“Oh- Alan, I’ve gotta hang up.”
“What? Did something happen?”
Yeah, something happened. A macaroni box happened.
Or, more specifically, a box of elbow pasta. Upright on the floor, the cardboard is in surprisingly pristine condition- it’s torn open and slightly squashed at the top, but it’s still intact. Sam approaches with a caution born of increasing dread; nudges the container with a foot.
“Crud.” Sam stuffs a fist against his mouth and stifles a harsh sigh in it. There weren’t any empty boxes of pasta in the house when he left for work this morning.
“Sam, what’s wrong?”
“They got into the pasta.” On any other day, Quorra’s antics would amuse Sam; today, he’s too exhausted to deal. He needs to sleep and possibly cry and not clean up after some new disaster. “I… there’s just the one box, but it’s empty. I don’t wanna know where the noodles went.”
Alan makes a funny noise through the phone. “Pasta?”
“Yep, pasta. Listen, I’ll call you back later, okay?” After recharging mentally. And after fixing the pasta. “I’ve got to go.”
“Good luck, Sam.”
“Sure, Alan. Bye.”
It takes every remaining ounce of willpower in his body not to give up and just drop his phone on the ground. Stooping over, he snags the pasta box with one hand and tosses it in the air; catches it lightly. At least his reflexes aren’t completely shot. Pushing through the doorway to the backyard, he catches one shoulder against the frame, rattling his entire skeleton with a clumsy thunk- and yeah, that’ll bruise. “Quorra?” The evening heat is unholy. “Are you out here?”
“Down here, Sam!”
“Nah,” Sam mutters under his breath. The tip of his shoe clicks against some small object resting, loose, on the uneven cement of the patio. It’s a noodle. A user-glitched noodle. “No need to tell me, honestly. I could’ve just… followed the trail.”
A veritable blood spatter of elbow macaroni covers the ground, leading toward the embankment. It’ll be a pain to pick up, and how did Quorra even manage this…?
A second box, propped up against a cinder block, answers his question. The bottom of it is raggedly torn, as if it caught on some sharp corner and spilled a minefield of dry pasta over the deck.
A sudden, sharp pang of discomfort pierces his brain, right between his eyebrows. Sam raises a hand to his forehead, pushes fingertips into the bridge of his nose, and tries to chase the pain as it burrows deeper into his skull.
Besides the throbbing in his head, everything is eerily silent.
Pausing to pick up this box and tamp down a growing sense of hysteria, Sam feels like he’s gathering evidence for some form of pasta forensics. Or just, maybe, for his accusations against Quorra. If he can convince her to hold still for long enough, he’s certain he can guilt trip her into picking up her own mess.
Stepping up to the edge of the yard, Sam allows himself a moment; breathes.
From his vantage point at the edge of the slope, the river looks stunning. The setting sun shimmers in the hot air, like molten liquid suspended in the sky, disgorging red into the horizon. Dull fire clings to the edges of metal bridges and cement buildings and spills down into rippling water. Sam feels the color and temperature settle heavy on his shoulders…
“Alright, Quorra.” He slides down the inclined shore, dust catching on his socks and ankles, and finds Quorra easily. She’s tucked away beside a steeper shelf of dry rock and dirt, out of view of the house, using a filthy quilt as a picnic blanket. This is expected. As is the small pile of ransacked pasta boxes (penne, farfalle, rotelle) settled beside her.
Sam did not, however, expect to find Tron.
Cross-legged in the dirt, wearing only a t-shirt and a pair of Sam’s shorts, the program seems strangely exposed. A fine layer of dust coats his legs- are those grass stains on his knees?- and the mundane, user-world normality of the dirt sticks out in sharp contrast to pale, smooth skin and dim circuits.
Surrounded by a distressing amount of scattered pasta, Tron is methodically sorting the disorder into neat piles. Not by pasta shape, of course, but according to some arbitrary system…
“Two of you, hm? You’ve got yourself a partner in crime,” Sam muses, staring down Quorra.
She almost ignores him, humming in unconcerned agreement. It’s Tron who finally looks up, squinting against the sun.
At least one of the two programs sounds guilty. “Hey, Tron. Uh- so, what’s going on here?”
He notices pasta. Glue. A stack of dirt-smeared paper, held in place by a chunk of cement.
“We’re making pasta people,” Quorra boasts (real thoughtful of her to finally join the conversation) and Sam can practically see her mentally preening. “It’s art, Sam. Pinterest said so.”
“Pinterest.” Sam shakes his head. Quorra nods distractedly, and Sam belatedly notices a yellow stalk of grass caught in her disheveled hair. Without ceremony, he drops his cargo of pasta boxes in favor of leaning over, plucking the weed out of dark tresses. “And did Pinterest tell you to open every last box of noodles we own?”
Tron tsks quietly.
Raising a challenging eyebrow, Quorra gestures vaguely at the carnage spread around her. “I needed a variety of pasta forms.”
“Clearly.” Riding out the full surge of brotherly sentiment (any emotion, at this point, will work better than the frustration simmering in him), Sam kneels beside her, wets the tip of his thumb on his lip, and rubs at a spot of grime near Quorra’s temple. She wrinkles her nose in distaste, but doesn’t shy away.
“It’s not sensible, Sam. Considering the importance of art, pasta manufacturers should combine different kinds of pasta all in one box. Then I wouldn’t have needed to open so many…”
“‘S that right?” He can survive this. He just has to get excited about Quorra’s creativity; he just has to be proud. Of course, when he’s slowly falling asleep on his feet, there’s nothing ‘just’ about any action. When Sam speaks, the words nearly slur out of him, churned to pieces by his headache. “So- so what are you making with all this?”
Wordlessly, she drops her current handful of pasta onto the blanket and slides both hands under a piece of paper set beside her, nearly shoving it right into Sam’s face. The thing is soaked through with Elmer’s glue, and it occurs to Sam that, for all her natural talent, Quorra has as much experience as a kindergartner in handling craft supplies. As programs go, and especially in the user world, she’s still a kid. She’s still figuring things out, still investigating, still needing someone to keep an eye on her and cut her some slack when she spills pasta all over the backyard.
Sam forces himself to concentrate on the paper in front of him, and… yeah. It’s a person, made of pasta, and that’s all he can decipher. “Alright, who’s this?”
Pasta-Alan flops, soggy, over Quorra’s palms. He’s wearing a bowtie noodle.
A reluctant chuckle builds in Sam’s throat. “I see.”
“No, you don’t,” sniffs Quorra. “The resemblance is… insufficient at best.”
“Pff. He’s got the… the formal clothes and the smirk. It’s obviously Alan.” Out of the corner of his eye, he notices Quorra swallow down a tiny, pleased grin. False modesty doesn’t suit her style of raging enthusiasm, but she tries her hardest, regardless. It’s probably a consequence of living with Sam’s dad while Kevin was busy being a wet blanket. Sam recognizes something of Kevin (specifically the older, fatigued variation of his father he met in the Grid) in her mannerisms and in her moments of abrupt, uncharacteristic solemnity.
Sam shrugs off the observation. He can mull over it some other day.
“You’ve got a whole art gallery going on over here, hm? Who are the rest of them?”
“This is Ed,” Quorra starts, and Sam chokes.
“Dillinger? I like his glasses.”
“Good. I tried to make Lora here.” Linguini hair, cartoonish smile...“This one is Tron.”
Naturally, Quorra’s Pasta-Tron has an appearance completely unlike that of her Pasta-Alan. Nothing about the two figures speaks to their physical similarities in real life; each is made up of a completely different assembly of pasta. Sam has always known that programs perceive each other with a sort of sixth sense, on a level beyond mere sight, but the casually presented evidence of it catches him off-guard.
“And this…” Quorra narrows her eyes and tries to sneak a smirk at Tron over Sam’s shoulder. “This is you, Sam.”
“Really?” Sam gingerly accepts the paper she passes him, although his portrait has dried for far longer than Alan’s and no longer feels flimsy enough to disintegrate in his hands. He doesn’t know where to start in trying to figure out how accurately the macaroni figure resembles him- the hair, made of broken bits of spaghetti, is probably a close likeness. Struck with a sudden wave of self-consciousness, Sam briefly runs a hand through the blond fringe sticking to his sweaty forehead. “Aw- thanks, Quorra. He’s real handsome, isn’t he?”
Quorra snorts violently.
“You making fun of me now?” A lopsided smile finds its way onto Sam’s face.
“Sa-am, don’t pretend,” she drawls. “It’s not even that good…!”
Sam turns back toward Tron, brandishing his noodle doppelganger. “You agree with me, right? Noodle-Sam is pretty handsome.”
Tron sighs heavily. “He’s… very spindly.”
“Tron, you should show Sam yours!”
The monitor startles, circuits sparking on his arms. Tron blushes, too, coloring strangely in the way that programs do: pale violet, more than pink, spreads faintly over his entire face, extending clear down to his neck and arms like his whole body is overheating.
At this point, though, Sam’s interest far outweighs his sympathy- “You made one of these, Tron?”
“One.” The blush fades as quickly as it appeared, but Tron’s face still scrunches under the pain of embarrassment. “I only made… one.” The sentence staggers to an uncertain halt, though the inflection at the end almost implies a question. Careful not to disturb his macaroni piles, Tron reaches behind himself and pats at a paper draped over the flat top of a rock, more checking to ensure its safety than willingly handing it over.
Sam consciously subdues the excitement of laughter that still burns in his chest, softens his voice and smile. “Can I see it? Please?”
Shutting his eyes with an air of put-upon resignation, Tron passes the paper to Sam. Quorra’s sniggering tapers into silence; when Sam turns around to glance at her, she tilts her head forward and tips it to the side, inquisitive and scrutinizing. Sam’s own curiosity makes its presence known in his mind, and he glances downward.
Tron’s art features two macaroni people. Both were constructed very differently from Quorra’s, with a great deal more attention to organization and far fewer broken noodle pieces. The paper, nonetheless, is just as corrugated from overuse of glue as Quorra’s. “It’s… Is that you?” Sam asks, running a finger down one of the figures, which bears Tron’s distinctive tetromino, rendered in ditalini pasta, on its chest. Tron responds with nothing more than stubborn quietude, but Sam takes that as an affirmative. “So that makes the other person… me?”
Quorra offers an (overly enthusiastic) nod in Tron’s place.
The two figures are showing as much affection as noodle people are capable of. They hold hands, pressed shoulder to shoulder, though Sam can’t decide whether the latter characteristic was an artistic choice or a requirement of limited space. He doesn’t want to read too far into an elementary school art project of all things, but when his fingers accidentally catch on his shirt collar, Sam realizes he was rubbing at a physical ache in his chest. Tron’s art is such an honest expression of fondness, of caring…
Sam doesn’t know what to do with it. He doesn’t know how to react.
Something in the vicinity of his lungs has caught fire, and he’s not sure his body can even function through the inferno.
“Tron?” He chokes on his hesitance; reminds himself to man up and speak. “I like it. A lot. It’s…” An idiotic smile quivers over Sam’s lips, and he ducks his face down into his lap to regain some sense of composure. “It’s incredibly sweet.”
Tentative, Tron opens his eyes, and- users above- his blush returns in full force.
Quorra, of course, splits down the sides again, shrieking with new laughter.
Sam nods his head toward her, still eyeing Tron- “Listen to her. She thinks we’re hopeless-” and finally- finally- Tron smiles. The program’s lips twitch into a mellow curve, teeth flashing briefly; his eyes crease at the corners and flicker with soft amusement.
“You like it, Sam?” You really like it?
Sam’s heart twinges. “I love it.” He hardly feels tired anymore; would willingly pick up pasta all day without complaint because he gets to have Tron and Quorra, his two favorite people in existence, with him. “You’re such a dork, Tron, how could I not love that?”
“What about me?”
“What do you mean, ‘what about…’ Hey. Stop making that face, Q, you know I love you.”
(Quorra, as she does, cackles.)