Octavia storms past, muttering something about taking those damn kids and dumping them in Shadow Weaver’s lap and see how dumb her face is then. Catra breathes shallow in the shadows, Adora’s body against hers, tucked into a corner between a pillar and the wall. Octavia’s ranting recedes into the distance, only the omnipresent mechanical hum of the Fright Zone filling the air.
Adora lets out her breath first. “Do you think she’s gone?” she asks, lightly touching Catra’s shoulders.
Catra sighs. “Yeah, we can probably—”
“Gotcha!” Octavia reaches around the pillar, grabbing for Catra. She shrieks and slips under Octavia’s tentacles, tripping her on the way out and giving Adora an opening to jump over Octavia’s fallen body. Catra waits, for just a moment, so she can grab Adora’s hand. Their eyes connect before Catra turns and starts running. Tingles run down Catra’s spine, but she’s too busy to notice them, she knows where to go. They dash through the halls as quickly as they can, but Octavia’s gaining on them. Catra knows something she doesn’t, though.
Adora nearly falls completely over when Catra pulls her into the computer lab unexpectedly. “What are you doing?!” she asks as Catra lets go and scans the ceiling. “This is a dead end! We’ll get caught for sure!”
“Nope,” Catra says simply, spying her target. She hops onto a desk, then stretches herself out and reaches for the vent cover. With a single claw on each hand, she undoes the two top screws (she’d removed the bottom two ages ago) and throws it to the ground. She leaps into the vent headfirst.
As she starts to turn around in the confined space, Adora jumps on the desk and objects, “I can’t jump like that!”
“Duh,” Catra grunts, completing her turn and hanging her torso out of the vent with her arm outstretched. “C’mon.”
Adora’s eyes widen and she nods, reaching up for Catra’s hand. Octavia appears in the doorway, her head swinging back and forth until she spots them in the corner.
“Don’t you dare!” she calls as Catra pulls her hardest, Adora using her feet to scramble up the wall and throw herself into the vent as Catra scoots back. Adora’s almost fully in the vent when Catra suddenly feels resistance.
“Get out of there!” Octavia demands, and over Adora’s head, Catra can see that Octavia’s gotten hold of one of Adora’s boots. Flattening herself, she crawls over Adora’s back (much to her objections) and darts her hand out, slashing the knot off her laces. Octavia falls flat on her back with Adora’s shoe in her hand, and Adora crawls forward with Catra on her back until they hit a corner, far outside the reach of Octavia’s tentacles.
Adora collapses completely, panting heavily. Catra struggles, but manages to fit enough of herself between Adora’s body and the top of the vent to get off of her and do the same, the bottoms of their feet touching. After a moment, she starts to laugh, and Adora joins up with her, starting with a giggle that sets Catra’s heart racing before turning into a deep-bellied guffaw.
“I can’t believe that worked!” Adora gasps after she catches her breath. “How did you even know this was big enough for us?”
Catra chuckles, getting on all fours and carefully turning around again so she could face Adora. She supposes, now that they’re so far from the light, that Adora probably can’t see her, but she still wants to look at Adora’s sparkling eyes, her flushed face. “Where do you think I go when I ditch class?”
“Catra…” Adora sighs, sitting halfway up and supporting herself on her elbows. “You’re a real genius, you know that?”
Catra feels her cheeks flare. “Nah, nah, I’m just creatively lazy.”
Adora laughs again, then clears her throat. “What do we do now?”
“Hang out ‘till lights out and sneak into bed.” Catra shrugs. “That’s what I always do when I’m in trouble.”
“You come here a lot by yourself?” Adora’s look shifts to concern. “How come?”
“It’s stupid out there,” Catra murmurs, looking away. “Sometimes you get tired of nobody liking you, okay?” She folds her arms and wraps her tail around herself.
Adora frowns and reaches out, touching Catra’s arm and slowly stroking the short, fine fur. “I like you,” she says softly. Catra’s tail frizzes up.
“I-I know that.” Catra swallows. “Just, sometimes, I…”
“I know.” Adora tugs on Catra’s arm, bringing her closer so that Catra’s perched on her lap. She wraps her arms around Catra and holds her tight, and Catra’s heartbeat slows. Octavia, the trouble they’re surely in, the constant nagging irritation that she’s not really supposed to be here at all, it all fades away in Adora’s embrace. She closes her eyes and starts to purr.
Slowly, they fall to the floor of the vent, Catra resting her head on Adora’s chest. She never wants to leave here. It feels safe, and warm, and Adora’s here. What else does she really need? Who wants to be a soldier anyway?
She’s not sure when she falls asleep, only that when she wakes up and looks up over Adora’s head, something else is staring right back at her.
A black form wriggles in the darkness of the vent, so dark that even Catra’s vision can’t discern any features on its body aside from one glowing, angry red eye. She shrieks, waking up Adora, and the voice of Shadow Weaver fills the tiny space.
“Leave the ventilation system this instant or I will have to force you out myself!” she shouts. Catra’s fur stands on end and she bolts down the vent, shaking with fear as Adora struggles to keep up behind her. As the lit opening looms before her, she can hear Adora calling her name, but she doesn’t want to turn around, doesn’t want to think about how she got Adora in trouble like she always does, and she jumps out of the vent and straight into Shadow Weaver’s outstretched hand.
Shadow Weaver catches her by the throat, tendrils of shadow stretching out from the bottom of her robe and enveloping the room in darkness. Catra gasps and chokes as Shadow Weaver’s expressionless mask draws closer to her face.
“Where is she?” she hisses.
“I’m here! I’m here!” Adora pants, tumbling out of the vent and landing face-first on the desk. Shadow Weaver drops Catra unceremoniously and floats over to Adora, taking her hand and helping her to her feet.
“You must be more careful,” Shadow Weaver snaps. “Both of you. Follow me. Now.”
Catra rubs her throat, but falls into step behind Shadow Weaver. She feels Adora reach for her hand as they walk, but just as she starts to take it, Shadow Weaver looks over her shoulder and snaps her fingers, creating a small red explosion between the two of them.
“None of that, now,” she seethes. Catra’s chest goes cold, and she folds her hands in front of her, trying to keep her stinging eyes from releasing any tears. The last thing she needs to do now is cry. She can’t have another mark on her record, can’t show weakness in the Horde.
They stop in front of the grand door to the Black Garnet chamber. Shadow Weaver opens it with a wave of her hand. “Adora, please wait in that seat, over there,” Shadow Weaver says, pointing. “I’ll talk to you in a moment. Catra. You’re staying here.”
Adora waves timidly to Catra as she walks into the chamber, and Shadow Weaver closes the door in her face before whirling to turn on Catra.
“You just can’t help making trouble, can you?” she growls, starting to circle Catra. “What did you think you were doing, touching her like that?”
“Like — like what?” Catra asks, shrinking down and trying not to look her in the eye.
“Fraternization like that cannot be allowed in the Horde. It introduces too many variables, too many skewed priorities.” Shadow Weaver stops in front of Catra. “If you hadn’t latched onto her like a lamprey eel when she was so young, this would be easier. I could just separate you and wipe both of your minds of each other.”
Catra gulps. She’s heard rumors that Shadow Weaver could use her magic to change people’s brains, but here she is talking so casually.
“But you’re too entwined. So now, you’ve made me do something else.” Shadow Weaver took in a deep breath. “When Adora leaves that chamber, she will not remember the vent, or...whatever was going on between the two of you in there. You are never to mention it again, nor indulge in such unreasonable closeness. Adora is too important to be waylaid by your pathetic neediness.”
Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Don’t cry.
“But I will keep your memory of it all intact. So that if something starts to happen again — if she decides she wants to fraternize — you will stop her first. Because you know what happens if I catch you again.” Shadow Weaver put a finger to the bottom of her mask and raised her head. “I’d hate to see what repeatedly deleting memories could do to her mind...I’m sure you’d hate it just as much. Am I clear, Catra?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Catra’s voice is barely a whisper.
“Good. Return to your quarters. And remember: say nothing of this, ever again.”
She doesn’t talk about it. Not for a year.
It’s always there in the back of her mind; the idea that some level of undefined ‘closeness’ is a sin, a transgression. She takes so long to understand what it could mean, what Shadow Weaver wants to keep her and Adora from feeling.
She doesn’t understand — doesn’t really, truly, get it, until she’s assigned to shadow an interrogation of two captured Bright Moon warriors. She follows silently behind Octavia, making sure not to catch her eye. It’s been a while since she or Adora deliberately antagonized the woman, but Catra still knows when to shut up. Besides, the Fright Zone prisons are a creepy, ill-lit place, and Catra can feel the walls and ceiling around her like they’re trying to box her in. These particular soldiers are being held on the lower tiers, and the elevator takes forever to get down there, which means she’s forced to stare out at the long rows of cells that line the cylinder and wonder who they’ve taken, and why.
The elevator shudders to a stop, and Octavia walks on without looking back at Catra. The fur on the back of Catra’s neck stands upright as they walk past the cells, feeling the odd mix of glares and pitiful looks given to her by the occupants. She doesn’t understand it, why they’d look at her like they feel sorry for her. They reach the cell they’ve been assigned, and the two women within immediately get up, their hands joined. Catra can’t help but stare. She and Adora haven’t held hands for so long. It used to be so natural, but none of the other cadets do it. Why these two rebels?
Octavia grins. “Expecting me?” she asks, and the soldiers stiffen up. Their uniforms seem so ostentatious to Catra, pastel steel that shines in the sickly green light like it was recently polished, designed like beetle shells. They’re not human, not quite; their big, round ears, horns, and hooved feet fascinate Catra. She can’t help but stare. They’re like her, kind of.
“We know the Horde’s tactics,” one of them says, the one with red fur, “But I didn’t think you’d bring a — a what, child hostage? ”
Octavia looks confused for a moment, then laughs out loud. “This one?” she says, motioning to Catra, who tries to stand up straight. “She’s not for you. She’s here to learn how to break a rebel — from the best.”
“You indoctrinate them that young?” the other exclaims. Her fur is white, and looks...silky. Catra tries not to get distracted. “Where are her parents?”
Octavia rolls her eyes. “This is what we’re up against, kiddo,” she sneers, turning to Catra and pointing at the prisoners with her thumb. “Bleeding-heart weaklings. Look at ‘em, they’re not even bothering to hide their easiest target.”
Catra glances down at the soldiers’ linked hands, and remembers Shadow Weaver’s lecture, and chills run down her spine.
“All right, Red. Just you, first. If you’re good, maybe you get to see her again.” Octavia keya a few commands on the panel beside the cell, and the forcefield shifts to allow for a small opening, which Octavia reacha through in order to grab Red’s free arm. They cling to each other for a moment, and then White does something entirely strange.
She pulls Red’s face to her own, and their lips touch. “Go. We’ll make it out of this,” she promises. Her partner nods, and lets go, and she doesn’t waver even while Octavia locks handcuffs around her wrists and leads her away. She stands tall, and silent, and she gives them nothing at all.
When Catra returns to the barracks, Adora’s the only one there, perched on Catra’s bunk. She hops down as Catra enters the room, holding something in a folded-up jacket in her arms.
“You missed dinner,” she says, unwrapping the jacket to reveal half a ration bar. “I saved some for you.”
“Nice,” Catra says, trying to stifle the involuntary purr that comes into her throat. “Thanks. Adora the rebel.”
“Oh, it’s no big deal, everyone would understand. You didn’t miss dinner on purpose. This time, anyway.” Adora sits down on her own bunk, patting the spot next to her. “C’mon, tell me about interrogation training!”
“It was...weird,” Catra mumbles, taking the bar as she sits down and nibbling a bit. “She wasn’t breaking at all. Octavia thought she could...get something about Bright Moon defensive positions from her by threatening the other girl she was found with. But it just made her angry and quiet. It seemed like they really cared about each other.”
Adora snickered. “Sounds like Octavia’s not the unstoppable wall of muscle she pretends to be, huh?”
“...yeah.” Catra takes another bite and chews thoughtfully. “They, uh, they did something weird, before we took her away. They were holding hands, and when they separated, the other girl, like...sort of...pressed their lips together?”
Adora cocked her head at Catra. “What do you mean?”
“I dunno, what I said. After that was when she got all...weird and proud. Octavia got mad at me, she acted like it was my fault.” Catra drew her knees up to her chest, wrapping her tail around herself. “Everybody acts like I should be something more even when they don’t tell me what it is.”
“I’m sorry,” Adora says softly, laying a hand on her shoulder. “I guess I thought it’d be a good chance for you...they asked me if I wanted to do it first, and I said I bet you could get something out of it.”
“Guess I disappoint you, too.” Catra stuffs the rest of the bar in her mouth and looks away from Adora, biting her lip. Of course, the only opportunity for any kind of advancement was something Adora threw her out of pity, and of course she screwed it up.
“You don’t. Not ever.” Adora reaches for Catra’s hand, and she freezes, turning back to face her. Adora’s eyes aren’t meeting hers. They’re looking down, and Catra realizes that Adora’s looking at her lips. Adora clears her throat. “You, um...you said they…” She gulps, a hand grazing Catra’s cheek. “Like this?”
Everything in Catra is screaming danger, her mind keeps flashing back to Shadow Weaver’s tendrils of black, her anger and threats and serpentine spies, but she finds herself closing her eyes anyway as Adora moves in.
And it feels nice. Like a promise. And Catra understands the soldiers they interrogated, and she remembers everything that Octavia said about them. The word fraternization hisses in her mind like a curse, and she doesn’t know what to do with any of this.
When Adora pulls back, she’s smiling, shaking. She brushes her thumb over the back of Catra’s hand.
“Was that good?” she whispers, nearly inaudible.
Catra nods. She feels so warm. “Can we do it again?” Adora asks. Catra squeezes Adora’s hand, too hard. “Claws,” Adora says with a wince. Catra swiftly retracts them. She has to stop screwing everything up. She has to say something.
“...we can’t let anyone see,” Catra says at last. “It’s...it’s not allowed, in the Horde.”
Adora frowns. “How do you know?”
“T-things Octavia said. We have to be careful. Okay?”
“That’s dumb,” Adora opines, in her blunt way that Catra likes so much, too much.
“Well, we aren’t in charge yet. When we are, we can change everything.”
Adora chuckles. “Not like you to have big plans like that.”
“Maybe it’s time I started.”
Catra’s glad she’s small. The vents are still hers to conquer.
When she drops out directly in front of the satyrs’ cell, they both jump back in shock. They visibly relax when they recognize her, which annoys her to no end. The white one looks worse for wear than when Catra first visited them, a horn broken off, dried blood in brown streaks down her fur from her nose and mouth. So Octavia made good on the threats, after all.
“The cat girl?” Red says, stepping forward and blocking White with her body. “What are you doing here?”
“I have questions.” Catra stands up tall — as tall as she can, anyway — and puffs out her chest. White cocks her head to look around Red, and suppresses a giggle. A growl rumbles low in Catra’s throat.
“What?” Red asks, squinting. “You can’t even do anything to us in here, and, no offense, kid, but even if you had one of us I think we could take you.”
“Not...important stuff,” Catra admits, shrinking. “Just stuff I can’t ask anyone else.”
“Oh, you poor thing!” White says, coming out from behind Red’s chest. “They don’t let you ask a lot of questions here, do they?”
Catra bristles. “I don’t need your pity!” she snaps, claws shooting out of her hands. “We’re resourceful in the Horde. That’s what you are. Resources.”
“Charming.” Red crosses her arms. “All right, kid, we’re a captive audience. Ask if you want.”
Catra clears her throat. “When you did that thing. Before Octavia took you out. What was that?”
The two satyrs look at each other for a second. “Wait…” White begins.
“You don’t know what a kiss is?” Red exclaims. “It’s worse than we thought here!”
“Well, I know now, don’t I?” Okay, it has a name. A kiss. That’s what she likes to do with Adora.
“Do you know what love is? Partners? ...mates?” White asks.
Catra’s ears droop down. “No…”
“Have you ever known someone you really liked? Like...someone you always wanted to be close to, who gave you funny feelings in your chest?” White crouches down to meet Catra’s eye level, and she’s not a fan of that, but she keeps listening regardless.
She thinks about Adora. Her name in her thoughts is all that it takes for her to answer with a “Yes.”
“That’s called a crush. If they feel the same way about you, you can start getting closer, and you’ll probably want to kiss them too. Loving someone is like having a crush, but when you really know them and understand them and like everything about them even more. Then they’re your partner, or your boyfriend or girlfriend, whatever word you think works best for you.” White looked back at Red. “Wait, do you think the Horde’s given her the talk? Should we —”
“Let’s not,” Red says with a groan. “What she should know is that the Horde isn’t a place for love. I didn’t realize they didn’t even tell you what it is, though. The brainwashing’s a lot more intense than I thought.”
“Maybe we just...haven’t gotten to it in training yet,” Catra mumbles.
“Listen.” Red lowers her voice and approaches the forcefield. “You’re a smart kid. I know you can get us out. If you leave the Fright Zone, there’s a whole world out there for you, where you can love whoever you want, and people will support and uplift you instead of grinding you down for the war machine.”
Catra takes a step back. “I can’t.”
“You’re obviously curious about the bigger world. I’m telling you, you can—”
“I’m in enough trouble already.” Catra sweeps her head back and forth, watching for guards, but she already knew the schedules. No one will be coming by for almost a half hour. “I have to get out of here before someone shows up.”
“You don’t have to live like this,” White urges, “You can—”
“I can’t leave her behind!” Catra blurts out, then clamps her mouth shut.
Both of them look at her with pity again, and she hates it. She turns away from them, crouches, and pounces back up into the vent, scrambling with her claws for purchase. She curls up in a corner once she’s sure she’s far enough from the prison that she won’t be able to hear them talk about her anymore.
For a moment, she was tempted. For a moment, it was all there; how she feels like trash here, how Shadow Weaver and the other cadets all hate her, how the outside world sounds so fascinating.
But Adora is here. And Adora is the strong one. If Catra can be by her side long enough, she’ll rise past Shadow Weaver, past everyone, and then the world will really be theirs to control for once.
She crawls out of the vents when the lights are dimmed, darting across the hall to the barracks. Adora’s sleeping, along with everyone else. Heart pounding, Catra slips through the ranks, and stops at the edge of their bunks. She could hop up onto her own.
But she has a crush, or she’s in love, or something, and knowing that, she knows why she wants to curl up at Adora’s feet instead. She always wakes up first anyway. No one will know. And if they see, they might not understand, and Catra can use ignorance to her advantage.
Adora shifts slightly while Catra gets comfortable, but she doesn’t wake. Catra sleeps, fitfully, apprehension and fear and contentment mixing and pouring in her guts.
It’s not long before they’re caught again, of course.
Catra teaches her the words and concepts she’d learned, and Adora whispers them back in awe, and kisses her, and it’s wonderful. In dark corners and quiet moments they have the time to feel and to touch, and Catra really starts to think that they’ll get away with it this time.
She tries, so hard, not to flagrantly flaunt the rules so much, for a while. She keeps her head down, goes to all her classes and training sessions on time, never talks back to Shadow Weaver. Not even when she wants to scream and tear at her stupid, trying-too-hard robe.
Like right now. Shadow Weaver’s come to observe their latest fitness exam directly, and as Catra stands here beside Adora at the end of the course, still panting from the workout, she can already hear the sneer starting to enter Shadow Weaver’s voice.
“Adora, you performed exceptionally, as expected,” she says, patting Adora’s shoulder. “Catra…”
Catra stiffens, but keeps her gaze at the floor, not meeting Shadow Weaver’s eerie white eyes. “You clearly still lag behind Adora in many respects. You’re going to end up tracked into a lower division if you keep this up.”
Catra hears the threat, but disregards it. Shadow Weaver uses her to keep Adora happy. She’s starting to see the cracks. This time, it’s Adora who talks back.
“She got the exact same score!” she objects, gesturing at the electronic board behind Shadow Weaver’s head.
“A composite score cannot show her real value. She clearly falls behind in many of her strength challenges—”
“She makes up for it with speed! She beat me to the finish line by a full minute!”
“Adora, it’s okay,” Catra murmurs, tugging at her arm. “It’s just a test, I’ll do better next time.”
“We’d make a great team,” Adora continues, “And you know it, don’t you? Why are you always—”
“Enough.” Shadow Weaver held out a hand. She narrowed her eyes in Catra’s direction. “The Horde is not a democracy, Adora. You are dismissed.”
“C’mon,” Catra says, pulling Adora out of the room. They walk silently back to the barracks, and Catra lets out a sigh of relief as soon as she sees that it’s empty. But Adora wrenches out of her grasp and turns on her.
“What was that?” she demands. “You never just sit there and take it like that. It wasn’t like you at all!”
“Shh!” Catra warns, her tail shooting up and twitching. “We’re supposed to be keeping it quiet, you know? That’s what I’m trying to do. Lay low. She wants to provoke you, to try and make you into...whatever she thinks you’re gonna be. We gotta be smarter than her.”
“...oh.” Adora’s posture slackens. “Sorry. I...I don’t know if I’m very good at the sneaking around stuff.”
“Hey, we can always use a bruiser,” Catra says, smiling slightly. “You saw our scores in there. I bet you could pick me up and throw me across the room.”
“I’m still right,” Adora grumbles. “About us, I mean. Being a good team. I can stand in front and you can sneak around.”
“Sure.” Catra draws closer to her, putting her arms over Adora’s shoulders. “Just remember to follow my lead sometimes.”
Adora’s face gets all red, which is all Catra needs to forgive her. “I...think I can handle that…”
As Catra leans in to kiss her, the room suddenly darkens, and a chill grips her throat. She and Adora fly apart as Shadow Weaver’s hands materialize around their necks. Catra’s eyes sting as she turns to meet the mask, only able to think, no, no, not again.
“Smarter than me, is that right?” Shadow Weaver releases them and holds them in a forcefield, hair flying wildly from the force of her magic. Adora and Catra can only stare into each other’s eyes in fear.
“Your defiance will have consequences, Catra,” Shadow Weaver hisses. “This time, you’ll watch.”
“C-Catra, what is she talking about?” Adora stammers.
“She’s defied me again, and thought she could hide it.” Shadow Weaver looked at Adora and chuckled. “Don’t fret, my dear, you won’t have to worry about this for long.” She turns on her heel and drags the pair behind her through the halls, sweeping past confused cadets and whispering soldiers. Shadow Weaver takes them all the way to the Black Garnet chamber, dropping Catra to the ground as soon as the door slams shut behind them. Adora, she keeps hold of, pinning her against a table and activating restraints on her wrists and ankles to hold her in place.
“Catra!” Adora calls, squirming. Catra curls up, feeling so small and stupid, watching Shadow Weaver touch the runestone to take some of its power into herself. She shouldn’t watch. She can’t look away. “What is she doing?” Adora asks, as Shadow Weaver hums to herself, like this is so everyday and routine.
“I’m sorry,” Catra whispers. “It’s all my fault.”
“Now you’re starting to understand,” Shadow Weaver comments idly, stepping back from the Garnet and approaching Adora. She charges her palms with power, and Catra can’t watch, not yet, and so she shouts “Wait!”
Shadow Weaver stops in her tracks, and starts to laugh. “What for?” she asks, turning to look at her.
“Just tell me how you knew,” Catra says, getting to her feet.
Shadow Weaver scoffs. “It was easy. You were acting obedient, and Adora was acting out. She’d never do that if you hadn’t snared her. I simply cloaked myself and followed you out.”
Something snaps in Catra’s head. Rage fills her chest. “So even if I do everything you tell me, everything you want, I’m still suspicious? No matter what I do, I’m always the problem? I can’t ever be good enough for you?”
“If it were up to me, I’d have thrown you out of the academy and into the labor camps years ago,” Shadow Weaver hisses. “Adora likes you. You’ve woven yourself so thoroughly into her life that removing you from her mind would leave her a lifeless husk, and directly separating you would turn her rebellious and surly. You’re nothing but what she thinks of you.”
“That’s not true!” Adora shouts. “You’re—”
“Silence!” Shadow Weaver turns back and throws a band of darkness over Adora’s mouth. Catra takes the shot, darting forward and pouncing for the gemstone on Shadow Weaver’s mask, but she finds herself caught, suspended in midair before her poisonous glare. Shadow Weaver tuts at her, raising one finger and flicking her back against the wall of the chamber, twisting the shadows to bind her there.
“I am going to see everything you two have done together,” Shadow Weaver declares, turning back to Adora’s struggling body. “You have no secrets from me, you have nothing of your own that you can hide from me.” She puts her palms to either side of Adora’s head, shimmering with red power, and looks over her shoulder one last time.
“Keep your eyes open, Catra. And you will learn your place.”
Catra still hears Adora screaming, in her dreams.
She knows it worries Adora, when she can’t help but squirm and hiss and cry out in the night, when the other cadets shush her and call her a pathetic weakling for being unable to withstand some puny nightmares. She stays in her own bunk, now, and the cadets talk about that behind her back too. They think they know everything. They have no idea. They’re so stupid. They listen to the stuff the Horde tells them and they actually believe it. Even Adora believes it, now.
Catra’s starting to think it’ll be permanent, that Shadow Weaver took all of Adora’s feelings, or potential feelings, away along with her memory. That it’ll be gone for good, like the satyr couple that Shadow Weaver had executed, the video shown to Catra, as if she needed any more reinforcement. That it’ll just be this, forever, Catra knowing everything Adora doesn’t, Catra being the repository for everything awful that happens to the two of them so Adora can be the perfect Horde soldier.
Then, one night, as she wakes again from uneasy dreams, she feels Adora’s hand take her own, hanging off the edge of the bunk. She leans in close in the dark, though Catra can see her perfectly.
Adora strokes her thumb over the back of Catra’s hand. “Hey,” she whispers. “Are you okay?”
“Fine,” Catra lies, obviously, and Adora frowns.
“Are you sure?”
“Do you want to…” Adora gulps. She looks almost confused, her mouth messed up in that adorable little thinking shape that she has whenever she studies. “Come down to my bunk?”
She shouldn’t. Shadow Weaver will make her watch, again. It will hurt, again. She won’t be able to resist kissing her, and holding her, and all the other little things that had felt so good and right three months ago.
But she’s just Catra. Just the worthless sidekick attached to Adora, like they’d never cut the umbilical. What does it matter if she’s hurt, over and over again? Her joy matters as little as her pain. She’ll remain a thorn in Shadow Weaver’s side, and take the hits, and keep going, because that’s who she’s been.
“Yeah,” she answers, after too long. She crawls down and curls up at Adora’s feet. Adora sits up for a while, scratching her softly behind the ears until she starts to purr, and then starts to sleep, and she dreams of kisses and safety.
The other cadets are starting to learn what Catra already knew. Whispers of who likes who start to filter in the halls, before being shut down by commanding officers or Shadow Weaver herself, telling them off for encouraging fraternization.
Adora knows what a kiss is before they do, though.
It happens without Catra saying anything, this time. They’re in the computer lab, munching on ration bars, Catra laying across the desk like she’s never heard of the concept of sitting while Adora kicks back in the chair in front of her. Ditching the mess hall has always been a little tradition of theirs. As Catra finishes her bar and lays her head down, curling her tail around herself, she hears Adora scoot her chair closer and opens one eye.
“Mind if I…?” Adora asks, reaching out with one hand for Catra’s ears. Catra starts purring, and Adora laughs. “Guess that’s a yes.”
Catra closes her eyes again, feels Adora’s nails behind her ears. She leans into the touch, stretches out her chin so Adora can get there, too. Catra shifts her position, smiling wide, facing her body towards Adora with her hands curled in front of her. Adora chuckles under her breath, and when Catra opens her eyes again, she’s blushing.
“You’re so…” Adora exhales, closing her eyes and laughing at herself.
Catra gapes, the purr still rumbling in her throat, her mouth dry. Adora opens her eyes again, cradling Catra’s chin, and then she moves forward and meets her lips. Catra sighs happily when she moves back. Maybe it’s all worth it.
“S-sorry, I don’t — I just, I don’t know why I wanted to do that,” Adora mumbles, looking away bashfully.
“‘Cuz you love me,” Catra says, and though she says it like a tease, her heart pounds. Some part of her remembers. Some part of her remembers how to kiss, and how to love Catra, and maybe Shadow Weaver isn’t as strong as she seems.
“Catra!” Adora whispers, glancing at the door. “I...I mean…”
“It’s fine, Adora,” Catra promises, stretching out. “...do it again.”
It’s Adora who gets them caught, again. She steps in front of a blow meant for Catra in a training sim, and though Shadow Weaver narrows her eyes, it’s different, this time. She beckons them over after the scenario completes, takes them up to the Black Garnet chamber with none of the rage in her voice that Catra’s used to, acting as though she’s just going to show Adora something. Catra keeps silent, all the way up.
Shadow Weaver charges herself with the Garnet. Adora waits, nervously, and without warning Shadow Weaver claps her on the sides of her head, holding her palms there until her eyes roll back and she starts to collapse to the ground. Catra catches her, and Shadow Weaver just scoffs.
“Clearly the struggle during the last procedure allowed some memories — or just their echoes — to remain intact,” Shadow Weaver says, as though bored of this entire charade. “This time it should keep. I overdid it, is all.”
Catra regards her coldly. “What, no grand declarations this time? No attempts to injure me?” Shadow Weaver cajoles.
Catra takes in a deep breath. She cradles Adora against her chest. She’ll wake up in a few hours, no worse for wear, and it’ll all start again at some point. “You’re wrong,” is all Catra needs to say before Shadow Weaver’s calm facade cracks and her tendrils flare out from beneath her robe.
“I am never wrong,” she hisses. “She doesn’t come to this on her own. You do it to her. Oh, how I wish I could—”
“That’s just it, isn’t it?” Catra asks, lifting Adora fully into her arms. “You can’t. People above you don’t want to know you’ve gotten so sloppy with your...special project, or whatever Adora is. You do anything to me, and word gets around that you screwed up. Right?”
“Silence your insolent tongue, child—”
Catra chuckles, hefting Adora. “Sure. I’ll shut up. See you, Shadow Weaver.” She walks towards the chamber door, standing in front of it for a long while before turning to Shadow Weaver. “I need it open to leave,” she says, like she’s explaining it to a child.
“You will not leave here without—”
“I can’t hold her up that much longer. I’m not as strong as she is, remember? Let me get her to her bed, or we’re gonna have to come up with a reason she’s got a bad back all of the sudden.”
Shadow Weaver throws out a hand, and the door opens. “Go. I’ll not suffer your presence any longer.”
Catra says nothing until the door slams shut behind her, then falls to her knees, cradling Adora in her arms, pulling her face close to her own. The cold sweat that she’d been building in that chamber breaks, and she starts to shake.
She holds her close until she can breathe again, until the terror of that odd, cold conversation has left her body. She carries Adora to her bunk, and lays at her feet.
It’ll all start again soon.
Sometimes it’s like that. Cold, mechanical, an odd shared sense of being trapped in the same prison between Catra and Shadow Weaver as she wipes Adora’s mind, again and again. Sometimes it’s like the first times, screaming and shouting, claws and magic, and Catra never wins.
She’s lost count of the times it’s started again, but she’s older, now. She feels so much older than Adora, sometimes, when Adora first starts to take those stumbling steps back into love. But more rumors, more ideas, are floating around the barracks these days, and they’ve finally had their one and only lesson on sex, which might as well as been a single slide that said DON’T in ten-foot letters. But the cadets know more, talk more, and when Adora pulls Catra into a closet between drills and kisses her neck hard, she’s surprised for the first time in forever — but so grateful, all the same.
Adora’s hand hesitantly crawls down her side, and parts of Catra light up in an urgent, unstoppable way, that she’s never felt before. She looks into Adora’s eyes in the dark and wishes Adora could see like she sees, just for a moment, as if Adora could look back and feel everything she feels, somehow. Adora’s hand finds its way between Catra’s legs, and Catra pitches and whispers Adora’s name, and maybe that’s enough for her to know.
This is new. This is addictive and Catra’s started to crave it like nothing else. That short, powerful moment of release keeps her going, makes her stupid, makes her feel like she hasn’t in...she doesn’t know how many cycles. She gets sloppy, and stupid, and even when Adora makes things risky, she lets it happen.
When Shadow Weaver comes for them this time, it actually catches her by surprise.
They’re in the computer lab during lunch, again. Adora’s making silly, stupid, suggestive expressions with her eyebrows, and Catra’s laughing, and then the room plunges into complete darkness.
“Catra?!” Adora calls, standing up and knocking her chair over in the process. “Catra, where’d you — what’s happening?”
“You.” Shadow Weaver’s mask forms out of the black, directly in Catra’s face. She scrambles back, knocking over unseen monitors and cables, and then there’s a hand around her throat. “You’ve defiled her.”
“Shadow Weaver,” Adora gasps. “Shadow Weaver, n-no, it was my idea, I was the one who—”
“In the showers. Where the others could see,” Shadow Weaver hisses, and Catra gulps. Not my fault, not my fault, she wants to say. Adora had snuck into her stall this morning, and Catra had had to summon all her skills to remain quiet, but it wasn’t enough, she could never hide. “Do you know how many cadets I’ve had to reprogram today, because Lonnie let the rumors get around before she reported to me? Do you have any idea what a mess you’ve made?”
“Shadow Weaver, it wasn’t her—”
“It’s always her. She’s the problem.” Catra backs up again, and finds she’s against the wall, now, no idea where to go, what to say, what to do. Soon, Shadow Weaver will see everything. She’ll know everything she and Adora did, in their most private and wonderful and joyous moments, she’ll see Catra at her most vulnerable and in love and she’s paralyzed by the thought. She didn’t realize how much this would change things, even though nothing’s changed at all, not really.
“...always?” Adora says softly, and the darkness recedes, comes down from the walls and ceilings and forms into Shadow Weaver’s body. She throws out a hand and pins Catra to the wall with black bands of magic.
“Don't worry, Adora,” Shadow Weaver coos, turning to Adora. “Soon you’ll not have to worry about all the awful things she did to you. You’ll be a strong, model citizen of the Horde.”
Adora backs up. “What are you — have you — Catra? Has this all—”
“I’m sorry,” Catra sobs, hanging her head. “I’m sorry, Adora—”
Shadow Weaver dashes across the room, grabs Adora’s shoulder, and blinks out like she was never there at all. The bands around Catra’s body vanish and she drops to the desk. She retches, but nothing comes out. The fear settles deep into her stomach. Shadow Weaver doesn’t return.
It’s not until that night, in their bunk, that Shadow Weaver shows herself, Adora floating in front of her. There’s a horrid black bruise on her eye. Shadow Weaver lays her down on the bunk, then curls one finger to beckon Catra to follow her out into the hall.
When the door closes behind them, Shadow Weaver turns on her. “We need a convincing story for why so much of her memory is missing. I had to destroy so much,” she sighs, wistfully. “This will set her training back considerably. I hope you know how much time you’ve cost her.”
Catra grits her teeth. She won’t rise to it. Shadow Weaver holds out a hand, and the darkness twists around it, forming a small, black club.
“You two had an accident in a private sparring session,” she says, raising the weapon. “Such grievous injuries. It’s remarkable I didn’t fail you both.” And with a crack, she strikes Catra in the jaw, sending her reeling against the wall. “I’m so generous, aren’t I, Catra?” she asks. Crack. “That I didn’t reassign you both to manual labor.” Crack.
Catra clutches her bleeding mouth. She looks up into Shadow Weaver’s mask, and hates. Shadow Weaver raises the club once more, and Catra closes her eyes. She doesn’t hear the next hit.
She wakes up in the infirmary. Adora’s face is the first thing she sees.
“She’s awake!” she cries frantically. “Catra’s awake!” She lunges forward and hugs Catra tight. “Catra, I’m so sorry, I don’t — I don’t remember, how could I do this to you…”
Shadow Weaver floats over, hands clasped in front of her as Adora buries her head in Catra’s chest. Despite everything, Catra smirks at her, wrapping an arm around Adora, assuring her it’s okay. Shadow Weaver narrows her eyes. But she can do nothing.
Adora loves her. It doesn’t matter how many holes are in her memories. That’s what Catra hangs onto.
The first time Adora touches her in this cycle, they’re alone, and it’s been so long since it happened last that Catra can’t stop herself. Here, in the armory, Adora strokes her cheek, gets that look in her eye like she’s about to have her first kiss again, and Catra’s hunger overwhelms her.
She takes Adora by the neck and bites her lips, presses their bodies together, wraps a leg around Adora’s hips. When they break apart, panting, Adora stammers, “W-whoah, Catra…”
“Come on,” Catra urges. “You know this, we’ve done this, Adora… ”
“Please, just, before she takes you away again,” Catra begs, pulling her close again, touching their foreheads. “Please.”
“Catra, what are you—”
The door slams open. “Where are you two? You’re late for—” Shadow Weaver’s voice drops. “Ah.”
It’s never been taken away this quickly, before. Catra goes limp as Shadow Weaver suspends them both in magical fields, separates them, drags them up to the same chamber their relationship has died in so many times. Shadow Weaver doesn’t bother to restrain her, this time, doesn’t listen to Adora’s panicked, confused shouting. A short time later, Adora’s screams echo in Catra’s ears, Adora’s asleep on the restraint table, and Shadow Weaver turns to Catra, hugging her knees to herself on the floor.
“This is the last time,” Shadow Weaver intones. “You’re lucky this was so short. She is almost ready to be Force Captain. Should I wipe her memory again, there will be another incident. She will have already been Force Captain, and you didn’t come with her. You weren’t ready. She will ask after you, and you will be out of her reach, for good. She has places to be. A role to fill. You are not so lucky.”
“If you breathe another word of this to her, if you try to ensnare her again,” Shadow Weaver warns, crouching down to Catra’s level and lifting her chin, “You will not be able to say goodbye. You will never be able to advance with her, and perhaps I’ll simply throw you into the recyclers once you’re out of her life and spare you more pain, but that fate will only be hastened by more idiotic advances. Am I clear?”
Catra raises her head. She looks Shadow Weaver in the eye. “You think you can drive us apart,” she murmurs, her voice low. “But she always comes back. It’s not me doing anything. She loves me, and you can’t take that away. No one can. When she’s Force Captain, she’ll spend every minute trying to get me on her team. She won’t give up. And when she outranks you, when she has Hordak’s favor, she’ll overrule you, and we’ll be together, and you’ll be nothing."
Shadow Weaver tuts. “So overconfident. It’s a wonder you haven’t broken yet. But when she leaves, and doesn’t return for your pathetic pining act, perhaps you will at last. Perhaps then, you can become something worthwhile.”
“I guess we’ll see who’s right,” Catra says, standing up and cracking her neck. “We’ll play the long game, Shadow Weaver.”
“It’s so cute you think you can win. Take her back to her room. And remember, Catra — this is your final chance to have her. If you slip, if you say anything, she will be out of your reach for the rest of your miserable life.”
Adora does leave. She runs, further than Catra or Shadow Weaver could have ever expected.
She doesn’t come back, no matter how much Catra begs. She gives up, when it’s clear how wrong she was, about everything.
She decides that it’s time to become someone worthwhile.