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Prologue

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“You clean up surprisingly well.”

It should make Catra want to claw the redheads pretty emerald eyes out but with all the fakeness in high school it’s nice to hear something genuine if not a bit ill mannered, so she laughs, rich and deep, before saying “way to charm a girl, Cathy.”

“What? No punch to the face? Who knew someone from the Horde could have such good manners?”

Another snipe, less subtle this time, about the hole in the ground Catra and the select few here at Etheria High live in. Etheria is overall a wonderful State with people who wave in passing, and neighborhoods where fools leave their homes unlocked without the fear of misdeed. But, just over the rusty tracks, a couple miles out from the old telephone pole that got struck by lightning a couple years back during a hectic storm, lies the Horde. Catra has never had a way to describe the Horde until Junior year when her class read The Great Gatsby. In the novel, the main character described the Valley of Ashes as—a grotesque place. The Horde, right over the tracks from paradise, grotesque, and tough just like the people who live there.

Catra doesn’t know her parents, her memory is foggy so she doesn’t know much about her past just that she’s been in foster care for as long as she can recall. Right now, she lives in a foster house with a couple decent kids (a few teasing and pranks here and there but all in good sport) and a god-awful woman, Miss Weaver, who has them just to cash her checks. Weaver does not physically abuse them, but the verbal assaults build up. It’s not too bad; Catra and the other kids all stick together, their own dysfunctional family of sorts. They’ve got it all planned out, graduate from Etheria High and then go to college far away from the ashes.

“What can I say?” Catra’s heard worse than anything Cathy can throw at her, so she takes the high road saying, “I’m full of surprises.”

Cathy laughs, a scratchy sound that rattles down Catra’s back unpleasantly. “I bet, now take a hint and come dance with me.”

Catra lets herself be dragged into the sea of sweaty adolescents until Cathy stops them somewhere in the middle so everyone can see her dress under the cheap fluorescent lights. Catra doesn’t have much experience dancing, just the line-dancing they learn in gym class, so she awkwardly goes to hold Cathy’s waist (like she’s seen in movies) when her hands are slapped away.

“Not there, you’ll wrinkle my bow.” Cathy says, correcting her by putting Catra’s arms around the mid-drift where her dress slits in the back to show off scandalous skin.

Catra flushes at the warmth beneath her fingertips. “Oh, okay.”

Catherine, or Cathy for short, lives in the nicest part of Etheria and has never had to, and probably never will, work for anything in her entire life. She’s the head cheerleader, captain of every club that matters, and is the main trend setter. When Catra came out she was met with scolding looks, and towels pulled tighter in changing rooms, but when Cathy came out, she was met with the utmost support—they even gave her a damn story in the school paper.

Catra doesn’t know why Cathy asked her to the prom; she thought it was a prank at first, or a charity case for her college application, but she and Cathy had some solid interactions in middle school so Catra gave her the benefit of the doubt. When she told Kyle (the black sheep in their foster family) about whether she should go with Cathy to the prom or not their conversation went like this:

“Catherine Fields asked you to the prom. No shit?”

Catra nods, “no shit.”

Kyle looks impressed, his eyes wide and skin flushed from the cold of December. “The prom is like months away; she must’ve really thought about this.”

“What do you think? She could be pranking me, but she seemed cool from the couple times I’ve spoken with her.”

Kyle leans his upper body against the rail; his brown locks flutter in the wind, showing more of his face in a way that makes him look younger than he is. For a moment Catra sees the little boy who blindly followed her and Adora recklessly down the halls on short legs, desperate to keep up. Now fast forward, a couple years, and Kyle is a couple inches taller than her with a voice deeper than that old familiar squeak.

“Catherine might be stuck up and she might not have much of a personality,” Kyle decides “but she’ll put out.”

And now here she is, awkwardly dancing with one of the most popular girls in school. Everyone thinks they know Catra’s motive for this date (if it can be called such) but their options are far from the truth.

The song picks up a little but it’s still something slow to dance to, they adjust to the pace with a sloppy turn that makes Cathy burst into laughter. Catra can’t help but smile too; this prom is a shit show but it’s less so with good company much like high school.

Catra’s a couple inches taller than Cathy so it’s not hard to look over her head and take everyone in. She means to do a quick sweep but somehow, she always finds Adora in even the murkiest of crowds. At this point their emotions might as well be intertwined; they used to joke when they were younger about being soulmates but not in the way Catra realized she desired over time.

Adora, her best friend, the blonde who’s wearing a simple (perfect) burgundy dress, black sandals (because she hates high heels), with that ponytail she’ll regret wearing everyday when she’s older and her hair is thinning. Adora who came to the prom with Tucker Maddison, head quarterback, captain of the football team, complete and utter asshole.

If her hair standing on end wasn’t the first sign, Adora’s twisted face and frantic eyes is a pretty good clue. But she’s faster than Catra can be from across the room; suddenly Adora’s pushes Tucker so hard he goes flying back into the bowl of red punch that does his white tailored suit no favors. A boisterous sound erupts above the music, everyone turns to see the sight; to Tucker drenched in red, scrambling to stand but slipping on the juice pooling around him on the gym floor, to Adora, redder than Tucker’s stained suit, dashing out the back exit. A couple guys on the football team whistle and tease Tucker for his misfortune, a couple of his “friends” taking out their phones to commemorate the event.

“That’s what he gets,” Cathy says with a snort.

Cathy and Tucker went together a couple times, and everyone knows she’s still bitter about the way things ended. She’d dated a couple of Tucker’s girlfriends as payback, a perfect blow to his pride and reputation.

Catra’s hands fall from the skin that once warmed the tips of her fingers—tempting her. “I’m gonna check and see if she’s good.”

Cathy blinks, brows furrowing like she’s trying to solve a math problem. “Seriously?”

“She’s my best friend, Cathy.”

“You won’t get another chance.”

Catra doesn’t know what Cathy thought was going to happen tonight but she plays along if it’ll get her out of the gym faster, “I’m sorry.”

Cathy’s voice is biting and not in the playful way it was earlier, “she better be worth it” but Catra is already halfway to the exit.

The hot air slaps her in the face but not as hard as seeing Adora’s red stained face and glossy eyes on the brink of tears. She didn’t get far, just a couple feet away from the brick of gym, near the bleachers, but the way she’s breathing makes it seem like she’s been running for a while. Catra knows Adora’s had a couple panic attacks in the past so she doesn’t jump right away as not to startle her.

“Hey, Adora” it lacks the usual taunt and comes out shaky. “Are you…” she stops and decides to go a different route “I can’t believe you drop kicked Tucker like that, he’s never getting those stains out you know.”

Adora laughs in between her heavy breathing.

Catra takes a couple steps closer saying, “I’m serious, I heard his friends talking about renting too so he’s pretty much screwed. Probably out a couple hundred, he’ll have to pick up extra shifts at the fish market he works at over the summer to pay it off. The seagulls get pretty bad around that time too, so he’ll be picking feathers out of his hair every day after work”

“Good,” Adora says “he deserves worse.”

Catra stops in front of her. “What happened?”

“…he’s a jerk—”

“Tell me.”

Adora doesn’t meet her eyes and it’s a little concerning.

“Him and his friends are jerks, they only care about one thing and Tucker thought he could get it. I told him to back off, but he didn’t listen, so I took care of it myself.”

Catra feels her nails biting into her palms, “that prick. I’ll get Lonnie and Rogelio and we’ll slash his tires and—”

“They’re already on it.” Adora interrupts her rant, “I tried to talk them out of it, but Lonnie texted me as soon as I left the gym. They’re egging his house too, planting stink bombs in his locker, the works.”

“Oh,” Catra deflates at being seemingly steps behind “then…why didn’t they come get you?”

“They figured you would.”

Catra blushes and hopes the streetlights aren’t telling. “Oh.”

Adora takes Catra’s hands, prying her fingers apart so she can sooth the crescents her sharper nails made upon impact. Adora doesn’t chastise her anymore like when they were kids, just thumbs at the marks with enough pressure to make Catra bite back a hiss—a punishment in its own way.

Adora mumbles, “but I wasn’t sure you’d follow me. I thought you’d stay with Catherine.”

“You looked like you needed some help.” Catra says, taking her hands back so she can slide up beside Adora against the fence until their shoulders are brushing. “And I didn’t want Tucker’s friends to follow you out, you know how bad that could go.”

Adora groans. “I don’t know why I agreed to go with him.”

“Me either, he thinks with his dick I could’ve told you that.”

If you’d asked, Catra thinks bitterly.

Adora bristles and shoots back, “like your date is any better.”

“Cathy’s cool.”

“She walks around like this,” Adora shoots her chest forward, mimicking Cathy.

Catra does her best to keep her eyes up. “There’s nothing wrong with flaunting. She’s hot. Who cares?”

Adora looks away with a huff, “she’s so stuck up, always looking down at people from the Horde. What do you even see in her?”

“You’re overreacting, it’s just a stupid dance, Adora, one night, it’s not like I’m planning on marrying her.”

“Did you come with her because you knew she’d go all the way?” Adora asks suddenly.

Catra flinches. “I came to prom with Cathy because she had the courage to ask me, idiot. How could you even say that? You know me, I’m not shallow like your date. Cathy seemed cool so I went with her, she at least has more brain cells than the block her you came with.” She scoffs, “I left her alone to check on you but if you’re gonna act like this then maybe I’ll just—"

Before she can bolt Adora pulls her close by the ends of her loose tie until their noses are brushing. Her hair stands on end, stomach twisting the tedious way it does lately when Adora’s close.

“Wait, I’m sorry, stay. I just…Tucker has me in a bad mood and I’m taking it out on you and that’s not fair.” Adora bumps their foreheads together whispering, “this night was supposed to be different…it should’ve been different.”

Catra is quiet for a moment. Her hands fall into place, at home, around Adora’s waist pulling her so close she can feel their curves rub together. Adora doesn’t complain about Catra putting wrinkles in her dress like Cathy, instead she drapes her arms around Catra’s shoulder and pulls her in closer until no space remains.

In the bubble they’ve created Catra feels brave enough to confess:

“I don’t know how you envisioned tonight going but…” she’s sure her face is alight with flame, so she shuts her eyes, the cowards’ way out “…this feels pretty perfect to me.”

A hand, rough with callous from years of varying sports, cups her jaw. She opens her eyes and is blinded by Adora’s smile. Catra thinks she sees blue eyes glance at her lips, her heart stutters when Adora pulls her in, but there’s no kiss—Adora hugs her like she’s always done, cradling her head and tracing intricate patterns below her back with her free hand.

Of course, why would she ever kiss you.

Catra submits to fate, playing the role of the best friend. She sinks into the hug, tightening her arms around Adora’s waist and encases them in a low rumble as they sway beneath the watchful stars just like they’ve always done.