The argument on the skiff goes wrong, the way it always does. Two soldiers of the Horde, both raised by Shadow Weaver, halfway between childhood and adulthood, fight over the controls, and one makes a mistake that sends them tumbling over the side, to hit the ground and destiny both with a shuddering impact.
But it is not Adora who falls.
Catra wakes up to find a sword. Swords were never her thing; she prefers to use a staff in combat, if she's going to use an edged weapon she has her own claws. But this sword is perfect, and obviously worth something, and somewhere in the back of her head she wonders if Adora would like it, she always really liked swords, maybe she'd... she'd like it as a gift.
(She doesn't let herself think like that very often. Some part of her resents Adora so much it almost chokes her. Some part of her feels... something else. Something so warm and sweet that it would shatter Catra to admit it, like water wearing away a mountain; she is cold, and hard, and brilliant. To admit to the warm, soft, dark thing in her chest would be to let in such tenderness it would break her in half. There is a terrible sweetness to such soft feelings, and she knows that it would shatter her like ice exposed to the sun to let it in.)
But then she actually touches the sword, and while there's a moment's hesitation- it's not supposed to be her, but we've waited so long- soon enough she is taken away, to see...
She goes back out. She has to. That sword... it's something special, something that's uniquely hers the way nothing has ever been, something that is not a hand-me-down or castoff or gift from Adora, something that she did not have to steal, but merely found. It is hers; she knows this to be true, somehow, it makes her bones ache with want.
She holds it, and the words, unbidden, come to her- words that are so cheesy, so ridiculous, that even as she says them she feels dumb as hell. What's a Grayskull, and honor? Catra knows what honor is, it is obedience, it is Shadow Weaver demanding subservience, it is what the strong tell the weak to practice so that it will be easier to command them, to control them.
But the thing the words make of her- the princess, this great beast whose name is She-Ra, powerful, dressed well, purest white and gold in opposition to Shadow Weaver's blacks and purples... well. Catra can think of no other colors she'd like to wear, if they come with strength like this. And she always did enjoy lounging in the sun. Maybe there's something to that.
She is found, of course, by both a princess and an archer, and she has a merry go of fighting them. But between Catra's surprise and unfamiliarity with her own new powers, along with the teleporting glitter princess' surprising aggressiveness, she goes down and gets captured.
A shame; she was just getting used to the strength.
She goes before Brightmoon's queen, who emits a motherly concern that rankles all of Catra's fur. Who does she think she's fooling? She's a prisoner and knows it.
But the Queen calls her own daughter out before the court on how dangerous her capture was, and that's familiar enough. Shadow Weaver's face takes over for the queen's, just for a second, and Catra feels a moment's sympathy for... Glimmer? That's the name the Queen was using, anyway.
After that rather embarrassing display of mother-daughter interaction, the Queen gives her ruling. Catra is to be under a spell, and under Glimmer's command, but will otherwise be left alone to be “rehabilitated.” Suuuuure. Catra also has a bridge back in the Fright Zone to sell, but who's she kidding?
...She hopes Adora finds her soon. She'd never admit it, but she needs help.
Adora returns with Catra, who soon leaves again, haunted by a weapon. Shadow Weaver doesn't care. Adora becomes Force Captain, is promoted to lead an assault. Shadow Weaver dismisses all her concerns of Catra and orders her up, up and over, into battle.
The enemy outpost is just a village. The Horde defends itself and its territory, but it does not destroy the neutral and weak, right? So what are they doing here? Adora orders a retreat.
And Shadow Weaver is only a little disappointed, because she knows how to fix this.
(Then there is Shadow Weaver's hands- and they are so cold, they have never been so cold when she touches Adora before- pressed tight against her temples and then then then)
(everything into the dark)
The spell puts her under Glimmer's control, who says she'll use it to keep Catra from doing “harm”, which basically means anything Glimmer catches her doing that she disapproves of; but her hand is light on the spell's trigger, and even when she yells at her to stop doing something, she doesn't hold her control over her head. She only breaks the spell out in pretty serious situations, when Catra decides to test the limits of her new jail cell, seeks to provoke her the way Catra provokes everyone, and the catgirl cannot quite blame her for pulling the trigger in those situations. Catra also finds a loophole in the spell, that it allows for interpretation of orders; that when Glimmer panics and yells at her to do something, she can decide what that means. She'll keep that for a rainy day.
Though, if Catra were being honest, she'd have to say that Glimmer's treating her more warmly than most of the Horde did, so having her as warden isn't so bad. The country is weak, and five minutes in Brightmoon convinces Catra that they deserve to be conquered; the whole place is too soft. Too naive, too... welcoming. Even with the control spell on, people approach her.
One of the guards turns out to be very interested in the sword, and Catra makes an easy source of information in the walls out of him, learns all kinds of things. Learns of the Queen's dead husband, the name of Glimmer's companion (Bow, and he's an archer; if Catra was not a victim of Etheria's naming conventions herself, she'd have laughed.) Learns all kinds of things about troop disposition, and about how reliant they are on the Whispering Woods to guard them. She even takes a day trip out there, during which she accidentally turns a horse into a winged pegasus. Weird day.
Well. Now when she gets back to the Horde she'll have something real to offer them- and herself, of course. She-Ra's nothing to laugh at; a bit of practice, and she finds herself nearly addicted to the power. She's never been the strongest cadet, relying on speed and trickery; but as She-Ra, it feels like nothing can stop her, it feels like she could conquer the world. Combined with her natural deviousness and agility, and she thinks that she might have no equal. She's willing even to say those stupid words, if it means she can grow feet in height and fight like a goddess.
Yeah, she could get used to this. She's sure an opportunity to break out will come in time; these people don't know anything. How hard can it be?
In the meantime, she relaxes in the relative calm. No one pushes on her, no one demands she perform or be threatened with death; it is, perversely, the most peaceful time of her life. This entire country is filled with a terrible sweetness that she lets herself partake in only superficially; though she loves the beds, so soft, so terribly soft, as well as the food, finely spiced things that fit Catra's tastes perfectly.
Perhaps, when she has conquered this place in the Horde's name, she'll spare the cooks to be her personal servants, and nick one of the mattresses to be her own.
A mission comes up- they're trying to reunite the Princess Alliance. As a princess herself (and Catra almost dies when they tell her, laughs herself sick until Glimmer asks her to stop embarrassing her in front of her mom, and Catra, who knows that feeling too well, relents), Catra is sent to go. They are to meet with a... Perfuma, a lady of plants. With the spell in control, she is trusted at least enough to go- and the Queen urges her to consider switching sides. She debates making a show of it, but figures even Brightmoon will see through that.
The hippies nearly provoke her into killing herself. She is stopped less by Glimmer and more by her own desire to go back home to the Horde and then burn this place to the ground; but she does admit, the place is beautiful. It'll be more beautiful with better inhabitants, though.
She ends up fighting the Horde, and it's not really that big of a deal. The shouts of “traitor!” don't really matter to her. Adora's not one of the ones yelling it, and none of the others liked her anyway; their opinions don't matter. If anything, she likes beating them up; likes proving her superiority. It's... nice, really. She never liked these people, and she likes the way the villagers celebrate her, celebrate her saving them. Glimmer doesn't say a word about command spells, and Catra doesn't either, and even Bow- who is so earnest Catra can't decide whether to hug him or drown him- has sense enough to keep his trap shut.
They don't know she had to, so their praise- silly and stupid as they are- is so terribly sweet to her ears.
The sea captain is an idiot, and she almost kills him on reflex when he comes too close. She desperately wishes to go back home in his presence, because someone like Seahawk would have been shot after the first sea shanty back in the Fright Zone.
Mermista, though, she likes. She's as irritated to be here as Catra is, and Catra doesn't have to fake much enthusiasm at their meeting, bonding almost instantly with the disgruntled mermaid. She controls water, which Catra hates, but Mermista uses it to save her from some splashing at one point, and her opinion of her improves. She even debates asking her to team up with the Horde- it's obvious she won't fit in with the pretty princess alliance they're trying for, she's as different from Perfuma as Catra is- though she never gets a free chance to ask.
She sees Adora for the first time at that point, and is horrified. Force Captain Adora, who wants her to come home, who she wants to go home with, and whom Glimmer orders her to fight. She's able to explain, at least, that it's not her fault, even as they fight, and she's never been so grateful for Adora's greater skill than she is right now; Adora's able to keep up with her.
Adora and the other Captain- some giant scorpion-lady- lose, and Mermista ends up joining the alliance, and Catra bitterly curses Glimmer for this.
Catra had been there. Trapped. Adora curses herself for her stupidities. She had spared a village before; a mistake, it had been a military installation disguised.
(that's not the truth you know that's not the truth)
And there... Catra. Her friend. Her... something else, something she only ever looks at sideways, something she can almost touch. Something she and Catra have hidden from Shadow Weaver on instinct, something born of needing each other, protecting each other for so long, the kind of thing where your life is just... built on another person. Where you have skipped all the in-betweens and the answer to “who is your most important person” is a settled question. Without Catra at her back, she is defenseless, she is less, somehow, life is worth less.
(this is something Shadow Weaver has not taken from her, she cannot take what she does not know exists, the treasure in Adora's heart)
...No more lies. No more hiding. The Alliance goes down and Catra goes free.
(lies are what Shadow Weaver is feeding you, break free, Adora, break free)
“ Because she's my only friend!” Catra snaps at Glimmer two days later, when the princess asks her why she's mad at her, why she's not talking to her. “ She's my only friend, and you made me fight her!”
Catra shouldn't have said that; she's admitted a weakness to an enemy, but her frustration and anger over the situation with Adora have boiled over. She pauses in her rage, stills herself, waits some snide or cruel comment that she is already preparing a retort for.
And to her horror, Glimmer cries.
“ I... oh, I didn't know that! I'm so sorry! You seemed happy to be fighting the Horde before!”
Glimmer's crying, and Catra has... no idea what to do. She backs away, turns her head. “ Well, I mean, it's not that big a deal.”
“ Of course it is!” Glimmer says, tears staining her cheeks. “ I... I've only ever had one friend, too. I'm so sorry, Catra. Please forgive me.”
No one has ever been sorry to Catra for anything they've ever done to her before, except Adora, and she has never been forgiven anything (except by Adora, but that statement is true for so many things that Catra shouldn't even bother adding it anymore. Adora is always the exception.)
So she doesn't know how to forgive either, how to let others be forgiven, and so just awkwardly shrugs.
“ It's... it's fine.”
“ I'll never order you to fight her again,” Glimmer says. “ In fact, you don't... you don't have to fight if you don't want to. I mean, I'd rather you did, but I'm not gonna make you anymore. I'm so sorry.”
It's a hell of a gift, and Catra- who is given nothing, to whom only Adora has ever given anything- doesn't know what to do with it any more than she knows how to offer forgiveness, so she takes it with a shrug. Assumes it's a lie, plans to fight for the princess anyway.
But some part of her ponders how naive Brightmoon seems, how soft, how weak... and thinks... that maybe Glimmer tells the truth. That if Catra chose not to fight, that Glimmer would respect it, and not call on the spell to command her. That she has the strength not to use every resource at her command, but to say “I shall not”, and stick to it, come hell and all high waters. That to do so is not weakness, but strength, strength mingled with that terrible sweetness.
That part of her trembles, at the cusp of a revelation that would change everything, if she let it.
With her authorization as Force Captain, Adora takes Lohnnie and a few others out to see the first village, her first failure. She must be ruthless, and intends to prove it by demolishing this forward base.
The return to the “installation” proves a few things. First, that it was not an installation, no matter that Adora remembers hidden gun emplacements and radio towers and bunkers. It is a peaceful farming village. She has been lied to.
...What is she doing with her life? The Horde kills. The Horde conquers. The Horde knew this was a peaceful village, and still they attacked. Ordered her to do it... and it occurs to her there will be more orders, in the future, to attack more innocent places. Orders she will be expected to follow.
...Her whole life is a lie. She thought she was part of an honorable nation... but she has always been so carefully... blind. She wonders... there were always rumors that Shadow Weaver could mess with your mind...
...Catra had always known. But Adora, Shadow Weaver's favorite... oh, can she trust anything she remembers? Can she trust her own mind? This was a peaceful farming village, and her mind pukes up memories of a battle that never happened. How can she trust anything now?...
Her eyes tremblew ith tears. Lohnnie looks at her oddly. Something in Adora's mind, pressured by Shadow Weaver's touch, frustrated and hurt by revelation, begins to wonder about... everything. Her whole life is a lie.
...She cannot confront Shadow Weaver on this. She'd always heard rumors of Shadow Weaver's powers, and one of them is memory manipulation, and she trusts those memories, because Shadow Weaver wouldn't want her thinking about them if they were true. Now that she's thinking of it, Adora thinks she may have suffered that touch. Yes, yes, something cold and dark, at her temples.
(She does not truly remember, but some part of her suspects. She has been corrupted...)
...How long has she been blind? Did she think Shadow Weaver's favor protected her? Shadow Weaver has never protected anything in her life, especially not from herself.
...She needs Catra back. She needs her back. Once she's back... they'll figure something out. They always do.
But to get Catra back, she needs the Horde. The Alliance has Catra, after all, under a spell, and they're not going to let her go easily, not when her sword is so strong. She cannot fight the Alliance alone.
And the Alliance is dangerous, too. She cannot simply turn traitor. They are willing to mind control, too, after all, the same way that Shadow Weaver messes with minds, even if it's a bit blunter. Maybe better, but then again, would Adora even recognize better? She's been so blind... so stupid. So wrong.
She needs Catra. She can't trust anyone else in her life. Except...
...Except Catra is She-Ra now, and when did that happen? She was obsessed with that sword. Did she... know, somehow? Was she using Adora too, somebody to keep Shadow Weaver off her back just long enough for her to get the sword...
No, no, no. She has to trust. She'll... she'll lose everything if she doesn't trust.
Adora is, for the first time in her life, alone, and scared, and there is no way but forward. She needs the Horde onside, and she needs... she needs Shadow Weaver to stay the fuck away from her. And if she returns again, not hurting this village, will she remember any of these thoughts?
Oh. Oh. She's... she's going to have to do it. She's going to have to... but these people are innocent...
...It doesn't matter. She's too scared of Shadow Weaver, she's too alone, she's too frightened and confused and this path, at least, promises no fingers at her temples, no thoughts stripped out of her mind.
So she says the words that will haunt her for the rest of her life with confidence she does not feel.
“ Burn it to the ground,” she orders. And so it is done.
Shadow Weaver compliments her. She accepts it with grace, but is careful to keep her distance from Shadow Weaver's hands.
(Catra, please, be ok, I'll save you, and then you can save me)
Catra is not ok.
She is weak and broken during Entrapta's castle, and Glimmer carries her through. Bow carries her through. A kitchen staff she has never met carries her through. Entrapta, even, carries her through, despite it all being her fault in the first place.
Catra... disoriented, weak, hallucinating... protected. Saved. No one protects her but Adora, no one has ever comforted or saved her before. It's why she never once wanted to try any form of hallucinogen or alcohol; it would be just asking to be struck down in a moment of weakness. There has only ever been one person who thought Catra worth the time and effort to save before...
It's just another new thing, and she hates it, and she puts the castle of the scientific princess out of her mind. It didn't happen. It didn't happen.
But that part of her that trembles grows.
So much death. All on her hands. She has... done so much wrong, now. Things she had never thought she'd do, done perfectly, the way Adora does everything perfectly. Who knew her talents extended to atrocity?
But the other candidates don't see it that way, they compliment her, they boast of their “badass” Force Captain, even though it was nothing more than farmers. Adora finds herself full of a vicious hatred for them, for her soldiers, for these cowards in armor, who uphold no honor- and an even deeper hatred for herself, for not seeing that the honor and glory she had so long spoken of was just a lie fed to her as a child. Catra was always smarter, she saw through it years ago. Adora, though...
At least some of it has to be the simple fact that Shadow Weaver has been digging in her skull like a gold mine for years, Adora will never forgive herself if this stupidity is entirely her own fault. It's hard enough to live with the crushing guilt that's eating her alive as it stands. She is a bad person, who serves more monstrous souls, and she is Evil with the capitals intended. She always has been.
Only Catra ever questioned the Horde, only Catra ever thought the whole thing pointless. And she'd been... she'd been right. All this time, Adora had thought she was the superior one between them, morally speaking; Catra never had time for morals, or at least, she never held to the honor of the Horde, never held to the Horde's truth.
And now Adora realizes the hilarious irony of it all, something that's so funny she laughs, even as she sobs; Catra, not her, was the morally superior one. Catra is the one between the two of them who might be Good, with the capitals intended. Catra has always rejected all this, and none of them have. They are all bad people.
Especially her. She's the worst.
(And a flicker of jealous hatred grows in her heart, so unfamiliar to Adora, so alien, so foreign, so strange that she misses it entirely, misunderstands it- this droplet that is the beginning of a hatred for Catra, who knew, who knew all this time, and never told Adora the truth. It is an unfair hatred, but it feels better than hating herself, so in secret she nurses it. It is tiny... for now.)
They take Catra to Mystacor, to grant her some measure of peace. Fighting Adora and being helpless in Entrapta's labyrinth were experiences that haunt her, though she would never admit it; but Bow and Glimmer somehow see through her defenses, barriers no member of the Horde has ever penetrated (except Adora, of course.) She's not sure how; but these innocent souls keep surprising her.
She might even miss them, when this is done.
She keeps her sighting of Shadow Weaver to herself, tells them nothing, though Glimmer guesses much. Of course she does; Catra's not surprised. Having never seen a mother who cared, she mistakes Glimmer's mother as Shadow Weaver in an angel's costume, assumes that all have experienced what she does, and so thinks Glimmer has particular insight to her pain. Glimmer, who has never known a monster like Shadow Weaver, whose mother for all her faults is still and yet a loving mother, cannot guess the mistake.
Castaspella is fun, and Catra amuses herself making fun of Glimmer through the medium of her aunt, at least for a while. Mystacor she has some genuine respect for, given the sheer magic in the place, though it's all misapplied from Catra's perspective. They even tell her about their defense array, which is so mindbogglingly stupid to do that Catra almost informs them of the command spell out of a sense of fair play. Don't they know she's a Horde soldier? Glimmer should have told them, if nothing else, but she says nothing, so Catra doesn't either, and just enjoys the trip.
Lightspinner's statue, though... it's familiar, but it can't be. It can't be her...
She shakes off the past. They go to the beach to relax, and it works, even though she hates the ocean; she lays down on soft sands and warm towels and she sleeps, peacefully at first. Sleep is her favored relaxation, as she never felt like she got quite enough in the Fright Zone; too much like the cats she resembles, she supposes. She has ever felt a call to nap in the warm blanket of sunlight. She naps...
To awaken, as Shadow Weaver drives nightmares like nails into her skull.
The day continues in that vein, Shadow Weaver wearing faces, but Catra is wise to her, recognizes her even if the face is Glimmer's or Bow's. The day is the worst in her memory, even as it is so terribly familiar; Shadow Weaver is hurting her again, the way she always does, though she calls herself Lightspinner at one point and some of the clues start coming together.
But things are different, the story skips a beat, her tone is... strange; she keeps catching herself, keeps trying with Catra to be like she is with Adora. Almost comforting, when she remembers not to snarl at her. Promises her to come home, be a Force Captain, be hers.
It rings so hollow in Catra's ears that when she figures out how to get the defense array running, when she gets her sword to turn into a shield, she doesn't even say anything to Shadow Weaver as she banishes her from Mystacor. She takes only bitter satisfaction in the banishing of her tormentor, in making the story go off the rails, just this once.
Though her last words haunt her- claiming it should have been Adora who found the sword. Is this the source of all her childhood pain, the reason she was so cruelly dismissed? This belief that someday, there would be a sword... and Adora's hand to wield it... and Catra just the hanger-on, just the pet. Maybe it's an accident she got the sword at all, maybe Adora's hand is meant to wield it and Catra is just... waiting. Waiting for Adora to steal the spotlight, like she always does, and take her sword from her, and She-Ra from her, and there will be no more place for Catra in all the world but as Adora's pet. She's just keeping the sword handle warm. A jealous terror seizes in Catra's heart; she loves Adora (though she has never let herself know this) but she hates her, too, the way you cannot help but hate one spared by your own tormentors.
But she banishes the thought the way she banished Shadow Weaver. No reason to ponder it now; it's been a while since she saw Adora, and perhaps they will never know if the sword is hers at all. Mystacor, along with Glimmer and Bow, mistake her actions for a choice, rather than self-defense, and she does not bother to correct them as they praise her.
(She lets herself take only a nibble of that praise, just a nibble. It is a drug so addictive it would kill her to have more than a taste; no one praises Catra. No one tells her how good she is. She partakes in it in only the tiniest way, lets her starved soul have only one bite, and it is still a brightness so great it banishes all the shadows from her heart.)
The Princess Prom is fun. Catra chooses a suit that looks smart, though she adds a small tiara to it, something to jazz up the ensemble. She's a Princess too, after all, though she's not going as one; she's Glimmer's plus one, since Frosta doesn't accept her as a princess of her own.
“ Yet!” Glimmer promises. Catra still wants to go back to the Horde, but she is pleased at Glimmer's faith in her, that Glimmer wants her recognized as a Princess in her own right.
Later, Glimmer reveals her heartbreak over losing Bow, and Catra- who has never once truly comforted anyone- does her best imitation of what she's seen Bow do, tells her the story of her and Adora, and how she's only ever had one friend, too. Glimmer cries, tells her that her childhood shouldn't have been that way, and promises to save her friend.
She doesn't know what to do with that, either, with all that terrible sweetness, so Catra puts it out of mind, even as so much of her is trembling on the inside, now. Standing before some kind of... revelation... that her mind cannot stomach. Not just yet.
Thankfully, distraction appears... in the form of Adora, showing up as a scorpion princess' plus one, in a smart, fitting Captain's uniform. Catra tugs at the collar of her own suit, overwhelmed with all kinds of things, and Adora asks her to dance.
“ We've got a plan to save you,” Adora says. “ To get you back home. Are you ok?”
“ Yeah,” Catra replies, determined to look cool in the face of all this. Adora is so serious, and so determined, and she's going to save her, and Catra is overwhelmed on the inside. “ You know me. It takes more to break me.”
Adora flashes her a smile as big as the world. It is jagged around the edges, there is something... off about that smile, but it has been so long since Catra has seen it that she chooses not to question it. Seeing her is good enough. “ That's true. Scorpia's getting the plan set up.”
Catra doesn't know this Scorpia, but she could kiss her right now. She brought both Adora and salvation to her; a fine friend, even if they've never met.
“ Thank you,” Catra says. “ Hey, have you tried getting Frosta on your side? I think she'd be amenable.”
Adora seems uncomfortable. “ Umm, our plan is... almost certainly going to ruin any moves in that direction.”
But then her gaze hardens. “ But rescuing you is more important than Frosta.”
Catra gulps under that gaze that takes her all in, and does not find her wanting, that steals her breath away. When did Adora ever become... this? So hard-edged, so strong, she thinks that if Adora did turn out to be the sword's wielder after all that it would not be so bad, not if Adora would just look at her like that, forever.
(In Adora's mind, she wonders if Catra will come at all, or if she is more comfortable where she is. But she does not let herself ask that question. Not yet.)
Something goes wrong, and the plan goes wrong. Glimmer and Bow are captured, and to her horrified, stunned surprise, Catra finds herself... worried for them. Fears for them. She is left behind in the chaos- Glimmer's last order to her was to get out, save herself.
Save herself from what? Adora was taking her home! Mad as she can get, Catra puts feet to floor and goes back to Brightmoon.
Her mind, very carefully, does not ponder why she interpreted “save yourself” as “don't go back to the Fright Zone.” Glimmer's commands are absolute, but still vulnerable to interpretation. If she had truly believed the Horde was safe, then why did she not “get out” and “save herself” by simply joining Adora?
She pushes it away, and does not answer the question, because the answer will destroy her.
She, instead- and she refuses to admit this to herself- finds her steps drawn to Brightmoon, where the people have been kind, the food fine, the beds soft. She refuses to allow herself to know this, tells herself she's worried the spell might kill her if she doesn't at least try to go back, even as she's aware that Brightmoon would not build a spell like that, even as her guts tremble, tremble, tremble, on the cusp of some kind of understanding that will blow her away.
Huh. She'd kept knowledge of the spell's loopholes with her in hopes she'd have an opportunity to break free; now, knowing that she is making a choice here... it hurts. It hurts, and confuses her, that when told to be safe, she has moved with willing feet to Queen Angella's castle.
When she gets to Brightmoon, finally, the one person more surprised than Catra to be there is that very same Queen, who had already written her off- and that makes the Queen not so naive, and Catra's estimation of her grows. The Queen tells her that the Horde have made an offer- Glimmer and Bow for She-Ra, that's the deal they want to cut.
They'll never honor it, and she knows they're being tortured right now. Catra knows this, and feels sick in her guts. She is, despite herself, horrified for Bow and Glimmer, she would save them, if she could. She justifies it to herself as best she can, but even she sees the holes in her theories- they saved her when she was weak and sick, that one seems alright, but there was a time when Catra would have stolen the kindness and given nothing back. But now... now she feels as if she... as if she must. As if she would be lesser, if she did not go save them. As if not saving them would be a danger worse than running back into the Fright Zone and fighting all of the Horde at once. It is not courage, not precisely, it is being more scared at the idea of never seeing them again, of them being hurt, than of any danger to herself.
She's never felt this way for anyone but Adora before. It frightens her, even as she moves to fulfill those wishes.
And... there is something else. When Catra sees the worry and fear on the Queen's face, the way Shadow Weaver never would have worried or feared, she finally figures out that the Queen is not Shadow Weaver, and wonders what it would be like, for someone to be so worried for her, to be so sick to their guts with love of her. She wants... she wants to make that better, she wants to reward the Queen for being a good mother, silly as the thought is. She has never had that, and somehow she finds it impossibly precious, it is worth more than gold, to see this woman who loves her daughter.
Catra offers to lead a rescue. (Sometimes, you surprise yourself.) The Queen knows it is stupid, to give her even the smallest inch of trust to her, but she is desperate and afraid, and commands her to save her daughter and Bow.
And the Princesses arrive to help. Even the hippie. She can admire that courage, if nothing else.
They make a plan, and they go forth, like a breath exhaled out of the earth... back home, finally.
( The trembling part of her knows it is not home.)
The plan's pretty simple. This is a smash-and-grab, a raid, not a conquest; they're going to go in the front door by kicking it in, set fire to the whole thing, and grab the prisoners. She's not interested in stealth, because stealth is expected in the Fright Zone, it is designed to catch infiltrators; but a full-on assault, that the Fright Zone is not prepared for.
Catra knows, because she knows the Fright Zone like the back of her hand; Hordak relies on the Horde's reputation to keep opponents away, and doesn't actually have that many troops on hand, since Horde armies are out conquering places most of the time. Since the Princess Alliance broke the last time, they haven't had an opponent who could mount that kind of assault anyway, so he thinks it's safe; but Hordak doesn't know the Alliance is reborn, and it's got even more strength now that Catra has joined them, now that she is She-Ra, Princess of Power.
At least, that's what she tells them, that's the plan she sells them. Of course, as the trip went on, she almost convinces herself she's lying. She's going to find Shadow Weaver and Glimmer and get this stupid command spell removed. The Queen was right not to trust her, and she's going to bring back to Hordak not just the sword and her power as She-Ra, but all these princesses too- deliver the newborn Alliance right into his hands. She's told them to retreat on a signal she will never give. Better to reign in the Horde than serve in Brightmoon...
...Right? (She trembles. Some part of her did not design this plan as a suicide run. This plan would work, if she did give the signal. Some part of her is giving her an out- a chance... a choice. She has no idea which Catra is going to win, she has no idea what choice she will make. She trembles.)
So they come in like thunder. Mermista forces sewer flows out of manholes to drown enemies in their own filth. Perfuma proves surprisingly capable, even if half of her job is keeping Entrapta in line- and Entrapta is worth any three Princesses, even with the trouble she causes, Catra has nothing but admiration for the goggle-eyed tech genius, who figures out Horde tech as soon as she looks at it. Even Seahawk manages to be useful, and her estimation of the silly sea captain rises... even as her heart sinks as she realizes she has led them all to their deaths.
(She will hate herself for this. She... she doesn't have to kill them... she can give the signal then stay behind, right? She... What does she want? For the first time in her life, Catra has no answer to that question, just a bundle of assumptions and wordless wants. A fine pillow. Good meals. That look on the Queen's face. Sleeping in the sun with friends to watch her. Adora. And the Fright Zone only gave her the last of these things...)
She is separated from the group just as they find Bow, just as she planned, though she throws one more glance at the entrapped archer than she intended to.
Maybe it'll wear off in time, once she's Force Captain. Maybe it'll give her nightmares for the rest of her life.
She tears off, to find Glimmer, exactly where she was going to be- Black Garnet room- with Shadow Weaver standing over her.
These princesses- with all their powers- are more than most can take. Lohnnie keeps up with them too, but mostly it's just Adora, Adora and all her tech and cleverness and quick thinking.
“ Why are you doing this? Catra is a slave of your queen!” Adora yells as they fight.
“ No she's not,” the mustached man says, quirking an eyebrow. “ She's the one who gave us the plan to get in!”
“ That- you're lying! You made her give it to you!” Adora shouts. The mustached man raises an eyebrow.
“ Uh, no we didn't. I mean, I didn't, anyway,” he says. A blast of water heralds help from the gloomy mermaid, forcing them back.
“ She-Ra's helping us,” the water wielder says. “ Gave us the plan and the idea. No prompting necessary.”
That can't be true. It can't.
Adora fights through the tears in her eyes. Catra, Catra...
(a lie a lie a lie your whole life is a lie)
Catra's a princess now, was always a princess, maybe, and... and she's left Adora behind. She didn't need her anymore, so she threw her away. That's why she didn't follow them after the attack on Frosta's palace. She... she went home to organize this.
(that jealous flame burns, that jealous flame begins eating up all of her, rage becomes sanctuary from pain and confusion both. And Adora manages to fight the princesses to a standstill all by herself, buoyed on that fury.)
“ Catra,” Shadow Weaver says, in a voice that she never uses on Catra, but always on Adora, why is she using the Adora voice on her? “ Come to rejoin us?”
“ Yep,” Catra says, with confidence she does not feel. “ I've brought you the sword, all my new power, and the princesses in the bargain.”
“ A fine Force Captain you'll make,” Shadow Weaver says, and while Catra has wanted to hear that from her for so long, it now just feels... wrong. Feels like less than her own victories. Feels... foreign, like the medals of an enemy nation. “ I've a gift for you, in honor of your achievements. Princess Glimmer has informed me of the command spell. She will remove it from you now.”
...She really would like to be free of it. “ Alright,” she says, and she does not shiver when Shadow Weaver puts a hand on her arm in something like comfort and friendship.
It is the hardest thing she has ever done. All she can think of is that hand clenched as a fist, threatening to kill her, that hand pointing at her, willing to slay her simply because she had irritated the sorceress.
Glimmer is trapped in a radiant cage of red energy, and she looks... hurt. Catra's heart pumps, pulses, aches. Glimmer. Glimmer should never look so hurt. Glimmer, who is so driven, Glimmer, who is a pretty princess with a punch. Glimmer should never be so... down.
Glimmer gets up, groggy from the prison, and her eyes are so... dead. So tired. So betrayed. Catra's heart aches. Catra kneels before her, lets Glimmer at her back, as Shadow Weaver stands to the side, ready to torture Glimmer if she fails to do as commanded.
“ It was nice being friends with you while it lasted,” Glimmer murmurs, as her hands work the patterns her mother taught her, to set her free. The words are soft, and quiet, and acknowledge that whatever they had, it's over.
And it's funny, but those words cinch a thought that has been been building in Catra for so long now, the thought that constitutes the precipice inside her, the thought that makes her insides tremble, even as the spell fades and Catra is free again.
Glimmer is not stupid. Glimmer is not naive. None of them are, even the plant hippies had methods to what she had, in her ignorance, supposed to be their madness. This... this kindness, this unbearable kindness they display to her, is real. Glimmer knows she's her enemy now, knows that with no spell Catra rejoins the Horde. She holds no illusions that Catra will stay with her. She is no fool.
And if they are not stupid, if they are smart, then it means... that they might not be wrong. If they are not wrong, then they might be right, and Catra might be wrong, and maybe... maybe she can have this sweetness, this terrible sweetness, maybe she does not have to be cold and hard and brilliant inside. Maybe what she has seen in Brightmoon can be hers, friends who care, people who care, a people and a home to call her own. Maybe they really are her friends, or can be.
(And somewhere, so quiet, in the back of her head, the voice of Catra the child, the part of her that has never recovered from Shadow Weaver- maybe a mother who cares. A fantasy, but she would pay a terrible price, to have Queen Angella look at her the way she looks at Glimmer.)
That trembling part takes over all of her, and she has to choose. Her future is Horde or Brightmoon, and... and has she ever had a choice before? No wonder she trembles on the inside, she has never had a choice in all her life. There was simply survival, and then the command spell. Never a choice before now...
But now... she is free. Whatever comes next, it will be her decision. All the responsibility of it will be on her, and with no shield of survival to hide behind. It will be her fault, for good and ill.
Glimmer's face is crestfallen as she turns. Shadow Weaver looks at Catra with eyes that cannot help but narrow in contempt, even as she attempts to sweet-talk her. Both of these people have held her life and her freedom in their hands, and only Glimmer has been kind.
She was wrong before. This is the hardest thing she has ever done. Her guts feel ready to spill out of her, she trembles so much, her breath comes in two short, quick pants.
But... but she wants... she wants. For the first time in forever, she wants, and has a choice, to take it or not.
Thus, Catra, free, Catra of the Horde, Catra who at this very moment has all the freedom she will ever have, who stands before what may be the only choice she will ever have to make... turns and draws her sword, swinging it at Shadow Weaver in the same motion, forcing the surprised and stumbling sorceress back.
Catra, who has chosen, Catra of nowhere but hoping in this moment to be Catra of Brightmoon, She-Ra of Brightmoon, hoists her sword up.
( She chooses. She chooses life. She chooses Glimmer and Bow and the Princess Alliance. She chooses this... this happiness, that is the name of the terrible sweetness that has haunted her, that is the name of terrible sweetness. Happiness. She chooses happiness.)
Standing between Glimmer and their mutual tormentor, Catra does not say but shouts the words, and for the first time, she feels not silly... not stupid... but right.
(The crown and the cloak feel like a righteousness.)
They escape the sorceress with a bit of luck, Catra hauling Glimmer in her good strong left even as she carves a path back with the blade in her right. She sends the signal she had, once, thought she would never send- bless her past self, that set it up so that she could, so that her choice could be made at all- , and they go into retreat.
But all is not well. Entrapta is lost, and Catra feels... awful... about that, though she cannot show it with tears. Even with her decision made, some part of her will always be that kid in the Fright Zone, afraid to show emotion. Nothing to be done for it, it happened so fast... but still, that last image haunts her. She never got to repay her for saving her life in her castle. Now, she never will.
The Alliance, successful, shatters anyway. She rages at them as cowards. She can do nothing else. They leave, fleeing back home, unable to accept that a single loss for an attack so successful is an amazing result, even if the loss was Entrapta, who was the best of them. Catra is so mad she nearly attacks them, but holds back, lets them leave at Glimmer and Bow's urging- and she can trust her friends.
That's nice to say, and nicer still to say it and have it be true. Glimmer walks with surprised eyes, keeps hugging her and apologizing for thinking poorly of her; Bow, impossibly, says he knew she'd do it, and she takes both their loud and their quiet affirmations of faith in her inside herself, as precious treasures to keep.
( She has chosen. She has chosen. It catches her, sometimes, this revelation that she had a choice and... and she thinks she made the right one. She has no experience with choices, but she thinks that this feeling of joy- this happiness- cannot be wrong, is sign that her inexperienced hands have nonetheless done the right thing.)
In Brightmoon, she returns a daughter to her mother's side, and the Queen's surprised joy is a reward so sweet it will poison Catra with its loveliness. She takes her aside, and apologizes formally for the command spell.
“ It was needed,” Catra says, because some part of her wants to... open up, to talk to this woman, wants desperately for there to be someone older she can trust. She has never had that, and the lack of it keens in her, cuts her wide open. “ I wasn't... a very good person. I'm still not.”
“ More than good enough,” the Queen- Angella- says, and her smile is so good to see, it sews up some wound that Catra has always carried, it is salve and cleansing of infection. “ You saved my daughter, after all.”
Catra feels ashamed, has to admit the truth to her.
“ I almost-,” she says, and chokes. She can't admit how close she was to not saving Glimmer, how her daughter is saved only by that thinnest of razor's edges, that thing called choice. Hot embarrassment and shame fill her, almost spill out her eyes- but she is saved that last indignity by her inner strength. “ I almost...”
And the Queen, hearing the truth Catra cannot speak, does not reject her, as she so fears, but embraces her. Hugs her. She has never been hugged like this before, big and comforting, the wings like little downy pillows. No one has ever hugged her before but Adora, and that had a different edge to it. This... this is... comforting, and safe.
“ But you didn't,” the Queen murmurs into her hair, so soft and sweet. “ You didn't. That's what matters. Not what you might have done, or almost did, but what you did. Never forget that.”
Catra almost cries. Not quite. But it is an awfully close thing, and when she looks up at the Queen as the hug ends, her eyes shine a little.
( The Queen looks at her, sees how incredibly young she is, sees that for all her bravado and battle experience she is just a child, and one that has been badly hurt at that- but a child who did the right thing, who has saved her daughter and fought for her people. She deserves better. Angella resolves then and there to support this girl, who has given such a boon to her family, even after they enslaved her. She deserves it.)
When she has recovered, when she is steady, she goes before all Brightmoon to pledge herself to the Queen. There are no doubts in the Queen now; there cannot be. She had a chance to betray them all, and she returned triumphant with daughter in hand.
Not all Brightmoon agrees, too many are cautious still, but the Queen's trust is absolute and she lets her pledge herself to Brightmoon, to her service. If the Alliance is dead, then Catra will simply have to pick up the slack.
And so Catra is no longer Catra of the Horde, nor Catra of nowhere at all, but Catra of Brightmoon, She-Ra of Brightmoon.
Entrapta hangs on the wall, all enthusiasm and perkiness, and Adora tries to figure out what to do. Shadow Weaver rages helplessly, and Adora has been ignoring her orders to come see her, is too frightened of what might happen to go to her- and she has never disobeyed before, but given everything that's happened, it doesn't even feel that important.
There are rumors that Hordak is going to demote Shadow Weaver and get more involved in the goings-on down here. And frankly, Hordak scares the hell out of her. She wasn't even smart enough to deal with Shadow Weaver, not smart enough to see the truth about the Horde. How will she deal with the guy who runs the place?
And there is more, the thing that has left her numb. Catra is gone. Catra left. The princesses were right. Catra has made a choice. Shadow Weaver confirmed the spell was off of Catra, and that it was after it was removed that Catra attacked her. Catra... Catra's free. And has freely chosen the Alliance.
Catra won't come back. She'd had her chance and blew it, ran off. Claiming she'd come back... she was lying then, at the dance. When Adora had felt like they were so close to talking about what they had never named, the thing between them.
...That was probably a lie, too. It was all lies. Everything. Hell, Adora was too stupid, too blind to see the truth of the Horde; why in the world did she assume Catra cared for her the way she cared for Catra? The way she still cares, somewhere inside.
But Catra is gone, is wrapped up in princesses... and for all Adora knows, she's with one of the two she is always with, or maybe both, she'd always expressed appreciation for men and women both before. She never needed Adora, never cared for her the way Adora cared for her.
That flame of hatred grows, and Adora makes a choice. I
(It's all lies. Adora is the bad guy in the story. Catra's the hero. So if she's a bad guy- and she burned that village down, she serves Hordak, she is a monster, she is Evil with the capitals intended- then it's high time she played the part. Something furious and jealous and, above all things, hurt propels her forward.)
“ Entrapta,” Adora says, voice a low, doglike growl. Seduction and cleverness were Catra's trademarks, and Adora only has the blunt force of her own personality, but the beauty of brute force is that, if you have enough of it, it will always suffice.
That, and a willingness to lie. Adora is surrounded by so many lies, what's one more?
“ Your friends left you to die. They chose to sacrifice you. Probably because you're good with technology. The rest are elementals. They don't traditionally like tech.”
“ That's not true!” Entrapta replies, full of trust, but faith in others is something Adora has a lot of familiarity with, and having that faith destroyed is something she has become so intimately familiar with lately that this almost feels like a retread of that old ground. In an hour's time, she has Entrapta worn down, crying, admitting that no one is coming to rescue her.
“ You can get revenge,” Adora says to her. Revenge is a beautiful thing, it is the only thing Adora feels that does not carry hurt with it. “ They left you to die on purpose. So why not pay them back?”
Crying, hurt, Entrapta signs up. Scorpia watches with horror, but Adora sees so much of herself in the big Force Captain that she cannot help but hold her in contempt; something in her wants to bark at Scorpia when she protests, wants to cut her to ribbons with words alone. She is, somehow, innocent, the big girl is sweet in ways that Adora once was, and it hurts, it hurts to look at her and see the naivety, the optimism, the kindness there. When she doodles them as friends, she is torn between hysterical laughter and the sudden, overwhelming urge to put a sword through her guts.
Adora has never been this before. Never been so bloodthirsty. Never been so angry. But... it hurts, everything hurts. She wakes up every morning and Catra is not at her feet. She wakes up every morning to the knowledge that her mother, the only mother she has ever had, has been stealing memories out of her brain, and editing the ones she leaves behind. She wakes up every morning to the knowledge that she cannot trust her own mind, and that she has been wrong all her days; that Catra is the hero, and she is the villain, and she is too far gone now, she has burned villages and plans the destruction of cities entire. It hurts, it hurts, she hurts.
And the rage, this all-consuming fury, this hellhound thing inside her that howls for blood- it is the only thing that doesn't hurt, it takes the hurt away. It is purely physical, it is gratification immediate and pure, and she doesn't have to worry that it's fake because Shadow Weaver is so cold that she would never implant such volatile emotions inside her. It's real, it might be the only thing inside her that's real at all.
So she feeds it, she takes this Fenrir inside and does not chain her up, but feeds her, lets her grow fat and strong.
She has two orders for Entrapta. First, poke around the one crystal they have, see if her theories have merit... and second, build her a suit.
She needs something, if she's gonna take on She-Ra.
(Don't call her Catra, it makes it a little easier if you don't call her Catra.)
Catra eventually seeks answers to her powers, to help Glimmer, seeks what turns out to be a strange place in the woods that is... different.
She is joined by Adora, shortly thereafter, and her eyes light up on seeing her, even as she takes in the strange armor Adora's wearing. It's bulky and huge, comes equipped with a shield thick as a marble column, makes Adora a good foot taller. And the helmet is a snarling dog- that's a bit weirder than it needs to be.
But Adora pops that hood off and grins when she sees her, lets it retract. Who the hell built that for her? It almost looks like Hordak's armor. Maybe Adora got promoted.
“ Hey Catra! Or, err, is it She-Ra? What's appropriate?” she asks.
“ Catra,” she replies, honestly. She-Ra she is proud to be, but from Adora's lips, she only ever wants to be called Catra. “ She-Ra's a title, really.”
Adora nods at that. “ So what's all this then?”
“ Some kind of tech support for this sword,” Catra says, brandishing it, showing off- just a little. She likes showing off to Adora, she likes impressing her. “ Learning new powers. What about you? What's that you're wearing?”
“ Something I stole from the Fright Zone,” Adora says smugly. “ Let's explore, shall we?”
And for just a little while, for all that Catra is now two foot taller than usual, for all that Adora is wearing her gigantic suit, for all that has changed, they are the way they used to be, two girls against the world, fighting monsters and saving each other. Catra is particularly glad to do that last, to show Adora how much stronger she's gotten, that she can save her, now, that this partnership does not have to be so unbalanced.
(Catra misses the flare of rage on Adora's face when she steals her kill, misses that Adora sees her rescue as a taunt- I do not need you, Adora, I only needed you when I was weak. Communications misunderstood, and so much damage from it.)
But then the memories start.
She fights back as best she can. She has new memories now, and happiness to combat them, and these old ones... they hurt, they hurt so much, but she struggles on through. Happiness keeps her afloat. She wonders what Adora is seeing, as these memories flit through their skulls.
(Adora sees a life she once lived, and rejects the obvious conclusion, that Catra cares for her, because if she admits that, then her whole life falls apart again, because if Adora isn't the villain, and she isn't the hero, then who is she? And it hurt so much to fall apart the once that she runs from revelation, chooses to actively misinterpret Catra's actions as smug superiority, ignores that once there were two girls who only had each other.)
It all comes to a head at a valley, at a trap- at a fall. Adora atop the cliff, the sword next to her, and Catra dangling from mechanical webbing.
“ Hey, pull me up,” Catra says when she sees her- but the look on Adora's face.. she's never looked like that before.
Adora does bend down- but to pick up the swor.d
“ Shadow Weaver thought I'd have this,” she says, quietly. Catra looks at her in bewilderment. Where was this coming from?
“ She raised me all my life to pick up this sword,” Adora says quietly. “ Left you alive as a pet, something to keep me company. But then you took up the sword, instead.”
Adora sighs, and sounds so terribly old.
“ Just another lie, ” Adora says, as she stands above Catra and holds the sword, and Catra doesn't know what to do anymore. “ You know, I wonder if...”
She swings the sword up, and she looks so perfect standing there, and Catra's worst fears clench up in her throat as Adora roars, “ For the honor of Grayskull!”
For just one second, Catra knows, knows way down deep in her bones, that Adora is the true She-Ra, and she was just a pale imitation, that all she has done was just keeping the sword warm for the true hero. For just a second, every single thing Shadow Weaver ever said about her is true; she is meaningless and it is Adora, in fact, that matters.
(The sword considers, just for a second.)
But the second passes, and reality tears the nightmare down, for Adora stands before her... as Adora. She is not She-Ra. The sword doesn't work for her. What is Catra's is yet hers, and Adora cannot take it from her. Two solitary tears flow from her eyes, gone with a blink, barely wetting her fur. She really is She-Ra. Some small, hot doubt inside is, at last, cold and silent.
(Adora would have been perfect, as Catra had not been, but here and now, Adora is no longer perfect, but Catra has become perfect. There had been a diamond in the rough stuff of Catra, a diamond that chose this, and the sword will take a single tempered choice over a thousand untested hopefuls. The sword is too much to be given to those unworthy, and Catra has proven herself so. The sword will not abandon her, not even come the end of the world. It is Catra's.)
Adora sighs. “ Just another lie,” she says, quietly, and chucks it down past Catra.
“ No!” Catra yells, lunging for it, nearly falling again before catching herself once more.
“ Guess it's just you,” Adora says, laughing- but in that quiet, nothing-is-funny way, those heartbreaking chuckles. “ It was always you. Makes sense. You never fit into the Horde at all- not really. I think... Shadow Weaver saw that in you... saw how different you were... and didn't put two and two together. Thought the She-Ra would be like her, even when, as we now know... the She-Ra is like you.”
Adora sighs. “ And you know what? I always... thought you were more like her than you were like anyone else. I was a good little Horde soldier, but you weren't, and let's be honest, Shadow Weaver's not really Horde material. She's from Mystacor, you know. I bugged some people til they told me. She's all clever and sneaky and ambitious and... and I was never any of those things. But I always thought you were.”
Adora grins at her, small and shattered.
“ But I guess that was just another lie, too. One we all told ourselves. One even you believed. I've seen you out there, Catra. Defender of the people... it breaks my heart. I wanted to be that. Believed I was that. And yet there you are... and here I am... and it's all gone wrong, hasn't it?”
She sniffles, and even as terrified as Catra is, she hurts for her.
“ Pull me up,” Catra says, holds a hand up. “ Please.”
“ Catra... you were always so much... smarter than me. You never believed it, did you? You knew what we were.”
Adora chuckles again.
“ Well... now that I know... I can't very well go back to lying about it, can I? If I'm not the hero, and you're the hero, well... I guess that means...”
And then she pulls out her gun and shoots her.
Something in her shakes, hurts, clenches, aches. Her heart. Her heart, that saw her hands shoot Catra and cannot forgive any part of her, that seeks desperately to die and drag all Adora down with her for hurting her beloved.
But she strangles that, forces the heart to keep going, tells it she does not love Catra. She has believed so many lies, she can believe one more.
She needs to get out of here. Catra is dead, hopefully (no no no no no) or alive, and it is out of Adora's hands.
She has made her choice.
After the fall comes... so many things. Revelations. Revelations and that stupid horse- who is her friend, who she apologizes to. She is new at this stuff, at this making of friends, at goodness and politeness, but the gesture is appreciated; accepted; she is forgiven, and gets a ride out. Maybe she'll make a half-decent princess after all.
She hopes so. Somebody has to save Adora. What's happened to her, over there? What has Shadow Weaver done?
She clutches the sword tight against her side as they fly, and feels so bizarrely grateful, so terribly overwhelmed, by its loyalty. A stupid thought, but hers. It did not abandon her. She is still She-Ra. She is She-Ra. She is buoyed by the faith of an inanimate object in her. Foolishness.
But not wrong, she thinks.
She tells Hordak her plan, and he approves. Entrapta is eager to get revenge. Scorpia alone seems to have doubts, but she is spineless; she goes along with anything anyone tells her. It will make her a good minion for Adora, in time.
Shadow Weaver comes to interfere, of course. Her precious gem. Adora wonders how she ever respected this... thing, this incompetent beast, which rants and raves at someone who could crush her with a thought.
And when she tries- when she goes on the attack- Adora has a moment of ferocious glory when she slams her shield onto Shadow Weaver's head, cracks her gem, shatters it to pieces... and lets her live. There is a sadistic cruelty in letting her live, there is a joyous hatred there, and it feels better than the hurt in her heart. She embraces the beast inside willingly as Shadow Weaver moans in pain and horror both.
“ Lord Hordak,” she says, ignoring her mother-figure kneeling wounded on the floor, “ With your permission, we will continue after this little interruption.”
Hordak actually grins at her, he sees something in her that reflects something in him- that dark and ugly part of themselves, that is so cruel and angry. As Shadow Weaver- as her mother, as she must admit to herself- is dragged away in chains, Adora can feel nothing but joy.
No hurt. She would kill, to live her life without hurt; and she thinks that, very soon, she will.
Catra arrives at Brightmoon on the cusp of a terrible event- the darkening of the skies. Darkness over everything. No Alliance to save them. Just her.
She will be enough. She will have to be. The soldiers are terrified but ready. Glimmer and Bow are counting on her. The Queen is counting on her- the Queen, who at last gives her the same sad smile she gives her own soldiers, accepts her as one of her own whom she sends out to war and death.
She thinks about that sad smile, as she stands before Brightmoon, and the Horde comes to take it all.
She observes them as they approach. Lots of robots. Very... familiar robots. Her clever, cunning mind thinks Entrapta, and realizes the hairslinging technopath must be alive, but captive. Captured. Making machines for the enemy. Rage filters through her thoughts. Entrapta... Entrapta had saved her, so long ago, when she was sick and hurt in her castle. And now, now that Catra's in the princess business, now that she has chosen this, she intends to be the best princess that has ever been. She'll save her.
Right after she solos the entire Horde. It's an impossible task. There are far too many, no matter how strong and fast she is, no matter her power.
But Catra survived being raised by Shadow Weaver. An impossible task. But she did it. The impossible can be done, and she wasn't even She-Ra when she did that.
So when the time comes, she goes, and the enemy falls before her. She saves fellow soldiers from attack and spurs them on even as the enemy comes. Her sword flashes, brilliant lightning, and when it crashes into the foe it produces glorious thunder.
But then Adora comes, and their battle takes precedence, as the two exit the stage to have that most personal of things, a duel.
Adora's suit evens the playing field. She was always better at a straight fight than Catra was, and now, the suit negates her advantages; Catra is faster, but even the power boost of being She-Ra can't compete with whatever mighty technology the Horde has forced Entrapta to build into this suit. Adora doesn't even talk, just growls, roars, attacks her single-mindedly; uses her shield like a bulldozer. Catra has spent most of the fight dodging, trying to talk to the person who has to be inside that suit and all that incoherent rage, but Adora just keeps attacking, slamming the shield down like a titan, shaking the ground they are fighting on.
(Who uses a shield as a weapon? It's like everything in Adora has been inverted; from the wise Force Captain who used proper weapons to this... thundering brute, who treats a shield like a club.)
The suit was built to take She-Ra down, Catra realizes; slower than her, Adora didn't try to keep up, didn't try to match that speed, but simply to focus on her own strengths and overpower her. It will be hard for Adora to catch her in a blow, Catra can dodge for days, but it will take only one to knock her senseless, and you can't win a fight just by dodging.
But... but she can't attack her. It's Adora. And something bad has happened to her. She's got to save her. She's the princess, right? Not just any princess but the girl whos' going to be the best princess. She'll save her.
So she keeps talking. It's all she can do. As war rages beneath her, she talks.
Adora's own strength works against her. She slams where Catra had been a moment before, and the ground gives way; she begins to fall. Catra dashes over to save her.
She doesn't see the gleam of the blade in Adora's hand.
As she pulls Adora back to safety, Adora slips the knife between her ribs. It's so gentle it feels like a kiss.
“ Adora?” Catra whispers, betrayed. Adora's helmet reveals nothing, but she can hear Adora sobbing through the canine's snarl, even as Catra's blood spills out, stains the ground red.
“ I'm sorry,” Adora says, “ but everything's wrong... everything's wrong... I'm the bad guy... I'm so sorry...”
She backs away, apologetic, even as she has sliced her open, even as Catra's life fades. She drops the weapon and runs away.
Catra slips, for a second, before catching herself. Ok. Deep wound. Deep wound. But survivable. She had to... she had to do something. Save herself.
But the Queen is fighting and dying, too. And she swore an oath... and remembers a hug, and a sad smile. She wants to be hugged again. She wants to see that smile again. She wants the Queen to live so she can be near her and Glimmer, and bask in mother's love reflected sideways, just to see it, just to be near something she finds so terribly comforting. To see something she had not believed in, and had never had.
She sees the tank preparing to fire, sees Adora, snarling hellhound face all she could see of her, aim with awful calmness at the Queen. Sees her prepared to wipe that terrible sweetness Catra chose off the face of this planet, to destroy the one place Catra has ever experienced happiness.
She doesn't plan out the next moment. She just does it. She staggers to her feet, and gathers her power, jumps despite her wound- right in front of the Queen. She takes the shot. For the honor of Grayskull, yes- but also for the Queen of Brightmoon, who has sad smiles, for Glimmer, who has loved her, for Bow, who has saved her. For all the people who have taught her how to be happy.
To her stunned surprise, even through the pain, even as she falls heavy and dying onto the tower, she feels... happy. Happy that the Queen will live. Happy that Brightmoon will live. She chose happiness, and it rewards her by staying with her, even as she fades into the dark to the sound of Angella screaming.
To her own stunned surprise, she lives. She awakes to see Glimmer, eyes full of unshed tears, a strange power in her hands that commands her to live. Glimmer's powers are all about movement, and so perhaps it is no surprise that she transitions her away from death and back to life, shepherds her towards healing, moves her from one of the dying to one of the living. A power Glimmer didn't even know she had, but that she had to use it to save her.
She staggers upright. The Queen hugs her- the quick hug of the soldier in battle, that must acknowledge something too big for words, but quickly, for the enemy comes. It is still good, it is still comforting, it is still worth dying for.
“ Thank you,” she says, and Catra soaks up maternal affection from that embrace she has never gotten before.
“ You're welcome,” she says, and means it.
Then it is back to the work. The work is made easier as the Alliance, reformed, shows up, finally getting it through their heads that what happens to one will happen to all.
And She-Ra is there to lead them, and when she calls forth the tide of light- a rainbow, of course it's a rainbow, she is a princess now and she is the best princess and her power will be all rainbows- all is right with the world.
Then she almost passes out again. Her wounds have been healed, but she's still missing an almost absurd amount of blood. She-Ra's impossible endurance has saved her life, but it has its limits, and she will need time to recover- but time she has. Brightmoon's best are put to her case, and she has a beautiful hospital wing, all to herself, because Glimmer told them she likes privacy- though she's told Glimmer and Bow to visit often, because while she likes being alone, she hates being lonely.
It hurt to admit that, but it feels good to have them, so she calls it fair enough. She also invites Mermista, who comes, and they enjoy each other's company, two grumpy souls enjoying grumping together. The others visit too, and she enjoys their company, even Perfuma's, who tells her of a statue she has made of Entrapta. Catra shares her own beliefs about Entrapta's survival, and Perfuma hugs her, swears to save the scientist while she recuperates. Good. Catra is best princess, but she's content to let the others do some things- something she shares with Mermista as a joke, cracks the seawater witch up. It's nice to have somebody who gets her sense of humor.
She recovers in her room, surrounded by fluff and comfort, sleeps deep in the nest they offer her, for the first time in her life perfectly safe.
But she does not sleep so deep she cannot hear the soldiers, as they talk around her room, as they argue and fight over who gets to watch over their protector as she sleeps. There is no doubt in Brightmoon now, none of them can doubt her loyalty after seeing her knee-deep in that water, fighting and dying for them, see her leap to save their Queen and take the hit so that the Queen might live. Their words are brilliant sparks of light, thunderbolts that heal her as much as the medicines and tonics do.
She's one of us.
She saved me!
She was dying, but she only thought of the Queen- that's loyalty.
She's a hero!
She saved us all.
She took that shot for the Queen!
She's the only reason Brightmoon's still standing.
She brought the Alliance back!
She's a hero!
We owe her so much.
She's one of us.
She has never been so loved before, by anyone. She has never belonged. In the Horde, she was the pet of Weaver's pet, lower than low. And here, before, she was a caged enemy.
But now, she's one of them. She is, finally, at the last and at last, home. She is Catra of Brightmoon, She-Ra of Brightmoon. She has somewhere she can go and be among her people, she has a people who have chosen her, she has a people who will take her in. She has a home, where she is safe, and no one seeks to hurt her. Where she can rest, where she can be wounded, and does not need to snarl, or fight, or cover it up- but can let herself be vulnerable, let herself rest, let herself be loved. Where she can be happy, and partake of this terrible sweetness that so consumes her, that she has chosen, that she has been willing to die for.
It is a reward beyond all her ability to measure.
She has no idea what to do with this. Starved of praise, starved of love, she eats it up, she devours their words whole, she stuffs herself to bursting on this feast after so many years of famine. Her people. Her people. She would stand in that water and die a billion deaths just to hear them say these words. No one has ever loved her before.
And now, she has the love of a people entire.
It is a fine reward. She falls asleep to the sound of her name spoken of lovingly on the lips of others.
Glimmer and Bow meet with her on the day she is to be released, and she tells them, finally, everything about Adora. About her love for her, that she is finally able to admit; almost dying has broken some locks in her soul, makes some things smaller so they fit in her mouth, finally. About the strangeness she saw in her, how she has... changed. About how she has to save her.
She does not cry, even as Glimmer and Bow both do. But then it occurs to her that, if she were to cry, then these two would not mock her, or judge her, or hurt her, but comfort her, console her, hold her, and it is that thought which finally breaks her innermost dam down; and she cries into their arms, and they hold her tight, and the three of them are a single unit again.
She will save Adora, from Shadow Weaver, or from herself, whomsoever has put this on her. This she swears before the Queen, who invites her to eat meals with her, who sits her at her right hand, and Catra hangs on her every word.
( The Queen will adopt Catra someday, at Glimmer's request, who figures out what it is Catra truly seeks from her mother, who sees it, even as Catra publicly denies it and privately hungers for it. She does not seek anything political, disavows any kingdom's inheritance; she wants only to be loved, to have a mother, to have someone who can guide her and be kind to her. The ceremony is small, because Catra will cry, and she only wants to do that in front of friends and... as she will remark later, crying again... family. A family she will finally have, once the work is done. Glimmer will be her sister in truth, and the Queen her mother, and Catra will be at peace.)
Hordak promotes her. She has come closer to victory than anyone else, and he rewards that in her; say what you will, Hordak has excellent management skills. He's far more dangerous than Shadow Weaver; she'll have to be careful when she kills him.
She must take over the Horde. She cannot be Catra's true villain if she is somebody else's subordinate. The tale must be told, and she must be the villain, because there is nothing left for her. Hordak is thus an obstacle; but for now, she will move slowly, will obey. Whatever makes the Horde stronger improves her own position when she seizes the title of Horde Prime for herself.
She cannot be the hero, but she can be the villain, and not all stories end with a hero's victory. And if she simply focuses on that, she can ignore how much she hurts inside.
(And somewhere in the back of Adora's mind, some piece of herself desperately wants to go back, to be forgiven, to stop all this.)