"I don't want you getting in trouble on my behalf," Adora says when she leaves. "Just cover for me, okay? I'll be back before anyone knows I'm gone."
Catra stays put and watches Adora disappear.
She thinks of all the horrible things they say lurk out there, waiting to kill any Horde soldier they run across. She thinks of princesses.
She thinks of how furious Shadow Weaver will be if Catra leaves.
She thinks about the sound of the branch hitting Adora's skull.
"I get in trouble no matter what," Catra says to herself. "Why even try to stay out of it?"
And she heads into the woods.
She follows Adora's trail for a while, sniffing carefully. After who knows how long wandering amid the tree trunks she hears voices. One of them's Adora.
"I'm not a destroyer," Adora's saying. "Hordak says we're doing what's best for Etheria. We're trying to make things better. More orderly."
Some woman shouts, "This is what's best for Etheria? Ever since the Horde got here, they've been poisoning our land, burning our cities, destroying everything in their path. And you're a part of it! How's that for orderly?"
"This doesn't make any sense. The Horde would never do something like this," Adora's saying as Catra creeps up. Adora is tied up, standing between two strangers.
"Did you really not know any of this? I mean, your army is called the Evil Horde," a man says. He's armed with what looks like a bow.
"Who calls us that?"
"...Everybody!" the man yells at her.
He yells even louder when Catra pounces and jams a stun baton into his back. Light sears through her eyes and Adora's screaming, "Catra! The other one's a princess!" Her vision comes back in time to see a blurry Adora rushing forward to tackle the woman she just warned Catra was an enemy princess, because oh Adora, of course. The princess pops out of existence in a flurry of more light and reappears to Adora's side, then shoves her to the ground. Before the princess can do anything else to Adora, Catra rushes her, claws out, and how the princess howls even as her flesh vanishes under Catra's grasp.
Horrifying. But there's blood left on her fingers. Princesses bleed.
For a moment, Catra considers winning this. She's beaten the practice princesses in training. But then she remembers the trees all around them, how they're in the Whispering Woods full of monsters, and there could be rebel reinforcements bearing down on them at any moment. And Catra's not even sure how you fight someone who can teleport.
She yanks Adora up. "Run!"
Adora starts, then spins on her heel. "The sword," Adora says. Her still-bound hands flex.
"It's important! Please!"
Catra darts for it, jumping when the man tries to grab her. Her hands close on the cool metal. "Got it! Now let's go home already before -"
And then some giant insect monster explodes into the clearing with a roar.
They run. Catra doesn't know for how long. But when they stop, panting, there's no sign of the monster or the rebellion soldiers. Catra slices the rope around Adora's wrists and hands the sword over. Adora hugs the metal to her chest like it's the best gift she's ever gotten.
"Can't believe you thought you could do this without me," Catra says.
"Yeah, yeah," Adora says, and she throws her newly freed arm over Catra's shoulder and presses their heads together. Then she pulls back and frowns. "Catra..."
"Don't try to tell me I should've stayed put."
"Like you'd ever listen to me," Adora retorts. "No, it's... The rebellion soldiers, they said, they said the Horde was evil. That we're called the Evil Horde!"
"I mean, yeah," Catra says. She's startled to see Adora's expression crumple. "Hey, Adora, what's the big deal? We call them the Evil Rebellion run by evil princesses. That's like, twice the evil."
"But we're not evil," Adora whines. Her eyes wobble with tears. "Only, there were all these destroyed buildings, and they said the Horde did that, that we're burning cities, and, and there was one of our robots there, and - but that's not what the Horde's like!"
"Adora..." Catra sighs. "Of course it's what the Horde's like."
"Come on, Adora. Why do you think we've got all the cool tanks and bombs? What do you think it's for? Even princesses need to live somewhere. They try to burn our stuff and we try to burn theirs. Tell me, how'd you end up tied up and getting marched away by rebellion soldiers? Was it because you did evil?"
"I...I found the sword and then they found me and...and they attacked me and tried to take the sword," Adora says, her voice firming up. "They said it was theirs. And it wasn't, Catra. I'm not a thief! It was just there and I found it first and it said my name, it picked me!"
"'Course it did."
"And I told them I didn't want to fight, but -"
"But what can you expect from a princess, right?" Catra fills in.
Adora nods, her eyes still a little wet. "They said I was a spy. What's there to spy on in the woods! They were going to take me to Bright Moon and interrogate me. She said her mom would be happy about it." Adora shudders suddenly, eyes going wide. "Oh. Catra I - I think her mom was the Bright Moon queen. She was going to bring me to the queen and, and do you think it's really true the queen eats people like Shadow Weaver said?"
Shadow Weaver eats people. Sometimes, Catra thinks Shadow Weaver makes things up to scare them, and sometimes, she thinks Shadow Weaver makes them up because the truth is even scarier. The Weeping Princess story terrified Catra as a kid but she can already tell The Princess Who Can Teleport Anywhere And What Can You Possibly Do To Stop Her will feature in her nightmares for some time. Being eaten is quick. Whatever interrogation they had planned for Adora wouldn't have been.
There's no one here - no jealous other cadets, no lurking Shadow Weaver, no scuttling Imp. No one else to repeat what they hear, just Adora. Catra admits, "The Horde... The - the Horde's not all great, Adora. And maybe... Maybe we... But those people - Adora, you would have died!" Catra bursts out. "Who cares about being evil! No matter how bad the Horde is, they're worse! They were taking you away to kill you and you would have been gone, forever, and I - I -" Adora had said she'd be back but she wouldn't have, they'd captured her and if Catra hadn't followed - "That's why we have to fight. We have to no matter what. And soon we'll be calling the shots and it'll all be okay, just like you always said."
"Yeah," Adora says. Then her eyes sparkle and she says, "It'll be more than okay! I'm going to tell Shadow Weaver what happened!"
"I'll tell Shadow Weaver about how I got kidnapped by the rebellion and you saved me! I know, I know, 'she just doesn't like me', but it was because the rest of you hadn't proved yourselves yet, but now you have, so I'll tell her that's why I'm picking you for my team." And Adora smiles even more than she did when Catra gave her back the sword. "Together, there won't be anything on all Etheria that can stop us, not princesses or the Whispering Woods or anything."
"Yeah," Catra says, and for the first time since she found out about Adora's promotion she feels like she can breathe again. "Together. Nothing bad can happen as long as we have each other."