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A Series of Jams

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Adora couldn’t get the argument with Catra out of her head. She was trying to wrap her brain around what had gone so horribly wrong. She supposed Catra’s feelings were already bristling after putting herself in such a vulnerable position. The blonde wondered how many people she’d confided in regarding her childhood. The confession started warily, the words seeming to come with great difficulty. The longer the woman talked, though, the more the story spilled out of her – like it had been bursting for release. It felt like the greatest privilege to be trusted in that moment. How had she fucked things up so badly right after?

She replayed the words each of them had said.

“It doesn’t seem worth it though. Couldn’t you leave now – do what you really wanted instead? They don’t actually own you.”

“Uh, they basically do, Princess. There’s no way I could afford the penalty fees for quitting early. I’d lose my home again.”

Adora remembered what it was like when food was tight as a kid. Still, her grandmother made sure they always had a roof over their heads. She really didn’t understand how it would feel to have nowhere to go. She thought about how dangerous and unpredictable the streets could get in Etheria. How would somebody feel safe sleeping? She felt a pang of guilt over how she’d managed to gloss over this admission when Catra was sharing such a private memory.

“There’s gotta be some other way though. You can’t keep putting yourself through this. You said yourself, there’s no point in trying for people who will never care about you.”

“This is different. I have obligations. Not everything can be magically solved because you snap your fingers. You don’t owe your job anything.”

It was true Adora couldn’t take Catra’s problems away herself. She could barely afford her own situation, let alone wipe away somebody else’s debts. It seemed pretty hypocritical to tell somebody to “just fix” their problem without being able to offer a solution.

“Anyways, you’re better than the Horde. Catra, there’s always another way. Something other than this.”

Shit. That seemed pretty judgmental, now that she considered her words. By that point she’d gotten worked up by Catra’s assumptions about her and let her temper take control. Isn’t that exactly what she had been doing to Catra though? Damn, it was starting to make sense…

“Yeah, fuck you. Like I haven’t tried to come up with other options already. I didn’t tell you all that for you to try to tell me how I’m a fuck-up, too. The way I choose to handle things is never right, after all.”

After this reflection, it occurred to Adora that maybe all Catra’d wanted from her was – not necessarily sympathy, but – acknowledgment. Instead she kept pushing with her uncontrollable need to fix things. Catra was an adult, and she wasn’t asking to be fixed. She was opening up so Adora could really see her, and Adora failed in basically every way possible.

She buried her face in her hands and let out a melancholy sigh. Her heart weighed heavy in her chest. Would she be able to make this right?

***

When Catra finally got home from work that night, she was still restless and irritable. Stupid fucking Adora and her stupid fucking self-righteousness. Just another person passing their judgment without actually doing anything to contribute to the situation. It was always the same, and she was stupidest of all for daring to believe otherwise.

She tossed her work portfolio onto the desk in her bedroom, and it knocked haphazardly into some books and other items. One binder in particular caught her attention. Pulling out the chair to sit down, she picked up the folder and flipped through the pages. A flash drive clattered onto the desktop. In the past, she carried the tiny device everywhere with her. All her projects, ideas, and templates were saved inside. The binder, her graphic design portfolio, contained printouts of her best designs. Looking over her past creations brought on a surge of nostalgia. It felt like a piece of her had been missing for the past few years, since she’d accepted her position at the Horde.

As that itch grew, she decided to flip open her notebook and plug in the external device. Her greatest achievements and unfinished experiments flooded to greet her. Her old software, previously an extension of her everyday life, lay dormant and unused. A sense of longing blossomed within her, and she found herself reviewing her lunchtime argument from a new perspective.

“It doesn’t seem worth it though. Couldn’t you leave now – do what you really wanted instead? They don’t actually own you.”

She snorted. The Horde as good as owned her. Still, fantasizing about a career change did have its allure. She closed out her saved files and opened up the web browser instead. Maybe it would release some of her work-related tension to daydream over the hire ads. Catra scrolled through a number of listings that held absolutely no interest for her and scoffed. At least she could prove she was right when she said there were no other options.

That was when one particular advertisement caught her attention.

“Are you fucking kidding me?”

Bright Moon was looking for a PR director. They wanted somebody familiar with advertising and design who could responsibly manage their public image. Catra would die before lowering herself to work for Sparkles, but she clicked on the application out of professional curiosity. There was a job description at the beginning; and if she was being honest, it sounded like a dream. She supposed compared to working under Lucia, even somebody as obnoxious as Sparkles would still feel like an improvement. Not to mention seeing Adora every day…Her stomach did a flip, remembering their argument guiltily.

Even so, she idly started filling in the fields of the virtual document. When she reached the end, she typed her signature but couldn’t ultimately hit the send button. With a growl she stormed away to shower instead. The fantasy had lost its appeal.

***

“This report is abysmal, Catra,” Lucia bellowed, banging on her desk to emphasize the point. “I won’t tolerate this sort of sub-standard work from you any longer. And if you fall any further behind on the construction for the Salineas property, you can count yourself demoted from the project.”

Catra’s lips tightened as she swallowed the sharp reaction she wanted to fire back at her boss. Instead, she offered calmly, “The electrical team has already been scheduled to work alongside plumbing to make up for the delay. The projected completion date has not changed.”

“Well that should have been clearly stated in your report,” the older woman snapped back. “Honestly, I can’t hold your hand through every minute task in this operation. If you can’t handle the most basic responsibilities, maybe you weren’t suited for this position after all.”

I did put it in my report, you bitch. You didn’t even read it.

“I can send you an updated report this afternoon, if you’d like,” Catra replied, keeping her tone as even as possible.

The last thing she wanted was to give her sister any indication that her words were having an effect on her. She just had to hold it together until she could get back to her cubicle. She could pretend to be invincible for at least that long.

The department head smiled wickedly. “You do that. And in the meantime,” she leaned forward to slide a paper toward Catra across the desk, “sign this acknowledgment that we met today for a verbal warning about your job performance.”

The acquisitions liaison was blindsided by her last statement. “Excuse me, what?” her voice came out a little too shrill.

That was all the bait the elder sister needed. She coyly ran a circle around the document with her finger.

“You know our company’s discipline policy. The first stage is a verbal warning, which will be documented in your employee file. I know I’ve been lenient with your mistakes in the past, but I can’t keep side-stepping official procedure. This project is too important, and you’ve forced my hand.”

Catra practically shook with indignant rage. This was completely unbelievable. Even for Lucia, this was a new level of bullshit. They both knew that Catra had followed every policy to the letter on this project. A routine setback that was out of her control was an expected part of project management. There was no way it justified a fucking write-up in her record. Her mind was racing to come up with some sort of defense against this latest abuse, but she was too surprised and too angry. Slowly, she leaned forward and took the pen Lucia was offering with that same infuriating smile. Stifling a growl, she scribbled her name on the designated line.

“Was there anything else?” she asked between gritted teeth.

“That’ll be all for now,” Lucia chirped cheerfully. “I’ll be waiting for that corrected report.”

It was fortunate Lucia had a soft-closing office door, or else Catra might have shattered the glass with a slam. She walked robotically back to her desk and sank into the revolving chair. Her black-painted nails dug furiously into the skin of her palms. Perhaps they even drew some blood, as a sharp stinging pain penetrated the shrill ringing between her ears. She fought to steady her panicked breathing and tried to concentrate on physical features around her.

There was a faint buzz from one of her desk drawers, where she’d left her phone before the impromptu meeting with Lucia. Catra pulled out the device to distract herself with whatever new notification was waiting for her. Her breathing paused when she saw there was a new voicemail from Adora. She held her curiosity in check long enough to connect her Bluetooth earpiece. This day was bad enough without drawing more negative attention if the wrong person spotted her spending too much time on her personal phone during work hours. She could face her computer without any indication her attention was elsewhere. At last, she was able to press the playback button.

“Hey Catra. I, uh,” there was a nervous intake of breath before the next words spilled out. “I wanted to apologize, for the other day. I thought about what I said, and it was really fucking stupid. You were trying to tell me what was going on in your life, and all I focused on was trying to change things I have no control over. That wasn’t fair to you. I get why you were so mad. I would be too. I understand if you don’t want to talk. Take whatever space you need. I’m just sorry.” She gave a nervous laugh. “Really sorry. Um, okay, that was it. I’ll just be here. Uh, bye, then.”

Catra stared blankly into her computer monitor, but her mind was in another place entirely. She honestly hadn’t been expecting any sort of apology. Those had been rare for her, as few people actually cared what she thought or felt. Well, except for Scorpia, who would smother her with ridiculous apologies over every minor thing. Scorpia wasn’t like regular people, though; she knew. Adora’s nervous words bounced around in her mind. She actually had recognized a lot of the reasons why Catra lost her temper that day. Did Adora really understand? That hopeful thought nestled into her chest like a ball of nettles. The warmth was edged with sharp reminders of past mistakes when she let herself trust in others.

***

The rest of the afternoon was busy and stressful for Catra. She made negligible changes to her original report and emailed it back to Lucia, who offered some dismissive acknowledgment. Throughout the day her mind would wander back to that unanticipated message from the blonde skater. She was still distracted as she circled the track at the start of derby practice. The other players seemed to understand she wasn’t open to conversation.

Scorpia, the one person who would have attempted anyways, was exchanging an animated story with Kyle and Rogelio. Her bellowing laugh echoed across the space. Although the sound might have normally thawed Catra’s icy demeanor a little, tonight it just emphasized her feelings of isolation and inferiority. Even in spaces like this, where she felt valued and respected, she still didn’t really belong.

After warmups concluded, Entrapta gathered everyone to introduce some new strategies and plays.

“One of the ways we frequently lose contact with the other team’s jammer is when we run into their own blockers,” she explained. “We get distracted trying to go around them, and the jammer takes advantage of those openings in our defense. What I propose we practice is going through the other blockers instead of around them!”

The team murmured, anticipating the sort of uncomfortable contact that was bound to follow this idea. Their coach had a point, though. There was nothing to dispute, considering she was a literal genius and poured a lot of research into their gameplay.

“So tonight we’re going to practice blocking through tight spaces between each other!” The purple-haired woman cackled excitedly.

She instructed a majority of the team to stand in various random places within close proximity to one another. They formed a sort of forest of bodies along the track. The remaining few paired up, one player instructed to block against the other while making their way through this gauntlet of obstacles. Entrapta provided feedback if old habits slipped out and the blocker tried to skirt around the inconvenient roadblocks instead of plowing or weaving through them.

When it was Catra’s turn to block instead of jam, her frustration with the drill was monumental. Blocking was already somewhat of a challenge for her. There was no question that she was strong – had she not just carried someone larger than her up a flight of stairs two weeks ago? But she did have a smaller build than a lot of her teammates, and they had their own strength to attest to. Since she rarely needed to pass her jammer star, that also meant she rarely ended up blocking. She felt clumsy and out of practice in the position.

Entrapta wouldn’t let her skip an opportunity to improve; so here she was, awkwardly leaning backwards to hold her drill partner in place. Having to then maneuver around multiple stationary people without losing her mark was nightmarish. She slammed clumsily into a few of the human obstacles. Others she couldn’t budge, which sometimes caused her to trip backwards and fall. By the end of the drill she felt sorer than if she’d jammed an entire half.

Catra understood that part of growing in the sport meant weathering difficult nights like this. It was still hard to shake the frustration brimming inside her by the time practice was finished. The timing definitely sucked; her workday was plenty shitty without derby making her feel even more useless. When her head finally hit her pillow for the night, her irritation had completely erased Adora’s voicemail apology from her mind.