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Unbroken

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Catra woke slowly.

 

Senses returned to her one by one, and the re-acquisition of each came with its own profound sense of regret. There was a coppery, unpleasant smell mixed with the wild scents of earth and sweat. Hearing—well, that wasn’t working too well. All she could hear was a distant ringing and the repeating echo of a deafening crack, trapped within her mind.

 

Pain, though, that was working just fine.

 

Each labored breath sent a fresh signal of discomfort racing through her body, from ribs that protested the motion of each breath, to the dull, thumping ache that pounded in her head, to the scrapes and bruises and cuts that seemed to cover every inch of her body. Her shoulder, though, that was the worst of it. It burned like fire, every beat of her heart sending a fresh wave of agony from limb to aching brain. Dimly, she recognized the feeling: dislocation, most likely.

 

Additional senses filtered in, and she processed something new: a limp, warm weight covering her uninjured side, pressing her further into the unforgiving ground. She tried to inhale and her damaged ribs fought against the pressure—something ground in her chest, and stars sparked in the blackness behind her eyelids. She lay still for a moment, twitched the fingers of her arm that lay trapped beneath the weight. Something warm and wet soaked into her sleeve.

 

Her eyes fluttered open briefly, then clamped shut again when afternoon light entered her head like a lance. Breathing was getting harder. Slowly, agonizingly, she managed to push the weight off of her by bracing her back against the ground and shoving with her good arm—the weight rolled off of her and to the side.

 

There was a brief, weak sound of pain that Catra was almost positive hadn’t come from her.

 


 

Kill She-Ra.

 

That was her objective. Her order. Her only escape route.

 

Catra unconsciously raised a hand to her throat, still raw from trying to draw breath in an atmosphere devoid of air, looking for mercy in eyes devoid of pity.

 

Kill She-Ra, and all would be forgiven.

 

If not… the beasts of the island were always hungry, it was said. Her claws might save her for an hour, a day, a week, but hunger—hunger always won.

 

Catra was done with losing.

 

Catra surveyed the cluttered battlefield, searching for her target. New weapons had been sent with her to this siege on one of the largest towns near Bright Moon—stronger tanks, stronger robots, stronger guns, and all of them trained on the rebellion’s golden warrior. If the rebels had gained a new heart, well then, the Horde would just have to cut it out.

 

There. In the distance, light glinted off the hilt of that ridiculous sword as she swung it down like an ax. The tank before her clove in two, green energy sparking off it as its weapons core was destroyed.

 

Catra closed the distance rapidly, jumping from one rocky outcropping to the next before gracefully somersaulting down to land on the wreckage of the tank. She-Ra was still there, leaning heavily on her sword, panting for breath. Her pristine uniform was muddied and torn, bloodied by thin gashes from shrapnel. Her eyes, when she raised them, were slightly unfocused.

 

This was going to be easier than she thought.

 

“Hey, Adora,” she said, tilting her head in a wide, empty smile.

 

“Catra.” She-Ra’s voice was resigned, exhausted. She heaved up her sword, squaring her shoulders into something that approximated a battle stance. “Let’s get this over with.”

 

Catra’s smile turned vicious, her claws swinging down as she leapt forward.

 


 

The need to see her surroundings outweighed the pain of opening her eyes, and Catra squinted against the brightness, rolling her aching head to the side. She blinked, trying to clear her fuzzy vision. Her surroundings were largely painted in dark greens and browns, interrupted by islands of bare, reddish-gray stone and flickering, golden places where light filtered through the canopy of trees overhead. The landscape at her side, however, was marred by something large, white, and gold. She-Ra. Anger burned hot and fast in her chest—then cooled, slightly.

 

White, gold… and red.

 

It wasn’t just that stupid red cape, Catra realized. That was there, albeit half-shredded from their long descent through the treetops. No, this was a darker, more alarming color, filling the hundred small cuts and slashes that must have come from their fall, dripping from claw marks that Catra recognized as her own, and oozing slowly from a slash in her side. It stained the front of She-Ra’s perfect white shirt in a growing blotch of uneven, dark, unforgiving red.

 

Catra stared, waiting for a triumphant sense of victory to kick in—or for She-Ra to start glowing, pop up from the ground, wave her ridiculous sword and spout off some drivel about how the Horde was evil and how Catra had to leave them, had to join her, always had, had, had.

 

To her surprise, neither of those things happened. She-Ra’s form did start to glow, but not its normal, ethereal, princess-y glow; this was all curling tendrils and jagged lines of magic that flickered and jumped in an unnervingly familiar fashion. Her giant form started to shrink, then stuttered violently, jumping between large and small before finally fading away. Adora was left stretched out on the ground beside her in the familiar reds and browns of her Horde clothing.

 

Catra sighed, then regretted it as her ribs sent a stabbing signal of protest. Slowly, moving her injured arm as little as possible, she pushed herself up to a sitting position—and paused, waiting for the world to stop spinning before attempting further motion. It was time for her to leave. Whatever happened to She-Ra, Adora always came out of it fine. Once the tall form vanished and Adora was left standing in her place, so did all the cuts, scratches, and bruises the warrior had suffered. Catra had seen it happen. It was a nice gig, she thought bitterly, spitting a mouthful of copper to the side.

 

She turned her head to the side, wondering absently why Adora hadn’t started her usual obnoxious monologue yet. Her brows lifted slightly in surprise. This time, Adora did not look fine.

 

In fact, she looked… pretty bad.

 

The cuts that she had seen on She-Ra’s form seemed to have transferred to Adora as well—slightly smaller, perhaps, but just as numerous. Her hair had come somewhat loose, covering part of her pale, unmoving face. Seeming to move of its own volition, Catra’s uninjured arm crossed the short distance between them and lifted the edge of Adora’s jacket, revealing a blotch of stark red on the white of her shirt; small, but steadily growing.

 

Huh.

 


 

Catra was right. This had been easy.

 

The fight barely lasted a minute. An initial flurry of attacks had driven Catra back in surprise until one foot scraped air, sending a pebble flying into the abyss of the gorge below—but that energy faded as quickly as it appeared.

 

“Aw, princess,” Catra mocked, scraping her claws alongside the wreckage of yet another tank. She-Ra had been busy in the hours before Catra’s arrival. Metal rasped and tore under her fingers as she advanced with measured, confident steps. “Getting sleepy?”

 

Glowing blue eyes narrowed at her, but She-Ra couldn’t disguise the way her arms trembled as she held the sword before her, or the way she kept shaking her head and blinking.

 

“Shut up.”

 

That ridiculously huge form was slow at the best of times, but now her attacks were lethargic, uncoordinated. Pathetic.

 

In the blink of an eye, Catra’s claws were at She-Ra’s throat. Something pricked at her side, and she looked down to see the point of the sword pressed against her stomach. She snarled in grudging respect, then pain as She-Ra’s shaking muscles gave way and the sharp point of the sword wobbled, carving a short line through her shirt and into her skin.

 

“Nice move,” she hissed, leaning in, heedless of how it dug the sword into her side. She-Ra, fool that she was, pulled back slightly to keep the sword from cutting too deep. “But you still don’t have the guts.”

 

The sword dropped away and down, its point carving into the stone at She-Ra’s side. Blue eyes stared into her own, beyond anger, beyond exhaustion, until all that was left was a resigned sadness.

 

“Do you?”

 

She snarled again, tightening her grip until four pinpricks of red appeared on She-Ra’s neck. Of course she did. She’d won. One twist, one slash, even a simple tightening of her grip was all she needed to solidify her victory.

 

So why couldn’t she do it?

 

It should be easy, her mind screamed at her. Her life or yours, and she left you left you left you —

 

She needed this. She needed to prove herself to Hordak. She needed to show Shadow Weaver how wrong she had been, how she should have been favored instead of Adora, who turned her back on everyone she had ever known in the first chance she got. Catra needed this, she needed victory, success, safety; she needed—images flashed through her mind, the sound of her own, genuine laughter (almost foreign to her ears), flashes of blonde hair and a gap-toothed smile and a feeling, so old she’d almost forgotten it, of happiness—

 

Ever so slightly, her grip loosened. She needed…

 

A whistling split the air, then a deafening BOOM from the wreckage of the tank behind them. Heat and shrapnel flew past them, the force of the explosion flinging them away from each other as the twisted hunk of metal tilted backward on the edge of the canyon before falling down, down, crashing and crunching through trees and stone until grinding to a distant halt.

 

Catra’s head whipped toward the Horde tank that fired the projectile and jumped to her feet, enraged.

 

“What was that ?” She screamed, gesturing backward as though expecting the occupants of the vehicle to hear her despite the intervening distance. “You could’ve hit me!”

 

“That,” came a weak voice from behind her, and she spun to see She-Ra, hunched over with one hand clutched to her side. Red was beginning to seep through her fingers, and she panted for breath. “Not an accident.”

 

Catra glared. “Just what are you implying?” 

 

She-Ra gasped and winced, then opened her mouth to speak.

 

In the next moment, Catra’s world exploded.

 

A distant, now-familiar whistling noise. She-Ra snatching her sword from the ground and sprinting toward Catra, slamming into her with a vice-like embrace even as the sword began to glow and shift its form into a shield. Before it could finish, a thunderous, earsplitting crack. An impact hard enough that all the air left her body. Then they were falling, falling, falling—sharp things whipped and bit at the exposed parts of her skin—another impact.

 

Then: nothing.

 


 

Catra rubbed her aching head with one hand. Things had seemed so clear-cut this morning. Join the battle. Get rid of She-Ra. Return in glory to the Horde, and the respect she deserved. If her mind slid from the details of the second point in that list every time she thought about it, well, it didn’t matter.

 

Instead, now she was at the bottom of a tree-filled canyon after being fired on by her own forces, twice, sitting next to a target who was—Catra slid her eyes to the side to check—still breathing.

 

She didn’t know what was worse: the fact that she failed yet again, or the dim sense of relief that she had.

 

Fire raced through her shoulder, and she bit the inside of her cheek to keep from crying out. Okay then, no more putting it off. She took a deep breath to steel herself, then managed to raise her arm a few inches before it started to shake. She grabbed her wrist with her uninjured hand to steady it. This was going to suck.

 

Moving slowly, she guided her arm up until her elbow was pointed to the sky. Her breath was coming in unsteady huffs now, a scream slowly building in the back of her throat. Almost there. Slowly, too slowly, her shaking hand stretched behind her neck toward her opposite shoulder… she bit her tongue, tasting blood, but the scream escaped anyway.

 

There was a distant fluttering of wings as birds flew from the treetops, but the only sound that mattered to her was the pop as her shoulder slid back into place. Relief was almost instantaneous, blinding pain giving way to a stiff, throbbing ache. She fell back into the grass, panting, her opposite hand clutching her shoulder.

 

Her head turned to the side again. Despite Catra’s scream, Adora hadn’t so much as twitched. It would be easy to leave her like this, something in Catra said. She would accomplish what Hordak had sent her to do, and she could assuage what was left of her conscience with the knowledge that it wasn’t really her fault. After all, it was the tank that knocked them down here.

 

Memory of the incident flashed before her eyes. How Adora tackled her just before the explosion hit. How the tank… the tank had been aiming for her.

 

Whatever. It was probably just really bad aim. Maybe Kyle was the gunner.

 

She could still do it. She could get up, find her way out of this pit. Leave Adora where she lay. After all, Adora left her. She’d just be returning the favor.

 

Her mind was made up. She pushed carefully to her feet, stumbled a moment before steadying herself. The walls of the canyon were so steep that even she would have trouble climbing them, and with her shoulder the way it was… well, looked like this was going to be a long walk. She picked a direction that seemed to have a slight uphill slant and started walking.

 

She made it about two steps before dropping her head and heaving a long-suffering sigh.

 

Adora, unsurprisingly, had not moved. Catra dropped to her knees beside her, ignoring the jolt of pain that shot through her mistreated shoulder at the motion.

 

“Hey.” She slapped Adora’s cheek gently. “Hey, Adora.” She slapped again, harder. “Wake up.”

 

Adora’s eyelids twitched, and the hint of a crease formed between her brows. A low sound, like a whine of pain, escaped her throat—almost too quiet for even Catra’s ears.

 

Against her will, something cold formed in Catra’s stomach. In all their time together, all the years of grueling training and sickness and injury, she’d never heard a sound like that from Adora. She realized, to her distant annoyance, that she didn’t like it.

 

The light shifted and something caught her eye, glinting from where it lay half-buried in the grass. That stupid sword, Catra thought. After that fall, they were lucky it hadn’t ended up half-buried in one of them. Catra reached for it, but pulled back as if shocked as soon as her fingers touched the cool metal. She’d held it before, but this was different—it faintly buzzed with magic, now; an erratic, pulsing vibration.

 

Something wasn’t right.

 

She reached for it again, ignoring the unpleasant feeling as she grasped the hilt and pulled it closer, flipping the sword over as she did so.

 

Oh.

 

There, amid the shining silver and polished gold of the hilt, lay the brilliant, sky-blue runestone that gave She-Ra her powers.

 

And it was almost cracked in two.

 

Well, Catra thought, eloquently.

 

Shit.

Chapter Text

It took two hours, one roll of makeshift bandages, and the last of Catra’s patience before Adora finally woke.

 

After Catra realized that she apparently couldn’t leave Adora behind, however much her mind screamed that she should, she was left with two options: one, sit there and watch Adora die; or two, try to figure out some way to bandage her wounds. There wasn’t much point to it, she told herself. After all, was the main issue her injuries, or the jarring split in that stupid runestone? If it was the latter, it made no difference whether she bothered to stop Adora from bleeding all over the canyon floor—she still might never wake up.

 

The cold thing in Catra’s stomach chilled slightly.

 

It took some careful maneuvering around Adora’s injuries and her own bad shoulder, but she managed to pull Adora’s arms free of the sleeves of her jacket. Adora was not making a convincing argument for her own survival, remaining a limp and silent weight throughout the whole process. Catra was starting to breathe heavily from the effort of moving her dead weight by the time she finally worked the jacket out from under Adora’s shoulders. She pressed one hand to her aching ribs, a ripple of pain passing through her shoulder. That fall had taken a lot out of her.

 

She held up the red Horde jacket, then looked down at Adora’s unmoving form.

 

“If you don’t want me to tear this to shreds, now’s the time to say something.”

 

Adora, unsurprisingly, was silent.

 

Catra shrugged with one shoulder. Good. She had no idea why Adora had insisted on wearing this jacket so long anyway—it belonged to the Horde, and she didn’t. Not anymore.

 

It was a frustrating process to shred the jacket into long strips. Catra’s claws were meant to puncture and tear, not cut evenly through dense fabric. Eventually, though, she was left with a pile of something that resembled bandages, and a distant sense of vindication.

 

“You wouldn’t be in this mess if it wasn’t for your massive, stupid hero complex, you know,” she said conversationally as she looked up and down Adora’s body to assess her visible injuries. Multiple small cuts; nothing to be done about them now.

 

“’Look at me,’” she mocked, “I’m the mighty She-Ra."  Three familiar, jagged cuts that traced across Adora’s forearm and slowly oozed lines of blood into her sleeve. Those would have to be wrapped.

 

“’I can catch tank shells in my teeth and still come out of it sparkling,’” she continued. Adora’s side, covered in a rapidly growing stain of red. Clearly, something had cut deep, but the wound was hidden by a shirt that remained wholly intact. Apparently clothes had not factored in when She-Ra’s wounds were somehow transferred to Adora.

 

Magic was weird.

 

“Not everyone needs to be saved all the time, moron,” she finished. Except… if the tank had been aiming for Catra… well. There wouldn’t have been anything left of her to patch up, if it hadn’t been for a stupid, glowing idiot and her even stupider, glowing sword.

 

She pulled up the bottom of Adora’s shirt with more force than strictly necessary and surveyed the wound. A small, jagged shard of metal from a very exploded tank had embedded itself in Adora’s abdomen. Part of the shard poked above the skin, blood pooling around it and dripping in a sluggish but steady trickle down Adora’s now-exposed skin and into the grass below. Despite her anger, Catra winced.

 

“I should just leave that there, you know,” she deadpanned to Adora’s still form. “Maybe you’d finally learn something.”

 

Ha. Adora, learn something? Unless it came out of a training manual or tactical plan, not likely. Adora would be an obnoxious, self-sacrificing idiot until the day she died.

 

Catra released her hold on the shirt, and it accidentally snapped down near the wound. Adora’s unsteady breath caught in her throat before evening out again.

 

Which might be today, if Catra didn’t do something.

 

Ugh.

 

Delaying the inevitable, Catra used one claw to cut off the soaked length of Adora’s sleeve that covered the marks Catra scratched into her arm when she was in She-Ra’s form. She bound the wounds with a length of jacket-bandage and tied it off tightly, a motion rewarded with a spasm of the muscles in Adora’s arm and a slight whimper. She looked up to see Adora’s brows pinched together. Now she was deciding to wake up? Wonderful. Fantastic timing.

 

Reluctantly, her eyes slid down to what she had been avoiding: the growing stain at Adora’s side. The trickle of blood had not slowed, issuing forth from the small pool around the wound that pulsed in tandem with Adora’s heartbeat. One of Catra’s ears flicked toward her. The steady, rhythmic sound that had lulled her to sleep in the Fright Zone now came too weak, each beat too far apart.

 

Catra put two fingers near the wound and pulled slightly, more blood rushing in to fill the gap she created. Adora made a quiet sound and rolled her head to one side. The wound was relatively small, but it appeared to go deeper than she had hoped.

 

For someone who had been ready to kill She-Ra just a few hours ago, she really was not looking forward to this.

 

The claws of her thumb and forefinger hovered over the wound, a hairsbreadth away from touching the exposed corner of metal.

 

“I hope this hurts,” she hissed, willing her fingers to stop trembling.

 

Catra took a deep breath and committed, grasping the shard and starting to pull. She resisted the urge to yank it free in one swift motion—that would get it over with quickly, sure, but create even more damage in the process. Adora moaned softly, face twisted in pain, before rolling her head to the side and back again. Her eyelids fluttered and one arm twitched toward her side.

 

Absurdly, Catra felt a growing urge to apologize. She stifled it and concentrated. Almost… there. The muscles in Adora’s abdomen tensed, almost arching her back off the ground as the bloodied shard finally came free. Catra tossed it into the woods. What was once a steady trickle was now a free flowing stream of red, and Catra snatched up a wad of makeshift bandages and shoved it into the wound, pressing down hard. Adora gasped, eyes flying fully open. Her unfocused gaze landed on Catra and she cried out again, managing to raise one arm enough to thrash weakly at her.

 

“Hey—stop it,” Catra bit out. Both of her hands were occupied trying to prevent Adora from, you know, bleeding out all over the ground, but Adora didn’t seem to care about that. She writhed weakly on the ground, trying to push her away. “Cut it out,” Catra repeated. All this movement wasn’t going to do anything except worsen Adora’s injury, and Catra wasn’t about to have her time wasted.

 

“I’m trying to help you, you idiot!” She finally yelled.

 

Adora’s arm dropped limply, her hand managing to close on Catra’s wrist as her elbow hit the ground. Her unfocused eyes found Catra’s and cleared for a brief moment.


“Catra?” she whispered. The hand on Catra’s wrist tightened, and she felt a ripple of unwelcome concern at the weakness of the grip. Then, as if confused, repeating Catra’s words in a tone that made her unsure if it was a question or a plea: “Help.”

Chapter Text

 “Glimmer.”

 

Glimmer staunchly ignored the call, marching determinedly forward.

 

Glimmer.” Bow ran a step forward and caught her arm. She whirled on him angrily.

 

“I know what you’re going to say, Bow, and I don’t want to hear it.”

 

“Glimmer, please...” Bow sighed, pinching his brow. “I’m just as worried as you, but we have to go back. You need to recharge.”

 

She yanked her arm from Bow’s grasp. “No.” Her arm shook, and she grasped it with her other hand to still it. It didn’t work very well, since her hand was shaking too.

 

“No,” she repeated. “That soldier said he saw Adora fighting someone right on the edge of the canyon before she disappeared, and if—if she was fighting Catra and they fell down there, we have to find her now—”

 

“We don’t even know if it was her!” Bow protested weakly. 

 

“Look around you!” she gestured wildly to the ground in front of them, littered with claw marks, clean-cut gouges into the rock that could have only come from Adora’s sword, and two deep craters from explosions. “Look at that !” she thrust an arm toward the canyon below, where something large and heavy had carved a path of destruction into the forest. Its final resting place was hidden by the dense canopy, but stark fissures in the earth and a trail of broken trees showed its path. “She’s down there, Bow. We have to get her.”



“Okay. Okay,” Bow interrupted. She could tell he was trying to sound logical, but stress bled into his voice. “I want to find Adora just as badly as you, but what will you do if she’s down there? The walls are way too steep to climb, the only safe access point is half an hour away, and if you teleported down, you wouldn’t even be able to walk— which means you wouldn’t be able to find her, you wouldn’t be able to teleport yourself back out, and you definitely wouldn’t be able to teleport her, too.”

 

Glimmer ground her teeth. Swift Wind. Why had that stupid flying horse chosen now of all times to be away on another one of his “liberation missions”? Adora was supposed to be able to call him back when he was needed, but if she couldn’t… 

 

“I don’t care.” Her eyes were starting to fill, and she angrily blinked the moisture away. “I have to do something.”

 

“We are doing something,” Bow insisted, gently. He laid a comforting hand on Glimmer’s shoulder, and this time she didn’t pull away. “We’ll send anyone we can spare down to the canyon to check for her, and then we’ll come back the second you’ve recharged. We might even make it down there before they do!”

 

Glimmer opened her mouth to speak, closed it, then gave a look over her shoulder at the canyon before slumping her shoulders in defeat.

 

“Fine,” she said, finally, voice trembling as she stared at the ground.

 

Bow’s arms wrapped around her and she clung to him in response, feeling her tears soak a damp patch into the fabric of his shirt.

 

“We’ll find her,” he reassured, gently. “I promise.”

 


 

 

 Adora was 87.6% sure she wasn’t dead.

 

The point-six percent was very important. She wasn’t quite sure how, it just was.

 

A few things factored into her calculation: one, everything hurt. Everything hurt a lot. If this was what being dead was like, she really, really hoped it would hurt a lot less.

 

Two, she was almost certain she had seen Catra at some point, and Catra was not dead. Adora had made absolutely certain that if it was the last thing she did, Catra would not be dead.

 

The final, most significant reason for her not being dead was that someone…. some thing was telling her she wasn’t. It felt vaguely like her connection with the sword, that strange feeling that had pulled her from her bed in the Fright Zone and into the Whispering Woods so long ago, but now it was… twisted, somehow. Slipping away from her, blurry. It buzzed with a strange energy, pulsing with an uneven vibration that shouted wrong, wrong, wrong.

 

And it hurt. More than the wounds and bruises she could distantly feel, this cracked, wrong energy flooded her body and pulsed with a staticy, unrelenting pain that refused to fade, muddling her mind. Still, it managed to communicate one, simple message: she wasn’t dead.

 

Not yet.

 


 

Adora floated for a while, hovering near the edge of reality but not quite surfacing, until eventually her senses managed to process movement. Her movement. There was a familiar, wiry arm wrapped around her back, supporting her, and—she blinked, trying to clear fuzzy vision—a… thing… coming toward her. She blinked again. A canteen?

 

“Catra?” She croaked.

 

“Oh,” came Catra’s voice, utterly flat. “Awake this time?”

 

Her eyes roamed their surroundings—trees, rocks, more trees, more rocks—then landed back on the canteen, and finally back on Catra.

 

“Where did you get…?”

 

“Tank,” Catra answered, shortly.

 

Adora raised an inquiring eyebrow—or tried to. Her muscles weren’t responding quite the way she intended, but Catra sighed and lowered the canteen anyway.

 

“We’re at the bottom of a canyon,” she explained, annoyance coloring every word. “The second shot knocked us down here. The first one hit a wrecked tank. Part of it ended up there,” Catra jabbed a finger toward the searing pain in Adora’s abdomen, “and the rest of it ended up about fifteen minutes that way.” Catra glanced down at the canteen and a small, Horde-issue canvas bag that lay off to the side. “I managed to pull some supplies out of it.”

 

Adora’s eyes wandered in the direction that Catra had pointed, noting the trail of broken trees, cracked rock, and deep gouges cut into the earth. Huh. Must’ve been a strong blast to knock something that heavy down here.

 

A thunderous crack resounded in her mind and spread through her body, so sudden, so wrong that even the bone-shattering impact that followed seemed insignificant by comparison. She shuddered. Her sword… 

 

She tried to sit fully upright, then fell back with a cry at the sharp, blinding pain in her side. 

 

“Idiot!” Catra hissed, dropping the canteen for a moment so she could use her free hand to tighten the bandage. “Don’t move.

Adora swallowed a whimper at the motion. Pathetic, some distant part of her thought.

 

“Sword?” she managed, dreading the answer. Catra’s eyes flicked to the side, and Adora’s gaze followed. She almost didn’t have to see it to know, but confirmation came with a flood of panic. The sword lay in the grass, shining in the afternoon light, and the runestone… the runestone was thoroughly, unmistakably, irreparably cracked.

 

No sword.

 

No She-Ra.

 

The rebellion would fall, the Horde would win, all of Etheria would be lost, and it would be her fault

 

The arm tightened around her back, and a familiar, impatient voice brought her back to the present. “Drink.” The canteen pressed to her lips.

 

Adora made a face as water trickled into her mouth—it was warm, and tasted like dirt, steel, and blood. The last part came probably came from her.

 

She managed to gasp out something that sounded vaguely like “thanks” when Catra finally pulled the canteen away. Catra grunted in acknowledgment, then tilted what was left of the contents into her own mouth.

 

“Shouldn’t… have saved that?” Adora asked weakly, but Catra just shrugged.

 

“Doesn’t really matter if we die of dehydration now or later.”

 

Catra .”

 

Things were getting blurry, but she was pretty sure Catra rolled her eyes, “Relax. I think I heard a stream out there somewhere.”

 

Oh. Good. They’d have to find it… later.

 

Things were definitely getting blurry now; dark, too.

 

Catra’s eyes were on her now, and she dimly registered concern. Her mouth was moving, but she couldn’t hear it. Couldn’t answer.

 

She gave in and closed her eyes.

  


 

 

The next time Adora woke, the day’s moon had moved noticeably lower in the sky, and she felt… better.

 

Well, about as “better” as she could feel with a bleeding hole in her side, more cuts and scrapes than she could count, what felt like at least a couple of cracked ribs and a magical headache the size of—

 

Correction: She no longer felt like she was about to die.

 

The fuzzy, pulsing feeling from her magical connection with the sword seemed to have faded somewhat. Whether that was a good thing or a bad thing remained to be seen, but for now, it meant that her head had cleared and some of the strange, debilitating pain that came after the runestone cracked had faded with it.

 

One hand inched toward the hilt of the sword, curious if physical contact would do anything to restore the connection, but she thought better of it. As much as she wanted—needed —to see if her connection to She-Ra could be restored, her body needed a reprieve from whatever happened to the sword’s magic.

 

Her hand closed on a small pebble instead, and she launched it toward where Catra sat a short distance away, head propped on her hand and elbow resting on her knee, eyes apparently closed.

 

Her shaky aim and weak arm meant the pebble skittered across the ground in front of Catra instead of actually hitting her, but her eyes flew open at the sound. They shot toward the pebble, then Adora, one eyebrow arched.

 

“Did you just… throw a rock at me?” she asked, incredulous.

 

“Wh—” the word caught in Adora’s dry throat, and she coughed. A wave of intense regret shot through her as the pain in her side multiplied. Something warm trickled down away from the bandage and she pressed her hand to her side, wincing.

 

“What does it look like?” she finished, voice far weaker than she would have preferred.

 

Adora’s eyes found Catra again just in time to see a faint look of concern fade into annoyance. “It looks like there’s an idiot trying to make sure she bleeds to death by offending the only other person in this pit,” Catra replied.

 

“It’s a canyon.”

 

“What?”

 

“It’s a canyon, not a pit.”

 

“Oh, thank you, Adora, I truly had no idea.”

 

“Maybe you should’ve actually paid attention during tactical geography.”

 

The corner of Catra’s mouth curled in a faint grin. “Please. If I wanted to gain a better understanding of rocks, all I’d have to do is examine your head.” She picked up the pebble and launched it back, but it sailed harmlessly overhead to land in the grass near Adora's shoulder.

 

Adora’s hand closed on another pebble, and she managed to bounce this one off of Catra’s shoulder. Catra flinched and hissed.

 

“Would you cut that out?”

 

Okay, there was no way that her pathetically weak throw possibly could have hurt enough for Catra to react. Unless… 

 

“What did you do to your shoulder?” Adora asked.

 

Catra scoffed. “What did I do? More like what did you do.”

 

Adora’s brow creased. “What?”

 

“A tank landed on it,” she explained, mockingly. “Except this one was wearing a cape and a tiara.”

 

Annoyance flared in Adora’s chest. “Oh, well excuse me if saving your life made your shoulder hurt a little bit.”

 

A wave of incredulity crossed Catra’s face, and she laughed aloud. Adora didn’t like the sound. “You saved my life? Why do you think you’re still breathing right now, princess?”

 

“You did try to kill me right before that.”

 

Catra huffed, rolling her eyes and turning away. “Yeah, and I’m starting to think I had the right idea.”

 

Another pebble flew through the air. This one bounced off Catra’s thick mane of hair and landed in the dirt, and Catra whirled, slamming one hand into the ground.

 

“Would you quit it!”

 

“No,” Adora said, helpfully. “Not until you help me up.”

 

“Help you—you gotta be kidding me.”

 

“No.” 

 

“In case it’s escaped your notice, Adora, there’s a hole in your side.”

 

Adora nodded, staring as though she’d said something incredibly stupid. “Um, yes. That’s why I need help getting up.”

 

Catra brought up a hand to her brow and closed her eyes. “Why are you trying to get up at all?”

 

Adora continued to stare. “... so we can get to Bright Moon and fix… this.” Adora made an all-encompassing gesture to her bandaged side and the damaged sword. She looked up at the late afternoon sky. “It’s not getting any earlier.”

 

“Yes, and you’re not getting any more capable of standing in the next five minutes.”

 

“Fine,” Adora huffed. “I’ll get up myself.” She drew her arms up and pushed her palms to the ground in preparation to rise, but Catra’s firm hand on her shoulder effectively pinned her to the earth.

 

“I’m pretty sure the person who has been conscious for most of the past three hours and is also not bleeding all over should be the one making decisions,” she said, staring at Adora through narrowed eyes. Her tail lashed impatiently behind her.

 

Adora sighed—shallowly. Taking deep breaths did not feel good at the moment. “Fine,” she said, raising her hands slightly in a show of defeat. “You win. We’ll just sit here, and I can bleed all over this particular patch of grass instead of the other perfectly good grass that’s on the way, you know, out of this pit.”

 

“Canyon,” Catra corrected. 

 

Canyon,” Adora seethed.

 

The corner of Catra’s mouth twitched slightly.

 

“That needs re-wrapping anyway,” she said, turning away and reaching into the canvas bag. “If you’re still awake after, then maybe—”

 

Adora wasn’t listening. As soon as Catra turned her back, she started to push herself up off the ground, trembling with the effort—but the moment her stomach muscles tensed, the blinding pain returned and she fell back, gasping. Strong arms caught her just before she hit the ground, then one yanked back as Catra swore loudly. 

 

She could feel more warmth flowing away from the wound. Catra was leaning over her, one hand shoving Adora’s shoulder back into the ground and her other arm clutched across her own chest. 

 

“I told you not to move!”

 

Adora waited until her vision cleared and her breathing evened out. 

 

“How…” she took a breath, “How bad is your shoulder?”

 

Catra glared, releasing her grip on Adora and slowly forcing her arm back down to her side. Her face was pulled taut in an expression of suppressed pain that Adora had seen many times over the years.

 

“It’s fine.”

 

“Right.” Adora narrowed her eyes. “Who’s the idiot now?”

 

“The one who tried to sit up, on her own, with a hole in her side,” Catra supplied, exasperated. 

 

“I did ask for help.” Adora glanced to Catra’s shoulder. “Although maybe I shouldn’t have.”

 

Catra’s tail lashed behind her again, and there was a low sound in her throat. “Don’t.”

 

“Don’t what?” Adora asked, confused.

 

“Don’t do that. I can take care of myself. I can more than take care of myself. I don’t need you sitting there—laying there, completely useless, acting like you need to protect me. ” 

 

“I’m not—”

 

Catra broke away with a short huff of empty laughter. “Save it, Adora.” She pushed to her feet, snatching up the canteen from the ground before turning to walk away. “It’s not worth either of our time.”

 

Before Adora could say anything else, she faded into the trees.

 

Adora screwed her eyes shut and lifted her head off the ground just enough to slam it back down in frustration, stars sparking across her vision as her headache grew a couple levels in intensity.

 

“Well,” she said to herself, scraping her fingers through the dirt and throwing a rock as hard as she could into the woods. It landed about five feet away, and her side twinged painfully at the effort.

 

“That went great.

 


 

 

by stealthyburrito

bonus:

by stealthyburrito

Chapter Text

Amid the many tanks, robots, and armored vehicles retreating back to the Fright Zone, one stood out: larger, more heavily armored, more powerful. The heavy, thick-plated trailer pulled behind it stood out even more. It jerked from side to side with an occasional metallic bang that had nothing to do with the uneven terrain, and emanated occasional low, reverberating sounds that had nothing to do with the Horde engines that strained to pull its weight. The carrier moved, constantly, against the motion of the rocks that jostled its wheels. Like something was inside of it. Something alive. 

 

Something angry.

 

Octavia stood confidently in the center of the vehicle pulling the carrier, tentacles curled around thick metal bars that braced the interior to hold her steady against the violent jostling of the vehicle as it rumbled along its path. It was an intimidating sight, heightened by her perpetual scowl and the unnatural tint of her one opaque eye, split down the middle by a white line of scar tissue.

 

In a way, it was that scar that brought her here. The loss of vision in her eye made her a liability in combat. She was allowed to keep her title of Force Captain, but with the opportunity to prove herself in combat gone, the rank was empty. Meaningless.

 

“I have created a new title for you, Octavia,” Shadow Weaver said, as though imparting a royal gift. “You will be the Horde’s Beast-master.” Octavia stood at attention before her, damaged eye still bandaged. “Training these creatures was one of my personal projects, but defects in the raw material have left results… lacking,” Shadow Weaver continued. “I have moved on to more promising endeavors.” A screen flickered on to show three enormous beasts straining against their chains, slavering as they threw themselves against the thick bars of their cages. “It is now your responsibility to turn them into an asset for the Horde.”

 

Octavia stared, slack-jawed. “But—ma’am,” she protested, “I have no experience with—”

 

“You question my decision?” Shadows grew in the room, swallowing the weak green light and thickening the air.

 

“N-no,” Octavia choked out. It was a lesson learned early on in the Horde: You don’t contradict Shadow Weaver, or if you do, you do so exactly once. Octavia had scoffed at the notion, years ago. Bowing to a skinny sorceress from Mystacor? Not likely.

 

She’d changed her mind.

 

The shadows receded.

 

“This will be good for you,” Shadow Weaver crooned. The white slits of her eyes turned to the bandage covering Octavia’s damaged eye, and cruel amusement dripped from her tone. “After all, it is clear you require more practice with handling wild beasts.”

 

Octavia’s nails dug into her palms until they drew blue-black blood, and she bowed her head to hide her grimace of rage.

 

“Yes, Shadow Weaver.”

 

The beasts, unsurprisingly, proved thoroughly untamable. Wild and violent, the shock of an enhanced stun baton was just as likely to prod them in the desired direction as throw them into a blind rage, using razor-sharp teeth to sever and swallow both baton and the arm wielding it. At times, Octavia caught glimpses of strange scars arcing like lighting underneath matted fur. If the slightest chance of taming these beasts ever existed, it had been lost after whatever Shadow Weaver did to them.

 

Octavia would have been lost, too, had she not managed to come up with a plan to salvage her failure. Too savage to deploy in battle without risking their own forces, the beasts were perfect for another use: terror. They could be unleashed on villages, cities that the Horde wished to destroy without wasting a single soldier. Devices already implanted in the beasts’ brains for “training purposes” were repurposed to shock them into unconsciousness after each rampage, allowing easy recapture.

 

It worked well. Horrifyingly well. The title of “Beast-master,” once only spoken in derision, slowly began to take on a tone of respect within the Horde.

 

Today, however, at a city near Bright Moon defended by a large, glowing, and exceedingly troublesome princess, the plan had failed.

 

“We were forced to retreat, Lord Hordak,” Octavia reported to a small viewscreen within the armored vehicle. “Our carriers were unable to breach the city. The beasts were not deployed.”

 

The flickering screen showed Hordak’s red eyes narrowing. “And She-Ra?”

 

“Catra,” Octavia spat the name, “betrayed the Horde. She had She-Ra in her grasp, yet failed to make the killing strike. One of our own tanks was forced to fire on her to finish the job.”

 

“And?” Hordak’s lack of reaction to Catra’s betrayal took Octavia by surprise, and she fumbled for a moment.

 

“The blast knocked both of them into a canyon, my lord, it seems unlikely that either of them would have survived such a—”

 

Unlikely,” Hordak hissed. “I do not deal in uncertainties, Force Captain. I require confirmation.”

 

“Yes, my lord.”

 

There was silence for a moment. “Release your beasts into the canyon. Verify for yourself that She-Ra is dead. Then, and only then, you may return.”

 

Octavia ground her teeth. Unable to return to the Fright Zone until She-Ra was dead? How had Catra’s failure become her punishment? She seethed, tamping down the fires of her rage and bowing to the flickering viewscreen.

 

“It will be done.”

 


  

Catra took a deep breath as she plunged the uncapped canteen into the stream, trying to force her anger down from “fuming” to “mild simmer.”

 

Of course Adora would try to get up as soon as she could keep her eyes open for more than a minute. Of course she would try to take charge, even when she could hardly move. Of course she would barely even acknowledge that Catra saved her life. Of course.

 

That last thought trickled through her mind as the stream flowed across her fingers, half-dried blood coloring the water a muddy red as it trailed away.

 

Catra saved her life.

 

Why did she do that?

 

Why was she still doing it?

 

It wasn’t the easy choice. The easy choice would be to leave her. Let her die. (She still would, if Catra never came back. They had both seen wounds like that before, but when it came to her own injuries, Adora always seemed to filter things through a dense cloud of denial.)

 

It wasn’t just one choice, either. Every moment Catra stayed in the canyon was another decision against what made sense— but she kept making the same choice, over and over, even though her head ached and stomach churned with it. She should leave. Leave, like Adora left her. But every time she thought about turning around and walking out, alone, her feet turned to lead.

 

She thought of Adora stretched out on the ground under the pale light of the night moons, deathly white, not moving. Never moving again. Reporting her success back to the Horde. Taking Hordak’s place, commanding respect, ruling Etheria—

 

—alone.

 

Her fingers had gone numb from the cool water of the stream. She pulled the canteen from the water and capped it, then plunged her hands back into the stream and scrubbed viciously, shoulder aching with the motion. Another murky red cloud filled the water until all the blood had been washed away from the cracks in her palms, the skin around her claws.

 

Maybe staying with Adora was the easy choice, after all.

 

Maybe it always had been.

 

The thing was, it used to feel like the easy choice.

 

A sound pierced her thoughts, rolling through the canyon, low and wild and menacing. Her ears twitched involuntarily toward the sound as a second, then a third voice joined, growing to a distant crescendo before fading. The echoes faded, too, leaving nothing behind but silence and an icy pit of recognition in her stomach.

 

She knew that sound.

 

Every cadet in the Fright Zone knew that sound.

 

And out here, in the wild…

 

That sound meant death.

 


 

 “Rise and shine, princess,” she announced blandly as she returned to the small clearing where she’d left Adora. “You got your wish. Let’s get moving.”

 

Adora, somehow, had managed to pull herself to a mostly seated position with her back supported by a nearby boulder. It looked uncomfortable. Her head, tilted back to rest against the rock, snapped forward and her eyes met Catra’s.

 

“Catra,” she greeted, relief coloring her voice. “I didn’t—I didn’t know if you were coming back.”

 

“Yeah, well.” Catra grabbed the canvas bag of supplies, then the sword, ignoring the unsettling buzz of broken magic that raced through her arm as she shoved it through a strap of the bag and slung the whole contraption across her back. “You never did have much faith in me, did you?” The words fell from her mouth before she could stop them, bitter and familiar.

 

Adora opened her mouth to respond, then closed it, a conflicted expression on her face.

 

“You look like you swallowed a toad.” Adora gave her a withering glance. “C’mon. Let’s go.”

 

“Not that I’m complaining, but,” Adora asked, hesitantly, “Why the change of heart?”

 

Because the Horde unleashed the most terrifying weapon they have to kill you.

 

Because they unleashed it on me, too.

 

Because you might die if we leave now, but we’ll both die if we stay.

 

“Tired of the scenery.” She nodded her head toward the identical, forested expanse shading a path that slanted slightly upward, eventually—hopefully—leading out of the canyon. “The trees over there look way more interesting.”

 

Adora rolled her eyes, but didn’t press the issue. “Fine.” She shifted, wincing. “Help me up?”

 

Catra knelt by her side, taking Adora’s arm and positioning it over her shoulders. A hiss caught in her throat as Adora’s wrist knocked against her bad shoulder.

 

“Ready?” The muscles in Adora’s cheek tensed as she clenched her teeth, forgoing speech for a short nod.

 

They rose in one very not-fluid motion, a sound between a grunt and a whimper escaping through her friend’s teeth as she shakily positioned her feet beneath her. Then they were standing, barely. Adora’s head was bowed, her tightly shut eyes half-covered by loose strands of hair and her face as white as her shirt.

 

“You good?” Catra asked, annoyed by the concerned tightness she was unable to keep from her tone.

 

“Peachy,” Adora breathed. Then her face went slack and she pitched forward. Catra’s arm shot out to support Adora’s other shoulder and she stumbled under their shift in weight, a curse escaping her lips as fire lanced yet again through her abused shoulder. In the next instant Adora’s eyes flickered open and she leaned back, half her weight across Catra’s shoulders and the other half supported by her own shaking legs.

 

“’m fine,” she mumbled, before Catra could say anything.

 

“Yeah,” Catra said, sarcasm dripping from her tone as she caught her breath. “I can tell.”

 

“Oh, shut up,” Adora said in a weak, exasperated voice. “You know we have to get out of here.”

 

She did. Far better than Adora, actually. The pallor of Adora’s face, the sweat that had formed on her brow after rising from the ground, the trembling she could feel in the arm looped across her shoulders—it all told her they should stay put, but her thoughts were drowned out by the memory of that distant, haunting, wild cry. A sound that meant fear and death. The reason she would never be able to return to the Horde.

 

She glanced to the figure at her side.

 

One of them, anyway.

 

She took Adora’s wrist and repositioned her arm more securely across her own shoulders.

 

“Yeah, whatever.” They took a slow step forward. “I’m only dragging you along so I can feed you to the first wild animal I find.”

 

A weak snort, followed by a wince Catra could feel. Another step. “Liar.”

 

“Nah. I figure I’ll be able to get away while it’s choking on your massive hero complex.”

 

Adora sputtered indignantly, trying out the starts to a few different sentences before settling for a sulky, “I hate you.”

 

Catra gave a derisive snort. “No, you don’t.”

 

There was no response for a moment, and Catra glanced over to see Adora looking at her, something unreadable in her eyes. Regret? Sadness? She flushed under the unexpected gaze.

 

“No,” Adora said seriously. “I don’t.”

 

Catra decided that her time would be far better spent evaluating the terrain in front of them for rough patches than trying to make idle conversation.

 

Another step. She didn’t look to the side, but Catra could feel Adora’s eyes boring into her skull.

 

Oh, yeah.

 

This was going to be fun.

 

Chapter Text

“You shouldn’t eat that,” Adora’s voice came from a few steps behind Catra, where she’d left her half sitting, half-leaning on a boulder to rest while Catra refilled their canteen.

 

Catra hadn’t actually planned to eat the small red fruit she was rolling contemplatively between her finger and thumb, but now she fought the urge to shove a handful of them into her mouth.

 

“Why not?”

 

“It’s a red moonberry. They’re poisonous.” Adora pushed off the boulder, wavering a moment with her hand on her side before closing the distance between them with slow, careful steps. Catra’s gaze flicked down involuntarily. The red cloth of the bandage visible through Adora’s fingers was almost entirely soaked with a darker, more dangerous red.

 

Adora leaned over her shoulder to better see the fruit. “Unless it’s actually a bloodberry. They look really similar.”

 

Blood berry, really? Whoever named these things wasn’t exactly subtle. “Let me guess,” Catra asked dryly. “Also poisonous?”

 

“No, actually, that one’s fine.” 

 

“I’d like you to know that whoever named these things really sucks at their job.”

 

Adora ignored her, brow furrowed like it always was when she had a thought. “Although, maybe the moonberry is only poisonous for humans. I guess your physiology might be different?”

 

One of Catra’s ears flicked, and she glanced down to where her tail kept swaying back and forth—annoying, how her own body betrayed her constant low-level agitation—before returning Adora’s gaze with dead eyes. “No shit.”

 

Adora returned the look with quirked mouth and half-raised eyebrow.

 

“Whatever,” Catra replied, rolling her eyes and letting the fruit fall to the ground. It bounced into the underbrush. “Since when do you know about—”she fumbled for the word for a moment, “—berries and crap?”

 

“Books,” Adora responded, leaning up against a tree with a wince. “Bright Moon survival training. Bow taught me some, too. There’s lots of things that can kill you out here if you’re not careful.”

 

Survival training. The extent of that discipline in the Horde was basically limited to “don’t die in battle,” with side lessons like “how to prevent yourself from bleeding to death,” and “how to navigate back to the Fright Zone.” If your injuries were too serious to bind yourself, or you were more days from the Fright Zone than you had ration bars...well. It just wasn’t worth it.

 

Still, one of the books that a much younger Catra and Adora had stole—er… found… in the Fright Zone revealed pretty drawings of red and blue fruits, orange and green vegetables, and all kinds of foods that weren’t gray paste pressed into a vaguely rectangular shape. They had stayed up late in the barracks, tracing the colorful outlines with small fingers, wondering what the strange things would taste like and planning to try them all after the world was theirs.

 

Now Catra’s eyes narrowed. “Arrow boy, huh?”

 

Adora almost sighed, then stopped short at the inhale. Her face was pale. “Yeah. Bow.”

 

“That’s what I said.”

 

“You know,” Adora replied, her exasperated tone hiding a familiar hint of fondness, “I’d forgotten how much I missed your charming personality.”

 

Catra snorted, digging into the bag around her shoulders for one of the two ration bars it contained. “Yeah, and I forgot how much I missed your thick head.” She unwrapped the bar and glanced up to see Adora looking at her with one of those obnoxious grins that Catra hated.

 

“So you did miss me.”

 

“What—I—no!” Catra sputtered. Adora just continued staring at her with that dopey “I win” grin. Catra growled, shooting her a death glare as she shoved half the ration bar into her hand.

 

“Eat,” Catra commanded, then muttered under her breath: “Moron.”

 

“Fine,” Adora said, taking the bar. “But only because you missed me.”

 

Catra glared again, turning on her heel and stalking away. Adora choked on a bite of ration bar.

 

“Hey, where are you going?”

 

“Leaving you to die,” Catra called over her shoulder.

 


 

She came back.

 

It wasn’t exactly surprising, seeing as she’d left the bag of supplies and the canteen full of water behind. Which is probably why Adora simply acknowledged her return with a small smile instead of a rush of relief. She didn’t say anything, just raised her arm from where she was still half-sitting on the boulder—and Catra sighed, settling it over her shoulders.

 

There was blessed silence for a while, broken only by the sounds of their breathing as they trekked laboriously through the woods. Catra had been counting blades of grass to keep her mind off her aching shoulder when Adora’s voice cut through the quiet.

 

“I missed you too, you know.”

 

Catra bristled at the words.

 

“Hey, I never said I—”

 

“Yeah, yeah, okay,” Adora interrupted, flapping the hand that was draped over Catra’s shoulder like she was waving away her words. “Fine. ‘I missed you,’ end of sentence.”

 

Catra grunted, willing away the tiny bloom of warmth in her chest.

 

“Sap.”

 

Adora gave her a side-eyed glance, then took advantage of their close proximity by tilting her head just enough to knock into Catra’s. It would have been an elbow to the ribs, if either of them could have managed it.

 

Catra glared. “I will drop you.”

 

“No, you won’t,” Adora said, far too sure of herself.

 

“Don’t press your luck, princess.”

 

Adora hummed, then sighed. “You know what I miss most, though?” She paused, going silent a moment as they navigated carefully up a steep part of the overgrown path. Her arm tightened around Catra’s shoulder, and she leaned heavily on her for a few steps. “Telling you stuff,” she finished. “Things are so… different there. Everyone looks at me like I’m crazy for getting up before dawn to train, or thinking that twelve different types of food is way too much for one meal.”

 

Twelve? Good grief. There were exactly five different kinds of ration bar in the Horde, and the flavors ranged exclusively from “vile” to “barely tolerable.”

 

“Well, I always thought you were an idiot for getting up before dawn too,” Catra pointed out. It was bad enough their drill sergeant would burst into the barracks right as the first rays of morning light were slogging through the perpetual Fright Zone smog to illuminate the corridors outside, but Adora would already have been up for at least twenty minutes—stretching, doing pushups, and threatening to make up the bunk with Catra still in it if she didn’t get up. (She actually did it, once, but honestly, it was pretty comfortable.)

 

Adora shot her an indignant look and opened her mouth to reply, but a distant, deep howl carried through the air, joined by a low, faraway roar that seemed to make the trees vibrate despite the distance. The sound made Catra’s blood run cold, and Adora’s words vanished as she stiffened at Catra’s side.

 

The faint amusement of their conversation evaporated, replaced by a deep sense of foreboding.

 

“Catra,” Adora breathed. “That’s…”

 

Catra said nothing, setting her mouth in a thin line and continuing to draw them forward. Adora must have noticed her lack of reaction, because she resisted, pulling them to a stop.

 

“Did you know?”

 

Catra looked away, silent.

 

“You knew Hordak sent his beasts after us and you didn’t think to tell me?” Adora’s voice pitched upward, too loud, too close to her ear.

 

"What difference would it have made?” Catra asked, sourly.

 

Adora brought up her free hand to pinch her brow. “We could have left sooner, I could have moved faster —”

 

“Ha! What a joke.” Catra snapped. “Look at yourself. You can’t even stand on your own for more than a minute.”

 

“I don’t—it doesn’t matter,” Adora said, taking a resolute, if shaky step forward and dragging Catra along in the process. “We need to keep going. Glimmer and Bow will find us once we get close enough to Bright Moon. I'm sure they're looking, so—"

 

The end of the sentence was lost to Catra, muffled by the sound of blood rushing through her ears. Those ridiculous, obnoxious friends of hers. Of course. Of course she was relying on them to get them out of here, like Catra wasn’t good enough. Adora was already taking her for granted, assuming that she'd help, that they'd go where Adora thought they should go.

 

"Bright Moon," Catra said, her voice low, bordering on dangerous.

 

Adora shot her an odd look. "Yeah, Bright Moon." She paused, brow furrowing. "Where did you think we were going?"

 

Honestly, she hadn't thought about it. On some level, she knew how this would end, but she had been making a concerted effort not to think about it. Not to think about how she couldn't go back to the Fright Zone, and how her chance to prove herself had been cut suddenly, violently short. Somehow, she was trapped into doing what Adora wanted.

 

Again.

 

“Maybe I wasn’t planning to take you to Bright Moon," Catra growled. "Maybe I was going to hand you over to the Horde as soon as we got out of here.”

 

The lie burned on its way out of her throat, but it felt better than speaking the truth.

 

Adora stared at her incredulously. “You’re joking.”

 

Irritation flashed through her. “Am I?”

 

Adora’s jaw was clenched, although Catra wasn’t sure if was from pain or frustration. Maybe both.

 

“Catra, you can’t.”

 

Can't.

 

Flames of anger licked at her insides, and she adjusted Adora’s arm around her shoulders in a way that she knew would cause a wince. It did. Instead of the satisfaction she expected, Catra felt a small twinge of guilt. “It’s not like you could stop me.”

 

“We’d die, Catra!” Adora snapped. Catra hissed for her to be quiet, and Adora lowered her voice slightly. “Hordak would kill us both! Why would you want to go back for that?”

 

“If I hand him She-Ra, do you really think he’d kill me?” Liar, her mind said. They tried to kill you already. You know they did. You know you can’t go back.

 

Why was it so hard to admit?

 

“You can’t be serious,” Adora said. “I remember the fight now—that tank had a clear shot at me, and they aimed at you.”

 

A growl grew in the back of Catra’s throat, and suddenly the heat from where Adora was pressed against her side and across her shoulders was oppressive, choking. She came to an abrupt stop and rapidly, almost roughly, removed Adora’s arm from across her shoulders and pushed her backward into the sturdy trunk of a tree. She stumbled and then leaned back against it, hand digging into her side as her face went a shade whiter.

 

 Catra stayed just outside of her reach, fuming silently.  

 

“For the love of Etheria, Catra,” Adora gasped, voice quiet at first, then strengthening. “Why is this hard to understand? Hordak didn’t just have a tank fire on you, he set the beasts after us!” Adora gestured expansively with her free hand. “Both of us!”

 

 “No, Catra insisted, stubbornly. “You.” Maybe if she lied hard enough, she’d start to believe it.

 

Adora closed her eyes, tilting her head back. “Catra, don’t be an idiot.”

 

Suddenly, anger was easy.

 

“Oh, so I’m stupid?” Catra walked closer, like an animal stalking its prey. “If I don’t agree with you, it’s because I just don’t understand, is it?” She slammed her hand into the tree trunk beside Adora’s head, claws digging into the soft bark. “Because you’re perfect, flawless, always-right Adora?”

 

Adora flushed. “I never said that.”

 

Catra scoffed. “Gotta say, Adora,” she drawled, looking her up and down, “For being so perfect… you’ve looked better.”

 

Adora stubbornly held her gaze. “And whose fault is that?”

 

Catra snatched her hand away from the tree. “Fault,” she hissed. “I’m the only reason you aren’t dead.” She took a step back. “But please, by all means,” Catra raised her arms, gesturing to the woods. “See how you do without me.”

 

She adjusted the pack on her shoulder and spun on her heel, stalking off into the trees.

 

“Catra, wait,” Adora called after her. “Catra!” 

 

Typical. The second it benefited Adora, she was all apology. Despite the desperation in Adora’s tone, Catra narrowed her eyes, furiously putting distance between them.

 

And then she screamed, “Catra!” and every hair on Catra’s arms stood up. Because that wasn’t annoyance, or reprimand, or desperation in Adora’s voice. Not anymore.

 

That was terror.

 

Catra whirled just in time to see an enormous, panther-like creature leap from the shadows, teeth bared in a vicious snarl, the wicked curve of its fangs glistening in the dimming light. Adora managed to snatch up a branch from the ground, but the gesture was pointless. A stick wouldn’t fight off these beasts. No, she needed a real weapon… but the sword—still stuck through the bag on Catra’s back—hummed with the energy of its broken magic.

 

Standing just through the trees, Catra froze.

 

The beast snarled as it evaded the pathetic swipe of Adora’s stick, then responded with a swipe of its own. Muscles rippled beneath its fur as it batted Adora to the side like a cat with a mouse. She flew through the air, impacting the trunk of a tree several feet away with a solid, sickening crack before slumping to the ground, unmoving.

 

Get up, a distant voice in Catra’s mind pleaded. Get up. Get up.

 

She didn’t.

 

At this distance, Catra couldn’t tell if Adora was breathing.

 

She couldn’t tell if she was breathing.

 

The beast stalked toward Adora’s still form, and the last remnants of Catra’s anger evaporated. No matter what she said, or what she felt, she couldn’t watch Adora die.

 

She shook off her paralysis, dropping the bag and sprinting forward as she gave a panicked, sweeping glance through the trees for the other two beasts. She didn’t see anything, but—with these beasts, that didn’t mean much.

 

“Hey!” she shouted, but the word stuck in her throat. The beast ignored her. She swiped up a stone from the ground as she ran, hurling it at the beast as she cried again. “Hey!

 

The rock bounced off of one muscular haunch, and the beast whirled to face her, snarling.

 

Well.

 

Now she had its attention.

 

She started walking in a slow arc around the beast, keeping a close watch for the signs that it was about to pounce—but it was fast, too fast. It leapt without warning, and Catra’s diving roll barely managed to whisk under its open jaw. Sticks and underbrush shifted beneath her feet and she slipped, with barely enough time to curse before a violent impact slammed her shoulder.

 

Her injured shoulder.

 

It flashed in a consuming blaze of white-hot agony, flaring so bright she didn’t feel herself hit the ground. She must have, though, because now she was looking at the world sideways, the piercing ache in her head pulling a hazy film over her vision. She blinked. Her shoulder burned. The metallic scent of blood filled her nostrils.

 

Move.

 

She yanked herself in a blind roll to the side, a rush of air brushing her cheek as the claws of the beast slammed into the ground where her head had been a split second earlier.

 

Move.

 

She’d have time for pain later.

 

Her doubling vision coalesced into one image of the beast, directly before her. Mouth open and heaving. Exposed teeth shining. Too close, too close—

 

When in doubt, shock them with an offensive attack. In a desperate move, Catra leapt onto the beast.

 

She landed awkwardly on its back and neck, the claws of her feet and hands sinking deep into matted fur and dense muscle. The beast yowled and bucked and she slammed her hand down, driving her claws into the sensitive skin of its jaw. It bucked again, this time too violently for her to maintain her hold—but even as she flew through the air, she felt the soft resistance of flesh and tendon as her claws tore the beast’s face.

 

All air left her lungs when she hit the ground, and her vision flared white. The beast was yowling again. Through the haze over her eyes she could see half its face was painted red, one eye glued shut. It hesitated a moment, then turned its back and disappeared into the trees.

 

For a moment, Catra couldn’t move, trying to force air back into her aching chest.

 

Scary thing was, from the stories she’d heard—that was the small one.

 

Then something filtered through the haze of her mind.

 

Adora.

 

She tried to push herself up on her elbows, but one arm didn’t respond properly. She fell back, head cracking against the ground as her vision darkened at the edges. She breathed for a moment, then glanced down. Four deep, fresh lines were carved into her upper arm, oozing thick blood. Her arm was already slippery with it.

 

She groaned. “Great.” The word was a breathy whisper.

 

She rolled onto her good side and managed to push to her feet on the second try, stumbling the short distance to where Adora lay. She slammed to her knees. It probably hurt. She didn’t notice.

 

“Adora.” Her throat was so tight, it was a miracle the word escaped.

 

Her shaking hand pressed against Adora’s face, her fingers buried in her wheat-blond hair. Adora didn’t move. Catra’s fingers came back red.

 

“Adora. Wake up.”

 

Please.

 

Catra’s gaze fell to Adora’s chest and she waited—one heartbeat, two. Her vision was blurring.

 

Then… there!

 

Her chest moved, barely, and Catra was too exhausted to question the relief that flooded her at the sight. Adora was breathing. For now.

 

She glanced into the trees, half expecting to see three pairs of eyes and three sets of glistening fangs waiting for them. But no—it was just tree trunks and a curtain of leaves and vines, almost serene in their innocence. Beyond that, Catra’s eyes settled on the canyon wall, broken in places by slashes of darkness. Caves. The openings were narrow, enough for them to squeeze in, but not wide enough for a beast. Their way out.

 

Adrenaline pushed aside the haze in Catra’s mind. They were alive, but if they wanted to stay that way, they needed to move.

 

“Adora.”

 

She tapped her cheek, and was rewarded with a soft groan. Catra remembered the blood in her hair and decided not to hit harder, instead moving her hand down to shake her shoulder.

 

Adora.”

 

Adora’s eyes fluttered open briefly.

 

Catra shook her shoulder harder, and a whimper escaped Adora’s throat before her glassy eyes opened again, roaming the canopy of trees before landing on Catra’s face.

 

“Ca…shra?” she slurred. Catra’s heart sank. Not good.

 

“You need to get up.”

 

But instead, Adora’s eyes slipped shut again. Frustrated, scared, Catra jostled her shoulder. Her eyes only managed to slide half-open. “Up?” Adora repeated, like the word confused her.

 

“Yeah. Up. C’mon.” Catra slid her arm behind Adora’s shoulders and pulled her to a sitting position. Adora’s head landed heavily on Catra’s shoulder.

 

Her eyes were open, but based on her glassy stare, she wasn’t seeing much. “I can’t…”

 

Catra bit the inside of her cheek until she tasted copper. She’d carry Adora, but with the shape her shoulder was in, it just wasn’t possible—the weakened muscles would give out in an instant. But leaving her again wasn’t an option. If the beasts weren’t already there, they soon would be, lurking in the shadows, ready to spring—

 

They had to move. Except in this state, Adora couldn’t move. 

 

But… Adora’s absurd sense of duty was almost a superpower. When their drill sergeant ordered her to complete an obstacle course after a fall that basically snapped her leg in two, Adora had simply gotten up and done it, face white as bone, only allowing herself to go limp after she crossed the finish line. 

 

Catra had taken advantage of that superpower exactly once, when Adora was so sick she was hallucinating, and Catra wasn’t yet strong enough to carry her to the safe hiding place where she’d stashed blankets and medicine.

 

Adora thanked her later, but the haunted look in her eyes made Catra swear to herself that she’d never do it again.

 

Catra screwed her eyes shut, hating what she was about to do.

 

“On your feet, cadet!” she shouted. 

 

The effect was instantaneous. Adora snapped to attention for a drill sergeant who wasn’t there, almost sagging forward again as her face went impossibly white—but Catra’s hand caught her, and she maneuvered herself underneath Adora’s arm, crouched and ready to rise.

 

“Up. Now.”

 

She tried, but Catra did most of the work in pulling them upright. Her abused ribs screamed under Adora’s near dead-weight. Adora’s head hung low, lolling toward Catra’s face until loose hair tickled her cheek. She started to slip, and Catra wrapped her arm around her waist to steady her—Adora’s unsteady breath hitched in a whimper as her fingers landed too close to the blood-soaked bandage on Adora’s side, and Catra quickly adjusted her grasp.

 

Catra took a deep breath, steadying herself against the grinding pain in her ribs and the burn in her shoulder, swallowing the panic that had lodged itself in her throat. She had never actually seen the beasts back in the Fright Zone, but stories passed by cadets in the dark said that one of them was practically invisible, and the other two moved too fast to be seen. Her hearing was useless, any quiet sounds drowned out by their raspy breathing. Adora’s weight was like an anchor at her side, and her own injuries burned as blood from the slashes on her arm ran slowly down her to her elbow, collecting there before dripping into the grass.

 

In short, they were blind, crippled, and leaving a trail any beast could follow with its eyes closed.

 

Catra shut her eyes briefly and inhaled. Adora had slumped further forward, and she jostled her. No response.

 

“Adora.”

 

There was a quiet moan, and her head rolled slightly to the side. Dammit. She couldn’t move them without her.

 

Cadet.”

 

Adora’s head lifted, brow creased together, eyes open but unseeing. Catra pulled her arm more securely across her shoulders.

 

March.

 


 

Chapter Text

Octavia stomped through the woods of the canyon, cursing the insects and the vines and the dimming light. Her, a Force Captain, the feared and respected Beast-Master of the Horde, reduced to this? Traipsing through the underbrush after three mindless beasts and two traitors, unable to return until she cleaned up Catra’s mess? The absurdity of it almost made her laugh. It was an embarrassment to the entire Horde that Catra had ever been Hordak’s second. The foolish girl couldn’t even defect properly, simply letting her attachments eat away at her until she became a liability. Useless.

 

A warning beep came from the trackerpad in Octavia’s hand. The display showed two white lights prowling in the distance—the other beasts—and one red light, almost on top of her location. Finally. The beasts weren’t often wounded during their deployment, but when they were, their movement patterns changed in a way she had learned to detect. She had seen the warning signs in this beast from a distance, and shocked it to unconsciousness in order to assess its condition.

 

At last, she burst into a small clearing to see the smallest of the beasts crumpled to the forest floor, its enormous ribcage rising and falling with rumbling breaths. One side of its face was covered in deep, bleeding scratches. Its eye, half-covered by a torn lid, was damaged beyond repair.

 

Octavia snarled, bringing a hand up to her own unseeing eye. Catra. Her handiwork was unmistakable. She thrust a hand into the bag she carried over her shoulder and pulled forth a small container, uncapping it and scooping out a mound of a foul-smelling paste to smear across the long cuts in the beast’s face. It wouldn’t heal the eye, but it would stop the bleeding, lessen the chance of infection, and dull some of the pain. Injuries may provide a boost of adrenaline during a fight, but eventually, pain becomes a distraction. The numbing agent should last long enough for the beasts to get the job done.

 

And oh, did Octavia want the job done.

 

She capped the container and replaced it, then reached out to run a long-nailed hand across the matted fur of the unconscious beast. The movement was one not of affection, but more… appreciation. The same look one might give to a sharp blade before battle.

 

The beast growled softly in its sleep, like the sound of distant thunder.

 

Octava found blood, earlier, when she entered the canyon. A lot of it, with tracks leading away in slow, clumsy steps. The fall may not have killed the traitors, but it was doubtful the mighty She-Ra would be able to put up much of a fight, even Catra had managed a lucky strike. It was only a matter of time. The beasts would kill both of them, sooner or later, and Octavia would collect their corpses and return in glory to the Horde.

 

A cruel smile curved her lips.

 

She couldn’t wait.

  


 

Cold.

 

Adora felt cold.

 

She felt a lot of things, actually. “Cold” was just the least unpleasant. But everything was far away, muted by the fog that settled like a heavy blanket in her mind. Her side hurt. Her side always hurt; that was just a constant, now. Maybe it would hurt less if she could stop the jarring motion of lifting one foot up, setting it down, moving the other forward—oh, wait. Walking. If she could stop walking. Funny word to forget, walking.

 

No. No, she couldn’t stop walking. She had been ordered to walk.

 

But for how long? Where was she going? When could she stop?

 

She wasn’t lifting her feet so much as dragging them, but still, every soft impact of her foot against the ground sent a jarring sensation up her leg, into her side, intensifying the piercing ache in her head.

 

Oh, right, that. Her head felt like someone had tried to put a pickaxe through it, then gave up and just left it there, embedded in her skull. It was great.

 

Ha, sarcasm. Catra liked sarcasm. Adora should tell Catra she wasn’t the only sarcastic one now. Maybe she’d start liking her again.

 

Something snagged her foot and she started falling, her muscles too tired and mind too slow to do anything about it—but something caught her, and if walking hurt, this hurt so much more. Her side flared with a hot, searing pain, the only warmth in her cold body, her ribs screaming in protest as she tried to draw a breath against sudden nausea. Her head was the worst of it. A spike of agony entered her skull somewhere above her ear, blossoming into a consuming, pressing ache at her temples and behind her eyes, drowning out her vision in a sea of blackness populated by small flashes of light. She knew those. She’d seen them, once. Stars?

 

There was a distant urge to laugh. She’d brought the stars back.

 

Too bad it hurt so much.

 

A voice, strong and familiar, filtered through the ringing in her ears—too loud. She tilted her head away and groaned. It was… angry? Maybe. Snatches of the sentence reached her mind.

 

“..ora, com… ave to move.”

 

No, that wasn’t anger, not quite. It was… fear? Why would Catra be afraid?

 

The drill sergeant. Of course. Adora shuddered; she had to move. If Catra was caught helping her—

 

She pushed—or was pulled—upward, then dragged one foot in front of the other, leaning her weight into the shaking support.

 

Forward.

 

I can’t.

 

Keep going.

 

It doesn’t matter if you can’t. You will.

 

You have to.

 


 

They were only a few steps from the mouth of the cave, a thin black slash in the endless rock wall of the canyon, when the roiling nausea in Adora’s stomach became too much.

 

She was almost afraid to open her mouth, but managed one quiet, desperate word: “C’tra.”

 

Catra’s eyes widened when they landed on Adora’s face. “Oh, sh—”

 

She had a split second to adjust her hold on Adora before she doubled over, the meager contents of her stomach spattering onto the rock at their feet. It hurt. It hurt, it hurt. The pressure in her head multiplied tenfold; her side felt like someone had jammed a knife in it anew. A fresh surge of warmth trickled down her side, and she tried to bring a shaking hand up to stop it. She was already so cold…

 

Her vision swirled into darkness.

 


 

She woke, shivering, to the feeling of cool rock beneath her. Shadows and light danced overhead, and there was a distant feeling of warmth on one side. Fire?

 

Something brushed against her forehead. She opened her eyes again to see a wavering image of Catra above her, one hand receding from her face, the other pressing down on the ever-constant pain in her side. She looked down. Catra’s hand was red. The bandage was red. Fear and nausea coiled in Adora’s stomach—there was too much, too much red.

 

Adora’s wandering gaze found the fire, and the handle of a Horde-issue knife jutting from it. Its blade was embedded in glowing red coals.

 

There was apology in Catra’s eyes, a tightness to her voice. “I have to.”

 

Adora’s eyes slipped shut, but she managed to wheeze, “I know.”

 


 

She didn’t remember much of it.

 

Catra had offered her a thin, short section of a branch to bite down on, bark peeled away to reveal the smooth white wood below. It tasted like the forest smelled.

 

One moment Catra was leaning over her, the blade of the knife trembling in her grasp, the smell of hot metal filling Adora’s nose. The next there was a searing, white-hot agony that consumed her senses—the wood cracked in her mouth, she was blind, a muffled scream filled her ears—

 

Then, blessedly, darkness.

 


 

They were alive.

 

Somehow.

 

That was what mattered, right?

 

Catra sat huddled in the corner, knees pulled her chest, back pressed to the cold wall of the cave. They were alive; that was what mattered. Not the muffled scream echoing in her mind. Not the radiating heat of the knife that still pricked at the skin on her hand. Not the stench of burned flesh that filled her nostrils and turned her stomach.

 

She shivered despite the warmth of the fire, tugging her knees closer—her arm burned and stung at the motion, and she hissed, glancing down. Four deep cuts lay beneath the bandage she’d wrapped awkwardly around her upper arm, seeping blood into the white cloth. Curse that beast. She bit her tongue against the pain and tried to pull the bandage tighter.

 

Catra’s eyes wandered the small cave, actually looking at it for the first time. The entrance was narrow, just enough for a person to squeeze in—it had been awkward, dragging Adora through—but then widened significantly into a much larger cavern appearing to travel deep into the canyon wall. Not that they’d be able to explore it; a pile of rocks from an old cave-in effectively cut them off from whatever lay beyond. A cool draft came from the gaps near the top of the rock pile, blowing the faint smoke of their small fire out the cave’s entrance and into the trees beyond.

 

Her gaze drifted down to the bag at her feet, and she tilted its contents onto the rock floor. Between Adora’s wound and wrapping her own arm, only one roll of bandages remained. There was a small container (too small) of a nasty-smelling paste that she’d applied to Adora’s wound before, not that it helped much, and again after the wound was… sealed. She’d used a little on herself, too, to slow the bleeding on her arm.

 

That left her with a compass, a knife (she’d thrown it to the opposite side of the small cave, after, and felt no great desire to retrieve it), a half-full canteen, a firestarter, a flare, one very magical, very annoying, and very broken sword, and one lousy ration bar.

 

Her foot moved, disturbing a small container, and something rattled. Oh, and two pain pills. They were supposed to help stave off infection, too, if she remembered right, so she needed to make sure Adora took one next time she woke up. Not now, though. Even if she could rouse her—which she doubted—Adora needed sleep.

 

So did Catra, for that matter. She blinked heavily.

 

Heat near her hand. A choked, agonized scream that would echo in her mind for days to come, a nauseating smell —her eyes flew open, involuntarily focusing on the form across the cave. Adora was still there, pale, but breathing steadily. Asleep. Exhausted though she was, Catra couldn’t join her.

 

Her eyes flicked down to the ration bar. If she couldn’t sleep, she might as well do something about their food situation. She staggered to her feet, heading for the jagged, narrow opening to the cave.

 


 

Catra was a good hunter.

 

The Fright Zone’s “wildlife” was largely limited to cockroaches and the occasional rat, and her agile movements and sharp claws were no match for a rodent already half-dead from whatever made the Fright Zone’s rare rainfalls collect into greasy, dark puddles. She probably shouldn’t have eaten them, actually, but choices were limited when Shadow Weaver decided that “no food” was the punishment for the week. Adora insisted on sharing her rations, but when Shadow Weaver found out, things were… worse. For both of them.

 

Rat didn’t taste too bad, once you got used to it. Especially considering the delightful flavor of Horde ration bars was her only standard of comparison.

 

Anyway, point was, Catra was a good hunter.

 

She had to keep reminding herself of that fact as yet another bushy-tailed tree rat slipped away her claws. A growl escaped her throat, and she swiped her hand down to carve four parallel lines into the tree branch on which she sat.

 

Climbing into the trees with only one usable arm had been a challenge, but sharp claws and soft tree bark made it doable. The familiar rush of being high off the ground made the stinging ache in her bones worth it. A breeze stirred her hair, and she closed her eyes and tried to let go of her frustration, inhaling the wild scent of the woods.

 

A distant sound caught her attention. Voices? She involuntarily flicked an ear toward the source. Yes, voices, definitely. Two of them. The pitch of one voice grew almost shrill with frustration, and the other responded in a lower, barely audible tone.

 

She knew those voices.  That sparkly princess, Glitter—and the other voice had to be the arrow boy that always hung around her. Adora had been right. Her friends did come for her. Well, this certainly was going to make things easier.

 

The voices slowly became louder as they approached the tree, and she decided to wait a moment and listen.

 

“I don’t want to think about it any more than you do, but we need to at least acknowledge the possibility that she’s…” Arrow boy trailed off.

 

Huh. So they thought Adora might be dead. Not exactly surprising, considering. Glitter’s louder, more annoying voice cut through the air in response.

 

“No, Bow, I don’t. I’m not going to acknowledge anything until we find her. Alive.

 

“Glimmer, you saw the blood—the tracks!” Arrow boy lowered his voice, looking around them. “There’s something—some things —out here. I’ve never seen tracks like that before.”

 

“Then I guess we’ll just have to deal with whatever it is when it shows up.”

 

They were getting closer now, but with the dense cover of leaves, they weren’t likely to see her even if they looked up. Which they hadn’t. Not too smart, considering they didn’t know what kind of monster they were tracking… but then, tracking didn’t appear to be their strong suit, since the only way they would have reached this part of the woods was if they’d lost the path Catra and Adora left through the woods.

 

Ah well. That would just make it all the more surprising when she dropped down in front of them, told them where Adora was, and they finally put that obnoxious, sparkly magic to good use getting out of this cursed crack in the ground. They’d escape the beasts. Adora would get help. Everything would be fine.

 

She rose from her crouch, about to swing down from the tree in front of Arrow and Glitter, and… froze.

 

All she had to do was open her mouth. Drop down from the tree. Lead them to the cave, and in the next moment they’d be in Bright Moon.

 

…and Catra would be in a jail cell.

 

Assuming they even took her with.

 

More likely, Catra would be blinded by an annoying burst of pink sparkles, and when her vision finally cleared she would find herself alone in the bottom of the canyon, Adora whisked away by her new best friends. Maybe Catra would be tied up by one of arrow boy’s nets, a neat little offering for the beasts that roamed the woods.

 

She found herself caring less about that than the fact that she would be alone. Again.

 

A low, unsettling howl came from the distance, and a chill raced up her spine. Below her, Glitter and Arrow exchanged nervous glances, looking about two seconds away from sprinting off into the woods or teleporting away.

 

Whatever she was going to do, she needed to do it quickly.

 

Ugh. Catra closed her eyes, bringing up her hands to massage her aching temples. Adora would probably be better off now that her wound was sealed, but… she still needed help. Real help, real medicine. Catra had watched her almost die too many times to let it happen now, when escape was within their grasp.

 

She grabbed the branch with her good arm in preparation to swing down from the tree, opening her mouth to call down to them—

 

—and her voice was drowned out by a sudden, vicious snarl. On instinct, she crouched back down just as one of the beasts broke through the trees. This wasn’t the one she’d fought before; no, this one was much larger. Longer teeth, longer claws, just as eager for blood.

 

Shit. She’d waited too long.

 

The beast lunged toward the two rebels, and with a cry, Glitter latched onto her friend and teleported them away in a puff of pink sparkles.

 

The beast’s mouth snapped shut on empty air, then swung around, searching the now-empty clearing for its prey. A bone-chilling sound somewhere between a roar and a howl rose from the beast as it paced the small clearing, long, thick claws sinking deep into the soft earth and tearing it with each step, testing the air. If it caught her scent—

 

Catra couldn’t risk moving. With injuries making her movements clumsy, it would certainly hear her. Couldn’t fight it; she’d barely escaped the smaller one. All she could do was sit, and wait, and pray it wouldn’t find her. Pray it wouldn’t catch her scent and follow it back to the cave, and Adora. Not that its enormous body could make it through the small opening.

 

She hoped.

 

The beast wandered closer to the tree where she hid, and her claws buried themselves so deep into the branch she was practically a part of it.

 

It sniffed the air for another minute, during which Catra did not breath or blink—and then, with an aggravated whuff, the beast turned and walked away from the tree. Away from the cave.

 

Catra didn’t move for a full twenty minutes after it disappeared into the trees.

 


 

Catra stumbled into the cave, flexing her fingers to drive away the lingering soreness. It had taken great effort to finally pry her hands free of the tree branch before slowly, quietly padding back to Adora, checking behind her every two seconds to ensure no beasts were following.

 

So close. She had been so close to getting them out of this, and then—

 

The only thing that kept her from punching the nearest tree and screaming in frustration was her own exhaustion, and fear of attracting one of the beasts. She’d had all the time in the world to get the attention of Adora’s friends, and still... Even if she’d ended up in a cell on the other side, well, these were Bright Moon rebels. Whatever their jail looked like, it had to be downright luxurious compared to the Horde.

 

And even if it wasn’t, she had more important things to worry about. Like how Adora could still die.

 

And how now, it would be Catra’s fault.

 

She shook her head, trying to dislodge the unpleasant thought as guilt pooled in her stomach. Adora would be fine. She’d make sure of it. And Adora would never, ever know how close they had come to an easy escape.

 

Catra checked the bandage at Adora’s side again—still a pristine white. The wound hadn’t opened, at least. But Adora hadn’t woken when Catra entered the cave, her face as pale and silent and unmoving as when Catra had left for her extremely unsuccessful hunting trip.  

 

Another wave of exhaustion washed over her as she grabbed a few small branches and poked them into the fading red glow of the fire, stirring the embers until flames started again. She shivered. Nights here were cooler than she expected.

 

Her ribs ached, but she curled into as tight a ball as she could manage on the cold ground. Almost as soon as she did so, a soft, pained sound came from the short distance across the cave. She lifted her head and squinted at Adora in the flickering firelight. Her head was turned to the side now, eyes still closed, but her face tense with pain.

 

With a groan, Catra pulled herself to her feet and crossed the short distance between them, kneeling at her side.

 

“Adora.”

 

No response.

 

Loose hair had fallen across Adora’s eyes, and not quite knowing why, Catra reached out to move it back. Her hand lingered, fingers running gently through Adora’s hair.

 

Adora’s eyes opened then, her unfocused gaze landing on Catra’s face.

 

“Catra?” The word was barely audible, but there was confusion and… something else wrapped in the tone. Relief?

 

“Yeah,” Catra responded, quietly. “It’s me.” Guilt swirled in her stomach. If she’d just made up her mind faster, they wouldn’t be stuck in this freezing cave, and… she cut off that train of thought. No point focusing on it now.

 

Adora’s half-lidded gaze held hers for a moment more, fluttering with the effort of staying open before finally slipping shut again. Belatedly, Catra realized that Adora was trembling. Her hand brushed against Adora’s and she was surprised by the chill of her skin.

 

A stuttering breath came from Adora, and Catra looked to her face in surprise. She hadn’t expected her to still be awake. “C-cold,” she whispered, eyes still shut.

 

It was drafty, despite the warmth of the small fire. And the stone was surprisingly cold, leeching the warmth out of Catras skin even as she knelt on it.

 

Still, it wasn’t that cold. But blood loss could make you cold, and... crap, so could a fever. She’d almost forgotten about the pain pill. Catra grabbed the canteen and the small container, knocking one of the pills into her hand. 

 

“Adora.”

 

A quiet groan.

 

“You need to sit up for a minute.” She looped her good arm behind Adora’s shoulders and pulled her up, ribs screaming at the motion. Ugh, all that stupid muscle made her heavy. Adora’s head hit her shoulder, and she groaned again.

 

“Hurts…” 

 

“Yeah, I know. This’ll help.” Adora’s eyes were closed, face unnervingly white. Catra jostled her shoulders, and her head slowly lifted from Catra’s shoulder, glazed eyes half-open. 

 

“You gotta swallow this.” She shoved the pill in Adora’s mouth, and Adora made a face. 

 

“Gross. ”

 

“You’re gross.” She pressed the canteen to Adora’s lips. “Drink.”

 

Adora managed a few swallows before her face paled further and her head nodded, dropping back down to Catra’s shoulder. Catra slowly lowered her back down to the ground. A visible shiver ran through Adora’s body when her back touched the cool rock.

 

Well, it wasn’t like they had any blankets. Maybe she could find some leaves, or moss, or something… but the thought of going back outside the cave made her sway. Catra was tired—no, exhausted. And to be honest, she was a little cold, too.

 

“Move over,” she grumbled, expecting neither response nor reaction as she carefully levered herself over Adora, laying down at her side so that Adora was between Catra and the warmth of the fire. Adora winced, and another soft, pained sound escaped her throat. Catra curled closer, carefully laying an arm across her in a position that she hoped wouldn’t aggravate Adora’s wound or damaged ribs. Her nose pressed against Adora’s shoulder.

 

“You stink,” she said, her words muffled by Adora’s shirt.

 

That should have garnered at least a small laugh—or a return of the sentiment, if Adora was awake. Catra looked up to see Adora’s face slack except for a slight crease between her brows. It was a familiar expression. One she’d seen countless times when they were children, then teenagers, trying to sleep through aches and bruises and injuries before the next day multiplied them. And back then, to let both of them sleep easier, Catra would…

 

She lowered her head back down to Adora’s shoulder, curling the slightest bit closer before letting a quiet, soothing rumble build in her chest. Almost as soon as it started, a quiet sigh escaped Adora and her trembling lessened.

 

Catra let her own eyes slip shut, giving in to her exhaustion.

 

 

The hair on the back of her neck raised, and Catra bolted upright before she was fully awake. That feeling—they were being watched. She blinked, looking around the thin, rocky crevice groggily, but finding nothing.

 

Nothing except Adora, looking only half awake herself, staring at Catra with a loopy grin.

 

“I like your ears.”

 

Catra blinked again, then swallowed, trying to clear the fog of sleep from her mind. “What?

 

“They’re sooooo,” Adora drew out the word, pitching it up and down a few times before tilting her head toward Catra to deliver the end of her sentence in a conspiratorial whisper: “soft.” She giggled.

 

Adora giggled.  

 

“And fluffy,” Adora continued, oblivious to Catra’s rising horror, lifting her arm to awkwardly pat Catra’s hair. “You’re fluffy.”

 

Catra’s ears flattened slightly, and she pulled away from Adora’s hand. It fell back down to the ground, and Adora pouted.

 

“What is wrong with you—oh.” She broke off, suddenly remembering the pain pill. It wasn’t supposed to make her this loopy, but with blood loss and a concussion… 

 

“Nothin’s wrong,” Adora answered. “I feel great.” she stretched out that word, too, dopey grin firmly planted on her face.

 

“Wow. I guess that was some good stuff, huh.” Catra leaned in, smirking. 

 

You’re good stuff.” 

 

Catra flushed. “I’m not—you’re—wow,” she settled on, with a slightly strained scoff, “Guess I should have been more worried about that stuff cooking the few braincells you’ve got left.” She leaned over as she spoke the words, poking a finger into Adora’s forehead with a little more force than she’d intended. 

 

Adora clumsily reached up and rubbed her forehead, looking like a two-year-old deprived of a snack. “You’re mean.”

 

“Oh, you noticed.”

 

Adora’s arm flopped back down to her side. “Doesn’ matter. Still like you.” The dopey grin was back. Catra resisted the urge to drag her hands down her own reddening face, settling instead for turning her back to Adora.

 

“Yeah, well, you never were very smart.”

 

Meeeaaan.”

 

“Yes, that’s been established. Anything else?” She certainly hoped not.

 

“Yeah. I like your tail.” Adora’s tone shifted, almost petulant. “It likes me, even when you don’t.”

 

Catra glanced behind her, making a conscious effort to pull her tail away from where it had started to curl around Adora’s leg. 

 

“I don’t like you.”

 

Ha. Yeah. Didn’t like her. That must be why she kept risking her life to drag Adora through a beast-infested hole in the ground. 

 

Catra decided that her inner voice could stuff it.

 

“Catra,” Adora’s voice came from behind her, and she ignored it, staring off into nothing. 

 

Something poked her back. She ignored that too, but felt her tail flick across the ground in annoyance.

 

“Catraaaa…” there was the sound of shuffling and fabric sliding across rock behind her, and she turned just in time to see Adora try to push herself up off the ground and then fall back, face white and eyes screwed shut.

 

Ugh. “Idiot,” she muttered, reaching over to lift the edge of the bandage at Adora’s side. Her stomach turned at the sight. Dark, blistering skin surrounded the red scar of the wound, and some clear fluids had seeped into the bandage—but no blood. Good. She looked back up to Adora’s face, which was still scrunched and tense. 

 

“Hurts,” she said, almost a whine. “Why does everything hurt?”

 

“Everything always hurts,” Catra responded, tightening the bandage again. Adora winced. “That’s life, princess.” 

 

The pain seemed to have taken the edge off Adora’s loopiness. Her eyes wandered the small cavern as if seeing it for the first time, eventually returning to Catra and drifting down to the bandages awkwardly wrapped around the claw marks on her upper arm. Adora’s brow knit together, and she clumsily raised a hand toward the bandage. It knocked into Catra’s arm with more force than it should have, and she swallowed a hissing wince.

 

“’re you okay?”

 

It was so obnoxiously Adora to be concerned about other people when she was lying half-dead in a cave.

 

“I’m fine,” Catra said through gritted teeth. She took Adora’s hand by the wrist and removed it from her arm, but when she tried to pull her own hand back, Adora’s closed on it with unexpected strength. Catra looked up sharply.

 

Hey, what are—” She started, then cut off when she saw Adora’s face. Her eyes were damp. 

 

Oh, Catra did not want to deal with this. “No, hey, don’t…”

 

“I missed you,” Adora said, her voice quiet and wobbly.

 

Catra sighed, trying unsuccessfully to wiggle her fingers free. Adora should not have a grip this strong. “I know. You told me.”

 

The crease between Adora’s brows deepened. “I did?”

 

“Yeah. Like, twice. Cuz you’re a massive sap.”

 

“Oh.” Adora’s eyes closed, and her vice-like grip loosened. Catra started to pull away, but Adora’s fingers closed again and her eyes slid open, barely. 

 

“Stay?”

 

Catra scoffed lightly. “Not like I have a lot of options.”

 

“So you’ll stay?” The words were quiet, slurring together a bit, like Adora was struggling to remain awake.

 

Catra rolled her eyes. “Yeah. I’ll stay.”

 

Adora’s eyes closed again with a quiet sigh, and her grip loosened again. After a brief, inexplicable moment of hesitation, Catra pulled her hand away. Adora’s breathing was starting to even out, despite a lingering tremble against the cold.

 

Catra gave a sigh of her own, making sure Adora was actually asleep before laying back down on the hard, cool rock to resume her former position curled against Adora’s side. It was still cold, she reasoned. This just happened to be the least uncomfortable sleeping arrangement.

 

There was silence for a while, broken only by the soft sound of Adora’s breaths and the quiet, even rumble emanating from Catra’s chest. Catra’s eyes drifted shut, and the words that came from her mouth were so quiet she almost couldn’t hear them herself.

 

“I guess I missed you, too.”

 

Chapter Text

For the second time in less than 24 hours, Catra woke to the feeling of being watched.

 

This time, however, the feeling came to her slower. She didn’t open her eyes right away, gradually processing the sensation of being pressed against cool, unforgiving stone and curled around something warm that smelled familiar and safe. One arm was draped over the warmth, feeling a slight rise and fall that synchronized with the quiet sound of breathing from somewhere just above her head. Catra knew that sound. She’d grown up with that sound. Which is why it was very easy for her to say, with all certainty:

 

“I know you’re awake, Adora.”

 

Catra forced as much exhaustion and annoyance into the words as possible. It wasn’t difficult; the freezing rock floor of the cave was hard as—well, a rock, so her sleep had been fitful at best.

 

Adora blinked slowly, like she was pretending to have just woken herself, before turning her gaze toward Catra. “Mm?”

 

“Nice try.” Catra rolled her eyes and pushed herself upright, swallowing a groan as she pressed stiff muscles into motion. The fun thing about injuries and muscle fatigue was how everything always felt so much worse the next day, even if you hadn’t slept outside, on a stone slab, waking up every few minutes with your heart pounding in your chest for fear that the nightmarish beasts out for your blood had finally found you.

 

Yeah. It had been a great night. Catra yawned and stretched slowly, wincing at the pull in her injured arm.

 

“Why didn’t you wake me up instead of staring like a creep?”

 

One of Adora’s shoulders twitched in something that might have been a shrug. “You looked tired.”

 

Catra’s eyes narrowed. “Tired of you, maybe.”

 

Adora reached out and flicked Catra’s tail, which was curled languidly across the floor near Adora’s hand. Catra yelped and pulled it away with a look of indignant offense.

 

“I hope you enjoy walking to Bright Moon by yourself.”

 

A thoroughly un-threatened snort of laughter was her response, and Adora shifted one arm in an attempt to push up from the ground, getting as far as putting slight pressure on it before her breath hitched and her arm shook. She sank back to the ground, and Catra made no move to help her. She deserved it.

 

Apparently Adora didn’t care too much about her failed attempt to rise, because now she was lying still and staring at Catra with a faint smirk.

 

“You know something else?”

 

“I have a feeling I’m about to find out,” Catra replied, dryly.

 

Adora ignored her, forging ahead with that obnoxious, satisfied expression firmly in place. “You were purring.”

 

The side-eyed look Catra gave her could have killed from twenty paces.

 

“You’re delusional.”

 

“Mm-hm.”

 

Ugh, that condescending fake agreement was even worse than outright arguing.

 

“You don’t have to be embarrassed, you know,” Adora continued, a smile tugging at the corner of her lips. “It’s nice.”

 

Catra’s tail flicked. It wasn’t embarrassment, exactly. Catra had never tried to hide her purring from Adora when they were young. It was just part of how her body worked, even if accidentally letting herself purr in public would earn a disdainful glance from Shadow Weaver or snickers of laughter from the other cadets. Right now, though, it just reminded her of how close they used to be, and Catra… didn’t want Adora to get the wrong impression. After all, she still didn’t like her.

 

Much.

 

Time to deflect. And after the previous night, she had plenty of material to work with.

 

“Nice, huh.” Catra leaned closer, a dangerous smile curling her lips. “Like my ears?

 

Adora’s brow furrowed. “What?”

 

“Oh, don’t tell me you’ve forgotten about that already,” Catra purred. The crease in Adora’s brow deepened. “Or how I’m so... fluffy.” She had to grind her teeth to get that last word out, but the look of horrified remembrance on Adora’s face was worth it.

 

“Oh, for the love of—” Adora lifted her hands to cover her reddening face. “I hate those pills,” she groaned.

 

Catra leaned back and laughed, a real, genuine laugh that ended in a squeak—which she cut off as soon as she heard it, hoping Adora hadn’t noticed. She hadn’t, apparently, as she was busy dragging her fingers down her own face in embarrassment.

 

“Help me up, you jerk.”

 

Catra did. It was a slow, careful process, but soon Adora was propped against the rock wall of the cave, a fresh, faint sheen of sweat on her face. The red of her embarrassment had yet to fade.

 

“We need to get out of here today,” Adora said, after her breathing had mostly evened.

 

Catra stiffened. She agreed, vaguely, but the prospect of making Adora move again through a beast-infested forest was not particularly attractive. Adora was no help in her current state, Catra’s own injuries had taken a massive chunk out of her fighting abilities, and when she factored in having to help Adora walk—well, they were both useless. Two useless, slow-moving, probably delicious targets for three probably angry, probably hungry, and definitely deadly beasts.

 

Staying in the cave was starting to sound a lot more appealing.

 

“Why? We’re pretty safe here.” Bow and Glimmer were bound to return in their direction sooner or later. Getting to Bright Moon would be easy, then.

 

Adora shook her head, eyeing the narrow entrance to the cave warily. “I’m not so sure. That smaller beast might be able to fit through the gap.”

 

Catra stared at entrance as well, gauging the width. It was narrow, yes, and the smallest beast was still terrifyingly large… but then, it was also catlike. Cats, as she had learned after the Horde brought in competition for the rats she sometimes had to hunt for food, could fit through impossibly small spaces.

 

“Maybe. Maybe not.”

 

Adora arched a brow. “Do you really want to find out?”

 

A vision came unbidden to her mind of the beast squeezing through the entrance, eyes and teeth glistening in the firelight as the two of them pressed helplessly against the back wall of the cave.

 

The only thing worse than being out in the open with these beasts was being trapped in a small space with one.

 

“Whatever,” Catra forced out through clenched teeth. “We’ll move. After you eat.” She reached into the supply bag and pulled out the remaining ration bar, wishing briefly that the prior night’s hunt had been more successful.

 

“Here.” She tossed the bar toward Adora, realizing too late that she would probably try to catch it instead of letting it land nearby as Catra intended. Adora did, of course, hand jumping up to intercept the bar, falling short, and then flying to her side as she drew in a sharp, hissing breath.

 

“Idiot,” Catra muttered for what felt like the hundredth time. She crossed the short distance between them and knelt, pushed Adora’s hand away and lifting the edge of the bandage. What had been clear discharge the night before was yellowish now, and there was a hint of an unpleasant smell. The edges of the blacked wound were starting to take on a pinkish tinge.

 

Icy fear crawled up Catra’s spine. Oh, wonderful. This was just what they needed.

 

Suddenly, Adora’s insistence that they leave sooner rather than later made sense.

 

“How’s it look?” Adora asked, breathing through her nose as she stared at the opposite wall.

 

“See for yourself.”

 

Adora glanced down, the red tinge finally leaving her cheeks as her face paled at the sight of the wound. “Ugh.” She swallowed.

 

“Yeah. Nasty, isn’t it. Makes you think maybe you shouldn’t pull crap like this in the future, doesn’t it.” Catra said in a low, sarcastic tone.

 

“Crap like saving you?”

 

Catra finished replacing the bandage and tightened it, cutting off Adora’s words.

 

“Don’t start that again.” Catra picked up the ration bar from the ground and shoved it into Adora’s hand. “Eat.”

 

Adora pushed it back. “You need it more than I do. You’ve practically been carrying me.”

 

Catra fought the urge to growl, pushing the bar back again. “And you spent the last day bleeding all over Etheria.”

 

“So?

 

“So eat the bar. Water replaces blood volume, but you need the iron and vitamin crap they pack into field rations to help your body make the actual ‘blood’ part of blood.”

 

Adora blinked. “I—yeah, I guess. How’d you—”

 

“You just assumed I slept through all our classes.”

 

“Okay, fine,” Adora sighed. “But you’re splitting it with me. You need to keep up your energy.” Catra’s mouth opened in protest, but her words were cut off by a growl from her own stomach. Her face reddened.

 

“Fine,” she seethed. Adora’s lips trembled as she tried to suppress a smile.

 

“Fine.” 

 


 

 

“So,” Adora said, much later, flushed with exertion they continued their slow, careful climb to what Catra desperately hoped was the exit of this cursed canyon. “Have you seen any sign of Glimmer or Bow?”

 

Catra stopped counting steps—somewhere around 872, after she’d started counting to try and keep her mind off the way Adora’s weight over her shoulders made her ribs feel someone was stabbing her with every inhale—and startled, accidentally yanking on Adora’s arm. Adora stumbled and grunted in pain.

 

What?” Catra demanded.

 

How? How could Adora possibly know? She was in the cave, unconscious when Glitter and that stupid Arrow boy showed up. Unconscious when Catra let her own selfishness blow their one good chance to get out of here, quickly and safely. There’s no way she could have known.

 

Right?

 

“No.” Catra bit out the reply. “Of course not.”

 

Adora shot her an odd look. “It was just a question.”

 

Every muscle in Catra’s body was turning rigid, intensifying the ache of her injuries—but that, along with every other sense, became distant as she focused intently on the ground before them.

 

“Stupid question,” she muttered.

 

“’s not—” Adora’s breath hitched as they went over an uneven patch of ground, “—a stupid question,” she finished, defensively. “I just thought they should’ve come looking by now, it’s been a long time since the battle.”

 

Guilt rose in Catra’s throat, threatening to choke her. ”Yeah, well. I guess friends don’t always live up to our expectations, huh.”

 

Adora stiffened and stopped moving, dragging them to a halt. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

 

Catra couldn’t stop the words from coming, like she had thrown herself down a hill and lost all control as she tumbled downward.

 

“You know exactly what it means.”

 

Well, she thought, wincing as the words fell from her tongue. Guess we’re doing this now.

 

Adora pushed away from her and stood unsteadily, curled slightly over the arm she braced across her stomach, but her eyes focused on Catra. Bright. Confused. Angry.

 

Catra fought the urge to look at the trees, the ground, the sky—anywhere except Adora’s gaze.

 

“What’s gotten into you?” Adora demanded. “I thought…”

 

Catra crossed her arms. “You thought what?” 

 

“I don’t know. I thought we were past this. Getting past it,” she amended, too late.

 

The dying flame of anger in Catra’s chest flickered back to life. “I guess that would’ve been nice and easy for you, huh.”

 

Adora’s face twisted, whether in anger or guilt, Catra wasn’t sure. “Catra, don’t. You know why I had to leave.”

 

The flame of anger leapt higher, warming her from the inside out. Burning her.

 

“Yeah.” Catra’s tone was low, dangerous. “Yeah, I know. Because after watching Shadow Weaver torture me our entire lives, you saw some random strangers get their houses blown up—and that was what finally convinced you the Horde was evil. Because I—” her voice threatened to break, and she steadied it. “I wasn’t enough.”

 

Adora flinched. “I didn’t—”

 

“No,” Catra interrupted. “You didn’t.”

 

There was silence for a moment.

 

Adora’s gaze dropped.

 

“I didn’t want it to happen. I didn’t want... this.” Her voice was quiet, almost sad, and Catra hated the way she bristled in response. Adora shouldn’t get to be sad over what happened. Not when it was her fault. 

 

“Oh, I forgot. You’re a princess now. You get everything you want.”

 

Adora stiffened, hand falling from her side, eyes blazing with anger. “No, Catra, I don’t!” She took a halting step closer. “You think I wanted us on opposite sides of a war? I wanted you to come with me. I didn’t want to fight you! I didn’t want us to grow up the way we did, and I didn’t want to be Shadow Weaver’s favorite.”

 

“Right,” Catra scoffed. “It must have been terrible for you.”

 

Adora went red with anger, taking a step closer before suddenly halting and curling forward, her arm shaking as it pressed into her side. She stumbled a few steps back to lean against a nearby tree, and Catra fought the urge to reach out to her.

 

“You know exactly what it was like,” Adora said. “I know you had it worse than me, I know. But if you think for one second that it was fun for me, or what I wanted—” she broke off, then gave a shallow sigh. “Don’t you remember anything?”

 

Catra bared her fangs. Of course she did. She remembered everything.

 

She remembered Adora stumbling into the barracks late at night, too exhausted to speak, covered with bruises from training with cadets nearly twice her size. Remembered how Adora’s back went rigid—remembered the smell of her fear—when Shadow Weaver’s hand caressed her face, even though Catra could only dream of a touch that gentle. Remembered the first night that Adora’s breathing became faster, shallower, heartbeat thundering so loud that Catra thought it would deafen her as she swung down from the bunk overhead and coaxed, begged Adora to breathe with her. How when her breathing finally slowed, she collapsed against Catra’s shoulder, exhausted. How it happened again, and again, and again, until finally Catra stopped sleeping on the top bunk and stayed with her every night.

 

They both slept easier, then.

 

“Look, I…” Adora said, her voice startling Catra back to the present. She grabbed absently at a nearby vine and yanked a leaf off it as she spoke. “I know I screwed up, okay? I hated how Shadow Weaver treated you, but I was too much of a coward to acknowledge it, let alone do anything about it, so I overcompensated. I kept trying to protect you everywhere else, everywhere you didn’t need protecting. And I know you can take care of yourself, I know! I just…” she pulled off another leaf, “thought the teasing would make you feel better. Like I wasn’t pitying you.”

 

Catra blinked, mind spinning as she tried to reframe years of anger and frustration in light of this revelation.

 

 “Wow. That was…”

 

“A terrible idea, yeah, I know.”

 

“The worst.”

 

“I know. I’m shit at communicating properly.”

 

Catra could feel the mood lightening, her own anger fading. It came with a strange sense of relief.

 

“You really, really are.”

 

Adora narrowed her eyes, ripping more greenery off the vine and throwing the whole handful at Catra. The small leaves fluttered down between them disappointingly. “Like you’re any better.”

 

“Please, Adora. I’ve always been better.”

 

Adora scoffed. “You wish.”

 

Catra raised an eyebrow.

 

“Sorry. Reflex.”

 

“Whatever,” Catra replied, feigning disinterest. “You’re injured. I’ll let you find comfort in your delusions.”

 

Adora’s eyes narrowed. “You’re the worst person I know.”

 

“Flattery will get you nowhere,” Catra said, airily, stepping closer and offering Adora a hand. “Now. Can we get going?”

 

“Yeah,” Adora replied, and Catra heard a hint of her own relief in Adora’s voice as she settled one arm back over Catra’s shoulders, the other still held loosely but protectively over her wounded side. Her face was flushed again, and Catra tried not to notice how the warmth she felt radiating from Adora’s body was noticeably more intense than it had been the day before. A muscle in her jaw tensed as her gaze fixed resolutely on the faint path before them.

 

“Let’s get out of here.”

Chapter Text

“No.”

 

“Come on, Catra,” Adora pleaded, almost a whine.

 

“Do you actively try to come up with terrible ideas, or does it just come naturally to you?” There was a muffled smack, followed by an indignant squeak and then a low growl. “If you want to die, there are easier ways.”

 

“Catra, come on. Let me try it.”

 

Catra adjusted the pack so that the weapon in question was further from Adora’s grasp. “No. You are not touching the sword.”

 

“Why not?”

 

“Because it’s full of stupid broken magic, and if it knocks you out—again—I’m not dragging your sorry, unconscious ass all the way to Bright Moon!”

 

“Catra, please. I need to try it. If I can access even part of its magic, I might be able to call Swift Wind for help.” Normally she could feel their connection even without the sword, but after the runestone broke, the familiar sensation had been replaced with an… emptiness. A blank, buzzing hole in her mind where She-Ra’s magic used to reside. It was an unpleasant sensation, but it paled in comparison to burning, stabbing pull of the wound in her side, or the way her head pounded with every step. The light that filtered through the trees overhead, weak though it was, still made her feel like someone was jabbing needles through her eyes.

 

She realized Catra was staring at her. “Swift Wind?” Catra repeated. “Tell me you don’t have a stupid Rebellion friend named Swift Wind.”

 

“Oh, um.” They took another step, and Adora missed her footing, fingers unconsciously digging into Catra’s injured shoulder as she regained her balance. Catra inhaled sharply. “Sorry. Uh, he’s—Swift Wind is my horse.”

 

“Your horse,” Catra repeated. “You’re going to call your horse for help?”

 

“My flying horse.”

 

“Your flying horse.”

 

“He has a horn, too. And he talks,” Adora mumbled the last part. He talked a little too much, if she was being honest.

 

“Your flying, talking horse with a horn,” Catra said, slowly.

 

“Could you stop repeating everything I say?”

 

“I’m just making sure you realize how ridiculous it sounds.”

 

“Oh, come on—you must’ve seen him at some point. Rainbow wings, flowing mane? Never shuts up about revolution? Or hay? Or apples?”

 

Catra made a choked noise almost like a laugh. “I don’t know whether I should pity you or check you for brain damage.”

 

“Wow, you’re annoying. The point is, if I can use the sword to call my magical, flying horse for help, we won’t have to walk the rest of the way out of this pit full of three horrifying things that want to kill us.”

 

“It’s a canyon,” Catra corrected under her breath.

 

Adora glared. “Make that four things.”

 

“Yeah, I’m not worried,” Catra responded with a smug grin. They took another step, the sword still decidedly out of Adora’s reach.

 

Adora sighed. This was going nowhere fast. She needed to touch the sword—needed to find out if any part of her magic was recoverable in its current state, or even if she could just hold the blade long enough to use it as an ordinary weapon. The knife Catra had given her before they left the cave was stuck through her belt, but… it was a woefully inadequate defense against the foes they faced. 

 

She noticed the way Catra’s face tensed whenever Adora had to lean harder on her to get past rocky terrain; the way she kept shifting underneath Adora’s arm though trying to find a more comfortable position; the way the four lines of blood marking the bandage on her arm were slowly melding into one large stain. Adora had tried to pull away from her support earlier and walk on her own, but wobbled and nearly fell within the first few steps. Catra immediately pulled her back, hissing an insulting rebuke under her breath. 

 

Adora hated it. Hated being so useless, weighing them down when she should be protecting them.There was no doubt in her mind that to escape, they’d need She-Ra. 

 

They needed magic.

 

Another wave of uncomfortable warmth pulsed through Adora’s body, and she barely refrained from shivering. Magic for fighting, sure, but also maybe She-Ra’s healing… or they might be in trouble.

 

She might be in trouble.

 

Her fingers flexed, still too far away from the gleaming metal of the sword jutting from the bag around Catra’s shoulders. Ugh. If she could just get them to shift a little bit, the hilt would fall right into her hand.

 

…Hm.

 

This was going to hurt.

 

On their next step, she clenched her teeth and intentionally misplaced her footing, allowing her knee to buckle and almost drag them down to the ground. A very real cry came from her throat as the pain in her side flared higher, almost blacking out her surroundings in its intensity. She heard a muted, pained grunt and an extremely rude word as Catra’s arm tightened suddenly around her, tilting down to keep them from hitting the ground, and then—then—

 

Something shifted, and the cold feel of smooth metal knocked against Adora’s hand. The contact was like an electric shock, quick and sharp, and before she could think better of it, she closed her hand on the hilt.

 

The world wrenched violently away.

 

The buzzing, electric feeling of wrongness returned to her, pulsing through her body, overriding all other thought and sensation. Trying to access the sword’s magic felt like… like trying to walk through a blizzard without a coat, the burning cold piercing down to her bones, jagged fragments of ice whipping and biting at her skin, swirling around her, drowning out the world in a sea of consuming white. But… it was there. The magic was there. If she could just reach it—

 

She stretched out toward the magic, but a juddering shock of pain coursed through her the instant her mind touched it. No, something whispered. Wrong. An image flashed into her mind. The woods—the Crystal Castle. Light Hope. Close, the something whispered again. Fix.

 

Fix? The runestone… the Castle could fix it? 

 

She didn’t have time to wonder. The sword jerked sharply from her grasp, snapping her connection to its magic. Aches and pains returned, slowly at first and then all at once, insistently pressing through the haze left behind by sword’s broken magic. Her skin boiled in the wake of its icy touch. A voice, angry, and concerned, filtered through the buzzing in her mind. “— told you not to touch the sword, you absolute moron—

 

“Mmph,” Adora forced out. It was supposed to be a word. She hadn’t quite decided which one. 

 

It wasn’t as bad as when the runestone had first broken, but everything… hurt. Well, everything had hurt before. But there was something extra now; like the aftermath of a stun baton, where every muscle clenched involuntarily and then ached for days after. Her skin prickled and burned, and a bone-deep exhaustion had settled beneath the new haze that covered her vision. Standing was… proving to be a challenge. 

 

“That’s what you have to say for yourself? Really? I should just drop you right here, or throw that stupid sword in the creek and leave it—”

 

“Catra.” The word slurred slightly on its way out of her mouth.

 

The blur of Catra’s head whipped toward her. A faint glint in the distance told her the sword had been thrown several feet away. “What?

 

Her head spun violently, nausea building in her stomach, but somehow Catra’s strong grip held her upright. The pain in her side flared, reminding her how much she did not want to throw up again.

 

“I think. I need… to sit down.”

 

“No shit.” Catra was already moving, almost carrying her.

 

They almost made it to a nearby tree before Adora’s knees buckled for real this time, bringing them both down faster than intended. Something snagged Adora’s shirt on her rapid descent, yanking it up her back and pressing the front edge of the garment into the wound on her side. A strangled sound escaped her throat.

 

“Agh—Catra—”

 

“I know, my stupid claw is stuck. Hang on.” The shirt pulled higher for a moment before a frustrated growl and the sound of tearing fabric. Then—a sharp inhale.

 

Silence.

 

Even through her fog, Adora knew something was wrong. She looked up, blinking in a futile attempt to clear her vision, and saw Catra kneeling at her side where they’d all but fallen to the ground.

 

“Catra?” Concern wormed its way into her voice.

 

Catra’s gaze was fixed on Adora’s back. The shirt had slid back down once freed from Catra’s claw, but it had ridden high enough to—

 

Oh.

 

“Your back,” Catra said, finally, her voice distant.

 

Adora sighed, shallowly, rubbing her spinning head with one hand and swallowing against her growing nausea. “Yeah.”

 

“I didn’t…”

 

“Yeah,” Adora repeated. Catra didn’t know. Why would she?

 

Catra’s mouth worked for a moment before producing sound. “You were She-Ra. Why…” she trailed off, question left unasked.

 

Why did it scar? Why did it hurt Adora, not just She-Ra?

 

“I don’t know. My connection to She-Ra wasn’t as strong back then… maybe I was tired, maybe whatever stupid, magical force controls She-Ra wanted to teach me a lesson—I don’t know,” Adora repeated. She didn’t have the energy for this conversation. Not right now, when she felt about two seconds from passing out.

 

Adora’s back itched under Catra’s unrelenting stare. One of Catra’s hands twitched, like she wanted to reach out but stopped herself.

 

“It wasn’t supposed to,” she said. “It wasn’t supposed to leave scars.”

 

If she had the energy, she would have shrugged. “It’s in the past.”

 

Catra flinched from the words.

 

“Why are you being so casual about this? Don’t you care ?”

 

She certainly did at the time. It hurt. A lot, and not just physically. Throughout her recovery, each stinging line of pain on her back was a fresh reminder of how badly their friendship had broken. Glimmer’s face twisted in sadness and anger every time she saw the bandages on Adora’s back, or saw her flinch from a movement that pulled at the still-healing wounds. Adora didn’t really understand why. The hurt had been inside her since the moment Catra refused to come with her. It was just visible, now. 

“It happened,” she said, exhaling slowly. The world was, finally, starting to spin a little less. “It healed. I’m okay now.”

 

We can be okay, too.

 

Catra sat down heavily, staring into the distance as the claws of one hand dug into the dirt, then tore up a handful of grass.

 

“I’m…”

 

Adora’s eyebrows raised despite herself. An apology?

 

“I didn’t mean for it to happen,” Catra started over. No, not an apology. But maybe as close as she could get.

 

“Or maybe I did, I don’t know.” Catra tore up another fistful of grass. “No, I did. But even if I wanted to hurt you, I didn’t think it actually would. Just She-Ra.”

 

Adora nodded. Surprised and pleased as she was that Catra was opening up, even if just a crack, she was too tired for this. A shiver ran through her as her body decided it was done with “uncomfortably hot” and made an about-face into “freezing” territory.

 

“I k-know,” she said, unable to keep a stutter from her voice. Catra’s eyes were on her immediately, and Adora knew that conversation was over. For now, at least. She let her eyes briefly slip shut, tilting her head back to rest against the trunk of the tree.

 

“I hope your grand plan to touch the sword was worth it,” Catra said. “You look like shit.”

 

She felt her mouth pull upward into a crooked grin. “Thanks.”

 

Catra lifted a handful of grass and slowly let it fall, a soft wind blowing the thin blades into a nearby patch of light that filtered through the trees overhead. If it wasn’t for the fact that Adora could see the oppressive, vertical rock face of the canyon wall just beyond the trees, it would almost be pretty here. Almost.

 

The knowledge that they were being hunted by beasts with teeth and claws longer than your entire hand didn’t exactly help.

 

“Did you get to call Gentle Breeze, or whatever?”

 

Adora groaned. “Swift Wind.”

 

“That’s what I said.”

 

“No,” Adora said. “The sword’s magic is there, I think, but it all felt… wrong.” she shivered again. “I don’t know if I can access all of it. Parts of it, like my connection to Swift Wind, are out of my reach.”

 

The whispering something and images of the Crystal Castle came back to her memory. If there was a chance the sword could be repaired… A wave of heat passed through her body and she winced, the motion pulling at her wound. Agh. She had to bring it there. After she healed up a bit.

 

“Hm. Well, guess we’re back to doing this the long way, then.” Catra rose, brushing grass from her legs and squinting through the trees toward where Adora could just hear the rushing sounds of a small stream. “Stay here. I’ll refill the canteen.” She grabbed the canteen from where it had fallen.

 

Then over her shoulder, she added, “Don’t touch the sword.” 

 

Adora gave a shaky laugh. “Wasn’t—planning on it,” she managed. She relaxed into the support of the tree and let her eyes close, concentrating on the sound of Catra’s footsteps through the underbrush and the soft babble of running water.

 


 

Catra plunged the canteen into the stream.

 

The first time she’d filled this canteen, Adora’s blood had been caked in her claws, trickling away downstream in thin streaks of muddy red. The water ran clear across her fingers, now, but Adora’s blood still stained her hands. A stain no stream could wash away.

 

She’d been angry, back at the Battle of Bright Moon. Beyond angry. Enraged. Adora had hurt her, destroyed her, cast her aside like she was nothing. It kept her up at night, until emptiness and sorrow turned to fire and rage; a ball of flame in her chest that kept her moving when all she wanted to do was curl up and cry. But underneath it all, it still… it just hurt.

 

At Bright Moon, staring at Adora—so strong, so confident, so perfect, so happy without her

 

She wanted Adora to feel that pain, too.

 

She didn’t even think about it until later, after the battle, when she found She-Ra’s—Adora’s—blood under her claws. Guilt washed over her, then, but she pushed it aside. She’d seen She-Ra heal with no evidence of injury. It would happen again. That’s just the way it worked: Adora’s pain was temporary; Catra’s lasted.

 

So Catra let herself forget. There was no reason to remember. For the rebellion’s golden warrior, those eight marks might as well have been a papercut.

 

Catra shivered, remembering the pale lines scoring Adora’s back. She’d been wrong.

 

She was starting to wonder what else she’d been wrong about.

 

A snort of ugly, unfamiliar laughter broke her thoughts. Catra shot to her feet, heart racing, canteen slipping from her fingers and splashing its contents onto the ground.

 

Octavia.

 

The Force Captain sat a short distance away on the other side of the shallow stream, looking almost comfortable. Her own canteen rested nearby.

 

“Wow. I always knew you were terrible at your job, but really.” She stood, brushing herself off and then gesturing to her eyepatch with a wide, humorless smile. “Two working eyes, and you still didn’t notice me? Pathetic.”

 

She was approaching, now, taking a casual step into the shallow water of the stream. Catra took an involuntary step backward, glancing behind her. No—retreat wasn’t an option. Maybe Catra could outrun her, but Adora… She turned her gaze back to Octavia, letting some of her hatred and anger bleed into her expression.

 

“Oh, you’re gonna fight?” Octavia asked, with condescending excitement. “Good.” An enhanced stun baton crackled to life at her side, glowing with its intense energy. “I was starting to think this might be boring.”

 

Catra stepped in a steady, predatory arc to the side, claws flexed at her sides. Octavia was slow. With Catra’s speed, this shouldn’t have been a fight at all—but with her reflexes slowed by injury, a hint of apprehension crept into her mind. She glanced down to the stun baton, capable of delivering a shock strong enough to incapacitate the beasts, if you could get close enough to deliver it. A shock like that would kill a normal person instantly. And it wasn’t just her life this time; if Catra died here, so would Adora.

 

Sweat dampened her palms. She’d have to be careful. And in a fight, that meant not making the first move.

 

She straightened, affecting a casual tone. “Sorry, but—” she pointed from one side of Octavia’s face to the other. “Do I look at the eye, or the eyepatch? I just—I don’t want to be rude—”

 

That did it. Octavia leapt forward with a snarl of rage, recklessly swinging the baton. It was comically easy to dodge, and left Octavia wide open for a set of deep scratches on her ribcage. Catra used the inertia of her movement to swing up and around onto Octavia’s back, where she reached down for the exposed skin of her target’s throat—but she’d forgotten she was fighting someone with more than just arms. The unpleasant sensation of a tentacle started to wrap around her leg and she pulled back sharply, scoring red lines into Octavia’s cheek and flipping away just before the tentacle could solidify its grasp. The soft impact of the landing sent an agonizing jolt through her ribs, and she stumbled. Stupid. She couldn’t fight like she usually did. Fortunately, Octavia was too busy cupping her bleeding cheek and making enraged, pained sounds to notice. The scratches ran dangerously close to Octavia’s remaining eye.

 

“Whoops,” Catra said. “Missed.” She was too tense for any real enjoyment to make its way into her smile, but it did the job anyway. Octavia barreled forward again, her stance a little tighter. Catra still managed to leave a new set of scratches on Octavia’s arm, almost forcing her to drop the baton.

 

Just when Catra was starting to think she might be able to win this by simply wearing her down, it all went sideways.

 

Catra wasn’t quite sure how it happened. One moment her claws were swiping toward the exposed flesh of Octavia’s throat, but then the stun baton abruptly changed trajectory, swinging toward her—she ducked out of its reach—but it was a feint. A sharp elbow cracked against her temple, sending the world spinning in a flash of sparks. Something cool and unpleasant wrapped around her ankle and yanked, and that was all her ruined balanced needed to send her flat on her back on the hard ground, the air rushing from her lungs in a pained gasp. Shit, shit, shit. Red eyes floated before her dazed vision, glowing and merciless, and again, again, she couldn’t breathe—

 

A dangerous voice filtered through her panicked fog. “Aw, kitten. Having trouble?”

 

A hand grabbed her arm, her injured arm, and if she could breathe she would have screamed. It pulled her from the ground, then held her upright.

 

“Let me help with that.”

 

Something smacked against her back, so hard she was sure she felt something crack. The force of the blow sent her stumbling forward and then falling into the stream, cold water sending a shock through her chest and rushing up over her head, filling her nose. She scrabbled at the pebbles and sand below her and pushed upright, breaking the surface. Air. Somehow, she was breathing again—ragged, desperate gasps for oxygen, her hands braced against her knees as moisture automatically formed in her eyes, blurring her vision. Red eyes flashed before her again, and she unconsciously reached for her throat. No. He wasn’t there. She could breathe.

 

A splash from behind her reminded her too late that she had lost awareness of her surroundings. She tried to move, but her body wasn’t fast enough—sharp talons scraped her scalp as a hand buried itself deep in the thick hair behind her head. Catra struggled, lashing out with her claws, but another hand clamped down on her bandaged arm and squeezed, tearing a cry of pain from her throat.

 

“A tank shell was too good for you,” Octavia taunted from behind her. Nausea curled in her stomach at the closeness of her voice, and the confirmation of what she already knew. “You know how we dealt with lost little kittens in the Horde?”

 

Catra turned her head as far as she could and spat. Octavia laughed.

 

“Well.” There was a cruel smile in Octavia’s voice. “Let me show you.”

 

She struggled again as the hand clenched in her hair suddenly tightened and bore down, but her opponent was strong—too strong. Something kicked the back of her leg and she was falling, knees splashing into the cold water, the hand forcing her down, down—she struck blindly upward, feeling her claws graze something but it wasn’t enough, wasn’t nearly enough—her head was underwater.

 

She was drowning.

 

Adrenaline coursed through her and she bucked and writhed like a wild thing, but a heavy knee buried itself in her back, pressing her face and chest into the stones at the bottom of the shallow stream until coarse sand ground into her skin. She hadn’t recovered her breath before being forced back underwater, and struggling against Octavia’s grasp only intensified her body’s need for oxygen. Her lungs burned. Cold water filled her nostrils, her mouth.

 

She was going to die.

 

She was going to die in a canyon, in two freaking feet of water, killed by Octavia.

 

Pathetic.

 

She writhed again under Octavia’s vicelike grip, feeling herself weakening, the burning need for air. Her body tried to inhale despite her closed-off throat; a horrible, panicked, choking sensation. She lashed out desperately, but her motions were sluggish. In a moment she wouldn’t be able to hold back any more. Water would flood her lungs. She’d be gone.

 

Her body automatically tried to pull in air again, and she felt a trickle of water down her throat. Her eyes closed.

 

Then: the pressure on her back and head twitched. Lessened. Disappeared entirely.

 

In a last desperate bid for life, her body rocketed up out of the water, collapsing onto the soft dirt and sand and drawing a deep, ragged inhale before dissolving into a fit of watery coughs. Air. Sweet, blessed, wonderful air. She rolled onto her back and heaved more oxygen into her lungs, blinking dizzily up at the sky.

 

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” a voice rang out.

 

Adora.

 

With great effort, Catra managed to push up on one elbow in the soft ground to see Octavia standing nearby, one hand holding a short knife poised over something shiny and golden that was wrapped tightly around her other arm.

 

On the other end of the golden rope stood Adora. At this distance, with the white of the bandage at her side blending into her shirt and the deep, dark circles under her eyes less visible, she almost looked imposing.

 

But… that rope. She was using the sword. Worry twisted in Catra’s chest.

 

Idiot.

 

Octavia snarled and brought her knife down on the rope. Its length crackled with a bright, jagged, golden energy, causing both her and Adora to stumble and cry out. Somehow, Adora regained her footing first.

 

“Told you,” she said, voice a little weaker than it had been a moment ago.

 

“Fool!” Octavia shouted. “I’ll kill you both.” She grabbed at the rope in preparation to yank Adora closer, but it glowed with its unnatural, crackling energy and pulled away from Octavia, shifting form back into a sword in Adora’s grasp. Adora’s eyes closed, and Catra saw her sway.

 

No way was she doing this alone. Shakily, Catra pushed herself to her feet, extending her claws and letting her expression settle into a murderous glare. At the moment, she probably couldn’t manage much more than a weak swipe before falling over, but, well. Octavia didn’t need to know that.

 

Octavia glanced behind her at the sound of movement and hissed in annoyance, stepping to the side so she was no longer directly between Catra and Adora.

 

“Maybe you’ll kill us,” Adora said, finally, her voice stronger than Catra could remember hearing it in the past day and a half. “Or maybe we’ll kill you.” She lowered the sword into a fighting stance, and Catra could almost imagine Adora’s torn, bloodstained shirt as She-Ra’s white and gold uniform, red cape fluttering behind her.

 

“Do you really want to find out?”

 

Octavia took a half-step back, glancing from Adora’s sword to Catra’s claws. She lowered her head and snarled, then pulled a small device from a pocket, flipped a switch, and threw it on the ground. A red light blinked and it emitted a high pitched shriek that neither Octavia nor Adora seemed to notice, but made Catra want to claw her ears off. She dashed toward it and stomped it into the ground until both light and sound faded away.

 

But the damage was done. There was no way the beasts hadn’t heard that. 

 

Octavia gave a vindictive, humorless laugh. “You’re dead anyway. I don’t need to waste my time.” She backed away a few steps, then turned and disappeared into the trees.

 

Neither of them moved until the sounds of Octavia crashing through the underbrush faded, then disappeared entirely. 

 

There was silence for a moment. Then the sword clattered to the ground, and Adora followed.

 

Chapter Text

“Adora.”

 

Something tapped her cheek. Distantly, she heard herself groan.

 

Adora.” The voice was insistent, worried—and very, very familiar.

 

“Adora, come on.” A hand shook her shoulder, jostling her aching head and aching… everything. If she could have, she would’ve punched the hand’s owner. “Please.” The voice sounded like it was on the verge of cracking.

 

With another groan, she wrenched her eyes open—and snapped them shut just as quickly. Too bright. The light was too bright. It burned her eyes, boiled her skin. Everything was hot, too hot.

 

Her side burned, sending a wave of fire pulsing through her body.

 

No, that… that heat wasn’t from the light, was it?

 

“Can you hear me?”

 

“Mmph,” she answered. Then, blinking her eyes open, squinting against the light, forcing a quiet word out through her rough voice: “Yeah.” Catra’s blurry face relaxed in relief, and she tilted back almost out of Adora’s vision to sit heavily on her heels.

 

Catra.

 

Memories flooded her fuzzy mind. She’d heard the sounds of fighting, before, then a cry of pain that made her stomach drop straight to her feet. Somehow, she’d managed to pull herself to her feet. Somehow, she’d managed to pick up the sword, force her way past the frigid, electric assault of its broken magic. Somehow, she’d managed not to scream when she saw Catra being held motionless underwater by Octavia, or cry with relief when Catra broke the surface, coughing and weak but breathing, alive.

 

Her hand reached up, missed Catra’s arm, then latched on in her second try.

 

“You… okay?”

 

Catra huffed out an almost-laugh. “Yeah. I’m great.” She took a shuddering inhale that turned into a cough. “Just a little water down the wrong pipe. I’ll be fine.”

 

Dismissive. Probably not true. Yet… familiar. Adora kept her hand on Catra’s arm for a moment longer, letting the warmth reassure her that she was there, she was okay, and then let her hand fall away.

 

Etheria, she was so tired.

 

Catra glanced to the sword, laying nearby in the grass where it had fallen from Adora’s numb fingers. “Pretty sure I told you not to touch that.”

 

Despite her exhaustion and the lingering soreness of the sword’s magic, a smile pulled at the corner of Adora’s mouth. “You’re welcome.”

 

“I had it handled,” Catra said with a wry grin.

 

“Sure you did.”

 

Adora felt a vague sense of regret as soon as the words left her mouth, but the look of guarded offense she expected never appeared on Catra’s expression. Instead, she looked strangely soft. Grateful, almost?

 

She must be imagining things.

 

“Thanks… for showing up when you did.”

 

No, that was real gratitude. Grudging, but genuine. Adora felt a shocked smile forming.

 

Catra’s expression hardened. “Now don’t ever do it again.”

 

Adora’s smile was in full swing now, despite fighting the urge to let her eyes close. “No promises.”

 

Catra’s eyes narrowed and her tail twitched behind her in agitation. She inhaled like she was going to speak, then stopped.

 

“Can you get up?” Whatever she was going to say, that wasn’t it.

 

Getting up was about the last thing Adora wanted to do right now.

 

“Do I have a choice?”

 

“Not really.” Catra nodded her head toward a small piece of broken electronics a few steps away. “Octavia’s parting gift. There’s no way the beasts didn’t hear the sound that thing made.”

 

Adora’s brow knit in confusion. “Sound?”

 

“Oh, right. I forgot you humans have terrible hearing.” The corner of Catra’s mouth quirked upward.

 

“Hey.”

 

“And terrible eyesight. And terrible reflexes. And—”

 

“—terrible taste in friends?”

 

“Nah, that’s the one thing you’re amazing at, actually.”

 

Adora snorted. “At least you’re humble.”

 

Catra’s tone was light, Adora hadn’t missed the way her eyes kept darting around the clearing, or the way her muscles stayed tense despite the occasional shiver that ran through her body.

 

She didn’t look okay.

 

Adora didn’t feel okay.

 

But the beasts were coming, and they had to move.

 

“Okay,” she said, mentally bracing herself for what was not going to be a pleasant experience. “Help me up.”

 


 

She was right, it wasn’t a pleasant experience. Between searing agony that stabbed her abdomen every time she moved, the suffocating heat coursing through her, and her new, ever-present nausea, it was a miracle she hadn’t thrown up. Catra looked a little green herself, stumbling a half-step before Adora’s arm was once again situated around her shoulders. Her wet clothes immediately soaked through Adora’s shirt, and she could feel her trembling against her side. The shivering started to lessen after a few minutes of being pressed against each other.

 

Ha. Maybe the fever was good for something after all. Adora shook her fuzzy head, instantly regretting the motion.

 

As they traveled further from the stream, the steady, gentle slope of the path they had chosen through the canyon finally began to take on a much steeper angle, rising up and above the trees. A glimmer of hope shone through Adora’s foggy thoughts. With any luck, today might be the day they escaped this nightmare.

 

Of course, now that they had a way out, their pace slowed even further. They’d barely begun to climb before Adora’s legs started to burn, and she had to concentrate all her effort into just putting one foot in front of the other.

 

For the hundredth time, Adora felt Catra tense under her arm, saw her eyes dart around the surrounding trees. One furred ear twitched anxiously.

 

“Do you hear something?” Adora asked, unable to keep a hint of apprehension from her tone.

 

“No. I—” Catra broke off, sighed. “Maybe. I keep getting this feeling, like we’re being watched… but I can’t see anything. Can’t hear anything.”

 

Anxiety bloomed in Adora’s stomach, adding more fuel to her screaming muscles. Great. Well, if there was something out in the trees, at least it was taking the cautious approach and just watching them.

 

For now.

 

Adora just hoped they’d be able to get somewhere relatively safe before the beasts that took a more… direct approach showed up.

 

Another pulse of warmth washed over her, and her knee chose to turn to jelly just as she was putting her weight on it. They staggered, and Catra grunted, barely able to hold them upright.

 

“Sorry,” Adora breathed, head down, trying to push the heat away and into its own little box alongside the pain in her side, the pounding in her head, the lingering aches of the sword’s broken magic. It didn’t work very well. She was running out of boxes.

 

When she raised her head, Catra looked pale. Adora’s eyes flitted to the soaked bandage on her arm. Her dip in the stream had temporarily washed away the blood, but now it soaked the bandage red again, a thin trickle running down her arm from the saturated bandage. Her breathing had a slight rattle to it.

 

“Are you—”

 

“Fine,” Catra bit out. Her eyes closed briefly. “Let’s… talk about something.”

 

The anxiety in Adora’s chest grew. Catra only wanted to talk about something when she was having trouble staying awake. Even then it didn’t always work, since she always complained about Adora’s voice being so boring it sent her right off to sleep.

 

“Um.” Adora took a moment, filtering through her foggy thoughts for a topic of conversation. “What do you know about the beasts?”

 

Catra snorted. “Oh, good. Now there’s a topic that’ll really take our minds off our looming demise.”

 

“It’s tactical,” Adora defended. “‘Know your enemy,’ and all that. We can compare information.”

 

“Ugh. Fine.” They took a few more steps in silence, Catra still keeping a watchful eye on the trees. “Not much to tell,” she said, finally. “All I know is the stories that got passed around the barracks. Three beasts, taken from Beast Island when they were small and raised to eat misbehaving cadets for lunch. Heard ‘em howling a few times, never actually saw them.” She glanced around the canyon with a distasteful expression. “Not until this delightful experience, anyway.”

 

It all sounded familiar. The beasts were a popular topic on nights when the cadets would risk swapping stories in the dark. Beast Island itself was another, although the fact that the beasts were actually there, in the Fright Zone, made the fear more immediate. So did the bone-chilling howls that could sometimes be heard drifting through the night air, echoing down empty corridors.

 

It took more effort than it should have for Adora to push her wandering thoughts to the side. She groped for another question to keep the conversation going. “Do… do you think they sent all three of them?”

 

“Probably. We’ve already seen two of them—” Catra paused, awkwardly. “Well. I have. I saw a second one while you were out. In the cave.”

 

She’d faced a beast? Alone? The anxiety in Adora’s stomach turned to fear, despite how Catra was right next to her, alive and whole.

 

Well, mostly.

 

Catra must have felt her tense. “Relax. It didn’t see me.”

 

“Point is,” she continued, “If two of them are here, the third one probably is too. You know, the one they told us could turn invisible?” Catra gave an empty laugh. “They really tried everything to scare us.”

 

“Actually…” Adora shifted uncomfortably, “that part is probably true.”

 

Catra’s head whipped toward her. “What?”

 

“I think it really can turn invisible.”

 

Blue and gold eyes narrowed. “How do you know?”

 

“When I was really little, Shadow Weaver took me with her to do—something, I don’t know. All I remember is she left me in a room with three big, empty cages while she talked to someone. Except one of the cages wasn’t empty. Two of them were, but the third one… I thought I heard breathing, so I walked a little closer… and then this huge, yellow eye appeared out of thin air. Staring at me.” It startled her, and she’d screamed. Shadow Weaver… hadn’t liked that.

 

Her face stung for a while afterward.

 

She shook off the memory. “Anyway, I thought I saw something like scales rippling for a second, like a trick of the light. But then it blinked, and just… disappeared.”

 

There was silence for a moment.

 

“Wow,” Catra said. “No helpful information, but now the beasts are somehow even more frightening than they were before! Great tactical meeting, Adora. Now I can really see why you made Force Captain so fast.”

 

Adora groaned, wishing she had the energy to punch her in the uninjured arm.

 

“Oh, shut up.”

 


 

Catra felt, to put it plainly, like shit.

 

Her shoulder ached incessantly, sending fiery tendrils of pain shooting through her arm whenever she moved. The claw marks on her arm burned and stung from Octavia’s grip, and the smell of her own blood was starting to turn her stomach. They probably needed to do something about that—if she could smell it, other things could, too. Plus, the loss of blood was beginning to make her feel a little light-headed.

 

Or maybe that was just the aftereffects of being almost-drowned. She still shivered occasionally in her soaked clothes, at once grateful for and terrified of Adora’s abnormal warmth at her side. She hadn’t missed how it was getting harder for Adora to form a complete sentence, or the way her already halting steps were becoming even clumsier.

 

That just meant she needed to be on top of things for the both of them. Which was difficult, when all she wanted to do was sit down and sleep for a few days.

 

The feeling of being watched pricked at the back of her mind again and she tensed, glancing around the tall, dark trees.

 

Nothing.

 

Again.

 

So why couldn’t she shake that feeling of cold dread?

 

Something was out there. She was sure of it. But between their clumsy, too-loud steps through the underbrush, the harsh sound of their own breathing, and the way her vision was starting to become wavy and distorted at the edges, she’d be lucky to detect the crashing sounds of an advancing Horde bot right now.

 

She should be relieved at the way the path had finally begun to lead them out of this blasted crack in the ground; happy about how the walls of the canyon were finally beginning to shrink—but despite it all, that chill kept running up and down her spine, never letting her relax for a second. Even if she couldn’t consciously detect it, her body knew.

 

Something was watching them.

 

Between her intense focus on the trees around them and the way Adora seemed to be concentrating all her effort on staying upright, it took a moment before either of them realized that their surroundings had changed.

 

“Hey.” The word was quiet, spoken between too-heavy breaths, but also… excited? “Catra, look.” The arm around her shoulders squeezed slightly, and Catra finally stopped scanning the trees long enough to realize that the only thing behind them was… more trees. She swiveled her head to check their surroundings, but—No. There was no oppressive rock wall towering above them, trapping them in the ground. Not anymore.

 

They’d finally, finally made it out of that cursed canyon.

 

A day earlier, she might have felt elation. Now, she just felt the need to move.

 

“About time,” she grumbled. Adora glanced around the trees, brow creased in some sort of confused recognition. A shiver ran through her, despite the sweat beading on her forehead and rolling down the side of her flushed face.

 

“I think… I know where we are,” Adora said. “But it shouldn’t be here…” she trailed off, sounding confused.

 

“What?”

 

“The castle. Where She-Ra—I train. I think it’s nearby.”

 

Catra felt her body go stiff. Oh, great. That place. The place that had messed with their minds, throwing them back to painfully relive childhood memories. The place where Catra had teetered on the edge before turning her back and advancing into shadow. The place where she’d let Adora fall into an unknown abyss, not realizing until far too late that she might actually care what was at the bottom.

 

She shoved her memories and guilt to the side. Now was not the time. “And?”

 

“And—” It was getting harder for Adora to speak, apparently, each word coming around short, pained breaths that were too hot near her ear. It grated on Catra to lose speed with the ever-present feeling of being watched, but she slowed their pace. “—maybe we can hide there. For a bit. No way… beasts can get in there.”

 

“Wow, you’re right. Being pulled apart by giant robot spiders sounds much more appealing than getting eaten by beasts.”

 

Ugh. Wouldn’t be like last time,” Adora protested. “I can… talk to the person who controls them now. Tell her not to attack us.”

 

“Comforting.”

 

“Maybe help with that, too,” Adora said, glancing toward where the sword was thrust through the bag on Catra’s back, broken runestone on full display.

 

“What makes you say that?”

 

Adora’s face, impossibly, seemed to get a little redder. “The, uh. The sword told me. I think. It was a little fuzzy.”

 

Catra stared. “Oh, well. If the sword told you—”

 

“It’s magic, Catra. We need all the help we can get.”

 

Well, she couldn’t really argue with that.

 

Their conversation had distracted her so much that she almost didn’t see it. In the distance, just where the shade of the trees made a dark space in the woods.

 

An eye.

 

Huge. Yellow, reptilian, unblinking.

 

For a moment, Catra thought she was hallucinating an image from Adora’s story. But then she blinked, and the eye was still there—and it seemed closer, now.

 

She didn’t dare blink again.

 

She stopped moving, and Adora stopped with her, confused. “Catra? What’s—” she finally glanced in the direction Catra was staring—and froze. Catra felt the catch in her breath, the tensing of her muscles.

 

Shit,” she breathed.

 

The quiet word sounded like a shout. “Don’t. Move.” Catra said, so softly it was barely more than mouthing the words. Slowly, carefully, she reached for the knife still stuck through Adora’s belt. Adora remained still, but she could feel her shaking with apprehension and the simple effort of standing upright. Her hand closed on the hilt of the knife, and she stopped.

 

What was her plan, here?

 

If she threw the knife, she might miss, and she’ll have thrown away one of their only weapons. Their only weapon, if you didn’t count the broken sword and her own claws, neither of which Adora could use.

 

If she didn’t miss, she figured it was a fifty-fifty chance that either the beast would be spooked long enough for them to run, or it would become enraged and attack. If she didn’t throw the knife… well, they’d have to move, eventually. She’d have to take her eyes off of it. And something told her that the instant she did, they’d be dead.

 

She stared at the eye, still floating eerily amid the trees. Her own eyes were starting to burn from not blinking.

 

Half a chance was better than no chance at all.

 

In one fluid motion, she pulled the knife from Adora’s belt and threw it. An inhuman shriek rose through the trees as the eye blinked out of existence. Catra barely processed the handle of the knife jutting out in the invisible space just to the side of where the eye had been, or the way light rippled across the surface of the beast in a rainbow pattern as it cried out in pain, almost showing its true form.

 

It was big. That was all that mattered.

 

The instant the beast’s cry split the air, they leapt into a sprint—well, something that should have been a sprint, but was in reality more of a frantic, uneven jog. Adrenaline and panic was the only thing fueling their movement, but it still wasn’t nearly fast enough. The beast must have fled. If it had chosen to pursue them, they’d already be dead.

 

Their awkward run was hindered further by how Catra had to almost drag Adora after the first few seconds, trying to pull even more of her weight across her shoulders to keep her upright. Adora was trying, but it wasn’t enough. Catra’s chest ached. There was was no time to be gentle. Not now.

 

She didn’t dare slow their pace until the trees thinned and the ground under their feet suddenly changed to a more recognizable path. She brought them to an awkward halt, blinking against graying vision, trying to pull air into lungs that felt like they were being stabbed by a thousand knives. Adora collapsed into her the moment they stumbled to a stop, her near dead weight pressing down on Catra’s aching ribs and making every inhale that much harder. She blinked, squinting as her vision slowly focused on something rising high above the trees. A cracked, overgrown tower pointing toward the sky. That stupid place where Adora trained—the Crystal Castle, she’d called it. Catra never thought she’d be so relieved to see the cursed thing. It was surprisingly close; the woods must have hidden it from view until now. They could make it.

 

“Hey,” she panted between deep, rattling breaths. Adora’s head had fallen to Catra’s shoulder the moment they stopped, her eyes closed. She jostled Adora’s shoulders, feeling a spike of worry when she didn’t move. “Hey,” she repeated, more urgently.

 

Adora’s brow creased and her eyes fluttered open. “Yeah,” she managed.

 

“Look.” Catra nodded toward the castle. “You were right. It’s here.”

 

Adora blinked in the direction of the castle for a second, as if trying to process what her eyes were seeing. “Mm.” Her eyes slid shut again. “Good.”

 

Heat was pouring off her, now; Catra could feel it coming in waves from Adora’s too-red face. Fear twisted in her gut. She found herself hoping that whoever—or whatever—they found inside the castle would be able to help with more than just the sword.

 

On instinct, Catra glanced behind them—not that it would make much difference, with an invisible creature. But there were no signs of parting vines, no crushed underbrush, no sounds of pursuit. Another wounded cry rose up, but much more distant than before. Relief flooded through her.

 

The cry echoed, then was answered: two voices, wild and terrifying, and… closer. So much closer.

 

Relief turned to ice in her veins. The other beasts were here.

 

In the distance, Catra saw the canopy of a tree shake, then another, closer. Adora had straightened, somewhat, still sagged against her side, but the call of the beasts seemed to have brought back some awareness. She gave Catra a slight nod, mouth set in a grim line.

 

At the edge of a distant clearing, Catra thought she saw a flash of fur and teeth. She glanced to the towing silhouette of the crystal castle—so close, and yet so incredibly far.

 

Time to move.

 


 

Running.

 

Running was bad. Running hurt. Honestly, Adora had no idea how she was doing it—if she was doing it. They were moving, certainly. Moving quickly. She could tell from the way every step hurt so much more, the way the grass was moving by quicker under her feet.

 

The edges of her vision darkened further. The grass beneath them was about all she could see, at this point, and the darkness threatened with each jolting, agonizing step. Somehow, she pushed it back.

 

Not yet.

 

She stared at her feet. Step, jolt, pain. Step, jolt, pain. Catra was breathing heavily at her side. Faster. Step—

 

For a split second, the darkness won. She didn’t know if the agonized sound she heard came from Catra or her, but the pain in her side was enough for her world to fade from black to brilliant white. A nauseating sensation returned; warmth spilling from her side and trickling down her skin.

 

Catra was saying… something, pulling her forward. Everything she had packed away in little boxes was starting to spill out. The pain, the heat—She couldn’t process. Couldn’t think. They had to move, but she couldn’t. Her thoughts started to drift again.

 

Not yet.

 

Starting to run again felt like the hardest thing she’d done in her life, but she did it.

 

Things blurred after that. They weren’t moving. Were they? Things were moving around her, but maybe that was just her vision. They had to keep moving, escape the beasts—

 

Something hit her face, and her head exploded in pain from the sharp movement. Her cheek stung. Somehow, the bright flash of pain in a new location on her body brought with it some brief clarity. Catra was shaking her shoulders, speaking frantically.

 

“Adora, come on. You gotta tell me how to open the door. Adora!” She gave a panicked glance to the side.

 

Door?

 

Sword. Castle. Beasts. Suddenly, she processed the enormous crystal slab that rose before them—The castle. They were at the door to the castle. Her face was burning, her side was burning, everything was burning.

 

With great effort, she wrenched a word from her throat.

 

“..ternia.”

 

“What?”

 

Beasts. Beasts were chasing them. One was almost there—she could feel its steps vibrating through the ground, imagine its hot breath on her neck. Terror shocked her further to awareness. She straightened somewhat and forced the word out with all the air in her body:

 

“Eternia!”

 

The door swung down into a ramp and Catra shoved them both forward, tumbling down in a graceless heap of arms and legs. Rolling down the ramp was a fresh experience in agony, and the short drop from the half-open ramp to the floor drew a sound from her that was pathetic even to her ears—something that would have been a scream, if she had more energy, but emerged only as a breathless whimper. Distantly, she heard Catra shout for the door to close, saw the ramp almost shut just as the blur of a beast’s leg shot through the gap, its enormous claws heading straight for Adora. Something yanked her just out of the way—her vision whitened at the pain—and she felt more than heard the deep gouges scraped into the crystal floor where her head had been a moment before. The door slammed shut on the beast’s leg, unable to close completely. An unsettling yowl of pain and a cracking, crumbling sound as it worked its leg free, followed by a slam as the door shut the rest of the way. A sliver of light shone through the hole cracked in the entrance—too small. Far too small for any of the beasts to make it through. Her eyes closed. The sound of Catra panting for breath, and her own ragged breathing.

 

Then light flashed red through her eyelids, and a robotic voice rang out.

 

“Unauthorized presence detected.”

 

Catra swore. Through what felt like a foot of water, Adora heard the ominous sounds of scrabbling in the walls.

 

Consciousness was slipping away from her again. She pulled it back.

 

Not yet.

Chapter Text

Unauthorized presence detected.”

 

The words rang in Adora’s ears, echoing up to where her consciousness floated somewhere far above her aching body. A distant feeling, like she’d forgotten something important, trickled through her mind.

 

Danger.

 

They were in the castle, but they weren’t safe. Not yet. She tried to roll onto her uninjured side and pulled short, gasping as fresh, sharp pain lanced through her abdomen. One hand instinctively pressed to the wound, fingers slipping in something warm and slick.

 

“Not the same as last time, huh?” Catra said from nearby, the quiet, sarcastic bite of the words dulled by her panting breaths. It didn’t sound like she was expecting a response—which was good, since Adora was pretty sure she couldn’t give one.

 

The scrabbling in the walls was getting louder.

 

Right. Danger.

 

Adora pushed past the pain, slowly curling onto her good side and pressing a shaking hand to the floor.

 

“We can… fix this,” she said, unable to get her voice much louder than a whisper. She closed her eyes for a moment, trying to gather her strength. There wasn’t much of it left.

 

It’d have to do.

 

She heard a soft scuffling, a groan, and then Catra’s hands were on her arms, pulling her upright as she pushed weakly off the floor. She made it to her knees, then her feet, leaning so hard into Catra’s unsteady support that for a moment she thought they’d both fall.

 

The way the room kept tilting really didn’t help.

 

They stumbled further into the main room, where the blurry purple figure of a hologram stood on a small dias.

 

“Light Hope,” Adora gasped out as soon as they were close enough, “It’s me. Call off the spiders.” Just a little longer, and then she could finally rest—

 

“Query not recognized.”

 

What?

 

Adora squinted at the robotic tone, willing her eyes to focus. No… that wasn’t Light Hope. It was the hologram they had encountered on her first visit to the Castle, the one that had disappeared after Light Hope finally recognized her as She-Ra. Why was it—no. It didn’t matter.

 

“Get… Light Hope.”

 

A pause.

 

“Query not recognized.”

 

Adora groaned. 

 

“Yeah, that sounds familiar,” Catra said, her voice a mixture of annoyance, resignation, and exhaustion.

 

The distant clattering and scraping of the spiders grew louder still. They didn’t have time for this.

 

“Give me the sword,” she said, so quietly she feared Catra might not have heard. That fear was immediately dispelled when Catra’s head whipped to face her, eyes wide.

 

“What? No. No way.”

 

“No time,” Adora gritted out.

 

“No,” Catra repeated, anger edging into her tone. “It’ll—for the love of Etheria, Adora, that could kill you.”

 

“We can’t fight them. Not.. like this.” She clenched her eyes shut briefly against a wave of heat and pain, and opened them to see a glimmer of reluctant agreement in Catra’s expression. “If I don’t try this—we’ll both die.”

 

“I’ll fight them off myself.”

 

“You can’t.” Adora was too exhausted to care about the way Catra stiffened. “Not all of them. Not alone.”

 

“Don’t tell me what I can’t—”

 

“Catra.” The room kept darkening at the edges, fading in and out of focus. “Please.”

 

Slowly, reluctantly, Catra pulled the sword from the bag on her back and held it before her, just beyond Adora’s reach. The scrabbling, clicking sounds of the spiders grew ever louder through Adora’s distorted hearing—they must be at the door now, or spilling through the entryway behind them—she didn’t dare look.

 

Catra moved the hilt of the sword toward Adora, then pulled back slightly. “Adora, I don’t—”

 

Adora never heard the end of that sentence, because with a sudden burst of energy, she shot her hand toward the hilt and latched on.

 

It was like being thrown face-first into a blizzard, drowned, and electrocuted all at once. She would have gasped if she could pull any air into her body. She’d pushed through the magical assault before, bent the sword to her will just long enough to save Catra from Octavia’s grasp—she could do it again. She had to do it again.

 

Her mouth opened, but trying to speak was like trying to draw breath against a frigid wind. It stole the air from her lungs. She couldn’t inhale. Again. Try again.

 

She wrenched air into her body, just enough to get out the words.

 

“For the honor… of Grayskull.” A gasping, pathetic whisper, but enough.

 

Because suddenly, everything was so much worse.

 

Waves of crackling, broken energy coursed across her body, electrifying every nerve. She was dimly aware of Catra being thrown back by the burst of magic, dimly aware of something that sounded like her own voice screaming. Transforming into She-Ra under normal circumstances felt like stepping into a pool of warm, golden energy, but this—this was like being pulled, stretched, squeezed into a form that wasn’t hers. Pressed, pressed, pressed through a crack in the ground until she melded into unspeakable heat of the lava that lurked far beneath the dirt, molten until there was nothing of her left.

 

And then… it was bearable.

 

The screaming stopped, and she realized she was standing on her own. The normally pristine uniform was as bloodied and torn as before, and her side was still alarmingly warm and damp, but the suffocating heat was just… gone. It would have been an improvement, if not for the irregular, pulsing waves of magical energy that crackled across every limb, threatening to bring her to her knees, or the horrible, insistent feeling that this body was not hers, not hers, not hers, let go—

 

The hologram’s voice cut through the roaring in her ears.

 

“Administrator detected.”

 

Finally.

 

The hologram fuzzed out, replaced in the next instant by Light Hope’s familiar form. Her eyes flicked across the scene before her, face falling into a surprised expression.

 

“Adora? What happen—”

 

“Call. Off. The spiders.” A wave of broken energy crackled across She-Ra’s form, and Adora doubled over, almost falling to her knees. She dimly processed Catra reaching out to her. It wasn’t right, wasn’t right. Something didn’t want her in this body, but she couldn’t let go of it. Not yet.

 

Light Hope waved a translucent hand. The scrabbling, hissing sounds halted, then resumed, rapidly fading as the spiders retreated back into the castle’s walls.

 

There.

 

Another wave of broken energy coursed across her body, and this time, she didn’t fight as the unseen force shoved her violently from She-Ra’s body back into her own. A jagged burst of light, and Adora dropped to her knees, gasping for breath. Whatever strange aspect of the transformation had held her fever at bay was gone, now, and the returning rush of heat was like being thrown into a furnace.

 

Light Hope called her name, but she couldn’t listen, couldn’t think. The darkness was returning, fading Adora’s world to a pinprick of purple light. There was a hand on her back, her shoulder. The touch felt like it was on someone else’s body.

 

“The sword,” Adora managed. “...please.” Fix it.

 

The darkness won.

 


 

She was burning alive.

 

Her skin was boiling, every breath she drew like lava trickling down into her lungs. It overrode even the constant pain in her side, in her head. Heat. Everything was heat. Suffocating heat, too thick, too hot to breathe through—

 

—breathe—

 

—she couldn’t breathe.

 

Something cool touched her face, tilting her head back, and suddenly air came easier. Words were spoken, worried, pleading, familiar. She couldn’t understand them.

 

She drifted.

 


 

When Adora woke, the heat seemed to have lessened. It was almost tolerable now, though still uncomfortably warm, and oddly localized to her back and one side of her face.

 

Awareness came to her slowly. She was on the floor, angled in a position that lessened some of the ache in her ribs and eased her breathing, half-sitting, half-lying against something soft. Something soft and warm. Something soft, warm, and vibrating.

 

Catra.

 

She tried to say something, but all that escaped was an unsteady breath. Additional senses gradually filtered in: the steady beat of Catra’s heart against her ear. The slight rise and fall of her breathing against her back. The soft vibration of the purr in Catra’s chest, broken occasionally by a slight hitch. It did that, sometimes, when Catra forced a purr out for comfort—either Adora’s or her own.

 

The vibration faltered again, this time accompanied by a catch in Catra’s breathing. Adora suddenly realized that, in this position, she was essentially a slab of limp muscle pressing her injured friend into a wall. She tried to sit up, to push away from Catra before she hurt her more, but all she could manage was a twitch and a groan.

 

A hand tightened on her uninjured side, the warmth of its grip muffled to a more tolerable level by layers of cloth.

 

“Don’t move.” The voice was quiet, right above her. The breath of the words moved a few loose hairs to tickle Adora’s forehead.

 

“H—” Adora tried, then swallowed. “Hurting you.”

 

“No.”

 

Several protests sprang to Adora’s mind, but garbled and twisted together into a form she didn’t have the energy to untangle. A crease settled between her brows, and she managed to move one arm enough that Catra’s hand came up to still it.

 

“I said don’t move.”

 

Adora’s argument came in the form of a groan.

 

“Just listen to me for once,” Catra said, frustration leaking into her tone. “Would it kill you to—” she broke off.

 

Adora managed to briefly pry her eyes open during the ensuing silence, but the dark, blurry image of the castle’s interior didn’t seem worth the effort. Keeping her mind from drifting back into the quiet, welcoming darkness took all her concentration.

 

“You weren’t breathing right,” Catra said, finally, quietly. “I didn’t know—a couple times—” her voice pitched dangerously, and she paused. “A couple times I thought you weren’t breathing at all. I had to… I had to make sure.”

 

Oh.

 

That didn’t sound good.

 

She felt a distant pang of guilt at the raw concern in Catra’s voice. Talking was still taking an absurd amount of effort, but she managed to breathe out a word: “Sorry.”

 

She felt the jostling movement of Catra’s almost-laugh, followed by something that might have been a wince. “Yeah, you should be.”

 

She wanted to see Catra, make sure she was all right, find out what was going on—but simply opening her eyes again was starting to feel like an insurmountable task. Exhaustion crept back over her, and she felt herself relax back into Catra’s warmth. The last thing she felt was a gentle vibration stirring against her back as she fell back into sleep.

 


 

The next time she woke, it was with a much greater sense of awareness. She was laying down on something cool and hard, the warmth at her back gone but replaced with a new, lesser warmth wrapped around one wrist.

 

Adora blinked slowly, the purple hues of the crystal castle’s interior gradually coming into focus. She turned her head to one side, slowly realizing that she was laying on a slab of crystal raised above the floor. A mound of dark, wild hair lay at her side. Catra was sitting on the floor, arms crossed on the edge of the slab, head resting on her forearms, fast asleep. One hand was curled loosely around Adora’s wrist, fingers resting just where her pulse beat beneath her skin.

 

It wasn’t long before the crease between Catra’s brows slowly deepened and she blinked awake. A guarded expression flitted across her face when she noticed Adora staring at her, followed by relief, then a more neutral expression.

 

“About time you woke up,” she said, stretching a bit before pulling back with a wince. “I was getting a crick in my neck.”

 

Adora’s response was to close her eyes with a soft, amused exhale. When she opened them, Catra’s gaze was on her again, appraising.

 

“How’re you feeling?”

 

Adora took a moment, assessing the question. Her side hurt, of course. Her head sent a stabbing reminder of its abuse through her temple when she’d moved it, and her… everything ached from using the sword’s broken magic again. However, her mind was a little clearer, now. The oppressive heat, for whatever reason, seemed to have receded somewhat.

 

“Okay,” she said, almost surprised by the rasp of her own voice. She looked down, noting the fresh white cloth wrapped around her midsection. A faint blotch of red was visible, but darkened as though the bleeding had stopped some time ago. She twitched a hand toward the bandages. “Thanks.”

 

Catra glanced away. “Uh, yeah.” She cleared her throat. “It only opened a little, so. At least you didn’t completely ruin my work.”

 

“Sorry if my bleeding is an inconvenience to you,” Adora said, letting her eyes close with a faint smirk on her lips.

 

“Oh, it is. It really, really is.”

 

Adora’s smile twitched a little wider, and her eyes opened again to glance around. It looked like Catra had moved them to one of the smaller rooms of the castle, where the air was a bit warmer and the area felt less exposed. Adora looked down at the slab of crystal she was laying on.

 

“This is new.”

 

“Thank your hologram friend,” Catra said with a vague gesture. “I asked if there were any beds around here, and then she waved her hand and this thing popped out of the wall.”

 

“Huh. Didn’t know she could do that.”

 

“Really appreciated the way she disappeared when I asked for one big enough for me to lay on, too.” Sarcasm dripped from Catra’s tone, and Adora winced.

 

“Sorry.”

 

“Whatever,” Catra said with a shrug of her good shoulder, then tapped one claw on the bed’s solid, shiny surface. “Not missing out on much.”

 

She had a point. The beds in Bright Moon may have been too soft for her tastes, but a firm mattress was still miles more comfortable than a solid slab of rock. Adora’s back was starting to go numb.

 

“Did Light Hope say when she’d come ba—” Adora’s words were cut off by Light Hope’s abrupt appearance only a few feet away. Catra jumped, yelped, and winced.

 

“Adora,” Light Hope said, completely ignoring Catra’s reaction. “I am pleased you are awake.”

 

Catra seethed in her general direction.

 

“Yeah, me too,” Adora said. Then, a sudden rush of realization, her gaze darting around the room: “Wait—the sword—”

 

“The Sword of Protection is in my care,” Light Hope said. Adora relaxed slightly, and Light Hope nodded her head toward Catra. “This one brought it to me.”

 

“‘This one’ has a name, you know,” Catra growled.

 

“Yes, I am aware.”

 

Catra’s lip curled to expose one fang in a half-hearted snarl.

 

The exchange swam past Adora’s ears. “The runestone? Can it—” She took as deep a breath as she could manage, bracing for the answer. “Can it be repaired?”

 

The few seconds of silence following her question seemed to stretch out into an eternity. An eternity where She-Ra would never return, where Adora had managed to destroy Etheria’s most powerful runestone and lock away its most valued defender within mere months of taking up her mantle.

 

“It can.”

 

The air Adora held caged in her lungs rushed out in relief.

 

“However,” Light Hope continued, and Adora tensed again. “The process is extremely complex.”

 

Of course. Of course it was. It was a runestone—something ancient, something full of magic, something Adora would never understand, and she broke it. Who knew how long it would take to fix? Months? Years? For all they knew, it could be longer than their lives—not that it those would be particularly long, since without She-Ra, the princess alliance would collapse again, Hordak would conquer Etheria, balance would be lost forever and the entire planet would be destroyed—

 

A hand squeezed her arm just hard enough to hurt, and Adora yanked out of her spiral to see Catra staring at her from the corner of faintly worried eyes. The grateful smile she offered felt more like a muscle spasm. Light Hope was still talking.

 

“Based on its current rate of repair and several simulations, I can state with 97.3% certainty that the shortest possible time until full operational capacity will be two hundred and seventeen point five—”

 

Days? Weeks? Years?

 

“—minutes.”

 

Minutes.

 

Adora blinked, stunned, and a short, almost hysterical laugh escaped her.

 

Light Hope’s eyes landed on Adora. “Is something amusing?”

 

“No. Not at all. I’m happy. Very happy—that’s fantastic.”

 

“Oh.” Light Hope seemed taken aback by the response. “It is… pleasant to have one’s work appreciated.”

 

“Oh, it’s very appreciated. Thank you.”

 

“You are welcome.” The words seemed unfamiliar to her, an almost soft expression passing across her face. It dissipated as quickly as it had appeared. “I must attend to the repair process. In the meantime,” Light Hope gave a pointed, distasteful glance toward Catra while continuing to address Adora, “Do not die. It would be a significant setback.”

 

“You got it,” Adora said, weakly. The hologram disappeared, and Catra made a rude gesture toward the empty space it had occupied.

 

Adora exhaled a laugh, almost giddy with relief. The sword could be repaired. Her mistake could be fixed.

 

Catra’s exasperated voice cut through her thoughts.

 

“Are all your rebellion friends this annoying, or is it just the one with dumb names?”

 

It was nice to hear the familiar, teasing lilt underneath Catra’s annoyance. “Oh, just the ones with dumb names.”

 

Catra’s tail swished, then stilled as her eyes widened in realization. “Etheria—you all have dumb names.” She dropped her head dramatically onto her forearms, which were crossed across her knees. “I’m doomed.”

 

A smirk. “Yep.”

 

Adora started to squirm a bit, then pulled short with a quiet gasp. Moving probably wasn’t the best idea, but—she really was starting to go numb.

 

“Help me up, would you?”

 

It was far from a pleasant experience, but a few moments later Adora was leaning against the wall, head pressed back against cool crystal as she took deep breaths and exhaled slowly around the stabbing ache spreading through her abdomen. It hurt, but at least sitting up relieved the itch in her skin that always came when she remained motionless for too long. Her eyes roamed the interior of the room, landing briefly on the few pillars of crystal that jutted from the floor. She hadn’t spent much time observing them before, but there wasn’t much else to do at the moment.

 

Ventilation Systems, the First Ones writing on one pillar read, a jewel-toned crystal residing in its center. Environmental Controls, read another, then Emergency Lighting, then Contaminant Eradication, and—

 

—wait.

 

No, it wouldn’t be just sitting there.

 

Would it?

 

“Catra?”

 

“Mm?” Her head jerked up, and she blinked rapidly. Adora realized with a pang that she had slept—well, if you counted “mostly unconscious, possibly about to die”—but she didn’t know if Catra had gotten any real rest.

 

She’d worry about that in a minute.

 

“See that pillar over there?” she asked, nodding in its direction. “Can you get the control crystal out of it?”

 

“Why?”

 

“I’m curious about something.”

 

“Oh, well, anything to satisfy your curiosity,” Catra said, the words lacking any real bite. She heaved herself to her feet with a pained grunt and crossed the room. A clawed hand reached for the crystal. “Just so you know,” she said over her shoulder, “If I get eaten by spiders for this, I’m coming back to haunt you.”

 

The crystal came free easily, but instead of a fresh swarm of spiders, the translucent, thoroughly annoyed figure of Light Hope popped into existence directly beside Catra. She jumped with a stifled yelp, then settled her expression into a venomous glare.

 

Shit I hate that—”

 

“You,” Light Hope said, flatly, ignoring the outburst. She turned to Adora.

 

“Why has she removed the control crystal? Without it, I am unable to activate the castle’s security protocols. We will be left unprotected.”

 

Ha. So she’d guessed right after all.

 

“No offense, Light Hope,” Adora said in what she hoped was a placating, reasonable tone—did tone even matter to holograms? Worry about that later— “But the protection system has been a little… overzealous in the past. I think we’ll both feel a little more comfortable if we just hang onto the crystal for now.”

 

“You will feel safer if you are defenseless?” Light Hope said. Something about the words made Adora feel very stupid.

 

“Just for now,” She repeated. “We’ll put it back before we leave. Promise.”

 

Holographic eyes narrowed. Annoyance? Disappointment? She tried not to care.

 

“I suppose I cannot stop you.”

 

Adora grimaced as Light Hope’s figured vanished.

 

There was silence for a moment, then Catra lifted a finger to point toward where Light Hope had been standing.

 

“You train with that? Like, daily?”

 

“Pretty much, yeah.”

 

“And you’re still sane because…”

 

A smile tugged at Adora’s mouth. “Years of experience with difficult personalities.”

 

Catra had almost returned to Adora’s side, but now stopped short, dangling the crystal in the air before her.

 

“So you’re saying I should drop this.”

 

“—No!”

 

“—Because that’s what I’m hearing right now.”

 

“You are such a pain in the ass.”

 

With an exaggerated motion, Catra mimed dropping the crystal.

 

Unfortunately, she did a pretty good job. Before she realized the joke, Adora instinctively tensed in an effort to lean forward and catch the crystal before it shattered on the floor—a motion her side wound did not find particularly amusing. A fiery lance of pain shot through her stomach, a quiet groan escaping as she pressed her head back against the wall and forced her muscles to relax.

 

“Shit—sorry.” The words were closer now, a hand on her shoulder. “You okay?”

 

Adora exhaled, trying to force the pain past her clenched teeth along with her breath. It half-worked.

 

“Peachy,” she said. She opened her eyes, feeling a small smile curve her mouth at a sudden realization. “You know, I haven’t heard you say that in a long time.”

 

The hand dropped away. “Say what?”

 

“Sorry.”

 

Catra’s eyes widened faintly before her gaze darted away, ears turning back to press down against her skull. Her mouth opened, then closed. “Yeah, well. Maybe I—” She cut herself off, still refusing to look at Adora, and a small seed of panic bloomed in Adora’s chest that she’d pressed too far, too fast. Catra drew her knees up. “Don’t get used to it.”

 

Her gaze bored a hole into the ground.

 

Don’t panic. It’s okay. She’ll be fine. We’ll be fine. Just talk about something else—

 

“The crystal?” Adora said, finally. Great topic, Adora.

 

Catra started almost imperceptibly. “What? Oh—right.” She raised one hand to offer it toward Adora, who shook her head.

 

“I wanted you to hang onto it.”

 

The outstretched hand faltered. “What?”

 

“You didn’t have… the best time, last time you were here,” Adora said, and Catra snorted softly. Yeah, she’d allow that was an understatement. “I want you to feel safe. At least, as safe as you can.”

 

“Well, uh.” Catra shifted, shoving the crystal into her hip pocket. “Thanks. I guess.”

 

Adora felt strangely awkward, and simply nodded in response.

 

The hole in her side chose that moment to remind her of its presence, sending a stabbing pain through her midsection. She curled slightly forward and groaned, eyes shut, feeling a drop of sweat roll down her temple. The horrible, mind-melting warmth had receded—a side effect of the sword being partially repaired, maybe? She still had no idea how healing worked with that thing—but it was still there. Her eyes opened again to find Catra staring at her, eyes tight with concern. The warm weight of her hand rested on Adora’s shoulder.

 

“Y’know,” she wheezed, trying to lighten the mood, “Whenever Bow and Glimmer finally get their act together and find us, I am never going to let them live this down. ‘Master Tracker,’ my—”

 

Adora broke off in confusion. Catra had snatched her hand away as if burned, and now stared at the floor, muscles taut.

 

“… Catra?”

 

She didn’t say anything, a muscle in her jaw tensing.

 

“What’s wrong? Did I say something—”

 

No,” Catra bit out, and Adora almost flinched at the intensity. “No,” she repeated. “It’s…” she paused a moment, as if working herself up to get the remainder of the sentence out. “It’s something I said. Didn’t say,” she amended.

 

Adora felt her anxiety spiking.

 

“What is it?”

 

“In the woods—when you were—I saw your friends,” she rushed out, voice grating ever so slightly on the last word. “They were looking for you. I didn’t—they didn’t see me.” There was another pause, as if Catra was still fighting with herself. “They didn’t see me because I was hiding. And when I decided not to hide anymore, it was too late—”

 

Too late? A dim sense of horror passed through Adora’s numb mind, and she choked out a question: “Are they alive?”

 

Catra’s brow lifted in surprise. “Oh, yeah. I mean, there was a beast—” Adora’s heart felt like it was trying to beat its way out of her chest, “—but they were fine. Sparkles teleported both of them right out of danger.”

 

Relief flooded through Adora, and it was a moment before her mind caught up. “Okay, so why were you so worked up?”

 

Catra just stared, blinking in confusion. “I… because I hid. I kept thinking they might leave me behind, or take me with just to throw me in prison, and I--” Adora couldn’t help but snort quietly, and Catra’s eyes snapped to her.

 

“What?”

 

“Nothing, I... I just don’t think Bright Moon even has a prison.” Catra blinked, then sighed in a way that said you’ve got to be kidding me. “I’m sorry, keep going.”

Catra took a breath. “Well, prison or not, I’d made up my mind to do it anyway, but… it was too late. And now we’re here,” her claws scraped against the crystal as her hand clenched, “instead of in Bright Moon, where you belong. Where you could be getting better.”

 

“I am getting better,” Adora said, firmly. Catra arched a brow, and she wilted a bit. “I think. Well, I’m pretty sure. I don’t think I’m getting worse?”

 

“That’s very reassuring.”

 

“Look, Catra, you—” Adora began, starting to shift so she could fully face her, then pulled short with a wince. She settled for covering Catra’s hand where it lay tensed on the crystal slab. Catra twitched, but didn’t pull back. “You saved my life,” she said, earnestly.

 

“After endangering it in the first place,” she mumbled.

 

“Well, yeah.” Adora grinned. “You do kind of owe me for that.”

 

Catra finally raised her eyes to look at Adora, a faint sense of disbelief written on her face. “Why aren’t you mad about this?”

 

Adora paused, considering. “Well, I might be. A little.” She could feel the disappointed resignation emanating from Catra’s form, and hastened to continue. “But you decided to talk to them anyway, even if you didn’t want to. Even if you ran out of time. That counts for something.”

 

Catra relaxed almost imperceptibly.

 

“Doesn’t feel like it.”

 

“Doesn’t matter.” Adora squeezed her fingers slightly.

 

There was silence for a moment, then the corner of Catra’s mouth twitched up in a teasing grin. “Etheria, you’re such a sap.”

 

Adora pulled her hand away to flick her in the leg. “Look, one of us has to know what emotions are.”

 

Catra’s grin stayed, then faded slowly. She shifted. “I still… I feel like I should… apologize.”

 

“For what?” Adora said in genuine surprise, then winced at Catra’s sharp glance. What a time to be an idiot, Adora.

 

“The thing with your friends.” She waved a dismissive hand. “Arrow boy and Glitter.”

 

“What you should apologize for is constantly mangling their names—”

 

“—never gonna happen,” came the airy response. Catra shifted again, as if trying to pull the words from her throat. “Anyway, I’m… sorry.”

 

The words came soft, her eyes meeting Adora’s in an expression more open and vulnerable than she’d seen in a very long time, and she could read the unspoken words as easily as if they’d been graven into the crystal walls:

 

I’m sorry for more than just that.

 

A warmth filled Adora’s chest. She reached again for the hand that lay between them, squeezing it in a way that was as much to comfort Catra as it was herself.

 

“I forgive you,” she replied.

 

For more than just that.

 

Chapter Text

Glimmer’s fingers twisted in Swift Wind’s mane. It was surprisingly cold, flying. She never fell long enough to realize it while teleporting, but now it was all she could feel--the cool mist that lived far above the trees, the constant rush of wind that made her eyes water and sent a chill straight to her bones. The only warmth came from Swift Wind and Bow’s familiar, anchoring presence just behind her.

She hadn’t realized she’d been shivering until Bow’s hand gently rubbed her arm. 

“She’ll be okay,” he said, loud enough to be heard over the rushing wind.

Glimmer took a frigid breath, blinking away the moisture in her eyes, and nodded. She looked forward and sat a little straighter, speaking in a voice that carried easily to Swift Wind’s ears. 

“Tell me again what you felt.”

“Again?” His voice was a petulant whine, and Glimmer suppressed the urge to roll her eyes. Was this what her mother felt like when she talked back? 

“Yes, again.”

Swift Wind sighed. “There just isn’t much to tell. Like I said, it was… weird. Since Adora and I began forging our sacred bond as She-Ra and her majestic steed—” Glimmer forced back another eyeroll—“I’ve been able to feel her presence if I try, but I was so… busy that I didn’t check in for a while.”

“You were off breaking into barns and stealing horses. We know.”

“Liberating,” he corrected. “Anyway, right as I was liberating another stable, I felt this horrible zap of energy--like a weird, messed up version of our normal connection. I can usually feel how she’s feeling, and this… it wasn’t good.”

As it had with each time Swift Wind got to this point in his story, Glimmer’s heart sank like a stone. 

“But she was—is—alive.” If she said them with enough certainty, maybe the words would finally reassure her.

“Yeah. But she was hurting. A lot. More… more than I think I’ve ever felt.”

She closed her eyes. Bow’s hand landed on her arm again and squeezed softly.

“And you’re sure she’s at the Crystal Castle?” he asked. 

“Yeah! One hundred percent sure. Well, ninety-nine. Ninety? I mean, it’s a pretty vague connection even when it isn’t broken, but I’m pretty sure I saw a purple hologram. How many of those can there be, right?” Swift Wind ended with a nervous chuckle.

“It’s the castle. She’s there,” Glimmer said confidently. Then, a little quieter: “She has to be.”

The spire of the castle loomed into the distance, a glistening purple that barely broke the treeline. They’d made this flight many times before, and she knew it wasn’t a long trip—but today, it felt interminable. Glimmer’s fingers tightened in his mane again.

“I still don’t understand why you didn’t realize something was off sooner. You’re She-Ra’s ‘magnificent steed’ and all.”

Swift Wind seemed to droop slightly, and Glimmer felt the barest pang of guilt. He really did care for Adora, she knew that. But still… he should have been there.

 “I—yeah, I should have. It’s just.. until a few hours ago, it was only the absence of a connection, you know? And I was just so distracted, I guess it was easy to miss. I didn’t even realize it was gone until after that zappy thing happened.”

“You were distracted,” Glimmer repeated, deadpan.

“Well, yeah. Those horses weren’t going to free themselves!”

“Yes. Because they were perfectly content where they were.”

Swift Wind tossed his mane in what he probably thought was a majestic gesture. “Content to languish in slavery? Not on my watch!”

“Swift Wind.” Glimmer could almost hear her own teeth grinding. “If you do not stop talking about your horsey revolution right now, I will personally set fire to every apple tree from here to Plumeria.”

His head whipped back to stare at her, and she resisted the urge to shove it forward. At least they weren’t low enough to risk flying into any trees.

“Y-you wouldn’t.”

“Do not test me.”

“Glimmer.” Bow sighed from behind her, and she felt him shift to the side to give Swift Wind a comforting pat. “Don’t worry, buddy. She’s just a little stressed. The apples are safe.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, I’m sure.” She felt a nudge from behind her. “Right, Glimmer?”

Ugh. “Right.” She gave a heavy sigh, feeling herself deflate. “Sorry, Swiftie. I’m just worried.”

He made a comforting whickering noise. “I know.” His wings continued their steady beat. “Me too.” 


When they finally reached the clearing just outside the Crystal Castle, Glimmer slid off almost before Swift Wind’s hooves touched the ground. 

“Adora?” she called as she sprinted to the door, banging on it with one fist. “Adora! Are you in there?”

“Hey, uh...” Bow said beside her, staring at the door with worried eyes. “Has it always… looked like that?” 

“Decrepit” was a kind word for the crumbling ruins of the castle’s exterior, but the entry had always been pristine--a smooth, impenetrable surface. Even the climbing vines of the Whispering Woods didn’t dare touch it. But now, a hole gaped at the seam of the door, large enough to stick her arm through clear to her shoulder. Massive cracks spidered from the gap, and fresh marks were carved deep into the crystal. 

Claw marks. 

She traced her fingers across one of the impressions, a chill settling deep in her stomach. No. No, this was good, she told herself. The claw marks were on the outside of the door. Adora had gotten in, and the beasts had stayed out. Glimmer peered through the gap, but the interior was dark. Well, she wouldn’t be teleporting blind, so it was fine. 

She summoned the magic to her and disappeared in a flurry of sparkles, only to reappear in the exact same place. 

What?

She tried again, with the same result. 

“Uh, Glimmer? What are you doing?”

A growl of frustration rose in her throat. “I think the castle has some kind of—” a third attempt, a third failure— “Agh! Stupid protection magic!” She kicked the door in frustration as Bow groaned behind her.

“Adora?” she called again through the gap. “Adora, please—if you’re in there, just say something. We’re here to take you home.”

Silence.

“Come on, please,” she whispered.

More silence.

Just let us know you’re okay.

Glimmer’s fist slammed against the door, followed by her head coming to rest with a solid thunk against the cool crystal. 

“Hey,” Bow said, softly. “We’ll figure it out. What was the word Adora said to open it?”

“Eternia,” Glimmer recited automatically. “But it doesn’t work for us.” She punctuated her words with another slam of her fist against the immobile door.

“We’ll figure it out,” he repeated, moving his other hand to trace the outline of the damaged door. “That crack is pretty big. Worst case, I might be able to widen it enough to get through.” 

“Uh, guys?” Swift Wind’s nervous voice broke in.

“What’s up, buddy?” Bow asked, already distracted as he rummaged through his quiver for an appropriate arrow. 

“Guys.”

Okay, that was definitely fear. Glimmer’s gaze snapped up to see Swift Wind backing away slowly, casting nervous glances toward the treeline. 

“Swiftie?”

His head turned toward her voice, but his eyes kept darting around the trees in near-panic.

“Hey, what’s wrong?”

“It’s the woods,” he said. “Something’s not right.”

Glimmer listened intently for a moment. “Everything seems quiet. You sure you aren’t just jumpy?”

“No, he’s right,” Bow interrupted, arrow forgotten. Worry was etched deep in his face. “It’s too quiet. No birds, no animals—these are the Whispering Woods, and I can’t even hear the trees.”

Glimmer strained to listen, fear tightening in her chest. There was the distant, barely audible sound of a breeze stirring the forest, but little else. She closed her eyes for a moment to concentrate, hearing nothing but the soft rustle of underbrush as Swift Wind moved a few steps closer. 

“You’re right,” she said, unnerved. “All I can hear is Swift Wind walking around.”

“Glimmer.” She opened her eyes to see Bow staring at her, suddenly pale. He glanced to Swift Wind, who was standing in the exact same position he’d been before she closed her eyes.

But if he hadn’t moved—

“Guys!”

They turned just in time to see a faint shimmer of something dart across the forest floor toward them, not invisible, but not visible either—a shapeless distortion, like waves of heat above hot metal on a summer day. 

But it was moving fast

Too fast.

It struck before any of them could fully process; Swift Wind reared on his hind legs with a shocked, pained whinny. A slash of red stained the white coat of his hind leg. 

Bow managed to loose an arrow toward it, responding with the combination of Swift Wind’s panicked warning and his own lighting quick reflexes. The arrow whizzed past, pinging harmlessly off the something before somersaulting into the underbrush. 

An unearthly cry echoed as whatever it was dove back into the treeline, leaving the forest as silent as it had been seconds before.

“Swift Wind!” Glimmer’s cry mixed with a panicked “Are you okay?” from Bow, and Swift Wind took a confused, limping step backward.

“Yeah—I—I think so? It just nicked me.” He took another step and made a pained sound.

Rustling in the trees. Louder, this time. Bigger. Glimmer gave a panicked glance toward the forest, then tore off the edge of her cape and dashed toward Swift Wind. A sweeping glance did nothing to reassure her; blood was welling too deep and fast from the cut for her to tell if tendon or bone had been damaged. The simple fact that he was still standing was a good sign, but shock could mask a lot.

“Can you put weight on it?” She asked, clipped. 

He tried, then immediately shifted back with a whine and a shake of his head.

That was bad. If he hadn’t managed to pull away from the beast as fast he did—

No point thinking about it now. She wrapped the cloth around his injured leg and tied it off tight and fast.

Not fast enough.

Something was coming out of the trees.

“Get out of here, Swiftie,” Bow called, readying an arrow. “You can’t do any good down here. Come down for us when it’s safe, okay?”

Swift Wind opened his mouth to argue, then shut it when Glimmer gave him a nod. He bobbed his head in response, more serious than she’d seen him before, and took to the sky with a sudden rush of wings and wind.

Glimmer turned to see a massive shape emerging from the trees, a sapling bending under its weight, snapping under the unyielding pressure of its enormous paw. Claws dug deep into the soil, carving fresh lines in the grass. Teeth as long as her forearm glistened with saliva in the afternoon light. A growl echoed, low and deep as the roll of distant thunder.

It was the beast. The same enormous, terrifying beast they’d seen in the woods for a brief second before Glimmer teleported them to safety. Except now… she glanced toward the Castle and its mangled door. Now, she couldn’t run.

“What do we do?” There was a panicked edge to Bow’s voice. 

The beast had halted at the edge of the clearing, holding a position that was somehow tense but also relaxed. The stance of a predator waiting for its prey to make their first false move.

Glimmer’s expression hardened into a determined glare as she stepped into a battle stance. Brilliant spheres of magic surrounded her clenched fists.

“Whatever we have to.”


Adora awoke to the feeling that something wasn’t right.

A sound was hammering its way into her head, a single, unchanging tone that blared loud, then silent, then loud again. 

An alarm?

It shouldn’t have taken her that long to realize. Her head was still fuzzy, still aching. Had she ever heard an alarm inside the crystal castle before?

It took her a moment to recognize her surroundings. Sitting, in a way, slumped against the cold hard crystal of the castle walls and... something much warmer. Catra’s shoulder, she realized. Her friend’s whole body was tense, ears flicking at the tone of the alarm. 

Right, the alarm. Adora pushed herself further upright, failing to hold back a wince and a quiet whimper as the motion disturbed her side. Catra immediately turned toward her.

“What’s going on?” Adora managed. Her mouth tasted unpleasant. How long had she been asleep?

“Don’t know. The castle’s been making that noise for the past minute or so.”

“Light Hope?”

“Hasn’t shown up” Catra broke off with a subtle flinch as the hologram flickered to life right before them. “Ah,” she deadpanned. “Of course.”

“What’s...” Adora trailed off, swallowing against the dryness of her mouth. “What’s happening?”

“It appears that some combat is occurring near the castle doors,” Light Hope stated. “That, paired with the damage to the door, has triggered a warning. It can be disabled, if you wish.”

The blaring of the alarm felt like it was hammering its way through Adora’s skull.

“I definitely wish.”

The alarm cut off mid-tone, leaving the castle in blessed silence. Catra gave an almost imperceptible sigh of relief, and Adora felt herself slowly waking up.

“What do you mean, ‘combat’?” Adora demanded.

“It appears the beasts you fled have been engaged by two members of the Rebellion.” 

Adora felt her heartbeat quicken. Rebellion? Could it be—but if they were fighting the beasts, alone, they were in danger--

“Can you tell us what they look like?”

“It would be far more efficient to simply show you,” Light Hope said with a disinterested wave of her hand. A section of smooth crystal on the wall opposing them flickered to life, displaying an image of the clearing just outside the doors, and Adora’s eyes widened. That image: bright bursts of pink magical energy. The light glinting off the golden trim of Bow’s armor. 

They were here. They’d found her.

Then the massive image of the beast lunged toward them, and Adora inhaled sharply as Glimmer just barely teleported away in time.

They might be here, but unless she did something, they were going to die.

Adora shifted, struggling to pull her feet beneath her before a shock of pain shot through her abdomen. She fell back against the crystal wall, gasping. There was warm pressure on her shoulder: Catra’s hand, pinning her in place. 

Her friend hovered over her, glaring beyond the concerned set of her jaw. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“They can’t take that thing alone, Catra! I have to help them.” The image of the battle outside continued overhead. She couldn’t tear her eyes away. “I have to.”

“The only thing you have to do is stay here and not get yourself killed like an idiot.”

“They’ll die if I don’t—”

You’ll die if you do!” Catra shot back, then brought up a clawed hand to pinch her brow. “Adora, look at yourself. You can’t even stand.”

“I don’t—I’ll—” Adora wracked her sluggish mind. “She-Ra,” she said, suddenly, confidently. “I can use She-Ra.” The transformation had been terrible, true, but once she’d been in that form her injuries had been almost manageable. And if the sword had been further repaired, then maybe—

“That is extremely inadvisable,” Light Hope’s steady, emotionless voice said from behind Catra. “The sword is not yet fully repaired.”

“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but listen to the hologram.”

“Catra.” Adora could hear the urgency in her own voice, her fear mounting as the images on the screen continued to flicker. “They’re here for me. I can’t just watch them die.”

Catra’s tail flicked behind her in agitation. 

“They’ll be fine.”

“Catra—”

“They’ll be fine,” Catra bit out, “because I’m going to help them.”

Adora blinked once, twice. 

“You are?”

“Wow,” she drawled, sarcastically. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”

Adora’s eyes flicked down to the red-soaked bandage on Catra’s arm, the faint streaks of mud on her clothing from Octavia’s attempt to drown her. Recalled the stiff way she held her shoulder, and the way one arm kept kept coming up to cradle her ribs until she noticed Adora’s gaze and forced it back down. 

“I can’t let you do that, Catra. You’re injured.”

Catra’s ear flicked in irritation. “Right. Because you’re the picture of health.”

“No, but—”

Catra’s finger pressed gently between Adora’s eyes. “Adora.”

“What?”

“Shut up.”

“Catra, you don’t even like them!”

“Yeah, obviously.” Catra stood, wincing slightly. “But you—” she stopped, catching herself from saying… something. “They’re our best shot out of here. And besides,” she stretched her uninjured arm across her body, as if preparing for a casual workout, “I guess I kind of owe them.” 

She glanced at the screen behind her, then shot Adora a confident smirk.

“Back in a flash.”

The feeling of helpless dread hit Adora like a brick wall. Every part of her wanted to yell at Catra to stay, to let Adora go in her place, but… she couldn’t. Catra was right. And how could Adora stop her from leaving when her friends’ lives hung in the balance? 

A bolt of senseless anger shot through her, anger at her own weakness. It rapidly melted away into the pool of nameless fear. 

Too slow. Catra was leaving. Without her permission, Adora’s hand shot forward to catch her wrist as she passed by. Catra glanced down in surprise, then back up to Adora’s face.

What was she doing? Adora hadn’t quite figured it out herself. It was just--the thought of all her friends fighting for their lives beyond a set of crystal doors while she sat there, doing nothing, useless—

Her heart was pounding, she noticed, anxiety making her breath come short and fast. She closed her eyes, trying to slow it.

What could she even say? “Good luck?”  Catra never needed it. “Don’t die?”  Pretty obvious. 

How could she say: I finally got my best friend back and it might kill me to lose you again, so don’t you dare do anything stupid ?

“Adora?” Catra asked. That faint concern was written across her face again.

Adora drew a shaking breath.

“If you die out there, I’ll kill you,” Adora said, finally. 

Her words were rewarded with a short, incredulous laugh, followed by Catra pulling her hand away. As she turned, the tip of her tail brushed lightly against Adora’s arm in a familiar, unconscious sign of reassurance Adora hadn’t felt in what seemed to be years. A touch that meant don’t worry  when they stood in line for cadet exams, backs straight, eyes forward, and Adora’s anxiety threatening to overwhelm her. That meant I’m here when Adora woke, gasping, plastered in sweat from a nightmare. That meant I’m okay  when Catra returned from a “disciplinary session” with halting steps, hissing breaths and red-rimmed eyes.

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” came the light response.

Then she was gone.

Chapter Text

This was a terrible idea.

 

Absolutely awful, if you stopped to think about it.

 

Which was why, perhaps, Catra was doing her best not to think about it. Instead, she concentrated on the iridescent glow of the smooth crystal floor, landing one foot in front of the other in a calm stride that exuded far more confidence than she felt.

 

Because… this was a really bad idea.  

 

She’d barely been able to frighten off the smaller of the beasts before. Sure, she’d been preoccupied with protecting Adora, but still… She flexed her injured arm, feeling the slowly healing scratches pull and burn under their bandage. And after that, nearly losing to Octavia?

 

The view screen only showed one beast outside the castle, but it was big. And she had the distinct feeling that the other two wouldn’t stay hidden for long. 

 

Three terrifying killing machines against two incompetent rebellion fighters and one half-drowned Catra. 

 

Perfect.

 

The crystal under her feet made an abrupt vertical turn, and she realized she was staring at the door leading out of the castle. Daylight flashed through the hole at the seam, hairline cracks spidering outward. She rapped her knuckles on the surface and winced as the light impact dislodged a few shards of crystal.

 

“Hey, hologram lady!” 

 

If Light Hope wasn’t going to use Catra’s name, then Catra wasn’t about to use hers. 

 

Silence.

 

Well, that figured. 

 

“I can’t exactly go join the fighting outside if I can’t get outside,” she said, voice echoing across the empty room. 

 

There was silence for a split second, and then the door swished open with almost insulting speed.

 

“Yeah, hate you too,” Catra mumbled.

 

The door slammed shut behind her with an unsettling, extended cr-crack, more shards of crystal tinkling gently as they fell away from the hole in the door. The gap was still too small for anything to force its way though, but… 

 

Well. She’d just have to make sure the fighting stayed far away from the castle.

 

Because that should be easy to do, along with the whole “staying alive” thing.

 

Bursts of sparkling pink light flashed across her vision from the fight in the distance. She took a deep breath, steeling herself against the twinge in her chest and the ache in her bones. She’d lost track of all the times she’d had to start a battle sim bone-weary with exhaustion, barely able to move from the lingering effects of one of Shadow Weaver’s punishments. All she needed to do was let whatever was left of her adrenaline take over.

 

It’d be fine. Sparkles and Arrow Boy would be fine. Adora would be fine.

 

Everyone would be fine.

 

She’d make sure of it. 

 


 

Things could really be going a lot better, Glimmer thought to herself, ducking the swipe of a massive paw that landed on the ground beside her with a jaw-rattling impact. 

 

Between near-constant teleports and trick arrows, they’d managed to keep the beast confused, but… that was about it. Their best shots didn’t seem to do anything more than annoy it, and she still couldn’t manage to get close enough to slap a hand on the beast and teleport it into the air without a rapidly descending tooth or claw aborting her plan. It was a stalemate.

 

At least they weren’t dead yet.

 

But then—she teleported just to the side of the snap of slavering jaws—neither was the beast.

And that was getting to be an issue.

 

She was already beginning to feel the toll of constant teleports and sparkle bombs. Eventually, she was going to run out, and when she did… well, the beast wouldn’t run out of claws. Or teeth.

 

The beast dove toward them again. Glimmer launched a glittery orb toward the beast’s face, latched onto Bow, and teleported them to the other side of the clearing. Still on the defensive. If they didn’t change things up fast—

 

Something streaked past the corner of her vision, and the beast gave a sudden, pained cry. It wheeled, snapping at its haunch and swiping ineffectually at its own back with one paw before bucking, sending a dark figure thrashing through the air directly toward them. 

 

The figure twisted just in time to mostly land on its feet, crouched low to the ground, one hand sinking into the soft dirt and tearing deep lines as it slid to a stop.

 

Glimmer stared.

 

Torn, stained uniform. A red-soaked bandage wrapped around an arm held stiffly to her side. Wild hair, and exhausted, mismatched eyes that still managed to be full of derision. How was she here? Why was she here? 

 

“Ow,” the figure muttered, then jumped to her feet with a wince and a curse. 

 

“Catra?”

 

“Sparkles,” she acknowledged, eyes already back on their target. The beast held its distance for the moment, snarling as it assessed the new player. “You’re looking even dumber than usual.”

 

“Catra?”  Bow echoed over Glimmer’s indignant sputtering, pausing after a fresh volley of arrows.

 

“In the flesh. By the way: duck.”

 

The warning was delivered so nonchalantly that Glimmer almost didn’t react. Then: movement in the corner of her eye—she dropped to the ground barely in time, a whoosh of air blowing by as the beast’s claws sliced through the empty space just above her head. Glimmer teleported behind the beast and launched a sparkle bomb at its eye just as it turned toward her. It reeled back, snarling and shaking its head.

 

“What are you doing here?” she shouted across the clearing.

 

“Oh, you know. Trying not to get eaten.” Catra rolled to avoid another angry swipe of claws. “You?”

 

Catra rose from her roll and fluidly launched a sharp rock toward the beast as she spoke. It cracked off its skull, a dark patch immediately beginning to soak its fur. The beast roared and dove toward her before pulling to one side as an arrow full of green goop exploded against it. 

 

“Crap! Wrong arrow!” Bow squeaked. 

 

Oh, for the love of—

 

In a flash, Glimmer teleported to Bow’s side, whisking him behind the beast on the opposing side of the clearing. Another flash—she was behind Catra. Hand on her shoulder. 

 

“Hey!”

 

Another flash and she was across the clearing, hand fisted in the torn red material of Catra’s shirt, slamming her against the sturdy trunk of a tree. An involuntary whine escaped her target and Catra’s eyes screwed shut as she wavered, sagging for a split second against the bark. For an instant, Glimmer regretted the force of the blow. 

 

In the next, Catra’s eyes were open again, glaring and venomous. Something grabbed Glimmer’s thumb and wrenched her wrist painfully to one side. She cried out, grip loosening, and Catra slid out of her grasp, leaping a few steps away.

 

“What did you do to Adora?” Glimmer demanded, cradling her wrist. The pain was sharp, but fading.

 

To her? I didn’t do anything to her, aside from save her life a few times.” Catra actually had the gall to sound incredulous.

 

“Save her?” Glimmer laughed, high-pitched and short. “Oh, that’s rich. How many times have you tried to kill her, again?”

 

Another roar, far too close, punctuated by the twang of a bowstring and the boom of a muffled explosion. 

 

“Yeah!” Bow shouted, distantly. “That’s the arrow I wanted!” 

 

If she hadn’t been so consumed with concern for Adora and rage towards this—this Horde scum before her, Glimmer’s mouth might have twitched upward. 

 

“Oh, come on,” Catra said. “I came out of that stupid castle! How could I have gotten in there if I wasn’t with Adora?”

 

I didn’t see you come out from the castle! Maybe Adora got in there on her own, and you’ve just been waiting in the woods to strike!”

 

“Oh, for—Gah! ” Catra rolled her head back, pinching her brow in frustration.

 

Another roar. “Uh, Glimmer?” Bow’s voice pitched upward, and she glanced to the side to see the beast alarmingly close. Glimmer growled in frustration and launched two sparkle bombs, one singing the fur of its haunch and the other landing near its ear. The beast howled and pulled back, shaking its head.

 

“I think your friend could use a little help,” Catra said, pointedly.

 

“He’s fine.”

 

“Actually,” Bow shouted, “he really wouldn’t mind a little assistance against the giant terrifying murder-beast.”

 

“I’ll be right there!” Glimmer shouted back. She turned to Catra with a glower and jabbed a finger at her chest. “Stay here. Don’t do anything.”

 

“Bad idea,” Catra sing-songed.

 

“I don’t need someone from the Horde telling me what a bad idea is, thank you very much.”

 

Catra opened her mouth, paused, sighed, and then tried again. “That beast? You’ve barely managed to scratch it. You two, on the other hand…” she gave Glimmer a critical glance. “You look like you’re running out of sparkle juice, and Arrow Boy—”

 

“Bow.”

 

“—right—is a low on arrows, which isn’t good for his nickname.” She casually examined her sharp nails. “Of course, he probably won’t need one if he’s dead.” 

 

A hot spike of rage surged through Glimmer’s chest, and she fought the urge to slam Catra back against the tree. 

 

Instead, she stepped into Catra’s space, seething.

 

“Stay. Here.”

 

A flurry of pink sparks, and she rejoined the fight. 

 

“Bow!”

 

“Little busy!” He called back, firing a desperate volley of arrows toward the advancing beast. Some stuck shallowly into its flesh, some bounced off an armor of matted, mud-crusted fur and careened into the thick grass. Glimmer teleported beside him, grabbed him, and moved them both to the other side of the clearing. 

 

“I feel like a ping-pong ball,” she groaned, launching a sparkle bomb toward the beast and then teleporting them further away.

 

“What’s Catra doing here?” Bow asked, reaching back to tally his remaining arrows.

 

“I don’t know! She says she was helping Adora, but that doesn’t—”

 

Bow lit up. “Oh! So that’s how Adora got so far, even with all that blood.” 

 

Glimmer’s stomach twisted at the memory of the deep red stains on the ground. She shoved them from her mind. “Or she’s lying, and Adora’s been running from that thing and Catra the entire time.”

 

“I think we’ll have to debate that later,” Bow said, his voice climbing an octave as he strung a fresh arrow and nodded toward the advancing beast. “Party’s back on.”

 

Glimmer opened her mouth, then clamped it shut again as she caught something edging out of the trees toward the beast.

 

Catra.






Stupid, stupid princesses.

 

Catra stood at the edge of the clearing, circling the beast and testing for openings. There weren’t any. The beast seemed far less aggressive than it had been earlier, but it still towered above her, teeth and claws exposed, an occasional deep growl rumbling out of its throat and vibrating through her own aching chest.

 

Long claws swept suddenly toward her, and Catra barely jumped out of the way. She risked a glance toward the two rebellion idiots. 

 

“You two planning to shut up and fight at some point, or do I have to kill this thing myself?” she shouted. Pure bravado. If she had to stay there much longer on her own, it was probably going to kill her.

 

The sparkle princess’s eyes narrowed at her.

 

“I told you to— argh!” She cut herself off, then clapped a hand on her friend’s shoulder and teleported them behind the beast. She left the archer there, then teleported closer and unleashed another two glitter bombs in rapid succession. Flashy, but nearly useless. The stench of burnt fur permeated Catra’s nose.

 

“Nice of you to drop in,” Catra sniped. As long as they were distracting it—there. She sidestepped to avoid a downward strike, then sunk her own claws into the beast’s leg, springing up and onto its back. Searing light sizzled past her, a sparkle blast coming unnervingly close to hitting her.

 

“Watch it!”

 

You watch it!” 

 

The beast bucked and turned, trying to bring its jaws around to snap at her—and then reeled off balance as one of Bow’s arrows exploded near its face. The claws of her feet sank into its matted fur as she tried to keep her grip. 

 

If she could just—aha!  

 

She sprang forward, her claws diving toward the sensitive flesh of its neck, and—another ball of sparkles erupted in her vision, singing the lighter fur of the beast’s neck and sending small burning sparks across her skin. The beast bucked harshly beneath her and she was thrown—falling—hitting hard, feeling her abused bones crack and creak at the new pressure.

 

‘What in the name of Etheria was that shit?” she yelled, as soon as she felt like breathing wasn’t going to dislocate a rib. 

 

The princess ignored her, firing off more useless glitter bombs. “Stop getting in our way!”

 

A growl of her own built in her chest, ripping its way out of her throat as she sprang—well, stumbled—to her feet.

 

“Look, Princess. I’m here to help you. Not because I want to, or because I like you, but because I owe Adora and you’re our best shot at taking these things down right now." She ground the words out through clenched teeth. "If you don’t work with me, we’re all gonna die.”

 

“I kind of agree with the angry cat lady, Glim!” Bow called from across the clearing. 

 

Glimmer made a frustrated noise and threw her hands in the air. “Fine! But just so we’re clear,” she narrowed her eyes, jabbing a finger toward Catra again: “I do not trust you.”

 

“Likewise, Sparkles.”

 

“My name is Glimmer !”

 

“I know!”

 

Catra jumped to the side—the beast had finally decided to go back on the offensive. One of crop-top’s arrows glinted in the grass, and she snatched it up and tucked it smoothly into her belt. 

 

“Hey, Sparkles!”

 

She ignored her. Another sparkle blast fired off.

 

“Sparkles!”

 

“I’m not responding to that!”

 

Oh, for…  “I’m assuming there’s a good reason you haven’t teleported these things up in the air and dropped them?”

 

“Oh, why didn’t I think of that! I’m such a fool!”

 

Catra ignored the sarcasm dripping from Glimmer’s tone, scooping up another of Bow’s arrows and tossing it to him. He accepted them, flashing a grateful smile before loosing another arrow.

 

“Well, I wasn’t going to say anything—”

 

Obviously I would have done that if I could, but—” Glimmer cut herself off abruptly, as if deciding whether she should continue. “I can’t. I can teleport myself hundreds of times before I have to recharge. Me and Bow, dozens. Three people, maybe a couple times. Something this big… not a good idea.”

 

Well, wasn’t that just dandy. Of course she had to get the defective princess.

 

Catra tensed to join the fight in earnest when something pricked at the edge of her senses, flooding her with icy apprehension. 

 

A shadow in the trees shifted, then slowly took shape: a beast with one shining, yellow eye. Lips pulled back to expose sharp, glistening fangs. The other eye… gone. Scratches carved deep in its face to mark its absence, angry red lines surprisingly well-healed for the short time that passed. Dark fur matted with dried blood. A slight limp to one haunch. 

 

She smiled, flexing her claws.

 

Time for a rematch. And this beast wasn’t going to like the result.

 

“You two better keep that one busy,” she called over her shoulder, “because our party just acquired another guest.”

 


 

It didn’t take long for her to realize that going solo might not have been the greatest plan.

 

She jumped out of the way of another roaring slash, abused shoulder sending jolts of pain through her body as she skidded on all fours in the grass.

 

No matter what she did, she couldn’t seem to get in the beast’s blind spot. It reeled constantly, snapping its jaws and forcing her on the defensive before she could find an angle of attack that wouldn’t end with her guts on the ground

 

The beast slashed at her again, and she felt air whiff past as sharp claws barely missed her head. This really wasn’t working.

 

Time for a new plan.

 

“Hey, Glitter!”

 

“What?”

 

“Teleport me.”

 

A growl, sounds of more sparkle blasts. “Where?”

 

Catra looked into the air over the smaller beast. “I could really use a new angle.”

 

“Wha—Fine.” A flash. Glimmer appeared next to her, grabbing her elbow. Catra suppressed the instinctual urge to flinch back and punch her in the face. “Hold onto your tail.”

 

“Do you want me to kill y—” Light flashed in her eyes, blinding her, and a faint electrical feeling raced across her skin, standing the fine hairs of her arms on end. An involuntary shiver ran through her. She hated magic.

 

Another flash. Glimmer was gone, and Catra was falling, the trees oddly small beneath her. The beast below her swung its head from side to side in a fruitless search for its quarry. 

 

Ha. She reached for the arrow still tucked in the back of her belt, and—

 

The beast looked up.

 

Shit. 

 

The beast started to rear on its hind legs, reaching upward with gaping mouth and sharp claws, but she was already almost on it—twisting sharply midair to avoid the sweep of its jaw—landing clumsily on its back, sinking her own claws deep into its flesh. 

 

The beast bucked violently. Her claws sank deep, flesh tearing beneath her fingers with the strength of holding her grip. There was one shot at this.

 

She released one hand and snatched the arrow from her belt, preparing to drive it down into the beast’s remaining eye—but the instant her hand lifted, the beast bucked again. The fur and skin under her other hand ripped free, and she grasped air.

 

Not again.

 

She pulled herself tight and hit the ground in a disorienting roll, ribs and shoulder screaming. Trees and sky spun around her.

 

The ground trembled as the beast leapt forward.

 

Get up.

 

She felt its oncoming attack more than saw it. The lightning-fast sweep of its sharp claws, aiming straight for her stomach. She rolled to the side—the strike missed her gut, but four lines of agony tore across her thigh. A scream caught in her throat.

 

No time.

 

The arrow. It was in her hand when she fell, the impact knocking it free from her grasp. Her frantic gaze caught a glint of gold, and she reached for it—almost—her clumsy grab knocked it further away, and she strained to reach it—

 

Distantly, Bow called her name. She couldn’t hear it. The beast was on her, mouth agape.

 

It lunged for her head.

 

Her fingers closed on the shaft of the arrow.

 

Down came the beast’s teeth, and she thrust the arrow upward, straight into its gaping maw.

 

Time stood still. Sharp fangs scraped at her arm, drawing thin beads of red that trickled down across her skin to her shoulder. She twisted the arrow, forcing it further in.

 

Pressure. 

 

Her grip slipped in the warm slickness of the beast’s blood.

 

Resistance. 

 

She tightened her grasp, driving the arrow further, past the sinewy pressure of muscle and tendon and bone and skin—

 

Release.

 

With a sickening squelch, the golden and red-stained tip of the arrow pierced through the back of the beast’s neck. A fresh wave of hot blood cascaded down her arm, mingling with her own. 

 

A broken whine escaped the beast’s throat, remaining eye clouding as its body went limp and dropped on top of Catra like a puppet with its strings cut. The air left her body in a rush as its heavy form collided with her abused ribcage.

 

Any sense of victory she might have felt was obscured by the fact that now, she couldn’t breathe. Pain lanced through her chest under the crushing force of the beast’s limp body. Move her arms. Move the beast. One more thing. One more thing and she could breathe, she could rest—

 

She pulled at the dregs of her adrenaline and forced screaming muscles into motion, bracing herself against the ground and shoving the limp form of the beast to one side as she wriggled out from under its muscular bulk. Air. She filled her lungs with ragged, gasping breaths, letting her eyes close. Some part of her screamed that it was a stupid thing to do on a battlefield, but the other, much louder part shot back with let the other beast eat me, see if I care. 

 

Someone called her name again. She ignored it. Just for a minute, she needed to breathe. Her leg was on fire, and she could feel the nauseating warmth of her own blood soaking into her clothes. 

 

Should probably… do something about that.

 

The ground shook beneath her as the remaining beast’s weight came down, followed by the sound of something metallic clattering nearby and a sudden cry from Arrow Boy.

 

Oh, come on.

 

She groaned, wrenching her eyes open. The archer was a few feet away from her, one foot braced against a large rock as he tried unsuccessfully to yank his bow free from the crevice where it seemed to be jammed. Sparkles was shouting at him from across the clearing, trying to draw the beast away with a barrage of glitter bombs. 

 

It wasn’t working. 

 

The beast was getting closer now. Catra tried to choke out a warning, but she could barely hear her own voice.

 

Come on.

 

Somehow, she shoved herself to her feet and took a staggering step forward—but her injured leg buckled beneath her. The beast was nearly on him. He gave a panicked glance over his shoulder, still pulling desperately at the weapon lodged in the rock.

 

Idiot.

 

She was going to die for an idiot. 

 

At least they were Adora’s idiots. Small comfort, that. 

 

The beast roared. She dove forward, half-falling into arrow boy as she shoved him aside. Massive claws descended toward her, and she barely had time to shut her eyes before—

 

The faint sound of Sparkles’ magic.

 

Silence.

 

A distant, confused yowling, rapidly growing louder—

 

WHAM!

 

A bone-rattling impact that would have knocked her prone, if she hadn’t already been flat on the ground.

 

She opened her eyes to see the massive beast huddled on the ground, dust from the impact shifting around it in a hazy cloud. A relieved laugh bubbled in Catra’s chest. That sparkly princess actually did it. 

 

The beast groaned, shifted, and the faint bit of hope Catra felt dropped into the pit of her stomach.

 

Glimmer came into her blurred vision, pale and unsteady. Her eyes were on the beast’s slowly shifting form. She turned, meeting Catra’s unfocused gaze with something unfamiliar in her expression. Relief? Gratitude?

 

Sparkles extended her hand. Catra stared at it. The princess’s eyes shut briefly, and her balance wavered before they reopened.

 

“Come on,” she said, impatient. 

 

Hesitantly, Catra grasped the offered hand and was hauled to her feet with a groan from each of them. A fresh pulse of warmth trickled down her leg. 

 

Glimmer’s gaze was back on the beast, watching as one leg slowly unfurled from its huddled mass. 

 

“This isn’t over yet.”

 


 

Thud.

 

A dull beat.

 

Thud.

 

Stone and dust fell to the ground, clouding the crystal floor.

 

Crack!

 

The seam of the door shattered, dust and shards of crystal crumbling inward. Daylight streamed through the gaping hole. A silhouette in the light: Two arms. Tentacles. Sharp teeth bared in a wicked smile, glistening in the low light. 

 

One eye.

 

Unauthorized presence detected.”

 

Chapter Text

Tap.

 

Tap-tap.

 

Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap—

 

Adora’s fingers drummed out a rapid, nervous rhythm against the smooth crystal slab, eyes glued to the overhead screen showing distorted images of the battle taking place just outside the castle walls. The battle that would determine the lives of her friends. 

 

The battle she couldn’t join.

 

The speed of the tapping increased. 

 

On the screen, Catra’s blurry form finally came into view, leaping onto the back of the massive beast—and then was almost immediately thrown, skidding to a stop near Glimmer and Bow. It took a moment before she rose to her feet, but she did. 

 

Adora realized she’d stopped tapping her finger. And breathing. She resumed both.

 

The constant dodging, near-misses, just-in-time teleports… the tension was going to kill her. She tried taking a deep breath, closing her eyes, but they flew back open instantaneously. She couldn’t affect the outcome—weak, weak, something cried within herbut she needed to know.

 

The tapping sound drummed into her head. Shadow Weaver had hated it, she remembered distantly. Adora used to bounce her leg in cadet classes, too full of nerves and energy to ever sit entirely still. Not even realizing she was doing it until ordered to cease. It was so hard. She couldn’t think anymore, couldn’t concentrate without the calming motion. Her scores fell. So did her good standing with Shadow Weaver. 

 

It took a long time in Bright Moon for her to learn that discipline didn’t always mean pain.

 

The finger-tapping was a good compromise, she found. One hand holding her writing stylus, one hand tapping out a constant rhythm on her leg. The desk hid the motion, and the muffled sound was soft enough not to be noticed. 

 

Not here. Here, each tap echoed against crystal walls, mocking her uselessness. 

 

Tap-tap-tap-tap—

 

Her gaze refocused on the screen. Catra and Glimmer hadn’t been visible for some time now, hidden in the depths of the trees that framed the clearing. Fighting each other, probably, instead of the beast. If she could just be there to explain—

 

She slammed a fist onto the cool crystal. Pain shot through her hand, reverberating through fragile ribs and intensifying the stabbing ache of the hole in her side. She inhaled, wincing. That wasn’t a great idea. But she hadn’t had a lot of those lately. 

 

Ever, maybe. 

 

“Light Hope?”

 

The hologram flickered into existence with a vaguely perturbed expression.

 

“Yes, Adora.” 

 

There were more important things to worry about right now than Light Hope’s annoyance. “Can you see where Catra and Glimmer are?”

 

Simulated eyes narrowed at her. “In case I was unclear, the repair of the sword is a delicate process that requires careful monitoring—”

 

“Please.”

 

A mechanical-sounding sigh. “Very well.” Instead of turning to look at the screen behind her, Light Hope’s eyes became distant for a moment before returning their focus to Adora.

 

“I cannot. They are beyond the visual sensing range of the castle’s security system.”

 

Adora deflated, sagging against the wall. The motion hurt. Everything hurt, actually, all the time—she was getting numb to it. 

 

Her slouched position sent a fresh stab of pain through her side, and she flinched. 

 

Well. Almost. 

 

Bow was the only one left on the screen, managing to keep the beast distracted with a confusing combination of exploding arrows and ones that left behind a quick-hardening green goop. Somehow, he was holding his own, but… 

 

Her fingers started tapping again.

 

“How long until the sword is repaired?”

 

“Until I was called here,” Adora winced guiltily at the force of the words, “I was overseeing the repair of the transformational circuitry. The overall process is nearing 87% completion.”

 

Adora perked up. “That’s good, right? It’s close! I could probably use it—”

 

“You cannot.”

 

“Why not? I’m feeling better!”

 

It wasn’t a total lie. She could barely stay conscious when they’d first arrived in the castle, but the raging burn of infection had receded to a slow simmer, and the pain of the wound itself had become much more bearable. Agonizing, certainly, but not all-consuming. She could work with that.

 

“No,” Light Hope repeated with an air of finality. “Your healing powers have been aided by the castle and the partial restoration of the runestone, but neither you nor the sword are yet fit for battle.”

 

“Oh, and I suppose Catra was?” Adora said, bitterly.

 

Light Hope tilted her head. “She is not She-Ra.”

 

Cold anger settled in Adora’s stomach. “She is my friend.”

 

“She-Ra is—” Light Hope began, then abruptly cut off, image flickering. 

 

Well, that was different.

 

“Light Hope?” she asked, cautiously. “Is something wrong?”

 

When her gaze returned to Adora, it was stern. “Adora. I have accepted the presence of the Horde in this castle at your request. I have even permitted you to physically disable the castle’s safety measures, but I must insist that your friend immediately returns the sword to its station. The repair process is not yet complete, and the runestone is still unstable.”

 

Adora blinked. Friend? She glanced back up to the screen—there were three forms on it again, spotted with the golden glint of Bow’s arrows; pink bursts of Glimmer’s magic; and lithe, agile movements from a third form that could only be Catra.

 

“Friend?” she repeated aloud, brow creased in confusion.

 

“Yes. Her insignia indicates that she is also from the Horde.”

 

Realization struck Adora. Panic rose in her chest, constricting her throat with cool fingers.

 

“Light Hope.” She could feel heat draining from her face. “Does… does this person have green skin and tentacles? An eyepatch?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“She is not a friend! Turn the security measures back on!”

 

Adora pulled herself to the edge of the crystal slab as she spoke, feet on the ground, trying to let the adrenaline coursing through her body fade her pains to a distant ache. 

 

“That will be difficult to accomplish without the control crystal,” Light Hope replied, a flat irritation coloring her synthesized voice. “Several key systems must be rerouted. It is a time-consuming process.”

 

Adora squeezed her eyes shut. She could kick herself. In the heat of the moment, neither of them remembered the control crystal Catra had tucked in her pocket as a sign of Adora’s trust. 

 

The rules of the Horde had followed her, it seemed. Try to do something nice, and it’ll get you killed.

 

Or maybe if she just wasn’t an idiot—

 

No, no time for that.

 

“Figure something out,” Adora said to Light Hope. A clanging sound caught her attention, and she whipped her gaze toward the entryway of the small room, listening intently. 

 

Heavy footfalls.

 

A faint ringing, scraping sound, like someone drawing the point of a blade over smooth stone. Louder. Closer.

 

“Figure something out fast,” Adora whispered. Light Hope disappeared. 

 

A shadow darkened the doorway. 

 

“Hello, traitor.”




 

This was bad.

 

This was very, very bad.

 

Octavia simply stood in the doorway, wearing an unsettling smile as Adora pushed herself up onto shaking legs. A short gasp of pain escaped her and Octavia’s smile twitched wider, one blue-green hand tightening on the hilt of the sword.

 

Her sword.

 

Anger joined the adrenaline flowing through Adora’s veins, and she managed to straighten somewhat. One hand remained curled protectively over her abdomen. 

 

“Well?” Adora challenged. “What are you waiting for?”

 

“Oh, don’t rush me,” Octavia replied, running a talon along the edge of the sword’s blade. It rang softly in the silence. “I’m savoring the moment. Do you know how long I’ve been chasing you pathetic children?”

 

“I have an inkling,” Adora said, dryly. 

 

“Always so clever, little Force Captain. Must be how you kept your special sword away from me.” She cut herself off with a theatrical gasp, raising the weapon between them. “Oh, wait! You didn’t.” She smiled again, jagged teeth on display.

 

Lingering heat flashed through Adora’s body along with a fresh stab from her side, and she barely managed to stifle a gasp. Her mind raced. Should she try to fight? Even she knew that was a pretty terrible idea right now. Escape? Adora glanced past Octavia’s hulking body, toward the main room just visible beyond the archway. The exit there led into the clearing where the battle was taking place, but… she liked her odds in an open space, with the support of her friends, a lot better than being trapped alone in a tiny room with a vengeful Force Captain wielding her own sword. 

 

Escape, then. Except Octavia blocked the only exit.

 

Time to draw her in.

 

“Give it a rest, Octavia,” Adora said in as uncaring a tone as she could muster. She took a halting step forward. “I’m surprised Hordak ever trusted you with his beasts. Seriously, what kind of Force Captain loses an eye to a six year old?”

 

Octavia snarled in rage, crossing the distance between them in an instant and fisting a hand in Adora’s shirt before she could even stumble backward. Okay, well, shit. A little TOO close.  

 

“I’m going to enjoy watching you bleed,” Octavia hissed. “And then I’m going to do the same to her. After I cut her eyes out with your precious sword.”

 

Adora struggled weakly backward, but Octavia’s hand held her firmly in place. The tip of the blade lifted slowly toward her stomach. Bad bad bad—

 

Then something caught her eye: A soft red glow from the crystal floor, directly beneath Octavia’s feet. The glow intensified, growing rapidly brighter and brighter until Octavia finally glanced down—

 

—and the floor dropped away.

 

Adora wrenched herself backward just as Octavia fell, an enraged scream splitting the air as her talons ripped through Adora’s shirt. She dimly registered the screech of those talons gouging into the floor as Octavia barely caught herself on the edge of the newly created pit, followed by the metallic clang of the sword bouncing near the edge.

 

It teetered and fell before she could reach it.

 

No time. The castle would catch it, if Octavia didn’t.

 

Adora sprinted—well, lunged into a rapid, pained shuffle—past Octavia’s enraged cries and into the short hallway beyond. By the time she entered the main room, there was silence save for the sounds of her own movements and harsh breathing. It should have been reassuring. 

 

She moved faster.

 

Daylight spilled through the ruined door to the outside, cracked and crumbled into a gaping tear in the smooth walls. She could just see the motion of the battle outside. If she could get there—

 

Something curled around her ankle and yanked, and the floor dropped out from under her. 

 

She landed hard on her stomach, muscle memory slapping her forearms to the ground in a belated attempt to absorb some of the impact. It wasn’t enough. Her forehead cracked off the smooth, hard surface just as a searing pain lanced through her abdomen at the awkward impact. Flashes of light sparked in the sudden darkness, slowly fading to a dim haze as she blinked the crystal floor into focus. A piercing ache thudded in her head, but the floor… the floor was pleasantly cool. Warmth once again flowed from her side; trickled down across her face from a fresh cut above one eye. 

 

Brain damage, Catra’s teasing voice echoed through her aching head. 

 

Great. 

 

Adora took a wheezing breath. 

 

Get up.

 

She pulled her arms closer and pushed up to her hands and knees, vision fading out and in again as nausea curled in her stomach. She breathed as deep as the pain in her ribs would allow and willed herself not to vomit. There wasn’t time for this. 

 

Footsteps echoed in the empty hall, and she managed to lift her head enough to see Octavia’s approaching boots. 

 

Maybe she’d throw up on them. That’d be pretty funny.

 

The boots stopped a short distance away, and a familiar golden rope hit the floor. Tripped by her own sword, then. Of course Octavia had stolen it while the transformation ability was being repaired.

 

 “Nice trick. I can see why you like this little toy,” Octavia said, a sick satisfaction coloring her voice. “Think I’ll hang onto it.”

 

There was a golden flash of light, and Adora looked up to see Octavia’s expression twisting into confusion and anger as she stared at the sudden appearance of a bejeweled gravy boat in her hand.

 

A snort of pained laughter escaped Adora. “Yeah, have fun with that.”

 

Octavia lowered the dish, staring with that unsettling smile. “Oh, I wouldn't get cocky, princess. I could kill you with my bare hands any day.”

 

“Now who’s getting cocky?” Adora thought, dimly. 

 

“Today, though…” Octavia continued, giving her an appraising glance. “I could probably do it with one thumb.”

 

Well, that might be accurate. Her shirt was dampening again, sticking to her side. She couldn’t do this alone. Not today.

 

“Light Hope,” she whispered. “Now would be a really good time.”

 

The flooring beneath Octavia began to glow red again, but Octavia slid to the side before the floor dropped away.

 

“The same trick twice? Sloppy. I’d expect more from Shadow Weaver’s prodigy.”

 

The words may still have cut on a different day, but now… they just slid away. There were more important things to worry about. Like not dying.

 

Adora glanced upward. A few steps away, Octavia shook the misbehaving sword angrily and then bashed it against a crystal pillar. A golden flash of light, and it shifted into a frying pan. She growled in frustration.

 

“Adora.” Light Hope’s voice filled her mind. “I will do what can to help you, but my abilities are limited. I hope these will be of service.” 

 

The cool flooring beneath Adora’s hands began to warm, suddenly, taking on a soft glow. The glow shifted before her eyes, extending into two long, thin shapes before fading. 

 

In its wake, Adora’s hands rested on the hilts of twin crystal knives. The blades were curved and sharp, just shorter than the length of her forearm. A slight smile tugged her lips upward.  Not bad, Light Hope.

 

Her fingers curled around the hilts and she pushed upright, forcing down her nausea and rising unsteadily to her feet. She spun one of the knives into a reverse grip, blade following the length of her forearm, edge outward. 

 

Remember, cadets, the voice of their old sergeant rang in her mind. A knife can defend as well as attack. A good soldier knows how to make full use of every weapon.

 

A good soldier. That’s what she was raised to be. A good soldier never gave up, even when the room spun around them and they could feel their heartbeat thudding in their skull. Even when their blood seeped into a stain on their shirt; trickled down their face and into their eyes.

 

The howl of a beast echoed into the crystal chamber, evidence of the battle happening just outside.

 

Even—no, especially—when their comrades were still fighting. 

 

Adora met Octavia’s gaze and smiled, hoping her wavering stance wasn’t as noticeable as it felt. Sweat made the smooth grips of the knives slick in her grasp, and she tightened her hold. 

 

She could work with this.

 

She had to. 

 


 

That might have been an optimistic assessment. 

 

Know your enemy. Know yourself. Find their weakness, and exploit it with your strength.

 

Tactical assessment, Adora’s fuzzy mind supplied. Opponent has advantage in height and weight. Superficial injuries, no apparent impediment to movement. Strong, but slow.

 

Octavia lunged forward and Adora sidestepped, barely managing not to fall into a gaping hope in the floor. Light Hope had opened more of them. She wasn’t sure it was helping.

 

Additional assessment: Cranky.

 

She fought the urge to laugh. Giddiness probably wasn’t a good sign. 

 

Now for my strengths, Adora thought. 

 

Well.

 

There didn’t seem to be a lot of those right now. Physical strength? “Running on fumes” seemed like a generous description. Speed? Difficult to manage with a hole in your side. Magical sword? Currently in the hands of her enemy, being used against her. 

 

If she could just get it, though, everything would change.

 

The sword, now in the form of a large golden candlestick, swung toward Adora’s head and she barely managed to duck out of the way, swiping toward Octavia’s arm with one knife as she slid a step closer to the exit. Maybe if she was lucky, Octavia wouldn’t realize she was slowly driving Adora toward the opening. 

 

Of course—Adora slid to the side again, watching her sword taking on the form of some sort of farming sickle in Octavia’s grasp—she had to stay alive to get there. That would be a task much easier accomplished if her vision didn’t keep shifting into double. 

 

Something trickled down her arm, and she realized the sickle must’ve scratched her. A shallow cut. Just a reminder that she wasn’t moving fast enough. 

 

Golden light flashed before her again and Octavia growled in frustration, now holding a gilded…  panflute?

 

Adora’s mouth quirked upward despite herself, remembering her time training with the sword—except it hadn’t been a malfunction of circuitry, then, just her own issues with connecting to She-Ra. 

 

“Gonna play me a song on that thing?” she asked, risking a lunge forward with both knives—a piercing strike aimed for Octavia’s abdomen, plus a sweeping slice toward the neck. Octavia managed to bat away the first by the flat of the blade and catch the other against the panflute with a resounding crack of crystal on metal. The blade splintered, but held. Octavia smiled. 

 

“A song for your funeral.”

 

Adora could see every blackened crack in Octavia’s jagged teeth. 

 

Bad. 

 

They were too close.

 

Adora pushed back, making a sweeping attack with the undamaged blade to deter Octavia from closing the distance, but she wasn’t there. Instead, she had leaned back, spinning into—

 

—the heel of a heavy boot impacted Adora’s sternum, and something cracked.

 

Every thought left her mind as the breath left her body. Knives fell from numb fingers, clattering to the ground as she dropped to her knees, wheezing in shallow gasps. The pain squeezed, stabbed at her ribs, tore into her lungs. 

 

Very bad.

 

Tactical assessment: Failure.

 

“Hold still,” Octavia said, the smile still evident in her voice. Adora blinked away tears of pain to see her towering above her, raising a golden fire poker for a killing blow. Not a weapon, perhaps, but its weight and hooked end was more than enough to get the job done.  

 

No.

 

She wasn’t going down without a fight.

 

And she certainly wasn’t going down alone.

 

Her hands stretched out to the side, feeling desperately for—there. Her hand closed on the hilt of one of the knives just as Octavia struck downward, and she flung the blade up in defense.

 

A crash of shattered crystal, shards raining down around her, Octavia’s weapon driving home.

 

That’s what she expected.

 

Instead, she felt a gentle whiff of air, followed by Octavia stumbling off balance. She opened her eyes. The sword had shifted yet again, now taking the form a large flower vase. Octavia cried out in rage. 

 

Now. Adora snatched up the other blade and swung toward Octavia’s off-balance form, unable to reach her body but slicing through a waving tentacle. Blue-black blood spattered onto the floor, and Octavia howled in pain.

 

If she could just get the sword—

 

Adora struck out with a kick, vision whiting out at the pain of using her damaged abdominal muscles. She hit Octavia just below the hips and something crunched beneath her boot—but it wasn’t enough. Octavia stumbled backward but maintained her hold on the sword, clutching a hand over her pocket and whatever had broken from Adora’s kick.

 

“I’m going to kill you!”

 

Octavia swung the weapon down toward her, and Adora tried to strike upward at Octavia’s arm—but metal struck crystal again, and the weakened blade shattered. The brunt of the blow hit Adora’s shoulder, and she cried out as the force reverberated through broken ribs. 

 

She hit her knees again, world tilted away before five points of pain drove into her shoulder and wrenched her violently upright. Blood welled beneath Octavia’s talons.

 

“Oh no, princess,” she hissed. “You’re going to see this. Who knows? Maybe I’ll leave you alive just long enough to watch me kill your friends.” 

 

A flash of gold. Adora couldn’t see what the sword had changed into—couldn’t get her eyes to focus. Octavia, however, looked down at her hand and gave a short, dark laugh. “Then again. Maybe not.”

 

Octavia’s hand thrust forward.

 

The world fell away, her entire existence focused to a singular, blinding agony in her stomach.

 

Oh.

 

The hilt of a golden dagger jutted out from just below her ribs.

 

It felt… strange. It should have been the worst pain she ever felt, but instead, the initial ache had faded to just… a terrible, wrong pressure in her body. A distant sense of horrible dread.

 

Her reflection stared up at her from the runestone in the hilt. Distorted by the curve of the stone, split by the break that had now healed to only a hairline crack. Somewhere above her, Octavia’s distorted voice was saying things she couldn’t understand.

 

Trembling fingers touched the metal of the hilt. The buzzing wrongness of the magic was gone. Instead, it now pulsed with every rabbit-fast beat of her heart.

 

Well, she got her sword back.

 

Somehow, she laughed. The blade moved with the motion, numbness fading as pain danced like lightning through every nerve. The laugh turned to a cough that sliced the blade into her even more. Blood spattered from her lips to the iridescent floor. She was dying, probably. It didn’t matter.

 

“Big mistake,” Adora rasped, barely more than a whisper.

 

There was blood on her teeth, coating her tongue. The metallic taste filled her mouth, her nose.

 

Her shaking hands tightened on the hilt, and she knew this was a bad idea, a terrible idea, an idea that would probably kill her, but… her vision grayed, the cord holding her mind to her battered body fraying. She was going to die anyway. Terrible ideas were all she had left.

 

And she wouldn’t—she couldn’t let Octavia get to anyone else.

 

She didn’t quite know how she managed to pull the knife out, but as soon as she did she knew how bad an idea it was. A sick, cold feeling sank through her body as blood flowed from the wound far too quickly, and she was fully struck with the reality that this… this was how she died. Not in some far off, distant battle. Not decades from now, old and gray. Here. Now. With her blood staining the floor and Octavia gloating above her.

 

With her friends fighting for their lives just outside.

 

Not yet.

 

From somewhere above her, distant words solidified into a barely coherent form: “If you wanted to die faster, you could’ve just asked.”

 

Octavia’s face swam in her vision, twisting and curling like smoke above an endless abyss. 

 

She was fading. She could feel it. She smiled, and for a moment, the confident look on Octavia’s face faltered.

 

“For the honor… of Grayskull.”

 


 

Pain melted away into a sea of comforting, familiar molten gold. No more aches. No more unnatural warmth. No more sickening feeling of her life’s blood dripping down her legs, staining  the floor.

 

The fog over her vision lifted, and she could think with clarity for the first time in days. The familiar stretch of transformation pulled at her, not uncomfortably, as her essence poured into a form larger, taller, stronger than herself. 

 

The golden flash of light faded, leaving She-Ra in its wake. White uniform pristine and unbloodied. Sword, once again in its true form, held at her side.

 

She felt… incredible.

 

She looked up, and Octavia gaped.

 

“How? You—you should be dead! I—”

 

“I’m not.” Adora hefted the sword, reveling in the familiar strength that coursed through her limbs, giving Octavia a dangerous smile. “And now it’s my turn.”

 

She stepped forward, and Octavia stumbled backward in a mirror movement—right into one of the many pits that Light Hope had opened in the crystal floor. She wavered and flailed at the edge in a desperate attempt to regain her balance. In another time, it would have been comical. 

 

Today, it wasn’t.

 

She-Ra’s hand fisted in the front of her shirt, holding her over the edge, blade aimed at her throat. Octavia stilled. 

 

“Go on then,” Octavia hissed. “You won, didn’t you? Kill me.”

 

Adora stared at her through She-Ra’s eyes, and in that moment… oh, oh, she wanted to. All she could remember was the pain Octavia put her and Catra through; first as children, now as adults. The desperate rage that lingered, simmering, under Adora’s skin when she thought of Octavia holding Catra’s still form underwater. The pain of the dagger as it entered—

 

The sharp point of the sword pressed in, drawing a bead of dark blood from Octavia’s neck. 

 

Her single, yellow eye closed in acceptance… and Adora froze.

 

No.

 

This wasn’t who Adora wanted to be. She chose to leave the Horde and its ruthlessness behind. But the reason she had been able to make that choice in the first place…  all along, Adora thought she was training to protect others. It just turned out that the Horde was the absolute wrong place to do that.

 

And now she was here, about to kill someone in cold blood.

 

That didn’t feel like protection.

 

The blade pulled back, and Octavia’s eye opened in confusion.

 

“No,” Adora said in a hoarse whisper. Then, stronger: “I’m not going to kill you.”

 

It took a moment for the words to register.

 

“Then you’re a fool.”

 

Adora ignored her, lifting Octavia off her feet with one hand and She-Ra’s strength and then forcefully depositing her on the floor. She landed hard on her rear, wincing.

 

“Get out.” Adora’s voice was low, dangerous.

 

Octavia blinked. “What?”

 

“I said, get out.” She-Ra stepped to the side, giving a clear view of the exit. 

 

“You’re… letting me go?”

 

“I’d bring you back to Bright Moon for trial myself, but thanks to you, I have more important things to deal with.” She-Ra glanced behind her, the fight against the beast still raging in the distance. “Now move.

 

Octavia stepped forward, cautiously at first, then walking faster until she reached the crumbling ruin of the doorway. She turned, then, just beyond the archway, and in the confusion her expression seemed almost… open. 

 

Then it slammed shut again, hard as stone. She drew herself up, the picture of a merciless and contemptful Force Captain.

 

“Your mercy is your weakness, Adora,” she called back. “It always has been. It’ll be what gets you killed.”  Her face twisted into a cruel smile. “Both of you.”

 

Adora was very, very tired of threats. 

 

Anger, frustration, and impatience surged beneath her skin and she lifted the sword, letting the emotion coalesce into a bolt of energy she sent racing along the length of the blade. The blast landed just off to Octavia’s side—harmless, but showering her in a spray of dirt. She jumped and squawked, reeling back a few steps before giving a final snarl and jogging off in the direction of the woods.

 

“Coward,” Adora muttered, striding toward the doorway. 

 

A wave of exhaustion crashed over her, fading as quickly as it had appeared, and she stumbled in confusion. She twisted the sword in her grasp. The runestone held its steady glow, hairline crack barely visible. 

 

Okay, maybe she should hold off on the energy blasts for a while. She glanced up to the clearing again, coming to a sudden, belated realization.

 

That blast hadn’t exactly been subtle. 

 

Which meant the beast in the clearing noticed it.

 

Its massive head whipped toward the sound, eyes wild and jaw slavering, until it saw Octavia’s form and cowered. In the distance, Adora could just make out Glimmer and Bow pulling back in confusion.

 

Octavia saw it then, too, and froze.

 

When seconds passed and nothing happened, the beast slowly unfurled, staring at Octavia with an expression that Adora could only describe as… calculating. It took a step forward.

 

Octavia pulled something from her pocket, and Adora recognized the ruined mass of an electronic device—the thing that controlled the electric devices implanted in the skull of the beasts, allowing Octavia to cow and control them through shocks of pain. Adora suddenly remembered their fight, and the crunching feel of something breaking beneath her boot. 

 

Oops.

 

Octavia stabbed desperately at the button. The beast shrank back again.

 

And again, nothing happened. 

 

This time, the beast coiled tighter, death in its eyes as its muscles tensed in preparation to lunge forward. Octavia stepped backward slowly, too slowly, panic rolling off of her in near-tangible waves, as her back approached the treeline.

 

Adora took a hesitant step forward. She should… do something. Letting Octavia die would be almost the same as killing her, wouldn’t it? And Adora did destroy the controller, intentionally or not, so that only increased her responsibility. Right?

 

So why couldn’t she make herself move?

 

Octavia was almost at the treeline.

 

Too late.

 

Something burst from the trees, all teeth and claws and shimmering waves of something almost visible, dragging Octavia into the greenery with the same brief ferocity as a shark pulling its prey beneath the waves. A muffled shriek rose up, then the sound of something heavy being dragged through the underbrush. Adora dashed out the door and toward the trees, but they were already far beyond her reach.

 

All she could do was listen, heavy with a strange mixture of guilt and relief, as the rustling and cries faded away.

 

Something pricked at her neck and she suddenly remembered the other beast, whirling and lifting her sword into a ready stance. Unnecessarily, it turned out: It, too, was staring into the forest. The beast’s enormous head swung from side to side, looking at its opponents, at She-Ra, at the gap in the trees where the invisible beast and Octavia had disappeared. It took a limping step backward, then sent up a deafening howl that reverberated in Adora’s chest—and broke into an uneven run into the trees after the other beast, thundering right past her. 

 

For a moment, the only coherent thought in Adora’s head was a very confused: “Huh.”

 

Her next thought wasn’t so much as thought as a feeling, an outpouring of utter relief at seeing three distant forms staring in her direction as though they couldn’t believe their eyes. Tears of happiness clouded her vision. They were alive. They were okay.

 

Her hand rose to ghost over the phantom pain where the dagger had pierced her stomach. It was gone, and She-Ra’s shirt was a pristine white, but… she could feel it. Something was leaking through, like smoke curling under and around a sealed door.

 

It didn’t matter. Her friends were okay.

 

Even if she wasn’t. 

 

Chapter Text

“Adora!”

 

Adora barely had time to process the overjoyed shout of her name before a burst of pink sparkles filled her vision and Glimmer catapulted into her. The wind left her lungs with a soft grunt, and when she regained her balance, Glimmer had wrapped her arms around her in a vise-like embrace. Her face was buried in She-Ra’s white shirt, and damp spots soaked through the cloth. 

 

“I can’t believe you’re okay—you’re okay, right?” Glimmer’s words came fast, slightly muffled by She-Ra’s shirt, but she didn’t wait for a response before continuing. “We found all that blood, and—and Bow was worried we might not find you at all, and I was starting to think that maybe we wouldn’t either but you’re here and you’re fine and I’m so glad we found you—”

 

Glimmer cut off with a choked sound and tightened the hug. Adora winced slightly, expecting a flash of familiar pain in her stomach. It… never came. The faint sense of instability to her connection to She-Ra lingered, and the phantom pain of the dagger sinking into her stomach flickered on the edge of her understanding, but… she was fine.

 

As long as she was She-Ra.

 

“Adora!” She looked up to see Bow frantically waving at her, a massive grin splitting his face. Adora returned the wave, smiling back almost as widely. Etheria, she’d missed them. Just seeing them again, seeing them safe, stirred a familiar feeling of comfortable warmth within her—like sipping a cup of Glimmer’s favorite hot chocolate at the end of a cold day. 

 

Adora tightened the hug for a moment, then relaxed. Glimmer still hadn’t let go. 

 

“Uh, Glimmer? She asked, looking down. Glimmer reluctantly detached herself from the hug and stepped backward—almost stumbling as she did so. Adora shot out a hand to steady her. 

 

“Whoa, are you okay?”

 

“Oh, yeah,” Glimmer said, sheepishly. Adora could see familiar lines of exhaustion on her pale face.

 

“You used too much magic.”

 

“No,” Glimmer shot back. “I used just enough magic so we wouldn’t get eaten. You know, big scary beast, and all?”

 

Adora winced. “Yeah.”

 

The defensiveness evaporated from Glimmer’s face and she elbowed Adora playfully. “You really know how to make friends, huh?” 

 

Friends. That was one way to put it. “I’m sorry,” Adora said. “I never wanted to put you guys in danger.” 

 

“C’mon, Adora! This is a war, we’re in danger all the time. Give us a chance to protect you for once. Now c’mon,” she said, grabbing She-Ra’s arm and tugging her forward. “Let’s get Bow before he combusts.”

 

Adora stumbled after her, met half-way by Bow jogging toward them and another welcome—if bone-crushing—hug. It wasn’t until after she had reassured a teary-eyed Bow at least three times that he was not a bad friend for worrying they might not find her and thanked him twice for not giving up looking that she noticed Catra standing just behind him, leaning casually against a boulder.

 

Well, “casual” might not have been the word for it. In reality, she was leaning against the rock because she’d fall down if she didn’t. It might have fooled anyone else, but after years of seeing her friend fight to maintain a confident front in the aftermath of a day being battered in simulations, punished by Shadow Weaver, or bullied by senior cadets, Adora could see straight through the facade.

 

Regardless, Adora was so happy to see her that she stepped forward, arms lifting as if to hug her—and then hesitated. Catra braced one arm stiffly over her ribs, and fresh blood flowed from a concerning set of deep scratches on her leg, but… something about her stance communicated an unease that didn’t come from physical discomfort. A lingering tension to her muscles. The hint of a crease between her brows as she stared up at She-Ra’s form. 

 

A form that was not only Adora, but also the person who tore Catra’s best and only friend away from her.

 

Adora pulled short as Catra swept the tension from her expression.

 

Adora wondered how many times that had happened before.

 

“Hey, Adora.” The words were weaker, more strained than usual. Catra raised an eyebrow and nodded toward the small crater She-Ra had left in the dirt near the Castle’s crumbling entrance. “Dramatic much?”

 

“Oh, you know,” Adora said with a casual shrug. “Had to make an entrance.”

 

Catra snorted. “Good job. I guess Octavia won’t be bothering us anymore.”

 

“I don’t think she’ll be bothering anyone anymore.” 

 

“Good,” Catra said, forcefully. She shifted and winced, and Adora’s gaze traveled to the gashes on Catra’s leg. 

 

“Are you okay? We really should wrap those—”

 

Adora didn’t get to finish that sentence, since she was interrupted by a sudden whoosh of air and swirl of color as Swift Wind landed nearly on top of them. 

 

“Adora!”

 

“Swifty!” Adora leapt forward, wrapping her arms around his neck in a hug—and then pulled back when he stumbled slightly. “Whoa buddy, what’s wrong?” She glanced over him, noting the torn fragment of Glimmer’s cape wrapped around one of his legs, now stained red. Her brow knit in concern. “You okay?”

 

Swift Wind gave a dismissive shake of his head. “I’m fine. Adora. We need to get you back to Bright Moon so they can take care of you!”

 

Adora stiffened. How did he…? “What?”

 

“Please. I’m your noble steed,” he said, giving his colorful mane a majestic toss before leveling her with a more serious look, gently nosing toward her abdomen. “I know you’re hurt.”

 

“What?” Glimmer’s voice joined in, edged with fresh concern. “What’s wrong with her? Adora, didn’t you heal after transforming?”

 

“Nothing! Nothing’s wrong, I’m fine—”

 

“No, you’re not,” Swift Wind insisted.

 

“I’m—” she broke off, wincing slightly at being the center of concern. Clearly they weren’t going to be satisfied with a brush-off. She heaved a sigh.

“Okay, the runestone in the sword got cracked when we fell into the canyon, and it really messed with She-Ra’s magic.” She paused a moment, considering how much to tell them. None of  them knew what had happened between her and Octavia in the castle. And none of them—not even Adora—knew what would happen when She-Ra’s form finally dropped. Maybe she’d be healed.

 

The solid line of her connection to She-Ra fuzzed, briefly, and an echo of pain flickered through her abdomen. 

 

Or maybe she wouldn’t.

 

But she didn’t know. So why stress anyone out?

 

Adora swallowed past the rapidly rising lump in her throat. She’d always been terrible at lying. Not that this was lying, of course, just… leaving a bit out. “I got injured in the explosion that knocked us down there, and Catra’s been taking care of me since I couldn’t turn back into She-Ra until the sword was repaired. Well, mostly repaired,” she amended, turing the sword over to look at the hairline crack still visible in the runestone.

 

Glimmer shot a suspicious, but grudgingly appreciative, glance toward where Catra leaned unsteadily against the rock. 

 

Catra returned the look with a dismissive half-shrug. 

 

“How badly were you hurt?” Bow demanded. “There was a lot of blood…”

 

“I’m fine,” Adora said, automatically. Now that was one lie she might be able to pull off, given how many years of practice she’d had. 

 

Except, of course, Catra was there.

 

A scoff came from her direction. “Don’t listen to her. She has an infected shrapnel wound in her side, broken ribs, and a huge concussion. I’d be worried about brain damage…” Catra paused, offering Adora a wicked smile. “If there was anything left in there to get damaged, that is.”

 

Adora sputtered. “Well, you have cracked ribs too—and you got ripped up by beasts, and have a dislocated shoulder, and you almost drowned !”

 

Bow gave a sympathetic grimace, and Glimmer’s expression slowly morphed from mild annoyance to concern. Whether it was concern for Catra’s condition or concern for how she was going to get two injured people back to Bright Moon, Adora wasn’t entirely sure.

 

“Eh.” Catra waved her words away, then winced at the motion. “Actually, pretty sure those ribs are broken by this point.”

 

“Okay,” Glimmer broke in, pinching her brow. “You’re both very strong. And stupid. But I can only teleport one of you to Bright Moon, so who’s it going to be?”

 

“Adora,” Catra said, definitively.

 

“No way,” Adora shot back. “Look at your leg, you’re bleeding all over!”

 

“And you’ve been doing what, exactly, for the past two days?”

 

“I’m She-Ra now.”

 

Catra gave a gasp of surprise. “Really? And here I thought you were just doing something different with your hair.”

 

Bow glanced between them, an expression somewhere between vague discomfort and amusement at their bickering written across his face.

 

“Catra, please, just go with Glimmer. I’ll catch up with Swifty.” 

 

“If you think I’m going anywhere alone with Bright Moon Rebels, you’re nuts,” Catra hissed. She glanced toward Glimmer. “No offense, Sparkles, but I trust you about as much as a broken stun baton.”

 

“The feeling’s mutual, Furball.”

 

“What did you just call me?”

 

Glimmer threw her hands up in the air. “Ugh! Okay, I am sick of being treated like a magical taxi. I’ll settle this: Adora, I’m taking you. If she has to come back to Bright Moon, she’s doing it with Bow and and the horse.”

 

“Excuse me, I am more than just ‘the horse,’ thank you very much—”

 

“No,” Adora said, obstinately. “I’m not going if she isn’t.”

 

“For the love of Etheria, Adora, I can’t teleport all three of us!”

 

“Then take Bow. Catra and I will take Swift Wind back. It’s not far, we’ll be fine. You good with that, Swifty?” She turned as she finished the sentence, addressing him.

 

Swift Wind glanced between Adora and Catra, distaste clear in his expression when his gaze landed on the other girl. “Do I have a choice?”

 

“Not really,” Adora said, cheerfully.

 

Swift Wind blew out an aggravated, horsey sigh. “Then yes. I’m ‘good’ with it.”

 

“Great. Wonderful. Glad we sorted that out.” Catra pushed off the rock, taking a shaky step forward. “Now can we—” her sentence broke off when her injured leg buckled beneath her. Bow’s hand shot out, barely catching her arm before she hit the ground, but she couldn’t stifle a yelp of pain when the sudden shift in momentum pulled against her ribs. 

 

“Shoot!” Bow said, adjusting his hold to around her shoulders and settling her into a sitting position leaning against the rock. Adora was kneeling at her side in an instant, and Bow pulled his hand away. “I’m so sorry, are you okay?”

 

Catra ignored him, wincing as Adora carefully started to peel some of Catra’s shredded, blood-soaked trouser leg away from the wound. The beast’s claws didn’t seem to have hit an artery, but the amount of blood was still… concerning. 

 

“Okay, we are definitely dealing with this first,” Adora said, half to herself.

 

Catra’s breath was coming short and fast, sweat stood out on her brow, but she hissed at Bow anyway.

 

“Touch me again and I’ll claw your face off.”

 

Bow pulled back further, hands raised. “Sorry!” He continued to hover nearby, though, a friendly and faintly awed look on his face. “I saw what you did, that was amazing. And kind of gross. But mostly amazing. Thank you, by the way.”

 

Catra blinked confused, slightly unfocused eyes. “What?” 

 

“For pushing me out of the way.” He grinned. “Never thought I’d say this, but… I owe you.”

 

“Oh. Yeah. Well.”

 

Catra shifted, pulling something from her belt with a grunt, and then extended the arrow she’d borrowed to kill the beast. It was a different color now, covered in a dark, slightly tacky coating of the beast’s blood.

 

“Want this back?”

 

Bow turned faintly green. “You know, you can hang on to that one, actually,” he squeaked. 

 

“Catra, stop harassing him,” Adora said, apparently satisfied with the cloth and debris she’d managed to pick out of the scratches. She glanced around. “Do we have anything to wrap this with?” Her gaze dropped to the odd half-skirt of She-Ra’s uniform, and she started to reach for her sword.

 

“Here,” Glimmer interrupted, shoving the torn remains of her sparkly cape into view. “It’s already ruined anyway.” 

 

Adora shot her a grateful smile. “Thanks, Glimmer.” 

 

It was easy enough to cut the cape into strips, shifting the sword into a pair of scissors to help. Scissors. Not a dagger. She shuddered almost imperceptibly. Never a dagger again.

 

Catra’s eyes were on her—half-closed, but sharp. Perceptive. Adora shook off the fuzzy feeling of dread and focused her attention on the cloth in her hand.

 

“I can’t believe you guys were stuck down there for two days,” Bow mused, staring past the trees in the direction of the canyon. Catra rolled her eyes. 

 

“Yeah, well, time flies when you’re having fun,” she said, dryly. 

 

“It must have been terrible.” He shuddered. “Bet you can’t wait to get far, far away from that pit.”

 

“It’s a canyon,” both Catra and Adora corrected in perfect, irritated unison. 

 

Bow and Glimmer shared a confused glance. 

 

“Okay then,” Bow said, drawing out the word in confused agreement. “‘Canyon.’” 

 

“Didn’t know you were such sticklers for geographical terminology,” Glimmer added, arms folded. 

 

“Oh, neither did I,” came Catra’s airy reply. “You learn a lot about a person’s priorities when you’re stuck with their stubborn ass for days.” Then, under her breath to Adora: “Nerd.”

 

“No one made you stay,” Adora shot back, a smile pulling at her lips. “Sap.”

 

An angry fire lit in Catra’s eyes, and her gaze darted self-consciously to Bow, then Glimmer, then back on Adora. A low growl came from her throat, but it sounded too much like a purr for Adora to take it as the warning it was intended to be.

 

“I will claw you,” Catra hissed.

 

“Try it,” Adora challenged. Catra inhaled, heaving her exhausted muscles up to give a half-hearted swipe in Adora’s direction before her arm dropped back to the ground, trembling slightly. After two days, she was running on empty. Adora knew the feeling. 

 

“You’re not worth the effort,” Catra grumbled. 

 

“Mm-hm.”

 

“Ugh,” Catra said, weakly, wrinkling her nose as Adora tied the cloth around her leg. A gust of wind stirred the trees and Adora tensed, glancing over her shoulder. The beasts probably weren’t interested in coming back. She started moving a little faster anyway. 

 

“Smells like princess magic.”

 

Adora snorted. “Better get used to it. I’m sure I smell like princess magic too.”

 

“No. You just smell like—you.” Catra blinked, then quickly continued. “Well, except when you’re She-Ra. Or you’ve been training. Or you haven’t changed your shirt in three days. Speaking of which, how long were we in that canyon, again?”

 

“Okay, okay.”

 

“What I’m trying to say here, Adora,” Catra said, lifting a bloodstained hand to Adora’s shoulder and staring into her eyes as if about to impart some heavy truth, “…is that you stink.”

 

“Yeah. Somehow, I got that.”

 

“Are you sure? I can go over it again, maybe a little slower—agh.” Catra’s words cut off abruptly when Adora tightened the blue cape over the wounds marking Catra’s thigh. Dark blood was already starting to seep into the fabric, and Adora’s stomach clenched. Despite her stream of levity, Catra was pale, a thin layer of sweat glistening on her forehead.

 

They needed to get back to Bright Moon. 

 

Behind them, Bow and Glimmer were involved in a quiet, tense conversation with occasional glances toward Catra. Adora met Catra’s eyes, raising her eyebrows slightly and glancing between her and Swift Wind. Can you walk?

 

Catra shifted slightly, pulling her uninjured leg toward her in preparation to rise, then pulled short with a soft, frustrated groan. Her eyes closed briefly before she met Adora’s gaze again and gave an almost imperceptible shake of her head.

 

“Right,” Adora said, loudly. She rose from the ground and turned to address Bow and Glimmer. “I think we’re ready. When you get back, tell the infirmary to get ready for someone with injuries.”

 

“Make sure they’re ready for two people,” Catra groused from behind her. Adora cleared her throat. 

 

“Yeah, uh, two people. Doesn’t hurt to be on the safe side.” She gave what she hoped was a reassuring grin. 

 

“We will.” Glimmer put her hand on Bow’s arm in preparation to teleport, then suddenly covered the short distance between them to wrap Adora in another hug. “See you soon.”

 

She pulled back, shot Adora an encouraging smile, then took Bow’s hand and disappeared in a cloud of pink sparkles. 

 

There was silence for a moment.

 

“Them? Really?”

 

Shush. They’re nice.”

 

“Oh, yeah. I especially liked the part where Sparkles almost singed my—” Catra cut off, wincing, as Adora pulled her to her feet and draped Catra’s arm across her shoulders. “—face off,” Catra finished weakly, face a little green.

 

“Sorry,” Adora offered, but the corner of her mouth twitched.

 

“Yeah, I can tell.”

 

They took a halting step toward Swift Wind, who hobbled a bit closer before spreading his wings out low to allow them easier access to his back. It was a strange reversal of their roles up until this point, Adora thought to herself, wrapping one arm around Catra’s back to try and keep more weight off her injured leg.

 

On their next step, she almost fell. 

 

For the barest moment, the sure strength of She-Ra faded away, like a wave pulling back from the shoreline to uncover the darkened sands below. Searing pain flashed through her stomach—but distant, still, deadened from its true intensity—before She-Ra’s strength flooded back and swept the pain away. Adora stumbled, and Catra inhaled sharply as the motion pulled her forward. 

 

“S-sorry,” Adora gasped. 

 

Catra caught her breath, then gave her a piercing glance. “What’s wrong?”

 

“Nothing. It’s just the sword, it’s not repaired all the way.” Adora pulled them another step closer to Swift Wind, but she could feel Catra still staring at her. 

 

“And?”

 

“And what?”

 

“There’s something else.”

 

“No. I just tripped. Don’t be weird about it.”

 

“Don’t be—oh, that’s rich coming from you.”

 

They were at Swift Wind’s white flank now, and Catra stared unhappily at the height of his back. Adora glanced at the bandage above his hoof. Normally, he would have knelt, but she couldn’t ask it of him with the condition of his leg. 

 

“Do you want me to pull you up, or…?” 

 

Catra huffed and shook her head, so Adora laced her hands together to make a step. It took some fumbling and Catra digging her claws into Adora’s shoulder so hard she winced, but soon she was up on his back, slumped forward and swaying slightly. Adora clambered on behind her. 

 

“Did something happen in there?” Catra asked, once she was seated.

 

“Catra, please.”

 

“Was it Octavia? I swear, if I’d known she would get in, I never would’ve—” her mouth clamped shut.

 

“I’m fine,” Adora said, automatically.

 

“And I’m the queen of Bright Moon.”

 

Adora sighed. 

 

Don’t lie. Catra can tell, and she’s already hurt—she doesn’t need to worry about me too.

 

“I wasn’t fine before, alright? The sword was helping, but I’m not totally healed yet. That’s all.”

 

Catra was staring at her, clear-eyed and perceptive despite trembling of her muscles and the sweat on her brow. 

 

“Did she hurt you?”

 

Yes.

 

And I’m terrified.

 

Adora took a deep breath.

 

“It’s fine, Catra. Light Hope helped. I… got the sword, then I took care of her.”

 

Swift Wind shook his mane and spread his wings, then cleared his throat loudly. “You ready back there?”

 

“Yeah,” Adora said, quicky. “Sorry, bud, Let’s go home.” 

 

Catra stiffened visibly at the words, and again when Adora looped an arm around her waist. 

 

“It’s a long way down if you pass out,” she explained. 

 

“I’m not gonna—oof!” Catra cut off as Swift Wind took off in a sudden rush of wings and wind, the tops of the trees already becoming distant below them. Icy wind cut through the cloth of She-Ra’s uniform, but as always, she was more… aware of the sensation than truly experiencing it. Variations in temperature didn’t seem to bother her magical form. Catra, however, would have no such benefit. Adora wrapped her other arm around her and realized the other girl was stiff as a board. 

 

“First time flying?” she asked, nonchalantly. 

 

She felt Catra force herself to relax, clawed fingers loosening their death grip in Swift Wind’s mane. “Please. I’ve been in a skiff while you were flying—nothing scares me.”

 

“I’m pretty sure things went worse after you took over.”

 

Silence, and for a moment, Adora regretted her words. Images flashed through her mind: The vine, the fall, the sword… and everything after. 

 

“Yeah.”

 

Silence again. Adora could see Catra’s head starting to nod, slipping down before jerking back up. She gave a worried glance to the side and saw a thin trickle of blood flowing from the soaked bandage on her leg, staining Swift Wind’s side.

 

“Hey, Adora.” The words were uncharacteristically quiet, and Adora’s attention snapped to her.

 

“Hm?”

 

“When we get there… What do you think will happen?”

 

Adora took a breath, held it, and exhaled. “Well, they’ll heal you, first of all.”

 

“How magnanimous.”

 

Adora narrowed her eyes at the back of Catra’s head, but let the comment slide. “After that… I’m not sure,” she said, honestly. “But they’re not like the Horde, Catra. They’re good people.”

 

Catra snorted softly in response, but said nothing. 

 

“Whatever happens, I’ll be there too. I pro—”

 

“—don’t,” Catra cut her off. “Don’t say that.”

 

Something like guilt constricted in Adora’s chest. 

 

“I’ll be there,” she said, forcefully. Adora unconsciously tightened her hold, then loosened it when she felt Catra wince.

 

“Ribs.”

 

“Sorry.”

 

Silence again.

 

Maybe she couldn’t promise, but she had to say something. “I will be there,” Adora repeated, not as forceful as before, but firm; gentle.

 

There was no response until, finally, Catra’s head dipped in a slight nod. 

 

“Okay.”

 


 

It wasn’t until a few minutes later that Adora remembered she was in no position to be making promises. 

 

The ebb and flow of She-Ra’s strength wasn’t something she could ignore anymore. She-Ra's magic flickered in her mind, the once strong and steady connection now more akin to a guttering candle. The pain increased each time the connection faded. Sweat dampened her uniform and beaded on her skin, made frigid by the cold air rushing past.

 

Cold.

 

She wasn’t supposed to feel cold.

 

She took a few deep breaths, trying to center the connection. It felt like trying to sew a piece of cloth together while someone tore at the seams, but… it helped. The chill faded back from a feeling to an awareness. 

 

Catra was asleep, now, or unconscious. She was tired enough and had lost enough blood for it to be either. Adora could feel the steady rise and fall of Catra’s breathing against her chest, even if the breaths were slightly labored. She tried to let the motion comfort her.

 

“Adora.” Swift Wind’s voice cut through her wandering thoughts. From the tone, it wasn’t the first time he’d called her name. He spoke again, softer, worried, just loud enough to be heard over the wind rushing past their ears. “During the fight, before you left the castle, I felt—” He stopped for a moment. “You’re not okay, are you?”

 

The urge to laugh swelled in her chest, a wild mix of emotions swirling and tugging her mind a million different directions. Panic, fear, helplessness, dread—they all mixed into the tears she suddenly found in her eyes, the strange thickness in her throat. 

 

“No.” Swift Wind’s worry mounted through their familiar, yet fuzzy mental connection. “But I—I will be. I think.”

 

It was hard to say the words when she didn’t believe them herself. 

 


 

“—dora. Adora.

 

Adora shook herself, forcing tired eyes to focus. For the past… minutes? Hours? Years? She had been concentrating so hard on holding on to She-Ra’s form, keeping both her and Catra upright on the horse, that she hadn’t processed anything except the rush of frigid air past her face and arms, the warmth of Catra’s body—still alive—and the waves of pain that coursed through her body each time she had to pull She-Ra’s form back to her. The magic wanted so desperately to slip away. 

 

Adora blinked, processing her surroundings. The familiar stonework towering above her—the runestone glowing gently in the distance—daylight glinting off the shining metal that adorned the walls—

 

Bright Moon.

 

She was finally, finally back. 

 

At some point, Catra had sagged back against her, head resting limp just beneath Adora’s chin. She didn’t stir, even when jostled. Concern twisted Adora’s stomach. She had to… a wave of hazy pain washed over her before she managed to drag She-Ra’s magic back. It was draining away from her, slowly, like sand through her fingers… 

 

Help. 

 

Catra needed help.

 

Adora slid off Swift Wind’s back, dimly aware that he was saying something. It didn’t matter. No, that was rude. She’d… have to ask him later. 

 

Catra came next, as Adora pulled her unnervingly still form off Swift Wind’s back and into her arms, staggering under Catra’s light weight before recovering. Her vision grayed again, the agony in her stomach becoming more real with each wave, but she forced herself to focus on Catra’s pale face.

 

Breathing. Catra was still breathing. Shallow, raspy breaths, but there. 

 

She should have made Glimmer take her back—

 

Adora took a staggering step toward the castle.

 

One of the doors burst open, and healers flooded toward them. Hands overlapped hers, gently trying to pry Catra from her grasp before she processed what was happening. She gently lay her onto a stretcher before stumbling backward. 

 

She should follow—she needed to follow—she said she’d stay with her. 

 

Pink and brown swam into her vision, and she realized Glimmer and Bow were trying to talk to her.

 

“...dora,” Glimmer’s concerned voice pierced the fog. “Are … okay?” 

 

There was a hand on her shoulder, warm and steadying. 

 

Pain.

 

She doubled over with it this time, taking deep, heaving breaths as the golden rope holding She-Ra’s magic to her broken body frayed to a bare string. She straightened, somewhat, still hunched forward.

 

“Adora!” Both Glimmer and Bow were trying to support her now, panic etched in their faces as they frantically waved a healer over.

 

Moisture filled Adora’s eyes and blurred her vision further.

 

If there had ever been any doubt, she now knew what would happen when She-Ra’s form dropped away. She needed—she needed to make sure—

 

“Not her fault,” she gasped out. 

 

“What?”

 

“What happened… Catra doesn’t know. She helped me. Octavia… did this.” She braced herself against a fresh wave of pain. The connection hung by a gilded thread. It would break, and when it did—

 

—she was scared.

 

She was so scared.

 

The world was swirling away. She gulped in air, managing to force out one last sentence.

 

“I love you guys.”

 

The thread snapped. 

Chapter Text

When Catra was in her second year of junior cadet training, she ended up in the Horde infirmary. 

 

Injuries were common. Injuries bad enough to land a cadet in the infirmary, less so. For an injury to land Catra in the infirmary… well. The prospect of a cadet dying on their watch was the only thing that could scare a training officer badly enough to drag her there.

 

One moment Catra had been in the middle of a training sim, leaping effortlessly about the arena and occasionally diving in to help Adora take down an enemy, and the next a bot had charged from the shadows, straight into Adora’s blind spot. She didn’t think, just reacted; shoving Adora aside before diving for cover herself.

 

She hadn’t been fast enough.

 

The last things she comprehended were the arm of a bot descending toward her, a feeling of weightlessness, then a blinding flash of pain as she slammed into the solid metal wall of the training arena. 

 

It took a long time for her to wake, after. Awareness came in bits and snatches. Blackness first, an empty void fading to the sterile walls of the Horde infirmary—so rare and unnerving a sight that it almost shocked her fully awake before consciousness slid from her gasp again. Muffled conversation drifted to her ears, distant and watery. 

 

Time skipped forward, and the infirmary melted away. Instead, the familiar green light of the barracks pierced the darkness, lanced through her half-open eyes like a knife. She twitched, blinking, slowly processing the thin mattress and cool draft of the bottom bunk, then… the warm pressure of Adora’s hand loosely curled around her own, blonde head resting on her arm atop the edge of the bed.

 

Waking now was everything and nothing like that memory.

 

Catra flexed her fingers slowly, eyelids fluttering, squinting against dim light while past and present swirled through her aching mind. The ceiling looked... wrong. Her fist clenched weakly, seeking the phantom warmth that lingered on her hand. 

 

Snatches of panicked conversation reached her ears. Not sure… alive… can’t stabilize without…

 

Voices shot back questions, rapid and pitched high with worry. The voices were familiar, somehow. Grating. 

 

The ceiling was wrong. 

 

She was forgetting something. Something important.

 

Adora.

 

A jolt of panic ran through her body, tensing every muscle as she tried to shoot upright—and fell back with a weak groan, sinking into the soft bedding. Adora. She was supposed to be alright, but the nagging concern as they flew toward Bright Moon, the panicked tone of the healers—Catra tried to pull an arm up to support her weight, but her muscles trembled and screamed. Her skin was already slick with her own sweat, soaking into the sheets that trapped her limbs.

 

A hand came from the murky shapes overhead, pressing her shoulder gently down into the unfamiliar mattress. Had she been able to move, she would have lashed out with claws and teeth, but now—

 

“Adora,” she croaked, desperately, the word muffled and cracked through her dry mouth. “Where—”

 

“Hush.” The voice attached to the hand was unfamiliar, but not unkind. “You must rest.”

 

The wrong ceiling swirled and faded away, taking the strange voices with it. 

 


 

The next time Catra woke, it took several moments for her to realize she’d opened her eyes at all.

 

It was dark. So dark that even with her feline eyesight, it took a full minute of painful blinking and squinting for the faint moonbeams drifting through the room’s high windows to solidify into murky shapes. Or maybe half a minute. Or maybe half an hour. The concept of time didn’t feel like it was working too well at the moment. 

 

A faint yellow glow pulsed in the darkness, and she let tired eyes drift shut as she worked her other senses. The scents of soap, linen, and medicine mingled together, but underneath it… 

 

Her nose twitched, eyes flying back open as adrenaline rushed at a familiar smell. Sorcery. This had an unfamiliar odor to it, though. The underlying hint of ozone was unmistakable to her heightened senses, but this—this had a floral, almost pleasant scent; especially when compared to the acrid, rotten-meat stench of Shadow Weaver’s magic. 

 

She squinted into the dark, braving the fierce ache of her muscles to lift her head enough to see the source in the darkness. Her heart seized as the yellow glow pulsed brighter for a moment, finally allowing her to see the form that lay in the bed opposite her.

 

Adora.

 

The splay of her golden hair was unmistakable, tinged brighter by the yellow light. Rows of strange glass bottles filled with colored liquids lined the bedside table, and the source of the glow finally became clear: a large, complicated circle of magical runes floating just above Adora’s body.

 

A cocktail of emotions swirled through Catra. Relief at seeing Adora alive. Surprise that the princesses had let them be in the same room at all. Most of all, confusion and alarm at Adora’s clearly worsened state. Thick bandages now swathed her midsection, just barely visible above the blanket that covered her lower half. She’d known that Adora’s condition was worse than she let on, but this… 

 

The familiar, bitter tastes of fear and powerlessness rose in her throat. Catra was suffused with the desire to cross the room and curl up at the foot of the bed so Adora’s quiet warmth could assure her that she was there, alive, but… well, she couldn’t really move. The brief shot of adrenaline had worn off again, familiar aches and pains making themselves loudly known. She sank reluctantly back into the bedding. 

 

After a moment, something snagged at the back of Catra’s mind. It was quiet. So quiet that the silence of the massive room seemed almost oppressive. She opened her eyes a sliver to glance around. She’d expected there would be guards. Or healers. Or… anyone, really.

 

Weird. 

 

Her eyes slid shut again. That was a problem for a less tired, less achy Catra. She let the thoughts slip away from her tired mind. If she concentrated, her heightened senses could just barely make out the soft, raspy sound of Adora’s breathing. 

 

For now, that would have to be enough.

 

Inhale, exhale.

 

Inhale, exhale. 

 

The steady rhythm lulled Catra’s eyes shut.

 

Inhale, exhale.

 

It was a little shakier than she remembered.

 

Inhale… exhale.

 

 

She.. she should have inhaled by now.

 

Catra’s eyes flew open, ears straining for the slightest sound, and was greeted only by silence.

 

Adora wasn’t breathing.

 

The rune circle floating above her flickered in the dark, its glow dimming.

 

Healers. Where were the cursed healers?

 

Catra tried to call out, but the word stuck in her throat as a dry croak. How could this be happening? An enormous castle, and no one was here to make sure their patient wasn’t dying?

 

She cast her gaze desperately around the room, finding nothing but moonlight and shadows and a faint glint of metal—

 

Metal.

 

She-Ra’s sword. It lay on a table near Adora’s bed, forgotten, apparently shoved aside in the haphazard rush to heal their hero. It was a long shot, but…

 

The sigil floating above Adora’s body flickered, fading.

 

Adora was going to die, in an infirmary, and all Catra could do was sit and watch.

 

No.

 

Magic had helped heal her before; maybe it would help now. She had to get the sword closer to Adora.

 

Imbued with a sudden strength, she wrenched the covers off and stumbled toward the sword on trembling legs, staggering into the bedside table where the sword lay and knocking a row of bottles to the floor with her clumsy movements. The clattering filled her ears as she drew in a ragged breath to quell her nausea, hanging onto the table for dear life as the room spun around her. 

 

A soft wheeze came from Adora’s bed. The sigil flickered again, dimming further. Panic closed off Catra’s throat.

 

Somehow, she managed to close numb fingers about the sword’s hilt, pulling the blade off the bedside table. Lifting it seemed beyond the capabilities of her trembling arms. The blade hit the floor with a resounding clang, echoing and fading as she dragged it toward Adora’s bed, her uneven footsteps followed by the ringing sound of steel scraping against stone. 

 

In the silence, the sounds were loud enough to make Catra’s ears hurt. Adora didn’t stir.

 

With the last of her strength, Catra heaved the sword up onto the bed, its point sinking into the mattress as Catra sagged boneless, breathless, against the hilt.

 

Nothing happened.

 

No rush of magic, no brilliant light. Adora lay utterly still below her. In the pale blue cast of the moonlight, she may as well have been dead.

 

“No.” The word was a whisper, cracked and dry. “No. Please.” The room became distant and dark, blurred by her tears. 

 

Please.”

 

Nothing.

 

Then—

 

The runestone started to glow. 

 

Faintly at first, then brighter. The magic sigil strengthened as well; thin, fading lines growing bolder and more vibrant. For an infinite moment, Adora did not move, but then—a deep, shuddering breath, and both sigil and runestone blazed brighter than ever before. 

 

Catra dropped her head against the hilt of the sword where it lay planted in the mattress, a ragged laugh of relief tearing from her exhausted lungs even as tears rolled down her cheeks.

 

Of course, that was when the healers showed up.

 

The arrival was heralded by a sharp gasp, followed by the clatter of metal and ceramic against stone. Catra whirled to see a middle-aged woman in the entryway with the remnants of a tray scattered about her feet, staring with wide, horrified eyes, hands pressed to her mouth as she backed slowly away. Catra found herself far too tired to care. Her vision was starting to gray at the edges, abused muscles screaming in protest as the adrenaline and exertion caught up with her healing body. 

 

There you are,” Catra hissed, stepping away from the bed in an uneven lurch, balance failing. 

 

The woman screamed and dashed out the door. In the next instant, guards rushed in—of course, waiting just outside the doors—and crossed the room before she could properly react, twisting aching arms behind her back until bolts of fire ran through her mistreated shoulder and the deep cuts on her upper arm. She gasped, vision whiting out for a moment.

 

“Hey, watch it—

 

There were hurried footsteps as the lights brightened and more bodies rushed in, but Catra couldn’t make out the details through her pained haze. The fact that her face was currently being pressed into the white sheets of an empty bed didn’t exactly help.

 

“What were you doing to She-Ra?” a guard shouted from behind her.

 

“Mmf—was— helping—”

 

The frantic beat of more footsteps flooding into the room reverberated in her ears, the sounds echoing and stretching in a disorienting cacophony. She could finally feel her consciousness starting to slip away. She took a deep breath, trying to force the encroaching darkness back for a moment longer.

 

“The sword—she needs the sword. Wasn’t breathing. Don’t move it—” Catra broke off, hissing, as the guard shifted their weight painfully against her twisted arm. “—don’t…” Her already tenuous grasp on the world was rapidly fading, dimming the pastel walls to a faint gray. “Don’.. move it…” 

 

Darkness took her.

 


 

Somehow, for all the times Catra had imagined being captured by the evil princesses as a child growing up in the Horde, she’d never pictured quite so many... pillows.

 

Apparently, it was nearly impossible to find a place in Bright Moon that wasn’t garishly colored and absolutely smothered in throw pillows, even if you were a suspected war criminal slash would-be princess assassin. 

 

Catra had woken several hours ago drooling a sizable damp spot into one, and was currently dragging a sharp claw through the soft, expensive-looking fabric of another, white fluff spilling out through the fresh seam. She slowly, spitefully, plucked several handfuls of stuffing into a growing cloud at her side before methodically ripping the casing to shreds.

 

It didn’t really make her feel better.

 

She rose from her seat on the stone floor, biting back a groan as the motion pulled on the deep claw marks in her leg. The healers must have used some magic on her as well, but she was far from fighting condition. She limped a few steps forward before raising a claw and tapping at the air in front of her, feeling the slight sting of magic buzz through her finger. Purple energy rippled outward from the place she touched; the large sigil on the floor below her feet pulsing briefly brighter with the same color. 

 

She stared at the pillow nearly brushing her foot. The room may have been drafty and cavernous, but it obviously hadn’t been designed to hold anyone against their will.

 

Well. Adora said there weren’t any prisons in Bright Moon, but clearly those princess types could get creative.

 

Adora. A wave of panic swept through Catra before she shoved it back down. She’d been confined to the magic circle for hours, long enough for a meek assistant healer to bring her a tray of food and some foul-smelling potions before scuttling fearfully away. She ate the food, hating how delightfully flavorful it was, and stared balefully at the potions for at least an hour before downing them in one unpleasant gulp. Didn’t kill her, as it turned out. Actually helped with the pain some.

 

But still, no news of Adora. No answer to her shouted demands to see Glimmer, the Queen, a guard, anyone who could tell her what was happening in the infirmary. If Adora was alive—no , she thought, forcefully, starting a slow, limping pace. No, of course she was alive. If she was okay. If they’d kept the sword with her. If she was healing. 

 

Catra stopped and sighed, tapping idly at the magical forcefield and watching as the resultant undulations temporarily filled her vision. Footsteps sounded in the hall beyond the doors, and her ears perked up at the sound of the heavy door to the room scraping open. The purple ripples of energy before her resolved into the forms of both Glitter Princess and her mother, flanked by dour-faced guards. 

 

Catra narrowed her eyes at the short, pastel-colored princess, who returned the expression with enough vigor to curdle fresh milk.

 

“Sparkles,” Catra acknowledged. 

 

“Horde Scum,” came the flat response.

 

“Come to gloat?”

 

“Over an insignificant force captain?” Glimmer sneered. “No, thanks. I only gloat over prizes that are actually worth something.”

 

Catra’s lip curled up in snarl. “Why don’t you come a little closer and we’ll see who’s worth something, princess—”

 

Children.” Catra froze involuntarily at the queen’s stern command, distantly irked at being called a child. Angella towered above them both, hand raised, exhaustion lining her face.

 

“Glimmer, please.” The queen’s tone softened somewhat, and Glimmer crossed her arms with a huff.

 

“Fine.” Sparkles inhaled deeply, then shot out her first question with a glare in Catra’s direction. “Why did you come to Bright Moon?”

 

Catra leaned back, crossing her own arms, desperate not to betray her own anxiety. “How's Adora?”

 

“I’m the only one asking questions here!”

 

“Clearly not.”

 

“I asked first.”

 

“I asked second.”

 

Glimmer threw her hands in the air. “That’s not how this works! You are the prisoner, I am the questioner—question-asker… person… you answer my questions!”

 

Normally, Catra would love to gloat—but it was getting harder to breathe around the twist of fear. “I’m not answering anything until you tell me how Adora’s doing.”

 

“Why do you care? You’re the one who tried to kill her!”

 

Catra bared her teeth, a simmering rage bubbled within her. “I’m the one who tried to save her while your worthless healers were off sucking their thumbs!”

 

“Enough!” The queen’s wings snapped out to their full extension, filling the room, and Catra fought the instinctual urge to shrink back. Instead, she forced herself to stand up straighter, offering a defiant stare. It was a move borne of years of practice. 

 

“Catra,” the queen addressed her, voice measured and even. “You are a Horde officer. You have been an enemy to Bright Moon and to She-Ra— Adora— for as long as she has been with the Rebellion. Yet, for some reason, Adora took great pains to assure us you were not a threat. Your wounds were treated and you were left unrestrained, and you repaid this trust with an apparent attempt”—Glimmer scoffed—”on Adora’s life as she slept. We are here,” Angella took a moment to spare a stern glance toward her daughter, “to hear your reasons why.”

 

Catra laughed.

 

It was more of a snort, really—a short, disbelieving sound she couldn’t contain. The queen raised one perfect brow.

 

“I’m sorry,” Catra said, wiping the mirth from her eyes, “But I spent days dragging Adora’s sorry ass through that horrible crack in the ground. There were dozens of times I could have saved my own skin and left her to die in the woods. Why would I bring her to Bright Moon just to fail at killing her in the one place where I would get caught trying?”

 

Glimmer tapped her foot and scowled in the background, but Angella’s expression was carefully blank. “You were seen standing over her unconscious body with She-Ra’s sword. You must realize how this appears.”

 

Catra sighed, staring up at a blank part of the ceiling and hoping vaguely that it would give her patience. “For the love of—I wasn’t trying to kill her.”

 

“Liar! You expect us to believe—”

 

“Glimmer.” Angella’s wings flared slightly. “Given your emotional connection to this situation, it would be best if you wait outside for the remainder of this conversation.”

 

“But—”

 

Now.”

 

With an angry huff, Glimmer spun on her heel and left the room, slamming the door shut behind her.

 

“Ah, the legendary poise of royalty,” Catra mused, picking idly at a nail. 

 

Angella said nothing, simply staring at Catra with wings and arms folded until the girl’s skin began to prickle.

 

“What?” she snapped, finally.

 

“You’re rather alike, you know,” the queen observed. “Moreso, perhaps, than you’d care to admit.”

 

Catra scoffed. “As if. The only thing that’s keeping me from hating her sparkly guts entirely is that she’s decent in a fight.” She rubbed at a patch of singed skin. “Even if it takes her way too long to warm up.” 

 

Angella hummed. “Often the people we dislike the most are the ones most alike to us.”

 

“I’ll try not to be insulted by that, your majesty.”

 

The corner of the queen’s mouth quirked upward. “A surprising display of restraint for a supposed assassin.” 

 

“I told you—” Catra started, then cut off when the queen raised a hand. 

 

“No need. I believe you.”

 

Catra gaped. “You... you what?”

 

“I believe you were trying to help Adora.” 

 

Catra stared, blinking, then gestured expansively to the barrier of purple energy between them. “And this is for what, decoration?”

 

Amusement flitted briefly across Angella’s face. “I have lived long enough to hear the truth in your words. However, you must realize that your actions could appear quite threatening, particularly to those who know your history and wish to protect Adora.”

 

Well. That was new.

 

“Like your daughter,” Catra said.

 

The queen folded her hands before her. “Among others.”

 

“She’s... okay, then? Adora?”

 

A slight smile graced the queen’s face. “She will be.”

 

Relief rushed through Catra and out in a soft exhale. When her eyes opened again, Angella’s were on her, filled with an unnerving mixture of curiosity and knowing that immediately made sweat gather around Catra's collar. She blinked, and the queen’s expression relaxed. Catra did not. 

 

“Thanks in large part to you, if you’re to be believed,” Angella continued. The piercing gaze returned for a brief moment. “You truly do care for her, don’t you?”

 

“What? I—no. It was—a tactical advantage. To help her.”

 

“A tactical advantage to abandon your position as Force Captain, risk capture and death by aiding your rival, and then enter the city of your enemies?”

 

Catra groped in silent desperation for a shred of justification. Her face was uncomfortably warm. 

 

“It… would have been a waste to kill She-Ra when she could have been brought back to the Horde,” Catra mumbled, not even believing her own words. “And if they were going to kill me for that, then maybe the Horde isn’t the place for me either.”

 

“I can certainly agree with you there.” The queen took a deep breath. “I’m pleased you’ve had this change of heart, Catra, but there are some who will take time to trust it.”

 

No surprise there. These Bright Moon rebels might be soft and excessively forgiving, but even they had limits. Still, it grated on her that this was one time when all that mush would have worked in her favor, and she just—

 

“I’d still like to see Adora.” The words left her mouth before she could stop to think about them, and regret instantly followed.

 

Angella stilled, appearing to consider.

 

Of course. Of course they wouldn’t let her out of this stupid, magical, pillow-stuffed cell. Still, Catra couldn’t help but justify herself.

 

“I’m not going to hurt her,” she said, defensively. “I’ve been trying to help her since we fell into that stupid crack in the ground. Why would I want all that hard work to go to waste? If I wanted her dead, all I had to do was leave her in the woods.”

 

The queen quirked an eyebrow. “Regardless of your intentions today, you hurt her before.”

 

Catra fought the urge to flinch away from the truth of the words.

 

“Yes.”

 

There was silence. Catra found herself trying to fill it. 

 

“I—we—we were enemies. Enemies… hurt each other.”

 

Silence stretched again. This time, she kept her lips clamped shut.

 

The queen finally spoke. “How old are you?”

 

Catra bristled. “I'm a Force Captain.”

 

“I asked your age, not your rank.”

 

“I…” she scrambled. Everyone knew their age. All the cadets had some memory, a blurred vision of parents, a dim recollection of celebrations—echoed cruelly by the hushed congratulations from squadmates in the barracks, huddled around a stolen lump of gray ration bar. Even the ones born into the Horde knew the date. 

 

“Before my promotion, I was a senior cadet. Eighth degree,” Catra said, with as much pride as she could muster.

 

Angella ignored her answer. “When were you born?” She pressed.

 

Catra shut her eyes tightly, as though trying to block out the question. Every cadet knew. Every cadet knew something about who they were, where they had come from. 

 

Every cadet except her and Adora.

 

“When—”

 

“I don’t know!” Catra shouted, slamming her fist against the barrier and then wincing at the jolt of pain that rippled through her still-healing arm. “I don’t know,” she repeated, quieter. “Neither of us know. The ones born into the Horde do, and so do all the older recruits, but Adora and I were—we were too young.”

 

“Young,” Angella repeated, a soft sadness about her eyes. “Yes… you still are, both of you. Far too young.”

 

“I’m not a child,” Catra spat.

 

“No,” Angella said, the sadness deepening in her expression. “That was taken from you.”

 

For once, Catra found herself at a loss for words. 

 

“But that's not the topic of this conversation,” Angella said, giving her head a slight shake. “I will speak to the healers regarding your request. In time, we may be able to come to an arrangement.”

 

Angella turned and started toward the doors, pausing as they opened to glance over her shoulder and give a single nod. “Until next time, Catra.” 

 

The door slid shut, and Catra was alone once more. 

 


 

Adora was, to her great surprise, not dead.

 

At least, if she was dead, she’d expected it to feel a lot less… weird.

 

Her first sense of awareness was floating in a nameless void. She felt nothing, saw nothing, thought nothing. The only hint of emotion in her mind was a vague sense of relief, like the Nothing was more pleasant than whatever she’d left behind. Eventually, something broke through the darkness—a golden light, dim at first, then brightening. It stung her eyes, spreading through her body, bringing with it a distant ache that sharpened and intensified as the light grew ever brighter. It hurt . Something pressed at the edges of her memory. A sense of… duty. Responsibility . She had to return, no matter the cost. She had always bowed to that sense, built her life around it, but now, finally, some part of her rebelled. 

 

All she wanted was... peace. To hide forever in the freeing darkness.

 

She started to slip away after that, the glow dimming and the pain lessening as she fell deeper into the nothingness. Before she could fade away entirely, something else broke through: not a light, but a presence. Familiar. Something that brought with it not a feeling of obligation, but a warmth and happiness that she found herself reluctant to leave behind.

 

The glow brightened again, bringing with it a wave of pain that nearly washed her back into the sea of darkness.

 

But that presence…

 

She couldn’t leave. Not quite yet. 

 

Adora floated in the nameless darkness for some time, after that. Of course, time meant very little to her there; seconds could be hours and minutes could be days. Still, as it passed in fits and spurts, she drifted ever closer to the faint glow and the distant, unpleasant knowledge that the light would bring... pain. 

 

Awareness came to her as oddly as anything else, washing over her body and then pulling away like ocean tides. She could feel her toes one moment, the scratchy sensation of sheets against skin the next. The light was bright now, pressing insistently against her eyelids. With supreme effort, she managed to crack one eye open before immediately clamping it shut with a quiet groan. Sensations cascaded into her as if unlocked by the light, each nerve screaming to her with its own unique message of agony. Another groan slipped from her throat. She was awake now, truly awake, and regretting it. Her body was a single, pulsing mass of pain. 

 

“Adora?” a hushed voice came from her side. “Adora, are you awake?”

 

Adora just breathed for a moment, trying to gather the energy to speak. 

 

“G—” she coughed, and for a moment everything hurt so much more. The pain subsided, eventually, and she felt a chip of ice slide between her chapped lips to give blessed comfort to her dry throat. A familiar haze of pink wavered above her. 

 

“Gl’mr?” she croaked.

 

“Yes!” her friend’s voice was thick with tears. “Yes, it’s me. Bow was here too, but we’ve been watching in shifts—Adora, we were so worried—”

 

She broke off, resting her hand on Adora’s arm as if to reassure her of her presence, but even that light contact shot a fresh shock of pain through her limb. Adora flinched, then groaned again when the jostle reignited her body. Glimmer snatched her hand away as if burned.

 

“I’m so sorry!” Glimmer rushed out, hugging her arm to herself. 

 

“Mgh—no… ‘m… I’m fine,” Adora managed. 

 

Glimmer gave a relieved, watery laugh. Adora blinked. She looked fuzzy, and the lines of her face swirled in a disorienting manner.

 

“No, you’re not,” Glimmer said, and her voice sounded like it came from underwater. The edges of the room were starting to darken, but Adora could just make out the relieved smile on her friend’s face. 

 

“But you will be.”

 

The world faded away again, but this time, Adora knew she wasn’t going far.

 


 

The next time Adora woke, she felt more... alive. Everything still felt like she’d been run over by a battalion of Horde tanks, but the pain had faded to a level where she could open her eyes, blink, and even move her arm a bit without wanting to scream. She took a deep breath, pulling short when the motion sent screams of pain through her abdomen. She’d expected the “old friend” of her side wound, but not the fresh, piercing ache in the center of her stomach.

 

Oh, right. 

 

Octavia had practically skewered her. 

 

Oh, right. She’d nearly died.

 

As the memory returned, Adora marveled that she felt as (relatively) good as she did. The rune circle floating directly overhead had something to do with it, doubtless. She could feel a warm, comforting energy emanating from above as it gently pulsed, bathing her in golden light. 

 

Something else was helping, too—an object near her side seemed to be reflecting and amplifying the energy. She managed to slide her hand a few inches until the edge of her hand hit cool metal. Familiar energy ran through her arm at the contact. The sword! She instinctively curled her fingers around the hilt, and a burst of both healing magic and She-Ra’s familiar energy surged through her body. She gasped, feeling more awake and aware as a few of the more minor aches faded away. 

 

“Adora?”

 

She turned her head to the voice, wincing at stiff neck muscles. 

 

“Glimmer,” she managed with a small smile. Her voice was unnaturally gravelly, but at least she got the words out this time. Her friend was curled in an uncomfortable-looking chair, hair flattened on one side and blinking sleep from her eyes. 

 

“Adora!” A second figure shot upright from another chair next to Glimmer, almost hidden from Adora’s view.

 

“Hey, Bow.” Her smile widened. 

 

Bow’s eyes immediately filled, tears streaming down his face. Adora’s own eyes widened in alarm. 

 

“Hey, what’s…”

 

“I’m just so happy you’re awake!” he cried. “I wish I could hug you, but…” he paused, then practically pounced on Glimmer to envelop her in a hug that looked borderline bone-crushing. “You’ll get one of these as soon as you’re feeling better. I promise.” 

 

Adora was still trying to figure out whether that was a promise or a threat when Glimmer teleported herself out of Bow’s embrace with a gasp for air, reappearing right next to Adora’s bedside.

 

“How are you feeling?”

 

Adora closed her eyes and exhaled, hating the twinges of pain that every breath shot through her body.

 

“Like shit.

 

Her candor drew a laugh from her friends, short and ending in expressions of sympathy. 

 

“The healers said that you’d feel bad for a while after you woke up,” Glimmer explained. “She-Ra’s healing magic seems to be helping, but with the wound in your stomach… it’s like all the magic had to focus there just to keep you alive, and all the less serious wounds had to be left for your body to heal normally.”

 

Adora winced. “Yep. Sure feels like it.”

 

“It’s a miracle you’re alive at all,” Bow said. “What even happened in the ruins?”

 

“Octavia,” Adora ground out. Bow and Glimmer looked at her with confused expressions. “Oh. Right.” She stammered out a brief summary of their history with Octavia, ending abruptly when she came to a belated realization: half of her story was missing. Specifically, the Catra half. 

 

“Wait, where’s—?” Adora tried to sit up, then fell back, groaning. Bow and Glimmer both jumped forward in alarm, hands outstretched to prevent her from rising again. Adora twisted her head back and forth on the pillow, looking for a familiar shape on a nearby bed but finding nothing. 

 

“Catra,” she gasped. “Is she okay? Where is she? What happened after I—”

 

“She’s fine,” Glimmer said through clenched teeth. “She tried to kill you.”

 

Adora stared blankly for a half second, then laughed—immediately followed by a short cry of pain as she curled toward the resulting stabs of pain in her ribs and abdomen. She caught her breath.

 

“What?”

 

Glimmer pulled back, throwing her hands in the air. “Why is that so difficult to comprehend? She’s been trying to kill you ever since you left the Horde!”

 

“No,” Adora said with certainty. “No, that’s not true. After everything that happened—everything she did for me—no.”

 

“Adora, she was standing over you with your own sword.

 

Adora’s hand tightened on the hilt, the skin of her palm tickling at the responding slight increase in the energy surging through her. “That was to help me,” she said. “The sword is helping me heal.”

 

Glimmer’s eyes narrowed, but Bow glanced toward her apprehensively. “Wasn’t that what Catra said…?”

 

“We can’t trust her, Bow! Not after what she’s done to—”

 

“Then trust me.” Adora leveled them both with a confident stare. “After everything we’ve been through these last few days, I know she wasn’t trying to kill me.”

 

“That makes one of us,” Glimmer muttered. 

 

Adora ignored the comment, glancing around the room again. “Where is she?” she asked again. “The healers helped her, right? She’d lost a lot of blood.” She winced. “And the beasts sliced her up pretty good. And Octavia almost drowned her…” 

 

Bow’s eyebrows had nearly climbed into his hairline. “ Man , you guys went through a lot,” he muttered. 

 

“She’s fine,” Glimmer repeated. “She’s… sleeping elsewhere. Until we can be sure she’s not a threat to you or anyone else.”

 

“You put her in prison?

 

“You know we don’t have any prisons,” Glimmer shot back. “She’s being held in one of the spare rooms. With a bed and about eight hundred pillows and visits from a healer. We’re not like the Horde, Adora.”

 

Adora barely noticed the barb. “Take me to her. I need to make sure she’s all right. And clear up this whole mess.”

 

“What?” Glimmer’s protest was practically a squeak. “No! You just woke up, you can barely move—”

 

“Fine, then.” Fueled by adrenaline, Adora rolled onto her side, ignoring her body’s screams of protest as she somehow managed to push to a mostly-sitting position, hunched over the support of one arm with the other curled protectively around the thick bandages covering her midsection. The golden rune dissipated as she moved through it, providing a last burst of warm, healing energy as it faded. Her hand trembled as it clenched around the hilt of the sword like a lifeline. 

 

“If you won’t take me, I’ll go myself.” 

 

“Adora, you can’t!” Bow and Glimmer both stood just in front of her, hands hovering above her shoulders and arms as through waiting to catch her. “You’ve barely healed; you could hurt yourself even worse!”

 

Adora clenched her jaw, then winced. Even her teeth hurt. “Then either bring Catra here, or make it so I don’t have to walk there.”

 

Her friends exchanged worried glances, then stated speaking in overlapping sentences.

 

“We can’t take Catra out of—”

 

“I really don’t think that’s a good idea—”

 

Adora sighed, ignoring the words as she swung her legs down from the bed and slid into an unsteady standing position, leaning heavily back against the bed. Her hand slipped from the sword’s hilt, leaving a cold void where the subtle warmth of its healing energy had been quietly pervading her being. Her vision grayed. As it faded back in, she was aware of her friends’ arms under her own, supporting her weight on each side. In the wake of the sword’s magic, everything suddenly hurt so much more. 

 

Well. she’d felt worse. 

 

…most likely. Everything was still a bit hazy.

 

“You’re insane,” Glimmer growled. 

 

“Probably,” Adora gasped out. “So are we going, or am I walking?”

 

With a final worried glance and an aggravated sigh, Glimmer activated her powers, leaving the room empty except for a few lingering pink sparkles. 

 


 

The last thing Catra was expecting to see that afternoon was the purple poof of Glimmer’s powers appearing inside her cell-slash-room.

 

The very last thing she expected to see was Adora, pale and drawn but alive and upright, even if she was leaning heavily on the supporting arms of Sparkles and Arrow boy. Simultaneous rushes of relief and concern flooded through her, almost closing off her throat.

 

“Hey, dummy,” she managed. Her voice was slightly hoarse.

 

“Catra.” The smile Adora gave her was small, a little tight and pained, but warm enough to drive away the lingering chill of the stone room. 

 

Catra’s gaze flicked across Adora’s body, concern deepening. 

 

“Where’s your sword?” she demanded. “It was helping you heal—”

 

“I know,” Adora interrupted, smile widening into something a little triumphant as she glanced toward the friends at her side. Glimmer scoffed quietly, gaze sliding to a corner of the room as she folded her arms. “It’s in the infirmary. We’ll go back in a minute. I just—” she closed her eyes for a moment, crease between her brows deepening as a wave of some unseen pain washed through her, “...had to make sure you were okay.”

 

“Make sure I was okay?” Catra laughed. Her eyes blurred, and she wiped at them in mild annoyance. “I’m fine. You’re the one who was trying to win a prize for ‘most brushes with death in 48 hours.’”

 

Adora rolled her eyes, but the look of contented amusement still hadn’t left her face.

 

“Glimmer, can you…” Adora made a motion toward the purple barrier of energy shimmering between them. Sparkles’ expression soured, but she reached out a hand to the barrier and closed her eyes in concentration. A second later, the barrier shattered, shards of purple energy scattering to the floor and then fading into nothingness. 

 

Adora took a step forward, away from the support of her friends, swaying as her face turned a shade whiter. Acting on instinct, Catra leapt forward to steady her in an awkward clash of arms and elbows, her leg wound flaring in protest as they stumbled for a moment before balancing. As they steadied, Catra realized Adora’s arms were wrapped around her in a tight hug, face buried in Catra’s shoulder. She lowered her head as well, tightening her grasp just slightly and breathing deeply.

 

“Can’t even stay upright without me, huh?” She said, willing her voice not to shake. “How did you ever manage when I wasn’t around?”

 

What she meant was, you could have died. After all that, you could have died.

 

“Hey, I can do a lot without you,” Adora said, pushing weakly away from the hug. She wavered again, squeezing Catra’s arm as she regained her balance in a gesture that was as much reassurance as support. “I can just do a lot more when I have my friends. All of them.”

 

What she meant was, I’m sorry. And I’m so glad you’re here.

 

Catra stared in response, willing herself to be understood.

 

Just don’t do it again. Ever. Please.

 

“Mmhm,” Catra said, disbelievingly, to Adora’s last spoken remark. Sparkles was leveling her with a truly impressive glare from across the room. “Well, I don’t think ‘all your friends’ like me very much.”

 

Adora gave a quiet laugh. “We’ll, uh… we’ll work on it.” She swayed again. “I’m really… really glad you’re okay.”

 

There was a tired slur to Adora’s words, and Catra spared her a sharp, appraising glance. She was only slightly surprised when Adora tipped forward into another hug that left Catra supporting most of her body weight. 

 

“Yeah,” Catra replied, quietly enough that she hoped the other two listeners in the room wouldn’t hear. “Likewise. Moron.”

 

They stood for a moment, arms loosely curled around each other, before Catra shot an awkward glance toward Bow and Glimmer and cleared her throat. She patted Adora’s shoulder. “You, uh. You good?”

 

“Mmf,” came the muffled response.

 

Catra fought the urge to look back over to Adora’s friends. As much as she might have enjoyed a good, long hug with her best friend, now wasn’t really the—

 

—huh. 

 

Her best friend.

 

She hadn’t let herself think those words in… a long time. 

 

Adora was starting to lean against her even more heavily.

 

“Catra.” Adora’s voice was quiet, and the slur to her speech was becoming more pronounced. 

 

“Hm?”

 

“‘m gonna pass out now.”

 

Catra tensed at the words, feeling Adora’s body go slack in her grasp in the next moment. She stumbled for a moment under the shift in weight, Adora’s friends crying out in alarm as Catra’s half-healed wounds screamed in protest before the two of them steadied. She could feel the comforting beat of Adora’s heart against her own chest, steadier and stronger than it had been for days. 

 

She was going to be okay.

 

They were going to be okay.

 

Almost against her will, Catra felt herself grinning. 

 

“Idiot.”

 


 

Adora awoke slowly. 

 

Senses returned to her one by one, filtering through a thick, comfortable haze. She felt sore, but in a sort of distant way she could ignore if she just.. didn’t move. Honestly, she wouldn’t have wanted to anyway. Whatever she was resting on was soft, but not too soft, and something radiated a pleasant warmth from her side. She hummed quietly, inhaling the fresh, familiar scents of Bright Moon’s magic, the wild tang of the Whispering Woods that drifted through the castle when the breeze was just right, and something else that reminded her, however faintly, of home. 

 

Her eyes opened, squinting slightly against the golden light that bathed the cloth canopy above her, and her bearings slowly returned. Bright Moon. Her room. Safe. Finally, after so long… safe.

 

The mattress dipped as the warmth by her side shifted, pulling away slightly before resuming its former position. Adora suddenly realized her right arm was especially warm, and also that she couldn’t move it. She turned her head to the side—stiffly, because every single muscle in her body hurt—and smiled. Catra was curled against her side, nose almost pressed to Adora’s shoulder, her face relaxed in sleep.

 

“Took you long enough,” Catra mumbled, eyes still closed.

 

Well. Almost-sleep.

 

“Sorry,” Adora said, still smiling. 

 

Catra opened one eye enough to glare. “Just don’t do it again.”

 

“Sleep in?”

 

The glare intensified. “Almost die.”

 

“No promises.”

 

Catra made an annoyed sound and rolled stiffly onto her back, holding her breath as she moved in that familiar, tense way that told Adora she was hurting. 

 

“You ok?”

 

There was that glare again. “I’m fine.” Adora raised an eyebrow, and Catra rolled her eyes. “Just sore. You’re the one who was skewered like a marshmallow.”

 

Adora’s other eyebrow ascended to join its companion. “Marshmallow?” She repeated. “How do you know about—”

 

“You’ve been asleep for like three days, Adora. Your friends have been here. A lot. And Arrow Boy likes to talk. A lot.”

 

Adora blinked, trying to catch up on this latest jump in time. “Wow.” She shifted, testing out aching muscles. Everything was still incredibly sore, but the fierce pain in her stomach and the twinges of damaged ribs were already beginning to dull. She closed her eyes for a moment, feeling the energy of the sword flowing toward her from where it sat on the shelf above her bed. Being She-Ra had its perks. 

 

She opened her eyes again, letting them wander the familiar walls of her room. “I’m kind of surprised they let you be here with me.”

 

Catra snorted. “Yeah, well. I think I heard one of the healers say ‘If they’re going to keep passing out on each other, just stick them in the same room and make my life easier.’” She folded her hands across her stomach, closing her eyes contentedly as she somehow seemed to sink deeper into the warm blankets. “I wasn’t about to argue.”

 

Adora smiled, feeling only the slightest bit guilty for annoying the healers. 

 

“How are you feeling?”

 

Adora glanced to the side in mild surprise to see Catra giving her an appraising stare. 

 

“Fine,” she responded automatically. Catra’s eyes narrowed. “Sore,” Adora amended. “Tired. Maybe a little hungry.” The urge to yawn suddenly hit her, and the force of it made her eyes water. “ Really tired.”

 

A quiet laugh, more like a puff of air than anything, came from her side. “The healers will come in about an hour,” Catra said. “They’re disgustingly punctual. Might as well sleep until then.”

 

“Yeah,” Adora said quietly, eyelids already drooping as exhaustion pulled her deeper into the bedding. 

 

“You… okay?”

 

“You already asked me that, genius. Do I need to have the healers check you for brain damage?”

 

“No, I meant—with…” Adora made a tired, floppy hand gesture that did nothing to clarify her meaning. “With being here. In Bright Moon.”

 

A pause. “I don’t think they’re going to burn me at the stake, if that’s what you mean.”

 

“I know, I just… I want you to be okay with it. Comfortable.”

 

Catra scoffed. “Comfortable kills you,” she rattled off automatically, quoting something Horde commanders drilled into the minds of young cadets. She sighed, and Adora felt her settling back into the blankets. “Gotta say, not a bad way to go.”

 

“You sure—”

 

“I’m fine, Adora,” Catra said with a twinge of exasperation. “Even Sparkles is starting to hate my guts a little less. I think.”

 

“Not calling her ‘Sparkles’ might help with that,” Adora said, swallowing another yawn. 

 

“Too bad we’ll never know. Now,” Adora felt movement next to her, then the gentle press of a finger against her forehead. “Sleep. Whatever happens next, we’ll deal with it together, right?”

 

Exhaustion was pulling her under, but a contented, happy warmth spread through her body. The feeling was unfamiliar, but safe. Like finally being... home.

 

“Promise?” she whispered. 

 

That soft laugh came from above her again before the mattress shifted and the familiar, comforting warmth pressed against her arm. 

 

“Promise.”