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The Princess Handbook of Courting Etiquette

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i.

What Catra remembered most of all was the particular way Adora giggled that night, her footsteps thrumming on the metal of the catwalk a little louder than Catra’s. It was a sound no one but Catra ever heard. She’d tried many times to find the words to express what it meant to her, being the sole recipient of Adora’s joy; but the Horde did not possess a vocabulary of laughter.

‘Shut up,’ she hissed, in lieu. ‘Are you trying to get us caught?’

Adora snorted, loudly, as if proving a point. ‘Come on, we’re past the guards. You know there’s no one in the hangars at night.’

Catra’s rejoinder died on her lips. This excursion had been her idea, but it was Adora’s easy confidence keeping her going, the cockiness of a cadet at the top of her class who knew that even getting caught wouldn’t spell disaster; in other, darker moods, Catra might have resented her for that. But tonight was different. Tonight was about laughter and the right words.

(‘Wait a minute,’ said Glimmer, raising her head from its place on Bow’s shoulder. ‘I thought you never told Adora how you felt!’

‘Do you want me to tell this story or not, Sparkles?’)

There were three skiffs parked in the hangar, and when they passed the third, Adora said, childishly wistful, ‘One day we could just take one of those and leave.’

‘Yeah,’ Catra said, ‘one day,’ and then they were out through the huge hangar doors and into the wasteland that buffered the Fright Zone from the Whispering Woods.

Normally the tree line stood well back, but in recent days it had crept within a half hour’s walk. They passed the journey in silence, save for the odd exasperated ‘Catra,’ when Catra’s tail came a little too close to tripping Adora on the uneven ground; and then the final, awed ‘Wow,’ when they passed into the shadow of the forest.

‘I’ve never seen it this close before,’ Adora whispered.

‘Closest it’s come in a decade,’ Catra said in her normal voice. ‘I overheard Shadow Weaver talking about it. They’re burning it back tomorrow.’

‘So that’s why you were so intent on it being tonight.’

‘Yeah.’

‘It’s beautiful,’ Adora said; except instead of venturing deeper into the beauty, she stepped up behind Catra, caught her tail in her left hand and let it wend between her fingers, then wrapped both arms around Catra and linked her hands lightly on Catra’s stomach. Her chin was a sharp, gentle pressure on Catra’s shoulder. ‘You said you had something to tell me?’

(‘Aww!’ said Bow. ‘This is so sweet! I was frankly not expecting that, Horde childhood and all. Did you have date class or did it come naturally?’

‘Wait,’ Glimmer said, waving him off. ‘Wait wait wait. This, like, actually happened?’ She shot an accusing look at Adora. ‘This happened and somehow you never stopped and thought, huh, I wonder why the way I feel around Catra is so different!’

Adora, who had been staring into the distance with a slight smile, startled. ‘Hey! Don’t give me a hard time. I just thought it was, you know, the way everyone felt around Catra! Because she was Catra.’

‘Yup,’ Catra said, on the verge of laughter. ‘That’s my name. Can I get back to the story?’)

Catra’s breath caught in her throat. She’d not been able to find the words in the Fright Zone, but they were beyond those borders now, if only just. This was that other world they’d always dreamed of, first as children fantasising about escape and then as young adults faced with the reality of conquest. Surely here she could say what she had to say.

‘I—’

She could hear Adora’s breathing.

‘I’m—’

Feel Adora’s fingertips through the fabric of her top.

‘I wanted to say—’

ii.

‘I can’t listen to this anymore,’ Glimmer interrupted. ‘Please tell me you actually told her you loved her? And then you hit your heads training and forgot all about it until last month?’

Catra’s tail beat irritably against the table. ‘Well—

‘Nah,’ said Adora. ‘She stammered for about a minute, and then she said some stuff about how we should get used to being out in the field because we’d be promoted soon, and then we went back to bed.’

‘Where you whispered sweet nothings to each other.’ Bow wiped the residue of his drink, pink-tinted and frothy, off his upper lip. ‘Right? And that’s what made it a date?’

‘No? We just went to sleep.’

Bow groaned. ‘I was expecting romance! Fireworks! The secret history Adora would never talk about!’

Catra’s fur stood on end. ‘You were the ones who wanted to hear about our first date. It’s not my fault you didn’t like the answer.’

‘Wait,’ Glimmer said. ‘I need you to tell me what a date is. One of you.’

Catra glared across the table at the Queen of Bright Moon, all the better to communicate exactly how offensive she found this question. It was a big table, laden with all the silver gem-encrusted detritus of dinner in one of the castle’s ritziest dining rooms, which made it all the better for glaring.

‘It’s when you do something with the person you... like,’ she said.

‘Uh-huh.’ Glimmer had an altogether discomfiting smile going on. ‘So everything you do with Adora, every day, is a date?’

‘Uh.’ Catra knew what a date was. Obviously. It was a word she’d heard countless times in the last month, from Bow and Glimmer and Perfuma and even Scorpia, who’d embraced the traditions of romance as fiercely as she embraced everything else. She glanced at Adora, who smiled encouragingly. ‘Yes?’

Ha!’ Glimmer crowed. ‘Bow, I told you they had no idea.’

‘Got it,’ Bow said. ‘No date class.’

Catra bristled. ‘I bet you have no idea how to disassemble and clean the hydraulic targeting mechanism on a mark-II Horde skiff!’

Bow sat up with sudden interest, displacing Glimmer from her spot. ‘Can you actually do that?’

Catra paused. ‘Well, no, I skipped that day, but I bet Adora remembers—’

Adora’s hand over her mouth shut her up. ‘I don’t,’ she said cheerfully, removing her hand just as Catra went to lick it and instead running her fingers through the short hair on the side of Catra’s head. ‘And I’m not sure why you’re surprised. Remember when I didn’t know what an aunt was? Or a party? Or a horse?’

‘Or a sensible hairstyle,’ Catra put in. ‘Oh, wait—’

‘Good point,’ Bow said, unconcerned by the hair-related struggle happening on the other side of the table. ‘Glimmer, we’ve neglected our duties as best friends! A date is a special occasion. It’s when you get dressed up and go somewhere special, like somewhere scenic out in the woods, or out for a drink, or maybe you grab something nice to eat—’

‘Like this?’ Catra cut in, gesturing at their surroundings.

‘Sure,’ Glimmer said. ‘This is a double date, which means me and Bow tacitly agree to ignore the way you can’t keep your hands off Adora’—Catra took this opportunity to lead a trail of kisses from Adora’s earlobe to her collarbone—‘and you agree to let us drag you to the Bright Moon chamber orchestra after dinner.’

‘To be clear,’ Bow said, ‘I voted against the orchestra.’

‘Well, there’s your answer, then,’ Catra said. ‘This is our first date! Happy?’

‘No,’ Glimmer said at once.

Catra groaned. ‘What do you want from me, Sparkles?’

‘First date can’t be a double date.’

‘Says who?’

‘Says the Princess Handbook of Courting Etiquette.’

Catra was rapidly losing the ability to tell when she was being messed with. She blamed the deceptively refreshing crystal wine Glimmer had summoned from the cellars.

‘There’s no such thing,’ she said. ‘You’re bluffing.’

‘Am I?’

‘And besides, I’m not a princess.’

‘But you’re in love with one.’

For some reason, the simple truth of this statement made Catra blush more than any number of stolen kisses, any number of caresses beneath the tablecloth, too gentle to be entirely casual. Next to her, Adora shifted a little. Her hand found Catra’s and rubbed circles into her palm.

Catra shivered. Relaxed. It didn’t matter if Glimmer was messing with her or not. She was among friends. Sometimes, you let your friends win.

She sighed theatrically and met the challenging glint in Glimmer’s gaze.

‘Fine. Where are you going with this?’

Glimmer clapped her hands together in delight. ‘Where I’m going with this,’ she said, ‘is that I have an assignment for you.’

iii.

‘Are you sure you know where you’re going?’ Catra asked, not for the first time.

‘I always know where I’m going,’ Adora said, with the sort of puffed-up confidence that made Catra want to poke her until she either collapsed into giggles or took Catra’s breath away with the edge of her smile. ‘You know why they call them the Whispering Woods? Because they whisper!’ When Catra gave her a blank look, she added, ‘My location. To me. Also, I brought a map.’

‘Do they actually?’ Catra asked, idly side-stepping a root creeping across their path like a snake. ‘Whisper to you?’

‘Sort of? It’s like—a sort of buzzing, if I concentrate? And it’s different depending on what I’m close to.’

‘I think I’ll take the map.’

‘Hey! Don’t knock the sacred bond.’

‘Is there anything you don’t have a sacred bond with—’

Adora’s footsteps stilled. Catra looked up, straight into Adora’s eyes. She stopped short. There was the smile, there was her breath, escaping. ‘Hey,’ she muttered. ‘You’re in my way.’

‘You,’ Adora said, still smiling.

‘What?’

‘I don’t have a sacred bond with you.’

‘Uh. Thanks?’

‘That’s a She-Ra thing. You’re an Adora thing.’

Catra opened her mouth to say no, you’re a Catra thing, but Adora’s hand was on the back of her neck, in the short, fuzzy hair that was Adora’s favourite; and Catra tilted her head, guiding Adora to the point at the base of her ear that was her favourite.

‘Our bond,’ Adora went on, ‘is much more than sacred. I love you, and that has nothing to do with thousand-year-old history, and everything to do with you.’

Catra wanted to ask her how she could possibly keep a straight face when she said things like that, but she knew the answer. Adora was earnest to a fault. It was one of the many things Catra loved about her.

‘I dunno,’ she said instead. ‘The way you tell Mara’s story, I got a bit of a vibe from her and the hologram lady. Maybe She-Ra’s always destined to fall in love with someone really inconvenient.’

Adora snorted a laugh, and her face was so close to Catra’s it would have been a crime not to kiss her. Her lips were soft and dry and smiling and when Catra opened her eyes and reluctantly broke away, the path ahead of them had widened as if by magic, opening out onto a flat ledge of rock overlooking the forest.

‘See?’ Adora said smugly, her lips brushing Catra’s cheek. ‘I told you I knew where I was going.’

The moons were rising, all three of them. Once, that had meant dawn. Now dawn was the provenance of the sun, and the moons instead patterned the early evening, painting the trees half a dozen shades of pink and mauve and lavender. Catra stepped out onto the platform. A light wind rippled her fur.

‘Scenic view, huh?’ she said. ‘Following Bow’s advice to the letter.’

‘On the balance, I thought he was the most trustworthy source for this kind of thing.’

‘Really? I’d have said Scorpia.’

‘Scorpia didn’t know the first thing about romance until she met Perfuma.’

‘Yeah, and Bow spent half his life failing to ask Glimmer out.’

‘Catra?’

‘What?’

‘Shut up,’ Adora said, ‘and kiss me again.’

Catra obliged.

In the distance, something rose buzzing from the treetops.

iv.

‘You were attacked by a swarm of what?’ Glimmer's voice over Darla's comm was so thick with incredulity Catra could imagine her expression perfectly even without a video link.

‘Dragonflies,’ Catra said. ‘Big, hooray-magic-returned-to-Etheria dragonflies. With hooks on the ends of their legs. Adora was very unhappy. Did you know she was scared of dragonflies? I didn’t. Not many dragonflies in the Fright Zone.’

‘She is lying,’ Adora yelled from the rear of the ship, where she was picking dragonfly detritus out of Catra’s shirt. Catra covered the microphone. ‘Catra was the one who ran for it. I had to knock a bunch of them off her and carry her back to the ship!’

‘Details,’ Catra said, and uncovered the microphone again. ‘Absolutely terrified,’ she added to Glimmer. ‘Never seen anything like it. Anyway, that was our date.’

‘Catra,’ Glimmer said. ‘That was not your date. The Princess Handbook of Courting Etiquette is very clear on the subject of dragonflies.’

‘Yeah, I thought you might say that. Don’t worry. I’ve got a plan. Don’t expect us back till midday at the earliest.’

Glimmer sighed theatrically. ‘Don’t get in any trouble.’

‘No promises,’ Catra said, and cut the transmission. Then she turned to Adora, who’d come up next to her and was looking more than a little pink. Catra put on her best smirk. ‘What? Not used to half-naked women lounging in the captain’s chair?’

‘No,’ Adora said slowly. ‘But I could get used to it. Very, very used to it.’ She visibly collected herself. ‘Um, I did what I could, but…’ She wiggled her fingers through a series of tears in the fabric of Catra’s top. ‘You sure you don’t want to go back and get something fresh?’

‘I’m sure.’ Catra took the shirt from her and pulled it on. The damage exposed half her midriff. Bow would have approved. ‘Where we’re going, I’m gonna fit right in.’

*

The skeleton appeared above the dunes of the Crimson Waste like a mirage, the beast that had donated it as nameless as the bar that now called it home. Catra paused at the top of the dune, waiting for Adora to catch up. She’d parked Darla in the lee; the Crimson Waste was marginally less lawless than it had once been, but there was no point advertising who they were.

‘Really?’ Adora said. ‘Here?

It was in some respects an odd choice—but most any place on Etheria harboured bitter memories, and at least this one was tinged with something sweet. The Crimson Waste was the first place Catra had ever felt free. That counted for something, even if the freedom had been poorly spent.

‘Here,’ she confirmed. ‘Best place to get a drink on the whole planet.’

‘Compared to what, the Fright Zone cafeteria?’ Adora said, but she was already charting the path down the other side of the dune. Teasing, not objecting. Catra grinned and followed.

Inside, the bar gave her pause. It was sparsely peopled, and the emptiness reminded her of a different version of this place, a different Catra pinning Adora to the bar top. She shook herself. That was behind her.

‘I’ll get us some drinks,’ Catra said. ‘Make yourself comfortable.’

Adora sat down at a table next to the bar, one foot up on a second chair. She looked oddly at home. Catra smiled at the sight and made for the bartender.

When she returned with two glasses in hand, there was a satyr woman sitting across from Adora, one hand out in the universal invitation to arm wrestle. Adora was rolling up her sleeve. Behind them, half a dozen assorted Crimson Wasters hovered behind their leader, cloaks flung back to reveal their weapons, in a display of what they clearly thought was casual bravado.

Some things, Catra reflected, never changed. She put the glasses down, summoned a saunter to her step and an edge to her voice.

‘Are you flirting with my girlfriend?’

‘What?’ Adora glanced up. ‘Of course she isn’t! She just noticed I looked strong and wanted a closer look at my muscles—oh. Oops?’

Her opponent didn’t so much as look up. ‘Finders keepers, darlin'.’ She flicked her fingers dismissively in Catra’s direction.

‘Oh, darlin',’ Catra said, voice dripping scorn. ‘You have no idea who I am, do you?’

The satyr woman paused, gave Catra a once-over, then shrugged ostentatiously for the benefit of her friends. ‘Should I?’

Catra had put this kind of thing behind her, but—well, she hadn’t started it, had she? ‘I’ll give you a hint.’ She took a half step back towards the bar and fit her claws to the worn-down grooves in the countertop with just enough force to bring up a few splinters. ‘I’m the person who put those there in the first place.’

The woman’s eyes narrowed. ‘You,’ she hissed. ‘You’re the cat girl who took out Tung Lashor! He’s never been able to live it down!’

‘Why do you care?’

‘He’s my blood brother.’

Catra couldn’t help it. She barked out a laugh. ‘Really?’ Across the table, Adora was giving her a pointed look, but it was too late. The words were already leaving Catra’s mouth. ‘You have terrible taste in siblings,’ she said, and ducked.

The punch ruffled the hair at the top of her head. Adora’s voice cut through the sudden noise of half a dozen enraged Crimson Wasters. ‘Really, Catra?

‘What?’ Catra dodged a thrown chair, leapt onto the bar, and snatched up a bottle of whiskey just in time to use it to fend off a pair of cutlasses. ‘I was only flirting! How was I supposed to know she knew who I was?’

Everyone knows who you are,’ Adora said, and then, as if the words were so bizarre it had taken her a few seconds to understand them, ‘Flirting? With her?’

‘No, dummy, with you!’

Adora intercepted a thrown tumbler half a foot from Catra’s face and tossed it back in the direction of its owner. ‘How was that flirting?

‘You know! A bit of posturing, a bit of flexing, staking a claim—’

The sound of smashing glass made them both duck for cover behind the bar. Adora’s face, inches from Catra’s, was turning pink half from exertion and half from something else. ‘A claim?’ she said.

Catra grinned and wound her tail around Adora’s wrist, making her twitch. ‘You better believe it.’

Adora swallowed and picked up a broken chair leg. ‘I’ve got an idea,’ she said, and vaulted over the bar, brandishing her new weapon. Her would-be suitor paused, arm half raised to throw another glass. ‘Listen up! She’—Adora jabbed her thumb at Catra, gingerly poking her head up above the counter—‘is mine, and neither of us are inclined to share.’ The heat in her voice washed over Catra. She felt an entirely unexpected purr rising in her chest. Then Adora ruined it by adding, more diffidently, ‘So, um, if you could please stop throwing things at us and leave, that would be nice. I’m sure this has just been a misunder—’

‘By the way,’ Catra said loudly, ‘that’s She-Ra.’

Thirty seconds later, the only remaining sign of their assailants was the squeak of the door swinging shut behind them.

‘Huh,’ Catra said. ‘Look at that. I guess they all know who you are, too. Should I be offended they didn’t run for me?’

Adora looked at her. Catra looked back. They burst out laughing, great heaving sobs of mirth fuelled by adrenaline and the fumes of spilled whiskey. When the spasms finally subsided, Adora slung an arm around Catra’s waist and asked, ‘What do you think the Princess Handbook has to say about bar fights?’

‘I think the “Princess Handbook”,’ Catra said, giving the name aggressive air quotes, ‘has a history of getting into fights that would make it very hypocritical for her to object.’

‘And yet.’

‘And yet.’ Catra sighed. Now that the adrenaline was fading, she felt wrung out. What had she been thinking? She could hardly blame the satyr woman for wanting to flirt with Adora. Or for being born with a severe deficiency of good judgement. The Crimson Waste had been a bad choice. It brought out the worst in people. The worst in her. She should have picked somewhere nicer.

Adora was looking at her with concern in her eyes. Catra shook herself. She was tired, that was all. She’d nap on Darla. That would help.

‘You’re up,’ she told Adora. ‘Where next?’

v.

Catra sat by the windows on Darla’s bridge, watching the coast flit by in a blend of sparkling sand and moonlit foam.

‘How about that place?’ There was a town ahead of them, and even at this late hour, one of the buildings glowed a cheery yellow. ‘Looks like a nice place to get a drink.’

‘Ooh, I’ve been there. The bartender was, um.’ Adora, hovering over the controls, blushed. ‘Nice.’

‘Never mind. I don’t want to have to fight someone for you again.’

‘And it’s where I met Sea Hawk! It’s his favourite cantina.’

Definitely never mind.’

‘I’ve got a better idea, anyway.’

‘Oh?’

‘Let’s just do exactly what we did with Bow and Glimmer, but alone. Find a nice restaurant. Just us and lots of good food. Even Glimmer won’t be able to find anything wrong with that.’

‘I don’t know much about fancy restaurants.’

‘That’s okay! I have a recommendation.’

Catra narrowed her eyes. ‘From Sea Hawk?’

‘No. From Mermista.’

‘What’s it called?’

‘Uh.’ Adora squinted at something on one of Darla’s displays. ‘Nacre? I have no idea what that means.’

‘It’s what pearls are made of.’

‘Huh! Wait, how do you know that?’

‘Entrapta used it in some of her… experiments. It didn’t take.’ Catra tried to make her voice carefree. ‘Pretty, though. Is the restaurant far?’

‘No,’ Adora said. ‘Not at all.’

Halfway there, the sea rushing by beneath, Catra realised her error.

Nacre. Mermista’s recommendation. It was careless not to have thought of it earlier.

‘This restaurant,’ she said. ‘It’s in Salineas?’

‘Yeah,’ Adora said, distracted. ‘Why do you ask?’

Catra thought of Salineas, of sitting in the wreckage of a burning city and wondering why it didn’t feel good.

‘No reason,’ she said.

It would be fine. She’d been back since then. She’d done her part. There was no reason to worry, except that their first two attempts at a date hadn’t gone well, and that was a silly reason.

Her resolve held right up until they stood below the sign, Nacre spelt out in understated, pearlescent letters, and the man at the door, pinstriped and bowtied, turned his nose up at her and said, ‘I’m afraid we can’t let anyone in wearing,’ and he paused imperceptibly as his gaze flicked to Catra’s torn-up shirt, ‘that.’

Catra didn’t think it had anything to do with who she was. It didn’t matter. It was as if this one small rejection triggered a larger one, a rejection on the scale of a city whose scars suddenly jumped out at her as if she'd put them there yesterday.

‘Come on,’ she muttered to Adora, who looked like she was about to argue. ‘Let’s go.’

The walk back to Darla was uncomfortable. It wasn’t that there were glances. No one looked at her askance and whispered. No one bundled children off the streets as she approached. That might have been preferable. No one even seemed to notice her. She’d left the city in flames, once. It felt wrong to return without—something. Permission. An apology. An acknowledgement.

‘I’m sorry,’ Catra whispered once they were safely in the air again. ‘I didn’t… know it would have that effect on me.’

‘What effect did it have?’ Adora asked quietly.

‘It’s a beautiful place.’ Catra stared blankly ahead, at the spires of Salineas still visible in the viewport. ‘And all I could think of was what I did to it.’ Catra let herself be pulled into a hug, curling up in the lee of Adora’s body. Somewhere to hide her face. ‘I thought it would be fine,’ she mumbled. ‘Bright Moon is fine. The Whispering Woods were fine. Even the Crimson Waste was fine, sort of. I mean, you expect to get into a fight there, right?’ She attempted a laugh. ‘But Salineas…’

‘You did your part. You helped them rebuild.’

‘Not enough.’

‘Then you can do more. Whatever it takes. But, Catra…’

Adora fell silent. Her face was caught in a grimace of uncertainty, like she couldn’t decide whether to keep talking.

‘Spit it out.’

‘I think—there’s a point where you have to forgive yourself. Think about it: we walked into Salineas and no one cared, right? And maybe they haven’t forgiven you, but they’ve, they’ve moved on. They’ve accepted you.’

‘Maybe,’ Catra said.

The only thing worse than the silence that ensued was the thought of breaking it. Catra’s tail curled around her feet.

Eventually Adora said, ‘Do you want to go somewhere else?’

‘No.’ Catra’s voice was so small she almost hated herself for it. ‘I’m sorry, I know this first date thing was supposed to be fun, but…’ She sucked in a breath. Adora tightened her grip around her shoulders. ‘I don’t want to go somewhere nice,’ Catra said carefully, ‘and ruin it with bad memories.’

‘If you want to go home,’ Adora said hesitantly, ‘that’s fine with me. But… I have one more idea.’

Catra managed a weak smile. ‘It’s not your turn.’

‘I know! But, you know, whatever.’

‘What’s your idea?’

‘Well—’ Adora bit her lip. ‘Do you trust me?’

‘What kind of question is that?’

‘Okay, fair. But I mean—if you hate the idea, I just, I want you to know—'

‘Adora. I’m not going to blame you for a suggestion. I’m never going to blame you for a suggestion.’

‘All right. Okay. Hear me out.’ Adora took a deep breath. Glanced at Catra, smiled shyly. ‘I think we should go to the Velvet Glove.’

vi.

Standing on the Velvet Glove should have evoked dark memories. It didn’t.

No—that was wrong. Should have was wrong. Catra had expected it to, but that was different. She could deal with the unexpected. Prime’s erstwhile fortress had become a common sight in the skies above Etheria, transformed and suspended in defiance of gravity. Perhaps that had robbed it of some of its power.

Catra didn’t hesitate when Adora asked if she was okay, first on approach in Darla, then on the ship’s ramp, then in the shadow of the archway leading deeper into the Glove. Each time, the smile on Adora’s face grew a little more sure of itself.

‘Do you, um.’ If her smile was sure, her voice still sounded uncertain. ‘Do you think you remember the way to the transporter room?’

Catra considered the branching corridors in front of them. The harsh metal beams of the Velvet Glove had been repurposed as trellises for climbing plants in half a dozen shades of green, blossoms drooping from the ceiling on trailing vines.

‘Yeah,’ she said. Her bare feet found purchase in soft grass. ‘Yeah, I think so.’

Catra still saw these corridors in her dreams. She wandered them endlessly, footsteps echoing louder than they had even before the plants had taken over. Walking them in person again was different. Her tread was silent. Adora made more noise, little sounds of surprise when a branch brushed her head or they turned a corner to find yet more fresh growth; but they were gentle sounds. Neither of them spoke until they reached the transporter room.

Catra barely recognised it. The control terminals were carpeted in flowers. Where the transporter pad had been, a tree rose from the floor, roots cracking metal like it was fresh-tilled earth.

‘Okay,’ she said quietly. ‘What next?’

Adora’s arms twined around her. Her hands met on Catra’s stomach and Catra was sixteen again, standing with the iron edifice of the Fright Zone behind her and the branches of the Whispering Woods ahead. Trapped. Torn.

Except now the metal and the woods were one and the same. Now softness grew from sharp, prickly soil.

‘You said you were worried about going somewhere nice, because of the memories of what you did.’ Adora’s voice on the back of Catra’s neck was hesitant but strong. ‘So I thought—what if we came somewhere bad, where the memories were…’ She paused. ‘Maybe good isn’t the right word, but—’

‘Where I did the right thing,’ Catra whispered.

Yes. You get it.’

The part of Catra that had looked at Salineas and shuddered to face it wanted to say, Because Glimmer made me. She resisted; not knowing what else to say, she said nothing.

Adora seemed to understand. ‘Every time we fought,’ she said, still in that reverent tone that fit their surroundings better than it had any right to, ‘every time we planned against you and someone would ask me what I thought you'd do, every time someone looked at me with pity when you came up—all those times, I took the faith I had in you, I took the part of me that couldn't stop believing in you, and I buried it deeper. I shut it up in a tiny room behind doors and gates and locks, and I tried not to let anyone know it still existed, and then you came to this room, Catra, and you said I'm sorry, and you flung every single one of those doors open.

‘That was all I ever wanted.’ Adora drew Catra closer, fitting their bodies together. ‘You, proving me right.’

There were tears in Catra’s eyes. Her ears twitched. Adora kissed one of them.

‘I knew it,’ Catra said eventually, only a little hoarse.

‘Knew what?

‘That you were obsessed with being right.’

There was a pause. Then Adora said, ‘Catra,’ with such fond exasperation that Catra spun in her arms, pushed her into the cushion of vine where a wall had once stood, and kissed her, all soft lips and sharp teeth and bruises like tiny flowers on Adora’s neck; and when she was done, Catra drew back the tiniest bit and spoke words that had once been impossible and now came more easily every day.

‘I love you. I love you. Thank you.’

‘For what?’

‘Finding happiness in me.’ Catra breathed in the smell of crushed flowers and Adora’s sweat. ‘And then looking for it, even when I did my best to hide it from you.’

‘I love you too,’ Adora whispered into Catra’s hair. One of her hands was rubbing Catra’s ear. She giggled. ‘How are we gonna explain this one to Glimmer?’

‘We’ll go outside,’ Catra decided. ‘We’ll watch the sun rise. And we’ll hold hands and kiss a bunch more and talk about whatever we want, and then we’ll go home and take advantage of our huge, comfy bed and if that doesn’t count as a first date, I’m going to find the Princess Handbook of Courting Etiquette and throw it off a cliff.’

Adora paused in her ministrations. ‘I thought the Handbook was a bluff.’

‘It was.’ Catra grinned, wide and victorious and the tiniest bit alarming, and pressed back into Adora’s touch. ‘But don’t worry. She can teleport.’