Catra could remember when Adora was first brought to the Fright Zone, sort of. She remembered how pathetic she was, at least. She was tiny and fragile and furless, an orphan who only knew how to snarl and could barely fight, and young, so very young. They both were. The newcomer was more scared than angry, and hopelessly out of her depth at first, like all the foundlings who got tossed into the maw of the cadet program. The idea was to train out the instinct to freeze up in the face of danger, and quickly. Inculcate a sort of unthinking bravery, but Adora was really bad at it when she started. Catra kept her distance until the third night, until she could no longer stand the muffled hiccoughed weeping in the bunk beneath hers.
“Hey,” she whisper-hissed as she leaned over the bedrail, tactless and blunt as children are everywhere, “stop crying already. Crying doesn't help.” Her tail lashed. She was mad, and she was tired and sore because that dumb battle-robot had thrown her into the wall twice; she just wanted some peace and quiet already.
“I know,” Adora grumbled between hitched breaths. “But everyone yells at me here.”
“So stop being a stupid-head, and keep up,” retorted Catra. “Shut up and let me sleep.”
Adora kind of shut up, and Catra kind of got to sleep. It might have been the first time they ever said more than hello to each other, Catra wasn't sure.
It took maybe a tenday before the raw newbie terror finally rubbed off of Adora, and suddenly she was starting to fit in with the squad, and not fucking up on every single drill and costing them punishment laps. Catra breathed a small sigh of relief; it was good for the squad that Adora had learned how to toughen up. Still, the hopeless, furless disaster was Catra's bunkmate and Catra knew that bunkmates always looked out for each other, above and beyond what the squad did. That meant it was at least partly her responsibility to make sure Adora became a better cadet, as good as Catra herself was.
Gods, thought Catra, how was that even going to be possible?
They adjusted well to the promotion and the increased pace of learning, even though their advancement brought additional scrutiny from ShadowWeaver, who terrified them both. They had originally been taken into the Horde as wards of the sorceress, and Catra never knew when those smoke-dark eyes would turn toward her, and whether that rasp of a voice would offer honey or the sharpness of the lash. It seemed like she got far more than her fair share of harsh words, and Catra didn't know why, just that the injustice of it burned like a small coal deep in her gut.
Now the fighting took on additional, more serious dimensions; instead of consisting solely of drills to learn the movements and strengthen their bodies, cadets were sometimes allowed to fight one-on-one, and a certain amount of contact was allowed. Occasionally squads would face off in melee rounds, simulating combat, all screeching chaos and flying fists. Catra loved that. There was nothing quite as exciting as charging over your opponent to deliver a knockout blow, the shock of it traveling up the bones of your arm, the shiver of adrenaline that would flood your chest to bursting. Less exciting were the additional responsibilities that got heaped on the squad with every cycle. The chores of kitchen prep and cleaning the barracks and all sorts of other super-boring stuff now fell to them; everyone grumbled, and Catra avoided it as much as she could.
There was one battle-sim where Catra got injured, badly enough that she was excused her from her duties for about two tendays. That was good, but everything else about it sucked. Her arm was in a stupid cast in a stupid sling that the healer told her she absolutely couldn't take off, and doing anything became difficult. Worse, when the rest of the squad was at physical training, she was restricted to quarters, with orders to study. She did manage to catch up on some of her reading.
The squad came back one evening, late; they'd had the last rotation in the simulation room so it wasn't much longer until lights out. Everyone had cleaned up and changed, and the squad moved about the barracks chattering about the day. Kyle and Rogelio were excitedly trying to deconstruct a new move they’d seen one of the battle-robots execute, and thus find a way to defeat it. Adora tossed her towel in the hamper, her hair still a little damp from her shower. She finished brushing it out, and stowed all her gear, then stood by the side of their bunks, looking thoughtfully at Catra.
“What?” Catra demanded, grumpily.
“You look like crap,” said Adora, but not mean. “Where's your brush?”
Muttering under her breath, Catra awkwardly climbed down from her bed, and fetched the brush out of her locker. She knew that her grooming had been less than optimal lately, and she'd worried that she'd be getting demerits any day now, but she just hadn't been able to maintain herself very well with her arm immobilized.
“You're all … matted, in the back there,” Adora went on, waving her hand in a general sort of way. “Let me help you.”
“I kind of can't reach that one side,” said Catra. They were bunkmates, and friends, of course they'd done things for each other before, and brushed each other's hair before, but for Adora to be offering to do something that Catra couldn't do for herself now? Somehow that made it unbearably personal. Like it was something that couldn't be repaid, and thus … dangerous.
Adora held out her hand, politely demanding, until Catra handed the brush over. Then she just stood for so long, uncertain what to do next, that Adora started laughing that rolling laugh of hers, patting the foot of the bed. “Well, sit already,” she said.
Catra growled a little bit before she sat, tucking her legs under her and curling her tail around. Adora scootched in behind her, spun the brush in her hand, and started working on the mess that was Catra’s fur. She was gentle, and careful not to yank and tug, and had made real progress by the time the lights-out tone sounded, and the room fell to darkness. Catra started to get up, but Adora’s hand on her shoulder stopped her. Stay, she was saying wordlessly, so Catra relaxed and settled back down. Adora’s nimble fingers were feeling their way through Catra’s wild mane, clever in the way they unwound and smoothed away the tangles, the brush discarded by now. Catra found herself slumping backwards, drowsy and soothed by the feel of Adora’s hands running through her fur, and the warmth of their bodies as they leaned together.
A rasp drifted out of her throat, unbidden, and Catra realized she’d started purring. Jolting upright, she clapped her hands over her mouth, trying to stuff the noise back in.
“Ssh, stop it,” chuckled Adora in her ear, casually pulling her down again. “Besides, it’s kind of cute when you do that.”
Catra wasn't sure if she was pissed at Adora for being such a suckup, or what this unsettled feeling in the pit of her stomach was if it wasn't that, but she let Adora continue combing her fingers through her fur, and kept the rumbled sound from her chest as low as she could. She wasn’t going to fall asleep. She wasn’t. She would have sworn by all the gods high and low that she hadn't fallen asleep, but somehow she woke up in the middle of the night when Adora shifted positions, accidentally bashing her with her shin. “Rrrrww,” muttered Catra, her ears lifting. The muted clicking of the ventilation units, the subtle, almost-silent hum of the rest of the building - as near as she could tell, it was a couple of hours ‘til wake-up. The awareness came to her slowly, that she wasn't in her own bunk; she was nestled atop a warm heap of blankets on the foot of Adora's bed. Her entire body twitched with mild displeasure, thinking she probably ought to get up and move, and how much she really didn't want to.
“S'okay, you're fine,” came Adora's soft, sleepy voice, before she dropped back down to slumber again, quietly snoring. Catra settled, too, content to curl deeper into the comfort of the mussed-up bedclothes, feeling Adora's feet and ankles under all the blankets, pressing up against her like anchorpoints.
After that, Catra sometimes slept on the bottom of Adora's bunk. It wasn't every night, but it was more nights than not. They never really discussed it, and neither one of them seemed interested in putting a stop to it, so it just became a thing they did. No one else in the squad ever mentioned it, anyway.
“You can dust her, you know,” Catra observed. “You're just letting her win. Why?” To Catra it was the plainest thing in the world, that Adora was holding back whenever she squared off against Lonnie in sparring. She never pressed Lonnie hard, just stood there and absorbed whatever punishment came her way until she couldn't any more, and lost the match. Watching, Catra couldn't understand it, but then again, Adora did a lot of things that confused Catra.
Adora tilted her head, looking at Catra with a combination of puzzlement and outright dismissal. “Shut up,” she said, but without much force. “It's not like I let her win.”
“Yeah,” said Catra. “Except - you kind of do.” She didn't like the slump of Adora's shoulders, which looked like defeat. Whoo, that was all kinds of no good, and she needed to put a stop to it right away. Catra knew that a fighter who already played out losing in their mind was going to have a much harder time winning, and she didn't want her squad members to be in the habit of loss, any of them really but especially her bunkmate. “You can beat her, you just gotta get out of the freakin’ way first.”
Adora pressed her lips in a tight line, and furrowed her brows, a thing she did when she was thinking hard. Catra could see that she'd hit the mark. The moment stretched long, until Adora bit out a single word: “Explain.”
“Well,” said Catra, trying to figure how best to describe it. “Lonnie is strong, probably the strongest of all of us. She’s the battle-tank. And when you match up with her, you let her use her power.” She gestured with her hands: two rocks smashing together. “You stand in one place, or you only move forward or backward. You let her stay at arm's length and then she pummels you and then you lose.”
“So?” scoffed Adora. “I have to stay in and fight her, I can't just back up all the time.”
“So move forward,” said Catra. “And not in a straight line forward, move up and to the side. Take her power away, and strike as you move past. Here, let me show you.” She dropped into a fighting stance in front of Adora, and threw a couple of the quick jabs and looping roundhouses that Lonnie favored. “If she comes at you like this, you need to get to here,” she said as she grabbed Adora's belt and yanked her forward, until they were a half-step from being side-by-side. “There. You've cut off her attack, she can't strike until she resets her feet, and you've got so many targets available, you can strike multiple ways. Got it?”
Adora nodded, seeing the concept, but still voicing her doubts. “Yeah, but I need to be faster to pull it off.”
“Trust me,” rasped Catra, “you're plenty fast.” She thought of how she'd constantly teased Adora when they were just children, calling her a slowpoke all the time, but Adora had progressed far beyond her early days in the Fright Zone. She'd grown tall and lean, with long legs and supple strength that she wore well, and now her body was on the verge of adulthood and trained as all of theirs were, and a fair match to the good fighters like Lonnie. The last step was bringing her mind to the next level as well, for Adora to know she could do everything that Catra had said, and more. “Faster than Lonnie, anyway,” Catra went on. “I know you can run circles around her, you just need to try it.”
Adora was giving her a strange look, half curious and half something she couldn't quite name, and Catra realized that her eyes were ranging up and down Adora's torso, noting the curves and the swell of breasts that hadn't been there even half a cycle previously, as they still stood close to each other. The slow creep of embarrassment wound through her bones, but a slow, oddly different new warmth filled her as well. She hastily dropped her hand from Adora's belt. Her tail twitched, two short flicks, as she turned away and said roughly, “Or don't. But you'll keep losing if you just keep standing in front of her.”
Adora grunted her thanks, and the conversation ended there. But in their next few practice sessions, Catra could see how Adora was trying to adapt new footwork into her fighting stances, absorbing the concept and making it useful, repetition smoothing out the struggle until it was suddenly easy. And the next time Adora and Lonnie matched up in sparring, Adora neatly stepped up into Lonnie's opening attack, cutting off the circle and quickly raining scoring blows before Lonnie could react, and Catra cheered loudest of all.
After the matches, Adora was giddy with excitement when she came running up to Catra. “I did it!” she laughed. “You were completely right, it worked!”
“Told ya,” grinned Catra.
Adora threw her arms around Catra's neck and then, suddenly, her lips were on Catra's. The moment lasted barely any time at all; still, it burned its way deep into Catra's memory, sliding like fire through her veins, before Adora pulled away, both of them wide-eyed and breathlessly staring because of the wild, impulsive kiss. Adora broke first, shutting her eyes tight for a half-second before she turned away, rushing to join another laughing, celebrating group of friends and squadmates, while Catra stood dumbfounded, stunned to silence with her own brand of terrified elation.
It was somewhere around then, Catra thought, that she finally admitted to herself that yes, she had a big crush on Adora, even though she could not yet speak it. Gods help her.
They still did plenty of physical training, and learned advanced combat techniques. There were new classes, too, about strategy and tactics, how to fight with a group of soldiers, and all the things a leader needs to consider when in charge of a squad. Now, sometimes, their classes included actual Force Leaders. Catra was a little in awe of them, their shiny rank badges pinned to their uniforms. Surely, if she was allowed to study in the same classes they were in, Catra thought, it must mean she was on the right track.
The way ShadowWeaver constantly berated her, though, you'd think she was lower than poop on your shoe. It was kind of infuriating. Even though she was always one of the best fighters in the squad, fast and able to eliminate whatever opponent the simulation room conjured up for them, nothing she did was ever enough to please the sorceress. It ended up turning into a kind of a stubborn, twisted game. Catra found it satisfying, in an odd way, to hold back until the squad would start to struggle, then leap into the fray as the deciding factor. If the rescue was big enough, spectacular enough, surely ShadowWeaver would finally appreciate all she could do, would acknowledge her in front of the squad, or maybe even the entire company. But ShadowWeaver would never praise her as a hero; she'd snidely comment that Catra had been late (again or as usual, she would say in her oily voice) or even worse, praise Adora for holding the struggling team together instead of lauding Catra for saving them.
Sometimes Adora would find Catra curled on the bunk, seething with resentment. “Why do you let her get to you so much?” she would ask, and Catra had no good answer.
“She's always nice to you,” she'd snarl back, wondering if she should despise Adora because she was such a suckup, and was always on ShadowWeaver’s good side.
But she could never bring herself to hate Adora, not really. Adora, who always had a kind word for her, or cheered her accomplishments even when ShadowWeaver ignored them, or lifted her spirits when she felt low by sliding a companionable arm around her shoulders. Adora, who smiled so prettily and had a lovely musical laugh that made everyone around her happier. Adora, who had been her closest friend and bunkmate since they were just cubs. How could she possibly hate someone like that?
“Shut up,” said Catra. “You won fair and square. The deal was I would make your bed for a week.” She cringed that she'd lost the stupid card match, but Adora had gotten a lucky hand, and whatever. She wasn't about to welch on a bet.
But now Adora was just standing there, shoulders twitching, looking downright silly in Catra's opinion. She was obviously dying to say something, and Catra knew exactly what. It was kind of funny to watch her struggling not to. Tension ratcheted up and up, until…
“Just say it already,” Catra sighed, impatient.
“It's crooked,” Adora blurted out, predictably. “The blankets need to be even.”
“You and your stupid blankets,” Catra laughed, a merry cackle. “You worry way too much about them.”
Adora gestured, an expansive spread of her hands. “But, but, I mean, just look…” she started to sputter before Catra cut her off.
“It’s good enough to not get demerits, doofus.” She pirouetted in place, a quick spin to grasp Adora and throw her by the shoulders, and Adora was landing on the freshly-made bed with Catra landing on top of her. The weight of both their bodies pulled the blankets further askew.
“You wrecked it!” Adora yelped with a little oof of surprise, before she started laughing at the roughhousing as well. Catra wiggled, her tail switching back and forth and her ears pricking up, Adora halfway pinned under the weight of her body. The sheer unexpected delight of the physical closeness, feeling the strength of Adora's hips shifting under the frame of her thighs that bracketed them, drowned out the alarm bells that were going off in Catra’s mind, almost, and warmth raced through her belly. Indiscernibly, the smile faded away from Adora's face, replaced by a look of veiled intensity, her eyes glittering and her lips barely parted, as Catra's face hung close over hers. She gave a little sigh as she tipped her chin up, and her whole body seemed to suddenly subside and relax, as though all at once giving up trying to buck Catra off. “Um, yeah,” she breathed out.
Catra paused, wondering if she'd been holding her breath for a hundred cycles. A flash of nerves thrummed through her, a quick-breaking wave, and she gritted out the first thing that came across her mind, which was, “Sorry.” But she didn't move, not yet. They both held frozen, Catra feeling her blood thunder in her body and her brain rattle with this powerful thing she was learning to recognize as desire, until she thought every muscle was quivering just beyond her control. Maybe now was the time she had finally, finally gone too far, even as she had just begun to realize what it was she wanted. Because yes she wanted Adora, and what if Adora had figured it out and didn't want her in return but was too nice to tell her so? How would that humiliation feel? Gods, when did it get this complicated. After a silent moment that felt like ages, she shifted her weight, started to move to get up, but then Adora's hand was tangling into her ruff, fingers winding into the fur alongside her cheek.
“Wait,” Adora murmured, barely above a whisper.
“What,” Catra said in a low growl, “what are you …” and trailed off as further words refused to come. Uncertainty churned through her mind; she didn't know what was going to happen next and it made her want to run, made her want to scratch and flail and fight, made her want to wrestle Adora down and pin her to the mat and make her tap out.
“Stay.” Adora's voice was soft, less a command than a simple plea. “Don't go.”
Catra found herself mesmerized by the clear blue eyes gazing openly into hers, and the heat rising from Adora's skin. The need to rub her face into the lovely softness below her bunkmate’s jaw practically overwhelmed her, and Catra fought for control. “I, I …” she started, before she ground to a halt, unsure. She swallowed, and spoke roughly. “Listen. Don’t do anything you don’t want to.”
“I won't,” replied Adora, her voice still thready and hoarse, with what looked like the tiniest hint of a smile playing across her lips.
Later, Catra could never say for sure who had started the kiss. They were just kissing, a moment with no beginning point that had always existed in its own golden bubble, slow and a little shy at first, the shocking swell of emotion that swept through Catra making her feel like she would burst of it. Because Adora's lips brushing against hers, sliding as their exploration began to grow, was a thousand times sweeter than she had ever dreamed, and was also making her heart hammer and her blood hum in a way she had never imagined before. Warm fire circled inside her chest and squeezed her lungs so her breath came short and shuddery, and it flowed down her spine, making her tail twitch before it began looping in great languid arcs. Electric pleasure tingled all the way down to her toes as she felt Adora's tongue flit against her mouth, tracing curious outlines, the kiss gradually deepening. Adora's hands were reaching up to tangle into her fur, drawing her closer; Catra found her hands wrapping around the curves of Adora's waist, and she let out a little growling moan as she felt the sleek shifting motion of Adora's hips sliding and moving against hers. Everything in the world felt delicious.
They floated there, falling into the sweetness of a first real kiss that felt like it lasted forever, their bodies slowly starting to wind together, their hands tracing exploratory circuits over every swell and dip and curve. Shyness fell away as Catra cracked open her eyes and pulled slightly back, and found Adora smiling, so warm, happiness spilling off of her in waves. Catra couldn't help but smile back, bold and cocky, elation flooding through her at the wonderment of having finally taken this leap, and where it had landed them. She started a little rumbled purr, a pleased noise from deep in her chest. “Hey, Adora,” she murmured. “You feel so good.”
“You feel amazing,” replied Adora, her voice low and with a soft resonance Catra had never heard before today, as she was reaching and pulling the two of them close again.
They stayed like that for a very long time, making out on top of Adora's rumpled blankets, delighting in the simple pleasures of touch and the discovery of each other, until Catra's ears pricked up, swiveling. She halfway sat, and held up a finger in silent warning, as she listened. Adora couldn't hear anything yet, of course; she just looked at her questioningly. Catra nodded, whispering, “They're back.” She could hear the footsteps of some of the squad members, so familiar that she knew who was who by sound alone, returning from special detail. They both sat up and straightened out their clothes some, but didn't make any particular attempt to hide anything. Everyone would find out anyway, barrack gossip being what it was.
It was Lonnie who clocked them as she walked in; she took in the tableau and gave a quick little nod. It's cool as long as you're cool. That was the way it was in the Fright Zone. Relationships of any variety were okay, even subtly encouraged, as long as discord or drama stayed out of it. Rogelio and Kyle had long been a pair, and even Lonnie who fancied herself something of a player had made some especially close bonds with her ever-shifting circle of companions. Catra returned the nod, a tiny smile curling across her lips. Squad was okay. Everything was good.
Until that terrible day in the Whispering Woods, and Adora was kidnapped by those awful Princesses, and everything began to veer out of control.