The frozen expression Catra's wearing is familiar but it's never been aimed at Adora before. Catra takes a step back, then another, as it starts to melt slightly from pain and betrayal into even more familiar anger.
Adora wants to say something, but Catra saw. She knows what Adora's become now. And even if there was any way for Adora to defend that, Catra's faster than her on a good day and she doesn't even know if she can stand up again.
Catra stops, half hidden in the smoke. Her ears flatten down and she whispers, "Shadow Weaver's going to kill me."
Bow collides with Adora's side, knocking her flat on her back. "You did it!" Bow tells her.
"You saved us," Glimmer says from above. "You saved everyone."
Adora laughs in relief. "I did it!" she repeats. "I turned against the Horde-" And it's her own voice that makes it finally hit her what an enormous, life-ending mistake she's just made. "I turned against the Horde!" She sits up so she can latch onto Bow's sash, he absolutely can't leave now. "Why did I do that?!" she shrieks.
"Yeah, Adora, why did you do that?" Catra growls.
Bow and Glimmer scream. Adora's dragged back upright as Bow stands and tries to get an arrow aimed. "It's okay! It's okay!" Adora shouts. Her legs seem to be supporting her weight now so she releases Bow and stumbles toward Catra, throwing her arm around the other girl. "This is Catra!"
"She just attacked us!"
Catra goes stiff instead of wiggling loose and trying to shock her again, so Adora continues more confidently, "I asked her to cover for me when I went to find the sword again. I was supposed to be back before morning and she thought I'd been captured by the rebellion."
"You were!" Glimmer says.
"But it's okay now!"
At her side, Catra mutters, "Now that you're a princess." Catra's ears are flattening down again. Adora can't tell if it's more fear or anger - the two tend to go hand in hand for Catra.
Adora lets go and holds out the sword. "No, it is, I think. There's a voice inside."
"Adora!" Glimmer shouts as Catra takes it, but it's not like it'll break if Catra drops it.
Catra waves it from side to side, touches her hand on the edge. "It's not even sharp. Just a bunch of shiny frills. This was what you were so excited about last night?"
"It knew my name, Catra! Me!"
Catra snorts and hands the sword back. "Yeah, of course."
"So a magic sword said, 'Adora, forget being a force captain, blow up the cool tanks!' and now what?"
"I... I don't know." The pit falls out of her stomach. "I don't know! I - Where are we supposed to go?"
"Are you just realizing this?" Catra shouts. "Now we're both going to die!"
"Nobody's going to die!" Bow interjects. "Right, Glimmer?"
"Yeah," Glimmer says. She stares at them, takes a breath, smiles. "It doesn't matter if you were Horde soldiers before if you're with us now."
"After what happened, it's not like I have a choice," Catra mutters. "So who's us, Adora's new friends?"
"This is Glimmer," Adora explains as they start toward the woods, "and this is Bow. We met because they were also looking for the sword, and then a giant monster attacked us, and, oh, and there's weird ancient buildings in the middle of the Whispering Woods and those tried to kill us." Catra now looks dubious in addition to sulky at this, so Adora continues, "But it's not all bad. The village was really nice before it was set on fire. One of them made pictures with his hands, and they eat so many different colors and shapes and they all taste really good!"
"And there's horses!" Bow reminds her.
"Yeah, there's a horses! Catra, a horses is the most beautiful animal and it had a soft warm nose and it let me touch it." Adora looks back hopefully and spies a white nose half behind some rubble. "Look! There, I think that's the horses!"
"Horse," says Glimmer. "One is just 'horse'."
"Horsey, you're okay!" Bow cries, running over.
"Well, which is it?" Catra says.
"It's a horse," Glimmer repeats. "Horsey's just something you can call horses. You...really haven't seen a lot of animals before?"
Bow leads it back to them. Adora pats the soft nose again. Catra stares and then looks away like she doesn't care. She probably doesn't want to do anything with everyone around...but there's one more thing, one Adora knows for sure will make Catra feel better.
She points at a tree above them and shrieks, "Mouse!"
"That's a squir-" Bow is cut off by Catra springboarding off his back.
Catra nearly falls back off the branch but catches herself by the knees and dangles. Adora laughs and walks beneath. "See? There's mice everywhere, and they're all huge! I've seen a dozen of them already."
A drop of blood runs down the tip of Catra's nose and then splashes to the ground. "Mnot sharng nu mttrrr whut uo ay," Catra growls.
"You can have the whole thing, I'm not even hungry!"
Catra lets go of the branch and flips around to land on her feet. She eyes Bow and Glimmer. They stare back. They look really impressed. Stunned, even.
The tension melts out of Catra and she takes the mouse out of her mouth for a moment. "Okay, okay." She knocks her shoulder against Adora, hard enough Adora almost falls over. "So this place isn't all bad." And she bites into the mouse again.
I welcome comments and I really do mean that. Are you confused about something? Tell me! Are you confused about something and think it's because I'm a bad writer? Tell me! Do you disagree about something? Tell me! Do you have any other sort of opinion on any of my writing choices? Tell me! Do you think you need to be better before you're allowed to tell a writer your opinion? You don't, tell me! Do you think this fic would be better if it was another, completely different kind of fic? I cannot promise I will rewrite it for you, but I am very interested in hearing about why you think that! Do you want to say something you are absolutely, one-hundred-percent sure I don't want to hear? Tell me! Do you doubt that and nothing I can say will convince you I won't get mad and hold a grudge against you forever more? Anon commenting is on, give it a consequence-free try! (You can put your actual email in there, I can't see any of that information.)
"Hey, we made it," Bow says as they pass through the last of the trees. There's a glittering expanse before them.
"Welcome to Bright Moon," Glimmer says, with more energy than Adora's heard from her in hours.
Bright Moon is indescribable, a riot of glowing and water and gold and green. "It's so beautiful," Adora breathes.
"It's so bright," Catra says, putting a hand out to shade her eyes.
Glimmer's straightened up on the horse's back. At the reminder Adora double-checks her own posture - correct - and Catra's - less bad than usual! "I just need to go in there, recharge, and deal with my mom." She sighs. "This will be fun." Then Glimmer pauses and looks to Bow. "Uh, Bow? Maybe you should take them in the back way?"
"Oh. Yeah. Good call."
"What's the back way?" Adora asks.
Adora always tries to look at things positively. Like right now, Catra's keeping one hand stuffed in her mouth to muffle her shrieks of laughter as Adora struggles up the rope, which is great because Adora's starting to think anyone hearing them climb up a sheer palace wall like they're an assault force would be bad.
Catra's really taking this way more seriously than usual, probably because it's real for once, and Adora realizes she's still cataloguing all this to report back to Shadow Weaver, how Catra could be a real asset in the field and her scores don't reflect what a good job she'd do when it counts and it's a waste to keep giving her more training she doesn't need when she's ready to start paying it back serving the Horde.
Only she'll never talk to Shadow Weaver again. It's just like Catra said, what they've done is unforgivable. Betraying the Horde...Shadow Weaver would kill them if she ever sees them again.
And...maybe she won't need to argue about Catra either. If they can just make a good first impression this time, then everything will be okay.
"How are you so bad at this?" Catra hisses between bursts of laughter. "Didn't I give you enough practice?"
This is completely different than climbing up to wherever Catra's decided to wedge herself. Back home there's all sorts of juts and protrusions to use as footholds, and the walls themselves are rough enough that she can keep her feet on them most of the time. Clinging to a rope with her feet dangling over an abyss is completely different.
"It might seem weird, but we totally come in this way all the time," Bow tells her, putting out his hand and pulling her up the last foot.
"Oh, here, robes! For you guys! No reason!"
Adora barely has time to take in the room, which is more glittering but now with purple, before some sort of drape covers her head. From the yowl to her left, Catra's experiencing something similar.
"You're trying to hide me," Adora says, getting it clear of her eyes in time to catch Catra rolling her own.
"What?" Bow squeaks. "Nooo."
"You have some plan," Catra tells him. All the humor's gone from her like it never was and her voice is tightening up the way it always does before - before something goes wrong. "You didn't lie to Adora about Sparkle-Mom knowing about the sword just so we'd both follow you here to be killed because we could've gone in the front way for that."
Bow laughs anxiously in a way that really isn't reassuring. "Haha no one's getting killed who said anything about getting killed?"
"Me!" Catra hops down from the seat by the window and stalks toward him. "And it's going to be YOU if you don't tell me what the plan is right now!"
"Catra, calm down! It's going to be fine!"
"It's absolutely fine!" Bow agrees.
"Adora, get a clue for once! The only way out of here is rapelling back down that wall. Which you just proved you suck at! Is your magic sword going to let you fly when they cut the rope with you halfway down?!"
"There's also a door! Which we will be using. But not right now!" He edges toward the door. "In fact. I should just. Check that. To make sure it's ready to, do door things, later!"
Adora watches him open it tentatively, stare out, and shut it. And again. And again.
Adora sighs. "Okay. I get it," she says. It's uncomfortable looking at the tension in his shoulders, so reminiscent of Lonnie before every training mission, so she picks up a lumpy pink thing set by the window to stare at instead. It's like a pillow but with eyes. "I'm guessing the people of Bright Moon are going to be a little less welcoming of Horde soldiers than you led me to believe."
"Maybe a little," he squeaks.
"Maybe! Wow really!" Catra growls, pacing. "You're so smart Adora!"
"I get it, Catra. How little?"
Bow winces. "Think...pitchforks and torches."
"Auwwwwwww," Adora whimpers.
"What's a pitchfork?" Catra asks.
Adora groans again and covers her face. "Don't tell me." Wasn't pitch the nasty sticky black stuff? What did forks have to do with it? Were the torches to set them on fire afterward or would they light the pitch first?
She hears the door shut and looks back up to see Bow has turned to them again. "It's just that… People of Bright Moon have been really hurt by the Horde. Everyone here has lost someone in the war. You can't blame them for being a little suspicious."
"Sorry," Adora says.
"Hey, it's not your fault."
"Yeah, it's mine," Catra says. "Right?"
"You were only there because I went missing," Adora says. "Shadow Weaver wasn't even going to send you out at all before I screwed everything up. It's not your fault what happened."
"It's not," Bow agrees. "Neither of you knew this was going on." He smiles reassuringly and puts a hand on Adora's shoulder. "And once they get to know you, the people of Bright Moon are going to trust you, just like Glimmer and I already-" He yelps as the room explodes in light. Catra screeches and jumps backward.
"I'm here!" Glimmer shouts. "Okay. My mom's on her way, but, no one panic."
"What?!" Adora shouts.
Catra grabs onto Adora's ponytail and drags. "Back out the window!" she orders.
"I said no one panic!" Glimmer shrieks, looking even more frantic than Adora feels. Her voice keeps speeding up. "Don't worry. She'll love you. All you have to do is use the sword to transform into She-Ra before she gets here." She ends with an awkward laugh.
"I thought you had a plan!" Catra screeches from the windowsill. Her tail sticks straight up and has puffed to resemble a scouring brush.
"It's a great plan!"
"Wait, we're jumping straight to She-Ra with your mom?" Bow says, and oh no even he doesn't think this is a good idea, it isn't just Catra being Catra, this isn't going to work. "Are you sure?"
"Uh, yeah. I don't think my mom is going to buy, 'Hey Mom, we found a Horde soldier and then she found another Horde soldier, let's collect them all!'"
It...it doesn't matter that they left. Adora was still a part of that, a part of something that hurt people, hurt every person here, and that's what matters.
"My mom is going to love She-Ra!" Glimmer continues. "And then...She-Ra can say her magic just tells her Catra's a good person!"
"And I'll just never turn back!"
"No, well, actually, can you do that?" Glimmer asks.
"Maybe!" Adora squeaks. "Yes! Probably!"
"Not a chance," says Catra.
"You don't know that for sure!"
"I thought you had a plan," Catra repeats.
"I promise, this will work!" Glimmer insists. "We just need to ease Mom into the whole Horde thing. Once you're here, and nothing bad happens, then she'll know you're not enemy spies pretending to be nice people in order to scope out our defenses and weak points so you can lead the Evil Horde in a final strike against Bright Moon to decapitate the rebellion and kill us all and she won't be mad!"
Catra slouches back against the wall. "But that's exactly why we're here."
"Don't joke! No jokes around Mom! Adora, just turn into She-Ra MOM IS ON HER WAY UP ALREADY."
Adora looks between smiling Glimmer's hopeful face and a scowling Catra who won't meet her eyes. "Uh, Glimmer, look, I don't know if…"
No. No, she can do this. She has to be able to do this. She'll turn into She-Ra, she'll lie to Glimmer's mom about Catra, and then she'll stay She-Ra, forever, and no one will ever find out and she won't let everyone down.
"Right! She-Ra." Glimmer stares at her expectantly. "But, uh, I'm still figuring out how all of this stuff works."
"How hard can it be? Sword, magic words, poof!" Glimmer teleports to one of the weird bowls hanging from the ceiling and spreads her arms. "She-Ra."
Adora stares at the sword. "Right."
"Hey. You're gonna do great, okay? Bow and I will go buy you some time. Just hang out here with the sword and think She-Ra thoughts." Glimmer grins and grabs Bow. "Ibelieveinyou!" Then they're both gone.
"Alright," Catra says, grabbing her by the hair again. "Your new friends are idiots but that should buy enough time. Out the window."
"No, no, I've got this. Glimmer's right. It's not hard. I will." Adora manages to extract her ponytail from Catra's grasp and straightens up. "Okay, Sword. Let's do this."
She swings the sword upward and it catches in some sort of cloth net hanging from the ceiling. Adora overbalances, slips, hits the wall, knocks some strange shiny things off a shelf above, then flings herself down catching them.
"That was hilarious but not dying over hilarious," Catra says.
"Come on, let's just run for it already."
"We don't have anywhere to run!"
"We will once we're outside!" Catra shouts, grabbing her. Adora can feel Catra's claws digging into her shoulders. "You already left once, what's one more time! Why is staying here so important?!"
"I can do this. I can do this. It'll be okay." Adora takes a breath. Outside, Horsey whinnies. She looks past Catra and sees him standing on a field far below. He looks so happy, with so much wide open space and without tiny things everywhere to knock over or into or people he's going to get killed and absolutely no ceiling with weird scarf nets. "But. Yeah, let's go outside first. I think I just need more space. Go out, turn into She-Ra, come back." She pulls the cloak on and holds the other out to Catra. "Here, put this on."
"Seriously?" Catra says, staring at the purple cloth.
"So they won't know who we are if anyone sees us."
"Glimmer did it back at Thaymor. As long as we cover our uniforms, nobody will pay any attention to us."
"Right, like they don't have passwords," Catra says sarcastically, but she pulls it on over her head. She shudders. "Ugh, I don't like it!"
"I know, it's weird. But it'll work. We're not going to go up to anyone. If they only see us at a distance they'll think we're doing something we're supposed to. They can't have time to interrogate everybody."
"Fine. But when this goes wrong, we run, okay?"
"Sure. But it won't. You'll see. I'll turn into She-Ra and everything will be fine."
Everything is not fine. The only part of it that goes right is that Horsey lets her hug him again. Then it's a lot of waving the sword in the air and shouting and occasionally falling while nothing happens.
"Ugh," Catra groans from a rock. "Watching you mess up was only funny the first thousand times."
"I can do this!" Adora insists.
"Maybe you're not really a princess," Catra suggests. "You said the princess is the sword, right? Maybe the sword just really hates tanks."
"I told you, it said my name. And, back in Thaymor, that wasn't the first time. We were attacked by a giant bug when I found the sword. And this voice said, 'Adora, will you fight for the honor of Greyskull?' and that's when it happened."
"So maybe it'd have said that to whoever was holding it."
Adora hadn't thought of that. "Maybe." After all, hadn't the last day proven she wasn't any good at telling when people were lying to her? "Well, do you want to try then?"
"Nope," Catra says, still lying on the rock. "It's not going to matter if you get it working anyway. They hate us because we're from the Horde, just like everyone told us they would, and turning big and glowy isn't going to change that."
"But we're not just that," Adora says. It couldn't be. The sword had been waiting for her. It'd called for her and it knew her and it knew things about who she really was. It couldn't have been lying. "I - I'm not nothing."
"Of course not! We never were! But nobody cares!"
"Glimmer believes in us."
"In you," Catra mutters. "But it'll hardly be the first time you let someone down."
Like Catra right now, still in danger just because Adora can't get one single thing right.
"She-Ra's a princess. And everyone knows the princesses fight the Horde, so they'll know She-Ra isn't with the Horde. I just have to figure out how to make She-Ra appear." There has to be something they're missing. "It happened when we were attacked by the bug. And then when the Horde was attacking people. But there was also the old building, and I think that wanted She-Ra as well, but nothing attacked us there until after Bow and Glimmer tried to talk to the hologram. I don't think there needs to be people getting attacked, it just needs there to be a point to She-Ra. I just need to focus on how we really need She-Ra to show up."
"Sure," Catra says, rolling onto her belly so she's completely facing away from Adora.
"It'll work. Glimmer -"
"They lied to you, moron."
"She just doesn't know how this works! They don't know anything about the sword."
Catra sits up sharply and glares. "But her mom totally does, right?" she snaps. "That's what your best friend Glimmer told you. 'Oh Adora, don't go back to the Horde like you promised you would, come live in my princess country instead, my mom knows everything about your magic sword!' Except for that it's She-Ra's sword, because just having the sword isn't good enough, or what She-Ra's powers are, because the plan is to lie about that. Just like how Glimmer got us here by saying we'd be safe and after Bow gets you stuck in their room we find out once we're seen everyone kills us."
"That's not Glimmer's fault, it's because they're scared, it's because the Horde hurt them first. And...and anybody could just pick up the sword! Even if she knows it's She-Ra's sword that doesn't mean she'd believe it works for me. I could just have stolen it."
Catra turns her back again. "Whatever."
"I'm sorry! I get it, okay! It's scary and everything's wrong and everyone's mad, but once I turn into She-Ra I can fix it."
Adora stares at the sword. "Come on," she whispers. "Everyone's counting on me." She takes a deep breath and tries again, focusing on Glimmer and Catra and pitch and Glimmer's mother and how they really really need her to be She-Ra. "For the honor of Greyskull!"
The stone finally lights up. Too much. Beams of light start to shoot out. One narrowly misses Catra, who yowls and jumps into the tree above. Another does not miss Horsey.
Horsey lights up like a strip of magnesium and Adora's sure she's just murdered him. Then the glow fades and...he's a bird.
Adora stares at him, taking in his magnificent rainbow wings and golden horn.
Then Horsey takes in those things and starts screaming.
"What did you do, Adora?" Catra yells as Horsey throws himself around the clearing and begins to flail around on the ground like he expects the wings to come off with enough banging. "Turn it off!"
"I don't know how! Horsey! Come back! Stop!" She tries to chase after him.
Oh wow there are a lot of people out here. But she can talk her way out of this, no one knows who she is or what she's done, she just has to catch Horsey and calm him down, somehow, even as he's flying away. "Catra, can you jump that high?"
"Duh," Catra says beside her, and leaps onto his back.
Horsey screams even louder and flips around in midair, sending Catra's cloak flying, and then he plummets, nearly crushing Catra under him. For a second Adora thinks she's gotten Catra killed, but she moves slightly and groans.
"Horde soldier," someone whispers, and then it's a shout.
Beside Adora, a woman draws a sword and charges.
It all happens very fast.
The woman is running toward Catra. Adora is running after the woman. The woman raises her sword.
Adora raises her sword.
Adora hits first, hammering the sword's hilt into the back of the woman's head. The woman just crumbles, without even a gasp, and behind Adora someone screams so loudly she thinks her own head will split.
Adora grabs Catra and tries to pull her up. Other people grab at her and she swings the sword and it hits and they let go but someone is still hanging on her and Adora tries to pull away and everyone keeps screaming.
Something rams her in the side and they go flying.
Landing hurts even more than getting hit.
But there's no one holding her down now and Catra is coming to, starting to support Adora's weight instead of the other way around.
"We have to run," Adora says.
And then she runs them blindly off a cliff.
They land in water. The people above don't follow them down. Instead, there's a sharp pain down the side of Adora's leg that stands out amid the aches and she sees red spooling away in the stream beside the shaft of an arrow.
Who even uses arrows?
"Adora, come on!" Catra screams, dragging her forward, and she stumbles out of the stream and toward the cover of the trees.
Maybe the people are satisfied that they've left. Maybe they just didn't hate her enough to jump off a cliff. Maybe they did but Catra and Adora lost them in the Whispering Woods, since it didn't seem like Bow or Glimmer were that good at navigating the maze of trees and vines either.
For whatever reason, they find when they've stopped running that there's no sign of pursuit.
She sits on a fallen tree and stares at the sword in her lap. "Stupid. I'm so stupid," Adora says.
"Bow told me this would happen." She can hear the weakness in her voice. She tries to focus on the anger, on how it didn't have to be this way, how none of this had to happen if she didn't screw everything up. "But I wanted to go out. And then I scared Horsey, and got you hurt, and made everything worse because I panicked. I should've turned into She-Ra when they attacked you instead. Then they wouldn't-"
"You don't get it!" Catra shouts at her. "It doesn't matter! You want everyone to like you but this time they don't and you can't fix it!"
"I have to fix it!" Adora's voice cracks and she presses her hands against her eyes and tries to breathe.
Catra doesn't answer. Adora hears the leaves shuffle as Catra paces, and then Catra flops down next to her and leans against her side.
"This has to work," Adora tells Catra, managing to steady her voice. "What else are we supposed to do? We can't go back to the Horde."
"You could, though," Catra says. "Nobody but me saw the princess turn into you. You could leave the sword and go back home and Shadow Weaver would be so happy to see you she wouldn't even ask what happened."
"But even if we could we can't!" Adora shouts. "You don't know because Shadow Weaver only told me about it, right when she gave me my badge. Thaymor was supposed to be a rebel fortress and our attack would be my first mission as a force captain. It wasn't because they thought the people there captured me, it was already decided. If I hadn't left that night with you, if I hadn't seen the sword and gone back for it, it would have been me there in the tank instead!"
And she doesn't know what would have happened. She knows what she would have done. She'd have asked Shadow Weaver. She just doesn't know what Shadow Weaver would have said. If she'd have believed it.
But she's an idiot who believed everything else she was told.
Her throat closes up. She tries to hold her breath, cover her eyes again, but her chest heaves and the sob comes out of her mouth and tears follow. She's just letting everyone down today, isn't she?
"Adora. Hey. Hey. Adora," Catra says. She bangs her hand against Adora's head. "You weren't. You blew them up."
"And you came with me."
"And it was right." She can't stop sniffling. "It was the right thing to do. I won't let anyone kill you over it. It'll be okay."
"Sure, Adora." Catra sighs. After a moment she adds, "It's not so bad being in the Whispering Woods. I'll catch you a big mouse."
"Thanks. ...Shadow Weaver was lying about the brain parasites too, right?"
"Of course she was! She just hates everything nice. How could a mouse mess up your head?"
"Yeah. Yeah, that doesn't make any sense." She watches Catra jump into the branch of a tree. "Be careful of bugs."
"I can handle a bug."
"They're really big bugs."
Then it's just Adora and the sword. She holds it up again, says the words again. Don't they need She-Ra now? Isn't this enough? If she's doing something wrong it could just tell her what she's supposed to do instead!
"What is wrong with you?!" she demands, because if you think about it, aren't they both screwing up? Isn't this as much the sword's responsibility as hers?
The sword doesn't answer her.
Something else makes a sound. Adora hesitates. "Horsey?" she calls hopefully. It doesn't sound like Horsey.
She could wait for Catra. But it's her fault Catra's stuck in a forest full of monsters hiding from people with swords and arrows instead of safe in a palace. Just like it's her fault Horsey panicked and ran and is probably also getting killed by monsters. She needs to figure out how to fix this and maybe whatever's making the sound is a solution. Maybe it's another giant bug and when it tries to bite her in half she'll finally manage to turn into someone useful.
Adora knows Catra won't have any trouble following her but she pauses and scrapes the sword along the ground to draw an arrow so Catra will know she did this on purpose and didn't get abducted.
Then she walks toward whatever's making the noise.
She finds...well, she isn't sure what, exactly. An old woman who's happy to see Adora, but only because she thinks Adora is someone else, some better person called Mara. Or maybe this Razz person is only pretending? How can Adora ever be sure?
She recognizes the sword, and Adora clutches to that. There has to be some reason for this. The sword was waiting for Adora so she would save people and do what's right. Now the sword isn't working, the people want her gone, and she doesn't know what right is. It can't have been waiting for nothing. Adora can't have done all this for nothing.
"I need you to tell me what to do," she pleads, and Razz laughs like she's saying something absurd and just keeps hopping away, unconcerned. "I left my whole life behind," Adora insists desperately, "looking for answers about where I came from and who I'm supposed to be. But the rebellion hates me and I'm dragging my best friend down with me and..." Since when was it so hard to do the right thing?
Razz stops and Adora catches up, hoping for answers.
Before them, the forest stops and it's just wasteland and abandoned Horde tanks.
Catra's laugh cuts through the haze. How long has Catra been there? Has she just been up there the whole time listening to Adora stumble around begging for answers that don't exist? Adora looks up in time to see her drop a trio of mice. She catches them, dropping the sword in the process. Catra jumps down from the tree and lands on top of the tank. "Look at this!" she says, walking alone the barrel. "Horde tanks!"
"Horde tanks," Adora repeats.
Adora had been there when they attacked Thaymor. She'd helped people. She'd tried to make the Horde leave, and then she'd fought them off when they wouldn't.
But she hadn't been here. When had this even happened?
"These don't even look weathered," Catra says. She hops to the next tank and giggles. "Adora, this wasn't too long ago!" She jumps to the dusty ground, circles around the bottom.
"No," Adora agrees. She tries to remember what missions she knew about, but cadets weren't told much that was specific. Just talk about destroying the Whispering Woods and the rebels bit by bit.
Adora looks back to Razz, hoping for...what? It's stupid. It's as stupid as when she was begging Glimmer to explain things yesterday, tell her that what was right in front of her face wasn't really that.
The woman looks down to break her gaze and shakes her head. "Ah, it's the same old story, dearie. Wicked people destroy what they cannot control."
"They can't just do this!" Adora says, as if she can't see exactly that's exactly what happened.
Catra bangs on the side of a tank and Adora flinches at the reverberating echo, the same one she's heard so many times before. "Not without a couple of these getting messed up, anyway."
"Once, the princesses would have protected us," the woman says sadly.
From underneath a tank, Catra calls, "There's sticks and rocks and bones and, just, all sorts of stuff jammed in the wheels here." She pops her head out. "Sticks! Sticks, Adora, can you imagine?"
She thinks about running up to the tanks at Thaymor as everyone else ran away, so certain they'd never hurt her because the Horde would never mean to hurt innocent people. What an idiot she was. "Yeah."
Catra climbs back up, pries off the top and shoves her head inside. Her tail waves madly and her voice echoes out, "We were always training to fight off scary princesses but even your crazy lady gets it, there were no princesses here! And nobody else has real weapons. The best a princess' guard had was arrows! And these people weren't even that! They're probably all dead." She pulls her head out and looks at Adora. "People with sticks!"
"There was no way they could win…"
Catra starts laughing again, hops down and grabs her by the shoulders. Her tail does another excited wiggle. "But this happened anyway! I thought you were just being a total idiot but - but look at all this!" She waves her arm over all the devastation.
Adora doesn't want to. She looks toward Razz, then down at her sword. She hadn't been here. And no one else had come.
Catra had accused, "You want everyone to like you." As if that should have mattered when she knew the Horde was hurting people. She was being so selfish.
If the rebellion didn't want them, if the rebellion hated them, that didn't change what she was needed to do. She takes a breath. "If the princesses won't defend Etheria from the Horde, then I will."
She looks to Catra. She can't ask-
"Yeah," Catra says. She laughs once more. "Sticks." She reaches out her hand and Adora grasps it, relief flooding through her. "Let's take on the Horde." Catra turns her head toward distant smoke. "Want to see how many gears we can jam?"
Adora would like to say that everything went according to plan. That they looked the place over, decided how they'd attack, and then she calmly said the right words and transformed.
But what happened was she looked over the ridge and saw them dragging Horsey off into one of the buildings and this time she at least panicked in the right direction, holding up the sword and shouting the words in a rush before running in.
She cuts Horsey free.
They did this just because Horsey was there. Just like the trees, just like the village. He's not part of any rebellion. He was there and they hurt him.
She swings a sword through the first tank. It's effortless carving in half what should be impenetrable steel. She shouts at the soldiers around her to stop, to leave, that this is wrong. They charge her and she blocks a baton with her sword.
"Focus, Adora!" shouts Catra.
One of the soldiers turns from She-Ra toward the sound and shouts, "Catra! I should have known you little-" but Catra goes low to avoid the blow and then lashes out. The woman shrieks and falls back, clutching her bloody leg.
She has no idea who it was. The helmets distort voices as well as blocking faces and it'd be quicker to list people who don't want to crack a baton over Catra's skull.
It doesn't matter, right? They're all the enemy. She told them to stop. She told them to leave. She told them and they chose to attack instead.
There's more of them than the last time, but she has someone this time as well.
On the last normal day, she'd gotten mad at Catra at the end of their training mission.
"Did you really show up late and let us do the hard parts? That is low, even for you."
"Aw. You know nothing's too low for me."
But it works. It always worked, whatever anyone said, and now that their lives are on the line it's a relief to know Catra can and will cheat her way out of a fight. When people come at her they're clawed by Catra from behind, and when they try to go after Catra instead, shouting and cursing, she leaps and ducks and dodges rather than meeting their blows properly.
The Horde troops back up, try to regroup. She strikes her sword into the ground, sending a shockwave that knocks them off their feet, and Catra uses the breathing room to crawl into one of the bisected tanks. The front half twists and then it starts firing into the building, shots coming one after another exactly like they'd always been warned not to, because it'd overheat the barrel and cause the entire thing to explode. She almost shouts at Catra for disregarding safety instructions out of reflex.
"Let's move, Adora!" Catra says, landing next to her.
"But -" There's still the rest of the Horde forces here. She's wrecked a lot of their stuff, the building Catra blew a hole in is collapsing, and there's an explosion still to come, but there will still be things left untouched.
"They'll call reinforcements if we stay."
"Don't you remember what they taught us?" Catra demands, yanking a hank of She-Ra's hair for emphasis.
To never leave a battle until the objective was complete or new orders come from a commanding officer.
"To stop the rebels from retreating, because they were always slipping away! If hitting and running was a bad idea, Shadow Weaver wouldn't have sounded so mad every time she brought it up. Now move!"
The tank barrel is now visibly bending from the heat. "Right!"
They get all the way over the ridge before it goes off, the sound much louder than she expected. It's almost as loud as Catra's howls of laughter afterward.
"We really -" Catra manages to choke out before dissolving into more laughter. She's bloody but to Adora's relief it's all on her hands and feet.
"We really!" she says to Catra, and she wraps She-Ra's arms around Catra and spins. "Really!" Catra wiggles out of her grasp onto her shoulder, then flops down across her back, still laughing.
And nothing bad happens. They reach the edge of the Whispering Woods and enter again without the Horde appearing out of nowhere and crushing them, without Shadow Weaver, without any consequences at all.
Adora says, "I know I messed it up the first time, but...I want to try again. I understand how to become She-Ra now. And, if that's not good enough, with She-Ra we can escape, and I'll never try again."
"Never?" Catra says with a mocking gasp. "But then how will you be everyone's favorite princess?"
"I mean it, Catra. It'd be better if we could because we don't know anything about how things work here. But if they don't want to listen then I'll stop trying and we'll do this on our own."
Catra's quiet. Then she asks, "So when you show you're a princess like them but I'm still just-"
"Then they're not good either!" Adora shouts. "If they want you gone then I leave with you!"
For a moment, Catra's expression...but before Adora can make anything of it, Catra's laughing again. "Sure, Princess." She smacks Adora's shoulder hard enough to stagger her and Adora laughs and shoves her back.
"She-Ra's the princess. And what've you got to worry about anyway," Adora says. "I'm the idiot who got shot and walked off a cliff. As long as you stay off the giant birds you're unstoppable."
"That wasn't a bird," Catra retorts. "Birds can't be giant or they're not birds."
"That's not how it works!"
"Have you ever seen a bird that's giant?"
"Well, you never saw a giant mouse before either! After we join Bright Moon I'll ask about giant birds and they'll know them and say I'm right!"
"No way you're getting out of it that easy!" Catra sticks a finger in Adora's face. "After we escape, we climb back into Glimmer and Bow's room before leaving and they'll tell you I'm right, he's just a horse!"
Adora grabs the hand and shakes. "Deal!" Then she swings the sword up and shouts, "For the honor of Greyskull!"
She-Ra and Catra leave the woods and walk into Bright Moon.
They're not attacked.
People part before them. They murmur in various tones, and there's words in those murmurs, more and more as the crowd grows, but she blots it out. She focuses on the sword in her right hand and Catra's hand in her left and She-Ra's steps one after another.
They get past the buildings. They go in the front way. People continue to part and murmur and not stop them, even the ones with armor and weapons. They walk into the palace with its high, high walls.
At the back of the room packed with armed people, on a tall seat, there is a woman.
Like Horsey, she's a bird. And that was what the queen of the princesses was supposed to look like, wasn't it? All the hologram princesses were people-sized but the one for the queen had vast wings on either side.
Adora wanted to try. They've come here, and they'll already have to fight their way out if they leave, so she might as well keep walking forward and try. She squeezes Catra's hand and walks closer.
The woman stands. "It can't be… She-Ra."
That's good. That has to be good, right?
"Your majesty," She-Ra says.
And the woman looks at Catra. She looks in the way people look at Catra.
Catra's claws dig into her hand.
"We," She-Ra says, "have come because we wish to join the rebellion. But first, there's something you should know."
She lets She-Ra go and she's just powerless runaway Adora clutching the hilt of a dull sword.
She hears them gasp. She hears, "The other Horde soldier," with even more hatred than before.
The woman turns her head to look at someone. "Fetch Commander Glimmer from her room," she says to them, and Adora hears feet running on the hard floor.
She doesn't know what to make of the woman's expression beyond that it makes her stomach knot. She never realized how much she appreciated Shadow Weaver's calm, impartial mask. Maybe Catra does too, with how she's crushing herself against Adora's side.
"I know you don't trust us. But I've seen for myself the atrocities the Horde has committed against the people of Etheria, and I will fight stop them. I know we can help the rebellion."
The woman looks them over silently. Her gaze drifts to the sword Adora's still clutching. She holds out a hand.
Adora's eyes dart to Catra.
"It's what you came here for," Catra whispers.
Adora lifts the sword, her muscles tense as she tries not to let her arm shake. The woman takes it by the blade and she forces her hand to release the hilt.
The woman examines the sword. Adora can't say what she's looking for. "I know the legend of the warrior the First Ones called She-Ra," she says finally. "They said she would return to us in the hour of our greatest need to bring balance to Etheria. I never thought she was anything more than a myth."
"But she's not!" says Glimmer, materializing at Adora's side and grabbing the arm that no longer holds She-Ra's sword. It's all Adora can do to bite down a shriek. "Mom, this is what I was telling you. This is Adora, and her friend Catra."
The woman stares at them. "A thousand years… Yet you're here now. And in the uniform of a Horde soldier, no less. You would stand with us against those you served?
"Yes. Both of us."
The woman, still holding She-Ra's sword, turns slightly toward Catra. "And what would you say? You've been very quiet."
Glimmer laughs uncomfortably. "Catra's just -"
"You don't trust us," Catra says, looking up abruptly to meet the woman's gaze. Adora can feel her tail is anxiously lashing, striking against the side of Adora's leg. "I get that. But if you actually knew anything about the Horde you would. You could give me a map of your palace with every way in and out, of your entire kingdom, you could send your princess too, and they'd still kill me, because those weren't the orders I got. I couldn't betray you if I wanted to, and does it sound like they gave me any reason to want to?"
The woman is silent but then nods slowly. "Then Glimmer, you would vouch for them and take responsibility for them?"
Adora can feel a tremble run through Catra but it's fine, it's going to be fine, Glimmer says, "Yes."
"I can't believe Mom agreed to let you stay in Bright Moon," Glimmer says for the fourth time as she's leading them down the hallway past the many, many guards lining either side. Is it better to think that Bright Moon just has guards every few feet or that there's only a couple but they all still hate her so much they're following her around?
"Yeah," Adora squeaks. "Awesome." What isn't completely awesome about being reminded no one thought this would work?
"It's so nice here," Catra says in a monotone.
"Okay, you've seen the dining hall, throne room, the portrait hall. So, the last stop on our grand tour is…" She throws open the doors. "…your new room! Ta-da!"
It's bright like the sunrise and she keeps looking up and up to find the ceiling so far above, feeling a second of vertigo when she does.
"Pretty standard," Glimmer says with a chuckle. "Catra's room is set up the same." Adora tears her eyes from the inexplicably see-through distant ceiling to stare at Catra, who's staring back at her with the same expression of baffled horror. Catra's room is some other vastness elsewhere?
Glimmer continues, "You've got your vanity" - she appears next to what looks like a desk with a mirror - "bathroom" - why is there a lopsided white container of bubbles what does that have to do with a bathroom - "crystals" - Adora clutches at the fact she knows what that is, crystals are sparkly things that have no point only why would they be here if they didn't do anything, she doesn't know this, she has no idea what's happening - "bell pull" - Glimmer yanks a rope and something dings - "tea nook" - a what what - "more crystals" - Adora tries not to hyperventilate - "bed" - she fails where is the bed is it buried under the pillows how can she not understand something as simple as a room - "desk" but wasn't the first thing a desk what was the first thing then - "and, of course, the water fountain." Glimmer smiles at them like the things she just said are good.
Adora takes a steadying breath. The water looks recognizable. It's a stream going into a wide pool in a way that's making the back of her neck crawl in anticipation of Shadow Weaver shouting about wasting water which is really kind of ridiculous if you think about it because the most Shadow Weaver had ever been is disappointed in Adora, she never grabbed - She gulps in another breath. She can do this. "Is the waterfall for showering?"
Glimmer laughs. "Ha! Good one, Adora. Waterfall for showering." She waves her hand like she's batting away the very idea. "Now, Catra's room is right-"
"I'll just stay with Adora!" Catra yelps, jumping away from the open door, and Adora feels like dying with gratitude.
"Uh…?" Glimmer says. "I promise, your room has all the same things."
"It's totally fine!" Adora babbles. "I'd love that! I, I kind of owe her, and it'd be nice to pay her back finally! Catra let me share her bed back ho- at the Horde. I was assigned the top bunk but, uh, I fell out once." It's embarrassing to remember even now but she's already brought it up. "I was a really clumsy kid, and it was really hard to go back up there after I fell. So I'm happy to do the same."
"Why didn't you just switch beds?" Glimmer asks.
Catra laughs with only a slight edge to it, and Adora starts to relax as well. "Switch beds!" She laughs harder. "Oh I am so glad we didn't think of that. Shadow Weaver was so mad the next morning, I can't imagine what she'd have done to me if she thought I'd kicked Adora out of her bed!"
"She wasn't that mad," Adora says defensively.
"The whole room went dark and crackly! I couldn't tell if I'd actually woken up."
"But she didn't actually do anything, so she wasn't that mad."
"We were still really little," Catra says. "She cared more about you getting clipped back then. She used to only go for me if I was more than a couple feet away from you, remember?" Catra pauses, obviously thinking. "But I guess you're right. She didn't order you away and she never minded afterward so she couldn't have been that mad."
Afterward… Adora rubs her arm. "No. You were right about her being mad. Remember, she...she grabbed my wrist to pull me out of bed."
"Oh, yeah." Catra's ears go down and she looks to the side. Maybe she's also embarrassed by the thought of how pathetic Adora'd been back then. She hadn't screamed, she doesn't think, but she definitely fainted.
"Uh," says Glimmer again. "Right. I mean. If that's what you want, Catra, and Adora's okay with it too."
"Yes!" Adora says. "Absolutely."
"Okay, so we can get a second bed from-"
"No, it's fine, we're fine!" Adora babbles desperately. She's starting to think she doesn't know what a bed is either. How can they get another one? Magic?
"Alright then," Glimmer says, giving them a weird look. "Well, I'm right down the hall if you need anything!"
The door closes.
Catra looks at Adora. "Okay. Do you know what anything is?"
Adora points at the 'vanity'. "I thought that was a desk but the other thing is a desk," she moans. "And I'm not sure it's actually a desk either."
"If we don't touch anything we can't use it wrong. There's plenty of empty space," Catra decides.
"Right!" Adora breathes out. "I'm so glad you're here."
Catra flops against her side. "Haha, yeah." She sighs. "It's...it won't be that bad," she says suddenly. There's a sort of wistfulness to her voice. "You'll get used to it. Just stay on Glimmer's good side."
"Right," Adora says again. Yeah. She can do this. She walks toward the center of the room. There's all sorts of heavy cloth above the pile of pillows to create shade. She's not sure why they made a huge bright room and then wasted a lot of clothing to make part of it dark instead of just making a regular room, but dark is for sleeping and Glimmer said this is the bed so that adds up.
Adora sits cautiously on the edge and suddenly she's being swallowed by pillows. "Help."
Catra approaches but only so she can lean over and get a better look for laughing at Adora. "Now you're losing another fight with a bed." Adora finds the strength to lunge up for long enough to grab her and then they both topple into the morass. "Aiugh!!!" Catra shrieks, clawing her way on top of Adora for better footing and then jumping up to hang on the hanging cloth, all her fur standing on end, and it's Adora's turn to laugh at her instead. "At least I can get out again!" Catra shouts. Adora chucks a pillow toward her but Catra scrambles to the side, then down and back to solid ground somewhere outside of Adora's vision.
She wriggles around a bit, throwing more pillows in the hopes of excavating the actual bed only to discover there's still a giant pillow underneath it all. Is that supposed to be the bed?
"Maybe it's a bed storage," Catra suggests. Adora rolls to the edge to see she's contemplating the strewn pillows. "People take one, put it on the ground and sleep there. And the big thing stores the bed insides for when they need to fill more."
"But this is enough for a bunch of squads and it's just us here," Adora says. "Besides, this is the only place that's dark in the whole room."
"And it was supposed to be just you," Catra agrees. "So pillow piles are a bed?" Catra pokes the side of the hanging cloth. She picks it up and Adora sees there's even more bunched on the ground, then Catra's eyes go wide and she just stands there rolling it in her fingers.
Adora groans and wiggles on her belly off the edge and onto the ground. "It's like falling really really slowly and never hitting the ground. Like a nightmare someone made into a bed to sleep on!"
"So let's just sleep on the floor. If we're next to the 'bed' we can still get under the cloth to block all the light."
"You can't sleep on the floor!"
Catra blinks at her. "Why not?"
"Because - I don't know! I'm sure there's a reason!" Adora cards through memories and lessons. "It could make us sick?"
"I'm pretty sure not sleeping will make you sick faster."
Adora turns back to the squishy horror and starts poking around the side. "Maybe...maybe the bed just isn't on yet? Maybe it's deflated, like a raft."
"How would that work?"
"I don't know!" Adora wails. She sits on the floor, then lies back. It isn't actually that cold. Maybe… But she just feels like someone will be mad about this. She gets up again. "I'll just go out quick and ask Glimmer how the bed works."
Catra yawns. "I bet I can fit under the bed. Then no one would know I was sleeping on the floor."
Adora hesitates. But no, whoever comes in will still know when they don't see anyone in the bed. She cautiously goes to the door.
"Remember to ask Glimmer to tell you birds can't be giant and you're dumb," Catra hisses.
"They can so," Adora hisses back, and steps out.
It's dark in the hall now. There's no sign of the guards from before, so, they were following her because they hate her. That's...okay! Adora decides. It's less scary than there being guards watching every meter of this place. And she'll prove herself and then they'll know she's not really evil.
She creeps along. Glimmer said her room was down this way, somewhere. And something's glowing.
Adora rounds a corner to find the bird-queen is standing in the middle of the hallway, blocking the way to Glimmer. How long has she been there? Are the soldiers gone because she replaced them? Was she here because she thought Adora was going to attack Glimmer?
No. She's being paranoid. Glimmer's mom knows she's She-Ra and that she's here to help and balance everything and that they're not with the Horde anymore. There's some other reason. It's the woman's palace, there's nothing strange about her being in it.
"Your majesty!" Adora says.
The queen turns to look at her. She's holding a ball of light in one hand and the expression it illuminates on the queen's face…
She never knew how much she appreciated a mask between her and that. She only knew Shadow Weaver was disappointed when Shadow Weaver told her what she'd done wrong. Is she supposed to guess? She doesn't know where to start guessing! What if she says something that Glimmer's mom doesn't even know to be mad about yet?!
Adora coughs. "So, uh, what are you doing up?"
"When I feel the cares of the day weighing upon me, I come here," she says. Glimmer's mom looks back to the wall she was staring at before. Adora sees it's a picture of someone. They look beautiful.
"Who is that?" Adora asks.
"King Micah." She closes her eyes. "My husband. He built the Rebellion with me. And he was one of the first casualties of the Horde." Her hand and the light in it moves down, toward the corner Adora's standing by, and it illuminates the pattern of familiar uniforms.
"Sorry," Adora says. "I - I didn't know."
"Adora." The queen steps closer to Adora as Adora backs up a half step out of reflex, then leans in closer still. "My daughter believes you can help us. Glimmer has vouched for you despite your background, and because I greatly love my daughter I'm willing to give you a chance." Her hand suddenly closes and the light in it vanishes, leaving only a fist. "Do not disappoint her."
The queen turns her back on Adora and walks away down the hall.
Adora holds perfectly still until she's sure Glimmer's mom is gone, then darts back to the room with Catra and sags down against the closed door.
"Well?" Catra's eyes stare up at her from the base of the bed.
"Let's just sleep on the floor. It's, it's been a long day so I shouldn't bother Glimmer. I can ask tomorrow." She walks up to the bed and crawls under the draped cloth. No wonder Catra hadn't wanted to stop kneading it. It's soft and smooth, like Catra's fur, and has a reassuring weight on top of her. Maybe they're not even wrong. Maybe it's supposed to be a blanket.
Adora wiggles so it's wrapped around her. It feels like back when she was a kid and the blankets on the bed were so enormous you could hide in them.
("You were nothing before Hordak took you in.")
But she'd proven herself to Shadow Weaver, hadn't she? She could do it again. Would do it. She'll be worthy of Glimmer's belief in her.
"I'm sorry about back when we were kids and you fell," Catra blurts out. "I should've made you go to the infirmary."
"That's not your fault! I was the one who didn't want to go."
"But you're a moron and I always knew that."
"Your apologies suck," Adora says, and shoves her.
Catra doesn't say anything in response. After a moment, Adora admits, "The whole time I was at the infirmary, I just wished I could've just pretended it was okay so I could've stayed with you instead, even if it hurt. And then when I got back you said I could keep sleeping on the bottom anyway."
"That's because you're an idiot," Catra says, grinning, and shoves her back. "Anyway, if you fell off with two working arms, you'd probably have broken your neck falling off with one!"
"Beds are treacherous," Adora says.
"They're the worst," Catra agrees, and rolls to curl up against her side.
It's not exactly a surprise when Adora wakes to find no sign of Catra - Catra's always the very first or very last one awake, that's just how it is - but it's still disconcerting. And unlike back home Adora has no idea where to look for her.
"Please don't make trouble," she mutters.
She walks in a circle around the bed, staring at the various things Glimmer pointed to before. The weird shaped thing with bubbles has a lot of weird smells to it. She works up the courage to poke the very top and one bursts, leaving a soapy residue on her fingers. So, that's probably soap. Maybe the showers are somewhere else and people bring the bubbles from their rooms.
She's startled by a sound that seems like it must be from someone banging from outside, only very lightly. Adora scurries over and opens the door.
"Hi!" Glimmer chirps. She leans to the side to look around Adora. "Oh, you guys had a pillow fight?"
Now she knows what they're for! This is a good start to the day. "Uh, yes. Yes, that thing."
"So, our weekly meeting with the rebellion generals is today, and you're invited!"
"Oh." More people who'll - no, more people she'll have the chance to impress.
Glimmer continues to peer around Adora. "Where's Catra?"
"She got up early," Adora says, then realizes this does not impress people who think you're a spy and continues almost smoothly, "To look for more mice! But I'm sure she'll get to the meeting on time!"
Glimmer just looks confused. "How…?"
"I'm sure she will!"
"But she doesn't know there's a meeting."
Adora bites back a whimper. No, Catra doesn't. This isn't like back home where everyone always knew what they were supposed to be doing and where they were supposed to be. Now Catra's going to get in trouble for being late when it's not her fault for once and it's all because Adora was too much of a coward to talk to Glimmer last night and find this out. "Right. So - so she might be late, because she doesn't know."
Glimmer sighs. "It probably doesn't matter that much. It's not like Mom's going to agree to let us actually do anything. She never does."
("Do not disappoint her.")
"But that was before She-Ra appeared!" Adora says. "Your mom said that it was She-Ra's job to bring balance to Etheria."
"Yeah, you're right!" Glimmer bangs a fist against her hand. "And if She-Ra appears when she's needed the most, then if she's here then that means we've got to get moving! " Glimmer grins. "Come on, let's get going to breakfast."
And breakfast is delicious. Glimmer gets a platter heaped with mysterious things and they sit by a window.
Adora hollows out the airy innards of one of the 'bread' balls and begins stuffing 'eggs' and whatever the heavy green and yellow slices were inside whenever Glimmer looks away. Catra might actually be catching mice. She also might not be. And Catra always insisted the grey ration bars were the best even though everyone knew the brown ones were because they were sweet. The only thing the grey ones had in their favor was that they were squishy and smooth and somehow moist-tasting even though they had no water in them.
She successfully transfers the ball to the inner pocket of her jacket and reaches for more. Glimmer observes that she must like 'avocado'.
"Yes," Adora agrees, and crams the slice she has into her mouth. And she does like it, even if it's not as good as the solid green sweet ones or the orange sweeter ones or the extremely sweet and crunchy white ones with a red crust. Glimmer continues to not pay very much attention to Adora fussing with the food and she successfully fills another two 'bread' and gets them into her pockets without suspicion.
"The meeting will be starting soon," Glimmer warns, and Adora quickly shovels everything left on the plate into her mouth. "Don't choke!"
Adora gulps. "I won't."
She does. She absolutely does. The room is so beautiful and bright and the walls are covered in drawings of people and Adora is too awestruck to think about what she's doing. She tries to sit down next to Bow and she takes King Micah's chair like the Horde took King Micah himself and...
She wishes the queen had just done something right then. Waiting is the worst part.
"And where is Catra," the queen says.
"I didn't tell her, I'm sorry!"
"She's nuts about squirrels, Mom," Glimmer says. "She hasn't even come back for a real breakfast."
"But she will be back!"
The queen says, "Very well then," in a way that doesn't sound like it's actually well.
"Nuts for squirrels," Bow whispers, sounding amused. "Good one, Glimmer."
It turns out Adora was wrong when she told Glimmer that things would be different now that She-Ra was here because Glimmer barely gets a word out before her mother shoots down the idea of actually fighting the Horde.
And maybe it's because Adora's there, or because Adora failed to bring Catra and everyone still thinks they're spies, or because Adora has just messed up yet again, but when Glimmer protests her mother yells at her and her wings go out like the darkness around Shadow Weaver.
Adora has to fix this. And prove herself useful. And save Etheria before it's too late. And let Glimmer do something so she doesn't disobey her mom again. Even if it's scary when people get so mad, she shouldn't be a coward. She raises her hand and says, "You should send me, Catra, Glimmer and Bow on the relief mission. You can send me as She-Ra. I'll make sure that everyone gets there safely and protect them if the Horde attacks. I promise. I won't disappoint you."
The queen still looks frightening but this doesn't appear to have made her any more angry. She sighs once and then glowers at Adora. "Very well. You will deliver food and supplies to Plumeria and under no circumstances will you engage the Horde. You'll leave at dawn."
Adora smiles in relief, and Bow and Glimmer are smiling at her, and everything is going fine again.
The queen leaves and the others nod to Glimmer and leave as well. Now all Adora has to worry about is finding Catra before Catra causes any more trouble.
"Hey, Adora," says Catra, poking her head out from under the table.
"Catra!" Adora shouts. "WHY!"
"I mean, why not?" Catra says, standing upright and then leaning back against the table she'd been hiding under.
"I - I -" Adora sputters, and then angrily gestures at Glimmer and Bow while raising her eyebrows because she can't just say out loud that she's been stuck covering for Catra in front of the people she was covering it up to. Catra rolls her eyes back and does a dismissive not-like-I-asked-you-to handwave. Adora stomps her foot.
"I'm more confused about how…" Bow says. "I thought no one told you."
Catra points to her head and wiggles her ears. "Good hearing. There's a lot no one tells me."
Adora smacks herself in the face. Catra was outside their room. Of course she'd be there. She didn't know anything about the palace either and even Catra wasn't foolhardy enough to run around someplace she didn't know. All Adora'd needed to do to find her was stick her head out the window. "You could have just followed me…" she groans through her hand.
"Aw, but you should've seen your face!" Catra climbs to the top of Glimmer's chair. From atop her perch, she continues, "Besides, I'm not a princess. Is this really all the princesses there are? A couple seats around a table?"
"Well, even back when the princess alliance was running," Glimmer says, "not all the princesses joined. There's even a princess with the Horde."
"No there isn't," Adora says immediately. "Princesses are - are the Horde's enemy."
"Not all of them," Glimmer says, bitterness in her voice. "The place where the Horde started used to be a princess' kingdom. After the Horde landed there, they joined forces. Apparently they were always kind of bad news."
Catra, though, looks like she's suddenly realized something. "You have to recharge. Out of that rock outside, right? The glowy one? That's a princess thing, magic powers from magic rocks that runs out?"
"Yeah," says Glimmer.
But that can't be right.
Catra nods to herself. "So, was that pretty much how these are? Princess says go, Queen says no?"
Glimmer sighs and looks down. "Pretty much, yeah." There's a miserable roughness to the words.
Catra hops down again. "Well. That's not too bad, then. If you were losing all the time and actually trying, that'd be way worse than losing because you're not, right?"
"And...maybe if this goes well, I'll get the chance to do more," Glimmer says. "Maybe Mom will rethink things."
Adora and Catra share a look. No. No, she will not.
"And we have time to get you guys new clothing!" Bow adds.
Catra jumps onto the table, then to the top of the queen's chair, the highest point in the room. "No! The cloak was the worst part of yesterday!"
"Don't be so dramatic. It was only the second worst thing," Adora says.
Bow holds up his hands placatingly. "It doesn't have to involve any cloaks."
And they have to stop dressing as Horde cadets if they're not with the Horde. Adora grits her teeth and says, "I think that sounds great. Why don't I go first."
"It'll be fun," Glimmer says, grinning. "Follow me." She and Bow lead the way out of the room. Adora follows, pulling one of the balls of food out of her pocket and holding it behind her. A moment later, it's snatched up.
"Show up for breakfast next time," Adora whispers, passing her the next two.
"I'll think about it."
The joke turns out to be on Catra, because the new clothes aren't particularly awful, just different. Glimmer evidently only wears loose, icky-feeling clothing but Bow understands the idea of shirts and pants that actually fit. In fact, she can just get copies of her current clothing.
See? New things are fine. And she's sure going to a new kingdom and meeting new people will go fine too.
And for the first minute or two of the mission, it is. She's She-Ra, not Evil Horde Soldier Adora, and as soon as she's seen everyone clusters around her with enormous smiles.
"Look!" says the one in the middle. "The universe has heard our pleas and sent the legendary She-Ra to help us save our home."
And suddenly everyone is no longer clustered so much as attached to her. Somehow a small child has wrapped itself around one arm and another person hugs her around the waist. "Uh? Glimmer? What's happening?" She looks desperately at Glimmer and Bow for what to do next but they're just smiling, and then Catra in the cart, who is rolling back and forth shaking with silent laughter at her discomfort.
Great. Sure. She'll just handle this herself.
She follows the one saying she'll show She-Ra around. The person tells her about how the land is full of flowers and also trees, and then stops at a large tree that gives her powers, so, she's another princess, the princess Perfuma who sent the message. That must be why plants kept appearing out of nowhere. And according to Bow and Glimmer, all the other plants around are apparently dead, and this is bad, and the princess doesn't know what to do about it and also doesn't want to talk about it.
How can you tell if a plant is dead? They're plants. She's pretty sure a plant doesn't do anything beyond exist in a spot. But She-Ra can't not know when something's wrong. And it sounds like this is something completely obvious, because the princess doesn't seem surprised when Bow and Glimmer say they noticed.
Catra, not a princess, is willing to open her mouth and ask, "What exactly do you expect her to do, then?"
"Oh, I didn't see you there!" the princess says, as if Catra hadn't been deliberately skulking in the back, and drops flowers on Catra's head. Catra makes a distressed growl. "Wonderful! And the celebration's about to begin!"
That turns out to involve food. "No no no," she says, holding up her hands. "You need this food more than we do."
Catra grabs one of the round green things in the bowl She-Ra's trying to refuse and then hops into the tree faster than She-Ra can grab her. She bites into it and liquid dribbles down her chin. "It's chewable water. Nice!"
"Catra," she groans.
"You can't keep everyone from making bad decisions," Catra retorts, and takes another bite. Around it, she mutters, "We brought food, they're wasting food and time feeding us now, we tried, might as well eat."
"We are so honored to have you here!" interjects the princess, flopping down by She-Ra's leg.
"Maybe you should try other feelings," Catra tells her. "Like fear." She points toward the smoke that She-Ra's eyes keep drifting toward. "Staring at her instead of that isn't going to make it disappear."
"This is the She-Ra!" Perfuma says with greater emphasis. "The universe sent her here to fix things! Returned after all these centuries in our hour of greatest need, just like in the stories!"
"What stories?" She-Ra blurts out.
Well, apparently She-Ra tames beasts by saying a magic word. And apparently Bow thinks that story is too reasonable because now he's telling increasingly impossible ones.
"None of those sound like, 'And then pretending the Horde wasn't right outside made them all die instead of us!' so I don't see why it matters!" Catra calls down.
"Catra!" shouts Glimmer. "That's not helping!"
"You'd know!" Catra snaps back.
"Of course we don't expect She-Ra to do that!" The princess' eyes gain a shine like she's near tears. She takes a breath, then clasps her hands together and regains her smile. "We're just so excited for you to heal our land and bring all the plants back to life. Will you be doing it before the drum circle, or after?"
"You want me to, uh, you want me to heal your land?" she repeats.
"Yes! Like in the ancient story, She-Ra Heals the Forest and Brings the Trees Back to Life."
Catra drops out of the branch and grabs She-Ra's sword. "Lady. Do you not know what this is."
"It's the sword of She-Ra!"
"It's a pointy thing to hit things with," Catra says. "That's how swords work. Sometimes, it also glows and puts pointy things on horses, which I assume they use to hit more things. The only thing a weapon fixes is a problem still being alive."
"Wait, Horsey-" Bow starts to say.
"Except this is a magic sword," Glimmer interjects. "I'm sure She-Ra can use it to solve whatever's wrong here."
"What's wrong here is the Horde!" Catra screams. "Are you blind?" Then she spins from Glimmer and grabs the shoulder of Perfuma, waving at the rising smoke. "You can see it from here! So eat the food she brought and then go use your princess powers to blow up the Horde instead of sitting around!"
"Knock it off, Catra!" Glimmer demands.
And this place's princess… "I…" How she sags. Just the sight hurts. She cups her hands and holds them out to Catra. A brilliant red flower appears. "This is my power. I grow plants."
The flower turns brown and curls up.
"We're not...strong enough to go up against the Horde."
"I didn't realize there were useless princesses," Catra says. Adora hadn't known that either.
Bow gasps. "Catra! That's uncalled-for."
Catra ignores him and says to Perfuma, "Fine. She-Ra's here and she's a regular useful princess. She'll blow them up for you."
"Really, all we want is for our plants to be healed," the princess insists.
"And then what?"
"We'll continue to live here peacefully, in our ancestral lands." The princess smiles winningly at Catra.
Catra scoffs in return. "With the Horde still there?"
She-Ra tries to speak up. "Catra, I think-"
"No, you don't!" Catra snaps. "Even if you could wave your hand and magic away whatever toxins the Horde's pumping out, and you can't because you'd have done it by now, they'll just keep doing it." She waves her hand across all the people watching She-Ra, all the people who need She-Ra to fix this. "Their plants will be dying again before you even have time to walk out of the place. If another She-Ra saved another forest, she did it by getting rid of the real problem. And what luck! You're actually good at that."
Something booms in the direction of the smoke, and the column itself billows and thickens.
And it's true, she's a lot more confident in her ability to fight than to just hope the magic will do something when she wants, especially after all the difficulty the sword gave Adora with just turning into She-Ra. Even if it's a power She-Ra has, what if Adora's just too stupid to get it to work?
"The Horde...they were making machines to poison plant life, as part of destroying the Whispering Woods," she says slowly. Adora hadn't really understood how that worked beyond that plants were alive and poison made alive things dead. "It wasn't successful there, but… If this started when they showed up, then Catra has a point. Removing the poison that's here now won't stop them from putting more poison into your kingdom. Your plants would just get sick again."
"But, uh…" Bow says awkwardly. "We're really not here to fight the Horde."
Right. She can't disobey orders.
"We can't just abandon these people!" Glimmer cries.
But she can't let everyone down. Or disappoint Glimmer after she vouched for them.
Okay. Okay. Okay.
She-Ra opens her mouth and says, "We might be able to destroy the machine without fighting the Horde. I think I know enough to let us sneak in." And she smiles as confidently as she can at the assembled people. "Don't worry," She-Ra tells them. "I'll solve this. I promise, I won't let the Horde destroy anything more."
They cheer. "She-Ra! She-Ra!"
"Are you sure about this?" Bow whispers.
She-Ra keeps her smile fixed in place. "Yes," she says through her teeth. "Absolutely."
The thing is, the plan really isn't a bad one at all.
"This is the worst," Catra says. "Let's just smash it all but tell Glimmer she doesn't get to have fun."
"I'm not doing this because it's fun!" Glimmer protests.
"See, you heard her, she won't even mind."
"The most important thing is being sure we find the problem," Adora insists. She's also pretty sure that leaving Glimmer behind will just mean Glimmer comes on her own and if the queen is mad about Glimmer getting in danger, she'll be even madder about them leaving Glimmer to get in danger all alone. "If this goes right nothing interesting will happen at all."
This way is so much safer. Go in ahead of a shift change to replace the guards, then when the real replacements show up, let them relieve you and walk out without anyone being the wiser.
"I should've never told you I heard that password," Catra says. "It's probably not even valid anymore, you know that right?"
"It'll be fine."
And, well, no plan survives contact with the enemy and it's not like she had another password she could've tried instead. Just getting in without a fight was still pretty good.
The part where she's trying to fight off actual experienced soldiers as just Adora, though...it could've been improved a tad.
"Get in a corner and be a princess!" Catra shrieks, dropping on the soldier in front of her. The helmet and chest armor successfully blocks most of Catra's attack, but she manages to tear violently right through the fabric of the arm with the claws of one foot. Adora can't help but wince. That's going to get infected.
"Right!" Because throwing herself into the fight as Adora is a mistake. No one needs Adora here. They need She-Ra. And Catra's giving her breathing room. She grasps the sword and says the words. And it works.
As She-Ra, it's easy to knock the soldiers away, and others turn and run at just the sight.
And then she has a chance at the machine.
She tries to call on outrage. This is hurting people, she tries to tell the sword. This is hurting people and it exists only to hurt people, does nothing but poison and ruin for the sake of it, and the Horde made it and runs it, the Horde invented it for that very reason.
The sword responds. She can feel the energy in it. There's white lightning forming around her hands that reminds her of how she's seen Shadow Weaver use magic.
She plunges the sword into the top of the machine and the power pours out. The poison burns away.
She-Ra healed the forest and brought the plants back to life. She's lived up to what she needs to be.
The princess hugs her when she returns, both with her arms and with garlands of flowers. "Right after you left, the heartblossom itself began to sicken. I didn't know what to do! We were going to have to leave," she says, and her voice quakes with emotion. "But then suddenly it was gone again, and my powers, they're back to normal again! You're just like the stories said! I knew it! I knew the universe would right itself. We just had to be patient!"
After they leave, when she's back to just being Adora, she's so happy she doesn't think of anything else at first.
Catra and Glimmer are...they're more subdued, she realizes as the glow wears off.
The princess refused to join Glimmer's alliance. Honestly, it didn't seem like her being there or not would've mattered, but it was probably bad she said immediately, "Didn't that go horribly?" If that was what princesses remembered of it, then Glimmer was going to have a lot of trouble getting anyone to join. And that was what Glimmer really wanted, more than just a victory against the Horde.
Catra's just mysteriously sulking like she does sometimes. More mysteriously than usual since a lot of stuff blew up, and she should be smug about how she was right about the password or how Adora needed her help or a million other things. Adora keeps sneaking glances but it doesn't look like Catra got hurt, and she doesn't think she should bring it up around Glimmer and Bow.
And then they get back to Bright Moon. It was easy to forget that they'd disobeyed orders when it had gone so right.
"It was all my idea!" Adora says immediately. "Catra had nothing to do with it!"
The queen only looks at her with her horrible expressions and says, "You're the worst liar I've ever seen."
"I'm not lying!"
The queen holds up a hand and Adora cringes and goes silent. "Plumeria's kingdom falling would have been devastating to the rest of Etheria. This was an important victory against the Horde. However...Glimmer, you're grounded for a week for disobeying direct orders."
"Fine," Glimmer says with a groan.
"I'm so sorry," Adora tells her as soon as the queen is gone. "It's all my fault you're in trouble."
"It's no big deal," Glimmer replies, and actually looks like she means it. Well, Glimmer's brave. "She usually grounds me for a month for stuff like this. Mom's impressed! I just wish....well, the fact we could help out a kingdom is good, even if she didn't join, and the fact we could beat the Horde. Maybe seeing what we can do will convince others."
"And...am I really a bad liar?" Adora asks.
Glimmer and Bow stare at her. "Did you not know?" Bow asks.
"I…" But there were so many times she'd told the truth and… "So do I sound like I'm always lying? Is that the problem?"
"No, no," Glimmer says, "you sound really honest normally. When we first met, that was the first thing that threw me. You sounded like you really believed the Horde wasn't bad, and I tried to tell myself you were lying to me because, well, I didn't want to believe you didn't know the truth."
She'd always thought people just guessed. That nobody could tell and it was random.
She looks to Catra, who is looking at the floor and ignoring everyone. Of course she is. Adora thought she was doing the right thing and it turned out the queen was impressed by what they'd accomplished.
As soon as they're back in their room Catra says, "Never do that again!"
Adora feels like crying. "I swear I wasn't trying to steal credit Catra, I thought-"
"I know!" Catra snaps. "You don't get it, you can't do things like this anymore. Shadow Weaver liked you but the queen hates both of us! You're only here because Glimmer likes She-Ra and so her mom is putting up with us," Catra spits. "As far as she's concerned we're just Horde murderers."
Adora nods. "You're right, I haven't done enough to prove myself yet, I wasn't thinking."
"Because that's all you have to do," Catra says, and she's so angry, like she doesn't think Adora's even been trying.
"I know I have to work harder," Adora tells her, "and I will!"
But Catra looks even angrier. "Really? Why don't all those useless plant people just work harder then!"
Adora doesn't even know what they're fighting about now. "Because that's what She-Ra's supposed to do!"
And then suddenly it's worse, the flat cold that means Adora has said the wrong thing, done the wrong thing, and there's no words to fix it. "You didn't save anyone, you know," Catra says. She turns her back on Adora and jumps onto the edge of the window. "The Horde will just come back."
But she's gone.
Adora doesn't have a grappling hook. She doesn't know where to find a grappling hook. She does know where to find Glimmer.
She knocks on the door. After a moment, Glimmer answers.
"I need a grappling hook," Adora tells her.
Glimmer yawns. "Why?"
"I got into a fight with Catra, and I think she's on the roof now, but I can't get up there."
"I'm not sure a grappling hook is the solution to that."
"I can't climb up without one."
"Adora…" Glimmer sighs. "Maybe she needs time to cool off."
"She's mad at me!" Adora says helplessly.
"Do you know why she's mad at you?"
"Because we fought."
"About what?" Glimmer insists.
Adora starts to pace anxiously. "I don't know! I thought she was upset I lied to your mom, and she was, but it was because she was worried about me getting in trouble, and I said I understood and I'd try harder but that made her more upset with me and I think, maybe she doesn't believe me that I'm trying, or she does but it's just not good enough, she was already mad over the trip, I thought it went well but-"
"Adora," Glimmer interrupts. "What do you normally do when this happens?"
"I get a grappling hook so I can climb up wherever she went!" Adora repeats. Isn't that obvious? "And something to make her forget whatever I did if I can, but I don't know what that would be this time."
Glimmer shakes her head. "Adora… Just because she's mad doesn't mean it's your fault."
"It's not always my fault but this time it's my fault, I said the wrong thing."
"I know she's your friend…" Glimmer starts, like Adora hasn't heard this before.
"She is! She's my best friend."
"It just doesn't seem like she's very nice to you."
"No, no, you don't understand, the whole fight started because she was worried about me. She's always had my back, ever since we were little kids."
"We literally met Catra electrocuting you in the back."
"Because she was worried about me! And she said sorry! She didn't mean for it to be set that high! And - and it was just reflex the second time, she said so!" She shouldn't have gone to Glimmer. She's just making this worse. She pleads, "I'm not mad about it, don't be mad about it, it was an accident."
Glimmer huffs. "Are you ever mad about any of it?"
"Yeah, sometimes, but there's no point in staying mad."
"Then the same goes for her, right?"
Adora almost explains that it's not the same at all. Catra always gets in trouble when she does something wrong, so, so much trouble, and how could anyone still be mad on top of that? But Glimmer doesn't know that Catra's always doing the wrong thing and getting in trouble. Nobody here knows that. And maybe if no one knows it's true, it doesn't have to be.
"Look," Glimmer says, touching her shoulder. "Why don't you try waiting for her to come back in her own time? And if she's still mad, ask her why, don't just apologize."
"Yeah," Adora says, managing a nod. "She really - she is a good person. She really was worried, and she was right. I wasn't thinking when I tried to lie to the queen, I was acting like it was how things were back in the Horde."
Glimmer smiles at her. "But you're not anymore. Things are different here."
Adora nods again. "I get that now. It's a bad idea when your mom doesn't like me."
"What?" Glimmer grasps. "Is that what Catra said? It's not true, my mom loves you!"
"It's not what Catra said, it's just - she doesn't! I was a part of something horrible and she knows it."
"That wasn't you. Mom knows that. I know Mom can be...a little intense. But she wouldn't have invited you to stay or to the meeting with the rebellion generals if she didn't like you."
Of course she would. She'd said precisely that, that first night, standing before a picture illustrating exactly why Adora deserved her hatred.
But would saying that do any good?
Arguing with Glimmer won't change her mother's opinion. And what if her mom denies it, responds with the same indignant tone Glimmer just used, "Is that what Adora said?" and convinces Glimmer that they're not so great after all? Or worse...what if Glimmer believes Adora over her mother, what if she gets angry at her mother, and the queen decides that Adora and Catra are more trouble than they're worth?
"I guess," Adora chokes out. "I'll go back to our room. Maybe she's back already."
She is. She's sitting on the sill of the window and Adora nearly sends them both out of it when she runs over to tackle her. She's expecting a shove and complaints, Catra's always happier grabbing than being grabbed, but instead there's just silence.
"I'm glad you're back," Adora says. "I'm sorry."
"It was dumb of me to be mad," Catra mumbles. "You're the same as always."
"I can be better."
Catra shakes her head. "You're already too good." Her tail coils around her feet. "Always making excuses for me. Anyone else would get it by now. You know I'm awful but every time you're surprised all over again, and then you go right back to saying that of course I'm awful but despite that I'm a good person."
"I'm not wrong about that," Adora says.
"I only left to save my own skin," Catra says into her knees. "Shadow Weaver told me to bring you back and I couldn't. I told you, and you still wouldn't believe it."
"But you chose to leave," Adora insists. "It's not like that was safer."
But Catra's just shaking her head. "I told you, I'm telling you, and you still don't. You believe the best of everybody. Me and Shadow Weaver. It's only because I'm disrespectful, because I don't try hard enough, because I provoked her again, she doesn't really hate me, and it's not like she'd really kill me -" Catra chokes. "Would you have believed me when I was dead?"
"She said stuff but - but -" And Adora can almost feel Glimmer saying the next words and stumbles to a halt. "I…"
"I didn't want you to give up," Adora says finally. "You're smart, and talented and I was sure she'd see it eventually. And then she wouldn't always be mad at you."
"She was furious. Like it was all my fault, like you hadn't left me just as much as you'd left her."
"I only told you to stay because I didn't want you getting in trouble over me."
"Yeah," Catra says sourly. "That worked great."
"But, it worked out, right? If you'd come with me, we'd have beat Glimmer and Bow easily. And then we'd have gone back. We wouldn't even still be together, because I'd be a force captain and you'd still be a cadet and - and you'd be stuck there no matter what you did. I was acting like it was just for now, I wanted to believe that, I wanted...I wanted to be force captain and it was easier to think things would work out. And you knew better. And maybe it'll turn out the queen will always hate us, but at least she leaves us alone."
"For now, anyway. We don't even know what she can do."
"I think it's the same stuff as Glimmer. She made a light in the hallway. It can't be that terrible or they wouldn't be losing."
"What if that's what happened to Shadow Weaver?" Catra whispers.
Adora generally worked really hard at not thinking about whatever had happened to Shadow Weaver. "Well, now we know we can leave if things get bad."
"Or when they figure out we're using the shower as a shower."
Adora laughs. "Yeah."
But Catra can't let it go. "I just… I always figured Hordak did it to her. Because she's scared of him."
"She respected him."
Adora can hear Catra shaking her head. "Yeah, she respected him even more than I respected her," Catra says, then more seriously, "But we just...we just walked off! We even went back to wreck their stuff and left again! And Shadow Weaver's in charge of like, everything. So why didn't she? Couldn't she? Was making other people miserable worth it? Or are there scarier things out there?"
"Maybe the old kingdom used to do the same stuff as the Horde, and that's why everyone hated them. So they work together because they both wanted to do the same things, but she wants to be in charge instead."
"Maybe… I thought I understood stuff, I thought I knew when they were lying to us, but...there's so much to everything. Etheria's so big and so old and so strange and there's so many people, and…" She sighs. "In training all the princesses were the same. I didn't know that was a lie too."
It's been gnawing at the back of Adora's mind too. "The others must be powerful, or else Glimmer wouldn't want to get the alliance started up again so much. Razz said so too, that the princesses would be protecting everyone normally. And...and it's like you said about retreating. We know Glimmer's right because we know the Horde's afraid of princesses. Why else would we spend all our time training against just them, if they weren't able to beat the Horde?"
"Maybe," Catra says again. "The Horde's afraid of the Whispering Woods too, but it didn't look like the trees were winning."
"We'll convince the rest of the princesses and She-Ra will lead them all to victory, you'll see. Then we won't have to worry anymore."
Adora's never really understood Catra's problem with boats.
"Oh, because you're all furry," Bow says.
"What does that have to do with being stuck in the middle of an endless expanse of water?" Catra says, almost baffled out of her dread. "Do you think being mostly hairless is going to save you? It won't!"
There's so many terrifying things that actually happened to be afraid of but Catra, for some reason, got fixated on something she just imagined would be really terrible to go through. "It's not going to sink," Adora says. "Come on, we both know how boats work." And yes, this boat is exceptionally tiny -
"I also know how waves work!" Catra howls.
- but this man is an experienced sea captain, which means he's been on it many times and isn't dead yet.
"That isn't how statistics work and you know it!"
It's close enough. Adora picks up Catra and staggers into the boat, where the rocking makes Catra kick her way off Adora again and latch all four sets of claws into the wood at the bottom.
Adora considers, and then thinks better of, saying that's bad for the hull's integrity.
"Are you okay?" Glimmer says again. "If you're this scared of drowning maybe you should go back."
Catra's ears flick dismissively. "You can get drowned anywhere and I bet I'm wigglier than you. Only babies are scared of that."
"We have a map, Catra," Adora tells her. "Even if we can't see the shore we know what direction it's in. We're not going to just be lost and you really are a good swimmer. Plus this whole thing is made of wood for some reason and wood bits float, that's what driftwood is, so if it does get smashed up by a wave you'll have pieces to use as a kickboard."
For some reason Sea Hawk thinks this means he should tell them about how his last two boats lit on fire.
"We're going to all die," Catra groans in the bottom of the boat.
Sea Hawk breaks into song.
In the end, they get there without being swamped by a wave or the whole ship burning down or becoming hopelessly lost and slowly dying because seriously Catra, it's not going to happen.
Catra goes still and begins to radiate intent when land finally comes into view.
"Don't swim over," Adora tells her immediately. "You'll be all wet the whole time we're here, and it'll be salty and itchy, and if you try to lick yourself drier you'll throw up, and there's no reason when we're almost there."
Catra makes a exceptionally theatrical groan even for her, then rolls over on her back and mimes being dead, but she does wait until Sea Hawk's ship has almost reached the rocky shore before flinging herself off the prow. She largely makes the jump.
Adora laughs at her as she scrambles out of the shallows and does the wet feet kicky dance of regret.
"Well you're still on the boat so who's the real idiot!" Catra shouts back.
"Uh, guys?" Bow says. Adora looks to him to see he's glancing around, looking concerned. "Where is everyone?"
This place does seem to be populated more in line with the Whispering Woods than Bright Moon.
"Hm…" Sea Hawk says, stroking his chin. "Very odd indeed. If I know the Princess Mermista - and I, I do! - something's amiss."
"They're probably having a 'party' and left this area unguarded," Catra says disdainfully. "If the Horde had done anything this place would be well-tagged rubble."
There's a bit of motion in the otherwise empty landscape. Someone waves their arms and shouts, "Halt!" before running down and down and down to where they and the boat are. He's gasping by the time he actually reaches them.
"What'd you do to get banned from the party?" Catra asks with interest. "It must have been bad."
"What - party?"
So not everyone has parties after all, it's not just the Horde who's like that.
"I'm Glimmer. We've come to speak with Princess Mermista."
"Tell her Sea Hawk is with them!" Sea Hawk adds.
Catra nods. "Tell her we won't bring him up if she agrees to Glimmer's demands."
"Catra!" Glimmer says.
"Yeah, Catra, they're friends," Adora says. "That was the whole point of getting him to take us."
The still-huffing man looks behind him the way he came and Adora can see him calculating the distance there and back and there again. "Come with me," he decides. "I'll take you to her directly."
That seems promising. Unfortunately, the first words out of the princess' mouth are, "Ugh, who let him back in here," which is not. She's slouched on her throne in a way that makes Adora itch with the desire to tell her to straighten up and not put elbows on things.
"Princess! It has been too long!" he cries, walking right up to her and throwing out his hands.
Catra jumps in his path. "And it can be longer if you agree to talk to Glimmer!"
"Uh-huh," the princess says, dragging the word out like it's an entire sentence in itself. "And who are you?"
Glimmer pushes herself forward. "My name is Glimmer, of Bright Moon. We've never met, but our parents fought in the rebellion together."
Mermista looks to the side. "Oh yeah, I remember hearing about the old princess alliance," she says, voice halfway between another groan and a whine. "My dad said, it was a total disaster."
For whatever reason, Sea Hawk jumps into the silence with, "I didn't think it was possible for you to be more-"
Catra grabs him by the arm and pulls. There is a very momentary struggle followed by the obedient limpness that happens when Catra reminds the person she's gripping that she has claws. "I will be back shortly, my princess!" he manages gamely, a winning grin on his face.
"Yeah he'll be back if you're done talking with Glimmer," Catra shouts from the corridor, still marching him off to where he can't annoy Mermista further.
And, bonus, that means Catra's away by the time the princess rouses herself to mention that the Sea Gate that's so important to the survival of Bright Moon and Etheria as a whole is crumbling away and all she's been doing about it is watching everyone else flee. Even if she can't do anything, like Perfuma, Perfuma was responsible and asked for help. How is She-Ra supposed to fix things if she doesn't even know they need fixing?
Mermista's just...she's just sitting on a throne with her back to it. She doesn't know why it's happening and she doesn't even seem to care.
"It's getting weaker every day and if the Horde tries to attack us again, we're pretty much dead," Mermista says, sounding like this disaster for her country is just an irritation.
Where did the people even go? They've just come from the opposite direction and it was just water and water and a sea monster.
Glimmer is more restrained than Catra's ever been, but there's frustration bleeding into her voice. "The Horde is the reason we're here. We want to rebuild the princess alliance. None of us stand a chance on our own, but we might be able to stop them together."
The princess gives a soft dismissive laugh. "Sure, because that went so great the first time. Why should I help Bright Moon? It's not like they've ever done anything to help us."
So it's like how Adora has to prove herself to Bright Moon, Glimmer has to prove Bright Moon to Mermista. Maybe when everyone keeps saying the alliance went badly it's because Bright Moon messed it up horribly and they have to prove they'll be better this time.
But now Bright Moon has She-Ra. She-Ra can solve this. Adora looks around for how and the directions are right there on the wall, opposite the Sea Gate itself, have been staring right at Mermista her whole life.
Catra returns, presumably because she saw the 'butler' carrying food and stalked him all the way back, and it's just in time to hear Glimmer making her offer. "Look, Mermista. You need our help and we need yours. If Adora can repair your gate, will you consider joining us?"
It's not very forceful.
"Please?" Glimmer adds.
Mermista just groans yet again, leaning her head back on her throne. "I don't know, I guess," she croaks.
"You guess?" Catra snaps. Glimmer shushes her.
Adora smiles at Catra. "She-Ra's convincing." And really, compared to having to tell the difference between alive and dead plants and fix that, this doesn't seem too bad. The magic wires are corroded or the magic pipes are clogged or the magic operating system needs restarting. She's just got to follow the directions to put a machine back to the way it's supposed to be.
Mermista is at least willing to drag herself out to escort them to the Sea Gate, and if she doesn't seem particularly convinced yet, well, she hasn't seen She-Ra and how She-Ra will fix everything, just like the stories say.
Adora transforms without a hitch. Then she points the sword, closes her eyes, and thinks hard about electricity flowing through wires and how she wants whatever stuttering current is currently dribbling into the flickering gate to become a torrent, and for once, the power of the sword is right there with her. It flows out from the sword and she can feel the network beyond, and it's...dusty? Corroded? Gunked up like a clogged fuel line. She starts to try to push against it...
"Sooo is it working?" Bow says, and she loses her focus and the energy rebounds on her like she disregarded safety protocol and grabbed a live wire.
"Don't distract me. This is a lot harder than it looks!" And she focuses and reconnects. Everything she was working to clear has sprung back - it actually feels a tiny bit worse, like the rebound did even more damage. But she's getting the hang of it now, and -
No, this must be what grabbing a live wire feels like. She-Ra lets out a cry as the connection breaks violently and lightning dances across the sword and into her.
"It's the Horde! They're coming for the gate!"
She sees the hole they've blown in the Sea Gate first, then…
It's just one ship. One regular-sized Horde ship. That's not a big deal.
What's important is fixing the gate, doing what she promised Mermista she would, repairing the hole and making sure nothing breaks for good. "I just need a little more time," she tells them. She holds up the sword again and aims it at the Sea Gate. "Keep them busy!"
Catra jumps on the sword. "Has being a princess finally rotted your brain out? You just got fried! We've got to take out the cannon!"
"You guys handle that, I'll -" She's rather undercut by another cannon blast, complete with the backlash frying She-Ra again. This time she can see some of it jolt Catra as well.
"You're not getting anywhere like this!" Catra flips backward to get between the sword and the gate connection, then throws out her arms.
"I said I'd fix the gate!"
"Why are you always like this?!" Catra's voice is even louder over the sound of another blast blowing a new hole in the gate. "You can come back right after and try without exploding!"
She's sure it's better to fix the gate like she said first but now isn't the time to fight with Catra.
"Fine whatever!" is probably not something She-Ra should've shouted. "I'll deal with the dumb boat first!"
"Bet I get there first," says Catra, always having to be insufferable even in the face of agreement. She takes off.
She-Ra responds by grabbing Glimmer, who smirks and teleports them onto the deck.
She goes straight for the cannon near the bow, carving through it with a swing of her sword, then blocks a swing from an unfamiliar force captain and knocks her aside.
"That's what we're supposed to bring back?" quavers Kyle's voice. "It's bigger in person."
There's a moment as she turns when she thinks she's just lost it. The rest of the cadets are just cadets. Shadow Weaver said they weren't ready. They'd only slow her down. They wouldn't be seeing active duty.
There they are.
Lonnie looks up from trying to cave Bow's head in with her staff, looks at She-Ra like the people of Bright Moon look at Adora.
Probably the way everyone looks at Adora now, given that's the name Lonnie hisses at the sight of her.
An instant later Bow's kicked her back and she's too busy fighting him to keep staring like She-Ra's the terrible one. Rogelio charges past the two of them, barreling straight for She-Ra.
What - what do they even think they're doing? There's no military force here. There's almost no one here at all because they all fled because the Horde is evil. How can they be okay with this? How can they act like they've got any right to be mad at her when they're the ones helping the Horde?
She blocks Rogelio with her blade, then swings, tossing him over the edge.
"Adora, look out!" Catra shouts as the forgotten force captain smashes her in the back and sends her to the ground.
She-Ra turns in time to see Catra dangling by the neck from the woman's claw. In that instant, Adora knows she's failed. She can't get up fast enough. Catra will die and there's nothing she can do about it.
Instead the woman chirps, "Kitty!" and abruptly pulls her into a bear hug.
Catra yowls and scrabbles her way loose. "What do you think you're doing?" she shrieks, landing on all fours with her fur puffed and tail sticking straight into the air.
"Ah, Shadow Weaver said you would be here. Said to grab you by the neck and then give you a great big squeeze!"
"ARE YOU INSANE!"
The mad woman regards She-Ra less fondly. "You, though...went AWOL, huh? That's serious."
"We both have!"
She waves one claw. "No, no, I'm sure Shadow Weaver would've mentioned that. Now, if you come quietly I'm - "
Catra shrieks even louder and launches herself at the woman, clawing ineffectually at her shell. "Hey, whoa!" It's enough of a distraction for She-Ra to get in a hit and Catra jumps clear as the force captain is knocked over the edge into the sea.
"I'm blowing this entire thing up!" Catra shouts at the sky. "Adora's AWOL and I'm not?! I'm not?! You're just going to order people to kill me without me even being AWOL first?! Well now you're out a boat! Go tell Hordak a ghost blew it up, see where that gets you!"
There's no sign of anyone on the deck now. Looking over the edge She-Ra can see Lonnie and Kyle, and while harder to identify, there is a green blotch that's presumably Rogelio's nose. He floats a lot lower in the water than anyone else.
In that case, they probably don't need to...oh, Catra's gone already.
Well, at least they're sure to impress the princess now.
Catra actually comes with them to the week's rebellion meeting instead of sneaking in early or hiding outside the window and Adora, an idiot, just thinks that's great.
And she sits down, and Catra's still standing, and the queen comes in, and Catra's still standing.
Catra stares right at the queen and climbs into Micah's seat without breaking eye contact.
Adora's heart stops.
"Catra," the queen grinds out.
"What?" says Catra. Her tail starts to lash and her claws are gripping the armrest.
"That's not your chair."
"What are you going to do about it?" Catra demands.
Adora should get up.
She should she should she should.
She doesn't want Catra to do this and she doesn't want Catra to get hurt.
But she wants to know too.
And the thought of the queen's anger turned on her is so terrifying, whatever horrible things the queen can actually do are nothing compared to the idea of provoking her in the first place, she doesn't know how Catra can do this, and Adora is stuck in place.
"Make me!" Catra snarls, her ears flat and all her fur on end. "Go on and make me! I'm not afraid of you!"
Glimmer touches Catra's side.
Glimmer yips and claps her hands over her nose and there's barely time to register the absolute terror on Catra's face before she's bolted over the top of the chair and flung herself toward the doorway.
"It was an accident," Adora tells the queen.
"Ow," Glimmer says.
"It was an accident." Catra smashes shoulder-first into the wall, gets her hands and feet back under her and takes off to the left, out of sight. "It was an accident she didn't mean to. She scratches me all the time."
"That doesn't really help your case as much as you think it does, Adora," Glimmer says, rolling her eyes. She pulls her hand back and Adora can see the red line across the tip of her nose. Bow is making a face at it.
"It was an accident I swear it was an accident!"
The queen just sighs and holds up a hand. "It was an accident."
"It was an accident!"
"Yes. You can sit down now. Let's just continue."
Adora can't hear any of it over her heart hammering. She presses her hands into her lap, presses her arms against her sides.
When it ends and the queen stands Adora jumps to her feet.
"I'm sorry for what happened. I should have done something and I didn't and-"
The queen just sighs.
"I - I can go g-g-g-"
"That won't be necessary."
It's always so much worse when people have to go through the frustrating process of finding Catra first. "Please, it's my responsibility, I should have, I could have stopped her," Adora begs.
The queen shakes her head. "Your friend's actions are not your responsibility."
They can just go though, they can go, she can find Catra first and run.
"Adora, it's not that big of a deal," Glimmer says. "She must've got hurt more slamming into the wall than this scratch. Just go find her so we can leave on time, okay?"
"Yes! I will, she'll be there!"
Adora finds their room and throws herself under the giant pillow. "It's okay!"
"What does that mean!" Catra yowls.
"They said you got hurt worse running off so nobody's looking for you!"
The tight ball of Catra's form puddles out across the ground in relief. "First thing these floors have been good for." Then she rolls over and kicks her legs in frustration. "Arg, and I still don't even know what the queen can do!"
"Let's just not find out," Adora pleads. "What if that is why Shadow Weaver looks like that? What if you just die right there? I don't want you to get your face burned off just to know that she can burn faces off. What's the good of knowing something after it's too late?"
Catra groans. "I know, I know! It was stupid, I'm stupid!"
"You're not stupid."
"You only think that because you're too stupid to know better." Catra rolls onto her belly again. "So what now? I can go hang out in the forest until the evidence heals."
"Actually...we've got to leave. Glimmer and Bow are going out again."
"I… I wasn't listening. Probably to another kingdom to ask a princess to join the alliance."
"Plausible." Catra pokes idly at the bottom of the bed. "Hey, it's a pillow on this side too."
Adora reaches up to check and finds it deforms squishily under her fingers. "No wonder it's so lumpy."
After a moment, Catra says, "I wonder when things will start making sense."
"Maybe places are just different. Bright Moon has festival-parties with moving and things to hit and hand-animals, Plumeria had the celebration where we only ate a lot, the person at Salineas didn't know what a party was… Maybe everyone has stuff that makes no sense to other people."
"That guy...why was he even there when everyone else had run off?"
"Well, he was her guard. And, uh, there was some other job, food-getter-person. He was one of them and then he had to fill in for the other one."
"That's what I mean. The other person ran off. Why didn't he? What'd she even need a guard for? It's not like Shadow Weaver has guards. And Hordak doesn't. I don't think so, anyway."
"Nobody's attacking the Horde," Adora points out. "It's not the same thing."
"Well, maybe we'll find out when we see how things work in this new kingdom."
"Sure. And anything to stay clear of the queen for a while," Catra agrees. She pokes at the bed again. Her claw catches and she jerks it free, exposing a tiny bit of white. "Is that…"
"...feathers?" Adora pulls at the bit of fluff. The split widens with a tearing sound. "Oh no."
Adora's concerned about what will happen when Catra meets up with Glimmer but when they arrive Glimmer is more interested in why they're covered in feathers.
"I killed the bed by accident," Adora says, more relieved than upset because this is nowhere near as big of a deal and it's hard to be mad about several things at once. "It, uh, there was a tear and then suddenly it exploded."
Glimmer and Bow laugh. "I wish I'd seen that!" Glimmer says, and they just...don't mention anything that happened earlier which is so much better than Adora could've hoped for.
Bow fills up the air by chattering about the princess and Glimmer joins in with what seems sincere excitement. "Princess Entrapta will be a total catch for the rebellion! My mom's going to be so impressed!"
"We need to impress her," Adora agrees. Now more than ever.
"Entrapta's a brilliant inventor," gushes Bow. "She makes robots and rehabs old tech by the First Ones. She's a pretty big deal in the Etherian makers community.... Which I am a part of, because I dabble in gadgetry myself." He twirls one of his arrows.
"Wait," says Catra. "Your bow and arrow stuff is something you made?"
"Well, yeah," Glimmer says.
"I built every one!"
"And if we convince Entrapta to join the rebellion, she'll invent all sorts of cool junk for us!"
"But...but people shot at us with sticks with bits of metal on the end, not all that!" Catra gestures at Bow's quiver of arrows. "If they'd had net-arrows or gunk-arrows or anything-else-arrows they might've actually caught us. I thought your stuff was magic like the princesses or Adora's sword! Why doesn't everyone use them if anyone can?"
"Well I mean…" Bow says. "It's not like anyone can, exactly. They're trick arrows. They're totally different to shoot. Someone who knows how to use normal arrows can't just pick one up and fire it, they'd have to practice a ton with them."
Catra and Adora stare at him, waiting for the rest. When he doesn't elaborate, Adora prompts, "And…?"
"And, well, so they're not interested." Bow shrugs, looking a bit down. "People don't want stuff that's hard to use." Then he perks up. "But Entrapta's stuff won't have that problem, because she's great at automation! She can make technology that doesn't rely on people learning how to use it, because it can use itself!"
Adora doesn't really get why people can't just practice, but, Bow and Glimmer know more than she does. If they think they need robot archers before anyone else can take advantage of Bow's inventions then Adora will just have to convince Entrapta to build them robot archers.
Adora does not convince Entrapta to build robot archers or much of anything, because Adora's too busy ruining She-Ra with some infection so she's sick and totally useless in front of everyone and all she did was make them look worse. It was only incredibly important they make a good impression on the only person Bow and Glimmer know of who could help the rebellion get better weapons than bits of pointy metal.
"I didn't know She-Ra could get sick like that," Adora mumbles. And she wants to say, "What if it happens again?" but she can't. She can't. If they aren't already thinking that she can't say it, and if they are thinking it she still can't say it because then they'll know there's nothing at all she can do to make it not happen, that she's a liability.
Bow puts a hand on her shoulder. "It won't happen again," he tells her, and she gulps and nods. "We destroyed that evil She-Ra-hating disk."
"Good. I never want to feel that way again."
"A dopey idiot?" Catra says. "I have bad news for you. But whatever. Those robots weren't even tough."
"They were tough," Glimmer argues.
"You weren't there for the wall-cleaning bot, it…"
Bow tugs gently at the side of Adora's sleeve. "Soooo Adora," he says, slowing down. "I wanted to talk to you about how things went with everybody."
Ahead of them, Glimmer and Catra start to get distant.
"Well I, uh, I don't really remember half of it," Adora says, laughing awkwardly. "Or like, any of it after stabbing the first robot."
"Yeah...but, the thing is..." He slows down to a crawl and his voice drops. "So...Catra...was with me...when we bumped into the kitchen staff…"
"Catra just gets hungry a lot," Adora defends. "She has a fast metabolism."
"Huh? No!" He catches himself, drops his voice again. "It's not that. But she said some really disturbing stuff to them. Or, about them. I said they should come with us to help save you guys, and they said that, you know, they weren't princesses, they didn't have any powers. And Catra said that we should just go and leave them then."
"Oh yeah, Catra never thinks she needs help."
"Nooot exactly." He takes a breath, then it all comes out in a rush: "She, uh, said they were going to all die so we should just leave and find you guys on our own. And I was like, but we can work together, they can totally do stuff! But she said that they wanted to just wait and die so they should just die. And they got, you know, kind of freaked out by that. Because they very much did not want to die. They were staying where they were because it was safe, and they said that, and she started yelling at them that they were going to get torn apart by robots or starve or be crushed when the Horde realized the princess wasn't doing anything and flattened the place."
"I mean...it did convince them to try fighting, I think. But she sounded really...intense... And she said she was sorry she'd fought the robots when we first got attacked there because she would've let the robots have them if she'd known."
"It isn't that she actually wants people dead, she just, it's how she talks," Adora tries to explain. "She says the same stuff about herself. The reason we went into the Whispering Woods the first time was because she was complaining she was going to die of boredom. She probably didn't think anyone would take it seriously."
"She sounded serious," insists Bow.
"She just…" Adora finds herself crossing her arms, holding anxiously onto her own wrists, and she forces them apart and squares her shoulders so she's standing properly. "I don't know...she was always fooling around and being lazy, she said so constantly even in front of instructors, but she hated when she thought other people weren't trying. And she always did really good anyway, so it didn't matter, it shouldn't have mattered, because it worked fine for her. But one of the others, he was always failing training exercises, and this one time, he got separated and Rogelio doubled back and Catra got in the way. She told Rogelio that there wasn't any point paying attention to what was going on with Kyle. He failed the training most of the time so she said we should all just ignore Kyle, since we were supposed to be practicing for what things would really be like and he wouldn't be there after the first time or so. And then we all failed because of the argument." Lonnie and Rogelio were too busy railing at Catra that it wouldn't be her problem because she wouldn't be there at all by the time it was real to hear the next set of bots appear.
"That's really mean."
"She just gets frustrated at things. Kyle tried to talk to her later but…" Adora wasn't sure what, exactly. She'd only showed up once the shouting and screaming started. She'd wrestled Catra off Kyle, then Catra had started bawling and clawed up her arm to get loose. "It didn't go well, and she ran off. I sat with her and she calmed down and she never brought it up again. Maybe she just...she wasn't wrong, really."
Bow gives her a disbelieving look. "You think she wasn't?"
"I kept thinking Kyle would get better at things, but he didn't."
"That's not...people don't have to be good at something to have value. You shouldn't abandon people just because they're not good enough at something."
"We weren't abandoning anyone! It's not like it was our choice!"
Glimmer appears. "Hey! Hey, you guys okay back here?"
"Yeah!" Bow and Adora say at once. Well ahead of them, Catra is now looking back quizzically.
Glimmer gives Adora an encouraging smile. "Great! So, there's this huge rock up ahead that really needs smashing. And since She-Ra's not sick anymore...she should probably smash it!" Glimmer pounds her fist into her palm.
And that seems to be the end of it.
For supper that night, Bow decides they could use a 'hot meal' and Adora watches with interest as he gathers wood into a pile and sets it alight. So do they eat while they're around the fire, or…?
He gets a bowl with a long handle and holds it over the fire. So they and the food both get hot. Hot food eaten in a hot place. Yeah, she's getting the hang of this finally.
"My mighty Kitchen Knights gave me some teeny sausages before we left," Bow tells her, putting them in the bowl.
"Ooh!" Catra says, shoving her face over the fire.
Adora grabs her by the collar and pulls her back. "You're going to get burned."
Bow says, "It'll take a few minutes before they're cooked." He shakes the handle, causing them to roll around, and a couple slide over the edge. "Whoops!"
Glimmer laughs. "Out of the frying pan and into the fire, again. Maybe I should be cooking."
"Oh no you shouldn't."
One of the sausages pops and rolls off to the side. Catra snatches it off the ground and shoves it in her mouth.
"Catra! Don't do that!" Glimmer tells her.
"Yeah, Catra," Adora agrees. "You'll burn your tongue."
"Es finn," Catra manages. She swallows. "Barely got hot at all."
There's no way to get the other sausages out so they stay where they are and char until they're indistinguishable from the burnt sticks, but there's still plenty left in the pan for them all to eat.
And they really do taste better hot, though Catra disagrees and says the first one was better.
"Probably because it was practically raw," Glimmer says. "You can't eat raw sausage!"
"Totally did." Catra sticks out her tongue.
And there's something nice about just being by a hot flickery thing.
"Awwwwwwww," Adora and Catra whine when Glimmer douses the fire.
"Sorry, but we can't leave it burning while we're asleep. It's not safe."
"What do you mean?" Catra complains.
Bow elaborates, "The sparks and embers from even a tiny fire can get blown away by the wind, and sometimes when they land they'll start burning and then the whole forest is on fire. It doesn't happen much, but, better safe than sorry!"
"The whole forest?" Adora echos.
"Yeah. Not everywhere's like the Whispering Woods. Regular trees can be really vulnerable."
Catra sighs. "I guess I don't want to actually be on fire."
Adora yawns, which makes Glimmer and Bow yawn.
"It's been a long day," Bow says.
"A long, productive day," Glimmer corrects. "Entrapta's the first princess who's really seemed interested in joining up and fighting the Horde. We can go to sleep with the knowledge of a job well done." Then she lets out a little squeal. "Seriously, Mom's going to be so impressed!"
That's a nice thought to sleep on. Adora lies down and closes her eyes and thinks about how, despite everything, nothing terrible actually happened today.
She jerks awake, heart racing, and meets the panicked eyes of a just-awoken Catra.
"Did you hear...?" she whispers.
"I don't know," Catra whispers back.
"I thought I heard Shadow Weaver…"
"She can't be here." But Catra's voice is hushed, like she's just as afraid of being heard.
"It's because of what happened," Adora says with horrible conviction. "She-Ra failed. She-Ra failed and Shadow Weaver saw it. She's been watching us this whole time. I'm such an idiot. The boat that attacked the Sea Gate was sent after us, she knew we were there. She's seen everything. And now she knows how weak I am."
"No. No, she can't be here. She wouldn't. She's always there! She never leaves."
Not back then, but back then, they hadn't left.
"And, and, She-Ra's fixed again," Catra insists. "And it wasn't magic that did it, it was robots and computers and Shadow Weaver doesn't do that stuff, she wouldn't know how to replicate it."
"Like it'd be hard to find someone else to help with it in the entire Horde?" Adora's voice is getting higher and she claps her hands over her mouth before she gets too loud. It's dark everywhere, they won't even be able to see it coming.
"If she could make you sick again you'd already be sick," Catra says. "So she can't, okay? And...she's just one princess, and she's not in charge of us anymore. If She-Ra can lose, then Shadow Weaver can."
It's a comforting thought, but not so comforting that they can close their eyes again.
Adora gasps when Glimmer touches her shoulder and Catra skips sideways at the sound, fur raised.
"Sorry. Too early to teleport," Glimmer says.
Bow gives them a weird look. He makes a show of looking out, then asks, "So...what are we looking at?"
"I don't know," Adora says at the same time as Catra says, "Nothing."
Glimmer and Bow look at them.
Adora looks to Catra, who sighs. "You know how you said the Horde had a princess on their side?" Catra starts. "Well. They do have one, and she's mad Adora left, and maybe that I blew up her boat. I hope she is. And she might be coming for us."
"I heard her say my name last night!" Adora blurts out.
"Did you get any sleep at all?" Glimmer asks.
"And let her get the drop on us?" Catra retorts.
"It was dark," Adora agrees.
"Okay," Glimmer says, holding up her hands. "Okay. I know you're on edge, and what happened with Entrapta's infected robots didn't help. But we're not in any danger."
Adora and Catra glance at each other. They're part of the rebellion.
"You need a vacation," Glimmer continues. "Which is why I decided that we're going to Mystacor."
And that's good, apparently, going by Bow's excited gasp.
"Is that another princess?" Catra asks cautiously.
"No, it's a secret, floating kingdom that's home to all of Etheria's sorcerers." Glimmer sighs happily. "It's got tranquil gardens, and beautiful beaches, and healing springs, and my aunt Castaspella just happens to be head sorceress there!"
"You'll love it!" Bow agrees.
"What's a sorcerer, an aunt, and a sorceress?"
They both look at Catra weirdly.
"She's kidding!" Adora says. "Haha. We know all those things."
"I'm not dying over pride, Adora," Catra tells her, as if that's what this is about as opposed to not looking weak and useless in front of people they need to impress, then turns back to Bow and Glimmer. "We have no idea what any of those are. Are they powerful?"
"An aunt - " Bow starts.
"A sorceress - " Glimmer starts.
A person who's related but isn't a parent and a person who's magic but isn't a princess. Adora hadn't known about things like that.
"It's super nice there," Bow insists. "You'll love it! Plus, you won't have to worry about anybody scary coming after you. Mystacor is protected by an invisibility spell, so evil can't find it!'
Glimmer nods and puts her arm around Adora's shoulder. "It's the safest and most peaceful place in all of Etheria."
"Are they really all that tough?" Catra asks. "The Horde never mentioned them."
"Like Bow said, the Horde can't find them! That's why it's the best place to go. We'll have you guys relaxing in no time."
"How would relaxing help?" Adora demands in horror. Relaxing was what happened before you died of something because you weren't paying attention.
"Yeah, we need to take this to the Horde. Show we're not afraid of anyone," Catra hisses. "I'm sick of hiding."
"It's not hiding, it's just a vacation," Bow says. "Haven't you ever-"
"Do I look dead to you!" Catra snaps and Adora has to get her to stop, they don't like Catra talking like that.
"Is this a Horde thing?" Glimmer asks and oh no that's even worse. "You don't have to do what they told you anymore!"
"I uh…" Adora replies. "I. Mean we could. Give it a try?"
Catra opens her mouth to object but glances at Adora's face and stops. "Yeah. New things. Because...the Horde wasn't right about lots of stuff."
That seems to satisfy them. Bow starts talking about how they'll love it once they give it a chance and Adora nods and says, "Uh-huh," and, "Yeah," a bunch, watching Catra's ears move about like radar dishes and staring at random patches of shadows in case they twitch.
Glimmer leads them up stone stairs and to the edge of a sheer cliff. Adora looks down to see clouds. It's got to be at least a thousand foot drop.
After an awkward moment, Catra asks, "When you said it's protected by invisibility, did you mean evil can't find it because it's invisible or that it's invisible to evil people?"
Glimmer and Bow nod to each other and jump off the cliff shouting, "Wooo-hooo!" They disappear into the clouds.
There is a moment when Catra and Adora share a glance. No. No way. No leap of faith, no finding out if there's a city beyond that's invisible to Horde soldiers, no finding out if the city's also intangible to Horde soldiers.
But then Glimmer and Bow appear again, rising up on some floating stone. "Come on guys, jump!" Bow calls. A prank! It's perhaps the most at home Adora's felt since leaving her actual home. Maybe visiting Mystacor really will be okay. She jumps.
And there's something black amid the clouds, moving like an eel. Adora stiffens up, then flails when she realizes she's off-balance, then hits the rock badly and rolls.
"Oooh, ouch," Bow observes. "Are you okay?"
"Haha she's terrible at jumping!" Catra says, giving her a worried look.
"Fine, I'm fine," Adora says, brushing herself off and jerking her head toward the edge of the giant rock.
"Wow clouds are really interesting!" Catra shouts, lying down on the edge and staring out. "Really cool and, uh, roll-y. Real roll-y and bright, Adora."
Too much light and movement for Catra to make out any one detail. So it's just Adora and whatever she thinks she sees.
"I know!" Bow gushes. "We're riding a flying mountain, through clouds! It never gets old!"
"It's great," Adora manages. She heads over to Catra and lies down as well. "Thought I saw a shadow," she whispers. "But maybe it was just some dark rock."
"Next stop, Mystacor!" Glimmer declares. "Look up, guys, we've reached the shield!"
Shield. Adora looks just as they reach a shimmer in the air. The knot in her back comes undone. So Shadow Weaver really can't get into this place. And, maybe being up here will confuse her and she'll lose track of them. Maybe Glimmer's right, maybe this is exactly what they should be doing.
And this...vacation thing. The Horde lied about lots of stuff, right? This could be really nice.
But she keeps looking around. Because. If she doesn't see anything now, then she'll know it's fine.
The floating rock bumps gently against the floating island and they step off. "Just so you know," Glimmer starts, "My Aunt Casta can be…a lot. But don't worry! I know how to handle her."
"Is that my Glimmer?" a woman calls. She runs over to them, hands outstretched.
"Hi, Aunt Casta," Glimmer says, waving.
Adora flinches back as the woman grabs onto Glimmer and pins her. Sort of like a hug but from an adult. Catra makes an anxious squeak beside her.
It's fine. Glimmer just said she can handle this person.
"It's been so long since you've come to visit," Casta says, then releases Glimmer and turns. Maybe she's not that much older. Maybe they were kids together? Can someone related to parents be a different age than the parents? "And Bow." She grabs him as well and he lets out a little grunt.
"And who's this?"
Oh no now she's looking at them.
"These are Adora and Catra," Glimmer says and then suddenly Adora's being shoved forward, or maybe Glimmer's trying to get behind her. "Adora's also sometimes an eight-foot tall warrior named She-Ra. So, don't get freaked out when it happens."
"Hi," Adora says.
"Adora and Catra," Casta repeats, and Adora just holds still while the woman grabs onto her shoulder and starts leaning closer and closer. She can do this. "How nice Glimmer has finally started making some new friends. We were all so pleased when she started bringing Bow around." She releases Adora and starts to reach toward Catra, whose tail has begun to lash. "I was sure she had made him up at - "
Catra jumps backward and growls.
"Were you were raised by wild animals?" Glimmer's aunt says to Catra, with an odd little laugh.
"She was raised with me," Adora says, throwing an arm over Catra's shoulder.
Casta looks them up and down. "Really. Well, I'm amazed you managed to turn out so well."
It's nothing she hasn't heard a million times before but hearing it now, unexpectedly, feels like scalding water pouring over her head.
Catra pulls away. "Oh, Adora's just special like that. Everybody says so."
Casta begins to chatter at Glimmer about hair and clothing and she...makes clothing? With magic? And Bow is wearing some. And they're going to get food.
She hears laughter. Adora looks over and sees various people making the air glow. It looks a little like Glimmer's sparkles but more focused. One person has lit up the point of a staff brightly like a flame, another holds a wobbling ball, and others have drawn lines and circles in the air.
Is that magic? Can everyone here do magic, like a whole city worth of princesses? And what's the difference between them and princesses anyway, Glimmer and Bow said it's not the same thing but they didn't get into what that meant.
" - Adora and Catra haven't seen it," Bow says, yanking Adora's attention back. "It'll be fun!"
Glimmer glowers at Bow who gives her an irritated look back and gestures like she's making a big deal about nothing, so it seems Adora's now in the middle of an argument.
"Oh!" chirps Glimmer's aunt. "Well then. I - I guess it's up to you two then. What do you say my dears?"
Glimmer is frantically gesturing no but the head sorceress wants them to say yes. "Uh...sure."
"Oh, I like her," Casta says, putting an arm over Adora's shoulder and leading her forward.
And it's actually really nice. She's led into yet another place of beautiful things and this one isn't a little overwhelming like Bright Moon because the glittering crystals aren't paired with white walls and strong lights. It's almost like...what had Razz called them, stars? Sparkles in the dark. "Wow." She glances over to Catra, who seems similarly impressed.
"The lunar lenses," Casta says in a tone that suggests she should know what that is already. "We use them in the monthly ceremony to renew Mystacor's magical defenses and keep us shielded from the outside world." Casta turns to her abruptly. "You will be coming to the eclipse ceremony tonight, won't you?"
Glimmer attempts to wiggle out of this, but she was also desperate not to see this cool place, so, Adora's starting to think Glimmer doesn't have the best judgment. About this, or about her claim she knows how to handle her 'aunt', because the argument makes Casta hug Adora to her side again, saying, "Nonsense, your friends haven't seen it." Then she lets go and taps Adora on the nose instead which is a lot better.
"Why doesn't everywhere do eclipse ceremonies?" Catra interrupts.
"Well, because they're not sorceresses. Only those like myself, trained in controlling magical spells, can manage such a feat."
"And it's really amazing," Glimmer says, in a tone that says it's decidedly not, "but we really wanted to show Adora and Catra the beach…" and the argument is back again.
Adora sidles up to Catra while they're distracted. "It's beautiful," she says, walking out toward the center of the room and spinning slowly.
Adora sees it. A mass of shadows and red reflected in the mirrored surface of the crystal before them. She spins to see the real shadow in the doorway for an instant.
Beyond is just a hall. "Did you see where…"
"No," Catra mutters. "But that doesn't mean anything, this place is all crevices."
Yeah. It's all giant statues in recesses in the walls. The subdued lighting that felt so gentle before casts shadows in every corner.
"Ah, yes, the Hall of Sorcerers," says Glimmer's aunt behind them. She marches past as if supremely confident, unconcerned about any danger. "These are the great ones, who have led Mystacor through the ages." She stops before a statue of a man. "This is Micah, my brother." It does resemble the picture Adora saw. "We trained in these very halls together. Glimmer looks just like him."
Yet another argument starts, now about having beards, and then Catra weighs in with, "Yeah, your mom's all stretched out, you're more round like the statue," and the woman titters, and okay, Glimmer's glaring yet again but it's more important the head sorceress doesn't hate Catra.
Adora gravitates toward the nearby statue that's darkened. For a moment she thought she might've found the shadow thing, but no, it seems to have been blackened, like by a fire, and there are chunks gouged from it. "What happened to her?" she asks.
"Light Spinner. A scar on Mystacor. She sought power and control above all else, and she was cast out. Though some say she never really left. That she's only biding her time, waiting to exact her revenge. But those are only children's tales, of course." And Casta laughs again.
"Why didn't you just kill her?"
Yeah, Adora had thought that's what cast out meant when you lived on a floating island but then they'd be sure she was dead.
"Kill?" Casta repeats, sounding horrified. "We're not barbarians."
"I don't know what that is," Catra says. "Does it mean smart?"
"Because it sounds really stupid to lose track of someone who's terrible and wants to get revenge on you."
"We do not," the head sorceress grinds out, "kill our own people. Glimmer, really, where did you find this one?"
But Catra doesn't stop. "So how exactly is it supposed to work? And aren't you guys hiding up here? So you told somebody who knows where you live to get out, and then you don't know where they are now but they still know where this place is."
"It doesn't matter! Do you think our magics are so weak anyone could get here who wasn't supposed to?"
"Uh, yeah. You had no idea who we were and we got here fine."
"I'm sorry!" Adora says quickly. "We're just a little, uh, tense, about some stuff, that happened completely before we got here, so, so it's startling to hear there was an evil sorcerer here too."
"Oh, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have joked," Casta says with a frown. "You're helping Glimmer with her mother's rebellion thing, that must be very stressful. No, Light Spinner is long gone. It's just fun to have some spooky stories to talk about when you're up here. I suppose we can forget how dangerous the world outside can be." She looks back to the statue of Micah. There's a moment of silence, then, "Anyway, on with the tour…"
The others follow Casta as she walks away. Adora and Catra remain by the statue. Why do they keep it around? It's not like it'd even tell you what Light Spinner looks like since the face is mostly covered by another drape of cloth, leaving only the eyes exposed.
Then darkness starts to spill out from behind it, shooting across the floor and then up the opposite wall and.
And Adora doesn't need a face to recognize that silhouette and her writhing hair.
Something appears to her left and Adora jumps away, fists raising, and Catra swipes.
Bow and Glimmer squeal.
Luckily, this time Catra didn't connect, probably because she was flinching back at the same time.
"It's worse than we thought. You need warm sand and calming waves, stat."
"No, we need to deal with this!" Catra waves her hand at the now ordinary wall. "Shadow Weaver's here!"
"Catra…" Glimmer says.
"We saw a shadow in the doorway, then shadows came out of that statue and they went on the wall and it was Shadow Weaver," Adora insists.
"You're both really stressed, and you didn't get any sleep," Bow tells her. "You're seeing things."
"I am not!" Catra shouts. "It hasn't even been a whole day, plus Adora's good for three days! There's no way we'd both start hallucinating at the same time! She's here!"
Bow and Glimmer look at each other. Bow gestures at the statue. "You were really scared by what Casta said about an evil sorceress, and talking about how she was still dangerous. Then you think you see a scary princess coming out of it. And it does look, well, creepy."
"Super creepy," Glimmer agrees.
"And...you guys kind of, panic each other sometimes."
"No, we don't," Adora says.
"You do…" Bow sighs. "I know you guys took getting separated and the thing with She-Ra badly. But even if there really was some bad thing that just happened to start stalking us right after you got a bad scare, Mystacor is the one place it can't find you."
"You're completely safe here," Glimmer says. "I promise. Now, let's go to the beach, okay?"
And to Adora's surprise, Catra abruptly says, "Okay."
"Why are we…" Adora whispers as they follow Glimmer and Bow.
"They don't believe us. If we stick with them, maybe they'll see it."
Adora really doesn't want to wait for that to happen again but she has no better plan, so she nods. "Alright."
"It's the beach!" Glimmer announces. "Here, take a towel."
And they're just supposed to...lie there? Adora holds herself perfectly still, muscles pulling tighter and tighter.
"Oof!" Catra has flopped across her stomach.
"Stop thinking about relaxing," Catra advises. "Think how dinner's coming soon so we gotta hurry and get sleep while we can."
Adora laughs. It sounds so reasonable when you put it like that. She closes her eyes.
Then she wakes to find there's no longer a weight against her. Her eyes open and she bolts upright. "Catra!" she screams, jolting Glimmer and Bow awake.
"I'm over here," Catra calls from the doorway across the room. She sounds subdued, and her ears are at a worrying tilt.
Adora sprints over to her. "What's going on? Why did you leave?"
"Hypothesis testing," Catra says, like that's an answer.
"What if Shadow Weaver showed up?"
"She did," Catra says, flat. "That was the hypothesis tested. She shows when we're alone." Her face isn't quite even. One side is swelling up from a blow.
"It's fine. Nothing I hadn't heard before."
"What do you mean? What did she say? What did she do? Catra, why did you go off on your own, how am I supposed to -"
"Like you'd do anything," Catra interrupts. "I handled it, okay? Not like I've had no practice."
"Is this still about what happened at Entrapta's?" Bow asks delicately.
"Yes," Adora says as Catra says, "No."
"Hrm," Glimmer says.
Catra snarls, "No! You think it's a surprise that Adora didn't fix things for you one time? That's normal. Deal with it! You didn't even have to put up with her telling you the robots had a point."
"It won't be like that this time!"
"Adora…" Catra groans. "Don't make empty promises."
"I won't let you down this time, I won't, really!"
"You wouldn't know where to begin," Catra says. She isn't looking at Adora. "It's not a big deal. There's nothing she can say she hasn't already."
"That's not fair." Her voice breaks. "It shouldn't have to be you again! What good am I if I'm still getting you hurt?'
"You're not getting me hurt, it just happens!"
"Catra," Glimmer interrupts. "What can I do to help?"
They stare at her. After a moment, Catra manages, "Uh…"
"You know more about the Horde and their princess than I do," Glimmer says. "I shouldn't have invalidated your experiences. If you two say the princess is here, then I believe you, and I'll do whatever you need me to do."
"Uh," Catra says again, looking at Adora.
"You're the one who knows her best," Adora tells Catra. "You're in charge of what we should do."
"Okay…" Catra takes a breath and looks around, like she's gathering her thoughts. "Okay. The shadow thing turned into her, all the way, but I don't think it's actually her here. It's here and it can touch stuff because one of the shadows hit me but I think she's running it remotely. She has that water pool thing, remember? This is probably what that's for."
So no matter how far they go they can never really get away from her.
"But there's been none of the red magic. It probably has to come right out of the stone, that's why she carries it on her mask. And she's been keeping the shadow out of anybody else's sight. So she probably can't hurt us and it's just about messing with our heads."
"Didn't she hit you?" Bow says. "You're bruised."
"It's the red stuff that makes her so hard to beat. I got pretty good at dodging but once it hits the fight's over. All the shadow did was punch me, and it wasn't even as fast. I just wasn't expecting it to hit. Also...since she's only showed up when nobody else is there, she must be afraid of that."
Adora shakes her head. "She's not afraid of things."
"She's just not afraid of us," Catra says. "And even that...that's because she doesn't think we would do anything, not because we couldn't," Catra continues fiercely. "So. She can make shadows, and the shadows can turn into things that look real, and she can do her voice. And Hordak's. Maybe more. And the shadows can punch us once. But she can't really hurt us. If she could've punched me more she would've, so that must be too hard. In fact…" Catra smiles. "She might even be out for a while, after that. It wouldn't be the first time she ran out of power because she got mad at me."
"If she's in her room she can just get more and more."
"Maybe," Catra admits. "I still say there's a limit. And it definitely hurts her." Catra looks smug, then continues, "So...we can stick close to Bow and Glimmer and see if she gives up. Or we can keep separating so she keeps trying to do things and see if we can get her rock or her head to explode."
"Okay...Those are good options. But what about telling Aunt Casta?" Glimmer asks.
"You barely believe me," Catra says. "She definitely won't."
"I don't know if a sorceress could do anything about a princess either," Bow says. "Do you know how that works? I don't."
"Not really," Glimmer admits. "Aunt Casta would, but...she's not very good at listening to people. And on second thought, it's better nobody knows this is happening. She's the one in charge of keeping Mystacor safe. It'll look really bad if something got here on her watch. And..." She looks pensive. "Well, if it's here because of us that could be really bad. Normally people aren't allowed up here. I'm an exception because of my father, and Aunt Casta said I could bring friends, and everyone was fine with it because everything was fine. If it turns out that compromised security, that I compromised security…!"
"So we agree," Catra cuts in. "We keep quiet about this."
"But what do we do if it keeps following you guys?"
"I could tell the queen," Adora offers. "We could say it's following She-Ra. Your mom knows about stuff like this, right?"
"Yeah," Glimmer says. "Yeah! Mom knows about a lot of stuff, and also, you know, Bright Moon's not neutral like Mystacor. And if we do need Aunt Casta's help later, she'll listen to Mom telling her it's a real problem."
"Yeah," Adora says. "Yeah. We can handle this!"
The shadow doesn't go away. Adora keeps seeing it out of the corner of her eye, but she stiffens her neck and pretends it isn't there. Glimmer suggests they try out the healing springs and there's a moment in the steam when the clouds go inky and she hears Shadow Weaver and she can feel Catra go tense beside her.
But it's only a moment. Then the steam billows away and the darkness goes with it.
It's only mind games. And none of the shadows ever touch her. Hitting Catra once must've taken too much out of Shadow Weaver.
"The eclipse ceremony might drive her out," Glimmer muses. "It refreshes all the magical protections here. I don't know if that means we're better off there or somewhere else, though…"
"I don't think we'll have much of a choice," Bow points out. "Your aunt really wants us there."
"I could jump all over the place," Catra suggests. "People hate that. Then I lie on the ground and Adora apologizes and says I'm just like that and you guys have to drag me out."
Glimmer seems to be seriously considering this. "Aunt Casta can't stand tantrums…"
"You can't risk her being mad at you!" Adora says. "She can do magic!"
"We might end up needing magical help to get rid of the shadow thing," Bow adds, which is another good point. "Besides, maybe being in the room would be best. It's bright magic, and the whole place lights up. I bet it'll destroy any shadow monster."
It makes sense.
But when they go into the room there's just...she has a bad feeling. The room feels ominous, cruel.
At her side, Catra mumbles, "Everybody uses pools I guess…" and maybe that's it, the pool of water standing in the center reminds her of the one in Shadow Weaver's room and it's just bad memories making her feel so uncomfortable.
Or maybe it's that an eclipse means the room starts to get dim on its own first.
But Casta has a gentle smile on her face, and as she waves her glowing hands light pours down and begins to bounce between the crystals.
And then things go dark. For a moment Adora hopes desperately that this is just a normal part of the ritual, blackness pouring out from the pool below in contrast to the light above, but then the sorceresses gasp in shock.
The shadow rears out of the bowl.
The screaming starts.
She just thought, it just seemed like... Casta had been so confident, and she had magic powers. Glimmer had said this place was safe. Everybody here could do magic. And maybe Shadow Weaver could be afraid of people like that.
It's stupid. She's stupid. What was she thinking, expecting someone else could protect them?
Catra's still moving but everyone else has collapsed. Probably the only reason Adora's still up is that when the shadows came at her and she swung the sword it turned into a shield. She's such a screwup it had to sacrifice She-Ra's weapon just to protect her.
"All of this is your fault, Adora," Shadow Weaver agrees, staring down at her. "You're to blame."
Catra flies at her with a scream. Her claws pass through Shadow Weaver's head like smoke and then she tumbles through and hits the ground. Adora runs toward her but the shadows are already balling up around her and before Adora can grab her hand Catra is swallowed.
"Adora, Adora, Adora," Shadow Weaver says with such disappointment. "I told you to keep her under control."
"Stop it!" Adora shouts.
"And what did you do instead?" Shadow Weaver continues, leaning in closer and closer. "Put her and all her insolent foolishness in charge. I warned you she'd only drag you down but you just wouldn't listen." Darkness cups the side of her face, almost as cold as Shadow Weaver's hands. She tries to shove it away and her arm goes through it like it isn't there.
"Give her back!" She barrels through the rest of the figure only for something to grab at her from behind.
"No," Shadow Weaver says. "I've indulged you enough."
"Then I'll make you!" she shouts.
"Do you really think she cares anything about you?" Shadow Weaver swirls around Adora. Then she gestures and Catra appears again, struggling against the shadows knotted around her. Adora runs toward Catra, only for darkness to slam down between them."She's only ever used you to shield her from the rightful consequences of her insubordination. So many times she risked your future with her selfish actions."
"I don't want that future! We left, and we're never going back!"
Shadow Weaver shakes her head. "The eclipse is nearly over. When it is, the shield will be down. The Horde will conquer Mystacor, and bring you home to me."
"The Horde will face She-Ra, then," Adora says, holding tight to the shield. "And She-Ra will stop them. You'll never take Mystacor."
"Why help these people? Who are they to you? They don't understand you." Shadow Weaver looks over the room, the crumpled people. "Just as they did not understand me when I walked among them as Light Spinner."
It's not bad enough Adora comes from the Horde. Now she's… And she's suddenly glad everyone else is down because she'd rather face anything alone than have them realize exactly how tainted she is.
"They'll never accept you," Shadow Weaver tells her. "You know deep down what I say is true. You are the ambitious, cutthroat, ruthless warrior I raised you to be."
But they don't have to know.
"I'll stop you," Adora says, looking down at the shield. I don't need a shield, she tries to tell it. It's not me you should be protecting. I need to protect them. She can't feel anything back. Is it listening? No, it must be. It has to. "She-Ra's stronger than you. For the honor of Greyskull!"
Shadow Weaver keeps talking but She-Ra charges into the blackness that took Catra and light bursts forth from the shield.
The shadows start to melt away and Catra shouts, "Adora!" as she pulls free.
"Are you okay?"
"Of course I am!"
"Then - " She looks up at the ceiling, the point of light that's still there above. "We have to restart the ritual. I think the shield…"
"It's the same sort of light," Catra agrees. "She-Ra can do this."
The shadows lunge at them and she tosses Catra the shield as she runs to one of the blackened crystal spires and begins to climb.
"I prepared you for greatness!" Shadow Weaver shouts below her as she jumps to the next section. Catra throws the shield back as a splash of shadow hits where she was standing a moment before. "I can give you Etheria," Shadow Weaver whispers, appearing just in front of She-Ra. "We can rule together."
"Like you'll ever!" Catra shouts back. "You're just Hordak's lackey!" She bounces between the spires, just ahead of the slithering, splattering blackness.
She-Ra keeps jumping higher.
"You were nothing before I took you in, Adora!" Shadow Weaver howls, the shadows clutching at her. "And you will be nothing without me! You're weak!"
She reaches the top platform. The beam of light is falling on the ground before her, fading away instead of reaching the mirrors.
Shadow Weaver appears in front of it. Not the shadowy thing shaped like her but what Catra must've met when she was alone. It really looks just like her. "Adora, enough of this," Shadow Weaver says, in the gentle tone she only used with Adora, holding out her arms. "Come home."
And maybe that makes Adora's heart twist but She-Ra isn't weak and keeps going like it's not even there. She holds out the shield and the light strikes it and the whole room's lit up.
Shadow Weaver screams as the darkness burns away.
Bow and Glimmer hug them when they come back down.
"You saved Mystacor," Casta says to them, smiling.
Something is wrong.
"Children's tale," Catra whispers, so soft Adora can barely hear it. Then she walks toward Casta.
"I wasn't raised by wild animals," Catra says abruptly. Her voice is so flat. Why doesn't anyone seem to notice?
The woman raises a hand to her mouth. "Really, well, you could have fooled -"
"I was raised by Light Spinner."
Her claws tear across Casta's face.
There's a moment of red.
Catra looks wildly at the crystals above and for an instant Adora is sure she's going to jump up and rip them apart as well, and then Catra sinks to her knees and wails even louder than Casta's screams.
"What do we do what do we do?" Bow is babbling, kneeling at Casta's shoulder as she clutches the ruin of her face.
They have to escape.
"It was like she was possessed!" Glimmer says, looking at the walls. "Are those shadow things still here?"
"We have to get out of here!" Adora shouts, grabbing at Catra. She tries to get Catra to her feet but it's like picking up mud, it's like Catra has finally given up. All Catra will do is scream and sob on the floor.
Then Glimmer's there as well, pulling Catra's other arm down over her shoulders. "Come on. Let's move her before something else happens."
And - and everyone gets out of their way. Like they didn't just see Catra tear into their head sorceress.
Or maybe like they did, she realizes as they reach the edge of Mystacor. Maybe no one here could stop them. In the end, they didn't have any magic that could protect them from Shadow Weaver. Casta couldn't defend herself against Catra's attack. The rest of them just stood there, helpless and useless.
She sets Catra down on the floating stone they rode up on. She's gone silent. As Adora watches, she digs her bloody fingers into the grass and dirt.
"What happened?" Glimmer says finally, as the stone drifts back down toward Etheria.
Catra shakes. "She wanted - Shadow Weaver wanted the Horde to take Mystacor." Then she claws gouges in the ground and howls, "It's not fair! She wants, she, they should have killed her why did they do this? What was I supposed to do?"
"It'll be okay," Bow says.
Fresh tears splatter onto the ground. "They didn't kill her. They sent her out and didn't even care where she went," Catra whispers. "But she wants Mystacor to fall."
"And you helped stop that," Glimmer says. "No matter what else happened, no matter what she made you do, you fought to save Mystacor."
Catra makes the most horrible choking laugh.
Adora wraps her arms around Catra. "It's not fair," she tells Catra. "They should have."
After a little while, Bow says, "I didn't want to ask, but… Was Shadow Weaver your mom, Catra?"
Catra actually laughs at this, long and hard. Then she bangs her head against Adora's shoulder. "No, she was Adora's."
"Oh," they say.
"She...she wasn't really," Adora says, and tries to sound like she hadn't wished she secretly was so many times, like she hadn't spent her whole life trying to be exactly what Shadow Weaver wanted. "She was in charge of us." And then she blurts out, "She taught me how to tie my boots," and finds herself blinking desperately from her suddenly wet eyes.
Catra says, "Adora taught the rest of us." She laughs again. "It's - it's so lucky for everybody that Adora was there, because she always learned stuff right the first time. If Shadow Weaver had to put up with teaching anybody else she'd have killed us all. Adora used to get up early to do Lonnie's shoes because she couldn't get the hang of it and Adora was the only one who could tie them well enough they'd last all day and Lonnie had been crying and crying over it…"
"I should've stood up for her." Adora could choke on the guilt of the memory now.
"You did!" Catra says. "It just didn't work. Shadow Weaver didn't listen to you. I was always so mad but what more could you have really done? You were the only one even trying! Why does it all have to be your fault? She joined the Horde, they let her do it, why should any of it be any of our fault?!"
It hurts to think of it like that.
Why does Adora have to be ashamed of growing up with Shadow Weaver when Shadow Weaver grew up on Mystacor? Even if she's every bit as terrible, if they hate who Catra and Adora are so much, then shouldn't they have done something to stop it from happening in the first place?
All the times Catra got hurt. All the times all of them got hurt. All the times they could've died. All because some other people had decided they'd send her off to do whatever she wanted.
Maybe that was a lie. Maybe they really couldn't have done anything to stop Shadow Weaver. But then they could've said that. Adora would understand not being able to stop Shadow Weaver. She wouldn't blame anyone for it.
But Casta had laughed about it. She'd thought it was funny that she didn't know where Shadow Weaver had went, didn't know what Shadow Weaver had done, that only children would be afraid.
Every day they'd been afraid.
Casta'd yelled at Catra for worrying about what they'd done. Even when Casta apologized, it wasn't really that she was sorry they were questioning Mystacor's defenses, as if what happened to everybody else in all of Etheria didn't matter. She'd talked like she was glad it'd happened because it made a fun story for her to tell.
Adora wonders why they really cast Shadow Weaver out, if they didn't care about her hurting people. Or maybe they only cared when it was people on Mystacor she hurt. Shadow Weaver said Adora was too ruthless for them to like but what's more ruthless than what they did?
She keeps her mouth shut and sticks tightly to Catra.
Because they're headed back to Bright Moon, and Glimmer's mom is a lot less trusting than Glimmer is.
"...and she's been okay since then but we don't know if it's really gone or just, ugh, biding its time or something," Glimmer finishes. "Or if she fought off the control but it's still spying, or anything else."
Adora's clutching the sword, waiting, but the queen just nods and seems to consider this seriously. "And this magic, it was done using a runestone?"
"She always used it," Adora says. "Always, for everything."
"Sorcerous magic is a complicated thing," the queen says thoughtfully, "but power from a runestone is more easily discerned. Our own runestone will react to any other power, and perhaps it can be able to remove traces that linger. Come with me."
Catra nods jerkily. When they reach the stone she takes a few breaths, untangles her fingers from Adora's, and slowly approaches the stone. She turns away, closes her eyes and flattens her ears as her hand reaches out, but there's no crackle as her fingertips brush the stone, no lightning climbing up her arm and no pain flashing over her face, and her face unscrunches slowly and she turns to look.
"It's gone, then," the queen says, and she sounds so - relieved? Adora glances at her and sees her wings are lower and out a bit, like the way they'd been before had been a matter of tension.
Catra pulls her hand away, then reaches out and touches it again. She's staring up at the stone. Suddenly she says, "Can you hurt these?"
"Uh," manages Glimmer.
"Our runestone is well-protected," the queen says.
"But can you hurt them?" Catra insists. "Would it be hurt if something happened, if you carved it up and gutted it, is it like, like how there's a woman in Adora's sword."
After a moment, the queen asks, "Do you mean, is the stone alive? Can it feel? No, no more than any machine does."
"Guess that other one was just always a nasty piece of work," Catra says, lowering her hand. "No wonder people didn't like them."
Adora finds focusing on preparing for 'prom' a welcome task but no one else seems interested. Glimmer won't stop fussing over Bow going with someone else. It makes it hard to pay attention to her planning board.
"Catra," Glimmer is saying, grabbing her by the shoulders. "Why don't people like me?"
"Of course people like you," Adora says. "You're really nice."
"Please, Catra," Glimmer begs. "You're mean! You'll tell me the truth!"
"How would I know!"
Glimmer whines, "Well, why don't you like me?" Adora winces.
"You ask annoying questions!"
"Okay, okay, what else?"
"Look it's not - I don't care you're asking questions. All I think about you is what your mom's going to do to me if anything goes wrong! Look, I don't know why people like people, okay? Everybody but Adora's always hated me."
"I don't hate you," Glimmer says.
Catra laughs. "Oh so this honesty thing is one-way, huh?"
"I don't hate you!" Glimmer insists. "Okay, I don't, I don't really like you. I barely know you! And you're awful to Adora a lot."
"She's really not awful - " Adora tries.
Glimmer ignores her yet again and continues, "But you're risking your life fighting the Horde. You're not a princess. It's not your responsibility. You don't have special powers. And you think everyone hates you. But you're there every time, for Adora, and for everybody, even when you're scared."
"I'm not scared!"
"You're scared of everything that isn't food or Adora," Glimmer retorts. "And I saw that time you jumped when you turned and saw a banana."
"I was surprised, not scared," Catra says sourly. "And you're scared of dead mice! That's way stupider because they're dead!"
Adora bangs her head on her planning board. "Please let's prepare for the party."
"You dropped a weasel on me!"
"Well I didn't mean to, obviously! I wouldn't waste a mouse on you!"
"Pleeeeeeeeease," Adora begs.
And maybe if they'd listened to her and helped her prepare, she wouldn't have been surprised to see a kid greeting them from the throne and wouldn't have then blurted out how surprised she was and then eleven-and-three-quarters Frosta wouldn't hate her already.
"You're really off your game," Catra mutters as they walk away. "Normally people love you."
"It's fine," Adora says, like her heart isn't pounding hard enough to crack her ribs. "There's time to win her over. And there's lots of other princesses here too."
"...yeah," Catra says, eyeing the crowd. "Never really realized there's this many."
And it's Glimmer who actually knows them, but Glimmer doesn't want to help run introductions because she's still fretting over Bow, who isn't even here yet, but Adora can handle - since when are force captains invited?
She sprints back to the throne. "Revered hostess, she's from the Horde!"
The force captain tries to wave. "Hi, Catra, Adora."
"What are you and Shadow Weaver planning?" Adora demands. "I won't let you get away with this!"
"I - I just -" the force captain stammers. "I figured you guys…you'd be here, and..."
"And you could attack us?!" Adora shouts. Why were they thinking, refusing to let her bring She-Ra's sword in?
Frosta just glowers at her. "Princess Adora," Frosta says. "Princess Scorpia was invited. The rules state clearly that all princesses are welcome."
"She's not -" Adora comes up short. Because Shadow Weaver wasn't the princess, was she? She was a sorceress, one who'd needed to carve and gut a runestone to get it to work for her. So the Horde's princess is...this person? Some random force captain Adora never heard of, who didn't even have her own team? "But she's with the Horde," Adora repeats helplessly. "They're the enemy."
"Your enemies," Frosta corrects. "The All-Princess Ball is neutral ground. I will not dishonor that legacy."
"The Horde is everyone's enemy," Adora tells her, baffled. She looks back to Princess Scorpia and feels another burst of anger. "You attacked Salineas! You attacked us!"
"Yeah. But we're…" Princess Scorpia says, "we're not allowed to fight here, so we don't have to fight." She looks so sad and somehow small despite the enormous space she and her poofy dress take up.
Well, good. She should be sad. She's a bad person who helps other, worse people.
By her side, Catra sighs. She says, "You'll probably blab some important stuff if I let you hang out and talk to me, right?"
Princess Scorpia straightens up again and grins. "I can never keep track of what's important!" She claps her claws together.
Catra looks at Adora. "Now I won't be underfoot while you're doing serious princess talks, and maybe I'll learn something the rebellion can use."
"Alright," Adora tells her. "Be careful, though." And she leans close to whisper, "And please don't get out of sight. I get you can beat her but knows how big of an ambush she means to lead you into? I'm sure she's up to something."
"No worries," Catra says. "All the food's here anyway." She saunters over to Princess Scorpia only to misjudge the woman's reflexes and end up in another hug. "Ack! Personal space!"
And Adora retreats back to Glimmer and cajoles her into talking to other princesses.
It...it doesn't go badly, exactly. The princesses are polite, and they don't seem pleased by Princess Force Captain Scorpia being around, but they don't seem to understand what Glimmer's saying. They're giving non-answers and shifting away from the topic and Adora doesn't get why. Of course, they also make it clear Adora's only an -
"- honorary princess!?" Catra snarls, and there's a nasty clatter as the plate she hit out of someone's hand goes flying across the floor. Adora wishes this was Princess Scorpia's fault but the woman looks as terrified as Adora feels. "What exactly makes you better than Adora, Princess? All the nothing you've been doing for Etheria?"
Frosta's voice is like a lash. "Catra!"
"Oh!" Catra says, throwing her hands to the side of her face theatrically. "You're right. What am I doing, knocking over a dish?"
She upends the table.
Adora runs toward her.
"Catra, you can't," Scorpia is hissing. "The rules - "
"Who cares! Did that upset you, Frosta? What will you do? Stay up doing double shifts of sitting around? Maybe you can join the Horde, that'd really show us for caring!"
"Catra, stop it," Adora says. Ice surges up under Catra's feet.
But Catra just jumps away. "Oh, so you're not like Perfuma, you can do stuff!" she calls from the other table she's landed on. "You just choose not to!"
"Your behavior is completely inappropriate!" fumes the hostess of the entire party of all the princesses everywhere.
"So what?" Catra demands. "Better than being a selfish coward! Glimmer has no idea why nobody wants to join up, you know? She thinks it's because you aren't friends or something! But if anyone wanted to fight the Horde, you'd do it! You don't have to join us to fight them! You just don't care!"
Adora grabs her shoulder. "Catra, it's not like that, Bow said, he said everyone's lost somebody to the Horde."
"Well we lost everything!" Catra screams at her. "Where are our parents, Adora? Our aunts? Our brothers?"
...they were orphans.
Catra waves her hand over the ballroom. "They're supposed to protect Etheria! Look at all of them! They didn't keep the Horde from killing our families, they didn't stop the Horde from taking us, they never came to save us! And we'll die slowing the Horde down and they'll sit here and talk about what fools we were for trying, for caring at all, while the Horde burns through the next village." She stares out at them and shouts, "Well you idiots think you're safe? You think you're special? The Horde doesn't care, they'll tear you apart too!"
"Of course a Horde soldier would say that," says a princess.
Adora'd been nothing when the Horde found her.
She'd never wondered at how they could be so sure.
"Of course I would!" Catra snarls back. "Apparently being born a princess makes you too stupid to know what death is! You think any of you are exceptions? Hey, Mermista, you ever notice your gate's only worth anything because Bright Moon's guarding your flank? Perfuma, you'll be the first one down soon as they know She-Ra's dead! Don't think I missed how nobody else showed up, you think the Horde's too stupid to notice that!"
Entrapta pops above the crowd, lifted up by half her hair The other side waves in the air like she's raising a hand. "Me! What about me?"
"Did you do anything about the ventilation like I said?"
"Oh, right. No." She slides back down.
"Then it's still mustard gas. And Frosta! Hey, Frosta! I used to wonder what heat bombs were for and now I know!"
"Enough!" Ice engulfs the entire table, but Catra is moving again.
"You didn't care when the Horde ate up Scorpia's kingdom, did you?" Catra calls, jumping along the walls just ahead of the jutting ice. "You don't like her, you don't like her parents, so who cares what happened to literally everyone else in the country! They deserve it for being born in the wrong place! Well the Horde will kill you too, no matter how many villages and bodies you hide behind! And I'm glad!" Catra howls. "I wish I could see it! You're the only ones in all Etheria who deserve it! I wish you'd all kill each other and leave the rest of us alone!"
Frosta tears out a massive chunk of the wall and Catra goes flying. She twists to get her arms and legs under her but Frosta's already growing walls and she's caged in by ice before she even touches the ground again.
Razz had said, the princesses protected Etheria.
"Go on and kill me!" Catra screams at her. "I'm going to die because of all of you, so just do it! You think sitting around makes it not your fault, you think you're any better -"
The ice grows and thickens, cutting her off. Adora can hear a muffled howl, see Catra clawing furiously at the wall in front of her.
Adora runs out of the palace.
By the door is where she had to hand over the sword. She vaults across the counter, driving her forearm into the guard's neck, and they just go down like they've never fought in their life. Her hand grasps She-Ra's sword.
And it's funny, after all the fuss about how she couldn't go in armed, how easy it is to just push past the other guards. They barely even try.
Frosta is livid when She-Ra enters. "There are no weapons allowed at -"
What's the point of the rule, anyway, when all the real princesses have magic in their fingertips.
She smashes the hilt of the sword into the ball of ice around Catra, cracking the top apart. She grabs Catra's hand and pulls her out.
"It's just like it was at the start," she tells Catra. "I get caught up in caring about if people hated me instead of about what was needed, but it's not about me, it's not about them." And she looks around at the wrecked party, at all these princesses. "You know what's going on. You know what the Horde does, what they do to people. Why did I keep acting like it was all on me to tell you?" And she looks back to Catra. "We'll find another way," she promises. "We'll win in the end."
Chapter 16: Epilogue
Catra zigzags, dodging a pair of unfolding nets with ease. She hops the third arrow only for it to strike the ground and explode into goo, splattering the fur of her tail. She spins. "WHAT."
"Sorry!" squeaks the archer. "They're really similar in weight to the nets!"
Catra stalks toward the woman, who attempts to hunker down in the face of that blazing glower despite being easily two heads taller. The seriousness is only slightly marred by her tail's compulsive twitching. "THAT'S THE BEST EXCUSE YOU'VE GOT FOR COVERING ME IN SLIME? WHAT'S GOING TO HAPPEN WHEN YOU'RE FACING AN ACTUAL HORDE SOLDIER WHO SHOULD BE TIED UP AND IS NOW SLIGHTLY STICKY INSTEAD?"
"It, um, could make them so mad they can't think straight."
"Really?!" Catra snarls, doing an amazing job of looming over someone taller, then laughs and claps her on the shoulder. "That's a great idea. Won't matter much to anybody armored, though, not like they'll feel it, or have to clean it off... but I have on good authority that the ventilation on the helmets isn't worth much. Bow! Can you make a skunk arrow? But one that we can get off our own people so I don't have to smell it all day?"
"That'd be tough," Bow calls back. "I can pass it on to Cordia, see if she has any ideas. Something short term that you just wait out would be a lot easier."
"But long term would be so demoralizing!"
"Uh," says someone else. "If the vents are bad, could something clog them?"
Catra's eyes sparkle and it's clear she's completely forgotten there's still goo all through the fur of her tail. "YES."
"They wouldn't choke?" Perfuma whispers to Adora, running her fingers anxiously through her long hair.
"No," Adora says with certainty. She's less comfortable with how she feels about that fact. "The helmets are clunky to get on and off, but releasing the seal is easy."
"Good." Perfuma smiles with relief, then looks abashed. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't… They're trying to kill you, and I know you're putting yourself into such danger."
Adora takes a moment, and then she admits slowly, "...No, I don't want them to die either. I don't know who's evil and who's just there because they don't know there's anywhere else to go or any other way to be. If I hadn't run into Glimmer and Bow, I'd still be there, and if Catra hadn't run into me that morning…" It's scary to know that if they hadn't met up then that Catra probably would've died a Horde soldier, because even if Adora knows Catra would've left in the end, she'd have so little time before Shadow Weaver or someone else got fed up with her. "I was trying so hard for a while to think that everyone but me had known. It was easier to believe they wanted to be there. But they don't. I don't know if anyone wants to be there at all."
She must not have done a very good job of keeping her voice under control because Perfuma hugs her. "I wish I could do more," Perfuma says.
"Don't! You're - fixing the trees is so important. It's invaluable. She-Ra can defend what's still here, she can keep it from getting worse, but she can't get back what was lost. You'll be in the stories this time, Perfuma Healed the Wastelands and Brought the Forest Back. And if…" Adora swallows. "...I hope the Whispering Woods can grow right to their walls, and every time someone has second thoughts they only have to take a step to leave. I hope one day all that'll be left for She-Ra to fight are people who chose it."
Something heavy drops onto her shoulders and then Adora feels a wet goopiness down her side. "I," Catra announces as she wipes her tail on Adora's clothing, "hope that the next day we storm the place, gut Shadow Weaver, stick Hordak's head on a pike, and turn it into a temple to training people not to wait around on princesses. No offense."
Adora drops backward, trying to pin Catra to the ground, but she wiggles loose before Adora can get enough force.
"Too slow!" She darts away.
"Get back here!" Adora shouts, giving chase.