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Et Cetera (and other things)

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Sam remembers the first time he saw rain in the Grid.

He remembers dark skies breaking free of their flat expanse, agitating and coiling into noctilucent clouds like silver ribbons. He remembers arid wind that ached like static, that scraped across empty streets and stripped the air of moisture. Sam remembers he pulled off his helmet and derezzed his gloves up to the elbows, feeling cool sweat wick off of the creases on his palms. With arms outstretched, he stood in the street. Inhaled ozone.

Let the rain burn his skin.

(Digital rainfall is a debugging function, apparently, and it’s harsh on code.)

Quorra had to drag him back inside, eventually, and Sam—resisting, still watching the sky—tripped over her feet, brought them both to their knees beneath an overhang. Furrowed concern darkened the corners of her face as she spit hair out of her mouth, disgruntled; Sam curled scalded-pink hands around her shoulders and just laughed.

Rain in the Grid is beautiful, ethereal, unlike anything Sam has ever seen. It has no temperature. It has no texture, either: the droplets fall as liquid, neon white, but fracture on impact, cascade across the street like photonic hail, and dissipate. Crooked and iridescent, wires of lightning blister across the sky, exhaling the sweet fetor of copper and gasoline.

Rain in the user world, in comparison, seems mundane.

“I want to go outside.”

Sam spares Quorra a glance. Sprawled flat on the floor, arms folded beneath her jaw, she stares out the glass doors to the backyard. Something in her bearing—the heavy stillness of her motionless limbs, contrasted with some repressed eagerness in bunched-up shoulders—resembles Marv when the dog has one eye on a squirrel and four feet in his bed. She’s intrigued, sure, but she’s as much a slave to the languor of a rainy day as the rest of them.

Faded sunlight strains through the overcost, catches bright on her blue irises and bleaches them grey.

“In this weather?” Sam asks, skeptical. “It’s miserable out there.”

Her eyes crinkle at the corners, and he thinks she’s probably smiling, but he can’t see her mouth past the curve of her bicep.

“Your rain is very different, Sam. Different color, different smell, different…” She trails off on a lazy sigh, flicks fingers toward the window in a vague gesture. “I want to see how it feels.”

“Cold. You’re gonna get yourself soaked, Quorra,” he warns—but there’s really no way to explain the concept of wet to a program and make it stick. Where Quorra comes from, ‘liquids’ exist beyond the jurisdiction of the universe’s laws; fluid energy vaporizes into code like water on a hot pan (and tends to leave behind vivid stains, unfortunately). Before coming through the portal, Quorra hadn’t been damp for a second of her life, and she still startles herself, sometimes, when she washes her hands in the sink.

“So?”

“Okay. Good point.” Sam shrugs, turns back to his laptop. “Knock yourself out.”

“Does it hurt?”

“You’re making fun of me?” Rolling his eyes, Sam kicks his feet up into the air, stretches until something in his right knee clicks, settles. “Nah, it’s safe. I’m not gonna have to run out there and drag you back inside.” As an afterthought, “but take your socks off. Wet socks suck.”

A balled-up sock hits Sam in the eye.

“Thanks, Q.”

One unique quality of Quorra’s personality is its sheer magnetism. As a rule of thumb, if Quorra is up and moving, it’s a safe bet that she’s also talking her tongue raw, prying, scheming, dismantling some piece of machinery. Keeping up with her intelligence and energy requires the entirety of Sam’s focus; today is no different. Today, she slides open the door (cold air slaps Sam in the face), takes a tentative step into the mud, then pauses. Calculates.

And Sam can’t focus on his laptop, on the stupid spreadsheet for the ENCOM board, to save his life.

Quorra wriggles her toes. “Sam, it’s slippery.”

“Yeah, that’s mud.”

“Is it… normal?”

He watches her skim the bottom of one foot over a shallow puddle, kicking up a spray of grey-brown. “It’s normal. ‘S jus’ what happens when dirt gets wet.”

She spins around on her heels—easy as that, she already has a grip on how the texture of mud works—and grins at him, eyes wide. Questioning. Sam makes his stand. “No.”

“I haven’t even asked yet, Sam,” she laughs, and her voice wobbles as she shivers, curls up against a gust of wind. “Come outside with me?”

“No way,” he repeats. He’s warm, and he’s comfortable: hoodie, sweatpants, long socks, everything. Quorra, on the other hand, is standing barefoot in a puddle; already, her hair’s gone flat and damp, plastered against her temples, and there’s a mosaic of splattered mud clinging to her right shin. “Please?”

It’s tempting. Sam resists. There are other solutions to the situation that don’t involve him getting drenched and wrecking his immune system in the process. “New idea,” he proposes, “ask Tron.”

On the couch opposite Sam’s chair, a shapeless heap of blankets twitches.

“Tron?” Quorra’s voice picks up a playful whine, dragging out the program’s name. Sam counts at least four added ‘o’ sounds.

“I will derez you, Sam.” The blankets shift, exposing the disheveled top of Tron’s head down to his narrowed eyes. “You can’t volunteer me.”

“Just did,” Sam replies, because it won’t make much more than that to convince Tron. By nature, Tron is a killer: ruthless, brutally cunning, and excellent with a disc. It’s easy enough to find evidence of the machine in the hard lines of Tron’s body, in the sharp-edged agility that shadows his every movement. But, by nature, Tron is also a living being: capable of feeling and loving. Of curling up beneath a mountain of blankets and making himself soft and vulnerable, almost domestic.

Underneath the scars and the temper, he’s a softie.

Sure enough, Tron stops complaining. Whuffling, Marv is the first to drop out of Tron’s nest; Sam’s dog relocates to his bed. Reluctant, Tron rolls off the couch, lands in a vague estimate of a plank, and neatly extricates himself from the quilt still tangled around his ankles, walking outside. He doesn’t smile, but then again, Tron rarely does.

There are other expressions (amusement, flashing sharp in his eyes, contentment in the loose shape of his shoulders) to look for.

“Users, this is freezing…”

Quorra cackles.

Sam bites back on a smile, makes a helpful comment of his own. “C’mon, Tron. Don’t be a wimp.”

“Sam, I—Quorra!”

Still cackling, Quorra staggers backward, folds in half with the force of her mirth, tries to wipe tracks of rain off her face and accidentally smears mud across both cheeks, the bridge of her nose. Her palms, and the back of Tron’s neck, and everything inside his shirt, consequently, are coated in mud.

Tron’s jaw twitches.

Quorra doesn’t stand a chance. The larger security program wraps arms around her torso and tackles her, takes her down fast. Shrieking with laughter, Quorra digs up another handful of mud and gravel, smears it into Tron’s hair.

“Screw it,” Sam mutters, dropping his laptop, and decides to go outside after all.

He peels off his socks, gets his toes caught in one and almost trips, stumbles out the door, and the mud is freezing, holy crud…

The sludge bubbles, wells up between his toes. Though there’s enough traction where he’s standing, Sam notices a visibly slick and frictionless expanse where Tron ran, leaving behind skid marks, and brought Quorra to the ground. And he doesn’t dare wade into that mess. “Hey!” He jams fingers into the mud, feels his nails split apart against rocks, and secures a handful of wet dirt. “Every man for himself!”

The ball of mud hits Tron in the shoulder, startles him into letting Quorra go. She executes a barrel roll into the deepening puddle settled over a shallow depression in the yard. Coughing up water, she shakes her head like a dog. The spray catches Sam in the hip, and he yelps, tries to jump away.

Ends up on his butt, tailbone aching.

He goes for Quorra, next, takes a splash of dirty water in his face for his efforts, tries to take out her legs in a dive. Her hair whips her face, clings to her eyes and nose in tangled, water-sodden clumps. She’s running blind, eyes shut tight against the mud water dripping over them. Tron aims a vengeful handful of water at her, misses.

Sam’s lungs are screaming. His ribs hurt, something burns like he cut himself on a rock, and everything is perfect. Laughing, he finds he can’t breathe, and doesn’t know if it’s the hilarity or the fresh bruise burning across his chest that’s stopping him.

He blinks rainwater out of his eyes, clenches his jaw against a chilled shiver that rattles up his spine.

Splashes Quorra, as she stumbles past him.

He feels like a kid: careless and giddy and numb with endorphins. Like his body is still clumsy and new, like he can be stupid with it and bust open fingertips clawing at mud. Like he’s responsible for nothing.

Standing, Sam ignores his knees’ protests and runs, slips wildly on nothing, makes a desperate bid for balance and catches Quorra in the chest with an arm. Recovering her balance, she stuffs mud and grit down his shirt, leaves Sam cringing and vulnerable to Tron’s attack as the program jumps into a puddle, kicks up an impressive burst of water.

It tastes awful.

Sam tries to wipe his tongue on his shirt, finds that his clothes taste like dirt, too, seeing as there’s mud everywhere. It got in the creases of his knees, somehow. He can feel it dripping— “Tron!”— in thick chunks down his calves. Retaliating, he crouches, slaps the puddle with his hands, splashes the security program with mud clear up to his face. Satisfaction nestles warm in Sam’s gut.

At a run, Quorra approaches the puddle, leans back on her heels, deliberately slips and glides into the water beside Sam, shirt scrunching up at her armpits.

“It’s—’s like a slip n slide,” Sam observes, gasping. Crap, it’s like he knocked a lung out of place…

Quorra covers her eyes with a hand, blocking raindrops. “Slip and what?” She’s panting, too, limp with fatigue and likely hot enough that she can’t feel the cold.

Sam is certainly sweating, feels beads of perspiration mix with rain and mud and soak into his clothes. He hates how the fabric molds to his body, sticks to every inch of his skin and chafes.

“We—whoa.” Dizzy. “We should go inside,” he manages. With a low hum of agreement, Tron flops down at Sam’s other side, circuits running bright enough to be visible through his clothing.

Sam wipes his hand off on Tron’s stomach.

“Inside? Already?” Quorra raises her head, wrinkles her nose against the frigid downpour. Her hair’s oversaturated enough that water no longer affects it; raindrops catch on strings of mud-caked black and slide down, corkscrew off curled ends. “You were right, Sam. This is very… wet.”

A snicker jolts in Sam’s chest, comes out sounding crooked. “Good luck washing the mud out, Quorra.”

Her eyes snap open. “I get first shower.”

“Hey, no—” Sam stumbles to his feet; Quorra jumps up, sticks the landing, and books it for the door. She hits glass with both hands, pushes off with a spin, ends up inside the house dripping and tracking mud all over the floor. “You’re cleaning that!” Sam yells, throat raw.

“She’s not cleaning that,” Tron contradicts.

Sam eyes the system monitor. “You’re a mess.”

“Sam. Everything is a mess.”

The dirt is churned up, glossy and treacherously slick. Sam is covered in mud, Tron is unrecognizable behind the mud, and the storm is shedding its soft edges, blowing harder, tearing across the surface of the river.

“I want a shower,” Sam admits, and the words feel as distant, as faint on his tongue as the mottled storm clouds, as the fog rolling in off the bay. “‘S cold as crap out here.”

“Out of the two of us, user, I am not the wimp.”

“Yeah, you are.” Sam tucks his hands into his armpits, grins. “You’ve got circuits, dude, so there’s no excuse for you to complain about the cold.”

Standing, Tron steps into Sam’s personal space, butts up against him like a cat. Warm fingers wrap around Sam’s wrist and coax his hand free, replacing it on Tron’s shoulder. The program repeats the process for Sam’s other hand. “It’s impractical that users lack circuits,” he contributes.

“No kidding, Tron.”

Sam can feel the damp of Tron’s body seep into his own skin and clothing as he plasters his torso against the program’s. Which is fine. Tron is drenched, same as Sam, but at least he generates heat. As his fingers thaw, Sam shifts his hand up (palm skidding across the smear of mud on Tron’s neck) to cup the base of Tron’s skull. He braces his forehead against Tron’s, pushes their faces together, pretends they can shield each other from the vicious wind, from the rain leaking down their cheeks, getting in their mouths.

Tron splutters. “Sam, this rain goes everywhere…”

“It doesn’t dematerialize, no. Not like in the Grid.” With a palm, he tries to wipe water off Tron’s cheek, but the fluid only spreads, curls off the edge of Tron’s jaw and drips into his shirt. Sam huffs, gives up. “Aw, man; this isn’t working, is it?”

Tron’s arms wrap around his waist as he drops his face into Sam’s shoulder.

Sam reciprocates, tucks his head against Tron’s neck, tries to absorb the electric heat that radiates from Tron in waves. The mud sticks to, sucks the heat from the soles of his feet, so he curls his toes, tries to reduce the surface area of skin against ground. Shuffling closer to Tron, he accidentally knocks the program backward; Tron broadens his stance, steadies them both. “Quorra had better hurry,” Sam mumbles, bunching up fistfuls of Tron’s t-shirt, rough fabric harsh against his scraped palms, “or else I’ll turn off the hot water—” he shakes his head—“and see how she likes it. And if she sheds hair everywhere in the shower, and doesn’t clean it up, we both know whose problem that is.”

“It’s not my turn to clean it.”

“It so is,” Sam insists. “Don’t pretend.”

When Tron chuckles, it ripples through the program’s chest in a low rumble like thunder and reverberates through Sam’s bones. Tron’s lips twitch against Sam’s neck.

“There,” he murmurs. “Got you to smile.”

Rain in the user world is an experience completely unlike rain in the Grid. It’s freezing; each drop of rain seems to soak through Sam’s skin and thread veins of ice through his nerves, his locked-stiff muscles. It’s damp, and Sam, Tron, everyone, and everything is damp. The ground is swollen with water, transformed into mud, which Sam suspects is Quorra’s new favorite substance. The odor of the storm—dirt and rot, agitated seawater—is gentle, already fading, and rolls with the wind off the banks of the river.

It’s a miasma of sensation, settling heavy in Sam’s stomach and reminding him he’s home.

And it’s different, almost humbling, viewing this rain (his entire reality, as a user) from the eyes of two programs who have never witnessed it before. To discover the wonders of his world as if for the first time, again.

“So. First time in a user storm: what’s your conclusion? Do you prefer Grid rain or user rain?”

Tron hums lowly, considering. The circuits in his chest flush, burn hotter, and Sam, startled, hiccups a soft and strange sound of contentment.

“The rain here is beautiful,” Tron finally decides, voice soft. “I’ve never seen anything like this, Sam.”

Sam grins. “I know the feeling.”