It was a clear night, but the moon was a pale sliver. It wouldn’t have offered enough light for night marching, making a surprise attack all the more unlikely. It was one of those things those with magic and power would take for granted. If Skeletor knocked the magic out of Mystacor, there would be enough darkness to overwhelm any magic-user. How had Glimmer reacted? Bow? And for sure Perfuma was there too, close enough to Mystacor to make the trip.

A beam of light flashed in front of her. Adora yelped and pulled the yoke up, lifting the nose of the plane. Before she could punch the transmitter to open all frequencies, the speaker rang out: “Identify yourself, Horde soldier.”

Adora’s eyes darted to the screen. It was dark, and in the sea of trees it would not be easy to find who was shooting at her. So how had they found her, when she too was equally as camouflaged?

You’re running out of time.

Adora opened a transmission. “This is serial number,” she paused, then gave Rogelio’s. “We’re not here to fight. We,  uh, come in peace.”

Wait, did they find me because of the tracks from the exhaust?

“Little too late for that,” the voice said. “Can’t let a vessel just come back home blab to everyone where the rest of the Horde’s gone, y’know?”

Even before the operator had finished talking, Adora tilted to the right, evading a set of shots that tracked her through the sky. They’d kept talking to distract her; at least she knew that trick. Adora turned off the receiver and maneuvered again, tilting the plane in the opposite way. She grit her teeth as her stomach dipped at the swerve.

A second volley of shots punctured the night. The whole thing unfolded slowly, partly because the carrier was pathetic at steering, and because the altitude was high enough to give ground turrets a hard time compensating for her every turn. But Adora knew they’d hit her eventually, even if the tracks her exhaust left weren’t too visible. They had spotters and heavy artillery -- it’s Octavia’s settlement, probably.

Another volley of energy blasts followed after her, one just nicking the tail on her right. Adora winced at the shock of the blast. Better not forget to be there in one piece , she thought, watching the flashing triangulating enemy position on the plane’s screen. It was, like the steering, maddeningly slow. A chime later, the map refreshed with a pointer informing her that they were stationary turrets, based on the origin being the same for every blast. Judging from quarter-circle layout, she’d accidentally found an ex-horde encampment defended likely with a full circle of turrets.

There was no getting past them -- she was too slow, the tradeoff for armor. Adora could either fly north, farther away from Bright Moon, costing more fuel than the tank had; she could go back the way she came; or she could reroute closer to Mystacor, but not too close.

Not too close, she told herself as she steered the plane southward, watching her plane marker on the map readout crawl, centimeter by centimeter, towards the outside of the enemy’s range. The steady beep of her marker on the map told her she wasn’t out of commission yet, a grim reminder as now-erratic bursts of fire lit up the sky.

So much for “this route is the safest way to Bright Moon!”

 

//

//

//

 

An hour alone with Entrapta was enough to cool Catra’s anger. With nothing left to cling to, there was only irritation that smouldered like the dying orange that laid beneath a previous night’s blaze. They had several hours before they’d find out if Adora followed orders or not, and while Catra usually read Adora perfectly, there had been one bet she’d lost with herself: she’d bet that Adora would try to find a way back to her sword while trapped in the Horde, and she hadn’t. Instead she’d taken to her captivity as docilely as Catra had ever seen her. Part of that, Catra could attribute to Scorpia’s way with people. But it wasn’t all Scorpia and the possibility of blowing up at Scorpia over something she was wrong about chipped away at her.

“Entrapta,” Catra said.

Entrapta stopped humming.

“What were you both expecting me to do when I found out about Adora’s absence?”

It wasn’t necessary for her to say, I knew you two were in cahoots.

“No, we thought... you'd agree to let her go and continue with the scouts.”

“You think me risking my neck leaving the Horde is too much?”

“We know that things are different when it comes to Adora. When it comes to you, and Adora,” Entrapta emphasized the and.

"I thought we agreed" -- And here, Catra's voice was quiet -- "to trust each other. Didn't the two of you trust me, to talk to me first about this?"

"...When it comes to Adora, there's almost no negotiating with you."

Catra laughed. It was a hollow laugh.

Entrapta went on talking. "Granted, you're almost never wrong when it comes to her -- but this wasn't about her, and we knew you would want to keep her out of the fighting."

Catra chuckled. "I did say that Scorpia should be the Queen of the Horde. We would have been able to use Adora more, I think. And it would make negotiations so much more official. Proper royalty, someone with a proper runestone..."

"It's... not wrong," Entrapta said, "that you can't, ah, use Adora." Did Entrapta sound nervous? She was almost never nervous, unless it was the nervous excitement that befell her whenever her experiments were carried out. This was something else. "That's why we're here. That's why there are three of us."

"Wrong or right, the only thing that matters is that we're not dead."

Here she was, chasing after Adora again. Now that did sound familiar. It reminded her of Shadow Weaver. Catra exhaled and leaned onto her seat. The lurch she felt in her gut didn't come from being airborne.

 

You're going to end up just like us. Catra felt the ghost of a dead woman's hand on her shoulder.

 

A/N: 

I swear, Adora and Catra will be at the same location at the same time next chapter.

(1) Entrapta's drones are from ch1. I updated the time distances to reflect actual troop movement.

(2) The Horde having aircraft comes from the Princess Prom episode. Guessing that they don’t have fleets and fleets of craft because it would obviously negate the threat of the Whispering Woods.

(3) I find it weird that the Princess Prom invites were by scroll while the Horde has all this high tech stuff (and even aircraft).

 

I have to admit, I am a "let's discuss the content of our hearts" writer and having to write "triangulating enemy positions" took a lot of energy. Also, I am frustrated that I keep telling myself "next chapter, they will talk to each other" and then I'm suddenly sidetracked by plot and stuff. That being said, I hope you guys like the bits with Entrapta and Scorpia.

 

 

Chapter Text

//

scaring you

//

 

Over the horizon, a plume of smoke trailed up into the sky. That was Mystacor, and Adora was nowhere to be found.

Entrapta filed that bit of data away, then returned to thoughts of her past. Despite the mission that would have pumped the blood of any new Horde soldier, eager to prove themselves, the tension Entrapta felt from earlier could only keep for so long. After a few hours, she’d resigned herself to whatever would happen. She took a long, hard look at the control wheel. The yoke itself was shiny from a lack of use, while the rest of the control panel had gashes where Scorpia’s claws had fit awkwardly the first few times they tried to fix the jet for her.

“You were punishing Scorpia when you didn’t let her come with us,” she said, thinking out loud.

Catra glanced at her direction. She hadn’t also said anything about the column of smoke, the lack of Adora’s ship. “It makes sense for Scorpia to stay. She runs the Horde, really. And we can’t all be away from the base the way things are.”

“It’s true she’s the most well-liked. But that wasn’t the only reason you kept her there. You wanted to deprive her of the chance to help. You know that’s all she wanted to do.” You were being petty, she thought, but didn’t say. Catra knew that well enough.

Out of the corner of her eye, Entrapta could see Catra’s ears flatten. Usually Catra was better at hiding how she felt but today was too high-charged. But then again, Entrapta could not place, with certainty, what those ears meant. It might have been guilt, that amorphous feeling that Entrapta herself grappled with. With nothing else to do, Entrapta continued. “Scorpia made the right move not to tell you. You would have barred her from doing anything and lose Mystacor and Adora.”

Catra cackled. “I lost Adora a long time ago.”

And as expected -- Catra focused on Adora.

“Evidence disagrees. She’s even less logical than you. Meaning that her decision to stay as a ward of the Horde was an emotional one. You would have had some part in that.” Entrapta paused. “Scorpia turned out to be right. What you did to her was unfair.”

“What, you wanna swap places with her now?”

“No. I just… wanted to speak for her. But we’re on a mission now. The timing isn’t good, but I’m never good at these social things.”

“You could go back to being a regular princess too. Though you’re technically a queen.”

“You know I won’t,” Entrapta said.

“You’re annoyed,” Catra said, in a sing-song tone.

Perhaps she was. Entrapta wasn’t good at identifying her own feelings, sometimes. But she could observe, had been observing Catra since they met. “Evidence says… you’re also annoyed.”

Catra snorted. “You didn’t have to take the mission if you were so worried about Scorpia’s feelings.”

When Catra started saying these things, it meant misdirection; she didn’t want to talk about whatever. She would take, as Scorpia called them, “pot shots.” But Entrapta weighed their situation, thought about the very real possibility that six months of work would go up in flames. She thought about the uncertainty of the situation, and spoke.

“I had to take this mission. You asked Scorpia not to tell me my cannon almost killed you so I wouldn’t feel bad about something I built. Because you knew all I had was my tech. Even when you’re being -- like this, whatever this is -- I could never not take a mission. Not if you asked.”

“Oh god. We went through this over a year ago! The cannon firing off was my fault. And you had to make it. You were under Hordak’s orders.”

“I was under orders to build whatever I thought would end the war the fastest way. The cannon was still, in the end, my invention.”

“Y’know, I don’t even know why you stayed sometimes. I mean, you figured it eventually that they didn’t leave you.”

“I figured it out eventually that you lied to me, yes. I was wrong that they left me behind and you took advantage of an unscientific, emotional assumption.”

“Yeah! You could have walked right back there to Bright Moon and played the whole I was under duress, they forced me to make stuff and I was lied to card. I mean, I did lie to you. That’s classic Catra.”

“You did lie. But you gave me the Horde. And you thought about how I’d feel about my inventions. You wanted to spare me.”

Catra looked ready to murder her if she said another word. Scorpia had been on the receiving end of this look many times, and Scorpia was still alive. But Entrapta was fast losing her nerve.  

“I suppose, what I’m trying to say is, I won’t leave. And I forgave you a long time ago for lying. And I know Scorpia’s not mad at you either even if you’re lashing out at her.”

A burst of static thankfully punctured the air.

“What is it!” Catra yelled, yanking the transmitter off its slot. More static, then finally -- “We found the Ward. And… what appears to be Force Captain Octavia’s settlement. They know they’ve been discovered. We just barely got out, and the Ward’s ship is down. Communication is still stable with the She-Ra. She took the transceiver.”

The first thing Entrapta thought of was the fuel, plus the scrap metal that passed for wings on the scout ships. “Get out of there,” Catra said. She was likely weighing the same things.

 

//

//

//

 

Catra had a good, long, five-minute-think as they sped through the sky.  Had she been a sharper thinker, she wouldn’t have spent every air resource they had on a guess. She would have sent scouting craft with enough fuel to cover the trip and kept herself protected in the Horde. Maybe Scorpia should have gone after all instead of her. God knew she used Scorpia as a shield every damn time when it came to Adora. Perhaps the problem simply was that Catra could never think when it came to Adora.

But one thing was true, however warped her judgement had gotten -- she’d involved everyone in this mess and it was an unnecessary use of resources. Again, she remembered how hard Shadow Weaver had tried in the beginning, to get Adora back, throwing everyone and everything at a wild goose chase.

In that moment, Catra felt like a fool.

“I need your advice,” she said to Entrapta.

“Yes…?” Entrapta looked at her, apprehensive.  

“What, am I scaring you?”

“I just said a bunch of strange things, I don’t know what you’re thinking.”

“Ever since we captured Adora, I always had someone else deal with her.”

“I didn’t want to see her, either. I don’t know how to talk to her. So -- samesies?”

That was definitely something Entrapta learned from Scorpia.

“It seems like someone else has had to pick up after me.”

“Yes, Scorpia usually picks up after us.” At that point blank fact, hotter than the sickest burn, Catra had to smile.

“So I was thinking… I’ll take care of tracking Adora and getting her to Bright Moon.”

As soon as those words tumbled out of her mouth she felt stupid saying them. She looked up at Entrapta. Her expression was thoughtful. Catra could see her weigh a thousand possible things she could say. “We’re running out of time.”

“That, and the fuel. We can’t keep changing course looking for her. If you drop me though… I should be able to track her.”

“Adora still has the shortwave radio. As long as we have a signal, we should be able to keep in contact until I get close to Bright Moon.”

“Right. And I’ll have half the guard make sure you arrive safely.”

“Half…?”

“The other half flies back to the Horde for air support and recon. And to update Scorpia that she won the bet.” After a long pause, Catra added, “I know you don’t do negotiations --” then broke off.

Entrapta stared at the wheel. Her hair was perfectly still.

“Let’s consider it a social experiment,” Entrapta said, nodding to no-one in particular.

“...Thanks,” Catra said. What else could she say? “Let’s get moving then. We need this ship in Bright Moon as soon as possible.” Catra unbuckled the safety straps and opened the hatch. “I’ll see you in thirty or so hours. You better have Angella on our side by then!”

 

//

//

//

 

Adora jumped over some roots and bushes, her head swiveling for the light that came pouring out of her headlamp.

Behind her, the robots struggled to adjust against the irregular terrain. They were cutting a swath through the forest when they didn’t take a stab at their target with their laser blasts. But, being robots, they were easy to outrun. Adora only had to get far enough away, ditch the light, and find a tree to hide on. She patted the bag behind her. She still had everything she’d been told to carry.

After catching her breath, she kept running, keeping to the densest paths. Noise or not, it didn’t matter as the robots closed in on their target with thermal sensors. So Adora’s best bet was to use their terrible camera articulation against them. With any luck, the Horde soldiers who’d found her would catch up soon, maybe see all the laser blasts or hear the noise, and bail her out.

Did Catra know I was going to screw this up too?

That was a useless thought. Adora shook it out of her head and listened. The rustling of branches and the felling on trees were distant sounds. Looking around, she found herself the tallest, widest tree she could find and started climbing. At a high enough vantage point, she took off her headlamp and waited. The robots would lead the Horde soldiers to her.

She sat and held her breath as the robots were about to make their way past her tree, snapping branches, trampling over moss… surely that would catch someone’s attention.

From a distance, a beam of light hissed below Adora, followed by an explosion. Looking down, a smoking heap was all that remained of the leading robot. Adora jumped from branch to branch, looking to stay out of the way as more blasts of light erupted from deep within the forest. Bkam! Another robot exploded. In a few minutes, the robots were all destroyed by the same distant sniper. For the next few minutes, Adora played a waiting game with her savior. When the Horde soldier didn’t show themself, she decided to jump down from the trees and take a risk, leaving the backpack for later retrieval.

She weaved through the robots, looking for parts or weapons she might be able to use. She was halfway to tearing a robot arm equipped with a blade, when she heard the rustle of grass behind her.

“You won’t need that.”

Adora turned. It was Catra, a rifle slung on her arm, a lantern on her other hand, a pack carried behind her.

She made a little shrug. “Hey, Adora.”

Adora took a step back. For a moment, neither of them spoke. Adora could feel her heart thump in shock. After all those months of hoping she could see Catra, here she was, like she happened to be strolling by.

“That was,” she said, fishing for words when none came, “that was some nice shooting.”

“Nothing a good spotter scope can’t help with,” Catra said, like they did this all the time.

An owl hooted and took flight. Its wings fluttered and fluttered until the sound drifted away. Catra just stood there like she had all day and night to hang out, like she hadn’t spent six months ignoring Adora’s presence at her kingdom. Her hair was a little shorter than before, Adora realized. It was something she hadn’t noticed before, that brief evening they met after watching those cadet comps.

As always, it was Adora left floundering, wondering how to react to Catra.

“I… left the scrolls up there,” Adora said, pointing to the tree, struggling to think of what to say.

“Then get ‘em.”

Catra sat on a broken robot’s leg. Adora shut her mouth and played fetch. Above, she took a moment to breathe. Catra was playing it cool, focusing on the mission. She’d probably been flying, for some reason or another. But it wasn’t Adora’s place to ask, and after half a year of being left out of the table, Adora found it easy -- she should have been angrier at herself for this -- she found it easy to accept who had come to fetch her and cart her off to whatever square she was to be on the chessboard. Catra was, in this case, just moving her pieces along.

When she came down, her sword was stuck to the earth, with the scabbard next to it.  

“What is this?”

“You’d be dead in hostile territory without it.”

Adora looked at the sword, then back at Catra. Catra raised an eyebrow.

“It’s not a trick. Obviously.”

“Obviously,” Adora repeated. “If you wanted me dead, you’d have let the robots do it.”

“Still got no faith in me, huh.”

Adora took a step backwards, the words a physical blow. I didn’t mean it that way, she thought, but that was a stupid, impulsive response. And she’d lost everything to stupid, impulsive responses.  

“Sorry,” she said. And when she said it, she realized she meant it.

Catra only shrugged again. “We’re walking to Bright Moon. I didn’t want Entrapta wasting fuel looking for you, so --”

“W--wait. What about the troops from 8?”

“They won’t stray too far, they can’t risk it. Nobody wants a battle royale, least of all the remaining factions. We’ll worry about a hunting party when they actually come.”

Adora thought about that. It made sense. “Roger that.”

“‘Roger that’?” Catra mimicked. “Not gonna put up a fight and run off to save your friends?”

You have the sword , Adora thought to herself. And for a brief moment she remembered how it felt when the strength of it flowed into her. But she shook her head.

“... I signed a contract,” Adora said. “I intend to keep it.”

“Right, sure.” Catra turned, her tail swishing. “Just get the damn sword and let’s move.”

Adora lifted the sword. It had been months since she’d seen it. She wanted to speak the words, just to feel what it was like again to be -- well, good enough. Good enough not to need saving. But Catra wasn’t slowing down, wasn’t giving her any room to breathe in, to feel the heft of her sword. Her fingertips ran through the grooves of the hilt. It was hard to focus on anything else. All the air had been sucked out of her, or maybe she’d forgotten to breathe.

“Catra,” she said, feebly. “Wait.”

Catra, dim in the distance, turned back. Adora finished digging out the sword, holding it aloft.

“You love that sword, huh,” Catra said, moving back to her.

“You don’t understand,” Adora said. Her eyes were closed “I need it.” She swung it around.  

How could I have forgotten that sound? The whoosh of the sword cutting through air made her smile.

Adora opened her eyes. Catra stared back, unimpressed. “You didn’t need it for six months.”

“I -- the sword is me,” Adora said.

“I ain’t big on metaphors, princess. What, you live to cut stuff?”  

Adora swallowed. It was one of those things Catra couldn’t understand. She held the hilt of her sword to her chest. Then she tied the scabbard to her waist and sheathed the sword, pleased at the smoothness of the motion. Like she and her sword were still in sync.

“Thanks for giving it back.”  

Catra turned and walked away. “Hurry up, loser.”

 

//

//

//

 

For a split second, Catra thought that Adora might turn, might say the words, call attention to them, cut her down. She had turned her back on She-Ra, and the look on Adora’s face -- drunk with happiness to get the sword back -- wasn’t a look Catra liked. But the moment passed and Adora walked quietly, though Catra could see her caressing even just the sling of the scabbard.

That sword had fucked them up and Adora was holding onto it like she hadn’t been alive the whole time it was taken from her. She held the sword like it was a lifeline.  

Was this a mistake, she asked herself. She never knew the score when it came to Adora, and the feeling was maddening, a jolt of hatred or uncertainty so strong Catra’s tail swished for battle. What if we need the sword back , Catra wondered. Adora had only lost the sword once and as an accident, she’d never been deprived of it for so long. It was unlikely she was ever going to give it back. And she was less easy to read as She-Ra; in that form, she was the farthest from the Adora that Catra knew.

But she was careful not to telegraph anything except for confidence. She was taking the Ward to Bright Moon, nothing more. And Adora had been quiet so far.

Catra fished out her transceiver. “Catra to Entrapta,” she said, flicking it on and messing with a dial. “We’re on our way to Bright Moon.”

“Great!” Entrapta said, all nervous energy. “We might lose the signal soon. We’re almost there.”

“It’s fine, we’ll catch up to you tomorrow. Just the usual march. The map’s working, the Whispering Woods isn’t moving so much today.”

“Mystacor’s battle may have something to do with that,” Entrapta said. “Just… be careful.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

Catra turned the transceiver off with a faint smirk. If nothing else, talking to Entrapta was familiar against everything else that had happened. Looking behind her, watching Adora stomp through the woods, Catra thought to herself that she’d never had a day like this.

 

//

//

//

 

After about two hours of marching, they came to a clearing, that turned out to be the beginnings of an abandoned farm, that turned out to be the edge of a ruined village. Catra inspected her map. It was one of those villages she’d ordered a raid on after Shadow Weaver’s death. At the time, she only remembered how much food and dry goods they’d gotten out of it.

She watched Adora take in their surroundings. Adora, who’d looked anywhere but at her. They’d been quiet for the whole march, except to complain when a bush or a tree had forced a detour or caused a trip.

Catra wasn’t about to break the silence. She poked around the windows, sometimes, just to see. The corpses had been disposed off, probably burned in one of the fields to prevent the spread of disease. Inside the houses, there were broken chairs and tables, faded bloodstains where families had resisted, cupboards broken and ransacked clean. Even the blankets off the sofas were nabbed, and all the clothes.

“So I was thinking,” Adora said, as Catra tore her eyes away from a field of overgrown, rotted pumpkins. “We could just stay here tonight? Some shelter’s better than nothing.”

“Not too scared of ghosts?”

“No.”

At the eastern tip of the village, a house sat atop a hill. The door had been ripped off. Adora’s boots crunched through the remaining splinters, as she went in and opened every cabinet that wasn’t already open.

Catra watched from the living room, setting their lantern on a countertop. “Hey, the Horde soldiers forgot to rip this chest open,” Adora called from inside.

“You know, I have food,” Catra said.

A thunk and a creak answered her. Then the clink of pottery.

“It’s got… corn wine, I think,” Adora said, leaving the kitchen. She stood a table upright, close to a window and dragged a stool to sit on, leaning against a wall. To her left, what little light the moon gave came through a square window. And as always, the sword hung from her belt.

“Raiding from your own people?”  

Adora looked at her, then looked at the jug of wine. “I wish you’d quit acting like I hadn’t gone through a war, either. Do you think I’d last this long if I were that impractical?”

To that, Catra had no answer but to toss her some jerky and a can of water.

Adora laughed. It sounded to Catra more like a shocked sound that had been wrenched out of Adora. “This is so weird,” she said. After setting down the water, she’d gone back to holding onto her sword.

“We don’t have to talk about it,” Catra said, fishing out a strip of meat from her own pack and chewing. Adora followed.

“Do you think the battle is over?”

“Probably.”

A name fell out of Adora’s lips: “Glimmer.” That damn sparkly girl.

“Still alive, most likely.”

“Bow and Castapella.”

“If they’re caught, you know the Horde won’t let commanders of the opposing army die without making the most mileage out of it. Something public, a spectacle. We’d hear about it. So I think they’re still alive.”

Adora gripped the sword tightly. Again, Catra found herself holding back her instinct to fight. Again, the moment passed and Catra could tell herself that Adora wouldn’t risk it.

“I know,” Adora said. “Doesn’t make it any easier.”

Catra took that as a warning. “If you think you’re going to Mystacor --”

“I’m not,” Adora said, cutting her off. “I’m following your orders.”

The knuckles on her hand were white with the grip she held her scabbard with.

“I’ll drag you to Bright Moon if I have to,” Catra said.

“I know,” Adora said. Then there was that laugh, again. “That sounds so crazy. The leader of the Horde, threatening to drag me to my headquarters!”

This Adora, with her sword, and out on the field, was a far cry from the one that had quietly sat in the Horde for the past six months. Catra reined in her sudden desire to speak, to say something. There was Adora right in front of her, in as peaceful a situation as it got for both of them.  

Peaceful?

The word rolled around in Catra’s mind. The Horde was full of kids. The Horde was a potential target of some of the best veterans from Hordak’s world. Adora’s friends were captives, if they weren’t dead or on the run for their lives.

And Adora was in front of her, contemplating the wine.

No wonder Adora had laughed.

“Do you actually drink now?”

“I can take first watch,” Adora said, instead.

“Drunk?”

“Of course not.”

“Hmph. You’d make a shit night watch, there’s almost no light from the moon.”

“You’ve had just as long a day as I have.”

Are we seriously fighting over who ‘gets’ to have the first watch? It’ll be dawn soon.

“This is stupid,” Catra said. “It’s a waste of resources if both of us stay awake.”

“I can’t sleep, anyway,” Adora said.

“Then drink that crap and shut up.”

Adora shut up. She did not drink. She closed her eyes instead. “Wake me in… two hours?”

Catra planned to wake her up in three and have them continue the march. She nodded, anyway.

 

//

buddy-buddy with the grim reaper

//

 

Shortly after dawn, Catra went from a light doze to a sudden wakefulness. She felt it first, rather than heard: a distant rumble, like a tank hadn’t learned its lesson and was trying to bulldoze its way through the forest.

“Adora,” Catra said, peeking out through the window. The hill was an excellent vantage point, one of the reasons they’d chosen it. Next to her, she heard Adora stir and wake up.

“Do you hear that?”

The tank, or whatever, had stopped moving. But now Catra could hear motors. Beside her, Adora was collecting their things.

“They’ll find us if we move now,” she said. “Let’s just wait it out, they won’t pick at a grave.”

So they waited -- until they heard screaming and gunshots. Adora beat Catra to the window -- “Looks like two rebellion guards,” she said. “And a hunting party.”

Men on motorcycles aimed and shot. One of the rebellion guards fell. The motorcycles caught up to him easily, running him over a few times. The rest circled the remaining man, whose arms were up, whose knees were on the ground.

If Adora gripped that sword any harder, Catra thought, she’d break a knuckle. She watched the soldiers cuff the man on his knees, then looked askance at the roadkill.

They want this specific guard for a reason .

The other man was expendable, whereas the other warranted a chase through the Whispering Woods.

She picked up her rifle and scope. “Adora,” she said, setting everything up, “That sword shoots lasers, right?”

Adora looked at her, confused at first, before a slow, relieved smile spread across her face. “Of course it does.”

Catra nodded and focused on the scope.

And then Adora said the words, loud enough to distract the soldiers from Catra’s first shot. The brief light that engulfed Adora provided enough cover for a couple more, before Catra’s rifle ran out of power. By then, She-Ra had jumped the distance down from the hill, scattering the remaining hunting party. “Fuck it,” Catra muttered to herself, before tearing down the hill herself.

 

//

//

//

 

The fight was brief. After realizing who it was they were up against, the rest of the party started to run.

No way you’ll be telling Skeletor she’s back, Catra thought, pulling out a throwing star from her belt and flicking it. It found its mark at the back of a retreating Horde soldier. Still another was disappearing through a rotting field -- Catra picked up a rifle still warm from use and aimed.

“Catra!”

From her left, Adora tackled her, just as a searing warmth tore through her calf. They fell in a heap, face down. Then she heard the whir of a sword swung into the air and a thud a small distance away as it buried itself into a body.

“There’s another one,” Catra hacked out, her throat dry as she tried to roll over. She could feel the blood running down her leg. “The field.” Adora picked up the rifle beneath them. Catra heard Adora take the shot as she carefully sat up, focusing on the red dot just above her knee. The metallic smell annoyed her.

Lucky bastard, whoever that was.

As she felt Adora hover over her, she said,  “You sure they’re dead?”

“Yeah.”

Catra nodded to herself. “They shot the guy, didn’t they? Better check if he has any last words he wants to say to you.”

Dammit, why did she have to go and get herself injured? The pain was irritating more than actually painful.

“I can bandage myself,” Catra snapped as she felt Adora hesitate. She looked up, knowing full well that the look on Adora’s face would piss her off more. “Okay, fine,” Adora said.

What a mess , Catra thought to herself, scanning the battlefield. Bodies and motorcycles everywhere, and a few backup robots destroyed. Less than ten meters away, the guard that had taken the lucky shot lay still with a sword lodged into his chest. There was no real need for Adora to collect the sword right away.

Catra pressed around her wound. The good thing -- if it could be called that -- about lasers was that the wounds were generally clean -- no chance of shrapnel getting embedded in the skin. She just needed something to disinfect with. She felt around her belt for the bandages and some healing gel.

Adora came back with last night’s wine and much thicker cloth. Catra, still sitting in the middle of the road, took the wine and poured everything over her leg. The pain, she allowed, was a little more than annoying.

“You sure you don’t want me to do that?” Adora said, when Catra started cutting the cloth around her legs.

“What did that dead guy say?”

“He had a crystal on him,” Adora said, showing her.

“Great. Go pick up cartridges or something, my rifle’s spent.”

“Catra, please --”

Catra glared at her. She was still in her She-Ra form. When she wasn’t in battle, She-Ra didn’t look that far off from Adora, just older.

“I’ll be fine,” Catra snapped.

 

//

//

//

 

Adora reloaded Catra’s rifle, piled all the bodies and remaining rifles together at the back of a large house, then overloaded the rifles. In a few hours, the bodies would all be ash. The motorcycles, Adora hid in various houses. Anyone taking longer than a passing gaze through the village would notice, but automated scouting bots probably wouldn’t find anything. Catra meanwhile made herself a tourniquet and pulled out a telescopic staff, again from her handy belt. She’d hobbled over to a tree stump, occasionally thumbing the transceiver in her pocket, wishing she could scream at herself for being careless or at least tell someone, Scorpia or Entrapta.

“Are you done yet, princess?” She yelled, even if she wasn’t helping at all.

“Done,” Adora said, jogging back to her, that damn sword swinging at her waist again. She’d turned back to her usual self already. There they stood, Catra sitting on the stump, holding onto her god damn staff-turned-cane, and Adora, not looking a moment worse for wear, as though she hadn’t gone through a fight.

It was the most maddening thing in the world that they were half a day away from Bright Moon and Catra’d gotten herself shot. She felt for the dead man's crystal tucked in one of her belt’s pockets and nodded.

“Then let’s get going.”

“I think we should take a motorcycle,” Adora said, head tilted back to the last one leaning against a house whose door had been knocked down. It was an off-road model, almost good enough to take on the Whispering Woods as long as the trees didn't shift too much.

“Too loud.”

It was quiet between them for a while. Then:

“Will you let me carry you?”

Catra rolled her eyes. “Don’t be stupid. I can walk.”

“I know that, but I’d rather you don’t while we go to Bright Moon. It’ll heal faster that way.”

Again, there was that pause between the two of them.

It occurred to Catra that they’d have fought by now, if they were younger, but Adora was holding herself back, trying to get a feel for when to push and when to let go.

Catra inhaled. From her bandages, she could still smell the blood drying, the smell of her carelessness.

“We’ll take the bikes,” she conceded. It felt like losing, somehow. You should know better than to let her do anything for you, she thought to herself. But Bright Moon was not too far off, especially not with a bike, and she wanted to get out of this too, this weird zone where she and Adora weren't killing each other.

 

 

//

//

//

 

A/N: My apologies for the lateness, a sudden foreign work trip has taken up most of my free time this April. Cheers y'all. Hope there weren't too many abrupt or weird typos here!!

 

Chapter Text

stay in your lane

They arrived at Bright Moon just after lunch and were taken straight to the grand hall. Along the way Catra’s guard rejoined their leader. There was a brief hug between Entrapta and Catra (Entrapta initiating, Catra grudgingly accepting) and a short question in jest, “So is she on our side yet?” which Entrapta only answered with a look.

The posse was mostly for show, but reminded Adora that though she was technically home at last, Catra was in hostile territory. At the grand hall, Catra made no mention of her injury until Entrapta pointed it out, but deferred to be treated until she’d spoken to Queen Angella first. The Queen passed the ball back by politely declining to meet until the evening due to local affairs already scheduled for the day and offering the company of healers from Perfuma’s kingdom in the meantime. For a second, it seemed that Catra was going to press the meeting, but she acquiesced instead. Adora was spoken to as stiffly as the rest of the Horde but was instructed to be taken to her room to rest a little.

Bright Moon itself felt unreal, as though the ground might give way at any time, as though Adora’s own senses were transmitting every last detail through a screen, from far away. This should have been her home, she should have been triumphantly walking back to her liege, but instead the brief talk with the Queen had her feeling unsettled.

You walked in with Catra, at a time when your best friend has been captured by ex-Horde soldiers.

Glimmer is all the blood family she has left. And Castapella is King Micah’s sister...

All of that threatened to be swallowed by her memory of Catra in the morning, sitting behind her, hands on the handlebars between them. It was a crazy thought, compounded by the ridiculousness of their situation and the battle they’d just been through, but for a second, Adora wished they were friends simply arguing about who got to drive the bike.

The thought was useless and invasive. She was tiptoeing between world powers, in a reprieve in the middle of two battles. The Queen should have been her focus, reassuring her that she, Adora, was still as loyal to Brightmoon as she always was. Otherwise Catra’s argument for an alliance stood on shaky ground. The Queen might agree to it, but purely out of necessity -- there would be no trust. And currently, the Queen had no advisors who knew the Horde like she did.

If only Catra could see her now, thinking smart about it. Smartly, Adora corrected herself.

Her room, six months unused, had that unlived smell already. There were pictures of the three of them that Adora didn’t remember placing on the vanity -- that must have been Bow’s doing. She could see the two of them here, arguing over what happened to her, beating themselves up needlessly for it, probably wondering how she was, if she’d been brainwashed, if she’d been forced to write letters to them -- those were the kinds of thoughts Glimmer would have, Adora was sure.

You’re sulking, she thought to herself. Catra wouldn’t sulk. She’d lick her wounds and know that fighting injured was pointless.

Catra had already made it this far to throw her weight behind the chance of an alliance.

Adora glanced to the bed, where the guards had left her clothes and toiletries. If there was one thing she learned from Glimmer and her time in Bright Moon -- she had a part to play, and dressing for it made a difference.

She had to believe they were alright, because she wouldn’t be able to move forward otherwise. As Catra had said -- it was tactical to keep them alive, and killing them would have been an emotional and wasteful move.

//

//

//

Adora made to bow, but the Queen stilled her with a raised hand.

“I heard the details of your mission through the Whispering Woods from the Horde attache. It appears they have the latest intel in the form of a crystal from a guardsman of Mystacor.”

“That is correct, Your Majesty. It was a hunting party -- that’s a Horde unit, about twenty or thirty soldiers, usually. We were aiming to keep a low profile, but not when we saw that they were on the chase. We chose to intervene, but we were too late.”

It went unspoken between them that Adora had not plucked the crystal for Bright Moon, but allowed it to be used as a point of negotiation in the Horde’s favor.

Queen Angella leaned against her chair. “And how are you?”

“I’m fine, the hunting party wasn’t really a threat, but we --” Adora stopped talking when the Queen raised her hand again.

“Adora, my daughter was sick with worry ever since you were taken from us. And now --”

Now hung between them, taut with tension.

Adora heard the words as though they were from far away. She felt the tug between past lives and present situations.

“I’m… alive,” Adora said. And, tripping over the fact that she was on a tightrope between two world powers, she added, “I am ready to fight for Bright Moon.”

That softened Queen Angella’s face. “You have always come to our aid when we need it.”

It seemed the words leapt through the distance in time and the afternoon’s events. Adora would have pressed her advantage, advised that they take the help the Horde was offering, but she said nothing, halted by something in Queen Angella’s expression.

“I am glad you survived your time in the Horde.”

Unsure of where this was going, Adora could only be honest. “It’s not like the Horde even treats its soldiers great to begin with, but well, things are different now -- I was treated fairly. It wasn’t like -- they shoved me in a cell and tossed the key or, or that they made me say things in my letters or when we had transmissions… I hope I’m not giving you ideas,” Adora said, stuttering slightly.

“Nothing Glimmer hadn’t already thought of,” the Queen said. “If she were here, she’d be convinced you were brainwashed.” Before Adora could refute that, Angella continued, “It feels as though things are happening much too quickly for my liking,” Angella said. “I am grateful that you stand with us, She-Ra, but the gift of your safe return comes with a contract I did not sign at a time that seems too convenient for the Horde to drop in and make an offer. ”

“My Queen,” Adora said, slowly, “the Horde only came to deliver me and send their help. The Horde is not our enemy.” That sounded ridiculous considering her own position. “The past half year of peace wasn’t something that came out of nowhere.”

“No indeed,” the Queen said drily, “it cost us our She-Ra.”

Adora could almost hear the doubt that she’d returned fully to them, though the Queen said nothing else to that end.

“If we refuse the Horde’s offer, you will not return with them?”

“Of course not,” Adora said. “I fight for the Princess Alliance, not for the Horde.”

“You swear it?”

What was there to swear that she had not sworn or proven ten times before?

“I fight for the Princess Alliance,” she repeated. “I won’t rest until we have Glimmer and Bow safe in Bright Moon, and all the other princesses safe, and Mystacor restored to Castapella. I swear it.”

“And you will follow me and my army’s orders?”

“I will.” And then Adora thought of Catra, and realized that once Catra had formally ceded Adora to Bright Moon, Queen Angella could easily order an attack on the Horde, too… but only if she worked with the Horde to take down Skeletor, as the Horde’s forces would be considerably weaker than the Alliance’s after dealing with Skeletor.

It was an ugly thought, and Adora had never had thoughts like this, doubts of the rebellion, of Bright Moon. Now, of all times, when the Queen’s only daughter was likely captured -- Adora hated herself for thinking it.

But you don’t know what they’re thinking, she heard Catra say in her head. How do you know the Horde is any different to them?

“Yes, your Majesty,” Adora said, figuring out the rest of what she hadn’t caught. “They came bearing intel better than what I could supply. I know Keldor -- he calls himself Skeletor now. He has years of guerrilla-style fighting under his belt. He’s not going to go down easily. Large scale battles don’t mean much against him, he’ll have his forces scatter and regroup. But I don’t know everything about his force, whereas the ex-Horde factions couldn’t leave without Catra knowing who and what left. Negotiating with the Horde will nip his quest to power in the bud.”

“Then we will see the Horde Queen tonight,” Queen Angella said.

“Your Majesty,” Adora said, to soften her incoming correction, “Catra isn’t the Queen. They’re a triumvirate.”

“Perhaps that is the law of the Horde,” Queen Angella said, “but by our laws, she has recognition as ruler of a dominion. Her people follow her, her territory is clearly marked. Perhaps she and the two princesses do share rulership, but Catra -- whether Queen or Commander -- carries the final word. In Etherian peerage, that makes her a Queen. Otherwise I wouldn’t be negotiating with her.” There was a hint of a smile on her face, as though that little interaction reminded her of how Adora had, in the past, failed to understand the most basic things about Etheria.

Dismissed, Adora wondered what else she hadn’t understood.

//

//

//

Adora slept the rest of the afternoon away in the stables, after looking for Swift Wind. When she couldn’t find him she went to the hay loft and, basking in the sun’s rays framed by the window, fell asleep against a bale of hay.

When she woke up, it was dark and still outside. She leapt up immediately and found that the ladder had already been removed. The day was done. Oh shit.

She had just bolted out of the stables after a jump down to the first floor when she heard Catra’s voice. She turned. Behind her, Catra was sitting on a bench.

“You missed the fun part,” Catra said, her tail dipping low at the water trough next to her. Occasionally, her tail would flick, spraying water around in restlessness.

She was dressed in her usual deep red, plus the half-cape Adora still wasn’t used to. Adora’s eyes drifted to Catra’s legs: there was no sign Catra had ever been injured. “Geez Adora, relax. The Queen suggested to let you rest after your, hmm, ordeal. That’s what she called it.”

Adora should have been angrier that she’d been left out of the negotiating table once again, but she couldn't summon the energy. Despite her sleep, she was still drained by the situation, the split in her head that being in Bright Moon brought to the fore.

“Okay,” she said.

“Okay,” Catra repeated. “Do you even want to know what’s happening?”

Exasperated, Adora replied, “Well sure, if you want to tell me.”

“So Skeletor sent an exploding robot messenger bird this evening,” Catra said, “That was new. He has Glimmer, Castapella, and Frosta as well as all the mages as hostages in Mystacor. No other princesses were in Mystacor, luckily; Perfuma is here and Mermista is guarding her home kingdom. There was no news about Bow, so we’re working under the assumption he got away.”

“What does Skeletor want?”

“He wants control of the Horde -- he’s probably sent a bird to Scorpia -- and he wants control over Bright Moon, otherwise he’ll murder the princess and all the other members of the nobility in a fortnight. Not exactly the most imaginative plan in the world.”

“And he expects us to just… fork over Bright Moon and the Horde at the same time?”

“He pointed out that Mystacor offers an excellent vantage point and that we’d have trouble taking it by foot. He’s not wrong. Also, if we move the entire Bright Moon army, he’ll know right away, and then it’ll be ‘bye bye, heir to Bright Moon.’

“That’s where the Crystal comes in -- turns out, Skeletor found out where Mystacor was by mapping the food supply routes of neighboring villages. His people pretended to be travellers around the villages close to the Whispering Woods. Once they finished mapping out some anchor points around the Whispering Woods, Skeletor dropped the talks and disappeared for a while. He took advantage of the rebuilding we had to do after the war, basically.

“If we start a battle now he kills Glimmer and Castapella before we even get there.”

“So a covert mission, then.”

“Yes.”

And, knowing that Bright Moon sucked at cover missions, Adora said, “You’re heading the mission.”

“Obviously.”

As though someone had lit a candle in a dark room, Adora understood. All Bright Moon had to do during negotiations was promise not to attack the Horde after or if they beat Skeletor. Catra couldn’t fail to fetch Glimmer; the Horde would suffer the most for it. At the same time, it wasn’t likely that Bright Moon would entrust the Horde to fetch their princess, so Catra would be saddled with a mix of Bright Moon soldiers and Horde operatives, neither of whom had much trust in the other.

“Bright Moon will lift the firewall around the Black Garnet,” Catra said. “So we’ll be coordinating in fairly real-time conditions with the Horde. That was Bright Moon’s big concession. It is her only kid, after all.”

“And my closest friend.”

“Yeah, that too. We already knew you’d frothing at the bit to join. Angella wouldn’t agree unless she was sure someone would keep her darling daughter safe. Guess you’re the knight in shining armor, huh?”

What did Catra want her to say? Adora didn’t bite. She only said, “When are we moving out?”

“A small, small part of Bright Moon’s host is already moving quietly to protect the villages around Mystacor. The order to leave was given as soon as the negotiations were over, because of the intel the crystal provided. It’s no more than thirty soldiers distributed to two villages, going undercover at different times in groups of four.”

“A fireteam,” Adora said.

“Did you contribute that division type to their military?”

“I told them as much as I could about our military divisions when I joined the Alliance.”

“Well, that should make leading easier.”

“So your guard and…?”

“Whoever feels like joining up,” Catra said sarcastically. “They’re still fighting over who gets the honor to join you. And then you can expect a huge welcome back dinner tomorrow, as though Skeletor won’t have eyes and ears for this sort of posturing.”

“I’ll talk to them,” Adora said. “Do you think Skeletor knows about us?”

“I told your Queen I estimate a week before Skeletor figures things out and changes his tactics,” Catra said. “She agreed. So after your party or dinner or whatever, we’ll move to position. We’re getting reinforcements from the Horde, too. Some kids on recon/spy duty around Mystacor; I’ll be coordinating with Scorpia tomorrow.”

“Everything sounds like it’s been decided,” Adora said.

“Pretty much. It’s three in the morning, what do you expect?”

“Shit,” Adora murmured. Again, there was that feeling of being moved around and told when to swing her sword -- out of reflex, she touched the hilt -- and again, there was only a resignation to her reality. She was going to lead Bright Moon’s team, and Catra was going to lead the Horde’s; she was back to serving the Alliance today. Tomorrow, for all she knew, she’d be bartered for something or told of some other mission. Catra, sitting in front of her, arms crossed, would never have stood for it.

But then they were always opposites.

“Are you waiting for me to dismiss you or something?”

“Uh, no. I’m going back to the castle.”

“You do that.”

“... Are you just going to stay here?”

“Bright Moon Castle sucks. Everything smells too good or perfumed or magicked. It smells more honest outside. But I really shouldn’t be badmouthing my gracious host.”

Adora gave Catra a long look. There was still that question that lay unanswered in her mind. Everything else -- Bow, Glimmer, the war -- all of them would be resolved in a few days. She could cope with the anxiety before a mission, the low, humming, ever-present fear of death or loss that she had to face every time for years now. She was trained for that, after all.

She did not train to ask her ex-friend how the woman who raised them died.

How did Shadow Weaver die? Was it really you who killed her? Was now the right time to ask that question, though? And If not now, then when?

//

//

//

buddy-buddy with the grim reaper, part 2

The welcome party had been whittled down to a typical castle dinner with soldiers for the mission from both sides at the seats of honor, at the front of the hall. There were no decorations, no special toasts, no announcements. Netossa had approved of the idea, as it was the closest to team bonding they’d have given the fragile alliance and was fittingly not too ostentatious. The Horde attache, not even as old as Adora, took the news that morning with a grave face and a solemn assurance that everyone in Catra’s guard would be present and on time.

(“He probably thought the whole thing was some kind of initiation rite,” Catra said, on hearing the news.)

And on time they were, on their best behavior, taking cues their Commander and Chief of Science. When neither Catra nor Entrapta touched the wine, none of the Horde kids did. Whatever Catra and Entrapta ate, they ate. When Catra made small talk with Netossa, they tried to fall in conversation with the Bright Moon soldiers across them, mostly about the food, the weather, and never about the specifics of the mission. The Bright Moon bunch were older; it looked almost like a class having dinner with their instructors. Both sides were equally divided on every table.

"This has to be the stiffest 'get to know you' I've seen in a while," Netossa muttered to Adora. She at least treated Adora no less differently than before.

"I'd say it's a tie with Princess Frosta's attache, when they started out with the Princess Alliance."

That earned Adora Netossa's laugh. "Yeah, minus the part where we have to go on a life or death mission with people we barely know."

"Well," Adora said, not really thinking, "we get used it."

Netossa raised an eyebrow at that. "Oh boy, the Horde's done a number on ya, haven't they, kid?"

"Didn't mean to sound like such a downer," Adora mumbled.

"It is a depressing state of affairs though," Netossa said. "One bad guy dies, another one takes their place."

Adora could only drink in reply. Whenever she got morose, either Bow or Glimmer would say something. At first they weren't always the right things to say, but they got better at figuring her out, cheering her up. Adora took another sip as she thought of how wrong it was to be in Bright Moon without either of them. The wine turned sour and dry at that thought.

"Okay, that's enough misery," Netossa said, standing up. "I'm going to ask some of those Horde guards to play darts or something, we need to break the ice. Why don't you ask the ex-Princess the same?"

"Entrapta?" And they both turned to check up on her. Entrapta had moved from her chair to sit next to some Bright Moon guard and was writing furiously on her tablet. The guy she was sitting next to was gamely drinking whatever concoction she had made and answering all her questions. Adora could not tell if his ruddy face was from drinking or whatever Entrapta had added to the wine.

Having witnessed that, Netossa found another option. "There's the Horde Commander herself, if you can convince her to play."

The last thing Adora wanted to do was talk to Catra, who was deep in conversation anyway with the commander of her Guard. Netossa must have seen something on her face, because she only sighed and conceded. "Well, I'll go play darts with her then," she said. "Take one for the team and all that."

She stood and her walk changed to that of an officer with intent. Adora watched as she joined in on the conversation Catra was having. So far, no murderous looks yet. But why would there be? They were just having a conversation about the mission.

Before Adora knew it, Catra had walked across the room to throw darts. There were scrapes of chairs across the ground as everyone got up to crowd and watch. Adora had no view at all, but kept herself. It landed pretty close to the center, or so Adora guessed judging from the Horde cheer. Adora hadn't realized she'd held her breath till her long sigh of relief.

Let them sort it out, she thought to herself as she stared at her cup. There was too much going on in her head and really, the wine should be doing a better job of dulling it...

With that thought, Adora got up and left the dining hall. Her feet took her outside until she reached the grazing grounds of the horses. She sat on a bench and leaned against a fence.

She recalled a vague memory, more than a year ago, of leaving another Bright Moon dinner party early. She hadn't told anyone, but Glimmer knew right away. And without having to be told, she went after Adora, and Adora hadn't even known she'd wanted company until Glimmer joined her. Not necessarily to speak, but just to be there sitting on the grass at the castle grounds outside the great hall. Nothing more complicated than that.

It was easier to deal with the reality of being in the Horde without any memories of her closest friends attached to any part of the Fright Zone. But for six months they must have walked the halls of Bright Moon reminded that at every nook and cranny, Adora wouldn't be there. And before them, Catra must have felt that loss too, in the walls where they used to run and all the secret places they knew to hide.

When are you ever there for your friends?

It seemed as though the times she'd done things right were a short list against the things she'd done wrong. Every choice she'd made was impossible; she left the Horde to do the right thing; she acted the perfect prisoner to do the right thing; she fought in a war to do the right thing. And on the flipside, she lost her best friend, had to abandon her new friends, and killed people, wrong or right, to keep going. Every drop of sweetness in her life had been met with a downpour of bitterness. And in that haze, Adora knew she was blind, one way or another, to the other ways she'd hurt her friends. In the name of... what? For the honor of... who?

She took another swing at the cup she was still holding onto. If she did not hold onto something -- the cup, or the belief that after Skeletor there would be no more -- then she would be adrift and lost and no good to anyone. So she held onto what she could hold onto.

There was a crunch of grass in front of her. For a split second, she thought of Glimmer, but the footsteps were too deliberate for that to be true. She knew, without looking up, who it was in front of her.

"I go and beat a bunch of Bright Mooners and you're not even around to challenge."

Adora was tired of dealing with the maze of right or wrong answers. Earnest or clever, smart or stupid, nothing she said could appease Catra or satisfy the Queen she'd pledged to. She said nothing.

"You drunk?"

"No." That question, Adora could answer.

As though she hadn't heard, Catra continued. "They've turned you into a souse, huh."

Adora hated the way Catra was baiting her, waiting for her hackles to rise.

I saved your life the other day!

And she saved yours that night too.

"What is it to you, anyway?"

She waited for Catra to gloat. That she was supposed to be the strait-laced one, or something, or that Catra had beaten her in some mental game she had no idea they were competing on.

To begin with, why was Catra behaving like they'd regressed back to their early rivalry? It was completely unlike two days before, when they'd almost gotten along, even if the whole time that peace was built on stilted conversations and stretches of awkward quiet. And she was nothing like the collected Commander Adora had seen of her since after the war.

"I dunno," Catra said, in that irritating tone, "ain't very She-Ra of you."

"The last She-Ra died and failed to protect Etheria," Adora snapped, "Pretty sure I'm very She-Ra, thank you."

"Giving up so soon? Who's gonna be the knight in shining armor now?"

"You can have that title if you want it so much," Adora said. "You're the one going around making everything, I don't know, some kind of dick sizing competition. Is this really who you are now?"

"Dick sizing competition? Everything was a dick sizing competition to you, when you were winning."

"That was Shadow Weaver."

"But you went along with it."

Adora took a deep breath and bit back her first impulse to make excuses. She sat up straight and looked Catra in the eye. "I did. But I stopped. And I'm sorry, I am. But she's gone and I'm doing my best to make amends, dammit. Why the hell are you raising her from the dead?"

"I did," Catra said, seething.

How? Adora ached to ask. But Catra kept on going. "'Raising her from the dead', huh. It's so easy for you to forget about everything that happened in the Horde."

"I've been wanting to ask you how she died ever since I agreed to be a ward!"

"Well, you're no longer a ward of the Horde, and it's no longer any of your business."

As a last ditch attempt to get the answer out of Catra, Adora told her Scorpia's version.

"Scorpia told me that... your story was a little incomplete the last time you told me."

Catra shrugged. "In what way?"

"The power was out the whole day because you did have your battle with Shadow Weaver, that no one could even enter the room because it was on lockdown while the grid was out. And that when they opened the door, you were... sitting up against the wall. And not too far away, next to the Black Garnet, was a charred body. And that everyone knew it was her because of the mask, because of the hair. She didn't just suck energy blindly... you had a hand in her death." But what Catra did, nobody in the Horde knew for sure.

"Y'see, you know the story already. There's nothing to talk about."

Perhaps it was a victory that Catra turned tail and left, but Adora only felt spent.

She had spent the entire time at Bright Moon on her best, most repentant behavior. If there was something she lacked, a blind spot, she'd tried to account for it. She would never know unless she asked, and she could never ask if Catra was always too busy keeping score over things large and small, remembered and forgotten.

And also -- there was her best behavior on behalf of both the Horde and Bright Moon. The response was all punishment. There was the lack of trust, subtle but present, of the Queen. There was Catra's constant -- Adora could find no other word but bullying. It was ridiculous to expect that Adora could read and decipher the reason behind every swing of her mood or her tail.

Is it really a mood swing if she was nice to you for one single day out of six months?

She raised the cup to her lips. Then to make sure, she shook the cup. Nope, it was empty.

Drinking was one thing, being hungover before a life-or-death mission was another. She was sure everyone would notice that she'd snuck off to leave, but couldn't be bothered to care. She stretched out her legs then stood to walk back to her room and make an early exit.

Once she flopped into bed, she remembered Scorpia's last words from the time she'd given into her curiosity and asked for Scorpia's version of Catra's battle (if it was that) with Shadow Weaver.

Scorpia had said, "She must have been in the dark the whole day."

//

//

//

A/N: It's always fun to balance the early Catra-heavy chapters with sad, lost Adora chapters. Is it fair to ask 'what did I do' in a relationship, or should people exercise more self-awareness? And yet Adora knows how comforting it is to have someone who just gets it without having to say anything.

I am so tired I am flopping off to bed. Thanks for reading y'all have a good incoming weekday. 

Chapter Text

//

Smile like you mean it

//

 

(Over a year ago)

 

Catra glanced sideways at the siege cannon, currently mounted on a turret. The turret, as part of a modular series, could be attached to a tank, or to the top of any vehicle that could hold its bulk. The new siege cannon  was about as long as a standard tank’s cannon, slightly fatter, with wires attached to it and a grey control panel. 

Catra ran her index finger’s claw lightly over the inside of her thumb. The display was everything wrong about having a scientist make weapons.

"Entrapta gave us a demonstration for a new cannon design the other day," Hordak said. His voice reverberated in the sparse warehouse they used for testing Entrapta’s new ideas. "I was told you were taught how to use it."

"Yes, my lord. But the siege cannon, it seems... finicky," Catra said. She had never said this in front of Entrapta, even as Entrapta had briefed her on how to navigate the control panel. (Only Entrapta would design a weapon too complicated for actual use.) Sure, a cannon that could penetrate BOTH magic and physical shields was good, but --

"How so?"

"I mean, it's great that we have a cannon with two payloads in one missile, but there's so much to calibrate. It's like... a grenade launcher inside a grenade launcher." (A very Entrapta type of innovation.) "When we're fighting on the battlefield, we don't have time to go "oh, I set the first payload to detonate in five seconds, and we need the second payload to detonate in ten..." Catra paused, letting her words sink. "I just want two soldiers with bazookas, on my command, one with that forcefield-penetrating payload and another waiting for my go signal to blow up the castle wall whose shields we'd just wrecked."

"My understanding is that the first payload is made of First Ones magic itself. It takes time to spread this... virus that will eat the magic field. The calibration is to make sure that the second payload won't bounce off magic that hasn't dissolved fully, but deliver the killing blow at the instant the force fields break."

If there was one major difference between him and Shadow Weaver, it was that Lord Hordak thought his plans through along with her.

"Lord Hordak, we're not blind. A spotter can check and clear a second shot. The timing might not be 'instant' but we're sending out younger and younger soldiers out there, the design on this thing isn't... practical. Nobody has time to read a display when there are people shooting at them and bombs going off and magic all over the place."

"Firstly -- only you will be using this cannon, and you're a crack shot. Secondly, as we know from experience, a follow-up is a luxury, considering that they'll have your position after your first fire. The Cannon's innovation is that it only takes one round." Lord Hordak countered.

He had a point there.

"Either way," he continued, "we've already had a field demonstration of the bomb's ability to tear through magic-reinforced castle walls. That's not what this particular test is about."

Catra heard the scrape of a leg iron against the floor before she saw the prisoner dragged in. A rhythm settled into place -- the guards’s footsteps followed by the clink-clink-clink of chains and the dull rasping of an iron ball. There was no way for this prisoner to stand: both his feet were cuffed together, along with the weight trailing behind him. On his knees, the man was muzzled and his hands cuffed behind him as well. He was then left kneeling about fifty meters away from her and Hordak and his guardsmen. Muzzled and restrained as he was, the man kept his spine straight. He was outfitted with black armor that glinted -- Catra realized his armor was one of the best prototypes Entrapta had made, based on First Ones’s code.

Catra could feel everyone’s gaze settle on her as the guards took their position. 

"We get one shot with this Cannon," she said. "Kind of a waste on a person, and they won’t just be fifty meters away from us." She turned to Hordak. Siege weaponry wasn't meant to be accurate, just devastating, and considering the cost of a single shot of this damn thing -- it seemed wasteful.

Plus, whoever's on cleaning duty after the cannon fires will be stuck there for hours, she thought.

"Not a waste," Hordak said.

Catra realized, at a longer look of the man's armor, who it was Hordak was thinking of. Hordak could see it in her expression too, and his grin spread as he saw understanding dawn on her face. "You have your chance to even the odds with your old rival. A permanent win, I believe."

Catra smiled, feeling the gaze of every damn guard in the room.

He thought he was doing her a favor. That he was a benevolent lord, giving her the highest honor. That he'd just secured her loyalty for life. All her concerns about timing and shots didn't matter when her target was made of magic and muscle. The magic would fizzle out at the same time the payload would blow up. Set the value to zero for the effect to be instant , she could hear Entrapta say.

Catra kept her grin, showing a little teeth even. She could feel the approval in the air, not just from him, but from every Horde soldier in the room. Some of them were jealous, but most of them, she knew, accepted that the kill was hers.

"Thank you Lord Hordak," she said. 

Then she turned to the village guardsman.

Better get a scope on this thing, she thought.

//

//

//

The first plan Bright Moon brought up was a diversion, which was so typically stupid of them Catra had to bite her cheek. The next stupid thing they suggested was to steal uniforms from dead or knocked out guards. Catra, as lead, worked around their input.

There were several ways into Mystacor: the fun way, where travellers dropped in from a high enough cliff, as though jumping from the clouds, a favorite of civilians seeking thrills; the supply routes, in which wagons of food and trade goods passed through floating platforms that appeared only on Mystacor's schedule; and occasionally, mages would fly in. All the entrances and drop points were provided for in the crystal that Catra and Adora retrieved from the dead man at the last leg of their trip to Bright Moon. At the center was the castle compound, though as Mystacor considered itself civilized, they preferred that the castle be called the Mystacor Temple ( Nobody cares, Catra thought.) At the very center of the fortifications were the grand hall, as any castle would have, and further inside, through a spacious courtyard, were the Lunar Lenses. 

"Skeletor probably got his hands on this crystal and split his troops up. Imagine a bunch of motorcycles dropping in from the cliffs, under cloud cover. Pretty terrifying, especially at night with the fog. No need for tanks, it's all lightning warfare. Then he probably rolled out some all-terrain carriers, ramming their way through the gates -- does Mystacor even have gates?" Catra asked, mid-sentence, scanning the map in front of them. "Yeah, so those gates are probably made of old steel track by now," she said. "Hordak's hunkering down."

"And this is important how?"

"It explains, to me at least, how they do their raiding or patrols. That's our way in." Catra tapped the supply route gate farthest away from Mystacor's center, as Skeletor's guards would be too distantly spaced to guard it well or care. The supply routes were currently used as roads for patrol units to go out and in of Mystacor, raiding, looting, and securing territory. That was their way in, Catra decided.

They would ambush a patrol unit. Kill everyone. Return driving the unit’s carrier. "We can do the uniform switching thing then," she said, cheering up the Bright Moon guy that suggested it. "Usually outside patrols know each other. We could get found, I don't want us assuming the Horde are all stupid and not going to notice that Steve the guy who was driving is now calling himself "Matt" and sounds like he doesn't know what he's doing, so we need to work with or around those details. Then once we’re let into the outpost gate, we’ll kill everyone in the guard tower floor by floor, before anyone has time to alert the rest of the city. We’ll secure the guard post and for sure by now they’ll have our tech up and running to monitor their territory. We’ll hack into whatever tech Skeletor has set up using Entrapta's program.”

"You're assuming an awful lot," Netossa pointed out at this point.

"Our enemy was part of the Horde," Catra replied. "They did the same thing for twenty years, they're not about to change now. Old dogs, new tricks, et cetera, et cetera. Also, you have us. We're quiet and we know our way around their tech. That's why I said we'll be killing people floor by floor or room by room. So there’s no system-wide alert."

In addition to the mission team, Horde soldiers would make their way to their side of Mystacor, ready for retrieval or backup, just as Bright Moon forces also rallied with as little publicity or noise as possible to move to the side of Mystacor facing Bright Moon.

Their biggest advantage was the open line between the Black Garnet (Scorpia) and Bright Moon (Netossa), short of Skeletor frazzling their frequencies.

Of that possibility, Entrapta said, "He could. He has exploding bird messengers now."

As with all things Entrapta, Catra had no idea if she'd learned sarcasm and was using it on her, or was simply stating a fact.

"So we make provisions for that, no big deal. We'll figure out where the princesses from whatever intel we can get. It's pretty likely they're in two separate places."

"So we'll split up," Netossa said. It was the third cliched plan they'd offered. Catra grit her teeth, but was forced to concede; it was the faster way. "We have no choice."

"A mix then, Bright Moon and Horde?"

"No, we've never worked together. Bright Moon can go after Princess Glimmer once we've figured out where she is, the Horde will take care of finding Princess Frosta."

After a brief pause, someone from Bright Moon cleared their throat. “Are we just supposed to kill every guard that sees us?”

“Yes”, Catra drawled with a matching eyeroll. Seeing as the man took her seriously, she replied, "If you're far away from them and they don't come up to you to ask if you have any beer on you, there's obviously no need to. Also, wearing a helmet is suspicious if you go indoors. Just... be cool. Don't curl up and walk like you're hiding something. Walk like you're going to the mess hall and dying of hunger or you're on a patrol or on your way to your shift. And go in groups."

The man mulled over those words. "Be cool," he repeated to himself. The Bright Mooners looked to each other, silently figuring out who'd be in which group.

"Adora," Catra said, curtly. "You were in the Horde. You know how to behave. They'll follow your cue. A helmet outside of an active shift is just weird."

"Yeah, except if I take out my helmet --" Adora started to say.

"Yeah, not to mention the sword on your back," Catra said. "Or belt, whatever. We have no choice but to keep the sword disguised and your face hidden. On the plus side, there's always that weirdo in a squad who's all like 'regulation states helmets are always on' or whatever. Or you could just stay outside and have a reason to keep the helmet on, like it keeps your head from the cold or whatever."

"What if they need me inside?"

"You can talk to them through these," Catra said, removing a small device from her ear. "We'll all have one, they're basically tiny phones. You guys have that, right? Phones? Little bits of magic that non-princesses can use?"

Netossa rolled her eyes in response. "We've dealt with some of your... tech."

“They are technically called EarPods,” Entrapta said. “We need to be accurate because there are several models.”

“I thought you called them AirBuds?”

“That was the noise-cancelling version. They’re not so useful in a mission. Great for relaxing, though.”

“Yeah,” Catra said, remembering all the times they were in the training hall watching soldiers in perfect coordination fail to hear bots rolling up on them. All she heard all afternoon were versions of, “Oh no, they can’t hear you!”

“Anyway,” Catra said. “We’re outfitting everyone in one of these, then keeping a line with some selected officers on both sides of Mystacor. Next on the agenda, we’ve got to think of extraction. They will probably be too weak to carry themselves.”

“They’re young and tiny, we could strap ‘em on our backs.”

Catra thought about it. They were planning to go in, slit the throats of anyone who suspected them of being Alliance members, extract two hostages, then come back the way they came. Inside patrols always came in twos at the least and their routes would intersect with others regularly just to make sure everyone was accounted for. Getting in was a possibility, but staying in and extracting not one but two Princesses… 

“If we can find less suspicious prop, that would be better. ‘Cuz we have to take them out the same way we came in.”

Less suspicious prop sounded inadequate, but Catra also knew that the Horde carried lots of machinery and that something could be worked out. “If something does go wrong, just take the hostages and make a run for it. We’ll assign mules -- they’ll carry the Princesses if they have to.”

Adora looked at her then. They hadn’t done much looking at each other since their last conversation. 

“You wanna carry Sparkles, if it comes to that?”

Adora nodded.

“Fine.”

After sizing up her men to decide on who’d carry Princess Frosta, the meeting room fell silent.

“There’s one last thing about Mystacor,” Netossa said. Catra’s ears perked up. “It’s a magical city, built on an ancient First Ones fort. Some defense systems probably remain.”

“Bleh,” Catra said. “If they had actual First Ones defenses, why did they fall so fast?”

Netossa tilted her head slightly. “They’re mages there, not mage-knights, or magical soldiers. I’m saying, Adora’s sword may have some use for you.”

“Maybe,” Catra allowed. “But that’s something I know almost nothing about.”

First Ones tech usually means head-fucking, and I’ve had enough of that, thank you very much.

From the Bright Moon side, a man asked, “Is -- is that it?”

Catra thought for a moment. They’d gone over the mission objective (to save two princesses and leave the remaining prisoners -- Catra drilled that last part into them, that this wasn’t the time for that); that Adora was not to turn into She-Ra unless the mission had gone to shit; that Catra would make the call when to abandon the mission in the event of anything going wrong; and that the priority was to get people out alive regardless of mission status.

“Try not to die,” she said to the man wryly. 

//

the exit door leads in

//

Catra’s plan went without a hitch. They found the princesses, each kept in a tower used as a granary store. Having no real enemy to fortify against, several buildings inside Mystacor’s fortifications had been converted into warehouses, libraries, meeting halls. Given the high ceilings, large windows, and density of Horde soldiers at the front of each Princess Tower, both teams made the decision to find and scale buildings, stay high and climb the tower from a few stories above the ground, bypassing the guards below. The lack of moonlight worked to their advantage -- Skeletor’s soldiers had only street lights for visibility.

Mystacor’s buildings were less dense than the Horde’s, where nearly every Horde kid had learned to climb and swing from every loose pipe and panel. Mystacor’s wide open spaces meant it was easy to spot anyone on the ground, but the trees and vegetation also offered plenty of cover above. From a courtyard, Catra’s teams surveyed their area, taking down any eyes likely to spot them. So far, no alarms had been sounded, though walking through Mystacor had been a bit of a challenge, guessing when her team should split up into smaller groups and when to meet. Several times they’d walked past a guard, the lateness of their shift protecting them from too much scrutiny. On the Bright Moon side, everything was going smoothly as well, with Adora identifying potential hazards and giving precise orders when to strike and where to leave the bodies. In her head, Catra sped up the timer ticking away the minutes they had till they were caught.

Eventually her team converged at the back of a smithy right next to the granary/tower where Princess Frosta was held.

They began to climb. Both teams kept each other in the loop: enemy down, guards on the roof, -- roof clear -- we’re scaling the tower -- whump -- we’ve found our mark.

“Glimmer’s unconscious,” Catra heard Adora report, ignoring her. “Weak pulse,” and here Catra could hear some wobbling in Adora’s voice, “but she’s okay.” The line was open for a moment, then the static cut off abruptly as Adora muted her line. She’s keeping it to herself, Catra thought. And, in a detached way, she thought, that’s the professional thing to do.

Catra sat on the smithy roof, letting her own team take care of extracting Princess Frosta. Instead of joining them, she held her position and focused on updates from both teams, her hands loosely holding onto a rifle with a silencer, her eyes, with their limited range of vision thanks to the helmet) watching as the last Horde soldier made his way into the tower window. Almost immediately she heard her team as well: Dismantling magic field -- Old Soul is unconscious, but alive.

“Okay, let’s get Old Soul and Sparkles out,” Catra muttered. A breeze blew by, the wind whistling in the dark. She watched a bush some distance below her sway in the wind, wondering if anyone could see a fresh corpse through the stems. When no roving patrol passed by, she breathed a sigh of relief.

Princess Frosta, despite her teenage years, was still as tiny as a child, and easy to carry.

“Wow, are we really just carrying her like that?” Catra muttered, when the rest of her team scaled down the tower with a princess wrapped in a half-open body bag, strapped to the beefiest boy on their team. “Yeah, I guess that works,” Catra muttered. “We’ve got Old Soul,” Catra muttered. “We’re headed back to Point A.”

//

//

//

Catra heard nothing unusual on the radio all the way back, which should have been the first sign of trouble.

“Ma’am,” one of the Bright Moon soldiers ran up to her, the last among them.

“Where’s Adora?”

“She was behind us, telling us to go ahead.”

Adora, like Catra, had been rear guard for the whole mission except to carry that Princess of hers.

“I thought she was carrying Sparkles?”

“Uh,” the man suddenly faltered. “Yes, but halfway through she passed the Princess to one of us, so we could move faster. Like a relay.”

Catra seethed. She pressed a button on her wrist watch, opening the shared comm line.

“Adora, where are you?”

After a brief crackle of static, Adora’s line opened.

“I’m outside Mystacor’s Grand Hall,” Adora said. “I’m going in, so you better pack up and leave now before the alarm goes nuts… it’ll take a while before Skeletor’s troops start hunting the extraction team down.” A pause, then: “Good bye, Catra.”

The line went dead. Catra’s head whipped back to the rest of the team, who were all frozen, looking to her for orders. For a moment, the world had gone quiet. “Get going!” she snapped. “Take two APCs and drive like hell till the safe zone. Move !”

The Bright Moon contingent were furiously tapping on their watches. “Colonel Netossa, requesting orders, please!”

“Are the princesses secured?”

“Yes, but --” 

“Follow the mission, get out of there!”

Alarms went off inside the outpost and in the distance. More lights lit up the sky as well. Catra pushed in one of the soldiers into the carrier. “Commander,” one of the Horde soldiers stammered.

“I’ll follow,” Catra said, turning around and running back into Mystacor. “Scorpia,” she said, into the line, “Navigate everyone to the Bright Moon safe zone in one piece. Under no circumstances are you to spend any resources extracting me. The Horde is yours.”

Catra ran back into Mystacor. Earlier, the sound of her boots thudding against the pavement was too loud for her liking. Now, she could barely hear anything what with the din in her head and her immediate surroundings. “We are not leaving Catra!” she heard Entrapta shriek into her ear, as Scorpia tried to calm her down. Irritated, Catra she took a left into a dark corner between two buildings, took out her helmet, pulled out the buds and stepped on them. Once she was sure they were destroyed beyond all repair, she put the helmet on again.

As though she’d been jolted with electricity, Catra remembered Adora’s words: 

"The last She-Ra died and failed to protect Etheria. Pretty sure I'm very She-Ra, thank you."

To shake the pain off her chest, Catra snarled, You have to play the martyr, don’t you?

It didn’t stop her heart from beating in her ears, madly, each throb a reminder that you did this -- the voice in her head sounding more and more like Shadow Weaver.

//

breaking and entering

//

By the time Catra had made it to Mystacor’s Temple, soldiers were being sorted into parties -- some assigned to secure the perimeter, others assigned to hunt down other Princess Alliance agents, and still others assigned to a giant battering ram trying to break a shimmering blue dome that covered the castle gate. The portcullis and gatehouse windows were all covered in a blue sheen of energy as well; the entire castle was on a magical lockdown. Others were scaling the castle wall, only to find the same blue field covering every opening -- window or door -- into the castle.

In the distance, a man with a grappling hook tried to wreck the field by throwing the hook into it; instead the hook was repelled with so much force it took the man flying with it, falling down screaming from the castle’s top higher turrets. The rest of the soldiers who’d scaled the wall watched and looked at each other.

Yeah, they’re all going to nope the fuck out of that, Catra thought. She weaved around different divisions, all busy setting up cannons, trying to find a way inside to reinforce Skeletor’s guard inside.

Skeletor has at least three hundred of his men inside that castle.

The thought jacked up her heart yet again, but she stilled her impulse to run and scale the wall with her claws. Instead she walked swiftly through the mass of soldiers, looking for less busy sections of the wall. Picking up a grappling hook, she scaled the wall along with some others as though she’d been assigned to do it. Once at the top, she waited for the other soldiers to come in. Because everyone went up at a different pace, she was able to help them up, then muffle their mouths and stab their necks. Then she turned around to the entryway leading into the castle, glowing blue and thrumming.

No point trying to open it by force, she thought, relaxing instead and passing a hand through. For a second, a searing heat tore through her mind, but then it passed -- as did her hand. The rest of her came through easily, and once she was through, she ran down the stairs into the castle’s vestibule.

 

-End of chapter-

Thanks for reading. Next chapter is likely to be up before the end of August (crosses fingers).

Chapter Text

TW: Violence.

//

//

//

SHUDDER

 

Catra flattened herself against the wall just before the final bend down the stairs, unnerved by the silence that had only grown as she bounded down the stairs.

She stuck her neck out, just a bit. From her view, framed by the walls, there were only bodies on the floor and smashed tiles. She took a muted step down the stairs, then another, the view of the castle interior growing until she’d made it all the way through, completing the picture bit by bit.

Six months had done nothing to blunt Adora’s skill to wreak havoc. Bled-out bodies lay everywhere, and jagged, unnatural patterns of earth erupted on the walls and floor. She-ra’s magic, no doubt. Here and there were bodies whose ribs were caved in, care of a boulder to the chest. These soldiers, Skeletor’s own guard, had died by the sword, by blunt force, and sometimes -- Catra could smell explosives in the air -- probably their own equipment used against them. 

Every other step Catra took was over a dead body as she approached the grand hall, locked again with that blue haze. She hoped her luck hadn’t run out, and pushed her hand in. Once again, the blue force field let her through. This time, however, a voice in her head clearly spoke: Save the She-Ra.  

Angry with the intrusion, Catra retorted with her own thoughts: I’m here for Adora. 

Still the blue haze accepted her, and once both hands were through, she pushed the doors open.

//

//

//

The fighting in the grand hall was at the dais, where She-Ra was fending off a mutant as big as her. From the distance and the darkness -- many of the torches lining the hall had fallen and the smell of smoke and burning armor and plastic was thick in the air -- Catra could see a single fin at the back of the man’s head.

Leech! 

Leech was not alone. A few dining tables away, six guards were trying to get a clear shot of her. As Catra made her way through the hall, crouching and hiding behind tables that weren’t upturned or wrecked, she could hear an erratic pattern of laserfire trying and so far failing to miss their target. Nor was Leech moving to give his riflemen enough space to target She-Ra and not his own bulk. She moved in closer, picking up a still-warm rifle and a taser, which she buckled to her belt. She wanted to be close enough to run to Adora once she picked off the guards, but a comfortable enough distance to shoot every rifleman in one quick arc.

Crouching on a table, Catra waited for a moment before standing up and ambushing the guards from behind, finger squeezing the trigger and releasing each blast, careful not to let any stray rounds hit the dais, where she could hit Adora by accident. The guards were too slow. She’d downed three of them before they counter-fired. Catra ducked, a lucky blast grazing her hair just slightly, quickly tucking her rifle’s butt stock under her arm, allowing her to hold the rifle with only her right hand. With her left, she charged up the taser, just in time as the guards had caught up to her. She backed away as they flung the table she’d used as a cover towards her. Catra stumbled as she backed into a bench, falling onto a table, as a guard came at her with a taser. It was too late to dodge; she instead dropped the taser and flung her rifle up and fired straight at the man’s head, the taser from his hand falling to the bench just next to her knees. He keeled over; behind him, a still another had a rifle trained at her. Catra crouched a little and ran leftward, trying to put some distance between her and the last two guards; she hissed as a second shot grazed at her shoulder. She ducked again behind a table and used her ears to find her enemies, picking a closer one off and then crouching again. The last target ducked for cover as well, but Catra didn’t have time for that. She stood up, both hands on her rifle, trusting her ears would give away her enemy’s position. She shot him just as he squeezed his last shot at her -- a wasted shot from a wasted soldier.

At the dais, Adora reeled from a blow to the cheek, falling to the floor. With a target in the clear, Catra took aim and shot as she walked to the dais, but Leech dodged and turned.

A lone shot glanced off his armor. Catra tossed the spent rifle and picked up a second gun as Leech unslung his crossbow. Behind him, Adora was struggling to get up. Catra saw the feint for what it was and shot wildly at his bulk, forcing him to move back and focus on Catra. One of his bolts sank partway into her arm, but she shrugged it off.

“Your target’s here, dipshit,” she said as they fell into a pattern of ducking and exchanging shots. Adora had crawled off the dais, leaning onto one of the tables. Catra crouched her way through to Adora, assessing the damage on She-Ra’s body for a split second before keeping up the fire, which maintained their distance. There was no way she could physically overpower Leech, and he was professional enough not to be goaded by her.

“So I was thinking, a taser at full charge might knock him out,” Catra muttered as the shots dwindled and both sides took a breather. She kept an ear out for Leech’s crossbow, knowing he had a quiver of those electrified bolts. Leech, like Octavia, had thicker skin and heavier armor than most, given that they had the strength to carry the armor they alone could wear. Catra had gone the opposite route, with less armor but the speed and maneuverability to be as difficult a target as possible.

“Might take more than one,” She-Ra said, wincing as she touched her own cheek. A bruise was blooming across the side of her face. She took a look at the bolt and looked up to Catra, asking for permission and pulling out the metal when Catra nodded. It was a shallow puncture, and would heal. 

“What happened to your healing power?” Catra asked.

“It’s faster with the sword.”

“Where is your sword?”

“Somewhere in the hall,” Adora admitted. 

Catra breathed in, a sharp breath that reminded her of all the dead strewn in the room.

“Okay. We can’t beat him from a distance. We have to close it somehow. I’m assuming Skeletor is in the next room?”

“He ran to the Lunar Lenses,” Adora said, a grimace on her face every time she spoke. “He’s trying to overrule my control over the defenses here.”

“So Leech is trying to make as much time as possible for Skeletor. He’s going to draw this fight out.”

“We’ll have to bring the fight to him then,” Adora said. “I’ll go.”

As much as Catra wanted to argue with Adora’s purpling face, she knew it was the fastest option. She-Ra was still much bigger than her, and if Catra had been on the receiving end of Leech’s blow, it would have been a KO.

“Right,” Catra said. She looked around the floor. Two tables away, an outstretched hand still held onto a taser. She nudged Adora and pointed. Adora nodded.

Adora crawled towards the taser while Catra kept her position, rifle ready. She heard the draw of a bow and got up just enough to lay her rifle on the table and shoot, keeping the pressure up to distract him. To her left, Adora had picked up the taser and made a leap over the dais, flinging the electrified baton straight at Leech’s face. The taser connected with a wild sizzle as Leech roared in pain and fell to his knees. He kicked the baton away wildly and tried to stand as Adora smashed into his skull into the floor with a wound up left jab. She picked up the taser and let it rip into Leech.

“Okay,” Catra said, running up to her and pushing her away from what remained of Leech. She could smell the mutant’s skin sizzling off and the heat emanating from his corpse.  “Okay, that’s enough, dammit. Where’s your sword?!”

They found the sword kicked underneath a table. Adora’s face slowly turned from purple back to its ruddy color.

“What about you?”

“I’m fine,” Catra said, ignoring the sting in her arm. “Let’s get this over with.”

//

//

//

All Catra heard, once she opened the doors to the Lunar Lenses, was a long, ringing boom. Blinded for a moment, she felt herself fall to the floor and struggled to get up, only to feel a sharp lancing pain to her torso. The smell of her blood was so sharp she could imagine the tangy taste of it.

“Catra!”

Slowly, she came to. Adora was kneeling next to her, Adora’s right arm around her while her left held onto… a shield. It had transformed, but not fast enough to block Skeletor’s blast. 

Looking up, she saw Skeletor through Adora’s forcefield, a blue film protecting them. Skeletor was holding up a staff.

That was new.

Catra should have known that Skeletor would have shot at anyone, friend or foe, at the entrance. Or perhaps he’d known that Leech couldn’t beat She-Ra.

“Not a bad upgrade, don’t you think?” It sounded as though he were under water, or perhaps Catra’s ears were still reeling from the sound of the explosion. Skeletor brandished his staff. It glowed for a moment then spewed out a shower of magic blasts. Adora’s shield held, but wavered. The debris settled quickly now that most of the surrounding columns were wrecked, putting them in a stalemate that was sure to break at any moment. 

“Do you think he’s drawing power from the Lenses?”

“You shouldn’t talk.”

Catra shook her head. All it did was make her more dizzy. “Drop the shield, you won’t win a fight with defense. I can still move.”

Adora looked down at her torso, then up at her, stricken. Catra knew better than to look down then; tried not to think about the wetness she could feel seeping into her clothes. 

A second rain of blasts erupted out of Skeletor’s new toy. Adora raised her shield to meet the onslaught. Just as she thought the shield would shatter at the strength of the impact, the hail stopped and Catra wiggled free of Adora’s hold. She still had her rifle. Sitting up, she fired through the haze and smoke. Her shot fizzled into nothing as Skeletor countered with a forcefield drawn by the wave of a hand. With another wave, the smoke dissipated against a gust of wind called by his hand. Adora took the opening and fired a blast of her own as she ran towards him with an overhead swing. Catra heard a distant twang of metal on metal as Skeletor parried. She finally looked down to where her torso was turning red and thought, like hell I’m going to let a lucky shot bleed me out.

She fished around her belt for a bit of salve and a patch, slapping them. At least the pain kept her from blacking out entirely. In the distance, Adora, on the left, rained blow after blow on Skeletor, who parried every swing. Catra struggled to see clear enough for a shot.

Holy shit, she was out of breath. Then Skeletor held a palm outstretched. At such a close range, Adora’s shield took most of it, until she redirected the blast by throwing out her arm.

That left her wide open for Skeletor’s staff, which jabbed at her with a white bolt of lightning straight to the chest, smoke rising from the intensity of it. The force of magic tossed Adora a few meters away.

Holy shit, how is he doing magic with both hands…?

Focus on Skeletor! With a clear target, Catra fired all the rounds she had left. Bkam! Bkam! Several of them landed on Skeletor, who took the blows as though they were nothing more than punches.

Catra grit her teeth as he turned to her, knowing that she couldn’t run. He held up a hand and it glowed white.

Catra couldn’t look away.

A blast from Adora’s sword hit with enough intensity to swing Skeletor’s hand, and the pulsing beam of magic blasted a column instead. Wildly now, Skeletor lunged to She-Ra, swinging his own staff with a single right hand as he tried to shake the pain away from the other.

Catra winced as she tried to stand. A glance to her right side told her the blood flowed a little less now. She fumbled around her pockets, picking up a spare cartridge and fumbling to reload. Her hands were less steady, but managed to slide the cartridge in. She took cover at the closest column and cursed when she started seeing double. 

“Adora, out of the way!”

Adora backed off and Skeletor’s staff clove the air; Catra squeezed the trigger and let loose a barrage of blasts, feeling hope well up when they hit Skeletor square on the head. 

Skeletor dropped the staff and fell to his knees. Adora advanced, only to jump away again when the ground around her burst into a line of spikes. Jumping out of the way, she was repelled far enough for Skeletor to recover. This time he aimed a second blast at Catra with his right hand and what little remained of the column exploded into rocks spraying out everywhere.

Catra started to run, but it was more of a scramble as Skeletor approached. She knew he was herding her into a tighter spot with his blasts, but couldn’t move fast enough to evade. She could feel the blood trickling down her leg.

Motherfucker-!

Adora barreled into Skeletor with her shield, ending in a wrestle for Skeletor’s staff. Catra’s arms and legs collapsed from exertion. She saw Adora shift the shield back into a sword at the same time Skeletor grasped for his staff, and the two weapons collided in a blast of white.

 

//

//

//


I stuck to the original 80s design for Leech, except for those weird suction caps at his extremities.

I also stuck to Skeletor’s semi-magical abilities, care of this wonderful gem: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HyhLabKXctM

One of the things I *really* wanted to do for this chapter was have Catra rip apart the necks, as it is the most efficient use of her claws. Unfortunately I see THESE screenshots of the horde soldiers and they have neck protection… but no groin guard? But it’s not fun to target balls for claw attacks… so we’re stuck with some good old tasers, laser rifles, and swords.

Chapter Text

Season 3 is out and I can’t even watch Season 2 because of this fic!! 3-4 or so more chapters left. I’m pretty sure my Entrapta here is OC with the new season, but welp. The canon divergence marches on.

//

blare of the trumpet

//

By the time Bow arrived at Mystacor, the dawn had broken and the battle had been won. Scorpia’s gamble to bolster theirs and Bright Moon’s numbers by freeing all the mages in Mystacor had paid off, once they had figured out where the mages were being kept and how to recharge their magic. Bright Moon squads were arriving from nearby villages; the Horde was too far away to send help in a timely manner, but did so anyway through their airships.

“We’re sending all of them,” Entrapta said, bluntly.

Lonnie made the mistake of playing the devil’s advocate: “What about protecting the Horde in the event of… other enemy attacks?”

“That’s a hypothetical situation!” Entrapta exploded. “This is not!”

“Entrapta, we’ll send what troops we can send on aircraft. But we’re not moving out the entire Horde, it would take too long. The battle must be won with what we can send in time. Not even Bright Moon could move their host through the Whispering Woods quick enough to see the end of this battle.”

“I should go,” Bow piped up.

“Don’t think you can go without me, either,” Swift Wind said, despite the exhaustion of carrying Bow from Mystacor, only to go back.

And yet, by the time he’d arrived, whatever gamble Adora had taken -- that Catra took along with her, according to reports -- had paid off. Most of Mystacor’s castle and the area surrounding the Lunar Lenses had exploded in some massive three-way battle, taking out ex-Horde machinery and manpower. While that had been going on, Bright Moon/Horde soldiers had snuck back in to set the mages free. Weaponizing the civilians, Entrapta had called it. Nobody disagreed with the plan; the political implications of involving civilians were things they could worry about later.

That there was a later, to begin with, would probably silence any complaints about the Horde's way of solving problems.

Spotting a patch free from debris, close to the center of Mystacor, Bow said, "Let's land."

//

//

Weeks later:

//

“‘Dora’s awake,” Scorpia said, after knocking and entering in the middle of the afternoon.

Entrapta nodded. Without looking, she could see Scorpia -- dark circles under eyes, her pale hair matted and in sticking up in odd angles, her face nearly as white as her hair where the shadows and the lack of sleep hadn’t drawn dark angles.

“Catra might follow,” Scorpia said.

Entrapta nodded, still not tearing her eyes away from the steady stream of data coursing through a screen large enough to fill the wall.

Sounds from the outside came in now that Scorpia had opened the door. She could hear Princess Glimmer and Bow, could picture them eagerly crowding Adora’s bed, holding her hand, trying to find the balance between joy and the somber restraint needed to keep Adora calm and healing.

“Do you want to talk to her?”

“She’s too injured to stay conscious for long,” Entrapta said. “I don’t want to tax her.”

“I don’t know what to say to her, either.”

That was a surprise. Usually Scorpia knew how to talk to Adora.

Entrapta, not so much. “I only know I’m glad they’re both alive.”

Yes, but only one of them is conscious, Entrapta thought.

“Can I join you?”

“There’s nothing going on, just reports and notifications,” Entrapta admitted. But she was glad when Scorpia came in and closed the door. It was, once again, just the mechanical hum of the air conditioning in her lab. The trying-not-to-be-loud-and-failing Best Friend Squad faded away.

“I know it gets annoying to hear me ask --” Scorpia started. “The Bright Moon healers would have skewered me by now, I think, if I wasn’t acting head of the Horde.”

Technically Catra had given Scorpia the Horde, full stop, in a public comms line that went straight to Bright Moon. Acting wasn’t the right word, but Entrapta kept from correcting Scorpia. Calling herself only the acting leader of the Horde was Scorpia’s way of assuring herself that Catra would come back to them.

“It could take any amount of time,” Entrapta said, repeating what the Bright Moon healers themselves were saying. “Catra doesn’t have enhanced healing.”

“Do you think Adora could help her?”

Based on the evidence, the answer was no. Most of what Adora knew of her powers were destructive, the healing parts mostly reserved for herself.

Scorpia sat next to her, swiveling the wheels on her chair closer. They both stared at the screen because, Entrapta knew, they both didn’t want to face each other.

“I don’t know,” Entrapta said.

There were plenty of things Entrapta didn’t know about Catra. Sometimes she didn’t know if Catra was joking or serious, if she was sad or happy, but none had caused her heart to constrict as painfully as it did in that moment, not knowing if she was going to wake up or not. She managed a sideways look to Scorpia, whose face couldn’t muster a smile.

A tendril of Entrapta’s hair wrapped itself around Scorpia’s shoulder. It was all Entrapta could think to do.

//

//

//

Adora drifted in and out of consciousness the next day. The day after that, she was awake, but weak. The Best Friend Squad stayed next to her the whole time, telling their stories quietly, assuring her that it was a total victory, better than they expected, and that Bright Moon and the Horde were sharing resources now, starting with hers and Catra’s joint recovery.

Glimmer had awoken about a day after all the fighting finished. Bow came in at the tail end of the battle along with Swift Wind.

“We kind of bumped into the Fright Zone on our way to Salineas, and they let us rest then kept us updated about what was going on,” he said. "Scorpia nearly didn’t give us this ‘flight clearance’ thing, but she eventually relented and we made it to Mystacor in time to watch all the mages rebelling. For somebody who doesn’t have a bond with a runestone, Scorpia has a good handle on magic.”

Glimmer, on the other hand, still hadn’t forgiven the Horde for taking Adora away. Only Adora’s condition -- sensitivity to anything loud or bright -- kept her voice down.

In between their stories, a healer would check up on Adora. “You’ve depleted quite a bit of your magic,” the Bright Moon healer said. “It will take a while to feel normal.”

“But soon, right?” Glimmer interjected, across the bed. “It’s never taken me this long to recharge -- ” she broke off, watching Adora blink. The nausea was like being at sea, on a boat churned by the waves at every damn direction. Adora’s stomach was empty and bloated and roiling, all at the same time. The room swam, occasionally, but as long as Adora could focus on one thing -- Glimmer’s hair, or Bow’s voice, she could get by.

“You have a runestone, your Highness.”

“So does Adora, it’s her sword.”

“It was also depleted in the battle against Skeletor.”

“Is that really possible?”

“That’s the conclusion that both we and the Horde scientists have come to.”

“How’s Catra?” Adora asked, butting into the conversation.

After a brief pause, the Healer on her right said, “Recovering.”

“Can I talk to her?”

The Healer’s eyes flickered to Glimmer. Glimmer turned to face her. “She’s stable, but hasn’t woken up yet.”

“Hasn’t woken up yet…”

If it took you days to wake up --

If it took She-Ra days to wake up --

Adora sat upright. A lancing pain zapped up her right side, but she ignored it. Her last picture of Catra, suddenly sharp in her mind, had Catra bleeding out, missing a chunk of her own torso, a piercing wound on her left shoulder. The pain cuth through the hazy, unsure thoughts in her mind, pulling everything into focus.

“Where is she?”

That should have been her first question, not lying here listening to people tell her things.

“She’s just in another room, Adora, please let the healers worry about Catra,” Glimmer said. “You were both pretty beat up.”

“No! Dammit, I was supposed to go alone in the first place,” Adora said. Her bones creaked at every heave of her chest, as though her ribs would give out. The healer put a placating hand on Adora’s shoulder but it only made Adora angrier.

“Please, give it another day, She-Ra,” the healer said. Their voice suddenly seemed very far away. A heat spread out from where the healer had touched her. Magic, Adora realized too late, as she fell back and into the void.

//

//

//

Scorpia’s first order as Commander of the Horde was to suppress Catra’s hasty announcement that she, well, was the new Commander. Nearly all of the Horde knew her only as Acting Commander; and to Bright Moon, they would have to clean up the confusion that Catra had made. As the mission was top secret, everyone knew to be quiet about it anyway.

“It’s fucked up, man,” Lonnie muttered. They sat across from each other, on a table outside of one of the rehab buildings, watching the sunset. Patches of Dryl were still barren, but they at least had trees where they were staying. The area around Dryl Castle almost looked like a normal kingdom, with paved roads, buildings (in the Horde style) and vegetation. If it looked weird to anyone from Bright Moon, like a lovechild of Plumeria and the Horde, they kept it to themselves.

Dryl had been suggested for its neutral location and because it had, over the course of the war, turned into a rehab facility for Horde members. Bright Moon agreed and sent their healers to assist, headed by Princess Perfuma and the BFF Squad.

And now Adora was awake.

“You sure you don’t want to take them all hostage and buy us some time for Catra? Y’know, now that we don’t have any leverage on them and their hero woke up and all that.”

“Do you really think we need to do that?”

“A suspicious mind is kinda what kept us alive during the war.”

“We’re not in a war,” Scorpia told her, gaze even. “If you thought they were going to backstab us, we should have kept Catra in the Fright Zone to begin with.”

“Right.” Lonnie took out a flask from her messenger bag..

“Damn, I forgot to get something to drink. Is that lemon juice?”

“Uh, is ginger beer close enough?”

“...Just this once, yes.”

“Does it ever freak you out that you have to share this kingdom with the people we’ve been trying to kill since we were kids? I can’t even sleep at night, y’know, in case they try to pull something.”

“I’m pretty sure they’re thinking the same thing, especially considering that Dryl is our territory.”

“True,” Lonnie said, after a while.

“Don’t you think that Adora would have felt the same way, when we first captured her?”

“The Horde was her home. It’s not the same. These guys have been trying to kill us since I was a baby.”

They settled into their own thoughts as the sun sank, passing the flask back and forth between them.

“It’s going to seriously suck if she doesn’t regain consciousness,” Lonnie muttered. “Politically speaking.”

“I don’t care about the politics,” Scorpia snapped, “I just want her to wake up.”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to sound so callous,” Lonnie said, shrinking a little under Scorpia’s gaze. Scorpia shook her head. Lonnie hadn’t been there when the Horde had arrived at the Lunar Lenses, and she hadn’t had to watch as their medics tried to stanch the blood. Nor did she have to carry Catra, drops of red still falling at each step she took towards the aircraft from the number of wounds she’d sustained.

Scorpia took a deep breath. “It’s fine, I’m just… ”

“No, I was a jerk,” Lonnie said. “Well, Catra would say ‘but you’re always a jerk, Lonnie, what’s new?’”

“She would say that,” Scorpia agreed.

“And we still somehow do what she tells us to do.”

“Hey, she’s got us this far.”

“She’s always been crazy impulsive,” Lonnie added, after a pause. “I mean, what else are you gonna call dropping everything to run after your ex-lover? It’s almost like saving the Horde was a nice side-effect.”

Scorpia tilted her head. Nearly everyone, to Scorpia’s face, omitted any mention of Adora and Catra’s relationship. It was a carefully constructed blank space. Scorpia knew that space wasn’t going to last, not with everyone scrutinizing the two of them. Scorpia was asking herself what came next, and if what came next was good for Catra. “Was Adora?”

“Well,” Lonnie said, turning away from the heat of Scorpia’s gaze, “No. Probably not. I don’t know. I don’t think so. I was just saying what everyone’s already thinking or speculating or… y’know. They’re all the soldiers talk about.”

That was news.

“Is this some kind of bet?” From behind them, a tendril of Entrapta’s hair dragged a chair from a corner and sat next to Catra. Yet another tendril dipped into the flask and brought the drop to Entrapta’s waiting tongue. Her verdict: “Disgusting. Not nearly sweet enough.”

“We’re not betting on anything. We’re just… talking about Adora and Catra, once Catra wakes up.”

“I sometimes think,” Scorpia said, throwing caution to the wind, “that a lover you never had, is worse than a lover you did have, and left. Because you’re always wondering, what if?”

“I was actually surprised Catra was able to rein it in for so long,” Lonnie said. (At this point, Scorpia thought, well, we’re having that conversation now.) “Well, okay, no, not really. I mean, I just thought at first that they were different people already. I mean, Catra has been different, ever since. Hm. Ever since the Shadow Weaver thing. She took to leading, more and more. And I respect that.” Lonnie said, grudgingly. “But then when she went and did this, I realized -- yeah, she may have just kept it under wraps, the whole time. She’s better at that than I thought.”

“She’s better at hiding than we gave her credit for,” Entrapta agreed.

“Well, guess Adora’s always had that effect on her.”

There was a question there, that Scorpia had been trying to find the answer to. “Do you think it goes both ways?”

“Honestly? I got no idea. I don’t know who the fuck Adora is anymore. And that’s a hell of a question to ask. What about you, Entrapta? You’re a scientist. You should be observant and all that, right? Y’think anything’s going to happen between them?”

“I don’t know about Adora,” Entrapta said. “But Catra would do anything for her.”

Lonnie burst into laughter. “Man, that is so weird, coming from you, especially!”

Entrapta didn’t say anything. She looked thoughtful, even pensive.

Lonnie went on talking. “I know you don’t care about politics, Scorpia, but the two of them would be… well, that’d be a really hairy situation, yeah?”

“That’s too far ahead for me to worry about.”

“Take care of the present and the future will sort itself out,” Entrapta said. “That’s what historical data tells us, anyway.”

//

//

half awake, half asleep

//

Lonnie’s wish was granted two weeks later, when Catra finally stirred. Immediately after the news broke out, every Horde soldier stationed in Dryl suddenly had a rotation around the wards. The Best Friend Squad and the Super Pal Trio plus some Force Captains held a meeting to sort out new schedules and other things that had been cropping up since the two sides were working with each other.

“I thought I’d seen everything, what are these fake timecards?” Scorpia said, holding up a stack. They all had different names, but one location -- the corridor around Catra’s room. “There are enough names on this timeslot to stuff a battalion in here.”

“Well, she’s the war hero that’s killed Hordak and was instrumental in taking down Skeletor. Guess a little bit of hero worship was to be expected,” Lonnie said dryly. “They’ve been nicking bits and pieces off her aircraft, too. A nut or a bolt here and there for good luck.”

One of the Force Captains, a boy with a patchwork beard, piped up. “No, that’s the Bright Moon soldiers, actually. They think her equipment has been enchanted by the She-Ra, or something like that.”

Having heard that Catra had been in Dryl before, on yet another miraculous recovery, both Bright Moon and Horde soldiers asked around for her favorite places, where she trained during rehab, or what gardens she frequented.

“Dryl didn’t even have gardens the last time Catra was here,” Entrapta muttered.

“Well, regardless, they’re pilfering pots, too,” Lonnie said. “If anything, Catra needs less guards and more quiet. Got any ideas how to keep the guards behaved?”

“We should just kick them out,” Entrapta said, “and have robots take over. Less organic matter means less breeding grounds for bacteria.”

“We’ll get a riot,” Lonnie countered. “We should have kept her in the Fright Zone to begin with.”

“She’s only awake now because we worked with the Bright Moon healers. And they weren’t going to trust us putting Adora in the Fright Zone.”

“We’re right here, y’know,” Glimmer muttered. “And yeah, if you want our help, Catra stays in Dryl. This is your side’s problem.”

“Um, excuse me,” another Force Captain piped in, “in case you weren’t listening, theft of Horde property is a crime.”

Scorpia groaned as each side bickered with the other. If Catra were here, she thought, she’d yell at them all to shut up. Somehow, running a war council was easier: there was a shared objective, and they knew how to argue over which plan was most likely to achieve their goal. Here though, the talking had dissolved to complaints about shifts, food, and missing screws in equipment. The two sides had no idea how to organize when they weren’t all agreeing to go to battle.

Tap-tap-tap.

Scorpia sighed and walked over to the entrance. “The sandwiches can wait,” she said as she pulled the door open. “--Oh.”

“That’s the first time I’ve heard you turn down food,” Adora said, “Don’t worry, I’ll be staying outside. Just wanted to eavesdrop a little.”

“Should you even be up?”

“I was cleared to walk the other day,” Adora said cheerfully. “I think carrying a tray is the next step.”

Scorpia took a cucumber and dill sandwich.

“So uh, can I suggest something?”

“Sure,” Scorpia said.

“I’ll guard Catra,” Adora said. “And I think we should have like, a training workshop between the Horde and Bright Moon. They can steal all the bits and pieces they want while learning how to drive a van or repair something. And Bright Moon can explain the magic stuff. Should keep the guards busy if they’re not on guard duty.”

“Woah, woah, back up. You’ll guard Catra.”

“Yeah.” Adora said. “I think it’s the least I can do. And at least none of the guards get to complain about favoritism since they all won’t guard Catra. I think they can live with that.”

“Are you even fit to carry a sword?”

“I can turn into a buff eight-foot-tall lady. She’ll be be fit to carry a sword,” Adora said.

“I don’t think your side’s going to like that,” Scorpia said.

“But if they do agree,” Adora said, “You’ll go with it?”

Scorpia remembered that she still had the sandwich between her pincers. “Only if Lonnie guards her along with you,” Scorpia said, taking a bite out of the bread. “I think that’s fair. One Bright Moon representative, one Horde representative.”

“We got a deal, then,” Adora said.

“Deal.”

“So do they still want the sandwiches or…?”

Scorpia took the tray from her. “I think it’s best if they didn’t know you were here,” she said.

“Right, that decision was totally your idea, and is totally impartial,” Adora said.

After a brief pause, Scorpia said, “I’m glad you’re back.”

Adora looked up at her. This time, her smile reached her eyes. “Thought you were mad at me,” she said. “When you didn’t try to meet with me after I woke up.”

Had she been? Had she been blaming Adora for Catra’s situation? “Maybe a little,” she admitted. “But we’re good now.”

“We’ll talk, won’t we? When all that --” Adora tilted her head sideways towards the room abuzz with disagreements “--gets sorted out?”

“We will.”

//

//

//

Bright Moon refused to hand over their She-Ra for guard duty until the She-Ra herself insisted. By the end of the day, the Horde had issued a pardon over stolen items in good faith that Bright Moon wasn’t trying to steal their technology. That was close enough to peace and quiet as it got in Dryl, in Adora’s limited experience. It seemed that the whole base had been holding its breath for Catra to regain consciousness, and news of her short return to the waking world shattered the stasis Dryl was in, as though they’d finally got the signal: everything’s okay, now we can go back to bickering and hating each other.

If Catra hadn’t woken up… Scorpia would have had to find a scapegoat for the blame. The Horde wouldn’t take Catra’s situation lying down. Today’s meeting was nothing more than a class full of children in comparison to that.

Adora imagined Catra taunting her, since when did you get so smart?

“Don’t give me too much credit,” Adora muttered to herself, staring at the ceiling, sitting against the wall.

“What was that?”

Lonnie was on the other side of the corridor.

“Nothing!” Adora shouted.

Static crackled in her ear as a line opened. “We have a walkie-talkie, y’know,” Lonnie said.

“Right,” Adora said, “over.”

On the far end of the corridor, a door slid open. Lonnie snapped to attention, then slouched when she figured out who it was: Entrapta. Her hair, for the past few times Adora had seen her, had been limp, moving only when they had to. This time was no better.

Lonnie’s voice came through the walkie talkie. “Entrapta’s here to check on the machines.”

“Okay. Uh. Any improvement? Is she gonna wake up today?”

This time it was Entrapta’s voice that came through. “Not based on her readings right now. Give her some time.”

Before Adora could ask another question, Entrapta had opened the door to Catra’s room.

//

//

//

Inside the room, Catra was awake, though she kept her eyes closed. Entrapta pulled the blinds over the one and only window in the room, giving them some privacy. Catra’s ears perked up; she knew the squeak of Entrapta’s shoes. Once she heard the blinds were drawn, she opened her eyes for a peek. Entrapta nodded a tendril in response, but otherwise stuck to checking the equipment.

“It’s fuckin’ cold in here,” Catra rasped underneath layer after layer of blankets. She didn’t try to sit up -- her ribs would scream if they could. When Entrapta didn’t answer, she sighed. “All for my own good, huh?”

“Scorpia would say sorry, but it’s still necessary.”

“Yeah.”

Catra closed her eyes. They still got heavy quick. But she knew this view well enough: four white walls, she’d been forced to spend months in Dryl before.

“I just wanted to let you know, before anyone else barges in, that Adora’s outside, guarding the door.”

“Ugh! It’s my second fuckin’ day up, and she’s right there.”

“You don’t have to let her in. We’ve been saying that you’re floating in and out of consciousness.”

“That doesn’t sound like a perfect opportunity for remaining enemy forces to jump at us,” Catra said, irritated. A sharp pain formed a jagged line around her jaw -- probably because she was so tense -- but it was a tension she wanted to let loose, damn the pain.

“It’s been a month. I don’t think, given the combined might of the Bright Moon army and the Horde, that any country poses a threat to us right now, here in Dryl. Most of Skeletor’s forces are surrendered, with scattered bandits being taken down.”

“So we won, huh.”

“Did Scorpia already tell you how?” Judging from the measured tone of Entrapta's voice, Scorpia had told her to be slow with the news.

“No, I was out of it yesterday. I just got the general idea that I’ve been sleeping here since a month ago, and that I left everyone to clean-up duty. This morning, though, I was a little awake… I could hear the healers from Bright Moon.”

“That’s good. It’s as Scorpia said: we won, minimal casualties, as perfect an outcome as she could have hoped for, given the situation.”

Catra would have snorted if she could, but she reined it in. With her jaw in that state the pain wouldn’t have been worth it. When Entrapta didn’t say anything else, Catra cracked an eye open, looking for Entrapta’s shadow on the walls. She was at the far right of the room, fiddling with the occasional control. Catra could hear the flick of a switch every so often, the beep and whirr of machinery. Satisfied, she closed her eyes again, sinking into the pillows. “So Adora woke up before me, huh.”

“She did.”

“Did something happen? You’re not usually this quiet.”

“Sorry,” Entrapta said, “just finishing up. I don’t know. I wanted to see if you were truly as the readings said you were. By myself.”

Although Catra’s face occasionally throbbed in pain, she smiled at that. “Like what you see?”

“You’re alive,” Entrapta said. “And the healers are optimistic about your recovery.”

It’s always so weird when she’s serious, Catra thought. She never got used to Entrapta’s bouts of seriousness. In her most competent, Entrapta wasn’t serious -- she was happy. It was something Catra didn’t have the strength to answer today, but she filed it away, hoping that she’d remember the next time she woke up.

“You’re kinda freaking me out,” Catra said, deadpan. “You sure there aren’t leftover remnants of the old Horde knocking at our door?”

“I'm sure,” Entrapta said. “I can guarantee you, Commander, that the past few weeks have been peaceful. And that Adora is alive and well, and that we won. And the rest… you’ll hear from it when you’re feeling better, from Scorpia.”

“That’s it, huh,” Catra said, feeling winded from all the talking, as though she’d been running between every breath she took.

“I’m opening the blinds.”

“Well, I sure as hell don’t want to see Adora just yet,” Catra grumbled. “I’m going back to sleep. Get me something nice to eat next time, kay?”

“I will,” Entrapta said.

//

//

//

Adora had spent every day training since they cleared her. When she wasn't knocking someone back into the dust by the sheer force of her muscle, she was listening to debriefings (halfhearted and tired) or guarding Catra.

Guarding Catra was a selfish idea, and it turned out to one she hated. She was there, and awake sometimes, even, but only the healers, Entrapta, and Scorpia had access to her. Not her.

Never her, from the looks of it.

The thought made its way into her swing as she beat down hard on a boy training with her, causing him to crumple to his knees. She dropped her sword with a clatter. "Shit," she said, kneeling down to him. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to."

The boy's voice was wobbly as he waved off her apology. He looked just about to pass out.

"Uh... Medic!" Adora shouted into the quadrangle. The other soldiers snapped to attention. In a daze, Adora allowed herself to be sat down on a bench as the boy was taken to the infirmary. She sat there, remembering Shadow Weaver's words from another life.

"You shall stand outside until you have reflected properly on your misbehavior," she had said, once, to Catra. And Catra had stood outside for the rest of the day, and well into the evening, until Adora had begged Shadow Weaver to make it stop.

She exhaled as she slouched against the wall. For the next half-hour or so, memories would pour out from a well in her mind, things far in the past that were hazy but for the occasional stab of guilt from a bad time or a warm pulse from the few bright spots she recalled.

She must have dozed off from all the training, because when she woke up, the sky was orange. Next to her, on the far side of the bench, someone stirred.

"Told 'em not to wake you up," Catra said. "Hungry?"

"Catra!"

"Yes."

Adora looked around. Nobody was left in the training quadrangle. She stilled the wild urge to hug Catra, who again looked as though they did this all the time.

"How's your ribs?"

"Magically stitched together, or so I'm told. I don't think they're there yet."

Adora stared into Catra's flank, covered by her maroon top, as though she could burn a hole and see for herself, if the skin were still ripped off. She put a hand to her mouth at the memory, the sudden sensation of burning flesh and burning everything.

"We won," Catra said, raising an eyebrow.

Adora, breathe.

"We did," Adora said, speaking carefully. As always, it felt like Catra leading, and her following. But she wanted to follow, as long as it meant that Catra wouldn't disappear from view.

"They tell me it'll be a while before I can really move," Catra said, bringing out the same rod she'd used back when they were at the Whispering Woods.

Should you even be walking, Adora wondered, but didn't say.

"I go to sleep for a few weeks and I wake up to Bright Mooners in Dryl," Catra said. "I got quite the shock."

"Same," Adora said.

"Not as huge as the shock... when you disobeyed orders," Catra said, looking at the wood grain that separated them. "I would have thought for sure that you would follow them."

To that, Adora said nothing. There were a thousand things at once, words that could tumble out of her mouth, and they all jammed somewhere between her throat and her heart.

"I don't really want to talk about it now, though," Catra said. "But I had to say something, because everyone tells me you've been sulking since I woke up."

Adora scowled. "Have not."

"Have too."

Adora shook her head, tried to clamp down on the strange, light feeling that was filling her up. Catra, she wanted to ask, what does this mean? It's over now. Are things better? Are things worse? In between the fear of being shut out, and the ferocious hope that came with the light teasing tone in Catra's voice, Adora clung to the pendulum and told herself to wait.

"It's going to be dinner time soon," Catra continued. "I gotta get back. But I'll see you...soon."

 

//

//

//

 

AN: So I had a fucked up August, and a weird September. I want to apologize for how awfully behind schedule I am with this posting. I will work hard to make up for it. Also, I am completely out of work these days, so hmu at tumblr. I do webdev/design/hosting work.

Also. Adora and Catra and the world at peace... how are they gonna deal with that?!? Stay tuned, folks.

Chapter Text

THE STORY SO FAR: Following a disastrous cannon discharge and a convalescence at Horde-controlled Dryl, Catra raises a coup d’etat, successfully murdering Hordak. The Golden Trio attempts to infiltrate Catra’s reformed Horde, only to lose Adora as hostage (a “Ward of the Horde”) to a now-reclusive Catra. Six months later, Skeletor, ex-Lieutenant to Hordak, takes over Mystacor with an eye for the Fright Zone. Scorpia gambles on returning Adora to Bright Moon against Catra’s wishes to secure an alliance with the rest of Etheria; the gambit works. Begrudgingly combining forces, the Princess Alliance and the New Horde defeat Skeletor, with Catra and Adora nearly dead (as usual). What now, after the decisive end of a shared battle?

For additional refreshers on the circumstances leading to Catra's eventual takeover, a little bit of it is discussed somewhere in Ch. 5

 

//

old world order

//

 

The first time Catra was in rehab, she'd resisted the exercises, alternately pushing herself or slacking off. They'd tied her milestones for recovery to human metrics, which meant that her numbers were either off the charts or failing miserably. Her balance and coordination returned first; her strength returned last, and it seemed, to Catra, that it never fully returned, regardless of what the doctors said.

This time around, Entrapta assured her that the metrics were based on her physiology.

"Seems like the only change is the amount of rest," Catra said, glancing at blank cell after blank cell on the sheet. She had the grip to hold a clipboard now, not that it was much of a win.

"Magicats recover faster that way," Entrapta said.

"I could have told you that."

Entrapta only nodded. The complacence in the act made Catra want to crush up the clipboard, paper and all, but her fingers weren't complying. She let her arm fall back to the bed, waiting for Entrapta to finish fiddling with this knob or that.

To keep her irritation at bay, Catra asked, “What’s going on outside?”

“Outside? Lonnie and Adora are having a staring match.”

Catra tried to raise an eyebrow. She wasn’t sure if her face was obeying, but her eye twitched, which was enough to make her feel that some control was coming back to her.

“Why the hell is a Bright Moon soldier outside?”

“Because she asked to be assigned to guard you and Scorpia allowed it.”

“Allowed it because…?”

Entrapta hadn’t looked at her the whole time. 

“Because Adora asked, I think. Because she was sad. That’s… what I gathered from listening to Scorpia, anyway.”Because she was sad. Catra filed that away.

“And how’s Scorpia?”

“Acting as leader of the Horde,” Entrapta said. “The current peace set up we have is almost all on her shoulders.”

“Wouldn’t be surprised if she wanted to kill me for it,” Catra said dryly.

Entrapta shook her head, still keeping her focus on some beeping screen probably ratting on Catra’s vital signs.

"What the hell is wrong with that machine," Catra said, irritated, watching Entrapta's limp hair move a dial to the left and right. 

Entrapta didn't reply for a while. Catra huffed, her irritation moving from target to target: the machines, Adora’s case of sulking, Entrapta, herself, the entire situation, the sound of the breathing apparatus that she should have been taken off of.

"Truthfully," Entrapta said, "nothing's wrong with it."

Again, Catra waited through another long pause.

"You discharged the Cannon on purpose."

Catra let the words hang in the air for a beat. Fuck, the Cannon. The damn thing always haunted her in Dryl. It was almost the last thing she and Entrapta talked about before this whole battle with Mystacor. And it was, after all, the incident which made her realize that the war would only end in one way if Hordak ruled, and that Catra could not abide by that end.

No, now was not the time for emotions, especially not when she could barely control her physical state.

Get Entrapta back in line, Catra thought to herself.

"Yeah," she said. "I blew the entire thing up and burned the fur off my back and legs for shits and giggles."

"Not for shits and giggles," Entrapta said.

Catra said nothing to that.

"I'm sorry I ever built it," Entrapta said.

Suddenly, the hum of machinery drowned out all other sounds in Catra’s ears.

From somewhere far away, she heard Entrapta finally put all the pieces together, out loud. "I made that Cannon for fortifications, for masonry. But Hordak wanted you to use it on Adora."

Catra would have swung her head, but the motion was too heavy. Damn. Of course Entrapta couldn't wait to test her theory. In Catra's mind, the word theory was spat out, but in the real world, she was only quiet, her body unable to move at the speed of her thoughts.

"We… already talked about this. Didn’t we? And is now even the right time to dredge it up?" Catra said, the words sounding as though they came from someone else.

"I know," Entrapta said. Again, she seemed far away. "I should... leave."

She did, leaving Catra with a body unable to respond to a thousand thoughts. She didn’t sleep that night.

//

new world order

//

The strangest thought popped into Adora's head in the middle of celebrating the reunification of the golden trio.

I need a drink.

The sound of laughter grated on her ears. It was getting to be too much, the joy and good cheer. Before the war, Adora had liked being with people, had only sometimes turned down any sort of social gathering because Catra waffled. All that had changed since then; at some point the scale had tipped and Adora, in a sea of people and an ocean of adulation, had only drinks for armor. She drank when she was alone scavenging evacuated or abandoned villages, and she drank when she was surrounded. Her longest break in drinking was in the Fright Zone as the Ward, and she hadn't thought of wine since then. 

Was it because she was surrounded by hostility?

That sounds fucked up, the Catra in her brain said.

Or maybe it was that she was with the Horde again, and she just didn't have a history drinking there.

She could barely hear what Bow said. Whatever it was, she must have said the right thing back, because he was laughing.

Catra would have rolled her eyes.

Adora moved to the buffet table, saying all the right excuses to get herself a cup.

Catra would have approved.

Why was she thinking so much of Catra now, anyway?

Briefly, Adora turned to where Bow and Glimmer sat, their table flanked by soldiers. She would have asked them without hesitation, before. She would have asked them to help her figure herself out. They had met She-Ra at the same time Adora had; they’d been there from the start, in a way. And yet Catra was from a time before, and, funnily enough, from a time after. Now was the only time Adora’s two worlds had really and truly met.

An image of Lonnie drinking with Bow flashed before her mind. That could happen now, couldn’t it , her brain seemed to be saying.

//

//

//

Entrapta no longer came to Catra’s room after that. Catra was only ninety percent sure it was because of Entrapta’s own need to sort things out in her head and not because of the implication that Catra had overthrown Hordak because of the enemy. Catra would have had to overthrow Hordak anyway. The accident was the tipping point to something that had been boiling over for years. That was what Catra told herself, constantly, when she thought about the Horde defectors who’d sided with her and died during her takeover.

It was funny that Entrapta had taken that long to figure it out. But then Catra had counted on Entrapta’s very human blind spot towards her own failures to keep her from thinking clearly about the Cannon. It could have only gone for so long. And now, Catra was certain, Entrapta had probably told Scorpia about it. So now there were two advisors talking about it.

Catra could have just summoned them both, told them the deal, but a part of her thought of space and Entrapta’s own limp hair and endless fiddling. To push the matter now would be too soon. Her instinct told her to wait for Scorpia to make the suggestion for the three of them to talk, and then hopefully have so many other things to talk about that they never had to talk about the Cannon again. That was unlikely, but Catra could hope.

It was maddening; her only reprieve was that she was getting stronger and stronger faster through the magic from the Bright Moon healers.

The magic was another thing occupying her mind. The day after Entrapta mentioned the Cannon, the Bright Moon healers were finally allowed to do more than observe. So this is what it feels like , Catra thought, when she felt the burst of energy after her first treatment. Unlike the healing that occured in a numbing haze of painkillers and anesthetic, there was something invigorating in magic. She saw it on Adora’s face when Adora first got her sword back, a feeling of giddiness. For the first time, the expression of being drunk on power made sense.

“How does that feel?” a Bright Moon healer would ask, every morning, before the Horde healers would adjust her machines.

“Like I should be let out right now,” Catra would say in reply. The heaviness would disappear along with the glitter and sparkles that marked the use of magic, and disappear for most of the day until dinner. Suddenly Catra could walk without a stick and run, even if the only places she could move in were the physical therapy rooms.

The Bright Moon healers, a set of four, would look at each other and say, “we’ll leave that decision to your Horde physician.”

Her acting Horde physician, left in that place by Entrapta, would mutter something about needing clearance. At the end of the first week, when Catra found herself running laps in their parkour room, Catra lifted the poor woman up by the collar and said, “Get clearance. At least let me walk out of here without having to sneak out like I don’t even run this place.”

Clearance came the next day, a note from Entrapta noting down for how long the magic would last. The note came with her telescopic rod, cleaned and repaired and, from the smell of it, oiled. Below the timetable, Scorpia’s handwriting added: “Take note of the guard rotations! We’ve told some of the guards you’ll be walking around, but not Adora or Lonnie. Don’t let them see you or we’ll get into political hot water. Get back inside before these times!” with an arrow pointing to the last columns. “Or you’ll be cranky!” with a drawing of a surly-faced Catra. Finally, below all that: Let’s have lunch at the end of next week. Stay out of sight for now!

Stay out of sight -- in my own territory , Catra thought to herself. “That’s nice.”

//

//

//

If they were at the Fright Zone, and Catra hadn’t gotten her ribs shattered for the nth time since the war started, the usual suspects would have had a betting pool. Maybe the number of brawls breaking out between the Moonies and the Horde, maybe the number of brawls the Moonies would win (obviously zero), maybe the amount of time it would take for the peace to end.

But Catra wasn’t in Battle Room One with the rest of her crew. She didn’t know where they had been assigned, who was on lunch duty, what time they were all free.

They can cut you out pretty easily, she thought to herself, the implications of the thought turning and twisting in her head. She fought back the dread in her gut. She wanted to think, that’s fine, I could use a vacation , but that thought was a lie. Lazy Catra was a cover. Back then, there was the point in trying when she could never win to the shadow of Adora? And when it turned out she could win, she shed that disguise and found in herself no interest in anything else.

No rest for the wicked and all that.

There’s nothing you can do about it , she told herself as she balanced herself, walking on the railings on the roof of Dryl’s medical center. The buildings were spaced far apart enough to make jumping from building to building difficult; this wasn’t the Fright Zone, where she could easily swing from all the exposed power cords. She was high enough that the people below wouldn’t recognize her, and anyway she wore a hood. From above, Dryl looked like a regular town, with wide dirt roads and the wind whistling through the trees; only the buildings were eyesores, done in the Fright Zone style -- squares of concrete and metal which blended poorly with the rest of this New Dryl.

The Moonies did not mix with the Horde. At the same time, a wagon bump here and there didn’t start a fresh new war. Both groups simply moved wherever they had to go, dumped supplies where they were told to, patrolled around some important tent, and went in groups to the mess hall. That was all that was happening.

Catra was both disappointed and proud. It took her a few minutes to process that last one, surprised that there was even a feeling to suppress.

Wasn’t what she was fighting for, when she fought Hordak? It still rankled her to admit it. It came so close to weakness, and Shadow Weaver’s grip on her was forever there when she thought of weakness.

Catra went back inside to plan out how to get to the training center.

//

clearance

//

A day after that, she caught sight of Adora sleeping on a training bench. It was late afternoon, and pushing it if she were honest, because the magic bled out of her by the evening, leaving her angry at the pain flaring up in her ribs every time she took so much as a breath. But Catra sat down on the bench anyway, taking in the patch of green that made up the training center’s quadrangle. It looked like a beaten down courtyard. When a Horde soldier came to fetch Adora, Catra pulled back the hood, winked and told him nicely to leave and to close the area. Before long, her ears caught no footsteps coming close. 

Catra tried not to look at Adora. It was bad enough that the magic in her bones were fading. She didn’t need more of a punch in the gut than she already felt. Still, even with every other thought telling her not to, she couldn’t stand up even if she wanted to. She couldn’t leave, even if she wanted to. And she couldn’t turn to look, even if she wanted to. She was acutely aware of their distance, a bench’s width apart.

It didn’t take long for Adora to wake up. Out of the corner of her eye, Catra had no choice but to turn and pay attention.

“I told ‘em not to wake you up,” she said, knowing that the first thing Force Captain Adora would do is beat herself up for waking up late. “Hungry?”

“Catra!”

So it seemed Adora wasn’t processing anything she’d said. “Yes?”

After a pause and some rapid blinking, Adora finally settled with, “How’s your ribs?”

Catra thought about the pain came later and for shorter periods of time with each passing day. “Magically stitched together, or so I’m told; I don't think they're there yet." There it was, the need to lie about her condition.

As long as she kept the atmosphere light, Adora would follow suit. Controlling the room, as they called it in training. The person who maintained control over distance maintained control in battle.

And as always this constant thought hounded her: If she is not the enemy -- what is she?

Catra couldn’t keep the quiet between the two of them stretch for too long. “We won,” she said, raising an eyebrow.

Adora, still staring at her dumbly, only said, “We did.”

“They tell me it'll be a while before I can really move.” 

Why couldn’t she stop lying? Why couldn’t she stop talking, to begin with? Catra had long mastered the skill of looking at people without really looking at them, but Adora was hard to ignore.

Adora was, of course, still in a much better state than Catra was. And Adora was, of course, oblivious to that. Why would she, Catra, admit all of that to Adora? 

"I go to sleep for a few weeks and I wake up to Bright Mooners in Dryl," Catra said. "I got quite the shock."

"Same," Adora said.

"Not as huge as the shock... when you disobeyed orders. I would have thought for sure that you would follow them."

Catra could feel the shift in the room when Adora said nothing. She knew, suddenly, with all her talk, that she was flailing. She had to save herself, somehow.

"I don't really want to talk about it now, though," Catra said. "But I had to say something, because everyone tells me you've been sulking since I woke up."

Adora scowled. "Have not."

"Have too."

There was too much distance between them for the old banter to land anywhere but a no-man’s land.

“It’s going to be dinner time soon. I gotta get back. But I’ll see you…”

Adora caught the fleeting glance Catra tossed. She only nodded.

//

//

//

TO: Entrapta & Scorpia

I’m not going to lie down on this damn bed anymore. I’ll see you both when you’re able and available and we will have a conversation with the Bright Moon princess and you will brief me as to our channels with the rest of Etheria. Clear all non-essential items on your schedules and see me at once.

She sent the message through the acting physician’s tablet. End of the week be damned, Catra thought as she re-read Scorpia’s invitation to lunch. She thought, briefly, that perhaps the timeline was for them to think things through as much as it was for her to heal, but she dismissed the hesitation. The longer she didn’t get back to work the more leverage the Moonies had on them.

//

//

//

“Boss!” 

The door opened with a kick from Scorpia. The first thing Catra saw were Scorpia’s pincers, each bearing a chair, before the rest of the woman squeezed in through the door with a genuine smile on her face. Behind Scorpia, Entrapta came in pushing a trolley with hors d'oeuvres-- that was dinner, Catra guessed. Scorpia set the chairs down next to Catra’s bed, scraping the floor as she moved to sit.

It was the first time Scorpia had seen Catra up since the siege. Catra told herself to stay in position, then wondered why she should stay still at all. It was always like that -- a tug-of-war between sentiments that bubbled out of her. She held down a wild urge to -- to what, really? Hug Scorpia? Cry? It was easy for her not to cry around Entrapta, who’d blocked her own feelings with the urgency of Catra’s care; they both danced around their feelings, when it got hard. Scorpia though -- the last thing Catra did to Scorpia was bench her, followed by dumping the Horde on her.

“So,” Scorpia said, drawing out the ‘o’ and smiling an apologetic smile, “I was supposed to hug you, but Entrapta threatened to lace my tea with a mild sedative if I wasn’t on my best behavior. I feel like screaming all of a sudden, though.”

“Don’t yell at me too hard, my ribs heal faster than my ears.”

“Is that a fact?” Scorpia turned to Entrapta.

“No. But please don’t scream at her.”

Scorpia laughed. “Okay, okay, a bit too much, I guess. Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve even seen you? And you won’t let me hug you, or scream, or…”

“I’m surprised you’re not vibrating in your chair.”

“I may have laced her last drink with a mild sedative, regardless,” Entrapta said. “Because I couldn’t risk it.”

Scorpia looked appalled. “You -- you did?”

“You’re more calm happy than excited happy, is what I was going for.”

“That’s not even a sentence!” The sound of Scorpia’s voice reverberated in the sparse room. “So, what -- can I even trust my thoughts right now?”

“You should be able to. You’re just less… likely to act on your emotions.”

“I… do feel heavier. And here I thought the chair was just comfy. Damn it, Entrapta! I’m Acting Leader of the Horde, y’know!” She tossed a wink at Catra’s direction to let her know it was all good.

“It’s better to ask for forgiveness than for permission,” Entrapta said. “As you demonstrated when you let Adora go. I’ve never done this before, and I won’t do it again after unless I feel that Catra’s life -- or yours -- is in risk of reckless injury.”

Catra took a good look at Entrapta. She was fidgeting, her hair frazzled and vibrating. That her tendrils stayed mostly put was something that took effort. There were many emotions running high with their meeting; Catra realized too late that she shouldn’t have kept Scorpia away from her room. Now there were so many things on the agenda: everything since her last meeting with Scorpia, her near-death, her recovery, the Cannon.

Made a mess of things again, did you?

She shushed the Shadow Weaver inside her and picked up a plate of tiny food. Gods, it was too tiring to keep things from people, from herself, from Adora. She looked at Scorpia, whose faint smile belied the swirl of feelings Catra knew she held inside. Catra knew what she felt, and was too tired to hide it from the two people who had kept her alive the whole time she’d been doing stupid things left and right.

“I can’t believe I’m still alive,” Catra said. “That’s always the first thing I think when I wind up here.”

“Twice isn’t really enough to establish a pattern.”

“Well, I’d rather not have a third time,” Scorpia said, her tail swishing, though languidly, behind Entrapta’s hair.

“Of course not.”

“Scorpia,” Catra said. She steeled herself. “Everything you did was right… and then the battle just went on, and then… well, I’m here.”

Without moving an inch from her slouch, Scorpia said, “I really do want to hug you. Badly. Even if you are an idiot.”

Catra smiled. Even when Scorpia called her an idiot -- she knew it was because Scorpia didn’t want her beating herself up. It was as though the brief time she spent in Bright Moon had made her forget that Scorpia would not leave her. That was not the kind of -- Catra’s mind paused at the word, it always stumbled -- the kind of friend that Scorpia was. 

“Everything just boils down to me being an idiot, huh.”

“It does! I couldn’t tell for weeks if I’d… I don’t know, put you back in intensive care, after everything that had happened. You scared the hell out of all of us. Even Lonnie.”

“Yikes, I’m going to pretend I never heard that.” And Catra had not thought of her former team, either. She’d thought much of Scorpia, Entrapta, the Bright Mooners who were going to give her a headache -- and Adora. Already Adora was making things hard to prioritize.

“There’s a lot we have to talk about,” Scorpia said. “Yeah, I’m angry. Yeah, I’m happy. And then Entrapta told me about the discharge incident with the Cannon -- well, I can’t say I’m surprised, actually! Of course it was Adora. But that’s all in the past, and we still have to dig it out, but we’re not digging that out tonight or anytime soon.”

“How about we dig that out when everyone’s too drunk to remember?”

“Except that nobody here actually drinks unless for diplomatic purposes,” Entrapta corrected.

“Then maybe a ‘mild sedative’ would help,” Catra said sarcastically.

Entrapta looked like she would happily spend hours down the rabbit hole that Catra had opened, but Scorpia put them back on track. “There’s been too much going on and you’ve been too busy to talk, or too secretive -- and now too injured to talk -- but we can’t keep this up for much longer.”

“Obviously. We need to settle Bright Moon right away.”

Scorpia trod carefully: “And how do you feel about that?”

“That I should meet with the Princess or the Queen as soon as possible. The initial meeting, anyway, will just be congratulations and formalities. We have to start now and get them out of Dryl as soon as everyone has healed and we’ve got everything we can get from their healers. We can’t have these people think we’re suddenly going to open trade in their favor, you know. I’ve been hearing that they’re nicking metal off of us.”

“Mostly when they were still in a celebratory mood,” Entrapta said. “Scorpia permitted it, it wasn’t done in bad faith.”

“Yeah, I get that. But I want us to ride on whatever good faith we do have to have relations beneficial to the Horde.”

It went on from there, Catra appreciating how easily Scorpia allowed her to transition from emotions to business. Entrapta too seemed relieved that Scorpia called the shots towards easier waters. There was a whole lot of mud to go through and she’d already had a taste of it when she sat next to Adora.

//

//

//

“Why didn’t she tell us? About the Cannon? About why she let it explode? I thought it would end the war.”

In a way, killing Adora would have spelled the end of the war, too. But the outcome would have been very different. Scorpia kept her mouth shut. “It did, in a way,” she said, a much more tactful choice. “Because of everything that happened, we all decided it couldn’t go on with any more deaths.”

“I used to be so proud of everything I built,” Entrapta said. “First I thought I almost killed her, and then it turns out I just almost killed Adora too. I don’t want to go back to the Fright Zone.”

“You did a lot of other things apart from the Cannon,” Scorpia said. “You improved our aircraft, worked out routes for our tanks, directed the terraforming of the Fright Zone and Dryl --”

“That’s all I want to work on, now. That’s all I’ve been working on.”

“I know. And Catra knows. And we’re glad you’re here, you know.”

“Why didn’t she tell me?”

It was actually such a Catra thing to do, once Scorpia thought about it. She had never told Adora about what it was really like growing up under Shadow Weaver. Catra was the prickly type, but -- she then she wasn’t, too. Not for the first time, Scorpia wondered what they would have all been like if they weren’t raised in the Fright Zone.

“She didn’t tell you because it wasn’t your fault.”

“She says that all the time. And yet it still feels that way.”

Scientists and their feelings. “It wasn’t your order. She’s already said that herself, right?”

“If she’d told me something -- I could have changed the way the Cannon worked -- you know it had two payloads --”

“If she had told you something, someone could have overheard it and passed it onto Hordak. She couldn’t take that risk.”

It was classically Catra, too, to find a solution that didn’t involve anyone else but her. Scorpia wasn’t blind to Catra’s bad habits, her partial selfishness, her belief that only she could do certain things -- and in the end, it spared grief for that moment, almost two years ago. But things always caught up to them.

“Trappy,” Scorpia said. “You know Catra knows it’s not your fault. I’m sure she’s never even thought of it that way.”

Technically, Entrapta had already heard it from Catra. The Adora part was new, but the outcome had long been “forgiven” -- or rather, Catra had never seen it as something that needed forgiveness. But Entrapta didn’t see it that way. She needed to give herself a break. And even Scorpia was getting exhausted. Did the Golden Trio ever have problems like this? Probably. Adora and Catra had the same tendencies, after all. A picture of her and Bow taking notes popped into her head. Stranger things could happen.

 

//

//

//

 

AN: Was not expecting that the Trio's relationship would be just as necessary for this fic to work, but here we are. Catra wouldn't be anywhere near able to talk to Adora without, y'know, support. I enjoyed writing the "same scene, two perspectives" part, you can check the previous chapter for Adora's take.

Chapter Text

it's only me who wants to

wrap around your dreams

and have you any dreams you'd like to sell

dreams of loneliness

like a heartbeat, drives you mad

in the stillness of remembering, what you had

--fleetwood mac, dreams

 

//

//

dreams of growing pt 1

 

"Whoop, there it is," Catra hollered, more for herself than for her team, who were well aware of what the pillar of light in the distance below them meant: the tell-tale sign of the She-Ra. Behind her, her spotter immediately raised their scope, belying their experience. Catra could tell by a glance that they'd either have to move to get into range, or pull Adora into their orbit.

"Sir!" Her senior officer said, "We'll have to-"

"--We'll do no such thing," Catra retorted, "She'll come to us."

Yeah, move a cannon to follow a running target , Catra thought to herself, that'll work. And the only viable alternative -- to lose soldiers in baiting the She-Ra -- if the sword, or shield, or whatever it was got destroyed, it would mean no She-Ra ever again. That would be worth it.

The sharp smell of sulphur brought Catra back to reality. Behind her, her radioman was yelling into the mobile how much closer the She-Ra needed to be. An engineer was double checking the battery, transported in a trolley, ensuring that the Cannon had enough juice. The entire Cannon, once minimized with Entrapta's improvements, was no bigger than a rocket launcher, and made more compact as Catra had taken out a fail-safe: a black box stuck on the Cannon's rear which was meant to fizzle out the payload in case of accidental discharge. It slimmed down the Cannon to fit into a standard carrier and kept the weight manageable, but that wasn't why Catra had removed the bulky thing.

The sounds of soldiers screaming came closer below them. Situated atop a plateau with plenty of bush cover, all of Catra's changes to the Cannon ensured that she only needed an engineer, comms people, and a spotter, all of whom doubled as protection in case they were prematurely discovered. They all huddled close around her, to assist with transit and logistics.

A part of Catra knew that the entire plan reeked of desperation. She'd known it since the day she'd made the guardsman explode in a haze of explosive and magical power, as a test demonstration. And now everything was lining up for her to take the shot that would put a stop to all of it. She'd removed the failsafe as a promise that she would end things herself.

And then She-Ra was in her zone. Behind She-Ra were a mess of long-range and melee fighters.

Shoot, Catra told herself. They were coming closer, she knew, not by her eyes but the smell. Beside her, her soldiers were waiting.

Shoot.

Shoot!

And then one of those sparkly infantrymen looked up at Catra's unit, pointing at their position clear for the scraggly line of archers advancing along with them. Out of shock, Catra squeezed the trigger, no longer caring what was in her sights; by then the first blasts of magic arrived from the tips of the enemy's arrows.

//

//

Catra woke up with a searing pain in her ribs. She'd sat up heaving from a lack of air. She had had that dream for months after the Cannon, and before that, she would dream of Shadow Weaver. And then after the Takeover, she'd dreamed of Hordak, and sometimes of herself as the partially cybernetic creature to be tossed into the recycler. And now, perhaps, after Dryl, she'd dream of Skeletor. There was a never-ending well of bad dreams in store for her for the rest of her life.

Did Adora dream, Catra wondered. Her picture of Adora, unreal since she became She-Ra, was crumbling in the light of reality. She had thought that good guys got good dreams, but this one drank, this one was nervous, this one could choose to follow orders but broke them instead -- Catra was confronted with by the stark reality that Adora had grown. With a lurching feeling in her stomach, Catra knew that Adora had nightmares too.

Well that's just peachy. It was an uncomfortable thought. Why that was so, Catra no longer knew.

Man, I hate Dryl.

//

//

dreams of growing pt 2 | two worlds

 

Glimmer's jacket had lengthened into a cape. That was the most obvious change to Adora. When they hugged, Adora had kept her close a moment longer, reassured by the smell of her. Something about Glimmer gave off the feel of grass in the mornings or wide open fields, as though Bright Moon's own dales and glens were within her, fuelling her magic.

"I missed doing your hair," Glimmer said, into Adora's shoulder. "It's kinda dumb, isn't it?" she said in a whisper.

All at once Adora ached for Bright Moon. "I miss that too," she whispered back.

And so, when Glimmer did Adora's hair, it was at a Bright Moon tent (she'd insisted on the tent rather than be housed in a Horde building). Adora's hair had gotten longer -- when asked if she'd like a trim she'd demurred. It was longer, and therefore Glimmer had more hair to card and more tangles to complain about as they shifted around in Glimmer's bed.

A memory came to Adora, that after every months-long campaign away from her friend, she would return to being human. Then she'd have sour moods sometimes where she'd tell herself to stop because eventually she would return to the front lines. At other times, she'd ask herself why she couldn't stay defending the castle. In the end though, she always returned to her sword.

"Thanks, Glimmer," she said when Glimmer held up a hand mirror. "When I was at the Horde it was like -- like I returned to being who I was before. We don't really do this whole," Adora waved a hand at her hair, "this whole thing."

"You told me that the first time you got a do-over, remember?"

"Yeah. I said a lot of things about regulation hairstyles." Adora ran a hand through her hair, feeling the lack of tangles and a silkiness that hadn't been there in a long time. Glimmer returned the hand mirror to her side table, and the two of them sank down into bed, lying next to each other, face to face.

"I missed you," Glimmer said. She said it always, during every communication they were allowed to have when Adora was in the Horde -- but Adora also knew Glimmer meant this Adora, the one that lay next to her now. Perhaps it was the months that they spent so far apart, but Glimmer was in a nostalgic mood, even so far away from Bright Moon. She had her arm on Adora's waist, languidly stroking the skin there with her finger.

"You brought plants from the castle," Adora said, realizing suddenly why everything smelled so familiar.

"I did," Glimmer said. "We knew it might take a while for you to wake up." Unspoken, Adora knew Glimmer would have stayed the whole time, however long it took.

If Adora wanted, she could kiss Glimmer. After all, it was Glimmer who first taught her about kissing and all the other things that went with it. But she recognized the shallowness of it even as she knew Glimmer wouldn't mind.

Glimmer didn't notice anything, or if she did, she was too diplomatic to make a move of her own. Instead she said, with a smile, "I'm selfish, you know. We've been talking here all the while and I left Bow to deal with Scorpia."

"We shouldn't have left him," Adora said. "You have one of those mobiles now, don't you? Tell him to come over!"

"As though he weren't a diplomat, huh?" Glimmer sat up, looking out the flap that passed for a window close to the top of the tent. "He should be done soon, if not already."

//

//

They talked every other night after that, the three of them. As the Horde awaited Catra's return to form, Bright Moon had some downtime which Adora spent in training, trying to reconnect with the soldiers, both Bright Moon and Horde, she'd left months before. At dinner with Bow and Glimmer it was no different. They asked to know the truth of her Wardship; Adora told them all she'd been through, the good and the bad. That it felt like she was two different people, and how sometimes it made things simpler. "If there was any corn wine in the Horde," she said, "I didn't think to look for it."

Glimmer and Bow had given each other a long, significant look at that.

One night, they broached the topic of the leader of the Horde.

"Catra's different." At some point, Adora thought she'd lost Catra to the Horde. "She just seems older now." Out of Adora's reach. They'd grown up to be very different people.

Glimmer asked, "What do you think we should do?"

"I think we're going to end up making peace with the Horde," Bow said, "if not us, then the Bright Moon soldiers will beat us to it. That's kind of what we're trying to sort out now. The terms. There's been no official statement or anything but everyone kind of suspects it anyway."

"Huh," Adora said, munching on his words. She wondered what Catra thought of that.

//

//

dreams of the forest

"Kitty-cat," Scorpia said.

Catra stopped shy of clawing a sack that passed for a head in her personal rehabilitation room. She waited for the hiss of the pneumatic door that offered her privacy; when it didn't come, she turned to face Scorpia. With the doors open, she could see the sky, red with the intent to turn a deep purple.

"Calling me for dinner?" Catra caught the smell of garlic in Scorpia's satchel.

"You've been training all afternoon."

"Oh no, a war leader, training for battle." Catra smiled to let Scorpia she wasn't annoyed. Scorpia tossed her a bottle of water, which Catra caught and drank from gratefully.

"Technically you're not cleared for it yet."

"Sometimes I wonder if I'm Leader of the Horde," Catra said, then realized that she was not, in fact, the boss. Scorpia must have been thinking the same thing, because she smiled back indulgently.

"Yeah, yeah, I walked into that one." Scorpia wanted to talk, that much Catra could tell. So she let the taller woman escort her outside. The doors hissed shut then, and they fell to walking out of the medical building. The back exit led to a field that was yet to be cleared; the two found a rock to lean against as they sat. The air blew by, whistling, whistling, whistling.

"Figured you'd like to have some time to yourself, after an entire afternoon of... time to yourself." Scorpia said. She passed the satchel to Catra. "Rogelio's garlic bread. The garlic's in the bread, y'see. And chicken with garlic."

"I really couldn't tell," Catra said sarcastically as she took a metal box out. Inside, the chicken was still hot, the chunks swimming in some kind of thick yellow sauce.

She passed the satchel back to Scorpia. They fell to eating. By the time they polished off dinner, the stars were out.

"Don't beat around the bush," Catra said quietly. "You came here to say something, so say it." From the corner of her eye, she saw Scorpia nod to herself.

"There's a lot, really. We could talk about the Bright Moon workshops, the peace talks, all the news about the other settlements, the fact that you left me to lead the Horde after you abandoned your own mission, Entrapta's limp hair because she feels so guilty about the Cannon..."

Catra, by dint of growing up in the Horde, did not apologize. Had anyone said sorry to her? But a second, fleeting look at Scorpia, who was looking at the sky in politeness, told her that she needed to fix things.

"Do you want to lead the Horde?"

Saying sorry was impossible for her to do, apparently.

"I don't want to lead the Horde without you or Entrapta. First I thought I was going to lose you. Now it feels like we're losing her."

Catra could have thrown up her hands in frustration, or destroyed another training dummy.

"I kept from telling her because it wasn't her fault."

"You keep saying that and it doesn't help."

"I am," Catra said through gritted teeth, "out of ideas."

"I think the two of you need to talk."

"We had this whole conversation on the ride to Bright Moon."

"Great! So you'll have a couple more. During peacetime, not a mission."

"Wasn't it Entrapta who said that doing the same thing several times expecting different outcomes was madness, or something?"

"One, I think she was quoting someone, and two, you're intentionally getting it wrong. You do reps when you exercise," Scorpia pointed out.

"What are we exercising?"

"Our feeling muscles. You and Entrapta need it."

It was on the tip of Catra's tongue to counter tha she and Entrapta were nothing alike, but she stopped herself, recognizing the words as nothing more than an outlet for her irritation.

"And what about you?" Catra hated to ask. It annoyed her.

Scorpia punched her shoulder.

"I kinda liked how things were before."

"I guess? I'd even be okay with a supersoaker attack from 'Trapta. Remember when we found all those officers playing Princesses and Purges?"

"See, this is exactly what you should be doing with Entrapta. Don't tell me you haven't been avoiding her since -- I don't even know when it started."

Truthfully Catra wasn't sure either.

"It's not like there was a pattern," Catra said. "It's not like I was this nice Horde Commander for years and years."

"No, but you were getting better. Then you got sulky, then Adora came in and you got even more reclusive--" Scorpia drifted off.

"Scorpia," Catra said, searching around the grass and the dirt for words, "about what I said earlier -- do you still really want to run the Horde? Us three?"

She couldn't even say, including me?

"Boss, to be honest, I've been meaning to ask you that question."

Catra was suddenly wary of where the conversation was going.

"You left everything behind just like that." Catra knew she was talking about when she left for Bright Moon. "You dropped everything for Adora."

"What!" Catra stood up. "How the hell can you say that? I nearly died fighting Hordak--"

"You knew when you couldn't kill Adora that you had to find another way to end the war."

"I fought for power," Catra argued. "I fought to be able to choose how to live my life."

"I know that. I know that the Horde means something to you, too. But Adora is a large part of your decision making." Scorpia returned her gaze, calm where Catra was angry, daring her to disagree. "The kids mean something. I know they do. But you do love Adora."

The sound that came out of Catra was a cross between a splutter and a wrung out No!

"No," Catra said, regaining control of her vocal cords. "Everything I did, I did to -- to lead the Horde."

Scorpia was smiling now, a calm smile as Catra had only seen when Scorpia wanted to throttle someone. "Don't lie to me," she said. "You can go lie to yourself as much as you like, but not when it affects the rest of us like this. Your feelings are changing things. You can barely talk to Entrapta because you don't want to own up to how you feel."

"Bullshit," Catra snapped.

"I'm not going to go along with this, Kitty-Cat. You can't keep hiding. There will be rumors -- already there are --"

"I don't see what this has to do with policy," Catra hissed.

"Catra, I saw it all year. I saw it when you left to Bright Moon. Don't get me wrong, I'm happy you love her. But you're so in denial it makes you erratic. And I don't want you to hold on to the Horde to use us as a shield for your feelings. Your feelings -- all of them -- got us out of war. But you were miserable, and locked up, and willing to fight at any chance, and you took the first opportunity thrown at you to fight in Mystacor. It's not just Adora who's sick of watching you bleed. I'm sick of being left out of things, too. Using me to protect the supply lines, back in the war -- I wanted to fight with you, too. Though I guess I shouldn't be saying that now that we're at peace." Scorpia shrugged.

Catra could have clawed her out without much thought. Already her nails were digging into the dirt and bush. "You're wrong," she said, but it came out weaker than she liked. Too angry to say anything, she stalked off.

//

//

Many times in the past she'd done this in the Fright Zone, into many a night spent in an unused pipe. Adora would find her only because she wanted to be found. She hadn't had to stalk off in so long, sustained by an anger that left her shaking and shaking as she passed the borders of Dryl into the forest. The night fell deeper and deeper and still she prowled, thumbinig sometimes the belt on her waist, assured that all her tools were there. She smelled no rain on the horizon; with nothing to stop her, she kept walking.

The next day she was hungry so she hunted. The day after that she arrived at an abandoned hut so she slept there but after a single night, she kept on walking, trying to numb her mind of everything. The politics, the endless tests, the posturing, she had to do in front of everyone; if she wanted, she could disappear. Become a myth in the forest, something that occasionally stole grain and meat from the fringes of villages. She did exactly that some days ago, then walked on. Still though, everywhere she went, her mind was with her. Having to hunt and find a tree branch to sleep on and having her legs burn after miles and miles of marching -- at the end of all of that her thoughts would still be there, having walked the whole way with her.

Sometimes she saw Shadow Weaver in the dark. Other times it was Hordak. Sometimes she thought she could hear a hunting party. One day she decided she could no longer walk, so she sat by a river looking at all the exposed fur off the tears in her uniform. She took a look at herself at one of the calmer tributaries, seeing a wild-eyed beast before her. A thought had been hammering its way through her skull: what are you gonna do about it?

She spent the entire day there, sometimes driven to cry, other times driven to scratch the trees. The next day, having forgotten to eat, she foraged and dug for root crops. After breakfast she took a bath in the river. As for her lengthening hair, she did her best to run it through of tangles.

Then she walked back the way she came.

//

//

politically expedient (to yank my chain?)

Catra had been gone a month, give or take a few days. For two days she stayed a little beyond the fields of Dryl, observing that Dryl had not imploded in her absence. Why would it? It hadn't imploded the whole time she'd been raised from the dead.

On the third day, a huge bonfire was lit just before sundown. Catra had been dozing through the afternoon when her nose picked up the smoke. At first she'd thought someone had been approaching the copse of trees she'd been hiding in, but she saw the plume of grey in the distance and was reassured. Her mobile, which had been off for a month, collected group messages and invites from the nearby cell tower. This smoke belonged to a Bright Moon invention: a bonfire for socializing. Mostly for the Moonies, though Catra had no doubt that more and more of the Horde would attend. Still there were plenty of off duty Horde soldiers in the spaces between buildings as she skulked towards the bonfire, keeping to the dark, empty spots or the occasional rooftop. Dryl had, in her absence, turned into an unrecognizable mess of Bright Moon huts and tents popping where a Horde building didn't sit.

Perched on a low, thatched hut of Bright Moon make, Catra searched for a familiar face. Scorpia was there, sitting on a bench, as were Kyle and Rogelio. Lonnie was predictably nowhere to be seen, a Horde soldier through and through. Once Catra was sure she'd scanned every face, she left, swiping through her mobile, smacking herself in the face for not having checked sooner.

Adora was on guard duty in the medical building that didn't house anyone important anymore. Catra circled around to the back, flitting from bush to bush. Behind the medical building, close to the field, she saw two red boots peeking out of a cart filled with hay. Whatever horse had drawn the cart was nowhere to be found. The cart was under a tree, probably left there by some farmer for the shade.

Along with the red boots, Catra saw a hint of a scabbard, the rest of which was probably inside the cart. A breeze blew by -- it was definitely Adora. Creeping from the bushes, Catra approached. As she neared, she realized what she was doing. Quickly she backed into a tree.

"Hey, I can hear you."

Catra stilled. After a minute, Adora asked: "Are you still there?"

//

//

Adora wasn't sure if what she heard was a person or a bird. But she heard something rustle yet again and sat herself up from inside the cart.

"Hey Adora," Catra said, popping back into her life as suddenly as she'd left it.

"Catra!"

"Miss me?"

Adora caught her tongue on that last one. She was suddenly very tired. Catra had the unreality of a specter, popping in and out of her life, haunting her the whole way. It felt as though everything she did spooked the ghost.

"Are you even real?"

"You could pinch me to find out."

"And then you'd be gone again."

Catra sat on the Cart's railing like they did this all the time. The rush of warmth Adora felt was suddenly swept away by the exhaustion that sank in her bones. It would be another long slog through a mysterious conversation in which nothing was fixed.

"Aren't you going to ask about the Horde?"

"For all I know Scorpia's running it better than me."

"So you'll abandon your post just like that?"

They were somehow back to arguing. Adora didn't even know if she was genuinely angry or arguing just because it was something they used to do.

"What, are you comparing notes with me, She-Ra? I thought I was talking to Adora."

Adora was keenly aware of the sword that lay between them. If she said another word, she might lose this Catra again, who was sitting next to her, with weight, her hair long and puffy, mask with fresh new dents, her uniform torn at the knees. If she asked about that, would Catra disappear? So she waited.

"Have you eaten?"

"Dinner? Yeah, from the Bonfire."

"The Bonfire," Catra repeated. "Looks like the Horde doesn't really need me at this point."

Those were Adora's own thoughts, albeit in relation to Bright Moon, out of Catra's mouth.

"Is that why you left?"

Adora could read the smile on Catra's face: there was pain there.

"Who knows why I left. What's Scorpia calling it?"

"Nobody outside of the top brass knows that you left. Everyone just thinks that you're in a private rehab building away from Dryl."

Catra kept a carefully neutral face at the information. She held it, Adora knew, but not without effort. Adora grasped for something to say to cheer Catra up.

This used to be so easy.

She came up empty, forced to see that there was no simple way out of Catra's strange mood.

"Why'd you come here?"

Catra shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe I wanted a last look at this place."

"You're leaving the Horde? What about what Scorpia said?"

"Hey, they made up that story. They could have just said I was dead."

"What happened to what you promised before all this?"

"Which one, I promise a lot of things to a lot of people."

Adora recognized the lie for what it was, a subtle barb at herself.

"You said... you'd answer my questions."

For a second, it looked as though Catra would bolt, as she looked back at the rest of Dryl. She had bolted every time she promised they would talk. Stay, Adora wanted to beg but could not say.

"You always yank my chain like this," Adora said. "Promise me something and then disappear."

Asking Catra to stay was, apparently, impossible for her to do. As soon as she spoke she wanted to stuff the words back in her mouth. But Catra only raised her eyebrows.

"I 'yank your chain', huh? That's rich, coming from you, Princess." She sighed. "But what burning questions could you possibly have, now that the world is at peace?" Catra asked, staring at the grass beneath them.

When Adora didn't speak right away, Catra glared at her. "Ask, so that I can leave."

Adora swallowed to get rid of a sudden lump in her throat. Plenty of things sprang up: Catra's takeover, the death of Shadow Weaver, Catra's true motivations and how Adora felt like she was out of her depth in a game she didn't know how to play.

"I don't know anything about you anymore," Adora said, no longer caring what that sounded like. "I don't know what you're thinking or what you're feeling."

Catra looked at her in disbelief. "What I'm feeling? Gods, this was a waste of time--" she made to leave, but Adora caught her wrist.

"You said that what fucked us up went on way before the war began," Adora said. "Then why did you come back for me?"

"It was politically expedient," Catra said through her teeth.

"Politically expedient to put yourself in the line of fire for someone who disobeyed your direct orders and jeopardized the mission objective." When Catra didn't reply right away, Adora continued, her hand still tight on Catra's wrist. "I don't get you. You're kind, then you're cruel. You saved me when the ship went down then ignored me the whole time in Bright Moon, then did it all again when I go to fight Skeletor -- what do you want from me, Catra? You won't let us be friends. Do you want me to return to Bright Moon and forget what I owe you--"

"You don't owe me anything!" Catra wrenched free of Adora's grip, then winced.

"I kind of do. I was dying in that war. I felt like I'd lost too much. I lost you."

Catra lowered her shoulders. Adora asked another question: "If you leave the Horde, where will you go?" Realizing that she'd said so much, Adora fell silent. Without anything to hold onto, she braced herself to see Catra turn away. But Catra just shook her head.

"Travel, maybe." Catra said. "That was all we wanted before."

And it's all I have now. For the first time in a long time, Adora could hear Catra's thoughts as clear as day.

And then Catra laughed. "You want to know how I feel? Are you going to tell Scorpia I'm here? That you saw me?"

"Not unless you want me to," Adora said.

"What I want," Catra repeated, as though she'd only heard Adora's words then. "What I want? Funny coming from someone who's always like 'oh they need me', or whatever."

Adora swallowed. What she wanted? Catra must have noticed the hesitation, the sudden shift in the air.

"Gods, you don't know that yourself!"

"We are a pair," Adora said.

"Don't lump me in with you," Catra spat out. "I'm not a martyr."

Back when they were friends this sort of verbal sparring would have gone without a single twist in her chest. But

"You followed after me," Adora said. "You know what...? I just wanted to say thank you. I wanted to know that you were okay. And for some reason, we just -- end up like this. I have to beg every power in this world to see you, and when you leave, I'll probably have only, what? This last...fight? Left between the two us."

Adora sat back down on the hay. She'd faced Catra the whole time they were arguing, saying things that didn't make sense, going around in circles, but this time it was her turn to stare downward. "I wish you'd stay, or that I could go with you, but you'd never take me."

"You are She-Ra," Catra said, quietly. "At peace or in war. Didn't you know?"

Then Adora heard a shuffle. Is she leaving? But when she looked up, Catra was staring at her, an unreadable look on her face, mobile to her cheek.

"Scorpia? Yeah, I'm here. You know where. You bet on it, didn't you?"

//

//

 

Author's Note

Despite not being able to watch the rest of the show while I pound this fanfic out I know for a fact that Canon!Catra was a much, much more difficult to redeem character than the one I'm writing. Last two chapters, I think...? Did I say that last time too? Cheers. I may not have replied to everyone yet from the previous batch of comments, but I will get around to it soon.

 

Thank you for sticking with the story!

 

Chapter Text

//

tell me how my mother died

//

//

Catra should have figured that things were off the moment Scorpia signed off without an answer.

Catra slowly worked it out as a fresh-faced Horde lieutenant came to take her to Dryl Command. With a glance she could tell the kid she wasn't in the mood to talk, but that didn't stop him from staring at her as though she'd singlehandedly saved the Horde.

She bade Adora the most casual goodbye, to walk away from a situation that was fast overwhelming her. If she stayed around any longer -- what? But she was spared from saying anything at all except, "See you tomorrow," and even that felt like a concession.

And now there was Scorpia's curt signoff.

Maybe Catra shouldn't have left for so long. Entrapta would say, run a test. Gather data. It was on the tip of her tongue to ask for a status report, or to break the ice and crack an easy joke with her escort. But they made it to Dryl Command and up the elevator to the top floor, where her room awaited her.

"Good night Commander," he said, and then quickly clamped a hand over his mouth. "I mean-"

"Yeah, good night," Catra said.

//

//

News of Catra's return spread all over Dryl, crossing the informal border between the two camps by breakfast. That meant that Scorpia had no intention of hiding whatever stupid tantrums Catra was throwing. There was no communication on the tablet that had been left for Catra's use.

So she'd somehow managed to piss off her two most trusted lieutenants. That was a long time coming, Catra thought to herself. She was honest enough to admit that it stung. It stung, but she did this to herself, didn't she?

And then there was that picture in her head of Adora sitting from the cart, looking up at her. The image of her, waiting, sent a fresh surge of pain she hadn't felt for Adora in so long. Fuck! Catra thought angrily. She was going back there. To when she was stupid, and the slightest thought of Adora could snap her focus in half. Just as her mask was nicked at the corners, Catra's mind was fraying, and she hadn't even had breakfast.

Picking up some pork buns from the commissary on her way out of Dryl Command, Catra left the tower to investigate.

//

//

"The uh, Horde Commander has returned," a Bright Moon lieutenant reported at the far end of the dining table. Adora still hadn't gotten everyone's names attached to their faces, so she fell silent, listening to the table explode into rumors and facts, ignoring their looks at her. Catra had been spotted first at the fields, watching the farmers till, then bored, made her way to the training ground. The Bright Moon soldiers had taken to betting as a duck did to water after watching the Horde soldiers do it, and there were lively debates over who would beat Catra (as if such a thing were possible).

It didn't take long for everyone to look at Adora. "The sword isn't for training," Adora said. She knew they could read between the lines -- there was no way she was letting them use She-Ra for their fun. The older soldiers had the decency to look chastised, but the younger fighters were looking at her eagerly still. In the end, after lunch, Adora walked aimlessly around the half-Bright Moon, half-Horde Dryl, her thoughts full of starts and stops as she tried to keep away from Catra's place in the training ground. But news traveled in Dryl, helped along with new communication towers, and everwhere she went she could see Horde soldiers puffing their feathers and the growing grumbles of Bright Mooners.

It was strange, Adora thought, that Scorpia had kept the day's schedule despite Catra's return. There were no formal announcements, no dinners, no need for Bright Moon diplomacy. For weeks they'd discussed what to do when Catra reascended to power after returning to full health; there were treaties put on hold for that reason as they watched how Bright Moon and Horde soldiers interacted.

And then there was her and Catra. Just the thought of Catra's stare as she listened to Adora ramble made the back of Adora's neck heat up. It was shame, she knew, but at the same time, she'd finally said what she wanted to say, even if bits and pieces of yesterday made her cringe. She was at a quiet alleyway now, far from the town square, her face contorted as different emotions quarreled inside her.

You wanted Catra to stay?

She could hear the disappointment in Queen Angella's voice.

What are they going to say when they see you like this?

But even that wasn't enough to keep her standing. She sat on the unpaved space between two crammed huts, typical of Dryl's haphazard, explosive growth, glad for all the stuff, carts and sacks that kept her out of view.

Fuck, fuck, fuck!

Every thought felt like a violation of her duty. She could feel her jaw clench, but the pain was distant. She stayed like that for a time, thumping her fist against the ground, her nails digging into her palm, balled up fists nervous and tight.

Just do what you're supposed to do!

Her right hand moved to touch the hilt of her blade; the feel of it eased her breath as she sat. Slowly she could breathe again. Testing her jaw, Adora found it ached. Hugging the blade to her, she could smell the oil on the scabbard.

Catra staying isn't necessarily a bad thing for Bright Moon.

But, her mind argued, Scorpia would be better. Counterpoint, Catra was not the enemy -- something that Adora repeated to Catra, and yet was suddenly doubting now. Counter-counterpoint, that didn't mean she was a friend, or that the Horde was. Counter-counter-counterpoint, Dryl stood as proof that things could be better. Everything was working out smoothly and Adora, with the scabbard in her hand, told herself that peace would win out.

Still, she was ashamed of herself for hoping Catra would come back, somehow. She had half-hoped it as the month had dragged, not thinking about what would happen. She had been thinking of promises before she had been thinking of Bright Moon. Was that so wrong? Was she so selfish?

Perhaps if she could go on another mission --

//

//

There were no missions for that day. The need for supply runs was dwindling as Dryl became more and more self-sufficient; the patrols were all well-peopled with the combined armies; there was no heavy lifting for her to do in the fields with Entrapta's newest bots helping out. Adora had avoided the training building all day, but it was past dinner now, and she needed something familar to do, even if it was just to whack away at a straw target or to shoot a few badly-aimed arrows.

Inside, torches lit the quadrangle, showing bits and pieces of weaponry on the trampled ground. On all sides, the weapon racks had the occasional misaligned spear, hastily returned to its place. The ground was muddy and full of boot tracks. Adora did not envy whoever had to set up the grounds tomorrow.

From one of the entryways, a shadow stirred. Adora let down the straw man she was setting up until the figure became solid enough to identify: "Catra!"

"Yeah?" Catra said, her tail curling on the staff she was holding onto. "Come for some late night training?"

You should leave.

You should stay.

Catra picked up a staff from one of the racks and tossed it in Adora's direction.

"You've been sparring all day though," Adora said.

Catra looked revolted. "With what? Folk from Bright Moon? Does that even count as training?"

It was all bluster but Catra got into position anyway and Adora followed.

She wants to fight you, Adora realized.

"Wanna know how Shadow Weaver died?" Catra asked. "You always asked every time we saw each other. You listen to too many rumors, don't you?"

Of all the figures in Adora's life, Shadow Weaver was the last one she wanted to think about, but her mind was yanked back to all the things she'd heard: that it was purely accidental, that Catra had made it look like an accident, that Catra had actually fought against Shadow Weaver -- Adora remembered the times Catra talked about it, the guilt that Adora could detect, suddenly clear to her now where it was a vague feeling before. With Catra, it was always a back-and-forth feeling, as though she were saying I did it, or did I?

Adora nodded. "We'll do this old style, minus the breastplate sensors, I guess," Catra said. "Like when we were cadets."

Adora shucked off her jacket and unbuckled her sword, leaving both on the straw man now some distance away. If Catra wanted to relive the past, then Adora could do that.

They tapped on the ends of each other's staves as a signal to start the scrim. Catra opened with a downward whack straight for Adora, which set the pace of the fight, fast-paced and up close. After a flurry of parries and thrusts, the two of them separated, circling each other.

"You've gotten slow."

Adora huffed. From the way Catra parried Adora's own attacks, using the staff only to deflect and not as a direct parry, Catra was conserving her strength as she always did. Was she trying to wear Adora down? But Catra knew better than anyone else that Adora's staying power was better than most. Or perhaps Catra had worked on her endurance. Facing Catra, Adora realized that she was fighting a stranger.

She breathed in through her nose, exhaled through her mouth. There was still a little pain radiating from her jaw.

They clashed a second time, Adora taking more aggressive pokes and stabs into Catra's zone, as Catra read her every tell and dodged most of her strikes. Jabbing the full length of the staff against where Catra's chest was, Catra lost balance enough to stumble and jump back, staff immediately raised. Adora didn't press her advantage, tired herself from the melee.

"You've gotten slow," Adora replied. To her pleasure, it was Catra's turn to breathe hard, her whole body heaving with the stress of dodging blows she knew Adora could bear down to break her guard.

The third exchange opened with a feint from Catra, a quick thrust that she quickly retracted. Taking a step back, she ducked and tried to sweep Adora's feet with a swing from her staff. Too slow to move her feet, Adora's leg took the brunt of the blow. She quickly backstepped, but Catra pressed her advantage with a tackle, dropping both their staves to the ground. She held Adora down with her full weight on Adora's torso and an extended claw to Adora's neck, her right hand clamping down on Adora's collarbone. This should have been the end of the fight, but with a yell at Catra, Adora lifted herself up enough to give her a headbutt. Using the momentum, Adora bent her leg kneed Catra in the gut, sending her sprawling on the dirt. This time it was Adora on top of Catra, and to keep Catra from trying the same thing on her, Adora put both her knees on Catra's torso, her legs on Catra's thighs and her hands pushing against Catra's.

"Yield!" She ordered.

Catra growled as her legs tried to thrash against Adora, but gravity was against her.

"I can do this all day," Adora said, in between gasps for breath. Catra tried to lift her head, but Adora countered with another headbutt. Fuck, that hurt, she thought to herself, but Catra's own forehead was already bruising.

A searing pain erupted in the skin of her hands, surprising Adora enough to be distracted. Catra wrenched a hand free and punched her in the jaw, wriggling from underneath her.

They were both on the ground now, Adora on her knees and elbows, jaw burning with the blow, her hands bloody where Catra's claws had dug.

"Ugh," Catra said, standing up with a staff. Her pride wouldn't let her lose. "Y'aint looking so good down there," she said, as she waited for Adora to get up.

Adora could draw the fight out longer, but the goal in front of her had suddenly turned hazy. Maybe it was from all the headbutting. "I yield," Adora said, quietly.

"No you don't," Catra said, irritated. "Don't make it so easy for me."

"Well," Adora said, looking at the dirt, "it's not easy for me."

"Like hell it's not," Catra snapped.

"I'm not patronizing you, dammit. I'm tired, okay!" Her jaw was making it hard to talk. Hand to her jaw, she felt some swelling. Her fingers came away with some blood from her neck.

"Guess I nicked ya a bit," Catra said, when Adora stared at her palm. They were superficial cuts.

She got up and dusted herself. Across her, Catra was inspecting her own damage.

"There's a kit inside," Adora said. She picked up her jacket on the way to the inside of the building. Catra followed behind her.

//

//

Catra watched Adora check her jaw from across the infirmary's table for guests, a square table surrounded on all sides by chairs. Adora was opening and closing her jaw wordlessly in the infirmary's dim off-hours lighting. Their wounds were dressed as well as they could dress them themselves, with no other sound except for the occasional clink as they rooted through supplies and snipped off gauze.

Catra hadn't remembered punching Adora so hard. Her own wrists and hands were purple though she felt no pain. She wondered if she looked as beaten to Adora as Adora looked to her.

"What, did I dislodge something? Don't tell me you lost a tooth."

"No, no." But Adora still looked miserable.

Catra thought, I was going to tell you anyway. The scrim had been something she thought of on a whim.

"Adora. You should know how she died." The dryness of Catra's own voice, amplified by the quiet of the room, made her wince. Even just bringing up Shadow Weaver's name made every slight stutter of the glowlights feel like Weaver was still alive.

"But I lost, didn't I?"

Catra rolled her eyes. Catching the expression, Adora blinked and said, slowly, "Yeah. I do want to know. Tell me."

Catra had thought long and hard about what to say, but had never imagined herself actually saying it. In the musty room, as close to the Fright Zone's own architecture as could be had in Dryl, it was less difficult to remember that night. Her eyes fixed on Adora, Catra spoke through her dry mouth.

"So, she was a prisoner for a while. We weren't yet in the thick of the war; it was still pretty early on. I was sleeping on one of the catwalks at the top of the room, which I used to do when I was watching Entrapta experiment with the Black Garnet." Catra paused momentarily. Right, I used to hang out with Entrapta and Scorpia. Then she winced. This isn't the time for that.

"We used to work during our off-hours, in the night. My job was to hand her stuff. Sometimes I'd just doze off though while she did her thing. That particular night though she just happened to be fixing things in the hangar, so it was just me. Of course, Shadow Weaver found a way to break free from whatever cell she had been in. She went straight for the Black Garnet. She came in while I was sleeping and, I guess, started sucking in so much energy from the Black Garnet the lights started to flicker. She was so hungry for the magic she didn’t think about all the new machinery and all the cords strapped onto the runestone. That's what woke me up, all the sudden lights and electricity buzzing everywhere. So I saw her and... dropped down and pushed the power supply as high as it could go." Stupid, stupid, stupid, Catra could hear her mind screaming. Adora will never talk to you again. She wasn't looking at Adora now, imagining a dead woman's shadow in every flicker of the shadows on the floor.

"I swear, Adora, I thought it would knock her out, or the magic would just repel her --"

For a moment that stretched too long, Adora said nothing. Then: "I, I believe you," Adora said, her voice shaky. "Catra, Catra, it's fine."

No, it wasn't fine, they both knew that. Catra still remembered the smoke, and in remembering, could barely breathe. She swatted a hand she knew was Adora's, but why was Adora next to her?

Catra swallowed, not daring to look up at Adora. What had possessed her to say all of that?

"I killed her," Catra said. "It's true. What difference does an accident make? I turned the damn thing on and--"

She heard Adora stand up. Spooked, Catra made for the door. She felt a hand close on her wrists.

"Don't... don't run. Please."

Truthfully Catra wasn't even sure if she could. Her mouth was so dry it hurt to even make a sound or clear her throat. Aware of Adora's hand on her wrist, she wrenched it away. She was by the doorway now, Adora watching her cautiously, much like when they were fighting earlier. Why had she come back?

"She fried to death, Adora. I heard her screaming the whole time I pulled the lever back down to zero but nothing changed. She kept burning to a crisp, the Black Garnet pulsing like mad, flecks of energy everywhere. It was the largest fire I’d ever seen, consuming her and filling up the room with that burning smell..."

This time Catra did turn and run, catching Adora off guard with her last words.

//

//

Adora gave chase. Catra was faster as she tore through the streets of Dryl, but Adora knew where everything was, the barrels, the sacks -- and eventually she tackled Catra down, too tired to jump up a tall stack of crates in a dead-end side street.

From below Adora, Catra aimed a weak swipe that tore the top of Adora's hair; out of reflex, Adora punched Catra full on the jaw.

"Shit, I'm sorry!"

Adora got off, breathing hard.

Lying on the ground, Catra curled up laughing.

"Why don't you just... do us all a favor and finish this whole drama."

"What the hell are you talking about?"

Catra stood up, her claws extended. Through her dark fur, Adora could see the bruising already. "C'mon, Adora. I killed your mother and all that. Guilty as charged! Like they say in your courts. It wasn't even in self-defense or anything. Weird word," Catra said. "Mother. And I almost killed you, you know? Almost."

"But you didn't," Adora said.

"No, I just killed a whole lot of other people. I've always been the bad guy. There's no digging me out of it." Catra made a lunge that Adora easily sidestepped. She was already too winded, Adora realized.

"This entire place is proof that that's not true," Adora said.

"Entrapta's work. Or Scorpia. I'm good at breaking things. Enough stuff's been broken. I don't know... why was I thinking I could stay?"

She's not herself, Adora thought.

"Because I want you to stay," Adora said. She straightened up, realizing that she'd been mirroring Catra's own stance. "I don't hate you," she said. "I still don't know what the hell is going through my own head! But I've never hated you. That hasn't changed. And maybe to you Shadow Weaver's death wasn't in self-defense that night. But it would have been in defense of... all the other things she's done to you."

For a second, it looked like that last thing she said enraged Catra so much she would have tackled Adora to the ground. But instead Catra sagged to the wall.

Up until that night, it was as though Shadow Weaver's death hadn't been real. People had said that Catra killed her, or that Catra hadn't done anything, but at the back of her mind Adora refused to process Shadow Weaver's death without Catra's confirmation. Whenever she had talked about it, it was almost mechanical, as though Shadow Weaver was this distant person, a trainer that they hadn't known very well.

Following Catra's lead, Adora sat down. The lights on the main streets were dim this far deep into the narrow alley. In the dark, Catra's eyes glowed. Adora could see her fur matted despite the patch job. They spent some time breathing in the dark, exhausted from fighting and running and yelling.

Across her, Catra spoke again.

"The Black Garnet died just as I thought I was going nuts from hearing her scream. And then the Horde shut down for the day and I sat there in the dark, in the stale air, with that corpse for company. Half the time, I thought, she might still be alive and crawling to come get me. I can see in the dark, but it was pitch black."

Catra breathed in, a long suck of air, as though her own lungs were filled with smoke again. Her own words were an unsteady stream that Adora could barely hear, even in the small space.

"I had no idea. I couldn’t move. I didn’t want to bump into a ghost or a half dead, fried woman. I saw her face, y’know, already looking like -- you know what she looks like -- I saw her eyes melt off. I saw her hair singeing off. The fire was so hot, I felt the flames of it licking at me long after the whole thing was over. Without the exhaust, the room was quiet as a grave and hot, like I was being buried in an oven.”

//

//

Catra didn't say anything after that. They must have dozed off, because the next thing Adora was aware of were the morning sounds: wheels thudding against the occasional dip in the concrete road, people in the distance talking, the chirp of birds. She swung her head away from the road to face Catra, whose hair was blowing in the wind, the same way it did against the air vents in the Fright Zone.

So, her mind said, she really did kill Shadow Weaver.

It was an accident though, Adora countered to herself. And she had been honest with what she'd said: if Catra did not think it was self-defense, Adora did.

Mother. Where had Catra learned that word?

She stared at Catra for a while, thinking about how rare it was to be able to just look at her. As Horde Commander, Catra'd developed a kind of regal poise, but she'd never lost that wild look to her, her drive to live by her rules.

Adora swallowed. The dull pain in her jaw was still there. Her whole body ached and dozing outside hadn't helped. She got up, her joints creaking the whole way, walked to Catra, and lifted Catra's arm over her neck. She began half-dragging, half-carrying Catra back into the same building Catra had just gotten out of a month ago.

//

//

what crime, what punishment

//

two years ago

 

Scorpia had been in Dryl for weeks since the Cannon Incident. Frequently she was the only one Catra responded to, apart from Entrapta. She'd talk to Catra about how awful the food was, or short stories about people they knew in the Fright Zone. But, Horde Command had said, nothing about military matters while a probe went on about the Cannon's misfire. So there were was that.

Not that Catra would have breached the subject herself. For almost a month now, she spoke only to answer questions, and it was as though she had to work hard to retrieve every thought in her head. The past week, they'd been screwing with doses and Scorpia wasn't sure which version of Catra she'd get. Either way, as with every visit, Catra would still be on some sedative or another.

"Scorpia," Catra said, her voice heard only because of the stillness of the room, "Why am I still here?"

Now that was new. Scorpia made a mental note to check what they were pumping into Catra. Scorpia thought fast as she figured out where Catra was, mentally. She knew what Catra was asking, in that haze of painkillers. It was what Catra would never ask otherwise.

"I need you here," Scorpia said, her own voice no louder than Catra's.

"That's so stupid. Nobody needs me."

Scorpia knew who she was thinking of.

"I killed her mother."

"Did you kill Weaver or was it an accident?"

"I killed her," Catra repeated, and Scorpia could see her eyes reliving it. Her eyes grew wide. "Did I kill them both?"

It had taken her almost a month to ask that question, between all the drugs and what Scorpia guessed was guilt. "No," Scorpia said, and she immediately knew what the problem was.

It was like a lightbulb had switched on, just as they said.

//

//

present day

Scorpia was in her private garden when news of Catra's beaten up state arrived. Really, she thought to herself. Right in front of my... well, my next salad harvest. She poked through the greens and, pleased with their greeness, took one long look at her room of plants and flowers. Next to the doorway, a schedule was tacked with names and species and times to water. After verifying that everything was in order, she left, humming.

It was only her and Adora inside Catra's room. Scorpia stood at the foot of the bed, while Adora sat next to Catra.

"You think she's going to run off for another month?" Scorpia asked, tartly. Adora had been unusually quiet, except to say it was her fault, which meant it definitely wasn't.

"I don't think so," Adora said.

Scorpia sighed. Then she laughed a bit. What could she possibly say to this?

"Are you still angry at her?"

It had been brewing up for a while, hadn't it? Having to play dumb under orders, because she herself wasn't sure how to handle Catra's volatility. Being left with the mess of Catra's denial. Even at Adora, it was hard not to be angry.

And yet Scorpia thought of Catra's risk taking, how she never hesitated, and how, without Catra or Entrapta, there would be no plants in Dryl.

"Yes and no," Scorpia said. Surely you know by now what you mean to her, she thought, to Adora.

"She told me what happened with Shadow Weaver."

Scorpia raised her eyes to meet Adora's. "So what did she say?"

"That she killed Weaver," Adora said. "Guilty as charged, she said." Adora looked at her, trying to say something. "Catra doesn't just admit things, you know?"

Adora felt it too, the guilt that came off of Catra in waves when she wasn't on her guard. "When you say it like that it all sounds so simple, doesn't it?" If Adora was feeling honest this morning, so was Scorpia. "She could never kill you," Scorpia said. "She would have sooner died herself before shooting at you. That's almost what happened, the first time."

Adora's head whipped up. "What's that mean?"

"That she had the means to defeat She-Ra, and that she couldn't," Scorpia said. "You should ask her about it, now that she's here."

And, because Scorpia had been interrupted from her plant-talking time, she said, "You know that Catra would do anything for you."

Now that was a blow to Horde sovereignty. Scorpia watched as Adora opened her mouth to try to deny it, then swallow her words, because Adora knew it to be true. Scorpia laughed, to let Adora know she wasn't the only one reeling from the absurdity of it. Saying it out loud to Adora, Scorpia wondered how she had doubted the fact herself in the past. Catra had kept it out of sight for so long, even Scorpia sometimes wondered if she was hallucinating.

"And she's," Adora stumbled, "she's never around me because of what happened with Shadow Weaver."

"And the tiny fact that she's the Horde Commander and you're Bright Moon's foremost soldier and she has a country to protect from herself. She would have avoided you forever if she could, woman's got more self-restraint than she looks." Scorpia raised her eyebrows. "So there's that." Then, with a passing glance at Catra, "I hope she's not secretly awake."

Adora shook her head. She looked about to pass out herself. Scorpia decided it was enough talk. After breakfast, Adora would probably sleep like the dead herself.

Then she thought of all the meetings she had to have with Bright Moon over this incident and groaned.

//

//

Catra killed Shadow Weaver.

Catra would do anything for you.

You asked her to stay.

Out of all those thoughts, the one that rose foremost to her mind was the last one. Adora had tried so hard not to say it, tried so hard not to want it. But over the past year, just as she had thought to herself perhaps it would be enough to know that Catra was no longer her enemy, alive and well with the war over, she'd seen how close Catra'd come to dying. The memory of it was enough to make her shake.

Catra would do anything for you.

The flare of hope that burst inside of her upon hearing that was tempered immediately by reality. Catra was the Horde Queen, Angella had said. And before that, Adora had renewed her vow as to who she fought for.

We're not enemies, we're not in a war.

A daydream flashed through her mind: Catra, still Queen of the Horde. And her, perhaps not quite She-Ra, but Catra's most trusted lieutenant, by her side --

Would the sword accept her with these thoughts in her head?

Adora got up from her bed. Still winded from yesterday, she walked slowly out of her own tent towards Glimmer's.

//

//

Bow was there too, sitting next to a half-asleep Swift Wind. The three of them were talking about her. no doubt. Adora had caught them several times, though they always denied it. It made Adora feel fragile.

Bow and Adora sat on the rug while Glimmer sat on her bed. In between them was a table with tiny cookies on one tray and tiny sandwiches on the other.

"From the Horde," Bow said. "I think Scorpia made these."

"You know," Glimmer said. "The Horde has had you to itself this whole time." She winked, to show Adora that it was nothing serious, even if it was very serious.

"I'm sorry," Adora said.

"Hey, we said we wouldn't rush her," Bow chided.

"No," Adora said, "I need to talk."

She opened her mouth again but realized she had no idea where to start. She looked up to her two friends, embarrassed.

"Uhh," Bow said, with a sidelong glance at Glimmer, "What happened with you and Catra? Let's start with that?"

Adora looked to him and Glimmer. They were her friends. She should try, for them. "She said she'd tell me how Shadow Weaver died if I beat her in a scrim," Adora said. "I mean, we used to train all the time so --"

"Wasn't she supposed to tell you that regardless?"

But a part of Adora had wanted something, anything from Catra, even if all there was to have was a fight. She looked away, annoyed at herself.

"I agreed to it anyway," Adora admitted. "And she told me what happened while we were patching up. It was..." and here she wondered if her answer, honest or not, was in service to Bright Moon. She resolved to tell the truth as she knew it. "Catra did kill her. It was partially an accident and partially in self-defense."

"She was... an awful woman, wasn't she? But still your, uh --"

She remembered the first time Glimmer had explained to her what a mom was.

I killed your mother.

"She was," Adora said. "But if I'm being honest, I've can come to terms with Shadow Weaver's death." Already she could feel the weight of the mystery lightening, the more often she talked about it. "It was the truth I needed to know."

"And you guys had a huge beat down over that?" Bow gave her a careful look. "I mean, you look like you went through a platoon of those guys."

"It looks worse than it actually is," Adora said, looking at her bandaged arm and feeling the gauze on her cheek. "Catra said... a lot of stuff."

Adora swallowed as Bow and Glimmer looked on, cookies forgotten, hanging on to her every word. "She sounded so guilty. I always knew she cared, when we were kids. She just didn't show it."

"Cared about what?"

Adora shook her head. Cared, period. Catra paid attention to things, was always attentive, always knew the Horde was evil. And she stayed in the dark anyway.

"I wanted to know why she came for me when I disobeyed orders. And I guess I knew the entire time. Scorpia said, that Catra could have killed me during the war, and failed." Scorpia had left it ambiguous whether it was intentional or not; either way, the result was the same. "Which doesn't change anything she's done. Or I've done."

"I think everyone was sick of war and Dryl is as neutral as it gets," Glimmer said. "And the time between now and before gave us a chance to cool down. It worked in the Horde's favor to isolate after Hordak's death. I'm just glad we haven't started a second war while we're here."

Bow looked thoughtful. "Adora," he asked, "How do you feel about Catra?"

The question was a punch to the gut. Whereas Catra had bailed Adora out at least twice in the past three months, Adora had done everything she thought was right only to end up in need of help every time. Unworthy, she thought to herself, the heaviness of her actions weighing on her.

Bow said, "It sounds like Catra can't do anything against you. She's saved you twice, you told us that yourself. I'm not trying to make this political because we're not in Bright Moon, but this is huge. I mean, does she love you?"

Glimmer's attention swung from Bow to Adora. "Is that what's been going on?"

"There's nothing going on," Adora said. There was no way these people from Bright Moon could understand that the Horde had no idea of love or romance. Relationships were forbidden in every manual since they were children, not that Adora or Catra were even aware of what those were. The language was vague and against a dearth of information, Adora doubted that Catra knew or cared about it except as a way of studying her enemy. It was not love -- it was that they promised that nothing bad would happen while they were together. And apart, Catra had fulfilled that promise while trying to keep her allegiance.

"Hey, we're not attacking you," Bow said. "We just want to understand what's happening. Catra's last minute abandonment of her own orders, in her own mission -- do you think that nobody has been talking about it? That people aren't thinking the two of you have some kind of joint plan? We know there's no such thing," Bow added, hastily, as Adora struggled to absorb what he was saying, how outlandish they must have looked to everyone else, "but it's been on everyone's minds, what this means for Bright Moon and the Horde."

"Nothing's changed! I'm still She-Ra," Adora said.

"The problem is what the Horde knows," Bow said. "Though I wouldn't be surprised if Scorpia knew everything. Catra can't step down as Queen -- there would be a power vacuum. That's why Scorpia's still acting leader until Catra returns. Sure, Scorpia could fight every force captain that would vie for power, but Catra keeps the Horde together with the least amount of infighting."

"Catra will never step down as Leader of the Horde," Adora said, and suddenly realized why Scorpia was so upset: Catra had very nearly left. Over her. That had to hurt. And now that Catra was back, it was like a renewed promise to them too, that she would keep the Horde in line. The little bits of knowledge stabbed at her, tiny knives buried in her chest.

Swift Wind, silently taking in everything that was happening with half an ear, let out a neigh. "So, I guess this means you're having an affair?"

 

//

//


A/N:

oh no deep down inside adora wants a Horde!AU

if there was a name for this chapter, it would be "you construct intricate rituals."

please scream with me and follow my shiny new blog: http://wednesdaystarfish.tumblr.com questions/asks are super welcome! i draw fanart there too.

Chapter Text

the story so far

Pt 1

  • Diverging from S1, the war between the Princess Alliance (PA) and the Horde escalates for two years until Catra usurps Hordak's place as Commander of the Horde.
  • The short-lived quiet ends when the BFF squad investigates the Fright Zone; they are captured & Bright Moon citizens are ransomed and returned.
  • On a technicality, Adora is not a BM citizen and is instead kept as Ward of the Horde, swordless, and used as leverage by the Horde to prevent an invasion from the PA.
  • Adora learns about the New Horde's politics and structure: Catra has turned into a recluse, feared and respected; some Force Captains have stayed while others have defected to their own territories.
  • Her murder of Hordak and Shadow Weaver has led to baseless rumors of her strength and magic powers (she has none.)
  • Adora asks for the truth behind SW's death.

Pt 2

  • Mystacor, in between the Fright Zone and BM, is attacked by Skeletor, taking Glimmer and Frosta as hostage; the Horde prepares for an attack. Scorpia goes behind Catra's back to send Adora to BM with intel as a bargaining chip to create an alliance with BM.
  • Unnecessarily though understandably pissed, Catra goes after Adora (with Entrapta flying the plane) and saves Adora from robots, returning Adora's sword to her. Entrapta goes ahead to BM.
  • Everyone regroups (sans Scorpia who is grounded in the FZ) and a joint rescue mission for the two princesses is mounted.
  • While the rescue is successful, towards the end of it Adora disobeys orders to fight Skeletor alone. Catra abandons her own mission, gives the Horde to Scorpia, and runs after Adora to back her up.
  • After a long fight, they beat Skeletor, the last known hostile Force Captain.

Pt 3

  • Adora and Catra recover in Horde-controlled Dryl. Adora heals faster and wakes up to a warmer political climate between the Horde and the PA.
  • When Catra recovers, Scorpia points out that she's been risking her life for Adora, and asks her if she still wants to lead the Horde.
  • Catra disappears for a month, leaving everyone up in the air, but eventually returns. Adora asks, in a roundabout way, for her not to leave.
  • Catra stays in Dryl, later baiting Adora to fight her using Shadow Weaver's death; even though she wins, she tells Adora the truth behind Shadow Weaver's accidental death (which was still through her doing).

Their emotions are on the table now.

 


//

//

hang up

//

By the next morning, Catra was still asleep. Though told by the Horde doctors that Magicats healed faster with lots of sleep (and Catra was thus sedated), Adora stayed in the hospital to mull over the brouhaha from the night before.

"She'll be awake in thirty-eight minutes," Entrapta said, passing Adora a tiny cup of tea. "I did tell you to sleep."

"Oh, I slept," Adora lied. How the hell was she supposed to sleep after everything she'd talked about with Bow and Swift Wind and Glimmer?

//

//

Catra came to slowly. Adora could see her working her jaw, wordless, struggling to cohere her thoughts into sound.

"Hey, it's okay."

Catra turned a second later towards Adora and grimaced. She bent one elbow, trying to raise herself.

"Dammit, Adora," she rasped, her voice thick and slow.

Does Catra love you? Bow's words rang clear like crystal in Adora's mind.

"I brought you to Dryl Medical," Adora said quietly.

Catra groaned before collapsing back into bed. Her eyes were closed for a moment, summoning her thoughts. "How long did they knock me out?"

"A little over twenty-four hours," Adora said.

Catra was quiet for a few minutes. "You can leave," she said, finally.

"I... want to stay," Adora said.

Slowly, with great effort and deliberation, Catra said, "What if I don't want you here?"

Was she supposed to give Catra space? Was this too much, too? Were they simply going to return to Bright Moon and the Fright Zone, after everything that had happened?

"I'm sorry," Catra said, cutting through the torrent of thoughts in Adora's head.

"What?"

"Shadow Weaver." A flicker of annoyance passed through Catra's face. Then she laughed, a weak laugh. "Oh, I could be lying though." She was speaking faster now, waking up; the Horde Commander was taking over. "I mean, I hated her. Of course I meant to kill her. I would have killed her eventually."

"I don't believe that," Adora said. "Stop it."

Catra said nothing. Adora got up, remembering Entrapta's instructions. "I'll get us some breakfast, okay?"

//

//

Adora left after delivering breakfast because Catra had told her to. It hurt to see her go just as it hurt to see Adora next to her, just as it hurt to tell her to leave. Catra took a long breath in. It was time for her to return to being Horde Commander. She'd been gone for too long.

She wanted to wash her mouth clean of her words. I'm sorry clung to her tongue. It tasted like motor oil.

The clearer the night before came back to her, the angrier she got; the stammering, the begging, I swear it was an accident!

What did you want from Adora, anyway? For her to forgive you? For her not to hate you?

I don't hate you, Adora had said. What the hell did that mean?

She ate breakfast alone, thinking to count the tiny plates whose contents she'd devoured, but that soured her too: Entrapta was helping at the medical building, if she were in charge of Catra's diet. Catra hadn't had a serious conversation with her since Bright Moon. By lunch time she was too restless to stay in her room; at the side table were her belt, a mobile, and mantle, which gave her a fierce enough look to deter the attending doctor. He could make excuses to Entrapta instead.

The twenty-four sleep cycle seemed to have worked: Minus some stiffness in the limbs, Catra had few bandages to show for her scuffle with Adora.

She walked the Horde streets back to Command, noticing cadets stopping to salute her now before walking in the opposite direction -- as she walked, more of them came up to see her and offer a salute; just as hurriedly they disappeared into buildings. There were plenty working in the greenhouses and farms, occasionally fooling around and shooting each other with super soakers meant for plants. Catra recognized some of them as those ones Adora had mentored; she had simply filed the bit of information away and went on.

Who let the kids out?

She filed that away for a meeting a few days later, the time and date of which she typed out to send to Entrapta and Scorpia. The last message in their group chat was months ago. She resisted the urge to smash the mobile into a nearby wall. She read up everyone's schedule, and having thought about it all day, decided to pay Entrapta a visit the following morning.

//

//

I'll go after lunch, she thought the next morning.

After lunch, she thought, I'll go after reading some reports.

Then after reading a page of supply notes and patrol routes, she shut off the mobile, having spent the whole day slinking around Dryl Command, leaving her room only to eat.

I could just look at the Hangar. Will she be there all day? Entrapta wanders off a lot too.

In the end, she went close to dinner time, bringing an arm and a bag full of pork buns from the Dryl Command dining hall.

The Hangar was mostly empty. What few crew were there accepted a bun from Catra's tail -- passing food was a trick she'd learned from Scorpia -- while she walked around pointedly not asking anyone if they'd seen Entrapta.

Eventually bun-less, she made it to the back to the Hangar and could tell herself, well, she tried, or something to that effect. She could go again tomorrow or next week or never. Then she turned around to see Emily.

"Oh boy," Catra muttered. "You gonna show me the way?"

Emily rolled around aimlessly, as though teasing Catra. Eventually they realized Catra meant business and decided to roll eastward, weaving through copters. Catra followed.

Rounding the nose of an aircraft, Entrapta's hair fell into view, spilling out in movement, sorting a mess of tools into one of the many boxes that littered the floor around her. Entrapta sat at the center of the mess, muttering into a recorder held up by her hair. Still another tendril of hair groped about for something; on a whim, Catra tapped a box closer to it with her foot.

"Thanks, Emily."

"Not Emily," Catra replied.

Entrapta's hair stood on end. She turned around, looking up to Catra, who was standing with her hands on her hips, head to the side. "Hi."

Entrapta's head swiveled back to the mess. Baffled by Catra's presence, Entrapta could only continue muttering into her log.

"I'm not going away, y'know."

"I know! That's why I'm ignoring you."

"Geez, is everyone that angry at me?"

A button clicked, signifying the end of Entrapta's recording.

"I'm not angry at you. Are you angry at me?" Entrapta's hair receded to wrap around more closely around her.

Now Catra was confused. "No," she said. "What would I be angry about?"

"The war?"

"We already talked about this," Catra snapped, then realized what she was doing. "I've never blamed you for the cannon misfire. I took out the safety and accidentally triggered the damn thing as a projectile came at me. Maybe it exploded because I didn't configure the payload right. It wasn't anything to do with you."

Entrapta latched onto the operational details, her familiar refuge in the conversation. "Why did you take the safety off?"

"Because," Catra faltered a little, "because I was trying to psych myself enough to shoot Adora. The payloads were set to explode on impack because duh, Adora's a human and not masonry and forcefields. That oversized bazooka was a bitch to snipe humans with -- picture how ridiculous that was -- but we tried on Hordak's equally unrealistic orders. And," Catra added, after a pause, realizing that she'd gone back to the martial persona she used to wear, "I couldn't tell anyone because it's not like you can confess and say, 'hey, it turns out that I can't kill our mortal enemy after all.'"

"Scorpia knew though."

"I asked her if Adora was alive. Which was careless, but she didn't tell anyone." Only after she'd said that did Catra realize how that excluded Entrapta.

"You could have told me."

In that moment, Entrata sounded more human than she ever had. Petulant, she was, but more than that -- hurt.

Catra had to keep talking and table the feelings for later.

"I know. I'm sorry."

She didn't hate herself for saying it; though it should have stung, it didn't. Not too long ago apologizing would have been too much. It could have been telling Adora about Shadow Weaver that did it. Something was loose in Catra, like a nut or bolt that had come apart in one of Entrapta's robots and was now jangling inside, freely.

Entrapta turned to face her, sitting cross-legged, goggles up. Catra followed.

"Why did you disappear a month ago?" She was back to doing her data-gathering social experiment interviews or whatever. Catra obliged, to smoothen the gritty sensation apologizing still left her with.

"Because I needed to think. Away from the Horde, or the politics, or the royals, or whatever."

"And what did you conclude?"

"That I belong in the Horde."

Without missing a beat, Entrapta asked: "And Adora?"

"Legally she's sworn to Bright Moon."

A second question came zinging: "And your feelings for Adora?" The question landed straight like an arrow to Catra's chest.

Shocked out of her quick answers, Catra stared at the metal panelling that made up the floor, her eyes trailing after scuff marks.

"Nobody forced us to stay in Bright Moon or the Horde," she said at last, when a boot print was finally too faint to follow.

"Is it as simple as being one or the other?"

"I don't know, but I'm out of ideas."

She let Entrapta keep grilling her. It was Entrapta's way of dealing with her feelings. And Catra realized she missed Entrapta's rapid-fire questioning and her voice. She was good company.

//

//

joint military exercises

//

The Horde had set up greenhouses in the northern edge of Dryl. As with the rest of Entrapta's territory it had been terraformed beyond its rocky, barren badlands and into something resembling Plumeria, minus the chill crowd. Instead, large canopied structures provided a spot for every sort of plant, experimenting on which ones would best adapt to their future home on Fright Zone soil. Though, Adora thought, as she walked through the greenhouses, I think the cadets are giving them way more water than the Fright Zone's known for.

The Horde cadets were in charge of the greenhouses, as a group, and they took to it in Dryl as they did in the Fright Zone: it was their time off, just after breakfast and before training simulations. Reminded of the squad whose time slot she shared with in the Fright Zone -- it seemed forever ago -- Adora thought to ask the class where her kids had gone. The only problem was that the kids were giving her a wide berth, as though she were an off-duty Force Captain about to give them cleaning duty. When the last kid she'd approach fled back towards Dryl's center, she gave up and squatted instead on one of the stools next to a row of seedlings, with nothing to do but sweat in the sun.

Behind her, a voice piped up: "It's the sword, traitor." The leader of squad fourteen tapped the scabbard.

"Hi Cam," Adora said brightly.

Cam scowled, the furrow in her brow likely to be a permanent feature by the time she was twenty. "Squad Leader Cam, you mean."

Adora obliged by standing to attention and saluting. "Reporting for duty, Squad Leader Cam." Adora resisted the urge to grin; it would ruin the show. And Cam, a twelve-year old twig of a kid with blonde hair crew-cut in an extreme adherence to regulation, probably wouldn't understand yet.

"Do you even have clearance to be here?"

"Yeah," Adora lied. "Scorpia cleared me."

"Then you should know that weapons aren't allowed in the greenhouses."

Adora put a hand to her sword. It went with her everywhere, as far as she was concerned, and no soldier from the Horde or Princess Alliance would have questioned her about it. But that meant nothing to these kids who, Adora realized, lived in their own world. That being said any cadet from her era would have been armed and proud of it.

"Fine," Adora said, swallowing any questions. "I'll leave it."

"No sword allowed in the shooting range, either," Cam said. The new shooting range, next to the greenhouses and separate from the training grounds, was cadet territory too.

"Got it," Adora said. "Is that where you've all been training?"

"In lieu of simulations, yes. For now. And it's away from joint Alliance training halls." The answer was likely parroted straight out of some instructor's mouth.

"And how's squad fourteen?"

"You can see for yourself," Cam said, her tone not unkind. She almost sounded proud. "We did fine without you, traitor."

(Traitor at this point didn't mean anything. Adora knew that. In fact it was almost a term of endearment, coming from them.)

"I'll be there tomorrow then."

"Thirteen-hundred, sharp." Cam walked away.

Adora was still running her fingers through the grooves on her sword's hilt. Could she breathe without her sword? Of course she could. She'd done it before.

//

//

The first thing Catra noticed about Adora was the lack of that cursed sword of hers. Catra stopped in her tracks, tail swishing about, her eyes drinking in the scene. Surrounded by cadets, Adora was hunched over a rifle, explaining the difference between scopes in laser blasters and traditional rifles. Even from afar, Catra could pick up Adora's one-oh-one on recoil and weight. Adora's form was as piss poor as could be expected of someone who fought with a sword. It was too much to watch, even though Catra tried her best to keep her nose out of training.

"Shoot like that and you'll be stuck in rehab for back pain," Catra said, approaching the class of about twenty kids crowding Adora. The kids immediately formed rows and columns arranged by squad, followed by a snappy salute that Catra had no choice but to acknowledge with a salute of her own.

"It worked in training," Adora said.

"You didn't stand like that in training," Catra said irritably. She struck an exaggerated pose, copying Adora's tightly closed eye, the grimace on Adora's face, as though looking through a rifle scope, hunched over, legs bent, tail in stiff angles. A lone snort from some kid at the back was punched into silence. "That hunch is for close quarters combat," she said.

Catra straightened up a little. "An aggressive crouch is hard to maintain. Taking cover when you're actually in a firefight is better." She extended a hand and Adora gave the rifle. Catra looked around. Past the greenhouses, the shooting range was open-air, the lanes per target separated by sticks dug in the ground. Strapped to the first stick, where the spotters could watch, were tablets that showed the targets up close.

Catra flipped the rifle (mostly for show), hefting the weapon, her form perfect to take the shot, which she did as soon as she entered position. She took one shot straight ahead of her, and another shot towards a target to the left. On the screens, both shots left holes right at the bull's eye.

She tossed the rifle back to Adora, before remembering that protocol forbade tossing rifles (at least not in front of the cadets).

When Adora made to pass the gun to the kids Catra groaned again. "I didn't say you were done."

"I'm not done?" there was no mistaking the tart in Adora's voice.

"No, you're not. Shoot properly, weren't you a force captain?"

"I was force captain for like a day," Adora grumbled, but lifted the rifle anyway. Immediately she was thwacked in the back with Catra's staff.

"What did I say about that exaggerated hunch! You have to stabilize yourself when you shoot."

Adora eased up, muttering too low for the class to hear, "I know. You were good at training, you just didn't want to show it."

"I was fine with some stuff."

Mostly non-Weaver-involved training, Adora thought, before squinting to line her sights up.

//

//

The kids had a go at it after that. From some distance away, Adora and Catra sat on folding chairs, passing a pair of binoculars between them every so often when one of the kids actually hit a target. Catra was trying not to question what had brought them here; tired from everything that had happened, she just wanted to sit.

"You're a lot stronger these days," Adora said.

"Hmph. I was just holding back," Catra said.

"I know," Adora said.

"That was a... geez, why are you so sulky today? You weren't so bad at shooting. It was never your strong suit anyway."

"I feel like I missed out watching you train."

"Nothing much to see," Catra said. "Just a lot of clawing at stuff." she extended her claws and retracted them a few times.

"What is it about sparring that..." Adora drifted off.

"...makes us too tired to hate each other at the moment? All the effort, probably." Catra finished.

"I never hated you," Adora said. "I already said it. I never even got to say thank you."

"For what?!"

"For the backup."

Adora said nothing else. Neither did Catra. Both of them didn't want to ruin the mood. In the distance, a bang went off. Catra passed the binoculars.

"One out of ten," Adora rated.

"Try again!" Catra yelled.

The second time around, Adora said, "Definitely a four."

"Next!" Now it was Catra's turn with the binoculars.

In between shots, Catra saw Adora working up the courage to say something.

"Did you see what happened in the vestibule?"

"I did," Catra said. She put on the binoculars to give herself something to do while waiting for Adora.

"When I was at the Horde," Adora finally said, "I met these kids for the first time. If we hadn't stopped the war --"

"-- Then you'd do what you did at Mystacor."

In fits and stops, Adora spoke. "Yeah. And I asked myself -- I asked myself if my being She-Ra, saving the world, all that -- if that included the Horde."

"If you're saving the world, you're saving it from something, aren't you?" Catra turned to face Adora.

"So you think it's all just perception? Who's part of Etheria and who isn't?"

"What? No. We don't invent enemies to make ourselves heroes. I would have died in the war by Hordak's orders. Nevermind all my bullshit. Skeletor was bearing down on Mystacor, they made their bed and laid in it. You saved the world from them."

"So the people I killed, they deserved it? Even the ones who never had a choice, who were born into the Horde and under Skeletor?"

"Nobody asked them to invade Mystacor."

"Nobody asked them if they wanted to be soldiers. Some of them were orphans just a little older than us."

"I'm sure on some elevated philosophical Bright Moon ethics class there's some answer to that question, but -- the reality is that they would have killed you if you didn't kill them. Do you regret killing Skeletor?"

Catra searched Adora's face for regret.

"No," Adora finally said.

At least Adora was honest about that.

"I don't regret killing Hordak. It was either him or me. And if I had to kill some people who had as little leverage as I did, then I had to do that too. I have to live with it."

"How?" The word came out choked.

Catra thought of all the times she'd spent alone in her room high in the Fright Zone's Command tower. How? Damn if she knew.

In the distance the booms had died down. Catra looked up: the kids had stopped shooting. They were disassembling the rifles, probably to learn how to clean them. Someone had taken up the lead. That kept them off her back. Eyes back to Adora, she found Adora staring at her, still waiting for an answer. Catra shrugged, her mouth clamped shut by the intensity of Adora's eyes.

"What about Shadow Weaver?" Adora asked.

Catra looked away, towards the rocky floor. Shadow Weaver's name had some magic attached to it too: Catra could feel the electricity on her fur, the tingling feeling as she was being lifted off the floor; she could remember kicking her feet as though that would have done anything. And then there was the heat and the smoke the night Shadow Weaver died, creeping up on her, Catra never sure if there was none of Weaver's dying magic in the room.

In the distance, there was a loud clatter as some rifle's butt stock came apart. Catra focused on the question.

"I felt pretty good about her death at first. I thought, you deserve it, you bitch. No more stupid punishments, no more being zapped by her magic, no more... control. I thought I was climbing my way up, because I got a promotion after she died, you know? But then it wasn't what I wanted. I don't know, I wanted her to suffer, but I didn't know if I wanted her to die. I'm sure your Bright Moon friends will say that I'm pretty twisted. But that was the Horde way. Nobody in the Horde bat an eyelash whether or not I killed her. Nobody bat an eyelash in the Horde when I killed Hordak. They were all busy trying to figure out how to kill me, next."

"I'm sorry I left you there."

Isn't it too late? Catra thought, but didn't say. Adora was saying everything she wanted to hear, even looked like the perfect punching bag; Catra knew that if she slapped Adora, Adora would take it. But Catra sat there, still as a statue as all those thoughts passed through her head. Sure you're sorry, Catra could say, if she were in an angry mood. You're sorry, but it doesn't change anything.

Catra wasn't angry though. The Horde way was an endless slog of kill after kill until one got to the top. That left her only tired, always tired.

Adora was still watching her. Sometimes looking back at her was too much. "It wasn't what you wanted," Adora repeated. "What changed your mind?"

Catra was quiet for a while, turning over the answer and what it meant and the sequence of things. Wasn't she saying too much, already? Nothing would change regardless of whether Adora knew or not. What was the point in talking? But she was opening her mouth, the words coming out of her whether she wanted them to or not.

"Waking up in Dryl thinking that I'd killed you." She drifted off, then swallowed a lump in her throat. "I was barely able to speak for a month," Catra said. "I couldn't walk, either, because the bazooka thing they gave me to shoot you with blew up in front of me. I squeezed the trigger right when some sparkly arrow was coming at me. It was bad trigger discipline."

She had said enough.

Neither of them said anything other than that, both of them hunched over, arms on their thighs, eyes on the ground. From a distance, Catra heard one of the kids jogging up to them. Whatever looks they had on their faces were enough to spook the boy into a shaky salute. After five minutes of 'ah!' and 'uh!' and the occasional word in between, Catra got the idea: the kids were done with shooting class and were off to whatever menial work went to cadets these days.

"Sure," she said, dismissing the cadet with a wave. She willed herself to get up.

"Are you gonna stay there all day?"

Adora got up and followed her, still quiet.

//

//

flowers in the fright zone

//

Catra sat across Entrapta and Scorpia, separated by a black table that could fit five people on any side, not to mention the dais that put Catra on a stage. Dryl Command had been one of the first Horde structures on Dryl and as such, the chairs were thin, tall, and spire-like, Catra's being the tallest and pointiest among them, set above the floor and lit from behind and above. Cabling ran through the floor to supply power to the table, which served as a screen; the walls on the left side of the room glowed in contrast to the dark paneling. The whole affair would have been imposing for any first-timer, especially before Dryl's terraformation, but the once-bleak skies over Dryl had given way to clear blue clouds and sunlight streamed through the floor-to-ceiling windows on the right side of the room. Scorpia had even opened some of the windows part way, and birds were occasionally tottering about the windowpanes and twittering.

The table itself, meant to be a screen that projected maps and terrain, was kept off. At the middle of the surface was a tray filled with glasses, tea, a pitcher of ice and a slim vase topped with flowers. There was even a table runner and coasters.

I'm gone for a month and this is what happens, Catra thought to herself. It was not unpleasant, just weird. From where she sat, the flowers were just below the faces of her two lieutenants.

It's been over two months since I spoke to them like this. But it felt longer than that, and frostier, even though Entrapta was watching her, her hair much more animated now as it kept busy on a tablet. Scorpia was looking outside, at the birds, a claw to her cheek.

"I called us here to discuss my return." And, because it did no good to ignore the elephant in the room, Catra dove in: "It's been a while since the last time it was only the three of us."

Scorpia's ear twitched. It was encouragement, but it wasn't enough. Catra grit her teeth. It was stupid to talk to them from the throne, what the hell was she even thinking? Everything she said sounded like a shout. She stood up, jumped from the dais, and dragged a chair to sit across them. At least the table wasn't ridiculously huge and imposing.

"That's on me. I should never have left us for so long. I'm sorry."

Now that got Scorpia's attention. She looked up at Catra. "Sorry? Did I hear you right, Catra?"

Catra banged a fist on the table, causing the complimentary glasses of tea to jump. Then she sighed, closed her eyes, and forced her fist to unclench. Forcing her jaw apart, Catra said, "I'm sorry. I'm working on it."

Between the two of them, Entrapta was twiddling her fingers. "She's improving," Entrapta said. "She helped at the hangar last week."

"Entrapta beat me to an apology?"

"Technically, Adora beat us to an apology,' Entrapta said matter-of-factly, while Catra sucked in gulp after gulp of air to distract herself from the burning desire to destroy the table.

Surprisingly, Scorpia cut the banter short. "Alright then. Let's talk about returning to the Fright Zone and sitting you on that chair."

//

//

They covered everything: the looming peace treaty, why cadets were more visible in Dryl (because Catra had taken most of the senior officers to Mystacor, and they were needed back in the Fright Zone; to keep Horde numbers up, the cadets were brought in), what technologies Bright Moon had been exposed to (nearly everything, but Catra kept from scolding the two), and what Bright Moon was offering in exchange for more Horde technology. Catra was torn between wanting to have her Force Captains iron out the details for her and being glad they weren't around to bicker endlessly over which kind of bot the Moonies would have access to.

"Why am I back here again," she said, exhausted from scrolling through a tablet, her legs now propped up the table.

"Because you belong in the Horde," Entrapta said promptly. Turning to Scorpia, she added, "that's what she said. Which means, she won't leave."

This is the first time I've ever seen Entrapta vet anyone to Scorpia. Then, on second thought: This is the first time anyone's had to be vetted to Scorpia .

That had to be a new low.

//

//

She messaged Entrapta on her mobile as the meeting wound down: I need some time with Scorpia.

Just as quickly, Entrapta replied: You got it boss.

After five minutes of Catra ensuring that the Horde would always have a standing army, and that everyone in the Horde was to be made available as military, full stop, Entrapta simply got up and said that it wasn't her thing.

"We've covered all the tech stuff!" She declared, as she got up and mechanically walked to the door, her hair in straight angles poking the security console. With a hiss, the pneumatic doors opened and shut on Entrapta's retreating figure.

Catra breathed into her hands, not daring to look up at Scorpia.

"Suddenly out of words when Entrapta's around? She means well." Scorpia said.

Had things been normal between Scorpia and Catra, Catra would have ribbed her back.

Scorpia tossed her a bone: "This has got to be the most flustered I've ever seen you."

Catra looked up. Scorpia's face matched her voice: sympathetic, but distant.

Catra had thought about what she could say to Scorpia. She had to try. "I didn't get to talk to you earlier."

"It's fine."

Catra was never at a loss for words, but Scorpia's shortness threw her off her game. This was Scorpia, after all. She was never curt with anyone. She was looking at Catra as though to say: well, I'm here, aren't I?

"I left you with a pretty big mess," Catra said. "I'm trying to clean it up."

"That's not what I'm mad about," Scorpia said, then paused. "Or maybe I am, a little. You take things out on people, or leave them to clean up, or don't think that maybe they should hear what's on your mind. It's not fair."

Ears flat, Catra glared at the table. I had my reasons welled up inside her, but she willed herself to shut up. She had had a month to calm down from everything and she was still getting riled by the smallest things. Fairness? As if there was anything fair in the Horde! If it wasn't nailed down, you took it, and you kept it by force. It was a conscious effort to remind herself that she'd been through all that and never wanted to hold the throne that way again.

Tense and out of words, she could only say, "Okay." Catra willed herself to remember: it was Scorpia in front of her, not Hordak or Shadow Weaver. If there was a single person who deserved an apology -- "I'm sorry," Catra said.

They were quiet for a while. Looking up, Catra saw Scorpia regarding a bird against the oncoming sunset. "I never wanted to get angry at you," Scorpia said. "Because I had some idea why you were like this, and I didn't want you to think it was a choice between Adora or the Horde, or that we were forcing you into a decision you didn't want."

"I get that," Catra said. "But we're running this show. The three of us."

Scorpia nodded to herself.

"Boy that street brawl was really it, huh?"

"What does that mean?"

"You're not denying it."

"No, I'm not."

Scorpia's sudden laugh made Catra jump in her seat. "And now that you do know, you're not going to do anything about it?"

"It's not up to me."

"You sound like Adora."

"Please."

"Yeah, you do. I think you know it too. The two of you are... well, two peas in a pod."

"Sure, if the pod was the Fright Zone and we were rotting from the inside."

That made Scorpia laugh again. "It's hard to take you seriously sometimes, you know that? Sometimes you sound your age."

Catra scowled. "Whatever that means." Though irritated, she couldn't deny that a weight was off her back.

//

//

get me out of here

//

To Adora, the peace treaty seemed to pop up from nowhere. The initial discussion was broached while Catra was 'gone'; in the weeks that followed, numbness to the issue had set in. Then when Catra returned, she took over the negotiations as though she'd been in them the whole time. The meetings were only once a week -- and in between them, sometimes Adora saw Catra as she roamed around Dryl, poking her nose in the forges and kitchens. Their meetings were always tentative, always had an air of surprise -- oh, you're here too? -- but Adora hoarded what she had of Catra, now that they weren't fighting each other. She looked for small signs of tiredness or injury, watching Catra bite back her sarcasm or find a different way of saying something. It wasn't that Catra was no longer herself anymore, just that she was different, and Catra leading military was different from Catra casting her eyes around for ideas on small talk, something completely unnatural to her when they were kids. Frequently surrounded by people, they didn't talk to each other much, so Adora followed Catra's lead, casting the occasional look and comment, but otherwise keeping it to business.

It might have been was a frequent phrase in Adora's head. If this or that hadn't happened, if they were born to different circumstances -- if, if, if. She imagined that Catra would make a perfect strategist in the Bright Moon court, and it fueled her daydreams as she took long walks around Dryl. Sometimes she had an assignment, sometimes she didn't; sometimes she walked with Bow or Glimmer or Swift Wind. Frequently, she walked without her sword, half-arguing only once with Glimmer about the morale it boosted around Bright Moon folk at the cost of her trustworthiness around the Horde. It was a half argument, because even Glimmer seemed to prefer her without it. The objection was her mother talking through her, Adora knew. After that one testy lunch between the three of them, things were back to normal.

On a spare afternoon she caught Catra and Entrapta talking with a Plumerian delegation on where next to terraform. Unsure of her own right to join them, she stayed away, but kept an eye as they ventured further beyond the fields. Later in the day she saw Catra, tail swishing, atop a boulder which sat on a hill, watching the sunset. A wild urge to jump on behind Catra overtook her; they'd done that many times as kids, roughhousing, always stopping before it got too serious. Instead she clambered up the boulder behind Catra, making enough noise to let Catra know she was coming up.

"That was some awful climbing," Catra said.

"We're not all as talented as you," Adora replied. In front of her, the countryside of Dryl stretched in all directions, lit red by the sun. Near the settlements were plains converted for farm use, copses of trees, bushes -- growth. And farther apart, towards the Fright Zone, the badlands and rocks. Away from the Fright Zone, on the opposite side, was the beginning of a forest, until the trees finally merged into the Whispering Woods.

"Looks like autumn," Adora said.

Catra scoffed. "Autumn, when we're planting the harvest. It's just the sunset, you doof. I suppose in thirty minutes it'll look like winter," Catra drawled.

Deadpan from Adora: "Ha, ha."

Adora settled to sit next to Catra. "It's funny, isn't it. In the Fright Zone it was either winter or not. And if it didn't snow, we'd probably have no way of knowing about the seasons, at least until we go outside as soldiers."

"Yeah." They'd grown up on stories about the seasons, of course, as a way of being ready for warfare under any condition. "Bow and Glimmer used to have to teach me the words for things. Heck, I didn't even know what a mom was."

The old memory came up out of nowhere, but as soon as she mentioned it she kicked herself for bringing it up. But Catra didn't seem ruffled, at least.

"Mom," she said, trying the word out. "Moms and dads and uncles and aunts. And cousins."

"Where'd you learn all about Princess society?"

"Books, older force captains, lots of superstitions about princesses, Scorpia, Entrapta. Entrapta's bots are pretty up-to-date on Etherian law."

"I should have known. Wait, should you be telling me about this?"

"You gonna tell your people the obvious? We literally have two princesses. We got an invite to the Princess Prom. Princesses are hereditary offices."

Adora huffed. Catra huffed too, with an eyebrow raised in challenge. Unable to bear it any longer, Adora shoved Catra. To her surprise, Catra smiled. "Well, at least they didn't beat that out of you."

"I'm still myself, you know," Adora said hotly.

"I can see that." Catra said, so seriously that it killed the mood. Adora rolled her eyes.

"What now?"

"Don't tell me the Horde beat the fun out of you."

That did it. Catra made a wild lunge, bringing both of them down to bushes underneath the boulder. "Not fun, huh!" Catra yelled as she pushed Adora down the slope. They rolled down, away from Dryl. When Adora made to sit up, Catra grabbed her by the shoulders, shoving her, and if they'd rolled down the hill halfway, well now they were rolling down the hill all the way down to the plains, neither of them letting the other get up over them, shrieking the whole way down. Somewhere along the way Adora lost her hair tie.

There were grass and leaves on Catra by the time they'd sat up (peacefully now) at the bottom of the hill. Fire-red head to toe from the leaves , against a blueing sky, Adora could not tell if she were out of breath with the sight or the exertion.

"Damn, you're red all over," Catra said. "Out of breath already?"

"You fucking wish!" But neither of them resumed the wrestle.

If Adora could hold out a hand -- a single leaf sat content on the crown of Catra's head. Catra patted around, following Adora's eyes. "This the last one?"

"Yeah," Adora said.

"You got plenty more on yours," Catra said, touching her own head. "On this side. Nah, a little more at the back. Now forward -- to the left --"

Adora thwacked Catra's shoulder. "You're shitting me!"

"Took ya long enough."

Giving her hair a last shake, Adora took a hair tie out of her pocket. "What, do you just carry spares in your pocket?"

Adora flushed red. "Yeah, so. Need it for battle. What now?"

"Where's your sword?"

"Haven't been carrying it since the kids told me not to."

Catra was silent again, watching her.

"I know you hate that sword," Adora said, softly.

Catra's ears flickered to the breeze that was flew as the stars came out. "The last time you used it, you almost died."

Adora didn't argue that. "I didn't mean to drag you into my mess."

"You didn't."

A pause, then Catra added: "Why did you do it?"

That took Adora by surprise. "I just thought it would solve things with the least amount of," -- here she stumbled -- "cost."

"It would have cost you," Catra said.

Adora wasn't sure what to answer. "Why are you asking me this now? We're both alive."

"How long are you going to keep tossing yourself into the fray like this?"

"As though you wouldn't do the same for the Horde."

"I wouldn't," Catra said. "Because the Horde needs me breathing. I'd think Etheria needs you alive too." Then she winced, as though she'd eaten something that didn't agree with her. "Do you even like being She-Ra?"

Catra was hitting too close to home now. "What kind of a question is that?"

"A reasonable one! All that sword has ever done is --" Catra broke off. She looked stricken by what she was about to say. Conflicted, she only said, "Etheria has its peace, doesn't it? Is there a need for She-Ra at peacetime?"

"I don't know!" Adora said, suddenly irritated. She wanted to say: do you think I haven't spent months asking myself that?

"I hate that sword," Catra spat out. "Yeah, you've said it, the sword is you, you need it. But you didn't need it when you were in the Horde to keep the peace. And all it ever does is give you a reason to die.

"Maybe you've always been like this," Catra said, her tail whipping about now, as agitated as Adora. "Maybe the sword just made it worse, or chose somebody who was likely to need it, to use it. Maybe that's why you were chosen." She stopped suddenly, as though struck by a thought.

"I don't even care if you would have left eventually. Fine! You, leaving -- the Horde was probably never for you anyway. But that damn sword is the worst possible thing that could have happened to you. Maybe even your friends know that. Not Angella, but are your friends going to stand by while you keep doing this to yourself?"

Adora sat dumbfounded. In the month following the fight, she knew she was a symbol, and it rankled her even as she knew that symbols had uses. After all, sitting six months in the Horde had had a use, too. But she was always a pawn or a soldier somewhere, and it was chafing to be 'the She-Ra' just as it was... meaningful? Meaningful to be able to fight. She could not have both.

We don't invent enemies to make ourselves heroes.

"Okay," she said, her calm meant to bring Catra's tone a notch down. "What would you have me do then?"

"Whatever you want! Bright Moon loves you, your friends adore you -- don't you know?"

When Catra spoke, her voice was cool. "The remaining factions are barely a threat and likely won't even start a fight, much less a siege. Etheria will have its stupid peace, whatever that means."

She shook her head, as though she wanted to forget the entire thing. She had stood up by then. Adora followed as Catra walked back the way they came. As they crunched through the undergrowth and stones, Adora grasped for something to say in the deepening quiet. The mood shifted as they walked back, as the night cold bled through, as they walked away from the tension. Something about walking together always smoothed out the fights between them. Sometimes they went right back to fighting as soon as the walk ended, or they were still angry by the time they made it to their bunks. Sometimes they were too tired, and in the morning, looked for each other first.

Dryl grew in the distance. It was time to shelve the past.

"I thought I might die fighting back when we faced Skeletor. I was a little scared when you came, I didn't mean to drag you into it -- but I was happy you were there, too."

"That's fucked up."

"Well," Adora said, trying to inject some lightness into the drama that Catra always brought with her, "it's the most I got to see you." She'd meant it as a casual fact, but Catra stopped walking. Her breath came out in puffs now that it was evening, and the cold came from everywhere.

"If you had stayed --" then Catra shook her head. "No, I get it. You couldn't have stayed."

"I'm sorry I left you," Adora would say that as many times as she had to.

"Not sorry enough to --" Catra broke off. "You can't have it both ways, why don't you get that?"

"I do get it," Adora said. "But that doesn't mean I won't have feelings about it. That doesn't mean I can't regret it."

"Regret is for things under your control. Most of our lives were not. If you can live with yourself, then that's enough."

"Catra," Adora said, seeing the lights of Dryl grow larger with every step, "are you..." do you like being Horde Commander? But could she ask that, having sidestepped if she liked being She-Ra? Looking at Catra, who gazed back waiting for the question, Adora knew she had a sense of duty, that it wasn't simply power that propelled Catra to where she was today. Adora'd said she was sad she hadn't seen Catra train; the truth was, she was sadder that she hadn't been there when Catra grew up.

"What?"

"You're a great Commander," Adora said instead. "You somehow fixed the Horde."

"I didn't fix anything. It wasn't me. Entrapta could no longer build weapons, didn't want to. Scorpia never wanted the war. All I did was follow the rules -- you know, kill the person next in line till there's nobody left."

"You're not like them."

"You don't know that."

They had reached Dryl, and as always, people were staring at them. Catra glanced aside and ended the conversation with a wave. "Whatever, I have a dinner to attend. See you around."

Adora watched Catra take a sharp turn into the Horde side of Dryl. She watched every flick of the ear, the way Catra's hair bounced as she jogged away, her retreating back, her sharpshooter's slouch.

Regret is for things under your control.

-- If you can live with yourself --

Watching the corner where Catra disappeared, Adora asked: what can you live with, Catra?

Adora's own thoughts crystallized in one direction.

//

//

"I thought that we'd moved on from destroying our only decent indoor training hall..."

Catra could hear the deep sigh from across the room as the last simulation flickered away. Scorpia stood at the doorway. The doors hissed shut as she walked in, walking towards the water dispenser.

"I requested it myself," Catra said. "That should have been pretty obvious."

Scorpia surveyed the damage on the obstacle course. "What did Bright Moon do now?"

"Nothing!" Catra said, as she swung from a bit of rope to meet Scorpia.

"So it's Adora."

Catra groaned as she swung her shoulders, cooling her muscles down. "Can't I just need to train? We're leaving soon, right? Back to a place with some actual challenge in the simulations?" She picked up a plastic bottle and drank. The two of them settled into chairs. On the far side opposite them, a screen flickered to life, mostly just Horde updates they kept on for the low sound, a better companion than the whirr of the ventillation.

"That's not what you want, though."

"I thought you hated the fact that Adora was getting in the way of my running the Horde."

"Adora was never the problem. It was your denial I didn't like and how you dragged us with it. But it looks like your brawl in the streets did wonders."

Now that was a Scorpia-style dig in the ribs. She followed it up with another: "I'm not going through a second tooth-pulling conversation with you, Kitty-Cat."

"Fine!" Catra said, trying to conjure a picture in her head, something she could say. "Fine, it is about Adora, it is about -- well, you probably know we see each other sometimes outside -- it's about Shadow Weaver."

"Adora has probably always known about what you did, at the back of her mind, and she'll probably forgive you--"

"No! It's that... it's that I take after her. And Hordak, and Skeletor, and all the others. Every tactic I used in the war, I learned from them. I can still hear Shadow Weaver when she approves or something or thinks I'm doing something stupid. And Shadow Weaver was... she was always Adora this or Adora that. I don't want to be like that."

Scorpia was quiet for a minute.

"Do you want to possess Adora?"

Catra jumped at the question. "Of course not!"

"But you're scared you might, one day." Scorpia's gaze was as cool as her words burned with the truth. "I've wondered why you have such little faith in yourself when it comes to her, even after she gave up her sword and behaved in the Horde. To anyone else, that would have been enough proof, or at least enough to try to get to know her again or just see her. But of course you're scared."

Angry and ruffled now, Catra said, "It's easy for you to say. You weren't there."

Scorpia's gaze softened. "No, I wasn't. I wonder what it would have been like if we all met when we were younger. But it doesn't change where things are now. We'll be signing that peace treaty and leaving Dryl."

Scorpia let the implications of what she left unsaid sit in the air.

//

//

I mean, does she love you?

Bow should have turned the question around.

Catra would do anything for you.

Alone in her own tent, she glanced up yet again towards her sword leaning on a wall. Eyes back to her own mobile, she reread Catra's answer: sure, see you in an hour.

//

//

Adora caught sight of Catra's shadow just before the cobblestone path out of Dryl turned into dirt. They fell into step, talking about nothing in particular. It struck Adora that, knowing everything they knew and having done everything they did, they could still talk through the gulf of time and a war as though they lived in the Fright Zone. As though everything that had come before them was a dream and only this was reality, ten in the evening and fog in the streets and beyond.

They said nothing important at first: what they had for dinner, waking up in time for signing the peace treaty the next day, complaining about some afternoon wheelbarrow traffic jam. Floating in the air unsaid was: what are we going to do and why aren't we doing anything and we could have talked more these last few weeks, -- at least, that was Adora's thinking.

"Race ya," Catra said, when the dim outline of the boulder appeared in the distance. She sped up the hill, her torchlight bouncing through the black and the fog.

"Hey, no fair!" Adora yelled, "I'm carrying our snacks!" She jogged, halfheartedly, until she made it to the boulder. Catra took her lantern as she climbed up, shaking her head at Adora. "You barely even tried!"

Adora just shrugged as she settled next to Catra, the snacks on her left, their lanterns in between them, then Catra on the far right.

"What'cha got in there?"

Careful not to give away all the snacks in one go, Adora pulled out some Bright Moon confectionary and cakes.

"Remember that night we spent in an abandoned village?" Catra asked. "I had jerky, you stole wine from the dead?"

"Yup."

They talked about the cakes for a while after. Then it got colder and windier, as though the Dryl night was telling Adora to speak her piece.

"We're signing the peace treaty tomorrow. And you'll fly back to the Horde too."

"Yeah."

Adora turned to the left, rummaging past the last set of treats and cakes she'd brought for no other reason than to fill the bag. At the very bottom, a bit of light glinted from the exposed blade of her sword. She brought it out.

"It's yours," Adora said, holding out the sword.

Catra backed away. "Is this a Bright Moon trick?"

Adora scoffed at that. "You know it's not. It'll be a while before anybody realizes that I don't have the sword if I don't tell them. You'll be in the Fright Zone by then."

"And they'll declare the peace treaty null and void."

"Not if I told them I gave it to you to ensure that She-Ra would only appear if both sides cooperated."

"Historically, monarchs do a shit job of handling surprises from their underlings."

"What are they going to do, jail me? You know I have some immunity. And even if they did, it would be a house arrest at the most. It won't be so different from when I was in the Horde."

"So your solution to this is to...sit still in a golden cage." Catra blinked at the sword. Then she looked up. "You don't need to do this. The peace treaty is enough." Catra's ears flickered. "This isn't about the treaty, now is it?"

"I'm giving you extra leverage."

"Like hell you are! Just tell me what's going on."

"It's my guarantee. That I'll never fight you again. I'm no queen, I can't say 'we'll never be at war', but at least I can do this."

"Don't toss the sword and your freedom for some dumb proof I don't need. If you say it," Catra swallowed her next words, unable to speak. But Adora knew what she wanted to say.

If you say it, it's enough for me.

Decision made, Adora stood up. Raising the sword, she transformed into She-Ra, in the quietest wrap of light Catra had ever seen, then lifted the sword and snapped it across her knee. She barely heard a sound, her whole body focused on the searing light that shattered into bits across her thigh. Her eyes glowed as she changed back to herself, and at her feet were the shards of her sword, fizzling out. Adora watched the last bits of magic erupt in tiny sparks and die out. She felt no loss, though she was keenly aware of Catra's panicked face, and the wind, and their voices.

"Are you fucking crazy? They'll do more than jail you for that!"

Adora looked up. For the first time, she felt in control, or rather, that she didn't have to be in control. The knowledge put her at ease. "Like you said a long time ago -- I'm not a Bright Moon citizen. I was born in the Horde. I'm technically still a Horde citizen, and oaths can be broken."

The panic on Catra's face gave way to shock. "Take me home Catra," Adora said. "I love you."

//

//


Story concludes in the next chapter. I put my author's notes for this chapter here in a separate post, given the length of this piece.

Please let me know what you think and leave a comment ;) cheers.

 

Footnotes:

Cam & Squad 14 originally come from ch.3

"I was supposed to save the world... did that include the horde?"

is also a reference to ch 3's brooding Adora

 

Chapter Text

//

//

you should have said something

//

One look from Adora and Bow knew she meant business when she woke him up to silently herd him towards Glimmer's tent. There they woke Glimmer, and after putting the tea on, Adora sat on the opposite side of their low table, facing both Bow and Glimmer. To his left, Glimmer was slowly waking up to the situation, the tension radiating out of Adora.

Adora waited for Glimmer to take a sip of tea before she spoke.

"I met with Catra tonight." She looked up at them both, her eyes asking for something she could not name. "I talk to her sometimes, you both know that. And you both know, I think," she swallowed, "I think you both know how I feel. Not only about Catra. Maybe not even about Catra but about being She-Ra, too. It's been heavy for me," she said, "the war." Her eyes lowered to the woodgrain on the table. "I've had a hard time talking about it, and you've had to tread," Adora gestured, vaguely, with her hands, "carefully around me. I know you talk about me. I know I've barely seen you both since the Horde took me months ago. But tonight I couldn't -- I couldn't sit in my corner anymore. So Catra and I, we talked." Adora's eyes were burning, even as she struggled to find the words to say. "I told her that I loved her. And that I couldn't anymore be She-Ra. Not after so much war and not after Mystacor and not after seeing that we can actually get along! So I decided," a pause, "to stand down. For my own reasons. And the sword -- I've destroyed it." Adora said. She looked up to Glimmer, her eyes both pleading and challenging, but not lost.

For a second, nobody spoke.

They'd talked about this, of course, that Adora must have some feelings for Catra, maybe, after the war, they could figure something out, but this--

I told her that I loved her.

"The sword," Glimmer said, her voice wavering, "You destroyed it?"

Adora nodded.

Bow reached out to Glimmer, but his hand was swatted out of the way. "Adora, don't get me wrong, I know the war has messed you up, we want to help you, but the reason we can have that treaty at all is She-Ra's power as the guarantee, an impartial force," She broke off, abruptly, then glared at Adora, "Did Catra put you up to this-?"

"No. She told me to tell Bright Moon right away."

"So she expects us to be grateful." And now Glimmer sounded like her mother, a monarch.

"Glimmer, this is not a power play."

"How do you know she's not using you?"

Bow (and Glimmer) had suspected for a while now that Adora might confess -- that Adora might even confess at the worst possible time. They'd talked about that possibility. But confessing and what amounted to quitting? Because there was no other way of seeing this. As much as Bow tried to wrap his head around the sudden loss of She-Ra, he couldn't. All he could do was keep himself in the here and now: Glimmer's growing fury, Adora unbent.

"Because I did it for myself! I could spend the rest of my life trying to understand what I want from what I want to do for her, but it's over, the sword is gone. I'm asking for you to understand why."

Before Glimmer could make things worse, Bow asked what he felt: "Aren't you returning with us to Bright Moon?"

Adora looked away. "I don't know." She winced.

"You don't know?" Glimmer's voice was hysterical. "Wow, so you just broke the sword without thinking about everyone else?"

"My decision to break the sword didn't come out of nowhere," Adora said, gritting her teeth.

Bow realized that they should have talked about everything sooner, that they had waited too long for that mythical right time, that there were too many things that were adding up and all converging now.

"Okay!" He said, hands open towards the two of them, "tomorrow, we have to agree to sign the treaty."

Glimmer said nothing.

"Glimmer, Bow. I came to you both because we're friends."

"We are," Bow said, quietly.

Into the sudden quiet, Adora spoke: "I couldn't stop myself, you know? I just... couldn't. I was only going to give Catra the sword, for safekeeping, but... I wanted to destroy it, after all. After all the grief it gave me."

"Why didn't you tell us? Before?"

"It was never the right time," Adora said. "I couldn't really think until Dryl." Another shrug. Adora really could throw everything away, Bow realized. She'd done it once when she joined Bright Moon and left the Horde.

She would have said something more, Bow noted, but kept quiet. Minimizing the damage.

"Promise me you won't do anything hasty?" he said.

"I won't," Adora said.

"Okay. Can I borrow Glimmer for a second? Stay here and make us more tea?" Bow ignored that the teapot was still mostly filled.

Adora nodded. She looked away as Bow pushed Glimmer outside the tent.

//

//

A gust of wind swung through Bow's face as he walked out of the tent. Inside was toasty and closed in; outside, the elements shook some sense into him.

"I can't stop hearing my mom," Glimmer confessed, helplessly, as she collapsed into Bow's arms. "Why now--? We were supposed to help her out of this after! "

There was a long pause as Bow tried to keep his thoughts from tumbling all over. "I know," he said, laying his head on top of hers. Shit, he thought. How was it so easy to wreck things? Was it even fair to lay the wreckage at Adora's feet? Of course not, but the frustration was still there.

"What am I going to tell my mom?"

"Do you have to tell her anything right now?"

Every moment that Glimmer didn't tell her mom must have felt like she was betraying her mother. But at the same time, what good was it going to do?

"No," Glimmer said, eventually asking Bow's question. "No, she doesn't have to hear anything right now. But what am I going to tell her? Mom, Adora's defected? The treaty is tomorrow!"

"Do you think it really matters if the Horde will be our ally? We couldn't have signed that treaty in bad faith, anyway." Though it was one hell of a test of faith Adora was putting them through.

"I know that," Glimmer said, and Bow knew that the tears on the creases of her eyelids were of frustration, not sadness or anger. "I know it, but it's not the same as feeling it."

"Okay," Bow said.

All of the ruckus and noise had alerted the guards at the perimeter fence that surrounded the BFF's tent. "Hey, we're good," Bow said, waving to a soldier. Glimmer continued to bury herself in his chest.

"This treaty is bigger than us," she said through hiccups, "And here I am crying about it. It's the largest peace treaty we have, and all I can think about is us. I couldn't care less if we cancel it or go through with it. I just want to... shout at her. For doing this. Because I can't disappoint my mom."

"Adora has been dealing with this," whatever this was, there were too many items on the list, "on her own since last year. First we lost her to the Horde, then I barely got to talk to her before the mission in Mystacor, then she nearly died and we just shoved that down too because we were thinking about the peace treaty! It's just one thing after another, Glimmer, you know that."

"Why didn't she talk to us? We were talking the whole month Catra was gone!"

She's talking to us now, Bow thought. And before all of this, Bow suspected Adora couldn't speak what she was thinking. It didn't matter how much they talked; it was something locked in.

"Glimmer," he said, "if you need more time, it's not like the Horde can force you to sign the treaty tomorrow..."

"No!" Glimmer had stamped her foot, pushing away from him. Sparks of uncontrolled magic erupted, but they were harmless. "It has to be done, everyone from different kingdoms has already shown up. Etheria is watching us, even if Adora couldn't care less about it."

"Okay, that's enough about Adora's carelessness," Bow said. "You know that's not true. She just came up to the Horde Queen and confessed. While trying to keep it a secret from us. That's not easy. I've never seen her this extreme."

Or they might have seen warning signs of it if they had paid more attention to her and less to the true and permanent end of the war. But there was no room for regrets. Glimmer's tears had stopped; Bow took it as a sign.

"Let's go back inside and figure this out."

//

//

It was about two in the morning when Adora called Catra, who was midway through a mug of hot ginger brew, sitting in the dining hall across Scorpia and Entrapta.

"Hi."

"Hey Adora," Catra replied.

Adora's voice warbled slightly over the line. "Status update: the treaty will be signed tomorrow. Transmissions are still set to broadcast to every kingdom. Bright Moon won't bring up the sword. Glimmer promised."

It was all business.

"Okay." Catra swallowed what she wanted to ask: are you okay? What happened? I'm sorry -- all caught somewhere in her throat. Looking up, Scorpia and Entrapta were watching her, having been interrupted mid-conversation about all the wrong things that could happen tomorrow.

On the line: "You sound tired," Adora said. "I didn't mean to worry you." She sounded, despite the exhaustion, that she was trying something out with Catra, that she understood that she could say that now.

"You didn't," Catra lied. The softness in Adora's voice made her hold the mobile tighter. "I don't know what you said to them, but," she stumbled a bit, "thanks."

"I think," Adora's voice wobbled in its lightness, "I think Glimmer's pretty mad at me."

"We put her loyalty to her people and her mother on the line."

When Adora said nothing Catra cursed her stupid mouth. Hastily she said, "It was my idea to tell them--"

"Telling them was still the right thing to do."

"Okay." Casting around for something safe to say, Catra could only add, "You should get some sleep. You can stay here if you want."

Wait, what? No, no, no. That would add to the tension, you idiot, you know that.

A long pause on the line, and Catra jumped in to fill the quiet. "No, that was stupid. I know you have to stay there."

"I'll see you though, in the morning."

"Better if you don't. Just stay in the Bright Moon camp. We don't want any early-morning collusion theories."

"Roger," Adora said. They signed off with a good night. The two words lay heavy on Catra's tongue, even when she said it, as though there was a chain, weighing the words down. It felt like collusion, and yet it was Adora.

They were a few kilometers away from each other, less than a day from seeing each other, and yet a pit had formed underneath Catra, swallowing her: the uncertainty that Adora would take back what she said now that they were apart, was a yawning circle eating her up.

Entrapta's voice brought her back to reality. "Is everything normal?"

Catra nodded. With effort, she brought her chin up to face both her lieutenants. "Looks like Adora smoothed her friends out."

"You never did tell me how the confession went," Scorpia said, switching the conversation.

No, Catra realized, she hadn't. She'd gone straight into the treaty's going to get cancelled mode without much context, Scorpia and Entrapta having to glean it from questions themselves.

"She said she loved me," Catra said, looking up at the ceiling and shrugging before she could stop herself.

"And you don't believe her?" Scorpia's voice was up, incredulous.

When Catra didn't reply right away -- couldn't reply right away -- Scorpia changed the question. "What did you tell her?"

"I thought about the treaty. I told her that we had to have an emergency meeting immediately. Then I realized Bright Moon would need some privacy. So I told her to talk to her friends."

"That's a joke, right?"

(In between them, Entrapta was taking notes.)

"You think i'm joking? I thought about the Horde! Bright Moon could say that we've compromised their She-Ra and panic with the loss of their shield. That's what Angella would think."

"So, no acknowledgement at all of what she said to you."

"Of course I did," Catra said angrily. "I told her how I felt."

"So you told her..."

Catra's lips flatlined as her face closed off. "Scorpia, not tonight," she said. "Not now. Please."

It was hit-or-miss for a split second, but Scorpia shrugged. "Okay. Yeah, it's been a long day. I guess we should go try to sleep. I'm going to close the dining hall, yeah? Good night, you two."

//

//

In the dark of the Commander's room, Catra replayed that night over and over.

This is how it had gone down: Catra found herself on her feet facing Adora, now surrounded by shards and a broken hilt. Adora had said, "take me home." Catra's breath had gone shallow watching the light engulf her and die out, her hair no longer buoyed as the magic died out. It was just the two of them, and Adora was close, only a few steps away, hers to hold if she reached out --

And then she'd remembered how they got this far to begin with, and stopped herself. Looking at the shards again, she wanted to get down on her knees and scoop them up, give herself something to do, anything to stop the feelings in her chest. Standing up to look at Adora but not to answer her how they both wanted was wrecking her.

She had said, to Adora's face: "You already know what I feel for you."

Which was also her way of saying this is as far as I can go right now.

She had said, "I have to think about everyone else."

She did not say, "I'll take you home," because somewhere in her head she knew that between today and tomorrow lay the vague possibility that she could not guarantee that, or that Adora could not ask for it again.

And Adora had said, "I know." The excitement of breaking the sword had left her. Even if Catra wanted to hug her, wanted to tell her that what she had done was right, Catra kept her distance. If she had gone any further, any closer, she would have damned the treaty and taken Adora back to the Fright Zone that instant, would have sent a transmission telling the Princess Alliance to go to hell.

How was she supposed to say any of that to Scorpia?

And as for Scorpia's and you don't believe her?

How was Catra supposed to answer that? That it wasn't that she doubted Adora. That it was always down to all the things they'd done to each other, the scars on Adora's back that Catra knew must still be there, the many tiny cuts and the larger unhealed wounds they'd left, and the unworthiness, always the unworthiness, the ridiculousness of it all, and how if she let herself believe she'd be hurt and she'd deserve it, all at once. She had to believe and disbelieve at the same time, while the rest of the world knocked outside their door demanding a front-row seat to their life, Scorpia included despite her best intentions, because Adora and Catra belonged first to Bright Moon and the Horde, and Catra had made a promise. Whatever joy, whatever feeling she wanted to feel, the longing in her to be seen that way by Adora, was battling against a history of hurts, and only by dealing with the problem in front them, that damned treaty, could Catra leave Adora without crossing boundaries, even with the implicit permission that she could -- she could touch, maybe more. The thought of it made her shiver, and the shivering made her want palpable to her, and the reality of it terrified her, all at the same time. Did Scorpia want her inutile for tomorrow's signing?

I believe Adora. That's the problem, isn't it?

//

//

the outside world

//

A few hours before the treaty was set to sign, while Entrapta's teams set up Dryl's town square with Horde power for the transmission, Catra's mobile rang.

It was the Bright Moon heir. "This is Horde High Command."

"Catra," Glimmer said, "about the treaty--" and here, Catra's hand grew clammy and cold, "-- Bright Moon has a suggestion."

"I'm all ears."

"I suggest the Horde and Bright Moon commanders stay for a few more weeks," Glimmer said. "We have some unresolved points to go over."

"But the treaty will be signed," Catra pressed.

"Yes. We're on. Nothing changes on paper. I promised Adora," Glimmer said.

That's a hell of a lot of goodwill.

"How will you handle the announcement that you won't be returning to Bright Moon?" After all, it had been months since Angella had seen her child.

"I'll take care of my mother. But as for the Horde..."

"That's easy. They run on my schedule."

"Okay. We're good."

The line went dead. Running out of fucks to give, Catra simply nodded to herself.

//

//

The treaty signing itself was on a stage constructed a few days before in the middle of Dryl's town square. Surrounding the stage were tables for each Alliance delegation. Most of the Allliance were content to send diplomats and leave the symbolism to Glimmer, save Princess Frosta who had met with Catra to thank her for Mystacor. Scanning the early birds for a sign of the princess, Catra nodded towards the few she'd met, until finally catching the Princess's eye and giving a tiny nod. The tables were about half full, and the rest of Dryl was free to set up their own crates or watch from whatever hut or building afforded a view. The seat next to her was empty, but Scorpia was out and about greeting people and introducing herself; Scorpia'd take her place next to Catra once Glimmer arrived. As for Entrapta, she was seated on the tech table across the stage, setting up a mix of Horde cameras and Bright Moon magic mirrors, which would capture the video and play it to every kingdom in the Alliance.

A hush fell upon the crowd when Bright Moon arrived. Glimmer had gone full princess with her hair swept back, dressed in the Bright Moon mantle of deep purple and all its attendant regalia. Catra was simply wearing the same thing she wore day in and out (plus the cape, her only formal wear.) Glimmer carried the treaty, in parchment, unrolled it, and left it on the table. Game time, Catra thought to herself, lounging on her chair on the Horde side of the stage. Having been cued by Entrapta, she addressed the crowd with a bow, the signal to start the proclamation. Catra sat, cross legged, cobbling together something to say to the crowd based on what Glimmer was saying. In the end, when Glimmer gave Catra the floor, Catra went to the front, ignoring everyone else, looking only at Entrapta, and said: "Let's just sign the damn thing." She stepped back to make it clear she was done talking.

For a split second there was silence, then the Horde whooped and cheered. It lasted only a few seconds, then Catra raised a hand to end the noise.

Back at the table, Glimmer held the pen out.

//

//

Despite arguing that she should be there, both Adora and Bow were kicked out of Glimmer's tent as she made the transmission to her mother's private channel on Bright Moon, just before the evening revelry. Bow and Adora walked the streets -- already empty as everyone in town joined the evening dinner -- among the last to appear for their own celebration.

"I don't want her to have to lie for me," Adora said helplessly.

Bow shook his head. "Diplomacy is hard, doubly so when it's your mom. Let Glimmer handle it. But Adora -- Queen Angella must never hear the whole truth about the sword."

And Glimmer knew that in a way Adora had been slow to fully understand. It was a careless, brute-force gesture she'd done. As Catra had said: we put her loyalty to her people and her mother on the line.

The post-treaty-signing dinner was turning out to be a morose one, and they had just arrived at the entrance. It was something Adora had worked towards for years, and yet it was as though someone had pulled the rug from under her.

The evening celebrations were relatively sedate compared to those in Salineas and Plumeria -- the most exciting thing for both Bright Moon and Horde citizens was the food brought in by the other kingdoms. Folk from the other kingdoms, on the other hand, were curious about the architecture and economy of a three-way town

"Adora," Bow said, keenly aware of the eyes on them, "we gotta shmooze. You up for it?"

Shmoozing was something Adora had never gotten used to, but she put on a practiced smile. This was just as important as fighting, if not more so. "Yeah, I'm ready. Let's do this."

Bow led the way. Despite herself, Adora wondered where's Catra? and wondered if she'd bump into her as they made the rounds. The next two hours were spent trying not to say the wrong thing and eating samplers. By the time they were finally free to choose food from the buffet table, they simply looked at each other and silently agreed they were full. They arrived at the Bright Moon table (empty in spots as other nobles jumped tables) with a pitcher of water and nothing else.

"We don't have to talk about anything tonight," Bow said.

Despite that, Adora had to ask: "How are you not angry at me?" It was something she could not simply drop, Glimmer's whiplash into tired resignation and the extra burden of figuring things out for Bright Moon.

"How are you not angry at us? For losing you to the Horde? For all the times you fought for us? For pushing through with a treaty instead of waiting until you were absolutely okay? I'm tired, but I'm not mad. I couldn't even ask you how you felt or how Catra took your confession, when those should have been the important things. The war's totally wrecked what we should care about." After a pause, he tacked on: "Wow, I want a cake now. Can I get you some?"

"Yeah. Thanks Bow."

//

//

Adora barely remembered the night, having spent it trying to keep her head above polite-society water. The only other thing she remembered was this:

Before Mystacor, Glimmer spent all those months beating herself up over losing you. Before last night, I think she had a hard time talking to you because you were so different. We tried, but there was definitely a wall, wasn't there? And she was scared that maybe you were mad at us. She let you steer most of the conversations we had while Catra was away. We should have told Bright Moon to leave us alone for a month instead of letting the Alliance steer us towards a treaty so quick.

Said in the lull between table-wide conversations, Adora almost didn't hear him. But she did, and his words reverberated in her head.

//

//

call me (i)

//

A lone message pinged its arrival on her phone: You looked tired at the dinner. Call you tomorrow?

Her reply: Please. Yes. After lunch, I'll be in my tent. She left a time, not trusting herself to get up in the morning after the long night.

Catra called on schedule the next morning. Adora had had her bowl of rice porridge in her tent, had her morning run around the perimeter; she made herself as well as she could.

On the other end of the line Catra sounded as though she hadn't spent the night as tiresomely. "So that treaty-signing was actually not as bad as I thought it would be."

"Yeah."

"Tell your friends I'm... glad? I mean, I'll say it myself when I see them, then probably choke on my words, but, y'know, it might give them a heart attack if you don't prep them in advance."

"I will."

"Are you okay?"

Adora hesitated at first, wondering if Catra would understand. "Sometimes it gets overwhelming." There, she admitted it despite the run and all the other things she'd tried that morning. On the other end of the line, Adora could hear Catra's even breathing. "I used to never feel that way about anything. I used to think I was steady. Overwhelming is like, a catchall term, isn't it? People nod and give me space when I use it."

"If you don't want to return to the Horde--"

"No! That's the one thing I'm sure of."

"We never did get to talk about how your friends took it."

"Honestly? They're not as mad as they have the right to be."

"'The right to be' is subjective."

Adora smiled into the phone. "Thank you."

She returned the question. It was only polite. "What did Scorpia and Entrapta say?"

"Entrapta was quiet about it -- well, she kinda knew, she usually knows. Scorpia was all, ooooh, tell me all the details! Crazy woman."

"Well, at least one person won't hate me in the Horde."

"I don't think they'll hate you for long if you're staying permanently," Catra said. "Important thing is you work. We'll give you something to do. Can't make you force captain though, that'd be favoritism. Could make you an entirely new position though."

"I could be your personal bodyguard," Adora said. "Noticed you haven't got one of those."

For a second, nothing came through on the other side. Panicking, Adora said, "That was just a joke."

"You could ask for more, princess," Catra said, barely audible. She didn't say what, but Adora knew.

"I know," Adora said quietly. "Let's take it a day at a time?"

"Yeah."

For some reason Adora felt it was safe enough to say "Miss you."

She could tell Catra had nodded into the phone. "Catra," Adora said. "Can I see you later?"

There was a push-and-pull now, between the two of them; sometimes there was an urge to retreat and an urge to move forward. They had yet to find their rhythm.

"Can you wait a little longer?" Catra asked. "Just... Let's meet with Bright Moon formally first to talk about the sword."

"Okay. Hey, I get it," Adora said. "We have time. Or we'll make it."

A fragile "thanks," from Catra ended the call.

Overwhelming, Adora had said. Just as overwhelming were the advances and retreats, the tiny pokes and prods they were making towards each other's feelings. Catra could be confident in one moment and cautious, almost timid the next; Adora had to be careful, had to read the signals. It was all new territory, but familiar at the same time, growing up and learning when to look for Catra and when to let her be alone, when to joke and when to leave a sensitive spot alone. It was Catra, after all. They'd spent years mapping each other's moods, camping in the moments they had to themselves, hiking through different periods in each other's lives. They would find each other.

Adora told herself to wait.

//

//

In the end, despite announcements of the Princess's triumphant return to Bright Moon, plans were simply dropped with only a memo circulating that post-treaty work had taken longer than expected in Dryl. It was Glimmer who brought up the need for a joint meeting between the two kingdoms as soon as possible: two days later, they were all seated in Dryl's High Command.

"I called this meeting to discuss the sword," Glimmer said. Scorpia nodded. Entrapta, next to her, was inspecting the shards and hilt of the broken blade. "My mother would never accept Adora defecting to the Horde -- not without asking her to be returned to Bright Moon for treason. I'm setting aside my position as princess for this meeting; let's focus on getting Adora out of the Princess Alliance with the least amount of suspicion."

"Technically," Entrapta said, "Adora is a princess. We always bring this up when we interpret Etherian law."

"Technically," Glimmer said, "she did swear to Bright Moon. And before you say that no princess may be under another sovereign, there have been precedents. And Adora swore freely to my mother and that promise has been broken in the worst way. Water under the bridge," she said sternly to Adora. "If you had shattered the sword in front of her in Bright Moon and said there was no need for you, my mother might have been less concerned about your being compromised. It's not like she wanted to use you as a weapon forever."

"A public spectacle," Scorpia said. "That's actually a good idea. It gives the illusion of transparency. We still wouldn't do it in front of Queen Angella of course. But if Adora had a second transmission set up, to intentionally break the sword as an act to end the war, no mention of moving to the Horde..."

"I can temporarily weld the sword back," Entrapta piped up. "Or if I can't, we'll make a fake sword, glowing lights and all."

Catra spoke up. "Wouldn't Queen Angella know that Adora, by herself, couldn't possibly break the sword?"

"Filter, maybe," Entrapta muttered to herself. "Or a costume of some sort."

"No filter is going to change my height or build," Adora muttered.

Glimmer groaned. She may not have known every term Entrapta tossed out, but she got the gist of it. "Adora should break it, with no magic or tech alterations to the transmission. She'll break it as herself. As for my mother or any magically-inclined royalty detecting something wrong, they'll have to call my bluff in public. Which they'll never do. The important thing is that we don't make it too elaborate a lie. And besides, for all we know, the sword can be broken -- it's been corrupted before."

Entrapta nodded. "Good point."

Glimmer continued. "The angle works. But since Adora isn't personally laying the broken sword on the feet of my mother before she retires, then Bright Moon must have the sword's pieces. That'd be the most convincing part of this -- that Adora would give the sword to me. If my mother points out that Adora's lying, she'd have to admit that her own child lied to her along with Adora and with the sword as proof."

"The Horde claims no stake to the sword at all." Catra said, a finger on her chin, elbow resting on the armchair, legs crossed. "We'll keep our nose out of this."

"Of course Queen Angella can have the sword," Adora added. Looking up, she asked Glimmer, "What are you telling your mother?"

"I obviously won't be telling her the truth." Adora's heart sank for Glimmer. "Maybe one day, when she's a little more secure in the peace. Who knows? But we're doing this, and we have to sell it lock, stock and barrel."

//

//

The operation was set for a week after the meeting, to give Entrapta and Catra some time to figure out the details. In that time, Adora and Glimmer and Bow took time off from the work of being advisors and royalty. They spent the mornings trekking around Dryl, a luxury Glimmer hadn't had since she'd woken up healed from Mystacor.

Today it was only her and Glimmer.

"So you've just been in the tent this whole time here in Dryl?"

"I do tour guide work too," Glimmer said wryly. "For the Bright Moon side anyway. I think I've met more Force Captains than you have. I know the Horde side pretty well too. But I can't just disappear to walk around the whole kingdom."

The problem with talking to Glimmer was that it was easy to talk about everything except what they wanted to talk about. She had picked up the royal art of spending hours at a table saying nothing of importance sometime during the war; the tantrums were reserved for her mother.

"Do you remember when I first woke up in Dryl and Catra was still asleep?"

"Yeah," she said.

Adora hesitated. If neither of us open up nothing will happen. "Do you remember me talking about the Horde?"

Glimmer gave her a sideways glance.

"I kinda feel like," Adora hopped over a stone in the path, "I feel like I was telling you what I wanted to tell myself. That the whole time, I wasn't thinking about Catra." Glimmer was nodding along. "I guess I was lying to myself."

Glimmer laughed. "I'm sorry," she said. "It's just, that's years of war and one near-death suicide mission and you somehow didn't wake up confessing to her."

Adora blushed. "I'm not good at this."

Glimmer waved her off with a shower of sparkles. "It's fine. In hindsight we should have known. Besides if someone should be apologizing it's me, right? And I am sorry."

"It was justified," Adora said. "No, I mean it!" she said in reply to Glimmer's expression. "Catra said I forced you to choose... And I'm grateful."

They made it to the stream that had been dug to supply the town's water needs. Large rocks lined the stream; stray squirrels scurried away from them. "Bright Moon hasn't been the same without you."

Adora looked away. "I thought about the past recently," she said. "Before the war kept me away from Bright Moon for months. When we were, ah--"

"Friends with kissing benefits?" Glimmer was teasing her, but also going easy; there was more done than just kissing. "Please don't tell me you're feeling weird about it."

Adora blushed. "No, no. I mean, I just realized I actually... missed it? But not because," she broke off again.

"Not because of me," Glimmer said. "Adora, relax. You are going to turn into a tomato and then Catra will be angry with me."

That made Adora even redder. "I better not mention her name around you in public or everyone will get it." There was a thoughtful pause as she lay down her cape for them to sit by the rocks. "Bow will kill me for asking this without him, but how'd she take it?"

Adora flopped onto the grass, arms spread out. "She didn't look happy. I thought at first I'd made a terrible mistake."

"You called her bluff, in a way. She had to own up to it." Glimmer snorted. "You just said you weren't good at this, but I'm kinda worried Catra's worse. The two of you had that street fight over --" Adora and Glimmer never talked about it. By the time Catra returned to Dryl after her mysterious disappearance the diplomacy had taken over.

"Over Shadow Weaver," Adora supplied.

"Over your past?"

Adora nodded.

"Did Catra at least try to reply to your confession? Or did she just short circuit and run for her friends?"

"She said that I already know what she feels for me."

"That's more of a yes than a no and a cry for help because she has no idea what she's doing. I mean, you were in the Horde for half a year and she somehow managed to keep her distance from you. Catra's worse alright."

"It wasn't like we had scrolls to learn from. Or friends or family."

Glimmer held out a hand mirror. "You'll need Entrapta to open a line to us," she said. "But I think the Horde will allow it. She said something about frequencies and magic and I don't understand it, but it's my private line. Mother gave it to me when I first left for Mystacor. We're not as well-equipped as the Horde; each kingdom has only three pairs of this, usually reserved for the royal family."

The mirror thrummed with energy, the kind of magic Adora no longer had. "Thank you," Adora said, shoving it into her jacket's inner pocket.

"It's early for me to say I'll miss you, but I will."

"I'm sorry," Adora said.

"You shouldn't feel sorry for getting what you want. The rest of us will be fine."

// 

//

call me (ii)

//

Another call, this time the night before Operation Smoke and Mirrors, as Entrapta called it:

"I'll do a good job tomorrow," Adora said. "Any less would be unfair to Glimmer and Bow, after everything they've done. I just... feel so far away from everything that's happening, too."

"Tell me about it. The treaty was supposed to be this big deal and everyone's so excited about meeting the other kingdoms and it would break Scorpia's heart if I wasn't interested." There was a pause, and Adora knew Catra was trying not to be ungrateful. "Anyway how are you and Glimmer?"

"We're talking better, I think. It's going to take a while before things get better, but we should have taken more time off I think. We just went straight into oh, we're now that the Horde has proven itself, let's do the treaty!"

"Adora," Catra said. "Wouldn't you still want to visit them? Assuming that Angella goes with the lie -- not that Glimmer will give her any options -- we could find a way."

"Like what, appoint me as diplomat to Bright Moon?"

"Yeah." Catra said. "And you can always return to Dryl, if the Fright Zone doesn't work out."

"You need to stop assuming the worst."

When Catra didn't say anything over the phone, Adora added, "What if I spend the rest of my life proving it to you?"

A snort came through the line. "Sounds tiring."

"It's worth it."

"How do you know that? I'm not the same person you grew up with."

Adora shrugged, even if Catra couldn't see her lying down in bed, eyes closed to hear Catra better. "I've seen you in the ways that count."

Another snort. "What is it now," Adora grumbled. "I'm running out of nice things to say."

"Crazy thought, that's all."

"Shoot."

"What would Shadow Weaver say?"

Adora could have said, who cares? Or she's dead. Or she'd hate it.

"Shadow Weaver was a hateful woman," she said. Maybe that still wasn't the right thing to say. I wish it didn't matter what she thought. "She was mean to us."

"She was."

"You run the Horde now," Adora said.

"Yup."

"Get to make grand speeches and great pep talks."

"Super, did you hear my awesome speech at the treaty signing? They'll quote me forever."

Adora chuckled. "Yeah, yeah."

//

//

their days off

//

Once again, Adora snapped the sword against her knee. This time she was only herself, and the feeling was one of emptiness. She gave her reasons facing a camera: the end of the war, her own wish to retire in peace, the fact that her time as She-Ra was over, and wished everyone hope and happiness and a few other synonyms she'd learned from listening to pep talks. Then the video ended and the lights shining on her face were turned off. She would have stumbled off the stage were it not for Glimmer's timely teleport to catch her; they spent the rest of the day quietly recovering outside of Dryl, where no transmissions or magic could reach. The most Adora did was lie down on the grass and occasionally dip her hand into a basket full of canapes.

The talking came and went. They understood that today would be their last day; when Glimmer and Bow left it would be as princess and advisor, a procession, with lots of ritual and turnover to Alliance factions remaining in Dryl for civil development. That afternoon was all they had and they spent it quietly.

"I was kinda imagining that we'd go have a huge feast at Plumeria or something after the war was all over," Bow muttered. "Or go to Salineas and eat everything at the docks."

"Could still happen," Glimmer said.

"It could," Adora agreed.

"I'll make you a bet," Glimmer said to Bow, who rolled his eyes. Turning to Adora, Glimmer explained, "he's sick of the Horde soldiers always taking bets on the smallest things. They've got a gambling problem. Anyway the bet is, Catra'll be there when we go celebrate in Plumeria. I'll wager a ducat."

"That's hardly a fair bet," Bow deadpanned.

"Catra'll be there and it'll happen within the year. That's fair."

"How about six months," Bow said, "And I'll think about it." Glimmer tossed Adora a knowing look that said he'll say yes.

The wager sounded like a promise, the best kind of good bye.

//

//

//

It was about two days after Adora's pronouncement before she finally met with Catra, alone at night. Catra found another boulder to clamber up; Adora suspected meeting at their original boulder was too much for her.

They had been bombarded with questions and communications by messengers; humans, pidgeons, and others. There were invites to join several kingdoms addressed to Adora specifically. There were concerns of aggression from remaining ex-Horde factions. There were angry letters decrying her abandonment of her post.

"Burn that shit," was Catra's helpful advice upon hearing the news.

"Glimmer instructed me not to," Adora said.

"They're inconsequential," Catra said. "They're just taking their feelings out on you. Let them croak, most of it will fizzle out over time. Hey, I got a couple of assassination attempts, but not as many as I expected."

"Guess you weren't as important as you thought you were."

"Har, har."

"So... what's the plan now?"

"Whatever you want."

"You know what I mean! When do we leave for the Fright Zone, Your Darkness Lord of the Horde?"

"Catra shrugged. "How much time will you need to say goodbye?"

Adora's lips flattened. "We agreed that Glimmer has to leave tomorrow, because her mother will need some reassurance. And the broken sword."

"So what are you doing here if you need to spend time with them?"

"We already said our goodbyes," Adora said. "Our private goodbyes. Real ones. The rest is just for show."

"Mmm," Catra said, a noise of assent.

"I haven't seen you either." And, because she hadn't seen Catra and they were building up to their old mannerisms, she smushed her head on Catra's neck. When Catra didn't resist, Adora let her cheek rest on Catra's shoulder. Bow and Glimmer had to go, by her own doing, but it still hurt, and Catra was there. "You have to admit, it's much better than beating the shit out of each other."

"I'd say beating the shit out of you is a very close second."

The second wave of sadness that washed over Adora caught her unawares. She didn't want to dampen the lightness but she said it anyway: "I'd really rather not. I'm sick of fighting."

She felt Catra's gulp more than she heard it. Catra said, "Yeah okay," in that same somber voice that Adora'd used.

//

//

//

Apart from the bet, Glimmer said one other thing in the afternoon post-sword destruction:

There were plenty of things to hate about the war, but the worst was that my mother kept sending you out and refusing to let me fight with you, right when you needed me. And by the time I realized I should have been using my position to send you to less hostile missions, the war had already reached its end. I never learned how to play the game, whether I was at home or at the battlefield. I've been going along with everything else. Let me do this for you, adora. You saved Bright Moon and the Alliance, too. Don't minimize what you've done for us.

There will always be a place for you in Bright Moon if you want to come back. I'll make sure of it.

//

//

//

The bulk of Bright Moon's faction left the next day on schedule. None of the trumpet-blasting even registered in Adora's mind as she blanked out the rest of the farewell ceremony. Their real goodbyes had been said in the quiet of the afternoon Glimmer had given Adora the mirror. The sword was in Glimmer's possession; it had its own cushion, even. It had lost all its meaning to Adora. They were taking the carriage, and it was a long procession of carts and people that went on for an hour before they disappeared into the horizon, filled with trees.

In two days, Adora and Catra would leave as well.

//

//

//

The air around them smelled of grass and oil. Goodbye Dryl, Adora thought, looking back through the fences. It was the middle of the evening; unlike Glimmer's return to Bright Moon as a princess who'd survived capture and led the Alliance into a treaty that ended a war, Adora was going quietly into the night.

"You sure you don't want us to ride gloriously into the Fright Zone?"

A look from Adora told him it was no time for games.

"Fine!" the horse huffed, conceding.

"Thanks, Swift Wind."

"We goin' to the Fright Zone or what?"

Adora swallowed. This was really it. Ahead of her, Catra's half-cape billowed in the wind. Already she'd taken the first step up.

"Let's go home."

 


 

AN:

AKWNR concludes next week. Like I swear and shit. I'm still in editing mode for it.

Hats off to you if you understood what Catra was trying to say when she said you can ask for more, princess. (Despite, y’know, repeatedly saying that the Horde is not a monarchy.)

Chapter Text

//

//

and they were roommates

//

"I haven't figured out what we're saying to the rest of the Horde," Catra muttered as she flew them to the Fright Zone. Adora, at the back, was listening keenly to this meeting of the Horde political machinery.

"Just follow the teleprompter," Scorpia said.

"You set something up?"

Scorpia rolled her eyes -- duh, of course I did -- a very Catra expression on Scorpia's sweet face, which got Scorpia a playful punch to the arm from the pilot's seat. "After your last great speech, I thought you'd need it."

Even though Adora'd watched Catra socialize, the quiet moments between her closer friends always took Adora by surprise. She knew that this was the real Catra, capable of joking without punching down, still herself without the thoughtless edge. But Catra learned to be herself without Adora, and the feeling was bitter and sweet.

"By the way," Catra said, looking towards the back, "You can either come down with us, they're setting up a stage and everything in the square in front of HQ, or wait it out at the hangar."

From the very back: "I want drama! I want a show! I am dying!"

It was Swift Wind. He flopped on his back to emphasize.

Now it was Catra's turn to roll her eyes. "Fine! You'll walk with us," Catra said. "But we won't be announcing your presence."

"Why not? We're heroes! We saved Mystacor too!"

"Because," Catra said, "You are not on the agenda."

//

//

Hours later, they helped Swift Wind settle into a large "barn" at the top of the hangar, windows all around him, though he complained about everything from the red sky to the lack of grass. ("You said you wanted to stay with me." / "I had no idea it was this bad! You live like this?" All in front of Scorpia. He was left to fend for himself.)

Away from the hangar now, Adora and Scorpia walked briskly as the night was deepening. "We gave you back your Ward room. But you don't have to use it." Scorpia couldn't help herself and winked. "Here's your ward room card and" -- she drew out the n for a few seconds, building up tension for her captive audience --"here's the keycard to Catra's floor, and if you lose the keycard, just stick your palm in any HQ elevator and it'll take you to Catra's, anyway."

It seemed a terrible and extraneous security measure to leave Catra's floor access on a keycard, but Scorpia was amused at herself and Adora didn't want to break the mood.

"Also, we figured we'd move all your things to Catra's floor."

Adora's reflexes put her on the defensive. She stopped herself from saying, "we haven't done anything," or the more accurate "I don't even know what we are or what she wants." It felt like giving too much away, when Catra wanted some space to figure themselves out. She just said, "Okay." Scorpia looked like she was doing Adora the hugest favor in the world, so she added, "Thanks."

On the way up the elevator, Adora came to the conclusion that Scorpia was right. Where else would she want to be? If they'd put her in the Ward room she would have probably tripped every alarm to get to Catra's, with the way she was. Yeah, the smug grin on Scorpia's face was deserved.

The elevator dinged and the doors pulled apart to reveal everything Adora owned, fit into three bags, resting against the wall. A wide corridor stretched to the left and right. Catra came into view as she stepped out; her room was at the end of the corridor to the left. Adora could tell by the malevolent red light that glowed from the top. (Another security issue, but she forgot about it later). Catra watched the bags as though they'd pounce. In the dim light, her eyes shone.

"I can stay in my room."

"No, it's fine. Is that horse of yours still sore you both didn't get an honorable mention?"

"Aw, ignore Swift Wind. I think it's great that we're not a secret, at least to the Horde."

Catra shrugged. "If we kept you under house arrest in HQ forever you'd leave in a week. Nobody in the Horde communicates to the rest of Etheria. But we're not sure what you are , now. Except that you walked in with me and watched from the front row."

Adora laughed. "I guess I'm a spoil of war."

A younger Catra would have rolled her eyes or cracked a joke along with Adora. But Catra was looking at her with such an intensity that Adora's heart pounded as she met her eyes. Catra's tail swished and swirled in agitation.

Adora realized the joke was too soon. "Catra, that's not what I meant -- I want to stay, really."

"Yeah. Just get your stuff in. Don't worry, the door's got your bio-signature as well."

Catra's room was red and black. No surprises there. Even the glowing stripe running through the walls about four feet off the floor was red; the light from the fixtures above was yellow. The only blue light came from the screen embedded on the lower left side of the room, glowing a few feet away from the foot of a large bed with side tables in the upper-left corner. Adora could see Catra hauling the whole bed to the side, rather than keeping it at the center of the room; she'd always preferred corners. Below the screen was a table long enough to fit three chairs but only had one. In the opposite corner of the bed, closets lined the right side of the room. Next to the closets was the bathroom door. Spare by Etherian standards but to the Horde, Catra's free reign of the space was luxury.

Catra took off her mask and hung it on a peg on the wall. "The closets are empty, you can put your stuff there. And there's a hanger for your jacket." She went inside the bathroom to wash, the sound so domestic it made Adora's heart race. It was kind of like being back at Bright Moon, except she was alone in a room with Catra. Not even when they were children had they had this level of privacy, and not in a room cooled to a pleasant sleeping temperature; the HVAC was either too hot or cold in the barracks.

Adora hadn't moved an inch from facing the closet door when the faucet squeaked off. Catra's mass of hair was wet at the tips from washing her face; she'd changed into loose pants and a shirt. She raised an eyebrow at Adora hastily stuffing her bags into the closet and shrugged. "Bathroom's all yours."

Inside Catra's bathroom were two sets of face towels, two sets of bath towels, a shower, a sink and mirror, and more closets. Adora had half a mind to ask Catra whose idea this was. The other half didn't want to find out. In the end, she washed up and brushed her teeth and resolved not to ask Catra questions.

//

//

Back in Catra's room the lights were off save the Horde aesthetic led stripe. Catra was already in bed, the screen no longer a glowing waterfall of figures and stats. Despite having shared a bed with Catra for years, Adora hesitated. If she went any nearer Catra would surely feel her body vibrating with too many feelings to name.

"Are you planning to sleep on the floor?" Catra muttered, her back to Adora.

"N-no."

"Then come to bed, dammit. I'm not gonna bite. But... I'm all over the place these days."

"Nightmares? I have them too. It might be you on the floor."

"S'fine. Won't be the first time."

Adora padded to bed. Catra was sleeping next to her this time, albeit hidden by her back and hair. Adora breathed in and the smell of Catra reminded her of so many things in their childhood: the old curiosity she had of Catra's ears, Catra learning how her claws worked, Adora and Catra's comparison of fur versus skin -- poking each other, mostly, and grabbing at fur and hair.

Whatever exploring they did of each other now, it wouldn't be anything like when they were children.

"Good night, Catra," she breathed. If she could but reach out to Catra --

From beyond the mass of hair and blankets: "Sleep well."

Catra was less than a foot away from her. Adora's own tiredness, suddenly rearing its head as she lay in bed, wrestled with her pounding heart. In the end, Adora turned to the other side. They both needed to go at this slowly.

The darkness lulled her to sleep. 

//

//

drive or be driven

//

While there was no official announcement that "by the way, we kept the Traitor/Ward/ex-She-Ra", Catra left a note in the morning that Adora had free rein to go anywhere and do anything she liked. "Just make yourself useful," the note said. Her mobile now had a map of High Command.

Adora went exploring.

Command HQ was not a building easily accessible to just anyone. The lower levels were open to all, but the higher levels were for logisticians (Scorpia's people), scientists (Entrapta's people, when they weren't in various other labs), and the staff of various force captains. It must have been in the middle of a renovation: the elevator skipped numbers because floors had been ripped up to create larger, more cavernous two-story-tall floors. The vast bureaucracy of the Horde lay visible to anyone taking the "new" elevator, now with glass. As with the rest of the Horde, everyone's work was simply stacked on tables and shelves, while the higher-ranked officers had their own rooms on the far corner of the bullpen. One of those rooms was overflowing with scrolls and parchment and feathers. With nothing better to do, Adora went in.

Inside Kyle was laboriously cross checking everyone's insignia, banner, office, kingdom, title, name, lineage, and so on as he verified correspondence from the outside world.

"What the-?!" he muttered when Adora came in picking feathers off her jacket.

"I hope you're not keeping the pigeons here ?"

"I'm not," he squawked. "Just keeping them long enough to get the scrolls out of them."

"Then why are there so many?"

"Because that's the number of people writing to us!"

Adora had found something to keep herself busy with.

//

//

Later that evening a package appeared outside Catra's room, addressed to Adora. Inside were her Horde dogtags (it was her old number, even) and a temporary ID that formally assigned her to the comms department under Kyle. She could hear Catra's laugh already, but she didn't mind. At least she knew who she was reporting to.

Her mobile sang. It was Scorpia.

"Didya get everything? Dogtags, ID, all your stuff was unloaded correctly? And the ID's temp in case you feel like switching around. We just needed something right away."

"I did," Adora said. "And uh, thanks for setting me up in the nicest room in the Horde."

"Hah! You should have seen the look on Catra's face when I brought in side tables." Scorpia said. "She was all, 'I don't need this', and then I said 'All the Force Captains have side tables' -- so she took 'em."

Adora cackled. Scorpia was a sight to behold when it came to maneuvering Catra. "I felt the same way when I first arrived in Bright Moon though. The bed was too soft. I didn't need any of the things inside the room."

"Heh. I understand." Then Scorpia's tone shifted. "Adora. You know Catra better than I do. She's changed I guess, but she's... a strange person." Adora made to disagree, but Scorpia continued, "She carries this supreme confidence. She wouldn't have survived very long as a Force Captain or second-in-command without it. We've all seen it. Sometimes though, you know she's," Scorpia paused, looking for the right word, "-- she's unsure too." Adora swallowed at that. "What I'm saying is, this is uncharted territory. Even for the Horde."

"I understand. I'm coming in with no plans or expectations."

"That's the best idea. Yeah. We'll work something out. Just take care of her, okay? I know it sounds silly saying it to you but--"

"I will."

//

//

There were plenty of things to do that first month: have Entrapta set up Glimmer's private channel (Adora used her Ward room for privacy), reassure everyone in Bright Moon she was still alive, keep Scorpia updated as to the Bright Moon mood, introduce Swift Wind to every part of the Horde, and so on.

Catra didn't leave HQ often, as Scorpia told her earlier that year. But Adora did bump into Entrapta in the oddest places at least once a week. She was hard to miss, especially when borne by her hair.

On the day that Adora asked for a private line Entrapta said, "You've changed," after giving her a thorough once-over.

"Oh yeah?"

"Yes! Posture, speaking pattern, your expressions. Your hair is longer."

"...I just figured a few things out. Stopped hesitating. It helped."

It made me feel like a different person. Or maybe this is really who I am?

Entrapta nodded. "I recognize that feeling. I was happy and productive making weapons, and then I wasn't. And then I had to find something worthy to do again."

"Did you find it?"

"Yes. In Dryl. Terraforming, matching magic to technology, learning about different kingdoms -- lots to keep me busy."

"Then why aren't you in Dryl?"

Entrapta's mouth opened and closed. "I've been thinking about it... I might go for a ride back soon." She tottered off buoyed by hair in the opposite direction, muttering into a recorder.

//

//

meeting you again

//

 On their quieter days, they'd ask each other questions about their years away from each other. There were times when Adora knew what came next in a Catra story; they had fun with things as simple as guessing games in dining halls at off-hours. Or they'd start with remember when... which would leave them laughing for hours as they assembled together a story from their memory, usually a prank. But there were more serious questions too, as they filled in the time spent apart.

"Okay, so, I think I mentioned this before. Sometime after the first year of the war, we noticed that the Bright Moon soldiers suddenly changed their units. That was you, right?"

"I wrote them the entire structure of the Horde military," Adora said, "but they were like, it's okay, we'll get the Princesses and we won't have to adapt. Can you imagine reorganizing just one army? Salineas was like, 'no thanks'."

"Oh man, that is so upper brass," Catra laughed. "'We've always done it this way' and all that." Then she got serious. "Did you tell them the actual size of the Horde?"

"... I did."

"We were about five times smaller than the Alliance at its peak! And now we're even smaller. But I bet you the Alliance didn't believe it."

"No, they thought the robots were manned. And," Adora reminded her, "the Horde was winning."

"More luck and tech and culture than anything," Catra surmised.

They were quiet for a while as they thought about that.

Adora asked the next question. "Did you specialize in ordnance or just straight up infantry?"

"Ordnance? Because I rode a tank for a day to fetch you? I was tank crewmember only, then boom! Force captain. I specialized for marksmanship, eventually hit expert. And you, you were supposed to be this huge CQC genius."

They stopped, instinctively, at the point before their lives conflicted. But Adora liked listening to Catra, watching her face jump from expression to expression as they talked about weapons and terrain and everything else there was to talk about. They were the same. They'd grown up like this. No civilian from Bright Moon would understand the excitement of training, how they'd been brainwashed into thinking the war was some grand adventure. But Catra had known that there was something wrong, had ignored it because of Adora. And yet for all the terribleness since then, talking shop and all the little things they aimed for as kids made them feel normal again.

"I know we should hate the way we were brought up," Catra said, "but it was... bearable. With you."

And that was what normal meant to them.

//

//

A few times in a week Catra would sleep in her actual bed and not in some random chair at some office or battle room. On looser days they'd have dinner at one of the upper-level dining halls. Getting to eat there was a common dream for Horde kids. There were looks, especially in the beginning, but the Horde had picked up from the group hivemind that Adora earned her place in the Horde after their joint mission in Mystacor. Sometimes, if Adora and Catra finished whatever work they had early, they'd read in bed.

"It's weird," Adora said, looking back and forth at her mobile (Horddit and HorTok on speed dial) and Catra's tablet (a trade agreement for review). "We've grown up into Horde adults. " They were comfortably settled in bed. This was something scene-for-scene from a Me And My Princess scroll.

"Aw, is this your first job?"

Adora rolled her eyes. "Do I even get paid?"

"Actually, you do. It goes in your Horde account. The number corresponds to your dogtag's."

Adora was vaguely annoyed all of a sudden. It was always like this with Catra: they would talk, say something shy or teasing, and then Catra would say good night. After everything that had happened between them! They were finally here. And she was behaving like...

To be fair, (and Adora heard this in Glimmer's voice) Catra's never done this before. Or even really said anything.

It stanched Adora's impatience. To be fair, she thought to herself in her own voice this time, Catra occasionally let Adora hug her from behind in the dark and wasn't as twitchy.

"Etheria to Adora?"

"Roger," Adora murmured.

"What is it now?"

Catra, do you know what kissing is, and I don't mean theoretically was hastily shoved back down Adora's throat.

Adora looked up. "What are we?"

Catra's ears jumped up as she pulled away. "Uh," Catra said. Her face was red. If Adora put her hand there, the fur would be warm. She couldn't look Adora in the eye. Adora caught Catra's hand before it could pull away, stroking her palm. "I don't know any of this stuff," Catra muttered, still not looking at Adora.

A heartbeat later Catra added, "You know more about this than I do."

Adora imagined giving Catra scrolls and books from Glimmer's stash.

"I mean," Catra said, "I understand family and marriage and all those things you do outside the Horde. Even in the Horde we have bonds." Her voice drifted off for a bit, then went on: "did you know we have an unofficial guide to the Horde? The older batches wrote it. They have a whole section on forbidden teams, starting with groups of two.'

Only a soldier from the Horde would call a relationship something so awkward, bureaucratic, and technical. Those words were all they had. But that wasn't what caught Adora's attention. "We had an unofficial guide?!"

"Nobody passed it onto us in case we'd squeal to Shadow Weaver," Catra said morosely. "Got to read it, though. Kyle and Rogelio, they knew earlier than we did."

"Whatever it is," Adora said softly, "I just know what I feel for you. Do we need a name for it?"

"But for the rest of Etheria," Catra murmured, "what would that make us?"

"Uh," Adora said. "Betrothed? In courtship? Lovers?" She realized that she hadn't narrowed down the options at all.

"We haven't done anything." Serious though the conversation was, Adora knew Catra was shy.

"I don't think we have to, to qualify."

Catra mulled this over. "Okay."

She follows my lead sometimes, Adora thought.

Much, much later, Adora thought of how strange they must have been even to the rest of the Horde. She had tried to explain before to Bow and Glimmer that Etherian relationships did not exist in the Horde. Perhaps they did all along, in spaces where cameras and eyes did not reach. She thought of herself: naive, and painfully so.

//

//

Catra walked less on eggshells around her after that. There was still the awkward swing between moods, between Catra carrying her usual swagger and the shyness around Adora, a shyness that was utterly alien to them both.

"You sure you want to stay up? I'm still working."

"Sure. I'm just scrolling through Horddit. But you know, you shouldn't make your bedroom your office."

"I know that! It's not a habit." With a flick of Catra's wrist the screen blanked out along with the overhead lights.

Adora felt a weight on the bed, then the rest of Catra fell in next to her; Catra's side of the bed was on Adora's right. Her hair was framed by the reading light, the only light left in the room. Adora's arm was outstretched and so Catra's neck fell across her forearm; this was new. If Adora wanted to, she could bend her arm and lock Catra closer, but she stilled her want. Facing Catra's back, Adora only dipped her head closer to Catra.

They'd been getting more comfortable with each other for the last few weeks. Catra surprised Adora with the occasional hug or cuddle; sometimes they fell asleep in each other's arms, which meant that Catra couldn't sneak out of bed without waking Adora, not that Adora minded.

"You smell nice," she said.

"You smell like my soap," Catra said from in front of her. Adora chuckled. For the past few nights she wondered if Catra would let her kiss her. She seemed to be in a good mood.

She asked with a pounding heart, "Catra -- can I kiss you?"

From beyond all the hair: "You can do anything you want."

But Catra didn't move. Oh fuck, Adora thought. Had she misread things?

Adora nuzzled the back of Catra's head, trying to soothe her.

"Are you okay?"

There was a long silence -- not a tense one; Adora could feel Catra breathing, her ribcage expanding and contracting, the warmth of her -- and so Adora waited. Finally Catra turned her body round to face Adora, her eyes shining in the dark.

Adora's hands stayed exactly where they were.

Catra's forefinger grazed over Adora's hand, carefully as though her hand were forbidden territory. She moved closer, touching their foreheads together. A slight tilt was all it took for the kiss, then she backed away and watched Adora's reaction.

"Well?" Catra's voice was petulant, a cover up.

Adora grinned. All apprehension dissipated; it was never there.

"What!"

"It was good, it was good," Adora said, She couldn't say Catra was cute without risking permanent scars, could she? Catra looked ready to pounce.

"Stay a little longer, okay?" Adora said as she gently tilted Catra's head with her left hand and did the leading. Cupping Catra's cheek, she closed her eyes and kissed Catra, grinning as Catra tried to follow. "Catra, relax," she whispered. But she drew back again and opened her eyes to watch Catra's face.

Catra's eyes were shut tight for a moment, before realizing it was time to open them.

"I'm terrible at this," Catra muttered.

"Are you at least enjoying it?"

If Catra turned any redder she'd be the same shade as their uniforms. "I am! I just feel like I'm not meeting your uh," she gestured helplessly.

Truthfully all Adora had done were smacks and pecks on Catra's lips but she knew what Catra meant. "I think it's easier to hm, 'match' when there's tongue involved."

Catra looked faint and red at the same time.

"We can take a break," Adora said. Watching the panic and shock bloom into Catra's face made her reconsider her earlier recklessness.

"I-I liked it, okay!" Catra shouted. "I just, need to think about how to do it." When Adora opened her mouth Catra beat her to it: "I know it's an instinct thing. I haven't gotten there yet."

Adora raised an eyebrow, trying not to seem condescending, but she couldn't stop the chuckle. "You'll get better by doing it with someone. Like sparring."

"Like sparring," Catra repeated, the redness in her face not receding.

"We can stop," Adora said.

Catra looked up. "I don't know if I want to stop, I just want to be good at it."

"You are," Adora said.

"Don't patronize me."

"I'm not!" Adora traced the fur on Catra's jawline. "Come back here."

They met again with more kissing. "Open your mouth a little," Adora whispered. Catra spluttered and moved back.

"Okay, okay," Adora said, her left hand up. "I think that's enough for tonight really."

Adora knew it was bad when Catra let her ears droop a little, a tell she never gave away.

"Catra, I love kissing you. It's you . I'm the one who should be making sure you're having a good time."

"You've done this before with other people." Catra's voice was lower now.

"I have." Belatedly, Adora thought: How had they not talked about this before?

"Kissing." Catra's ears were sharp, facing Adora, but not flattened: she wasn't bothered, just processing the information. "I haven't", Catra said.

"You just did," Adora said. "It doesn't need to go faster than this."

"It's a little unfair," Catra murmured, half nervous but half joking, too. "you've had practice."

"I wasn't really... expecting it, or looking for it," Adora said. "It just happened, and when things ended, they simply ended."

"Is this who I think it is?"

"Yeah."

"Sparkly princess," Catra muttered, demoting Glimmer temporarily back to a nickname. And, to Adora's surprise, Catra asked: "All the way?"

"Catra, geez! Yes, all the way."

If Catra was expecting to fluster Adora with the question, it backfired majestically.

"All the way?!"

"Yes."

It was not the answer Catra was expecting. Her ears folded at the tips again.

Adora cupped Catra's cheek, feeling the fur there. "Hey," she said. "This isn't a competition."

"I know that!" Catra snapped, face twisting away from Adora's touch. "It's not that! I can't do any of this without freezing up or taking forever and that princess -- she can touch you like it's nothing? Like it's easy?"

Why is it so hard? reverberated in both their minds, a connection they both knew the other shared.

"Catra," Adora, "whatever metric or standard you're thinking, it doesn't exist. Okay?" She wrapped Catra in a hug; Catra let her.

Much, much later on, both of them unable to sleep, still thinking in each other's arms, Catra would ask: "You were in Bright Moon long enough to have a fling with Glimmer?"

"It was early on," Adora said. "Glimmer still went on missions with us, we hadn't reclaimed a lot of territory so we were close to the capital. We were spending a lot of time together."

"Why did it end?"

Adora was quiet for a few moments. "It fizzled out. We care about each other but -- not that way." Adora could hear it, Catra's need for reassurance. "We were only ever going to be friends," she said. "And we both knew that even when we started. I love you, you know?" Adora stroked Catra's long hair. She hadn't said those words since Dryl.

I should say it more often.

She felt Catra struggle to speak. "You don't have to say anything. Just stay, okay?"

Catra nodded in her arms.

//

//

comfort and weight

//

Over dinner the next day, Scorpia asked: "Is everything okay?"

"Why wouldn't it be?"

"One, you showed up late for our staff meeting, two, you forgot it was Sparring Review Time and you usually enjoy giving unsolicited commentary, three, you're eating dinner with us," Entrapta said.

" You're eating with us," Catra retorted, as Entrapta kept odd hours.

Before Entrapta could rise to the bait, Scorpia cut in. "You usually try to eat with Adora."

So Scorpia wasn't going to let go of this so easily.

I can't say it. Her forehead rested on steepled hands, arms on the table, and nothing in her brain but a jumble of thoughts. For a moment they'd coalesce into why me but those words would swirl back into other places.

Entrapta, concerned: "Catra? Are you upset about the food?"

She'd been glaring down at her plate.

"I haven't... really been able to talk to Adora."

Scorpia, sharp as a knife: "About what?"

"Uh. Us."

And that, Catra realized, was spilling too much.

"What have you two talked about?"

"The Horde, memories, war stuff, anything else," Catra answered morosely. "How to uh, check credits."

Now it was Scorpia's turn to cross her claws and cover her face in exasperation.

"From the way Adora walks I would have thought your relationship was proceeding the usual way," Entrapta said.

"'From the way Adora walks' -- what the hell, Entrapta!" Catra blocked out any thought related to Entrapta's idea of the 'usual way.' whatever that was, she didn't want to know.

"I see her at least once a week and she is much happier and confident this time. She doesn't even mind Lonnie poking fun at her assignment to Comms."

(Catra filed Lonnie's transgression under 'for payback'.)

The thought of what Adora was feeling -- whether happy, sad, or lonely -- was at the forefront of Catra's mind. Last night somehow became about her, not Adora. And when she thought of last night --

"She's not having a seizure, she's just remembering something," Scorpia explained to Entrapta. "Something nice."

That knocked some sense into Catra. "Scorpia, lay off. Please." Truthfully she felt bad after kissing Adora. She'd enjoyed it, then felt guilty about it, and not just because she was objectively bad at it. The whole day she'd been off, annoyed at wanting to text Adora, then annoyed at not talking to Adora.

Why am I like this?

You know why.

Shadow Weaver was in her head again. And when she wasn't, there was this gnawing question: did Adora think this was all worth it?

She knew what Scorpia would say. Of course. But Scorpia did not have people she murdered in her head, and Scorpia would never raise a rifle or a cannon towards someone she loved. She'd never been so consumed by anger to get that far. Catra had, and Catra knew her feelings could consume her, even possessiveness. And who was she to do that to Adora?

That was one shitty mess alright. Across her Scorpia was saying, "I'll lay off, but Catra - whatever it is, Adora will wait. She loves you."

The word was somehow both a comfort and a weight.

//

//

C: Sorry I couldn't eat dinner with you today.

A: It's okay.

(Adora was typing; Catra didn't interrupt.)

A: Are you staying out?

C: Yeah, just for tonight.

A: Okay. Good night.

Another message whooshed:

A: Love you.

Halfway through to returning the words, Catra gave up and pocketed her phone. She thumbed it throughout the night, asking herself what made it so hard.

//

//

The next day Catra resolved to behave normally -- only to avoid the dining halls and dinner yet again. She found herself walking through the creakier, older parts of the HQ. But not even the smells or groaning fans could drown out her thoughts.

Seriously, what is wrong with you?

It was as though she were a cadet and not the woman who ran the damn place! She made for the elevator and punched the touch sensor, then realized what she'd done and gingerly put her palm against it instead. Feeling foolish, she faced the door to her own room. She knocked then came in before remembering to wait for a reply.

"Hey," she said. Adora was already in bed, her long, long hair down.

"Hey." She took a right into the bathroom. A quick shower would help.

//

//

"Where were you last night?"

"I slept in the control room."

Catra felt Adora shift and turn in bed to face her. "What's up? Was it, uh, because of--"

"No, it's not that." Losing her footing among her thoughts again, Catra deflected. "How about you tell me what you were up to instead? I haven't really asked lately."

"Oh. I packed Swift Wind with a lot of food and gear for the trip to Salineas."

The horse was cleared to go on long trips. Catra supposed it helped sell the idea that Adora was some kind of folk hero traveling around. It was a plan backed by Kyle and Scorpia so Catra let them do whatever they wanted.

"That horse hates me."

Oh fuck stop talking.

"No he doesn't."

"He said I was a disappointment," Catra muttered, her thoughts leaking out of her even as she tried to shove them back in.

"It's not like we're a show for his amusement, Catra."

Catra clenched her fists. "What does he expect from me?"

Really? The opinion of a stranger mattered? When did she become so thin-skinned on the subject of her and Adora?

Catra felt Adora's forehead against her back. Her fingers loosened. "It's not important stuff; he can be frivolous sometimes."

Catra's thoughts crawled all over her again. With Adora so close it was impossible not to give into them. She asked, "Why wouldn't it be important? What about what your friends thought about us?"

"Glimmer likes you," Adora said. "You're not full of bullshit, she says. And I like you anyway so they have to deal with it."

"Isn't it tiring to have to reassure me like this all the time? I haven't even asked you if this was your idea of staying in the Horde." It was both unbearable to have Adora's head on her back at the same time it was making her spill out every thought she had in her head.

"One, it's not tiring. You've been like this since we were kids," Adora joked, "but really it's not tiring. Two, I had no expectations about what staying in the Horde would be like. Except for when Scorpia pointed out we'd never sleep in separate beds. She was right. You might have been okay with it, but not me."

"Woman's too smart for her own good sometimes."

"Her smarts have been good for us," Adora said tartly. "Don't be so angry someone's trying to help."

"So just like that, everything's forgiven?"

"Catra, you put in the work everyday."

"I feel weird when we kiss." No, not that too. But it was too late. "Like, if it feels good, there must be something wrong about it."

"I know what that's like."

"Do you?"

"We're more similar than you think."

"Hmph. Goody two-shoes."

"Please. You studied so hard when we were kids--"

Catra buried her face in her hands, curled in on herself. "Because I did want that bitch to -- hah! What, accept me? Fuck, I killed her."

When Adora said nothing, Catra turned to face her. "Why me, Adora? I'm Horde, through and through. You could have had anyone you wanted, even a princess, no tricky lies involved-"

"There is no one else for me," Adora said quietly. "And I was stupid enough to almost ruin the treaty for us. We are the same." When Catra looked away, Adora tilted Catra's chin back towards her. Her eyes were startling tonight; Catra both wanted to look away and stare forever. She stroked Catra's cheek. "Are you gonna start another war?"

"Not unless they start it first."

"Fair enough. And as for being sorry, I am sorry for every day I left you and I'll say it for as long as I have to. I can't live where you're not."

"Even if I'm different?"

"Yeah." A pause. "Hm. What did you think was the biggest change about me, when you first saw me? Back during the infiltration."

Catra looked away to clear her head. "You were tired. Even when you were angry. You didn't have the same conviction. You gave up without too much of a fight and you were easy to trip. You'd gotten too used to following orders. You looked older."

"That's flattering," Adora said with a laugh.

"You're better now though," Catra said hastily. "Hey, you gave a specific time! What about me then? When you first saw me after the war?"

"I knew you could run the Horde," Adora said. "Even when we were kids. At some point I thought you were untouchable. I'm glad I was wrong." Adora's hand swept back an errant tuft of hair from Catra's face.

Catra's thoughts were melting away against the feeling of Adora stroking her hair. She'd wanted, so many times, to touch Adora back with the same ease. What if I'm always like this...? What if I never get to that point?

It seemed as though Adora could read her mind. "We have time," Adora said. Close enough to feel Adora's breath, Catra found it easy to agree with her and eventually to fall asleep.

//

//

where my heart lays down to rest

//

Catra made a two-week trip to the Kingdom of Snows towards the end of autumn. Frosta was the first princess to successfully broker a trade deal with them. ("Adora, it's not that hard, we're both resource-poor kingdoms. And I saved their princess.")

Am I growing weak to miss her this much Adora wondered.

Unlike Glimmer, who had a line to Adora without the need for towers, a distance as vast as Catra's travel meant no Horde-style comms. "There's pigeons," Kyle offered. "Maybe one of our prototype robos?" Adora declined and tried not to sulk. She spent two weeks distractedly allowing Glimmer to roast her every time they had a call, reprieved only when Bow intervened. Bright Moon was at peace, though Bow and Glimmer could only call away from the castle lest Angella find out where Adora was.

"She misses you though," Glimmer said. "She really has no idea."

"Do you think she'll miss me more than she'll want to hang me once she finds out I'm with Catra?"

Glimmer thought it over. "Catra is building a trade agreement with the Kingdom of Snows. My mother will not risk a war over one soldier's treachery when it strains the Alliance, moreso down the line when Catra starts meeting with other kingdoms. If we get there."

The oath was a pair of shoes Adora'd grown out of. She had never looked back. "Is it strange that it no longer matters to me?"

"No." The princess's reassurance was all Adora needed.

"Glimmer... How are things with your mom?"

"You're not the first secret I've kept from her. This isn't even the first secret about you I've kept."

"You know I owe you one right?"

"Let's hope we never have to call in a favor."

Bow appeared on the screen. "You started without me? YOU ASK ALL THE BEST QUESTIONS WITHOUT ME!"

//

//

Catra knocked on their door a few nights later. "Uh," Adora said. "Come in?"

"Hey." Lit only by the side lamp, Catra's shadow loomed at the entrance. Then the shadow took off the half cape and shrunk to her usual size.

"Never got used to the uniform," Catra muttered when she saw Adora was watching her from their bed.

"You look badass in it, though."

"Thanks." Catra struggled to take off her boots. "Damn, I will never wear snow shoes again."

She hopped to the bed, carelessly dropping a drawstring pouch. It landed with a solid thud.

"Oh crap, that's s'posed to be a royal gift and all." But Catra was not to be distracted from the shoes. Finally the shoes popped off and she kicked them away towards her desk.

"Finally!" She groaned and fell to the bed.

"Welcome home," Adora said. Catra propped up on an elbow, twisted to get a look at Adora. They were both red in the face.

"Weird hearing you say that."

"The rest of Etheria does it!"

Catra sat up and grabbed the pouch off the floor. "Speaking of Etherian customs," she said, pulling the drawstrings open, "Princess Frosta gave me this." She pulled out a tiny wooden chest and handed it to Adora.

"Thought it was a bracer at first," Catra said as Adora opened it. "But it's a brace- let . It doesn't do anything useful." Inside were two gold bracelets. "Entrapta and Scorpia were telling me it's the kind of ornament you wear to show goodwill in court. But it's the color of your hair so I thought you should have it. Anyway you might have picked up a taste for Etherian stuff. Or miss something like it."

The bracelets were sculpted to have irregular geometric planes, all angles, as though they were carved ice.

"Catra," Adora said, slipping one on. "I think you should keep one. For official business."

Catra shrugged. "I tried it on, it doesn't really work. But if you say so." With nothing better to do, she tried the remaining one as well. They regarded each other for a moment.

"Missed you," Adora said. Catra jumped a little at that too, at the fact that Adora could miss her, as though it were not the most obvious feeling she'd have.

"I should change," Catra muttered, still in her outside clothes. She slipped the bracelet off carefully and returned it to its chest before handing it over to Adora. "You keep it," Catra murmured. "It's still yours, okay? The set. Any time you want it back, they're both yours."

Adora'd lost track of what, exactly, they were talking about.

//

//

They talked that night about Catra’s trip.

"They call their royals 'Your Grace' -- at least in the Horde, we know who we're talking to. I wanted to say 'you ever heard of a chain of command'? But I stopped myself." Catra grumbled. "But I think the teenager's not so bad."

It was three in the morning and Adora was only half-listening. The rest of her was drinking Catra's presence in. And Catra missed her very much, enough to play it cool when Adora moved her head just under Catra's chin. She played it cool even when Adora threw caution to the winds and led Catra's hand to her cheek. Awkwardly, twitchingly, Catra stroked the skin there.

"Adora," Catra said, so softly she almost missed it. "Adora, teach me how to kiss again?"

Adora's head collided against Catra's chin. "Ow!" Adora's head hurt too but she couldn't stop laughing at Catra's yelp. "Sorry, sorry!"

"Damn, that's a headbutt." Catra rubbed her chin.

"So you missed me too, huh?"

"Shut up." Catra was dead serious through her blush. "Teach me or don't."

The pain at the top of Adora's head was subsiding. Adora put her left hand over Catra's forehead. "You close your eyes like you expect a grenade," she said. "Relax."

Catra scowled some more. Adora raised an eyebrow. Finally, Catra loosened up. "There. Close your eyes."

"Close your eyes and what?"

"Follow." Adora held Catra's chin lightly as they kissed. Catra must have been paying attention the last time they did it, because her lips were no longer as taut and rigid. Clumsily, she was learning the steps in their dance. Adora smiled and left a last, languorous kiss before pulling away.

Catra looked like she'd just been spooked through a minefield. She was breathing heavily, her face wine-red from chin to brow.

It's different. We're different.

A slow smile spread across Adora's face. Catra followed, her smile like the sunrise.

They spent the rest of the night practicing.

//

//

A letter addressed to Adora arrived a few days later; Catra heard from Kyle directly as it was a possible security issue. It turned out to have come from Princess Glimmer. Catra left it up to Adora to share or not and deleted the security breach from the logs. With Adora on her mind, Catra replayed the scene from her return.

Miss you.

Why hadn't she said those words back? It was starting to become embarrassing, her emotions always catching her unawares. Catra was annoyed by the ping-pong game her brain was playing caught between elation and sureness and the need to hoard her feelings to herself. She'd practiced everything to say to Adora on the ride back, even how she was going to give the box, but Adora saying come in on the other side of the door knocked everything out. And then those damn shoes.

The only thing that had gone right was the kissing. Adora liked it, was red down to her neck now when they did it. Catra was giving as good as she got by the time the morning broke. Her fingers twitched at the memory, building a new instinct: to hold Adora when they kissed.

I love her.

(Scorpia would have rolled her eyes and said "obviously, since forever." Entrapta would have nodded.)

Catra tried saying it out loud. Her voice was wobbly. How had the first Fright Zone soldier figured it out? That there was a word for it? An instinct that ran counter to everything they taught, a loyalty and care between soldiers that superseded orders?

You already know what I feel for you.

It felt as though she'd said those words a lifetime ago. They were no longer all she had.

//

//

A letter to Adora came in shortly after that; it could have only come from Glimmer. It was an invite to a village in Plumeria. Bring your woman, Glimmer cheekily added.

Was it six months already? She passed the letter to Catra later that night.

Catra was skeptical up until the last word. "She loses a ducat if we don't show up?"

"Catra!" Lying on Catra's shoulder Adora was in no position to thwap Catra's arm.

"She's rich. She can afford to lose a ducat."

Adora rolled her eyes. "Fine!" Catra huffed. "I'll go too." Then she softened. "Are you sure she really wants me there? If it's just for the terms of the wager -- they are your friends."

"I want you there," Adora said. "I want you to know them. Really know them."

Catra looked ready to fire another retort, but she nodded. "Okay," she said. "I am your woman, then."

"You are."

Catra laughed in disbelief and nervousness. "No idea how that happened."

"No? Couldn't have been the time you dropped out of the sky to save my butt? Fought Skeletor with me? Made my whole childhood worth living through? Covered every time I screwed up? I got the message, Catra."

If Catra wanted to deflect she could have said, "about time!" and laughed it off. But Adora saw the flicker of pain pass through Catra's eyes. She hadn't expected anything except to know Adora was alive in some far-off country for the rest of their lives.

And Adora hadn't known.

"Oh Catra," Adora said as she buried her face into Catra's neck, "Catra, I won't leave. I swear."

"I know you won't," Catra said, taken aback. "Geez, I know. I can't leave you either. I love you, Adora." The words simply fell out of her, as though they were at the precipice this whole time and gravity had done its thing, tipped them over. Adora looked up, her eyes searching Catra's. "I love you too," she whispered, as she'd said so often now, those words that slowly poured over every crack in Catra's past, filling her up with something new, something golden. 

 

Tomorrow, they'd make plans to leave for Plumeria. After that -- who knew? They’d figure something out, together.












PS.

  • Entrapta rides with them to be dropped off at Dryl, where she stays six months every year.
  • Scorpia meets the Princess of Plumeria and falls in love. They have greenhouses everywhere.
  • Swift Wind finds a home in Plumeria as well, finding it much more pleasant than the Horde. He visits to annoy Adora.
  • Bow and Glimmer enjoy life in court after Angella retires a few years later. Years down the road Adora assigns herself as part of the diplomatic attache to Bright Moon, openly (re)introduced as the co-ruler of the Horde - a Queen, by the many mental gymnastics known as 'laws' that govern monarchy. She is able to spend a season every year at Bright Moon.
  • The Horde sky eventually turns a pinkish-blue from all the terraforming.
  • Catra and Adora find in each other a home, regardless of where they are and what titles are conferred to them.

 

 

 

//

//

//


credits:

 

Thanks to those who have left kudos (they are easily seen as generated by ao3)

I'd like to also thank everyone who commented on this fic:

 

NastyNibbles

nightmaster000

Batwish

ashtraygirl

HalfWolfy

x215zimer

34A7B

nah_later

green17

Fandoom_Heart

Knight_in_Shiny_Wolf_Hat

Seiran5x5

KingRichRock

Bloodyshadow1

Itsyaboi

sondrex76*

fancysaxophone

Vincinia

Fuhadeza

HeylookGiraffes

Illiteraven

JBlackhood

soulfirespam

R_RK

emollience

Adrian_B

CanaryCorp

Salora_Rainriver

ActualJesus

anon

Ayex

Felix

krmbl

UnsolvedRubixsCube

shadowcub

spooky_lilith

Doublepasse*

V01Dsw0rd

ls00jb7 (bellamione17)

estoyprocrastinando

GoldenDemon

Metro_Observer

Hypocritical_Critic

HeylookGiraffes

V01Dsw0rd

cowardskingdom

cool_space_lesbo

abbz

zerotheninja2999

KaiTheAwesomeGuy

singletrain (Doodle0505)

Dagron

Yukihata

Unigamer

Somariel

Lance58

HallowedHaven

Kris

fancysaxophone

Deluxe489

YAAAAY

WaterUSaying

NebeScribens

womenlovingwonderwoman (The_Camel_Queen)

Waterfall_Creek97

Darkshadow_lord

Sonnari

WatchingTVbutItsFire

M_ArgyBargy

DingyAntelope58

AxelFones

twolittlehummingbirds

SeeASweetSmile

 

i'd also like to thank my girlfriend, who didn't actually read this fic so much as hear me read it out, and let me work seasonally/part-time rather than full time for most of the year.

 

i'd also like to thank iliteraven for the keyboard i used to write this story (i wrote this last chapter on the ducky, friend) and for all the helpful input.

 

there are a great many writers who take pride and feel confident about their writing, and rightfully so. i am not one of those people. i am beset by doubt and terror every time i post something, and the only thing that keeps me going is that somehow, people haven't quit reading, and they let me know this by commenting & kudoing, including those who don't log in so they can leave a kudo anonymously again. thank you.

 

i'll probably lie down and die for a while, and tbh i have backlogs in a different fandom. if anyone wants to keep abreast, my top pinned post on tumblr (updated every monday US time) will let you know what i'm up to; there is no need for an account to see it. I hope you enjoyed, reader!

update: dev notes for the horde culture/worldbuilding/alliance stuff are here if anyone is interested.