Summer nights in Bright Moon had always been warm and peaceful. The villages and smaller kingdoms around enjoyed the calm atmosphere of the Whispering Woods, respecting the regenerative power of the magical forest. Once in a while, a small gathering could be hosted by the moon kingdom, on special occasions.
However, no gathering was thrown in Bright Moon tonight.
It was a celebration.
"Please help yourself to these delicious appetizers. They're from Plumeria!"
"If you're too hot in your suit, there's a coat hanger in the great hall."
Princesses from the East Mountains to the Deep West Valley had come, taking with them many civilians who were all ecstatic at the idea of meeting their long lost allies.
"Have you seen that beefy magicat commander? What a woman!"
"Here's exclusively veggie-based meals for those whose stomachs can't process meat!"
"I prefer that hot Crimson Waste leader…"
Magicat soldiers and Southerners were happily chatting and dancing with the Northerners. It was a scene no princess could have foreseen.
"Ma'am, your hooves are on my plate!"
"Uncle Isidore, teach me how to do magic!"
"I remember the old days, when the Magicats were still living in Halfmoon… what a shame, their kingdom used to be so beautiful."
"Comin' through, comin'- Crap! Watch out!"
Adora knew she shouldn't have picked her favorite three-piece suit for the ball. Here she was, covered in crab sauce, feeling more embarrassed than the waiter who kept apologizing to her.
"It's no big deal. Don't worry about it! I promise, I don't even like that suit." She closed the jacket to hide most of the stains, but the smell was quite appalling.
"My parents were right. I'm a total disaster! I was bound to ruin She-Ra's outfit someday!"
Adora smiled awkwardly as she patted his back. She thought she would even have to give the guy a hug to get rid of him until she saw an out. Glimmer was having a heated argument with Bow next to the buffet.
To join them, Adora had to slip between two princesses who tried to talk to her when they recognized the She-Ra. She pretended to be called for an important conversation by her closest allies. The Best Friend Squad had very serious business at hand right now.
"I'm telling you, Glim. You like her!"
"No way!" Glimmer threw her hands in the air. Her eyes sparkled when she caught sight of her friend. "Adora, please tell Bow that there is no way I'm crushing on a girl who has the audacity to call me a shrimp."
"Who are we talking about?" Adora said in a chuckle, well aware of the identity of the woman in question.
"I don't even know her! I met her yesterday."
"Well, there's no better occasion than a ball to get to know someone," Bow smirked.
"Are you actively trying to make me punch your face? I don't want to know her! I don't care about Anya!"
"Keep telling yourself that, little mouse." Glimmer froze on the spot at the sound of this new voice. "You'd be a lot more believable if you stopped gawking at me though."
Adora had to swallow a laugh when she turned around and discovered the magicat commander standing behind them, a hand on her hip and a mischievous glint in her eyes. Glimmer turned red in a second at the view. Adora couldn't deny she was beautiful, with her high waisted classy pants, her fancy tank top, and mostly the golden snake bracelets framing her biceps. A matching golden choker was wrapped around her neck. Glimmer visibly gulped.
Mermista, Seahawk and Perfuma, who were chatting nearby, headed over to them. Adora took a glimpse at Mermista. It was rare to see her out nowadays. She looked tired, but better than usual.
Soon a circle was formed around Glimmer and Anya.
"I-I just mean-" Glimmer's cheeks turned a bright crimson.
An evil cackle appeared out of nowhere. "I think you got her tongue, Anya." As if she had used Glimmer's teleportation magic, Catra circled around her commander. Adora's heart skipped a beat. She was wearing a gorgeous blue suit, with fingerless gloves. The way Catra's eyes searched for hers made Adora feel dizzy. She had to look away to avoid blushing.
Catra stood next to Anya. In the exact same pose. Smirking the exact same way.
Perfuma and Bow squinted at them. "Wait a minute…"
"You two look like you're-"
"Oh yeah, we kinda forgot to tell you. I'm Catra's niece," Anya shrugged. For a second, only the rumble of the crowd prevented a stunned silence from resonating between them.
"Oooh, of course, Catra is your aunt!" Bow sounded like he had discovered the wheel. Glimmer was still gawking at Anya, and Adora was staring at the two magicat women's faces, wondering how she hadn't made the connection before.
"Yup. That's what she said, Arrow," Catra replied in a disinterested tone. Even their way of nicknaming people was the same. Adora smiled. She was glad Catra had found some family out there. She couldn't help but wonder though, how hard was it to discover you had a niece your age who probably knew you before you were turned younger and kidnapped by a tyrant?
"So, Glimmer," Mermista intervened. "If you want to date Anya like a proper Princess, it means you'll have to ask Catra permission to court her."
Adora burst out laughing at the sight of her outraged friend. Glimmer was fuming. It was adorable and a little scary too. Catra decided to tease her in turn, but she kept checking on Adora to see her reactions. It had a strange vibe, seeing Catra and Glimmer banter without any death threats. Adora was sure none of them felt comfortable yet, but they looked like they wanted to try their best. It warmed Adora's heart. The rest of the little group enjoyed the cat and mouse fight, too. Seahawk was laughing hard. Anya looked delighted by the turn of events. And Mermista…
Their eyes met. The water princess put on an awkward smile, then averted her gaze. Adora's face fell sadly. At least her friend was out there having fun with them. Her health was more important than whatever sorry feeling Adora was having.
"Something is missing in that picture… where is Scorpia?"
Bow's question brought Adora back to reality. The hugger princess's absence hadn't gone unnoticed, but she hadn't had the occasion to bring it up to Catra since her return.
"Isn't she with the Horde?" Perfuma asked. Glimmer and Bow widened their eyes, panic freezing their tongues. They had forgotten Catra's escape from the Forbidden Zone and her journey with Scorpia, Rogelio and Kyle had remained a secret inside the Best Friend Squad. Nobody else knew what really happened after Catra was thrown into that foggy prison.
Adora fidgeted her fingers as she waited for Catra's answer. The secret had to be revealed someday but she was hoping it could wait until after the victory.
"I contacted her when I was released from the Forbidden Zone," Catra answered casually. She lied so easily… "She joined me and helped me find the Magicats. She's still over there, but she'll come here soon."
"How did you find the Magicats by the way?" Glimmer asked, glad to find a reason to change the subject.
"I got lucky." Catra's response didn't satisfy anyone. Adora felt her anxiety rise up again. It annoyed her how Catra thrived on sounding mysterious.
"Basically," Anya disclosed, "she got lost in the desert and we've kinda been keeping an eye out for a while in case unwelcome visitors try to find us."
"I don't get it," Mermista said in her typical bored tone. "You were out there in the desert watching, and Catra got lost and you found her just like that?"
"The Magicats have efficient ways to hide," Catra added. "If they don't want you to find them, you never will."
"Wow. I sure would have loved to get that knowledge to hide Salineas from the Horde. Like, everyone in the North actually."
It was like a bucket of icy water had fallen over their heads. Anya raised an eyebrow, crossed her arms and stood to her whole height in front of Mermista. "Salineas, right? I heard of your kingdom. Your father called our queen insane when she warned the North about Hordak."
"OKAY, LET'S GO DANCE!" Glimmer yelled. She grabbed Anya's hand and teleported them to the middle of the dancefloor. Anya glared at Mermista for a second, but quickly focused on the sparkle princess.
"Whatever…" Mermista shrugged as she followed Seahawk, ignoring everyone else with dedication.
"Anybody care to explain what the fuck that was about?" Catra asked. Perfuma and Bow looked at their feet in discomfort, and Adora took it as her cue to separate the magicat from the dismantled group.
She led Catra softly through the crowd, waving to other guests on her way. Satisfied with her spot among the dancers, she turned to face Catra, who took her waist with a smile. Adora felt dazzled by their proximity. Once she wouldn't have even blinked with Catra's face so close to her own. But now seeing her freckles so precisely she could count them, with the music and cheesy atmosphere around them, made her heart beat in excitement. She could see Catra was happy too, in her arms, leading the dance that ironically reminded them of a tenser dance at Princess Prom.
"Adora," Catra whispered. Adora licked her lips, leaning in. "You know I love you, but… you smell like crab."
Catra burst out in laughter as Adora punched her arm. "Way to ruin the moment, Catra!"
"Luckily for you, I like crab."
Before Adora could react, Catra licked her from the collarbone to her ear, earning a whimper from the princess.
"Catra! Everybody can see us!"
"So? Let them."
"It's not my fault if you taste delicious."
"Oh, First Ones…"
"Turn into She-Ra if you want clean clothes. But I'm not sure I want to dance with a giant."
"Yeah, too bad I only turn into She-Ra if there's a fight. Ha-ha…" Adora scratched her nape awkwardly, avoiding eye contact. The queen frowned.
"You never use her power otherwise?"
"Never." Adora held Catra's stare, internally screaming at her heart to stop hammering. Catra squinted at her. These blue and yellow eyes made her uncomfortable when they scanned her soul…
Adora blinked in surprise. She hadn't expected Catra to let it go. She breathed out in relief, reminding herself to try to sound natural. "Yeah, I just don't feel like I should turn all the time."
"Sure. But if you want to for no good reason, you still can, right?"
"I'd love to turn into the Cat and spar with She-Ra someday."
"That's what we call it. The warrior of the mask."
"Oh! And you're Cat-ra."
"Hordak has no originality…"
"Because Kat-riska is original?"
"Hey." Catra pointed a finger at her. Adora thought she'd crossed the line, but the smile on Catra's lips reassured her. "First of all, you don't get to talk about my culture that you know nothing of. And second of all, you don't even pronounce it right. None of you do."
"Oh yeah? How must we pronounce your name, Your Majesty?"
"It's Katrrrishka, not Katriskaaa."
Adora smiled and tested the name again, making Catra snicker when she failed to roll her tongue. The queen kissed the princess's cheek after two failures. Adora fell silent, enjoying the little purr she could feel from the feline woman.
"So what's wrong with Mermista?"
"Oh…" Adora tightened her arms around Catra's waist. "She… she's been pretty down for a while."
"Looks like you all caught the blues somehow."
"What do you mean?"
"Castaspella looks like shit, too, and no offense, but so do you, Adora."
Adora pushed her gently, peering into her eyes in shock. "I don't look like shit! I mean, I'm a bit tired because of all the battles, but it's nothing anybody else isn't feeling!"
Catra didn't answer. She just stared at her face thoughtfully, before shrugging. She asked about Mermista again, to Adora's great displeasure. She wished Catra wasn't that stubborn.
"A month after you left, Mermista got sick again." Adora glanced at the water princess from afar. She was dancing with Seahawk with the usual embarrassed face she wore around the sailor. However, a veil of sadness tinged that expression. It wasn't noticeable to anyone who didn't know the princess. Adora had learnt over time to recognize her facial expressions. "She got so sick we thought we'd lose her. We tried to get Salineas back, but we failed."
"We tried to contact Entrapta," Adora pursued. "But we lost all communication with her. We have no idea what happened to her since you guys left. We know she's still alive because of the Horde's tech, but that's all we could figure out."
Catra looked away worriedly. Adora gave her a moment to collect herself. Catra must have been eaten by guilt regarding the scientist.
"And then? How did you heal Mermista?"
"I… I had to…" Adora struggled with her words. Her throat was dry. "I had to break her connection with the runestone."
Catra's eyebrows almost disappeared beneath her mask. "Oh… So she lost-"
"All her power. Yeah. She hasn't been the same since."
Catra stroked Adora's cheek. "Don't blame yourself."
"I- it's hard."
"I know. But It was for her own good. Whatever Hordak was doing to her runestone might have killed her if you hadn't intervened."
Adora looked at her eyes, one at a time. Was it the same Catra as before? Would the old one say the same thing regarding this situation? There was something about her now that Adora couldn't pinpoint. Something new. Something wise.
It was scary.
"Yes, but- I just wish we didn't have to go that far. I'm not even sure I can reconnect them properly..."
Catra cupped her face with both hands, bringing Adora's eyes back to hers. "I'm sure you can. Stop worrying about that now."
Catra leaned in and kissed her. Adora knew how bold it was. They were displaying their relationship to the whole world now, with a single kiss. It probably wouldn't make things easier for both of them, as war partners from two different alliances. Angella would certainly tell her later it was not the time to dive into romance. It only brought conflicts of interest.
But Adora didn't care. She had missed Catra. She wanted Catra. She wanted to show their love to everybody.
They could die during the next battle. This was the perfect time for romance.
It was going well. Or, at least, not so bad. Catra had never expected the Rebellion to welcome her back so warmly. Even if Lucio had assured her the Magicats were highly popular in their time, Catra had introduced herself with more fear in her heart than she would have liked.
Not that she cared about what they all thought about her. If she had listened to herself, she would have snapped ten times since her return and probably gotten herself kicked out of Bright Moon. It took a great amount of self control to remain calm whenever someone expressed their doubts regarding her story. Or whenever a northerner told her how amazing she had become now that she was under the good influence of the Magicats.
She was glad she had brought a punching ball with her. It was Anya's technically, but she had given it to her when she'd realized Catra needed moments to lash out in private. Anya had also helped her a lot, along with Lucio and other magicat politicians, to master a composed face, and to learn how to speak wisely. Their definition of wise, at least.
Not that Catra didn't know how to do that before. She had dealt with Hordak for a year as his commander and had been pretty good at her job. She had also spent her whole childhood trying to survive Shadow Weaver's abuse. Lying and deceiving had been a skill she'd had to gain quickly. But it was true that their ways were different from the Rebels'. The Horde was more direct. Less hypocritical. They didn't pretend to be self-righteous.
Somehow the Magicats knew better than her, despite having retreated from the world for over fifteen years. It had made Catra snort when they'd offered to teach her how to act like an Etherian queen. Her ego had suffered a great deal the first time Lucio had said he could read her like a book and push her buttons at will. Thus had started a very annoying series of lessons that lasted for months, to learn how to speak like the stuck-up sorcerers of Mystacor.
And all of this for what? To win the approbation of people she never wanted to speak to ever again.
She needed these Northerners, though. Just as much as they needed her.
Catra sipped on her champagne thoughtfully as she observed the diverse crowd of the ball. It didn't look like they were at war at all. The atmosphere was quite different from the magicat kingdom, where every day was a training day, or a research day in the tech lab, or an exploration day in the desert.
The Magicats never took a break. Not since the massacre.
But they could enjoy themselves at the right time. Catra watched with amusement as Anya dipped a fakely angry Glimmer. Sparkles was a weird person, denying the obvious attraction she had for her commander-no, for her niece. Catra didn't understand what Anya saw in her. Maybe it was the teasing. She could understand that. She loved to tease Adora.
Catra sighed as she thought of the blonde. She was worried about her. Something was off, and the blatant lie Adora thought she had pulled about She-Ra didn't reassure her. But Catra wouldn't pressure her to reveal the truth. After all, some truths were best hidden for a while. She of all people knew that.
Adora had left her to go to the toilet shortly after their talk about Mermista. Catra suspected it was just because of the discomfort from her lie mixed with her guilt regarding the Salinean princess. She wished she hadn't gone though, because as soon as Catra stood alone near the buffet, a circle formed around her, full of princesses and civilians who wanted to shake her hand and thank her for bringing her people back.
Nine months ago, these very people looked at her with disdain as they sent her with no remorse to be tortured in another dimension nobody ever came out of.
But Catra smiled. She shook their hands. She reminded herself for the hundredth time that they needed each other. For now. After all, she had harmed them, and they had harmed her. One could say they were even. Now they could work together. Maybe.
Catra had to. For Adora. For the Magicats.
"Hey, Catra! I need a word."
Catra jolted as she heard that bubbly princess shout her name. Even without using her powers, Sparkles looked like she had appeared out of nowhere, with her mother flanked at her side.
"You know, you don't need my permission to date Anya. She's a big girl. She can speak for herself."
"What the?! That's not what it is about! Stop bullying me with this… situation. It will not make things easier between us!" Glimmer raged, while Angella hid a sophisticated smirk behind her hand. Okay, Catra admitted, she should stop teasing Sparkles. But it was so damn funny.
"Alright, alright… so what's it about?" Catra turned her back to the circle of princesses who had been talking to her for a good while. Talking to her, about her, without really expecting an answer from her. It was like being back in the Horde.
"Glimmer would like to talk to you in private," Angella answered for her daughter. "And I joined her now to ask you the same."
"What?" Catra frowned.
"Tomorrow, we will have our first meeting as two Alliances, and as partners. Before that, I would like to have a private meeting with you, Katriska. If you don't mind, of course."
"Um… sure, okay."
Why did this queen make everything so solemn? It made Catra uneasy. Not because she put a political barrier between them. That was Catra's doing. No, it made her uneasy because Angella asked for her permission and treated her as an equal. Even when she was imprisoned last year, she talked to her as if no bars stood between them. Catra liked it. Despite everything, despite Angella's partiality towards Mystacor, despite not defending her properly after the trial, Catra still liked her as a person.
Ugh, she hated that.
Glimmer grabbed her hand and took her away from the crowd. The princesses looked disappointed to see the queen stolen from their company. Catra would have preferred to keep zoning out amongst them, rather than following Sparkles towards the Whispering Woods.
Catra looked over her shoulder in a desperate attempt to see if one of her own would consider this as a kidnapping. Anya snickered from afar, and Catra glared at her. Oh, okay, she would spar with her niece later. That would be punishment for letting Glimmer corner her. Not like she would win against Anya, who was stronger and more agile than her. But Catra would never admit that.
"Okay, we're good here."
"So, what's this all about? You want me to apologize for dragging your ass through the mud last year?" Catra smirked as she picked her nails.
"Well, now that you mention it… yes, I'd love you to apologize for attacking me, my friends, my mom, my kingdom..."
Catra's face fell. Panic made her heart go crazy in her chest.
"Oh, wow. That was a joke, Glitter. I'm referring to when I made you jealous in prison. By the way, did Adora keep the sweater or did you burn it when I left?" she snickered. Damn it, Catra couldn't help being mean. She should have kept on with the less harmful Anya jokes.
"And as for me," Glimmer continued, ignoring her, "I apologize for what I've done to you."
Catra furrowed her brows. "What have you done exactly, except trying to steal my kneecaps on the battlefield?"
"It's more what I haven't done, actually." Glimmer looked uncomfortable. That was weird. "I should have helped you during the trial. I should have put aside my hatred for you and tried to understand what you've gone through. But mostly… I knew it wasn't fair to send you to the Forbidden Zone and I did nothing until it was too late. I even tried to prevent Adora from going after you."
Catra blinked in surprise. If there was anything she hadn't expected, it was an apology from Glimmer. It felt awkward. It felt uncomfortable. It was much easier to have a good reason to despise the princess and act mean. The reason being all about Adora, of course. Fighting together with Glimmer, especially now that Anya decided she liked her, would prove itself to be hard. Catra knew the day would come where she should apologize to her, but it was still difficult to accept.
But Catra had started to understand Glimmer's way of thinking now that she had her own kingdom to protect. Even then, the apology got stuck in her throat. Lucio would say right now that she should at least show some fairness. Not that Catra didn't know that. But hearing the old man's words in her mind was too annoying to ignore.
"Well, if it makes you feel better, I kinda deserved your hatred. And I hated you too. You stole Adora from me."
"That's not how I would put it." Glimmer was trying hard not to get angry. That was cute. "But I see your point. And I'm sorry."
Catra's tongue was burning from spikes she was holding back. She had to be fair. They had to see each other as equals, or they would never be able to work together.
"But anyway," Glimmer pursued. "Let's try to move on, okay?"
Catra had to say sorry, she had to say sorry, she had-
"Sure. So what's up?"
Glimmer sighed in relief. The apology would be for later then. "I wanted to talk to you about Adora."
Catra unconsciously adopted a more serious stance. "Go ahead."
"Since you guys are reunited, and I know she trusts you…" Glimmer looked sadder than she thought she did. "She hasn't been doing very well lately."
"No shit." Catra raised an eyebrow. "I've never seen her look that depressed. What happened?"
"We don't know. She doesn't tell us anything."
"She doesn't? Aren't you supposed to be the cool buddy gang or something?"
"Best Friend Squad. And yeah, she used to confide in Bow and me, but it's been at least six months since she hasn't said anything… intimate, you know? She's as closed as a raw oyster."
"How is she doing on the battlefield?"
"Fine, I guess."
"Well, she goes in whenever there's a battle, of course, but she always looks reluctant to fight."
Catra bit her lip. This wasn't good. Fighting for a greater purpose had always been Adora's drive. If helping the Rebellion was starting to not be enough…
"I guess it got worse after the Mermista incident?"
"She told you about that?" Glimmer looked pissed for a second. "Yeah, it got awkward between them, and Adora blames herself for failing her."
"Okay. So what exactly do you want me to do? You want me to keep her still while you hold the knife on her throat until she talks?"
"I wouldn't go that far," Glimmer chuckled. Catra was surprised she actually managed to make her laugh. "But if you could make her open up a bit on your side, that would be great. For her."
"Okay, well, I'll see what I can do. Thanks for telling me, Sparkles."
"No, thank you for the help."
They looked at each other, the unexpected gratefulness lingering between them. Aaand, it got weird. Their new dynamic was too confusing for Catra's taste.
"Well, I'll just…" Glimmer scratched the nape of her neck. "I'll go back there, yeah."
"Yeah, sure. Do that. Anya's patient but it would be rude to make her wait," Catra snorted. Glimmer rolled her eyes and teleported herself back to the dancefloor, leaving Catra behind by herself. It would have come off as rude to anyone but Catra, who was glad she could make her way back alone.
She stopped in her tracks when she thought she heard a sound. But behind her, the Whispering Woods were as calm as ever. She shrugged and kept going, unaware of the two shadows running between the trees.
Adora jumped over a giant root blocking her way. She landed on her feet with assurance, feeling her leg muscles flex easily to give her a boost to run again. She had always loved feeling her strength. Her body never failed her. It was something she could trust at all times.
The shadow kept running in front of her. She had seen it earlier, creeping around Catra and Glimmer when they were busy talking in secret…
Adora had made a large detour to come around them. The creep had sensed her presence as soon as she'd set foot into the Whispering Woods, and ran off. They were fast, but it was nothing Adora couldn't handle. She would catch up with them, and force them to reveal their intentions.
Were they a spy from the Horde? Or an assassin? Were they trying to get to Catra or Glimmer?
Fear burrowed deep in Adora's chest, clinging to her furiously beating heart. She glanced down at her hand where she wore the sword as a ring. It was shining on her middle finger. Calling to her.
Overcoming her rampant fear, a more steady feeling was rising in her. A feeling of limitless power. She was strong. She wanted to help.
Adora bit her lip hard, until she felt the taste of blood on her tongue. She focused on the path, only thinking about the fugitive. Chasing her fears from her mind. It was nothing. She could do what she had to do. Find the creep, interrogate them. She didn't need her help.
The feeling of power faded.
She felt like she was catching up with the spy. She could hear them pant from afar. However she scrunched her nose when she realized she was coming closer to the Southerners' camp.
What the hell?
"Stop right there!"
Adora didn't think. She grabbed the ring, turned it back into her sword, and transformed into She-Ra.
"Fuck…" She cursed, clutching the handle. She hadn't even said the magic words this time. Her heart beat erratically in her chest. The power was strong. It was brilliant and amazing. It was appealing. She could dwell in this comfort.
"What do you think you're doing?"
She looked up.
That leader from the South, Huntara, was glaring at her, tapping her foot on the dirt. Behind her, a small lizard guy was peeking at her, fear in his eyes.
"Why are you chasing my messenger around? He's terrified now!"
Adora didn't understand. She couldn't process. She had to turn back into herself. Her head was throbbing as she had to focus.
"Hey, She-Ra… are you okay?"
Are you okay?
Does it matter to them if you are? Maybe it does. Maybe they just need you when you're strong. When you're She-Ra.
They don't really care about you. They only use you, Adora.
You have to look strong. Not for them. For your sake.
Don't show them how scared you are.
Adora cried out as she turned back into herself. She collapsed on the ground, breathing loudly. White spots blinded her vision and an awful whistle deafened her.
Shit, it was getting worse.
"Hey, hey! Princess, do you need us to call for help?"
"What?" Adora stood up groggily. Only then did she realize that Huntara was kneeling before her and patting her back. "No I'm… I'm fine. I'm sorry about the… I'm…"
"It's okay. Just don't scare us like that in the future, yeah?"
Adora nodded. She forgot to ask what the message was. She just left and threw up in the bushes.