“Okay, Kyle, you next.”
“What? No way — me next. We’ll never beat the high score with him.”
“H-Hey! But I want to—”
The exclamation echoed through the barracks and was immediately followed by three sets of shushes. Kyle ducked his head, a heavy blush weighing it down almost as much as his dejection. As usual, the girls ignored him. Rogelio didn’t say anything, but carefully shifted so he could brush his shoulder against the other boy’s.
It wasn’t a gesture he was used to. In fact, it felt unnatural and took so much effort that it probably wasn’t worth it. Physical affection wasn’t exactly easy when you’re a six foot tall walking razor blade, but he’s been working on being aware of his scales — and the blonde gave him a tiny smile every time he succeeded in not accidentally tearing his ridiculously flimsy human skin apart.
So, maybe a little worth it.
Catra was scooting forward, which made the tight circle that they were all clustered in even smaller. She was maybe a third of Rogelio’s size, but even so he was instinctually wary of her. It wasn’t her nails that made him nervous — it was her eyes. Both of them had been enrolled in Claw to Claw Combat 101, and it didn’t take long for all of the cadets to realize that the sharpest weapon in class was actually her glare. Currently, she was slicing it into Lonnie.
“I call next.”
“Uh, are you kidding?” Lonnie scoffed. Her hands were still poised up, palms facing Adora, who’d put hers down the moment they’d finished clapping out the rhythm. “I don’t want my hands shred to pieces. That’s why Rogelio’s not playing, remember?”
She gestured to his claws, neatly folded atop his lap.
“Yeah, well, it’s boring if it’s just you and Adora,” Catra huffed.
Rogelio — who honestly didn’t really care much about the game and was just trying to keep his breathing even, now that Kyle’s shoulder was pressed right against his (so he didn’t cut him, not because the pressure made that entire half of his body feel weirdly warm) — tensed. From his position right beside her, he could see the hair on the back of her neck was fully raised. It’d been inching higher and higher every time Adora and Lonnie had clapped their hands together. And although it couldn’t possibly be visible from her own spot across the circle, Adora sprung forward. She planted herself between Lonnie and Catra’s scowls.
“Come on, guys. This is supposed to be for fun.”
From the corner of his eye, Rogelio caught Kyle tossing a glance his way. They both tried their best to smother their smirks. It was Adora, after all, whose enthusiasm had made this little ‘game’ into a competition in the first place. She seemed utterly oblivious to her hypocrisy though, too busy shooting a placating grin at Catra.
“Right,” Lonnie dragged the word out, rolling her eyes, “and I don’t see how getting clawed by Ms. Scissor-Fingers over there is anywhere near f—“
“Well, how ‘bout me and Catra do it together then?” Adora interrupted. She shifted her smile to Lonnie. “Sorry, I know you made the game. But that way everyone who wants to play gets to.”
“Um,” Kyle squeaked, tentatively raising his hand, “I wanted to.”
Again, the girls ignored him. Rogelio found himself wildly wishing he had soft, useless skin.
Catra, however, suddenly looked a lot less enthusiastic. She was still glaring at Lonnie, who’d conceded to Adora’s suggestion with another eye roll and nod. As the blonde shuffled directly in front of her though, Rogelio saw her tail lash behind her.
“We’re trying to beat ten seconds,” Adora reminded her. She didn’t hesitate to put her hands up.
“I know that,” Catra snapped, but there was a moment’s pause before she mimicked the position. Then another, mismatched eyes sliding away from grey ones, as they brought their palms together and she muttered, “Dummy.”
In unison, Lonnie and Kyle counted the thousands as they began the beat. The rhyme made absolutely no sense at all — it was just listing the different flavors of ration bars — but Adora was laughing through it. She always laughed during games. And usually Catra always laughed whenever she did, but Rogelio could see that something else was preoccupying her. She looked at the same time completely determined yet utterly disinterested in the actual game.
“Agh, so close!” Adora grinned once they finished. Their time had been twelve seconds.
“Maybe if you lighten up a little, Catra,” Lonnie smirked, “You were so stiff — were you that afraid of losing to me?”
Rogelio knew that wasn’t it though, even before Catra opened her mouth to retort. Spine ramrod straight and brows slightly scrunched, he’d recognized the wooden way she’d held herself. More interestingly, he recognized the slight dust of pink layered atop her freckles. He’s never seen restraint on Catra before and it was obvious that this was probably the first time she’s ever used it.
Curious, he glanced down at Adora’s hands and saw that, despite looking a little sweaty, they were unscathed. He didn’t need to look at Catra to know that he hadn’t been the only one to check.
Seeing that Adora made it out in one piece, Lonnie called the next round.
Rogelio wasn’t altogether surprised when she cried out two seconds in, cursing and cradling her palm as the other girl cackled. He probably should have warned her.
Catra and Adora put a little more effort in for each other. They always have.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’m fine. It doesn’t even hurt that bad, I swear.”
“Adora, you literally started walking sideways for, like, ten seconds after you got hit.”
“Aww, what? Are you worried about me?”
If Kyle didn’t know any better, he would’ve sworn that he’d sustained a substantial amount of brain damage. When he’d first came to, he figured that he was imagining the softness edged around Catra’s voice — maybe he had blood in his ears. But as he began picking up the incessantly rhythmic clunks and clanks of the Fright Zone’s heartbeat, her tone remained the same.
Even now, as she growled in response, her usual bite wasn’t entirely there.
“Of course I’m worried, idiot. Your skull’s so thick it probably can’t be dented, but that doesn’t mean your two brain cells weren’t knocked around.” There was a sound of plastic scrunching — he pictured Catra hopping up atop the blue, scratchy tarps that the Horde called blankets. “If I’m gonna have you stealing my bed every night, I want to make sure there’s no chance of you going psycho and murdering me in my sleep.”
At Adora’s laugh, he risked cracking one eye open. The infirmary was by far the most calming place in the Fright Zone. Sure, you could still spot a couple traces of blood on the walls, but everyone knew that those were from efforts of healing rather than the usual (allegedly) accidental stabbings. It made a difference.
They were sitting in the cot at the other side of the room, and Kyle figured he must’ve gotten hit pretty hard too. He couldn’t seem to make out where Catra’s knees ended and Adora’s started — couldn’t quite register if there was even any distance between their faces at all.
“It would be easy,” Adora hummed. He felt his eye widen — though not very much, it must be swollen — at the sight of her face. A blotchy, dark purple bruise blossomed across her entire left cheekbone. “You sleep like a rock.”
“I have to sleep like a rock. It’s the only way to ignore your sleep-fighting.”
A warm, dense sort of feeling began abruptly rising up his own face when he realized what they were talking about. It wasn’t really a secret that Adora and Catra shared a bed. Shadow Weaver definitely knew about it, but never said anything because it was Adora who’d abandoned her bunk.
Still, it wasn’t technically allowed. None of the other cadets did it. Nobody really ever acknowledged it either.
Whatever self-preserving sense he had left forced him to slam his eye shut and lie completely still. He still couldn’t exactly remember what had happened, but he knew that Catra would do far more damage if she caught him eavesdropping. There was a stretch of silence from the other side of the room, and Kyle thought that maybe he was in the clear — maybe it was safe — but then—
“You’re staring at my mouth.”
Panicking, Kyle tried to make himself black out again through sheer force of will.
“What? N-No! I wasn’t!”
“Yeah, you were,” Adora said slowly, and he didn’t know how but he knew that she must have licked her lips. Maybe because concussions removed the filter out of his imagination. Maybe because he could hear Catra’s breath hitch from the ten feet between his bed and theirs.
Kyle didn’t know what else to do — he opened his eyes. There was a way bigger chance of him making it out alive if he caught their attention and stopped them now, than if they found out he was conscious for this moment.
When he looked across the room though, he saw Catra leaning back, tail lashing wildly behind her, staring at Adora like she was the first star to grace the Etherian sky. Adora was leaning forward, eyebrows slightly pinched, and looking at Catra like she alone could tell her why that was.
Kyle had a feeling that even if he got up now and knocked into every single bedpan on the way out the door, they wouldn’t have noticed him. They probably hadn’t realized he’d been in the room in the first place.
Adora looked like she was trying to warm up a lightbulb inside her head. Then, she blinked and clarity popped across her features. “Oh, does it look really bad? Is it gross?”
Both he and Catra blinked in response, but she was the only one that said, “What?”
“My lip. It’s busted again, isn’t it? Man, I don’t even feel it, it must really be bad…”
The only part of Adora’s body that seemed to be unscathed was, in fact, her mouth. Kyle watched as Catra realized this exact same thing, and promptly brought his hands over his face when all she did was nod.
“…Well? Can you clean it for me? It really sucked when it got infected last time.”
He should go. Tentatively, he wiggled his toes and almost sobbed in relief when nothing ached back in protest. He managed to slip out of his cot and stumble towards the door. Just as he was almost out, his foot caught an empty bedpan. Kyle flinched and whipped around at the resounding BWONG! — apology halfway out of his mouth.
The words shriveled on his tongue, however, because the girls didn’t so much as glance his way. Didn’t even seem to have heard the commotion.
Catra’s hand was under Adora’s chin, tilting it up and holding her steady. She was dabbing a pad of cotton against pink, slightly parted lips, so gently it looked like she was scared she might put a real scratch on the unbroken skin. Their eyes were locked on each other.
Slowly, Kyle slid out of the room. His heart was still hammering, but common sense cushioned each beat. He was in the clear.
Catra and Adora only ever paid attention to each other. They always have.
Curfew in the barracks was the only time anyone really spoke freely. Lonnie thought it had something to do with the complete absence of light. No light meant shadows couldn’t form, which means it was perhaps the single part of the day where they were all probably not being watched.
Which — maybe should be something to unpack. Anyways.
It was nice. Once everyone was through catching up, swapping gossip about different Force Captains, topics would turn to other things. Decidedly non-Horde things.
Kyle was surprisingly good at making up stories. He had an ongoing one about a boy discovering that he was secretly a lost hero from another realm, who must set out to unlock his true powers. It was a little on the nose, but it was fun and he included everyone in cameos, so nobody called him out on it.
Rogelio sometimes sang. Nobody knew the lyrics and there was also a 94% chance that he was actually just in pain, but it sounded soothing.
Most of the time though, someone would spout a random question in the dark and anyone and everyone was free to answer it. They ranged from ‘so, how do you preform the perfect drop-kick’ to ‘when’s the last time you think Shadow Weaver washed her hair’.
Then there were questions that nobody knew how to answer, because it didn’t make sense to ask in the first place. These usually came from Adora. Her brain worked in a weird wavelength that nobody else could really tune in with.
‘What’s your favorite color?’ was one them. Red, black, and grey were all they ever saw in the Fright Zone. No one could see any point in choosing a favorite out of such dismal choices.
‘What’s a flower?’ had earned her a chorus of indifferent grunts and ‘where do you think forgotten thoughts go?’ just made Kyle look like he’d accidentally clipped himself with his pillow taser.
Nobody really knew how to humor her, but she also never seemed to be bothered by the poor reception. It took Lonnie a while to figure out why, and when she did she honestly wasn’t even surprised.
Catra never joined in on the late-night Q&A’s. Every time they tried, she’d just snap, “Seriously? It’s bad enough I have to listen to you guys during the day, no way in hell I’m going to force myself to do it at night’. Then she’d snarl and grouch and disappear under her grizzly mane as she curled up at Adora’s feet.
Eventually, the unceasing thrum of the Fright Zone would lull everyone to sleep. Some nights, however, Lonnie found her eyes snapping open — hand reaching out towards an enemy that wasn’t there.
And she’d hear them:
“Orange? What’s that look like?”
“I don’t know, I saw it in an old field report. It was describing some kind of bowl they found hidden inside a conquered rebel fortress.”
“Wow…” Adora always sounded so wide awake, despite the fact that she was usually the only one up in time for their 0500 roll call. “Well, what do you think it looks like?”
Sometimes it was Catra asking a question. Lonnie didn’t know why, but she always strained her ears to catch these occasions. There wasn’t any possible reason why they kept their voices tented in a whisper — she knows Catra couldn’t give a damn about accidentally waking someone up — but they did. From her position of two bunks parallel to theirs, there were even times it sounded like their voices were coming from the same side of the bed.
Whatever frequency Adora ran on, it quickly became clear that it was actually tuned to Catra’s.
“What do you think we were doing in our past lives?”
Lonnie, eyes closed and never once having considered that Catra could think of things that didn’t include food, arched her brow. She’s never heard the other girl sound so sure about anything before.
The small, thinking-too-hard frown that Adora sometimes wore was obvious in the downward lilt of her voice. “You think we’ve had multiple lives?”
Catra didn’t hesitate. “You think you’ve known me for only fifteen years?”
A pause. “Hm… I guess it doesn’t really feel like it, huh? It feels like we’ve known each other for way longer.”
“Exactly. The only explanation is past lives. Duh.”
“Duh,” Adora sing-songed back. Lonnie almost jumped at the loud, piercing creak that emitted whenever the bunks protested against sudden movements. It was accompanied by a plop of head hitting pillow — sounded more like someone rolling to their side rather than sitting up. The next time Adora spoke, her voice came out considerably more muffled. Like it didn’t have to travel so far to reach its destination anymore. “I don’t know… But do you think we died together?”
There wasn’t an answer for a long, long time. Lonnie thought she must have missed it, or maybe Catra had finally fallen asleep. She was just about to drift off too, when the words were breathed out.
Soft, slow, and so damn sure:
“If you were off somewhere dying, where else would I be?”
After that, Lonnie tried to keep the nightmares at bay. She couldn’t stand to hear any more. There was something about the absence of light, the inability for shadows to form, that made her realize that the times of quiet were actually really lonely. She supposed a lot of the other cadets felt the same way.
Not those two though.
Catra and Adora revolved around each other like they were inevitable. They always have.