If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more. But you know what I am. You hear nothing but truth from me. I have blamed you, and lectured you, and you have borne it as no other woman [...] would have borne it.
"EMMA," Jane Austin
There were truths in the Horde. Truths that could not be bent, or corrupted. None were venial. All were immutable, unwavering like the fortified steel walls and constantly twisting gears and cogs that keep the Fright Zone strong. Adora knew them as well as she knew herself, but — that was the joke of it all, really, she realized when she first stepped out of its loud, overbearing, suffocating belly and then, years later, when she lifted a sword above her head and brought it down with a crash:
Immutable was a lie. She had never known herself at all.
Adora remembered little of the Horde before Catra. She was too young, and if she were honest with herself little mattered before Catra’s arrival. When she looked back at the time before then her memories were two-toned: the monotonous, rigid structure of training and a black-and-red mask bearing down on her. See, Shadow Weaver’s the first face Adora remembered ever seeing. She always tucked Adora’s hair behind her ears, and always cupped her cheek in a hand, and she always made sure that Adora behaved her best. Not only did Adora reflect Shadow Weaver, but she reflected Lord Hordak himself too. She was born to be the very best Horde soldier. That’s what Shadow Weaver said and she was always right.
“Besides,” she once told Adora, a hand on her head, “you would be nothing without the Horde; without me. Isn’t that right, Adora?”
Adora nodded. “Yes, Shadow Weaver.”
Shadow Weaver hummed. Her hand glided from the top of Adora’s head to her chin, gripping it tight as she tilted Adora’s face up. “Say it.”
“I would be nothing without the Horde,” repeated Adora, the words singing true and right in her mouth. “I would be nothing without you.”
Catra, small and scared and volatile, stepped into Adora’s life. She cried a little too much until their commanding officers beat the habit out of her, and she held Adora’s hand when Adora’s heart got too fluttery and she struggled to drag in her breaths. She poked at Adora’s forehead when they played. She laughed and called her an idiot with a grin on her face that said, I don’t mean it. At night, she curled up against Adora and she always purred and she never, ever crowded around Adora like everyone else did when she got top marks in training. She always waited till everyone dispersed like she knew Adora needed the quiet.
There weren’t really supposed to be friends in the Horde, but Catra, small and scared and volatile, grinned at Adora the first time they climbed onto the highest spot of the Fright Zone and said, “You’re my best friend.”
Just like that: Adora was someone outside of who the Horde told her to be.
See, they grew up on horror stories: Commanding officers and older cadets telling the children tales of Beast Island filled with blood beetles and trees filled with razor sharp blades instead of leaves and how no one ever, ever came back; how you should never lose the Horde’s favor lest you be sent there yourself. See, they lived one: Catra stepping into the Black Garnet chamber despite Adora telling her, “You don’t have to go in there.” Catra, small and scared and volatile, frozen in sparks of red as Shadow Weaver breathed “I will dispose of you myself” into her face. Catra, older and angrier and someone Adora no longer knew, smirking back at her as she pulled the portal’s switch.
See, Adora never heard of love stories until she stepped into the library Bow’s dads owned: Bow handed her his favorite with a smile and told her, “Glimmer gave it to me a few years ago,” his cheeks pink, and she read it cover to cover within the next day. Princesses, and pirates, and love beyond life — love as the answer to everything; love as both the wound and the balm. She sat after, the thick leather bound novel heavy on her lap, and thought of blue and gold eyes; of a pealing laugh echoing throughout the halls of the only home they’d ever known; of nights spent curled up together under the blankets on the bunk they shared, laughing with their foreheads pressed together imagining the places they’d see together. Always together until —
Bow smiled when she handed it back to him the next day. “What’d you think?”
“It was…” she tapered off. Her mouth dried, and her palms were clammy even as she pulled her sleeves over them. She wanted — She didn’t know what she wanted. She forced herself to smile as she hugged her elbows. “It was nice.”
“Did...Did it remind you of anything?” Bow looked at her, eyes kind and knowing. “Of anyone?”
She hesitated. “No,” she answered, and Bow let the lie sit.
Here’s what she never told Bow and Glimmer: Catra never even wanted to be a Force Captain.
“So, new look?”
Adora laughed from her spot sat beside Catra on the small bed. Cheeks warm, she fiddled with the ends of her sleeves. “You have eyes, don’t you?”
Catra hugged her knees tighter to her chest. She sat huddled at the head of the bed still dressed in her pajamas. After they all finished dinner she had stood waiting by the door, hand clutching her arm, and Adora hadn’t been able to control the hopeful pounding of her heart as Catra’s eyes flicked up to meet hers. She wanted to reach for Catra, now. She wanted to touch her; to hold her close, not as a result of life-altering circumstances, but just because. She wanted, and she wanted, and it was as true as the frantic beating of her heart in her throat.
She kept her hands to herself.
Outside the quiet of the room, Entrapta continued to tinker with Mara’s ship. Bow and Glimmer had retreated to their rooms, or maybe together. Adora never knew where the mark landed on them, though she hoped for the best. Glimmer had offered a wink when Adora and Catra had walked away. Adora tried not to think too deeply about it.
Catra’s eyes flitted over to Adora, then away. “I didn’t know. About She-Ra.”
“Oh,” breathed Adora. “Well...Pretty hard to have found out while held prisoner, I guess.” She paused. “Too soon to joke about it?”
“Maybe? Not sure.” Catra smiled at her, just as soft and fond as she had while growing up. She was older now, her face slimmer, her hair cropped short and messy, but the expression remained the same.
Adora hesitated, then settled a hand over Catra’s knee. “We have a lot to catch up on, huh?”
Catra lifted her head, her eyes wide and searching, roaming over Adora’s face. When they were younger Adora thought she understood every minute, subtle shift of expression on Catra’s face and body. It wasn’t until Catra dropped the sword into the chasm inside the Crystal Castle that Adora learned she hadn’t understood as well as she thought she had.
She wanted to relearn Catra, now. She never wanted to stop — not when she just got her back.
Catra smiled. It was the brightest thing in the universe. “Yeah,” she said. “We do.”
“She makes you weak,” Shadow Weaver told Adora hours before Catra left the Rebellion’s base. They stood away from the others centered by the fire pit eating their dinner, far from any curious ears. Adora could see Bow and Glimmer sat close together trying to engage Catra in conversation, but she stared blankly at the plate on her lap.
“You need to come up with new shit to say,” Adora answered. She would’ve never talked back like that as a child, but she found she didn’t care, now. She had come back here for a can opener anyways. She turned her back to Shadow Weaver and looked for it now. “You’ve been saying the same thing all my life. Your one and only stable opinion, apparently, considering how often you switch sides.”
Silence. Adora found what she was looking for and pivoted to find Shadow Weaver standing close with her head tilted to the side, looking at her like she’d never seen her before.
“You used to love me,” she said.
Adora clenched her jaw. “I used to fear who I’d be without you,” she said. She raised her chin, for once not ashamed: “I used to fear you.”
“Again,” said Light Hope.
The simulation dissipated around them. Adora’s hands tightly gripped the hilt of the sword. She knelt on the ground, panting and tired, and leaned her weight against where it stood embedded deep into the floor.
“I’m tired,” Adora said. “Can’t we try some other scenario?”
Light Hope looked down at Adora. “She is your greatest enemy. You lack focus when it comes to her. You must train so that you can defeat her and bring balance to the planet. You must let go.”
Adora clenched her eyes shut. “I know,” she said, opening her eyes just as she tilted her head to look up at Light Hope. “But ― What if I can’t?”
“Then balance will not be restored.”
“I know. I know! I’m trying, okay. I’m trying. Doesn’t that count for something?”
Light Hope flickered. “You must let go,” she repeated. The walls shifted around them, and they were now in the Whispering Woods surrounded by the wreckage of a village.
Adora gritted her teeth and pushed herself up. Smoke filled the space around her just as Light Hope disappeared from her sight. People ran in a panic around her, screams battering her ears. She sighed; turned and found Catra staring at her from where she leaned against a tree, a foot propped on the bark. She lifted a hand and waved her fingers with a smirk.
Adora was fifteen standard years old when she and Catra stumbled on a pair of cadets only a little older than the two of them. This section of the Fright Zone was reserved for storage: Extra armor and supplies, nothing too essential that needed to be locked away like the weapons. Adora liked the space: No one caught her and Catra running around like they had since they were kids. No one could comment that they were too old to play wrestle or that their behavior was inappropriate of two cadets on the path to becoming Force Captains.
This time, though, the cadets were there, hidden at a dark corner, their arms around each other. Two girls, one with the other’s dark, long braid coiled around her wrist, her hand cradling the back of her neck and pressing her close, while the other held her hips. They were — kissing, just like the commanding officers told them not to only a year back. Fraternization was strictly off-limits, they had said. It was a distraction, Shadow Weaver had warned.
Adora and Catra paused. Adora’s heartbeat rushed in her ears, painfully loud. When she glanced at Catra, she found Catra looking back.
They never mentioned it, but Adora couldn’t stop noticing things, after, like how Catra’s mouth was plush and pink, though often chapped. She was still thin, far scrawnier than the rest of them, yet Adora began to purposely turn away when they changed in the locker room after her eyes dipped below her collar, once. While Catra’s hair had always been unkempt and long, she took to wearing a mask that pulled her bangs away from her face and suddenly Adora noticed the freckles sprinkled over the bridge of her nose and onto her cheeks despite the lack of sunshine, pretty and delicate just like the turn of her jaw, the curve of her neck. She was ― pretty. Catra was pretty. A distraction, just like Shadow Weaver always said she was. A distraction Adora cradled close.
“I don’t know if I’m good at this,” Catra said after they returned to the ship from Krytis. She sat cross-legged on her bed, scratching at Melog’s ear from where he stretched out across her lap, shrunken down to the size of a small cat.
Next to her, Adora let one leg dangle off the edge of the bed, her weight propped on her hand pressed flat against the mattress as she leaned just close enough to Catra’s side to feel her warmth. They didn’t touch.
“Good at what? Pet care?”
Catra scoffed. “I ran an army. Pretty sure I can handle a cat.” She glanced at Adora, the corners of her mouth turned down in a scowl. “I just — I don’t know how to be a good friend, is all.”
Adora blinked once, twice. Her face twitched, and despite herself she found herself smiling. Behind her, Catra’s tail bristled and stood straight.
“You want to be a good friend?”
Catra’s cheeks flushed red. She turned her face away from Adora. “That’s what I said, isn’t it?”
“It sure is.” Adora couldn’t stop smiling. Her face ached from the force of it. She scooted closer to Catra, and their sides touched, now, warm and sure and right. She hadn’t — allowed herself to miss Catra. Not really. Not for a long time. She knew now that despite her best efforts she failed in that regard anyway.
“Don’t be so smug about it.”
“I am not.”
Catra shot her a look and Adora raised her palms up in the air with a grin. Then, before she lost her nerve, she reached out. The tips of her fingers touched the soft skin of Catra’s cheek. Catra froze, her eyes wide, but she remained in place. Adora could see the quickening pulse at the hollow of her throat. Slowly, carefully, she cradled Catra’s cheek in one hand. Catra leaned into the touch.
“It’s a process, you know,” Adora said. Her thumb stroked the freckles dotting her cheek like stars. “I wasn’t always a good friend to you.” Catra frowned, and Adora shrugged with a smile. “It’s true. I wasn’t always good to you, and you weren’t always good to me.”
“So why —”
Adora pressed her forehead to Catra’s. “I’m learning,” she said softly. “I want to learn how to be a good friend, not just to Bow and Glimmer, but to you too. And I think — I think we can learn together. If you wanted.”
Catra stared back at Adora. Her eyes softened, heavy-lidded, a smile blooming on her face, and it was better than the burst of magic during She-Ra’s transformation; better than the stars strung in space just outside the barricade of the ship; better than the first bite of the pastry she tried in Thaymor; better than taking off into the sky on Swift Wind’s back. Adora’s pulse quickened.
“I’d like that,” Catra said.
There were things to take care of: A planet doesn’t miraculously recover from a planetary takeover in hours. Glimmer was needed in meetings, and Bow helped reparations efforts, and the Alliance decided to remain together despite the loss of a war.
“We’re stronger together,” Perfuma said during the last gathering, hand holding Scorpia’s claw.
Adora helped as much as she could, too. She helped keep the peace as civilians returned to their towns and villages; helped clean up some of the destruction and rebuild where she could. No one needed her for the politics of it all, nor did they pretend they wanted her for it.
Catra, though —
“Queen’s Advisor is a pretty good job offer,” Adora said with a grin.
Catra mumbled something underneath her breath. The two of them sat on one of the plush seats in Adora’s — now, theirs — room, Catra on Adora’s lap. She crossed her arms over her chest.
Adora ruffled Catra’s hair, struck by the simple act of it. She was allowed to do this, now. She and Catra could sit here, together, with nothing to tear them apart. It still felt odd to recognize the fact.
“Are you gonna take it?”
“I don’t know,” replied Catra. She leaned into Adora’s touch, a purr rumbling in her chest. “Working for Sparkles? Is the pay worth it?”
She laughed that squawking, cracking peal of hers and Adora wrapped her arms around Catra’s waist, pulling her close. She pressed a kiss to Catra’s jaw.
“Ugh, you know I’m going to take it,” Catra laughed. “You don’t have to convince me.”
“Maybe I like convincing you.”
“Well, guess that explains the past few years.”
“I thought it was obvious I was just flirting with you the entire time.”
Catra snorted, then shifted so that she now straddled Adora’s lap, her arms wrapped around her neck. “Oh, please. We both know that was always my department.”
Adora hummed. “No. It was all me.”
“I dipped you at Princess Prom and you still didn’t realize I had feelings for you.”
“To be fair, I was kinda distracted.”
“I did look really good.”
Adora’s face warmed. She hid her face in the crook of Catra’s neck, and this too was allowed. Claws began to gently comb through Adora’s hair, loose and long around her shoulders, and the rumble of Catra’s purr vibrated against Adora’s chest.
“Hey,” Catra started, voice gentle, “you remember after you kicked Horde Prime’s ass when you kinda mentioned another trip, right?”
Adora smiled against Catra’s neck. “Yeah. Of course.”
The gentle tug at her scalp continued. “I guess, maybe, I’m reluctant to tell Glimmer yes right now because I thought — Well, I just thought that we could, y’know —”
Adora looked up, and her cheeks ached from the force of her smile. “Are you asking me out?”
“Idiot,” said Catra, eyes bright. “Why wait? We should go. We should — All four of us. Micah can handle Bright Moon, so it’s not like Glimmer would be missed for a week or two. Bow will go where Glimmer does. And you and me —”
Catra blinked. She leaned back just the slightest. “Just like that?”
“Hey, I’m the one that brought it up in the first place.”
“Yeah, and didn’t follow through. You got a way of making a girl feel special, Adora.”
Adora ran her hands up Catra’s sides, settling them at the curve of her waist. Catra was backlit by the moonlight shining through the open windows, and she looked at Adora like she always had, like Adora always wanted, and then missed, and now had anew.
“Guess I just have to keep trying,” she said, and leaned in to kiss Catra. The simple act of it never lost its thrill, and Adora embraced it.