It is not enough
to say love in Arabic.
You must say
be the thing that buries me,
that turns the clock back to its first hour.
- Hala Alyan
All Adora is allowed to keep from her past lives is her muscle memory, along with base information about who she is, what she’s doing, and who she’s serving.
She figures, though, that her disappointment at leaving the First Ones compound for the first time is always the same. She never finds any trace of the beautiful, golden empire her built-in navigator insists was there once, or of Eternia’s shining towers glinting under the sun and reaching into the sky; what she finds instead is a wasteland of broken buildings, thick smoke rising from the wreckage and coloring the sky a poisoned yellow.
In the wreckage, she also finds Catra.
She looks different almost every time Adora sees her, but her software is set to recognize Catra’s soulprint in all of her incarnations and it’s already downloading everything it has on her, words quickly flashing across Adora’s vision.
Then Catra notices her staring, and Adora waves the words away. She might not remember her, but she already knows everything there is to know about her - like her previous disappointment, Catra is a constant of hers, a wrinkle in her personal timeline. Some of Catra’s code is embedded into Adora’s programming to allow for better soul recognition and improved fighting ability, a vaccine that grows more and more elaborate with every one of their interactions.
Catra smirks at her. Adora fears that, one day, Catra’s coding will override her own, and she’ll be eaten up - corrupted beyond repair.
Her system sets her in motion before she realizes, reacting to the enemy on pure instinct - but even through the smoke, Adora has enough presence of mind to discern a side alley and push Catra in there, pinning her against the first available surface.
Catra doesn’t even squirm against her. She asks: “Did you miss me?”
Not counting the time Adora has been offline, waiting for her new body to be ready - or the time spent in a protective atmosphere, getting used to said body - she thinks it hasn’t been that long; Horde Prime is hellbent on conquering Eternia, and Eternia is hellbent on wrestling the rest of the universe away from him. But compared to Light Hope’s mechanical droning, Catra’s voice is liquid warmth to Adora’s guts.
Even though Catra sports a chip like all of Prime’s soldiers, she’s big enough that she’s allowed to retain a fair bit of personal agency, along with relative freedom over things like her clothing and choice of weapon, as long as she functions exactly like she should. Adora’s teacher always told her that Horde soldiers were just brainwashed vessels filled with Prime’s will, but Catra - she has so much life pouring out of her, so unlike everything Adora knows, that some of it slips into Adora’s cracks. She looks at her and remembers more than she should.
A faraway planet where magic still flowed wild and free, blocking out electrical signals. A cliff’s edge blooming with flowers, overlooking the Whispering Woods. Her and Catra hiding away there for days, play fighting and talking - sometimes just counting the moons in the sky. And then -
One of Adora’s hands descends on Catra’s claws - the normal, as well as the steel ones - remembering the sting. "You killed me," Adora says by way of greeting.
Catra stares right at her. "You killed me, too."
“I could do it again."
It’s all pretense. Sooner or later, if neither of them strike for too long, their programming will take over - but for now, her sword hangs in its sheath by her side as she maps out the lines of Catra’s new face, the different-colored eyes that always stay the same, the freckles on her cheek.
Adora never allows herself much, but relearning how their bodies fit together was the only pleasure she always took - thumb brushing over hip dips where once there were none, fur where there once was smooth skin, knees knocking together now instead of either Catra or Adora towering over the other. Catra has to notice Adora’s hands skimming up her sides, but she doesn’t stop her.
She sighs instead, hanging her head down to almost touch Adora’s shoulder. “I’m sorry. I freaked out.”
It doesn’t leave Adora any less confused. “Why?”
Catra shrugs, almost shyly. “You were talking of running away. Together.”
“You don’t want to?” Adora frowns. “Catra, you’ve seen what they do. They’re going to destroy each other in the end - we shouldn’t be around when that happens.”
"Etheria would only protect us from outside interference,” Catra points out, “not from ourselves. They wired us to kill each other. It’s all we know how to do.”
“That’s not true.” And because Adora likes to be taken seriously, she can’t help but provide proof. She cradles Catra’s face in her hands and gently brushes away a lock of hair that’s covering Catra’s blue eye. Her hair was longer the last time Adora saw her, yet another little rebellion she could allow herself when she was away from Prime for long enough, but Adora feels her Catra burning, even under this flesh. “Tell me you don’t feel it.”
Adora has access to a wide vocabulary, but no combination of words seems to encompass what she actually wants to describe. “Like your soul fits better inside your body.”
She thinks Catra won’t understand, but her eyes reflect only clarity. Adora sometimes forgets that Catra has access to part of her code, as well.
Her thumb moves from Catra’s cheek down to the corner of her lips, and it brushes there, wiping at a speck of dust. For just a moment, it feels like the war can’t touch them, can’t reach the square foot of burnt ground where they’re pressed up against each other. But then Catra sneers. “And you think the soul bond’s got nothing to do with that?”
“Does it matter?”
“You were made for me. Of course it matters,” Catra snarls, but there’s a note of melancholy in there that Adora can’t place. “You can run, if you wish. But if I’m going to follow, I need to know it's because I want it.”
Adora thinks. Though the magic of Etheria would hide them, though they could control their programming for short periods of time, there was no turning off a soul bond. If it didn’t turn them against each other right away, it would hack away at them over time, fill them with doubt, let resentment fester until it eventually took over again.
Thankfully, Adora has always been a thorough scholar. She’s studied everything about Etheria before being dispatched there, and she knows about the ancient magic the First Ones are scouring for. There has to be a spell, a ritual - something to break a soulmate bond.
Catra takes advantage of Adora’s distraction to knee her in the gut, break free, and flee through the streets. Adora follows her all the way to the power plant that fuels most of the First Ones facilities, but when she gets there, Catra’s already made her way inside.
Every building that’s still standing in a ten-mile radius has its electricity cut off for a whole night, but when some of the smoke disperses, Adora finally peeks a lone star in the sky.
She’s reviewed every source on magic that the First Ones have been able to find and downloaded into her mainframe - every book of sorcery, every historical record, every picture of ancient runes. Even the oldest magical records known to men, the ones she had to sneak into the tunnels of Mystacor for, came up empty.
As it turns out, soulmate bonds originally tied people who were destined to be together through every lifetime by having them share part of their souls with each other; as such, they were meant to be unbreakable. Then their respective people tried to weaponize them for their war, and the universe must’ve found it so messed up that soulmates should fight one another that it burned down their cities and let their armies be destroyed.
It’s tempting to wish she could have with Catra what other soulmates had - happiness without fear, apparently. Certainty that they would find each other again, despite all odds, because the universe would arrange to make it so.
But they’ve been denied a choice their whole life. Whether it was the First Ones, or the Horde, or the universe planning, for whatever reason, to keep them together - this is their time to take that choice back.
Catra’s sleeping soundly, head cushioned on Adora’s lap despite the sounds of feet rushing above them. Adora brushes her fingers through her hair, messing up her slicked back look, and marvels at the amount of trust Catra is putting in her - at her pinched up features slowly relaxing, her lips parting on small huffs and exhales. It seems ludicrous to Adora that her recommended course of action would be to kill Catra in her sleep, instead of leaning over and -
There are several reasons why she shouldn’t kiss her. Because she still isn’t sure what Catra feels for her, or what she feels for Catra - just that it’s the warmest bright thing she’s ever seen in the dark. Because their emotions are known to ruin things for them and mess with the little control they can exert. Because no one ever told them what would happen if they did, and there’s a chance it could very much kill them.
Still, not even a secret kingdom in the clouds will hide them forever. Not when Catra has connected to the hivemind and seen her people on their way; not when Adora’s own people are here already, siphoning the magic they need and searching the grounds for those missing in action. This might be the last ever chance she has to find out.
So Adora leans over her, trembling, and kisses her cheek.
She can tell right away that it awakens something. Catra, for one - her eyes flutter open, then closed again, her mouth set into a wince. But what Adora finds more interesting is the way her own software reacts to that simple peck.
Numbers and codes that Adora doesn't understand fill the margins of her vision faster than she can read them. Adora doesn't get sick, not anymore - but getting used to a new body was always a messy ordeal, and it taught her to recognize the signs of her immune system kicking into action. It’s reacting to Catra now as if she were a parasite, antibodies working to destroy the threat before it can cause any lasting damage.
Maybe soul bonds can't be broken - but something Adora failed to consider is that their bond didn't occur naturally. It was man-made - forced upon them, in fact, written into their code to stay for as long as their people had use for them.
She doesn't need a magic spell to crash a computer system. She just needs a really good virus.
Catra blinks the sleep away, glancing up at Adora. "What are you doing?" A hand goes to rub her cheek, but she seems confused, mostly. "Is it my turn to keep watch?"
"I want to try something," Adora says, "and I need you to trust me."
Catra pulls herself up into a sitting position, frowning. "What is it?"
"I think I know how to break the bond. But it will shut down our systems."
Catra’s eyes widen, but she doesn’t look too horrified, considering the conclusion she draws. "You mean we'll die?"
"I don't think so. They don’t keep us alive. But when our bodies are too battered, or - too old, I guess, even though we’ve never had that problem before - our souls won’t be uploaded anywhere.” She realizes what it all comes down to right as she voices it. “They will stay here. Die here.”
Catra doesn’t speak for a long while. This is big news to receive when you’ve only just woken up, and Adora understands that - so her hand moves of her own accord, grabs Catra’s and holds it to her own chest. There is no heartbeat there, not yet. Having blood rush inside your body suddenly sounds like a beautiful human experience - like knowing that the blood could eventually stop flowing made it all the more precious. “But we’d have a life in-between.”
Catra is not fully convinced, she can see it; but she’s drawn to Adora’s every word. This is what she wants, what she asked for, though she’s only discovering the last piece of it now. “Will there be others?”
“I don’t know,” Adora shrugs, unable to stop a shaky smile. “I think that’s part of the fun.”
Soulmate bonds might be a thing that exists, even outside of First Ones labs and Prime chips - but she doesn’t know if one ties them together. She’s pretty sure she and Catra don’t want to find out either way.
Catra’s eyes drop down to Adora’s mouth and stop there, breath hitching. When she nods, Adora’s other hand rests on Catra's cheek as she moves in and kisses her for real.
It happens almost immediately. Red flashes across her vision, signalling danger, terrible danger, and when her defense system starts kicking in, it hurts. Red veins protrude all over her body, stark against her skin as they try to resist the virus’s advance, but Adora only pulls Catra closer, shutting her eyes tight against the pain.
Her mental processes don’t shut down right away. There is a moment, a beautiful moment, where she and Catra seem to coexist inside her head - their codes kickstarting, engulfing, expanding each other - and it doesn’t feel like her anymore. A different her, maybe, being rewritten in all the places the First Ones didn’t want touched.
When they pull away, it’s only them. Veins glow green on Catra’s skin, fading away bit by bit; the footsteps in the distance recede, no longer alarmed by a tracking software pointing to other people in the building.
It’s the first day of their mortal life.