Work Header

where we wander, where we conquer

Chapter Text

“You’re so soft,” Adora marvels, nuzzling her face deeper into the juncture of Catra’s neck. She wraps her arms tightly around Catra's middle. 

“Am not,” complains Catra, only mockingly annoyed. Her neck cranes to smirk at Adora from over her own shoulder. “I’m very tough, I’ll have you know.”

They lie together on the fabric pad stuffed with tumbleweeds—the one that Adora had been sleeping on earlier. Adora can feel the faint vibration of distant music through the floor...but that’s all she can hear of the party still raging several rooms away. It’s quiet in here, save the noise of Catra beside her. Quiet, and peaceful.

It was clear that, when Adora returned to this chamber, Catra wasn’t sure where to set herself down. She sat awkwardly at the foot of the bed for several long moments, searching the room for somewhere to sleep. Eventually, Adora beckoned for her to move forward—to share the bed, even if it wasn’t much of a bed to share. But after all those years in the Horde...Adora and Catra are certainly accustomed to sharing small sleeping spaces.

They’ve actually been sleeping close to one another for a while now—ever since their first night in the Waste. Nights in the desert are surprisingly cold, and sharing body heat can be something of a necessity. Adora often kept watch with Catra’s sleeping figure pressed into her side, or awoke with Catra’s back against her legs.

But that felt quite different from this. Sharing space on the ground does not feel nearly as intimate as sharing space, side-by-side, within a bed.

And it’s a new thing for them, certainly. To sleep side-by-side at all. Catra used to position herself at the foot of Adora’s bed, back in the Horde. But it’s too odd now. They’re both adults, and after so many months of sleeping alone...they’ve grown accustomed to stretching out their legs.

So here they are. Side-by-side on this poor excuse of a cot. Maybe Catra could have slept elsewhere. Maybe she could have found another cot to place alongside hers.

But Adora likes this. She likes the closeness. And Catra does too—Adora can tell by constant purring that rumbles from Catra’s chest.

“Okay, you have to admit,” Adora says. “It’s nice that we’re finally able to...y’know.”

She ducks her head down toward Catra’s neck and presses her lips against it.

Because this is new. This is so new. They’ve always been close. Always been touchy. Holding hands and hugging and roughhousing and even fighting on the battlefield. But it’s always, somehow. Restrained. Like some touches were too affectionate—too dangerous—to let pass between them.

But ever since Catra kissed her, and Adora kissed’s as if those rules have dissipated. Vanished into thin air, as if they never existed at all. Catra practically pounced on Adora as soon as she was invited into the bed, weaving their legs together and nestling into the curve of Adora’s body.

Catra glanced nervously over her shoulder at Adora behind her.

“This okay?” she asked.

Adora gulped, nodded, and wrapped her arms around Catra. Her nervousness was there, at first. Reminding her that this was new. That this was strange. That Adora might mess this up beyond repair. But it didn’t last for long, that nervousness, and melted quickly within such close vicinity to Catra’s warmth.

And now Adora never wants to lose Catra within this space between her arms. Never wants to stop pressing herself against Catra’s skin and body. This is a closeness that Adora never knew she needed, and now wouldn’t trade for anything—

“You’re ridiculous,” Catra says, giggling as she shoves a hand into Adora’s face. A playful attempt to push Adora away, one that she very clearly doesn’t mean. Adora retaliates by poking Catra lightly in the ribs, which causes her to yelp and squirm in protest.

They laugh and wrestle for a little while longer. Poking, tickling each other. Adora can hardly believe this is real at all—that Catra is with her like this, whatever this is. That she’s able to press her lips into Catra’s neck as they settle down, as if it’s something they’ve always done.

“We probably should sleep,” Adora says. They came here to rest, after all. That was the whole reason Adora left the party.

Catra agrees, “Probably,” but it doesn’t sound like she means it.

There’s a pause.

“But maybe we could do that thing some more?” Catra asks, tentatively. Almost like she’s embarrassed. “Before we sleep?”

“What thing?”

“Y’know.” Catra shifts within Adora’s arms. “That thing. Putting our mouths together or whatever that was—”

“Oh,” says Adora, cheeks scorched by a sudden blush. “You mean kissing?”

She sees Catra’s eyebrows shoot up. “Is that what that’s called?”

“I mean, I think so? I saw Netossa and Spinnerella do it once, and that’s what Glimmer called it—”

Catra’s gaze hardens, and her body tenses. “So it’s a rebel custom?”

“I mean, maybe?” replies Adora, because she really doesn’t know. “Glimmer didn’t explain it all that much. She said it’s what people do when they like each other a lot.” Adora smirks and leans closer to Catra. “Which must mean you like me, if you liked kissing me that much—”

“Shut up,” Catra mutters, and turns her face pointedly away. She doesn’t say anything else. Just continues lying there, stiff within Adora’s arms.

And Adora can tell that Catra dislikes the idea of kissing being a rebel custom, of all things. The very notion has probably soured Catra’s view of the activity. Which, to Adora, just doesn’t seem fair. In the Horde, even just holding hands was considered a sign of weakness. But Catra and Adora used to do that anyway, even if it was forbidden—

“Well, I like you,” Adora tells her, softly. She cups a hand to Catra’s cheek. “And does it really matter if it’s a rebel custom? I like kissing you. And it seemed like you liked kissing me.”

Catra grumbles something unintelligible.

“C’mon, Catra,” Adora complains, rolling her eyes yet again. “Just because the rebels do it doesn’t mean it’s bad. I mean...dancing is definitely a rebel thing, and you didn’t have a problem doing that at Princess Prom.”

Catra scoffs. “Only because I was trying to distract you.”

“You were having fun doing it, though. Admit it.”

Catra cracks a fresh smirk at her, eyes alight with mischief. “Distracting you is always fun.”

“Well. If it’s anything like the last time, kissing would be a good way to distract me too.”

Adora props herself up, then leans over Catra—trapping Catra between her arms. Her hair spills over their faces as she leans down slowly, lowering inch by inch. Teasingly, she breathes out, “So distract me some more, will you?”

And all hesitation disappears from Catra’s expression. “Okay,” is the only word she can muster before Adora drops her lips upon Catra’s, sweeping Catra’s breath into her own lungs.

And then they’re doing it again. Kissing. Or that’s what Adora remembers it being called. And it’s just as overwhelming as the first time—the sensation of Catra’s plush lips on hers, the hot breath pulsing into her own mouth. And there’s something different, this time. Something else. The edge of Catra’s teeth, scraping against Adora’s bottom lip. Catra’s tongue pressing into her mouth, and Adora fumbling to return the favor because it’s

And there are other sensations too. Catra’s hands clutching at Adora’s hips, her nails lightly digging crescents into her sides. And there’s this pressure in Adora’s every nerve, in her thundering heart, one that tells her to press her whole body against Catra’s. To straddle her and run her hands all along Catra’s sides. Or, even more strangely, to shuck off her own clothes and let Catra touch her wherever and however she likes—

But Adora feels like it’s too much. Too much, too soon. She has no idea what she’s doing, no idea how much Catra really wants. Kissing is already so new. Anything else tonight and Adora’s brain might explode.

So Adora kisses Catra a few more times—kisses her softly, reverently—and then lifts her lips away. Catra gives a small whine at the departure, at the disappearance of Adora’s lips against hers, so Adora presses one last kiss against Catra’s forehead to ease her annoyance.

Now we should sleep,” Adora tells her. She arranges herself at Catra’s back with both arms once again stretched around Catra’s middle.

Catra huffs her disappointment but doesn’t protest further. She just settles into Adora’s arms and falls quickly asleep.

“Here, take this.”

Adora looks up to see Catra tossing a leather jacket at the foot of the bed. Adora shoots her a quizzical look—answered by Catra’s smirk in reply—then carefully sets her needle down on the floor next to the bed.

Or, really, her poor excuse for a needle. What remains of Adora’s red jacket split at the seams when Adora tried to pull it on this morning. She’s been sitting on the bed for hours, working to pull it back together with a shard of metal and some crudely woven twine. But she’s had little luck. The jacket is still in pieces in Adora’s lap.

The leather jacket that Catra just tossed to her, on the other hand, looks to be perfectly intact. Well.  Almost perfectly intact. The sleeves are torn off, that much is obvious. Little wisps of fabric and string hang from where those sleeves were once attached.

Adora yanks the leather jacket closer for inspection, pulling it from its crumpled heap on the bed. She quickly discovers that it sports the same symbol that Catra’s jacket does: the golden snake eating its own tail.

Adora laughs and clutches the jacket between her arms, holding it upright for Catra to see the symbol across the back. “You seriously want us to match?”

Catra shrugs. “It makes sense.”

“Does it?”

“Well, you’re the gang’s second-in-command,” Catra tells her, grinning. “My second-in-command. Which means you should wear the right uniform.”

Adora scoffs. “And is that what this is? A uniform?”

Another shrug from Catra. “Something like that.”

“Where’d you get it?”

Catra rolls her eyes. “I didn’t take it from someone, if that’s what you’re asking. A member of our gang makes them—which is why all the other gang members have them. And why you should have one too.”

Adora smiles and shakes her head at the ridiculousness of it all—that, in the span of a few days, they’ve gone from struggling to survive to leading a gang in the Crimson Waste (with the option to wear matching uniforms to boot).

“Well?” urges Catra, crossing her arms and cocking a hip. “Try it on!”

“Okay, okay,” Adora says. “Give me a minute, will you?”

With an eye roll, Adora turns the jacket back around within her own grasp. It’s a nice jacket, after all. Good quality material. Cool to the touch. She examines its every inch for imperfections, and slowly, too slowly, she begins to put her arm through one of the sleeve holes—

But then retracts her arm, unable to move further. She glances down at the red jacket in her lap. She’s had that jacket for most of her life—throughout her time in both the Horde and the rebellion. Is she really supposed to just replace it with something new? That’s practically a part of her. She hardly knows what she looks like without it—

But Catra is right there, smiling at her encouragingly—if not a little impatiently. “C’mon, Adora,” she says, tapping a foot. “We’ve got a lot to do today.”

“Sorry,” she sighs. “It’s just. It’s new and my old jacket—”

“Is falling apart?” Catra says. “Yeah. I know. Which is why I brought you this.”

Catra gestures again to the new leather jacket.

“There’s nothing wrong with something new, Adora.”

Again, Adora hesitates. She supposes Catra is right. Everything about the Crimson Waste has been new. New and unexpected. Since arriving here, she’s learned that the Crimson Waste isn’t actually empty—that it’s instead filled with outlaws and gangs and the occasional place of business, like that bar. She’s learned that it contains oddities like quicksand and serpents and maybe even spaceships—which, according to Adora’s best guess, is what this strange forgotten structure of Mara’s must be.

But more than anything, she’s talking about whatever this is, with Catra. This budding something between them. Something more than what they used to have, even before Adora defected from the Horde. Something that involves kissing and sleeping in the same bed and giggling into each other’s necks.

So Adora takes a deep breath. As Catra said...there’s nothing wrong with something new, nothing wrong with change. And she’s pretty sure she likes this change in her relationship with Catra—so maybe she’ll like this new jacket better too?

Only one way to find out.

Adora pushes her old jacket onto the floor, then stands as she arranges new leather around her shoulders. She pulls down on the front a few times, ensuring that it’s straightened out, and turns to Catra with arms outstretched to her sides.

She’s sure she must look ridiculous like this—torn-up shirt beneath a leather jacket and shorts ripped halfway down her thigh.

“Well?” she says, expecting Catra to laugh. “How do I look?”

She’s somewhat startled to discover, belatedly, that Catra’s cheeks are burning red.

Adora blinks at her. Catra, meanwhile, is very, very slow to answer. If anything, she seems more preoccupied with swallowing some sort of lump in her throat.

“Wow,” Adora says, voice nearly as smug as her smile. She places a hand on her hip, allowing her muscles to flex just slightly with the pose. “I must look pretty good if I’ve left you this speechless—”

“Shut up,” Catra mutters—finally shaken from her stupor by Adora’s taunts. “You know you look good, why would you even ask—”

Laughing, Adora surges forward and wraps her arms around Catra, trapping her within her arms.

“Hey! You could thank me, at least!” Catra half-shrieks as she’s rocked within Adora’s arms. “If it weren’t for me, you’d be stuck sewing those scraps of fabric back together—”

Adora peppers kisses—kisses, still such a new word to them both—all across Catra’s cheeks. “Thank you, Catra.”

Leading a gang should be easy, Catra thinks. Especially for someone of her experience. Catra’s previous occupation involved running a whole army rather than a small collection of outlaws. So this—running Tung Lashor’s gang—should be cakewalk by comparison.

Or at least that’s what she hopes. 

While the Horde required housing and food and weapons and countless other complexities, running a gang requires far less. Just bodies, mostly. People. People who are largely self-sufficient in finding food and housing for themselves. People who think there’s something to be gained by joining and staying in a gang.

Which means that Catra just has to ensure that there’s something there, should they join and stay—something to gain.

So what can she promise them?

She knows what Tung Lashor promised, back in the day. He offered protection. Protection from Huntara, protection from himself—the two strongest, scariest warriors in the Waste. No one wanted to challenge either Huntara or Tung Lashor to a fight; no one wanted to question their authority. So, instead, they agreed to fight for them, rather than against them. And then intimidated other people into doing the same.

Since she defeated Tung Lashor, Catra has that authority right now—authority over the gang, won through fear. But she doubts it’ll last for long. Catra and Adora are both skilled at fighting, sure, but neither Catra nor Adora is particularly intimidating-looking. Not like Huntara and Tung Lashor are. They’ll be challenged constantly—and there’s always a chance they could lose the challenges placed before them.

That won’t do, Catra thinks. Ruling through never lasts. Not forever, anyway. Shadow Weaver learned that the hard way when Catra stepped up and clawed through her mask. Eventually, someone will fight back. Eventually, someone will overcome their fear, and knock Catra from this throne she’s clawed for herself.

Catra and Adora can’t run this gang solely through fear. It’s not sustainable. And they can’t go back to being on their own—there are far too many risks crawling across the Waste.

Besides. Catra just doesn’t want to be like Shadow Weaver. She wants people she can trust; people she can count on. She wants a future here, with Adora.

So they need a way to be indispensable to these people—to have them want Adora and Catra’s leadership, and fight for its preservation.

Catra lays out a map that she retrieved from one of her lackeys—a frayed scrap of fabric with borders and towns scratched into its surface. With it unfolded on the floor, she can see the entire Crimson Waste sprawled before her eyes—and it’s certainly not as empty as the Horde or the rebellion believed.

And there’s plenty of emptiness, yes. Huge swathes of blank land on the map, many of them labeled with the gangs that claim them as territories. But there’s a surprising number of towns also sprinkled across the desert. More than Catra anticipated.

Catra taps her chin, staring at the map. Huntara’s gang has been growing—pushing into various towns and into Tung Lashor’s (now Catra’s) claimed territory. She can see that by the lines that have been repeatedly erased and extended around Huntara’s territory, her borders blurred and smudged by numerous corrections.

Tung Lashor was getting sloppy. Letting her gain too much ground.

Catra feels Adora slip an arm around her back, leaning over Catra’s shoulder to share her view of the map.

“What are you thinking?” Adora asks, voice so soft and warm that it nearly melts Catra like a candle.

But it’s distracting.

“Trying to figure something out.”

“Uh-huh,” says Adora, and Catra can hear her eye roll. “I guessed that part. Care to explain what you’re trying to figure out? I mean, maybe I can help—”

Catra grunts. “We need some way to keep control of the gang.”

“Well.” Adora shrugs. “Do we really need to control the gang?”

Catra cocks an eyebrow at her. “Do you want to keep wandering into gang territory and getting attacked? Because here, you’re either part of a gang...or getting your butt kicked by one. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed—” Catra extends her arms to the room around them—the sleek metal walls that protect them from the desert sunlight. “We’ve got a pretty great deal here. Medicine and food from this ship. Even a couple bathrooms with running water. All of which the gang will take from us the second we show a sign of weakness.”

Adora raises her hands in a gesture of surrender. “Alright, alright,” she concedes. “So we need to keep control of the gang. Got it.”

“Right,” confirms Catra. “And unless you want to threaten people into following us—”

Adora shakes her head. A vehement no.

“—we need to find some other way to keep them on our side. And I’m fresh out of ideas at the moment.”

Adora hums and leans her chin on Catra’s shoulder.

“Maybe we could start making that awful drink they like so much,” Adora offers, very obviously joking. “If you offered them endless supplies of free booze, they’d never stop following you around.”

Catra gives a short laugh. The gang ran through almost every barrel of alcohol that they had during that last party, and Catra hasn’t yet figured out how to get more. Supposedly, there’s an old woman in the gang that brews it for them. But, as only one person, she can only produce so many barrels at a time.

Much to the gang’s disappointment. They haven’t stopped complaining about the lack of booze ever since the party.

Which means…

Which means Adora might actually have a point.

“That could work,” Catra says, surprised. “The free booze idea? That could actually work. And we could do more than just offer free drinks. We can use it to barter with towns. Maybe even barter with other gangs. If we have a commodity that everyone wants, and no one else can make, people would be crazy to challenge us—”

Adora takes a step back so she can stare at Catra directly. Her expression is skeptical.

“Catra,” Adora says. “We don’t know anything about making that drink. It was a joke.”

Catra raises an eyebrow in challenge.

“Afraid to learn, princess?”

Adora rolls her eyes yet again, arms crossing in front of her chest. “Of course not. But something tells me it’s not going to be easy to ferment something in a desert.”


Adora gestures upward, toward the ceiling. “You need plants to ferment things. And, uh, plants don’t grow so well in the desert. Or have you forgotten?”

“I bet we can figure it out,” Catra says, tugging Adora by the arm toward the door. They need to find that old woman—figure out her process. If they can replicate it...expand it...they might yet conquer this whole desert.

“You sure are confident,” scoffs Adora. But she nonetheless follows Catra into the other room.

“In the two of us?” says Catra, eyes glinting with excitement. “Why wouldn’t I be? We’ve got this survival shit down.”

One thing that Catra can add to her ever-growing list of skills: fermenting cacti.

It wasn’t hard to convince the old woman—a hunched, graying half-coyote hybrid—to reveal her process. If anything, she seemed relieved to have someone interested in her trade—and particularly interested in sharing the labor of producing such a high-demand drink.

Turns out Adora was right, though—the drink really is made from cacti. A specific, rarer type than most of the ones they’ve seen. One of the few non-poisonous breeds in the Waste.

Though it’s not actually combined with dirt, like Adora hypothesized. That’s just how the cactus tastes—especially with their limited supplies of sugar devoted to the fermentation process, rather than used as sweetener. An acquired taste, the old woman admitted. But one that many people in the Waste would kill for.

The process is fairly simple, they learn: gather the right kind of cacti, burn off the thorns, cut the cacti into pieces, mash up those pieces, add some yeast, let ferment, and then filter out the juice.

“How long does it take to ferment?” is what Adora asked. It was a question that Catra had as well. If they have to wait months to get a single bottle, it won’t be worth the effort. They’ll probably be kicked out of this gang long before that.

“Things ferment quick in the desert heat,” the old woman explained. “Only takes a few days. Though the older it is, the better.”

So now Adora and Catra are doing this: out in the desert with the rest of the gang, gathering as much cacti as they can find.

The gang hardly blinked an eye at the order. For now, at least, they all listen to Catra without question. Lopping off cacti arms as quickly as they can, and rescuing those who accidentally attack the wrong kind of cactus—the kind that attacks them right back.

But Catra needs to get things moving. She doesn’t know how long her authority over them will last—and she better have something to barter with once that authority expires. This stupid drink they all like is her ticket to safety with Adora. She’ll need to make a lot of it—and make it better than anyone else—if she’s to ensure a place for themselves in the Waste.

In the meantime, Catra oversees it all, watching as they fill bucket upon bucket with cactus pieces. Cactus pieces that will ferment within a matter of days, if all goes to plan.

Okay. Well. She might be watching Adora a bit more than the others. She lingers close as Adora hacks away at the veritable majority of the cacti—sweat beading at her brow and glistening all over her arms.

Her stupidly muscular arms.

Though there’s been a new development in Adora’s appearance. One that, unlike everything else about Adora, Catra isn’t totally sure she likes.

“Where the hell did you get that?” she asks Adora, gesturing to the arm-length sword clasped within her hand. A sword that gleams pale white in the sunlight.

Only a few minutes ago, Adora had been using some sort of rusted shard of metal to cut away at the cacti (a piece of debris from around the ship, Catra thought). But now that’s been replaced by this. This sword carved from bone, clutched tightly in Adora’s practiced hands.

Catra is somewhat startled by the sight of Adora carrying a sword again. The last time Adora had a sword, she was…

She wasn’t Adora at all. She was She-Ra.

And even if this sword is still stirs up some bad memories. As well as some regrets.

“Asked to borrow it from someone,” Adora replies with a smirk. She then glances around, tapping at her chin with a free hand. “Though I’m not sure where they went. I’m sure they’re around here somewhere—”

Catra laughs—even despite the odd tension produced by the sight of that sword. Because, really, there’s no reason for Catra to be nervous around it. It doesn’t even look like She-Ra’s sword, for Etheria’s sake.

And besides. It’s funny that Adora still thinks that she has to return the sword she’s “borrowed.”

“Oh, yeah. I’m sure they’re gonna demand it back,” Catra tells her, sarcastic.

Adora shoots her a blank look as she slices through another piece of cactus. It falls into the sand with a dull thud. “What do you mean?”

“You’re my second in command,” Catra says, placing a hand at Adora’s shoulder—the one that’s not devoted to chopping at the cacti. “Which means that, for now, you can take whatever you want. Including weapons.”


“Plus, you’re far too intimidating,” adds Catra. “My guess is that they want you to keep it. So that you don’t beat them up, I mean.”

At that, Adora laughs. She laughs loud enough for the whole rest of the gang to hear, and from her periphery, Catra can see several curious glances aimed their way.

“Yeah, right,” Adora scoffs, once that fit of laughter has passed. “I’m hardly that intimidating. We both know that.”

Catra raises both eyebrows. “Have you looked at yourself recently?” she asks, and runs a claw lightly over Adora’s sweat-shined arm. “You’re intimidating—trust me. And if we let slip that you beat up Huntara—”

Adora’s eyes widen, but it’s too late. Catra purposely said that last part too loudly—loud enough for everyone to hear. A glance around reveals that every eye is trained upon the two of them—Catra and Adora. Every eye, and several slack-jawed faces. Defeating Huntara is quite the claim to prestige in the Waste, it seems.

Adora tucks the sword beneath her arm and takes a conspiratorial step toward Catra.

“We promised we wouldn’t tell anyone,” Adora hisses, beneath her breath. She actually looks somewhere close to angry. Though Catra can’t imagine why. She’s just telling the truth. Nothing more, nothing less.

Catra shrugs, not even bothering to limit her volume. “That was back when we had nothing. But now we have people to lead—people who deserve to know who, exactly, they’re following.”

“If word gets back to Huntara,” Adora continues, voice laden with nervousness, “if she learns that we broke our promise—”

“We beat her,” Catra reminds her. “What do we have to be afraid of? I bet you could do it again, too. Especially with that sword.”

Adora rolls her eyes. “I don’t want to steal this sword, Catra.”

“Who says it’s stealing?” Catra argues. “You asked for it, they gave it to you. Think of it as a gift.”

“And what if they don’t think of it that way?”

Catra uses the tip of her knife to stab into the recently-dropped piece of cactus. She leverages the blade to lift the prickly cactus into the air. “Then we’ll have the means to pay them with this soon enough.”

For a long time, Adora’s life revolves around two things: Catra, and cacti.

It’s not too long before they’re producing bottles of cactus liquor by the dozens. It’s their biggest priority, in fact. Gathering cacti, mashing, fermenting. Catra was right—Adora’s joke-idea really is a good way to keep the gang working for Catra and Adora without complaint.

Not, of course, that Adora and Catra are trying to turn them all into drunks. No. Glimmer told Adora a long time ago that drinking too much alcohol can be unhealthy, and Adora (and Catra, even if she doesn’t want to admit it) certainly doesn’t want to hurt these people. So they give them some drinks if they ask, yes. But they also use the bottles to barter with the various towns and tradespeople throughout the Waste. So far they’ve been able to barter for food, barrels of clean water, building materials, and basically anything else they need.

It’s a working system. And Adora has even been working to make it even better. There’s a backup water filtration system in Mara’s ship—one that she suggested converting into a fermenting system instead. Their process is pretty manual at the moment—mashing the cacti by hand and separating out the sediment during the fermentation process. But if they can speed that process up...make it automatic…

They’d be basically unstoppable.

“Yeah, this will totally work!” Catra exclaims, all excitement. She bounces a flashlight—yet another item they bartered for—between the shadow-darkened crevices of the filtration system. “The primary vat can go here, and the secondary one...yeah this should totally work. Though I do have one question.”


Catra jabs a finger over her shoulder at the nearby wall, where the control panel sits. “How do we turn it on? All this stuff runs by itself. And the controls don’t make any sense—”

Adora smiles. “Oh, they definitely make sense. Just not to you.”

Catra makes a distinct harumph sound and crosses her arms. “What? You think you’re smarter than me?”

“No,” says Adora, walking over to the control panel. “But this was Mara’s ship, remember? Which means it was built by the First Ones. And I, unlike you, can read First Ones writing. Remember?”

Catra doesn’t answer. But Adora guesses that she remembers.

And so, right on cue, Adora strolls up to the panel and presses a particular sequence of buttons. Buttons labelled with symbols that must be incomprehensible to Catra, but are perfectly clear to Adora. She presses the final button, start, with a little flourish. And sure enough, the whole system flashes on—roaring to life with the whirring of hydraulics and the hissing of steam.

“You’re such a show off,” Catra complains, arms still crossed over her chest.

“Complain all you want,” Adora says, and strolls back to Catra. “But my ‘showing off’ is going to save us a lot of back-breaking labor.” She slips an arm around Catra’s waist, tugging her close so she can plant a kiss on Catra’s forehead. And it’s truly unfair—it’s unfair that Catra manages to look so pretty wherever she goes, even in this steam-warmed, poorly-lit maintenance room.

Her hair has been pulled back into a ponytail. A new hairstyle for her, meant to control the sweat the inevitable spills across her face during the hot desert afternoons. Adora really likes the way it looks. The way it complements her jawline and her ears and her posture—

“You’re staring at me,” Catra notes.

Grinning, Adora asks, “Is that a crime?”

“No,” replies Catra. “But it’s a waste of time. We’ve got a lot of cacti to mash up.”

Adora sets both hands at Catra’s hips. “Don’t you think we deserve a break? Even a short one?”

Catra’s brows shoot up. “Adora, workaholic of all workaholics, asking for a break?” She laughs and shakes her head. “Who even are you?”

“Tired,” answers Adora. “I’m tired. And I feel like we haven’t gotten much alone time since we started this whole cactus thing.”

And that’s true. Adora and Catra have been so devoted to creating a supply of that cactus liquor, they haven’t had much time to devote to each other. Not unless Adora counts the way they collapse into bed at the end of the day, exhausted beyond expression. They usually don’t do much except curl into each other’s arms, doze off, and then wake at first light to continue their many chores.

And Adora really isn’t sure what she wants. But she knows that she wants to do more with Catra than just...well...sleep. Especially now that they’re like this. Something more than what they were.

Catra hums and stands on her tiptoes, pressing a brief kiss against Adora’s lips.

“How about we take the afternoon off?” Catra offers, smiling. “But only after we mash up the next batch of cacti.”

Adora groans and releases Catra’s waist, already prepared to walk back to the door. “I guess. But there’s always another batch, isn’t there?”

Adora isn’t expecting Catra’s smile to buckle slightly. But it does. The right corner tugged barely downward in the way that Adora knows—an expression of uneasiness that’s unique to Catra alone.

“Catra?” Adora asks, hesitating where she stands. “Is something wrong?”

“We’re starting to produce faster than we can gather supplies,” Catra tells her, slowly. Like she’s reluctant to tell Adora at all. “Which is...a good thing. Sort of. But that means that we’re running out of cacti to harvest.”

“We’ve been replanting them—” Adora protests.

Catra shakes her head. “They’re fast growing, but not fast growing enough.”

Adora releases a short, frustrated sigh. “Then what can we do?”

“Only one thing to do,” explains Catra. “We need to expand. And from what I’ve been told...Huntara’s territory has more of these things than any other stretch of sand in the waste.”

Adora stands there, mouth hanging. “You take Huntara’s territory?”

Catra shakes her head. “No,” she says, eyes flashing with promise—and lips made cutting by a smirk. “I just plan to visit it from time to time.”

“C’mon, Catra,” Adora interrupts, laughing nervously. “We’re not seriously going to try to...I mean...we can just wait for the cacti to grow back here—”

“It will take too long,” Catra tells her. “And in that time, someone could come and take control of this gang right out from under us. With even just a fraction of the supply in Huntara’s territory, we would secure our control indefinitely—”

“Maybe we could ask her to use her territory. Get her to help us, rather than start a gang war—”

Catra shakes her head. “She’ll ask for too much. Or cut a deal that screws us over. Or worse...force us to answer to her.”

“Is that really so bad?”

“Yes,” snaps Catra. “It is. I don’t want to answer to anyone. Not anymore. I want what will keep us safe, and I’ll take down anyone who gets in our way. Besides, it’s not like I’m trying to take her territory, like you said. I’m just borrowing some supplies—and I’ll replant them. There’s no harm done. I mean, she’s not even using them.

Adora hums skeptically. “I seriously doubt Huntara will see it that way. If she finds out...she’ll be mad. Really mad. She might try to kill us.”

“We beat her once,” Catra says, shrugging yet again. “I’m not too worried about it.”

“Maybe you should be,” Adora argues. “Last time, we caught her off guard. She didn’t expect us to know how to fight. We start something like this...she might start planning a way to take us out. One that we won’t see coming.”

Catra laughs—her head tipped back, her voice sprinting laps between the metal walls. “Yeah, sure. Huntara will do that.”

“Catra. I’m serious—”

But Catra still waves her off. “I’m not exactly worried about out-strategizing Huntara, of all people. When it comes to battle plans, I have the expertise.”

“She could turn our people against us.”

“Not a chance. Not so long as we’re indispensable. Which we will be, once this is set up.” Catra slaps a hand against the backup water filtration system. The one they plan to convert into a fermenting station instead. “You’ll be the only one who can operate it. They’ll need us.”

“I still don’t like it,” Adora says, shaking her head. “We’re asking for trouble. Taking more than we should—”

Catra’s eyes narrow at her. They’re suspicious. Accusatory. “You’re only saying that because you like Huntara.”

“C’mon, Catra—”

“Admit it! You practically drooled over her last time we saw her.”

“I don’t dislike her,” Adora admits. “But I definitely don’t want to make an enemy out of her. She was hard enough to beat the first time. And she probably knows a lot more about the Waste than we do.”

“Yeah, well,” Catra grumbles. “I have faith that you’ll beat her again, if it came to that. And I also believe that I know what I’m doing, and how to do it.” Catra crosses her arms over her chest and shoots Adora a pleading look. “Care to believe in me too?”

Adora hesitates, tongue already crafting her next argument. It’s risky enough, what they’re already doing. Relying on fermented cacti to keep themselves afloat. To make themselves indispensable, as Catra keeps saying. Because that’s what they need to be, to keep themselves safe.

But by crossing into Huntara’s territory—and crossing Huntara herself—they’re introducing a whole new layer of risk. Huntara could catch on. Huntara could catch them—any member of their gang caught on her land, including Catra herself. And Adora is sure that Huntara would make bloody examples of anyone who trespasses on her land. Especially those, like Catra, who have trespassed more than once.

Adora fought Huntara herself. She knows that Huntara is capable of that—of hurting them—even if no one else in the Waste is.

But after staring Catra down, examining the look in her eyes...Adora realizes that there’s no point. There’s no point in debating this further. Because this isn’t just about harvesting more cacti at all. This is about Catra proving that she’s the strongest in the Waste. Proving that she’s the strongest to their own gang, to herself…

...and to Adora, especially.

Adora didn’t notice it before, but there’s a particular uncertainty in Catra’s eyes. One that Adora recognizes. The same uncertainty that Catra has worn in the past, during the rare times Adora chose to spend time with Lonnie, or Rogelio, or any other cadet besides Catra. A flicker of cracked ego, just beyond the yellow and blue.

Catra is jealous. No, worse than that: Catra is worried that she’s going to lose Adora. That Adora is going to leave her for someone else.

And in this case, that someone else is Huntara.

It’s absurd, Adora thinks. That Catra would even be worried. Sure, Adora thinks Huntara is good-looking. Sure, she could probably waste hours staring at those sculpted muscles. But it’s so different from this thing she shares with Catra. Every ounce of happiness that Adora has managed to wring from the came from Catra. Catra is the person who makes Adora feel safe, feel wanted. Catra is the person that Adora admires for so much more than just looks

Not that Adora doesn’t spend an embarrassing amount of time admiring those as well. Catra’s looks, with that figure and eyes and hair and everything. Even now, her eyes attach themselves to each individual feature as though held by magnets—

The way she feels about’s something she can hardly express. Something that, as far as she is concerned, no one on Etheria else can replicate. This urge to hold, to touch. And it’s’s not something she really understands. Not something she even knows how to articulate.

But Adora knows that there’s no way to convince Catra of how she feels. No way but this. Agreeing to this plan of Catra’s.

“Fine,” Adora agrees, with a sigh. “We’ll do as you say. Sneak into Huntara’s territory and take what we need.”

She points a demanding finger at Catra’s chest.

“But only what we need.”

Catra smiles broadly, then nods. “She’ll never even know,” Catra tells her, all giddiness, then surges forward to angle another kiss into Adora’s lips.

“And I do have faith in you, you know,” adds Adora, once Catra’s lips pull away. And truly, she’s annoyed that Catra could even doubt that. Her hands find Catra’s shoulders, holding them steady. “But I’m afraid for you too. We’ve had good luck so far, sure. But we shouldn’t press it. Not if we want to keep from getting hurt.”

Catra places a hand on her own heart, like she’s touched. The gesture is a bit too sarcastic for Adora’s liking.

“Of course, princess. We’ll be extra careful.”

She ducks between Adora’s hands and, with a skill and grace that could only belong to Catra, she twirls the crux of Adora’s arm into her grasp. It’s not long before she’s pulling Adora along again, toward the door.

“C’mon,” Catra urges, with a playful glance over her shoulder. “Those cacti aren’t gonna mash themselves. And then, finally…” She nudges Adora with her hip. “We’ll get our break.”

And it’s fine, at first. Great, even.

They send small teams into Huntara’s territory. Catra, master of stealth that she is, leads them, usually with Adora staying behind to protect Mara’s ship, as well as their production systems. The first trip yields a couple dozen extra cacti. An absence that Huntara will be unlikely to notice, but a gain that could do wonders for their fermentation process. Adora is fine with it. Catra is ecstatic with the result.

The second trip is slightly bigger, though. A bigger team. A bigger harvest. Fifty cacti. Not an absurd number, but enough to make it clear that cacti aren’t disappearing of their own accord. Adora can only hope that Huntara doesn’t pay close attention to the landscape, or the flora that decorates it. She might start to notice that something’s wrong.

The third trip is a huge harvest. Nearly one hundred cacti. This time, Adora is there when it happens—is there to watch Catra and the rest of the gang clear any cactus that they can find. It’s too hard to hide an incursion this large. Impossible, really, to cover up this many footprints, or grind this many cacti stalks down into the sand.

Huntara will notice.

And Adora suspects it will be sooner rather than later. As they sprint back into their territory, cacti loaded into canvas backpacks that are easy to haul across the sand, Adora glances back. Squinting against the scorching halo of a rising sun.

There are figures there, on the horizon. Watching. Not members of their own gang, Adora is sure. She thinks she can even recognize Huntara’s muscular silhouette.

They’re not attacking. Not pursuing. Not yet, anyway. For now, they just watch.

But Adora suspects that will change soon enough.

“She saw us last time,” Adora warns Catra.

But Catra isn’t really listening—only vaguely registering the words because it’s Adora, and Adora’s voice is always something pleasant. But for the most part, she’s just too busy staring at a map, planning their next trip into Huntara’s territory. There’s a whole canyon filled with cacti that they haven’t yet tapped into.

They’ve repurposed that extra water filtration system to be a fermentation system instead, just as Adora said they could. And while that switch has increased their production immensely without any increase in labor, they’re still not at full capacity. And it’s a waste of their time to be at anything except full capacity.

 “We have enough to wait for our own supply to regrow,” Adora continues, and this time, Catra takes note of the ripple of panic in her voice. The pitch of pleading, of worry. “And we have plenty to barter—”

“Adora,” Catra says, eyes flitting up to meet Adora’s—to share a reassuring smile. “It’s nothing to worry about.”

“How do you know?” Adora asks. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this, Catra. I saw her last time. And she saw us. Which means that she knows what we’re doing, and there’s no way she’s going to let us just walk away with more stuff from her territory.”

“We can handle it,” Catra says, dismissive. “Our people would do anything for us. And our gang has grown a ton since we started this cactus thing.”


“Not to mention that this canyon used to be in Tung Lashor’s territory—which means it would’ve been mine if he hadn’t been such a shitty leader. Far as I see it, I have a claim to that canyon. And a claim to everything in it.”

“And Huntara probably knows that you feel that way,” Adora argues. “And she’ll be waiting for you there.”

Catra shrugs. “If you say so.”

Adora reaches for Catra’s hands, clutching, grasping for them. Catra gulps hard when Adora raises those hands to her lips, painting Catra’s knuckles with pleading kisses. “Catra,” she very nearly begs. “Why can’t we just say we have enough? Leave Huntara alone and move on—”

And it’s a possibility, yes. That Catra could let up, could let go.

But Catra doesn’t want to. A part of her is hoping for it, even—the chance to go toe-to-toe with Huntara’s gang. Huntara will always remain a threat to them otherwise.

Adora and Catra are almost indispensable at this point. Indispensable to their own gang, to the small towns sprinkled throughout the Waste, to the few smaller gangs that occupy the desert.

But they’re not indispensable to Huntara.

Huntara has shown no interest in trading with them. She hasn’t shown interest in so much as communicating with them—likely because, as far as Huntara has told her gang, Adora and Catra are supposed to be dead. That was the promise Adora made, after all. That they would pretend that Huntara killed them.

A promise that Catra has since broken.

There’s no doubt in Catra’s mind that Huntara wishes that Adora and Catra didn’t exist. Their continued breathing alone is a contradiction to her power. Which means that she has nothing to lose by withholding her resources—and everything to gain by attempting to take Catra and Adora out. She’s the last person, the very last person who would want them gone. And the last person who might, might (however unlikely) actually succeed in taking what Catra and Adora have built.

If Huntara doesn’t battle them soon, it’s only a matter of time.

So Catra would prefer to speed up the timeline. Deal with Huntara now rather than later, even if Adora is worried—even if she doesn’t approve. She wants to be truthful with Adora. Truly, she does. But Adora has always had an annoying soft spot for Huntara. She never thinks clearly where Huntara is concerned—never sees the opportunity that lies just beyond Huntara’s defeat.

And if given the chance...Catra thinks her own gang could beat Huntara’s. And she especially believes that Adora and Catra—together, fighting side-by-side—could beat Huntara herself. Could take her place as leader of that huge gang, and gain full access to that enormous swathe of territory. 

And then there’d be no one, absolutely no one left to threaten Adora and Catra’s place in the Waste. The whole Waste would be theirs to run, to explore.

So Catra is fine to do this. To maneuver her gang and Huntara’s into a fight. That was the plan from the very start, in fact—even if that’s not what she told Adora. Even if she claimed that she just wanted the cacti in Huntara’s territory, and nothing but.

The endgame has always been this. To fight Huntara, beat her, and eliminate the threat. And yes, it might endanger them temporarily...but Catra knows that they’ll be far better off in the long run. She can feel it.

(And if she gets some more cacti out of the deal? All the better.)

But it’s still too risky to tell Adora the whole truth. She’s certain that Adora won’t want to do this—to knowingly start a fight, even if that fight ensures their future. She’s still too noble. Still too selfless to take what she needs at the cost of anything of Huntara’s.

“Whatever advantage we can find to keep this,” Catra says, gesturing to the ship that surrounds them on all sides, “we need to take.”

And that’s not a lie, either. What Catra just said. What she’s doing...what she’s’s all so that no one will take this from them. This life they built together. Catra won’t tolerate any threat to it, none at all.

Because if she’s being totally honest, this life in the Waste is all that Catra has ever wanted. To be free. To be in charge of her own destiny.

And more than anything be with Adora. That’s the pathetic truth. Catra would have done anything, absolutely anything to have Adora like this, standing before her like she is now. Happy, despite her worries, and holding Catra like nothing else could possibly matter more.

There’s nothing else to ask for. Nothing to ask for...except to make this almost paradise last for as long as possible.

And beating Huntara is the only way to make it last.

Adora releases a puff of air—a dubious one. “And, what? Another fifty cacti is going to be the difference between us losing and keeping everything?”

“Yes,” Catra says, like she believes it. “Because I’m not taking chances. Not where you and I are concerned.”

Catra can tell that Adora is unconvinced. It’s visible in the arch of her eyebrow, the angle of her elbow as she places a hand on her own hip. But she doesn’t argue further. Adora doesn’t like to argue with Catra, if it can be avoided. And Catra doesn’t like to argue with Adora either. The realization was surprising, when she came to it. Especially after she spent so long physically fighting Adora—and bickering with her, before that.

It’s an instinct, really. The way Catra throws her arms around Adora, tucking her face against Adora’s chest. She can tell by the gust of startled breath that Adora is stunned by the embrace. Not that it’s totally new for them—hugging like this. Unlike most other forms of physical contact, hugging wasn’t even really taboo in the Horde.

But Catra hasn’t hugged Adora much like this lately. She’ll touch Adora, sure. Throw her arms around Adora as she slots their lips together. Tackle Adora in an attempt at roughhousing that usually devolves into more kissing. And, more recently, they’ve started to explore each other in...well...other ways.

But to just stand like this...silent and still as she encloses herself in Adora’s arms…

It’s something different. Something that betrays worry. Maybe even a kind of worry that Catra has yet to admit to herself.

“Is something wrong?” Adora asks. Quietly. Gently. With the barest trace of prodding, like Adora already knows that something is wrong—that Catra is hiding something from her, even if she can’t guess what that something is.

But even despite that knowledge, that suspicion...Adora’s hands still fumble to grasp at Catra’s back. Seeking to carry, to hold without question or doubt. And it’s warm. Perfect, even—the pressure of Adora’s hands against her.

“No,” murmurs Catra, into Adora’s shoulder. She shuts her eyes and lets herself sink into the feeling of Adora, all around her. “Everything’s perfect.”

Which is exactly why Catra will do anything—fight anything, or anyone—to make sure everything stays exactly like this.

Adora cries out as a fist hits her squarely on the chin.

“Adora!” someone cries. Catra, she thinks, but she can’t see beyond the spots in her vision.

She stumbles back, trying to maintain balance despite the way everything spins. But it’s just no use. Her arms flail as she topples to the ground, landing gracelessly onto the sand with her legs splayed out in front of her.

Huntara spits onto the ground—the wad of saliva landing mere inches from Adora’s feet.

“How long, exactly, did you think you’d be able to get away with this?” Huntara demands, near-growling the words. “You really thought I’d let you steal from me forever?”

There’s blood dripping from Adora’s mouth. She scrambles to scrub her forearm against it, wiping it away so that she can speak without copper flavoring her words.

“Yeah,” Adora says, blinking away the pain of Huntara’s punch. Even now she can feel herself recovering from the blow. Recovering enough to return to her feet, at least. “Sort of.”

But it’s a lie, of course. Adora knew they were going to get caught. Over and over again, she warned Catra of this possibility—of an ambush from Huntara. But Catra…

She just wouldn’t listen. She was so determined to do this last raid, to steal from that stupid canyon—

Though even Adora couldn’t have possibly anticipated this.

Adora thought Huntara would ambush them at the canyon, if anything. It has a huge supply of cacti, after all. The thing that Huntara knows that Catra wants. And, as Catra’s territory that should technically belong to Catra. Huntara would have good reason to place some guards at that location. Several dozen guards, Adora would guess. Nothing too threatening, though nothing harmless either.

But Adora didn’t expect for them to get ambushed nearly as soon as they crossed the border into Huntara’s territory. The border is so large, with so many points of entry. How could Huntara have possibly known what route they’d take, and when?

And Adora certainly didn’t expect a veritable army to sprout from nowhere at all. How many are there fighting, Adora wonders? A hundred of Huntara’s people?

This...this is a well-planned attack. The likes of which Catra probably hadn’t anticipated. The likes of which could only be achieved if Huntara knew their plans, and knew them exactly.

And now Adora is again locked in battle with Huntara. Huntara singled her out fairly quickly. She is, after all, the only person to ever defeat Huntara in combat.

And she can’t expect help. While Adora and Catra have been training their own gang with better combat techniques, their people can’t compete with Huntara’s sheer numbers. Catra thought that only forty people would be enough for this trip. Which was most definitely a miscalculation. With forty versus one hundred...the odds are not in their favor.

Everyone seems to be struggling. To Adora’s left and right, there are singular members of their gang taking on enemy groups of three or four. Even Catra was forced to separate from Adora during the fight—she’s currently taking on a near-dozen of Huntara’s lieutenants by herself.

She’s doing well, as far as Adora can see from here. Slashing, clawing, punching out those who threaten her. But who knows how long her advantage will last?

Huntara was prepared for them. Too prepared. She must have known everything. How many people they’d have, when they’d be leaving—

Huntara grunts and lifts her blade—that modified combat staff, apparently repaired since their last fight—high into the air. Ready to strike down at Adora. But Adora has recovered enough presence of mind to lift her own blade and block the attack.

The metal staff screeches against the bone-carved sword as they make contact. Adora’s arms tremble as she holds Huntara at bay, but they nonetheless do what they’re supposed to: keep Huntara from slicing open Adora’s vital organs.

And when someone to their right screams (one of Huntara’s people, she thinks) Adora uses Huntara’s brief distraction to thrust her sword away.

Huntara gives a stumble of her own. As she searches for footing, Adora springs to her feet, landing in perfect combat position.

Huntara steadies herself just as Adora yells and begins to charge, sword gripped in both hands and ready for slashing.

But Huntara is prepared, just as Adora was. She successfully parries the sword with her own staff, locking them into yet another competition of strength as they push against each other’s weapons—trying to force the other to lose their balance. Or their weapon. Whichever fails first.

“How did you know?” Adora demands, teeth gritted as she propels herself and her blade forward. “How did you know that we’d be here, with this many people—”

Huntara smirks, face mere inches from Adora as their weapons continue to collide—their bodies like tectonic plates smashing together, demanding that the other crumble. “How do you think?” she half-laughs. “I bribed one of your people.”

Adora blinks. “You what?

But her distraction is near-disastrous. Huntara uses Adora’s surprise as an opportunity to elbow Adora in the nose. Pain seems to split Adora’s face at the seams, and again, she finds herself stumbling backwards. Nearly losing her footing.

She just manages to grab hold of a nearby boulder for support, and it’s all that keeps her from scraping her knees against the sand.

The sand. Where a pool of blood from Adora’s nose is now spreading, soaking the ground. After a hit like that, her nose may very well be broken. Adora has no choice but to clutch at it, lest she start to choke on the blood pouring from it. Her nose throbs beneath her fingers.

Huntara chuckles and takes a step forward. She slings her staff behind herself—bouncing it against her own shoulder.

“You can’t trust anyone in the Crimson Waste,” Huntara chides, smirking with every added inch of her approach. Stalking Adora down as Adora struggles to stifle the flow of blood from her nose. “You’re learning that the hard way.”

But then there’s a blur zipping in front of Adora’s eyes. A crouched form with outstretched claws.

Catra. She must have defeated the group she was battling before. That, or she snuck away just to protect Adora.

Adora hopes it’s the former. She doesn’t want to have to be rescued again. Not over this stupid, no-good, bloody nose—

“Leave her alone!” snarls Catra, teeth bared as a very unconcerned-looking Huntara continues moving forward, undeterred. Catra pulls out her whip, striking it toward Huntara’s feet. Trying to keep her back with the threat of the whip’s biting tip, which rakes gouges into the sand.

But Huntara barely reacts. She just keeps going—keeps walking toward them.

Catra hisses and this time, she aims the whip directly at Huntara’s face.

Though Huntara was known to be stronger than Tung Lashor for a reason. She too-casually raises a hand, allowing the whip to wrap around it. Curling around her forearm in a leather spiral. She doesn’t even flinch as it cuts into her, and instead smiles as she tugs on the whip from her end.

Catra yelps as the whip is tugged from her hand, and into Huntara’s.

“We made a deal,” Huntara says, frowning as she examines the whip in her hands “A deal that you broke. So now…” Her hands curl into fists around the whip, seemingly crushing it. “I think I have every right to get revenge.”

Huntara eyes find Adora, behind Catra.

“I told you I wouldn’t go so easy on you next time. This is next time.”

Adora opens her mouth to give a retort...but it too quickly fills with blood from her nose.

Catra doesn’t seem to like that, though—that Huntara seems to be threatening Adora, in particular. She shrieks and lunges forward, both claws outstretched as she launches herself into the air.

But Huntara is ready for that too. She merely extends a hand, catching Catra midair—fingers wrapping around Catra’s throat.

“Catra—!” Adora tries to cry, but the name is strangled beneath the blood from her nose.

Catra flails, at first. Arms and legs slashing frantically at Huntara in front of her, but she’s held out too far to reach.

Catra then quickly diverts her attention to Huntara’s hand—the hand around her throat. Scratching, tugging, trying to force that hand to release her. And while Huntara winces slightly as the claws embed themselves into her skin...she doesn’t let Catra go. If anything, she only seems to tighten her grip. Blocking the flow of air with the immense pressure of those fingers.

She’s trying to strangle Catra.

Panic floods Adora’s veins. She can’t let Huntara do this. She can’t—

Adora stumbles forward, swiping blindly at Huntara—trying to hit her hard enough to force Catra out of her hold. But there’s so much blood coming from Adora’s nose, dripping into her own mouth...she can’t even breathe—

Huntara laughs as she kicks out a leg. There’s so much power in that kick, enough power to thrust Adora backward as her foot connects with Adora’s chest.

Plumes of dust erupt into the air all around her body, turning the air red with displaced sand. She skids on her back with an agonized ooof, her legs bending in odd shapes beneath her, crushed against rock. Rolling and rolling across the sand until she finally smashes against a boulder.

But she doesn’t allow herself even an instant to recover. She scrambles upright yet again, her eyes streaming beneath the mist of dust in the air and the pain screaming throughout her body. Through the haze, she can see Catra in Huntara’s grip. Still trapped. Catra’s struggles lessen even as Adora watches, diminishing bit by bit. Weakened by a quickly disappearing access to oxygen.

“Catra—” Adora calls again, voice scraped by the sand that she tugs into her lungs. She thrusts herself to her feet...only to have her legs fail her. Collapsing and buckling like trees slashed by lightning. Her body tips back into the sand, leaving her gasping on her hands and knees.

How is she this useless, Adora wonders? Catra needs her, really needs her, and Adora can’t get up. She can hardly breathe around her stupid bloody nose and bruised ribs and sprained ankles—

But she can’t lose Catra. She won’t. She won’t let Huntara take Catra from her. She made a promise. And she’s certainly not going to break that promise by lying here, waiting for Catra to run out of air. She won’t. She won’t. Get up Adora, get up. Get up, get up, get up

Catra’s hands drop to her sides. Limp. Her head droops—

And it’s like something within Adora shatters apart.

An energy alights somewhere beneath Adora’s skin, spreading, spreading, numbing every bruise and sprained joint, imbuing her failing muscles with strength. Humming strength. Burning strength, like her blood has been replaced by liquid stardust. Her vision goes momentarily white, like she has been blinded by light.

(Stardust? How does Adora remember the stars?)

But the thought is but a flash of confusion in Adora’s mind. Her vision returns. And her eyes are focused, so focused, on Catra’s limp body in Huntara’s grip.

Adora roars and surges forward. She doesn’t even remember returning to her feet. Doesn’t remember how her legs suddenly regained the ability to hold her weight. She just runs forward, forward, with Huntara and Catra growing larger and larger within her vision—

And then she’s tackling Huntara, pushing her to the ground.

Adora expects them to grapple, at first. Their strengths are supposed to be evenly matched. She expects that she’ll have to punch and kick and fight until Huntara lets Catra go.

But not this time. Huntara cries out and releases Catra almost instantly, her eyes bulging out of her head like Adora has hit her with a freight train, rather than the flats of Adora’s palms. Adora is able to keep her footing as Huntara goes flying, flying far—

And this time, it is Huntara who rolls and skids across the sand.

She eventually comes to rest, unconscious, against a distant boulder. Adora watches her for a moment—trying to ensure that she really is unconscious, and not playing a trick. Another attempt at an ambush, perhaps. A way to catch Adora off guard yet again.

So Adora keeps watching as she carefully leans down to snatch their weapons from the ground—Catra’s whip, which fell sometime during their skirmish, and Adora’s sword, which flew from Adora’s hand when Huntara kicked her.

But it’s no ruse, Adora soon realizes as she continues to watch Huntara’s unmoving body. Huntara really is knocked out. Knocked out, with a single push from Adora.

How did that happen?

Adora glances down, at her own hands. They don’t look any different than usual, except...for a moment there…

It looked as though they were glowing a little.

But her concentration is yanked away as Catra coughs—a loud, rasping cough. Adora jolts and sprints to her side, immediately dropping to her knees.

“Catra?” Adora calls, yet again made desperate as she cradles Catra in her arms. “Are you okay? Please tell me you’re okay—”

Catra nods and keeps coughing, keeps gasping for air. She clutches at her own throat. “Nnn...throat hurts…”

Adora shoots a glare at Huntara, still unconscious some distance away. Two of her lackeys are trying to lift her up, carry her away. “Yeah. I wonder why.”

She feels a tug at the collar of her jacket.

“Kiss it better?”

Adora looks down to see Catra smirking at her, an eyebrow raised and her lips just barely puckered. And despite how Adora rolls her eyes in response, she’s relieved to know, in that moment, that Catra will be just fine. If she feels well enough to crack flirty jokes, she’ll certainly recover.

Adora leans down to kiss Catra’s forehead, but doesn’t let that kiss linger for too much longer. Catra hums her disappointment that it’s not on the lips. But while Adora is relieved that Catra is okay...they don’t have much time to waste. Her expression is hard as she looks down at Catra, within her arms.

“I’m calling a retreat, Catra,” Adora says, glancing at the pandemonium all around them. The silhouettes of fighting gang members half-hidden by a haze of sand. “We got our asses handed to us. And I think we’re still losing.”

“But Huntara—”

And Adora knows what this is—what that goading look in Catra’s eye means.

She wants Adora to finish the job. To off Huntara for good.

But Adora has had enough of this violence for today.

Retreat, Catra,” Adora insists, eyebrows pulled low in annoyance. “We are going to retreat.”

Catra gives an irritated huff...then nods. Her agreement is all Adora needs to have the rest of the gang follow her. So Adora gives the order, retreating to the ship with whatever they still have. Balancing Catra’s body against her own as they limp back to their own territory.

Huntara’s gang does not follow, thankfully.