Catra curls into the warm pillow beside her. A purr vibrates throughout her whole body. It’s been a long time since she’s slept so well. She doesn’t like to admit it—not even to herself—but ever since Adora left, Catra has been plagued by nightmares and insomnia and god-knows-what-else—
“Well. Good morning to you too, Force Captain Catra.”
Catra’s eyes snap open. At first glance, she doesn’t recognize her surroundings. There are dull, blank walls formed of rough concrete. And she sees a door of some sort, closed off with a glowing green forcefield.
The prisons, Catra realizes. She’s in one of the Fright Zone’s prison cells.
But that doesn’t make sense. She’s Hordak’s second-in-command. And didn’t she just capture She-Ra? She-Ra, the rebellion’s greatest weapon. What could possibly warrant Hordak throwing Catra into a cell—?
But then she remembers the voice. The voice that woke her.
Adora’s voice, amused and taunting.
And, oh god. Adora is right there—leaning over Catra with the smuggest possible smile. Upon seeing Catra’s eyes open and staring, Adora’s eyebrows arch in a silent question. One that she likely knows the answer to...but wants to hear Catra explain anyway.
And Catra...Catra is pressed against Adora’s side, somehow. Curled against her. Snuggling into her warmth.
With a small shriek, Catra scrambles away from Adora, climbing backward on her palms as jagged, panicked breaths escape her lips.
She was sleeping beside Adora. Cuddling with her on the floor. With Adora—with the enemy. Did Catra really capture Adora, drag her back to the Fright Zone, only to humiliate herself like this? Only to wake up beside the very person she’s been waging war against—?
Catra keeps going until her back hits the opposite wall. She squeezes against it, trying to get as far from Adora as possible.
“What...what did you do?” Catra demands. “Why did you fall asleep next to me—?”
“Me?” Adora says incredulously. “What, do you think I kidnapped you from your bed?” Her arms give a little shake, causing the bright green shackles around her wrists to clang dissonantly. “That’s rich. You’re the one who kidnapped me. And I can’t exactly move. I just woke up with you down here, next to me.”
There’s a pause as they stare at one another. And then Adora smirks, adding: “...Care to explain why you’re cuddling with the enemy, Force Captain?”
Catra’s cheeks feel scorched, they are so red and heated.
She wishes she had a good explanation. Truly, she does. She recalls, vaguely, coming down to this cell last night with Adora’s dinner. But Adora was already asleep when she arrived, shivering against the wall she’d been shackled to.
And, well. Catra thought that was suspicious, is all. Who just falls asleep after being captured by their enemy? Adora should have been terrified. She should have been begging for Catra’s mercy the second she entered the cell. But instead Adora was just...asleep. Snoozing away. Or maybe she was unconscious? Catra couldn’t be sure. They had been fighting pretty hard that day. And Catra had tased her in order to knock the sword out of her hand.
Catra decided to watch her. Not because she was worried that Adora had been hurt, or anything. But because she thought that Adora was probably faking it. It could’ve been a ploy to trick her guards into a false sense of security, one that Adora could use to escape. And Catra wouldn’t allow that, she wouldn’t let Adora slip away again—
But eventually, Catra must have fallen asleep too. And who could blame her? It was obviously boring to just sit there, watching Adora all night. It certainly wasn’t tranquil and relaxing and sort of comforting, comforting enough to cause Catra to slowly drift off, lulled to sleep by the steady rhythm of Adora’s breathing...
But she has no memory of crawling over to Adora and lying down beside her. Of all the ridiculous, mortifying things to do while sleepwalking—
She sees Adora’s features soften. “Do you miss me, Catra?” she asks quietly.
Catra barely hears the words. And when she processes them, she wishes that she hadn’t heard them at all.
The scoff that escapes her is loud. Too loud. “Of course not,” she claims. “I don’t...I don’t miss you. I was just delivering your breakfast. But I was hurt during our fight yesterday and I…” She searches for an adequate lie. “Fainted. I fainted and fell onto the floor, beside you. By accident.”
Silence passes between them as Adora bites her lip. And Catra knows that expression—knows what it means. Adora is trying to stifle her laughter.
“You fainted?” Adora repeats. “Just...onto the floor? Directly beside me?”
Catra nods, mentally cursing herself, and pushes her spine against the wall even more forcefully. “Yes. Totally an accident.”
And god, Adora is smirking again—a single eyebrow crooked upwards, like a challenge. “And did your devastating injuries cause you to purr for half the morning? Or did I imagine that?”
Catra grits her teeth. “I was growling, not purring.”
Adora’s smirk only grows. “Riiight.”
“Stop mocking me,” Catra hisses. “You’re my prisoner, remember? I defeated you. And I...I could make you suffer—”
Adora raises both hands in a gesture of mock surrender, her shackles knocking against her wrists as she moves them. “Okay, okay. I’ll stop giving you a hard time. Sorry.” She points to the tray of food at the center of the floor—the one that Catra left there from last night. “Can I have my breakfast now? I’m starving.”
Catra stares at her, chest heaving. And then, slowly, she crawls to the center of the floor. With a short push and the squeal of metal-on-concrete, the tray is slid to a spot directly in front of her—in front of Adora.
Adora sighs as she eyes the gray ration bar on the tray.
“Is this my last meal?” she asks.
Catra squints at her. “What?”
“Is this my last meal?” Adora says again. “Before my execution?”
“What are you talking about?” Catra demands, gesturing to the tray. “It’s just...breakfast.”
“Breakfast,” Adora repeats, then scoffs. “You do realize Hordak is going to kill me, right? I’m She-Ra. The biggest threat to the Horde. Worse, I’m a traitor. I have vital information about the Fright Zone—information that I’ve used to infiltrate this place. He’ll likely try to off me as soon as possible—”
“No he won’t,” Catra says defensively, interrupting her. “We’ll...we’ll find a use for you. I’m sure you have plenty of valuable information about the rebellion—”
Adora’s eyes harden. “I’d never give you that information.”
Catra gulps. “Well. Then we’ll extract it—”
Adora gives a stilted laugh, horrified and disbelieving. “What? You’ll torture it out of me?”
Catra’s eyes find the floor. The Horde has tortured many prisoners in the past. Catra was never the one to do it herself—though she threatened to do so in Entrapta’s case. That responsibility—torturing people—was usually reserved for Shadow Weaver. And Shadow Weaver always got the information she sought.
But Catra is no Shadow Weaver. Shadow Weaver is locked in a nearby prison cell, helpless, while Catra is here, gloating over her greatest enemy.
She’s better than Shadow Weaver. Stronger.
But she still can’t picture herself doing that to Adora—what Shadow Weaver used to do to the rebel captives that fell into her clutches. Or what Shadow Weaver would sometimes do to Catra, when she misbehaved.
The very thought makes Catra’s stomach turn.
“Even if you did,” Adora says, “I’d never tell you anything. I’d rather die.”
Catra knows that to be true too. Adora has always thrown herself—her whole self—into the things that she believes in. She’d happily die to protect her precious rebellion.
“So what’s it gonna be?” Adora continues. “Beast Island? The Crimson Waste?” She sighs enormously, exhaling her disappointment. “Or will you kill me yourself?”
Catra can’t answer that.
So she leaves the cell, leaves Adora alone…
...and leaves the question with her.
Catra hates when Adora is right.
Though she hates what Hordak tells her even more.
“So what do I do with the captured princess?” Catra asks Hordak, casually. Like she doesn’t care. Like his response won’t matter. But of course it does, it matters more than Catra would care to admit, and certainly it matters more than Catra wants it to—
Together, they stand in his sanctum; a rare occasion indeed, with Catra actually allowed inside. But Hordak has been too occupied with examining the sword—the enormous gleaming one that Catra stole from Adora. He didn’t want to tear his attention from it, not for anything. Not even to initiate a video call. Not even to look Catra in the eye. His back remains turned to her even as they speak, his spine bent over the sword in an effort to study more closely.
Because of course the sword is more important than Catra is. The Sword of Protection. She-Ra’s sword. It’s what Adora wanted most, wanted more than Catra, and now it’s what Hordak cares about most too.
The Imp flies overhead, cackling at Catra. She wishes she could swat it out of the air. The little creature has always been unsettling with those beady eyes. Not to mention its tendency to crawl into small spaces and spy—
“Interrogate her,” Hordak orders, referring to Adora. “If she defected from our ranks, she could have passed critical information to the princesses. We must learn what, exactly, she told them. And then…” He turns from the sword, his lips pulled wide by a markedly wicked smile. Catra feels herself stiffen beneath his red-eyed stare. “We will extract what they told her in turn. As the rebellion’s hero, I’m sure she has much to disclose.”
“And by extract…” she says slowly, “you mean…?”
“What do you think I mean?” Hordak snaps. He gestures furiously to the door. “Interrogate her. Torture her. Whatever it takes.”
“And how exactly do I...uh...do that?” Catra asks. Because genuinely, she has no clue. She doesn’t know or want to know how to interrogate a person, let alone torture them. That was always Shadow Weaver’s thing. And Catra isn’t like that. She’s not like Shadow Weaver—
Hordak simply snarls. “We have instruments, of course.” He flaps a hand, shooing her away. “Ask your officers. One of them will know. I did not, after all, promote you so that you could pester me about such an easy task.”
“Easy,” Catra echoes, gulping again. Her nod feels mechanical. “Right. I’ll...I’ll do that.”
And then, with a short salute in Hordak’s direction, Catra marches from the sanctum. She has a bad feeling that this whole ‘torture’ thing was covered in Force Captain training. And that she was probably lucky to have missed it.
Adora spends a great deal of her time sleeping.
There’s not much else to do in the Fright Zone’s prisons. Nothing to keep her entertained. So she simply slouches against the wall, trying to relax. Trying not to think about how devastated the rebellion will be without She-Ra. Trying not to think about the villages that might be razed without She-Ra’s magic to defend them, or the kingdoms certain to be toppled now that Hordak knows the way is clear—
She-Ra’s arrival marked a turning point in the war. But now…
Now Adora’s foolishness has dropped She-Ra’s sword directly into Hordak’s hands.
It’s easier to sleep than think about what she’s lost. About what the rebellion has lost, and what they still have yet to lose.
She sighs and closes her eyes. She needs to relax, try to sleep. Try to keep her strength up. It is, after all, the only thing that Adora has left. Her normal, human strength. The kind that remains when there is no magic to be found.
But still. She wishes she had something to do, besides sleep. Someone to talk to. The cell didn’t seem quite so empty and cold while Catra was here, sharing it with her. Even if Catra was practically yelling at her the whole time.
Adora smirks at the memory. She still can’t believe that Catra snuck into the cell to snuggle with her. Even if she did deny it—
The sound sends a startled jolt through Adora’s body, forcing both eyes open.
At first, she sees no one beyond the glowing forcefield that seals the prison cell. But then...after craning her neck...she thinks she can see a bit of brown hair. An ankle from a pair of red leggings. A foot with too-long claws. All of it, pressed against the wall that sits just beyond Adora’s cell door, trying to stay out of Adora’s sight and largely failing.
“Who’s there?” Adora asks, with an eyeroll. Just for good measure.
“It’s me,” Catra says. Bitterly. Angrily. Like she resents herself for being here at all.
“Wow,” says Adora, and despite herself, she finds herself overcome by the urge to smile. “Visiting me twice in one day? You must like me or something.”
“Shut up,” Catra snaps. She still doesn’t budge from her spot against that wall, the one Adora can’t see from this angle. Adora doesn’t understand why Catra is hiding there, just out of view.
“I don’t like you,” Catra snarls. “ I just…”
Catra trails off with a frustrated noise. Adora jumps, startled by the sound. By the strange mixture of rage and desperation that pulses from it.
“What do I have to do?” Catra asks. “What do I have to do to get you to just spill the beans on your stupid princess friends?”
Adora simply sits there, blinking at the question. “What are you talking about?”
“It’s like you said. Hordak plans to have you tortured for information,” Catra says, half-hissing the words. “I don’t know what that entails, not yet, but I’m sure it can’t be anything good—”
Adora’s expression remains unchanged in response to this information. Honestly, what did Catra expect Hordak to do? Just let Adora live out a peaceful, happy life in the Fright Zone’s prisons? Well, okay, Catra probably knew that Adora’s life as a prisoner wouldn’t be happy. But a largely uneventful life in prison was out of the question from the start.
“I mean,” Adora shrugs, “I kind of expected as much. It is Hordak, after all.”
“How are you so calm about this?” Catra demands, her voice shrill. “He wants to hurt you for information.”
Adora scoffs. “What? Like you didn’t hurt me?”
“That was different,” Catra says. “You chose your side, and I chose mine, and when a battle came around, we fought. But I didn’t sign on to torture defenseless prisoners—”
“I’m not defenseless!” Adora protests, indignant. “I’m tied up, sure, but I’m not defenseless…”
“I’m just saying,” Catra continues. “You could protect yourself if you gave up on protecting your stupid rebellion. Hordak might even let you join us again if you spill something really valuable—”
Adora leans her head against the wall. “Catra,” she says. “I’m not going to betray the princesses. Not for my safety. Not for anything.”
Not even for you, a voice in Adora’s head whispers, unbidden. Because at the end of every day in Bright Moon...Catra was always the one thing Adora missed most. Adora would have given it all up—the delicious food, the luxurious bedroom, the lovely surroundings—all for the chance to sleep in the same dull, overcrowded room as Catra again.
And now Catra is here, pleading with Adora. Pleading for her to come back to the Horde, pleading for her to protect herself when Adora’s agony and death is otherwise certain—
Adora would give up a lot of things to make Catra happy. But she won’t give up what’s right. She won’t give up the rebellion.
Catra gives another snarl, this one even more vicious than the first. She whirls around, finally facing Adora through the rippling green forcefield that separates Adora from the outside world.
“Then you’re an idiot!” Catra seethes, eyes glowing neon in the half-lit hallway. She jabs a finger at her own chest. “And it's not going to be my fault when you get hurt. I mean, here I am, trying to help you and you just...you just…”
Catra clenches and unclenches her fists.
“Whatever,” Catra huffs, and turns her back to Adora. “Get tortured for all I care. It’s not my problem. You’re not my problem.”
And then she storms away, again leaving Adora in loneliness and silence.
Adora knows she shouldn’t feel stung by those words. But still, she does. Catra has always had an ability to sting Adora like no other, slice through whatever armor Adora wears like it’s paper, and dig right through the deepest layer of skin.
And that’s a thought that’s tortured Adora for a long time. That Catra doesn’t care. About anyone, about Adora. That when this is all over, Catra will have forced herself to forget every glance, every smile she shared with Adora, back when they were friends.
“We have to do something,” Glimmer says, for what feels like the millionth time.
Bow places a comforting hand on her shoulder, though a look at his face betrays just how much he shares her anxiousness—brows knitted together, mouth twisted into a grimace.
They’re both standing beside the strategy table in the war room. Glimmer’s mother, Queen Angella, remains seated, chin dropped onto her hands, elbows balanced on the table as she studies its surface with unbreakable concentration.
The war table currently displays a projection of the Fright Zone. The thought of that place still makes Glimmer shudder. It was only a few months ago that Glimmer escaped being imprisoned there—escaped being held and tortured by Shadow Weaver. If Adora and the other princesses hadn’t saved her...Angella would have been forced to surrender to the Horde. And the war would have been lost.
And now Adora is the one captured. After everything. One of Glimmer’s two best friends, gone.
It was so fast, so unexpected, the way Catra just sprung out of nowhere, taser in hand. By the time Glimmer had turned around, the sword was already slung beneath Catra’s arm, and Adora was unconscious on the ground—rendered that way by the weapon’s ‘stun’ setting.
With Glimmer and Bow pinned down between bots and Horde lackeys, Catra was able to whisk Adora away before Glimmer or Bow could stop her.And now Catra has likely returned Adora to Shadow Weaver, Hordak’s second-in-command.
Shadow Weaver...who tried to erase Adora’s memories last time Adora was in the Fright Zone, staging Glimmer’s rescue. But Glimmer managed to free herself and attack Shadow Weaver before the mind-wipe spell was complete.
Glimmer can’t help but wonder if Shadow Weaver succeeded this time. Or if Shadow Weaver is carrying out that spell at this very moment—
Juliet—the general of Bright Moon’s army—steps forward, clearing her throat.
“Our intel says that the Fright Zone has quadrupled its defenses since the princesses’ last incursion,” Juliet tells them. “Attempting another would likely be suicide.”
“But we can’t just sit here and do nothing!” Glimmer exclaims. “Adora risked it all to save me and Bow. We have to help her—”
“I am aware of that, Commander Glimmer,” Angella grits out. And Glimmer would be lying if she said that Angella did not appear supremely worried. Ever since Adora rescued Glimmer and Bow from the Fright Zone,the Queen of Bright Moon has shown to be rather protective of Adora—has maybe even begun to view her as family.
“The problem is that we no longer have Adora here to help us,” Angella continues. “She was our best source of intel on the Fright Zone’s infrastructure and proceedings. And, as She-Ra...her offensive capabilities cannot be ignored.”
Angella releases an enormous sigh.
“But the Horde will expect us to come for her. They know what she means to the rebellion. Whatever weaknesses in the Fright Zone that Adora exploited will have been corrected by now, and she will likely be heavily guarded on top of that. Or...as you mentioned...mind-wiped, and potentially poised at us as a weapon.”
“So what do we do?” Bow asks. Desperation scrapes at his voice.
“I don’t know,” Angella says. “The best we can do at the moment is send scouts. See if we can infiltrate the Horde with spies and discover new weaknesses—”
“That will take too long!” Glimmer complains, pounding a fist against the table. “Adora is in danger right now—”
“And Adora would want us to be careful,” Angella says. “She wouldn’t want anyone taking any unnecessary risks to rescue her—”
“Yeah, well,” Glimmer huffs. “That’s Adora. She’s stupidly selfless that way. That doesn’t mean we have to do what she wants—”
“That’s true. But it doesn’t change the fact that a rescue, at this point, is something of an impossibility,” Angella argues. “We cannot stage an attack on the Fright Zone. Not when the last attack cost Princess Entrapta her life—”
That, of course, renders Glimmer silent. Entrapta’s loss is still a very recent and very deep wound. She doesn’t want anyone else to get hurt.
But she also doesn’t want to lose Adora.
“We will send scouts,” Angella repeats. “Hopefully, they can quickly identify some sort of weak point. And then we can stage a rescue. But in the meantime…” Angella gives another sigh. “I refuse to lose any more princesses.”
“Scorpia—” Catra calls, striding down the hallway with furious purpose. “I need to talk to you.”
Scorpia turns, eyes wide and smile even wider, so happy is she to see Catra approaching. “Catra!” she exclaims, with all the excitement and eagerness that could only belong to Scorpia. “Boy, am I glad to see you! You know, at this point it’s been 48 hours since we last saw each other. Which might be our longest period of separation since we met—”
“Scorpia,” Catra says again, interrupting her. She’s finally close enough to stand directly in front of her, staring her down. Trying to express as much impatience as possible with her body language, so that Scorpia doesn’t waste any more time. “I need you to tell me what you know about the Horde’s…” She sighs and hangs her head just slightly. “...interrogation methods.”
Scorpia’s eyes widen.
“Oh,” she says, and the word trembles in her mouth. “That…well…I personally have never interrogated anyone. I don’t think I was any good at it, and everyone knew it—”
“Scorpia,” Catra says again. Firm, but pleading. “Did they go over how it works in Force Captain orientation?”
Scorpia hesitates for a moment, mouth hanging open like she wants to say something, wants to protest, but can’t seem to find the words.
And then, finally...she nods.
“What do they do,” Catra whispers, taking a step closer to Scorpia to not be overheard, “to prisoners they need information out of? Especially if they’re expected to be difficult?”
Scorpia gulps. “Err...” she says, rubbing a pincer at the back of her neck. “Not...not good things, Catra. Honestly, I think that’s the one part of Force Captain training I’d rather forget—”
“Tell me,” Catra insists, despite how much she doesn’t want to know. Despite how much she shouldn’t care.
And as Catra learns the details from Scorpia, she cannot help but remember the promise Catra and Adora made to each other, all those years ago. The promise that Adora broke. The promise that Catra shouldn’t want to keep.
“You look out for me, and I look out for you.”
“Interesting…” Entrapta mutters, scribbling furiously into a notebook as she says the words.
But that’s all she says for a long while, instead devoting her entire attention to examining the gleaming sword placed on the table before her. She continues to scribble in the notebook, but her eyes never leave the sword’s face. Her hair seems to be writing of its own accord, a pencil grasped between prehensile strands.
After too many minutes of silence—save a few curious hums and gasps from Entrapta—Hordak grows impatient.
“Well?” Hordak demands. “What is your impression of this...technology?”
It is not often that Hordak allows others into his sanctum. He allows his second-in-command on occasion, as well as the Imp...but usually no others.
Entrapta has proven a recent—and necessary—exception. After she was able to “hack” into the Black Garnet and throw Etheria’s magical ecosystem into disarray, Hordak has been forced to trust her admittedly extensive scientific expertise. She knows much more about First Ones technology than he can claim to understand.
And this sword—She-Ra’s sword—is certainly one of the stranger items that Hordak has seen.
“I think it’s a truly incredible find,” Entrapta exclaims. “A portable runestone of some kind. I’ve always had my theories about She-Ra’s sword, but to actually have the opportunity to confirm them…” Entrapta’s hands clench into reverent fists, ones that shake with the intensity of her excitement.
But Hordak has very specific questions he wants answered, and he is impatient to know.
“Is it something we can use as a weapon?” he asks, and smirks at the idea of turning the rebellion’s own savior against them. “Can we make our own version of She-Ra to add to our ranks?”
“Hm...I’m not sure yet,” Entrapta answers quickly. “That will require extensive testing. It’s possible that the sword is specially attuned to Adora, and Adora alone. But if we can somehow bypass that…”
She pulls her goggles over her face and claps her hands together.
“Let’s set up some experiments!” she says, pulling some sort of beeping sensor from the pocket of her overalls. “With any luck, we’ll understand this baby in no time—”
Adora isn’t surprised when a pair of guards collect her the next morning.
They’re very careful about making sure she can’t escape. One guard pries one wrist free from its restraints along the wall, and the other does the same—then, together, they connect her hands behind her back, binding both wrists with some sort of glowing magnetic cuff.
From there, it’s a simple matter of prodding Adora toward her destination. They keep a taser at her back the whole time, forcing her to walk or risk electrocution. She gives a few experimental attempts to escape—all of which result in electric shocks or sharp blows to her ribs—but in the end, none of them accomplish more than injuries for Adora to bear.
Adora is surprised, almost, that Catra didn’t arrive to accompany her. Even if Catra doesn’t care about Adora, Adora figured she’d at least come to gloat, or to taunt Adora, or to make sure that Adora is wholly and truly defeated, just as she’s wanted for so long.
But Catra is nowhere in sight as Adora is pushed down the prison hallways.
Eventually, they bring Adora to a hallway she’s never seen before. Not even before her defection. There are no force-field barriers in this hallway—meaning that there’s no way to peer into the rooms that lead from this corridor. There are only rows of inscrutable metal doors, each tightly shut against their frames. The lighting is unsettlingly dim too. Like the Horde engineer who designed this place purposely crafted it to be dark and threatening.
One of the guards grabs Adora by the wrist and yanks her roughly forward. Without preamble, all three of them slip behind one of the metal doors, into the room beyond. Adora didn’t even see the door open. But she’s more than aware when it slams shut behind her, and Adora finds herself shoved into some sort of metal chair.
Adora is stunned when the cuffs automatically separate and affix themselves to the arms of the chair, securing her in place. Before she can even struggle, another pair of cuffs emerge from the bottom of the chair, holding her ankles lest she try to kick or fight.
A few moments of tugging against her restraints prove futile—not that Adora expected anything else. She knew she was largely useless here, without the sword. And she knew that the princesses wouldn’t have the resources to rescue her—especially after Adora just staged a rescue to retrieve Glimmer and Bow from the Fright Zone only a few months ago. Chances are, the weaknesses that Adora exploited are all fixed now. Which means that rescue is virtually impossible.
Which also means that Adora should be resigned to her fate. Resigned to whatever this is.
And unfortunately, Adora has a pretty good idea as to what this is.
She waits in that chair for several minutes. Waiting, waiting, with the guards posted at the door, watching her in turn. Adora doesn’t know what they’re waiting for. Because, really, if they’re going to torture her for information, why don’t they just get on with it?
Though her thoughts are soon interrupted by a harsh knock at the door, one that clangs dissonantly against the metal. Wordlessly, the two guards move aside from their posts, freeing the door to creak open.
Catra stands on the other side, eyeing Adora with an amused sort of triumph. Taking in the sight of Adora tied up, helpless, awaiting interrogation. Her smirk seems irrepressible.
“Hey, Adora,” she greets.
Adora doesn’t reply, of course. Her throat is too dry. Sure, she expected Catra to be here. But that doesn’t erase Adora’s horror in seeing that expectation become reality.
Catra’s gaze flicks between the guards at her right and left.
“Best you two take off,” Catra says, sauntering forward into the room. “I can handle this on my own. Besides…” Her smile flashes dangerously at one of the guards. “I doubt you two will be able to even stomach what I’m about to do.”
With a nervous glance at each other, the guards give Catra a quick salute, then scramble out the door.
Catra kicks the door closed behind herself. It locks automatically with the whirring of hydraulics.
When she again turns toward Adora, her expression carries the same smugness. Adora can only muster a sigh at the sight. She knew Catra always struggled with the idea of defection, always refused to renounce the Horde...but Adora never anticipated that Catra would take joy in something like this.
Catra stalks forward, moving slowly. Deliberately. Her tail swings from side-to-side, like a snake contemplating a strike.
“I’m going to give you one last chance to save your skin,” Catra warns. “Tell me something useful about the rebellion...and I’ll bring you back to your cell unscathed.”
Adora’s eyes harden, staring Catra down. She lets her jaw clench in refusal to speak.
“Come on, Adora,” Catra complains, with an eye roll. “Can’t you just make this easier on both of us? I have better things to do than babysit you, you know.”
“Is that what this is?” Adora asks softly. Defeatedly. “Babysitting?”
Catra places a hand on her own hip.
“No,” Catra tells her, all humor evaporated. “This isn’t babysitting, unfortunately. I’m supposed to interrogate you for information—and use any means to extract it.”
And there it is. The confirmation of Adora’s fears. Catra really is here to torture her.
And worse...she looks almost excited to do it. Excited to hurt Adora, despite everything they’ve been through together over the years. Though Adora shouldn’t really expect anything otherwise. Not after Catra’s most recent pattern of behavior. Her attack on Bright Moon, or the betrayal in the Crystal Castle.
And she brought Adora here, didn’t she? To the Fright Zone. She ambushed Adora, knocked her out, stole her sword. Why would Catra do that, if not to hurt Adora in any way she can?
It’s something Catra has grown skilled at, she supposes. Hurting her. Adora thinks about being left in the Crystal Castle, dangling off a cliff. Crying Catra’s name as Catra walked away. Whenever that memory resurfaces, it seems to grow claws—claws that dig and scratch and carve at Adora’s insides, twisting them up into knots and slicing pieces away.
Catra wants to hurt Adora. Over and over again, Catra has proven that.
“Well?” Adora cocks an eyebrow, despite the way her stomach plummets down to her toes. “Then why don’t you get on with it?”
Catra scoffs. “You’re really so eager to be tortured?”
Adora shrugs. “Ask me for information, torture me for information, kill me for information?” Another shrug. “It’ll all have the same result. I won’t tell you anything. And you’ll end up wasting your time.”
Catra stares at Adora for several moments, silent and contemplating. Her expression is...unreadable. Even for someone like Adora, who has known Catra since they were children, and should be able to interpret Catra’s expressions with the same ease that she can recall her own favorite color.
But not anymore, Adora supposes. That’s another thing that has changed too much, too fast.
“Well,” Catra replies, finally. “Let’s see if that’s really true, shall we?”
Adora’s whole body tenses as Catra reaches out, claws glinting in the dim overhead lights. She’d be lying, too, if she said she didn’t screw her eyes shut in anticipation of pain. But she doesn’t cry out. And doesn’t plea for mercy. She merely sits there, eyes closed, waiting for Catra to strike out.
But instead of a claw to the face, Adora is greeted by a very different sensation.
She feels Catra’s fingers tangle themselves into Adora’s hair, embedding themselves deep until they’re scraping along her scalp. It’s not painful, though. No. It’s a very hesitant touch, if anything.
And then Catra is tugging. Tugging, lightly. Adora’s eyes open to see long strands of her own hair pulled from her ponytail, hanging down across her face. It probably looks as though her ponytail half fell out of its elastic, leaving her with a messy in-between look. Hair pulled up, but also hanging out. Her hair poof must be entirely destroyed—
Adora blinks at Catra in confusion. “What are—”
But she doesn’t finish. Not before Catra shushes her harshly.
Adora is entirely unprepared to see Catra raising her claws. Raising them, only to bring them down on the collar of Adora’s jacket. They tear through the fabric with an ugly ripping noise.
“Catra!” Adora shrieks. “What are you doing?”
Catra pauses momentarily, tapping at her chin. “On second thought,” she says, under her breath, “Keep doing that. It will make it seem more realistic.”
Catra slashes through another panel of fabric on Adora’s jacket. Not deep enough to mark skin, but deep enough to expose Adora’s shoulder to the cold Fright Zone air, and force goosebumps to rise.
Adora is about to voice her outrage when Catra again reaches for Adora’s hair. Though, rather than tugging out strands this time, she rubs her palm across the top of her head. Rubs it quickly, and forcefully. And of course the friction creates a great deal of frizz and static, enough to make Adora look truly stupid.
Her hair must be standing upright, probably like she’s been electrocuted. And Catra knows that Adora hates when people mess with her hair—
She doesn't understand what’s happening. Is Catra’s special brand of torture doing this? Making Adora look as stupid as possible? Because if it is...Adora wouldn’t call it effective. Annoying, maybe, but not effective. If anything, Adora will be withholding information out of spite at this point, rather than loyalty to the princesses.
Catra is standing there, studying Adora as she continues to mess with Adora’s hair. Studying her closely, as though she’s placing the finishing touches on a painting.
“Can you please cut that out?” Adora says ducking her head out from under Catra’s hand. “What the hell are you—”
Catra sighs. Lowly, she whispers, “Can you just shut up and trust me for five minutes?”
Adora resists the urge to scoff. Trust Catra? After everything that’s happened recently?
But after noticing the determined, almost frightened expression on Catra’s face, Adora realizes that Catra is serious. Deathly serious. Serious, and nervous, judging by the way she keeps glancing at the door. Glancing as though it might be opened at any moment.
And only then does she finally understand what Catra is doing.
Catra is trying to fake it. To make Adora look tortured, rather than actually torture her. If Adora doesn’t come out of this room looking clawed up and disheveled...no one will believe that Catra actually did as she was ordered.
“Come on,” Catra breathes, and detaches all of Adora’s cuffs from the chair. The ones on Adora’s hands pull back together automatically, yanked into connection by magnets. Though her ankles are left free to walk. And that’s all Catra needs as she yanks Adora to her feet and drags her to the side of the room, her grip tight on Adora’s forearm.
“Can you do something useful for once and pretend to scream?” Catra whispers. As she says the words, she tugs a taser free from her belt. Though it is different from any taser that Adora has ever seen before. It’s larger, for one, and bright red in color. Adora can only assume it’s some sort of special weapon designed for these kinds of torture sessions.
Well, not this kind of torture session, specifically. Adora is fairly certain there hasn’t been anything like this before.
“But I’m…” Adora stammers back, struggling to whisper. “I’ve never been a very good actress.”
“Then get good,” Catra urges. “Or else we’re both dead.”
At that...Adora can only nod.
“Here we go,” Catra mumbles, more to herself than Adora, it seems. Her thumb flips a switch on the taser, and Adora is near-blinded by a storm of electricity from the top of the weapon, one so powerful that it raises every hair on Adora’s body. It’s so agonizing to simply stand near it, she cannot imagine it being used on her body.
A special taser, indeed. One that, she suspects, is not powerful enough to kill. But powerful enough to inflict great pain. Adora can barely hear her own thoughts over the deafening crackling and buzzing of that weapon.
Catra holds the taser out to the side, far from their bodies. She affixes her gaze to Adora’s face in front of her, mere inches apart from her own. And with a pointed flick of her eyes, she urges Adora to do as she’s been instructed.
So Adora screams. She screams and screams over the buzz-crackle of that weapon, pretending physical agony even when she suffers from an entirely different form of torture. The torture of complete and utter confusion. Because Adora doesn’t understand why Catra’s doing this, why she’s trying to rescue Adora from this interrogation session, especially since Hordak will definitely punish Catra if he finds out…
But she can’t ask. Not now, when she’s playing the part of the prisoner being tortured. Not when Catra’s blue-yellow eyes are on her, urging her to keep going. Urging her to keep this secret together, just like they used to. Though those old secrets were always simpler; skipped chores and stolen food and pranks that they never wanted to be blamed for.
But this secret is not so childish. Its consequences are severe. Deadly, even. And in doing this...Catra is trusting Adora with her life, and Adora is trusting Catra with hers.
It’s the closest thing they’ve had to friendship in a long time.
Hordak is there, waiting for her. Sitting upon his throne, half-bathed in shadow. His eyes are laser-focused on Catra’s face, intense both in color and in barely-constrained rage.
Catra must crane her neck to look at him, so high is he off the ground. A full flight of steps separates her and that throne. To her eyes, there seems to be a million of them. A million steps, a million feet between.
“Let me guess…” Hordak begins, having anticipated what Catra has to say—and, judging by the vicious growl in his voice, how he feels about the matter.
“Interrogation of the prisoner has once again failed to get us any useful information,” Catra recites, same as she usually does. This must be the fourth time she’s told the same lie. The fourth time she’s claimed to have tried and failed to torture Adora for information.
In reality, though… Adora is unharmed beyond mussed hair and torn up clothes. And Catra hasn’t even attempted a real interrogation. She does ask, on occasion, for Adora to give up some fragment of useful information—the question usually posed in the moments before Catra activates the taser, and Adora pretends to scream.
But Adora always just smirks and replies with her usual, “You wish.”
And maybe that bothers Catra. It bothers Catra that she’s risking her neck for Adora with this lie, but Adora can’t give some small scrap of stupid rebel intel in exchange.
But it still doesn’t bother Catra enough to make her want to torture Adora.
Catra gives a deep bow. “I’m sorry, Lord Hordak. Everything she tells us, we already know. It’s possible that the rebels just didn’t share much classified information with her.”
Hordak snarls at her, metal-encased fingers curling tight around the arms of his throne. “She is a princess, isn’t she? And not only that...but the one they call She-Ra. Their hero. Surely she must know something—”
“She was a Horde soldier before she was a princess,” Catra reminds him, and is somewhat stunned to find that the words escape indignant. “Maybe they didn’t trust her enough to tell her anything important.”
He waves a dismissive hand. “Somehow, I doubt that. The princesses are all too foolish and trusting. Besides...she has led their battles. She convenes with Queen Angella and her daughter. If not battle plans, she must have observations to share—”
His mouth snaps abruptly shut, both eyes narrowing to suspicious strips of red as they land on Catra’s face. For too long he sits like that, staring. Scrutinizing. Calculating, perhaps, with his eyes trained on Catra’s face, and Catra’s face alone.
She’s equally devoted to the task of staring back. She doesn’t want to seem nervous. Doesn’t want to seem like she’s lying, or has something to hide.
In fact, her attention is so fully occupied that Catra jumps when the Imp swoops in from the ceiling, its bat-like wings extended wide and its baby’s face split wide into a mischievous grin.
It nearly knocks into Catra’s head as it glides past, up toward Hordak’s throne. Hordak does not so much as flinch as the creature lands and perches itself over his left shoulder.
The Imp leans forward to hiss at Catra.
She resists the urge to hiss back.
“Are you sure that you’re giving the prisoner sufficient...incentive...to divulge the rebellion’s secrets?” Hordak asks, an idle hand traveling upward to stroke at the Imp’s cheek.
Incentive. That’s always been a euphemism for punishment, in the Horde. Cadets had incentive to be best in their class because, otherwise, they’d be punished with the most back-breaking chores. Soldiers had incentive to be obedient, else they’d be punished with physical discipline from their superiors.
And now prisoners have incentive to turn over information, otherwise they will be punished with torture.
“Yes,” Catra lies, through gritted teeth. “I’ve followed the Horde’s best information extraction techniques. None have yielded any results.”
Information extraction. Yet another euphemism. Though this one directly applies to torture, and little else about the Fright Zone.
“And you are certain?” he demands, in a voice low and unforgiving. His finger stills in his stroking of the Imp’s cheek as he leans forward, bending so that he can fully look down on her. “You are certain that you have tried everything to force her to talk?”
“Yes,” Catra repeats.
Though this time, her voice wavers just slightly. Catching on some enormous lump in her throat—a pressure formed from the weight of this lie, and one that grows with every layer of dishonesty Catra adds to it.
Hordak raises an eyebrow. Catra’s heart rate rises with it.
Catra is quick to clear her throat and add, “I’ve done everything I can. Problem is...” Catra scratches at the back of her own neck, trying to fabricate a convincing lie. “...she knows too much about how we torture people. I mean, she was one of us. I think she’s trained herself to be immune to our tactics, so there’s really no point in continuing—”
Hordak gives another snarl and resumes petting the Imp.
“Very well,” Hordak says. “I won’t waste further resources on her. Best that we make an example of her instead—show the other soldiers what happens to defectors.”
Catra’s eyes widen.
Shit. Catra just wanted him to stop asking for her to interrogate Adora. Catra definitely wasn’t arguing for Hordak to get rid of Adora.
“Wait—” Catra protests.
“A swift execution is too merciful,” Hordak muses, scratching at his chin. “But an exile to Beast Island is too dangerous for us. It’s not large enough to properly hide her. If former Force Captain Adora revealed too much about the island to the princesses...they could easily find and rescue her.”
“Lord Hordak,” Catra interrupts. “We might still be able to use Adora. We could use her to set a trap for the princesses, or—”
But he is not listening. Instead, Hordak seems fully occupied with the task of doling out Adora’s death sentence. “So,” he mutters to himself more than to Catra. “If not execution, and if not Beast Island, that leaves…”
“The Crimson Waste,” she answers, in a small voice.
“You want us to send Adora to the Crimson Waste?” Catra whispers.
“Yes,” says Hordka, all smugness as he relaxes back into his throne. “I think that will suit the rebellion’s hero nicely. She-Ra was lost for a thousand years...and she will be lost again to the sands of the Crimson Waste. Besides, the Waste is a technological deadzone. No one shall be able to find the former Force Captain once she is sent there. Not the princesses, and not any other…” His red eyes flash at Catra. “Lingering defectors-to-be here, in the Fright Zone.”
“Psh,” Catra snorts—perhaps a little too forcefully. “There are no other defectors, Lord Hordak. Everyone else is fully devoted to our cause.”
“I hope you are right, Force Captain,” Hordak says. “I’d hate to lose yet another promising officer to the princess’ lies.”
Catra swallows again. “And what about the sword?”
Hordak smiles. “I think I will continue to study it. See if I can turn the princess’ weapon against them.”
“H-how…” Catra shakes her head, willing herself to speak more steadily. “How long until we send her there? To the Crimson Waste.”
“Tomorrow, I believe, will be sufficient,” he says. “The sooner we remove her from the Fright Zone, the better. Best we send her somewhere where she’ll never be seen again—and where she can no longer cause us, or anyone else, further trouble.”
Catra nods, but in a blank, unseeing sort of way. Like she can’t quite process what she’s hearing.
Because she can’t. She’s imagined defeating Adora, of course. Forcing her to watch as Catra wins, as those stupid princesses lose the war. But Catra never imagined...she never imagined losing Adora forever. She never pictured Adora dead, or starving in some sort of empty desert wasteland—
“Well?” Hordak demands, the word brimming with impatience. “Shouldn’t you be preparing her transport?”
The Imp gives a squawk—one that affirms its master’s point—and it takes all of Catra’s willpower not to lunge and tear the stupid thing’s eyes out.
“Yes, Lord Hordak,” she manages, despite how nausea sends her words tumbling and trembling from her mouth. Walking from the room is something of a challenge too. Especially now that she knows what she must do once she leaves it.
“You look out for me, and I look out for you.”
Again, Catra wishes that she could forget those damn words.
Groggy eyes crack open. Adora is no longer surprised to wake this way, chained to the wall of a Fright Zone prison cell. Enough days have passed that she’s grown accustomed to it. But she is surprised to be roused at this strange hour, when most of the lights in the prison cells are switched off, and only sparse guards patrol the outer corridors.
It must be in the middle of the night.
“Psst,” a voice hisses again.
Adora can identify who it is based on tone alone.
She just doesn’t understand why Catra is here at this hour. Usually, Catra only visits Adora in the interrogation rooms—the ones where Catra pretends to interrogate Adora. After that, sometimes Catra will walk Adora back to her cell. But beyond that, they don’t interact anywhere else. Especially not here, where so many other prisoners or guards can see.
Though there doesn’t seem to be anyone paying attention at the moment.
“What’s wrong?” Adora whispers back. She can’t see Catra, not at first. Not until Catra carefully slides to the spot just outside the forcefield protected door. She glances about, ensuring that there’s no guards within close vicinity, waiting to catch them.
Immediately, Adora can tell that Catra is upset. Her posture is tense, and her ears are tucked toward her head.
Once Catra determines that the guards are all far enough away—and the adjacent prisoners fast asleep—she turns back to Adora.
“We’ve got a problem,” Catra tells her. “And if you wanna stay alive...we’ll have to act quickly.”
Catra tells Adora everything.
Well, not everything. But what she needs to know to stay alive.
“I’m going to send an anonymous tip to your rebel friends,” Catra whispers. “Let them know about the route we’re taking to the Crimson Waste. With any luck, they’ll attack your transport and free you, and we’re both off the hook from any further trouble.” She smirks just a little. “And then we’ll be back to fighting each other, just like old times.”
But Adora doesn’t look quite so amused. “Just like old times,” Adora whispers. And she sounds almost...sad. “That’s not old times, Catra. Us being enemies...that’s still new to me. And after all this…” Adora shakes her head. “I’m not sure that’s even true anymore. How am I supposed to view you as my enemy when you risked yourself for me?”
Catra’s nostrils flare. “Would you rather I hadn’t?”
“No,” whispers Adora, then sighs. “It’s just...you clearly don’t agree with Hordak’s methods, or Shadow Weaver’s. Otherwise you would’ve tortured me when Hordak asked. So...why don’t we both just leave tonight? We could both go to Bright Moon, where it’s safe.”
“Bright Moon may be safe for you,” Catra hisses. “But it’s not safe for me. No one would want me there. Especially not after I attacked it—”
A pause. And then Adora murmurs—
“I would. I’d want you there, even if no one else did.”
The admission makes Catra’s every limb feel like it’s dissolving into dust. Because it’s a nice thought. Really, it is. But the fact remains that it’s just not true. Adora will want Catra there so long as it’s convenient. But when heroism calls or whatever...she’ll leave Catra behind. Same as before. Same as always.
So Catra shakes her head, shakes off the thought, that odd floating sensation. “It doesn’t matter,” she tells Adora, and herself. “I belong here. I want to be here. Just because I didn’t want to see you barbecued doesn’t mean I want to leave.”
Adora’s face collapses in disappointment. Something in Catra collapses too, something weak and confusing and not at all sensible, but she can’t identify it. If she could, she would’ve torn it out of herself long ago.
“But I still plan to see you on the battlefield,” Catra adds, quietly. But just loud enough for Adora to hear. “So be prepared tomorrow. When the rebels attack your transport...you need to be ready to run.”
“And what about the sword?”
Catra rolls her eyes. Of course Adora wants the sword. There’s nothing she cares about more, least of all Catra.
“I can’t get you that,” Catra tells her honestly. “Hordak has it in his sanctum. With any luck, maybe you’ll get it back someday. But it’s not something I can help you with now.”
Adora sighs, head hanging low. Like the loss of the sword is some great tragedy or something. When, in reality, Catra knows that Adora is just as capable on the battlefield by herself, even without She-Ra’s strength to buoy her.
Catra misses it, almost. How they used to roughhouse and spar together. Heavy breathing and sweat flying and occasional giggling. Adora’s wide smile above or under her. Pokes and harmless jabs exchanged, rather than real blows.
Fighting with She-Ra was so different—like fighting a mountain, rather than rolling across the floor with an old friend.
“Hey,” Catra hisses. “I’m still saving you from a terrible death. Take what you can get.”
“I know,” murmurs Adora. “And I am grateful, Catra. Really, I am.”
Adora turns her head to face Catra directly—and Catra is stunned to see tears brimming there, at the edges of her eyes. Glistening in the low light of the prison cell, almost green in the way they reflect the forcefield.
“But I don’t know what I’ll do without the sword. I don’t know how I’ll face everyone if I’m not She-Ra anymore.”
A part of Catra wants to smirk at this. Because duh, of course the rebellion only cares about Adora so long as she’s She-Ra. Catra knew that from the very start. They’re not real friends, not like Catra was. Catra, who only wanted Adora around as herself, not some sparkly princess.
But Catra knows it’s useless to point that out. If anything, Adora needs to go back to the rebellion, whether or not they’ll still want her without She-Ra. If she stays here in the Fright Zone, she’ll be shipped off to the Crimson Waste to die.
So Catra rolls her eyes and says something she never thought she’d say out loud.
“You don’t need She-Ra to be useful to the rebellion. If the princesses don’t realize that you’re their greatest asset, powers or none, then they’re idiots.”
Adora’s eyes widen a bit at that, and Catra can’t stand to look at them a second longer. Cheeks burning red, she whirls around to avoid the pressure of Adora’s gaze—though she can still feel it boring into the spot between Cat's shoulder blades.
“You’re being sent out tomorrow night,” Catra says. “I’ll send the rebellion the anonymous tip in the morning. Hopefully they’ll respond and rescue you somewhere along the way.”
“And what if they don’t?” Adora asks, in a small voice. She grew up in the Horde. She knows as much about the Crimson Waste as Catra does—that it’s an empty deadzone. That everything that travels there is immediately lost to civilization. That there’s no food, no water—nothing but sprawling sand dunes and monsters and hostile vegetation.
It’s not as terrifying in their memories as Beast Island is. But Beast Island, at least, would provide a swift death, though a horrifying one. The Crimson Waste is where people are sent to wander and die. Catra really isn’t sure which is worse.
“Then...I don’t know,” Catra says. “We’ll just have to hope your stupid rebel friends pull through.”
Catra doesn’t know what to say, after that. She never thought she’d be hoping for Arrow Boy and Sparkles’s success. Yet here she is. Hoping for it, for Adora’s sake.
Adora doesn’t seem to know what to say either. She is silent. Everything is silent, really, save the buzzing of that forcefield.
“Thank you, Catra,” Adora murmurs.
Catra just grunts and begins to walk away. “Yeah, well. Don’t get too mushy on me. I’ll still fight you the next time I see you on the battlefield.”
“Looking forward to it,” Adora whispers back. And of course Catra hears, she can hear almost everything with those ears of hers.
She walks. Walks away. Walks with that one sentence echoing in her skull as she goes, wondering whether it was sarcastic or genuine, because really, it’s sometimes so hard to tell where Adora is concerned—
Hold on. What the hell was that?
Catra’s train of thought careens to a crashing halt when she sees something in her periphery. A brief movement. A shadow. She catches only the briefest glimpse of it, but...it’s still something that raises every hair on her body and causes her tail to puff up.
She freezes, turns. Eyes wide in search for some sort of pursuer. Because surely she saw something, even if just for a moment. Like something crawling out of the pipes that run all along the walls.
But there’s nothing, of course. Just an empty, dark hallway. Silent. Still.
Catra gives a skeptical hum and turns back around, continuing her march back to her quarters. She sees nothing else on her journey. And when she arrives in her room, she flops backwards onto the bed, more exhausted than she even realized.
She releases an enormous sigh and shuts her eyes. Catra can’t really believe that she’s doing this. That she’s helping Adora return to the rebellion. The rebellion, Catra’s enemy.
Still. It doesn’t keep Catra up at night. She falls asleep almost immediately.
“Catra!” a voice hisses, desperately. “Wake up!”
Catra’s eyes fly open.
For whatever reason, she’s not in her quarters, or her bed, like she expected to be. As far as she can tell...she’s not even in the Fright Zone at all.
So how exactly did she end up here? And where exactly is here?
She sits up, examining her surroundings. There are walls and a ceiling, all metal and crowding in their closeness, none of them long or particularly tall. The ceiling is remarkably low, Catra notes, and free of the pipes and metal fixtures that usually adorn the ceilings of rooms in the Fright Zone.
Instead of the thin mattress that Horde officers are usually provided, Catra’s shoulders and back ache against a cold metal floor. A floor that moves beneath her, humming with a faint vibration that Catra can identify as an engine, and terrain beneath wheels.
A transport. Catra must be in a transport.
“Catra!” the voice calls again. “Are you okay?”
With a start, Catra realizes that the voice is coming from behind her. Directly behind her, probably mere inches away.
She curses herself for only just realizing that there’s a body sitting there, just out of sight. She can’t see it, not from this angle. But she can smell who it is. Catra’s nose can do that much, at least.
Catra leans back until she sees her—the person sitting behind Catra. And sure enough, with unkempt blonde hair and a torn-up jacket, Adora is right there. Watching Catra with wide, fearful eyes—like Catra is recovering from some sort of terrible injury, and Adora is at her bedside.
“I’m fine,” Catra tells Adora, because she knows that she should. Because Adora sounds exceedingly worried. And it’s annoying that Catra still cares about whether Adora is worried, or upset. Because Catra really shouldn’t care. She shouldn’t care at all.
Though Catra soon discovers that she’s not quite fine. A glance down reveals that Catra’s hands have been shackled together, her hands (and claws) completely enclosed within a set of metal cuffs.
“I think they sedated you,” Adora whispers. “Then cuffed you and brought you here. I’m so sorry, Catra. I didn’t want you to get caught, to get dragged down with me—”
Catra cranes her neck, nearly straining her muscles to see Adora behind herself.
And there she is, cuffed in the same way Catra is—though her hands aren’t covered like Catra’s are. Her wrists are simply bound together. She also sits on the floor of the transport, though she seems far less panicked by the relocation than Catra does. Probably because she was awake when they brought Adora here, and Catra was not.
It doesn’t matter, though. At the end of the day...they’re both prisoners now.
Catra groans. Of course they’re both prisoners now. Of course Catra can’t get away with anything, ever, in her life. And of course Catra is now going to die because she couldn’t keep herself from helping Adora, even when she knew it would only bring her trouble.
All the bullshit in Catra’s life. Somehow it always comes back to Adora. And now Catra is no better than Shadow Weaver, a prisoner, a traitor—
“Force Captain Catra.”
Catra jumps and scrambles backward as a bright light flashes directly to her right. It seems that what she thought was a wall is actually a giant screen, one that is now displaying an enormous rendition of Hordak’s snarling face.
“Or should I say...Former Force Captain,” Hordak adds, through the screen and speakers. “You and your rebel ally share that title now. That, and the title of traitor.”
Catra swallows hard. “Look,” Catra says, scrambling to restore what little remains of her own trustworthiness, “You’ve got it all wrong, Lord Hordak. I’m no ally to the rebels. I was the one who invaded Bright Moon. Who hacked a runestone—”
“Do not lie to me,” Hordak hisses. And through the screen, Catra can see a glimpse of a shadow passing overhead, a small one. One that then lands on Hordak’s shoulder and perches there. Smirking at Catra through the camera lens.
“Besides,” says Hordak, reaching upward to pat the Imp’s head. “I have it on good authority that you are, in fact, a traitor.”
Shit. The shadow in the hallway the other night—that must have been the Imp. Snooping on Catra, spying on her, all so that it could crawl back to Hordak and snitch on her.
But of course it’s not true that Catra betrayed the Horde. She still wants the Horde to win. She still wants the princesses to lose. Catra just didn’t want to torture Adora, or send her to the Crimson Waste. There was no point, is all. And as soon as Adora was returned to the rebels, Catra hoped to go right back to war planning.
But the Imp wouldn’t care about that. Not when Catra’s conversations with Adora sounded so much like betrayal.
Oh, if Catra ever sees that stupid little winged demon again, she’s going to—
“My spy recorded how you conspired with the rebel princess,” Hordak continues. “You sought to deceive me. Help our enemies. And now...you will suffer the same fate as the prisoner you sought to set free.”
Again, Catra gulps. But this time she has nothing to say in response. Nothing to say, nothing to do to stop this from happening.
“This transport will deliver you both to the Crimson Waste,” Hordak says, “where you will both wander and perish, never to be found again. Your punishment will act as a lesson to all future soldiers who consider defecting from the Horde—a lesson on how it is a deadly mistake, one that they will suffer greatly for.”
But Catra is not a defector. Adora is, but not Catra. Catra stayed with the Horde, she stayed loyal, and this is the thanks Catra gets—?
“You’re wrong,” says Adora, to the screen. “With every act of cruelty, you inspire more and more people to defect. This is going to backfire on you. Just like all your other plans to conquer Etheria.”
Catra rolls her eyes. Typical hero speech from Adora.
“We will see about that,” Hordak replies, smug. “Though I do not expect much regrouping from the rebellion. Not without their precious She-Ra to protect them. Your failure has doomed them.”
From her periphery, Catra can see Adora stiffen at the accusation. A sure sign that Hordak’s words have affected her—cut deeply into the confidence she was pretending to possess.
Catra’s rage heats and heats. It’s always there, always simmering thanks to the shitshow that has been Catra’s whole life. But now it’s been made boiling from every fucked up facet of this situation—Hordak’s refusal to trust and believe Catra, Adora’s defection and forced return, Catra’s fury at even being asked to torture a person in the first place, Catra’s own goddamn stupidity at falling into the ocean-sized trap that is Adora’s eyes.
And, of course, her utter outrage that Hordak thinks he’ll do anything—conquer anything—without Catra dragging him over the finish line.
“She’s right, you know,” Catra bites out. “The Fright Zone was already bad enough when Shadow Weaver was running things. But without her, and without me? You’ve got nothing. No one with half a brain to keep wheels turning on the war machine.”
Despite herself, despite how afraid she is, Catra releases a laugh. High. Triumphant. Like Hordak’s the one heading to an execution right now, instead of Catra.
“You’re not gonna lose because the princesses regroup, or get revenge,” Catra adds, with another sighing laugh. “You’re going to lose because you’re too useless to actually run the army you claim to rule. So good luck. Good luck without me.”
That, at least, seems to wipe the smugness off Hordak’s face. His lips pull back from his mouth, exposing sharp teeth, and a growl pulses from deep in his throat.
“You are mistaken,” Hordak grits out. “And even if you were not...at least I will be satisfied to know that you died a death befitting of your traitorous behavior.”
“Yeah, well...we’ll see,” Catra shoots back. “I’ve survived a lot more than anyone’s thought possible. Maybe I’ll survive this too. And maybe when I do...I’ll come back and steal that throne out from under you.”
Hordak gives a grunt. A disbelieving one, and opens his mouth as though prepared to give a retort of his own—
But then he is gone, the video feed cutting to a storm of static.
“Good,” says Catra. “He finally shut up.”
But she can see Adora shaking her head.
“That static…” Adora says. “You know what it means, don’t you?”
Catra scoffs. “Of course I do.”
She stares at the wall, as though squinting at it hard enough might allow her to gaze out into the empty desert beyond. The one that awaits Catra and Adora as soon as this transport stops and releases them.
“We just entered a technological deadzone,” Catra says. “Which means we’re finally here. We’ve finally entered the Crimson Waste.”
Maybe, just maybe...the promise can still be kept.
Adora and Catra forge their own paths—but ultimately find those paths crossing. If a bar fight's what you're after, look no further than this chapter.
Hey all! I'm super excited by the reception that first chapter got! Glad y'all seem to like the concept.
If you haven't commented your thoughts yet, please do! (Or, at the very least, tell windbloom how amazing her art is)
Next week, we'll be posting on Thursday, not Friday. So mark your calendars!
Content warning for mention blood and injury in this chapter.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Hold still,” Adora orders.
She shoots Catra a small smile as she says the words, one that strikes Catra as entirely out-of-place when considering the fucked up situation they're currently in. They’re probably going to die here in this barren expanse of sand and cacti and canyon, and Adora is smiling at Catra like this is nothing. Like they’re kids in the Horde again, and Adora is just helping Catra comb through her hair.
Catra forces herself stock-still, her wrists laid out on the surface of some large boulder so that Adora has proper leverage.
There’s a large rock clasped between Adora’s cuffed hands. She hoists it as high as she can and then, with a grunt, thrusts it down on Catra’s restraints.
A clang of rock-on-metal echoes throughout the nearby canyons. Catra didn’t expect it to work, not in the least, but she’s somewhat stunned to discover that her cuffs have dented on impact. A few more hits, and they might actually fall off Catra’s wrists.
Catra scoffs and resists an eye roll. Sometimes, she forgets how strong Adora is, even without She-Ra. How Adora used to pin Catra down in sparring, holding her like she’s nothing at all, a slip of paper beneath her hands.
Adora keeps smashing that rock against the cuffs, working it off bit by bit. Her eyebrows knit together with concentration and effort. And it’s stupid, how Catra finds herself watching her. Not that there’s much else to watch here, in the Crimson Waste. In this place of pure nothingness, of barren landscape and endless horizon.
They don’t speak about what just happened. They don’t discuss how the transport doors flung open, how a set of Horde soldiers (the drivers of the transport, presumably) dragged them from the floor of the vehicle, and tossed them onto the sandy ground outside.
The transport drove away with the roar of engines and the crackling of rolling pebbles. It disappeared beyond a canyon within a few moments, never to be seen again.
Well. Never to be seen by Catra and Adora again, at least. Most of the world is probably never to be seen again as far as Catra and Adora are concerned. And vice versa for Catra and Adora, where the world is concerned.
“One more,” says Adora, raising the rock yet again. “And then I think we should be—”
Before she says that last word (Good? Finished?) Adora yells and throws down the rock. And finally, finally the cuffs spring apart, freeing Catra’s claws and wrists from their confines.
“Thanks,” says Catra, and it’s genuine. She rubs at her wrists, massaging away the soreness that the metal cuffs inflicted when they tied her arms so closely together.
“Don’t mention it,” Adora says, then holds the rock out to Catra expectantly, her eyebrows raised.
“I...don’t know about that,” Catra says. Because the truth is, Adora’s handcuff situation is a lot different from Catra’s. Her hands are exposed, uncovered by metal, which means that any slight shift in direction from Catra might smash the bones in Adora’s wrists.
Not to mention that Catra just doesn’t have the physical muscle that Adora has. She somehow doubts that she’ll be able to smash a metal fixture apart like that, like it’s nothing. Maybe with some effort she could claw through them, but it would take time, and it might very well ruin Catra’s claws. That might not be the best plan if those are the only weapons Catra and Adora have—
But Adora quickly—and inexplicably—grows indignant.
“Seriously, Catra?” she demands, placing the rock on the nearby boulder so that she can gesture to the bleak landscape around them. “We’re both in the same boat here! The least you can do is return the favor.”
And then Catra realizes that Adora has mistaken Catra’s hesitance for something else entirely. Unwillingness. She thinks that Catra wants to keep her tied up like that, maybe just out of spite.
It rubs Catra the wrong way. She can’t stand it—the way Adora searches for Catra’s worst tendencies and tries to argue with them, even when they’re not there at all.
It makes Catra want to make her accusations a reality.
“Don’t get all ‘high and mighty’ on me now, princess,” hisses Catra. “If it wasn’t’ for you, I wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place! It would serve you right to stay in those cuffs—”
“You’re blaming me?” shrieks Adora. “Catra, for the last time—you captured me. You brought me back to the Fright Zone. It’s not my fault that you didn’t have the stomach for torture. If you wanted to stay in the Fright Zone so badly, you should have followed orders—”
“Oh so now I’m the bad guy for not torturing you?” Catra shakes her head. “You are truly unbelievable, Adora. I risked my neck for you—”
“I didn’t ask you to do that!” Adora says, stomping her foot. “Frankly, I don’t know why you did it at all. I thought we were enemies. I thought you captured me because you wanted me to suffer. So if not that...then what? Why did you risk your neck for me, exactly, when you knew that this was the consequence?”
Catra scoffs and crosses her arms, smirking down at Adora’s still-bound arms and reveling in the fact that she can’t cross them in the same way. “Your guess is as good as mine, princess. If I could go back I’d—”
“You’d what? Do what Hordak said?”
Catra falls silent.
Truthfully, she wouldn’t do that, either. More likely, Catra would’ve done the same exact thing...except maybe check to ensure that the Imp wasn’t eavesdropping on them. Or maybe claw the Imp to pieces, just for good measure.
But again, Adora interprets Catra’s silence incorrectly.
“Fine,” says Adora, her shoulders straightening. “I do remember what you said, you know. Back in the Crystal Castle.”
And of course Catra remembers. She remembers the dark abyss that awaited Adora below, and the whoosh of She-Ra’s sword slicing through air as Catra tossed it over the edge. She remembers how Adora cried Catra’s name, pleading for Catra’s help as Adora’s fingers began to slip from the cliff face.
But Catra didn’t help Adora. She simply walked away, reveling in the victory—however short-lived.
“You didn’t want me to come back,” Adora reminds her, resentment soaking every word. “That’s what you said. You didn’t want me to come back.”
And yes, Catra remembers that. She remembers realizing that Adora was holding her back, that Adora’s defection had cleared the way for Catra’s rise to power—her chance at mattering beyond just being Adora’s sidekick.
Worse...it was frightening. It was frightening how easily Adora almost convinced her to do it, to defect. Catra very nearly gave up her one chance at mattering, just to share Adora’s smiles again. Adora kept urging her to do it, kept pleading with her as they walked those crystal hallways.
But Catra wouldn’t let it happen. Catra wouldn’t let her world revolve around Adora again. Not after everything. Not after Adora had already left Catra behind, and couldn’t be trusted not to do it again.
So Catra left Adora hanging from that cliff...and returned herself to the Fright Zone.
Because, really, how was that any different? How was that any different than what Adora did to Catra, back when she defected? Adora knew how Shadow Weaver would react to Adora’s disappearance, how she’d punish—maybe even kill—Catra for it.
Besides, Catra was certain that Adora would survive, back in the Crystal Castle. It was her castle, after all. She-Ra’s. There was no way it would let Adora fall to her death. With all the stupid First Ones tech and magic in that place, Catra figured the castle would catch her somehow. If it could generate vicious robot spiders out of thin air, surely it could create a net to cushion Adora before she hit the bottom.
(If the cliff was even real. Catra still has her doubts about that.)
“Was that true?” Adora murmurs,very obviously referring to that terrible moment. The one where Catra claimed she didn’t want Adora to come back to the Horde. “Did you mean that?”
“I did,” Catra says, because it’s the truth. But she doesn’t add the explanation that Adora probably deserves.
Because I didn’t want to be afraid of losing you again.
Adora shifts from foot to foot, her jaw tense. Her eyes appear damp in this too-dry desert. “Alright,” she says, and there’s something there. An undercurrent. A shuddering beneath the smooth exhale of her voice. “Then maybe we should go our separate ways, if that’s how you feel.”
And then Adora begins to turn around.
“Wait!” says Catra, her hands fumbling for the rock that Adora set down. Adora’s hands are still cuffed. “At least let me—”
But even with her back turned, Catra can see Adora shaking her head. “You go your way,” Adora says. “And I’ll go mine. That’s what you want, isn’t it?”
Catra wants to protest, wants to deny it, but...Catra knows that she’d probably be better off without Adora. That letting Adora back into her life in any capacity is dangerous.
But Catra also knows that, objectively, they’d probably have a better chance at surviving this wasteland if they stick together.
But Adora is already marching away, shoulders slumped and head directed at the ground. Her footsteps are fast, one after the other, and she’s soon a considerable distance away. Almost like she can’t get away fast enough.
And Catra begins to wonder if this is what Adora wants too. Because, really, why did she defect if not to leave Catra behind? If not to erase everything that they had ever built together or worked toward?
Catra is better off on her own. After all...the second Adora came back into Catra’s life, this happened. Catra lost it all.
And it’s a waste of time, standing here. Watching that blonde ponytail sway from side-to-side, growing smaller with every passing moment.
So Catra sighs and turns around, forging her own path.
Navigating the Waste is even more difficult than Catra expected.
But then again, Catra isn’t really navigating toward anything at all. She was sent here as a punishment. She has no bearings. No destination. She could be heading North, or South, or going nowhere at all. Maybe she’s been wandering in circles. If she has been, there’s simply no way for her to tell. There’s so little variation in the landscape, there’s no real landmarks for Catra’s eyes to latch onto.
All Catra has is the increasingly futile desire to stay alive. Which is a far-fetched fantasy right now—especially with the apparent lack of water, shelter, and food sources.
Catra walks for hours. There’s sand between her toes, embedded beneath her nails. The punishing sunlight gives way to a near-freezing desert night, one that envelopes Catra in absolute darkness. Darkness that she is uniquely equipped to see through...but in such an empty, barren place, it is nonetheless an unsettling darkness.
She encounters several deadly things, including an enormous three-headed snake, a plant that freezes everything that touches it, and a stretch of quicksand that nearly swallows Catra whole. Catra just barely escapes them unscathed—sprinting just beyond the reach of the snake’s jaws, or pulling her hand away just before being frozen, or yanking her foot out of the quicksand before she sinks any lower.
Catra doesn’t know how many more threats she can survive. Luck can’t be on Catra’s side forever, statistically speaking. And if she keeps wandering this desert alone...something will eventually kill her. It’s just a matter of time.
And that makes Catra worry, of course. She worries about the fact that Adora is out there somewhere, alone. Wandering the same peril-filled landscape with cuffed hands, of all things. And not even a set of claws to defend herself.
“You look out for me, and I look out for you.”
The promise enters Catra’s head, unbidden. Catra wonders if she should turn back. Turn back, and apologize.
But then she shakes it off just as quickly. Adora chose to leave, to go off on her own. And sure, she did it because Catra essentially said that she didn’t want Adora around. But it’s not like Adora has ever given Catra the chance to explain why.
Not that Catra would ever have the courage to.
She sighs, letting her head droop.
And it’s only then, with her head angled toward the ground, that Catra sees something.
Footprints. Footprints, beaten into the sand.
And unfortunately, Catra recognizes those footprints. Horde-issued boots are very distinctive, all spirals and rectangular grips. Catra was forced to memorize those prints back when she was a cadet. It was standard training, just in case squadrons were ever separated on missions. She still remembers a commanding officer saying, “Finding your team can save your life if you get separated from the group.”
Those bootprints belong to Adora. There’s no doubt in Catra’s mind.
But then Catra realizes that there are simply too many footprints. Too many footprints, all of them too varied in size to belong to Adora alone. Upon closer examination, Catra thinks she can spot two different additional sets, each one larger than Adora’s boots.
Though they’re not just different in size—one set has cloven hooves, and the other very clearly has claws. Neither of which Adora has, human as she is.
The other footprints—the ones that don’t belong to Adora—look fresher. More recent. Identical only in the path that they walk, which follows Adora’s steps exactly.
Which means that Adora is being followed. Followed, with pursuers close behind.
And Adora’s hands are still cuffed. Cuffed, so that she’s unable to defend herself.
Maybe they’ve even caught up to Adora already.
Catra groans and rubs her temples. Shit. She knows she shouldn’t get involved. That Adora walked away first—and walked away other times before that.
Besides, it’s not Catra’s fault for not anticipating this—that there’d be other people in the Crimson Waste, dangerous people. All Catra’s life, she’s been told that it’s a deadzone for people as well as technology. And it’s not like Catra didn’t offer to remove Adora’s cuffs. Not that she would have succeeded—
This is Adora’s fault. Plain and simple.
But then Catra remembers what Adora said.
“Catra, for the last time,” Adora argued, “you captured me. You brought me back to the Fright Zone.”
Adora’s meaning was clear. That this—ending up in the Crimson Waste—is Catra’s fault. If Catra hadn’t been so focused on defeating She-Ra, if she hadn’t dragged Adora back to the Fright Zone…
Neither of them would be in this situation. Adora would still be leading the rebellion. Catra would still be leading the Horde. Their lives devoted to their causes, rather than aimless wandering throughout the waste.
Catra hates admitting it, even to herself. And god knows she’ll never admit it to Adora out loud.
But Adora might just be a little right in that accusation.
And besides—there’s absolutely no way that Catra is going to let some Crimson Waste nobodies pick Adora off. If someone is going to defeat Adora in battle...it’s going to be Catra. Catra, in a square fight against She-Ra.
So she does it. She affixes her eyes to the ground and follows the trail—adding a new layer of footprints, one that Catra hopes no one will follow. The last thing Catra or Adora need is another ambush to fend off, on top of this one.
Adora is being followed.
They’re not particularly subtle, the people following her. But then again, Adora wasn’t particularly smart when she chose to travel in this direction. By taking a low pass between two high canyons...she’s the only one to blame for opening herself to ambush from above.
It’s just that Adora didn’t realize there were people to ambush her here, in the Crimson Waste. So she figured there wouldn’t be any harm in it.
But lo and behold, she keeps catching glimpses of movement in her periphery—usually toward the canyon’s edges. It could be some sort of wildlife, of course. Desert birds and serpents. Adora has encountered a few of those already (the serpents were certainly a challenge to escape with her hands bound, but she managed).
But animals don’t duck behind boulders and rock walls the way these shadows do, whenever Adora looks their way. Whatever Adora keeps seeing...they’re people. People that watch Adora’s every step.
Adora really, really shouldn’t have taken this route. She saw this canyon once in her travels already, and walked around it the first time for fear of the dangers it posed. But now, as she retreats...she thought it would’ve been a good shortcut back to where she came.
Though it would’ve been a better, safer shortcut if Adora could climb the canyons that surround her on both sides. That way, she could enjoy the protections of the high ground—walk without being trapped, or easily visible to any pair of eyes on the ground.
She’s sure the people following her are enjoying that particular benefit, at the moment. All the way at the top of that canyon...they can probably track her perfectly.
But climbing the canyon was never an option for Adora. Not with her hands quite literally tied.
Adora can only hope that they’ll lose interest in her. She has nothing of value on her person—not even a weapon, or a pack of supplies. The clothes on her back are largely useless in the Waste. If anything, they’re too warm during the hot desert days.
But even without anything valuable...Adora could very well still be a target. They could want information—who she is, where she came from. They could think she has hidden valuables somewhere in her pockets or her boots.
Or they could just want to hurt her.
And nearly as soon as that thought manifests, Adora feels something bite into her leg.
She cries out, mind immediately racing back to the giant serpents she has already encountered. She curses herself for getting so distracted by these pursuers. Why didn’t she watch her step, make sure nothing was attacking her from the ground? Because now she’ll look down and surely see a snake with its jaws wrapped around her thigh—
But it’s not that at all. Rather than the fangs of a snake...Adora finds something embedded into her leg. A plume of bright blue feathers attached a pill-shaped collection of fabric.
A dart. Someone has shot Adora with a dart.
Mere moments pass before Adora feels her limbs lose all sensation, turning to formless jelly beneath her. The thigh where the dart landed was the first to disappear from Adora’s nervous system, fading to tingling and nothing else. But it’s by no means the last body part to fall victim to this...this poison. It’s not long at all before her whole body has been replaced by a mass of pure static, one that cannot be moved or properly felt. Both legs give out; her face slackens, mouth unable to utter a single sound.
Adora collapses backward into the dirt.
The fall drives Adora’s metal cuffs into her stomach, forcing the air from her lungs. Not, of course, that she has much air left to lose. Having her back smashed against sand and rock leaves Adora sufficiently breathless. The bruise from those cuffs is just an added injury, one that leaves Adora full-on gasping for air.
She lies there, sprawled on the ground—wide eyes unable to be closed, utterly affixed to the sky above. Affixed to the moon and that expanse of starless, navy ceiling.
Adora can hear footsteps approaching, but she cannot move her neck to see. And it’s terrifying—being utterly paralyzed while attackers approach like this. Adora is unable to defend herself. Unable to do anything, unable to see what’s coming, unable to even talk her way out of this situation—
Adora’s breath catches when two faces pop into her vision. Two figures, leaning over her. A stout lizard woman with four arms, her eyes glowing almost neon in the streaming moonlight. Across from her, a taller woman with goat-like features—namely, horns and long, narrow ears atop her head.
They grin menacingly at Adora from above.
“Uh-oh,” taunts the goat woman. “Looks like you’re lost, outsider. No one gets to trespass on Huntara’s territory.”
Adora’s panic boils within her. She tries, desperately, to move something. Anything. Any part of her body. A finger, an eyebrow—
“Maybe you need to be taught a lesson,” muses the goat woman.
And it’s a threat, of course. One that prompts the lizard woman to hiss and extend a knife from beneath a robe of tattered fabric.
And it’s unlike any weapon Adora has ever seen before, that knife. Formed of jagged white bone that practically glows in the night, just like the lizard woman’s eyes. Broadcasting its deadliness for all to see.
“We don’t tolerate outsiders in the Crimson Waste,” the goat woman growls. “And we’ll make sure you remember that—”
Adora wishes she could close her eyes. But she’s not even afforded that luxury as the knife drops toward her chest, ready to impale her heart, maybe some other vital organ. Or perhaps they’re just going to carve away at her skin. Adora can’t know, can’t fight—her vision blurring with tears as she realizes that this may very well be the end.
But, ultimately, Adora is glad that she did not close her eyes. Because just as the knife was about to drop, just as it was about to slice into her... something lunges out from the darkness, attaching itself to the lizard woman’s back with incredible agility.
Adora can’t wipe away her tears, so her vision remains somewhat blurred. Unable to see clearly. She can identify few details, just a set of silhouettes framed against the moonlight.
She sees the knife smacked out of sight, landing somewhere beyond Adora’s vision with a clatter. The lizard woman writhes and screeches, trying to escape from the shadow wrapped around her back and torso. But she can’t. She can do nothing as the shadow’s fangs are bared and promptly sunk into the lizard woman’s neck, eliciting a mighty howl.
The goat woman is too shocked to move. She stares open-mouthed at her companion, so frozen that the shadow is able to kick out a leg and connect a heel with the goat woman’s chin. And obviously that’s immensely painful, being kicked in the face like that. The goat woman can do little else but cry out and stagger backward, out of Adora’s sight, cradling her injured chin with both hands.
The shadow shoves the lizard woman to the ground and bounds out of sight. Adora hears the sound of some sort of skirmish, but she cannot turn to see what’s happening. There’s screeching—presumably from the goat woman—and then scrambling footsteps. Heavy, frantic footsteps that grow quieter with every passing moment.
The sound of someone running away.
The lizard woman is next to run. She heaves herself to her feet, staggering all the while. And then...when her feet are steady, she gallops away—following the same direction that her companion did, when she fell backward out of Adora’s sight. Retreating alongside her.
Someone gives a menacing hiss as they depart. A warning to stay away. And Adora knows that hiss. It’s a particular sound, one that Adora heard frequently throughout her childhood.
“Catra?” Adora tries to say, but it comes out more like a strangled moan. Her lips aren’t cooperative in forming the words.
At first, she is answered only with silence. Silence, save the faint breath of the wind scraping across the sands. Adora begins to worry that she’s wrong, that her rescuer was someone else. And now she’s been left entirely alone, never to know who saved her, until—
“Yeah,” says Catra, with a frustrated sort of huff. Her voice is unmistakable. From the corner of her eye, Adora can see a body scooping something off the ground. Something that glints in the moonlight.
The figure leans over Adora. And through the blur of her tears, Adora can see glowing blue-yellow eyes staring down at her, and a hand reaching for her, ready to haul Adora to her feet.
“I’m here, princess,” Catra says. “And if anyone’s going to be kicking your butt...it’s gonna be me.”
With Adora still more-or-less paralyzed, Catra figures they have little choice except camp for the night. And even if Adora wasn’t paralyzed...Catra would still probably want to camp. She’s exhausted. She spent her whole day wandering aimlessly through the Waste, then utterly sprinted after Adora when she discovered those footprints.
Catra’s legs are dangerously close to collapse. And unlike Adora...Catra can’t blame a paralyzing dart for that.
Catra drags Adora some distance from the canyon—far enough away that those two attackers won’t find them (Catra is particularly worried that they’ll be back with reinforcements), but not so far that Catra’s legs collapse beneath her.
Catra picks a spot between two large boulders, figuring it’d be difficult to spot a camp between them. She staggers as she lowers Adora to the ground, leaving her sitting awkwardly—half-paralyzed—with her hands still bound together. Catra can see how Adora’s skin has started to scratch and bruise beneath the metal shackles.
Luckily, Catra had the smarts to take that knife from Adora’s attacker. She now uses it to pick the lock on Adora’s cuffs, eventually wriggling them open with a soft click and the dull thud of metal hitting sand.
It seems that the dart’s poison is worn off enough that Adora can rub at her own wrists. Catra resists the urge to wince in sympathetic pain as small specks of blood smear beneath Adora’s hands, spread about by her attempts to massage feeling into her bruised skin.
Catra doesn’t know why she does that. Why she winces. She’s scratched Adora during the war—drawn blood. This shouldn’t be that different.
But then she remembers that it is different. When she scratched Adora...she was always transformed into She-Ra. And it was easier for Catra to watch She-Ra bleed. She-Ra, who, as far as Catra is concerned, is little more familiar than a stranger.
But it’s not so easy to watch Adora bleed in She-Ra’s place.
“Thank you,” Adora says, voice somewhere between soft and awed. Which must mean she has also regained the ability to speak.
Catra doesn’t really know what to say. You’re welcome feels too polite after everything they’ve been through. Don’t mention it simply won’t work; Catra absolutely knows that Adora will use this little incident to tease her in the future. And whatever just seems too flippant.
Catra just sprinted across the Waste to save Adora. At this point, Catra can’t even pretend to be flippant. Not after Catra’s recent behavior, and especially not now that she has dragged Adora’s listless body across the desert.
Shit. How in the ever-loving hell did Catra end up caring this much about Adora again?
So instead of replying, Catra just says, “We should probably build a fire.”
The problem is, Catra doesn’t really remember how to build a fire. They were taught survival skills in the Horde, of course. Survival training 1-0-1—tons of simulations and written exams and practical evaluations. But those trainings were so long ago that Catra can’t recall the steps.
She does what she can, based on what she can remember. She gathers tumbleweeds and cacti and dead roots, anything that looks like it will burn nicely. Adora watches as Catra collects these things. Wordless. Not judgemental, exactly, but itching to contribute. Catra can tell. Adora always has to be the one to do things, to save people. She can’t stand to be taken care of. And it was probably humiliating enough that she needed to be saved by Catra.
But now Catra hesitates—standing in front of that pile of kindling, unsure what to do next.
So of course Adora notices. And of course Adora tries to help.
“You’re gonna want to start a friction fire,” Adora says, jerking her head toward a big piece of wood that Catra clipped from a strange-looking cactus nearby. “You should split that one in two. Use half as the spindle, the other half as the fireboard.”
Catra huffs, but nonetheless does as Adora suggests—using her claws to slice through the wood. “You still remember all that survival shit?”
Adora shrugs. “I used to memorize everything, back in the Horde.”
“Because you wanted to be the best,” says Catra. “Better than everyone.”
Better than me, Catra thinks.
Adora seems to sink lower to the ground, allowing her chin to rest between her arms. “Something like that,” she replies, like she’s not proud of it. “Not that any of it really mattered.”
Catra lets that silence linger for several moments. But after suffering too many stifling, motionless moments...Catra simply cannot take it anymore. It’s actually pretty cold without the Waste’s punishing sunlight overhead. The sooner Catra builds this fire, the better.
“So?” Catra asks, referring to the fire. “What do I do next?”
Adora smiles just a little at Catra’s impatience. “Cut a notch in the shape of a triangle.”
And Catra does. Her claws allow her to slice through whatever needs to be carved away. Adora, meanwhile, sits and issues advice based on Catra’s progress.
Finally, Catra is at the point that she can start rolling the spindle between her palms, trying to rub a fire to life on the board below. As she keeps her hands moving, she looks up at Adora—who is watching her in turn.
“You know what I don’t understand,” Catra says, just to make conversation. “Why the hell did you walk through that canyon like that? I mean, you must’ve known it was risky.”
Adora pauses before answering.
“I thought it was a shortcut,” she replies, quietly. Barely loud enough for Catra to hear.
“A shortcut?” echoes Catra. “A shortcut to what?”
Adora sighs but does not answer.
“Look, if you were heading somewhere in particular—somewhere besides more desert, I mean—I’d love to hear about it. As far as I’ve seen, there’s literally nothing in this barren hellscape—”
“I thought it’d be a shortcut back to you,” Adora tells her, finally.
Catra stares blankly as Adora rubs at her own face. Rubbing, as though Adora might scrub away the blush that heats across her cheeks. But it only makes them all the redder.
Catra doesn’t understand. She doesn’t understand what Adora means, and she especially doesn’t understand why Adora is blushing.
“What are you saying?” asks Catra.
Catra suddenly realizes that her hands have slowed too much. She scrambles to restore her pace—and the friction that might still produce a fire for them. “Last I remember, you were walking away from me—”
Adora releases a blustering sigh, louder than all the ones before. “I know,” she tells Catra. “And I shouldn’t have done that. I realized that within a couple hours of doing it. I thought it was what you wanted. To have me gone. And I was hurt enough to give it to you.”
Smoke fizzles at the base of the spindle, but Catra’s eyes are still on Adora.
“And what changed your mind?” Catra asks. For some reason, she can’t manage to muster a volume louder than a whisper.
“I realized that...even if you did want me gone,” Adora continues, “I didn’t want you gone. Because even though we’re enemies, even though you probably hate me…” Adora scoffs. “I still care about you. And I want to keep you safe, if you’ll let me.”
Catra gapes at her, speechless. The minutes drag across her vision in utter silence, save the sound of her hands working the spindle—moving it mechanically, seemingly of their own volition. Her brain certainly isn’t in the proper place to control them.
Catra still doesn’t understand. How could Adora still care about Catra? Adora’s every action seems to wholly disprove that idea. Adora wouldn’t have let Shadow Weaver treat Catra the way she always did, Adora wouldn’t have left, wouldn’t have broken their promise—
“You look out for me, and I look out for you.”
Months after Adora abandoned Catra… Adora declares that she wants the promise to remain unbroken. How does that make any sense?
“Uh, Catra?” Adora points to the spindle. “The ember. It’s done.”
Catra jolts as though broken from a trance, eyes flitting to the base of the spindle. And there, as Adora said, is the ember—smoldering red-orange beneath a curtain of thick gray smoke. The very ember that will create their fire.
“Shit, right,” Catra murmurs to herself. She has the ember, just as she wanted. But Catra doesn’t know what to do with it now that it’s lit. “Ah...do I…?”
She shoots Adora a questioning glance, only to discover Adora crawling closer. Catra doesn’t know if the dart has worn off enough for her to walk yet, but she’s clearly capable of moving on her knees if nothing else.
Catra gulps when Adora settles herself directly across from Catra. For a moment, they merely sit there—exchanging a too-long, too-lingering look, one where Adora’s obnoxiously blue eyes seem to swallow Catra whole—before Adora breaks eye contact to glance at the ember below.
She leans down, hands braced on both sides of the fireboard. Her lips pucker mere inches away from the ember and then, with a slow, mighty exhale, Adora breathes more life into the ember—more brightness. So much that it achieves the form of a flame, rather than a vaguely glowing collection of friction-heated debris.
Adora smiles and sits back up.
“There,” she says, triumphant. And Catra freezes as Adora reaches out, guiding Catra’s hand to the fireboard. Enclosing Catra’s hand within her own. Together, they use the fireboard to scoop up the ember and drop it onto the collection of dry kindling that Catra gathered.
Adora’s skin is warm, comfortingly so. Catra would assume it was the residual heat from the ember if it wasn’t exactly how Catra remembers it, back when they used to hold hands freely.
“We should have a roaring fire in no time,” Adora murmurs.
And Adora is not wrong. The flames spread from the ember to the various tumbleweeds and cacti, quickly growing from a tiny spark to a veritable campfire. One that utterly soaks the surrounding air in heat and light.
It’s only after several moments of watching the fire rise that Catra realizes that Adora is still holding her hand. A fit of panic overtakes her, and she snatches it frantically from Adora’s grasp—instead crossing both arms over her chest.
“You said you wanted to keep me safe,” Catra grumbles, referring to the last thing Adora said before the fire-making stole their joint attention. “That’s kind of hilarious, considering that I had to rescue you.”
Adora snorts and pushes a stray hair behind her ear. “Yeah, well. Getting shot with a paralyzing dart wasn’t exactly my plan. If it were a real fight...things would’ve been different.”
Catra scoffs, but not in a way that’s disbelieving. Adora could always handle herself in a fight, even before She-Ra. That dart thing...that was definitely a dirty trick. One that might have caught even Catra off-guard, if the situation were reversed.
“Question is…” Adora continues, letting the words linger in their slow trail-off. “Why did you rescue me?”
“It was kind of an accident,” Catra admits. “I think I was walking in circles for a while. And I happened to look down and...well...I saw your footprints.”
Adora smirks and knocks her shoulder into Catra’s. “So, what? You couldn’t stay away?”
Catra shoves her away, but playfully. Not in the forceful, antagonistic way that they’ve been grappling in the last few months. But in the way Catra always did, back whenever Adora was acting particularly smug.
“I saw your footprints...and the footprints of someone following you,” Catra amends. “And I thought...well…” She swallows thickly, and Catra hopes it’s not obvious. “I’ll never get my chance to beat She-Ra if some stupid Crimson Waste goons kill her first.”
Another pause. And then Adora chuckles like it’s the funniest thing she’s ever heard. “Right,” says Adora. “If I’m a wimp...then that means you’re the person who lost to a wimp. Several times.”
“Please,” Catra huffs. “I did not lose. At most, they were stalemates—”
“Still,” Adora says. “I can’t believe you rescued me. That’s pretty embarrassing for you, Force Captain.”
Catra draws her knees beneath her chin. “Yeah, well,” she says. “I’m not Force Captain anymore, am I?”
More silence. And this stretch of it lasts particularly long. Longer than Catra can bear, especially with Adora’s pitying, unwavering stare attached to Catra’s face.
“It’s just kinda weird, I guess,” Catra adds. “That I managed to cross your path like that. The chances must’ve been pretty small, and yet—”
“The universe keeps shoving us together?” Adora finishes for her. “Whether it’s the Crystal Castle, Princess Prom, Salineas—”
“Guess we’re destined to fight wherever we go.”
The fire climbs to an even greater height, crackling and whipping in the light desert breeze. Catra watches it with rapt attention, fearful to let her gaze linger on Adora for too long.
“But we don’t have to fight, you know,” Adora replies. “I mean...what’s the point of it now? There’s no rebellion here. And no Horde. There’s just you and me, and a lot of things that wouldn’t hesitate to kill either of us.”
“So, what?” Catra says. “We pretend to be a team again? After everything?”
“If it keeps us alive,” says Adora. “I’m willing to put all that aside if you are.”
Catra hums. She knows that Adora is right, objectively. She knew that from the very start—that they’d have a better chance at staying alive if they stick together, and watch each other’s backs.
Catra saved Adora today. But it could’ve just as easily been Catra rendered paralyzed by those darts. Having someone look out for her, and vice versa...it might save her life. Someone needs to keep watch while Catra sleeps. Someone needs to tell Catra how to do this basic survival shit, like building fires in the middle of a desert. Who else would remember that kind of useless nonsense if not Adora?
“You look out for me, and I look out for you.”
But Catra also knows that she can’t trust Adora. She knows that Adora wouldn’t be asking this if there was someone else to trust besides Catra. Catra is second best to Adora’s rebel friends, after all. Second best to Adora’s chance to be a big hero to the rebellion.
But right here, right now...Catra is all she has. And chances are, Adora’s friends will never find her again. They may very well be stuck with each other, or no one at all.
And despite everything, despite how Adora must truly feel about her—like Catra is nothing in comparison with She-Ra’s grand destiny—Catra doesn’t want to spend the rest of her life alone in this desert wasteland.
Catra can feel Adora staring at her. It’s a pleading stare. A hopeful stare. Urging her, however silently.
“Fine,” mutters Catra as she finally meets Adora’s eyes. “But you better keep your promise this time. The one we made, back when we were kids.”
Adora tenses at the mention of it—the promise. The thing that tied them together at the very start of their lives. Does Adora recall how she broke it, and left Catra to fend completely for herself?
Catra points at Adora’s chest—at the torn-up, sweat-soaked remains of her red jacket. “You look out for me.” She points to herself. “And I look out for you. We don’t let anything bad happen to each other.”
“Do you promise?” Catra demands, even though it’s likely a meaningless thing. This promise. Just as it was the first time.
“I promise you, Catra,” Adora says, and Catra can’t stand how genuine, how earnest her expression is. Like Adora is not even capable of lying. Like she’s never contemplated breaking a promise in her entire life.
But of course, Catra knows that’s not true. And Catra cannot believe that she’s failing for it again. Even if it might keep Catra alive for a little longer, having Adora by her side.
But Adora’s gaze is steady. She means her words right now, even if she won’t later. “This time, I promise I’ll do whatever it takes to keep you safe.”
Catra sighs in exasperation. Or at least...that’s what she thinks it is. But it might actually feel more like relief, though even she doesn’t quite understand why.
“And so long as we’re here...I promise to do the same,” Catra mutters. Then adds, for good measure—“No matter how annoying you get.”
Adora grins. Her eyes are gleaming a frustratingly attractive blue in the firelight. Pools of gratitude with an edge of mischief.
“So I’m allowed to annoy you as much as I want?” Adora asks, one eyebrow raised.
And it’s not until that moment that Catra measures the depth of the hole she’s dug for herself—the implication of Adora’s smirk and mischievous eyes.
Adora turns from Catra, staring instead at the fire.
“Good to know.”
“Our spies bring news,” Juliet says, standing at attention beside the Bright Moon war table—hands clasped behind her back.
Around the table, the princesses shift, focusing their attention on Juliet with palpable apprehension.
Glimmer summoned them here, hoping for good news—and to immediately organize Adora’s rescue, once the meeting is over. She’ll likely need every available princess to pull this off.
Most of them are here, thankfully. Netossa and Spinnerella are seated in their usual chairs. Mermista and Perfuma have also claimed seats of their own, across from Glimmer and Bow. And even Frosta decided to come, her shoulders at table-height as she sits in the too-low chairs—though Glimmer is wary to allow someone so young to visit a location as deadly as the Fright Zone.
Not, of course, that Perfuma and Mermista aren’t also reluctant to go back. Their last trip into the Fright Zone was fairly traumatic for the lot of them. Entrapta’s loss is not something easily forgotten or overcome, and they’re likely all worried about being the next one to meet their fate in the Fright Zone.
But they can’t afford to not stage this rescue. Glimmer will not abandon Adora, not for anything. Adora rescued Glimmer. Glimmer will never forgive herself if she’s unable to return the favor.
And everyone in the rebellion agrees that they need She-Ra now more than ever. The Horde is very, very aware that the rebellion’s heaviest hitter has been removed from the equation, and Hordak’s forces have been probing the rebel kingdoms’ borders with newfound ferocity.
“Our scouts have made a troubling discovery,” Juliet continues, with a concerned glance at Angella at the head of the table. One that Glimmer isn’t sure she likes. “Adora has been...removed from the Fright Zone.”
The entire room seems to freeze. Glimmer’s heart plummets to some spot far beneath her feet.
“What…” Glimmer swallows thickly. “What do you mean, removed? She hasn’t been...y’know…”
Killed, her traitorous brain supplies. But Glimmer cannot muster the willingness to actually utter that word.
“She has not been killed, not as far as our spies have been able to confirm. All they know is that she was transported to the Fright Zone after having been kidnapped, interrogated...but the trail ends there. She has since disappeared. The Fright Zone’s records indicate that she has been transported elsewhere, but it did not specify a location.”
“Well, that’s good, isn’t it?” Bow says, ever the optimist. “Wherever she’s been sent, it’ll likely be easier to infiltrate than the Fright Zone.”
“The problem is that we don’t know where she is,” Juliet says, solemnly. “And we have since lost contact with our spies.” She sighs and lowers her eyes to the tabletop, rather than meet the eyes of the princesses watching her. “We believe they have been discovered and killed.”
And again, everyone seems to freeze—unsure what to say. Bright Moon’s spies are supposed to be incredibly well-trained, many of them guided by Adora herself to fit into the Horde ranks without detection. If they were caught so quickly…
There’s little chance that Bright Moon will be able to send more spies to gather information. Not without putting those spies in significant danger. If the Horde discovered their previous spies, they’ve likely put even more safeguards in place. Safeguards to prevent Bright Moon from ever discovering where Adora has been taken.
Glimmer doesn’t know what to do. She doesn’t want anyone else to die...but she also doesn’t want to let this go. To let Adora go.
“That leaves us one viable option,” Queen Angella says, voice slicing through the silence. She speaks with such confidence and volume that Glimmer is almost startled by it. “We will need to capture Catra.”
Bow blinks. “What does Catra have to do with anything?”
“She is Hordak’s second-in-command,” Angella replies. “She captured Adora, she likely knows where Adora was sent. Therefore, if we can capture Catra, we might be able to interrogate her for Adora’s whereabouts.”
“Your Highness,” Bow says, with audible dismay. “We don’t. We don’t torture people—”
“No we do not, Bow,” Angella replies calmly. “But we do have access to Sorcerers. If we capture Catra, we can summon Castaspella and have her draw a truth spell—one that will harmlessly force Catra to tell us what we need to know.”
Bow relaxes a bit at that.
Mermista raises her hand, but doesn’t wait to be called on to speak. “Uh, yeah, quick question? How are we supposed to just capture Catra? We have no idea where she’ll be.”
“I imagine she’ll be leading whatever attacks the Horde deems most important,” Angella replies, scratching her chin. “Though if she is traveling on some sort of reconnaissance, that could prove troublesome for us.”
They sit in silence for several moments while Angella contemplates.
And then Angella sighs enormously.
“It might be worthwhile for us to put a significant bounty on Catra,” Angella decides. “A bounty for Catra to be captured alive and brought to Bright Moon. With the reward contingent on her survival and presence of mind, so that we can complete the spell.”
“That feels...pretty shady,” Bow admits. “There’s a chance that something could go wrong, and she gets killed before we get to talk to her—”
“I don’t know,” says Glimmer, with a smirk. “I kind of like the idea of Catra being hunted all across Etheria. It would serve her right after everything she’s done.”
“Yeah, same,” mutters Frosta. She crosses her arms. “It’s the least we could do after she ruined Princess Prom.”
“We can only hope that will not occur. With any luck, the right amount of money might convince even members of the Horde to betray her and hand her over,” Angella says.
“And if this fails?” Bow asks. “If the bounty doesn’t pan out, what do we do?”
“We find Catra on a battleground, just like we originally planned.”
“And if this bounty gets Catra killed?”
“Like I said…” Angella continues. “We should hope that it does not come to that.”
Bow still seems unconvinced. And Glimmer gets it. Truly, she does. They’re supposed to be the good guys. They defend themselves against the Horde. They don’t kidnap and interrogate and place bounties on their enemies’ heads.
But this might be their only chance to save Adora.
“I don’t know if hope’s enough, your highness,” Bow says.
“In times like these…” Angella murmurs. “Hope is really the only thing we can count on.”
Catra and Adora keep walking.
They walk and walk, unable to really say where they’re going, or how far they’ve travelled. The landscape is largely unchanging no matter how many miles they put behind them. All tumbleweeds and boulders and sun-scorched sand. Cacti and skeletons and serpent nests.
And while Adora is able to use some navigational skills she remembers from the Horde...there’s not much point in heading in a particular direction if they don’t have a destination in mind.
Until Catra actually decides a destination for them.
“Maybe we should head toward the center of the Waste?” Catra suggests.
Adora’s brows yank together. It seems the opposite of what they would want, going further into the Waste. Further into the desert. “Why there?”
“Everyone said the Crimson Waste was a dead zone,” Catra says. “But it’s not. There are people here. So maybe...maybe no one’s ever traveled far enough into the Waste. Maybe, at the center, there’s some sort of civilization. Somewhere with people. And therefore...somewhere with food and water.”
It’s a good enough theory for Adora. She uses a shard of metal from her cuffs to check their direction, then sets a vague course for the Waste’s center.
They quickly get a move on, trotting their way over sandy ground. They really don’t have time to waste. Hordak gave them no supplies, save the clothes on their backs. Which means that if Catra and Adora don’t find water soon...they’ll end up dying of thirst. And that’s hardly the glory-filled end either of them imagined for themselves.
Though this walk through the desert is a lot more pleasant than it was for Adora, back when they first arrived at the waste—back when Adora separated herself from Catra.
For one, it’s pretty great that Adora’s hands are no longer bound together. Adora figured she wouldn’t last more than a few hours with her hands cuffed; some desert predator or stretch of quicksand would off her fairly quickly. But now that they’re free...Adora has regained full ability to defend herself.
And protect Catra, if necessary.
Adora would also be lying if she said Catra’s presence wasn’t an improvement—and not just because it’s lonely and boring and dangerous to wander a desert by herself. Sure, it’s great, having someone to talk to. Having someone to watch Adora’s back. Having someone who warns her of dangers like quicksand or serpents, or keeps watch while Adora sleeps. But that would be true of any companion, really. And having Catra here...it truly is different. It’s something else. Something uniquely comforting. Something about Catra, in particular.
Adora has missed Catra since Adora left the Horde. Claiming anything otherwise would just be dishonest. And while she never missed the version of Catra who kidnapped Glimmer and Bow, or chose to leave Adora dangling off that cliff in the Crystal Castle, or attacked Bright Moon…
That just wasn’t the version of Catra that Adora knew, back in the Horde. The one who would help bandage Adora’s wounds. Or cover for Adora’s mistakes. Or pull pranks with Adora on the other cadets.
And she most certainly wasn’t the one who shared Adora’s bed—the one whose nightmares Adora soothed, and vice versa.
There’s always been something about Catra that just…
It feels like home. And no matter how many days or months or years Adora spent in Bright Moon, it never felt that way. Like home.
“Hey Adora!” Catra calls, and Adora can hear the laughter in her voice. “Come look at this cactus!”
Adora bounds to her side. Catra is grinning at her, a thumb pointed over her shoulder. “Doesn’t it look like Kyle?” Catra asks.
And with a glance and a snort, Adora acknowledges that Catra is right. It’s a short cactus—lean and bulbous in some places—and if Adora did not know better, she’d mistake the cactus for Kyle’s lanky silhouette.
“You’re right,” Adora says, giggling. And Catra joins in her laughter, setting a hand on Adora’s shoulder as she bends over, peels of laughter rocking through her body.
Maybe it’s delirium from walking in the desert for too long. Maybe the cactus really is hilarious. Adora doesn’t really know, doesn’t really care. It’s a good distraction from their circumstances. And it’s been far too long since Adora has seen Catra happy about something that doesn’t involve destroying the rebellion.
Adora tugs Catra’s arm along. “Come on,” Adora says, biting back a smile. “We should go before its bad luck rubs off on us.”
Catra stumbles after her, still laughing, and then they keep going.
It’s surprising to Adora, how quickly Catra falls back into the habit of joking around with her. Catra teases her every time Adora trips or says something stupid, just like she used to. And not in a malicious way, either. If anything, it’s like she wouldn’t want Adora to be anything but this, anything but imperfect and herself, with clumsy feet and tongue.
And she doesn’t hesitate to help Adora, either—correcting her with some lighthearted teasing, or helping Adora regain her footing.
“What would your soldiers in the Horde think of you if they saw you doing this?” Adora jokes from the ground, having been toppled there by a boulder hidden beneath a sand dune. “Force Captain Catra, helping a princess to her feet? No one would believe their eyes.”
She takes Catra’s outstretched hand, allowing herself to be again hauled off her ass.
Catra smirks as Adora brushes a coating of dirt off her bottom. “You’re no princess here, princess. You’re a nobody—just like me. A nobody trying to survive.”
Adora can’t really disagree. And for the first time in a long while, she lets herself wonder what the other princesses are doing. Have they even noticed that Adora is gone? Do they even care? Are they trying to stage a rescue? And if they are...do they know how hopelessly lost Adora is?
“What about you?” Catra asks, and there’s a softness to Catra’s voice that surprises Adora. “What would the rebels think if they saw you here, with me?”
Adora shrugs. “They probably wouldn’t recognize me, to be honest.”
Catra’s eyebrows pull low over her eyes. “C’mon,” Catra says, and she flicks at the collar of Adora’s torn up jacket. “I didn’t scratch your clothes up that much—”
“That’s not what I mean,” Adora says, resuming her walking. “It’s just that...most people wouldn’t recognize me, in general. Not when I look like myself. It’s She-Ra that people know. Adora’s always been a nobody as far as the rebellion is concerned—”
Catra shoots her an odd look. For a second it almost seems...sad. But it quickly transitions to something teasing, something that makes Adora think that she must have imagined that look in the first place.
“Yeah, well,” Catra says, punching Adora lightly in the shoulder as she takes the lead, gesturing for Adora to follow. “I’d rather have Adora here, anyway. She-Ra attracts far too much attention. And with all that gold on her? We’d definitely get robbed, no doubt about it—”
“I thought you didn’t want me around at all,” Adora says, and forces humor into the words. But still those words ring in Adora’s ears—I didn’t want you to come back.
Adora and Catra are supposed to be looking out for one another now. Adora shouldn’t be reminding Catra about what happened in the Crystal Castle—she knows it will only drive a wedge between this fragile connection they’ve rebuilt. Best to play it off as a joke, this selfish prying. This misguided attempt to understand why Catra said such a hurtful thing, and left Adora for dead.
“Well...maybe I was lying,” Catra replies, and doesn’t turn around to face Adora as she says the words. “Maybe it was She-Ra that I didn’t want to be around.”
“But if I rejoined the Horde, it wouldn’t be as She-Ra,” Adora says, confused at Catra’s meaning.
Catra sends a look over her shoulder. A wordless one, her eyebrow raised as if to say, are you so sure?
Hordak stands on a platform, facing lines upon lines of his soldiers. Soldiers who stand at attention in deference to his orders.
He places his hands behind his back, pushes his shoulders back. His glowing red eyes scan the soldiers ahead of him. He cannot see many faces beneath the ocean of metal helmets. Though there are a few exceptions. Entrapta. Force Captain Scorpia, whose exoskeleton renders armor redundant.
“I am sure you are all wondering why I have asked for your attention,” Hordak says, and his voice is magnified by a microphone attached to his metal suit. It echoes across the high ceilings of this chamber. “You are also probably wondering why Force Captain Catra has ceased issuing orders.”
He pauses, head swiveling to make fiery eye contact with random members of the crowd.
“Force Captain Catra is a traitor,” Hordak says, clearly emphasizing every word. “She betrayed the Horde. She tried to help the rebel prisoner known as She-Ra escape.”
Hordak expected some discord to result from this revelation. Some whispers. Some gasps. Some denials, claims that it couldn’t be true.
But the chamber remains largely silent. Silent, save for a sharp inhale from Force Captain Scorpia, whose face is slack with shock—pincers raised to cover her mouth.
But no one else expresses disbelief, or upset.
“As punishment, she joined the prisoner in being exiled to the Crimson Waste,” Hordak continues with a smirk. “And there, they will both suffer a slow and painful death—one wrought from endless wandering, starvation, and thirst.”
Another sound from Scorpia—a frightened whimper of some kind, loud enough to be grating to Hordak’s ears. But he chooses not to comment on it.
“She will never be found. Never be seen again,” says Hordak. “Some of you may have also heard that we’ve had a recent uptick in infiltrations from rebel sympathizers—Catra included. All have been caught. All have been executed or exiled.” He takes a step forward. “Traitors and spies are not tolerated in my empire. Let this be a lesson to those who consider defecting, or have lost faith in my leadership. Serve me, and you will join me in ruling this planet. Betray me...and you will suffer the most painful death you can imagine. I have proven that time and time again.”
He lets the words linger for several moments, reverberating across the ceiling. Cementing themselves into his soldiers’ minds. He hopes, beneath the helmets, that they are afraid. That they are sweating. That they are reconsidering any misplaced ambition to leave the Horde, or help the rebellion.
And then, when the silence draws long and awkward, almost accusatory in its length when coupled with Hordak’s hard stare...he waves a hand.
“You are dismissed. Return to your duties.”
And with that, the soldiers file from the chamber.
“You were right,” Adora breathes, wide eyes affixed to the structure just ahead. “There are people at the center of the Crimson Waste.”
Adora and Catra are hiding behind a boulder, occasionally glancing over the top at some sort of building just beyond. A building formed from the skeleton of some enormous horned beast, its bones draped with cloths and clotheslines.
Adora watches as a pair of rugged-looking people walk into the once-maw of the skeleton. Entering it together. Though for what purpose, Adora doesn’t know. They’re the third group of people that Adora and Catra have seen since they arrived and chose to stake out the location.
“What do you think is in there?” Catra asks, clinging to the face of the rock.
She glances down at Adora, an eyebrow raised in parallel with the upturned corner of her lips. “Think there’s water?”
Adora finds herself licking her lips at the very thought. At this point, Adora can hardly remember the last time she had a drink. It’s a miracle that she hasn’t passed out from exhaustion already.
“If not water…” Adora says, “then someone who knows where to find some.”
Catra hums her agreement and detaches herself from the rock, landing in front of Adora in the sand. She rubs her hands against each other, brushing pebbles from the creases in her palms. “First thing’s first,” Catra says, craning her neck around the boulder to get one last glance at that building sprouted from bone.
But then she’s turning back to Adora, hands traveling a downward path in gesture to Adora’s clothes, her nose wrinkled in distaste. “We’ve got to do something about…” She waves her hand. “This.”
Adora looks down at her outfit. Admittedly, it’s never been the pinnacle of fashion—this jacket/trouser combination. And it’s especially worn-looking now, with Catra’s claws having torn numerous holes across the fabric. It hangs off Adora’s arms and body in a rather unflattering way, she notices. Though Adora doesn’t blame herself for prioritizing staying alive over fashion.
“Oh come on,” Adora complains, stamping her foot. “You’re the one who made it look this way.”
“Yeah, well, that was to keep you alive,” Catra replies as she plucks at one of the tears rent by her own claws. “But now you look like you’ve just been jumped, or something. Which will make people think you’re an easy mark.” She smirks. “Or…”
Adora raises an eyebrow. She doesn’t much like the mischief in Catra’s eyes. “What?”
“Or they’ll think I did this to you, and you let me,” Catra says, voice dropped low. Her fingers rub along the fabric of Adora’s collar. “That you let me mark you up which...y’know. Has its implications.”
Oh, Adora thinks.
She gulps as a truly sweltering blush begins to spread across Adora’s skin. But no matter how she tries to stave it off—shove it back down—it manages to gain red-hot ground across her cheeks. As it overcomes her, all she can do is stare at Catra, unsure what to say. Blinking endlessly as she hopes to summon coherence.
A beat passes, though it feels like an hour of silence to Adora. And she still hasn’t replied when Catra takes a step back and releases a sound—some shrill and stilted cross between a cough and a laugh. One that is, without a doubt, more nervous than humorous. Adora knows enough about Catra to tell that much.
Catra’s hand comes to rub at her neck, massaging a spot behind her thick hair. “I’m kidding, obviously,” Catra says, with an eye roll. One that seems determined to avoid Adora’s gaze. “Really had you going there, didn’t I?”
Adora forces out a chuckle of her own. “Yeah,” she says. “Good one.”
“But my point still stands,” continues Catra. “We need to do something about your clothes.”
“Well, what can we do?” Adora demands, shrugging helplessly. “It’s not like I have anything else to wear.
Catra hums and tucks a hand just below her chin, staring at the jacket in quiet contemplation. Examining it for a solution. And Adora has seen this look before—it’s the same look Catra wore when planning pranks back in the Horde. The look of an artist trying to add some missing component to a painting.
And then, finally, she seems to realize what’s missing.
“Here,” says Catra, reaching for what remains of Adora’s sleeve.
Adora doesn’t even have time to react—time to stop her—as Catra curls her hand into that sleeve and tugs. Tugs and tugs, until the seam pulls apart at the shoulder.
“Hey!” Adora cries, but it’s too late. The sleeve is already torn away and dropping gracelessly into the sand. Yet another scrap of dirty fabric to sink beneath the sands of the Crimson Waste.
“It’s already torn up,” Catra says. “This is barely any different.”
Adora makes a frustrated noise. Because Catra is right, of course. The jacket really is beyond repair at this point. But that doesn’t change the fact that Catra could have asked. Adora has had this jacket since she was fourteen, it’s practically a part of her—
“Look. You’re not She-Ra here. You’re not a Horde soldier either,” Catra says. “You’re just you. So you might as well change up your look to reflect that.”
She smiles at Adora. Smiles encouragingly.
And Adora has definitely missed these kinds of moments—moments where Catra’s whole attention was devoted to comforting her, comforting Adora, in these rare moments of trepidation or self-doubt. Sure, Adora always pretends to be confident. But Catra can always identify when Adora’s confidence collapses—and can always pick the right words to push her forward...or break her into pieces.
This time, she chooses the former.
“Just trust me, okay?” Catra says. “You’ll look good no matter what I do. I’m just trying to make you look a little less suspicious. Besides...” She gestures to the burning sun overhead. “You’re clearly sweating your ass off in all these layers. This will help.”
And Adora can’t really say no, after that. Adora has been rather stifled beneath so many clothes. Sweating through her shirt and jacket. And Catra..
Well. She seems to know exactly what she’s doing.
So Adora grumbles her annoyance...then grumbles her assent. What’s the harm in it, anyway? It’s not like anyone she knows will see her, judge her. No one except Catra, anyway.
And it might be nice to get some cool air on her skin.
Before long, Catra has torn the other sleeve from its seam, leaving Adora’s arms bare up to the shoulders. It’s more skin than Adora has ever exposed in her life, save the bathing suit she (reluctantly) wore while visiting Mystacor’s hot springs, and the dress Glimmer helped her pick for princess prom. She felt comfortable in neither outfit. But she also refused to wear them for long.
Catra does something similar to Adora’s trousers, using her cut claws to away the lower and mid-pant legs. Tearing, tearing, until the once-long pants now cover only down to her mid-thigh.
Adora feels frighteningly bare. How do people go about wearing so little, every inch of skin exposed for attack? And yes, she knows that a jacket won’t do much to stop a weapon, but it’s the principle of the thing—
“There,” Catra says, looking Adora up and down as if measuring her every limb. She appears pleased with the result. “That’s better, isn’t it?”
Adora gives something embarrassingly close to a whine. “I don’t know, Catra…” she murmurs. “I just...I’m sure I don’t look very good like this—”
Catra’s eyebrows shoot up.
“Are you kidding?” she says, gesturing to Adora’s arms. “To be honest, I’ve never understood why you don’t show off your muscles more. You look great.”
Adora blushes and rubs at those very same arms, as though confirming that they are, in fact, muscular. And she supposes they are. She trains constantly, and she’s always known that her physical fitness might be key to her survival if she’s ever separated from the sword.
Separated from the sword...like she is at this very moment.
And Adora remembers the truth. That no matter how good she thinks she looks as herself, her true self...She-Ra always looks better. She-Ra is the one that everyone wants to see, not Adora. She-Ra, with her golden hair and perfect muscles and incredible height—
And she sighs. She wonders what Hordak is doing with the sword at this very moment. She wonders what the rebellion is doing without her—
But then Catra is grabbing Adora’s arm, tugging her out from behind the boulder and toward that strange building made of bones.
“Come on,” Catra says. “If we want water, we don’t have much time to waste.”
Just before they head inside, Catra steals a frayed fabric scrap from one of the nearby clotheslines. Her uniform isn’t exactly standard for the Fright Zone, but it might still be identified as belonging to the Horde. Not to mention Catra still has a Force Captain’s badge pinned to her chest. That might bring trouble. It might not. Either way, Catra doesn’t want to risk it. She drapes the fabric over her shoulders like a shawl, using it to cover the badge as well as her shirt.
“Hey!” Adora whispers in protest. They’re close enough to the entrance that they may be overheard. “Why do you get to wear more layers?”
Catra rolls her eyes. “I’m just covering up anything that looks like it might be from the Horde.”
Of course, Catra could just toss away her badge. She’d have less chance of being identified without it.
It’s a conclusion that Adora must also come to, since her eyes narrow at the spot where the badge rests, just beneath the fabric. Her chin juts out in annoyance.
“Look, I’d rather not sweat under this thing at all, but we can't be sure how the people in there will react—”
“Whatever,” Adora mutters, like she doesn’t believe Catra—but also doesn’t want to argue with her.
Catra swipes across the curtain hanging in the skeleton’s mouth—the one that conceals the entrance. It pushes aside with the flapping of fabric, revealing a room filled with people. Lots of them, more than Catra ever imagined in such a desolate part of the Crimson Waste. People at tables, people in chairs, people at a bar at the far end of the room. A ragged, beat-up, tired looking crowd—each coated in sand, fur and skin all scratched and banged up.
Many of them are crouched over drinks and small plates of food, but very few of them are sitting close to one another, let alone talking. Catra catches glimpses of weapons. The sleek glint of a knife. The half-worn shine of a leather whip. The shimmer from the tip of an arrowhead.
Which means that everyone is armed. And everyone is dangerous, especially to Catra and Adora—who have only Catra’s claws and a stolen knife to defend themselves. These are outlaws, most likely, with no authority to keep them in check.
Though none of them look at Catra and Adora when they enter. Catra’s attempts to disguise them must have paid off—they must appear sufficiently ragged and beat-up. Enough to hide the fact that they’re outsiders.
This must be some sort of saloon, Catra thinks. She’s heard about them in Horde trainings about towns along the coasts, though she’s never actually been to one. Dining places that serve beverages, usually those with alcohol. A fermented liquid that was always forbidden in the Horde—not that the rule ever stopped Catra from stealing sips from contraband that the Horde stole during their raids.
Most of the drinks are things that Catra cannot identify. Dark beverages that glint like amber, sun-speared by light that streams through a hole in the ceiling. But she sees a couple that appear clear, thin. And Catra cannot help but grin and think, water. Her chapped lips seem to burn with anticipation at the very thought.
A thought so overwhelming that she nearly forgets to account for Adora.
“Whoa,” Adora breathes. “This place is...wow…”
And then she’s striding forward, fearlessly walking toward the bar like they’re not currently in a room filled to the brim with armed outlaws, There’s this smile plastered to her face—wide, unassuming, and so very Adora. A sweet smile that demonstrates how little Adora fears the danger around them. Or maybe just has yet to acknowledge its existence.
“Adora!” Catra hisses, scrambling after her. But she’s not quite fast enough to stop Adora before she reaches the bar. Not fast enough to stop Adora from smiling and saying, “Two glasses of water please!” to the very big, very muscular bartender.
And of course that gives them away.
The bartender exhales sharply, nostrils flared. Her eyes narrowed in accusation. She doesn’t fulfill the request, nor does she reply. She merely keeps cleaning one of her glasses. Though the rag she’s cleaning with seems just as dirty as the glass if not worse, so Catra doesn’t really see the point.
After a tense moment of eye contact, the bartender simply walks away.
“Adora,” Catra hisses. “Everyone here is armed. We need to blend in, not look like easy-mark tourists.”
Adora blinks. “What did I do?” she asks. “I just asked for some water, which is what we came for—”
Catra groans. How does she explain this? That it’s less about what Adora did, and more about how she did it. Politely, adorably. And Catra gets the feeling that those two things don’t last for long in the Crimson Waste—politeness and adorableness.
But she doesn’t get the chance to explain. Not before a voice calls out—spits, really—“Hey! It’s you!”
Adora and Catra spin around, confused. No one should recognize them here. Not unless there are recently defected members of the Horde, ones who recognize Catra on sight, or big She-Ra fans from the rebellion who can, in fact, recognize Adora when de-transformed. But Adora was the last defector that Catra was informed about, and Adora mentioned the rebels were equally unaware of the Crimson Waste’s living population.
But then they see. It’s not someone from the Horde, or the rebellion. It’s the two goons who shot Adora with that paralyzing dart—the goat-like one with the cloven feet and lizard lady with the clawed toes.
Shit, Catra thinks.
They storm over to the bar, fists clenched at their sides. Clearly itching for a fight. Beside her, Catra can feel Adora tensing at the sight of them. Adora isn’t usually first to throw a punch—especially not as She-Ra—but Catra suspects that these two had an effect on her. It’s not often that Adora is rendered so helpless to an attack. And now she likely wants to prove just how not helpless she is.
“You!” the goat woman says, pointing an accusing finger at Catra. “You snuck up on us!”
Catra glances around. Of course, all eyes in the bar are now fastened to the four of them—and this altercation brewing between them. The goat woman wasn’t exactly quiet when she stormed their way.
Catra knows that her reaction to this will be important. React wrong, and everyone will think she’s an outsider. Worse, they’ll think she’s weak. Easily pushed around. Easily defeated. That’s not a good reputation to have anywhere, let alone outlaw-country like the Crimson Waste.
She needs to make an impression. If she doesn’t...these goons might not be the last to attack Adora and Catra.
So Catra shrugs and examines her fingernails.
“So we outsmarted your ambush with an ambush of our own,” Catra replies, nonchalant. “Big deal. Get over it.”
“You don’t get to do that,” the goat woman says, taking yet another threatening step forward. Catra feels Adora shifting behind her, preparing to meet the goat woman halfway—but Catra throws out an arm to hold her back.
“You and your friend were wandering Huntara’s territory,” the goat woman continues. And beside her, her reptilian friend cracks her knuckles. “Only Huntara’s gang gets to set up traps in her territory—”
“And is she here? Your boss?” Catra asks, cocking an eyebrow. Her eyes sweep the bar. “Because I’m sure this Huntara person would love to hear about how easily I scared you two wimps off. Something tells me she gets angrier at cowards than she does at trespassers. ”
At that, the goat woman’s eyes widen in fear. She glances about, checking if this Huntara is, in fact, present in the room. But she ultimately sighs in relief and returns her snarling gaze to Catra’s face. Huntara is absent, it seems.
“You’re lucky she’s not here,” goat woman hisses. “She’d destroy the both of you.”
Catra smirks and keeps her eyebrow raised. “Wanna bet?”
The goat woman’s expression hardens, her entire face contorted in anger. She gestures to the lizard woman beside her. “You stole my friend’s knife. If you don’t return it to us...we’re going to make the two of you very sorry.”
“What, this old thing?” asks Catra, pulling the knife from beneath her shawl of ragged fabric. It looks the same as it did on the night she stole it—carved from bone, gleaming with eerie paleness. “You’re seriously going to threaten me over this?”
Catra rolls her eyes and extends the knife to them, hilt outward. Blade balanced on her palm. Both women flinch as she does so—blinking helplessly as they try to process what’s happening. She doesn’t blame them—her behavior would strike anyone as strange. These women either expected Catra to cower and surrender the knife...or refuse the demand and start a fight.
They certainly don’t know what to do with this strange in-between. Catra, unafraid. Catra, handing over the knife like it’s nothing.
She shakes her hand a little, urging them to take it. “Well?”
Slowly, hesitantly, they look at each other, then return their eyes to the knife. The goat woman outstretches a hand of her own, prepared to take that knife, their hands nearly close enough to touch—
And then Catra acts. Laughing, she jolts the knife into the air and catches it with her other hand—fingers wrapping tightly around the hilt. The goat woman has hardly enough time to protest, “Hey—!” before Catra grabs her wrist and pins her hand to the bar’s tabletop.
At first, Catra uses only her fingers and her muscles to pin the goat woman’s hand in place. But then, just as quickly...she nails it there with the tip of the knife.
The goat woman howls as the knife embeds itself in her hand. Behind her, Catra hears Adora suck in a breath, but she doesn’t say a word beyond that.
“You said you wanted it back,” Catra says innocently as she circles the goat woman’s body. “You should have been more specific about where you wanted it—”
That’s when the lizard woman chooses to lunge—jumping to the defense of her companion. Catra is prepared, of course. Every muscle tensed in expectation of an attack, claws fully extended. Her plan at the moment is to claw until the lizard woman has no choice but to retreat.
But the lizard woman doesn’t get the chance. In a near-blur, Adora is there—snatching the lizard woman out of the air mid-lunge. Adora is quick to wrangle her into a truly arresting headlock. One that leaves the woman’s feet dangling off the ground and jerking in fear. No matter how her captive hisses and snaps and bites, Adora maintains a firm grasp. The lizard woman’s arms remain fully secured behind Adora’s.
“Can you hand me that bottle?” Adora asks, jerking her head in the direction of dusty glass bottle on the bar’s counter. Her voice is casual beyond belief. Like she’s asking for Catra to pass her a napkin during a meal, rather than asking for Catra to pass her a bottle during a bar brawl.
Catra obliges, of course. She grabs the bottle and holds it out for Adora to take—nudging Adora a bit with an elbow once it’s there.
Adora glances over her shoulder and smiles. “Thanks so much, Catra,” she says. And Catra fights a blush at the way she says it—with so much sincerity and affection. Way more than should be allowed during a bar fight, of all things.
“Yeah, whatever,” Catra mutters in reply, cheeks burning as Adora somehow manages to wrangle her captive into a one-armed hold. Adora is still smiling as she plucks the bottle from Catra’s grasp, and then, like she’s hammering a nail into place, she smashes it down upon the head of the woman—rendering her instantly limp and unconscious.
Not dead, though. Catra can see that by her breathing. Only Adora could manage to smash a bottle against someone’s head without drawing even a droplet of blood.
For a moment, they both stand there. Catching their breaths. Catra glances about the bar to see every eye still trained on them—though there’s a timidness in the looks now. Whenever she meets those gazes, they look away. As though afraid to be caught watching. As though afraid to be the next to suffer Catra and Adora’s wrath.
Good. In a place like this, it’s healthy to be feared. Being feared will keep them safe.
Catra also catches a glimpse of the goat woman trying to tug the knife from her hand. That white bone-carved knife, now stained red.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Catra says. “Tugging out the knife will only make you lose blood faster.” It’s basic enough knowledge from their Horde combat training, back in the day. “You’d better stay there until a medic can patch you up properly.”
The goat woman snarls at the suggestion—but nonetheless stops fiddling with the knife’s hilt.
Adora drops the lizard woman to the ground. She smirks at Catra, and Catra smirks back. Catra thought that Adora didn’t have the stomach for this sort of thing anymore—fighting the old-fashioned way, without sparkles and magic. Without frilly friendship and goodness as a guiding cause.
But maybe she was wrong. If anything, Adora looks sort of exhilarated.
“That was pretty amazing,” Adora breathes out, voice wavering with giddiness. And Catra is rather startled to notice that Adora is blushing too. Her cheeks tinged pink, eyes sparkling in that way only Adora’s do. The sight renders Catra momentarily slack-jawed. Slack-jawed, and speechless.
Until Catra shakes her head—shakes away her fixation on the color of Adora’s cheeks.
Probably just red from the fight, Catra assures herself.
“Yeah,” says Catra, nudging the unconscious body with a toe. “I forgot that we made a pretty good team. Back before we decided to kick each other’s asses, I mean.”
“I didn’t,” says Adora.
“Forget,” replies Adora, with an even wider smile. And fuck, that damn smile has always been contagious.
Catra reaches out. Hesitates. Then reaches out again, placing a hand at the small of Adora’s back so that she can guide Adora further down the bar—a suitable distance from the goat woman, who remains pinned, and the unconscious body of her companion. “C’mon,” Catra says. “I think we’ve definitely earned something to drink now.”
And Catra is right. This time, when Adora calls for two waters, the bartender simply places the glasses in front of them. No fuss. No hesitation.
From over the edge of those glasses, Catra and Adora smile at one another.
In no time at all, Adora and Catra decide to start walking again.
Catra saunters up to the still-pinned goat-woman at the bar, knocking their shoulders in pretend friendliness.
“We both know that this isn’t the only place to get a drink in the Waste,” Catra says. “Care to point us in the direction of the next town?”
The goat woman only snarls and curses in reply, swiping at Catra with her free hand. Catra expected as much, though. She easily dodges the attacks, shaking her head all the while. Occasionally meeting Adora’s gaze to share an eye roll.
And then, with a tsk-tsk noise, Catra simply reaches for the knife embedded into the back of the goat woman’s hand. She doesn’t pull it out. Not yet. But the tightness of her grasp on the hilt is sufficient threat that a tug is coming if the goat woman does not behave.
“I’m sure this nice bartender doesn’t want you to bleed out all over her counter,” Catra chides with a smirk. “So...if you want to keep the blood in your body...I’d suggest you point us in a direction.”
And so the goat woman does. Bitterly, she gives them the directions they seek.
Which leaves one last order of business.
“Hey, you!” Catra calls to a nearby patron at the bar. One several feet away, having kept a careful distance from Catra and Adora—their arms and shoulders sheathed in a sleek leather jacket that gleams beneath the lowlight of the bar.
It was a while ago that Catra noticed their side-eyed, wary watch. Their nervous, stolen glances. Their flinching expressions and twitching limbs while Catra and Adora fought their attackers. Out of everyone in the bar, this patron appears most afraid of Catra and Adora—and that’s something Catra can use to her advantage.
It’s comical, how wide that patron’s eyes pull. Pupils narrowed to pinpricks by intense fear.
She marches over to them, examining her nails as she walks. And it’s a practiced display, one meant to emphasize just how long, how sharp her claws are. One meant to emphasize how dangerous Catra is, in general.
“My friend and I are in need of a new knife,” she tells them with a threatening level of politeness. “As you can see…” She gestures to the goat woman still moaning on the tabletop. “Our previous one is...occupied.”
“Catra—” Adora says warningly, from behind. Because of course Adora does. Adora will fight in self-defense, but she’s never been one to attack those she perceives as “innocent.”
But Catra seriously doubts that anyone in the Waste is innocent.
She shoots Adora a silencing glare over her shoulder. One that hopefully convinces her that this is necessary to keep them safe—that the alternative is pulling their only weapon from the hand of that goat woman, and leaving her to bleed out on the floor.
Because it’d be foolish—to be entirely weaponless in the Crimson Waste.
And after a short while, Adora takes a step back. Her jaw is tense, but she doesn’t protest further. She just fastens her eyes to the floor.
An assent, however reluctant. One that Catra is sure that they’ll talk about later.
Catra then shoots the patron her widest, toothiest grin. One that hopefully displays her incisors.
“Care to donate a weapon to a couple gals in need?”
Nodding frantically, the patron reaches into their jacket and pulls out a knife. With shaking hands, they extend it for Catra to take. But Catra, of course, is wary of any tricks. Especially when she herself just pulled a knife-related trick on her attackers.
“Uh-uh,” says Catra, and pointedly looks to the bar’s tabletop. “On the table.”
The patron lowers the knife to the tabletop and retracts their hand. Catra smiles and, without ever breaking eye contact with the patron, snatches the knife off the table, fingers wrapping tightly around the hilt.
“Thanks,” she says, smiling. Though her voice is devoid of any real gratitude.
For a moment, she tests out the new knife. It’s similar to the last—carved from white bone. Presumably from the skeleton of another desert beast, just like the bones that form this very bar.
Though as Catra glances at the patron one last time, she decides to act on an impulse. One that Adora will definitely scold her for later.
“One last thing,” she says. “I really like that jacket.”
See you next Thursday! Remember to comment or kudos if you're enjoying!
Catra's new jacket comes with a cost.
Adora makes an apology.
Entrapta takes a risk with the sword.
And Scorpia searches for Catra.
hey all! happy almost she-ra finale anniversary! as you hopefully know, the anniversary big bang event is happening right now (and as mentioned, this is my contribution). Please make sure to check out the rest of the amazing fics in the collection!
Here's the next chapter of Adora and Catra's adventures in the Crimson Waste, with some more art by windbloom! Hope you enjoy!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
After downing several more glasses of water (they’re too nervous to try anything else), Catra and Adora have very little reason to stick around. They start their journey, leaving their very much incapacitated attackers in the bar behind them.
“Did you really have to take the jacket?” Adora asks, arms crossed over her chest. Not that Catra doesn’t look good in it. Really good. The leather fits her perfectly—makes her look distinctly armed and dangerous in a place where they should probably appear that way, for safety’s sake.
“What?” demands Catra, brushing dirt off one of her sleeves. “I liked it, is all. And I needed to get rid of that shawl.”
“You wouldn’t need a shawl or a jacket,” Adora remarks, “if you just got rid of your Force Captain’s badge. Lose that, and you’d have nothing to hide. And no reason to steal jackets from innocent bar-goers.”
Catra tenses visibly at the suggestion—but doesn’t answer. Doesn’t do what Adora suggests. In fact, Catra starts walking faster and faster, until Adora is looking at the back of that jacket rather than Catra’s face.
It’s interesting, the jacket’s back. Adorned with a golden symbol of a snake eating its own tail. Adora wonders if it means something.
But more than anything, Adora wonders whether she overstepped her bounds with Catra by asking about the Force Captain’s badge. She thus tries to break the silence; talking to get Catra talking again.
“We find a town, we find a consistent source of food, water, and shelter,” Adora tells Catra as they walk. “It might not be the safest place on Etheria—honestly, I doubt anywhere in the Waste can be considered safe—but it will be somewhere to stay. Somewhere to defend.”
“What do you mean, defend?” Catra asks, and the question is more indignant than Adora expects.
Adora blinks at her, trying and failing to catch up as Catra just keeps walking faster. “I dunno. I just mean...we need to find a place that’s safe—”
“And you’re not going to try to ‘save’ it or whatever?” demands Catra, and Adora doesn’t miss it. The way Catra’s fists furl at her sides. “Not gonna try to be some big hero of the Crimson Waste, protector of the innocent?”
Adora can only keep staring at her, dumbstruck. “I...that wasn’t what I meant at all.”
“Well, it seemed that way to me,” Catra huffs. “You’re always trying to save everyone. Me, in particular. Which is the last thing that I need.”
“Catra,” Adora says, grabbing at Catra’s arm in an effort to slow her down. “I’m not trying to save you. Not at all. We protect each other—you protect me, I protect you. That was the deal. I’m not trying to save you any more than you’re trying to save me—”
“That’s not the kind of saving I’m talking about,” Catra snaps. An accusing finger flies out in Adora’s direction. “You’re always trying to tell me how I should act. What I should do. You shouldn’t be part of the Horde, Catra. You shouldn’t take that jacket, Catra. Well, guess what? It’s not your decision. I can do what I want.”
Adora scoffs in disbelief. “I never said otherwise!”
“Well, I don’t need your backhanded comments, or your judgemental eyes watching my every move—”
“We’re allowed to disagree, Catra,” argues Adora. “And no, I’m not going to agree with everything you do. Why do you have such a problem with that?”
“Because you think you’re better than me!”
Adora’s eyes widen. “Is that really what you think?”
Catra nods furiously.
And Adora can’t believe it. Truly, she can’t. Yes, she thinks that Catra was wrong to stay with the Horde. That she was wrong to raid rebel towns, or kidnap Glimmer and Bow, or attack Bright Moon. Catra has a great capacity to make bad decisions, decisions that are hurtful or destructive...but that doesn’t mean Adora considers herself superior to Catra because of them.
If anything...those decisions bother Adora because she knows that Catra is capable of so much kindness, so much good. She remembers how generous Catra could be, back in the Horde—back when they first swore to protect one another. How loyal and protective Catra was. How she used to help Adora worm her way out of all kinds of trouble, or patch up Adora’s injuries, or snatch gray ration bars from the mess hall simply because she knew they were Adora’s favorite.
In fact, Catra may be even more capable of good than Adora herself is. Catra is the smartest person Adora knows. An incredible strategist with an even more incredible ability to adapt to any situation. And if she applied that intelligence to helping people instead of hurting them—
But Catra just doesn’t care enough about other people to do it.
Adora sighs. Because this is where they always fall apart, isn’t it? At this irreconcilable difference. Adora cares too much about what’s best for everyone else...and Catra cares too much about what’s best for herself.
“Catra,” Adora says, as gently as she can. But Catra won’t meet her eyes, even as they trot alongside each other. “I don’t agree with the Horde. That’s not going to change. But, if it means anything to you…I’ve never thought I was better than you.”
Catra snorts like she doesn’t believe her. “Yeah, sure. Little miss ‘top of the class’ didn’t think she was better than me? I don’t buy it—”
Adora shakes her head. “You don’t get it.”
“And what, exactly, don’t I get? Your whole thing was being better than everybody else—”
“I cared about being the best in training, yes—”
“Yeah, so you could feel like you were better than everyone—”
“Catra,” Adora insists. “I never felt like I was better than anyone, okay? All I knew is that if my scores weren’t perfect...if I wasn’t perfect…” She inhales deeply, shakily. “...then I wouldn’t matter anymore. To anyone.”
And Adora is almost startled to discover that her own eyes have filled with tears. She hopes, desperately, that it’s just sand in her eyes—but deep down, she knows that’s just not the case. That the reality is far more humiliating and pathetic.
Humiliating and pathetic enough to get Catra to stop short.
Adora nearly trips trying to backtrack, trying to stop and set herself beside Catra again—the task made especially difficult by Adora’s struggle to hold back tears.
But Catra flings out a hand to grab Adora’s shoulder, steadying her. Their eyes meet as Adora sets both feet on solid ground—meaning that Catra is again returning Adora’s gaze, finally. Looking at Adora directly, her brows pulled low over her eyes and knitted together.
“Is that what you really thought?” Catra’s voice is hardly above a whisper.
“I mean, yeah,” Adora replies, somewhat breathless. “It’s always the same thing, no matter where I go. The Horde. The Rebellion. Here. If I’m not useful...no one wants me around.”
Adora isn’t afraid to admit it. She made her peace with that fact long ago. Adora has never offered much to anyone beyond being helpful, beyond being able to fight or protect or organize. It was the case in the Horde—with Adora serving Shadow Weaver, and even, to some degree, serving Catra through that promise they made. It was the case in the rebellion too, with Adora only mattering so long as she was the perfect She-Ra. And even now...
“I do,” Catra says, beneath her breath.
“I want you around,” Catra says, slightly louder this time. The words escape her in a thick stream, like she’s ashamed to admit them and wants them gone as fast as possible. They echo off of the boulders that surround them on all sides. “Even if you’re not useful, or whatever.”
Adora just raises an eyebrow. She wants to believe it, of course. But she just doesn’t.
“You didn’t want me to come back,” Adora reminds her. “That’s what you said—how you felt—right until you realized I could be useful to you again. So I don’t really think I believe you.”
And it’s clear by Catra’s expression that she doesn’t know how to reply. She merely stands there, wide-eyed—trying to formulate a response. But Adora knows that her own words are true. That Adora only matters when she serves a purpose to someone else. And that’s true of Catra, same as anyone else.
So Adora continues walking, this time leaving Catra in her dust.
She walks...until a shadow jumps directly into her path. A shadow that causes Adora’s nose to crush into something incredibly hard yet somehow fleshy in front of her.
Adora gasps and stumbles backward, a hand clutching at her stinging, now bruised nose. Only when she’s a foot away does Adora see that it’s a person that she has walked into.
An incredibly tall...incredibly...wow...person.
Standing before Adora is a woman. A woman at least six feet tall, maybe more, with thick, rippling muscles cording across her every limb. A woman perhaps more muscular than She-Ra, and certainly just as striking in appearance with her light purple skin and long ponytail of white hair.
Adora finds herself frozen. Frozen and gaping at this inexplicable woman who towers over her—who smirks down at her from that incredibly muscular height.
And, even more inexplicably, Adora finds herself blushing uncontrollably. Though maybe it’s not entirely inexplicable. This woman is, without a doubt, breathtaking. Gorgeous. She’s everything Adora has ever wanted to be, and something in Adora’s brain is urging to reach out and touch one of those muscles, just for a second, they’re so perfectly sculpted—
“Greetings, ladies,” says the woman, her lips twisted into a sharp sort of smile. “What brings you out here?”
Adora tries to say something—tries to force her lips to form a coherent sentence, or even just a single word—but all that comes out is some sort of broken babbling noise. One that causes the woman to raise a confused eyebrow.
Adora feels someone tug at her arm, yanking roughly, and it causes Adora to stumble several more feet back. Only when she senses the faint pinpricks of claws does Adora realize that it’s Catra who pulled her back, out of direct reach of this muscular stranger. And that realization somehow pulls Adora out of her starstruck stupor—allowing Adora to shake her head and reclaim her senses.
In particular, her sense of self-preservation returns to her. It suddenly becomes clear that she and Catra are in danger—that this stranger probably intends to do them harm, just like everyone they’ve encountered in the Crimson Waste thus far. Which, of course, makes the woman seem a little less attractive.
(Though still too attractive for Adora to think perfectly straight.)
“Nothing, really. We’re just passing through,” replies Catra, each word calm and casual. Free of any threat or fear. Which probably indicates just how seriously Catra is taking the threat in front of her.
The woman hums and crosses her arms over her chest. Adora feels like her eyes are bulging out of her head as she stares at the woman’s flexing forearms—
“Passing through to where, exactly?”
“Just looking for a place to rest our heads for the night,” says Catra, without missing a beat. And truly, it sounds like the absolute truth to Adora’s ears—a reply that’s neither too fast or too slow. Not, of course, that it’s a lie to begin with. Adora and Catra really are just trying to find a town to settle themselves in.
“Well, here’s the thing,” says the woman. And Adora finds her eyes drawn to the way the woman’s fingers tap against her elbow—a measured beat that might betray impatience, even if her neutral expression doesn’t show as much. “It’s against the rules for any member of Tung Lashor’s gang to pass through Huntara’s territory. And this?” The woman gestures to the expanse of canyon and desert that houses them. “This is Huntara’s territory.”
Adora feels Catra tense at her side—preparing to unsheathe her claws, but restraining herself from such a blatantly aggressive move. “Who says we’re members of any gang?”
“Well,” begins the woman, and she extends a pointed finger toward Adora, “I’m not sure about blondie here. But you, kitty, are currently sporting one of Tung Lashor’s tacky jackets. Which are only worn by…?”
The woman trails off and raises an eyebrow at Catra—expecting her to finish the sentence.
With a sigh, Catra obliges, answering, “Members of Tung Lashor’s gang, I’m guessing? Whoever that is?”
The woman’s gaze seems to harden even more. “You must not be from around here if you don’t know who Tung Lashor is.”
The woman takes a single threatening step forward.
“Look,” says Catra, raising both hands in a gesture of surrender. “What gives this Huntara the right to say who passes in and out of this territory? We don’t have to answer to her. So, really, why don’t we just let each other go and be on our merry ways—”
The woman gives a shoulder-shaking, echoing laugh.
“You two really must be outsiders,” chuckles the woman as her laughter dies. “In the Crimson Waste, the strong make the rules. And Huntara is the strongest there is.”
“Says who?” challenges Catra.
“Says me,” replies the woman, pounding a fist against her own chest. “I’m Huntara. I make the rules.”
And Adora’s eyes widen even more. So this is Huntara? The Huntara that everyone seems to answer to? Well. Adora can’t really wonder why, not when Huntara is built like this.
And then Adora sees something from the corner of her eye—another shadow. No, wait—several shadows. Several shadows moving and stalking in Adora’s periphery, just out of sight. She can’t make them out, not really. The blood red sunset on the horizon is producing too many shadows of its own.
It must be more of Huntara’s gang, here to attack them.
Adora is about to nudge Catra, trying to inform her of the added threat—but she’s already noticed. Her ears twitch with every movement of those shadows, and her eyes occasionally slide sideways to glance at them.
But they don’t really have time to worry about the shadows. Not when Huntara—the greatest threat—is directly in front of them.
Huntara reaches down, pulling an object from her thigh—a small, thin metal contraption wrapped in white fabric. And it looks oddly familiar, this object, though Adora can’t identify why.
Huntara continues, “And the only thing I hate more than a Tung Lashor lackey…”
Within Huntara’s hand, the contraption expands into some odd cross between a sword and a spear—with a blunt bottom half and a top half of jaggedly-carved blade.
“...is an outsider.”
And then Huntara is lunging at Catra, blade aimed perfectly at Catra’s chest.
Catra’s breath is utterly squashed out of her lungs when Adora shoves her out of the way.
She was prepared to fight—to defend herself. But Adora didn’t even give her the chance. The second Huntara began to lunge, Catra found herself on the ground several feet away—gasping for breath while simultaneously coughing up sand. Pushed there by Adora, evidently.
By the time Catra has the wits to turn over and look up, Adora and Huntara are already fully immersed in a fight.
Though at the moment, it’s not really a fight. Not in the traditional sense. Instead, it’s an elaborate display of Adora’s ability to dodge and land blows at key moments of opportunity. Her entire attention is devoted to avoiding the swiping of Huntara’s blade—ducking, flipping, jumping out of its reach.
“I told you not to take that jacket!” Adora yells at Catra, and then immediately rolls out from under an impending drop of the blade. Huntara grunts in frustration when it misses Adora by a hair’s breadth.
Catra staggers to her feet, preparing to intervene with her claws extended. Huntara is impressively strong, that much is clear. But Adora and Catra have stamina and strategy on their side if nothing else. Years of training in the Horde has forged that for them—which leaves Catra fairly confident that they can wear Huntara down over time.
But Huntara must see Catra move forward—and realize that she intends to help Adora.
“Take care of the other one!” barks Huntara, to no one in particular. And Catra is relatively certain that she’s the “other one” that Huntara just referred to.
Sure enough, the shadows lingering in Catra’s periphery surge forward—taking their opportunity to strike. And then they don’t look much like shadows anymore. They’re people, same as Catra and Adora and Huntara herself. Sunburnt, windswept, sand-covered individuals who swipe at Catra with small shivs or other crude, blunt objects that Catra can’t really identify.
Huntara’s cronies. Given the way they just took orders, they can’t be anything otherwise.
Catra is relieved to discover that they’re not very well-trained in combat—not as well-trained as Horde or rebel soldiers, anyway. She dodges their attacks easily, they’re so flailing and predictable. And it’s child’s play to knock their weapons out of their hands. After mere minutes, Catra has disposed of most of them—knocking them out with her feet or her elbows.
She could’ve done real damage to them, of course, with her claws or her knife. And that was something she considered. But their performance is just so pathetic, Catra just can’t summon the urge to do more than incapacitate them.
It’s a promising development, at least. The fact that most of these Crimson Waste goons don’t pose much of a threat so long as paralyzing darts are left out of the equation.
Catra looks over to Adora, hoping that she’s having equivalent luck with Huntara—but is shocked to discover that Adora seems to be really struggling. She does, on occasion, sneak in a few painful-looking punches or kicks. But she’s not making much overall progress in taking Huntara down.
Huntara’s fighting style is not the blind flailing and swiping of Huntara’s goons, not at all. Instead, Huntara fights with practiced, measured grace. Forceful, quick jabs meant to throw her opponent off balance, and an unstoppable forward momentum that keeps her within close range of Adora’s body. Whenever she retreats—which isn’t often— Huntara flips backward in an elaborate movement—one meant to kick Adora backward if she decides to press her advantage.
It looks familiar—this fighting style.
And that’s when Catra realizes—Huntara fights just like Adora.
Catra studied that style often enough when they were kids, and later, when she faced She-Ra on a battlefield. Adora, perfect soldier that she was, happily adopted the standard style of combat taught in the Horde. A method meant to plow through opponents directly without much regard for strategy or long-distance attacks.
But just because this style was widely taught in the Horde doesn’t mean it was widely adopted. Catra, in particular, never saw the style as useful. Barreling through attackers invites a great risk for counterattack, and requires far more physical strength than most people have. Instead, Catra decided she was better suited to find weak points, and exploit them.
But the standard Horde fighting style served Adora especially well as She-Ra, when she had even more strength with which to smash things or armies or people.
And evidently, Huntara must have adopted the same tactics...back when she was in the Horde.
Because somehow, some way...Huntara was once part of the Horde. That fact is clear as day in Huntara’s every movement.
Catra watches as Adora jumps onto a nearby boulder and scrambles upright, trying to claim the high ground. Though Catra can’t understand why she even bothered. Adora is taller while on top of the boulder, but only just. Huntara can still reach her—and can still bear her blade down upon her.
And that’s exactly what Huntara does. With a cry, she flings the blade downward. Catra is prepared to yell Adora’s name, calling for her to duck—
But Adora sidesteps, allowing the blade to hit the rock at her feet, rather than her flesh. And then, just as quickly, Adora smirks and stamps both feet down on the lowered blade, placing enormous pressure on it. A harsh CRACK echoes throughout the desert. At Adora’s feet, the blade has been split in two, broken at the center with Huntara grasping at the blunt end.
Huntara’s eyes are furiously wide. She fumbles to grab the sharp half of the sword, but it’s no use. Adora beats her to it. She jumps with the blade clutched between her feet, jolting it high enough for Adora to catch.
And so she does. The blade lands squarely in Adora’s hand, allowing her to extend it out—beneath Huntara’s chin.
They stand there for several moments. Catra, watching. Adora, breathing heavily, chest rising and falling like a ship at stormy sea. And Huntara...staring with some cross between fury and disbelief. The blade tucked beneath her chin, threatening a slice. And the desert, screaming in its near-total silence, one that seems to suffocate them all.
Catra can tell it must be uncomfortable for Adora to hold the blade like that. She has no hilt to wrap her fingers around—just a jagged, sharp surface. In fact, Catra can smell the coppery scent of Adora’s blood as it’s drawn from her palm. Bleeding with the force of Adora’s grasp.
“Your people have all been knocked out,” Adora says, never removing her eyes from Huntara. Instead, Adora merely jerks her head in the vague direction of the goons that Catra kicked unconscious. “No one saw you lose but us.”
Huntara raises an eyebrow. Gruffly, she asks, “Your point?”
“If you let us go and don’t come after us,” Adora continues, “They’ll never know that you lost this fight. You can tell them that you killed us, and keep whatever power you had. And, as an added bonus…”
She gives the blade a little shake.
“I won’t have to stab you in the throat.”
Huntara pauses, considering. In her silence, she studies every inch of Adora’s expression, likely trying to locate some evidence of deceit in those all-too-earnest blue eyes.
But she finds none, of course. Adora means every word.
And Catra wants to urge Adora to just do it—to just kill Huntara. There’s no way that Huntara will keep her end of the bargain, not in the long-term. And if Adora did dispatch Huntara...Catra and Adora would be the strongest in the Crimson Waste. All these idiot outlaws would answer to them. They wouldn’t have to worry about any more attackers, not really—
But she can tell by the look on Adora’s face that it’s not going to happen. Because there, despite the sunset, Catra can see...is that a blush on Adora’s cheeks?
Yes. At first, Catra thought the exertion from the recent fight had colored Adora’s cheeks so intensely. But now she’s not so sure. Catra has never seen Adora’s face get this red from a little bit of exertion.
Shit. Adora likes Huntara. Huntara, with her big stupid muscles. Huntara, with her alluring, gravelly voice and excellent fighting skills.
Huntara, who wants to kill Adora and Catra both.
Which means that Adora won’t do what Catra knows is best.
“Fine,” Huntara grumbles, “I’ll let you go.”
“More like I’m letting you go,” Adora smirks. Like it’s funny. Like Adora isn’t making a huge mistake.
“But you...you tell no one about this.”
“That’s the deal.”
Slowly, Huntara nods. Then she raises a hand, using two fingers to slide the sword out from beneath her chin. Once it’s moved, Adora flips the blade within her hands, extending the opposite side—the one not stained with Adora’s blood—for Huntara to take. Like an idiot. Like someone returning a weapon to their attacker.
Huntara takes it. And while Catra expects for Huntara to immediately turn the blade on Adora and slice open Adora’s throat...she doesn’t. She merely slings the blade and the broken hilt through her belt—easy to access but not directed at an adversary.
Adora smiles at her—at Huntara—then jumps down from the boulder. She walks casually to Catra’s side. Catra can smell more blood as she lingers closer. Worse, she can see the source: a particularly ugly gash through Adora’s hand, one that extends all the way across her fingers as well as her palm. It oozes thick droplets of blood onto the dry sand below.
“If you’re looking for somewhere to go, this isn’t it,” Huntara says. “If any of my people see your girlfriend wearing that jacket...they’ll hunt her down.”
Adora shoots Catra a pointed look—presumably about the jacket. Her attempt to yet again say I told you so. And maybe, maybe Adora was right in telling Catra not to take it. Though Catra will never admit that. Not to Adora, at least.
In fact, Catra is hardly paying attention to Adora. Not at the moment. She’s too focused on deciphering what one particular word means.
Girlfriend. That’s what Huntara said. Girlfriend.
Catra hasn’t heard that word before. She can, of course, break it into its composite parts. Catra supposes she’s a girl, and she’s only just restored herself as Adora’s friend. Nothing about that is untrue, or extraordinary.
So why does that word make Catra blush so furiously? Is it something about the way Huntara said it? Something unidentifiable electric about it—
“You should go in that direction,” Huntara says, pointing eastward. “That’s Tung Lashor’s territory. No one will bat an eye if they see her wearing the jacket. Though try to avoid Tung Lashor himself—he’ll know if you’re not one of his people.”
Adora nods. “Thanks,” she says. “We’ll do that.”
“Next time I see you,” Huntara says, “I won’t go so easy on you.”
Adora smiles. “Yeah, right.”
And then, while the gears of Catra’s brain are still grinding against each other, trying to figure out what Huntara meant, Adora slings an arm around Catra’s back—placing her hand at the center of Catra’s spine. She uses that gentle pressure to propel Catra onwards, in the direction Huntara provided.
Meanwhile, Adora’s other hand continues to trickle blood onto the ground.
Eventually, Adora and Catra settle down for camp.
Adora offers to gather firewood, but Catra is all-too-aware of how profusely Adora’s hand is bleeding. The more things she touches...the more likely it’s going to get infected.
“Forget the firewood for now,” Catra says, nudging Adora toward the ground. “Let’s try to clean that hand up.”
And so they sit. Adora arranges herself cross-legged in front of Catra, and Catra takes Adora’s hand into her own. She examines the cut, cursing beneath her breath. It’s deep. Not horribly so, but not minor either—deep enough to scar, probably. The problem is that Catra has almost nothing to clean it with. There’s no disinfectants in the Crimson Waste. None that they know of, anyway.
And they couldn’t take water with them from the bar. Their hope, when they left, was that they’d find a town with water before nightfall. Which they definitely failed to do, given their current circumstances.
“Did you really have to hold that thing on the sharp side?” Catra complains.
Adora just gives a low laugh. “It was a choice between dying and hurting my hand. Which means there wasn’t much of a choice.”
“Well…” says Catra. “This is definitely a cut we’ll want to keep an eye on. Especially since we can’t do much except wipe it down, wrap it up…” She sighs. “...and hope it doesn’t get infected.”
Because that’s all they have. The hope that Adora’s hand will stay infection-free. Which isn’t much of a preventative at all.
“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” Adora assures her. “I’ve gotten worse injuries than this, remember?”
Catra grunts as she continues looking over the cut, evaluating what kind of bandage will be best. “Remember the last time you got a scrape like this?”
Adora raises an eyebrow. “During the war?”
And no. That’s not what Catra meant, not at all. But it nonetheless enters Catra’s head—the image of her claws slashing across She-Ra’s back, dragging red lines into fabric and skin. Not to mention the sound. The sound of skin tearing, of Adora shrieking—
Because even though Catra attacked She-Ra, and comforted herself in the knowledge that it was only She-Ra...it doesn’t change the fact that Adora felt it. Paid the price for it. In hurt. In pain. Pain that Catra caused, pain that transformed her voice—Adora’s voice, not She-Ra’s—into that sharp cry of agony.
She wonders if Adora has the scars.
She hopes she doesn’t. She hopes they faded away, faded entirely.
It’s the first time Catra allows herself to feel guilty for it. And it’s something pulverizing, that guilt. Like a Horde tank has rolled atop her body, turning and crushing and driving her into the dirt—
“N-no, before that,” Catra manages, voice on the edge of collapse. “Before you left—
“Oh.” Adora smiles and nods, recalling. “Up on the roof. I slipped.”
The way Adora says it—so calm, so casual—shakes Catra out of her guilty stupor. Is that really how Adora remembers it? Just a regular fall, and not a near-brush with death? It’s a pretty big deal, to nearly fall off the railing of the barracks’ roof—
“Slipped?” Catra demands. “You wiped out. And if I hadn’t caught you, you would’ve fallen a hundred stories to the ground—”
“Alright, alright,” Adora says, using her other hand—the uninjured one—to wave Catra off. “So I almost died. But the important thing is that I didn’t. I only ended up with a scratch.”
She raises that uninjured hand. And sure enough, the traces of that old scar are still there. It’s a scraggly line of raised, pale skin now, spanning between her pinky and her thumb. Hardly the red river of blood that it once was.
Catra still remembers it well—how ugly that gash was. Remembers how hard it was to bandage.
And how hard it was to hide.
“We tried so hard to keep Shadow Weaver from seeing it,” Catra reminisces. “We found bandages almost the same color as your hand. Changed them every half-hour—”
“But still she noticed,” Adora finishes for her. Quietly. Sadly. Because she, like Catra, remembers how the story ends. “She always noticed everything, far as you and I were concerned.”
Catra nods. That was true. Shadow Weaver watched Adora’s every move, so devoted was she to turning Adora into the perfect soldier. And while Shadow Weaver never had such high expectations for Catra...she watched her just as closely. Always so eager to punish Catra for some minor mistake.
“She would not have been on the roof if not for you,” Shadow Weaver had snarled at her, once she discovered Adora’s slashed up hand. “You are always leading her astray. Always trying to create barriers on her path to greatness—”
Adora begged her not to do it, of course. She begged Shadow Weaver not to punish Catra, not to hurt her. Adora assured Shadow Weaver that it was her own fault, that Adora was the one who suggested going onto the roof.
But it didn’t work, obviously. It never worked.
And soon enough, Catra had some scars to match the one on Adora’s hand.
Tears invade Catra’s vision, much to her own embarrassment. Seriously? Crying right now, at this stupid memory? A memory that’s really not so different than hundreds of painful others in Catra’s past—and it’s not even one of the worst ones. No. She has no right to cry, no right at all.
She’s prepared to wipe them away, those tears—intending to make it seem like she’s wiping sand out of her eyes instead. The last thing she needs is for Adora to see—
But she stops herself when she notices the same tears mirrored in Adora’s eyes, reflecting the icy-blue moonlight.
“I always wished I had a way to stop her,” Adora says, nearly gasping the words. “You didn’t...you didn’t deserve to be treated like that. You never did. W-we should’ve left earlier. We both should have left together, gone someplace better—”
“Adora,” Catra says, wanting to stop her. She’s really not prepared to have this conversation right now.
“I would’ve taken your place, you know,” Adora continues. And it seems it cannot be stopped, these words exploding from Adora’s mouth. “I would’ve done anything. But I didn’t know how, I didn’t know anything except what she told me and I…I hated knowing that if I messed up, she would hurt you. Because of course I did. I always messed up, and you would get hurt—”
“I’m sorry, Catra,” Adora says, her shoulders shaking as the words burst from her lungs. “I’m so, so sorry.”
For a long time, the echo of their voices is the only sound that fills the empty desert night. Even the wind is low, barely detectable to Catra’s well-attuned hearing. There’s just them. The full sound of their voices expanding across this barren expanse of desert.
Catra swallows. For so long, she blamed Adora for every moment of pain that Shadow Weaver inflicted on her. She wanted Adora by her side, yes. But there was always that blade’s edge of resentment. That thought that if Adora wasn’t there, if Adora wasn’t the “golden child” that Shadow Weaver worshipped so much, Catra would be the one on the pedestal. The one loved and respected and destined for greatness.
But then Adora left. And even with Adora gone...Shadow Weaver still treated Catra the same. Like she was nothing, and no one. Like she deserved to be hurt, and nothing else.
Adora was never the cause. It was Shadow Weaver. Always Shadow Weaver.. No one forced Shadow Weaver to behave the way she did. And somehow, it makes Catra even angrier that Adora feels this way—like Adora is responsible for every cruel punishment, every mistreatment that Catra suffered throughout the years. What right did Shadow Weaver have, pushing that blame on Adora, on Catra, on anyone except herself?
And maybe Adora could’ve done more, could’ve fought back…
But what would’ve come from that, except more punishments inflicted on the both of them?
“It’s her fault,” Catra says, certain in the words. “Shadow Weaver’s. Not yours.”
“It’s her fault,” Catra repeats, each word heavy with certainty. “No one forced Shadow Weaver to do anything. Not you. Not me. Just her.” Muttering, she adds. “And it sucks that she made us feel like that—like I was ruining you, and you were responsible for me. We were just kids. All it ever did was get us hurt. And make us mad at each other.”
Adora gulps visibly. But slowly, slowly, she nods. Acknowledging that neither of them are at fault. “I’m still sorry,” she says. “I wish I could go back and change it. Keep her from hurting you like she did.”
“Yeah, well,” Catra shrugs and sighs. “So do I. Maybe we should’ve gotten exiled to the Waste a long time ago. ”
Adora gives another nod, the trace of a smile curling across her lips. “Maybe you’re right.”
And Catra can’t help picturing it. She pictures what might have happened if Adora and Catra left the Fright Zone together—left it long before Shadow Weaver hurt or manipulated either of them. They could’ve gone here, to the Waste. Made a life for themselves free of the Horde’s cruelty. Free of the war, free of any concept of princesses or She-Ra. It would just be them. Catra and Adora, together, without a worry in the whole world.
Save the snakes and quicksand and gangs, of course.
“Why are you doing that?” asks Adora, eyes wide and blinking in their confusion.
“Rubbing my hand.”
Catra looks down. And sure enough, Catra has been rubbing small, slow, gentle circles into the edges of Adora’s hand—the places where the blade didn’t slice.
She stops herself immediately—stilling the movement of her own thumbs and lifting them into the air.
“Sorry,” Catra mutters. “I didn’t notice what I was doing.”
“It’s okay,” replies Adora with a shrug. One that’s more sheepish than indifferent as far as Catra can see—though Catra doesn’t see why Adora would have reason to feel embarrassed. Catra was the one doing something weird. “It was kind of nice, to be honest.”
Another long pause as Catra struggles to formulate a reply—a blush threatening to trail redness across her cheeks yet again. Because truthfully..it was kind of nice for Catra too. That kind of casual touch, that easy closeness. Though Catra has never really been brave enough to face why.
In the end, she chooses to clear her throat and change the subject. It’s simpler. Easier, at least, than letting that silence—and tension—linger.
“We’ll need some clean fabric to wrap this with,” Catra says, jerking her head at Adora’s hand. “I could tear off some pieces of my leggings—”
“Nah,” says Adora, shaking her head. “We can just tear off some of my shirt.”
She uses her uninjured hand to pinch at the bottom of her white compression top.
Catra raises both eyebrows. “Are you sure?” she asks. “That would leave your stomach exposed. And you seemed pretty reluctant the other day—”
“It’s fine. You’re right, it is cooler to have fewer layers.”
“Is it?” Catra says, and lowers one of those raised eyebrows. An expression of skepticism, rather than surprise. “Or are you just trying to copy Huntara’s fashion sense?”
Adora blushes, just as she did around Huntara. “What does that mean?”
“Oh, nothing,” Catra grumbles as she reaches out for the bottom of Adora’s shirt. Her knuckles are especially tense as she grasps the fabric, and begins to pull. “Just that you seemed pretty flustered when you first saw her. And basically didn’t stop blushing during your fight.”
“I did not!”
The fabric gives with a loud ripping noise, leaving Catra with a clean white strip of bandage. She tears it in half—using the first half to wipe Adora’s hand clean. Once that’s done, she uses the second half to encircle Adora’s injured hand, covering the cut and tying it tightly around.
“What’s so great about Huntara, anyway?” Catra mutters. “So she’s muscle-y. Big deal. Muscles aren’t everything.”
“They’re not,” Adora agrees quickly. “But they’re nice to look at, is all.”
And Catra isn’t entirely sure she can disagree with that. After all...Catra has found herself staring at Adora’s muscles from time to time—either as herself, or as She-Ra. But the realization only fills Catra with more annoyance—Catra herself has never been particularly good at building muscle. How the hell is she supposed to compare with someone like Huntara?
Worse, why does she feel like she needs to compare?
“She was from the Horde, you know,” Catra says. “The way she fights—it screamed Horde training.”
“I know,” replies Adora. She seems to be entranced by Catra’s attempt to bandage her hand—following the movement of the fabric with her eyes. “She had a training staff too. Though she sharpened one end of it.”
“How long do you think she’s been here?”
Adora shrugs. “Hard to say. Probably since before we were in the Horde.”
“What makes you say that?”
Again, Adora blushes. “I think I’d remember her if I saw her.”
An inexplicable fury bubbles at the base of Catra’s stomach. One that shrieks, demands to know—what is so damn special about Huntara? Is it really the muscles? Or is it something else?
“There,” says Catra, and shoves Adora’s hand back into her own lap. “You’re all bandaged.”
Adora looks down at her hand, then smiles softly back at Catra. “Thanks, Catra.”
But Catra doesn’t tell her no problem or you’re welcome, like she probably should. Instead, she jolts to her feet, wiping her hands against each other to remove the sand and fabric dust. “Whatever,” she mutters. “It’s pretty dark. We should build a fire—then take turns getting sleep.”
“And are you certain this will work?” Hordak asks, glancing skeptically at the rather dangerous looking arrangement of wires that Entrapta has constructed.
“Hm. Well, that depends on your definition of the word certain,” Entrapta says, briefly tapping her chin with a screwdriver before continuing with her work. Her helmet falls over her head, and Hordak can just barely hear her voice echoing beneath it. “I’m certain that this will work...or we’ll never get answers out of this sword. One of the two options.”
“I do not understand,” hisses Hordak, looking at the nearby sword in question. A sword suspended upon some kind of metal stand, a stand of Entrapta’s creation. “How has this sword managed to resist all attempts to study it. It’s an inanimate object—”
“It’s an inanimate object, sure,” Entrapta interjects. But it’s protected by some sort of energy field. One that makes it impossible to view under a microscope, or dissect, or take samples from. Which leaves us pretty much stuck in figuring out how it works.”
“There must be some way to eliminate this field.”
“According to my theories, there’s two ways to do just that,” explains Entrapta, counting one of such methods on her fingertips. “We could go find Adora. I believe the sword has imprinted on her somehow, and this energy field is meant to protect the sword from everyone but her.”
“We will not be retrieving that traitor,” growls Hordak. “What is the other option?”
“We try to drill through the energy field with an even greater source of energy.” Entrapta slaps a hand against the metal canister that she’s currently affixing wires to. “I’ve been able to extract a great deal of energy from leftover pieces of First Ones tech. If I concentrate it on the sword...I might be able to tear a hole in the energy field. Which will allow us the proper chance to study it.”
“And is this plan…” Hordak hesitates, attempting not to seem fearful, or weak. “...safe?”
“Safe?” Entrapta exclaims. Then laughs. “Ah...no. Afraid we’re in uncharted territory here—but that’s what makes it so exciting!”
She points across the room—at a flipped over metal table. “And that’s also why we’ll be observing this process from all the way over there. Where we’ll be more or less protected, so long as we don’t tear a hole in the fabric of reality or whatnot.”
“Is that a real possibility?”
“Technically, it’s always a possibility, no matter what you’re doing!” Entrapta says happily. “But yes. I think the chances might be slightly higher, in this case.”
She uses her hair to snap several more wires into place, connecting the canister to a metal device placed in front of the sword. A laser, by appearances, with a tapered head where the beam should emerge.
“Alright,” Entrapta says, placing both hands on her hips. She takes a moment to examine the configuration, making sure it’s correct, before grabbing Hordak by the wrist and tugging him away. “C’mon!” she says. “Best we take cover before the light show begins.”
“Light show?” Hordak repeats, somewhere between horrified and confused.
Entrapta doesn’t answer as she shoves them both behind the toppled metal table—using the table’s top to shield them from any potential debris. Entrapta glances above it, at the sword, then speaks into her tape recorder.
“Sword-related experiment number one-hundred-twenty-two. The sword remains protected by an invisible, high-energy field—one that cannot be breached by sharp tools, heat, or cold. We will now attempt a direct application of energy.”
She lifts her finger off the tape recorder and smiles at Hordak beside her. She passes him a pair of goggles with darkened lenses while placing her helmet over her own eyes. “You ready?”
“Uh…” Hordak hesitates yet again. “I suppose?”
Entrapta laughs and pulls some kind of remote control from her pocket, lifting it high into the air in front of herself.
“Let’s crack this baby open, then!” she exclaims, and slams a fist down on the remote’s largest button.
There’s a whirring noise. One that grows in volume and vibration with every passing second, shaking the floor beneath their feet. Hordak grasps tight to one of the legs of the chair, using it to hold himself steady. From beyond the shield of the table, he can see a glaring light of some kind—one that flares ever-brighter, just like the noise that seems to swallow the whole room.
Brighter and brighter it glows. Even from halfway behind the table, Hordak can hardly see—there’s just blinding blue light. He grunts and shields his eyes with a hand. Vaguely, he can hear Entrapta chanting, “Come on, come on, come on…” beneath her breath.
And then there’s a noise. A noise like the cracking of stone, fissuring amidst an earthquake.
Followed by an utter explosion. The shattering of something crystal, of something fiery. Tinkling and roaring and screeching all combined into a single deafening cacophony.
But then, like someone has flipped a switch on a hurricane, it all goes silent. Silent, and dark. Light no longer glares out from beneath Hordak’s hand. And the only sound that fills the room is the sound of Entrapta’s breathing, beside him.
“Uh-oh,” he hears Entrapta say, after a moment.
He removes his hand to see Entrapta leaning over the edge of the table, examining the results of the experiment. His first impression is that she looks markedly...disappointed. Did they fail to breach the sword’s energy field yet again?
Propping himself against the table, Hordak scrambles upright and studies the room for himself.
If it can even be called a room anymore, rather than a disaster zone. The sanctum’s far wall has been utterly obliterated, scorched black and crumbling down to its foundation. Every object—tables, instruments, glass canisters of chemicals—has been pulverized into sand and scattered all over the floor.
Though that’s not the only thing that’s been scattered across the floor. There are bright blue shards gleaming and glowing amidst the debris—winking at Hordak like a multitude of smug eyes.
And the sword that once sat, suspended, at the other end of the room…
It’s nowhere to be found.
He inhales sharply. “Is that…?”
“The sword,” Entrapta finishes for him, voice filled with grief. “It shattered instead of…”
She trails off, shaking her head, and leaps over the side of the table. Hordak watches as she leans down and scoops one of the shards off the ground. It burns her at first—causing her to help and shake out her hand. But she quickly dons a glove and proceeds to hold it safely.
“Was it some sort of defense mechanism?” she wonders, presumably to herself. “Or was it just that fragile…?”
Hordak rises to his feet, carefully climbing over the table and listening to the crunch of metal pieces and sword shards beneath his feet.
“We can still study them,” Hordak says, and it’s the only consolation he knows how to muster. “The shards. We might even manage to reassemble them—”
At the suggestion, Entrapta pulls out a magnifying glass and places the sword shard beneath it. She spends several silent moments staring at it...before giving a decidedly defeated hum.
“I’m not sure that we can. As far as I’m seeing...these shards are now just regular pieces of crystal. Nothing unique about it.” She sighs and scratches her chin. “Shattering the sword must have altered its properties. Whatever energy it contained...it must have dissipated. Or escaped.”
“What does that mean?” asks Hordak.
“Well…” says Entrapta, looking to the spot where the sword once sat, back when it was whole. “I don’t think we have to worry about another She-Ra wielding this sword ever again.”
Catra wakes to the unpleasant sensation of having her arm grabbed.
“Wakey, wakey, kitty!”
She’s yanked to her feet by rough, unfamiliar hands. Catra’s head swivels around as she gasps, searching for the body that accompanies those hands. It’s not exactly hard to find, unfortunately. Mere inches away from her is a grinning stranger—a lizard person that Catra has never seen before. Though they’re wearing a familiar looking leather jacket...
The stranger is not alone. There’s a group of them, of strangers, all of them clad in leather jackets and flashing sharp-toothed smiles at Catra. Most of them are armed—Catra can see that even now, with her eyes half-open and her brain still struggling to yank itself from the depths of sleep. Armed with spears of whips or knives. And the way they hiss and howl and screech at her...it’s truly deafening. Like they want her to be afraid, and confused, and disoriented.
And worst of all, it doesn’t make sense. Adora was supposed to be on watch for the second half of the night. And this place they set up camp—it’s open enough that Adora should’ve seen anyone approach.
So what happened?
Catra cranes her neck, trying to catch a glimpse of Adora. And amidst the sea of strangers, she sees her. A flash of golden hair in the sunlight. Adora is limp in the arms of one of their attackers and Catra notices with a jolt that Adora is pale. Pale, like all blood has drained from her cheeks. Pale, despite the visible sheen of sweat that shines across her skin, and the deep red splotch that has soaked through the bandage on her hand.
And Catra can smell it from here, even despite the thick stench of so many attackers.
Infection. Adora’s hand is infected—she must have passed out during her watch because of it. Even now Adora is still unconscious, eyebrows scrunched together in discomfort.
Catra hisses and claws against her attackers, trying but failing to tear herself out of their hold despite the way more strangers gather around her, attaching more heavy hands to her arms. But there has to be something. Some way for her to escape, some way for her to get to Adora before she gets any worse—
“Well, well, well,” a deep voice growls. “What do we have here?”
The group of strangers seems to part in the middle, revealing a tall figure. Taller, broader than all the rest with bright pink skin that complements the red sand beneath their feet. A lizard man with enormous jaws and finger-length teeth, with a sleeveless jacket slung over his bared shoulders and muscular chest. He growls—lips vibrating over his enormous teeth.
“Looks like we have a pretender in our midst,” he says, lumbering closer to Catra, his eyes affixed to her jacket. “I don’t remember adding you to our ranks.”
Catra narrows her eyes, remembering what Huntara said.
“No one will bat an eye if they see her wearing the jacket. Though try to avoid Tung Lashor himself—he’ll know if you’re not one of his people.”
Well. That’s one piece of advice Catra failed to follow.
“I assume you must be Tung Lashor?” she asks, raising an eyebrow.
He nods, grinning cruelly with the confirmation.
“Got that right, outsider. And now…”
He reaches toward his belt. With a few flicks of his wrist, a leather whip snaps from side to side, sand flying and hissing with every movement. Catra doesn’t flinch, despite how much he’s trying to force her to do so. The cracks of that whip might have power behind them, but Catra would have more than enough time to duck out of its path, should she need to.
“Now…” he continues, grinning with his whip clutched between his hands. “I’m going to leave your bones as a warning to those who cross Tung Lashor—especially those who try to trick me.”
And truthfully, she’s not all that impressed. It’s a stupid name, first of all. Tung Lashor. And second of all, despite all the goofy muscles...he doesn’t show any of the physical prowess that Huntara did. He seems slow. Slow, and big, and far too distracted by how scary he considers himself. Even as she watches him now, he’s flexing in front of her. Snarling. Snapping. Projecting himself to be as large as possible, and reveling in how his goons shrink in fear when he lingers close.
And maybe that’s going to be his undoing.
Because she needs to find that—Tung Lashor’s undoing. Without it, Catra is seriously outnumbered and outmuscled. She can win most fights, sure, but she can be overrun. And she certainly can’t win any fights while trying to protect an unconscious Adora.
She’ll need to beat him. She’ll need to take his main advantage—his underlings—away from him.
She’ll need to remember what Huntara said.
“In the Crimson Waste, the strong make the rules.”
Given their current circumstances, the rule is this: Catra and Adora are going to die. It’s a rule made by Tung Lashor. Made because he’s the strongest in the Waste—or one of the strongest in the waste, anyway.
And if they’re going to find some way out of this...she’ll need to prove herself stronger than him. She’ll need to goad him, fight him—without the interference of his gang members.
So Catra tips her head back, and laughs. Laughs and laughs.
Several moments pass in which Tung Lashor watches her laugh, slack-jawed at her audacity. It’s a long time before he overcomes the awkwardness and growls, “What’s so funny?”
And at first, Catra still refuses to answer. She knows it will be far more infuriating for him if she ignores his questions. Instead, she just continues laughing. Laughing endlessly, like she’s stumbled across the most ridiculous person to ever exist. Which Tung Lashor may very well be.
Until, finally, he cracks.
“What’s—so—funny?” he roars, staggering closer to Catra with every word. His heavy footsteps erupt plumes of dust into the air, and Catra can feel her captors—the ones whose hands grasp her forearms, holding her in place—trembling in fear of him. In fear of Tung Lashor.
Catra sighs enormously, trying to compose herself. “Oh nothing, nothing,” she assures, flapping a hand. “It’s just...well. Everyone kept telling me about the big bad Tung Lashor, saying I should be afraid. That he’s the strongest in the Crimson Waste. But meeting you now...” Catra tumbles back into a fit of laughter. “I didn’t think you could be stupider-sounding than your name...but here you are. Proving me wrong. Truly, I gotta say—that’s a feat.”
Tung Lashor hisses.
“And god, all that stuff about leaving my bones or whatever? It’s just too much. Cheesy as can be.”
“And honestly? I don’t see much to be afraid of. I could kick your butt without breaking a sweat.”
“You?” he demands, releasing a deep, disbelieving laugh of his own. Though there’s something there. A waver. An edge of uncertainty, like he’s not so sure of himself anymore. “You’re tiny. You’re weak. You’re an outsider. There’s no way that you could possibly beat me—”
“Wanna bet?” Catra challenges.
“I don’t need to,” Tung Lashor growls. “I’ve already captured you. You’re beaten.”
Catra rolls her eyes and jerks her head toward Adora, still frighteningly pale and unconscious. “Come on,” Catra says. “Sneaking up on me—while we’re sleeping, mind you—isn’t exactly some great measure of your strength. Plus…” She nudges her nearest captor. “You didn’t capture me. Your minions did. They did all the work. You just took the credit.”
Another growl. Meanwhile, Catra can feel the shift in her captors’ posture—as well as that of Tung Lashor’s other cronies. They’re no longer shrinking so fearfully in his presence. No longer watching him with admiration but, rather, suspicion.
“If you’re the strongest in the Crimson Waste,” Catra says. “Prove it. Beat me in one-on-one combat.”
“I mean, if you’re so strong…” She chuckles. “You shouldn’t have anything to worry about, should you? Saying no, on the other hand…” Catra gives a slow, taunting shake of her head. “Someone might think you have something to hide.”
Another growl rumbles through his whole body. But despite his annoyance, he does it. He consents to the fight.
With a wave of his hand, Tung Lashor’s cronies back away—releasing Catra’s arms and scurrying toward the edges of a large circle. Catra remains vaguely aware of where they’re dragging Adora—not out of sight, but several feet away—but nonetheless focuses her attention on the impending battle before her.
They leave Catra and Tung Lashor isolated, separated by a short expanse of sand as they stare each other down.
“I’m going to wipe that smirk off your face, outsider,” threatens Tung Lashor,and again, he snaps his whip from side to side, beating slashes into the sand or gashes into the rock. Catra follows the movement with her eyes. Despite how big and lumbering Tung Lashor is...she rather likes his weapon. The force, the versatility, the agility of it. And the grace. There’s something so damn graceful about the movement of that leather, whipping from side to side.
“I like that whip,” Catra remarks, claws extended to a dangerous length. Her eyes are laser-focused on it—the whip in Tung Lashor’s hand. “I think I’ll be taking it.”
He attacks with a roar. But Catra is ready.
“I mean, don’t you think it’s wrong?”
Entrapta doesn’t answer Scorpia immediately. Instead, she spends several moments with her eyes buried into the lenses of a microscope—viewing something that Scorpia cannot see. Not from this distance, anyway.
Scorpia takes another step closer. “Entrapta?” she asks.
Still, no answer.
Scorpia moves further forward. There’s something there—on the countertop beside Entrapta’s microscope—that catches Scorpia’s eye. Something bright blue, prismatic, catching the green-yellow light of the Horde’s overhead bulbs and slinging javelins of glowing color against the nearby wall.
And there’s a lot of it—that material. A pile of jagged shards larger than Scorpia’s head.
Scorpia reaches down with one of her pincers and grasps one of such shards, lifting it closer for inspection. It’s familiar-looking, this material. Though she cannot place where she has seen it before.
“What is this stuff, anyway?” Scorpia asks.
“Ah! Please don’t touch that!”
Scorpia looks up to see Entrapta staring back at her, finally—eyes wide with panic. Entrapta’s hair extends and snatches the shard from Scorpia’s grasp, immediately depositing it beside the many others on the table.
“They’re the shards of She-Ra’s sword. Shards that are deteriorating by the second,” Entrapta explains. “The less physical erosion they experience, the better. I might still be able to glean some data—”
“Entrapta,” Scorpia says, because, truly, in Scorpia’s book, the shards are the smallest of Scorpia’s concerns. “Did you hear what I said before? About Catra?”
“Uh...yes…” Entrapta replies, very clearly lying as she spins back toward her microscope. “But do you mind repeating it again?”
Scorpia exhales deeply. “Catra. She’s been sent to the Crimson Waste, right?”
“Yes. That’s what Hordak told us.”
“And don’t you think that’s wrong? I mean, after everything that Catra has done for the Horde—”
“Catra’s efforts did increase the Horde’s efficiency tenfold,” Entrapta agrees, nodding as she continues to examine her samples. “But Hordak did catch her trying to help the rebels. She was going to send them Adora’s coordinates, he has the footage—”
“So what?” Scorpia demands. “We always knew that Catra has a...soft spot...where Adora is concerned. So she made one bad decision. She wasn’t planning to leave the Horde or anything!”
“While that’s probably true,” says Entrapta. “Hordak didn’t exactly consult me—or you—before sending her away. And given what we know about the Crimson Waste, it’s highly unlikely that she’s still alive. It was days before Hordak even told us about Catra’s exile.”
“But it’s Catra we’re talking about,” Scorpia insists. “If anyone could survive the Waste, it’s her.”
“Maybe,” says Entrapta. “But I doubt Hordak will allow anyone to go after her, not after he declared her a traitor. And if he caught someone trying to do just that…” Entrapta shakes her head. “They’d probably suffer the same fate.”
“Come on, Entrapta,” says Scorpia, her voice falling to a soft whisper. “It’s Catra. We should try to save her. We can’t just let one of our friends get left behind.”
“I…” Entrapta hesitates, her hair drooping by her side. “I can’t risk my research. If Hordak finds out…”
“He doesn’t have to know you’re involved! I could get her by myself—”
Another fierce head shake from Entrapta, one that swings her pigtails from side to side. “I don’t want you to get sent away either.”
And Scorpia can admit that Entrapta is right. She doesn’t want to be sent to the Crimson Waste by herself. Maybe if she was alongside Catra during her exile, it would be okay. But to be sent there alone, with no one to talk to...
“But...” Entrapta contemplates, “what if we don’t go after her ourselves? What if there’s someone else we can send to rescue them?”
“And who would do that?” Scorpia asks, stunned by the suggestions. She wasn’t aware that Catra had that many other friends in the Horde. Adora was her first friend, her best friend. And then Scorpia became her best friend. And Entrapta, later. But even Lonnie and Catra had never seemed particularly close, so who else could Entrapta possibly be talking about?
Entrapta spins around in her chair, beckoning Scorpia forward. Closer, as to not be overheard.
“What if…” Entrapta whispers, “we ask the princesses to rescue her?”
“The princesses?” Scorpia exclaims. Exclaims too loudly, as evidenced by Entrapta’s immediate shushing in response. Scorpia lowers her voice but nonetheless remains surprised. “Why would the princesses help Catra? They hate her!”
“They might hate Catra,” Entrapta agrees, “but I’m sure they’d want to find Adora.”
“She was exiled to the Crimson Waste alongside Catra, remember? And based on what I’ve seen of them…” Entrapta gives a little shrug. “They’re probably traveling together. They have a history, after all.”
The thought makes Scorpia want to grumble a bit. Wasn’t Adora the one who got Catra into this mess into the first place? Why would Catra agree to travel with her?
“And even if they’re not traveling together,” Entrapta says, still whispering, “they don’t know that. All we have to do is tell them that the key to finding Adora is first finding Catra.”
“Will that be enough, though?” asks Scorpia, nervous. “I mean...we don’t have anything to tell them about Catra’s location except that she’s in the Crimson Waste—and so is Adora. They might think it’s a trap unless we give more information than that.”
Entrapta spins her chair to a nearby computer keyboard.
“Well,” says Entrapta, clacking her fingers against the keys as she narrows her eyes at the computer monitor. “There’s a chance...a small one…”
Scorpia watches as code flashes across the screen, quickly disappearing in favor of a map of Etheria. One that covers the full expanse of the monitor.
“And now to cut through the Waste’s electromagnetic distortion—” Entrapta mutters, typing furiously yet again. Scorpia doesn’t understand a word of what that means. Only that it might help them find Catra.
Within a few moments of Scorpia’s staring, a bright red dot begins to flash on the map—located right in the middle of the Crimson Waste.
“Aha!” says Entrapta, temporarily abandoning her whispering in her excitement. “That’s her!”
Scorpia gapes. “You mean…”
“That’s Catra,” says Entrapta after clearing her throat and again lowering her volume. “Or at least...it’s her Force Captain’s badge. Hordak disabled the tracking, but with a little bit of hacking and bypassing the Crimson Waste’s unique electromagnetic interference…” Entrapta shrugs. “It wasn’t too hard to find the signal again.”
Scorpia smiles, wide-eyed, at the screen. “So she is alive!”
“Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Entrapta cautions. “Her badge hasn’t stopped sending a signal...but that doesn’t mean that Catra is still wearing it. Or if Catra is wearing it while alive. But…” She smiles. “It’s definitely a lead. One that might convince the princesses to help us.”
She spins her chair around to face Scorpia directly. “Force Captain Scorpia,” Entrapta says, and raises her voice to normal volume. She sounds all-too-official, if anything. “I need you to lead an investigation into the Whispering Woods. A recon mission for ‘First Ones tech.’” Entrapta makes air quotes over the words. “Think you’re up for it?”
Entrapa winks at Scorpia.
And Scorpia knows what Entrapta truly means. She wants Scorpia to go to Bright Moon.
She wants Scorpia to go to Bright Moon...and enlist the princesses’ help.
Adora’s whole body burns. Burns, like it’s engulfed in flames, her muscles rendered limp and immobile by the fire that stabs into her every nerve.
Though there’s a part of her that burns more than any other—her hand. It’s as though it’s been swallowed by white-hot flame, painful beyond comprehension. All other heat and pain seems to emanate from that spot, spreading like radiation from a star.
Adora shouldn’t know what a star is. Vaguely, she knows that. Etheria has no stars to claim. But a part of her...a part of her remembers them. The stars. Even as she lies here, useless, brain muddled by pain and heat, she remembers them.
Why does she remember something that she’s never seen?
“Hold on, Adora,” comes Catra’s voice, murmured into her ear. “We’re almost there.”
Adora just moans. It’s a struggle to make any sound at all—her throat feels like sandpaper. She doesn’t know what’s happening, doesn’t know where she is. All she can feel is two types of warmth: the heavy, hurtful heat that flows through her veins, carried like something poisonous through her bloodstream...and the soft, gentle warmth of an arm around Adora’s shoulders, one that soothes the chills that serve as a confusing contradiction to Adora’s sweat-soaked, heat-battered existence.
Catra’s arm, she thinks. Catra is here.
Adora’s eyes flutter open, searching for Catra beside her. Because Catra will help her. Catra will know what’s wrong, and how to fix it.
Adora is so glad that Catra is here.
Though she’s not so glad when harsh sunlight stabs into her vision, causing Adora to whine and shut her eyes yet again. She leaves herself that way for several moments—still wanting to see Catra, but reluctant to expose her eyes to that cutting sunlight. She can see it through her eyelids, even. That bright yellow glow.
Even without vision, she can feel herself moving—being dragged forward, toes carving lines through the sand. Though it’s not ungentle, this movement. Urgent, but not ungentle.
“Where…?” Adora manages to say, but cannot finish the question. Her forehead feels damp. There’s a bead of sweat trailing down her nose, and Adora longs to wipe it away...but she just can’t force her muscles to move. Her hand hurts so badly...
“Shh,” Catra shushes her. “Just rest. I’m getting you help.”
And then it’s gone—that bright yellow glow. Dimmed to a dull darkness. Adora whimpers in relief and cracks open one eye, chin dipped toward the ground to avoid any further unwelcome lights.
To her absolute surprise, she’s greeted by a rather familiar sight. A floor lined with symbols she recognizes—symbols she can read, even in this state. Symbols that say Ship. Mara. Etheria. And...
Adora has seen these symbols before, on the floor of the Crystal Castle.
Is that where they are? Did they somehow travel to the Crystal Castle?
But how could that be possible? Catra and Adora were trapped in the Crimson Waste. Exiled there, with no way out—
“Where is it?” she hears Catra demand, voice shrill with fury. “You said there’d be something here to help her—”
“I-I said there could be,” a timid voice replies. “But this place has been looted so many times, there must just be nothing left—”
“That’s not good enough!” hisses Catra. “She needs medicine now. And if you can’t give it to me…”
Adora feels herself lowered to the ground. Lowered, by Catra. She manages to lay herself on her palms rather than sprawled out on the floor—an impressive feat, considering how much Adora wants to collapse into a boneless heap.
With Adora out of her hold, Adora sees Catra take a threatening step forward—toward the source of that other voice, presumably. A voice that now pleads for forgiveness.
Adora doesn’t want to watch this. She doesn’t want to watch Catra yell at or hurt someone, least of all over Adora. So, instead, she stares at the floor. Memorizing the symbols. Imagining them in her head, imagining herself tracing them and saying them and making them real.
What Adora wouldn’t give to be She-Ra now. Tall, strong, invincible She-Ra...and not this weak, sickened version of herself.
“For the Honor of Grayskull…” Adora whispers, her palms—injured and intact—pressed flat onto that symbol-carved floor. She whispers it, over and over, even though she knows it won’t work. Even though she knows that transformation is impossible without the sword. The sword that she’ll likely never see again—
She just wants so badly to be She-Ra again. If she were a proper She-Ra, she wouldn’t be in this mess. She wouldn’t feel like this, she wouldn’t be dragging Catra down, she wouldn’t be useless...
And at first she thinks she must be imagining it—the way the floor beneath her hands begins to glow. Glowing purple, with light spreading like veins throughout the floor. Adora’s breath catches at the sight. She feels strange. Lightheaded. But better, somehow. Still sick but not...not quite so terrible, just exhausted—
“Adora?” she hears Catra call. “What are you—?”
There’s a sound in the distance. The grinding of stone, it sounds like. Or maybe metal. She can’t tell. She can’t raise her eyes, let alone her head.
And then Adora loses all balance, falling off her palms and landing fully collapsed onto the ground. The last thing she feels is a carving cutting into her cheek, likely making an imprint, and the vibration of Catra’s footsteps sprinting closer.
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See you next week at our regularly scheduled Friday, 6:30pm update time!
Adora meets someone from the past.
Catra makes a move.
And Scorpia reveals the truth.
hey all! here's the next chapter! please note that i might split the final chapter into two parts (so this will potentially be a six chapter fic) but i haven't decided. you'll know by next week lol.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Adora wakes with a gasp, shooting upright in bed. Frantic, she glances around—searching her surroundings for any sign of familiarity. But there’s nothing, absolutely nothing. Adora sits on what appears to be a pad of fabric and tumbleweeds. The walls around her are bare, worn with age, and there’s utterly nothing on the floor other than herself.
Other than herself...and Catra, sitting cross-legged at the foot of Adora’s bed.
“Hey, hey,” Catra says, leaning forward to lightly grasp Adora’s wrist. A comforting gesture rather than a restrictive one. “It’s okay. You’re okay.”
Adora sits there, her chest heaving. Where is she? How did she get here? The last thing she remembers, she was on watch in the desert. Her hand hurt pretty badly at the time, but she was trying her best to power through it—
“You’re okay,” Catra says again. “Your hand got infected—really badly infected. I didn’t think it would happen so fast...but I guess the bacteria is a little different in the Waste. More dangerous. Or maybe Huntara’s blade was particularly dirty, or purposely covered with something—”
Adora looks down at her own hand. Sure enough, the gash is still there, though it’s largely healed now. Crusted over with scabs.
“I thought you were going to die,” murmurs Catra, eyes averted toward the floor. “Your skin felt ten times hotter than the air.”
And a memory returns to Adora, then. Of that strange shelter she entered—the one that looked like the Crystal Castle. Though that couldn’t have possibly been the case, Adora realizes that now. But she remembers how fever stabbed through her every vein, over every inch of skin.
“I’m surprised I didn’t,” admits Adora, still staring at her own hand. “It felt like I was dying.”
She-Ra. Etheria. Gone.
Adora jumps at the noise. It’s not particularly loud, but the voice and the words themselves, in combination, alight every nerve in Adora’s body. She thought she was dreaming when she heard those words while half-unconscious. But maybe not—
“Wha-What is that?” asks Adora, gulping. She glances around, searching for a source, but it seems to echo from nowhere at all.
Catra scoots a bit closer up the length of the bed. “It’s...complicated. I’ll explain it to you soon. But first we need to make sure you’re rested and okay.”
But Adora needs more answers than that. “What is this place?” she demands, her eyes hardening as they settle on Catra. Not in anger, really, but in determination to know.
She-Ra. Etheria. Gone.
What is it? Some kind of prophecy? A message from the rebels, perhaps, explaining how She-Ra has failed them, and how the cause of the rebellion was lost when she was? For all Adora knows, the Horde could have wiped out Bright Moon by now, and it would be all Adora’s fault. All Adora’s failure—
There’s another gentle squeeze at Adora’s wrist.
“Adora, seriously,” Catra tells her, “It’s okay. It’s just an old recording.”
Adora raises a curious eyebrow. “An old recording of what?”
Catra sighs deeply and releases Adora’s wrist.
“You were basically dying of...something,” Catra says. “I don’t know what. But while you were sick, we were attacked by Tung Lashor. He captured the both of us—not that you were really awake enough to notice.”
Adora inhales sharply. Leave it to Adora to be just like that—useless when Catra really needed her. Guilt presses against her shoulders like something real, something heavy—
“How did you escape?” Adora asks, awed. “And drag me along to boot—”
Catra scratches at the back of her own neck. “Well...I didn’t exactly escape. Neither of us did.”
Adora’s eyes widen, noticing that Catra is still wearing that leather jacket. The one that caused them so much trouble, and likely caused them even more trouble with Tung Lashor. Adora recalls what Huntara said:
Though try to avoid Tung Lashor himself—he’ll know if you’re not one of his people.
So does that mean…?
“You didn’t join him did you?”
Catra scoffs and laughs—and it’s a high, disbelieving kind of laugh. “Are you kidding?” she shrieks. “I didn’t join that loser. He was a pretender, if anything. A fake.” Catra shoots Adora a crooked smirk. “I challenged him to a fight. Single combat. Me against the second-toughest gang leader in the Crimson Waste.”
“Huntara was right about one thing,” Catra continues casually. “In the Crimson Waste, the strong really do make the rules. And once I beat Tung Lashor...I was the strongest of all his little cronies.” Catra gives another high laugh. “They all agreed to follow me, same way they followed him. Can you believe it?”
Adora blinks. “No, actually. I really can’t. Catra...what did you do to Tung Lashor—?”
Catra flaps a hand. “Oh, calm down. I didn’t kill him or anything. I tricked him into falling into some quicksand. It wasn’t deep enough to kill him or whatever, but I bet he was pretty stuck—” Catra taps something at her side, a spiral of leather attached to her belt, “—and I got this pretty cool whip out of the deal. He tossed it to me because he actually thought I was going to help pull him out of the quicksand. Pretty neat, huh?”
There’s a pause as Adora processes all this. There’s still so much she doesn’t understand, so much that she doesn’t believe, so much that she missed because she was too ill to do more than sprawl on the ground—
“So...what…?” Adora demands, incredulous. “You’re a gang leader now?”
“Technically, we’re both gang leaders now,” Catra corrects her. “I told them you’re my second-in-command. Whatever you say, they should do.”
But Adora doesn’t even know what to say. On the one hand, it’s good that Catra found some sort of safe place for them in the Waste. A place safe enough for Adora to sleep and recover. On the other hand, Adora has never really pictured herself as some sort of outlaw gang leader. A Horde officer, maybe. A rebel hero, sure, if she was feeling particularly generous toward herself. But this? This is all so absurd—
And worse...Adora knows that she did almost nothing to deserve it. She merely sat there, unconscious, while Catra did all the work, all the rescuing.
However Catra actually managed to do that.
“That still doesn’t explain where we are,” Adora says. “Or how I managed to survive that infection.”
“Well, the good thing about being a gang leader is that your people know things,” Catra explains. “When you started to get worse, not better, I asked—” Adora shoots her a skeptical look. “Okay, fine, I interrogated my minions about places where I could find medicine for you.”
Adora makes a disgusted noise. “Please don’t call them minions. It’s too weird.”
“Whatever. The point is, one of them told me about some kind of...structure...unearthed by a recent sandstorm. It had been pretty heavily looted, they said, but when it was first unearthed, one of them found a bottle of liquid. A magic healing potion, or something like that, that cured all illnesses. So I told them to lead the way. If there was a chance that such a thing existed, I knew you needed it.”
“So, what?” Adora asks. “You gave me a magic healing potion and it actually worked?”
Shaking her head, Catra says, “Not exactly. When we got here, the place was totally empty. Looted, just as they said. No magic healing potions to be found. I didn’t know what to do. I was panicking. It didn’t seem like you had much time left.”
Adora remembers that, of course. She remembers lying on the floor as Catra yelled at some unrecognizable voice, demanding medicine.
“But I guess something weird happened. You touched the floor, and this door opened—”
The floor. The floor that looked like it had been dug up and relocated from the Crystal Castle.
“We found all these rooms. And once you were in here...I don’t know. Your fever broke. You started to get better.”
Adora sighs. She can’t believe Catra dragged Adora across the desert-like that, searching for medicine to heal her. It was likely a waste of time. Worse, it probably put Catra in danger, trying to look out for Adora as well as herself amidst the perils of the Crimson Waste.
All because Adora was stupid enough to injure herself.
“I...thank you. For saving me.”
“Don’t mention it,” says Catra, cracking a smirk. “It’s kinda fun rescuing you, actually. Feels good to kick butt while you’re the helpless one for once.”
Sighing yet again, Adora asks: “How long did it take?”
Catra blinks in confusion. “How long did what take?”
“How long did I sit in this bed, doing nothing?”
Catra shoots her an unsympathetic look. “If by ‘doing nothing,’ you mean recovering? Only about six hours. And you were unconscious for roughly a full day before that.”
Adora groans and places her head in her hands. Adora is so useless. She’s supposed to be protecting Catra in exchange, looking out for her. But so far, it seems like Adora hasn’t been doing much except getting herself into trouble. Life-threatening trouble.
Ever since Adora lost She-Ra...she’s been bumbling. Stupid. Weak.
“I’m sorry,” she tells Catra, the words muffled behind her palms.
“What are you sorry for?”
“For being so completely useless.”
Catra grabs her hands and drags them down from her face. It’s a forceful gesture—one that demands to see Adora’s eyes and won’t take no for an answer. But it’s not an ungentle one, either. Catra’s eyes are adamant, near-glowing in the low light of the...whatever this place is. Room, cavern…
“Adora,” Catra says. “Either of us could’ve gotten that cut. In fact, if I had fought Huntara instead of you, I probably would’ve gotten even worse. Getting an infection doesn’t mean you’re useless. It just means you’re a normal person.”
Adora hears the words. But something in her just refuses to believe them. When Adora was still She-Ra, she could weather the worst attacks imaginable and evade them relatively unscathed. And when she did injure herself...She-Ra always seemed to heal her inordinately quickly. Almost instantly translating cuts and scratches to healed scars.
Adora can’t even remember the last time she got sick as She-Ra—
“Still,” Adora says. “We made a promise to look out for each other. To protect each other. And lately, I haven’t been doing much. Not unless you count screwing up.”
“Adora,” Catra repeats. “Keeping the promise doesn’t mean that you have to be upright and ready to fight off attackers at all times. I’m more than capable of taking care of myself.”
And then, to Adora’s surprise, Catra is doing that thing again. Stroking Adora’s hand, which still rests in Catra’s grasp. Catra doesn’t seem to notice that she’s doing it, not at all. And Adora suspects that if she pointed it out, Catra might stop. Stop completely, and become embarrassed.
And Adora doesn’t really want her to stop. This feeling...it’s nice. Really nice.
“Keeping the promise just means that you’re here, and so am I,” Catra tells her, voice softer than Adora remembers it ever being. “That when the rest of the world is out to get us, I can trust you to stay by my side, and vice versa. And that we’ll both do whatever we can to keep each other safe.”
Adora gulps. “I haven’t been doing so well at that last part.”
Catra smiles. “I wouldn’t be so sure about that. If you hadn’t opened the door to this place—” Catra gestures to the wider room, “I don’t know if Tung Lashor’s gang would’ve kept following me. But because I led them to so much new loot within a few hours of being their boss…” She shrugs. “They think I’m the best boss they’ve ever had. That I’m gonna lead them to all sorts of riches, or whatever.”
“Still,” says Adora. Jokingly, because she’s starting to feel just a tiny bit better about herself, about her recent mistakes and failures. Catra always had a talent in that—in making Adora feel better.
Catra rises to her feet without releasing Adora’s hand. She tugs on it lightly, saying, “Think you’re well enough to walk around? I want to show you this place. It’s super weird.”
Adora nods and begins lifting herself up, wincing only slightly in soreness as she moves.
“I still don’t know how I did that, by the way.”
“Opened the door. I just...I felt strange. And then there was this glowing—”
Adora sways as she reaches full height, and Catra catches her. Steadies her. But the words nonetheless die in Adora’s throat. Glowing? Is Adora really serious? Adora knows better than anyone that she can’t glow. Not on her own, anyway. Not without She-Ra’s sword to imbue her with magic.
“Maybe you hit some booby-trapped panel of floor,” Catra offers. “One that triggered it to open. Or glowed when activated.”
“Maybe,” replies Adora. But she can’t help still feeling unconvinced.
Catra doesn’t seem at all concerned, though. She lightly swats at Adora’s shoulder, face split by an eager smile.
“C’mon,” Catra says, and continues tugging Adora to the door. “There’s a lot to see. And not a lot of time to waste. The gang is planning something called a party for later, and I don’t want to miss that, whatever it is—”
She-Ra. Etheria. Gone.
Again and again, she listens to those words. But when a nearby door slides open, hissing stale air as it parts from the floor, they become noticeably louder. It tears her attention away from the corridor she currently stands in—a corridor filled with gleaming metal walls imbued with what appears to be crystal, and strange purple lights that glow like moons.
Adora has seen such fixtures before. In the Crystal Castle.
And is that what this place is? This maze of narrow corridors? Did it once belong to the First Ones, just as the Crystal Castle did? She would guess so, judging by its un-etherian appearance. The only time she’s seen structures and architecture like this, it’s been in that castle. Though, obviously, the castle is much bigger.
Adora had been gaping at her surroundings right until the moment a door slid open in front of her—and those words blared from the space beyond.
She-Ra. Etheria. Gone.
Adora’s breath catches at the sight in the distance—at the other end of the room. A sight that pixelates and glows in a familiar sort of way, reminding Adora of Light Hope. Though it has been far too long since Adora last saw Light Hope—and Adora is painfully aware of how unlikely they are to reunite someday, given Adora’s current circumstances.
But Adora’s familiarity with Light Hope allows her to identify the figure in the distance for what it is—a hologram. A projection created by this First Ones’ structure (Building? Mini castle?) that houses them.
And not just any hologram. Adora sees a flowing cape, and long billowing hair. She sees a body of inordinate height—a head that towers somewhere close to eight feet off the ground—and the outline of metal armor. Armor that Adora recognizes, because she herself has worn something very similar.
Adora surges into the room, desperate to confirm her suspicions even as Catra calls for her to Wait and Take it easy, Adora. But those warnings don’t slow her down, not in the least. She runs until she’s standing right in front of the hologram, right in front of her.
The volume of the projection wavers with every other word.
“I am Mara, She-Ra of Etheria, and I am gone.”
Adora stares at her—this vision of her long dead predecessor—drinking in her every detail.
So this is Mara. The Mara that Light Hope has told her about, the Mara who failed, the Mara who supposedly let Etheria down. The Mara who Razz talks about, the Mara who could not control her own power.
The Mara who Adora was once so afraid of becoming.
And yet, looking at Mara like this…
It’s hard to imagine. She’s so beautiful, so steady and strong even despite the pixelation and degraded quality of the projection...it’s impossible for Adora to imagine that Light Hope’s words are true. If anything, Mara looks like a far more capable She-Ra than Adora does.
Adora has so many questions for Mara. About what happened to her, about what went wrong. She wants to know how she can be a better She-Ra, how she can help Etheria and Etheria against the seemingly endless onslaught of the Horde. She especially wants to know what this place is, and why it’s in the Crimson Waste. And did Mara actually stand in this room, or is this a recording of her from someplace else—?
Adora hears Catra shuffle to her side, but Adora can’t turn to look at her. Not now. She can’t seem to tear her eyes away from Mara’s face. Her mouth is open, ready to formulate a question. She just can’t seem to decide which one—
“I should’ve known you’d freak when you saw this,” Catra mutters. “The second there’s something She-Ra-related, everything else goes out the window for you.”
And there’s an edge to Catra’s words, a resentment that Catra has barely attempted to conceal. Adora wants to apologize for it...but she doesn’t really know what she’s apologizing for. Whether Adora wanted to or not, it was Adora’s destiny to be She-Ra. She had no choice in the matter.
Just like she has no choice in the matter now, with the sword far, far out of her grasp. Likely to never be found again.
And never has Adora felt so useless. So purposeless. Her destiny, gone forever in favor of this. Wandering the desert in the hope of finding someplace safe to settle herself.
Well, to settle herself and Catra. That’s the only good thing that’s come out of Adora’s recent failures—reconnecting with Catra again. In particular, connecting over this shared screw-up of theirs, a screw up that left them forgotten by the rest of the world.
And as she stares at Mara, she can’t help but wonder if Adora followed in Mara’s footsteps. If she caused Etheria more harm than good. The sword is in Hordak’s hands now, after all. Who knows what he’ll do with it? It’s a weapon. A weapon that can be used to hurt innocent people.
And it’s all Adora’s fault.
“M-Mara?” Adora stammers, reaching a hand out as if to touch Mara’s arm. “It’s me. Adora. The next She-Ra. Or at least…I was—”
The hologram turns toward her, eyes landing directly on Adora’s face. Adora inhales sharply, overwhelmed by the thought of having a conversation with her, with Mara.
Mara opens her mouth, prepared to answer—
“I am Mara,” repeats the hologram, same as before. “She-Ra of Etheria. And I am gone.”
And then Mara turns away again, staring at the wall with blank eyes.
“Yeah, uh, Adora?” Catra asks. And instead of Adora touching Mara’s arm, Catra places a hand on Adora’s shoulder. “She’s just an old recording on a loop. She can’t talk to you.”
Adora retracts her hand, trying desperately to keep her fingers from shaking.
And working even harder to keep tears from springing to her eyes.
Because really, she shouldn’t be upset. She shouldn’t. She knew Mara was gone—and has been gone for a thousand years. Just because Adora can talk to Light Hope doesn’t mean that she can talk to every hologram she stumbles upon, right? She really shouldn’t have expected otherwise.
Mara is gone.
She-Ra is gone.
“I just…I...I had so many questions for her,” murmurs Adora, voice collapsing in on itself. “Being She-Ra is...was...so much and I just...I wanted to talk to someone who understood—”
Silence envelops them both. A silence punctured only by Mara’s occasional mantra of “I am Mara. She-Ra of Etheria. And I am gone.”
“You’re okay,” Catra says, softly. Impossibly softly—like Catra is trying to comfort her. And that’s the last thing Adora would expect. Catra hates She-Ra, hates everything about She-Ra.
And yet here she is, trying to make Adora feel better.
“She-Ra’s in the past now,” Catra continues. “For better or for worse...it’s not something you have to worry about anymore. You’re free of her.”
Adora gulps and nods her head. Much of her hair has shaken loose from her ponytail, and the motion causes the strands to fall into her eyes—yet another thing to invite tears. She scrubs frantically at them—her eyes—in an effort to keep those tears at bay.
“I just feel like I’ve let everyone down,” Adora says. “I’ve let Etheria down. I’ve let you down. I wanted so badly to do the right thing, to help everyone I could...but I just ended up ruining everything for everyone else. I mean, neither of us would be here if it weren’t for me—”
“Well…” begins Catra. The word is tentative, and lingering, and ends only when Adora feels a warm arm wrap around her shoulder. “The secret is...I actually kinda don’t mind being here. So don’t worry about that.”
Adora shoots her a confused look. “What do you mean?”
“Nothing,” replies Catra, quickly. “It’s just that…” She shrugs. “Despite the near-death experiences, I’ve actually had a ton of fun since we arrived. I mean—we had a bar fight. Went camping. Fought some outlaws. And I became a gang boss in a matter of days. Meanwhile, in the Horde…”
Catra’s expression sours.
“Hordak didn’t trust me. Shadow Weaver treated me like shit. And you…”
Adora tenses, unsure what Catra is about to say.
“You weren’t there anymore,” Catra finishes. And Adora feels it—the way Catra’s hand tightens slightly around Adora’s shoulder blade, as though anchoring herself there. To Adora. “And well...it’s been kinda nice having you around again. Even if you are a dork.”
And there are things that Adora wants to say. She wants to tell Catra that she wanted Catra to break free of the Horde’s abuses for so long; that she’s always wanted Catra by her side, just like this.
Or maybe she’s always wanted something else. Something like this, but closer. Something unnamed and confusing. A pull that Adora has never quite understood, but can feel between their bodies at this very moment. A static, a gravity—
“Well, I’m glad you’re happy,” Adora says, mustering a smile. Even with Mara’s hologram glowing nearby, repeatedly broadcasting that long-dead face. “That’s all I’ve ever really wanted for you, Catra. Even if it didn’t seem that way. I always wanted you to be happy. And if possible...” Adora swallows. “I wanted us to be together. Every second we were enemies...I missed you. I missed you so badly it felt like...I don’t know. Like I had a broken bone in my chest that just never healed—”
Catra falls quiet yet again.
“What about that princess?” Catra asks. “The sparkly one. And the boy with the arrows. I thought you didn’t care about me anymore because you had them—”
Adora laughs and then, slowly, lowers her head onto Catra’s shoulder. She remembers they used to sit like this all the time in the Horde—oftentimes when they perched themselves on the roof, looking out across the Fright Zone. And it’s odd to think about it. That time before they were enemies.
But sitting here like this—her arm curled around Catra’s back and Catra’s arm around Adora’s shoulders—it’s suddenly so difficult to think about Catra being her enemy in any capacity.
“Glimmer and Bow are amazing,” Adora says, eyes closed as she revels in this feeling of closeness with Catra. A feeling that was rare, or impossible, until recently. “They mean the world to me. And I miss them. But there’s nothing I’ve ever met—or can even imagine—that could replace you. Not as far as I’m concerned.”
Catra hums. But not in the way that Adora expects—like she thinks that Adora is lying. It’s a soft hum. One that transitions, quite gradually, into a pur.
“And what about you?” Catra asks. “Are you happy here?”
Adora hesitates. Hesitates for too long, long enough for Catra to notice—her features growing more and more pinched with every moment of Adora’s struggle to answer.
“I…I’m scared, if I’m being honest,” Adora decides, eyeing Mara’s hologram from her periphery. “I’m afraid of what’s going to happen to the rebellion. And I’m afraid that something in the Waste is going to hurt us.”
Catra stands there, stock-frozen. And Adora can tell by the tension in her posture that she’s considering pulling away, letting Adora go. Something that Adora doesn’t want, no matter how scared she is—
“But other than that…” Adora says quickly, trying to restore this moment, this closeness, before it falls to pieces. Curling closer into Catra while she still can. “I’m happy to be with you, Catra. I always was.”
And slowly, Catra nods her reply. Her face dips down into Adora’s hair, yet another purr rumbling through her chest. It feels wonderful. Better than Adora thought she’d ever feel again, and Adora is overcome by this...urge. An urge to angle her face toward Catra’s, to touch her in some way that’s...she doesn’t know. Something more than this.
And what makes it worse is the way that Catra is staring at her, eyes lidded low, her lips parted just slightly, like there’s a question she wants to ask. As if Catra’s lips haven’t always been distracting enough in the everyday, even without a question dangling from them—
Adora leans forward—
“Good news, boss!” calls someone. A stranger standing in the doorway, a large, beat-up metal canister dropped at their feet, and yet another one balanced on their shoulder. “We grabbed the booze! Now the party can really begin—”
Adora and Catra fly apart, startled by the noise and the sudden arrival. Adora immediately drops into a fighting stance, fists raised in front of her. She’s been in the Crimson Waste long enough to know that anyone could be a threat, and that she needs to be ready to defend herself and Catra—
Until she realizes what the person said.
This must be one of Tung Lashor’s gang members. Gang members who now follow Catra instead. Adora did, after all, completely sleep through that little change in leadership.
Adora glances at Catra for confirmation—only to see that Catra is blushing wildly, eyes wide and refusing to meet Adora’s, her face half-concealed beneath her hand.
“Uh-huh,” says Catra, each word stilted and stumbling. Her hand flaps across the air in a gesture that tries to be dismissive, but is far too frantic to appear convincing. “Yeah. Great. Fine. Do whatever—”
And then she’s halfway sprinting toward the door, her tail flying out behind her as she shoves past the crowd of newly-arrived gang members, all of whom are carrying more canisters of stuff. A lot of liquid, by the sound of all that sloshing.
Adora doesn’t know what to do. It seems wrong to follow Catra when she was clearly running away. But it feels just as wrong to let her go when they were so close to...something. Something else. Something important, but inexplicable.
But she doesn’t want to push Catra too hard to understand what it means. And she especially doesn’t want to push Catra away—not when Adora just got her back.
Adora isn’t a total stranger to parties. She’s attended a couple of them since joining the rebellion: the festival at Thaymor, the All Princess’ Ball. But up until her defection...they were an entirely foreign concept to her. The Horde taught her that princesses often had formal gatherings that involved dancing and music, but Adora thought (or rather, was brainwashed to think) that these gatherings were something occult, or dangerous.
But Glimmer and Bow have since taught her that parties are held for the purpose of fun—for celebration. That they involve delicious food and games and dancing as a means to express oneself and get to know others. Bow and Glimmer have explained—quite excitedly—that there’s a wide variety of parties held all across Etheria. Fancy parties, rowdy parties, calm and tranquil parties—
Though most of the parties that Adora herself has attended have been rather tame, like the one in Thaymor. Or overly formal, like Princess Prom.
She’s never attended a party like this before.
This must be the rowdy kind of party that Glimmer and Bow talked about. The kind that’s deafening with the noise of music, or people’s voices, or clanging glasses. Adora can hardly think straight amidst such volume.
Though she can think enough to know she’s slightly annoyed. Annoyed, especially, that these people are throwing a party in the chamber where Mara’s hologram stands—flickering purple as it projects into the air. It’s irrational, Adora knows. But something about this chamber feels...she doesn’t know. Sacred, somehow. Hallowed.
But because she can’t explain her reasoning, she keeps her mouth shut.
Catra reemerges not long after the party begins. Adora tries to make pointed eye contact with her—a questioning look that asks whether they should talk about what happened earlier. Though Adora still isn’t sure what they did wrong. She’s still not sure what they were doing, in general. Just following some sort of pestering instinct. One that Adora can’t name, nor explain.
But Catra’s attention is easily distracted by the party around her. She stares, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, at the sea of people that crowds the room. Their sloshing drinks and boisterous cries. Their thumping music and jerking attempts at dancing—a kind of dancing so unlike anything Adora saw in Thaymor or Frosta’s kingdom.
“So this is a party?” Catra asks, grinning. She plops herself into a chair at the center of the room. One that Adora herself was leaning against, largely because she found herself trapped on all sides by the crowd.
But they’ve parted like a river around a rock for Catra, giving her a clean path to that chair. And a space beside Adora—though one not nearly so intimate as the one they shared earlier, when they were alone in this very room.
“I like it,” Catra says, crossing her legs. “They should have more of these in the Fright Zone. I thought that stuffy ball we went to was what people meant by party, but I wasn’t sure—”
Adora glances into the crowd, where she can still see Mara’s hologram flickering over the bodies that surround her. Her voice, buried beneath their voices. She-Ra. Etheria. Gone.
“I dunno,” says Adora. “It’s a bit loud, don’t you think?”
Catra smirks. “What, like the Fright Zone wasn’t loud? Rogelio’s snores alone probably damaged my hearing.”
And that was true, Adora knows. She doesn’t know why the presence of all these people here, in this room, bothers her so much. She’s angry when she has no right to be. So what if this place belonged to a past She-Ra? Adora isn’t She-Ra anymore, and likely never will be again. She has no claim to this place.
So Adora swallows her unease, and cracks a smile in reply. “I suppose you’re right.
“Aren’t I always?”
Adora shifts, balancing herself on the right arm of the chair. She knows she probably shouldn’t—especially after the last time she pressed close to Catra. But the party is so loud, so overwhelming, so unlike anything Adora has ever seen...it’s a comfort to be farther from everyone else, and closer to Catra.
“I wonder what they’re all drinking,” Catra says, craning her neck to get a good look at the liquid inside the bottles and cups that the crowd waves high. “You!” she orders, pointing to a nearby gang member. “Bring us some drinks!”
The gang member squeals in fear at being singled out, then scrambles to follow Catra’s instructions. Within moments, a glass of something dark amber is pressed into Adora’s hand, and Catra is given the same.
Adora gives the drink a subtle sniff—then winces. The smell is terribly acrid, causing her nostrils to burn. It’s unlike anything she’s ever smelled. And not in a good way.
Adora isn’t exactly a stranger to the concept of alcohol. Princess Prom actually provided a bar where older princesses and their guests could order drinks (though Adora herself had been too distracted by Catra to order anything). And Glimmer and Bow had maybe once stolen a bottle of Angella’s wine so that Adora could taste it. That drink was sweet, maybe just a little bit tart, and fizzed on Adora’s tongue.
Adora suspects that this is nothing like that.
A glance at Catra reveals a similar reaction—cautious sniffing of the drink and a somewhat disgusted expression. Her eyes meet Adora’s, and together they make a nonverbal agreement:
Try it together, one sip at a time.
The glasses meet their lips at the same time, tipping it just slightly to get a taste.
The second the liquid touches Adora’s tongue, she’s stricken by how much it burns. Burning, with not much flavor besides the taste of something scorched and rotten, hidden among the dark amber slosh of the drink. It’s a considerable effort to even force that one sip down, one that leaves Adora coughing and her throat raw. She does everything in her power to keep her eyes from streaming.
Despite the tears budding in Adora’s eyes, she sees Catra struggle with swallowing just as much. Her grip on the arm of the chair is white-knuckled as she finally shoves it down.
Neither Catra nor Adora swallow more than a single sip. Not before they simultaneously lower their cups to the floor and nudge them away—then share an incredulous laugh with one another.
“Well, that was awful,” Adora mutters beneath her breath. She doesn’t want to offend whoever made the brew...but truly, Adora has never tasted something so terrible in her life.
Catra nods, her eyes wide. “It was like drinking tank fuel.”
“I mean...I guess it makes sense. Alcohol is made from fermented plants, and the Crimson Waste doesn’t exactly have a lot to ferment.”
“What do you think they used to make it?”
While the rest of the party rages around them, they spend the next while speculating what went into that hideous concoction. It was sort of thick, like honey, but not at all similar in flavor. So Adora suggests that it might quite literally be dirt combined with fermented cactus juice. But Catra reminds her that half the cacti here are poisonous.
Though they’re interrupted as someone bangs a knife against a glass. The sound instantly cuts through the chatter.
“Look at all this new loot!” the gang member bellows, gesturing to the room around them and, Adora can only assume, the structure that surrounds it. It’s not quite a building, she thinks. And she remembers, vaguely, that the carvings on the floor said Ship. “We’ve gotta be the richest gang in the Whole Waste now! Huntara probably wishes she had what we had—”
The crowd cheers, and Adora winces at the sound.
“To Boss Catra!” a gang member shouts, raising their glass in Catra’s direction. “Under her leadership...we’ll be the most feared gang in the whole Waste. Huntara won’t stand a chance.”
Catra and Adora glance at each as the crowd yet again erupts into gleeful hollering. Little does this group know that Catra and Adora already took down Huntara once—even though they ultimately let her go.
And Adora especially wonders if Huntara will have an issue with this—Catra and Adora taking over her rival gang. She expects that Huntara will feel threatened. She might try to attack them, push them out. And while Adora defeated her once...she can’t be sure that she can do it again.
Which means that Catra and Adora aren’t safe yet. Not by a long shot.
But for now, Adora ignores her worries. She instead lifts her glass from the floor, raises it to Catra beside her, and says, “to Boss Catra.”
She’s just a little bit mocking as she says it, and Catra gives her a playful shove and a laugh as a result.
Glimmer sprints forward, her cape flapping out behind her.
“Glimmer, wait!” Bow calls. He scrambles to catch up with her, but her head start is sizable. It was first instinct to take off running as soon as she heard the news. He, on the other hand, took a moment to consider what it means. A second too long, as far as Glimmer is concerned.
So she doesn’t wait. She can’t. Not when an enemy has managed to sneak into Bright Moon. She needs to know what’s happening—needs to know what she can do to help.
And she especially needs to know if this person can help them find Adora.
Glimmer skids to a stop in front of one of the spare rooms, heels squeaking across the floor. The guards stationed in the hallway wince visibly at the sound, hands tightening around the spears they hold crossed over the door.
Her mother, Queen Angella, does not so much as flinch. She was already standing outside. Hesitating, as though unsure if she should enter. Eyes narrowed as she studies the door’s molding, a finger tapping at her chin.
Glimmer composes herself, steadying her heaving breaths and smoothing a hair through her own hair. Glimmer knows that her mother will not permit her inside if she appears too excited to think clearly.
Bow arrives just as Glimmer achieves some semblance of calm. He, in contrast, is gasping. Clutching at his knees now that he has finally caught up. “Glimmer—”
Glimmer shushes him and points, pointedly, to her mother. She doesn’t want him to question her right now—not in front of this particular audience. Even if he’s opposed to what he knows she is about to do, they can discuss it later, in private.
Her mother hasn’t looked at her—or Bow, for that matter. Not yet. She remains staring at the door, her entire attention devoted to whatever consideration she is making about what lies beyond.
“Mom?” Glimmer asks, folding her hands in front of her lap.
Finally, Angella’s attention diverts, an eyebrow raised.
“I assume you’re here because you want to interrogate the prisoner?”
Glimmer hesitates, nearly intimidated by how easily her mother guessed her intentions. Nearly being the key word. It won’t stop Glimmer from asking—
“Bow and I are clearly the best choice for the job!” Glimmer insists, arms extended out to her sides. “Out of everyone here, we’ve had the most encounters with Scorpia—”
Because that was the big news in Bright Moon this morning. Scorpia— Force Captain of the Horde—had snuck herself onto the Bright Moon castle grounds. She had tried to be discreet about it, of course. But she was apprehended by guards almost immediately. It is, after all, rather hard to miss a six-foot-tall, heavily-muscled scorpion-woman with enormous pincers. Bright Moon’s security may not be the greatest, Glimmer can attest. But there are some things that are too difficult to miss in broad daylight.
Rumor spread of her arrival rather quickly. Spreading and spreading until it reached Glimmer’s ears. And normally, she’d be horrified to find a Horde spy on castle grounds. But it’s proven nearly impossible to get intel about Adora from the Fright Zone, and their attempts to capture and interrogate Catra via the bounty have been fruitless. Catra must be laying low; staying in the Fright Zone, for some reason.
But if Scorpia is here on reconnaissance...they may still have a chance. Scorpia is Catra’s right hand woman. Maybe Catra told Scorpia where Adora is being held. Maybe there’s still hope to be found—
Angella just sighs. “Yes, well...there doesn’t seem to be any need for a real interrogation.”
Glimmer blinks. “What do you mean?”
“Scorpia already told us what we want to know,” Angella tells her. “Quite happily, I might add, on her way to this room. Juliet relayed everything she said. Though we’ll need to confirm it with a truth spell. Castaspella came to cast a containment spell, but couldn’t stay for longer than that—”
Glimmer can only keep blinking, certain that this must be too good to be true. “You mean…?”
Angella nods. “She told us where Adora is,” Angella says. “Or, at least, where she is most likely to be found. But the location is…” Angella shakes her head. “Not an ideal place to search. Not by any means.”
Glimmer stares at the door. “But why would Scorpia do that? She’s loyal to the Horde. Loyal to Catra—”
Angella gestures for the doors to open. “Best you ask her for yourself. She can explain the matter better than I can. Normally, I’d hesitate to let you lead an interrogation...but she’s even more forthcoming than I could have imagined. ”
And the guards do as Angella orders, lifting their spears away from each other and pulling open the door. The widening gap between door and frame reveals a surprising sight—Scorpia, sitting within a magical containment of some kind. Her arms are bound to her sides, but she seems quite comfortable otherwise. Nestled atop some plush cushions, her eyes sweeping the room’s curved and jewel-encrusted architecture.
“Wow,” says Scorpia. “This has gotta be the nicest prison I’ve ever seen.”
The party drags long, but shows no sign of slowing down. Catra is enraptured by the whole thing—addicted to watching the gang’s every bumbling attempt to arm wrestle or outdance or outdrink one another. She doesn’t participate herself, but she’s intrigued by every moment of the party’s chaos—occasionally turning to Adora to marvel at something together.
Catra can’t help it. The Horde never would have allowed a party of this sort—never would have permitted such unbridled pandemonium. And now that she’s here, now that she’s in charge of it...she wants to know and understand every part of it.
But after a while, it doesn’t seem like Adora shares the sentiment.
“Hey!” Adora calls, after placing a hand on Catra’s shoulder. She’s forced to lean down and yell over the cheers of the crowd. “I think I’m gonna turn in.”
Catra blinks at her. She suddenly notices the exhaustion pulling at Adora’s features, the winces of pain at every loud spurt of noise.
“You okay?” asks Catra.
Adora nods. “Yeah. Just got a bit of a headache, is all.”
“Still. Do you feel feverish or anything? We don’t want that infection to come back.”
Adora shakes her head. “Really, Catra. I’m just—”
But her words are cut off by another roar from the party, one that causes Adora to sling hands over her ears—frustration pinching her eyebrows together. There’s tense discomfort in her every muscle. That, Catra can see. And she can also see the way that Adora’s eyes slide to that projection of the past She-Ra, which keeps flickering eerily over the faces of the partygoers.
Catra takes that as her cue to get up and lead Adora from the room. She tightens a hand around Adora’s wrist and tugs her toward the door, vaguely aware that Adora is saying something behind her. Though Catra can’t make out a word with the dozens of other voices at her back.
Still. Adora doesn’t protest as they leave together—doesn’t tug her wrist backward in resistance to Catra joining her. Within moments, they’re outside, standing in that narrow hallway just beyond the door. And it stuns Catra—how quiet it is out here. The walls must do an incredible job at absorbing noise if it’s so shockingly silent out here, separated from a crowd by a mere door.
Shockingly silent...and strikingly empty, save the two of them.
“You don’t have to leave just because I am,” says Adora, who leans herself against a nearby wall. “I know you were having fun.”
Catra shrugs. “I wanted to make sure you’re alright. I mean, you did look pretty messed up in there.”
“Messed up?” Adora repeats, then rolls her eyes. “Gee, thanks. You’re filling me with tons of confidence.”
“You know what I mean,” Catra replies. “You looked unwell. And considering that you recently recovered from being really sick—”
“It’s just a headache, Catra. Honestly, you heard how loud it was in there—”
“Are you gonna let me feel your forehead or not?”
Silence drops like a weight. Adora freezes, eyes wide and mouth slightly agape. Though Catra can’t really be sure why. She only asked to check Adora’s forehead for fever; it’s not like she asked her to strip down or anything.
And the thought of Adora stripping down definitely should not make Catra blush in any capacity. It was just a stupid thought. A joke, really. But here she is, cheeks flaring over nothing—
“Uh…” Adora says finally. “Sure?”
Okay, fine. Cool. So Catra is going to do that. She’s going to feel Adora’s forehead, or whatever. No big deal.
So outstretches a hand, then takes a step forward. Then another, then another. Almost imperceptibly, she sees Adora brace herself against the wall, arching herself toward Catra’s hand, sinking herself lower so that she’s easier to reach. And normally, Catra would resent being accommodated in such a way (she’s short but she’s not that short, for Etheria’s sake). But right now…
Right now it only makes Catra blush more ferociously. Only makes her heart drum against her chest.
Adora shuts her eyes as Catra’s hand cups her forehead, holding it gently in search of any trace of fever. And Adora’s skin has always been something sort of strange but lovely to Catra—smooth in the way that her own coarse fur never really is.
Catra stands there for a bit too long. It’s evident by now that Adora doesn’t have a fever—her skin is no warmer than it usually is—but Adora really is just so obnoxiously pretty like this. Braced against the wall with her eyes shut, features relaxed, her forehead cradled within Catra’s grasp. And Catra just can’t force herself to pull away.
She remembers that moment earlier in the day—standing in that empty room together. Well. Mostly empty. The projection of that past She-Ra had flickered in the background, repeating that same annoying message: She-Ra. Etheria. Gone. But beyond her ghost of a face and a voice...they were alone. Completely alone. Alone, with Adora’s head on her shoulder, and her arm slung around Adora’s shoulders.
And Catra thought...she thought she saw Adora lean toward her, leaning in as though she wanted Catra, despite the fact that Catra knows that Adora doesn’t want her like that. Has never shown any other sign of wanting Catra like that—
Until right then. Until Adora’s features twisted with disappointment as Catra sprinted from the room, too confused to stay.
Why would Adora do that? And why did Adora say all those things about wanting Catra to be happy, about wanting them together, about caring about Catra differently than she’s ever cared about anyone—
So does that mean that Catra was wrong? What if Adora does want—
Adora’s eyes blink open, and Catra is close enough that she can identify every shade of blue and gray within them—can see the shadows cast by her eyelashes. Catra’s breath catches in her throat. She intends to step backward, but her feet just won’t move.
“Well?” Adora asks, smirking. “Any fever?”
Catra gulps hard.
“No,” Catra manages, finally. Her voice feels raw. “No fever.”
Catra begins to lower her hand to her side, certain that she’s acting bizarrely now—that her touch is lingering too long. But before her hand comes anywhere close to dangling, Adora doesn’t let her. Doesn’t let her pull away entirely. She slides her fingers down Catra’s arm. Down, down, until those calloused, nimble fingers are wrapped around Catra’s knuckles, suspending both hands between themselves. A bridge. A circuit between them, shooting pure electricity.
“Thanks for looking out for me,” Adora murmurs. And Catra is far too mesmerized by the shapes that Adora’s lips take as she says those words.
Catra just nods, still staring at her. Still staring at her lips, in particular.
She doesn’t know what she’s doing. She doesn’t really know what this is. All she knows is that her vision is shifting—that Adora’s lips are growing larger and larger, closer and closer, until they’re all that Catra can see beneath the angle of Adora’s nose.
“Catra?” she hears Adora whisper, voice tilted by confusion.
And it’s graceless, the way Catra finally stumbles into her. It’s a storm surge of something, something primal and needy that connects their lips together. Something that plunges Catra into pure heat and want, the rightness of pouring her whole self into touching Adora. Touching Adora in a way that exceeds the holding of hands or the knocking of shoulders. Because it’s something incredible, this contact. Something deeper, bigger than empty words or broken promises or the elusive rush of victory.
It’s something that Catra has always wanted, even if she didn’t know until this very moment.
Beneath her lips, Adora makes a small noise of surprise. A gasp. A stuttering breath.
And just as quickly, Catra’s sense of heat and want and rightness evaporates. Her eyes shoot open, only to discover a pair of wide eyes staring back at her. Startled eyes. Adora’s eyes.
Reality smashes down on Catra. She should’ve known better. She should’ve known that Adora wouldn’t want this, that she wouldn’t feel the same. Catra was foolish to think otherwise, with the truth scrawled so clearly across Adora’s face.
And god, certainly she should have noticed that Adora wasn’t returning that...that touching of lips, whatever it was. She was rigid throughout it all. Scared. Disgusted, most likely.
Catra jerks herself away, releasing Adora while simultaneously clamping a hand over her own mouth. Adora, meanwhile, keeps staring at her with that same startled expression on her face. Horrified, maybe. That’s the right word. Adora looks horrified, and Catra feels the same. Though likely for a totally different reason.
“I’m…shit,” Catra stammers, shuffling backward. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have—”
Adora raises a hand, eyes still affixed to Catra as she touches her fingers to her own lips. It’s a tentative, almost reverent gesture. One that Catra can’t make sense of.
“I’m...I’m gonna go,” Catra says, pointing a thumb over her shoulder and starting to walk backwards. “Let’s pretend this never happened, okay? Whatever this is. It was just...it was a weird impulse of some kind and I didn’t mean to freak you out and I—”
Catra wants to cry. She wants to cry and scream and a huge part of her wants to run off into the desert, never to be found again—least of all by Adora.
But she also doesn’t want to lose Adora again. Not after finally getting her back. And she especially doesn’t want to lose Adora over some...she doesn’t even know. Some weird smashing together of lips? What exactly did Catra just do? Why is something that felt so momentarily wonderful now filling Catra with fear?
Adora lowers her hand. Her features morph from surprise to something odd. Something determined. Something altogether out-of-place when Catra expects nothing but fury and outrage and revulsion.
Her arm shoots out, grabbing Catra’s wrist before she can take another trembling step backward, holding her in place. Catra blubbers out something incoherent. Trying to apologize. Trying to explain herself. Trying to ensure that Adora doesn’t hate her. But as she utters the not-quite-words, she can’t meet Adora’s eyes. She is too ashamed.
“Catra,” Adora says, simply.
And there’s a pleading to it, as well as a heart-stopping calmness. Catra struggles to look up—only to discover Adora’s other hand hovering just beneath Catra’s jaw...and Adora’s eyes fixed, unwaveringly, to Catra’s face.
Catra heaves in a breath, blinking uncontrollably.
“I was surprised but...I didn’t want you to stop.”
The fingers slip beneath Catra’s chin, pointing her mouth upward. And Adora is arching down, her eyes sliding shut, and there’s something contagious about the expression on her face, the crease between her eyebrows. The concentration that she’s devoting to this shrinking space between them—
And then their mouths are slotted together again, though this time Adora is the one leading the charge. Her mouth moves bruisingly— searchingly—against Catra’s, as though trying to wring every particle of warmth and pressure from Catra’s lips.
Maybe it should hurt. Maybe it should be too much. But it’s fine—great, even. So far as Catra is concerned, Adora is welcome to steal that warmth, that pressure, as much as she wants. Catra would gladly give it all away, would gladly close her eyes and press herself further into Adora until all she knows is the taste and shape of Adora’s lips, with Catra’s mouth sculpted to frame hers.
And Adora is sighing, gasping, and Catra is fairly certain that she is too. It’s probably not healthy to do this—to deprive themselves of air for so long. But it’s somehow impossible to let go, to separate herself from Adora when Adora, miracle of miracles, seems to want nothing more than to suffocate herself within Catra’s arms.
Catra wraps her arms around Adora’s back, feeling the ridges of her muscles through the thin remains of her jacket and shirt. Adora whimpers into Catra’s mouth, whimpers loudly, which is a sound unlike anything Catra’s ever heard. Something downright unbelievable and mind-boggling.
And then they’re toppling back, toward the opposite wall. She feels her spine hit metal, feels the air knocked from her own lungs, but it just doesn’t matter. Not when Adora is lips and hips are pressed so tightly into her own, and Etheria, what the hell even is this—
Catra tries to ignore it. She clutches at Adora’s shoulders, trying to keep Adora from pulling away—specifically, from pulling her lips away from Catra’s. But it’s no use. Adora is quick to release her. Even from a short distance away, Catra can feel the hot blush radiating from Adora’s skin.
With a short snarl, Catra turns her attention to the source of the voice.
It’s one of the gang members. They stand there, hands clasped together and thumbs twiddling between them. Made nervous, evidently, by what they just interrupted.
As they should be, Catra hisses, within her own head.
“The party’s out of booze,” the gang member complains. “What should we do? Everyone is demanding more—”
Catra takes a step forward, claws extended. This is what they were interrupted for? The drink quantity running low—
But Adora places a hand on Catra’s shoulder. She glances back—at Adora’s pleading eyes and rumpled clothes and swollen lips—and quickly decides that a fight isn’t really a priority at the moment. Catra just wants to go back to what they were doing. Whatever that was. And judging by the look in Adora’s eyes...Adora is feeling much the same.
And that’s a euphoric sort of feeling—knowing that Adora wants what Catra does. One that Catra never thought she’d feel. She’s always felt something for Adora. An attraction, something more. But she never knew how to express it, never knew how to confirm whether those feelings were returned—and especially never knew how to admit it to herself.
But this. This is everything, isn’t it? Or something close to it.
“Tell everyone to either find something else to drink or go home,” Catra grits out. She places a hand at Adora’s back, guiding her toward the far end of the hallway—the one that will carry them away from the party. “Next person who disturbs us will get a set of claws to the eyes.”
The gang member gulps. Flinches. But doesn’t argue.
They turn away. Adora slings her arm around Catra’s back as they walk. Catra nudges her, chuckling.
“Still got that headache?”
Adora laughs in a nervous sort of way. “Considering the jolt of adrenaline that just gave me…” She shakes her head, places her free hand over her heart—as if trying to calm it after a long, exhilarating run. “Not anymore.”
Catra can’t resist giggling. Giggling, because she caused that. She did that to Adora. She made her heart race, made her lungs gasp for air.
And Catra wouldn’t mind doing it again.
“Adora is where?” Glimmer demands, eyes wide with disbelief.
Briefly, she glances at Bow beside her—and sees her own panic mirrored in his expression. Which means that she didn’t mishear what Scorpia said. And that Adora’s reality is worse than Glimmer could have imagined.
“The Crimson Waste,” Scorpia repeats, shifting slightly in her bindings. Her tone is calm—gleeful, even. Frustratingly so, given the gravity of the situation. “Well…she’s sort of in the Crimson Waste. Or she was. She and Catra were both exiled there.”
“Both exiled?” Bow echoes, taking a step closer to Scorpia’s magical prison. “Why would Hordak exile Catra? Isn’t she his second-in-command?”
Scorpia sighs enormously. “She was. Until recently. Catra’s always had this weak spot for Adora—they’re childhood friends, after all. Which is so annoying because, honestly, how do I compete with that? I’m just her new best friend and I don’t even know her favorite color—”
Glimmer snaps her fingers in front of Scorpia’s face, glitter sparking between her fingertips. “Scorpia,” Glimmer urges. “Focus.”
“Right,” Scorpia agrees, nodding. “Sorry. What I was saying was...Adora was sentenced to exile in the Crimson Waste. And rather than let her die there, Catra tried to help her escape. But Hordak caught her. So he sent them both to Crimson Waste as punishment.”
Glimmer sends another confused look Bow’s way.
Catra, helping Adora escape? It doesn’t make sense. Catra has always been ruthless. She nearly destroyed Bright Moon. She kidnapped Glimmer and Bow from Princess Prom. And she also—
But then Glimmer remembers. She remembers being trapped in the Fright Zone, her body propped against Adora’s as they sprinted toward the closest exit—which they soon discovered to be sealed shut. Glimmer tried to use her magic to teleport them out, but it was no use. Glimmer’s abilities had been too depleted, corrupted, by Shadow Weaver’s dark sorcery. She had nothing left, nothing at all, and Adora had lost her sword—
But then they heard that sound. The shrill scraping of metal on metal.
Turning around revealed Catra behind them, carrying the sword. She-Ra’s sword. She was dragging it across the wall, casting red-hot sparks with the resulting friction.
Glimmer prepared for a fight—for an attack—as Catra came to stand in front of them.
But no attack came. Instead, Catra flipped the sword in her hand...and extended the hilt toward Adora. An invitation for Adora to take it back, to reclaim her destiny as She-Ra.
“This is not because I like you,” Catra muttered.
That sword was the key to their escape. Which means that Catra was all that kept Glimmer and Adora from being recaptured—from being mind-wiped and brainwashed, in Adora’s case.
So maybe it’s not so hard to believe—that Catra would try to help Adora from being killed. Glimmer just doesn’t understand why. Why would Catra wreak such havoc on Adora, on the rebellion, if she would betray the Horde to ensure Adora’s survival?
“The Crimson Waste is huge, though,” Bow says. “Huge and unexplored. If Adora really is there…”
“—and if she’s still alive at all,” Scorpia interjects.
“And if she’s still alive,” Bow adds, begrudgingly. “How are we supposed to find her? We could end up searching for ages.”
“Oh, that’s easy,” Scorpia says, and jerks her head in the direction of her own waist. “I have some sort of technical doohickey in my pocket. Entrapta programmed it to track Catra’s Force Captain’s badge. And since the badge has been moving around, she’s probably alive. Unless some animal swallowed it, of course—”
Bow makes a sound of disbelief, and stumbles slightly backward. His voice is small when he says, “I’m sorry. Did you just say Entrapta?”
Scorpia blinks at them. “Yes? Why is that weird? I thought you rebels knew her?”
Bow inhales sharply. “I...we...we thought she was dead. That she had died during our rescue—”
Scorpia smiles. “Well, you’ll be happy to know that she’s alive and well. And creating weapons for the Horde. So there’s that.”
“And she helped you create this...device...that tracks Adora’s location—?” Glimmer asks, equal parts overwhelmed by hope and disbelief.
“Well, no. It tracks Catra, not Adora. But Entrapta and I think it’s likely that they’d be traveling through the Waste together. They’re probably the only people alive in that place, so staying together would increase their chances of survival—”
“So there’s a chance we find Catra, and not Adora,” Bow says.
“And how do we know this isn’t a trap?” Glimmer demands. “It seems a little too good to be true that Entrapta is alive. Or that a Horde Soldier would drop a way to rescue Adora into our hands. Why would you help us?”
Scorpia sighs and hangs her head. “Catra is my friend, and she didn’t deserve to be exiled. I want to help her. I want to get her home safe.”
“Hordak doesn’t even know that you’re here, does he?”
Scorpia shakes her head. “Entrapta sent me here—told Hordak that I was collecting First Ones tech in the Whispering Woods. In reality, though, I was supposed to seek the princesses’ help in rescuing Catra. And Adora.”
And Adora, Glimmer thinks. Tacked on like an afterthought.
“But if Catra’s been exiled from the Horde, there’s no going back for her,” Glimmer says. “And there’s no love for her here, in the rebellion.”
Scorpia nods her head. “I know that. But anywhere has to be better than the Crimson Waste.”
Another look passes between Glimmer and Bow. A look that contains skepticism...but also consideration. This may be their only lead on Adora’s whereabouts. But it also might lead them to a trap, or to Catra’s location but not Adora’s—
“What else do you know?” Bow asks. “Is Adora safe? Did Hordak exile her with the sword to defend herself?”
“The sword?” Scorpia says, blinking in confusion.
“Oh, right. That sword.” Scorpia laughs. “Yeah, uh. That sword’s gone. It’s...kablooey. It’s—” Scorpia makes a booming noise with her mouth, like something falling from some great height and smashing apart on impact.
And Glimmer most definitely does not like the sound of that.
Her voice trembles as she grits out, “Scorpia. What does that mean?”
“The sword’s gone,” Scorpia clarifies. “Blown up. In pieces. Entrapta ran an experiment on it that overloaded it, and well…” She shrugs. “The sword is no more. Which I guess means that She-Ra is no more too.”
Glimmer grasps at Bow’s arm, her body overcome by numb disbelief.
Entrapta is alive. Which is, objectively, good news. The bad news is that Entrapta has betrayed them for the Horde.
The even worse news is that Adora is trapped in the Crimson Waste, defenseless. Trapped, and unable to rely on anyone but herself and Catra. Catra, of all people.
And the worst news of all is that the sword…that She-Ra...
That She-Ra is gone. Gone, and never coming back.
see you next week, same time same place! please remember to comment!
Adora and Catra become cactus farmers. But also gang leaders. And also girlfriends, even if they don't know what that word means.
idk if i'm spoiling my own shit but. in order to write this chapter, y'all would not BELIEVE the number of videos i watched on how to make cactus wine. I've truly found the weird wine-making section of youtube and y'know what? I'm okay with that.
there's violence in this chapter. not enough that i think it deserves an archive warning but...yeah. violence. it's there, along with blood injury. so be warned.
also, in case you didn't notice, the last chapter has been split into two parts. It was getting too long, and I'm literally still finishing the last section right now. So this is basically chapter 5 part 1.
Anyway, hope you enjoy these crimson waste girlfriends—and also my weird new obsession with making liquor from cacti!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“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 felt...limited, somehow. Restrained. Like some touches were too affectionate—too dangerous—to let pass between them.
But ever since Catra kissed her, and Adora kissed back...it’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?”
“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 just...wow.
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.”
“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 jacket...it’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 fear...it 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 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 different...it 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 want...to 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.”
“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 Waste...it 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 Catra...it’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 not...it’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 planning...it’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 else...to 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 mentioned...it’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.”
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.
yes it's unrealistic that something properly ferments in a few days but y'know what? etheria doesn't have a sun and i don't care. i write about the sun anyway. the sun is sexy. what's writing without a little bullshit in there, for flavor?
anyway, please leave comments! love y'all
Adora and Catra decide to negotiate with Huntara.
Bow and Glimmer navigate the Crimson Waste.
And Hordak gets a surprise.
FINAL CHAPTER! i genuinely cannot believe how long this fic ended up being—and that y'all seemed so happy to read my rambling every week. So yeah. Thanks so much for joining me on this fun canon-divergent journey—it was really cool to explore how Adora and Catra might acknowledge their feelings without all that stuff with Horde Prime! And another big thanks to windbloom for the art for this fic, you were incredible to work with!
Now...without further ado...here's the last chapter of where we wander, where we conquer!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“WOAH!” shrieks Bow as he just barely jumps out of the jaws of a snapping serpent. He stumbles forward, grabbing Glimmer by the shoulders and shaking her.
“Teleport! Teleport, teleport!” he urges her, screaming at an impossible-sounding pitch. Panic stretches across his every feature, and his grip is near-painfully tight. Glimmer hesitates for probably too long as the snake slithers closer.
“Please don’t say you’re out of teleports,” he pleads, face falling in dismay.
But it’s not her fault! It’s not Glimmer’s fault that the Crimson Waste is filled to the brim with deadly things—quicksand, snakes, poisonous plants, rockslides, skin-scorching sun, outlaws with sharp weapons. They can hardly take a step without getting attacked by something, forcing Glimmer to teleport herself and Bow out of harm’s way.
So now she’s out of teleports.
Or, she hopes, nearly out of teleports.
Glimmer glances at that approaching snake, then screws her eyes shut. If she doesn’t do something...that three-headed monster is going to swallow Bow and Glimmer both whole.
“Let me...let me see.”
She searches inside herself for one last scrap of magic—some trace of power left behind from the Moonstone. Surely, there must be something. Something to save them—
And she senses it, finally. A flicker of magic. In her mind, she pictures it like a strip of fabric blown in the wind. She snatches it out of thin air. Dissolves it. Repurposes it. And then, with a frustrated grunt, she grabs Bow and allows herself to dissolve too. Teleporting away in a shower of sparkles. Away from the snake. Away from the danger.
And away from Adora’s trail.
When Glimmer opens her eyes, she’s in a different stretch of desert. One that’s quiet. One that she knows to be safe, because she’s walked it before.
But just because it’s safe doesn’t mean it’s where Glimmer wants to go. By teleporting here, Glimmer backtracked. She’s back to where she started. No closer to their destination, no closer to finding Adora.
She stands there with Bow, panting. Waiting for the adrenaline to dissipate.
Until Glimmer’s frustration boils over.
“Ughhh!” Glimmer screams, stomping her foot and curling her fists. “I hate this place! I hate the Crimson Waste. We can’t move an inch without something trying to kill us. At this rate, we’ll never find Adora.”
Bow shakes his head and places a hand on her shoulder. “I know,” he says. “Trust me, I know. But we can’t give up on Adora—”
“Of course we can’t give up on Adora,” Glimmer sighs, taking a deep breath to calm down. “But would it have killed Entrapta to make this stupid tracker—” she pulls out the device that Scorpia gave her, the one that’s supposed to zero in on Catra’s Force Captain badge, “actually work for more than five minutes?”
She shakes the device in question, willing the static to clear from the screen.
Bow shoots her a look. An annoyed one. And Glimmer almost immediately realizes why. It wasn’t long ago that Bow and the princesses thought Entrapta actually had been killed. That she had been killed during that rescue mission into the Fright Zone—a mission to rescue Glimmer and Bow, of all things.
“Sorry,” Glimmer says, pushing a hand through her own hair. “Too soon with the ‘killed’ jokes.”
Bow steps forward and plucks the device from Glimmer’s hand. She watches as he smacks the static from its circuits, causing the screen to render properly. A red dot begins to blink again, as well as an arrow that points them in the correct direction.
“I think the electromagnetic interference is stronger in certain locations, and weaker in others,” Bow speculates. “Which is why it keeps going on the fritz. Entrapta couldn’t possibly know that, though—she’s never been to the Waste herself.”
Bow kneels and pulls a piece of paper and a pencil from his backpack. “While we have it working, we should draw a map. It might not be totally accurate, but it’s better than getting lost again—”
Glimmer releases another groan and leans back against a nearby boulder. They’ve been searching for Adora for weeks now, walking across the Waste with that silly red dot—the dot that represents Catra—always remaining elusive or submerged in static. In the end, Glimmer and Bow are always forced to retreat to Bright Moon due to lack of supplies, and only to return in a couple days’ time.
Every attempt to find Adora has been an enormous failure. An enormous failure, and occasionally, a near-death experience.
And Glimmer doesn’t like to think about it...but she can’t imagine how anyone could survive in a place like this. Adora is tough, one of the toughest people that she knows...but can she really fight off the entire Waste by herself? For months? Because that’s how long Adora has been here, in the Waste. Months.
How could she survive?
Did she survive?
But Glimmer shakes off that thought. Adora is okay. She has to be. Maybe she found some sort of luxury castle in the Waste, one that Glimmer and Bow have yet to discover—
But then Glimmer imagines Adora staying with Catra in a castle, and the thought is just too strange to exist for more than a few seconds.
Bow makes a triumphant noise and rises to his feet, the paper—now scrawled with the vague topography of a landscape—clutched between his hands. “Alright, I’ve finished the map. More-or-less. Hopefully it will get us closer.”
He slips the device into his backpack. “We should get moving,” he tells her. “We only have two days’ worth of supplies. I don’t want us to have to come back again if we can avoid it—Adora has been here long enough. Too long. She deserves to go home.”
“Well, yeah,” Glimmer says, and begins following Bow as he walks forward, following the map. “I mean...I don’t know how she can stand to be with Catra for this long. She’s the worst.”
Bow laughs a little. But it quickly fades into a tense silence. A nervous one.
Because there’s still a fear—a fear about the tracking device. The device tracks Catra, and not Adora. And if Adora is not by Catra’s side...they may never find her.
So here Glimmer is. Hoping that Adora and Catra stay together.
Even though Catra got Adora into this mess in the first place.
It’s something of a struggle for Catra—keeping Adora still while Catra tries to wipe a damp cloth beneath and around her nose. Huntara clocked her pretty damn hard during that fight, and her face is totally coated in blood. It looks like she had her nose buried in a carcass of some kind, the blood covered her so completely.
But Adora is positively buzzing with nervous energy. She won’t stop bouncing her leg, glancing at the nearby door. Almost like she’s worried that Huntara is going to break it down and immediately murder them upon entry.
But that’s silly, of course. Adora and Catra are well-protected here. They’re back at Mara’s ship—seated on the bed in their usual quarters. Most of their gang is here, ready to defend them and their facilities should they be attacked.
Or, at least, that’s what Catra thought. But the developments from this fight with Huntara...it makes Catra doubt.
And that’s the reason that Adora is so nervous now. Someone...one of their own gang members...snitched Adora and Catra’s plans to Huntara. Snitched, for the low, low price of a money bribe. And then Huntara ambushed them. Ambushed them with enough gang members to utterly decimate Catra’s own forces
Catra hadn’t anticipated that. She thought…
She thought that she had secured her people’s loyalty. She thought she had made herself—herself and Adora—indispensable.
But she was wrong. She underestimated just how selfish an individual can be. In the end, when presented with a better offer...people always leave Catra behind. Behind in the dust. Or in the dirt, six feet under.
In this case, it was an attempt at the latter.
She still can’t believe that all it took was some money. A little bit of money in exchange for a betrayal. It seems she really can’t trust anyone in this damn desert.
But she doesn’t want to focus on that right now. Instead, she focuses on clearing the dried blood from Adora’s face. She’s trying to be gentle and careful about it. She’s fairly certain that, beneath all that blood, Adora’s nose has been broken. She doesn’t want to apply too much pressure on it. Catra and Adora have both suffered enough broken noses during training to know that they’re unpleasant to say the least.
“I don’t know if it’s safe for us here anymore,” Adora whispers. She lifts a hand, curling it around Catra’s wrist as Catra continues her scrubbing. Adora’s eyes flick toward the door yet again. Checking. Worrying. “We should consider moving on—”
“Stop moving, and especially stop talking,” Catra hisses, shoving Adora’s hand back to her side. “If I tweak your nose, it’s gonna hurt like hell.”
“I’m fine,” insists Adora. “My nose doesn’t hurt, anyway.”
Catra rolls her eyes. It’s just like Adora to pretend that she’s not injured. “Yeah, yeah. You’re the toughest girl in the Waste, got it. Now stop lying and let me clean this—”
But as she continues wiping at the blood, clearing the layers away to reveal Adora’s nose underneath...she realizes that Adora’s nose doesn’t look broken at all. It’s the same shape as it was before. There’s no swelling, no tell-tale angles of snapped bone. Even the color is exactly the same. There’s no bruises, no cuts...no anything.
Catra has seen plenty of broken noses. But this? This is a perfectly intact nose. One that has been mysteriously buried beneath a pile of blood.
But that, of course, doesn’t make any sense. Adora’s nose should be broken. Or hurt, at the very least.
“Are you sure this is your blood?” Catra asks, still dabbing at a speck near Adora’s lips.
Adora shoots her a funny look and shakes her head. “Of course it’s my blood, Catra. I spent half the fight trying to keep from choking on it.”
“Huh,” Catra breathes, brow furrowed. How did Adora manage to bleed so much without getting a cut, or a bruise?
Maybe this was just an over-glorified nosebleed? One induced by all the dry desert air…?
But no. Adora was hit. Catra saw that firsthand. She could hear the crack of Huntara’s elbow making contact with Adora’s nose from halfway across the battlefield.
So what the hell is going on here? How is this Adora’s blood if she has no real injury to accompany it?
After folding her arms over her chest, Adora grumbles, “And it’s not like it’s Huntara’s. Didn’t do her enough damage to draw any blood from her.”
“Well,” shrugs Catra. “That was your choice. You knocked her unconscious, in the end. You could have finished the job.”
Adora gives an eye roll of her own.
“That’s what I would have done,” adds Catra.
“It would have cost us people,” Adora emphasizes. “We were already losing pretty badly. And you…” Adora extends a hand, dragging her fingers lightly over the exposed skin of Catra’s neck. There’s a bruise there. One from Huntara’s failed attempt to suffocate her. Adora’s expression is so pained as she stares at it, one would think that she was the one nearly strangled. “You’d been through enough. I didn’t want anyone to have the chance to pick you off while I was picking her off.”
“I probably would have been fine,” Catra says. “And we wouldn’t have to worry about anything if she was gone—”
“We don’t know that,” Adora says. “Her gang might not want to follow us. And worse…” Adora sighs and hangs her head just slightly—enough that Catra has to crouch to get the blood that dripped down Adora’s neck. “Our own gang might not be trustworthy. Someone sold us out already. They could do it again.”
But Catra is still distracted by Adora’s nose. Did it miraculously heal itself during their run back to the ship? Because, really, that’s the only explanation. Even if it’s hardly a logical one—
“Are you listening to me, Catra?”
“Yes,” replies Catra as she lowers the blood-stained rag on the floor. “You’re worried that someone sold us out. “
“And you’re not?”
“Nope,” Catra says, teeth gritted. “I’m mad. Because when I find out who did it...they’re going to be introduced to my claws. And once the rest of the gang sees what happened to them, no one will ever think of betraying us again.”
“And how exactly are you planning to find them?” Adora asks, a skeptical eyebrow raised. “Just gonna ask around until someone admits to it?”
Catra turns around with a snarl, crossing her arms. It annoys her that Adora has a point. Truthfully, there’s no way for Catra to know who snitched. There were forty people on that mission and probably dozens more who knew about it.
She put far too much stock in gang loyalty. She should have kept her own secrets better.
“I don’t get it,” Catra says. “How did money manage to get one of our people to switch sides? Everything here is about bartering, not money—”
“Most things are, yeah,” Adora says. “But they say that there are people with skiffs who accept money, and only money, for transport in and out of the waste. And if that’s what that person wanted—”
“Okay, okay, I get it,” says Catra. “Escape is too tempting, I guess, and I should have realized that. But I’m not going to let Huntara’s spying scare us into losing control of this gang.”
“Then we need to make a truce with her,” Adora says. “That way, we don’t have to worry about her doing this again.”
“A truce?” shrieks Catra, outraged. She finally turns around to face Adora again—so that Adora can see just how much Catra hates that idea. “After what she just pulled?”
“You act like we didn’t start this fight,” Adora says, both hands raised in a gesture of surrender. “We stole from her. She was just defending her territory.”
“Territory that should have belonged to us,” Catra hisses, jabbing a finger at her own chest.
“And I’m sure she feels differently about that,” Adora says calmly. “To her, that territory was probably hard-earned.”
“I don’t care what she thinks,” Catra grits out. “I mean, are you really going to defend her after today? After she convinced a member of our people to betray us, and then tried to kill me?”
“I’m not defending her at all!” protests Adora. She lays her hands across Catra’s shoulders, her thumbs rubbing circles into the seams of Catra’s leather jacket. “But I don’t…” Something in Adora’s voice fissures and cracks apart. Cracks so severely that it takes a clearing of Adora’s throat to right it again.
The sound of it wipes all anger from Catra’s mind. Her voice sounds so devastated, so frightened…
It hardly sounds like Adora at all.
“I don’t want to risk losing you like that again,” Adora murmurs, desperate. Her jaw trembles just slightly. “So yes. I want a truce with Huntara.”
Catra hesitates. She hesitates because it’s startling—the vehemence, the determination, the pleading beneath Adora’s words. Like putting Catra in danger is really the worst thing that Adora can imagine.
And that might just be a little too much for Catra to process.
She’s rescued from all obligation to answer, however, by an urgent knock at their door.
“Come in!” barks Catra, glad to know what to say in this case. Adora drops one of her hands—though it’s equal parts disorienting and comforting to feel Adora’s other hand tighten around Catra’s shoulder.
The door slides open, revealing one of their gang members.
“Boss,” they say, stepping closer to Catra. “A messenger from Huntara just came by—”
Almost like an electric current passed between them, Adora and Catra stiffen simultaneously. Their eyes yank wide as they exchange a surprised and nervous glance. Why would Huntara send a messenger to them?
“She wants a chance to negotiate a truce.”
Catra’s jaw drops just barely. A what?
And, ugh, Adora is already shifting beside her. Even from Catra’s periphery, she can see the smirk twisting Adora’s features, the infuriating glint of I-told-you-so in Adora’s eyes. The hold on Catra’s shoulder soon transforms into a gloating sort of pat.
But Catra can’t make sense of it. Why would Huntara want a truce? So what if Adora roughed her up a little—Huntara’s forces still utterly pulverized Catra and Adora’s. Not to mention that she successfully turned someone in Catra and Adora’s ranks into a spy. Why would she request a truce when she has an advantage?
But Catra also knows Adora. She’ll never let Catra reject this truce. If there’s any chance of peace, any chance at all, Adora will insist that they take it.
“Did she now?” Adora asks, like she couldn’t be more pleased. And then, with a pointed turn in Catra’s direction, she says, “Good to know we’re all on the same page.”
They agree to meet Huntara on neutral ground. The selected location is somewhere they’ve visited before: the very first bar that Adora and Catra encountered in the Waste—and the place where they had that first bar fight.
Neither Catra nor Adora have visited that bar since. But it’s something of a relief, Adora thinks, to go somewhere that’s at least a little bit familiar as they negotiate a truce with Huntara.
Moonlight streams through the half-open ceiling as they enter. The bar looks exactly as Adora remembers—same chipped tables and chairs. Same cracked, dusty bottles. Though there’s a new dent there, in the bar’s counter. Right where Catra shoved her knife through the goat woman’s hand.
They’ve certainly left a mark on this place.
She can only hope that they won’t have to leave another.
One thing Adora didn’t expect, though, is for the bar to be crowded. It’s fairly late at night, sure—the sun long since fallen beneath the rock-dotted horizon—which is peak time for bar-goers. But Adora knows that it’s rare to find so many people in the same part of the Waste, no matter what time of day. It’s a big desert. And a crowded place in the Waste is synonymous with a dangerous one. No one in the Waste can really be trusted, after all.
The last time Adora was in a location so crowded, she was suffering through her first sip of cactus liquor at that party. And this nighttime meeting in a dirty bar to discuss an end to gang hostilities...it hardly strikes Adora as a party. A chore, perhaps—and an anxiety-provoking one at that. But not a party.
Adora and Catra brought several of their own people to secure themselves—as well as weapons for added protection. They obviously can’t storm into the bar with their weapons drawn and their gang members primed for attack, as that would be counterproductive to the whole “truce” thing. But Adora has her bone sword slung through her belt, and Catra has a whip in a similar spot. Placed in an easily-accessed location, just in case. And their gang members have been instructed to be ready for anything.
Huntara seems to have the same idea in mind. She’s brought probably around ten lackeys (including that goat-and-lizard-woman duo that Adora and Catra brawled long ago). They occupy half of a large table at the center of the bar.
All of Huntara’s people are armed, Adora can see. Armed with blades made of bones, bludgeons carved from rock, bolas and nets woven from twine.
Dangerous items—though hardly unexpected ones. Adora takes small comfort in the fact that these weapons, though present, also seem to be sheathed. A small sign of hope, perhaps, even if neither party refuses to trust one another completely.
The object of concern, though, is that Huntara’s people and Catra’s people aren’t the only patrons within the bar tonight. There are large groups gathered at the edges of the room, their eyes sharpened by excitement and their voices buzzing with anticipation.
Individuals associated with neither gang, Adora would guess. Just people here to enjoy the show.
Tonight’s talks must be big entertainment to the rest of the Waste—a rare opportunity to watch the two most powerful gangs in the desert negotiate peace, or something close to it. The tension, the drama of it all...it’s really no wonder they attracted so many spectators.
Though surely they must acknowledge the risk of being here—the risk of the talks going wrong and finding themselves standing mere inches away from an all-out gang war. Adora doesn’t know if she’d attend if she had the choice. It’d be too dangerous. An invitation for trouble, and for what? The chance to see a little drama firsthand?
Not, of course, that Adora does have a choice in being here. As Catra’s second-in-command and also sort of something more...she must be here. She has an enormous stake in what transpires here. And if a fight really does break out...Adora wants to be here to defend Catra. She wouldn’t trust anyone else with that responsibility.
“Evening, ladies,” Huntara greets, in that annoyingly sexy growl of hers. And it’s instantaneous—the way her voice cuts through the chatter, flattening it to silence. There’s no sound at all in the moments after. Just the hiss of dust and the occasional cough.
She extends a hand and taps the tabletop—gesturing to the seat directly across from herself. “Why don’t we begin our talk, hm?”
An invitation for Catra to sit down.
Catra’s eyes narrow, but the rest of her remains unmoving. Unbudged. Too many long, still, soundless moments pass before Adora has the presence of mind to give Catra a subtle nudge—one that just barely urges her forward.
She hears Catra grumble something unintelligible under her breath before she finally steps forward and sinks into the seat.
Adora follows after her, sinking into the adjacent chair, while the rest of their people gather behind them. Covering their backs, as instructed.
“You've come a long way since I first saw you,” Huntara remarks, eyes flitting between Catra and Adora both. A smile spreads across her lips, one that looks almost proud. “When I first set eyes on you, you were a pair of starving, dehydrated, lost little girls. But now…”
She gives an impressed chuckle.
“Now you’re leaders. Tradespeople. And…” Her smile falters. “A humongous pain in my ass.”
Catra only smirks. “For a pair of starving, dehydrated, lost little girls...we sure as hell managed to hand that ass to you. Even on that night we first met.”
“Maybe so,” Huntara shrugs. “Even I can acknowledge when I’ve been caught off guard. And you too certainly did that—in more ways than one. But as you’ve probably noticed recently…” Huntara leans forward to whisper: “I’m not so surprised anymore. Now, I’m defending what’s mine. And I am more than capable of fighting off a couple naive outsiders like you.”
Adora can practically sense the snarl building in Catra’s throat. It’s evident there, by the tension in Catra’s posture. The vivid and mounting fury in those blue-yellow eyes. The sharp tips of her claws, scraping into the table.
“So what do you want?” interrupts Adora, desperate to defuse the situation. “You asked for a truce. We want one too.” She leans forward. “So what do we have to do to make it happen?”
Huntara sweeps Adora with an appraising stare, almost like she’s measuring whether Adora is worth a response. She crosses her arms and leans back in her chair. Which leaves Adora trying very, very, very hard not to gawk at Huntara’s flexing arm muscles.
“I don’t know,” says Huntara, one eyebrow cocked. “What can you give me that makes a truce worth my while?” She smirks. “I am the one winning this little gang war, aren’t I?”
Catra slams her hands down on the table and springs to her feet. Her claws gouge the tabletop as she hisses, “You? Winning?”
She laughs in that way that is so exclusively Catra. A shrieking, patronizing bout of laughter meant to humiliate Huntara more than anything else. “After Adora knocked you out with a single shove during our last fight? We could end you—”
Huntara’s eyes are next to narrow. Narrowing at Catra in barely-restrained fury. Her head begins to shake from side-to-side, a tsk-tsk sound percussing from her lips.
“See,” Huntara says, and there’s an especially menacing note to her voice now. “Talk like that...really makes me not want to call a truce.”
“She didn’t—” Adora begins, trying to salvage the situation—but Huntara scoffs and raises a hand to quiet her.
“Didn’t what?” Huntara asks, to Adora. “Didn’t mean it?”
It’s mocking. Huntara is mocking them. And Adora can sense that Catra’s rage is coiling tighter with every word from Huntara’s mouth—
Huntara tips her head back and laughs. “Nah, I’m pretty sure she did mean it. And truthfully, I’m not sure if I can hold any sort of truce with someone so…” Another sneer in Catra’s direction. “Disrespectful.”
“Please, Huntara...” Adora near-whispers, still trying. Even as the vicious tension between Catra and Huntara heats to boiling by the second. “There must be something we can do to avoid further violence between us.”
“You’re right,” Huntara says to Adora, though her eyes refuse to leave Catra’s face. “There is something we can do to end the fighting.”
Without looking away, Huntara stretches a hand to one of her lackeys. An expectant hand. An open palm.
Almost immediately, a worn-looking roll of paper is placed within her grasp, one that Huntara begins to swing like some sort of baton. It’s tightly furled—with the blank side outward. Adora can’t read what it says, not at all. But it nonetheless gives Adora a bad feeling. What use could Huntara possibly have for some random piece of paper?
“News from the outside world always takes a long time to reach the Crimson Waste,” Huntara says. “Supply runs in and out of the Waste are so infrequent. And you have to know the right people to hear anything of interest.”
“What does that have to do with the truce?” Catra asks, her eyes following every swirl of the rolled up paper in Huntara’s hands. Her hostility seems to have been momentarily replaced by confusion.
“Well, it’s a shame, really,” Huntara says. “Because if I had known this shit about you earlier…”
Huntara slams the paper on the tabletop, then smooths it flat with her hands, unrolling it bit by bit. And Adora can see it, finally. What’s printed on the surface of that paper. The text and image that accompanies it, unfurled—
And Adora is frightened. She is frightened to realize that she recognizes the face in that image. Recognizes it too well, if anything. That thick hair, those angular features, that sharp-toothed smile. She wakes to it every morning, after all, and has woken to it for most of her life before that—
And Adora recognizes the picture too. It’s one of the rare images that Bow managed to snap with his tracker pad during one of the rebellion’s battles. A photo used almost exclusively in Bright Moon’s records of enemy combatants—
“Force Captain Catra,” Huntara reads off the poster, voice dense with smugness. “Wanted for questioning about crimes committed against the kingdom of Bright Moon and the rebellion.”
Huntara briefly looks up at them. She points a finger at Catra’s face, on the poster. “This sure looks like you. And your name’s Catra, isn’t it?”
Catra’s jaw hangs open, unable to formulate a response. And as Adora swivels her head around, gaze sweeping every face in the bar...she can see that all eyes are trained on her. On Catra.
Everyone is listening. Everyone must have heard what Huntara just said.
Which means there’s no escaping this.
Adora finds herself gulping, and gulping hard. Since when did Bright Moon put out wanted posters for Catra? Why would they—
Wait. Questioning. They want to question Catra, meaning that—
“Force Captain,” Huntara repeats as she begins to scratch her own chin, eyes narrowed at Catra yet again. “That’s a Horde ranking, isn’t it? You must’ve been some kind of big-shot Horde commander, right?”
“I—” Catra begins. Her mouth opens and closes as she still attempts to process the paper that sits in front of her—the wanted poster that features her own face so prominently.
“Horde soldiers aren’t all that popular here, kitty,” Huntara sneers. “A lot of us are running from the Horde. Or left it, rather than help run that war machine. But you…”
Huntara tips her head down and continues reading. “Million-credit reward will be granted to any party that can capture Catra alive and present of mind.”
Adora’s brain nearly short-circuits. Million-credit reward? Did the rebellion really place a bounty on Catra’s head just so that they could capture her, question her, and…
Figure out Adora’s location. That’s the only explanation. The only reason they would do this. They must have thought that Catra could lead them to Adora, and therefore, to She-Ra—
But that realization is meaningless now. After hearing that last detail from the poster—specifically, the detail about the monetary reward—the bodies in the bar are shifting on all sides. Drawing weapons. Drawing closer. It’s one thing to be wanted in the Waste, Adora is sure. Plenty of outlaws live here. But to be wanted for a million credits—
No one can resist that kind of payday. It’s a one-way ticket out of the waste, out of danger, out of answering to someone stronger than them—
Huntara looks back up from the poster, smiling sharply. “To be wanted for one million credits, you must have been somebody real important. And somebody real awful. But for everyone else—”
Huntara stands and raises her voice, projecting for the entire bar to hear. “A million credits is enough to buy a brand new life. A life of luxury instead of a life of scrounging in the Waste. If I were any of you...” She chuckles and sweeps a hand out toward Catra. “I wouldn’t hesitate in capturing this kitty and collecting that reward. I’ve got people to help you, even. People who will help you transport her to Bright Moon, far away from here.”
Adora’s eyes widen. “If you knew about this,” she demands, outraged, “and had the means...why didn’t you—?”
“Act on it?” Huntara replies, more quietly. Her eyes glint with a malicious sort of amusement. “Because I rule the Waste, plain and simple. And I don’t plan on leaving.”
She points a thumb over her own shoulder, at a coyote-person bouncing a bat against their own hand. “I can’t say the same about them, though. Besides…”
She spits at Catra and Adora’s feet.
“Fuck the Horde.”
There are mutterings of interest, of agreement. And there are bodies shuffling closer, closing in on all sides—
Adora stands and pushes Catra behind her, sword drawn. “Don’t let them touch her—” she orders, glancing back at their gang members, behind her. Counting on them for defense. Counting on them to watch Catra and Adora’s back, just as promised.
But Adora soon realizes that it was a mistake to assume that—that her people were still on her side. That quick glance reveals that her gang members are smirking. Smirking, and moving closer. Weapons drawn and pointed not at the rabid crowd, but at Adora and Catra themselves.
They want the bounty, just like everyone else.
You can’t trust anyone in the Crimson Waste. Again and again, Adora is learning that lesson the hard way.
And there’s no such thing as being indispensable.
One of their gang members outstretches a hand, grabbing Catra’s shoulder roughly. Adora moves to smack that hand away—but Catra beats her to it. The sensation of being grabbed seems to shake Catra from her shock, allowing her to hiss and scratch deep into that unwelcome hand, screeching, “Get off me!”
And it releases her, of course. That hand. It bleeds heavily as the body attached to it stumbles backward and releases a pained howl, crimson dripping a trail onto the dirty bar floor.
There’s a fleeting moment of silence, of panic, as Adora and Catra stare down an entire bar filled with hostile eyes. Adora is overwhelmed by the need to run, to escape. To find a way out. Catra isn’t safe here. They’ll do anything to Catra to collect that bounty. Hurt her in any way they can—
But there’s nothing. Nowhere to go. Every exit is blocked by hulking bodies and raised weapons. Even the bartender is staring at them with predatory hunger, as though considering joining the fun and smashing a glass bottle over Catra and Adora’s heads.
“Catra—” Adora whispers, voice trembling with horror. She secures a hand around Catra’s arm.
Adora’s heart is a body-wracking drumbeat within her head. It pounds like the footsteps of an approaching giant. Thumping, thumping, right until a stranger screams:
“Get the cat!”
And that scream is the signal that unleashes unbridled chaos within the bar.
“No!” Adora cries as a horde of people crush forward, grabbing at Catra with what seems like a thousand hands. Catra hisses, slashes, kicks, cracks her whip with all her might. But there are so many people. Too many. And there’s a mounting fear and desperation in Catra’s eyes as she realizes that it’s no use, that no amount of fighting will be enough—
But Adora won’t accept it. She won’t. She tightens her grip around Catra, refusing to let her be separated from Adora again—
Adora slashes blindly and wildly with her sword, trying to fend off the attackers. And while she thinks that it might connect with a few bodies...she can’t be sure. Whatever she hits either doesn’t react or is replaced just as quickly. There are too many people, too many to fight, and not enough space to run or hide or defend themselves—
All Adora has is her grip on Catra’s wrist. But even that is slipping, being tugged apart—
“You’re welcome to join my gang, blondie,” Adora can hear Huntara laughing. Mocking. “But the cat...I’m afraid the cat has to go.”
It’s a mob. Adora and Catra are surrounded by a mob. All of them fighting and pushing and grabbing at Catra, trying to yank Adora from her side. Adora’s attention is split in a thousand different directions, focused partly on Catra getting her whip yanked out of her hand and partly on the person with an axe cutting a bit too close to Adora’s arm—
“Adora!” Catra yells as there’s a firm tug on Catra’s arm. One that nearly manages to rip Adora and Catra apart. But Adora holds tight, holds steady. Her muscles tremble as she yanks Catra back, and Etheria, it feels like she’s trying to drag back a tectonic plate. And that’s not even the worst part. Someone kicks Adora in the back of the leg as she does that, as she yanks Catra back to her side, and it’s a testament to Adora’s tolerance for pain that she manages to stay on her feet. Her leg threatens to buckle, but Adora threatens it right back.
It’s too many. Too many people. A circular wall of bodies, closing in. Solid and impenetrable and claustrophobic—
“Leave us alone!” Adora yells, voice grated by desperation. “There’s been a mistake! That bounty. It’s not—”
While Catra is trying to claw through a group of immediate attackers, someone lands a direct punch to Catra’s face. It’s a thick fist, a heavy impact—the kind that Adora can hear above the jeering crowd. Adora watches in horror, words dying in her throat, as Catra falls unconscious and limp.
“Careful,” shrieks another voice. “She has to be present of mind—”
“She’s just knocked out!” a deep voice replies. Presumably the owner of the fist. “Nothing too damaging—”
“No!” yells Adora, and crams Catra’s body against her own hip. Trying to hold her despite the veritable army that seeks to take her away. “Stop! There’s been a mistake—”
“Only the cat needs to be okay,” someone calls. “Get rid of the blonde one!”
Adora swings her sword at the source of the voice, pressing Catra even deeper into her own body—as though that might shield her from the danger on all sides.
And it’s certainly on all sides. Adora is unprepared when something smacks into the back of her head. Smacks her hard, with the force of what feels like a boulder. Adora can only give a weak cry as belated pain erupts in the back of her skull. It’s an incredible sort of pain—vivid and catastrophic as an asteroid strike. One that spreads throughout the rest of her body like it’s a race to see what can reach Adora’s fingers faster—the thudding blood from her heart, or the numbness resulting from that blow.
Her vision spots. She only vaguely registers her legs giving out, her arm failing to maintain its hold on Catra. She watches, as though from outside her own body, as Catra’s hand is torn from her own. And it seems burned into Adora’s eyes, that growing distance between them. Growing larger as Catra is pulled away, fought over by the greedy outlaws who will do anything to trade Catra for that bounty—
Adora’s vision is darkening. Unconsciousness is coming for Adora any second now. If she doesn’t do something, if she doesn’t save Catra now—
Come on, Adora, she urges herself. Get up. You need to get up.
She clenches her fists. Her limbs shake as she struggles to move any part of her body. And God, how is she supposed to fight like this, even if she does manage to climb to her feet again? Her head hurts. It hurts so badly. And she’s not strong enough, she never was—
She’s just Adora. Strong, maybe, for a person of her size. But nothing more than that. Nothing more than a girl who fails everyone she cares about. Useless, unwanted—
You promised, a voice inside Adora’s head reminds her. You promised that you would protect her.
There must be something. Something that Adora can do, even as these bargoers near-trample her in their attempts to claim Catra’s bounty. Some last-ditch effort that she can make—
And she’s done this before, hasn’t she? Back during that fight with Huntara, only a few hours ago. She was beaten. Her legs were nearly broken. And yet, she found some hidden, lingering strength within herself. One that allowed her to get up, to fight back—
And one that allowed her to save Catra.
Catra. Adora focuses on Catra. She can’t see her, but she can remember her. She can remember Catra’s laughter, the color of her eyes, that tone she uses when taunting Adora. The way she bites her lip as she plans, and bites Adora’s lip when they kiss so deeply that Catra whimpers just a little.
Is Adora really going to let herself lose Catra? Lose her now, when they’ve never felt so right with one another? When they actually might have a future together?
Adora furls her fist even tighter. Her whole body seems to buzz with refusal, with fury. Tears bud at the corners of Adora’s eyes as she screws them shut, willing power back into her own body.
No. Adora won’t. She’s tired of being afraid. She’s tired of feeling like she’s not strong enough, like she can’t to protect the people she loves. She’s tired of feeling useless without a sword tied to her back, or clutched between her hands. Because what did that sword ever do, anyway, except drive Adora and Catra apart? Except create more problems for the rebellion?
Maybe she doesn’t have the sword anymore. Maybe that part of her life is gone forever. But it doesn’t matter. She doesn’t need it. She’ll do whatever it takes, whatever she has to, pull strength from nowhere at all if that’s what she must do—
Adora was the strongest person in the world, once upon a time. And she’ll be just as strong again. She’ll find a way.
“Catra!” Adora cries, in a voice that could scrape the bottom of the ocean. She hears no answer, of course. No sound but the jeers of that vicious crowd of outlaws.
Fury surges within her. Surging, surging, growing until it has nowhere to go. It evolves, folds in on itself. Mutates and builds within Adora’s chest until she’s utterly overwhelmed by that feeling. The one Adora was looking for. The feeling of something shattering apart within herself, the heat and crackle of energy beneath her own skin, the sudden white-hot healing of her injuries.
But it’s stronger this time, so much stronger. Like an explosion. A fissure; a fusion within her own body. A supernova, with Adora as the star consumed by the ensuing explosion.
Adora gives another scream as light pulses from her, illuminating the room in pure gold.
Bow presses forward with his nose buried in the map.
His legs burn from walking. His skin is coated with sweat. He really can’t stand too much more of this endless searching, but he’s just as incapable of giving up. Adora must be around the Waste somewhere. Surely, they’ll find some trace of her soon. The tracker did put her somewhere close to this area—right before it threatened to stop working again, of course. Which resulted in Bow having to draw yet another map.
But he’s hardly paying attention to Glimmer’s voice, so focused is he on the map ahead of him. He keeps studying it, keeps walking in the direction it suggests.
“I think we might actually be on the right track this time,” he says, sighing with relief. He points to a landmark on his hand-drawn map, then the matching canyon directly to his right. “After days of walking in circles, I think we might actually—”
“So long as Catra actually stays put and doesn’t run off again, changing the destination—”
Glimmer physically pulls the map down, out of Bow’s face, and tips Bow’s chin up. “Yeah, uh. I don’t think we need that map anymore.”
Bow’s eyes widen at the sight ahead of him.
Bright light. Brighter than the moon overhead, a pillar of light climbing upward as though it’s holding up the whole sky. It glows so bright it’s nearly blinding, unwaveringly golden as it paints the horizon in strokes of yellow.
It’s erupting from a skeleton in the distance—the bones of some kind of once-enormous beast. Bow has no idea why anything would be there, amidst such dead and decaying surroundings. But there’s little doubt in Bow’s mind that the light belongs to Adora, somehow. Bow has only ever seen magic that powerful, that bright once before.
From She-Ra. That light must belong to She-Ra.
Glimmer must come to the same conclusion.
“But if the sword was destroyed…” she begins, “then how is that—”
“No time to figure it out!” Bow blurts out, and begins sprinting forward. The map falls from his hand, onto the ground. The skeleton was where it must have been leading them anyway. “We need to get there before that light fades—”
And so they run. Glimmer and Bow both sprint forward—chasing after the light.
When the light fades, everyone in the bar is staring at Adora. Frozen, speechless, and staring.
Not that she can blame them. She would stare at herself too, if given the opportunity. But for now she will have to settle for staring at her hands, which glow in a way that the overhead moonlight cannot possibly cause. She stares at her legs too. Marveling at how they’ve miraculously grown in length, in muscle, and have somehow covered themselves in white fabric that tucks into a pair of white-gold boots.
She raises a hand, searching with her fingers for—yes, there it is. A tiara, framed around her face. Though it is different from the one she remembers. It takes a similar shape to Catra’s mask now, rather than those gaudy wings on the sides of Adora’s head.
Adora doesn’t know how she did it. But somehow, some way...Adora has turned herself into She-Ra. She has completed the transformation without the help of the sword, even though that should be impossible.
And, just as impossibly, it seems she has conjured a brand new look and uniform for herself. She never realized how much of a relief it is to have her hair pulled from her face, and to have a bit more armor with which to defend herself. Her old uniform worked, yes. But this? This is so much better.
She doesn’t understand how this happened. But she’s too ecstatic—and too worried about Catra—to dwell on it for long. Adora has work to do. Catra to save.
She glances down. There’s a sword in her hand. It's a slimmer, lighter version than her previous one. And it glints in the moonlight as she stares, almost like it’s inviting her to use it.
She looks back up, at the childish monsters crowded around Catra. She’s horrified to see Catra still lying limp and unconscious, caught in a tug-of-war between gangs and outlaws. Her body pulled in a million different directions.
Fury flares in Adora’s heart—an inferno that spreads to her every limb.
There are bodies sprawled around Adora’s feet. People thrown to the ground and knocked unconscious by Adora’s transformation, she would guess. She steps over them and extends her sword toward an outlaw that appears to have a particularly rough grip on Catra.
“Release Catra,” she orders, tightening the grip on her sword. “Or I’ll be forced to make you.”
The sound of her voice seems to shake the crowd from its stupor. They growl and fling insults at her, but Adora doesn’t care—nor does she have the time to listen. She cuts an arc in the air with her sword, and magic spews from the blade at her command.
And it’s so precise, the way the magic targets all attackers but Catra—pushing them off their feet with cries of surprise and terror. Adora still winces slightly as Catra, without so many hands to hold her upright, begins to slide to the floor. Adora lunges forward and, with speed that only She-Ra can give her, Adora manages to catch Catra before she hits the ground.
For a moment, she merely examines Catra for injuries. She has a black eye. A bruise on her forehead. But thankfully, there’s nothing to indicate that Catra has sustained a life-threatening wound beyond a possible concussion. Her heart beats steadily beneath Adora’s fingers, and breath continues to puff past her lips.
Adora pushes a stray hair out of Catra’s face, then, in an impressive display of her own strength, slings Catra’s whole body over her shoulder. It’s truly like Catra weighs nothing within her arms.
Some of the bar goers have started to recover themselves, though. They scramble to their feet, hands searching for weapons wherever they dropped them. One manages to secure a hand around an axe and charges forward with a yell, the axe raised high.
Adora merely raises an irritated eyebrow as she catches the handle of the axe, then tugs it out of the attacker’s hand. They watch as she tosses the axe so hard that it flings right through the walls of the bar, out into the desert, and far out of sight.
With Catra still slumped over Adora’s shoulder, she then grabs the attacker by the shirt and tosses them through the same hole that the axe made. They scream as they fly through the air and land with a strangled cry.
There are others charging Adora too, but she hardly notices them. Almost carelessly, she cracks the butt of her sword against chins, swipes bone-shattering blows across limbs, kicks bodies into crashing collisions with tables and chairs. It’s easy, so easy, to win this fight. And Adora has definitely missed this. She has missed She-Ra’s power.
There are only a handful of people remaining—a few more would-be attackers holding weapons. Though they’re hesitating now. Trembling, dawdling, contemplating whether they should strike out and meet the same fate as everyone else who tried to out-fight She-Ra.
“I think it’s pretty clear that I’m the strongest in the Waste now,” Adora says, jerking her head at all the moaning bodies that she’s cleared from her path. “So unless you want a personal demonstration of how badly I can hurt you…” She twirls her sword, magic sparking from the blade as it cuts through the air. “I’d suggest that you leave. Now. And never come near us again.”
There’s one last lingering moment of hesitation. A moment of fear, of speechlessness.
But then, as though possessed by the same spirit of terror, all remaining outlaws sprint from the bar. Tripping over chairs and tables and loose floorboards like they can’t escape fast enough.
All remaining outlaws leave...except one.
Huntara remains standing, wide-eyed and slack-jawed, at Adora. Adora, who has now been transformed into something unrecognizable and otherworldly.
There is little doubt in Adora’s mind that she can beat Huntara now.
She storms forward, magic swirling around her like vapor. Vapor that climbs toward the ceiling, climbs higher than even She-Ra’s reach, rising as high as smoke from forest fire. But even as that magic clouds her vision, she keeps going, keeps moving forward until she’s able to fling out the sword and balance it beneath Huntara’s chin. Not yet cutting skin. But not far to fall either.
Adora’s knuckles go bone-white around the sword as she growls, “You are going to burn that stupid wanted poster of yours. And then…”
She digs the sword in a little bit deeper.
“You are going to leave us alone. And make your people leave us alone. Because if you don’t...if you come after us again...no amount of money from a bounty, and no amount of armed lackeys and spies is going to keep you safe from me. Got it?”
Eyes blank with fear and surprise, Huntara nods. Nods blanky.
“B-but…” she begins, mouth very clearly struggling to form anything coherent. “How...who…?”
And surely, Huntara is wondering how this is possible. Up until this moment, Adora appeared no stronger than Huntara. But now...now she is something else entirely. Not a gang leader. Not an outsider. But a princess—and a princess of power, at that. One who even Huntara cannot hope to beat in a fight.
“Catra is off-limits,” Adora says, without any desire to explain who she really is—mostly because she doesn’t quite understand it herself. “And anyone who tries to test that will deal with me. And the results will not be pretty.”
Adora untucks her sword from Huntara’s chin and jerks her head in the direction of the door.
“Now get out of here,” she hisses, to Huntara. “I never want to see you again.”
Huntara nods yet again. She backs away slowly, at first, never taking her startled eyes from Adora’s still-glowing features. And then, finally, she turns around, sprinting for the door. Her feet thump against the floorboards until they fade to faint patters and then, nothing.
In the now-empty bar, Adora takes a moment to process what just happened. She again stares at her hands and legs and feet. Her glowing hands. Her impossibly long, impossibly muscular legs. Her white-and-gold boot-clad feet. None of these things belonged to her an hour ago, and yet…
As she stares, she sees the sword disappear into thin air. Dissipating and dissolving like seeds blown from a dandelion. Adora gasps as it fades away, worried that she will never again be able to retrieve it from the nothingness.
But that’s not true. Adora created that sword from thin air. Surely, she can do it again.
And was this always the case? Was Adora always able to transform without the sword?
Catra begins to stir from where she lies, slung over Adora’s shoulder. Catra’s wavering moan of pain cuts through Adora’s many questions, erasing them from her mind in favor of a far more pressing concern.
“Adora,” Catra whispers. But that’s all she says beyond a few whimpers of pain and a shifting of her shoulders. Something in Adora’s chest feels like it’s tearing at the sound of it—the sound of Catra’s pain. Adora cradles Catra into her arms, between them, so that Catra can rest more comfortably. Adora probably jostled her enough during that fight.
Adora figures it would be best to take Catra back to Mara’s ship. Even if she has to fight through whatever remains of their gang to reclaim that safehouse, it’s their place. Hers and Catra’s. And it has medicine and food and water and whatever else they need. So long as she has She-Ra, Adora is more than capable of fighting off any threat.
There’s nowhere else to go. Nowhere else that’s safe.
With Catra in her arms, Adora turns to the door—prepared to leave.
Only to see two bodies standing in the doorway—frozen and open-mouthed. Two bodies...and two faces that Adora recognizes. The shimmer of pink hair and the glint of a golden archer’s bow.
Glimmer and Bow.
“Adora?” they both gasp, and it sounds like they’re on the verge of sobbing with relief.
Adora leans against the wall of Mara’s ship. Bow and Glimmer stand directly across from her, watching Adora like her hair might catch fire at any moment, or like something equally absurd might happen to her. And Adora supposes she understands why. Her situation could not be more improbable, more fantastical. And yet here she is. Horde soldier. Princess. Exile. Wanderer. Gang Leader. And now…
She doesn’t know. She-Ra is back, yes. But does that really make her a princess again?
She glances down the hall of the ship. It’s strange to find it empty now. Only a few hours ago, this was their base of operations—a place bustling with Catra and Adora’s fellow gang members. There were so many times that Adora resented their presence. Their mess. Their loudness. And, in particular, their tendency to interrupt what were supposed to be moments of privacy between Catra and Adora.
But however much they annoyed her, it’s somehow more heartbreaking to find this place so hollow, so abandoned. Everyone must have cleared out once they heard what happened at the peace talks with Huntara—what Adora did, what she turned into. Or rather, who she turned into.
They’re all afraid of her now, she is sure. Deathly afraid. Afraid enough to run off into the desert, rather than face her potential wrath.
That’s the price of it, Adora thinks. The price of being the strongest in the Waste.
So now it’s just Adora, Glimmer, and Bow standing in this place. This abandoned ruin that has served as Adora’s home in recent memory.
Though Catra is here too, technically. Asleep and recovering in their shared quarters. She checks up on Catra intermittently—sometimes even attempts to heal her in the way she has accidentally healed herself, with She-Ra’s magic. But she keeps messing up, keeps failing, and ultimately ends up back out here. In the hallway.
Where Glimmer and Bow expect an explanation.
They’ve discussed it all by now. Adora has relayed everything that happened after Catra kidnapped her. How Catra pretended to torture her, then tried to help her escape. How Catra was caught and ended up exiled to the Crimson Waste alongside Adora, doomed to wander until dehydration or starvation or other desert perils claimed their lives.
And then the more unbelievable parts. How Adora and Catra managed to wrest control of a gang—how they basically became two of the most powerful people in the Crimson Waste. How she and Catra became allies, a team, friends again—
Though she’s left out some details. Details that felt too private. Like how she’s become something more with Catra, something more intimate. Something that she doubts Glimmer would approve of, especially when it’s Catra that they’re talking about.
“So let me get this straight…” Glimmer says, finally. Her words are laden with some strange mixture of disbelief and outrage. “We—” A frantic gesture to herself and Bow. “—have been beside ourselves with worry for months. Months! Thinking that you were tortured. Or brainwashed. Or dead. And you’ve been here...perfectly fine. More-or-less living it up as...what? Princesses of the Crimson Waste—?”
“Catra definitely would not like being called a princess,” Adora says, almost absentmindedly. “And we weren’t ‘living it up.’ At least...not all the time. In the beginning, we were really struggling to survive. I almost died a bunch of times. Catra kept me alive. She was the only person I could rely on.”
“A frightening way to live,” grumbles Glimmer, with a skeptical glance at the nearby door—the one that shields Catra’s sleeping body from the rest of the world.
“We’re not enemies anymore,” Adora insists. “She saved my life more times than I can count. And I…”
I care about her, Adora wants to say. But the words die in her throat. Not because she’s ashamed of them, though. No. It just doesn’t feel sufficient, saying she simply cares about Catra. She cares about Glimmer and Bow, about the rest of the princesses too, about the rebellion…
But Catra is different. Catra has always been different.
“How’d you manage to turn into She-Ra without the sword?” Bow asks, scratching his chin. “We were told that Hordak destroyed it. And whenever you’ve lost the sword in the past, you’d always lose your powers.”
Adora shrugs. “I don’t know,” she tells him. “I haven’t been able to transform the entire time I’ve been here. Okay, well. Almost the entire time. The only times I’ve been able to summon She-Ra’s magic was when…”
And then Adora realizes. It’s Catra. She was able to partially transform during Huntara’s ambush, and then transform fully when Catra was being attacked by that mob. During both instances, Adora found herself helpless to protect Catra from immediate danger—and thus called on She-Ra to intervene.
Adora blushes and admits, quietly: “I’ve only been able to transform when Catra was in danger, I guess.”
And it’s stupid-sounding. That Adora’s magic is activated by Catra, of all things. But it’s nonetheless the truth.
Bow shoots Adora a funny look, one that she can’t read. It’s skeptical—almost like he knows that Adora is hiding something from her.
“Well,” Glimmer says. “I’m sure this has been a very exciting adventure. But I think it’s time we rescued you—and ourselves—from this hellscape. We’re going back to Bright Moon.”
Adora blinks in surprise. “You still want me in rebellion?”
“I mean. Of course we do.”
“Why?” demands Adora. “I got captured. And in the time it took to find me, I probably cost you tons of resources and people. Not to mention that the Horde probably gained lots of ground in my absence—”
Glimmer rolls her eyes. “And we’d do it all again if it meant getting you back.”
Adora’s eyes narrow. “Because I’m She-Ra again?”
“No,” says Bow. “We’d want you back, She-Ra or not. You’re our best friend. We want you back home, where it’s safe.”
“Your safety is our first priority,” Glimmer adds, nodding. “She-Ra is a nice perk for the rebellion but...you’re what we really care about, Adora. You always were.”
And at that, Adora cannot help it. She cannot help the way that tears gather in her eyes, blurring her vision.
“Though,” Glimmer continues, slowly. Smirking in that mischievous, destruction-loving way of hers. “I also wouldn’t be opposed if you decided to rejoin our Horde butt-kicking efforts. We could really use your help. But it’s your choice. We won’t make you do anything you don’t want to.”
Adora contemplates for a moment. It’s a relief to know that Glimmer and Bow still care about her—and will continue to care about her, even if she never turns into She-Ra again. She’s always been afraid that the opposite was true, that the rebellion only valued her as a soldier, and nothing more.
But now it’s truly a choice. A tough one. Does Adora really want to re-enter the fray—to throw herself headlong back into the war?
She’ll admit. It has been sort of nice to take a break from the Horde-versus-rebellion hostilities. That type of fighting doesn’t really exist in the Waste. The gangs are the groups that battle, and there are almost no civilians involved. War, on the other hand…war was always far more devastating. Far more destructive. It’s a lot to put anyone through.
But Adora still wants to help people. She does. As someone who was once brainwashed into following the Horde, she wants to free people from their control. And she wants to protect people and places and Etheria itself from all the damage that the Horde inevitably wreaks.
So Adora nods her agreement. She’ll do it. She’ll rejoin the rebellion. She wants to help make this world better.
“Yes!” Glimmer exclaims, pumping a pleased fist, then throws her arms around Adora to celebrate. Bow is quick to join in with an emotion-laden, “Best Friends Squad, back together again!” and Adora laughs with them as their arms envelop her completely. She’s missed this, certainly. She has missed her friends.
“So it’s settled!” Glimmer says. “A pickup transport should be arriving tomorrow morning at the edge of the Waste. It’ll take the three of us back to Bright Moon—”
“Three of us?” Adora echoes. “What about Catra?”
Glimmer doesn’t answer. Not immediately. And Adora feels like something in her chest is being lowered, slowly, to some spot beneath her toes. Adora detangles herself from Bow and Glimmer’s embrace so that she can see their faces—and the truth that they’re avoiding.
“Glimmer,” Adora says again, more forcefully. “What about Catra?”
Glimmer groans and pinches the bridge of her nose. “Ugh, I knew this was going to be an issue.”
“Well, yeah,” replies Adora, as if it’s obvious. “Why would I want to lose her again, after everything—?”
“Adora,” Glimmer says, very clearly forcing calmness into her own voice. “Catra nearly destroyed Bright Moon. People might not be too pleased to have her around—”
“I’ll vouch for her,” Adora says, immediately. “She’s not interested in fighting the rebellion anymore—not since Hordak exiled her. She just wants a place where she feels like she’s respected, like she belongs—”
“And do you really think that place is Bright Moon?” argues Glimmer. “No matter how much you claim she’s changed, a lot of people won’t believe you. No one will trust her. Not completely, anyway.”
“I will,” Adora insists, jabbing at her own chest. “I’ll trust her. In fact, there’s no one I trust more.”
“Are you serious?” Glimmer’s eyes are wide with incredulity. “This is Catra we’re talking about. She betrayed you, attacked you—”
“That was before.”
Adora doesn’t answer. She can’t. She can’t explain it, can’t articulate how things have shifted between Catra and herself. But it’s real and insurmountable and immovable as the canyons of the Waste itself—this magnetism, this relationship between them. And she can’t imagine living, sleeping, existing without Catra again. Not now that she’s realized the truth.
And the truth is this. That Adora has always wanted Catra. More than anything in the world, she has wanted Catra. She’s always wanted to kiss her, touch her, laugh with her, sleep beside her, maybe even do something stupid like spend the rest of her life with her—
And most importantly...Adora has made a promise. A promise that she wants to keep, and intends to.
“You look out for me, and I look out for you.”
“Before what, Adora?” Glimmer demands. She wants an answer, of course. An answer she can pick apart and debate against.
And all of Adora’s resolve crumbles away.
“Before we realized what we mean to each other, okay?” Adora very nearly shouts. “Is that a good enough answer for you? The Horde drove us apart. Pitted us against each other. But deep down, we’ve always wanted...always felt something toward each other. Something different. Something that I can’t explain and I—”
Her voice cracks. The sound is so embarrassing that Adora is forced to swallow, inhale, start again. But she finds the strength to do it.
“I can’t leave her behind, Glimmer,” Adora says. The words are hardly louder than a breath. “Not again. She deserves better than that. Especially from me.”
Silence spreads through the hallway, far heavier than it has any right to be. Adora feels herself crushed beneath its impossible weight. Glimmer and Bow, meanwhile, exchange a series of glances before they finally speak. The kind of glances that Glimmer and Bow are so good at—and the kind that drives Adora up the wall. Because it’s like they’re having a whole conversation with eyes alone, one that Adora can’t interpret—
“Adora,” Bow whispers, finally. Like he’s come to some sort of realization of his own. And she can’t fathom why he’s suddenly whispering. There’s no one else here but Catra in that bedroom, and she’s likely not conscious enough to process anything they’re saying.
Adora returns his gaze, though. She eyes him expectantly, prompting him to continue.
“Are you...in love with Catra?”
She blinks, processing the words and failing to glean meaning from them. “In love?” she repeats. “I don’t...what does that mean?”
“Oh god,” Glimmer groans, dragging a hand down her own face. “The level of repression in the Fright Zone is truly something else—”
“What does it mean?” Adora says. “In love?”
“Oh man,” Bow begins, tapping a hand against his own hip. “How do I explain...well. It means you care a lot about someone—”
“Well, yeah,” Adora says, with an eye roll. “Of course I care about Catra—”
“—but it’s more than your usual level of caring,” Bow continues, interrupting her. “The feelings are...more intense. You don’t just care about them. You’re attracted to them. Connected with them. And sometimes….you want to do things like kiss them. Or touch them. You feel different when you’re with them—like you’ve found someone who gets you in a way that no one else does. And sometimes, if things are going well...you might even want to share your lives together. ”
Adora’s jaw snaps shut with an audible click. Then opens again.
“Oh,” she says, in a small voice. So that’s what that’s called? She didn’t realize there was a word for it. For what she feels toward Catra.
“Oh my god,” Glimmer gasps, eyes wide and face slack with shock. “You totally love Catra.”
“And what if I am?” Adora demands as her cheeks heat to an impossible temperature. The way Glimmer said it...one would think Adora had just admitted something embarrassing. “Is there anything wrong with that?”
“No,” sighs Glimmer, and she’s again pinching the bridge of her nose. She looks to Bow somewhat helplessly. “There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just…” She grunts in frustration. “This is going to be really, really difficult to explain to my mom.”
“Why do you think, Adora?” Bow says, with a little laugh. “Catra may have done some bad stuff but...if you love her, we’re not going to keep you from taking her with you.”
Glimmer shakes her head. “Catra, of all people,” she grumbles. “Of course it’s Catra.”
Catra wakes bathed in a strange warmth.
She groans. It’s too intense—almost painful. Like she’s being burned from the inside out. And there’s something else too. A hand cupped to Catra’s face, one that she thinks she recognizes, but it’s...wrong. Too big. Too warm. She recognizes that hand, but also doesn’t recognize it at all.
She hisses and shies away from it, jerking a hand as though trying to swat the touch away.
“Sorry!” yelps Adora’s voice. “I was just trying to heal you.”
“Heal me…?” Catra mutters, then cracks open one eye. “What d’you mean, heal—?”
But her words utterly disintegrate when she sees the face hovering above hers. The glowing face, framed by a metallic tiara, and the ice-blue eyes that Catra has seen before. The collection of flowing, impossibly flawless blonde hair. The layers of muscle adorning every inch of exposed skin—
It’s a different look, perhaps. But it’s recognizable all the same. Only one person on Etheria glows like that, or stands so incredibly tall—
“Huh,” says She-Ra, and she trails a gentle finger across Catra’s cheekbone, just below her eye. The inordinately warm and tingly feel of that finger makes Catra’s whole body tense. “I think it actually worked this time—”
And again, Catra hisses and swats at the touch, scrambling out from underneath She-Ra’s leaning body with a frantic, “Get off me!”
She-Ra jolts away, allowing Catra to race towards the nearest wall and press herself against it—seeking to place distance between herself and the monster who once stole her best friend.
This must be a nightmare. A terrible nightmare, one where She-Ra has returned to claim Adora yet again.
“Catra…?” She-Ra calls, voice slow and cautious. Her hands are raised and empty, like she’s trying to show Catra that she’s unarmed, that there’s nothing to fear. But of course She-Ra is something to be afraid of. She always was. “It’s alright. It’s just me—”
Catra’s claws dig into the metal at her back as she stands there, panting. “You can’t be here,” Catra heaves. “The sword is gone—”
She-Ra scratches at the back of her neck. “Yeah, uh…” She clears her throat. “Turns out I don’t need the sword to transform. All I need, really, is…” She hesitates, staring at Catra. “Some motivation, I guess.”
“No,” Catra says, shaking her head. “No. She-Ra isn’t supposed to bother us anymore. Adora and I—”
She-Ra laughs just a little. “I’m still Adora, dummy. I always was.”
And then she is closing her eyes, concentrating. With a flicker of light—some gold, some multicolor—Adora is standing there, back to her old self. Clad in her leather jacket and torn-up clothes. Catra gapes as she realizes that there’s truly no sword to be found—no magic trinket to enable the transformation. There’s just Adora, and only Adora.
“And She-Ra is the only reason we’re both still here, where it’s safe,” Adora continues, taking a step forward. “When Huntara sicc’d all those people on us in the bar...we were overwhelmed. They were going to take you away from me. And I…”
And Catra remembers that. She remembers being surrounded, being pulled in a million directions. She remembers calling Adora’s name as a fist smashed into her own face, forcing Catra to tumble into darkness.
Adora presses a hand to her own chest, where her heart is. “I couldn’t let that happen. And I think...I think that my need to save you was what made her—made She-Ra—come back. And once She-Ra was back…” Adora smirks just a little. “Well. Rescuing you became a lot easier.”
“Great,” says Catra, sarcastically. “Now you can put her away and keep her put away. Forever.”
Adora’s brow furrows in confusion. “I don’t understand. Why are you so mad at me?”
“I’m not,” snaps Catra, though it’s clear by her tone that she’s lying.
Adora just crosses her arms and awaits an explanation.
With a sigh, Catra admits. “Look. It’s not you. It’s her. She’s—”
“Adora—” a voice calls, one that freezes the blood in Catra’s veins. Though that’s only the start. Catra’s entire body feels like it’s being catapulted to the Northern Reach when she sees it—a head dipping past the doorway, a head covered with shimmering, purple-pink hair.
“We don’t have much time,” Princess Glimmer of Bright Moon continues, to Adora. She eyes Catra as though she might explode at any moment. “If we’re gonna make that transport, we need to head out soon. Like. Really soon.”
Sparkles. Sparkles is here
“What is she doing here?” shrieks Catra, gesturing frantically to Glimmer.
Adora steps in front of Glimmer, as if trying to shield her. As if Catra is the danger here, and Glimmer is the one in need of protection. As if the sight of that sparkly face isn’t going to upend Catra’s whole world, her only chance at happiness—
“Catra,” Adora says carefully, overenuciating every syllable of Catra’s name, her hands once again raised in surrender. “Glimmer and Bow have been searching for me ever since my kidnapping. They found me right after the fight in the bar—”
Glimmer. Bow. Adora’s two friends from the rebellion. The ones that Adora left Catra for.
“So you brought them back here?” demands Catra. “To our place?”
Adora looks down, toward the floor, then lets her eyes sweep the room. “It’s not exactly our place anymore, Catra,” she says. “Our gang is gone. They turned on us when they heard about the bounty. And then they ran off once they heard about She-Ra.”
Glimmer points at the door and whispers, “I’m gonna go.” Adora nods as she shuffles out of the room. Glimmer, meanwhile, throws startled glances at Catra from over her shoulder as she goes.
“S-she...she was talking about a transport,” Catra murmurs, more to herself than to Adora. Her eyes study the floor, searching it for answers. A transport. That’s what Sparkles said. A transport from here, certainly. A transport out of the Crimson Waste, one that will take them to—
Catra’s eyes snap up, latching onto Adora’s familiar features. Her gaze is so intense that it seems to strain every muscle in Catra’s face.
Because it’s too easy to guess what’s happening. Adora turned into She-Ra again. She found her magic, her purpose, her destiny, whatever. And now the rebellion is here, in the Crimson Waste. Miraculously. Suddenly. And with them, they’ve brought a transport. One that will most likely take the rebels back to Bright Moon—
“You’re leaving, aren’t you?” Catra nearly gasps, to Adora. “You’re leaving the Waste, leaving this behind—”
“I…” Adora hesitates, wincing at the accusation in Catra’s words. “Yes. But...no. Sort of.” She sighs, eyes sliding shut as she searches for a proper explanation. One that won’t be anything more than a careless excuse, Catra is sure.
“It’s complicated, Catra.”
And that’s what she settles on, in the end. That it’s complicated.
“Doesn’t seem too complicated to me,” Catra snarls. “You finally have a ticket back to your precious rebellion. So you’re taking it. You’re getting out of here, abandoning everything that we’ve built—”
“I do want to go back to the rebellion,” Adora says, nodding. “But it’s not that simple. What we’ve built...it’s already fallen apart. The gang is gone—”
But Catra tips her head back and laughs. And it’s hardly a pleasant laugh. A far cry from anything containing joy. It’s stilted, cold, heartbroken. The misplaced giggle at a funeral, a terrible emotion released in an entirely wrong way. Bursting from her like magma from some volcanic pocket of fury within her.
“I should’ve known,” Catra laughs, unable to help herself. She drops her head into her hands. “I should’ve known that you’d do it again. That the second the rebellion came for you, wanted you, you’d just up and leave again. That you’d leave me behind like I never mattered at all.”
“I thought you changed!” Catra shouts, and the scraping volume of her own voice seems to pull tears from her eyes. “But you’re exactly the same. It’s always about your destiny, always about She-Ra and saving the world. And I’m still just something convenient...something that you keep around until you find something better—”
“No, Catra,” Adora says, stepping forward. Her features are drawn with certainty, with determination. She reaches for Catra’s elbows, trying to hold them. “That’s not it at all and you know it.”
“How could it not be?” screams Catra, jerking herself out of Adora’s grasp. Adora’s touch is poison, after all. Addictive poison, but the kind that kills all the same. And this whole time here, in the waste...Catra has truly contaminated herself beyond repair. “You’re leaving. You’re leaving me, just like before. Just like always.”
“Catra!” Adora says, her grip tightening on Catra’s arms. A grip that’s not painful, but rather...steadying. “I’m not leaving you. Not this time.”
Catra just stares at her, unable to formulate a response as tears track down her cheeks. Because however much she wants to believe it...however much she wants to think that Adora’s words are true...it really must be an impossibility. Glimmer was just in here, urging Adora to hurry up. To make herself ready for transport out of the Waste—
“Look,” Adora says, with a sigh. “Living in the Waste...running gangs and starting bar fights...it’s never been what I wanted. Not really.”
Catra blinks. So Adora...Adora was just pretending this whole time? Pretending to want to be Catra’s second-in-command, pretending to want to settle down in the Waste? She should’ve known. Really, she should have—
“T-then why—” Catra demands, voice half dissolved into a sob.
Because she wants to know why, even if she doesn’t. She wants to know why Adora bothered sticking around. Because surely, she just wanted to use Catra. Use Catra to keep herself safe and alive, and nothing more.
But it’s like Adora can read Catra’s mind—can see the assumption she’s making.
“No,” says Adora, shaking her head. “Please don’t misunderstand me. Please. I was never lying about how I felt about you—”
“What do you mean, then what?” Adora demands. “Don’t you get it, Catra? I did all this...because I care about you. Because I want to be with you, I want to be with you more than anything. I don’t want to be separated from you again. And I…”
Adora trails off. She can’t seem to muster another sentence.
Catra watches blankly for several moments. Because this...this is just too much. How can Adora claim that she wants to be with Catra if she’s planning to leave in the same breath?
“It was all about you, Catra,” Adora says. Almost sighs. “I didn’t care about anything else. Just you.” A spasming laugh rings from her lungs. “I was ready to take on the whole Waste just to stay by your side.”
Catra shuts her eyes, and several more tears squeeze their way out—carving fresh lines into her skin.
“And yet you’re going,” whispers Catra. “You’re leaving.”
“I want to,” admits Adora. “I want to go back to Bright Moon. I want to go back to my friends, to the rebellion. But...I won’t. Not unless you come with me.”
Catra gapes, overwhelmed by the words. “Come with me.”
It isn’t the first time that Adora has said them. Back in Thaymor, Adora asked the same thing—for Catra to come with her. For Catra to defect, to join the rebellion.
But this time is different. Back in Thaymor, Adora didn’t say that other part. She didn’t say that she would go only if Catra accompanied her.
“I love you,” Adora tells Catra. “I didn’t really even know what that word meant until a little while ago but Glimmer and Bow explained it to me. I care about you. I care about you so much it feels…” Adora grasps blindly at something within her chest. “...it feels like something’s tugging at me, right in here. And I want to be with you, Catra. I want to be with you so badly, it’s all I think about when I imagine myself happy. I don’t want to miss a chance to hold or touch or kiss you. I want to wake up next to you for as long as we can and I…”
Adora exhales sharply.
“I don’t want to live a life without you. Not again.”
Catra’s eyes feel taped open, her gaze is so affixed to Adora’s face. She knows Adora well. Better than anyone, in fact. And it’s heart-stopping, how earnest—how honest she looks. Eyes steady, jaw clenched. It’s like nothing could ever be more vulnerable, more truthful, more real than this admission.
Catra briefly considers collapsing to the floor, rather than consider Adora’s words.
“But you keep doing this to me, Catra,” Adora continues. And her voice could not possibly sound more wrecked, more torn. Catra can hear the tears emerging, coating her words in thickness and tremors. “You keep making me choose between you and the thousands of other things that matter to me. And I love you and I want you but I...I don’t want to have to choose you at the cost of the other things I care about. I want to be She-Ra. I want to help people, I want to help Etheria.”
And Adora looks truly adamant in that fact—that she wants the sword. That she wants the destiny that she was given, no matter where it leads her. That she wants the chance to rid Etheria of the Horde’s cruelties.
But, just as clear on her face...is the fact that she wants Catra more.
“But I will, if that’s what you want,” Adora says, like she’s defeated. “I’ll pick you over everything else. I’ll do it, if that’s the only way to convince you that I care. I’ll stay here. But I just don’t think it’s fair.”
Adora gestures outward, to the ship’s walls. “We can stay here. Live in this abandoned ship with no one around—we can’t trust anyone else anymore, anyway. Not after that attack in the bar. No, we’ll stay here. Alone. And we can keep making cactus liquor and barter for whatever we can scrape. We’ll have nothing but each other and the desert and the Horde will take Etheria…”
Adora presses her lips together, eyes hardening as she tries to imagine what she’s saying.
“And that will be it. That will be our whole lives. People will suffer the same way we did, and we’ll just ignore it all. Pretending that it doesn’t involve us. Even though we can do something—even though we can stop anyone else from going through what we went through, at Hordak and Shadow Weaver’s hands.”
Catra just keeps studying Adora’s face. Keeps considering. Keeps struggling to process all those confusing words.
And it’s hard to overcome it—this violent, instinctual hatred for the rebellion. For She-Ra. It was ingrained in her—and made all the stronger by Catra’s resentment of Adora’s defection, of her abandonment of Catra.
But even Catra can admit that Adora has a point. There’s nothing much left for them here, in the Waste—not now that they were betrayed so thoroughly. Adora and Catra could probably try to scrape by, yes. Continue making cactus liquor. But in order to be truly safe, they’ll have to rely on She-Ra’s power to protect them. It was all that protected Catra from a kidnapping only a few hours ago. And Catra seriously doubts that Adora would want to spend the rest of her life intimidating people into leaving them alone. Adora has always wanted to help people—not hurt them.
And there’s the other part. The part about stopping the Horde. It wasn’t until Catra was exiled that she finally realized the truth—that Shadow Weaver, Hordak, the rest of the Horde...they never trusted her. Never believed in her. And never would believe in her. She suffered abuse after abuse at their hands only for them to toss her away like she was nothing.
Catra should want revenge. She should want to destroy the Horde; she should want to ensure that no one is ever treated like that again.
And she should especially want to keep that threat, that promise she made to Hordak.
“I’ve survived a lot more than anyone’s thought possible. Maybe I’ll survive this too,” she told him. “And maybe when I do...I’ll come back and steal that throne out from under you.”
What she wouldn’t give to see him defeated. Defeated, with the very help of the person he tossed aside.
And Catra has always cared about keeping her promises.
But more than anything...Catra wants Adora to be happy. She does. She wants to be with Adora, yes. She wants Adora more than she has ever wanted anything. But there’s no point to being together if Adora isn’t happy—if Catra has to watch Adora feel useless, unfulfilled, for the rest of their lives. And while Catra can do her best to remind Adora that she’s worth more than what she can do for others...she knows that Adora will never be truly satisfied until the war is over. Until the Horde is gone and the rebels are free.
And for the first time, Catra realizes that it’s not totally wrong for Adora to want those things. Freedom for others, as well as herself. Catra got her first taste of freedom and power here, in the Waste. And it was so exhilarating, so liberating…she knows she’ll never be able to go back to living under the Horde’s thumb. And she knows that no one else should have to live that way, either.
“What I really want,” Adora continues, made nervous by the silence, “is for you to come with me. To Bright Moon. To the rebellion. I want us to be on the same side—I want to make the world a better place with you, not against you.”
Adora waits for a response. Waits and waits, even though Catra is still working to muster one.
So Catra swallows, and swallows hard.
“You…” Catra begins, and still her voice partially fails her. “You want me to go with you to Bright Moon? Bright Moon, of all places?”
“I know it sounds crazy—”
“They’ll hate me there,” Catra whispers, frantically. “I tried to destroy their kingdom—”
“You’ve changed,” Adora says. “You know now. You know that the Horde was wrong. And you know that it’s wrong to try to rule through fear—”
Catra shakes her head. “But they don’t know that—”
“They’ll learn,” Adora insists. “They’ll learn that you’re on their side. They’ll learn that you want to do good—that you want the Horde gone, just as they do. They’ll learn how smart you are, how deserving you are of respect. And, more than anything…” Adora takes a step closer, and layers a hand over Catra’s cheek. Her eyes flash a bright, glowing blue. “They’ll learn that, if anyone so much as looks at you funny, they’ll have She-Ra to deal with.”
Catra gulps as Adora leans closer. “And what if they don’t learn?”
“I think they will,” Adora says. “You’re capable of so much good, Catra. I see it in you every day. And if they can’t see that too…” She kisses Catra on the forehead. “Then they don’t deserve either of us. And we’ll leave.”
She pulls away smiling. “But again...I trust Glimmer. I trust Bow. And I think we’re going to be just fine. Better than fine, even. We’ll be together. And the Horde won’t know what hit them.”
Catra stares down at the floor. It feels risky, agreeing to this. There are so many things that could go wrong.
But then again...Catra doesn’t have anything left to lose. The gang has crumbled. The Waste has turned on them. There’s truly nothing for Catra to lose except Adora herself. And if she tries to keep Adora here, away from all the other things she loves...she’ll still lose Adora. She’ll lose her in the way that matters most.
So Catra reaches out, and grabs Adora’s hands. She holds them tight.
“Okay,” Catra says. “I’ll go with you. I’ll join the rebellion.”
Adora is left stunned for several moments. And then slowly, gradually, her face splits into a grin. Whatever devastated tears had been dancing at the edge of her vision...they seem transformed now. Transformed into tears of joy that are finally made free, allowed to drop down Adora’s cheeks toward the solid ground below.
The air is knocked from Catra’s lungs as Adora throws her arms around her, tackling her in a bone-crushing hug. “I love you,” Adora breathes, over and over, as she paints Catra’s cheeks with relieved kisses. “Thank you, Catra. Thank you, thank you—”
“I love you too,” Catra tells her, face dipped into Adora’s neck. And it feels better than anything she can describe—being able to say that word, and know what it means. Know it to be true. Know it to be reciprocated and real and stronger than anything that might try to tear them apart.
Well. Not quite stronger than the sound of Glimmer’s knock at the door—the one that urges them to get a move on, else they’ll miss the transport.
Glimmer watches as Adora hoists herself into the rebel skiff, then turns around to pull Catra up beside her.
Adora’s leather jacket glints in the afternoon sunlight. There’s a strange symbol on the back—a snake devouring its own tail. But it’s only when Catra gains her footing, standing upright on the skiff’s deck, that Glimmer realizes that Catra is wearing a jacket with the same symbol. The only difference is that the arms of Adora’s jacket have been torn off, while Catra’s are intact.
They were a bit late to arrive thanks to Adora and Catra’s long heart-to-heart conversation. She still can’t believe that Adora convinced Catra to come. And she still can hardly believe herself for letting Catra come. Glimmer really has no idea how to explain this to her mother...
But now that she’s seen Adora and Catra together—together, properly—she knows that she never would have been able to deny Adora’s request. She looks happy in a way that Glimmer has never seen before. Relaxed. Her lips curved into a gentle, hopeful smile and her shoulders free of their usual tension.
Usually, Adora is the one who demands that they keep to schedule. That they hurry, or arrive early to avoid any unforeseen obstacles. But this time, Glimmer and Bow were the ones who had to halfway drag Adora and Catra to the transport, so smitten and distracted were they with each other. Glimmer almost regrets teaching Adora the word ‘love,’ since they absolutely will not stop whispering it to each other. As if Glimmer and Bow can’t hear them.
When they finally reached it—the transport—they were lucky to find it still waiting for them. Idling at the edge of the Waste. Adora and Catra are first to board, then Bow, then Glimmer. But even as she rises to the deck and positions herself in one of the seats, she cannot keep her eyes from flitting between those two leather jackets.
She elbows Bow. Points to the jackets. Her makes a concerned face but shrugs, uncertain whether her (admittedly unvoiced) suspicions are true.
“Adora,” Glimmer asks, tentatively—interrupting the laughter that Adora was just sharing with Catra. “Where did you get that jacket?”
“Oh,” says Adora, still sighing from whatever joke she’s recovering from. She looks down at her clothes. “Catra gave it to me. You know. So we match.”
Glimmer and Bow exchange another glance, their eyes nearly bugging out of their heads. If Catra gave Adora that jacket...and Catra is wearing something that matches—
That only means one thing, in Etherian tradition. The exchanging and matching of articles of clothing is something sacred, something intimate. Something that indicates—
Bow clears his throat, trying to be diplomatic despite his nervousness. “And...uh…” His voice is gratingly high-pitched, the same way it always is when he’s trying to tiptoe around an awkward situation. “When were you going to tell us—”
“Since when did you two get engaged?” Glimmer shouts, unable to wait for Bow to finish his sentence.
Because that’s what it means, when Etherians match and exchange clothes. That they’re engaged to be married.
Adora and Catra just look at each, blank-faced, then return their attention to Glimmer’s face.
“Engaged?” they ask, nearly in unison.
“What does that mean?” Adora continues, smiling at Catra like nothing could be funnier. “Engaged?”
“Like...engaged in battle?” Catra speculates with a small shrug. “Because we’re not enemies anymore, if that’s what you’re asking. I mean. That’s why I joined your rebellion, isn’t it?”
Glimmer groans and drops her head into her hands.
Living with these two...is going to be a learning experience for all of them.
ONE YEAR LATER
Hordak has been forced to barricade himself in his sanctum.
He had no choice—not with the streets and the buildings of the Fright Zone overrun with rebel soldiers and freshly-turned Horde defectors. And especially not with explosives continuously detonating overhead, carving holes into the roof of the very building where Hordak sits.
So he sits here, clinging to his throne. Watching the doors that he secured shut with locks and welding and any heavy object that he could locate.
He cannot believe how quickly his empire unraveled. After years and years of forward momentum, of building the Fright Zone’s resources, of conquering countless civilizations and kingdoms…it all seemed to fall apart in a matter of months. How, he doesn’t know. Though he can pinpoint the moment when the winds seemed to shift, and the tide turned in the Princess’s favor.
Scorpia disappeared. That was the first shift. She left the Fright Zone and never returned.
Hordak figured she had betrayed him, just as Catra had. And it wasn’t long before he began to hear talk of Scorpia fighting alongside the princesses.
But it also wasn’t long after that Entrapta betrayed him too. He should have known, should have expected it. Entrapta used to be quite close with Catra and Scorpia, after all. Not to mention that Entrapta herself had supported the princesses in the past—developed weapons for them. He never should have trusted her, no matter how useful her scientific expertise.
But he was nonetheless taken off guard when she departed, taking many crucial weapons and scientific discoveries with her. She even sabotaged his weapons forge and electrical grid as a final goodbye—one that took months for the Fright Zone to properly recover from.
Hordak was overwhelmed. He could hardly keep the lights on, let alone operate the machines that produced the food his troops required. As his soldiers grew hungrier and hungrier, they also grew more and more dissatisfied. Maybe even dissatisfied enough to begin questioning his authority.
And then that video was broadcasted all across Etheria, hijacking even the screens of the Fright Zone itself. Hordak suspected it was Entrapta’s doing—she knew so much about the Horde’s technology, after all. He could do little to stop Scorpia’s smiling face from flooding the screens, pleading for the Horde soldiers to defect and join the rebellion. She claimed that they would be fed and housed and treated with respect.
Empty promises, Hordak was sure. And he told his troops the same thing.
Only a few left, at first. But as Hordak struggled to repair his forge and produce ration bars, that number grew. It grew and grew. Key locations were left undefended as troops ran off to join distant kingdoms. Entire squadrons disappeared, never to be heard from again.
And then the rebels began to attack. They attacked in a way that Hordak had never before seen, never even imagined. They used strategies that Hordak could not anticipate, or make sense of. It was like the enemy suddenly knew every move he would make, and how he would make them. Where his defenses would be strongest, or weakest.
And there was something else too—some mysterious force that could cut through Hordak’s tanks like they were paper. Or reduce his fortresses to pulverized rubble. A new princess, many claimed. One stronger than She-Ra ever was, with unmatched magical power.
Despite how he tried, Hordak was never able to capture footage of this new threat. He could only run from the destruction left in its wake. And bit by bit, between the growing rebel armies and this new princess, Hordak’s forces were either destroyed or forced to retreat.
It wasn’t long before Hordak’s once-sprawling empire was reduced to a single stronghold: the Fright Zone.
And then the final attack began.
Only Hordak’s most loyal followers remain. The rest have surrendered or defected, leaving the princesses free to take what they please from his empire. Hordak, meanwhile, sits here on this throne. Relying on reinforced architecture and carefully designed defense systems to keep himself safe. So far, nothing has touched him. Dust falls from the ceiling when a particularly loud explosion rips through the upper floors...but that’s the extent of the damage.
He is safe, he assures himself. He is safe and in control.
But that’s when he hears it. The sound of a scuffle from just beyond the door, vibrating against the barricade that holds it shut. The sounds of weapons clattering together and grunts of effort. The thump of heavy objects hitting the floor. The shriek of blaster fire.
Hordak’s hands tighten around the arms of his chair. His defense system should protect him. It should wipe out whatever threat that seeks its way inside—
And sure enough, after a while, the noises fade to silence. Silenced, most likely, by the large, heavily armed robots Hordak stationed outside his door to protect himself—
But then the doors burst apart, thrust open by an enormous, thundering, flaming projectile. One that quite literally tears a hole through the closed doors and barrels through the barricade, the heavy objects knocked apart and away like they’re hollow mimicries of themselves. Hordak can only stare, unable to identify the projectile as it sparks and skids toward him.
It eventually slows. Rolling, jolting, slamming against the staircase to Hordak’s throne. Only when it’s there, smoking but still, can he recognize it for what it truly is.
It’s one of his own bots—the ones he stationed outside. Demolished and tossed through the air like it was nothing more than a toy.
Frantically, Hordak glances up at the hole left by the bot—that irreparable wound in the heart of his defenses. There are figures there, approaching from beyond the lingering smoke. Silhouettes that grow larger and clearer with every step forward.
He recognizes one of them first. The taller one. The impossibly taller one, clad in gold and white and glowing with accursed magic. As Hordak sucks in a breath, pale blue eyes meet his, boring into his vision like light from a laser. They are gloating, those eyes. Triumphant.
It’s not the appearance he remembers. But he recognizes the person beneath it just as well.
All those destroyed tanks and obliterated strongholds...it was not a new princess at all. No. It was the same princess who had plagued Hordak for years. The same princess Hordak thought he eliminated.
“You,” Hordak sneers, rising shakily to his feet. “You should be dead.”
She-Ra only smirks and moves further into the room, a gleaming sword clutched between her hands. And it doesn’t make sense, truly it doesn’t. Hordak was there when that sword exploded into a million irreparable pieces. Not to mention that he sent Force Captain Adora to the Crimson Waste, a place that no one is supposed to survive—
“And she’s not the only one,” calls another voice. One that makes Hordak stiffen as though shocked with an electrical current.
He can only watch, open-mouthed, as she steps into the room.
He wouldn’t be able to recognize her if not for those blue-yellow mismatched eyes. Her clothes are different—rebel garb now, rather than her Horde uniform—and that red mask no longer frames her face. Her hair is different too. Pulled back behind her head. Probably so that Hordak can see her traitorous features more clearly.
“Catra,” he hisses.
But she ignores him, at first. She instead sweeps the room with her eyes—examining the cluttered destruction left in the wake of the Horde’s final months, as well as the bot that was just thrown through the door.
“Damn,” she remarks, eyes finally flashing in Hordak’s direction. Her smirk could not be more sharp, more vicious. “You really don’t know the first thing about running this place, do you?”
“It was you,” he says, in horror. “You convinced Scorpia to defect. Then Entrapta. You told her to sabotage our facilities—”
Catra only smiles, a hand on her hip—posing as though taking credit for her accomplishments.
“You proposed that video, the one that convinced so many of my troops to defect. You developed the strategies that allowed the rebels to lay waste to my strongholds, using your knowledge of our methods against us—”
Catra merely shrugs. “You say that like it was hard to do.”
And Hordak cannot fathom this. He cannot fathom how Catra managed to drag herself out of the Waste. The Waste is supposed to be a slow, painful death sentence. It’s not supposed to allow its victims to come back stronger, more dangerous, more traitorous—
“But what?” Catra laughs and crosses her arms over her chest. “I told you that I would survive. That I’d be back. That I’d be coming for that throne of yours. And now…”
She gives She-Ra a nudge, urging her forward. And She-Ra looks more than happy to oblige—her sword aimed directly at Hordak’s chest.
“Now I’m just fulfilling my promise.”