It’s their first trip out from Etheria, and the Star Siblings - who Catra is learning to appreciate, kind of, even if Starla is somewhat grating - have taken pains to start them out ‘easy.’ Easy seems to entail a series of pleasant, mild folk, peoples who have barely been outside their home planets and who are all simply and emphatically impressed with She-Ra’s heroics against Horde Prime. The Collaborative Delegation of the Collected Mouseilles Peoples is all these things, and jovial besides, excited to roll out the welcome mat and thrilled to meet their Etherian guests.
Well, mostly thrilled. They hate Catra, it turns out, but like, in a scared way. One that involves an excess of twitching and squeaking and skittering. It was kind of fun, at first, but now it’s really fucking pissing her off.
“You know, if you stopped glowering—”
“It has nothing to do,” Catra hisses through clenched teeth, “with glowering. I am not glowering. I am very pleasant.” She glares at Bow, daring him to contradict.
“You’re definitely glowering,” he says, plucking a canapé off a tray and offering it to her. She sniffs it, smells something cloyingly sweet, and scrunches her nose on principle, glaring harder. When Melog provides the exact same response, Bow shrugs and pops it in his own mouth. “Ooh!” he pronounces around his mouthful, “This is really good, it’s got this whole honey-cheese-thing going on.”
“What’s honey?” Catra asks, absently, watching across the room where Adora is giggling over conversation with their hosts, head thrown back and eyes all creased. Cute.
“Catra,” Bow sounds horrified, and she turns back to find him gaping, “Catra, we should never have left Etheria, you didn’t even—“
She doesn’t get to find out what she didn’t do, because just then Ambassador Ratton stumbles into their corner - giving Catra a wide berth - and grips Bow’s elbow. He shakes it, tumbling over his words with cheerful surprise. “Oh, my, I wish you’d said!”
He kicks up a high, squeaking chatter, round ears waggling and hands fluttering enthusiastically. Bow looks politely interested, which is how Catra can tell he isn’t following at all. She isn’t either, and doesn’t care to, until—
“Wait, She-Ra what?” Catra snarls, and Ratton fucking squeals, pressing his back flat against the wall and looking at her with wide, frightened eyes.
Bow pats the man’s shoulder solicitously and shoots Catra increasingly unsubtle looks until she, muttering, pushes back to give Ratton space. After a few shaky breaths, he looks only at Bow when he says, “She-Ra! She’s going to finish Senator Vermine’s third cup!”
“Her third...cup…?” Bow questions, shooting Catra yet another warning look. She snaps her mouth shut with a - quiet, thank you very much - growl.
“The third marriage cup!” Ratton says, and Catra feels her ears pin flat to her head. She whips her over to face the spot where Adora is still laughing - still cute - with a pair of Mouseilles senators. This time, she tears herself from Adora’s happy face and instead notes the way Senator Vermine’s eyes track Adora’s glass, half-full of something orange-gold and bubbling, with awe.
She looks back at Bow, and when she meets his gaze, she knows he’s seen the same thing. Over the sound of Ratton’s continued babbles, they share a look.
There are a lot of things they’ve learned, these first few weeks. It’s all new to Catra, this pleasant, open kind of diplomacy and this giving, unconditional kind of friendship. They make mistakes, the four of them, and Catra’s learning that however painful it may be, they need to talk about it, need to rehash and make explicit and even practice the little gestures or head nods or expressions that mean come here, or go there, or that’s rude, or stop talking. And then, too, the ones that mean I care and you’ll be okay and I’ve got you and we’re in this together.
The look Catra and Bow share now is none of those. They haven’t practiced it, haven’t even discussed it, for all they’ve performed it frequently and flawlessly. It means, on both their ends, I’ll go get my girlfriend.
Catra doesn’t even try for subtlety, just strides single-mindedly through a sea of Mouseilles diplomats and upper crust, Melog a spiking, snapping red presence at her heels. The Mouseilles scramble out of her way without fail, and by the time she reaches Adora, everyone within ten feet of her is staring with expressions ranging from nervous to outright terrified.
Except, of course, Adora, who doesn’t seem to realize she’s there until Catra slides an arm around her waist, pressing a kiss innocently to her cheek.
“Catra!” Adora shouts, delighted and just a bit too loud, “Catra, I’m sooo happy to see you, I missed you sooo much.”
“Whatchya drinkin’ there?” Catra asks, making and holding eye contact with an all-but-cowering Senator Vermine.
“Oh, this? This is, uh. This is a...drink? It’s a whole drink; has a name and everything, Vermine told me, she said, what’d you say?”
Catra does not blink, but asks Vermine slowly, fangs flashing, “Yeah, what did you say, Senator?”
“Uh, it’s, uh, well it’s called, uh,” Vermine stammers.
Catra cuts her off with acid smoothness, “Can’t remember either? How strange.” She plucks the glass out of Adora’s hand, places it firmly on a table beside her. Not once does she break Vermine’s gaze, not when Adora starts nosing at her neck, not even when she says, “Adora, we’re leaving.”
“Hmm? But you juuust got here! I wanna—“ Adora stops, and out of the corner of her eye Catra sees her whole head shift exaggeratedly from Catra to Vermine and back again, “Ooh, is there drama?!” she tries and fails to whisper.
Catra is furious, really she is, but it’s hard not to smile when Adora is here, safe and leaning against her and crisis averted. She stifles a laugh and points out, “These fuckers got you drunk.”
“Noooooo," Adora insists, and Catra really does laugh this time.
She looks back to Vermine, and is all ready to unleash teeth-bared threats when she sees that the woman doesn’t look chagrined or frustrated or even embarrassed, just perplexed. She hesitates just long enough for Vermine to ask, “What’s...drunk?”
Catra blinks. Vermine blinks back. And then, Catra sighs, all the fight deflating out of both her and Melog, who turns a resigned shade of periwinkle. “You know what?” Catra says, “I’ll explain later. Promise.”
She doesn’t leave time for protest, just tugs Adora away. Sparkles and Bow are at the door, wearing twin I told you so faces. Catra wonders if she and Adora do that; decides she’d rather not know.
“Fine, fine, you win,” Catra says, “next time, we do a fucking cultural briefing.” She rolls her eyes, and reaches for Adora’s coat.
Adora is about to say yes, which is why Catra drags her out of the audience chamber. Their escape is barely civil - Catra’s going to have to apologize for her rudeness, but that’s a problem for later. Then again, maybe she won’t have to apologize at all; Feyserra, Grand Sovereign of Feysert, had certainly been incensed at She-Ra’s abrupt departure, but Sparkles’ ire had seemed more focused on Her Sovereign Grandness than on Catra’s intervention. And Catra had met Bow’s eyes as they’d left, too - he’d nodded grimly, just a bit, and she’s pretty sure it’s because he’d seen the same problem.
Adora does not see the problem, apparently. Adora, restless with anxious energy and shaky determination, crosses her arms and hisses, “What was that about?!”
Catra takes a moment to eye (and ear, and nose) the hallway; decides they’re far enough from the guards. She turns back to Adora. “You were about to say yes!”
“What? No!” Adora shuffles a little, “Okay, maybe? It’s not that big a deal.”
Catra inspects Adora, from her averted eyes to her fingers digging into her arms to the way she curls in on herself without, Catra thinks, even noticing she’s doing it. “Isn’t it?” Catra asks.
“No! At least...I don’t think…” Adora’s shoulders come up around her ears in a shrug, and when they go down they don’t make it all the way, hunched up tense, “...it shouldn’t be, right? It’s, it’s just a ceremonial—“
“Bullshit. It’s not just anything.”
“Do you...not want me to?”
“What, ceremonially marry some shithead alien royal?”
It occurs to Catra that she hasn’t thought about it, really, so she does now. Marriage is a new concept for her; she didn’t grow up with it like Sparkles and Bow did, didn’t have years to get used to it like Adora. It’s very emotional and important, apparently, but the way Feysertians describe it it’s not hard to understand as just another treaty. Then again, she wasn’t lying when she called Grand Sovereign Feyserra a shithead. So there’s that.
Adora’s looking at her with apprehension, so she says, honestly, “I mean, not especially. But like, if you want to,” she finishes with a shrug.
Adora chews her lip. It takes quite a bit of willpower for Catra not to stop her, because she hates it when Adora does that, because she hates it when Adora’s stressed. Her patience is rewarded with Adora’s voice, small and hesitant, “I...I want the alliance. With Feysert.”
Catra sighs. “That’s not the question.”
It startles a glare from Adora, and her voice gathers a bit of strength when she says, “I mean, I think it’s...normal? Here? Feyserra already has so many ceremonial spouses—“
“I didn’t ask if other people do it, I asked—“
“—and they don’t do alliances without it, which—“
“—if you want to do it, and if you would just spend a second—“
“—is fair, I guess, when you think about it? It’s not like it’s actual marriage, it’s just, like, what they call treaty stuff—“
“—thinking about...ugh, Adora, that’s not the point!”
Adora’s glaring at her, which is actually rather welcome. She’d rather Adora angry-stressed than resigned-stressed, any day. “And what’s the point, Catra?! It’s not - it’s not the same as Etherian marriage, it’s just a treaty!”
“The point...the point is that it might be ‘just a treaty’ to them, but obviously it’s not to you! Fuck their definition, do you wanna marry this lady?!”
“It’s not exactly a—“
“Ceremonially! Do you want to marry this lady, ceremonially! For fuck’s sake!”
Adora’s voice is loud in the empty hallway, louder against the following silence. Catra sighs as the echoes fade, puts in the effort to modulate her own words down to normal indoor levels.
She says, “Okay, then you don’t have to.”
Adora throws up her hands, “But the treaty—“
“Will happen or it won’t,” Catra says, like it’s simple, because as far as she’s concerned, it is. She wants to touch Adora, but this close after a shouting match - however low-vitriol this one may have been - she’s not sure she should. So she stays where she is, quirks a smile like an offering and adds, “Considering Sparkles looked about ready to maul her royal ass when we left, might be better if it doesn’t.”
Adora‘s shoulders come down a little more, a nervous kind of relaxation that tells Catra she’s gotten through. “...she is kind of a shithead,” she says, swaying incrementally forward into the gap between them.
Fuck it, Catra thinks, abandoning her careful assessment of boundaries and space and closing the short distance, folding Adora eagerly into her arms. And Adora, wonder of wonders, goes with it, leaning her forehead on Catra’s shoulder with a slightly damp giggle.
“It’s not life or death anymore, okay?” Catra murmurs. She tries to keep the words gentle, but there’s no disguising their vehemence. “Don’t let anyone talk you into anything you don’t wanna do.”
“Not even you?” Adora asks, a hint of a tease to it, like she already knows the answer.
“Not even me.” Catra confirms. Then adds, “Especially not me.”
Adora hums her acknowledgement. Her breath comes steady at Catra’s shoulder, in-hold-out-hold-in, and Catra curls her tail around them, too, for good measure.
It takes a few moments, but eventually it’s Adora who says, “We should probably head back in.”
Catra hums this time, “Nah, give it another minute. I think Sparkles is having fun.”
She feels Adora’s smile rather than sees it. “Okay.”
When they do return to the audience chamber, it’s to a livid Sparkles, a smirking Bow, and at least ten more armed guards than were there before. When the alliance with Feysert falls through, none of them mind at all.
Catra draws the short straw this time - actually, loses a truly esoteric pink-and-glitter board game she’s still convinced was rigged. But she couldn’t prove it, and now she’s stuck taking the first painstaking pass through the currently proposed Etheria-Triangul Mutual Assistance Pact, which means she’s the one who catches it. She stares down at the long, unrolled holographic scroll with its obnoxiously ornate lettering in open-mouthed shock for a while before she snaps her jaw closed with a click. She growls.
“Hmm?” Sparkles hums distractedly from across the room, lounging on a garishly gilded guest-room futon, one hand on a Trangulan legal handbook and the other knuckles deep in a bowl of some sort of sticky-sweet candy.
Catra doesn’t respond, just extricates her claws from the filigreed wood of her chair and, very deliberately, draws a single, deep, unsatisfyingly holographic line through the words.
The next day, General Ternar looks speculatively at the four of them - Catra and Sparkles and She-Ra and Bow - across her gold-inlaid conference table. She says, “I see clause 3-bk-mauve has been removed.
“Yes.” Catra replies, terse.
General Ternar’s eyes drift to She-Ra, who - having only read the most updated version of the pact - smiles sunnily back. Gaze unmoving, the General says solicitously, “You know, I’d be willing to add—“
“Non-negotiable.” Catra snaps, firm and a little belligerent, and glares until General Ternar moves on.
“No! No! You can’t have her!”
The voice that replies is no voice at all. It is, instead, a strange not-vibration, a noise between noises, the aural equivalent not of darkness but of void. It coalesces in the vast, faceless, star-obscuring gap, slinks out in long, creeping tendrils of unsound that might be like words, that might be word-adjacent, but that inexplicably both fall short of and surpass simple mortal speech. The voice that is no voice says without saying, IT IS NOT FOR YOU TO DECIDE WHO CALLS UNTO ME; IT IS ONLY FOR ME TO HEED THE CALL
Catra puts her hands on the hips of her spacesuit and shouts as loud as she can, up into the writhing void, “No one’s calling! No one is calling you!!”
Bow, magnetized to Darla’s hull next to her, winces. “Uh, Catra,” His voice filters into her helmet, “I...don’t think you have to shout. It’s, um, it’s not great for the comms. I don’t even know how it can hear you at all, really, and—”
AND YET, CALL TO ME SHE DOES. FOR IF SHE DOES NOT CALL, THEN WHAT BRIGHT THING HATH ROUSED ME FROM MY SLUMBER? NO, NO I HAVE BEEN CALLED FORTH AS IS MY NATURE, AND SO I SHALL HAVE THE ONE YOU NAME SHE-RA AS MY BRIDE
“Well, you can’t!”
It’s reflex that has Catra starting forward, claws out and ears flat and tail lashing; it’s Sparkles tugging on the belt area of her spacesuit that stops her. She bares her teeth in a growl and settles for waving her arms zealously. “No, you can’t! Why does it always have to be Adora, anyway?!”
“Catra—” She-Ra starts, but Catra shouts over it.
“She’s a shitty bride! Not a good choice! She, she, she -” Catra falters for a moment, then picks up with, “- she snores! She has a horrible singing voice and she doesn’t even glow all the time! And she eats, like, a lot! A lot, a lot! You won’t be able to feed her, she’s so high maintenance, just, it doesn’t have to be Adora, she’s not someone you want to marry, not like, not like...”
Catra glances around wildly, grabs Bow by the arm before she can think about it, “Like Bow, here!” she drags Bow forward, ignoring his affronted shout , “Crawl all over him, for a change! Perfect marriage material! Look at him! He’s a great listener! Does technology bullshit! He makes cool arrows! One’s a magnifying glass!”
“Probably super hot, I’m sure! I’ve never thought about it! Good cook, too—”
I CANNOT BE SWAYED BY PUNY OFFERINGS
“Hey, I’m not puny!”
NO PALTRY SUBSTITUTE COULD MATCH THE PRESENCE I HAVE FELT. FOR ONCE THERE WAS NOTHING AND NOW THERE SHALL BE NO OTHER, FOR SHE HATH CALLED AND I SHALL ANSWER
“...And we’re back to the calling,” Catra rolls her eyes and pushes Bow away from her. It’s not a rough shove, but his stumble takes his magnetized boots off the hull entirely, spinning him gently into space.
She-Ra mumbles a whoops behind her, and pushes off the ship while Sparkles shouts, “What the fuck! Bow, Bow, are you okay?”
Bow, floating aimlessly, gives a thumbs up. Sparkles grabs at the tether that attaches him to the ship, but Catra slings an arm around her shoulders before she can catch it.
“Fine, you want magic?!” Catra calls, eyes narrowed at the barely discernible mass of appendages that thrash at the center of the darkness-void-gap thing, “Sparkles is full of magic! One-hundred-percent pure magic glitter princess! Marry her!”
Sparkles splutters indignantly. She-Ra, smoothly depositing Bow back on Darla’s surface, asks, “Catra, what are you doing? You don’t actually want it to take Bow or Glimmer.”
“Of course not!” Catra shouts, flailing her tail as well as her arms this time, “But it’s the principle of the thing!” She turns back up to the creature - thing - entity. “How do you even know what a bride is?! How is marriage a thing for you?!”
IS THIS NOT THE WORD YOU USE TO DESCRIBE A RITUAL MELDING OF EQUAL POWERS UNTO ONE GRANDER POWER
Catra blinks. “Uh…”
THIS I WOULD ENTER INTO WITH THE ONE YOU CALL SHE-RA
She-Ra steps up beside her, annoyingly graceful without need for a spacesuit. She turns her face up to the squirming blankness and says in a reasonable voice, “Uh, look. Dyarnthuulpfginot,” Catra hadn’t tried to memorize the dark, churning syllables the entity had soundlessly boomed upon its entry into their mortal plane, but she’s pretty sure She-Ra got them wrong, “you’re nice, really.” Catra snorts. “But, uh, I really can’t—“
“She’s already in a relationship!” Catra bursts out.
Adora turns to her, “Catra, I’m trying to be diplo—”
I DO NOT UNDERSTAND
“Taken! Unavailable! Off limits! Off the table! Spoken for!”
I SPEAK FOR MANY HERE BEYOND THE NOTHINGNESS FROM WHENCE ETERNITY SPRUNG, HERE AT THE AT THE CORE OF THE UNIVERSE WHERE WE CALL AND LISTEN, PATIENT WITH OUR—
“Married! She’s already married!”
“What? Catra, we’re not—”
Catra kicks her. She-Ra shuts up, and out of the corner of her eye Catra sees her staring.
There is an undulation amidst the abyss, and maybe Catra’s been looking at it for too long, because she thinks it’s almost quizzical.
THE ONE YOU CALL SHE-RA’S POWERS ARE NOT UNBONDED, THEN
“Nope!” Catra pronounces brightly, “Totally bonded! We are super extra bonded!”
“Yup! We have melded into one...power. She’s, uh, unmeld...able.”
THAT IS UNFORTUNATE
“It’s really not,” Catra mutters.
The entity ignores her, which is just as well.
I CANNOT CONVINCE YOU OTHERWISE, O BEING OF BRIGHTNESS
She-Ra gives that earnest, apologetic little smile that’s all Adora. “Sorry,” she says, “but, uh, no. I’m,” she casts a glance at Catra, Catra knows she does, but Catra still refuses to look at her, because now that her fervor has abated she’s pretty sure she’s bright fucking red and just. She doesn’t need that. No one needs that. She goes even redder when She-Ra finishes with, “I’m good. Really, really good.”
Something pounds in Catra’s chest, and this time it isn’t frustration at all. It takes her a moment to realize the entity hasn’t responded.
Catra was obviously not present in the time before the universe was made, but she thinks the quiet that follows She-Ra’s words might be like that quiet was. Whole and absolute, unremitting and impossible. For all that the being’s strange communication is unnerving, Catra is glad when it comes again.
I SHALL TAKE MY LEAVE OF YOU, THEN, it says without saying, and, BUT KNOW THIS, BRIGHT SHE-RA: SHOULD YOU EVER FIND YOURSELF UNATTACHED, YOU NEED ONLY CALL OUT TO ME, AND TOGETHER WE SHALL MARRY IN PUREST TRANSCENDENCE
“No call—" Catra starts to yell, but cuts off when She-Ra’s steps hard on her foot.
“Yeah, sure, totally,” She-Ra says instead, a smile plastered on, “just, uh. Assume anything you hear is, uh, it’s not a call. Really. But I’m flattered! And uh. Take care?...Bye!”
And then the entity is gone, either drifted off or simply disappeared, it’s impossible to tell which. The stars return, bright placid pinpricks, and in the being’s unsettling wake the familiar, natural stillness of space is somehow both too calm and too dynamic.
“So…” Bow says, voice tinny and loud over the comm, “that went well.”
Catra grumbles all the way back into the hatch, pointedly ignoring the smug waves positively radiating off a silent She-Ra. It’s only a matter of time, and Catra hurries in hopes of beating whatever it is she wants to say.
She fails. The silence finally breaks once they’re in Darla’s entry vestibule, everyone struggling out of their space suits except She-Ra - because Adora is still She-Ra, hasn’t changed back, and Catra’s pretty sure it’s for no reason but to be obnoxious. She’s leaning against the bulkhead, casual and grinning, oozing golden glow and general insufferability.
“So,” She-Ra says, tone infuriatingly mild, “super extra bonded, huh?”
“Ugh.” Catra growls, kicks off the last of her suit, and stomps away.
“I am here,” Catra snarls, slamming the guard up against the castle wall, “for my wife.”
The guard gulps hard - Catra knows, she feels it against the place where her hand grips the alien’s neck - and lolls their head back and forth, babbling. Catra hears the clamor of metal and shouting in the distance and her eyes dart briefly down the stone hall. Nothing there yet, so she gives the guard before her a single, rough shake. “Think harder,” she says, baring her teeth in a grin she knows makes her look - quite rightly - dangerous, “tall, blonde, poofball hair, does a whole glowy bit with a sword.”
The guard whimpers, stammers out, “S-sword?”
They sound confused, and Catra hides a spike of concern under a roll of her eyes. “Is it really worth—“
“She’s - she’s in the Comtesse’s sitting room!” The guard gasps, “Fourth floor; second door on the right.”
Catra feels her eyebrows draw together. “...Sitting room?” she murmurs, perplexed. But there’s no time for further questions, because just then her pursuers finally round the corner. They’re a rather hefty and surprisingly well-armed contingent of Flocculan guards, led by the largest woman she’s ever seen with this wildly cool axe that seems to also shoot laser beams. Catra - who had intended to find some high ground and then have a grand old time taking them down - decides that if these people are somehow successfully keeping Adora in a sitting room, she no longer has time to waste.
Instead, she shoves the guard aside and sprints onward, adrenaline pumping through her as she and Melog scramble up the spiral stairs and pause at the top. She waits until she hears the clanging and footsteps below her position, sends up a prayer that Entrapta’s tech works as promised, reaches into her pocket, and throws down a bomb.
It’s not a particularly destructive bomb, though she was tempted. But the voice in her head that sounds like Adora likes to talk about right and wrong and the guards don’t know what their leader does, Catra, what if they have families? and anyway Catra covers her eyes and ears and figures the flash-bang will keep them down for a few minutes. She doesn’t wait to see if it works - Melog’ll keep watch, she knows - she just runs onward.
She’d expected metal and bolts and battalions, drastic measures to keep She-Ra of Etheria restrained, and even then she’d rather expected to meet Adora already fighting. But the door she’s aiming for turns out to be thin wood, with no more than two guards idling before it. They’re easily dispatched, unconscious and unbloodied, which only feeds Catra’s growing unease. Her claws dig into the metal of the flimsy door handle as she rips it open.
It’s not even locked.
The room on the other side is a lush, lavish attempt at small-and-cozy, with soft lighting and a large, canopied bed that has no business in a sitting room . Closer to the center of the room is a long, low table behind which sits a rich, velveteen loveseat, on which is perched—
“Adora,” Catra breathes, immediately rushing around the table to her side. She presses one knee to the couch cushions and cups Adora’s face, tilting it up, “Adora!”
“Catra!” Adora beams up at her, impeding any attempt to inspect her by nuzzling into Catra’s hands.
Catra smooths her fingers through Adora’s hair, noting unnatural curls piled high on her head in a way that isn’t very Adora. She asks, “Are you okay?”
“I’m okay!” Adora says cheerfully, “Glad you’re here!”
“Did they do something to you?” Catra pushes, now plucking at the horrible fluffy-gauzy-shiny thing Adora’s wearing. She can’t keep the noise of disgust from tumbling out of her.
“No! No, I’m good.” Adora just keeps smiling.
Catra narrows her eyes. “What’s wrong with She-Ra? Did they drug you? Is it some kind of magic, or stupid fucking tech, I know how you feel about—“
“What? No, Catra—”
“She’s holding something over you, then? You know you can tell me anything, it’s—“
“No! No, Catra, Catra, slow down.” Adora grabs Catra’s hands where they’ve devolved into a frenzied flutter, laces their fingers. Catra, as usual, finds herself caught in that solid eye contact Adora does so well. Helpless to do anything else, she quiets, and Adora says firmly, “I’m fine, Catra. She-Ra’s fine.”
Catra’s brow furrows. “You’re...fine.”
“You’re...fine, and She-Ra’s fine, and Comtesse Whatshername isn’t coercing you.”
“So...why are you still…why didn’t you…?” For the first time since entering the room, Catra looks away from Adora. Her eyes dart from the bed to the rose petals on the floor to multiple halfway burned down candelabras, and then to a picked over plate of sticky jam pastries, a tower of some weird playing cards swaying precariously on the low table next to them. And then: a canvas satchel leaning up against the wall by the door, stuffed with what appears to be maps and folders and, if Catra’s reading those lumps right, another batch of pastries. And finally, most damning of all - though she has to crane over the side of the couch to see it - the prone form of a hog-tied, unconscious woman.
“...Adora, were you waiting?!”
“Well…” Adora draws out the word.
“Adora, did you get kidnapped on purpose?!”
Horror crosses Adora’s face. “Oh no! No, no way! I would never! Of course not!”
It’s very earnest, but - “Did you...stay kidnapped...on purpose?”
Adora looks away, shifty.
“Adora! What the fuck!”
Adora chews her lip, and if Catra were less confused she’d find the shyness almost sweet when Adora says, “I...thought it would be fun. Was it fun?”
“Was it…?” Catra splutters. Because - well, right up until the last few minutes there, yeah, it kind of had been. Adora could handle herself, she’d thought, and the Flocculans weren’t quite advanced enough to pose a real threat, and it’s been a long time since she had a good fight. It’s not like Catra gets to go up against a laser axe very often. But that’s not the point. The point is that Adora’s sitting there with that earnest-smug look on her face like she can guess every single thing going on in Catra’s head and, worse, finds it endearing, and Catra bursts out with, “How are you so calm right now?!”
Adora blinks up at her, cocks her head. “Oh. Well, I really wasn’t, but then the Comtesse was trying to be all taunt-y and told me you were headed over.” She shrugs. “After that, I just...rolled along with it.”
“Rolled a—?” Catra trails off, staring at Adora. Control freak Adora, who never lets anyone else handle anything, who doesn’t like to worry anyone; Adora, who barely even asks for assistance when she needs it, let alone waits for help when she doesn’t. Catra stares at lovely, strong, capable Adora, who is right now looking back at her, a little nervous but otherwise fully relaxed into velvet couch cushions in an elaborate hairdo and a ten-layer dress, like it wasn’t a struggle at all to wait around and play dress-up and trust that Catra would be there soon. Catra looks over the back of the couch again, takes in the limp form of the Comtesse.
Adora follows her gaze, then shrugs a second time, “The taunting gets old.”
It’s the nonchalance that does it - Catra steps back, eyes big and round with realization. “Oh,” she says, and then, “oh no.”
Adora sits up straighter. “Catra? What’s wrong?”
“Oh no, they were right.”
“Catra? Catra, who was right? What is it?”
Catra bites her lip, fights a smile when she says, “I am a bad influence on you.”
There’s a clattering of metal out in the hall, counterpoint to the bright, pealing laugh that bursts from Adora. She stands up, letting the movement take her into Catra’s personal space, and presses forward for a quick, grinning kiss, then bounds across the room to pick up her new satchel. She hitches it over her shoulder and, in a casual display of controlled power, manifests the Sword of Protection but forgoes the rest of She-Ra, using the sharp edge of it to slice most of the layers off her fluffy skirt.
Catra stays by the couch, transfixed even while a part of her absolutely recognizes the theatrics (they’re working ), and so Adora comes back to her. Her arms drape over Catra’s shoulders, dangling the sword down behind Catra’s back, a cold, hard line in contrast to the warmth of Adora before her, the softness of Adora’s voice when she murmurs, “You were very dashing, by the way.”
Catra shivers, then hums contentedly. She has just enough time to start reaching for her wife before Adora disentangles herself, steps away.
“Well,” she says, cocky, swinging her sword a little, “you coming?”
Catra tracks the sparkle of light on the blade, the tendons standing out in Adora’s forearm. And then they’re out of sight, replaced by Adora’s back as the other woman moves to the door, calling over her shoulder, “Anyway, we skipped date night this week, and—“
Catra shakes her head a little, clearing it enough to hear that the clanging outside the room is closer, encroaching. She’s started to trot after her wife when it clicks that, “Whoa, whoa - this is a date?”
“—you just seemed so sad about it, and I know I was sad, and—”
“Seriously?! Adora, is this supposed to be a date?”
“—I mean everyone else does these fun couples things, and - ooh! Cool axe!”
The Main Feasting Hall of the planet Lagerre is a loud, busy place. Despite - or maybe because of - the planet’s skeletal, clustered trees and biting, uninviting chill, the hall itself is roomy and brightly lit, with a large open space at its center and a ring of tables and benches and platters of meat and kegs of something like mead hugging its walls. The hall is a study in opposites: an abundance of cold hard stone contrasted against the shine of sconces and the warmth of several fires.
At one of its tables is another study in opposites. Two women, one seated and one standing, the former dark-haired and angular and sharp, of a piece with the jagged, tough shapes of Lagerre; the latter, bright in a pastel pantsuit and glittering undercut, adorned in a tiara that flashes in the hall’s lively glow.
Between them are a quartet of tankards and a smattering of notebooks, the hallmark of two diplomats hard at work. Or it would be, that is, if either woman were paying attention to the pages between them.
Queen Glimmer of Bright Moon has her hands on her hips, and Bright Moon’s Senior Royal Counselor has her forehead jammed against the table’s stone surface.
“I’m too old for this,” Catra moans.
Sparkles rolls her eyes and taps her foot, unsympathetic. “Clearly not. If you haven’t noticed—“
“Yes! Yes, I noticed. You don’t have to be all,” Catra sits up, makes a vague, frenetic gesture with her arms, “about it.”
There’s a thing Sparkles does with her eyebrows, sometimes, when she’s deciding if she’s going to be mad or exasperated. Catra’s not sure which one she’s hoping for, and is not surprised when she gets a combination of both. “Did you even read the cultural briefing notes?”
Catra dithers. She’s pretty sure she’s blushing, too, and she pointedly looks at everything but Adora, who is currently deep in conversation with Bow and the Lagerran Queen of Queens at the high table on the other side of the hall. The wide, open space between them is being outfitted for use as a makeshift arena, and Catra decides to fixate instead on a young man doing the outfitting, slightly horrified at how well-practiced the transition is - a grounding post here, a rope boundary there. It takes two prods of Sparkles’ fingers into her side and one unrelenting stare before Catra finally raises her mumble of “I was, uh, distracted,” to an audible level.
“Distr— ugh.” Sparkles presses two fingers to the bridge of her nose, pinching, “I’m too old for this!”
“Clearly not,” Catra mutters under her breath. Not under enough; Sparkles’ glare intensifies.
“No, actually, I take it back - you are too old for this! For fuck’s sake, Catra, you’re not twenty anymore!”
“Excuse you, are you insulting my wife? I don’t need to be twenty to have eyes.”
“Your first wife.” Sparkles notes, acid, “You’re going to have to start clarifying.”
Catra glowers. She casts a glance to the arena’s edge, where her potential second wife, a ridiculously young woman who’d given Catra a bit too hard a time in the meeting earlier, is gamely tying back her long, pale hair and chugging from a jug of something or other. She’s removed her big, pocket-filled coat and many-weaponed holster, biceps bulging from the rolled up sleeves of the thin shirt she’d had beneath. Catching Catra’s gaze, she gives a sharp nod of acknowledgement, followed by a wink. This...is a problem. “Look,” Catra says, “I fucked up, I know, I know. How was I supposed to know that threats are—“
“Not just threats, specifically—“
“—a form of proposal! Or, er, what did you call it, uh—“
“Marriage challenge,” Sparkles says through grit teeth, “as you would know if you read my damn notes, it’s not technically a real engagement until the challenge has been, uh, played out.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Catra flaps her hand, “yeah, all that. Point is, it’s awkward, sure, but we can just explain it, right? Misunderstanding, blah blah blah, cultural differences, blah blah blah, learning and growing, blah blah blah—“
“See, that’s gonna be a problem.” Bow cuts in.
Catra jumps, then scowls at a snickering Sparkles. Her ire shifts targets as she takes in the words.
“What do you mean, it’s gonna be a problem?”
Bow sighs, “We, uh, felt it out a little,” Catra winces, wary of his clear hesitance. She glances at Adora, hoping for a read on the situation, but her wife is busy shrugging out of her jacket, attention fixed elsewhere. Catra goes to follow her gaze, but is drawn back to Bow as he continues, “It, uh, it turns out the Main Queen Lady—“
“Queen of Queens,” Sparkles corrects.
“Right, her. She, uh, she’s...really excited. Like, really, really pleased. That we’ve, uh...embraced Lagerran culture. So much.”
Sparkles perks up, turns to Bow with sharp, calculating eyes. “How pleased, would you say?”
Bow sighs again, bigger this time. “Really, really, really pleased.”
“Like, actually considering accepting our terms for the—“
“Yeah, that pleased.”
Sparkles’ calculating gaze turns to Catra, who feels her tail go stiff. She leans back warily, “Oh my— no! No! Are you seriously considering what, selling me off? For treaty negotiations?!”
“No, no, of course not.” That should be a relief, but it’s not, because Sparkles still has that look, “It’s just, there must be some way—“
“I’m already married!”
“Oh, we told her that.” Bow notes, “They don’t mind.”
“Not the point!”
“See, you just have to—“
“Look,” Sparkles says, cajoling, “it’ll be fine. They have this whole fighting ritual...thing - you’d know this if you read the briefing - where whoever wins the fight gets to decide the outcome of the proposal.”
Catra takes that in, perks up a little, “So, what, I just have to beat her?”
Bow grimaces, “Sorry, no, thought of that.” They both look his way; he gives an apologetic little head wobble. “If you reject her after having issued the challenge in the first place, it’ll humiliate her. I don’t think we should risk that.”
“So I gotta...lose?”
“Can’t guarantee she’d call the engagement off.” There’s something hesitant in his stance, which makes Catra narrow her eyes.
“Spit it out, Arrow Boy.”
Bow shifts again. He says, “So there’s, uh. Another option.” His eyes dart from her piercing gaze to her claws, now drumming rhythmically on the table, and she can’t quite contain a get on with it growl, “You can have a...stand in. If someone, like. Wants to stop you. From getting engaged.” He cringes a little, like he’s expecting an explosion.
It takes a moment. One click-click-click of a handful of her fingers against stone, the natural hardness of it vaguely soothing against the tips of her nails.
And then, mid-click-click, she stops.
And gets it.
Sparkles, who unfortunately also got it, looks utterly gleeful, “Oh, that’s perfect!”
“Come on! It is!”
“Is not!” Catra says.
“Is too!” Sparkles says louder.
“Is— ow!” Catra rubs her arm and glares at Bow, who flicks it again and makes a shh sound, glancing emphatically at the busy hall. She glares harder at him, then at Sparkles, then hisses, quiet but fervent, “Is not.”
“Catra.” Sparkles puts her hands on her hips, “It observes their traditions, no one gets insulted, you don’t get married, I get my treaty. What’s wrong with it?”
Catra slumps back and crosses her arms. “It’s stupid,” she grumbles. “It stupid and and it’s dumb and it’s demeaning, not to mention stupid. It’s one thing to fight for my own damn…” she splutters, looking for words, gives up and has to say, “...hand in marriage, but this is just...immature, is what it is! And stupid, and unnecessary, and, and…and Adora agrees with me! Right, Adora?”
Catra stares at Sparkles defiantly, a nasty smirk already starting to bloom as she waits for her wife to back her up.
Out the corner of her mouth, “...Adora?”
Her smirk slips.
“Oh, uh, what? Did you say something?” Adora gives a distracted little blink-and-head shake, turning to look at them. But more importantly, Catra finally looks at Adora.
Adora is standing a few feet away, her jacket and belt removed and placed neatly on the other end of their table. She has a jug of water sitting there, too, and the tight sleeves of her white undershirt are pushed up as far as they’ll go to show well-muscled forearms. Catra’s questions have caught her mid-way through tightening her ponytail.
She looks...really good, honestly. Casual, comfortable, the way she looks at the end of the day or before a spar. That last thought sticks with Catra, and her eyes first widen and then narrow because—
“Adora!” Catra says, disbelieving and sharp, “Adora, no!”
Adora’s eyebrows crinkle together and she looks around at Bow, Sparkles. “Did I miss something?” she asks.
“Did you miss something!” Catra snarls, “You are not seriously planning to, to, fight like I’m some kind of...prize!? Tell me that isn’t your plan!”
Adora cocks her head, taken aback. She opens her mouth, closes it, then opens it again. “You want me to...lie?”
Catra groans, long and loud and suffering. She throws her arms down on the table and throws her face into them, moaning out a muffled, “This is humiliating.”
There are low voices above her, whispering; she strains to hear them, annoyed not for the first time at her so-called friends’ familiarity with her auditory range. She can’t make out more than a few words, and none of them are very useful. She applies herself, instead, to self-pity.
It’s not long before she feels a gentle touch at the top of her head, firm and careful in that way Adora handles the things she cares about.
“Hey.” Adora says softly, and Catra does not look up, tamps down on the purr that tries to surface at the familiar, callused fingers stroking at her ear, the genuine concern in Adora’s voice, “Hey, it’s okay. If it bothers you that much, we won’t. I won’t. We can talk to Her Majesty, explain everything. We’ve done it a million times before; that’s just fine.”
Catra doesn’t raise her head, exactly, but she shifts enough to mutter, “...Glimmer’s treaty?”
“Isn’t worth it, not if it makes you this uncomfortable.” Adora says, and the words ring honest.
Catra grumbles wordlessly, managing all at once to push her head both further into her own arms and harder against Adora’s soothing hand.
“And anyway,” Adora says, voice louder now, a bit wry, “I can’t say I mind. Saves me the trouble of having to get all gross, you know? It’s already warm in here - I wasn’t looking forward to getting all sweaty.”
Catra hums an agreement. Placated, maybe, but feeling petulant about it.
“Like, remember that incident on Sideria with the chicken-beast? Obviously she’s not a chicken, but I feel like that’s the level I’m working at here, and gosh, I was such a mess…”
Catra starts to hum again, but is suddenly confronted with a mental image of Adora during that mission on Sideria, and the sound trails off. She barely hears what Adora’s saying.
“...suitor over there looks pretty formidable. Like, I can take her, but I’d definitely have to work for it…”
Adora had been exhausted, then, but triumphant, giant chicken guts splattered across her cheek and shirt ripped, flushed with a high of adrenaline that hadn’t come down until the wee hours of the next morning, and— what was the problem, again?
“...without She-Ra, of course. That wouldn’t be fair, which means it’d have to be the old fashioned way…”
Since when did Catra pull for talking things out, anyway? And, well, now that she thinks about it, Sparkles’ (and Bow’s, and Adora’s) plan is...well, it’s not that bad...
“...if the Lagerrans can lend me a tank top or something - but I don’t have to bother, now, so that’s good! I’ll get my jacket and—”
Adora goes to stand, but Catra’s hand whips out, closing around her wrist. When Adora looks down, she meets a single one of Catra’s eyes, peeking out from her nest of hair and arms.
“Uh,” Catra says, willing her ears to be less perky and her tail to stay the fuck down and her blush to go the fuck away. “I mean, uh. Thanks, and all, but...Sparkles’ treaty! It’s important, right?”
Adora nods sagely, mouth serious and eyes dancing. She says, “Extremely.”
Catra sits up straight and gathers what meager dignity she has left. She says, “I can...handle it. If it would help. For the treaty.”
“Oh yeah,” Bow says, dry, “for the treaty.”
Catra ignores them.
She meets Adora’s eyes, and they’re smug and bright and also very, very gentle; behind her, under their exasperation, Bow and Sparkles look the same. We’re in this together, the look says, and the reminder settles something sharp and clawing and obstinate in her, some erroneous reflex that jumps out at the strangest moments to make her think she’s cornered.
She’s not. She hasn’t been, not for a long time.
And, well. It is a good plan.
And it’s not like...it’s not like she’s against her wife defending her honor.
Now that she thinks about it.
Could be, uh.
She clears her throat a bit, and nods.
Adora beams. “Well, in that case,” she stands up, hands on her hips, “anyone know where I can find a staff?”
Adora wins, of course. It’s hot.
(Really, really, really hot.)
Afterwards, she trots up to Catra immediately, hair plastered down with sweat and breath coming hard and smile positively beatific, tossing her staff aside without looking and tilting her head beseechingly at Catra like she wants a kiss for a prize. And Catra, damn it all, kisses her, long and slow and a little bit theatrical, because fuck if she doesn’t deserve it - and anyway, if they’re going to put on a show, they’re going to do it right. The crowd - Queen of Queens and all - cheers their approval, and Adora dips her even more theatrically, and if it were anyone else the sudden shock of going slantways would make Catra squirm and get her dropped on the floor, but it’s Adora. It’s not hard at all to trust over her weight.
The party that kicks off that evening is a mystery to Catra, who suspects it’s related to the breaking of her not-engagement, but can’t quite be sure - and finds she doesn’t much care either way. It’s a raucous, wildly enthusiastic event, full of overflowing tankards and excessive amounts of backslapping and impromptu tournaments of an elaborate, full-bodied wrestling game that only could come from folks who see armed combat as the best way to finalize a marital engagement.
And so it’s many hours later when Catra extricates herself from a cluster of Lagerrans, still cackling at a no-doubt exaggerated retelling of one of their adventures (there’s a monster and another monster and a lot of severed limbs and a dragon involved). She waves her empty tankard over her head as an explanation of her departure and makes her way over to the nearest keg.
As she does, she easily clocks Bow, comparing his fancy arrows with one of the Lagerran archers, and Sparkles, ensconced at the high table in an exuberant, rapid-fire half-negotiation half-drinking competition with the Queen of Queens. Adora she doesn’t even need to look for, because Catra has spent all but the latest bit of the celebration plastered to her side, cheering her on as she dominates round after round of the Lagerrans’ apparent favorite game.
Catra’s filling up her tankard with another round of maybe-mead and watching Adora try to squirm her way out of a headlock, and she realizes she’s not the only person watching the match from the outskirts. On a whim, she tugs a new, empty tankard - almost clean, not quite, it’ll do - down from the wall behind the keg and fills it up, as well.
She stops a couple benches down. “Battelle, right?” she asks.
The young woman who could have been her (second) wife blinks a little, drags her eyes from Catra’s actual wife to say, “Oh, uh, yeah.” She gives a solid nod, “That’s me.”
Catra offers her the second tankard, then pulls it back when she goes to reach for it. “If you take this, it’s not, like, a promise to have your babies or anything, right?”
Battelle snorts and laughs, “No, no. No more life commitments, promise.”
Catra grins - full teeth, but no malice - and offers the tankard again. “No hard feelings, yeah?”
Battelle takes it, shakes her head, “Not at all. Don’t get me wrong - losing sucks, and you’re nice and all, but—”
“I’m really not,” Catra notes.
Battelle gives a neutral little shrug, and her next gulp of mead-adjacent is interrupted by increased shouting from the wrestlers. When Catra looks over, Adora is disheveled and, once again, victorious, arms raised in the air as the Lagerrans shout good-naturedly around her.
“How is she still going?” Battelle asks, incredulous, “I’m no slouch, but I’m exhausted.”
It’s Catra’s turn to shrug, taking a seat on the bench, “Oh, that’s just Adora - she’s like that. She says it’s a She-Ra thing, but I don’t buy it.”
There’s a choking sound beside her, and she looks over to see Battelle slamming her tankard down on the table to cough, hard. When Catra asks if she’s okay, she nods an affirmative, even as she recovers with slow sips. When she’s gotten herself under control, she wipes her eyes and turns them, widened, onto Catra. “That’s...that’s She-Ra?!”
“You didn’t know?”
She shakes her head very slowly. “I had no idea,” she whispers, and then, louder, a little shocky, “I...I fought She-Ra. ”
“Quite an experience, isn’t it?”
Something about Catra’s tone must be telling, because Battelle cocks her head. “I thought your people didn’t do a marriage challenge,” she says.
Catra laughs at that, long and hard. She thinks about sparring with Adora as kids, as teens, as adults; savagely at battle in Bright Moon, desperately while reality crumbled, playfully in the largest compartment onboard Darla. She thinks of Thaymor, of Adora, passionate and insistent, asking her to ‘come with me, we can fix this,’ of the way her grip had felt before Catra had broken it, all those years ago.
What she says is, “Not exactly, no.”
Battelle watches her for a moment, opens her mouth to ask—
They both turn.
It’s Adora, calling from halfway across the room to wave an ostentatious bone-and-silver decoration - a trophy, Catra expects - in her direction. She looks the same as she has all night, flushed and sincere and exuberant, and is shouting words that Catra can’t possibly make out. She looks happy. Catra finds that she is happy, too.
It’s not new, she thinks. It’s been here a long time, now, crystalizing in these little moments like the honey Bow keeps in a jar in Darla’s galley, something gold and shifting and sweet turned firmer, closer to solid. The same it’s always tasted, but older now, familiar.
Catra’s smiling, she knows. She doesn’t try to stop.
Next to her, Battelle gives an amazed, satisfied noise and sighs out, “Damn. I never stood a chance.”
Catra raises her drink towards Adora in a toast, thumps Battelle hard on the shoulder. “If it helps at all,” she says, takes a long, indulgent sip, “neither did I.”