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Fore'er our Guiding Star

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“We are just here for the sword, just leave and we won't go after you,” Adora warns the strangers across the clearing, warding them off before anyone can make a move. Catra can hardly see the reason for it. While they’ve had some sense of conflict resolution beaten into them in the Horde (nobody should fight a losing battle, duh), it’s not like they need it here. These two freaks are hardly soldier material.

Still, Catra’s glad she didn’t let Adora go off on this harebrained quest alone. Even if these morons they've bumped into are easy pickings, 2 on 2 is much fairer odds.

“You can't have the sword,” the shrill girl throws back, assuming a pompous stance before adding, “the Whispering Woods are rebel territory, which means the sword is rebel property and you are trespassing. If you surrender peacefully —”

Catra cuts her off, “Yeah, that ain't happening, glitter gnome.”

She’d be damned to miss an opportunity for some good old psychological warfare.

“Silence, Horde scum!” Glitter Gnome replies with a furious yell, visibly shaking.

Baited, hooked and caught. Catra snorts at the effect of her words, writing a mental note for later. Someone’s got some insecurities worth exploiting.

“I've had enough of this,” Catra declares before confirming with her better half, “Adora?”

Catra cracks her knuckles while keeping the opponents squarely in focus, her left ear twitching in anticipation of the response.

“Same, let's do this.” 

Perceiving the blur of motion in the corner of her eye, she knows Adora has begun her sprint to the sword. It's her cue to go. Muscles already trembling in anticipation, honed by a lifetime of martial combat, they release with a jolt and drive her towards the opponents. Her path is dead center on the intruders, one of which peels off to head for the sword.

Foolish, they won’t make it if she has anything to say about it. 

The boy with arrows pulls his bow from behind smoothly, drawing, aiming and nocking an arrow with the other hand in a one fluent motion. Not bad. He’s clearly no stranger to using the weapon. On the off chance he’d be quick enough to get off a shot or two, she prepares to deflect anything launched at her, claws extending and hands at the ready as practiced countless times in simulations.

She closes the gap. 

Before she has the chance to lay claws on him, an unsettling sight makes her heels dig into the dirt and stop in their tracks. The girl has just vanished. There one moment - gone the next with nothing but a residual smirk that sears itself into Catra’s mind. Gone with nothing but dancing sparkles dispersing in the stale night air.

Keeping Arrow Boy in her periphery, she glances around frantically to find where the girl disappeared to. Nobody can just vanish, unless…

“Adora, princess!” Catra yells, conveying all that is needed in two words.

Adora would know what to do with it. They may have the training and the experience of fighting ruthless power hungry princesses from the simulations, sure, but practising an engagement a hundred times is nothing like the real deal. This is their first actual fight of this nature, and it changes the tone of this engagement drastically. 

There is no way she can afford to go easy on these clowns. If the girl is a princess, they are in mortal peril. Holding that thought in mind, her acute vision picks up motion to her left; the girl reappearing right beside the sword, clasping at it but unable to muster the strength for extraction. Fortunately, Adora is right there, and she trusts her to handle the situation while she deals with Arrow Boy.

Catra refocuses him in a tense hetero-chrome gaze, just in time to dodge the first loosed arrow. The shot whizzes by half hearted, his conviction to inflict injury or death clearly in doubt. She expects nothing else from a poorly trained insurgent kid. Her eyes follow the arrow in flight briefly. It’s bizarre, sharp at the tip but made of copper or brass, a rather soft metal. Is he making these himself?

Her eyes snap back onto the boy in front, only a few dashes away. His, in contrast, flit around with uncertainty, looking for backup that doesn’t exist. 

“Bad choice, Arrow Boy,” she muses, perfectly fine to end him instead.

Better you than me.

Catra’s eyes bulge in disbelief as he dodges the first swipe of her deadly claws with a quick step back, prompting a rush of adrenaline through her veins. Whether from the panic of missing or exhilaration at the test of skill, she can't say. Astonishment pushed aside, she turns the missed blow and her momentum into a pirouette that ends with her extended foot connecting to his unguarded midsection. It imparts enough force to send him careening backwards, hitting the ground with a huff.

Growling, she resumes her pursuit, lunging to all fours like a predator then launching herself onto him with a hiss. It takes all his strength and agility to block both of her hands with his bow, razor-sharp claws cutting notches into the metal sheath that protects the wood beneath. She proceeds to straddle him, feet pinning his legs into place as both her arms lock with his bow, trying to rip it out of his desperately tight grasp.

“Glimmer, I need some help here!” he shouts, voice shaky and broken. 

She has to hurry before the witch returns. He impressed briefly, but now he’s just an overwhelmed mess, clearly unable to match her prowess. 

When her left hand finally wedges his weapon out of the way and her right flexes for the coup de grâce, her shoulder shudders and tenses up, eyes bulging in disbelief when she feels a hand clasping tight around her wrist from behind.

What the fuck?

Her hold on the bow goes slack immediately as her attention is involuntarily drawn over her shoulder to see the sparkly girl standing right there.

“Hands off my friend, kitty!” She smirks with that same self satisfied and snide visage burned into her retinas from before.

Catra’s composure recovers faster than a lightning strike, coiling her body to ring the death knell for Princess Death Wish. As her body springs into violent action, unrelenting waves of nausea crash into her abdomen, the forest around her blurring into a veil of purple haze and glitter.

When the veil falls, her stomach lurches and the pressure on her shoulder vanishes into the wind. Catra’s body is suspended in nothing but air, beginning the plunge to her untimely death. All alone.

 


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As soon as she trades a knowing glance with Catra, Adora runs for the sword, ready to pull it out with all her might when her attention is interrupted by Catra’s sudden yell. A princess? Her eyes dart around, trying to spot what Catra is referring to. The stout girl has vanished, sure, but where is the princess?

Her blood turns to ice when the short girl reappears at the sword without warning, already trying to pull it free. The brief delay leaves Adora still a few paces out of range.

Glimmer’s body blocks Adora’s access as she desperately wiggles it back and forth. That can be changed. Suppressing the urge to look to Arrow Boy following his cry for help, she lunges at the princess, only to sail right through the afterglow as the annoying brat vanishes once again. Unable to stop her momentum, Adora tumbles, damp grass causing her to slide even further from the prize. She curses under her breath, eyes flitting around to keep her enemy in view. A quick glance to Catra sends a cold shiver down her spine, the princess has latched onto her friend from behind and vanishes with her. 

“CATRA!” she wails, body involuntarily giving voice to blood turned ice as it stabs through her heart.

This is her fault, she messed everything up. It was so, so foolish to come out here and chase this stupid dream of hers, let alone bring Catra along. Her fists tighten, pulling handfuls of moss from the soil. Nothing she can do about it now.

Adora’s eyebrows pinch together. There is no time to wallow in self-pity. She wouldn’t have been assigned squad leader or promoted to Force Captain if she could not handle unknowns. Yes, it's a mystery where Catra and the princess are, but she trusts in her friend’s abilities, knows just how resourceful a fighter she is. Letting go of the reins and believing in the competence of those she commands without micromanaging was a hard lesson to learn. It is for any leader. She’s been up to that task before and will be now.

Her attention pulls back onto the objective, because that's what her squad, what Catra, trusts her to do. Her job.

 


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A yelp is forced from Catra’s mouth, her pupils dilating and fur bristling. Her gut has checked out to do somersaults as the terror of complete disorientation threatens to overwhelm her, arms flapping in an ocean of air with no land in sight.

Stupid princesses, stupid sword, stupid Adora.

Before she can understand what even happened, leafy branches slap her straight back to the here and now. With the onset of pain, ingrained survival instincts kick in.

Flailing for a hold in desperation, she crashes into yet another branch, one much less forgiving. Arcs of pain shoot through her flank as the impact knocks the air from her lungs. Body bouncing off the wood, the rough scrape of bark digs into her palm through the onslaught to her senses.

Now or never.

On instinct, claws extend and fingers dig into the bark with confidence, certain that her hold is secure. But things go from bad to worse in a panicked heartbeat as her left hand slips and the path towards a premature demise continues. On the plus side, the attempt has slowed her, buying just enough time to prepare for the next branch down.

The last.

Ignoring the new blunt force trauma that could give Weaver a run for her money, her mind screams to reach out, demanding for her claws to sink into the thick tree limb like it's a gooey ration bar.

Her life depends on it.

The sudden jolt tears at her arm and shoulder, threatening to rip her bones apart, but the grip holds fast and brings her to an abrupt stop. Having averted her rush to an early grave, Catra’s heart does a celebratory dance, inviting the rest of her body to join in the festivities. The exhilaration of the moment allows her to breathe, her body swinging back and forth and any need for immediate action averted for now.

The depth with which her claws are wedged into the wood reassures Catra that her hold will last, and she dares to let her eyes fall to the distant ground below. Her stomach reintroduces itself with queasy gurgling. It's still a decent thirty feet to the ground. Under normal circumstances, she might manage that breaking nothing, but not if she falls without control. 

Despite Princess Sparkles' rushed teleport, that fall could have seriously injured or even killed her if it wasn’t for lifesaver Mr. Tree. Although he could have been gentler about catching her. 

The thought of that princess’s ability is enough to send a cold shudder crawling down her spine. She could have just as easily been left to fall from a much greater height. All this time they were taught to worry about princesses’ offensive abilities - rays of energy, super strength and magic more powerful than the Horde’s arsenal. But to think that something as simple as teleporting her into the air had almost taken her out for good is chilling to the bone. There is no doubt in Catra’s mind, had the girl been given more time, she wouldn't have been so inaccurate. That crafty witch must not be allowed to correct her mistake.

Catra lets out a sigh of relief before reaching up with her left arm, redistributing her weight to ease the tension from the limb that saved her life. She shuffles her way towards the trunk with care, hissing all the way as her tendons scream for release in anticipation of having to slide down its length, claws having to break the rest of the fall. With her right arm unusable for any prolonged strain, her anchor points are reduced to only three. Not the best prospects for stability, but also not the worst.

During the execution of her plan, flashes of pain twinge through contused ribs, jerking her battered body at unpredictable intervals and disrupting any sense of balance or hold. Usually she is well skilled at climbing even the smoothest metal pipes in the Zone, but the compounding effects of injury, adrenaline shakes and lightheadedness from cheating death once more make her remarkably unsteady and nervous.

All it takes is another sharp jab of pain in her ribs and her only usable hand slips. Feet still wedged into the bark, her torso falls backwards, hand desperately clawing towards the trunk to secure her hold. The bark crumbles under her frantic clawing and within moments she is out of reach, tumbling backwards. Catra’s stomach turns to solid rock as she falls with eyes wide open in terror. Suspended in the weightless limbo, she notices the passing of time keenly, her fall not only lasting for a mere moment, but another and another. A terrible reality sinks into her trembling bones - she’s still too high and falling too fast.

She turns in her rapid descent, automatic internal mechanisms forcing her body into the right position for a rough landing without conscious input. A landing she wouldn't survive without mitigation. She hopes a well-timed roll will distribute the downward motion, a hope that is dashed by vehement protests from the already injured shoulder when it falters on contact.

Catra crashes sideways into the ground and, with little else but damp moss below to cushion the impact, her bones take the brunt, sending wails of agony past her constricting throat and thunderbolts of fire through her worn body. The impact reverberates through all of Catra’s being, sending tears to her eyes and blurring her vision as starbursts engulf her consciousness. It is all she can do to just lie there, face twisting into grimaces of torment, expelling the aftershocks with blood curdling growls pressed through a clenched jaw. 

 


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Adora’s body tenses as she rolls on her back, jumping to her feet with over energized muscles ready to spring. With the sword just a few dashes away, almost within her reach, her powerful legs propel her forward until an unexpected weight settles on her shoulders. The abrupt shift to her centre of mass would be enough to make anyone stumble and lose balance.

Planting her feet wide, she comes to a stop within spitting distance from the blade, trying to prevent yet another uncontrolled fall.

It’s not that she was afraid of getting dirty and bruised, but falling in combat can mean the difference between victory and defeat. In fact, it’s a simple truth and a lesson reinforced in every sparring match.

Whoever or whatever made itself comfortable on top of Adora’s shoulders is now abruptly yanking her head backwards and sideways, sending spikes of pain through her scalp and neck. A cursory glance confirms Princess Glitter to be the distracting burden on top of her, pulling wildly on her ponytail as if steering a mare’s reins. Indeed, she clings on like a jockey, thigh muscles digging into Adora’s neck and shoulders.

All the princess’s struggling does is betray how weak and ill trained she is. How her balance is way off center. If it was Catra riding her shoulders, she wouldn't have any problem staying on, no matter how much Adora bucked to throw her off.

She can back that up with experience, in case anyone asks.

Feet digging into the ground for solid hold, her legs turn to steel, stopping any motion she still has in less time than it takes Catra to piss off Shadow Weaver. The princess atop jerks forward and it's all Adora needs to reach up with her right arm, latching onto the assailant.

“Get off me!” Adora snarls through gritted teeth. 

Just as quick as she slammed on the brakes, Adora shifts back into gear and snaps her muscles into a vigorous haul forward, shifting the weight of both girls solely to her right leg and tossing Glimmer away from her. Rolling off the momentum, she lands in a crouch and her enemy soars through the air.

Admittedly, disappointment takes hold when instead of a painful yelp, Adora’s ears hear the distinct sound of Glimmer teleporting. Although it reduces her final impact, it’s still enough to cause the brat to tumble and collapse into a heap. In the end it buys Adora some time, but it’s not a rough enough landing to break bones.

To be honest, she can take care of that later if necessary. Even if secretly she hopes she won’t have to. Adora is no monster and she doesn’t relish inflicting pain like some others do. Only as much as necessary.

No more, no less.

When her body snaps into a turn, leaving Glimmer behind to head for the sword, Bow Boy takes a lunge at it instead. Of course he has used the time to get to it. What did she expect?  Adora darts up with a huff, desperate to reach it first even though the mere attempt appears futile.

With Catra out of the picture for now, getting the sword is no longer a matter of completing the objective, but survival. Its gleaming edge is a valid melee weapon, made of fragile crystal or not, and whoever wields it can injure or kill an opponent with ease and with two enemies involved in the struggle, there is a real danger that Adora could end up pulling the short straw. On the other hand, if she can get a hold of it, forcing a surrender would become an attainable outcome. No one needs to get hurt more than they already have.


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Pounding against Catra’s ribs, the painful beating of her own heart slams her eyes wide open. 

That shit shouldn’t hurt.

The dawning of her predicament is a slow one as she fights the dizziness. The ensuing panic once the lights in her head turn on, however, punches her into a state of hyper-alertness.

Fuck, how long has she been out for?

This is not the first time she has fainted in her life, far from it, but it’s still not something you ever get used to. Conscious one moment, gone the next, just to waken after a random amount of time has passed. Fortunately, this time she was already on the ground, which means one less concussion to deal with. And she really can’t deal with any more on her plate right now.

Once the initial confusion settles, she tries to rise, just to be met with immediate disappointment when her limbs remain numb and heavy. Unusual to say the least, this alarming development prompts a disturbing thought to scratch at the back of her mind, demanding to be pacified.

This is just fucking great. Thanks for the trip Adora

She’ll have to remember to thank her in person later.

Hearing the nagging concerns become louder the longer her limbs won’t move, she focuses on her left hand first, beginning with her fingers before moving to her toes. One after another, she takes stock that every appendage on her body will still move, precious tail included.

Wiggle, wiggle.

At least going through the motions allows her to ignore the silent streaks rolling down her cheeks for a while.

Nothing appears broken apart from her pride. That doesn't mean she’s not in absolute fucking agony. 

Catra rolls on her back, teeth gritted as she presses a hiss through them to voice her suffering. Even if there is no one to hear it, it makes her feel better in a way. It's a luxury she likes to indulge in, a precious commodity that is often confiscated by Shadow Weaver’s dark magic.

Bound by her sorcery, cold and keen, no muscles can move or form a scream.

The eerie chant is one of her earliest memories. Back then she didn’t believe any of it, thought it was just a silly story the other kids made up to scare her.  She’d been immediately carted into the recruitment pipeline after her fabled first encounter with Adora: taken for examination and her shots, mustered for combat training. She was new to the Horde orphanage, and painfully naive. But she learned the hard truth soon enough on her first run in with Weaver.


And with that charming memory of ‘orphanage ghost story turned first class parenting’ in mind, her eyes turn heavenward. At least her vision is clear now.

The mere thought of having to get up and on her feet is vehemently objected to by her bones, her greedy lungs demanding to be flooded with life giving energy first. Obliging both, the latter has to be satisfied with shallow panting. 

That motion hurts, too. What doesn’t?

Eventually, as her mind clears and the daze of the fall subsides, a dull throbbing invades her being, demanding Catra check herself over now that she is no longer feeling paralyzed.

She lifts her head, tired gaze wandering across a ragged body. Her nose performs a cursory sniff. Amongst the various forest aromas lies a distinct metallic tang, hints of cinnamon dispersed throughout. It’s blood alright, hers. Nobody else’s has that uncomfortable bite that singes her own nostrils.

It feels like she’s been hit by a dozen stun guns or run over by a tank, but it turns out there are just a few scrapes here and there, some new shreds in her clothes. Nothing serious, at least not on the surface. No gashes, no large amounts of blood. 

Lucky me.

She celebrates that minor victory with a sigh of relief and an unwitting slow smile as her pulse finally slows to baseline and the pain somewhat wanes, traded for the waxing of subtle euphoria. Lying there in a blissful daze, Catra marinates in the flood of elusive feel-good hormones. They are so rarely enjoyed for free, without her skin or her conscience paying the price for her catharsis.

Getting a brief glimpse of her surroundings as she completes her checks, her mind dances excitedly while her gut drops even further. If the number of rocks and roots that frame the patch of moss beneath her is anything to go by, this could have turned out much, much worse.

Either this is her lucky day or she has been burning through her nine lives at a staggering rate.

Catra’s rumbling gut quiets, its nauseated complaints soothed by her relief at the auspicious little patch of moss. Her flank on the other hand is still killing her, screaming with a sharp pitch for medi-gel and a doctor. Something is definitely not okay in there, but it’ll have to join the back of the line and wait its turn. There won't be any medical support for a long while yet.

Beginning to examine other areas of concern, she reaches across and feels the tender bruising along her flank. When she can muster to stretch further, she proceeds to cup her aching right shoulder and tries to massage the pain from its over-strained muscles. Once the feeling of a thousand needles jabbing her relentlessly vanishes there, too, she considers pushing herself up. The move is met with vehement protest from her trembling arms and a twinge in her ribs, urging her to rethink that choice. 

Unwilling to place any new demands on this tortured body just yet, she turns her head to each side instead, surveying the forest around her.

Nothing looks familiar. At all.



Chapter Text

“Give me the sword!” Adora demands, imitating Weaver's cold authority. Her calculated intimidation tactic does little to dissuade Bow Boy, adding to the growing frustration within her.

He barely flinches, then smirks instead, keenly aware of something she has missed. Following a hunch with a groan born from tedium, she casts a glance over her shoulder, maintaining good situational awareness just as she had been taught. Where the annoying princess had lain only moments before, nothing but a depression in the moss remains now. 

Really? Give me a break.

She’s not sure how to win this fight now that Catra is… somewhere else. All she can do is run from one opponent to the next, try to keep them apart, away from the sword and intimidated. She’ll have to think of something quickly before she’s worn down and the balance turns in their favor.

Spinning her face back to Bow, her heart lurches with alarm when she spots the princess blinking into existence straight ahead, pulling on the sword and releasing it from the chokehold of vines. 

Damn it.

“Bow, catch!” Sparkles huffs as she casts it overhead bare moments before Adora slams into her from behind.

Despite her arms braced to cushion the blow to herself, the impact leaves Adora breathless for a moment, both falling to the ground with a grunt. But the brat seems worse for it than her, still face down on the ground when Adora is already up and running again.

Good riddance.

Adora’s heart and lungs dance a savage rhythm in tandem to her adrenaline’s wild song, a feral chorus to meet the demands on her body and keep fatigue at bay. She’ll have to be more conservative, careful not to become exhausted and too weak to go on. Following that thought, she reaches for her tool belt, pulling the bolas from it to enhance her arsenal with a ranged tool.

She whirls it around in a well-trained motion, building just enough momentum to make sure it will reach the boy and root him. Arm snapping forward, she flings it with trained precision, skin tingling in anticipation as she tracks its shallow trajectory. It hits its mark, winding and tangling itself around his ankles flawlessly in a tightly bound tether.

Adoras heart flutters in exhilaration as he hits the ground face first, dropping the sword a few feet away. Shadow Weaver would be so proud if she had seen the textbook takedown, making the endless extracurricular hours spent on the range worth it. Grenade after grenade and bolas after bolas she made up for her lack in dexterity with sheer determination until her effort paid off in reliable precision.

Capitalizing on her current advantage, she clenches her jaw, teeth grinding, trying one more time to make them see reason while closing in on Bow and the sword.

“Stand down, I don’t wanna hurt you!” 

It’s a final warning to both of them, having gained the upper hand in the fight and intending to maintain it. There will be no more restraint from now on. No more Nice Adora.

Engaging in combat against two opponents is a real challenge, others in the Horde training camps pretend otherwise but Adora knows the reality. Multi combatant battles are fucking hard. Like... really hard and unless she can keep both of them separated, she may not stand a chance at all in the end. She is in real danger of being worn down and overwhelmed and she knows it.

Glimmer interrupts her lack of attention by appearing right in front of her, with no intention of obeying her authority. Clearly she isn’t as hurt by the tackle as Adora had thought. Got to be rougher next time.

Warm up is over.

“Since when do Horde soldiers not want to hurt anyone?” she bellows, unfazed by Adora’s recent display of combat superiority.

Adora’s chest tightens and her gut turns into a wriggling mess as the princess summons a blinding bright light, engulfing her being without giving her time to react. She barely manages to shield her eyes from the painful intensity. Disoriented and off balance, Adora stumbles backwards, all attention diverted to not falling and trying to gain some distance to prepare for the inevitable attack that could herald her end.

But it never comes.

When her sight returns faster than expected, her sigh of relief relaxes her innards to normal. Perhaps the quick reaction to shield her eyes averted most of the damage. Lids fluttering from the still vivid afterimages, she spots Glimmer heading for the sword, leaving Adora in her dust.

Where did these amateurs learn how to fight? Oh that's right, they didn’t.

She learned in one of her first training regimens you don’t turn away from an incapacitated enemy. Yet here they are, constantly prioritizing the sword instead of just overwhelming her

In a way it’s difficult fighting an opponent that doesn’t adhere to any clear set of rules, rules she understands. It makes them unpredictable and dangerous, like a drunken soldier in a bar. Not that she would know what fighting in a bar is like at all. Weaver is very strict about intoxication and Adora isn't allowed to go to the bars and would never do so with Catra at night, nor in secret, shut up.

Adora won’t complain about the enemy's mixed-up priorities though. Instead, she is going to teach these two a lesson they won’t forget. 

She tackles Glimmer again, this time harder and rougher than before, aiming to knock the wind and smugness right out of that little brat. The attack floors both with a grunt, Adora landing on top of her just a few feet away from the sword. It's so tantalizingly close that she can’t help but reach for it, giving in to temptation and ignoring the alarm bells going off at the back of her consciousness. 

“No, it's ours!” Glimmer screams from behind, latching onto her ankles.

Adora snarls, cut short from reaching the weapon. She digs her fingers into the damp ground to pull herself forward with unmatched tenacity, her biceps shrieking in protest as they struggle against the wriggling anchor.

“Let go!” she commands with a thunderous voice.

“Never!”

Adora’s heart pounds from the exertion; what was previously a savage chant has devolved into a hammering of necessity.  Her gaze focuses on the prize of her struggle, mere inches from her clawing fingers. She pushes her torso up with a last powerful tug, then reaches out.

So close.

Almost making contact, she recoils in sudden shock as her back is plunged into agony. Arrow Boy has elected to join Glimmer in weighing her down, having jumped straight onto Adora’s spine. With all three now embroiled in a desperate wrestle for control, the sword has become her only option. An actual weapon in her hand might turn the tide and save her life and Catra’s.

If she can get out of this...

Tapping into all her training, a lifetime of physical prowess, she pushes herself up despite the two assailants trying to drag her to the forest floor like a coat of rock. Her hand flexes, reaches out as much as possible, a reckless attempt to end the struggle once and for all. But the effort and disregard leaves her vulnerable, prompting Bow to sling an arm around her neck and put her in a chokehold.

Eyes wide and tired heart crying out in protest, she rallies all the resolve she can, every ounce of strength bristling forth from ropey muscles. With superhuman effort she strains against the force applied to her, craning her neck and pushing her arm forward.

She has to reach it, she has to win.

Channeling her desperation, her will to survive into a bloodcurdling grunt, Adora breaks free, fingers sensing the sweet release of the warm hilt. As she coils her fingers around the handle, a bright flash embraces her consciousness, and the world crumbles away into icy shadows.

 


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A whimper crosses Catra’s lips.

Her eyes flit around in search of any scrap of familiarity while the rest of her being squirms in desperation, begging them to find something, anything that would quench her fears. Catra’s nostrils suck in morsels of air, yet they too sense no familiarity, no scent that could point her in the direction of her yearning. No musky sweetness with a touch of vanilla that reads as intimacy. No Adora. The spark of hope in her eyes dulls as they come up empty, unable to make out any forest features that match her memory.

Staring at the trees around her just emphasizes the loneliness, and unsympathetically, they stare back with hollow eyes and gnarly limbs that threaten to claw at her sanity. Between their hulking limbs is nothing but a seemingly gaping void of ink, swallowing all light and sound. Emphasized by the eerie silence, her wild heart's frantic rhythm works against her in the fight to remain calm and collected. Its hammering is joined by labored panting that sighs longing hisses across her chattering teeth and into the night.

“Adora?” she whimpers into the dark. A hopeless gesture that yet offers comfort in absence of an audience. Solitude has been a friend more times than she can count, a patient listener and secret keeper. Stoic, silent, and unfazed by her admissions. Just as it always has been.

Please, I need you… I can’t do this on my own.

Heat rises to her cheeks, driven by the honest admission of dependency, giving her a moment's reprieve against the encroaching cold. Eyes squeezing shut, her nose scrunches a sniffle as the tears begin to trail wet lines along her temples.

It hurts... so much, I don't know how to go on.

It doesn't take long before the gaping void within her mind tries to swallow her whole, fleeting shadows lurking on the edge of her perception waiting for the light inside to dim.

They have always been there, sometimes faint, other times tangible. With no voice of their own, they whisper to her nonetheless. Wicked words that sow seeds of doubt, nurtured with her tears, on soil fertile with her pain. Feeding off woven shadows they germinate, growing tall with scorn and plumb with sorrow until the ears are ripe for reaping.

And with the well of hopelessness pouring from her tired eyes, harvest season has just begun.

It takes little effort to just lie here and wait for it all to end. Wouldn't be the worst. It’s not like she didn’t want this before. It’s not like she has to do anything for it this time.

Gritting her teeth, Catra fights to resist that encroaching eclipse summoning her into the abyss. Her claws unsheathe on instinct, accustomed as they are to banishing these debilitating spirals. But the thin lines of fire they draw pale in comparison to her blazing body, doing little to quench the emotions within. As tried and tested means fail, her veins constrict with the flow of panic and she resorts to calming breaths instead. But her lungs reject that audacity with ragged coughs, a saw cutting in and out of her chest.

Maybe she’s in worse shape than she likes to think.

As the rising waters of oblivion close in around her lonely island of self, no escape and reprieve left, there is but one residual ray of hope that dares condemn the advance of twilight. 

Adora needs her.

Like the dawn of a new day, her name scorches itself into the forefront of Catra’s mind, pushing the sinister shadows further and further from her being. 

No, Catra can’t afford to just give up, can’t risk losing Adora to the rebel scum. Nobody else will come to save them, nobody knows they are out here. Adora doesn’t deserve imprisonment and torture, she’s too pure for that, wouldn’t last five minutes with someone like Weaver and her unbridled scorn. Someone who wants to get information, then discard her.

No, Adora deserves so much more, deserves a future, even if Catra does not.

She commands her body to turn on its side, then the front, pushing her torso off the ground and onto trembling knees. Further coughs are forced from her lungs before she can sit up. The idea of standing, let alone running or fighting sounds like the ramblings of a madwoman in her head.

Taking a moment to rest from the strain, she groans, relishing that rare liberty once more. As her own vocal chords die down, her ears prick up, twitching to the perception of a distant noise. In an instant, Catra’s heart jumps into her throat, the final kernels of doom washed from the shores of her consciousness.

The creepy silence of the whispering woods at night may be a blessing in disguise.

Yes, there it is. Remote yet audible.

Distinct.

Familiar.

Adora.

It can't be far. She needs to get going. 

Ignoring the dull ache throughout and the flashes of agony as she moves, Catra drags herself to both feet, her posture hunched as if carrying Rogelio on her back. She clings to the tree with one hand, her breath still coming heavy, every expansion of her lungs like a knife plunging between her ribs.

Edges of bark digging into her palm contrast the internal pressure, the immediate sharpness a welcome distraction from the dull throbbing of her broken body. It's grounding her, almost soothing in nature. But the short reprieve does nothing to silence the lightning arcing across her torso, a relentless tormentor that won’t let up for a single breath.

Despite her determination to reach Adora, Catra’s resolve crumbles under the overwhelming assault on her senses. All she wants is to curl up in a ball, hide away like an abandoned kitten and wait for it all to be over. For her to be over, and with it, the pain. All of it.

Is that really what you want? Are you just going to lie down and wait for the end?

What choice do I have? Look at me, I'm done for. Never had a chance.

Catra’s eyes squeeze shut, pushing fresh tears down her cheeks as her battle turns inward.

Is that who you are? 

Her ragged breath hitches. The need for self-preservation has made Catra an expert at lying, to herself as much as anyone, but broken as she is by the pain she can’t stem the tide of honest insecurities.

Maybe I am, would it be so wrong? 

A weak and scared kitten? A friend who lets the most important person in her life be captured or killed, never to be seen again?

Why do I have to endure all the suffering? Why can't I just get a break from it all? She and I, it's… It’s just a delusion anyways. A stupid dream. It's never going to be more. Why go on for something so futile?

It never will be unless you overcome these childish fears. Just look at you, it's pathetic, do you want to prove Shadow Weaver right? Be a broken creature that talks to herself for comfort? You have to fight for your right. You have to earn every morsel. The universe doesn't owe you anything.

Catra bristles at the last admonition with scorn, stung by a hundred examples of being short changed, of efforts left unvalidated.

Bullshit, the universe owes me everything. And I'll be damned if I let it win before I get my fair due.

Tensing her muscles into tightly wound coils, as if it makes her body more rigid and steadfast against the impending waves of fear, Catra reprimands herself for the pathetic excuses that try to compel her to surrender. She inoculates her consciousness against the onslaught of pseudo-frailty in the only way she knows.

Don’t pretend that this is any worse than your regular fun times with Weaver. Stop being a sissy and get a fucking move on!

Her eyes snap open, lips parting to allow a calm and controlled exhalation, reciting the mantra that has kept her company through the worst times before. 

“Pain is… It’s just in your head, it's temporary, an illusion, it means you are still alive,” she presses through her teeth with a groan, as if saying it aloud can make it more real. “Quitting. Is. Forever.” 

‘That’s right, and you are no quitter.’

Adora’s past comforts echo the sentiment within her skull, her voice so solid, so engrained, she can hear it resonate in her heart, making it and her weep for reunion.

She pushes herself off the tree, hell-bent on saving the only person that has ever mattered to her. She repeats the commitment as she takes her first unsupported stumble forward, motion infused by new, uncanny resolve. Another unsteady step, and another. Her pace quickens, more balanced and firm this time, driven by preternatural determination.

Within moments any sensation of agony, of perceived weakness, is pushed to the sidelines of her psyche. Nothing more than an annoying nag. This reckless disregard for her injuries might make things worse in the long run, but it will only have to hold her together for a little while longer. She just needs to get to her. As long as her body functions, she can ignore its complaints, beckoned by the bells of vengeance.

 


-----------------------------------------------

 

“Hello, Adora.”

An ethereal voice greets her, not unlike the dream that had haunted her. It takes a moment to regain her bearings and scrutinize the surroundings. She is within a structure, defined by triangular shapes and crystalline materials. A temple of some sorts. Ahead, a kaleidoscope of purple and blue strains her eyes, impossibly bright against the backdrop of ink. 

Adora flicks her head left and right, her eyes wide as she stands up with timid posture.

“Who are you? What's going on?” she pants, acknowledging the bizarre figure in front of her, taller than any Etherian.

“My name is Light Hope. I have been waiting a long time for you, but I could not reach you until you forged your connection with the sword.”

The figure appears calm, collected, reciting a well-rehearsed speech or recording. Her speech however echoes like a chorus of multiple voices, her body a transposition of more than one.

Adora has her eyes fixed on her, taking in what is being said without understanding its full meaning yet, but the mention of the sword causes her attention to sharpen through the splitting headache.

“You sent the sword?” Her eyebrows rise, hopeful for a straightforward answer.

“The sword is meant for you,” the voices proclaim. “Etheria has need of you, Adora,” they continue with a hopeful, expectant tone. “Will you answer its call? Will you fight for the honor of Grayskull?”

“What do you mean? What is Grayskull?” 

Her voice quickens, conveying demand. She needs to know, needs to form a connection, get answers. That's why she was here in the first place, right? It’s what all the struggle has been for. It better be worth it.

“You aren’t making any sense, I don’t understand!” She verbalizes her frustration with a yell, throwing her hands forward with tense shoulders.

The sword appears in their right hand as it swings an arc that ends above their head, pointing to the heavens. Light Hope’s form shifts to one of pure light, more resembling an Etherian, organic with long flowing hair and a cape billowing in a current without air, crowned with golden wings. 

The structure around her crumbling into oblivion, the familiar shapes of Etheria’s moons materialize from the gloom, illuminating the night sky.

Vivid Tanes, the scion of scorn with its rusty sheen. Anemu the yellow-bellied coward and hopeful blue Zanyu. They and all the others fill the cavernous space just like in her dream.

But what does it mean?

Before she can voice her confusion, her breath hitches and a lump in her throat prevents any sound from passing her lips as she ceases all motion. Her mouth falls open with a gasp.

Stars.

Thousands upon thousands of stars. Too many to count, they fill the surrounding void, like gleaming beacons of hope for lost souls. A scattered hand of colourful dust suspended in the sheets of the universe. She takes in all the splendor, tipping her neck back. 

Wow...

It's a breathtaking sight that flashes goosebumps across her skin and drowns out all her immediate concerns and worries. Yet as her eyes trail across the ocean of diamond dust and set on one of the smaller moons, envy stricken Zaris and her yearning sister violet Nycto, a single twinge gnaws on her mind. She wishes Catra could see this, be here with her and share this moment, too.

Catra...

The sting in her heart returns her to matters at hand, gaze moving back to the figure with the sword.

Through the blinding light, a single form manifests from the many. A woman, taller than Adora by a foot or two, no question about it. Caramel skin taut over defined muscles, setting a stark contrast to the pure white of her gold trimmed clothes.

“I am Mara, She-Ra of Etheria.”

“Where did Light Hope go, what's going on?” Adora responds, scrunching her forehead.

“I was supposed to be the last, but with you, Adora, the sword has found a new master.” Mara’s voice drops along with her eyes, “It means I failed.”

Tightness grows in Adora’s chest, a feeling like time is running out.

“Failed? I’m its master? Please, I must know, it’s what I came here for. I followed the dream, it brought me to you,” Adora continues, hoping that her questions at least could extend her stay. 

“There have been six She-Ras before me and you will be the eighth. The last champion of Etheria.”

She swallows hard, feeling heat building in her skull as her overstimulated brain revs uselessly. Champion? She-Ra? It's hard enough to fit her current responsibilities in a day, let alone becoming a champion for anyone on the side. 

“I… I’m not sure I can. I’m a Force Captain, I have responsibilities… friends. I can’t be chasing any more dreams than I already have. How--”

“That decision is not up to you,” Mara declares flatly.

Her heart constricts at the implied lack of agency.

“What? Don't I get a say in this?”

“No, Adora. We do not choose, we are chosen. It is now your duty to bring balance to Etheria. To succeed where none of us could.”

Her eyes flit down to her hands, evaluating if they have the strength, the ability to do what is asked of her. The suggestion of overwhelming responsibility constricts her veins with a hot shiver.

“I don’t even know what it involves, what if I’m not good enough, what if I can't be a champion?” she finally blurts out, a tinge of panic in her throat.

Mara’s voice becomes compassionate, “When your heart is filled with doubt, Adora, listen to the sword and it will provide answers.”

It isn’t the response she had hoped for. Drained from the exchange and the chaos in her mind, her head droops and shoulders slacken.

“I... I don't understand.” 

“You will.” 

The voice speaks with a finality that convinces Adora that her time in the starlit void is at an end.

She has so many more questions. Why has she been chosen? What is so special about her? How can she be answering a call of the planet itself? It all makes no sense. She needs more time.

“No, wait!” she pleads. 

But Mara, Light Hope and the others are already vanishing, leaving her in sudden darkness.

Adora’s eyes flutter as she slowly comes to. Still disoriented from the mental and emotional whiplash, she attempts to clear her head with a massage to her temples.

But her hands wont come apart.

Heart sinking in dismay, the meaning of that biting tightness wound around her wrists dawns within moments.

She got herself captured.

“Hey she’s awake!” a male voice yells into her left ear.

Still dazed, her eyes drag to face Arrow Boy, then to the uncomfortable and biting sensation around her wrists cradled in her lap. They used her own bola to cinch them. Fucking great. She can only hope to be dragged off and die in captivity so Catra never sees this. She would never live it down. Being nothing but bleached bones is preferable to the endless teasing and mockery. She can’t believe she let herself be captured like some basic cadet.

That's rich, Adora. You were a cadet less than a day ago.

Serves her right for having the hubris to steal skiffs and take her best friend into the Whispering Woods as if she has it all figured out. Special little girl wanting to be a big, bad general one day.

Yeah right…

“What happened?” she utters, eyes blinking rapidly to adjust to the low lighting around her.

“Quiet, Horde spy! I ask the questions!” 

Adora faces the voice to her right, Glimmer looking right back with an exceptionally self assured smirk. Of course she is, she has the sword.

Having not quite yet recovered, her other captor’s voice startles her from the opposite direction.

“So, what's your name? I’m Bow by the way.”

“I prefer not to swap pleasantries with my captors,” Adora deadpans.

“Hold on Bow, I’m going to blink us back to Mom,” Glimmer interjects, giving a cheerful thumbs up to him, “she’s going to be ecstatic.”

Bow’s brow crinkles. “Uhm, Glim? Maybe you should take it easy.” His voice jumps by an octave as he continues in concern. “You’ve used a lot of your power coming here, you sure we can’t walk till you recharge?”

Adora sneers, picking up on the slip in an instant, “You have to recharge your powers?”

“Bow! Can we not discuss this in front of the prisoner?” Glimmer reprimands him, but continues in agreement, “I’ve got a bit left, and my emergency powder. But fine, we walk.”

Lifting Adora up by her jacket (trying to, at least) and failing, she beckons Bow to give her a hand.

“How did you make it this far into the Whispering Woods, Horde spy?” Glimmer asks, killing time.

“Uhm, we just walked in?” Adora replies in truth, dumb question, how else? “And… I’m not a spy--” 

Her sentence is cut short by a feral growl coming from the edge of the clearing. Turning to the ominous sound, Bow and Glimmer's faces turn into grimaces of fear while Adora’s draws a fresh sneer.


Chapter Text

A few hours earlier that same fateful day

Adora darts upright in her bed, the chastising voice echoing so loud to be certain she hadn't just imagined it but actually heard it reverberating through the… where is she? Staring at her from above is a metal bed frame, there are more rowed up along dark metal walls. The barracks, yes that’s where she is. The voice is still ringing through her ears. It can’t possibly have been just in her head, can it? Eyeballing the dim room with a fast flick of her gaze, she can’t discern anybody but the members of her squad, none of which stir in their slumber. No stranger, no intruder who could have made that noise or beckoned her name. 

Good.

A few more moments slip by before she feels her composure, her sense of reality, returning. It must have been a dream, but it felt so vivid, so real. She heard that voice calling for her like a whispered breath across her neck, still senses the warm glow of the sword caressing her exposed skin. She could have probed the floating planets with the tip of her fingers if she had wanted to. Could it have been hallucinations brought on after yesterday’s crash with the skiff? Catra assessed she could be brain damaged from the collision. She must be right.

Because none of it could have been real.

She glances around for the comforting ball of fur she knows will be some place close by. Catra always is. Her loud snore draws attention to the bottom of Adora’s bunk. There she is, curled up, tail tucked in around her legs, in a position only Catra could find comfortable for sleeping. If she is sleeping, that is. Adora is certain that the snoring drones way too forced and artificial. She is just as likely to be wide awake, pretending.

Adora has heard her best friend snore more times than she likes to admit. Has relaxed to the intermingled purring and gentle rumbling that marks her veritable symphony of being fast asleep. It's soothing, really. Helps to melt the day’s tension away like a red ration bar on a hot day.

Shadow Weaver would be furious if she knew. Cadets are not allowed to ‘share beds.’ But that hasn’t stopped Catra from breaking that rule more often than not. 

Catra’s ear twitches ever so slightly, reorients itself involuntarily to the sounds of wakefulness coming from Adora. It would be imperceptible to anyone else, but Catra can hear her heartbeat pick up, her breathing quicken. She can tell if someone is sleeping or awake just from the sounds. Adora would know, it’s not like Catra doesn’t brag about it once a week at least.

Shit. Maybe she was inadvertently thrashing and whispering in her sleep, woke Catra up again like yesterday after night combat drills. She’s not going to hear the end of it. Catra has plenty of problems getting enough sleep as it is, she doesn't need some restless jock making it worse. Then again, Adora has her share of those problems too. The grogginess every morning is evidence enough.

“Psssst, Catra,” she prompts toward the bottom of her bed.

No reply, no movement..

Adora’s sigh quickly morphs into a yawn. No one can (or at least should) blame her for the fatigue she battles on a daily basis. It’s impossible to relax with all the new duties she has as a senior cadet, not to mention de facto squad leader now. At nights it’s difficult to get to sleep and even harder to rest while doing so. Often she can’t help but lie awake, mind in a frenzy about training schedules, equipment and ration allocation.

Allocation is actually the worst. Weaver made sure to undersupply her team, force the tough decisions she is expected to be able to make. Adora emphatically offers to go hungry, and often so, giving preference to her squad being at full strength.

Weaver forbids it of course, expects Catra to go hungry instead. Some bullshit about different metabolic needs for her species that is clearly inaccurate. Catra pretends not to care, but the number of times Adora has caught the catgirl scavenging scraps or been kept awake by a rumble that is no purr tells another story.

From one moment to the next, Shadow Weaver expects her to take charge of practically everything. Lead the squad and be responsible for all of them and everything they do. Responsible for the condition of their gear, weapons, armor, clothing. Responsible for their training progress, where everyone needs to be and when. And somehow she’s supposed to preside over classes and examinations for younger cadets? She's barely graduated herself and is teaching twice a week already, on top of everything else.

And oh boy, is it ever going to get worse after Force Captain orientation. Weaver already gave her the rundown of having to somehow fit the war-room meetings in and design the training plans herself, amongst other things. She might have to appoint Catra as her deputy to take over some tasks. Adora sighs heavily at the memory from earlier. Catra should have been made Force Captain too, she deserves it, even if she’s disrespectful. Maybe this way she’ll feel more valued, too.

“Psssssssssst,” Adora hisses again, eyeing the sleeping girl.

Still nothing. Adora sighs, raking anxious fingers through her hair. Maybe she can’t count on Catra after all. If she can’t even be bothered to acknowledge Adora when she’s distressed instead of being a fucking brat for shits and giggles, would she really be a reliable deputy? Still, even a little help from her would go a long way.

Adora is proud of her promotion, of course, and excited to be a person of influence in the Horde. A person of value. But sometimes it would be nice to have someone else taking care of it all again.

Yeah, there’s no way she’s getting back to sleep now. Kyle has to be at a medical exam today instead of the melee sim, which means Adora needs to redo her plan of attack. No big deal, that’s only three hours preparation down the drain. It's not his fault though, Rogelio pushed him too hard, sprained his ankle in the fall. It was hard enough communicating to the son of a toad that he needs to be more careful.

Catra on the other hand needs a new belt, her last one having snapped two days ago along with an extra large tear in her leggings. She is down to merely one set of spares each. And being the rambunctious shit she is, those won't last another four days. Adora will have to put in an equipment request after getting everyone their breakfast rations from the mess hall, a new ‘responsibility’ Weaver recently saddled her with. As if the squad can’t get food themselves.

All she can hope for is that the request slips are in the same place she left them. If Catra hid them again for shits and giggles, she’ll fucking kill her this time. 

Maybe she could at least take care of this minor chore while still in her bunk. Filling out a few request notes won't wake anybody at least. She looks around for the little booklet containing the slips and notices the ball of fluff at her feet instead again, the truly adorable sight slowing her whirring brain and threatening to turn it to mush.

Ugh, focus Adora.

Revving back up, her mind begins to puzzle together a revised schedule for the day, the week, the month. It all needs adjusting now. But despite her best efforts, her mind can't help wandering back to the dream she had, that vision still haunting her. Ugh, even unable to sleep she can't effectively use the time without being distracted. Just great.

It didn't feel like a normal dream, so maybe it is justified to be at least a little concerned. Maybe she needs to get a medical exam? The doctors are slow though. Too many wounded from the northern campaign. There is no way she could fit that in today's schedule. She has to take all their new measurements and commission their graduation armor suits as well, almost forgot about that too. Supplies and logistics officers are positively lethargic and that simply can’t be postponed with Thaymor coming up.

On the other hand, maybe there’s a better way to get some answers. Her hand slips under the mattress, the Force Captain master key taunting her fingers with cool temptation. If she hurries she can take a skiff to the forest, see if she can find the sword again. She’d be back before anyone else would be up, easy. It's not like she can do anything else useful right now, she might as well put her mind to rest.

She looks around to make sure nobody has woken up, then pulls her end of the cover gently over to slip out. She pauses. Nah, it's just not right. She can't sneak out, not without at least asking her. Confiding in Catra is something she owes her, and if she ends up coming along, they would find the sword even quicker. That would leave them time to find the request slips and fill everything out, maybe even pop some targets on their improvised range in the scrapyard. She’ll totally make that fucking jerk fill out the paperwork this time. Payback for that stupid prank that almost got them disciplinary action.

“Come on, I know you’re not asleep, how stupid do you think I am?” she utters softly with a subtle tone of impatience to it.

Still nothing. It’s actually infuriating. She knows Catra is awake. Maybe the fucker needs a literal kick in her butt.

She subtly nudges the bundle at her feet. She’s got exactly five seconds before it’ll be a kick instead.

Catra finally stirs, pretending hard that she just got woken up by Adora in the rudest way.

“Uh, what?” She glances around bleary-eyed, her voice nothing but a breath of confusion. “Is somebody there?”

Adora crosses her arms, giving Catra ‘the look’, ready for when the cat girl's eyes will surely set on her.

“Alright, alright you got me…” Catra admits with a disappointed croak, her eyes instantly vivid with that beautiful gold and blue. “I think you are pretty stupid though, just for the record,” she comments with a mischievous but playful grin that betrays her conviction about the truth.

Despite the quip, Adora always loves the sight of those eyes. They mesmerize her, pull her into an indescribable whirlpool of emotions that she still doesn’t quite understand. It makes her feel warm and fuzzy inside and reassures her that everything will be fine as long as she can always see into those eyes.

“Etheria to Adora?” Catra mocks, waving her hand up and down in front of her face. “Anybody home?” 

She shakes her head, returning the focus from her internal sensations to what's ahead, not noticing that Catra has scurried up the bed and now straddles her waist. Their faces are but a hand’s width apart, and that feeling in Adora’s core intensifies. 

“Oh no, you are brain damaged, aren’t you?” Catra cocks her head to the side and raises her brows quizzically.

The furry face examines her with genuine concern, looking deep into her left eye first, then proceeding to her right, changing the angle at which she looks into them as if certain the interior of Adora’s skull can be checked for injuries this way.

“What?… No! I am fine.” Adora huffs in protest, having returned her mind from that feeling in her core to its source ahead.

She shoves her hand into Catra’s face playfully, trying to push her away with a subdued but genuine snicker. The soft, short fur brushes gently against her palm. It has almost soothing qualities to touch, grounding her back into reality after the dream she just experienced. She tries to collect her thoughts, hoping to make a coherent and rational case for what she wants to do. 

“You remember when I told you I’d seen that sword in the forest?” she bursts out forgetting to whisper in her enthusiasm.

Catra’s eyes dart around with alarm, placing a calloused hand hurriedly on Adora’s lips with a look of concern in her eyes that speaks more than a thousand words.

Adora lowers her voice consciously, insisting, “I need to go back to the woods, there’s something I need to figure out.” 

Catra’s eyes drift downward in contemplation, her shoulders drooping after a moment. Thrown by the unexpected lull, Adora considers whether she should just go alone. If they are caught or something goes wrong, it would surely cause a world of problems for Catra.

Actually, problems is the wrong word, a world of pain would be more accurate. There is no way Shadow Weaver would not take the opportunity to punish Catra for allowing Adora to go, let alone aiding or joining. The consequences could be dire. This isn't like playing a prank on Octavia or sneaking into places they are not supposed to go. This is abusing the new authority she has gained as Force Captain, just a day before, to steal a skiff -again- and leave the Fright Zone with zero legitimation, only to go chasing after some mystical sword in the most dangerous forest they know.

“WHAT? You are not…” Catra manages to squeak before her voice is silenced by Adora’s turn muzzling her. She scans the room with wide eyes. Nobody stirred.

“What is wrong with you?” Her mouth turns to a frown. “You’ve been acting all weird since we got back!” Catra sits up on Adora’s waist, hands splayed out, demanding a reasonable answer, two reflective eyes piercing the dark and Adora’s psyche.

“Look Catra.” Adora’s gaze lowers, staring at nothing in particular. It feels easier not to be interrogated by Catra’s glowing eyes when trying to come up with a well-formulated response. “I know I saw something out there.” 

Leaving the familiarity of the barracks, her gaze trails off into her own imagination, visualizing the sword in her mind as if it allows Catra to see what she saw and convince her better than with just words. “I just need to get another look. It feels important somehow.” A conclusion that sounds as stupid to herself as it must to the girl on top of her. Her eyes refocus, staring back at the freckled face.

“Sounds good, let's go,” Catra replies lighthearted as if she is being asked to grab some ration bars. Part of her motivation might be to help, but the other is assuredly to get another shot at piloting a skiff at reckless speeds across the wasteland sands.

Adora hardens her expression, alarmed by Catra’s enthusiasm. Placing her hands on the fluffy shoulders as if to say, hold on for a minute, she feels guilt bubbling in her stomach as the cat girl's expression sours. The edge of her lip curled downward.

“I don’t want you getting into trouble on my behalf, Catra!” Her voice is rich with genuine concern. 

Of course she doesn't mean to tell Catra what she can and can’t do, but having seen her get punished so many times has fostered a natural weariness towards any risk taking. Too often they have fool heartedly stumbled into misadventure, and this is likely going to be one of the worst offenses they have ever committed. If she ever finds out, Shadow Weaver will be furious.

“I just want to be sure you are okay with this, I might not be able to shield you from Shadow Weaver if we get into trouble.” Adora’s voice softens, spilling compassion, pain and memories that suggest to Catra just how much she really cares, even if Adora can’t always be the stalwart protector standing between her and punishment. Her hands leave the familiar fluff on her friend’s shoulders and return to prop herself upright.

“It's fine, Adora… chill.” Catra scoffs, her tail swinging back and forth like grass in the wind. “I don’t want you to be all alone and scared in the stupidly creepy forest. You know, in case we come across some rebellion soldiers - you’d be totally helpless and I have to be there to save your dumb ass.”

The real meaning of why she wants to come along however is spelled out clearly by the tail that has now wrapped possessively around Adora’s thigh. It makes her skin flash with warmth at the touch.

“Oh, yeah…” Adora mocks, “...of course I wouldn’t want to deprive you of the opportunity to be the badass savior you were born to be. Right after I scooped you out of an applesauce box as a fluffy and cute little kitten.” She giggles, forcing the back of her hand over her mouth to prevent the sound traveling too far. Poking fun at Catra’s pretense of badass-itude is guaranteed to get her flustered and blushing, and Adora loves doing it every chance she gets. 

Catra’s eyes go wide. “DID NOT!” she squeaks, raising herself up just to realize her voice had carried much farther than intended. This prompts her to lower herself back down and continue with indignant whispers, her index finger jabbing at Adora’s chest. “I jumped from a rooftop to your rescue, beating up the dozen rebel soldiers trying to steal your weak ass baby self away from the Fright Zone. Everybody knows that,” she concludes, arms crossed and blushing, staring away into nothingness.

Adora lets out a little chuckle. “Sure thing, kitten,” she mocks, a goofy, wide grin on her face.

“Ugh, you are the worst!” Catra pulls the pillow from underneath Adora’s head, pretending to smother her to death with it. “So, what's the plan?”

Adora pushes the pillow to the side and leans over to pull the object of endless opportunities from below her mattress. Catra’s gaze jumps to the sound of the familiar cling-clang of the Force Captain master key with the widest pupil dilations Adora has seen in months.


---------------------------------------------------



“CATRA!” Adora’s scream pulls Catra back to reality with a start. “Look out!”

The yell draws her focus to the front, across the bow of the skiff. Her eyes go wide at the impending collision with the large jagged rock that juts out from the ocean of sand. They are heading straight for it. An initial deluge of panic floods through Catra, enlivening her veins with fiery cascades of uncanny focus and vigilance.

“What? Did you assume I didn’t see it coming? Don’t make me laugh Adora,” she cracks, yanking the drive lever to the right, albeit a bit too fast to be assuring. “It's not even night yet, my eyes are much better than yours,” she adds, studying the blonde with vivid eyes, noticing her brows knitted in apprehension.

“Just be careful. It was hard enough explaining the damage last time,” she warns.

“Don’t be such a worrywart.”

In truth, Catra is still tense from just having escaped another accident. She can’t remember the last few miles of desert they drove through, engrossed with that goober’s account of meeting her in a box for the first time. It’s comforting how much Adora seems to care about her. Often it feels suffocating though, overprotective. She doesn’t need safeguarding, can take care of herself just fine. It’s not like Adora is there anyways when she really needs her.

Stupid Adora.

As her breathing quickens, the train of thought spirals. Emotions as fickle as weather drive her fur to stand on end. She won’t let them win this time, won’t yield to the negativity trying to worm its way inside. This should be an auspicious moment, one of the rare times with no shadowy tendrils looming over them. No obligations, duties and responsibilities. Just her and Adora - on an adventure. Being allowed to operate the thundering vehicle across the waves of glittering sands was a delightful bonus, though. The rush of speed is intoxicating.

She maneuvers in a sweeping arc rightward to bypass another cluster of obsidian rocks jutting from the dusk dyed ocean of caramel. The fiery sensation in her veins returns as the skiff banks into the turn. Following the structure with focused gaze, she watches the gloomy island vanish into the billowing trail of their wake.

Catra can’t believe she got to go on a skiff ride outside that boring Zone. Two times in one day, no less. Best Day ever. Her misgivings about the blonde feel distant in light of being entrusted with steering the vehicle. Entrusted with their lives. Adora hasn’t even interceded when she’s exceeded the typical safe speed. Maybe Adora really trusts her and sees her as qualified? It’s a disconcerting prospect because she isn’t confident she would trust herself to know the difference between expertise and posturing.

Must go faster, this is so much fun.

She drags her eyes away from Adora and turns her face back into the onrushing breeze. The brisk evening air ruffles her mane with unseen hands, cascading through every single strand of fur on her body with relentless but gentle force. The air out here smells so much better. Not coated with machine oil, exhaust fumes and the thick odor of sweat, blood and fear. Scents she has grown accustomed to so much that she can barely recognize and differentiate them from the other scents that violate her nostrils daily back home.

Her eyes trail to the goofy blonde standing next to her on the skiff, stealing glances at the hints of muscles flexing under her jacket, her calves and thighs. Catra’s cheeks fill with warmth. Adora seems to revel in the speed and wind just as much, pointing her adorable little nose into the spouts of air. 

“You’re going too fast again,” Adora says without even peeking at her or the speed gauge.

The sudden commentary sends a jolt through Catra’s gut and her vision flits to the display showing their current velocity. Adora is right.

How the hell does she know?

“Am not!” she shrieks in protest, ears pricking up.

Adora’s dry reply comes swift, without a hint of mercy, “Yes you are.” She’s ogling the gauge from the corner of her eye as her arms fold across her chest.

Catra’s fists clench briefly around the controls. There is no way to argue herself out of this infraction. Observing the speed limit had been set as a condition for her to drive. 

“Does it matter? There’s only sand out here,” she whines, mouth going dry as her ears fall in a blatant attempt to garner sympathy.

Adora turns to look at her, foot tapping impatiently, not taking the bait. “And the rocks, cliffs and canyons.”

She rolls her eyes, evading blondie’s intimidating gaze to peer across the skiff’s far side instead, watching the day moon slowly succumb to the dunes.

“Details,” she mumbles.

“Slow down.”

“Those speed gauges are made with a lot of tolerance, Adora,” she explains, gaze flitting up as she gesticulates wildly, letting go of the steering. “They are set for like, inept dweebs who trip over their own feet, like Kyle.” Eyes narrowed to slits, she draws the taller girl’s attention to the gauge before adding swiftly, ”If you squint you'll see that we are marginally above the seventy mark.”

Adora refuses to indulge her, not an ounce of amusement on her face. “It's maxed out at a hundred and ten.”

“Is not!” Catra huffs, taking one hand off the controls again to point at the numbers and wave off blondie’s concerns. The deck beneath their feet shudders and tilts slightly as the skiff begins to drift without any input.

“It literally can't go any faster,” drones Adora’s reply, her hands tossed up in exasperation and every word enunciated as if Catra is hard of hearing. 

Catra groans theatrically. “You are such a nag.”

“You mispronounced responsible.”

Catras jaw clenches as she presses through gritted teeth, “Same thing.”

“Please? Do it for me?” Adora begs, eyebrows raised and leaning in with that sappy face of hers, impossible to refuse. 

Catra curses under her breath.

“Ugh, fine!” she concedes. “I'll go grab the bags or whatever. We’re almost there anyways.” She lets the lever go and stiffly stomps towards the rear of the skiff.

The trunk for personal equipment is fairly spacious, ordinarily filled with weapons, armor and plenty of survival equipment. Today it just features two lone knapsacks, tan colored and filled to the brim.

Of course, Adora had to bring more than just some essentials. Their heavy backpacks are crammed with emergency rations, knives, bolas, lamps, spare batteries, water and other junk they wouldn't ever need. Who packs half a pack full of bandages and first aid stuff? Fucking hell. They are going to a forest not a warzone.

“Chance favors the well prepared!”

UGH.

Taking both packs, she returns to the front of the skiff, emphatically dumping the heavy bags next to Adora. Hopefully she’ll get the hint before laying hands on the lever again.

“Mine!”

With the sense of control restored as she directs the powerful engines to move the skiff where she wants to go, Catra’s thoughts turn inward again, this time to their shared past.

Adora claims that when she discovered her, Catra was a kitten in a box along with a handful of jars of applesauce and her mask. Older than just a baby kitten, about three years old. That’s all the time Catra had before fate doomed her to misery under the tutelage of Shadow Idiot.

Not that there was much actual tutoring in store for her. She showed sincere passion, an eagerness to study and improve back then. But it didn’t take long for Shadow Weaver to whip that attitude out of her, too.

“Beasts are not required to know Algebra, only how to fight. I won’t have any of my instructors waste time on you.”

Adora provided as much second hand teaching as possible, employing her limited spare time. She is pretty savvy when it comes to instructing, gotta give her that. Even if she is painfully naive otherwise. With her help, it wasn’t hard keeping up with the other students despite not attending the classes - just another way for Weaver to single her out. 

It’s disturbing that there are three years of her past that she has no recollection of. The remainder of fifteen years’ worth of memories isn’t complete either. Impossible to say if that’s because of the litany of dullness or real loss of memory. Maybe she is the brain damaged one, who knows?

Is it the same for Adora? They have never explicitly spoken about their history before being in the Fright Zone, although Catra knows that she has no parents in the Horde and thus must have come from outside too. But at what age? Not a clue. By the time Adora had found her, Shadow Witch had already been so infatuated with the blonde that she somehow persuaded that old drunken hag of Catra’s awesomeness and averted her being disposed of.

That last thought makes her freeze, all brain processes and cogwheels grinding to a halt in the wake of that thought and all that it invokes for life in the Fright Zone. Disposed of, rejected, thrown in the trash. In her daily reality she is nothing but trash, worthless except to spur on Adora to be better. 

Despite this obvious exploitation and the constant threat of punishment for outperforming Adora or being a 'bad influence', she has cultivated an appreciation for making blondie happy. Seeing that big goofy smile fills her with inexplicable warmth and passion so distinct from the other rare occasions she feels joy. She felt euphoria when lashing out at dumb-face Octavia. Ecstatic when she stole that coloring book all for herself. But the bliss that she draws from seeing Adora smile is more… selfless than that. It’s a thrill that drives her craving to be closer to Adora, touch her skin and feel her warmth. Makes her want to share everything for the chance that it would bring them closer, more intimate, give them both a brief intermission from their miserable lives. A chance that Adora would take an interest in her in return. 

“Never going to happen, you stupid cat…”

Weaver always makes sure when Adora derives some ounce of contentment in the Fright Zone, Catra pays for it. It’s taxing to say the least, but as of yet, the decrepit hag hasn’t deprived Catra of those dreams. They are a lifeline and she clings to it. Without that hope there would be nothing left to resist the need for closure, for an end to misery. There is rarely anything but emptiness when she’s not by Adora’s side. Whether Adora feels the same, she can’t tell. It carries more of partners in crime vibe to it, Adora telling her of all these grandiose plans for the future and getting into all sorts of mischief. Plans only they know. For a sombre moment she dares to hope it could be more than that.

“CATRA!” Adora yells again, firm hands taking control of the steering now, taming the roar of the vehicle and maneuvering it with caution around a new array of outcrops.

The lack of faith in her attention made Catra’s blood boil, warranted or not.

“What’s wrong with you?” Adora’s face is a writhing mess of apprehension and irritation. “We almost crashed again! I’m taking over,” she continues, exasperated with Catra’s absence of focus. She must have tried to draw her attention a few times before reaching for the helm, but Catra can’t recall hearing her at all. 

“What’s wrong with you, stupid cat? Why can't you do anything right?”

“Sorry, I guess it’s best you take over,” Catra replies, meek and disturbed by Weaver’s words passing through her skull, almost paralyzing her capacity for rational expression. Adora stares at her, the anger in her face melting into compassion.

Catra curses herself for apologizing.

“What?” she snaps.

“Nothing, you just…” The sentiment on Adora’s face is supplanted with melancholy, almost pity. ”You usually never…“ Cutting herself off again, she extends a hand towards her. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine, watch where you’re going before you crash us!” Catra snarls with caustic words that dig their teeth into Adora’s outstretched palm, causing her to recoil. She almost had to spell out her emotions to Adora there. It’s warranted to react like this, isn’t it? She reprimanded her twice for not paying attention, so she should take a sip of her own medicine and not be distracted herself.

Her eyes seek out Adora after the pressure in her chest lets up. Blondie is facing the skiff’s bow with an indifferent expression, pretending it doesn’t sting. Catra knows it stings, she curses herself for that too.

What’s wrong with me?

Drooping ears and an irritable flicking tail are a straight giveaway to her inner sea of turmoil, she knows this. It irritates her that Adora can read the signs so easily, almost like she’s a pet that comes with an accompanying manual. It’s frustrating. Humans are much harder to interpret, their faces easily wiped clean, no discernable body parts to give away stupid emotions.

Even more so, she detests being pitied. There is no need for it; she has become stronger, better than Adora. It’s just impossible to ever show or prove it for fear of being taken on ‘long walks’ by Weaver afterwards. 

“If I see you overcompensating again for your failings and insecurities by cheating Adora out of her deserved victory, I'll make sure you’ll become physically incapable of doing so.”

Adora being this way drives her mad. Can’t she get it through her thick skull that Catra doesn’t want to share everything? Doesn’t wish to display her emotions on a silver platter ready to be plucked apart for amusement?

Her thoughts spiral again. Drawing a deep breath and closing her eyes helps her recenter, bring it down a notch, but only helps so much. She resorts to scraping her nails along her scalp as she drags them through her hair once more, the pain cutting through her thoughts and halting the runaway spiral entirely. She doesn’t break skin this time. Not a given.

She is well aware of her own hypocrisy. While perceiving it as a violent invasion of her psyche, a locker opened and emptied - its contents splayed out for all to scrutinize, Catra wants to know when something is awry with Adora, always. Wants to be there for her, craves to console her in any of the few ways she knows how to. Hug and hold her, caress the beautiful golden strands and whisper comfort into her ear. Not knowing what bothered Adora drives her just as mad. Could it be that Adora feels the same? That she just wishes to be there for her? 

“Adora has no interest in you, you are a pet she is burdened with to foster her sense of responsibility. If you become too much of a distraction with your needy clinginess, I’ll see to it that she receives a new pet. One that is tame…”

Dragging a weary glance across the bow of the skiff, she observes the boundless expanse of glittering sands slowly coming to a close with the wall of green approaching in the distance. Peeking over her shoulder confirms the Zone has been long out of view. It feels like escaping a lifelong nightmare. Could she just run away and leave it all behind? The threats, the beatings, the constant torment? Start a fresh life with Adora, some place out here, far away from their past, walk into a new dawn?

Such desperate dreaming… 

No, to think Adora has an earnest interest in her are the tendrils of lunacy infecting her mind. She is absorbed in being the stand out cadet-now-force-captain. Being on everybody’s good side. Becoming the next second in command. Taking over the Horde. Catra would only ever be her deranged little pet sidekick. Adora wants to know what’s wrong so she can stop her from being a distracted mess, cinch that leash yet another inch tighter and amplify the collar’s stranglehold on her neck. Keep her restrained to please Weaver.

Stupid, perfect Adora. 

“I think we’re here,” Adora says, timid and less enthused than in the barracks.

Catra’s head jerks back to the front, taking in the porous barrier of muted green and blue.

“Wow, how can you tell?” she taunts, tail flicking like an agitated snake and hand pointing at the immense stretch of dense forest right in front of their slowing skiff.

Adora rolls her eyes in reply, face colored in disappointment. 

Shit.

UGH! Can’t I be supportive for once?

“Hey, Adora?” She searches for a quick approach to make up, swallowing the big lump that has formed in her throat. She has no desire to comb the forest in total silence, palpable tension at every second and every glance. Is that selfish of her or is she doing it for Adora’s sake? Impossible to say, maybe both.

“Huh?” Adora prompts, peering towards the thicket as she snatches their bags from the floor of the skiff.

She could at least look at me when I’m trying.

“Uhm, I…” Catra looks at her bare toes, hand scritching the back of her neck. “I didn’t mean to be rude, Shadow Idiot was on my mind, is all,” she concedes, ears flattening. She doesn’t expect clemency. Not because she won’t get any — Adora is guaranteed to let it slide — but because she doesn't feel she should be getting any. She wants to explain why she veered into a rotten mood as if it's some kind of excuse for the behavior. It isn’t Adora’s fault, it’s hers and she should square up to that. Left arm hanging limp at her side, she grabs across with her right hand to embrace it, waiting for the verdict.

Adora spins around after a moment and lets out a long groan. “Ugh, even out here, she’s got to be spoiling things!” she finally says, then chuckles to relax the tension.

The mountain of guilt on Catra’s shoulders crumbles into dust. She thanks Adora with a hint of a genuine smile. Joining into the snicker and marching her way towards Adora, she slaps her shoulder in camaraderie. 

“Let’s find that stupid sword so we can get out of this silly forest,” Catra scoffs. She wants Adora to know that she enjoys hanging out. Just them, on a bold adventure, far from Shadow Witch.

Their heads turn to face back the way they had come before plunging off the skiff. A glimpse across the endless expanse, the skiff like a boat having come ashore from perilous waves. The last traces of the day moon sink into the dune sea and the Fright Zone and its lights are long beyond the horizon, an obscure memory. It all seems like a dream now, so far gone. Nobody would find them if they chose to not return at all. Why can’t they just leave it all behind? They could be happy out here.

Together.


Chapter Text

Side by side they meet the leafy wall and, with a hasty peek to each other, they advance into the dense undergrowth, backpacks slung over their shoulders. The vines and branches are thick, unrelenting, requiring claws to cut and detangle.

Struggling for minutes through the initial thicket, the vegetation eases up around them and turns into cavernous tunnels between twisted trunks. The air is heavy with spores, pollen, and something that feels like thick invisible fog. Like walking through layer after layer of resistance while not actually being impeded. It's there, subtle, ethereal, but also isn’t. Is this what magic feels like?

Even the colors here are in such contradiction to all she knows, leaves and stems shining in pale blue, mirroring the ambient glow from the swelling night moons above. In truth? She loves it, all of it. Loves the subtle hues of red and purple radiated by the mushrooms growing on everything. Loves the thrill of frigid, damp grass under her semi covered feet. The bouquet of everything around her, the nameless and novel sounds out there. What she cherishes most right now though are the little insects with glowing abdomens that dance incandescent lines across the foliage.

She studies the mesmerizing display for a while, eyes and ears focusing on it to the exclusivity of everything else.

With her attention reduced to single mindedness, her predatory instincts lock onto a special bug. It’s right there, just hovering above a little shrubbery, sailing like a leaf on water. She freezes, then with measured pace sinks into a squat. The sodden grass caressing her palms is sending waves of nervous anticipation through her arms.

Tension builds up in her legs as she wiggles a little to take measure, her gaze fixated on the glowing dot. Within an instant, she releases the springs, lurching forward with her hands clamping around the unsuspecting bug. Catra finishes the pounce with an expert roll, landing in a ready stance - one knee on the ground, the other supporting her cupped hands as she opens the thumbs of her makeshift prison one millimeter at a time.

The bug buzzes around in her palms, prompting excited giggles from her. She takes a cursory sniff of the scents to remember and then frees her palms to let the little bug go, sinking her open hands to her lap. Her shoulders slacken and muscles relax as she watches flower spores float around, suspended in the nightly breeze.

Catra’s eyes fall shut as a deep and slow breath draws into her lungs, absorbing all the wondrous fresh scents she swims in. The myriad sensations nearly drown her, unaccustomed as she is to such an array of variety. The forest makes her feel at ease and carefree, like nothing in the Fright Zone could apart from Adora.

When her lids allow light to penetrate again, her vision sets on her best friend. Catra feels heat rise to her cheeks as the prospect of having spaced out and being watched dawns. Adora remains a few feet away, hands clutched to her heart as if she has scooped up every ounce of what she just witnessed and seeks to lock it away forever. She has that adorable expression of awe and wonder on her face, cheeks lifted, eyes full, that she reserves only for ‘cute’ Catra.

Ugh. Catra’s never going to object to this goober’s adoration, but sometimes it just feels… wrong. Like she’s not just inhuman, but subhuman. Catra doesn’t just exist for Adora’s entertainment, you know? She’s not her fucking pet, despite what Shadow Weaver seems to think.

Heart pounding against her ribcage like an animal screaming to be freed, Catra lets a huff of air leave her lungs, almost like someone stepped on her. (Honestly, it’s hardly a stretch.)

“Not a single word of this... to anyone,” she warns the gleeful blonde, fangs showing and coat bristling while enunciating every word. Catra has a reputation to uphold, a hard fought one. If Lonnie gets wind of this, she will be the laughingstock for longer than with the mouse incident.

They follow the narrowing path through the onset of gloom, and the knapsack’s straps soon begin to dig into her shoulders. It may be worth being prepared, but this is overkill. Catra feels bogged down by the backpack, its bulk hinders her flexibility and keeps catching on branches while rubbing uncomfortably against her fur. Which is why Adora is going to be carrying her backpack now, too.

Serves her right.

They continue to stroll in near silence for what must be a solid half hour, unable to find anything. Not even a hint of that dumb sword she’s looking for.. Adora doesn’t appear to know where she’s going either, meandering from side to side, even crossing back to a clearing they had been in before. It’s not before long before perfect Adora loses her patience.

Must be hard being powerless to reach a goal with no effort and having to work for it. Catra scoffs at the idea, not saying a word.

“Ugh dammit, how am I expected to find it?” She wipes her forehead, clenching the other hand into a fist. “This forest is a maze.” She pauses, eyes flitting around the whirling gloom for anything familiar. 

“You don’t even know if it’s real, maybe there’s nothing to find?” Catra suggests with a moan. This has turned out to be a wild lizard chase at best and a way to severe punishment by Weaver at worst. Adora won’t let this go though or listen to reason, she’s too invested now.

“I saw it, I know it’s real.”

“Sure, whatever you say.”

“I SAW it.” Adora stops in her tracks, her body tense and half turned towards Catra, both fists now balls of fury. 

“Yeah, I believe you, chill out,” Catra soothes.

She isn’t certain, though. With that blow to the head earlier, anything is possible. Adora will need encouragement to let it go, maybe another half hour before she is going to be receptive to the disappointment that turning around brings. To be honest, Catra is just as frustrated trying to find the ‘mystical glowing sword in the ground, wrapped and held up by vines and roots’. Could be a tale from one of the stupid make-belief stories Adora had drawn from, teaching her how to read. 

Adora slumps down next to an enormous boulder, already discouraged with the lack of progress. It screams spoiled to Catra. Adora has never had to struggle for anything in her life. Just make pretty eyes at Shadow Weaver and you’ll get whatever you want. That dummy isn’t used to working for recognition like Catra has to. It’s satisfying to see her struggle for once. 

“What, giving up already?” she mocks her disappointed friend, hands stuffed into her waistline with tail flicking in amusement. “Never took you for a loser.”

Adora gets up in a huff. “I’m not giving up! I know what I saw,” she says, arms flapping in frustration. Pacing back and forth while holding her chin, she mutters to herself about directions, landmarks and footprints.

“Aww, little Adora can’t find the mystical sword she is chosen to wield! So sad.” Catra sneers, a teasing pout manifesting on her lips. “Guess she’ll have to settle for one of the other great destinies instead! However will you manage?” 

Seeing hints of tears glinting in Adora’s eyes, Catra walks over to her, clarifying with a toothy grin, “Oh c’mon you big sap, I’m just teasing you.”

“Yeah, that’s what you’re good at, isn’t it?” Adora rejects, jabbing with her hands and giving Catra an abrupt push as she nears.

Catra’s eyes narrow while her arms cross, standing her ground just out of arm’s reach after regaining her balance. What the fuck is Adora getting at?

“And what’s that supposed to mean?” she asks in a fierce tone devoid of any comedic hint this time. “That I’m not good at anything else?”

An eyebrow lifted and waiting for a confession, Catra bites the inside of her cheek. The pain feels good, helps to keep the soaring sensation of pressure in her ribcage at bay lest she drowns in it. If Adora wants to play mean girls, she’s in for a surprise. Catra has learned plenty about that subject. 

Her companion is taken aback by the rapid escalation of hostility. “That’s not what I said…” She raises her palms in defense, seeking to defuse the ticking bomb she inadvertently set in motion.

The sight of Adora in emotional distress adds to the swelling ire just below Catra’s throat. The impossibility of telling rage at her friend and resentment at herself apart just adds to the volatility. It’s justified, right? Adora knows better than to prod this hornet’s nest.

“But it’s what you mean, isn’t it?” Catra continues her onslaught, hands flying from across her chest to clenched fists at her side.

“No, Catra… I…”

Adora isn’t going to get away that easily this time. This bucket of molten metal has been smoldering for a while and it’s about to be cast. “Sorry we can’t all get the supreme attention of our noble benefactor.” She snarls, face twisted to an anguished grimace with tears of her own. “Sorry I don’t ever get to be the favorite! Maybe if I did, you’d be the sucker who always comes second.”

“You know I’ve been working just as hard as everyone else!” Adora’s nostrils flare as she plants her feet in a wide combat stance. So that’s how she wants to play this game?

Her hand shoots out on its own, jabbing an index finger at the taller girl’s chest. Lucky for her, Catra still has the claw under restraint. ”Not difficult when you’re being sheltered from Weaver’s wrath.” 

Blondie’s arm comes up sharply to push hers aside, away from any tender parts. She’s stupidly strong and the contact leaves an aching throb in Catra’s wrist. “And what’s that supposed to mean?”

While Adora is absolutely bulkier and has more strength, her own arms are not frail. But it still hurts. She can’t win confrontations with larger opponents on brute force like blondie can, but that's why she’s the brains while dummy is the brawns.

Her breathing quickens. Agitated by the contest, furry hands snap up again, giving Adora another push. “You heard me!” she wails, echo reflected by the uncaring trees around them. “You always get the special treatment while the peasantry gets the scraps.”

“Not true!” Adora takes a step forward, pushing Catra in return. The jolt is enough for her balance to falter, ass planted on the damp ground. She can taste metal on the inside of her cheek. Blondie didn’t intend to be that forceful, hand grasping for Catra immediately as if she could have prevented the fall. “Catra...”

Not interested in the pity, nor the offered hand, she lashes out with words. “When’s the last time your ration bars were denied, Adora? Huh?” 

Weaver would be proud of this performance. She learned something from that hag, after all.

“That’s not…” The hand recoils as if slapped away.

“When’s the last time Weaver reprimanded you for screwing up?” Catra bolts up, not bothering to dust the dirt and leaves from her clothes. “Oh, that’s right, like… never because I get it instead.” She can feel a hot streak running down her cheek.

Shit.

Running a backhand over it, she pretends it never happened.

“It’s your own fault most of the time, like when you hid the request slips and Shadow Weaver flipped!”

“I’ve never even fucking touched them, Adora! Not that you care... or her.” Another hot streak, this time the other side. It’s so fucking unfair. She had spent hours searching for the stupid slips. Had missed dinner for fear of being blamed. And here we go.

“Then who did?” Adora yells, arms wide as if embracing a host of potential but unlikely suspects.

“How am I supposed to fucking know?” Tears fall freely now, it’s hopeless to hold the tide at bay. “Why is it that the blame always falls on me? Anyone could have stolen them!” she whines.

“Because it usually is you!”

Those words hit like a punch, sending what feels like physical pain through her chest along with crushing waves of nausea as she risks being drowned and losing control.

“Is not!” she denies, voice trembling as her right arm lashes out at Adora.

She catches the half hearted attack with ease, of course. It wasn’t like she really tried to hurt Adora, just make a point. 

“What about yesterday when you were flippant with Weaver, are you going to blame that on anybody else too?” she asks as if it was a serious question, still holding Catra’s outstretched arm tightly.

“What? She started it, I had the same score and of course she praises you and shits on me as usual. Do you think that’s fair?” Catra feels her face taking on a pleading expression. Weak, pathetic - the tears, blush and drooping ears are unmistakable. So embarrassing. Adora never cares about the display, but it still irks her to be so emotional in her presence.

“You weren’t even there on time and we did all the work!” Adora points her free hand at herself.

Catra pulls her arm back, wiping the shame off her face. If only she could wipe away the dull pang under her ribs along with it. She takes a step back, letting the emotions drain from her face and into the aching cavern in her chest. She’s skilled at that, has to do it all the time when someone catches her in a similar situation. Weakness isn’t tolerated back home.

It won't get rid of the inner turmoil, but she can deal with it later. Maybe put claw marks into something... or herself.

“Ugh, work smart not hard, Adora. I should be commended for doing that,” she finally replies, looking pointedly to the side, arms crossed and impatient with the situation.

Adora throws her arms up. “What a load of…”

“Oh but you are one to talk, don’t think I forgot the countless times I put in all the effort just for Weaver to discount it or for you to snatch victory from my hands like a cheat!” 

Images of countless battle simulations run through her mind. Adora using and abusing other opponents to occupy and distract her and coming in at the last moment to take her out. Sure, it's a fair play in combat, but that doesn’t mean she’s better. Where does that jerk think Catra learned it from?

“I don’t cheat.” Adora states snootily like a stuck up princess.

The situation is laughable. She absolutely does and knows it.

“You totally do!” Catra’s eyes go wide with bewilderment at the brazenness. “You did last week playing cards.”

“I have no idea how that ace ended up there and you know it!”

She grabs Adora’s wrist, tugging on the sleeve of her red jacket. “I literally saw you sticking it up there!”

“You had the two princesses in your pants!” She points at Catra’s leggings. “I had to!”

The accusation sends a surge of panic through her and a blush onto her cheeks. She had no idea Adora was watching that time. 

“What? No I didn’t!”

“Oh, oh, oh you did,” she huffs. “I saw you stick ‘em into the rips on your thigh.” Her eyes flit down, going through the motions of how Catra had snuck the cards into her pants. Then she flings her other hand to her right, recalling the setup from the game. “And Lonnie scammed Kyle by looking at his hand when you pushed over his drink as a distraction!”

Adora has glossed over it, but what she said lingers in Catra’s mind, intensifying the heat to her cheeks. “Why were you staring at my thighs?” she asks, like an animal caught in a skiff’s headlight.

Adora is taken aback, no answer readily available as a mirroring blush spreads below her pretty blue eyes. The prospect of her stealing looks when Catra isn’t paying attention is actually arousing. Does she do it at other times too? 

“I saw you cheating a number of times, so I’m keeping an eye on you!”

Catra scoffs. “I bet you are…” 

Wow, did she just say that out loud?

“You did! Even Ro did a couple times back,” she continues, apparently ignoring the accidental innuendo.

That’s news to Catra. 

Did that slimy son of a toad actually try to scam her? Fucking outrageous. But let’s not distract from the real villain here.

“So you accuse us all of cheating, but you are the pure damsel in distress? Give me a fucking break.” 

Adora points at herself in self pity, acting like she had no choice. “I was just leveling the playing field and you know it! Everyone cheats all the time.”

That’s actually hilarious, because it’s true. The game is a big con trick to rob each other blind and everyone knows it, with one glaring special case...

“Except for Kyle,” Catra chuckles in recollection. “He still has no clue and we totally rinse him like... all the time.”

Adora readily joins in the laughter, taking the opportunity to move on from whatever that just was.

It’s welcome. Having someone else to think about or make fun of always resolves tension.

“Yeah, Rogelio wasn’t happy. He saw the whole thing.”

“He could have said something.” Catra pouts.

“He did!” Adora snorts, voice high. “You dismissed it as burping.”

Catra has to stifle her laugh with a cough, remembering the lizard’s swearing. “Hey, I was being kind. What he said was not okay.”

“What did you expect? You know he dotes on the boy.” She whimpers with mirth, eyes twinkling in amusement. “You and Lonnie deserved it.”

“And you don’t?” Catra accosts without any hint of malice.

“No, I totally do,” she implicates herself, snickering. “We took every last ration bar off Kyle that night.”

“Yeah, I haven’t been that full in months.” Arms crossed and seizing her midriff, she adds, “Collapsed into a food coma and missed training the next day.”

“Not that we could have trained if we wanted to.” Adora mirrors Catra’s gesture, letting the comedy of the moment sweep them away.

With the pain of laughter dying down after a few more beautifully agonizing seconds, Adora pulls one of the knapsacks from her back, scavenging through it.

”Speaking of which, want a snack?” she asks, squinting away a lingering tear of glee with a wide grin that melts Catra into a puddle. “I packed a gray bar that I snatched from the mess hall.”

The goober knows how to win over her heart. 

Catra strokes her hand through her mane, making sure the emotions are locked away securely again. A ritual that has become second nature.

“Give!” Catra demands, hand snatching the gooey bar of goodness. “By the way,” she adds, “this doesn’t mean I like you.” 

She can’t help the grin spreading as her favorite flavor (of two flavors total) melts onto her tongue.

“Sure, whatever.” Adora reciprocates the gesture with a smile, biting into a bar of her own. “I know you can't stay mad at me, so don't bother trying.”

What the fuck, she’s been played like a game of cards. That jerk knows her too well.

There is no way she could, and it’s infuriating, especially when she’s perfectly justified in being upset. But instead of holding a lifelong grudge like she always swears she will, all she ever manages is a halfhearted effort to be nasty before she loses all resolve when looking at that pretty face. 

Nourishment further tames Catra’s volatility to a more agreeable mood, making the search for the sword a lot more pleasant while gnawing on the chewy gray bar.

She isn’t used to being led around by mystical swords, fairy dust and ancient glowing trees though. It feels like the blade doesn’t want to be found, maybe because Adora isn’t alone like last time. Either way, it's irritating.

Hold on a second. Ancient glowing trees? Catra pauses, her gaze seized by a source of light. The trees to her right twinkle with a glow cast on them from below. It’s clear as day now. Why couldn’t she see it before? Was it even there a moment ago? Adora hasn’t spotted it either, but that’s not saying much. It must be hard with her limited vision. Catra can see so much more and hear so much more, something that makes her better, not that anyone notices.

“Hey, Adora? Look at this.”

The surrounding foliage, subtle hues of blue, violet and red almost feel like it’s closing in on them, oppressive, claustrophobic. Like the sudden appearance of the light has drawn everything that is good in this forest into it, leaving malevolence in its wake. There are all sorts of weird rounded and organic shapes that seem alien to Catra, and strangely familiar. But how can that be if all she had ever known are the cold, straight edges of steel and machines from the Zone?  Has she been here before too, during that elusive stretch of time that lingers at the edge of her memory like a box of truths about to fall into oblivion?

Despite the impression of familiarity, the forest feels hostile now, not welcoming and wondrous as its outskirts. Things are lurking in the murky depths around them. Changes have been subtle, but are not lost to Catra’s senses. The sweet and perfumed scent of pollen and flowers is replaced with the pervasive stink of moldering timber, of earth and… other unsavory qualities. The sound scape has drifted from buzzing and gentle rustling to an eerie silence that almost has its own volume to it, drowning out everything else.

She turns away from Adora and towards the ambient glow, shoving a gnarled vine with bright red growth on it out of the way. Pollen or spores, she isn’t sure, shake loose from the motion. Unsure of their effects, she tries her best to avoid inhaling or touching any of it.

“Adora, are you seeing this?” she beckons. Her ears prick up as she hears Adora’s footsteps close in behind her. 

“That almost looks like…”

She zones out from Adora’s continued chatter, not because she’s rude but because there is something else out there. More distant, faint, but similar. She has to disregard it for now, the sound too remote to be ascertained.

“I noticed it a few moments ago. The light wasn’t there before, right? You didn’t see it, did you?” Catra follows up, biting her lip and letting a fang show as she furrows her brow. Spooky.

“No that wasn’t there before,” Adora responds from behind, reassuring. She neither missed nor imagined it. Can’t be too sure with all the weird stuff in the air.

They break through underbrush and vegetation, creating a path where there was none before to enter into a larger clearing. It’s besieged by foreboding trees and in the midst of it all is a vibrant blue crystal sword caught in the ground, held by vines, emitting the delicate glow Catra perceives.

“No way!” Catra grunts, her mouth falling open.

“Yay! I told you so!” Adora giggles with excitement, blue eyes as wide as possible. “See, I’m not brain damaged!”

“Yeah, you… you definitely aren’t,” Catra confirms.

They both look with a sense of awe and wonder towards the strange sword, hesitant to move closer.

“Is it like, safe to touch or whatever?” Catra inquires, glancing at Adora, unsure whether she should make a move for it or let Adora handle this.

Adora crosses her arms, supporting her chin with her fist while rubbing a thumb across it. “Last time I touched it I had visions similar to my dream, but then it vanished after.”

“Sounds like some weird magical princess shit. Moving swords, mazes, magical forests.” Catra makes mocking air quotes, making each word sound spooky and foreboding while pretending to be totally unfazed by it.

“I’m just gonna go grab it then,” she continues with a shrug, trying to convince them both with her badass-itude.

“Are you crazy, you can’t just go touching the sword!” Adora warns with wide arms, questioning Catra’s actions.

“I mean, yeah I can, you did last time, right?” She shrugs again. Her voice comes out more shaken than she intends it to.

Adora’s reply is lost on her as she hears the other sound again. Her ear pricks up to the right. Yeah, there are definitely unusual sounds, footsteps? Maybe? Yes! One set? Three? No, two! Definitely two sets of footsteps. She also picks up faint chatter along with it. Something like Bow, let me lead the way okay... Sounds like a female voice, pitchy, still young. The light came from the edge of the forest! More masculine, slight crack to the voice, about the same age she reckons. 

“What are you hearing?” Adora must have noticed her eyes being closed and her right ear moving with brief twitches into a different direction. Catra holds her finger up in response as if to say shush while turning her head towards the sounds she hears, focusing both of her feline ears towards it.

Yes, you saw the light, it’s this way! The pitchy voice continues. The tracker pad says otherwise! the broken voice interjects. IT’S THIS WAY! The female shouts with finality before Catra hears her startled intake of breath so loud she knows they are close. She opens her eyes, face turning into a snarl that bares her fangs visible to the intruders.

In front of them is a young woman and man, she of pale complexion with purple and... is that hair sparkling? Weird. And him, dressed in gold white garbs with blue trousers, stomach area freakishly nude with a bizarre red heart on his chest contrasting his dark skin tone.

Fucking freaks.

“Horde soldiers!” the sparkling one yells.

The volume makes Catra wince, eyes clenching and hands snapping to her sensitive ears as if it could keep the annoying sound from penetrating her head.

“I see them!” the man responds.

Catra makes out a quiver and a bow on his back as she forces her eyes open again.

Their fists clenched, they yell as if to cast them out like malevolent spirits. It's a perplexing sight, and her eyes dart to Adora for reassurance. Her friend nods, flicking her head to the sword as a confident suggestion while dropping their packs on the spot. Catra will hold the two clowns off while she runs for it. 

Shouldn’t be hard.

Chapter Text

Catra brushes the low hanging branch aside, digging a narrow path through the gloomy vegetation. Each ragged breath is torment, yet the pain is manageable, her mantra a continued source of comfort.

“Pain is just in your head,” she mutters into the silence. “it’s just in your head, not real, you are still alive, still alive.”

It’s enough to carry her like a crutch, step by step, as long as she doesn’t consciously think about the sensations assaulting her left flank.

She made that error exactly once along the way. Contemplated the extent of her injuries, narrowed her mind on the pain and where it sits. The sensation and sound, yes sound, of bone scraping against bone that reverberates through her chest makes her want to die.

Her breathing has improved, too, having settled into a raspy rhythm tuned to her pace. She is neither out of breath nor sufficiently aerated and every inhalation presents equal measures yearning and dread. It’s an uncanny duality that has reduced her determined pace to something more akin to a limp within minutes.

But that's not going to deter her.

The sword's faint glow breaches the vegetation ahead after another weary swipe of her claws, signaling an end to her arduous trek. The sound of combat died down a while ago, about halfway to her goal. Only voices bridge the distance now. But not Adora’s. Was she too slow?

A cold shiver of guilt runs down her spine, her heart constricting as if Weaver herself has reached into her chest and clenched it in her iron fist. What if she’s too late?

Catra shakes her head with vehemence, the thoughts flying off like water out of her mane. It's not like she could have gotten here any faster. It’s not like she didn’t try. Her fur, however, began clumping into matted strands almost as soon as she left her new friend Mr. Tree. Her fingers and toes are stiff and cold even though she feels like her skin is on fire. It’s this disgusting damp clam coating her skin, flip-flopping constantly between hot flashes and cold shivers. She needs to get to a camp and see a medic, shower, preferably die before having to see Weaver about this. Anything but another minute in this dumb forest.

Aching but steady steps take her into the clearing; posture straight, physical ailments pushed as far to the sidelines as possible, fangs and claws bared. There are no other options. Intimidation, then negotiation, definitely not all out fight or flight. Either of the latter is going to kill her at this point, with certainty.

Etheria’s mightiest animals would be intimidated by the growl she draws from her soul. It’s not for dramatic effect though, it's just easier than shouting, less taxing on her broken rib.

Okay, maybe a little for dramatic effect.

Fine… mostly for dramatic effect. She absolutely did not practice it in front of the locker room mirror though, ever. And never hoped in secret for an opportunity to use it either.

Her eyes set on the startled faces ahead. Seeing the purple haired girl provokes an immediate bristle. She's so fucking done playing.

Catra stalks towards her prey, pretending that her measured pace is all intimidation and planning. Really it has more to do with keeping it together, not letting slip any hint to the severity of her injuries. If they knew, she’d be fucked.

Her keen eyes - able to distinguish even fine details at low light levels - keenly absorb all the necessary information: Adora’s tied hands, the sword in Sparkles’ hand (posing like she’s big shit), Arrow Boy tiptoeing off to the side to form a triangle between himself, the jock and her. That will need to be addressed soon before he gets bold enough (or scared enough) to shoot to kill.

“Hey, Catra,” Adora chirps, spooking Bow and Glimmer like cattle. “Nice of you to join.” Despite her bravado, her shoulders are tense, eyes zipping back and forth between Catra and the crystalline blade wobbling with the strain of Glimmer’s hands.

”Look what the cat dragged in, what ever happened to you?” Glimmer scoffs. “Went flying too close to the moon?”

Catra’s eye twitches at the all too recent memory but she chooses restraint for now. Sparkles’ feigned confidence cannot conceal the tremble in her voice. They ain’t soldiers, nor killers. That much is for sure. It’s evident in the slight shake to Arrow Boy’s hands and the uncertain glint in Sparkles’ eyes as they dart around, neither sure of what to do next. Neither having expected Catra to return. As much out of options as she.

“Funny that you should ask, Glonda--” Catra rasps.

“It’s princess Glimmer to you.”

“As I was saying, Glinda, you look like you’ve just seen a ghost.”

“If I'm honest, I didn’t think you’d be back,” she sneers.

“Oh I bet.” Catra croons in agreement, “That was an interesting stunt you pulled, caught me off guard, I'll admit.” She places her hands on her hips, wincing slightly. “So what is this you’re doing here? Are you clowns planning on forming a traveling circus?” She snorts. “If so, I need to let you know that it's neither convincing, nor good.“

Fight? Flight? Freeze? Hard to say what they will do if pressed, but there is a tangible connection between these insurgents. It has been obvious since the moment things got tight for him earlier. If either becomes convinced the other is in actual danger, they may snap and become unpredictable, like a drunken soldier flailing around. The memory of that particular night out in the lower wards has her stifling a painful chuckle. Adora is such a dumbass.

“Stunt?” Glimmer snorts. “This is a high profile military operation. Stay back kitty, or Blondie here gets it.”

On second thought the situation is just as hilarious as it is stupid, perfect Adora getting captured like… right away on her first outing as big girl force captain. It's going to be a source of amusement for months to come.

“Ooooh, be my guest, that jock is a pain in the ass anyways,” Catra offers mockingly. Continuing her steady advance across the clearing, she pauses mid way, picking up on the subtle and concealed movement of Adora’s hands - tied together at the wrists.

She is making those dumb covert signals, trying to communicate her plan like she has tried to get the squad to do for months. Something about ‘silent communication’ she said, and how useful it could be. In truth, Catra has no idea what these dumb signals mean, never actually having read the manual Adora had given her. She probably should have.

“We mean it!“ Bow interjects, drawing Catra’s eyes momentarily off Adora before she flits them back to read the signs.

Fist balled, two fingers walking, hand chop, index finger, pointing at her, flat hand, pointing at…

Unable to understand what that shit is supposed to mean, she stalls for more time. She needs a plan that won't end up getting them both utterly shafted. Catra had placed all bets on Intimidation, but it doesn't appear to be doing the trick.

“You know, I’m sure you think you are super scarwwy,” Catra emphasizes with air quotes that almost make her jerk with pain but are totally worth it. “I've done this whole hostage thing before and you might want to make sure your captive’s hands are tied behind their back.”

Sure she’s only done the hostage thing in training, but she’s picked up more than enough to give these two a few useful -- and more importantly, humiliating -- pointers. Messing with people’s heads is one of her favorite things. She learned from the best, although she’s unsure if that's something to be proud of.

Glimmer's shrill voice rebukes her, “Our superior methods are none of your concern.” 

“Sure thing, Gloria,” Catra shoots back, timing responses between flares of agony that threaten to make her wince mid speech. “Secondly, you want to make sure that you actually threaten the captive with the sword, like... at least put it at her neck or something, y’know?” She places a flat hand towards her own neck, chopping motions included, head cocked to the side and tongue hanging limply from her lips.

Adora stares at her with a twitching eye. “Uhm Catra, what are you doing?”

She could make a run straight for them. Arrow Boy might get off a shot, but she can deal with that. Hopefully anyways. Sparkles on the other hand is a tougher ration bar to crack and she's itching for it, too.

“We-we just want the sword, and we are going to be taking Blondie here--“

“It’s Force Captain Adora to you, kiddo,“ Catra cuts her off.

“--Blondie here to Brightmoon for interrogation,“ Sparkles continues, unfazed.

Catra can’t risk being zapped away again. Prissy would make sure to drop her from much higher and it’s not like she has any hopes of not splattering on the ground this time. The goons need to be separated and Bow taken hostage. Exchanging prisoners to get out of this whole mess unscathed might be the way to go.

“Yeah, that ain't happening Glitterface.”

The tip of the sword drops to the ground at those words as the girl’s arms tremble. Catra is sure she can see the pulsating vein on Sparkles’ temple even across the distance. “That's not up to you, we got a hostage and you will do as we say.“

“Okay Gloomer, whatever,” Catra dismisses her, raising an eyebrow at Bow instead. ”Hey, you, Arrow kid, wayyyy too far from the captive, are you even trying to make this work? How are you going to keep her subdued from like miles away?”

Bow snaps his eyes back and forth between Glimmer and Catra, then edges closer to Adora. Good, very good. Gotta keep it all close and tight so she won’t have to run around like an idiot.

Adora’s eyes yell at her, big and insistent, drawing attention and trying to get Catra to confirm the plan. Catra suppresses another chuckle instead. She’s going to make fun of this for a long time when they are back in the Zone. Might even get Lonnie and Ro’ involved for the fun of it. It’ll be great not being the center of mocking attention for once. Yes, she still harbors resentment from that time Adora told those jerks about her altercation with Octavia, how she thought her finger was broken and bleeding when clearly it wasn’t. It hurt, okay? Shut up.

“Listen to me, you cat freak,” Glimmer yells, ”we got your Horde girlfriend hostage--”

Catra’s eye twitches and her mouth opens faster than Sparkles can finish the sentence.

“She's NOT my--” Catra draws a hand down her face in exasperation, letting the panic subside as quick as it came. Gotta keep her cool, gotta be focused.

It's a sensitive topic, alright?

She shifts her weight to the other foot to relieve the pressure on her left flank. ”Ugh, listen,” she starts, not even trying to hide the annoyance that colors her tone, “you are hardly a crack security team. Just give us the sword and everyone goes home happy.“

Catra takes a new measured step towards them.

“No, the sword is ours, Horde scum. Stay back.

“Or what?” Catra scoffs once more. “You haven't got the guts.“

So she wants to be taken seriously, huh? Catra makes a show of complete disinterest instead, glancing at her own fingers and examining the state of her claws.

Another casual step, and another.

“I'll do it, I swear.” Sparkles points the weapon directly at Catra, blade shaking up and down with the strain on her arms and mind.

“No you won't,” croons Catra, “you don’t have it in you. I can tell.”

“You know nothing about me or what I'm capable of, just you watch,” she shoots back, making adorable jabbing motions towards her.

“I’m watching.”

Adora looks quizzically at her, cocking her head. Of course Adora would question what she is doing. Never trusts her judgement. It’s always her plan, her way. Not this time.

Another step, and another. “Last chance,” Catra offers.

She can’t bear to be in need of rescue, typical perfect Adora.

No, stop. We will…”

No, Adora won’t take this opportunity from her. It’s her turn to prove herself.

“Stop…”

Shifting her weight against the twinge in her side, Catra brings her dominant leg forward. Then she dashes like lightning across the last few dozen feet, the alarming screech from her ribs an accruing debt that will need to be paid sooner or later. But not now.

Sparkles drops the sword and disappears almost in an instant. So predictable. What follows only a blink later is the equally predictable sensation of touch on Catra’s shoulder. In a heartbeat she drops lower than a snake's belly, grunting through clenched teeth the moment her body hits the dirt. She slides forward on her right leg regardless, the other knee bent to stabilize her course.

To say the motion is absolute agony would be an understatement. Tremors of the impact quake through her tired body, her jaw forced shut and a canine jabbed into her cheek. It takes all her training and expertise from Shadow Weaver’s school of torment not to scream and collapse in a heap, but Catra graduated top of her class and knows how to handle it, for a little while at least.

Sneering back against the fog of pain, she turns her attention to Bow, merely glancing back to confirm that Sparkles has in fact face planted on the ground like a dumbass. She won't be a useless heap for long, but it’s all Catra needs to turn the tables in her favor.

To her surprise, Adora flops over onto her side with a grunt, legs sweeping into Bow from behind. So that’s what the hand chop in her plan was all along? How quaint! That will make things even easier. Arrow Boy barely has enough time to express shock as his feet are cut out from under him, the series of mistakes they have made leading up to this moment plastered across his visage. Priceless, regardless of how short it lasts.

In the blink of an eye, Catra reaches and overpowers him. His initial struggle is cut short by four shallow gashes across his forearm, spelling out the benefits of surrender. To make sure he doesn't accidentally forget, she cups his jaw, fingers against the tender skin of his neck. Oh how the tables have turned.

“Don’t make any hasty moves,” she hisses into his ear between gasps of air, eyes snapping back to lock in on Sparkles. The princess is back on her feet but frozen in place, eyes wide and hands raised. Whether or not she heard Catra’s words, she definitely got the message. 

"You got it boss, not gonna move an inch," Bow replies through a nervous laugh, voice breaking as he clenches his fingers around the red streaks that mark his forearm.

“C’mon, get up,” Catra commands, clinging tightly to his back as they rise together, her focus now shifting entirely to Glimmer’s reaction. No way Sparkles would drop her to death while he’s attached to her. Checkmate, Princess.

Catra pricks an ear towards Adora. “You okay?”

“Did you really show up late and let me do all the hard work again?” she replies with a grin, leaning towards the sword now stuck in the ground at an angle. Reaching over the hilt with her cuffed hands, she begins sawing the bolas against its sharp edge. “I’m good, you?”

“Just peachy,” Catra throws back. She does not want to go into details right now. Truth is she can barely hold it together, barely stand straight, can’t quite suppress the slight tremble in her hands that signal frailty to her captive. That latest stunt has made things worse, she’s sure of that, but ‘dora would go into overdrive if she knew how bad it really is and they can't afford that right now.

Adora rises next to her and wrings out her fingers, bolas cut to pieces at her feet around the impaled blade. Catra looks quizzically at the dork, raising an eyebrow as her gaze flicks down to the pieces.

“You brought more, right?” she asks. “You always bring more than anyone needs.” Catra’s eyes turn from questioning to pleading. “Please tell me you brought more.”

“Duh!” Adora mocks her in return, mimicking the sass she usually has to endure. “Of course I did. Someone has to plan ahead.”

“I guess not everyone can have my natural talent for improvisation,” Catra retorts dryly.

“Whatever, it’s called having foresight.”

“It’s called packing enough for a small army,” Catra shoots back, but she’s grinning. To be honest, she likes knowing she can rely on Adora’s meticulous preparation. Improvisation is much easier with all the tools you might need at your fingertips.

Of course, she much prefers to rely on her claws. And her wits.

Having kept the annoying princess in her peripheral vision at all times, she turns back to face her, ready to apply some accent highlights to the masterful brushstrokes of humiliation.

“What? Not going to do your teleport trick again?” Catra mocks the princess from afar, staring into those pink gray eyes and lapping up every ounce of desperation as she continues, ”I’m disappointed. But then again, you don't think you really ever had a chance against us, do you?” Catra chuckles shallowly, trying not to cough as Adora begins to fix the bindings tight around Bow’s feet, his bow and quiver already confiscated and placed with the sword and their knapsacks.

He winces as Adora finishes the knot. Nice--

Glimmer jolts into rash action, lifting her fist with the bright glow of magic. Catra’s heart jumps against her aching ribs as she curses her own lapse in attention. Instinctively she pushes Bow into the path of whatever was to come, making herself as invisible as possible behind his frame but without letting go of his neck.

The attack never comes.

Sparkles moans as the magic disappears without effect, leaving her reeling from the attempt. It's pathetic, really.

“Aww what’s wrong?” Catra croons, the tingling from the most recent rush of adrenaline still coursing through her body. “Sleepy after all that magic?”

The princess balls her hands into fists of fury and jumps surprisingly fast to her feet. “I don't need magic to give you a good beating!”

This time Catra is prepared, her mind centered and collected. Making a show of it, she yanks Arrow Boy’s head upward, exposing more of the tender skin as she draws emphasis to her claws lying flush against it.

Glimmer stops in her tracks. “You wouldn’t dare! My mother, the queen--”

“Oh princess, you have no idea.”

Catra’s sneer turns malicious as she leisurely lifts her hand without further warning and drags her index finger slowly across Bow’s cheek. The red line left in its wake prompts a pained groan from her captive as he tenses against her hold.

Intriguing, a faint hint of citrus mingled with the metallicity.

Oh, she doesn’t intend to exsanguinate the boy of course, only to send a message. It’ll be enough. She’s sure of it.

“No stop!” Glimmer cries out, drawing her out of that cursory thought.

The dribble of blood draws a smirk on Catra’s face while Sparkles’ turns to one of abject horror, her desperate plea echoing through the otherwise dead silent clearing as she reaches out with her hands as if they could stop Catra’s.

Catra!” Adora questions her from the sidelines with a furrowed brow.

The interruption makes her tail flick and her ears prick up along with the fur on her neck. How dare she, after all Catra just went through for her? Adora needs to grow the fuck up. The world isn’t soft and smushy like ration bars, at least not for people who aren’t Shadow Bitch’s pet. Only strength and power are respected.

"What? These goons had you all ready to be shipped to their little torture hideout, and you're gonna lose your shit over that little scratch? Please," Catra rebukes her, unable to hide her annoyance at having to explain herself. "They would do way worse to us given the chance. These instigators only know one language and I want them to understand what I’m saying."

Sparkles stands defiant. “Don’t you dare hurt him!”

She stands at a distance, though. Unmoving, her feet squarely planted into the ground. It's good enough for now. That scum has learned her place.

“Good, now that we understand each other, get on your knees princess, hands where I can see 'em,” Catra demands with cruel authority, mocking Glimmer with her free hand, fingers twinkling, ”no sparkle sparkle.”

Their captive does as she’s told, reluctantly so. “You are not getting away with this.”

“Oh, but I already have,” Catra coos.

It doesn't take long for Adora to finish the ties around Bow’s limbs and search him for any hidden weapons then take over as guard, keeping him detained and docile. Finally Catra is free for her date with Princess Death Wish.

Catra limps up to the pink haired girl, every step an agonizing reminder of how close she came to the end, to losing everything she’s worked and suffered for. Every step adding to the festering resentment she has been hoarding since the fall, saving it all for this moment.

Glimmer looks up as she approaches, her lips curling into a snarl. “The queen will--”

“Shut your mouth,” Catra interrupts with a feral growl as she kicks Sparkles squarely in the chest. The blow stings like hell but sends the princess - face aghast - onto her back with a satisfying groan. It feels good, no question about it. Doesn’t even matter that she hurt herself more than that bitch.

A strange urge surges up from deep within Catra as she stands above the helpless girl. She’s never been someone to keep beating after a fight is won. But after all she’s gone through, why not? Why shouldn’t she?

Catra edges closer, her looming shadow eclipsing the pale face below. Tanes, the scion, prevails this night, painting the clearing in rusty light. A fitting canvas for the coming brush strokes of her claws.

Her toenails flex out from the pressure the moment she places a foot on Glimmer's chest to keep her in place. They pierce through the lavender colored cloth and prod the soft skin. Equally razor sharp claws extend from her fingers in anticipation, encouraged by the excited tingle all over her skin. Catra isn’t sure what drives this display. She has already won, there is nothing to gain from it. Is it the demand of her mangled body seeking retribution? Is it her fear, her lack of control, her own sense of vulnerability? Maybe it's the fact that this young girl almost managed to kill her, negated all of her training, her expertise and power in a heartbeat. A stuck up brat who made her look like a fool. A weak fool at that, threatening everything that is important to her.

A growl rises from deep in Catra’s chest as she continues to entertain the primal urge to sink her claws into the vulnerable flesh. Oh how this filthy insurgent would wriggle and scream with the panic of prey caught by the throat. No escape and no mercy until her body slackens. Another threat to Catra’s safety and position vanquished.

She could play a little first, savor the experience as long as possible. Teasing nicks into her skin maybe. A few blows to hammer her ribs and chest just like she suffered. Hamstrings--

“GLIMMER!”

The screech draws her out of the morbid fantasy, prompting a glance over her shoulder to see Bow straining against his bonds in a futile attempt to break free. Adora overreacts as usual, knocking him out cold with one punch. It’s an impressive blow, really. Too bad she immediately checks on him after. Trust her to feel guilty for that of all things. Catra rolls her eyes as she turns away. She doesn’t want to hear the inevitable excuses, doesn’t need to hear the apologetic ramblings. Adora is always too soft.

Catra turns back to the girl in a heartbeat, defiant stare locking with her own. So proud, so unrelenting. She coils her uninjured arm, muscles tensing and ready to turn her fantasy into reality.

Then she stops cold as her heart jolts.

It’s like she has been in a trance, a bystander - only now able to interfere with the events that unfold. Instead of following through on her lapse of control, she takes that runaway hand and drags it through her locks. It takes only moments for the pressure in her chest to ebb, her inner demons no longer screaming for release.

It surprises her as much as her captive, their brows furrowing and eyes widening as they are both thrown into uncertain waters. Yet Sparkles appears calm on the surface, collected. Defiant in the face of adversity.

Catra can relate to that, empathize with it. After all, she’s been in her shoes countless times. A proud girl on the floor fearing for her life.

Her claws retract with sudden urgency, sending chills along her arms and into her bones. Is this what Shadow Weaver feels in those moments?

She recoils in disgust, stepping off Glimmer in a hurry, the nauseating pain a mere afterthought in her haste. There is no way she can do this, do what the shadows on the edge try to compel her to. She can’t. Not like this. It’s what Weaver would do, but she isn’t like her, is not weak like her. She can resist, can be strategic. She wants, needs Glimmer as captive. A prize. A token that can be exchanged for her own safety.

She throws another glance over her shoulder in panic, seeking comfort in familiarity. No, Adora would never forget and never forgive either.

Catra’s breath comes in ragged gasps when she locks eyes again with Glimmer, defiance washed away from her pale cheeks in favor of something new, hidden behind squinting eyes and a furrowed brow. It makes her heart leap into her throat. Fuck.

“W-What?” she snaps, eyes narrowed to slits. “Did you think I was going to shred you like a wild animal? That I’m some sort of feral beast?”

The words come out hard and fast, tumbling over each other. Yes, that's exactly what she is. She always has been, Shadow Weaver was right. So uncontrolled, so feral. Catra is a danger to others: a weapon, a risk, a liability.

“We are professional soldiers,” Catra enunciates, chest tight with shame as she forces herself to slow down, reinforce her facade of superiority and self-control. ”Unlike you, rebel scum. You are far more valuable to me alive than dead. But that isn’t the case for Arrow--”

“I think Bow over there--” Adora’s hand lands on Catra’s shoulder without warning and she almost jumps out of her skin, promptly twisting out of the touch and swatting the hand away.

“Can’t you announce yourself? You almost stopped my heart, idiot.”

 “--is out for the moment,” Adora finishes, then raises both hands in apology. “Toucheeey... sorry, your highness.”

“Go do something useful and tie her up, too,” Catra snarks.

Adora grabs two more bolas that she has tied to her belt and proceeds to immobilize the helpless princess. “So, what are we gonna do with ‘em?”

Catra cracks a smile through the pain. “I don’t know about Arrow Guy over there, but there is no way we aren't taking the daughter of Queen Angella here back to the Zone,” she muses, eyes tracing the outline of Sparkles as if to measure how much weight she has in validation. “Shadow Weaver is going to be so pleased with me!”

“Ouch! You’re too rough!” Glimmer whines.

“Oh, didn’t think of that,” Adora replies, finished with the wrists. “Yeah, maybe she’ll make you Force Captain for this.”

“Wow, you think so?” Catra’s eyes go wide. ”Really?”

“Sure, why not? Surely she’s gotta see the value in someone who brings back a princess for interrogation.”

“Yeah, I think you’re right. This could be my big break. Finally I'll get the recognition I deserve.”

Adora looks up at her with a grin plastered across her face. “Maybe you'll even get your own squad to command, wouldn't that be awesome?”

“You think they’ll transfer me to another squad?” Catra asks, pausing briefly before continuing flatly, ”I don't want that.”

“Why not? It would be great, you’d get to boss cadets around.”

She feels a flare of anger rise up at the idea. “Shut up, I don't want it, okay? Is that so hard to understand, dumbass?”

“Woah, geez, alright. Nevermind.” Adora sighs heavily, shifting to the princess’s ankles. "Remind me not to be happy for you again.”

“Don’t tie her feet, she can walk. It's not like she can run away from you with those short legs.” Catra pulls what she hopes is a smirk rather than a pained grimace. “Isn’t that right, Glittergnome?”

The look she gets in return says more than a thousand words. Catra’s satisfied chuckle quickly turns into a cough, promptly flipping their dynamic as a smug sneer now graces Glimmer’s lips. Ugh, fucking brat.

“Just grab her and the stupid sword so we can get out of this dumb forest, okay?” Catra shoots at ‘Dora through gritted teeth, pinching the bridge of her nose. “I feel like I’m dying and would prefer to get to a sawbones before that happens.”

Maybe dying is a bit too strong of a word, but on second thought, maybe not. The lightheadedness has returned with a vengeance and she feels like she might keel over if she doesn’t get to a Horde facility soon. There is a forward operating outpost just at the edge of the woods and it will have to do, even if it means they’ll be back late. And that means she now has a guaranteed Shadow Weaver tirade to look forward to, but at least Sparkles here should be enough to distract that hag.

“What's this?” Adora pulls a colorful little pouch from the princess’s neck, giving it a quick tug to break the straps that secure it.

“Give it back!” Glimmer protests.

“Hey, Let me see,” Catra demands, snatching it out of Blondie's hand and holding it up to examine it closely.

“I think it's some sort of magic powder, I heard them talking about it earlier.”

“It’s mine, give it back!”

“Shut it Glinda,” Catra snaps. Eyes trailing back to Adora, she continues, “Maybe if I give this to Weaver she’ll be so impressed she’ll not only make me Force Captain, she’ll show me some goddamn respect for once.” She sneers down at the girl on the ground. “Thanks Glim, I'll make sure to visit you in your cell now and again to, y’know, show appreciation for all you’ve done,” she says, flexing out her claws.

“You know you are going to pay for this, don’t y--”

Catra places her foot over Sparkles’ mouth, fighting to mask her wince at the movement. “I said shut it.

Adora crouches down, about to drag Glimmer to her feet when Catra’s ears prick up in alarm and her stomach twists at an all too familiar sound of wood flexing and twine splitting air.

With only an instant to react, her body acts instinctively and pushes Adora out of harm's way. Catra’s momentum carries her toward Adora but her hand moves back, swiping at the incoming arrow. It finds nothing but air.

Catra can’t quite process this small failure amidst the rest of the disaster unfolding before her eyes, the adrenaline of the moment slowing time to a crawl.

Sinew still bouncing in the arrow’s wake. Adora falling over to her side, face twisted in confusion. The pouch ejecting itself from Catra’s palm, arcing through the air.

No, not the pouch.

In a twisted joke of fate, the treasured pouch bounces erratically, falling towards Sparkles as Catra tries with all her might to reverse her momentum. But in her state she can barely even stop herself from crashing down on top of Adora. By the time she catches herself and manages to turn, the princess has already scrambled for the sachet and begun untying the little lace ribbon holding it shut.

Catra grunts ferociously, “Oh no you don’t.”

She digs her right foot into the ground to launch herself forward, pushing past the agony. What she didn’t expect was the ground launching itself at her instead. Left leg failing to spring its coils, she plants face first into the sodden moss with a yelp, then tries to make up for the shortfall by just scrambling and stumbling after Glimmer, who by now has opened the pouch.

What Catra didn’t realize at first becomes apparent as she frantically attempts to find her feet and ensnare her scurrying captive.

She’s been hit.

Her left thigh has been pierced by the arrow, puncturing a path all the way through. Her muscles cramp as the shaft catches on the ground. The sight of it makes the excruciating sensation all the more real, her brain now keenly aware of the foreign object pushing the inside of her leg apart.

But she can’t let that brat get away. That princess is her once in a lifetime ticket to stick it to Weaver, maybe even get recognition from Lord Hordak himself just like Adora. Maybe be made a Force Captain so they can command together like they always dreamed of doing.

Pushing off with her right leg instead this time, she manages a lunge at Glimmer. She falls short as the agony of it all sends a white hot flash across her consciousness. Claws miss the girl’s shoulder by the width of a finger but sink down into her back, piercing cloth, skin, muscle and flesh. Eerie euphoria washes over Catra at the sight of the crimson trails staining the little brat’s stupid cape, rendering it a shredded bloody mess.

The princess cries out in agony as Catra’s claws leave her back to take a final cursory graze along her lower leg, a heartfelt parting gift sent with best wishes before Catra crumbles into a heap, forced to watch the princess disappear in a fresh dazzle of purple witchcraft - taking all of Catra’s hopes, dreams, and aspirations with her.

“Noooo,” she groans as the afterglow fades from her vision, “no, no, no. ‘Dora, the boy, get him!” There is no way that Sparkles would leave without him.

Catra tries her hardest to push herself up, heart thrumming in overtime, but the cumulative effect of her injuries is becoming too much to bear. Just moving her own weight around was already an arduous task, and now her left leg is pretty much useless. Anyone thinking they can do better under these circumstances is welcome to try and fail just the same.

Her heart sinks as Sparkles inevitably reappears next to Arrow Boy. All she can do is watch helplessly as they embrace and vanish into the night with a blinding flash.

FUCK!” she screams, smashing her fist into the ground. “FUUUUUUCK!

Everything was going perfect, everything was fine, she had them, both of them.

“What the fuck just happened?” She pants, tries to force herself to her knees, but the leg with a fucking arrow stuck in it stubbornly disobeys. This is all Adora’s fault, she should have stayed with Bow instead of sneaking up on Catra. No, it's her own fault for trusting anybody but herself to do the job right. Her fault for not killing them both when she had a chance. What good is a bargaining chip if it's not in your goddamn hand anymore.

“Did you see where they fucking went?” she groans, the yelling inflaming her sore ribs once more. “W-We need to go after them.”

Adora comes to a sliding stop, almost careening into her. “You are not going anywhere. Hold still.”

Catra pushes her hands away. “I’m not in the mood for fucking around Adora,” she hisses. Using the tall, strong blonde as a crutch, she pushes herself up on her good leg. ”We need to split up. I don't think they teleported far.”

When Adora doesn't answer immediately, Catra’s attention moves from the edge of the clearing to her partner’s eyes. They’re wide with worry, dropping almost immediately to assess the damage.

“Have you seen your leg?” she asks. “You need medical attention like... yesterday.”

“Fuck off, ‘m fine,” snaps Catra as she pushes Adora out of her way and begins limping towards the treeline.

“You are not going anywhere,” Adora throws after her, ”stop so I can take care of this.” 

She doesn’t bother turning around. “You’re not my mother Adora, fuck off!”

“That's right, I’m not. I’m your commanding captain. I can and am ordering you to stop.”

“You fucking WHAT?” Catra snarls. This audacity is outrageous enough to make her stop in her tracks and turn to face Adora. Who does that golden haired bimbo think she is?

Adora has already grabbed one of the bags and started rummaging through it for a medical kit. When she returns, Catra jabs a claw at her chest.

“If you e’er give me an order ‘gain, I'll slap you so ‘ard you’ll be back in the Zone.”

“Do whatever you want, but I will be putting a tourniquet on that leg and it’ll happen a lot faster if you cooperate.”

No, get off me, I ‘eed to find the ‘ebel scum,” she huffs, swatting at the invasive hands, trying to push Adora away to continue her trek.

“For fuck’s sake Catra,” Adora bellows, “you are not fit to do anything right now. Sit down and let me help.”

Maybe that idiot is actually right. Then again, maybe not. It’s hard to concentrate.

Catra chances a glance back down at her leg, the moisture that soaks it glistening in the pink moonlight. Somehow it's a lot wetter than it was just moments earlier. Funny that. Kinda sparkles very prettily in the moonlight though, like that pink girl's hair. What was her name again? Who knows, or cares. It's kinda late and she could really do with a nap now. Then again it's also a bit chilly. Curious, that. There’s even little white dots dancing in front of her.

Catra trembles, engulfed with a sudden chill that not even the gentle touch of Adora’s hand on her shoulder can dispell. “Oh, so p-pretty,” she mumbles, glancing over her shoulder at the concerned face. Why must ‘dora always be such a worrywart? They’re such pretty little flakes. “Didn’t t-think it snowed ‘n the woods.”

She pulls herself free but only manages a few more staggering steps before the ground flips up and punches her from the side. She groans in disorientation and pain alike as her vision blurs and recedes, and the world with it. Only two things pierce the descending veil of darkness.

A scream.

Her name.


Chapter Text

“It’s okay, I’ve got you,” Adora soothes her fallen comrade as she begins working on the leg. She goes through her first aid checklist, memorized keenly from having to look after Catra most of her life: scrapes, cuts, bumps, bruises and… the other, more difficult injuries.

Adora lashes the tourniquet around the top of Catra’s thigh, closing it part way and adjusting her hold before she begins to tighten it in earnest.

Catra’s eyes slam open and she flings her head back with a groan, banging a fist against the ground while she flails wildly with the other leg.

“I know, I know, it hurts, I'm sorry,” says Adora, acknowledging the pain but hoping her voice provides some comfort nonetheless. “It won't take long.”

Adora continues to twist the rubbery handle, turning it over and over, and Catra’s muscles spasm against the tightening noose. She can't muster anything but groans, her other limbs flailing in evident agony, jaw clenched and face distorted in a grimace.

When Adora finally stops, Catra’s body falls limp and she lets out a dazed whine. Quickly compensating with a growl, she tears at the mossy ground with her claws. “Pull the fuckin’ thin’ out!” she curses through grinding teeth.

“What? Are you crazy?” demands Adora, staring down at the skewered limb. Then it strikes her, maybe Catra doesn’t realize how bad it is. Pain-induced delirium and all. Shaking her head sharply, she explains, “I can’t pull it out, it’s gone clean through your leg. I’d have to break the shaft, and trust me, that will hurt way more.” .”

“‘on’t care,” growls Catra, “‘ust do it.”

“No, no, you’re losing too much blood,” she insists. “I think the arrow may have struck the femoral artery.” She pauses, contemplating briefly. “Actually scratch that, there are no spurts, it must be the vein, subsartorial perhaps. Pulling it out means you’ll bleed out in minutes. We aren't doing it.”

“‘atever, ‘u fuckin’ nerd, just ‘et it out!”

Ignoring Catra’s groans, Adora dips her finger into the blood soaked fur, using the makeshift ink to write the time of tourniquet application on Catra’s forehead.

“Fuck, why do you have to have fur all over?” Adora teases her, a weak attempt to keep her spirits up. “I can’t fucking write like this.” 

Worryingly, there is no reply or reprimand from Catra, no ‘duh’ or ‘I’ll make sure to shave it next time’.

“Catra?” She slaps the side of her face gently. “Catra, you hear me? Stay with me.”

Catra’s head lolls about in apparent confusion, eyes open but barely responsive.

“Shit, almost forgot,” Adora mutters. Fumbling briefly, she wipes her hands on her pants before pressing the Horde Captain badge to initiate the tracking and distress beacon.

She slaps Catra’s cheek again, as hard as she dares. “Catra? Catra can you hear me? Answer me.”

Hopefully someone is paying attention back home. 

All she can do right now is stabilize Catra and keep her alive until a skiff or transport arrives. There is no way she can walk out of here with her like this. Forward operating outposts dot the area near the Woods, maybe they have emergency personnel at the ready. Pinning her hopes to that, she carries on bandaging the leg, elevating it and tending to the cat girl as best she can.

 

***

 

“‘dora?” Catra croaks past the lump in her throat, “‘dora, you okay?”

She lolls her increasingly heavy head around with the need for reassurance. Couldn’t bear for ‘dora to have been injured too. When her eyes discover the blonde, they go wide.

“‘dora… yo-you’re bleeding...” she mutters to the blonde huddling over her, hands and jacket covered in crimson stains. If ‘dora is hurt she should smell the musky-vanilla. Why can't she?

“Shhh, it's alright, you’ll be alright,” Adora coos, moonlight reflecting off the wet streaks running down her cheek. They are only visible on occasion, only when her loose bangs permit a peek.

Catra can't recall Adora’s ponytail coming undone. It's pretty, she prefers it that way. Not that regulations in the Zone would permit it - most of the time. It's a rare treat.

Her hands feel down and around her leg, feel the warm, slick heat seeping out from the wound. Other parts of her clothing are already stiff and flakey. How long she’s been out for is anyone’s guess.

“Don’t...” Adora swats the weak fingers away, her voice dejected and quiet. “The bandages are barely holding together.”

“‘dora, ‘m-I’m so s-sorry,” Catra presses through her clenched teeth. Why is it so difficult to move her chest to speak? To breathe? Mildly panicking, she takes a few shallow gasps only to find Adora jerking from the unexpected sounds. No, she can’t be making Adora even more worried, has to be strong for her, not show weakness.

“Don’t worry Catra, we will fix this, I will fix this, just stay with me please!” The reassurance and plea ring hollow in her drooped ears, the sound of her own heartbeat almost overshadowing the sweet voice. It pounds increasingly frantic and hard, threatening to blow her chest apart.

“...mes-messed this up, Adora, I'm s-sorry,” she moans, fumbling about with her fingers, not sure what to do with them. Eventually they are found by Adora’s, intertwined in a soft hold she can barely feel as warmth.

Catra’s eyes begin to feel weary and her body cold. She tenses her muscles, tries to fight the encroaching numbness, as if she can just push the sensory apathy back down her limbs if she wills it hard enough. It’s an exhausting fight to maintain for even a second longer and she is so, so tired. She’s been exhausted and injured before, but this? This is different. She feels like she’s fading out of her body. Out of her life.

A sudden dread engulfs her heart, warning sirens screaming in her mind. Fuck this. This isn’t fair. It’s not like she’s never wished for death before, but not like this. It’s not going to happen like this. It’s going to happen on her own fucking terms or not at all.

Infused with raw, unbridled rage at the universe's injustice, Catra strains with all the energy she can muster. Her jaw clenches down hard, canines flashing through a defiant grimace and feral groan. Her arms flex, battling gravity in vain as her body stays rooted to the ground, betraying her in her moment of dire need. She just needs to get up, needs to stop wallowing and pretending that she has no other options left. She is not going to die here. Not today.

Determined to bring sensation back by any means necessary, Catra slams her feet and fists against the ground. She will pump the life back through her body with her own fucking muscles if she has to.

“Catra!” Adora yelps in alarm at her sudden spring to motion, hands shooting out to restrain her.

“NO!” Catra screams, pushing against the surprisingly much stronger blonde. “LET ME GO, ADORA.”

With her heart in furious throes - about to jump out of her chest - Catra swipes in sheer desperation at anything she can get a hold of. The ground, Adora, even herself. “I-I need to get up, I n-need to keep moving.” 

“No, please, you’re making it worse!”

Help me up! Why aren’t you helping me up? ” Catra demands, arms and legs flailing in wild panic and terror.

“I can’t! Please…” Adora begs, clinging tightly to her as she lashes out. “...Please stay still, help is on the way.”

Catra continues to fight back, but it’s no use. In her weakened state, she’s as helpless to break Adora’s grip as she always was to escape Shadow Weaver’s magical restraints. It’s not fair. Nothing has ever been fucking fair for Catra.  

“P-Please Adora...” Catra’s voice weakens to a whisper that she presses through gritted teeth, her inability to free herself prompting pleas of mercy instead. “Help me.”

“You’ll be fine,” Adora says firmly, but too quickly to mask her own fear. “They’re coming. We’ll get you all fixed up. You need to hold still so we can buy them more time.”

She tries and tries and tries to flex and shove Adora off of her, unconvinced by her logic. Tries one last time to fight the encroaching cold. But she is too weak; her muscles begin to give out and reject her commands as her eyes fill with tears.

With all her strength spent, there is nothing to stop her sensations waning and the numbness waxing. A new clarity enters her mind and she begins to tremble.

“A-Adora?” she pleads, voice shaking and broken. “I-I’m scared.”

This is it, isn’t it?

“D-don’t let me die, Adora… p-please,” Catra whimpers weakly, scrunching her eyes shut. “I-I don’t want to die.” 

End of the line.

“You’ll be okay, Catra,” Adora reassures. “I'm right here with you, we will fix this!”

A profound and all consuming sadness sets into Catra’s bones. She wanted this so many times before, yearned for release from the daily misery, the biting words, the agonizing beatings, the looming shadow. From everything. But now that it's finally happening, she’s not ready, doesn’t want to go just yet. There is so much more she wants to see, experience and do, together, like they always dreamed of. 

But that’s not going to happen now. This is all she’s left with. And she can fight and rage all she wants, but it won’t change the inevitable end. Adora can’t fix her. No one is coming to save her. Whether she is ready for it or not, her story is going to end here. She shouldn't be wasting what little is left of the final page.

Catra opens her eyes, an uncanny calm washing over her as this clarity sets in. Her body slackens and the tension in her muscles, the fighting, ebbs away entirely. Catra’s dulling sight sets on the side of Adora’s face, spots the tears dripping down onto her unfeeling leg, and admires the strands of golden hair dangling down into her face like a descending curtain that indicates the end of the show. 

There is so much more she wants to share with her and her alone. Catra can’t bear the grief on Adora’s face, how much worse it will be when she closes her eyes forever.

She musters all her remaining strength to lift her hand to Adora’s beautiful face, pushing the gorgeous strands of hair behind her ear. Her fingers leave a crimson smear in their wake, leaving one last mark on Adora. They cup the soft, tender skin of her love’s cheek, feel the slick touch of Adora’s larger hand cup them against the quaking skin. Then Adora’s hand slips away and hers falls to the ground, bereft of the soothing warmth that is everything Catra wants to feel for the rest of her life, as Adora focuses again on mending what can not be mended.

“A-Adora s-stop. It’s okay,” she mutters.

“No, no, no, keep fighting!”

“Ado-Adora, please... stop,” Catra pleads, chest rising heavily, slowly, barely.

“No, you’ve never given up in your life, you don’t get to fucking start now!” she argues, her hands clamping like a vice around Catra’s thigh. “You’ve never given up...”

“H-Hey, Adora. It’s o-okay,” she coos, “you’ll be f-fine...” 

“No,” whimpers Adora, shaking her head furiously. “Not without you.” 

A sharp pain pierces Catra’s chest, those words inflicting a wound far more agonizing than the fatal one in her leg. It steals her breath and silences her, the knife twisting as she watches Adora’s frantic, helpless struggle.

“I won’t give up on you, even if you have,” vows Adora, hands pressing harder against the tourniquet.

“Please… Adora…” Catra’s hands snake their way along her thigh, trying to find the reassuring hold of Adora’s fingers.

Adora smacks them away in determined, single minded zeal. “No, I won’t,” she swears, head shaking sharply. “I can’t.”

The rejection of her pleas stings more than the arrow embedded in her thigh. “Please,” Catra whimpers, grasping weakly at Adora’s straining fingers. “I-I need you...”

“I… I can’t, I…” Adora trails off as her grip slackens, her gaze finally straying from the wound to Catra’s face. Despite the confusion painted on her face, it softens at the sentiment as it always has. “You need me?” she sniffles, wiping her nose on her shoulder. “I-I don’t understand… w-what do you need?”

With Adora finally listening, focused wholly on her, the tension dissolves out of Catra’s body. Her heavy head and limbs loll back into the moss and her eyelids flutter precariously, but she fights to keep them open, to soak up every last second she has with Adora. Her lip trembles at the thought, voice cracking as she pleads, “Hold me?”

Blue eyes locking with Catra’s, Adora gives her a single, silent nod. She slides her blood stained hand gently, soothingly, under Catra’s neck, props her up a little and then pulls her wholly into her arms like an infant being cradled.

“I’ve got you,” she whispers, nuzzling the base of Catra’s ear. “I’ve got you.”

Eyes squeezing shut against a sudden sting, Catra buries her face in Adora’s chest, new tears seeping into the bloodied jacket. She clings to Adora, to the familiar refrain that brought her so much comfort as a small, scared kitten.

“I-I’m so sorry, ‘dora,” Catra sniffles, barely audible, breath shallow and ragged.

“No, no. It's not your fault. I shouldn’t have left him, I should have been more vigilant, shouldn’t have let my guard down,” Adora interjects, panting. 

“It’s f-fine. I’m glad you”--her meek voice is interrupted for a labored intake of air--“you’re ok ‘dora.”

”No, it should have been me, not you. That arrow was aimed at me. Why did you push me? Why, Catra, WHY?”

Catra pulls a coy smile, her face and body relaxing at last. “You’re s-such an idiot.” 

She nuzzles into Adora’s shoulder with her final ounce of strength, breathing in her calming scent and rubbing her cheek affectionately against the jacket. The gesture prompts a gentle purr to rise in her throat, a sign of the strange sense of peace that has befallen her. The comforting haze dulls the edges of her anger and grief, soothes her fear in these final moments. She doesn’t want to go, doesn’t want to leave Adora behind, but at least she can take solace in the fact that her beautiful golden framed face will be the last thing she ever sees.

Catra’s lashes flutter for a moment, her eyes straining to indulge in that view as long as possible against the relentless march of darkness that creeps towards Adora’s tearful face. She should have told her how she feels, should have told her so many times...

If only I had a little more t--

Ironclad Heart

Catra’s head lolls to its side.

“No…” Adora whimpers, hunched over the motionless little body. “No, no, no, no... it should have been me... “ 

She snakes her arms around herself while rocking back and forth, eyes pressed shut to stem the impending flow. It’s all she can do to recreate that reassuring, comforting pressure that always manages to calm her. But it doesn't work this time, doesn’t alleviate the growing tension that wants to burst forth from her throat. All it does is remind her that it's not her arms wrapped around her, that it's not her providing just the right balance of firmness and gentleness.

“Please… please, keep fighting, I don’t know what to do without you.”

Adora squeezes tighter and harder in an attempt to stifle the growing pain in her own heart, but no physical discomfort could ever distract from the sensations inside of her right now. Unable to find any consolation for herself, she turns to the girl in front of her and cradles her instead, providing that feeling of safety and reassurance to her dying companion.

Being entirely covered in fur has always given Catra a nice toasty warmth, enough to have some heat to spare for Adora in those bitter months of the year when even the Fright Zone had a chill to its air. Now, her fluffy little body feels so cold that it drains Adora instead, her breathing so shallow that it’s barely noticeable, her brave little heartbeat having slowed from the frantic pace that tried to keep her alive to nothing but a weak thud… thud… thud…, blood continuing to pool beneath her.

“You aren’t supposed to go somewhere I can’t follow.” Adora’s voice breaks with a sob, high pitched and raw.

There’s nothing she can do.

The cold, harsh truth hits her like a fist to the stomach, making her body go numb. She’s done all she can to stop the bleeding, and she failed. Her hands are powerless to care for and protect the one person that ever truly mattered. There is no way of helping, of saving her. Not on her own.

She is going to be here in Catra’s final moments. She is going to be here for every second of it, watching her best friend-- No, her love die and a piece of herself along with it. But she can’t think about that right now. Adora needs to be present for her, prioritize her needs. Her own emotions will have to wait.

In a way though, she is glad to be here, at the end, for her. Glad to be her rock and comfort rather than anyone else. It’s also breaking her own heart into a million pieces, a searing, inexplicably sharp pain right there in her own chest, severe as any wound. Adora tries to fight the agonizing sensation that wants to lure her into giving up as well, tries to be strong and brave in this moment for Catra. But she is losing this battle too, her tears betraying her in a silent admission of defeat.

When she finally speaks to the huddled body again, her words are weak, almost inaudible.

“It's alright little kitten, it's alright,” she coos soothingly, carefully caressing Catra’s cheek and brushing her sticky fingers through the soft, delicate fur. She keeps her tone as soft and reassuring as she can manage, the words as much a balm and reassurance for herself as for Catra. “I'll be right here with you… to the very end.”

It’s exactly those last words of supposed comfort that are enough to tip her over the edge. Her tears stream free and silently down her cheeks in an instant, pearls of anguish dripping onto the matted and blood slickened fur beneath. An ache grows in her throat, strangling her and demanding she break her stoic silence, but she fights to keep the raging sea of pain and grief at bay. She wants to be strong for Catra, wants it so much, but the dam she’s so desperately patching is crumbling under her hands.

The waves of guilt, sorrow and anger crash relentlessly against the battered stronghold, eroding her last vestiges of strength and threatening to drown her. An unbearable pressure in her chest slowly crushes her heart as her shoulders begin to shake, collapsing under the gravity of her shattered existence.

She’s never going to see Catra again, and it’s all her fault.

Her broken voice bursts forth, hollow whimpers and sobs crescendoing into a piercing scream of loss and grief echoed only by the circle of cold and unsympathetic trees.

 

----------------------------------------

 

A chill runs down Bow’s spine, freezing him in place. “Did you hear that?”

The matching tension in Glimmer’s body speaks for itself, but she doesn’t acknowledge the chilling scream. Not with words. “Focus, Bow,” she commands him quietly. “How bad is it?”

Shaking his head as though it can somehow wipe the echoing memory from his eardrums, Bow refocuses on Glimmer’s torn cape. He peels back the shredded layers of cyan and purple, examining the red gashes running the length of her back.

“It's not that deep and it's not bleeding that much,” he reassures her. “You’ll be fine.”

“You sure? It hurts like a bitch,” she grouses. “What if she had rabies or something?” 

“Rabies is carried in saliva, and I highly doubt it,” he shoots back, eyeing the superficial graze along her calf. It will heal just fine.

“Whatever you say,” Glim deadpans, glancing over her shoulder at him. “How much longer is it going to take? If they’re looking for us--”

“I don’t think they’re looking for us, Glim.” Bow wearily takes his eyes off her to inspect the surrounding darkness, creepy sounds in every direction. “Even if they were, they wouldn’t know where you ported us, even if it's practically in spitting distance.”

“It’s all I could do in a hurry! Sorry I didn't place us on the front steps of--”

“How much more of Aunt Casta’s emergency powder have you got?” he interrupts. “Is it enough to bring four people to Brightmoon?”

His hands are still shaking, his body tense. The events from a few minutes ago are still circling through his mind on an endless loop, feeding the ceaseless tremors.

“What? Why four?”

“We’ve got to go back for them,” he declares.

“No fucking way, are you out of your mind?”

“You heard the scream,” he says, voice broken. The echoes of the heartbreaking sound still ring in his ears, haunting him like a ghost.

“I. Don't. Care.” She spins around, interrupting his careful attempt to clean the site of injury. Her arms are wide and her hands splayed, daring him to find a good enough reason for her to agree. “They tried to kill us, kill me! Why are you siding with them?”

“Because we are not the Horde! And can you really blame the magicat for being mad?” Bow asks. “You dropped her from the sky! What were you thinking?”

“They are the HORDE Bow!”

“We are going back, end of discussion,” Bow declares, his conscience screaming in unison with the haunting memory.

“NO! You can’t make me.”

“I can tell your mum where we’ve been and what happened,” he threatens, low and suggestive. “I don't need to let this burden weigh on me alone.”

Glimmer’s hands drop to her side, eyes bulging with indignance. “It was your arrow.”

Bow gasps slightly as this latest blow hits him, rendering him dizzy and breathless. That simple, undeniable fact is far more painful and disorienting than the knockout punch he took in the clearing. “I-I know, I had no choice...”

Glimmer picks up on the effects of her words. “It's not a bad thing you did, you know? Don’t blame yours--”

“Glimmer, I shot at a person!” he snarls, unable to contain the conflicting emotions assaulting him. “It wasn’t a pipe or a cable or a screen. I didn't just sabotage another piece of equipment, I shot at a living person.”

“So? THE EVIL HORDE!”

“I only did it to protect you, I wasn't thinking straight. I panicked, okay? I could have done something else. Distracted them and let you escape or--”

“Bow, what you did was amazing, it was a masterful shot. You are a hero for saving me!”

“I didn’t even have my eyes open, okay?” he confesses, eyes stinging and threatening tears. “It was terrifying. I couldn’t do it, you know? Looking at her, I mean,” he admits. “I’d only just come to. I wiggled out of the loose bindings, saw you tied up, heard them talk about abducting you.” He turns away in shame. “I panicked, Glimmer. I grabbed my bow, aimed and I just lay there, unable to shoot.” His words come fast and forced, mimicking his pulse and breath as the memory assaults him again and again. “I had to close my eyes before letting go.”

He’s shot his bow often enough before, even at enemies. But it has always been in the middle of a hectic struggle, always in combat. He’s never had time to deliberate. Never aimed at someone from behind, ready to extinguish their life.

Her face softens. “It’s fine, Bow. I bet everyone goes through that,” she says, putting a hand on his shoulder before her gaze sinks to the ground. “I mean, I don't know, it’s not like I have… “ Her eyes seek his, full of empathy. ”Maybe you can talk to one of the guards about it? I know they have combat experience before being selected, real experience.”

He softly pushes Glim’s hand off his shoulder. All he wants is to be alone right now, think about what has happened, his role in it and what he needs to do going forward.

“No, I’m good and I hope you never have to,” he states, tone stern. “I don’t want to repeat this, I'm done with it, Glim. And we are going to check on them.”

“Ohhhkaayyy.” She drags the word out like talking to a child who doesn't want to eat his carrots. “So you are having a little crisis, that's fine, I can underst-”

“No, you don't understand,” he snaps. “I’m done with playing rebel soldier. I never want to have to do this again, I just want to know that I haven’t killed her.” His voice calms, turns sombre. “And then I am going to talk to the Queen about it.”

“Yeah, that isn't going to happen,” Glimmer replies flatly, face hardening to stone, “you will not be talking about any of this to Mum.”

“Alright, think about this for a second,” he reasons, trying to swallow the lump in his throat. “If the cat is really in as bad a shape as I think, the blonde girl is going to be thankful for us helping, right?” 

“Go on,” she replies, her expression slowly melting as her thoughts follow along with his.

“And she won't resist being taken to Brightmoon, right?”

“Uh huh,” she acknowledges, eyes finding a renewed interest in him rather than the trees.

“So, you'll get to take the Force Captain captive...” He waits for a moment, judging her response to the idea. “...And to your mum as you originally planned, right?”

“I suppose...”

“And if we are quick, like, uhm you know...“ Fucking five minutes ago, Glimmer ”...in the next minute, the magicat might survive and you, Commander Glimmer, will have taken two prisoners instead of one.” 

Bow can see the gears turning in Glimmer’s head, the slight changes in her face as she weighs the argument. It’s a welcome sight, but a long overdue one. A chill runs through his veins as he watches her make the equally cold calculation. It shouldn’t have taken a chance for glory to convince her to reconsider her stance, to tempt her into showing some basic human compassion. That scream should have been enough for anyone with half a heart.

This isn’t exactly a new problem, but it’s clear now that Bow can’t continue to ignore it, hoping it never rears its ugly head in battle. Of course he knows Glimmer is very driven to impress and hates the Horde because of Micah. But talking about it is one thing. Seeing the callous disregard in action is different. And it's something he isn’t sure he can compromise on in the long term.

“I can see your point,” Glimmer finally admits.

“Yes, so doesn’t that sound like an overall great situation?” he says, voice straining to sound optimistic. “Just think, you'll be able to tease the magicat in prison,” he adds, throwing one last bone for her to sink teeth into.

“We have no prison Bow, you know this.”

“Sounds like we finally have a reason to have one?” he suggests, heart skipping a beat. “And an empty position for overseer.”

“Yeah, I can manage,” Glimmer states, not an ounce of emotion on her face.

“Huh?”

“I can get us four to Brightmoon,” she explains. “It'll be a tight one but I can do it.”

“Gre--”

“You’ve got to promise me one thing though, Bow,” she interrupts him.

“Yes?”

“Not. A. Word. To. Mum...” she enunciates slowly before picking up pace. “...on exactly how this happened. Got it?”

“Loud and clear,” he shoots.

“Alright.“ She grabs his arm. “Hang on.”

 

----------------------------------------

 

Adora sits in the damp, cold moss, her mind as numb as her body. Her glazed eyes watch the Force Captain badge continue to blink in silence, dashing her hopes and mocking her desperation. Of course nobody has come. How could they? Even if someone immediately received the signal it could take an hour to assemble a rescue party and reach them this far into the Whispering Woods. Maybe they ignored it, too. Wouldn’t be the first time a ‘signal’ alerted Horde Command to dispatch troops only for them to be met with the cold tips of rebel arrows instead of living comrades.

Looking back up from the badge and to Catra, her gaze drags along her arm. For the first time she takes notice of the myriad little tears in her jacket. Dozens of shallow, stinging gashes are scattered across her arms, her legs, she can even feel them burning across her back. It was a small price to pay to buy them more time, and a morsel of hope.

Time that has slipped through their fingers and hope that has soured to folly. Help isn’t coming. No one cares but her. It’s them against the world, one last time.

In the lonely silence of her solitude, the finality of it all sinks in harder and faster than before, with devastating reality. But she can't let such thoughts distract her again. She needs to keep it together. Catra needs her now more than ever and Adora needs to be here for her. To be her strength and comfort, one last time.

“It's going to be okay, kitten,” she whispers, her raw throat aching with every syllable. “I’ve got you.”

Adora cradles Catra tighter to her chest, supporting her lifeless limbs as she struggles to her feet. She marches stoically to the edge of the clearing, ignoring Catra’s limp tail brushing her arm as it sways with the movement. Selecting a solid tree, Adora leans back against it and lets it take her weight, sliding down the rough bark. The movement aggravates the existing cuts on her back, but she barely notices. Careful not to jostle the arrow from below, she adjusts her grip on her precious cargo, gently settling Catra in her lap. Shoulders drooping with a sigh, she leans wearily against the trunk and braces herself for the coming minutes.

Sitting there, her eyes inevitably wander to the sword across the clearing, still wedged at an angle in the ground, its subtle luminescence offering a cold and depressing glow. Even from here she can see Catra reflected in its broad blade, can see her own ashen face mirrored just behind that bushy mane.

The face of a fool…

...of failure.

She believed that she was destined for great things, that she was to rise up in the ranks of the Horde. Everyone told her so, so it must have been true, right? Adora imagined her responsibilities, her duties, the challenges of being a leader, a ruler. But all those false dreams feel so meaningless now, cast in an entirely new, cold light. No amount of power, no position she could wield, will ever be enough to bring her back.

Her fool's errand for the sword was nothing but a symptom of this abject lie she kept repeating to herself. A quest for greatness, for meaning and purpose in a world that gave her none: no reason for being special, no reason for being in the Horde, no parents to guide her. She was desperate for something to ground her, anchor her in this arbitrary world she resides in. And now this foolish quest has destroyed what was anchoring her all along. Who was anchoring her all along.

She always spoke of those grand designs to Catra, carefully crafted plans and machinations. The things they would do as rulers of the Horde, how they would shape Etheria to their will, as if that’s what really mattered. They often talked for hours on end, high up on their little roof, the one only they knew. But now that Catra is the one thing she can never have, she understands that all she ever wanted was her. And she can’t bear having to live with this pain in her chest for even a single day. A single day without her. How is she supposed to bear it for the rest of her life?

Adora’s eyes wander back down to the freckled face in her lap. Catra looks so peaceful, tranquil even. She isn’t in pain anymore, physically or emotionally. There is comfort in that -- nobody will ever be able to hurt her again.

Over and over again Adora strokes her fingers across Catra’s soft cheeks, forehead and arms, plays gently with the strands of Catra’s mane the way she always liked, the way that always used to comfort her. Comfort both of them. Even now, it might be all that’s holding Adora together. She moves her hand with rapt attention, etching every last detail into her memory. The pattern of Catra’s stripes, the texture of her fur, the galaxy of freckles dotting her cheeks and spilling across her nose. Adora takes her time, indulging in this precious final opportunity and soaking up every last morsel of comfort as she waits for the end.

Catra’s chest still rises shallowly and a subtle, sob inducing purr vibrates through her frail body. As much as Adora would like to think it’s her touch triggering the sound, she knows it’s more likely one of the instinctual self-soothing variety. She’s heard them before: once after Catra was knocked out during training, once after a particularly savage night out at the bar together. Adora’s been the cause of them before, and they’ve always wracked her with guilt. This time, the sound is going to haunt her for the rest of her life.

Maybe she deserves that, deserves everything that’s coming to her. But Catra deserved better. She always deserved so much better, deserved someone who would actually stand up for her. Adora has failed her so many times before, and yet here she is, tasked with securing her final and most fundamental rights.

The mere thought of it makes her feel ill. Very soon she’ll have to start the trek back to the skiff, Catra’s body weighing on her arms and her conscience. Start this one last journey together, the looming lifetime of regret haunting her every step. It’s going to be the hardest thing she’s ever done, but she will not abandon this imperative. She needs to do right by Catra this time. It’s the last chance she’ll ever have.

Blinking the tears from her eyes, Adora clads her heart in iron, steeling herself for her final duty to her fallen partner.

“Don’t worry, little one,” she whispers. “I’m going to take you home.”

Softly clasping Catra’s mask, Adora slides it off her serene face and places a loving kiss on her exposed forehead. The chill of the crimson metal mirrors the ice that has replaced her own heart, all its warmth draining in unison with the life from her body.

Now all she can do is wait.

Adora carefully lays her hand flat on Catra’s chest, afraid that any motion too strong would overwhelm her brave little heart. She sighs heavily as it stubbornly thrums against her palm, its beat weak and frail, begging for permission to give up for once in her life.

...Thud - thud...

Maybe she is waiting for permission. Holding on for Adora, fighting for her like she always did. 

“You’ve always been a stubborn little shit,” Adora weeps affectionately, a painful smile pushing its way onto her face. “You’ve always been so brave and so strong--” Her voice breaks, cutting off in a pathetic whimper. Swallowing the searing pain in her throat, she sniffles and soldiers on. “You’ve struggled for so long...”

...Thud - thud…

“...but you don’t have to anymore,” she murmurs, moving her hand from Catra’s chest to caress her cheek instead. “It’s okay, kitten. You can stop fighting now.”

...Thud…

“You can go.”

She pulls Catra close for a final warm embrace, hoping with all her heart that Catra is still able to feel, to hear, against all odds; hoping she knows that she’s not alone, that she’s not abandoned.

That she’s loved.

It’s all Adora can do as she waits for the end, whispering sweet words of comfort and affection into those big, drooped ears.

It won’t be long now.

Narrowing her eyes to spiteful slits, Adora drags her gaze from Catra’s body across to the sword once more. The moment her eyes set upon the cursed blade, a blinding purple flash forces her to slam her eyes shut, her hand flying up to block the glare. As the spots slowly fade from her vision, a bile-inducing silhouette forms in their place.

The rebels have returned.

“We’re not here to hurt you,” Bow states, hands raised in a peaceful gesture.

Adora doesn’t reply and holds Catra closer, tighter, bracing her body with her arms in a protective cocoon.

 

***

 

Bow didn't think he could feel any worse than he already did, but the sight of the worn out tall blonde cradling a limp body is enough to bring him to his knees, stomach threatening to empty itself. Glim rushes to his side in an instant but he swats the soft hand on his shoulder away like a pesky bug. How can she possibly think he is the one in need of comfort right now?

“Is she…?” is all he manages to say, barely loud enough to be heard.

Adora shoots a deserving glare back at him, pulling the magicat even tighter to her body before shaking her head.

Bow’s heart lurches with adrenaline at this spark of hope. “We can help her,” he says, words tumbling over one another with sudden urgency.

Adora locks eyes with him, her gaze dejected and dismissive. “How?” 

“We can take you to Brightmoon!” Glimmer explains. ”It’ll be a challenge, but I think I can do it.”

“And why would you?” Adora demands. “What’s changed all of a sudden?”

“I want to--”

“Because she didn’t just finish me off when she had the chance,” Glimmer interrupts him, her tone almost regal. “When she was standing over me, I…” She pauses momentarily, eyes floating away in recollection. “...I saw something in her eyes, something I did not expect. I saw fear.” She takes Adora in her determined gaze again. “I’m not sure you’re the same heartless destroyers I’ve been told to be frightened of my whole life,” she says. “If you were, she would not have spared me.”

Bow’s eyes go wide at Glimmer’s admission. Maybe her decision isn’t all about pragmatism after all. He sneaks a cautious glance at Adora, whose spiteful glare has waned somewhat. Her tearful eyes fall, retreating to the body cradled in her arms.

“I’m going to repay that favor,” says Glim, “and maybe you’ll find we are not the same rebel scum you’ve been told about all your lives either.” She sighs, eyes dipping to her feet for only a second before dashing to him, then Adora. “But I’m also not sugarcoating it. I’m taking you both as prisoners. It's a chance for her, at least - if you come willingly.”


***

 

Adora looks down at Catra. Prisoners, huh? 

Her head runs hot, gears spinning on an endless loop without gripping into any adjacent sprockets. It’s a huge decision to make, life or death, freedom or incarceration, and she has no time to make it. No guarantees, either. To say it evokes a maelstrom of objections and concerns would be an understatement. Will they be interrogated? Tortured? Imprisoned forever, unable to ever return home? If the cells are anything like those in the Zone, it'll be a rough time and Catra won't be happy about it.

Her head turns to face the inky black of the forest. Maybe a friendly rescue squad is just moments away from breaking through the clearing. What if she agrees and misses them by mere seconds? What if this is just a trap to get her to come along willingly? What if they intend to just throw her in a cell and let Catra bleed out and die? If she goes with them, she’s forfeiting her duty -- her promise -- to take Catra home. Regardless of the rebels’ intentions, that much is still true. 

Adora looks down at Catra again, places her palm once more on her chest to feel the waning beat of life inside. Is it selfish to condemn her friend to a fate of incarceration because she doesn't want to let go? Is it selfish to try and save her life at any cost? Is she doing it for herself or for her

Adora doesn’t trust herself to speak nor think for that matter, halting the rapid-fire thoughts entering her mind. If she continues on this spiral, it would be too easy to fall into indecision and squander the chance she has just been offered. She can already feel the pressure mounting in her chest, the headache forming behind her eyes. There are too many variables, too many factors to weigh, and she’s out of time. Catra is out of time. 

No, Adora cannot trust her head.

“Okay,” she says, raising her hands in surrender.

She will have to trust her heart.