“Hey.” A whisper, a pause. “Adora.”
Adora blinked. She couldn’t see her knees tucked up in front of her, much less the hand dangling over the side of the bunk above. She knew the voice, however. She’d known Catra her whole life. She couldn’t mistake a voice she’d heard every day for eight years.
“Catra,” she whispered back, “what’s wrong? ”
In the darkness, Adora could just barely make out the outline of Catra’s body dropping down from her bunk. Standing at the side of her bed, Catra’s two-colored eyes were the only thing she could see. Adora had always wondered how they were so bright. Did her own eyes do that in the dark? They weren’t like Catra’s—so cool and so different. They were just boring blue.
The bed shifted as Catra made herself comfortable, cross-legged by Adora’s feet. “I can’t sleep.”
“That’s okay,” Adora said, and it really was okay because, “me neither.”
Adora could tell that Catra liked that answer. If she squinted really hard, she could make out the rest of Catra’s face. She was smiling, which was always nice to see, especially since it didn’t happen as often as Adora might have liked.
“Why’s your face like that?”
“So I can see you better.”
“I can see you fine, and you look dumb.”
Well, if she could see, then… Adora stuck her tongue out. Catra giggled and shoved at her legs.
“Why can’t you sleep?”
Catra made a sound like “I don’t know” which, knowing Catra, probably wasn’t the truth. “You were awake too.”
“I was just thinking about today.”
“About how I kicked your butt at the obstacle course?”
She had kicked Adora’s butt. She’d kicked everyone’s butt, really. It had been so cool to see her flying through the air, making all of the crazy moves she did look so easy. In reality, Adora had always been a little jealous. Catra had so many special talents, things that no one else could do. She could see really well in the dark, run fast, stretch her arms and legs in all sorts of weird ways, and was the best at the obstacle course, both on Adora’s count and the official times. Even though she might have been just a little jealous, Adora was also happy for Catra. She was her best friend, after all. They counted on each other for lots of things.
“Maybe a little,” she admitted, “but only a little.” Noticing Catra hadn’t moved, Adora patted the empty space beside her.
The bed shifted again as Catra crawled over to sit against the wall, leaving a gap between them. “It’s okay, Adora. We can still be friends even though I’m cooler than you.”
Adora elbowed Catra in the side. “I didn’t say that!” she said, trying to keep quiet, even as Catra shoved her back. They’d gotten in trouble for sharing a bed before. “You’re not.”
Sometimes wrestling with Catra wasn’t fair. Among her other talents, Catra was immune to tickling. Everyone Adora knew was ticklish, and yet, no matter what she tried, Catra never so much as giggled. She giggled other times, of course, but Adora was more than a little awestruck by what could only be described as a superpower.
A little annoyed, too. She was ticklish, and Catra knew it.
Catra jammed her hand behind Adora’s knee—her ultimate weakness—and it took everything she had not to scream. Instead, she wriggled around, trying to escape, trying not to laugh, and trying to get Catra back in some other way. This was what they were being taught in training. They’d been focusing on “creative solutions” to the problems recruits might face on the battlefield. Adora knew her day for a real experience was far off, but fighting was all around. She had plenty of places to practice.
The only thing Adora could brag about was that she was strong. Maybe not as strong as Rogelio was, but she could carry the large jugs they used for water all the way across the training warehouse. Catra couldn’t do that, and it felt nice sometimes to be able to do just one thing better than her friend.
So, using all of the strength she had, she tried the move they’d been taught the week before. A combination of getting Catra’s knees out from under her and shoving her back so they were facing the wrong way on the bed, Adora put her own personal spin on the move by sitting on Catra’s back once she’d gotten her down. Creative, she thought to herself.
“Cut it out!” Catra hissed, reaching behind her back to whack Adora’s sides. “You’re too heavy!”
“But you’re so comfy, Catra. I’m gonna stay here.”
A few moments later, Adora realized she should have covered her bases a little better, like how they’d been taught, because Catra managed to get her behind the knee again. Mouth shut tight to keep from yelling, Adora flattened herself against the wall, grabbing Catra’s wrists when she came at her again.
“Catra, stop! We’re gonna get in trouble again!”
Catra hesitated, something they’d been taught never to do, but then she plopped down beside Adora again, shoving at her side. “You didn’t beat me.”
“Maybe, maybe not,” Adora began, “but you have it easier. I can’t see in the dark.”
Adora felt the familiar wisp of Catra’s tail brushing against her arm. It seemed to have a mind of its own sometimes. Usually, if Catra was happy and they were close, her tail would find its way to Adora, lightly wrapping around her wrist or ankle, or wiggling against her arm or her leg. Adora liked it—it felt nice, but she’d never admitted to it. She never even mentioned when it was happening, because Catra seemed not to notice either. Adora worried that maybe, if she drew attention to it, it would stop.
So she let Catra be happy about her special eyes.
“It’s your turn, you know. It’s been a week.”
Adora had absently been enjoying the feeling of Catra’s tail on her arm, so she was startled when Catra’s voice broke through the silence.
“It is? Didn’t I…” She hadn’t gone last. “You’re right. Okay…” She closed her eyes. Even though she could barely see with them open, it helped her concentrate. “After we take the fortress at Salineas, we get on a super skiff—”
“It wasn’t Salineas last time. I said Bright Moon.”
“O-kay, fine. After we take the fortress at Bright Moon, we get on a super skiff—which is just like a regular skiff, but it has more blasters—and we go to the princess’s castle.”
“Pew, pew, pew!” Catra added, quietly imitating the blasters. An excellent addition.
“We’re flying at the castle at high-speed when the princess’s special guards appear out of nowhere. There’s like, a million of them, and—”
“There can’t be a million—”
“—there’s a million of them, and they’ve got the best princess technology out there. These really big, really powerful cannons that are like, attached to their arms, and they have spikes on them. We’re outnumbered.”
“A million to two?”
“Yes. But we’re the Horde’s best, and we know exactly how to handle a million princess guards—”
“You can’t bring back the demon beast—”
“The demon beast.” Catra groans, burying her face against Adora’s shoulder. It’s nice to have her there, so she just continues. “You use the special bone-whistle, made from the bones of the last princess who tried to fight us! Out of the ground, the demon beast! We jump on its back—”
“I thought you said we couldn’t ride it,” Catra grumbled into her shoulder.
“Catra! This is my part of the story! You can’t tell me how to tell my part!”
“You were the one that said—”
“Anyway, the demon beast roars, scaring the guards so they drop their weapons. Then, with the beast’s help, we wipe them all out in five minutes, moving on to take the castle. Bum-bum-buuum.”
Catra pulled her head away. “That’s it?”
“Yeah, I can’t wait to see you beat the demon beast. You can’t. You can’t do it.”
“I wouldn’t have to if you’d just—“ she sighed, and although Adora couldn’t see it, she could hear the smile in her voice. She liked it when she could do that. “Never mind. My story is going to be better without the demon beast.”
Catra’s boast didn’t need an answer, so Adora just smiled to herself, content with her part of their story. It was nights like these that she wondered if it would all come true. Maybe not the demon beast, but the adventures and conquests and battles she and Catra would get into one day. She could see it—the Horde’s two best Force Captains, who were also best friends. She knew there was nothing she and Catra couldn’t do, when their time came.
She had to say as much. “We’re gonna be the best, Catra.”
“We already are.”
“No, I mean… we are, but when we’re old enough to fight, you know?” Catra was silent for a moment, before she hummed in response, which wasn’t really a response. “You don’t think we’re gonna be the best?”
“Of course I do.”
She scooted closer to Catra, so their sides were touching. “What’s wrong?”
Catra exhaled through her nose. “Nothing’s wrong. We’re the best now, why don’t we just be the best now?”
That was weird. They made up stories and talked about the future all the time. Adora knew what she wanted to be, she’d always known. Catra… well, she’d always assumed Catra wanted the same thing. Their stories always reflected that. Catra and Adora: Force Captains. It was what Adora thought about, like, a lot.
“Catra… you know we’ll be together forever, right?”
She wasn’t sure, but it felt like Catra relaxed a little. “I know,” Catra said, and it sounded softer than Adora could ever remember.
She rested her head on Adora’s shoulder again, and Adora set her head atop Catra’s. Her hair tickled Adora’s cheek, but it was nice, not at all like getting caught behind the knee or in the side. Catra smelled like herself. Adora had always been a little confused by that—she thought that since everyone used the same white bar soap, they’d all smell just like that. It wasn’t true, though. Even after a long day of training, Catra smelled like herself. It was something Adora had always found comfort in.
In the dark, leaning against Catra at an awkward angle, Adora felt more comfortable than she could have imagined. She liked being this close to Catra—it was fun when they fought, but Adora had found that she enjoyed quiet moments too, especially the ones where Catra’s prickly attitude slipped away and she became soft like this. This was the side of Catra no one else got to see, and Adora treasured it like a gray ration bar or an extra five minutes of hot water in the showers. She’d never mention that, because she knew what it sounded like: weakness. She wasn’t weak, and neither was Catra. On nights like those, she told herself she could be happy with this, even if they never talked about it.
How could something that felt so nice be a weakness? She and Catra were stronger together. They could fight harder and they made a great team. They could both do things the other couldn’t, and even though they weren’t too far along in their training, Adora already knew that Catra would always be better at jumping and climbing and Adora would always be better at lifting and punching. It wasn’t such a bad thing, in her mind. It was just who they were. They complemented each other. It had never made much sense to her on why they weren’t supposed to be so close, so Adora tried not to put much thought into it.
Adora had been thinking for longer than she had realized, apparently, because Catra’s soft snoring pulled her away from her thoughts.
She smiled and closed her eyes, pressing her nose into Catra’s hair. In the morning they’d have to part ways like always, but she could at least enjoy the warmth for the night.
“Catra?” A whisper, a pause. “Catra? ”
If she kept her back turned, she wouldn’t have to deal with it. If she just ignored the pushing and shoving…
“Come on.” Adora was in Catra’s bunk, shoving at her like she was one of the carts of junk they had to haul out to the scrapyard on their days off. It didn’t feel great, getting jostled around like that, but Catra could handle it, she could stand her ground. Well, lay down on her ground, in this case. She dug her claws into the mattress, refusing to be moved. “I’m not gonna leave until you talk to me.”
Well, that would be annoying. There weren’t too many people as stubborn as Adora (excluding herself, of course) and Catra knew Adora would follow through on her threats. She always did stick out for the most annoying of disturbances, and she was good at it.
So she’d be stuck with her the whole night? Fine. She wasn’t giving up that easily.
She could hear Adora sigh as theatrically as she could without being too loud. Then, before she even had a chance to react, Adora draped herself over Catra’s side, getting right up to her face. “Catra.”
It would have made sense to shove her off the bed completely, and it was honestly the first impulse Catra had, but on second thought, she knew that even that wouldn’t deter Adora. She’d just climb right back up and keep on with her annoying barrage. Instead, Catra’s plan consisted of ignoring her completely. No matter what she did, no matter how long she stayed, Catra wasn’t giving in. Adora could fall asleep right where she was, for all Catra cared. She’d put up with an entire night of getting snored on if that was what it took. She avoided Adora’s eyes to make that point clear.
The problem with being best friends, however, was the fact that Adora knew exactly how to push her buttons. She knew how annoying she was being, knew that Catra didn’t want to talk, and yet there she was. She could see Adora’s big blue eyes boring into her skull as she tried to meet Catra’s gaze. It was hard to keep from looking at her, in large part because her face completely eclipsed Catra’s vision. She found a spot on the ceiling, then another on a far wall as Adora moved, and another and another until Adora finally spoke.
“Ugh, Catra, you don’t have to say sorry to Lonnie, okay? She doesn’t care.”
Well… great. Why hadn’t she said that first? They could have avoided quite a bit of nonsense if she’d just led with that. Not entirely trusting the statement, she met Adora’s eyes, finally.
“I don’t?” she asked warily.
She wanted to smack the grin right off Adora’s face. They were too close and she didn’t have the leverage. If Adora had moved her dumb face, she absolutely would have done it, no question.
“No,” Adora said, pulling back an inch. Her face looked weird, upside down like she’d ended up, chasing Catra’s eyes around the room. “I talked to her about it. She’s fine, she’s over it.”
“Good for her.”
As little as she wanted Adora to go on damage control for her, she also had to admit to herself (never aloud, and never to Adora) that it made things easier. She couldn’t risk going around apologizing to everyone for every stupid little fight she got in. If Adora wanted to do it for her then… why not? It was one less thing she had to deal with.
After she was satisfied with Catra’s answer, Adora rolled off of her. She stayed on the bunk, however, close enough to keep the length of her arm pressed against Catra’s back. Catra let it slide—there wasn’t enough room for two anyway. She did, however, keep facing away from Adora. While the other girl might have fixed her problem with Lonnie, she still had to let the irritation run its course. Adora might have been able to let things go on a dime, but Catra was different. She could hold a grudge. Kyle had said that it was because of the day she was born, but no one listened to Kyle. She’d pushed him down a flight of stairs after that.
“Oh!” Adora gasped, remembering. “I almost forgot.”
Into her vision came Adora’s hand, fingers wrapped around a little unlabeled box—Catra sat bolt upright, almost knocking Adora off the bed. “You didn’t.” She grabbed the box out of Adora’s hand. No way she had gotten her hands on something like this. But when Catra opened it, it was exactly what she’d thought it would be. Eight little translucent cough drops. She popped two in her mouth—so good. “How’d you get these?”
“Commander Grizzlor’s sick… and a little stupid.”
Adora knew how much she liked them—they were the only unique kind of food they’d ever found in the Fright Zone; they were only for bad coughs, and only one at a time. Ration bars were fine and all, but these? These were a rare treat. If Adora had gone to great lengths to steal them for her, well… It was beyond anything Catra could have wrapped her head around. There Adora was again, solving her problems and then some.
The knot in her stomach loosened, although whether it was from the flavor of the drops or who they’d come from, she wasn’t sure. What she was sure of was that she was done being angry. For now.
She handed Adora one, who took it gratefully. “I wonder if there’s anything else like this we haven’t found,” Adora wondered aloud, the cough drop clattering around in her mouth. “You think they make ones that taste like other things?”
“What other things?”
“Uh… hm,” she hummed. “Ration bars?”
Catra grimaced. That sounded absolutely horrible and she said as much: “I’d rather eat your socks. I’d rather eat Kyle’s socks.”
Adora gagged. “Well, but… do you think they make ration bars that taste like these?”
That sounded better. “Like big and crunchy too?”
“Oh, may-be. That sounds great.” Adora punctuated the sentence by crunching on the last of her cough drop. “What do you even call this taste?”
Catra chewed her own drop thoughtfully. “Well, it’s not like the gray ration bars. Definitely not like the brown ones.”
They sat in a comfortable silence then, and for the life of her, Catra could not think of a single word that described the flavor.
“Flavorish?” Adora offered.
That worked. “Flavorish.”
They ate their ‘flavorish’ cough drops together. Catra tucked the box under her pillow for later. It’d be a nice way to end a tough day.
Adora yawned. “I’m gonna go back down,” she said, and for a long moment in between, Catra thought she might have been waiting for a response. “Good night.” Or maybe not.
Adora clambered down to her own bunk, and Catra listened as she settled in, noisy as ever.
Times were changing. They were both eleven, and way too old to be sharing a bunk anymore, at least in Catra’s mind. It’d been the case since they’d been told that Adora had turned eleven—now she could finally join Catra as a first-year junior cadet. Catra took pride in being older, even if only by a couple of months. Now that they were the same age, Catra figured that she didn’t have to baby Adora anymore, and they could get used to sleeping in their separate bunks. Like adults.
The problem was, Catra was starting to miss it.
Not a lot. It hadn’t been a big problem. She’d begun to rationalize it the night before. For as long as she could remember, she and Adora had shared a bed. It made sense that getting used to a new normal would make her miss the old. It was just change, and if Catra was to be the kind of soldier that people feared, she had to be adaptable. At least, that’s what her superiors had said.
“Adaptability on the battlefield can be the difference between destruction and victory.”
Their bunks weren’t the battlefield, but Catra could apply the same logic. Eventually, she’d get used to sleeping alone, and she’d be stronger for it, more independent.
But for now, she rolled over to face where Adora had just been, setting a hand on the empty space. She’d been doing this every night since they’d stopped sharing a bed, a fact that no one had to know. It was still a little warm, and Catra scooted over on to it. She let herself enjoy that warmth where no one could see her, and closed her eyes, imagining that she had an ankle or a wrist to wrap her tail around. Her own would have to do for now, and probably for the rest of her life.
Still, she felt jittery and anxious in that delirious kind of way, where she was bone-tired from their training, but restless, too. She closed her eyes several times, and couldn’t doze off for more than a few moments at a time. Her mind raced in a million different directions, but she couldn’t pin down a single thought.
As the creeping exhaustion made those thoughts hazy, but not enough for her to fall asleep, she was startled by a noise. A noise from below; it was unmistakably Adora. Rustling, then silence. More frantic rustling, then nothing. A thump. Another thump.
She leaned over the edge of her bunk, and lo and behold, Adora was fast asleep in the most Adora way. Fists up, teeth bared, one leg sticking out from her blanket at an awkward angle. Catra had the pleasure of watching her fight off some imaginary princess or the like. She threw a poorly-aimed punch, followed by a similar kick. It had always been amusing—if not a little sleep-depriving—when Adora got like this. Catra had asked once what the nightmares had been like, but half-asleep and bleary-eyed, Adora had had no idea what she’d been talking about.
Another loud thud—her heel slammed hard against the mattress, and Catra knew she wasn’t getting any sleep any time soon. Not unless she did something.
She hopped to the floor quietly, unlike Adora. Below her, Adora thrashed around again, humming and grunting with the effort of her dream-fight.
Catra rolled her eyes. “Idiot,” she muttered to herself, although she couldn’t help but smile too.
At a pause in Adora’s kicking, Catra crawled onto the bed at her feet. Like she had so many times before, she wrapped her tail around Adora’s ankle. The change was almost immediate—her fists loosened, as did the rest of her, arms and legs dropping on the bed with soft thuds. Within minutes, her breathing was deep and even.
She smiled to herself again. She’d never told Adora about this, something she’d long considered to be her secret superpower. It was so easy to do that she even wondered if it would work while Adora was awake. What if she could take her down in a fight with only her tail?
Just the action of having Adora’s ankle to hold relaxed her as well, and in the darkness, she found she didn’t want to fight. Not when she felt so calm.
For a long moment she just stayed there, listening to Adora’s soft snoring. Why did they have to sleep apart? Who’d made up that rule (it had been her) and why (she didn’t know)?
She made a pact with herself that night: she’d get up before anyone else and be back in her own bunk by dawn. No one would be the wiser. Maybe this could be her new normal—maybe she could get used to hiding this and breaking up her sleep schedule. Besides, Adora needed something to keep her from thrashing around all night, and if not Catra, then who? The thought of anyone else helping Adora sleep sent a spike of ice down her spine. No. It had to be her.
She tightened her grip around Adora’s ankle. Adora hummed happily in her sleep.
It didn’t take more than a few moments for sleep to find her too.
“Psst.” A whisper, a pause. “Adora.”
“Wh—” A familiar hand clamped over Adora’s mouth, as another restrained the fist that had reflexively come flying out from under her covers. Bewildered, she squinted up into the dark, towards Catra’s silhouette.
“No questions, just come.”
She felt herself being yanked bodily out of bed, with the hand no longer covering her mouth. “Catra—“
Sleep clung to her vision, and while “battle readiness” had been hammered into every lesson she’d ever learned, getting pulled out of a deep sleep was still not easy to recover from. This was made especially difficult by the cold metal against her bare feet and Catra crushing her wrist in what could only be described as a vise grip.
They crept through the hallways, illuminated by machinery and flickering floor lights. It would have been a little unsettling if Adora didn’t know the layout like the back of her hand. This was home. They passed the forge, the warehouse, and Catra led her out into the open, slowly inching past the scrapyard to avoid a searchlight. Judging by the position of the moons, they would have just had a shift change—a new guard on the tower meant more vigilance, along with a huge spike in their chances of getting caught. Catra noticed first, and Adora followed, watching her step.
Once they passed the scrapyard, she wanted to ask where they were going, but Catra seemed intently focused on reaching her destination; she tugged Adora along by the hand, their fingers interlocked—when had that happened?
Her chest buzzed with adrenaline. It always did when they were doing something stupid like this.
Finally, Catra slowed her pace. They’d reached an abandoned storehouse Adora remembered exploring with Catra from what seemed like ages ago. Adora figured it had been all but forgotten, and it had been the perfect place to hang out, away from the barracks. But that was years past, and in the time between she’d forgotten about the place herself.
“Over there.” Catra motioned towards the far end of the storehouse, not really giving her the option to refuse as she pulled her along.
She watched as Catra crouched down between a pair of empty fuel barrels, reaching in with her free hand.
When her hand emerged, Catra was holding a kitten, whose mottled black and gray fur was sticking out in all directions. She let go of Adora’s hand to better hold the little creature. It blinked its bleary yellow eyes and yawned. It was adorable.
“Meet Meep,” Catra said, stepping closer.
“Meep?” Adora cooed, reaching to stroke the kitten’s head with a finger. The kitten pressed against her finger, its fur soft if not a little greasy. It was easily the size of Adora’s hand, and its little head almost seemed too delicate to touch, so Adora was as careful as she could be. She just couldn’t resist.
“It’s the noise she makes when she’s hungry,” Catra clarified, stroking the kitten’s ear. “I wanted you to meet her because I might need you to come and take care of her sometimes.”
It took an immense amount of effort, but Adora tore her eyes away from the kitten, who nuzzled into Catra’s arms. Adora smirked. “Does this mean we’re moms now?”
Catra rolled her eyes. “You think thirteen is a good age to be a mom?”
“To a kitten, yeah.”
In the dim moonlight, Adora could make out Catra’s face as she smiled down at Meep. Her features were soft, gentle. It was so rare that Adora saw her like that. To match her expression, the way Catra stroked the kitten’s fur was equally tender. That was something Adora wasn’t sure she’d ever seen before. Not from Catra, at least.
Why doesn’t she touch me like that?
The thought was so sudden, Adora had to take a step back. The movement pulled Catra’s attention from Meep. She looked up at Adora, who looked like she was suddenly ready to bolt. “What?”
“Nothing!” She could feel herself blushing, and no matter how dim the light was, she knew Catra would be able to see her flushed cheeks. She hastily turned to the broken window, pretending to check outside. There was no way anyone would be patrolling this far out, this late at night. It was a perfect cover, Adora thought.
“Okay, weirdo,” Catra said, and relief flooded Adora’s system. “Here, come hold Meep. She’s got to get used to you.”
When Adora had her face under control, she took the kitten from Catra. She was so small, Adora had to voice it aloud: “She’s tiny.”
“I think she was the runt. I saw a few others running away when I walked by, but she was trapped under some scrap.” Catra stepped closer, reaching out to stroke Meep’s back. The kitten had made herself comfortable in the crook of Adora’s arm. “I didn’t want to leave her, so I brought her here.”
Something else buzzed in Adora’s chest, and she knew for sure it wasn’t the adrenaline now. They’d made it, they weren’t getting caught. She looked between the kitten and Catra.
She’s so pretty.
“What’s wrong with your face? She doesn’t smell that bad.”
“Nothing’s wrong!” What was wrong with her? “I’ve never held a kitten, is all.” Smooth.
For an uncomfortable moment, Adora thought Catra might not buy the excuse. If she didn’t, what would she tell her? “Hey, Catra, my brain is getting really weird on me. Don’t worry, I’m sure the next time I’m concussed it’ll fix right up!” Bad. Not good. There was no way she could know that, anyway.
“Anyway,” Catra continued, but it did nothing for the minor heart attack Adora was having. “I usually bring her bits of Kyle’s ration bars. You can leave them...”
Has she always been this pretty?
Was she being possessed? Adora tried to push her attention to the kitten in her arms, which was now asleep. Catra kept explaining how she’d been caring for Meep, but much to her dismay, every time Adora looked back up at her friend, another thought popped up.
Her eyes are so nice.
The issue at hand was that Adora suddenly couldn’t stop looking at her. Try as she may, Meep couldn’t hold her attention. Not with Catra there, showing her the pile of rags she’d scrounged up for bedding, looking up at Adora and making her heart stutter in her chest.
What was happening?
“…that’s it, I think,” Catra said with a finality that told Adora she’d missed everything. “Just come by tomorrow on your rounds and—“
It seemed there was a theme to the night. Catra’s ear twitched, and Adora knew the look that accompanied it all too well. Catra’s hand came up to cover her mouth, as she had done so an hour prior, and pulled her into the shadows where she’d been hiding Meep. Behind the barrels, they were well-hidden, but before she could ask why, she’d caught up with Catra’s realization.
Unfortunately, Adora’s hearing was not nearly as good as Catra’s was, but after that tense moment, she could make out the sound of voices outside.
“…something around here,” said a deep voice. It was probably the Sergeant. “Do a sweep, but I want you stationed here the rest of the night. Clear?”
“Yes sir,” was the response. It sounded like Octavia. Of course.
“Of all the people,” Catra grumbled, releasing her hold on Adora’s mouth.
As soon as Catra’s hand was gone, Adora noticed the position they were in. Catra had backed up against the wall, her legs spread out on either side of Adora. Because there wasn’t room for much else, Adora’s entire back was pressed up against Catra’s body, all but in her lap, and the storehouse grew several degrees hotter with that realization. Outside, the telltale thump of Octavia’s heavy footsteps grew louder, then quieter.
“Catra, we can’t get caught. If Octavia—“
“I know. She still hates me.”
“I mean… she’s still got a dumb face.”
She felt rather than heard Catra’s laugh. Her body jostled with it, and the blush that had come and gone was back again in full force. In their position, Adora didn’t have to worry about the way her face heated up—Catra may have been able to see in the dark, but she couldn’t see through Adora’s head.
“So, what? We’re staying here?”
Adora found that she didn’t mind. “Well what do you suggest?”
Outside, Octavia’s footsteps plodded closer, stopping what sounded like a few feet in front of the door to the storehouse. The gravel crunched under her feet, and a soft thunk followed by the groaning of steel meant she’d leaned right up against the outside of the storehouse.
Catra dropped her head onto Adora’s shoulder. “I can’t believe this,” she mumbled, quieter than Adora had ever heard her speak.
As if to remind them of her presence, Meep snuffled in her sleep. She’d smushed herself up against Adora’s chest, a little ball of fur and warmth. Adora was almost afraid to move. Not because of Octavia, she found, but as the moment stretched out—with Meep, so comfortable in her arms, and Catra’s forehead against her shoulder—she didn’t want anything to change.
She hadn’t realized just how still she’d gone until Catra moved. Her arms lifted at her sides, wrapping around Adora’s waist.
Adora released a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. It had been a few minutes—was Catra asleep? With her arms keeping Adora close, Adora chose to believe that yes, she’d fallen asleep. The alternative… she wasn’t sure how to process that. Especially not after the kinds of thoughts that had been popping into her head.
Instead of thinking about it for too long, she made herself as comfortable as she could, adjusting Meep and slowly leaning back into Catra. She’d always been thin and wiry, but Adora realized with a start that she was also quite comfortable. Once she’d leaned back as far as she could go, Catra nestled her head in Adora’s neck and began to purr.
She had to be asleep.
There was no way a fully sentient Catra would be this cuddly and affectionate. Sure, they pushed each other around and fought for fun, but that wasn’t affection. That wasn’t warm and soft and gentle. And yes, Catra had always been more like this at night, more willing to get close when they were alone, but this? Her whole body wrapped around Adora? Purring against her neck?
Adora felt like she would combust. It was so, so much, and so soon after the floodgates of her thoughts had opened. It had her remembering so many instances in the years before. The little sparks she’d always felt when Catra took her hand to lead her somewhere, the way Catra looked when she was grappling with Lonnie or Rogelio, the smell of her hair then, so close to Adora’s nose. The strength so evident in her when she beat the entire class on a timed run, the way she laughed when Adora did something stupid, the way Adora’s heart felt every single day—
What could it mean?
Catra is my friend.
Her arms tightened around Adora’s waist.
Catra is my best friend.
She sighed against Adora’s neck.
Catra means the world to me.
Even when exhaustion threatened to take her, Adora couldn’t let it. She stared ahead, her mind running in circles. Even when Meep started to purr right along with Catra, even when those vibrations relaxed every muscle in her body, Adora couldn’t shut her brain up. It was worse than any upcoming battle simulations, worse than every single exam she’d taken. Those she knew had an end to them, at least. She could take a test and be done with it.
This? She didn’t know how to handle this.
What did any of it mean? According to everything she’d ever been taught, she was wrong in every way for feeling like she did. Tenderness, care, affection—these were things to be avoided, to be feared. She was wrong for wanting to press closer, wrong for wanting to stay like they were, wrong in every sense of the word. Wrong, and weak.
Does Catra make me weak? Is that wrong too?
When the sun rose, Adora hadn’t slept at all.
“Hmmf.” A noise, a pause. “Mmmf.”
In her fifteen years, Catra had been woken up by all sorts of things. Screaming, the banging of pots, a cacophony of broken speakers, Kyle retching. None of them, however, had ever been grunting. Not until that night. Later, she’d thought that it was a little surprising given that she slept in a large, echoey room with nine other people.
She was up in her own bunk, the unfortunate result of Adora’s late night patrol shift. She’d been paired off with Lonnie the entire week and Catra hated it. She hated it because she couldn’t stand waiting around at the foot of Adora’s bed until she got back. It made her feel stupid and childish and if she had to be alone, it was going to be on her own terms. It’d taken her ages to fall asleep, and in a matter of minutes, she was up again.
When she woke, the grunting was quiet, so quiet that she could safely assume no one but her had been disturbed by it. However, the issue remained; it was loud enough for her sensitive hearing, and she was up. She hadn’t been sleeping deeply, anyway, being in her own bunk and all.
It took a whopping two seconds for Catra to recognize the noise as coming from Adora, and another two seconds for her mind to go spiraling into the gutter. Shadow Weaver had warned (threatened) all of the senior cadets that they’d be dealing with a lot of mental and physical changes and were they to act upon any associated thoughts, they would be sent to the scrapyard to live alone for a week.
Because it wasn’t a particularly new avenue of thought, Catra had the faculties in place to derail the train to Gutter Town before her mind ended up where it did when she was in the shower alone in the middle of the night. She’d live to see another week away from the scrapyard. Hopefully.
Crisis averted, she peered over the edge of the bed, and for better or worse, found Adora on the floor below doing push-ups.
“Hey,” she hissed, “Adora.”
Unfortunately, she didn’t succeed in startling Adora, which would have been funny, and she instead dipped into one final press. Catra, forced to watch in agony as the muscles of Adora’s shoulders tensed and rolled slowly, frowned so hard her face began to ache. When she finished, Adora rolled over onto her back, and Catra was then faced with the fact that Adora’s tank top had ridden halfway up her stomach.
She was going to kill her.
“Hey Catra. What’s up?”
“You woke me up.”
Adora scoffed. “Don’t be stupid. Come down here.”
She felt pretty stupid, listening to Adora, but there was something she couldn’t quite resist. She complied. She’d been planning on coming down anyway. After years of use, she sank right into the thinned layer of bedding at the foot of Adora’s bunk. She’d been sleeping on what amounted to a sheet for the past few years, but her own bunk had never been much better.
“Are you really this stressed about tomorrow?”
Adora rolled onto her bed from the floor, not caring to avoid Catra’s outstretched legs. “Yes, Catra. You know I am. I feel like… like this tension.”
“‘Tension’s your middle name, Adora.”
“Well, more than usual. Wait, hey— ” She shoved Catra with her knee, the ass. “You jerk.”
Catra grabbed Adora’s foot, jamming her knuckles into the sole and it was so easy, making Adora turn to putty. “You’re lucky I tolerate you.”
“To the left,” Adora hummed, and Catra did so. “And you love me.”
She bit the inside of her cheek. Hard. “Whatever, Captain Tension.”
Adora’s dopey smile was well worth the pain in her mouth. They stayed like that for a while, Catra quietly working the knots out of Adora’s feet. If anyone were to see them like this, the Horde would be making new eyepatches. She couldn’t risk tarnishing her hard-earned reputation by getting caught massaging her best friend’s feet.
“You’re being so nice tonight.”
“I just want you to go to sleep so I can go to sleep,” Catra said, finding an especially tricky area near Adora’s heel. Her toes flexed in response. “It’s either this or listening to you go through an entire cardio circuit.”
“I would not. It’s just—oh, there—patrol got me antsy. I had a lot of time to think.”
About what? She wanted to ask. “You and thinking don’t work too well together,” she said.
“I’m a thinker, you ass.”
“You’re a puncher, idiot.”
In one fell swoop, Adora whipped her feet out of reach and rocked herself up on her haunches, getting right in Catra’s face. “You want me to demonstrate?”
“Thinking or punching?”
Adora studied her face for a long moment. Long enough to be a little awkward. Long enough for Catra’s eyes to wander down to her lips, and long enough for her to want to jump out of her skin.
“See? I was just thinking, just now.”
She was too close. Catra shoved her out of the way and lay back on the bed. “Doubtful.”
The position gave Adora the opportunity to prop her head up on her hand and lie down beside her. “Look, I’ll do it again,” she said, and leant right up into Catra’s personal space for a second time. She was close enough then that Catra could make out the little flecks of gold in her eyes, the healing red of a recent sunburn across her cheeks, and just how chapped her lips were. Just as Catra had fixated on her mouth again, Adora leaned back. “See? Thinking. I’ll even let you guess what I was thinking about.”
She didn’t want to have to guess, she wanted to know.
Is it me? Do you think of me like I think of you?
Catra schooled her face into a deep frown, going for pensive but probably landing closer to constipated. She let her eyes wander over Adora’s face. “Eating.”
“Yeah, it’s either that or punching, and we ruled the second one out.”
“Believe it or not, jerk, I’m capable of complex thought.”
“Is it eating and punching? At the same time?”
It seemed like long, awkward looks were the name of the game. Adora’s brow furrowed in the way it did when she was concentrating or frustrated and her eyes wandered over Catra’s face. She felt her whole body heating up under Adora’s gaze. It’d just been a joke, what was she doing this for?
After what could have been ten seconds, but also a lifetime, Adora pulled back. “I was thinking about you,” she said, like it was absolutely nothing.
Catra blinked. She couldn’t figure out how she could be so relieved and yet so tense. She tried to find a suitable snarky comment, something that could ease the tension in her neck and shoulders and her back and every other part of her, but nothing came up. Adora had just breezed right over that, completely oblivious to the near-stroke Catra was having.
Then, “—how annoying you are.”
Oh, she wanted to kill.
She settled for shoving at Adora’s stupid smug face out of the way, and she fell back on the bed with a quiet snort, giggling when Catra got her feet into Adora’s side and pushed her along the length of the bed, as far away as she could manage. She settled back on her haunches at the foot, eyeing Adora like she was a bot during target practice.
“I’m annoying? Who’s the idiot doing push-ups in the middle of the night?”
Adora pushed herself up on her elbows, and if her fucking tank top hadn’t ridden up again—“Who’s the one interrupting my push-ups in the middle of the night? Hm?”
The way she looked… Catra knew Adora couldn’t see her with the same clarity in that darkness, but she wanted to—do something. She couldn’t put a finger on it. She couldn’t complete the thought. She was just so… mad? Mad, sure, but something else lingered, making her blood run hot. She dug her claws into the mattress.
That little smirk Adora was wearing grew the longer Catra went without a response, and it was going to drive her absolutely insane if Adora didn’t stop… whatever she was doing.
She had an out, one that would win her both external and internal battles. She reached up and grabbed the edge of her own bunk, hoisting herself up and away from Adora.
Immediately, “Catra,” then, “Catra, come on. Come back.”
Satisfied with the win, she stuck her head over the edge of the bed. “Are you going to keep being an ass?”
Adora pouted. She was going to have to not do that. After a moment, she rolled her eyes, sighing. “Fine. Just come back.”
She would, but she had to make a point of going as slowly as she could, considering Adora’s request for a long few seconds, hemming and hawing while Adora rolled around in agony before dropping down and stretching out at the foot of Adora’s bed. As was her habit, her tail found Adora’s ankle and Adora’s smile lit up her whole face.
It was cute. She was cute. Catra didn’t want to think about it. “Go to sleep, doofus.”
Adora obliged, getting herself comfortable without jostling the leg Catra’s tail was curled around. There was a time when Catra would have been a little more careful with how and when she allowed herself that small connection. Time, however, had made it apparent that they both needed it to sleep well, and the unspoken rule became law in the years since she’d started.
Now, however, Catra had the displeasure of the back-end of puberty. Raging hormones had turned her dependency into an all-consuming need, and it wasn’t something she had the vocabulary to discuss. Not that she would have wanted to, anyway. Her thoughts turned to Adora with every free moment they had.
Not training? Where’s Adora? It’s lunchtime? What’s Adora doing? Going to sleep? I need Adora.
It had been driving her crazy for years, and she’d landed on an explanation but no solution. She didn’t need anyone, she’d tell herself on nights like those. She could be just fine without Adora, if the need arose. She hated that thought in particular. She hoped there would never be a time to need.
She tightened her grip on Adora’s ankle. Adora wiggled it in response.
“I thought you were going to sleep,” came her voice.
“You woke me up, now I’m up,” Catra said. It was a half truth. She wanted to talk more. She’d never say that.
“What’s up then?”
So many things. “I don’t know.”
“Come on, there’s got to be something—“
“I don’t know, Adora.”
The following pause was so long Catra assumed Adora had just passed out again. Maybe she’d been a little too biting. Maybe she’d—
“It’s your turn, you know.”
Catra was about to ask what the hell she was talking about, but the memory hit her like a battering ram. The rolling boil of emotions in her chest calmed.
“Is it really?”
“It’s been your turn for like, the past seven years.”
Catra almost laughed.
She sat up. Adora was propped up against the wall, watching her. Her blue eyes glowed in the dark, and she patted the empty space beside her. It was such a familiar gesture, it made Catra’s heart swell in her chest. Her first impulse was to be the contrarian, like she’d always been, but she tamped that down, instead crawling up the length of the bed and sitting next to Adora, bumping their shoulders together. There was less space between them than there had ever been.
“Bright Moon, right?”
She didn’t have to look to know Adora was smiling. “Bright Moon.”
Even seven years later it wasn’t hard to remember.
“So I unleash the demon beast, but in a much better and cooler way than you did.”
“Hey.” A whisper, a pause. “Catra.”
No response. Her head fell back against the pillow.
It’d been about an hour of tossing and turning, made worse by every little sound she caught: the rattling of the half-functional ventilation system, the other cadets moving around in their sleep, the metallic creaks and groans she’d grown up hearing—all now kept her in a vicious cycle of differing sleeping positions. She felt jittery, like she always did before an evaluation. Tomorrow could mean the difference between another year as a senior cadet, or the start of her journey as a Force Captain. It could be the beginning of the rest of her life.
Catra would have the same opportunity. They could finally be poised to do the work they’d always dreamed of, together.
But Catra was asleep. Sometimes Adora envied her nonchalance. She’d never understood how she could be just as prepared with half the anxiety. Maybe Catra was just better at managing it.
…No, that didn’t make sense.
Adora rolled to her side. Equally uncomfortable. Her other side. Horrible. She wanted to yell.
She peered down at Catra. Adora needed to wake her up; she couldn’t manage a night like this on her own. It took a few increasingly firm prods with her foot, but then a mismatched pair of eyes met Adora’s—they were awake and angry. Both were to be expected, but Adora had planned on the former.
“What? ” Catra hissed.
“Great, you’re up!”
She scooted legs-first along the bed, gathering the sheet up with her as she went. Catra always looked so disheveled when she was sleepy. So warm and comfortable, too. With a pang, it reminded Adora of the night they’d hidden in the storehouse, all those years prior. She still remembered Catra’s warmth, wrapped around her like a hundred standard-issue sheets on a cold early morning. She couldn’t very well ask for that, no matter how many times she’d recalled it in the years since. Besides, she had never quite come to terms with what it had meant then. However, she could get close to Catra now; she could lean into the easy, aggressive brand of affection they’d cultivated over the years.
Catra, to her credit, sat up. Her hair stuck out in all directions, just like it always did. Even though it was because of the hours she spent awake, Adora was thankful that her eyes had adjusted to the dark, because this version of Catra was one of her favorites: annoyed and soft around the edges.
“Hey.” Not her finest work, but she’d never been great at words.
“Why did you wake me up.” More of a demand than question.
“Uh…” Shit. “Is the time to pass the exam twenty-two minutes or—”
If looks could kill. (At least she wouldn’t have to feel the nerves anymore.)
“I’m going back to sleep.”
“No, Catra, please!” She grabbed Catra’s wrist, donning her most effective pout. “Please? ”
Catra’s eyes seared everywhere they looked. Adora felt the sensation down to the pit of her stomach. She’d always admired Catra’s eyes. They were unique, just like the rest of her, and intense, also like the rest of her. That intensity in training was scary, but in the barracks, in the middle of the night? As was common, Adora didn’t have the words.
Catra rolled her eyes, and the tension that had been bunched up in Adora’s throat sank down.
“I am a glorified security blanket,” Catra grumbled, “destined to never sleep through another night in my life.”
“You’re my best friend. If you haven’t gotten used to it by now, I don’t know what to tell you.”
Catra sighed. “Do you ever think to yourself: ‘Hey, maybe I should stop freaking out and—I don’t know— sleep for once’?”
“Uh, do you ever think about not being an ass?”
Catra kicked her. Maybe she deserved it. Maybe.
“Why would I do that? It’s my thing.”
“It’s a shitty thing.”
Catra kicked her again. Adora kicked back—she definitely deserved it.
They were seventeen, sure. Old enough to fight for the Horde, old enough to make Force Captain, old enough to handle any and all major responsibilities. With Catra, however, Adora could feel like a kid. All of that childhood mischief, all of the mayhem they’d caused? It had never stopped—she’d only gotten better at hiding it. Maybe that was what growing up was. Underneath the good soldier was the little kid who just wanted her best friend and a reason to fight.
Over time, their fighting had evolved. It was easy enough to see in training amongst the other cadets; their hits landed more often than ever, they beat old records and mastered new skills with ease that could only have come with repetition. Between them, however, it had evolved in a much more intimate way.
The simple truth was that Catra knew her body, and she knew Catra’s.
Of course, that thought divorced from its real-world application was what kept Adora up at night even when there were no exams, no outside pressure. They’d known each other for every sentient moment of their lives; rationally, an in-depth and mutual knowledge could be expected. Adora likened it to studying battle plans—you had to expose yourself often to understand every detail, no matter how small. Like the repetition in the swing of a quarterstaff, or the never-ending days of training, Catra had laid her hands on Adora’s body enough to memorize its ins and outs, and vice versa.
As was their fashion, they’d tangled up once Adora had reciprocated her kick. Adora tried for a noogie, but Catra ducked and yanked at her ponytail, snickering. Adora was reminded hotly of all of the ways Catra knew how to push her buttons. They grappled again, and without proper leverage, Adora went down with a thump.
“You“—Adora grunted, pushing back—“are a nightmare.”
Catra grinned down at her. Adora tried not to think too hard about the position they were in; Catra’s weight was across her hips, with her hands pinning Adora’s wrists to the bed.
“You’re the one that woke me up, doofus.”
“I didn’t wake you up to be attacked like this.”
“Oh, I beg to differ.”
She was right, really. It made Adora’s face hot, and she wasn’t in a place to hide the vivid blush she could feel creeping all the way down to her neck. Torn between not wanting to upset their position for personal reasons and knowing she was offering Catra priceless blackmail by doing nothing, she staged an ineffective struggle against Catra’s weight.
Performative, she thought, you can’t act. But she couldn’t give up any valuable ammunition. Catra already knew too much.
Catra knew how Adora needed to blow off steam when she was stressed, knew the catharsis of throwing a punch. What Adora hoped she didn’t know, or couldn’t tell from her face, was that she liked having Catra this close.
The struggle might have been half-hearted, but when Catra’s bright eyes narrowed, Adora couldn’t help but actually squirm. Sometimes she had a good idea of what Catra was thinking. As much as they’d been trained to hide it, Catra wore her heart on her sleeve. Adora had spent a lifetime absently categorizing each emotion as it appeared on her face, and in her body language.
There were a mix of emotions, then, as Catra eyed her. Whatever was there made Adora’s blood run hot and her heart thud in her chest.
She wanted to say something, but a fog had settled over her brain, and she couldn’t articulate even one coherent thought, let alone respond to the way Catra was looking at her. It made her want. What, she didn’t know. Catra released the hold on her wrists, sitting up and then back against her thighs. Adora stifled the impulse to pull her back, maybe even draw her closer, but Catra had other plans.
In the following moment, Adora was glad she was a tense person.
Catra’s hand found the back of her knee, and it took the tension already present in every muscle in her body to not scream bloody murder.
Her, funnily enough, knee-jerk reaction was to retaliate in kind, and she jammed her hand into Catra’s side. Through years of investigation, she’d assumed that the retaliation would be fruitless, but later she’d realize that she’d never tried this by surprise.
It was as if a ten-year-old veil had been finally lifted.
Catra’s eyes widened, and Adora was gifted with blackmail the likes of which neither could have dreamed of.
Catra squeaked. Just like a mouse (and it was so cute—Adora was definitely going to hold on to the sound forever).
Adora’s jaw dropped. “You…”
Catra shook her head furiously, caught between terror and embarrassment, but Adora was ecstatic.
“You’re ticklish,” she said, in awe. “Have you always— ”
“I’m not,” Catra choked out, scrambling away. “Shut up.”
What kind of a best friend would Adora have been if she would let that precious information go to waste? Was this what defeating the Rebellion would feel like? It had to be, because she’d never known a bigger triumph in her life.
Escape, Catra should have known, was futile. Adora grabbed her leg as she tried hoisting herself up to the top bunk, and yanked her down. Never had she felt power like this, never had she been given an opportunity of this magnitude.
“Adora don’t you fucking dare—”
She couldn’t listen, for the reward was too great. Before Catra had the chance to protect herself, Adora jammed her hands back into her sides. It was a victory of the highest degree, it was fate smiling down on her, and it was damning, because Catra shrieked.
Adora loved it.
But her glee was short-lived.
“Can you guys stop fucking and go to sleep? ”
The triumph dissolved instantly. Adora was going to die. “We’re not—”
“Hey, fuck you, Lonnie!”
“Fuck you, Catra! GO TO SLEEP!”
Adora clamped her hand over Catra’s mouth, hoping against hope that she’d calm down before insults turned to fists. (It’d happened before. A lot.) In retaliation, Catra licked her palm, but this was an old and ineffective tactic. She’d wipe her hand on Catra’s face later.
“Sorry, Lonnie! We’re going to sleep!”
With the entire barracks awake and aware of the commotion long before dawn, Adora knew they’d be getting an earful at breakfast. She thought she’d be getting an earful from Catra when she uncovered her mouth, but she’d only earned a withering glare. To show her appreciation, Adora wiped her hand against her shirt. It made Catra smirk, which was a win in Adora’s book.
“I’m going to fight Lonnie tomorrow.”
“She dug her own grave.”
It wasn’t worth the retaliation. Not this late, not when Catra was curling back up at the foot of her bed; it was a favored “I’m not listening” tactic. Besides, the Catra/Lonnie Fight Circuit had been a source of entertainment for years. Although she’d have to pick up the pieces after, it would be fun to watch. They’d gone to war over stupider things.
Regardless of the fight, she’d won big. She could finally sleep well knowing she had a new and powerful weapon against Catra. Sure, they were on the same side, but it always paid to have the upper hand.
She leaned back against her pillow, content and finally feeling the exhaustion clouding the edges of her vision. After a long moment—enough time to let the excitement settle, she supposed—Catra’s tail wound around her ankle. She relaxed into the hard mattress.
Adora knew waking Catra up would help—it always had. It did, however, have the unintended side effect of leading everyone to believe that they had been… up to something else. But Adora didn’t have the waking brain power to consider that, so she closed her eyes and drifted off. Later, her dream-brain would have other plans.
The thing was, falling asleep that night had seemed so inconsequential, just like every other night.
In the morning she’d be handed a badge she’d worked her entire life for. Before long, it would mean nothing.
“Catra.” A whisper, a pause. “Why did you do it?”
Catra jolted awake like she’d been electrocuted. Once she took in her surroundings, she wished she had been.
Her room was awash in pale red light. Although it was distinctly the Fright Zone, it felt as if she was still trapped in that empty white space. Her heart jackhammered in her chest, with cold sweat breaking out at her temples, her back, her palms. She could still hear the voices. Their voices, her voice. They knocked around in her skull like caged animals, and she couldn’t escape them.
All at once, the room was too large and too small.
She threw the covers off, bolting down the hall. She sprinted on all fours, as fast as her arms and legs would carry her, as fast as her body would allow, and then faster still. Her lungs burned, muscles ached, heart strained, but she kept moving. It was all reflex, like she was being chased. Down corridors, through the dark, towards nothing. Away from herself.
It was no use. No matter how fast she ran, no matter how hard she pushed herself, she still heard them as loud as they’d been in her nightmare. The weight of their words pressed in on her straining heart, clawed at her addled brain, threatened to hold her down.
“What did you do to me?”
“You’re a bad friend.”
“You’ve made your choice. Now live with it.”
The dry outside air made her head swim. The moons were so bright, and she couldn’t run forever.
When she slowed to a stop, it took everything she had not to collapse. She tried catching her breath, hunched over but taking stock of her surroundings and of how far she’d run. Time had seemed to slow while she’d been moving, but she squinted up at the moons and realized it hadn’t been long at all.
Drenched in sweat, covered in dirt and mud, still in her underclothes—altogether she probably looked like a wreck. If anyone had seen her like this—
No. No one could ever see her like this.
She shook herself off, trying to wipe the mud from her hands. It had been raining in the Fright Zone. Unusual for that time of year, but if one thing had to be difficult in Catra’s life, why not everything else? Why would anything have the decency to go right for her?
The mud wasn’t coming off; instead, she’d only succeeded in staining her underclothes. She growled, stalking the area she’d ended up in for a rag or a spigot or the like. But as per usual, fortune had decided to spit in her face.
The shadows were long and dark enough to cover her movement as she wandered. The sheer amount of structures in the Fright Zone meant that keeping hidden was easy. Not that she wasn’t good at hiding otherwise.
One such structure caught her eye.
A flickering light swung in the breeze above the door. Ominous, but that was an accurate descriptor for just about everything in the Fright Zone. This was more than that. The structure terrified her.
Her feet begged her to run again. She couldn’t face going in there, not when the remnants of her nightmares still lingered. The voices nagged at her, begging her for answers, condemning her. She couldn’t listen. She was so close. She was so close.
“Fuck it,” she said to herself. She shook the voices away. “You’re not a coward.”
You are a coward. She ignored this.
The door creaked as she opened it, disuse apparent as one of the rusty hinges came clean off. The door swung open on the remaining hinges, pitching dangerously as Catra stepped through.
Inside, shelves she’d remembered to be standing had been knocked over or rusted to bits. A gaping hole in the roof dripped murky water into a puddle on the floor. It had been long enough, apparently, to erode a large part of the concrete. Fuel barrels had been scattered, abandoned animal nests peeking out of the darkness inside. A window had been busted in, although by what, she couldn’t hazard a guess. Lots of things were broken in the Fright Zone.
In short, it looked like a nightmare.
Once, it hadn’t been so bad. Once, it had been a dream. Here, there had been life. Here, she’d cared for something, watched it grow. She remembered soft fur and yellow eyes. They hadn’t been so different, her and the cat, for more reasons than were obvious. It had needed her, it had depended on her care. But that was so long ago, now. Five years stretched out in her memory, and she tried desperately to pull her focus away from them.
A piece of flaky metal fell from the hole in the roof. She should have the place torn down. There were other memories inside she couldn’t afford to keep.
Something rustled along the far wall. Her ears perked up.
“Who’s there?” she demanded, suddenly on alert.
Another rustle, and a pair of eyes glowed far in the darkness of an overturned barrel. The animal watched her from the shadows. Not cautious, just curious; a complete absence of fear. No one had looked at her like that in a long time. Her chest ached.
It blinked its large yellow eyes. The moonlight caught them through a hole in the barrel, reflecting gold. Slowly, it came forward.
Catra’s heart dropped. She released a breath she hadn’t known she’d been holding.
It was unmistakable. Dozens of stray cats lived in the Fright Zone, but Catra knew this one. She saw the recognition dawn in Meep’s eyes, too. The cat tilted its head and made a noise she hadn’t heard in years.
Catra dropped to her knees. Gravel dug uncomfortably into her skin. She ignored it, not taking her eyes away from the cat. Meep startled at the movement, but stayed put, watching.
“Meep, it’s me.”
She made her little noise again, and before she could consider moving closer, Catra was hit with a wave of memories so forceful she almost fell back.
“Does this mean we’re moms now?”
Her breath came faster. She shook her head, trying to rid herself of the memory.
“I mean… she’s still got a dumb face.”
It felt like the walls were closing in on her, but there was nowhere to run this time. The memories washed over her. The harder she tried to avoid them, the more they took over her.
She blinked, hard, and Meep’s eyes were blue, her fur was golden. Another blink and she was back to normal.
“No,” she gasped, shaking with the effort to keep the thoughts at bay. “I can’t—”
In a second, she was thrown back twelve years. It was the first time she’d ever been in the storehouse, when she and Adora were six. They’d hidden in a barrel and waited for Kyle, scaring him so thoroughly he’d peed himself.
She tried to fight it, tried to think of anything else but—
She was seven. They’d been playing hide and seek on the grounds. She’d chosen a shelf to hide under, and bolted out a window before Adora could see her. She’d won the game—Adora hadn’t been especially observant.
She tugged at her hair, praying for the memories to go away, but they kept flooding her mind, her vision.
At nine, Catra had stayed in the storehouse for days, following one of Shadow Weaver’s more difficult tirades. Adora had been the one to find her. She’d comforted her, petted her hair and her ears and called her her best friend.
Her chest was going to collapse in on itself. She couldn’t relive this, she couldn’t stay—
At thirteen, she’d found Meep and introduced her to Adora. At fourteen, they’d come back to find Meep gone and a dead rat in her bedding. At fifteen, they’d snuck out and told ghost stories by the light of the moons. At sixteen, she thought the words “I love you” for the first time, and realized that she had for as long as she could remember.
She doubled over, and the tears came. She couldn’t stop them if she’d tried—heaving sobs wracked her whole body, so painful they made her nauseous.
When she caught her breath enough to draw herself up, she noticed that Meep was gone. The sobs began anew.
The storehouse hadn’t been used in years. No one would see her cry.
“Hey.” A whisper, a pause. “Adora.”
Adora turned. It had been a few days now, but she still had to remind herself that it was real, that Catra was real. Catra stood at the entrance to the partitioned sleeping area (a glorified storage closet), where Adora had decided to post herself after what amounted to a fitful, ten-minute nap. They’d all needed a couple hours of rest after the Fright Zone, but with the deadly promise of Mystacor looming so close ahead, Adora found she couldn’t even allow herself that.
Behind Catra, Melog crept into view, rubbing its head against her leg. Adora smiled up at Catra and patted the empty space to her side. She looked relieved.
“Can’t sleep?” Catra asked, settling down on the ground, as Melog curled up in front of them. Catra watched Adora as she spoke, concerned. There were a lot of things she needed to get used to, it seemed.
Adora sighed, shook her head. “I don’t know what it is.”
“I mean, the horrible space tyrant might be a reason.”
Adora laughed. “Yeah, I guess.” They sat in comfortable silence for a moment.
“…Is there something else?”
The question felt clunky and strange in the air, but not in the common way like when someone tried to make small talk. It wasn’t as if Catra was trying too hard. The obvious change between them was the yawning gap between what their friendship used to be and what it had become—there was so much lost time neither knew how to make up for. She wasn’t sure if that was the reason, but what she did know was when Catra’s tail brushed against her arm (on accident or on purpose, she couldn’t be sure) the sensation was the same as it had ever been.
“Yeah…” she began, quieting her thoughts. “Though I don’t really know what.”
Catra seemed to mull this over. “Do you want to… talk about it?”
Adora’s heart all but leapt out of her chest. It was another startlingly familiar sensation, although back then it had happened for a multitude of other reasons.
“Since when do you want to talk about feelings?” Adora teased.
It gave her the desired reaction—Catra’s cheeks turned ruddy, her mouth slamming into a frown. “I’m trying to be a better friend.”
Friend. Adora’s smile waned, and against her will, her heart plummeted. For a long moment, she couldn’t muster up a response. Was this that strangeness, that unknown something that hung in the air between them? In the silence, Melog’s head found her lap, and it mewled up at her, those empty blue eyes full of affection. Adora didn’t have an answer.
Her smile grew again. She ran her hand over Melog’s head and set the disappointment and confusion aside. “You’re doing really well, you know.”
Melog began to purr. Catra scoffed. “Tell that to Frosta.”
“I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but you can’t really convince Frosta of anything.”
Catra rubbed at her jaw. “Yeah, I gathered,” she said. “I’m just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Or… the other fist to swing, I guess.”
“She won’t,” Adora drawled, before she caught herself, mouth snapping shut. “She might.”
“I might not have an eight-foot tall sword freak to vouch for me next time.”
“Well not if you keep calling her a sword freak, you won’t.”
“How about… big ol’ shiny weirdo?”
“Let’s try that one more time, hm?”
“Uh…” Catra scratched her chin, squinting up at the high ceiling. “The large, glowing idiot.”
“You think you’re funny, don’t you?”
“I am funny, I’m just surrounded by humorless hacks.”
It was hard not to laugh, but Adora had a point to make. “I think you spent too much time with Double Trouble.”
“That may not be such a bad thing.” Catra looked lost in thought. “I don’t know if I’d be here if not for them.”
Catra elaborated: they’d set her on the right path. Altruism might not have been a motivation, but Adora had a newfound respect for the shapeshifter. As she watched Catra speak, that feeling of something rose in her chest. It was old and familiar, but stayed hidden just out of reach. By the time Catra finished her story it had become so loud that it was almost impossible to ignore. Maybe it was the simple pleasure of listening to Catra. Not for information. Not with any ill intentions—not with any intentions at all. They were just sitting and talking. It had been so long.
Maybe it was something else.
A wistful smile crept across Adora’s face of its own accord. Catra was the one to catch it, unfortunately.
“Hello? Etheria to Adora?” She rapped on the side of Adora’s head with her knuckle.
Adora swatted her hand away, laughing. “I’m listening.”
And she had been. Just not the whole time. Instead, she’d been staring at Catra’s face while she spoke, intent on mapping the contours of her cheeks, her jawline, the brightness of her eyes, all so singular and so familiar. Even her hair, so different than Adora had ever seen it, was familiar.
A line from years before came into her mind:
“To defeat your opponent, you must know your opponent.”
Well, she knew Catra. In the months before, Adora had often found that she remembered their interactions—that she remembered Catra—more lucidly than she did many of her own thoughts and intentions. It was a wonder that she’d blundered through the war at all.
But then, as Adora was reminded of the shape of Catra’s brow and the way she twitched her ears when she was excited or nervous, she was also reminded that they were no longer opponents. What, then, could she do with the knowledge she’d stored and curated over the previous eighteen years? The Horde hadn’t prepared either of them for each other, but maybe the Rebellion would. Maybe it already had.
“Sometimes I wonder if there’s a little mouse on a wheel up there.”
Adora blinked. “Where?”
Catra pointed at her forehead. “It’s big enough.”
“You— ” Adora whacked Catra on the shoulder, but she was hard-pressed to hide the smile on her face. “I’m a thinker, Catra, I think about things.”
“Doubtful,” Catra said. “You’ve tried to convince me before. Never quite got the point across.”
“Look, just because I’ve been handing you your ass since we were kids doesn’t mean I’m not smart too. I’m multi-faceted.”
“When exactly was the last time you put your hands on my ass?”
Adora pursed her lips. Her face was so red, she could feel it. Dammit. “Did you want to sit here just to terrorize me?”
“It’s my primary motivation, yes,” Catra grinned, mischievous and toothy. “It’s always been too easy.”
And to prove her point, Catra jammed her hand behind Adora’s knee, succeeding in making Adora’s very existence a living nightmare.
Adora clamped her mouth shut, a yelp caught in her throat as she wriggled away from Catra’s hands. It had been wishful thinking that Catra had forgotten about her ultimate weakness. But Catra had made a fatal mistake. Her eyes widened as Adora found the memory. The blackmail.
For once in her life, Catra was too slow. Adora caught her on both sides and they fell back, Catra desperately trying to wrench Adora’s hands away from her sides. It was futile. Adora had always prided herself on being stronger.
“Too easy, huh?” she gritted out, holding on for dear life as Catra giggled and bucked around like a fish on a line. Adora had waited years for retribution. This would be her reward, and rewarding it was.
“I hate you!” Catra wheezed. “Get off!”
After a brief debate on morality and the joy of terrorizing Catra (maybe she understood the other woman better than she’d ever let on), she let her go, sitting back on her haunches. If anyone saw them like this… Adora looked around. It wasn’t the Fright Zone anymore. Still, she crawled off and sat back against the wall, satisfied. Melog’s head found its way back into her lap, and she stroked it as the creature purred.
Catra eyed her from the floor. “Jerk.”
“It’s all part of my payback plan for the years of torture.”
Catra sat up and joined her against the wall with a huff. “Well, it was almost worse than last time.”
Adora snorted. “That night we woke the entire barracks up?”
“I almost killed Lonnie.”
“She didn’t do anything.”
“We were the ones that woke everyone up! That was the night—” Adora froze, the timeline of events suddenly becoming clear.
“The night before you left,” Catra finished. “I remember.”
They were silent, but Adora felt Catra’s eyes on her. She met them. Instinct told her to ready herself for a fight, but the reminders of the careful work Catra had been doing on herself were written all over her face. There may have been an old anger there, healing like a scar, but it was eclipsed by something that seemed a lot like understanding. Adora felt a surge of affection.
“I get it,” Catra said, “now.”
“Yeah?” The affection grew, now closer to pride than tenderness.
“I mean… I didn’t. But I do.”
“You know I didn’t leave to hurt you, Catra.”
Catra chuckled, but there was no humor behind it. “I know. I think that makes it worse.”
“Because I wanted to hurt you.”
That packed a punch.
Her voice was strained. “Sorry doesn’t cover it. Not just for you. For—” She swept her arm out across the warehouse and turned back to Adora, gave her a pained smile. “I’ll get there, though. I hope.”
“You will.” She hadn’t meant anything that much since she’d chosen to leave the Horde.
The moment hung heavily between them.
Catra sighed, leaning back against the wall. “Heavy stuff at twenty-four-hundred.”
“They call it midnight outside the Horde.”
“Is everything with you all this weird?”
Adora elbowed her, and Catra grinned. For as difficult a turn as the conversation had taken, Adora couldn’t put into words how happy she was that they could slip away from it like they always had. Neither of them had ever been good at talking, but they’d get around to the nitty-gritty eventually. After the whole space tyrant thing, of course. Hopefully, the little doubtful voice in the back of her head reminded her. She pushed it away. Maybe she could ask Bow for some pointers on talking.
All at once, the exhaustion of days of travel and fighting caught up with Adora. She hadn’t taken a moment to realize just how tired she was, but maybe the conversation and the comfort of having Catra so close was enough. There had been times in years past when Catra’s presence had kept her up at night. Nights where she’d stare at the bunk above her, caught between wakefulness and sleep, trying desperately to catalogue the feeling of Catra at the foot of her bed. Maybe some small part of her had always known they’d be apart one day. Maybe that same part knew they’d find their way together again.
Maybe now that the ebb and flow of their relationship had brought them nearer than they’d ever been, that part of her could rest. If just for the night. They’d be in Mystacor before long. She could allow herself an hour of quiet.
As if to remind her of that, Catra’s tail wrapped around her ankle. The sensation was so painfully familiar and yet… so deeply relaxing. Adora met Catra’s eyes, and Catra smiled, tentative but warm. She set her head on Adora’s shoulder, her tail tightening. The position conjured up so many memories, so many moments where she’d felt, but hadn’t acted.
Adora’s heart swelled in her chest, and like a lightbulb, finally flickering on—oh. That’s what it was. That’s what it had been, as far back as she could remember.
She set her head against Catra’s. After all those years, she still smelled the same. Like a fire, like warmth, like home, like love.
Love. That’s what it was.
Now that she realized it was love, she could take a microscope to the moments before, to when something had crackled to life inside her and she’d been at a loss to identify it. The Fright Zone looked different through rose-colored glasses.
When she was sure Catra had fallen asleep, she pressed her lips to the crown of her head. Her shorn hair was soft.
Sleep came easier than it ever had.
“Jeez,” Catra breathed, “what’s gotten into you tonight?”
Adora snorted. “Well—”
“Don’t answer that.” To make it clear that she wasn’t going to entertain Adora’s bad not-joke, Catra retrieved her left hand from between them and set it on Adora’s back. “I can hear you thinking about it. It’s not good—”
Catra groaned, long-suffering because she had, in fact, been suffering for a long time. She tried to roll out from under Adora, but the attempt was admittedly half-hearted, and she instead settled for reaching for the edge of the bed.
“Get off of me,” she howled. “I shouldn’t be subjected to this. You’ve mistreated your wife for the last time!”
“Aw, no, I love my wife! In fact, I love her so much I asked George and Lance for some good puns to share.”
Absolutely not. The escape attempt began again in earnest. “Don’t you dare.”
The thing was, Adora was very dense, in more ways than one. Physically, it was often a very good thing, but when she used that muscle mass to pin Catra down… well, it was a toss-up. Usually she would’ve been thrilled, but she was not having any puns. Not when she’d just been having such a nice time.
Adora pressed her mouth right up against Catra’s ear. “So, I’m reading a book about anti-gravity,” she whispered, but it sounded more like a hurricane with her proximity.
“Adora—” she warned.
“I can’t put it down.”
“—I’m going to freak. Out. ”
Three years of marriage and this was how she was treated? The thought of throwing Adora off the bed crossed her mind briefly. If she could just get one arm free enough to reach for the back of her knee… But then Adora shifted positions and moved in a way that, even ten years after their first kiss, never failed to have Catra seeing stars.
Catra considered Adora’s following actions an apology for the pun. She deserved it.
Later, panting and newly sweaty, she reached out to brush a lock of hair stuck to Adora’s brow. Adora smiled at the gesture, lazy and warm. It was the kind of smile Catra could never get enough of, the kind that was reserved exclusively for her. Adora reached out to mirror Catra’s movement, but her hand paused, stuck in her hair.
“What?” Catra asked.
Adora hummed. “You’ve got a little gray here,” she said, “it’s like a streak.”
“You’ve got some gray hair. It’s cute! You’re like a little old lady.”
Catra swatted her hand away, scrambling out of bed. She knew she looked ridiculous, naked and sprinting to the mirror, but Adora had seen her in much worse conditions.
“Catra,” Adora whined, “come back. I need some cuddles before you go senile.”
“I’m twenty-eight, I’m not dead! ” Catra shouted. She smoothed her hair out, trying to see the cluster of white. “This is because of the stress.”
“What stress,” Adora guffawed from the bed. “What stress are you under, Catra?”
There it was. In the mirror, if she pulled at her hair in just the right way, a little section of hair had gone white. It was well-hidden, but definitely, completely white.
“Netossa told me this would happen.” Catra spun around from the mirror. Adora had posted herself up like an amateur model, probably in hopes that Catra would run right back to bed. It was tempting, but she had bigger fish to fry. “Netossa said like five years into marriage, she went completely gray. Her hair wasn’t always like that.”
Adora flopped back on the bed with a groan. “That was a joke, Catra. Even I knew it was a joke.”
Catra had known it was a joke too, but she was having too much fun to slow down. “This is what marriage does to you, isn’t it?”
“Hey, you proposed to me,” Adora said, throwing her hands up. “Maybe you should have done a little more research.”
Catra’s personal brand of research had been a ten-minute conversation with herself about everything she loved about Adora, which was subsequently followed by a much longer conversation with Netossa and Spinnerella about Etherian marriage customs. She'd proposed the same night.
“Will you still love me when I’m completely gray?”
Adora sat up. “I’d love you even if you were covered in boils. Now come back to bed.”
Well, she couldn’t argue with that. Especially not when the moonlight from their window made Adora look otherworldly.
She snuggled up against Adora’s chest, reveling in the feeling of being wrapped up in her strong arms. Adora hummed happily, and Catra couldn’t stifle the purr that rose up in her throat.
It was so warm and so comfortable, Catra felt herself dozing in moments. But before sleep caught up with her:
“Hey.” A whisper, a pause. “I love you.”