Chapter 1: Macaroni
“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.)
Chapter 2: Curlews and Sandpipers
To preface this, I'd just like to admit I have no shame.
Alright then, folks, I am now on Tumblr!
You can find me at epicenglishlanguage
“Hm?” For all that the response sounds like an acknowledgment, Sam knows better. Glitch, it took him months to figure it out, but he’s sure he has the hang of it now- Quorra, in short, has resting scatterbrain face, and it takes a trained eye to know when she’s actually paying attention and when she isn’t.
A fixated stillness in her body, as well as the intensity of her stare out the window, mean she didn’t hear a word he said.
Sam repeats his question. “Quorra, can you please put your plate in the sink?”
“Hey.” He snaps his fingers. The sound doesn’t come out right; he’s washing the dishes and his hands are, for a lack of a better word, soggy. “Come on, Q, I’m right here.”
He would theorize it was the rain that managed to snag her attention some five, six minutes ago, but that would be inaccurate. Quorra reserves this extreme level of preoccupation for assessing new experiences, and today isn’t Quorra’s first time seeing rain. Californian winters see raging downpours of the stuff, and it storms often enough on the Grid. Digitized skies generate fluid energy, not water, but the general appearance of rainy weather remains the same inside or out of a computer.
Users frag it.
Quorra snaps to attention like a soldier, twisting around in her chair- never mind that Tron is curled up, despreocupado, in an armchair and beneath exactly seven blankets, reading some book about birds that Alan brought over.
Sam, simultaneously, feels a bland glower etch its way onto his face. Of course the security program can look completely unintimidating and still command respect, just because Tron is Tron.
Sam has said it a million times: Tron using his status as Hero of the Grid to attract Quorra’s attention counts as ‘making use of an unlawful advantage.’
“That’s not fair,” Sam mouths.
Tron, of course, ignores him. “If you’re finished eating, put your plate in the sink,” he instructs, nodding toward Sam with a resolute, mischievous lack of eye contact.
“Oh!” Nearly planting an elbow in a blob of ketchup smeared on the table, Quorra stares at her plate, innocently wide-eyed as if she had intended to put it away without being prompted. “I will. Sam, are there more chicken nuggets?”
“What?” Scrubbing at a stubborn bit of crusted broccoli, Sam plunges his arms elbow-deep in a watery bowl with a slow cringe. The temperature is devilishly cold, and bits of last night’s dinner are starting to cling to his arms. “You want more? Honestly, Quorra, you’ve already eaten a whole box!”
Marv cleans him out of unchewed and untrampled plants, Tron cleans him out of clothes (he has all but completely commandeered Sam’s closet), and Quorra cleans him out of chicken nuggets. Sam buys the stuff in bulk at Costco and prays daily for the boxes to last more than a week.
“I know,” Quorra says calmly, forcing patience as she always does when Sam’s missed something ‘obvious.’ “But I have a lot of ketchup left over. I don’t want to waste it.”
She does, in fact, have a metric ton of ketchup left over. It decorates her plate, the tabletop, her hands…
“We have a surplus of ketchup in the fridge, Q; we don’t need that ketchup. Don’t stress about it. Look- pass me your plate, and I’ll pass you a wet paper towel, okay? Don’t… don’t touch any-”
Quorra, smirking, stands up with her plate, walks over, and fingerpaints a line of watery ketchup and nugget grease down Sam’s arm.
She dumps her plate into the sink; it crashes into an orchestra of spoons and bowls from breakfast, splashing food-muddied water up onto Sam’s chin. Through lips pressed firmly together in a prolonged flinch, Sam blows out air and (he hopes) any foreign fluids that may have landed in his mouth before he closed it. He raises a hand to wipe at the droplets speckling his jaw and lips. “Ah, crud. ‘S foul.”
Wheezing with laughter, Quorra doubles over on the kitchen counter; the edge of it has to be gouging into her ribs, but she hardly cares. A reluctant, half-disgusted grin twists Sam’s own face- Quorra gets so breathless when she’s entertained, sounding more like a machine gun than a person laughing.
A muted chuckle from across the room reminds Sam of Tron’s presence. The program’s smile hides behind his book, but the edges of his eyes are creased with mirth.
“Sorry,” Quorra cackles.
Shaking his head, Sam tucks his mouth into the shoulder of his shirt and wipes it off again. “You’re not,” he sighs.
Characteristically, her convulsions only worsen, and she laughs herself right off the counter, sliding to the floor. Her bloodless fingertips cling tightly to the edge of the table.
“Qu- Quorra.” He pauses, waiting for her snickering to die down. “Alright, Q, settle down for a sec. You wanna tell me what had you so distracted back there?”
“It’s w-” Quorra starts, but suddenly snorts, and Sam fears she’ll collapse into rabid laughter again. “Windy. It’s windy.”
“Yeah.” As in- it’s windy outside like a Category 100 hurricane is windy. Gusts of swollen air drub against the walls, undulating with a rolling bass similar to the noise made by a wobbling sheet of plastic. It’s cozy, on one hand, to hide from the storm indoors; frightening, on the other. What person could feel safe after comparing the walls of their home to flapping plastic? "Does it... not get this windy on the Grid or something?"
Quorra lets go of the counter and disappears completely. Sam is fairly confident she’s laying on the floor on the other side of the island. “It does. What matters is that kites need wind,” she concludes, still giddy.
Ah, heck- Sam remembers the kite. It’s one of those classic, diamond, Crayola affairs, colored in stripes of violently artificial red, orange, purple, and blue. Quorra loves it dearly, even carries it around the house without reason, and constantly asks for the chance to test it out. The weather patterns around this city, though, tend towards a flat and stagnant heat; wind is a distant fantasy.
Today’s tangled quagmire of a squall lies on the absolute opposite end of the wind-spectrum and is equally unsuitable for flying kites. Sam thinks of Quorra’s disappointment and hopes each, individual raindrop will soak through the ground and straight into hell.
“Gosh, Q,” he manages, each word clawing at his tongue, straining to stay in his mouth. “The weather’s just not right today.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Kites were made to work in very specific conditions-”
“Ye- well, not exactly.” An especially forceful gale rattles the windows. “There’s such a thing as too much wind. Storm like this would blow your kite clear into a telephone wire. Actually,” he amends, “I doubt we could get it to fly in the first place. The water’d prolly weigh it down.”
Quorra exhales loudly. “Frag.” Sam can almost hear the excitement in Quorra’s chest deflating.
“Yep. It sucks.” Sam sticks Quorra’s plate under the faucet. The water strips the ketchup off in strange, corrugated layers. “I’ll keep an eye on the weather, though. When it gets windy enough, I’ll take you out to the park or something. Show you the ropes, hm?”
“Fine,” Quorra grouses, dragging herself off the ground with nothing of her usual vivacity. Flopping onto the counter, hair mussed, she seems withered and drained. Bored to death.
Sam flounders for a distraction, eventually chances, “What are you reading right now?”
“Sam.” Precise with disapproval, Quorra’s voice wouldn’t be out of place in a lecture. “I’ve read every book we checked out.”
Sam raises his eyebrows. “Seriously? All- what, twenty-something of them?”
She nods, although her arms are folded over the counter and her chin is tucked in the crook of her elbow, so the motion is somewhat impeded. Sam whistles lowly and tips her a salute with a dripping fork. “I’m impressed.” He was impressed the first time she did it; he’ll still be impressed the thousandth time she manages to read half a library in two weeks, though he won’t be surprised. “Letting you mooch off his library card is the best decision Alan’s ever made. Okay, then, have you tried the… bird book?”
(Tron’s glare dares Quorra to take the book from him.)
“It’s not literature,” Quorra scolds, which means ‘no.’
“Doesn’t mean it’s not interesting.” Sam wipes his hands as best he can on a damp towel and gives up on cleaning the kitchen in favor of meandering over to the living room, reading over Tron’s shoulder. “Kites fly. So do birds.”
He ignores Quorra’s “I know, Sam” and chafes his hands over the smooth leather on the back of Tron’s chair. The skin over his palms feels tight and itchy, courtesy of the dish soap, and his nerves ache for a replacement to the parched sensation.
Sam eyes the photograph depicted on the page Tron is looking at. A pink sticky note, one of those skinny, tab-shaped ones, marks the Upland Sandpiper as a bird that Alan has seen in the wild. “There’s a cool sandpiper here,” he informs Quorra. Crisp and inelegant as a feathered bean sprout, the sandpiper perks its head at nothing. “It’s got kind of a screwy neck; are you sure you don’t wanna see?”
Quorra cranes her neck just like the sandpiper. “How ‘screwy?’ is it?”
“Real screwy,” Sam promises.
“Within normal parameters.”
Mouth spasming with a skittish grin, Tron silently flips to a different page, points at a…
“Oh, man- what is that?” Sam sniggers. “Long-billed Curlew. Quorra, at least check out the beak on this thing. It looks lethal.” The beak sticks out of the curlew’s face like some sort of monstrous splinter. With two hands, Sam sketches the general shape of it in the air in front of his mouth; mimes pulling the thing off his face and throwing it across the room like an uncanny javelin. “ How did a beak like this even happen?”
Enticed, Quorra… un-sprawls... herself from the table with all the lanky, disjointed grace of a robot standing for the first time. Creeping out of the kitchen, she lurches up onto tiptoes and hangs herself off Sam’s shoulder. “Darwin,” she replies. “I’ve been reading his work. A beak like that…” She actually takes a good look at the thing, squinting. Sam reads confusion in the sudden, curious tilt of her head and in the stumble in her words; Darwinistic logic, he agrees, has a great deal of explaining to do regarding all shorebirds. “A beak like that… has evolutionary advantages?”
“Nah, forget natural selection. This is ridiculous.”
“I want to see the sandpiper,” Quorra confesses, and Sam refrains from teasing her about her reluctance- as of three seconds ago- to pay any regard to the book. Tron flips back to the sandpiper page, and Quorra considers the oddly shaped bird, pulling her bottom lip in between teeth. “It’s very narrow.”
“Slender,” Sam argues, defending the slighted bird.
Nodding decisively, Quorra bumps her forehead against Sam’s chin like a cat seeking for attention, catches his eye- “I could break it.”
Sam sputters. “Dang, Quorra, what’s the poor bird ever done to you?”
“Nothing in specific. But it’s fragile in appearance. Impractical. It seems docile, even.” She clicks her tongue disapprovingly. “It would not survive so much as a nanocycle in the Grid.”
“Affirmative,” Tron muses. “It would be easier to destroy this sandpiper than it would be to dismantle loose code.”
“Hey. Hey, don’t gang up on me.” Sam flicks a thumb over Quorra’s nose. She wrinkles it, drops off his shoulder with a haughty sniff. Sam grunts at the sudden change of weight distribution through his body. “Tron? Can I touch you, bud?”
Although he doesn’t respond verbally, Tron tips his head back onto Sam’s hands in obvious permission. Sam shifts fingers to cradle the sides of Tron’s face, and the program works his jaw against the contact, muscles twitching with a sharp flicker of movement. Bending over, Sam reclines the bridge of his nose over Tron’s, whispers, “‘S this okay?”
“Awesome.” He nudges his nose against Tron until the curves and angles of their faces fit together more comfortably. “You don’t gang up on me, either. Okay?”
Tron huffs his amusement into Sam’s cheek. “I would never.”
The couch spews out a noisy puff of dust as Quorra collapses on and compresses it; Sam startles minutely.
Rain drums against the metal roof- if this keeps up, it’ll be a nightmare to try and fall asleep tonight- and Tron’s natural warmth seems more extensive than normal with the knowledge that it’s as cold as heck outside. Heat like molten lead weighs down Sam’s bones; he doesn’t want to move, not even to keep track of Quorra. Instead, he allows his ears to inform him. Fabric skates over leather with a dry rasp as Quorra gathers decorative cushions around herself.
“Sam, there’s nothing to do. Still.”
Sam releases a snarling groan. He’s aware he’s overplaying it- “No-o, Quorra. Shush.” And, beyond his control, Sam’s growl sharpens into a snicker, but Quorra stops whining with a beleaguered sigh.
He isn’t sure what it is- maybe the domesticity is reassuring, or maybe the silent laughter jumping in Sam’s chest shakes something loose in the program- but Tron finally settles into Sam’s hold, the arch of his neck relaxing.
Just a few hours ago, Tron had been antsy, nervous, agonized by the very idea of physical contact. Soothing Tron while respecting his hands-off limitation was impossible, so Sam had eventually quit and bundled Tron up into a veritable pressure cooker of program-and-blankets. Tried and true, the method guarantees the sedation of keyed-up system monitors.
Now that Tron has re-acclimated himself to touch, Sam doesn’t want to release him; he can’t imagine Tron wants to go anywhere or do anything, either.
And Quorra, moving yet another cushion into her immediate vicinity, wants to be entertained.
Sam decides to kill an entire flock of birds (or, perhaps, curlews and sandpipers) with one stone.
“We should build a fort.”
“A what?” Skepticism grates in Quorra’s voice.
Straightening up with full reluctance, Sam casts a critical eye over the contents of the living room. Chairs and couches would make suitable supports, and the scarcity of blankets and pillows downstairs can be compensated for by stealing materials from bedrooms and closets. “We’re going to build a shelter, right here, using chairs, sheets, mattresses. That sort of stuff.”
“Why?” Quorra asks, but she’s on board. There’s no pretending otherwise, not with her eyeing the stack of cushions on her lap. “What would we do with a fort?”
“Uh-” Gosh, it’s been years since Sam last did this. “Bring in snacks? Or, if we build it around the TV, we could watch a movie.” A vision for the building begins to form in his mind- admittedly, it’s a bit of a rough sketch- and by the users he’s going to create a fort or die trying. “And we can sleep in it tonight. And it’ll be warmer insi-”
“We’re making a fort,” Quorra declares, foot drumming restlessly on the floor.
“The couch’ll make a good wall if you turn it around.” Sam taps at Tron’s cheeks. “D’you wanna help?”
Raw discomfort flashes through the program’s eyes. “No? I don’t want to… I can’t…” He shrinks down into his straitjacket of blankets. Sam empathizes completely with the feeling.
“Gotcha. You don’t want to move; the blankets are nice.” He waits, then teases, “Or maybe you just like the birds more than me?”
“The birds don’t make sense,” Tron protests. “They have no useful subroutines. How have they not derezzed?”
“In this world, most things don’t fly.” Not like bits, or most vehicles on the Grid, or certain varieties of Gridbugs. “So the birds are pretty safe up where they’re at.” Sam rubs a thumb over the space between Tron’s eyebrows before pulling away...
"Whoa, Quorra, easy!" Bracing herself against the floor, Quorra kicks off like a sprinter, shoving the couch into the middle of the living room. Rubbing the back of his neck, Sam concedes, "I guess the couch can go there."
Flushed, smiling smugly, Quorra seems pleased with her effort.
Then the wind wails against the walls of the house, and the expression slips off her face, replaced by a distant intrigue again focused toward a window. “Sam, could a bird fly in wind like this?” She pulls eyes away from the view outside as if overcoming a magnetic force, looking over her handiwork once more. Huffing, she scoots the couch a foot to the left.
“I don’t think so,” Sam answers. He turns to the ladder heading upstairs...
“What are they doing, then?”
“The birds?” Toss of a coin, Sam tries to decide if he actually heard distress in Quorra’s question. Searching Quorra’s face for answers- of which there are none, not under her mask of blank intrigue- he shrugs. “They’re probably resting.”
“In nests or burrows, sort of like what we’re going to build.” One of Quorra’s jackets hangs over a rung of the ladder. Sam pulls it off and slings it over his shoulder, carrying it upstairs with him. “The birds are going to be fine, I swear- they’re not as helpless as they look, even when they can’t fly.”
Even when an integral strength and advantage to their existence is stripped away by the circumstances.
Pensive, Sam likens Quorra and Tron- two wild, beautiful, quirky life forms- to grounded birds. Both programs certainly aren’t at their best, but they are safe from the chaos of the world; they’ll be okay.
“Quorra, are you good if I take apart your bed?”
When two mattresses take the plunge down the ladder, the crashing ruckus of their descent drowns out the storm outside. Sam follows up with a heap of sheets, blankets, and pillows; they hit Quorra on the head as she leaps onto one of the (somewhat crumpled) mattresses.
Framing the fort is easy enough, and the greatest obstacle, in contrast, arises when Quorra tries to tape the roof of the fort to the wall of the house. It doesn't stick, so she hands the job over to Sam- just as tape doesn't work, there isn’t really anything on the bare surface to hook a sheet on. It takes Sam a minute to remember he’s an adult. He owns this house; he can fix this. “Quorra?”
She peeks up out of a corridor between a mattress and couple blanket-covered stools.
“Can you get me a few nails and a hammer from the shelves over there? Fattest nails you can find.”
“You’re going to put nails in something?”
“Just the wall,” Sam defends, mentally measuring out the placement of the nails.
“What would Alan say to that?”
Sam snorts. “Not to put nails in the wall. C’mon, Q, why would you make me think about Alan’s reaction? Get the nails, the fort will be better with them than without.”
Ultimately, only two nails- crookedly placed, sticking halfway out of the plasterboard- and some binder clips are necessary to pin the sheet in place. Sam surveys the emerging structure with artistic pride, hooks the other end of the sheet over the back of the couch, and promptly incorporates Tron into the fort.
Sighing, Tron ducks his head down under the roof without complaint. His chair, covered with the loose end of another sheet, makes a very effective exterior wall. Once Quorra fastens a blanket over top of the last tunnel in the rambling labyrinth of furniture, Tron slinks out of his chair. The top of his head, very briefly, makes a lump in the blanket covering the central room of the fort; otherwise, Sam would not have had any idea the program had moved.
"Sam, is it finished?" Quorra takes a bath towel out of Sam's hands. "What's this for?"
"Finished except for the door, which is what that's for." Quorra turns to him, an eager question sparking in her eyes, and Sam gives her the green light, gesturing toward the entrance of the fort. With a dramatic air of completion, Quorra drapes the towel over the empty space and steps back, bouncing on the balls of her feet.
"It's done," she breathes.
“Is it everything you hoped for?” This isn’t one of those cute, uniform, one-room forts Sam comes across online. This is a legitimate blanket fort, straight out of Sam’s childhood memories: scrappy, deviating in all directions, appearing completely dilapidated and prone to collapse. The tunnels inside, however, will be awesome. Dark and snug, just as Sam prefers. "It looks a little messy on the out-"
“Yes, Sam," Quorra interjects, "It's- I’ve never seen anything like it. In a good way. Can I go in?”
“Go for it,” Sam offers. “I just need to grab a flashlight.”
Quorra’s muffled voice emanates from some mysterious depth of the unexplored structure. “It’s holding together!”
“Did you think it'd fall?” Sam retorts, digging through a cabinet. The first flashlight he checks won't light, and he thinks he remembers transferring the batteries into the old landline phone. The second one Sam checks works, and he tucks it into his waistband, picking his way around his motorcycle. He kicks the few pillows not used in construction into the cavernous mouth of the fort.
“Wait- the light blue sheet is really droopy. Can you make it tighter?”
Sam unfastens the corner of the offending sheet from the back of a chair and pulls the fabric taut. “Better?”
“Better. Sam, come in!” He can’t tell whether the urgency in her voice comes from excitement or impatience. With Quorra, the two emotions might not be separate from each other at all.
Immediately, the heat trapped inside the tunnels creeps down the collar of Sam’s shirt with a suggestion of perspiration. Pushing his pillows in front of him, he navigates his way into the room with the TV, where he expects Tron and Quorra have congregated. Pressure weighs down on the top of his head and crowds against the sides of his shoulders, providing more of an inanimate hug than a claustrophobic experience.
Arranging the television remotes in a neat line, Quorra blinks owlishly in the glow of the flashlight- “Quorra, you’ve got a little…” Sam smooths down his own hair, not surprised to feel pieces of it fuzzing up with static. The effect is more obvious with Quorra’s longer hair, which forms a delicate halo of black wisps around her face. And Tron...
Sam has to bite his fist to hold back his laughter. There exists, in place of a security program, a muddled nest of blankets; sure enough, a tuft of static-spiked hair sticks out one end. It occurs to Sam that, if the fort is hot, Tron’s refuge must be sweltering. Programs tend to enjoy warmth, though. Circuits radiate significant amounts of heat, enough that Sam wakes up in the middle of the night wrapped around Tron and soaked through with his own sweat. It wouldn’t be logical for programs to be intolerant of higher temperatures.
Lucky for them, programs don’t actually perspire. Biological ventilation systems, in place of sweat glands, do wonders for one’s physical appearance- the first time Quorra came back from a morning run disheveled and dry as a desert, Sam automatically flipped out with fear. He’d thought she had developed heat stroke, her body having used up every last drop of water inside it.
Taking a pillow with him, Sam wriggles into place behind Tron, draping an arm over what he approximates to be the location of the program’s waist. Movements restricted by blankets, Tron presses into the bend of Sam’s body.
Quorra, as she does, observes their set-up and decides to join in, using the monitor as a chair; she leans back aggressively, knocks the air clean out of Tron in a small, startled grunt.
“You comfortable there, Q?” Sam needles.
"Actually- no." With fiendish satisfaction, Quorra shimmies backward, squashing Tron- who objects with a low, disgruntled grumble- between her and Sam. The program struggles once before giving up and going limp, letting Quorra shift more of her weight onto him.
“Stop annoying him, Quorra. What’re…” Already, a torpid yawn pulls his voice to shreds- Sam swallows both the sound and his burgeoning exhaustion. He blames the lethargic warmth, as well as the muffled acoustics of the fort, which cause the falling rain to sound more like a distant purr than a snare drum solo. “What’re we going to watch?”
Quorra switches on the TV. “Star Wars.”
Right. She’s as obsessed with laser-shooting spaceships, which bear a certain resemblance to lightjets, as she is with kites. Quorra, as Sam recalls, is an avid pilot... if an inexperienced, somewhat improvisational one. Their escape from the Grid comes to mind.
“Sounds good,” Sam approves, and buries his face into the softness of Tron’s blanket pile. If he wants to stay awake, he should watch the movie; bright lights and an iconic script will keep his interest with no problems. But, as it turns out, Tron’s minute motions are more captivating right now, each twitch of his body uncharacteristically mushy and formless and adorable beneath a comforter and several layers of quilts.
“Is it okay to name the fort?” Quorra wonders. Sam struggles to hear her past the blaring music of the movie’s opening crawl.
“Sure,” he indulges. “What do you wanna call it?”
She sniggers. “Fort Sandpiper.”
“Not Fort Curlew?”
To her credit, she considers the alternative, albeit fleetingly. “‘Sandpiper’ is catchier.”
“I agree.” Sam scootches up so he can see the TV past Tron’s head. “We can make a poster for Fort Sandpiper if you want. Tape it on the front.”
“Later,” Quorra approves. “Now shush.”
That Quorra falls asleep first, just before Bespin, doesn’t surprise Sam. She has an affinity for spontaneous catnaps; what’s difficult is convincing her to sleep in past five in the morning. He reaches over Tron for the remote...
“Tron, do you want me to keep it on?”
And turns the television off, feeling his brain morph into a puddle at the abrupt peace and quiet.
“What time is it?” Tron asks, squirming against Sam. Sam flinches away from a heavily cushioned elbow flailing precariously close to his nose, maneuvers his phone out of his pocket, and squints against the brightness of the screen.
“About… half past four. We’ve got some time to kill before dinner.” Tron’s comprehension of user time is still a little patchy, so the program hesitates, probably converting measurements in his mind, before nodding in acknowledgement. Sam can actually see Tron’s head now as the program extricates himself from his nest.
“Tron, what are you…?”
Bare arms hook around Sam’s torso, tugging him directly up against Tron’s chest. “I’ll recharge if you do.”
“Ultimatum. Unfair,” Sam murmurs. “Hang on, lemme just… take my shirt off.”
He props himself up on his elbows and somehow manages, falling asleep in brief, shallow fits, to not only free himself from tangling sleeves but also turn off the flashlight. “Should take your shirt off, too, Tron- ‘s one less thing I have to clean my sweat out of.” Returning to a recumbent position, Sam realizes Tron’s eyes have already closed. He isn’t completely asleep yet, just drowsy, and probably uninclined to shed layers of clothing. Sam resigns himself to more laundry and snuggles up against the program. “Is Quorra still sleeping on top of you?” Sam whispers.
“She about to slide off on her own or somethin’?”
“Just don’t move, then.” Arm twisted at an awkward angle, Sam reaches for one of the discarded blankets and pulls it over top of them. “How’s that?”
“Good,” Tron murmurs.
“It’s unusual of you to actually want to sleep. What’s up with that?” Sam pushes his forehead into Tron’s throat, feeling his Adam’s apple- or a program’s equivalent thereof? Sam doesn’t know- bob up with the beginnings of speech. “Don’t answer. ‘M just teasing, ‘cause mosta the time I have to wrestle you into a bed. This is nice.”
“You can’t wrestle me.”
Is Sam capable of immobilizing the most accomplished warrior of an entire digital nation? “No, not really.” It doesn’t mean Sam can’t try.
Neglecting the fact that the skin under his arms is already dampening, Sam stubbornly tightens his hold on fistfuls of Tron’s shirt and decides his body will just have to rethink its definition of ‘intolerable heat.’
Sam hopes he’ll wake up early enough to make dinner at a reasonable time.
Chapter 3: Valentine's Day
This prompt: What is the worst date your OTP has ever been on with each other?
Special thanks to CyberSearcher for being an AWESOME beta!
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
“It’s Valentine’s Day in a week. February 14th,” Quorra mentions, piping more ketchup into her hot dog.
Lora’s face quirks into an expression of disgust, though Quorra can’t calculate if it’s a reaction to her mention of Valentine’s day or to the amount of ketchup she uses. Sam often pesters her about ‘burning her tongue off with tomato acid;’ admittedly, she does use two or three times more ketchup than most users, but her preferred quantity of the substance is hardly a threat to her oral health.
“Valentine’s Day?” Lora asks, voice strained. Maybe it is the holiday, then, that’s bothering her…
Except- a blotch of bright red squirts out of Quorra’s hot dog and blorps onto her plate, so it could be the ketchup, after all. Allowing her head to flop to the side, Quorra sighs, dropping her food on her plate. There exists no sure method with which to assess users and their varied emotions.
On the Grid, there was no need to rely upon ever-changing facial expressions and inflections of the voice to detect emotion; the ISOs were open with each other. Circuit to circuit, energy field to energy field, they shared emotion and valued honesty. Even basic programs acknowledged the importance of communicating between the lines.
As the user saying goes, on the absolute other hand, users have to read between the lines. Not long ago, Quorra had thought herself quite adept at reading, but Sam always says books are different from people.
Lora snaps her fingers, and Quorra startles out of her reverie.
“Sorry.” Quorra blushes, but the other woman dismisses the apology with flickering laughter.
“Yes, it’s Valentine’s Day in a week. Why do you mention it?”
“I would appreciate clarification as to the function of Valentine’s Day.” She licks a smear of ketchup off the side of her hand.
“Would you like a napkin?” Lora fumbles through the remnants of her own meal for their stack of those beige, papery squares. Flimsy and thin, the napkins seem to serve next to no purpose: they chafe against her skin when she tries to blow her nose on them, they break if she tries to wipe her hands; overall, the beige napkins appear to be a poor counterfeit of the good, white napkins Sam buys at the store.
Accordingly, Quorra declines. “No. I mean- no, thank you.” She cleans off one finger, then the next.
“Of course not." Chuckling, Lora leans back in her chair with a certain stiffness. She’s aging, just like Kevin Flynn did. “Valentine’s Day, to get back on topic…” Lora trails off, thinking. “I suppose it’s a day during which people, usually couples, celebrate their love for each other. You’ve likely researched this, though- is my explanation similar to what you’ve found?”
“Approximately,” Quorra replies, tearing a chunk off her hot dog. “To paraphrase, the Internet defines Valentine’s day as a day on which people involved in romance send cards to each other. Is the colloquial definition of Valentine’s Day more correct than the dictionary definition?”
Lora blinks. “You could consider getting a second opinion.”
“You are my second opinion-” Gazing up from her plate, Quorra gauges Lora’s emotional state (amicable?), continues- “I asked Alan.”
The explanation provided by Tron’s user was much the same as Lora’s, though, and Quorra releases an internal sigh of relief. There exists a marked difference between the romance recommended by the Internet and the general love Lora and Alan used in their definitions of the holiday. This difference matters to Sam and Tron both.
It would also be inconvenient, she thinks, if Valentine’s Day were truly only intended for the exchange of cards- Quorra doesn’t know how she could get involved in such a simplistic tradition. As confirmed by Alan and Lora, though, she is free to stick her nose (her foot would be a more sensible expression, in all honesty, to express maximum interference in another’s life) into Sam and Tron’s relationship. Quorra takes a self-congratulatory bite of her hot dog.
The ketchup burns on her tongue, sour-sweet in a way no tomato could ever be.
Lora folds her hands beneath her chin. “Why are you asking about Valentine’s Day?” Mischief is an emotion unlike any other in that Quorra can recognize it without effort. Right now, mischief glistens in Lora’s narrowed eyes and creases the user’s face like stifled, distorted laughter.
“Sam and Tron should celebrate.”
“They should,” Lora muses, “But it’ll be a challenge to make happen…” It is, in the end, a far more encouraging response than Alan’s deadpan “That’ll take ten miracles and a flying pig, Quorra.”
Tacky rubber catches between Quorra’s teeth, and she swipes out bits of hot dog with her tongue. “It’s possible. I’m starting to plan a week in advance, Lora; that’s a week’s advantage I have over the two null units. Will you help?”
“Naturally.” Lora clears off the table between them as if planning a battle. “What ideas do you have?”
“I’m not sure what’s appropriate for Valentine’s Day,” Quorra confesses. Scraps of ideas flutter around her head, delicate as butterflies but nowhere near as beautiful. Ultimately, she decides her ideas are rather awkward and fuzzy. Like moths. “The Internet proposed chocolate tasting, ice skating-”
“Heaven forbid,” Lora mutters, voice hollow.
“Ice skating would be a disaster, yes.” Quorra thinks back on her research, lists off a few additional ideas. “I also read about dinner dates, massages, and exchanging gifts.” She shrugs, rolling the gesture into something twice as nonchalant as she actually feels. In truth, there’s a tiny knot of panic sitting somewhere in her stomach; if she doesn’t figure out Valentine’s Day immediately, she might give up and just throw bouquets of user-glitched roses at her two housemates.
“Dinner sounds pleasant.” Lora fishes her phone out of her bag. “We live in California, there’s no end of nice restaurants in this cesspit of wealth…”
“How do we force them to go?”
“Subterfuge,” Lora answers, passing Quorra an online list of highly rated restaurants in the area. “Here’s my thought- we tell Sam and Tron that the four of us, me and you included, are going out for dinner to celebrate familial love, instead of the romantic kind.”
“The two of us don’t show up. Sam might be a stubborn kid, but he won’t turn down a reservation after arriving at the restaurant. Thank Alan or whoever had a hand in teaching Sam some respect for social norms…”
“What about Tron?” Quorra wonders, then stuffs the rest of her hot dog into her mouth. Like her, Tron lacks a full understanding of (read: interest in) the rules of the user world; neither Tron nor Quorra would have any qualms escaping from a restaurant, Sam’s complaints and user obligations be crashed.
“Where a Flynn goes, a Bradley follows,” quips Lora, and the truth in that statement as good as authorizes The Plan.
Quorra can’t hear what they’re saying to each other. Glass windows stand between her and the unit of user-and-program sitting on the patio outside. However- sprawled over the back of an armchair, looking out- Quorra can clearly see the two of them. She has no need to hide her gaze; neither Tron nor Sam are paying attention to her.
The golden sunset glints in Sam’s eyes like a marker bleeds color into paper, and a wild grin tugs at his mouth. A smaller, more peaceful smile graces Tron’s. The twilight clash of light and shadow silhouettes both men, and in most situations (Quorra does her research) the ambiance would be considered romantic. But it’s Sam and Tron, so more likely than not, they’re talking about their adventures in nearly being de-rezzed by Gridbugs.
Tron tilts his head to the side- the added angle changes the appearance of his smile into something of a smirk - and the program mentions… something. Sam’s respondent laughter knocks the user forward, into his own knees.
Quorra watches Sam push himself halfway to upright. He leans toward Tron, still chuckling, and rests his forehead on the program’s; their conversation ebbs into tranquil silence. Tron’s eyes flutter closed, and he nudges his head against Sam, catching the edges of their noses together.
(It’s a three-step dance, as it often is with those two- ‘I love you,’ ‘I love you more,’ and ‘I love you most’- so Quorra waits for Sam to make the last move.)
The user pushes forward and kisses the corner of Tron’s mouth before pulling away.
“Sam looks like he’s about to cry,” Lora observes, pursing her lips.
“Really?” She lunges forward, wriggling more of herself over the armchair, trying to get a better look...
“It’s a good thing. He’s happy.” Bending over the open oven, Lora pokes a toothpick into her lasagna. “Quorra, sweetheart, have you decided on a restaurant yet? We’ll need to give them a call.”
“I think so,” Quorra replies.
Crap- it’s Quorra. Sam burrows further into his pillow, considers legally changing his name just to spite her. Legally changing his name, though, would take effort... Honestly, six more minutes, give or take, and he would’ve been fully asleep.
Jostling the mattress, Quorra climbs onto Sam’s feet. “Sam, wake up!”
“Glitch it,” Tron curses, sitting up, and something- “No, Quorra!”- collides with something else just behind Sam’s head. He flips onto his back in time to see Tron, wielding a pillow, blast a similarly armed Quorra off the bed. The security monitor shakes the bedhead out of his eyes, glaring, and Sam has to catch him by the knee of his sweatpants before Tron tackles Quorra in an all-out brawl.
“Sit, Tron,” Sam groans. “‘S naptime.”
“Nope!” Quorra scolds, all 'kid on Christmas morning,' and swings her pillow again; Tron parries, and the cushions wallop each other with a plush thud. “You have to get up, Sam.”
“But-” A sticky yawn cuts him off halfway through, bloating his brain with a heavy lethargy. “Why?”
Settled in his bed, Sam feels as if every ounce of energy in his limbs has converted into the pleasant heat wrapped around him like a second sheet. Reluctance doesn’t even begin to describe his total inability to move. At that, he wants Tron back in his arms; acting as a human shackle for Tron’s leg is a miserable substitute for holding the whole program.
Eyes still sharp with adrenaline, Quorra huffs. The fringe of her hair, already unkempt from her battle with Tron, flutters into a whole new configuration of dishevelment. “We have a reservation at a restaurant in two hours.”
“What’s the occasion?” Sam asks, confused.
“Valentine’s Day. Get up.”
“Who’s going? Do you have a date?” He wouldn’t put it past her. Quorra is secretive over the strangest things; a hidden pet frog comes to mind… Marv almost ingested the dumb creature.
“I’m going,” Quorra lists, “With Lora, Tron, and you. Valentine’s Day isn’t only for conventional couples.”
“Alan isn’t coming?” Tron will want to know, but Tron will never ask, so Sam does it for him.
“Uhhhno,” She responds, tentative. “He has… meetings.”
“Sounds like Alan,” Sam concedes and neatly folds his suspicion before tucking it away in the attic of his mind. “Alright, what time is the reservation?” Pulling on Tron’s pants again, he insists that the security program stand down; this time, Tron complies.
Quorra sets down her pillow. “7:30. It’s 5:34 now, so you should hurry up.” Sam turns his face into Tron’s thigh, stifling a complaint. “Lora and I are leaving now- or after I brush my hair again- to visit some of the stores in the area, but we’ll join you in time for dinner.”
“Address? And- where is it we’re going, anyway?”
“Oh! About that... Here, Tron.” Paper crinkles sharp in Quorra’s hand, and a sudden, lightweight something glances off the nape of Sam’s neck- he smacks the back of his head. By the time the startled wears off, Sam is staring wide-eyed into his pillow, nowhere close to getting any sleep.
“Geez, Q, warn a guy next time!”
“Everything you need to know is on the paper,” Quorra continues, and Sam can feel her insistent stare slice into the back of his neck. “You can read it.”
“More work,” Sam tries to snark- a shaky groan, as he pushes himself up onto his elbows, thickens his voice into scrambled mud. He turns his head to the side, eyeing Quorra. “At least I’m all awake now, hn? Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it. We’ll see you at 7:30,” Quorra commands, and the door shuts behind her gently, with a careful click.
“You know,” Sam mutters, “I would’ve appreciated that sort of politeness when she first came in here. Whazzit say on the paper?”
“I assume it’s the address,” Tron replies, uncertain. Flailing, Sam reaches vaguely toward Tron, almost dropping Quorra’s note as Tron passes it over. He spares Lora’s handwriting- all caps, blocky, somehow even more nerd-shaped than Alan’s- a quick read-through. The name for the reservation catches his eye: Sam Bradley.
“Aw- look, Tron, either Alan’s finally gone and adopted me, or I'm officially married to you.”
Tron enters the restaurant and immediately stations himself in a corner, facing the front doors and windows. The monitor settles there as Marv settles into his bed: he puffs up (deep inhale, stretching his shoulders), smooths himself down, and glares.
Sam checks his watch. “7:20.” He hits Tron with a playful hip check. “You look like you’re about to kill someone. Do you wanna wait outside?”
Tron considers it- “No.” But his response is soft with hesitance, and a giddy swoop of concern plummets through Sam’s ribcage. Tron’s vigilance doesn’t mix well with crowded spaces; glass-bright eyes try to watch everyone at once. In all honesty, Sam suspects that if he were to cut Tron, the program would bleed liquid adrenaline.
“You sure?” he asks, almost coaxes.
“I am,” Tron confirms.
His circuits hide behind long sleeves, gloves, a turtleneck, a scarf (and man- Sam is grateful it’s still cold enough in February to explain Tron’s heavier attire), so it takes more effort than normal for Sam to locate one with his fingers. Gripping Tron’s wrist, Sam slides his thumb up his sleeve and glides it over a circuit on the belly of Tron’s arm. “Relax, Tron.”
With a turbulent sigh, Tron slumps every pound of alert-stiffened muscle against Sam. “Oh, man-” Tron isn’t going to win this, though, because Sam doesn’t plan to back off. He tucks his hip under Tron’s, lowering his own center of mass, and props up the program from thigh to shoulder. “You’re heavy, dude.”
Their joined hands are tucked behind them, now, and not at all by accident. Not that there’s anything wrong with romance, but Sam gets irritated when others automatically assume typical romance factors into Sam’s bond with Tron. In unspoken agreement, they limit PDA to this, then: holding hands behind backs, standing side-by-side and just an inch too close to be friendly.
Strange self-consciousness itches just beneath Sam’s skin, leaving him wrong-footed, and it’s already bad enough that they’re here as a couple on Valentine’s Day because neither Quorra nor Lora are present…
The firm warmth of Tron’s hand in Sam’s sears his nerves like he’s cradling freedom instead of fingers, and if Sam had more courage or thicker skin, he’d bundle Tron up in a hug and never let go.
Instead, Sam fidgets.
Across the room and a world apart from them, two lovers tangle together fervidly, really pushing the boundaries of public propriety- Sam averts his gaze.
Chin raised, Tron levels a staid stare at the strangers, though a few furrows of confused curiosity crease his brow.
“Valentine’s Day,” Sam explains, and shrugs. What can you do about it?
“They’re making you uncomfortable,” whispers Tron, tucking his face against Sam’s.
“Yes. You're staring at them and you looked displeased- don’t deny it.”
Sam hacks up a quiet scoff. “I’m fine, I promise.” Just envious and underconfident. Tron’s cheek brushes up against Sam’s; the urge to nuzzle his face, cat-like, against the faint peach fuzz on the program’s cheek becomes near irresistible. Just once, Sam bumps his temple against Tron’s.
“I would de-rez every entity in this room if they hurt you,” Tron states. Just like that. (And apparently, Tron’s calling to fight for the users leaves him space to pick favorites.)
Even though the threat was made in jest, utter devotion underscores Tron’s words; slippery fondness squirms in Sam’s chest, and Sam gives in to it, grinning. He’s gratified to see a smile blossom on Tron’s lips. “You know murder is illegal, right?” Sam teases.
Like facing an opponent with two weapons should be illegal. Standing in a restaurant with Tron, looking back on Rinzler, on Sam and Tron’s first meeting, Sam finds himself staring down a story of epic impossibility. Crash it all, his relationship with Tron is the very definition of a miracle, but the thought of how many things could’ve gone wrong is crushing. Maybe they do need to celebrate.
“I know it’s illegal,” Tron reassures.
The clock hits 7:27. “They’re late.” Sam double-checks the time on his watch: 7:27, again. “That’ll be Quorra’s fault.”
Tron squeezes his hand. “Will that cause a problem?”
“I don’t think so, unless this is one of those places that won’t let you in if you don’t have your full party with you.”
Alarm pulses, quick, through the circuits on Tron’s wrist. “Is this one of those places?”
“Um…” Sam surveys the room, takes stock of white drapery like tablecloths over windows, wallpaper left dusty at the corners, a vase of slowly browning roses on the receptionist’s desk. The fanciness seems comfortable, not stiff. “No, we’re probably good.” Together, they stare down the clock face adorning the wall opposite them. Every tick of the second hand is another moment for Quorra to push her luck on her punctuality.
“Pockets are tight…” Tugging at his jeans, Sam shimmies out his phone. “I’ll call Lora.” Of course, the first attempt goes to voicemail. As does the second- ticking a beat against the roof of his mouth with his tongue (1, 2, 3, 4, steady), Sam shoots her a text.
Where are you guys at?
“It’s… 7:28,” Tron announces. “Sam, what’s the difference between regular time and military time?”
“Where’d you hear about military time?”
“Quorra prefers it, but she didn’t explain it.”
The screen on Sam’s phone fades; he taps it. Still no response… “Of course. You know a day is divided into 24 hours,” Sam starts. “Regular time goes from twelve in the morning to eleven. Then I guess the clock restarts and does it again for the next twelve hours.”
Tron bobs his head in a brisk nod. “A.m. and p.m.”
“Military time starts at one in the morning, but it doesn’t reset after twelve hours; the clock keeps going up to 24. So twelve a.m. is the same as 24:00, military time.”
“Military time does seem more convenient,” Tron observes calmly, and at least he isn’t Quorra, who flat-out accused Sam of withholding information about a more sensible method of time measurement.
“More convenient,” Sam repeats, skepticism bleeding color into his words. “Actually, military time makes no sense.”
“There are 24 hours in a day; there exists no valid reason to divide the whole into two twelve-hour units…”
“You’re insane,” Sam concludes and leaves no room for argument. “You and Quorra.”
The minute hand crawls, in centimeters, past 7:30. Or 19:30, if Tron and Quorra have any say- which the two programs do, considering the difficulties of understanding user time measurements. If it’ll simplify things for them, though, Sam will buy a 24-hour clock, and he’ll keep a smile on his face for every step of the process.
He waits for the clock to come around to 7:31 before adjusting his grip on Tron’s hand, pulling the program out of his corner. “C’mon.” Quorra will show up, dragging Lora behind her by the purse strap, as soon as Tron and Sam sit down because Quorra likes to adhere to her own schedule, but she also likes to adhere to Sam’s, because he provides meals.
“Hello- we have a table for four?” He informs the receptionist. “Under the name of Sam Bradley.”
“You have the table for four,” the receptionist responds, with all the elegance of a person choking down amusement. Sam bristles; Valentine’s Day or not, missing two people or not, their table is for four and he has no patience for the skepticism of some random man. “Come this way.”
He leads them through the central room of the restaurant, an area so congested with the ambiance that Sam, dazed, rapidly blinks his way through the first swell of mood lighting and discordant voices. Tron’s fingers constrict around Sam’s like a vice, smashing their knuckles together, rubbing bones against bones.
The receptionist guides them outside, onto a covered terrace. Most of the tables remain empty, and a rush of winter air rinses the indoor stench-clamor-chaos off Sam’s skin. He wishes he had dressed heavy like Tron, but patio heaters, gleaming deep red and blue with reflected flame, surround each table. “Here you are.” Indicating a small table, two chairs, the receptionist beckons for them to sit. “A waiter will be by shortly to take orders for drinks.”
“Thank you,” Sam says, trying to ignore the unease rocking, like unsettled water, in his stomach. His watch displays a neon 7:36, and dark skies creep steadily down toward the horizon. “They should be here by now.” Some characteristic of their table catches his eye again, and he can’t figure out what it is that’s annoying him, until- “Two chairs? I literally told him that we're a party of four.”
“Give Quorra and Lora-Prime a few minutes,” Tron suggests, disregarding Sam’s complaint about the chairs. “They’ll be fine.”
“Bull. You’re as worried as I am.” Sam plucks at the edge of his menu before sliding the laminated paper across the table. “Lora cares about this family stuff; it’s like her to be ten minutes early, not ten late.”
The program shakes his head. “Quorra knows how to defend herself.”
“Not against getting lost. Lora has a phone,” Sam reasons, speaking through measured breaths. Bringing a thumb to his mouth, he wipes at the corner of his lips, bites a narrow strip of dead skin off of the edge of his nail. “But what if Q ran off by herself? Able to fight or not, there are parts of this city I don’t want her anywhere near.”
“Purgos,” Tron comments, voice fierce as the quick-burning, broken halo of the city. Worse than the rebel-populated ruins of ISO colonies, worse than Tron City itself, Purgos has proven to be a massive frickin’ hurdle in the way of restoring peace to the Grid.
“Kind of like Purgos, yeah.” Sam drums nail-bitten fingertips on the table, irritating the skin exposed in his nail beds. “Speaking of which, how’s the old hellhole doing?”
“We uncovered another Gridbug infestation.”
“What kind of bugs?”
“Bit-sized, but lethal in large numbers. Seven nests formed on the outskirts of the city before a program reported it- the Gridbugs were living off of junk code and derezzed programs. All security programs involved in extermination, however, survived.”
‘Survived,’ Sam knows, is in no way synonymous to ‘uninjured.’ He wonders how much of Tron’s own data was spilled in the combat. “That’s awesome,” he praises, but can’t stop himself from automatically scanning Tron’s body for damage. “How many civilians were derezzed?”
Tron brushes a finger over Sam’s knuckles, a silent command not to worry. “We found thirty-one disks. There may have been more programs, though- disks do derez.”
“That sucks,” Sam sympathizes, because ‘I’m sorry’ neither solves problems nor accurately reflects the magnitude of them. “We’ll figure out Purgos. I’ll visit the Grid with you in a couple of days, see if I can code something useful.”
A grateful, weary smile twists across Tron’s lips, and he lapses into silence, Sam following suit.
Disk-like, the sun cuts deep into distant hills, its bloodied golden color extinguishing into the night. Sam’s watch reads 7:43; the messaging app on his phone, conversely, shows his text hasn’t been read at all. “We should go find them,” he finally says, standing. One more try- Sam dials in Lora’s number, calls. “Nothing,” he reports, deciding to try Alan, instead. At least it makes sense when his godfather doesn’t pick up; Alan does have meetings late into most nights. Tron follows Sam off the patio, back through the restaurant, and out the front door. This time around, it isn’t only a nagging sense of claustrophobia that unsettles Sam, spinning his head into vertigo.
“What if something really did happen to them?”
“We’ll find them,” Tron promises.
“Should check the stores first. 'S where Quorra said they'd go.” Sam closes the phone app. If they really can’t track down Quorra and Sam’s godmother, then he’ll hit Alan with a barrage of calls, but Sam doesn't want to interrupt the man without good reason. “Stores,” he breathes, and does a google search for stores nearby. “Aw, man, there are stores everywhere. Where’d they go? Did Quorra say anything?”
“Did we miss something on her note? No, we didn’t.” A flat breeze worms its way through Sam’s clothing, and he huddles against Tron. “This is a nightmare. Where should we look first?”
Grimacing, Tron points at a cluster of buildings rendered as grey rectangles on the map. “Are these stores?” Sam nods, checking the proximity between that group of stores and the restaurant.
“Seems plausible. Should we check there first?”
“Lead the way,” Tron approves.
As they walk, Sam reopens the phone app, closes it- if Lora didn’t answer the first three calls, she’s unlikely to answer the fourth. Sam opens the app again and tries, anyway.
An inability to find anyone at the fifth shopping complex they check, as well as a brief glance at his watch (8:48), finally make Sam give in. "I'm calling Alan again."
25 unanswered calls to Lora shake tremors into Sam’s hands. He braces himself against the handlebars of his motorcycle; his fingernails, now bitten to the quick- they’ll be useless for a week- ache with the added pressure on his fingers.
Tron strips his gloves off his hands, illuminating the night air between them with lambent blue. His circuits aren’t running as radiant as they do on the Grid, which Sam theorizes is a result of the user world containing far less freely flowing energy than a computer system. Concern, though, means Tron still shines more brightly than most days in the user world, circuits speeding like Sam’s blood thunders, sickening, through his own veins.
Again, Alan doesn’t pick up.
Tron cups one hand around the back of Sam’s neck, his skin hot and circuits hotter. “You’re cold.”
“Doesn’t matter, Tron.”
The program removes his hand, wiping it on his pants. “Sorry, man, ‘s just… nervous sweat,” Sam apologizes, failing to dodge Tron’s touch as the monitor replaces his grip. “You don’t have to do that. I’m disgusting right now.”
“It’s just water, Sam.” Tron’s warmth bleeds into the muscles at the base of Sam’s skull.
“Sweat,” Sam corrects. He brings the phone up to his ear, trying Alan’s number for the eighth... ninth time? He hasn’t been keeping track. Softness alights over Sam’s shoulders, and Tron, one-handedly, with one palm still rested on Sam’s neck, swaddles his scarf around Sam’s throat in a loose accumulation of fabric. Tron is shedding layers like his clothes caught on fire, but Sam can’t bring himself to care. There’s no one around to get suspicious of glow-in-the-dark programs, anyway.
On the tenth or eleventh call, Alan finally answers his phone.
“Do you know where Lora and Quorra are?” Tron’s fingertips tap a gentle reproof against the pulse on Sam’s neck, and Sam remembers to breathe. “We’ve been looking for them for an hour, Alan. They were supposed to meet us at a restaurant, but they never showed up…”
“Sam, wait,” Alan instructs.
“You’ve been looking for an hour? Since 7:50?”
“More than an hour, then,” Sam corrects. “We left the restaurant around 7:40-ish.” He glances at Tron for confirmation of the fact, and the program nods.
Alan’s sigh leaks, tinny and stiff, through the phone. “They’re at your house, Sam.” The length of Tron’s body tenses beside Sam’s, his hand contracting briefly against Sam’s neck; Tron leans in closer to the phone, listening
“Wha- why?” Sam flounders. “How do you know?”
“They’re safe.” Alan’s voice is audibly restrained. “Go back home, Sam; they’ll explain everything.”
Sam hangs up, stuffs his phone back in his pocket. “Were we ditched?” He hitches one leg over his motorcycle, stumbling…
“You’re shaking,” Tron notes.
Sam hides his head in the cold leather of the handlebars, the chill immediately working a headache between his eyebrows. “I know.” His index finger jumps against the accelerator.
“Let me drive, Sam.”
“‘Kay.” He lets Tron manhandle him, repositioning Sam on the back of the seat, and tries not to go completely, uncooperatively limp. Tron sits in front of Sam; Sam drops his head between Tron’s shoulders, wraps arms around the program’s waist, and lets the roar of adrenaline in him subside into dizziness.
After Tron pulls the motorcycle against the side of the house, he has to drag Sam off the bike before Sam manages to get his feet under him, knees locked.
“Lora finally called,” Sam mutters, exhaustion sitting heavy behind his eyes. “While we were driving. I didn’t answer.” Staggering over to the side door of the house, Sam finds it unlocked; he eases it open and slips inside.
Quorra breaks into laughter, jolting forward into the kitchen table.
She’s alive- more than that, she’s unharmed, happy, safe at home…
Sam’s shoulders slump. “Okay, Q, what do you have to say for yourself?”
“You’re an idiot.” Her voice wobbles with mirth, but a faint grimace etches itself into her forehead- is that pity on her face? “Both of you are idiots.”
“Quorra!” Lora scolds, and the older woman affects an almost sheepish expression. “I’m sorry I missed your calls, Sam, I didn't notice my phone was out of battery, and you-” She raises her eyebrows, disapproving- “Don’t have a landline.”
“No kidding,” Sam huffs, sitting down beside Quorra; Tron sits down on Sam’s other side, tugging at the collar of his turtleneck. “Dude, you wanna go get changed? Toldja that shirt’s itchy.”
“Right.” Sam releases a slow exhale, clearing the fear out of his lungs. “So- what’s up, Quorra?” Lora sits down in the fourth chair, completing their strange, homemade parody of the table at the restaurant.
“The two of you worry too much,” Quorra sighs. “It’s Valentine’s Day. I wanted you and Tron to… take time for yourselves, but you wouldn’t have allowed it.”
“You can’t prove that-”
“Sam,” the ISO admonishes, suppressing a grin. “You had nothing planned. Lora and I tried to trick you into going on a date by yourselves, but I never calculated the possibility of you panicking. I can take care of myself, you know that.”
But Quorra is a program in a world of users, and an old, tired world at that- humanity has had centuries to mutate itself into immorality. In terms of casualties, nothing could happen to Quorra now that would top a genocide, Sam knows, and the morbid thought is sour enough to curdle stomach acid. Regardless, there are other crimes in the world that Quorra has yet to be exposed to, and Sam prefers to maintain that particular status quo.
“I helped train you,” Tron replies, frowning at Quorra. She wrinkles her nose, sticks her tongue out. “You had better know how to take care of yourself. The lack of contact, however, concerned us.”
“Weird day,” Sam groans.
“I’ve still got a present.” Quorra takes a small box off her lap, setting it on the table. “Lora helped choose it. Happy Valentine’s Day.” Matte burgundy like a glitching rose petal, the package boasts a red ribbon of irrational size.
Accepting the gift, Sam undoes the bow and tosses it at Quorra. The strip of fabric catches the air at odd angles, though, and doesn’t fly far. Quorra snatches it up and binds it around her head like a bandage, mussing up her hair. Sam eases the lid off the box. “Candle?”
“Love- scented,” Quorra clarifies. Lora ‘coughs’ into her hands.
Tron lifts the candle out of the box, nestling it between his palms. The program examines the lettering on the front (the scent, for the sake of marketing gimmicks, is actually labeled as ‘Love’), flips it upside down and back again, sniffs it sharply.
He grunts, shaking his head like a dog; Sam intervenes, taking the candle back from Tron as the program blinks away the aroma, nose scrunched up in a bewildered snarl.
“Strong smell?” Sam asks.
Tron shakes his head again, more slowly, and answers, “Not bad.”
Gingerly, Sam lowers his face into the candle and inhales balmy flowers. “Yeah, that’s probably a new smell for you, Tron. You’ll be okay. Thanks, Q,” he adds on, smiling as sincerely as he can manage. “Just- next time you need us out of the house, tell us. Deal?”
“Deal,” Quorra agrees, in sync with Lora’s own promise.
Sam turns back to a still-scowling Tron. “Dude, lighten up. The smell isn’t that powerful.”
I've been practicing writing torture scenes for two weeks straight, dang it. I'm allowed to balance that out with some low-quality fluff.
Chapter 4: Road Trip
Three miles past Winnemucca, Tron falls asleep on Sam’s lap.
As a rule of thumb, programs don’t need sleep--or ‘recharge,’ as they refer to it--unless they’re debugging or starved for energy. And programs don’t usually want to sleep, either, but they’ll pass out regardless if they’re cozy, or just bored straight out of their circuits. In this case, Sam only notices Tron’s lack of consciousness when Alan puts on the brake and Tron nearly rolls off the car seat.
Sam startles, catches Tron in a frantic grip that's rougher than Sam would like. "Geez," he hisses, slipping his hand up the bottom of Tron’s shirt. Do you want to take a nap or do you need to be plugged into an outlet? I can’t tell. Against Sam’s fingertips, the square circuits that make up Tron’s symbol pulse steadily, giving off muzzy warmth like an overheated computer.
“Is he okay?”
Glancing up, Sam catches Alan’s gaze in the rearview and shrugs. “Yeah?” he guesses, and only notices the faint panic gnawing at his ribs as the pain fades. “He’s… asleep, I think." Or doing a convincing job of faking it. "And running smoothly.”
If Sam is being completely honest with himself, it’s almost flattering that Tron feels comfortable enough, safe enough, to just fall asleep on top of Sam. After all, Tron is a security program--he’s been a soldier, a rebel, an assassin, everything-- and he’s endured so much agony throughout his runtime; Sam doesn’t take offense at the effort it takes to get Tron to relax, but he does cheer internally whenever the monitor lets his guard down.
Tron’s trust in Sam hurts like a hard kick to his heart, burns Sam’s hands like he’s carrying hot glass that he can’t put down for risk of shattering it.
Cautious, Sam cups one hand around the top of Tron’s head and rests the other one around the limp curve of Tron’s shoulder, holding the program in place. Quorra, curled into a knot of limbs and hanging over the back of the shotgun seat, opens her eyes lazily, catches Sam’s gaze, and smirks.
In her own words, she thinks Sam and Tron together are “adorable.”
In Sam’s own words-
Really, Sam doesn’t have any words to throw at Quorra in retaliation. She heckles Sam about his relationship, but keeps her teasing miles away from all the sore spots Sam didn’t know he was nursing. Ultimately, Sam can’t even say he’s annoyed at her for it. He's obligated to roll his eyes in her general direction, though, and has to pull his lips between his teeth to stifle a smile as he leans back against the car window. His eyes flutter closed...
Quorra gives him four seconds. "I'm bored," she states. Sam furrows his eyebrows, tries to block out her voice. It doesn't work. “Can we play the mile marker game again?”
“Nope. We already played; you won.” Shaking his head, half in disbelief, half trying to find a comfortable position against the hard walls of the car, Sam adds, “by a wide margin, too.”
“There exists no specified end to the mile marker game,” Quorra corrects, sullen, and Sam knows she’ll leave him alone if he pushes his disinterest one more time--he detests the mile marker game--but then she’ll be irritated for the next hundred miles. Sam’s already grouchy and carsick, Tron is twitchy, out of his comfort zone… Alan put a lot of effort into wrangling the three of them into a car trip and shouldn’t have to deal with another passenger on the verge of emotional combustion.
“Fine?” Quorra narrows her eyes.
Sam tilts his head to the side, straining until something pops, and shakes his head to clear it. “I’ll play.” Quorra’s face brightens like lightning; a grin spasms itself onto her lips, shoots stiff through her limbs and converts her from a limp puddle to a live wire in a second flat. Uncoiling, she places herself at high alert, staring out the front window of the car. Shying away from the sudden motion, Alan exhales a soft laugh.
Reluctantly, Sam looks out his own window. Seeming more like collapsed cardboard than an actual building, a shack whips by--but Sam isn’t looking for shacks. He’s looking for dark, industrial green, for manmade colors that’ll stand out against the sunburned tan of the Nevada desert…
“Mile marker,” Quorra announces coolly.
“Glitch it.” Sam watches the mile marker through the car window as they drive past it, leaving the narrow, green sign behind in a cloud of dust. In a sleek, muscular movement, Quorra rolls her shoulders back, briefly puffing up with all the smug pride she keeps out of her voice.
“You have an unfair advantage,” Sam accuses, exaggerating the complaint in his voice. “You’re sitting shotgun--of course it’s easier for you to see stuff.”
“No. I’m just better.”
It’s part of the whole ‘non-human benefits package’ that Quorra and Tron are both equipped with: Quorra’s vision is uncanny. As a result, she has a weird knack for spotting mile markers on the side of the road. Sam has been playing this with Quorra on and off since they crossed the border of California; Quorra holds an impressive score for having spotted forty-seven mile markers, and Sam, on the other hand, has ten points.
“Alan,” Quorra says, and his name comes out squished as she plasters her cheek against her window, “you should play.”
“No thank you, Quorra. I have to keep my eyes on the road.”
They’ve been playing this game on and off, too. Quorra gets bored of winning quickly and tries to rope Alan into playing, but Alan has the patience of a saint and the resolve of an emotionless machine. Whereas Sam caves in to Quorra’s requests, Alan declines them.
Sam clears his throat, tasting copper and bitter thirst at the back of his throat. “How ‘bout we play something else, Q?”
Tron’s weight suddenly shifts, diverting Sam’s attention. The program’s forehead furrows in discontentment and he huffs a low, unsettled whine into Sam’s thigh. “We could… uh…” Distracted, Sam runs fingers through the short, silky hairs around Tron’s ear. “We could play ‘I Spy?’”
“Again?” Quorra thumps her head against the glass. “I spy dirt.”
“‘S brutal of you, Q. There’s more to Nevada than dirt.”
“Like weeds,” Sam notes, tracking the patchy carpet of grey, motion-blurred plants on the side of the road. “Clouds. Sky.” He looks up--the sky is violently blue, the color thick and suffocating. “Never mind. No clouds.”
Quorra bobs her head sharply. Duh. “Mile marker. Forty-eight points. At least try, Sam.”
“‘M trying,” Sam lies, because between a handful of signs on the roadside and Tron, there really is no competition. Tron snuffles, rubbing his cheek against Sam’s leg; Sam clicks his tongue softly, stroking fingers-- I’m here, Tron; relax--up the security program’s brachial circuits, across the wing of his jaw, and into the downy, skin-warm mop of the program’s hair. Tron’s nose scrunches up, and something softly explosive goes off in Sam’s chest, leaves him grinning like an idiot.
Tron grunts, opens his eyes. “Shut off.”
“Aw man, Quorra." Sam reaches forward, flicks her shoulder. “You annoyed him awake.” He clears his body out of the way as Tron pushes himself upright--then leans forward, catching a portion of Tron’s weight, as the program starts to crumple, still half-asleep and trying to hide it. “Welcome back, Tron."
“How long did I spend in recharge?” Tron’s voice rattles coarsely in the back of his throat, the end of each word dragging, lethargic.
Sam considers the atypical lag in Tron’s speech, the sleep-dark cloudiness in his eyes, and answers, “not long enough.”
At the same time, Alan contributes an estimate of “oh, about twenty minutes”
“That’s 1200 seconds,” Quorra converts, a small ember of satisfied glee nestled in her voice. “Approximately two and a half millicycles.” With a slow blink, her self-contentment dissipates, replaced with tense irritation. “And we’re still not there.”
“Users,” Tron curses, tucking his face into the side of Sam’s.
“It’ll be less boring when we get there,” Sam reminds both Tron and Quorra. “Heck, it’ll be less boring the second we get out of Nevada.”
“Mile marker,” Quorra mutters.
Sam clenches his jaw. “We’re really still playing this? How are you not bored…?” Quorra shrugs listlessly, and Sam sighs. “Tron? You’re playing.”
At least Quorra will have some real competition, now. Sam scours the road ahead for signs--in the distance, transparent heat shimmers over the faded asphalt; distantly, Sam realizes that he’s a little hotter, dizzier, than he would like, especially with Tron’s body still neatly curled against his side.
“We will be there soon, correct?” Tron queries.
“In several hours, yes.” Sam tries not to laugh as Tron groans, low and vicious. Ultimately, he fails, hiccups on a chuckle, and gets a sharp elbow to the ribs in return for his amusement. Retaliating, Sam knocks the side of his head against Tron’s. Tron turns his head to the side, briefly nuzzling against Sam’s temple, before brushing his lips against the corner of Sam’s jaw.
Startled affection jumps in Sam’s chest.
“That was random,” he comments, tipping his head against Tron’s and chastely smoothing his own lips over the program’s cheek…
Sam recoils, glaring at the green sign just ahead of the car. Quorra spits in disbelief, her body quirked rigid and radiating the same, speechless consternation that’s blanking out Sam’s brain. Finally, she twists around to stare at Tron, mouth pressed into a sharp line like a cut across her face. “Tron gets a point,” she concedes.
A muscle in Sam’s cheek twitches loosely. “You distracted me. Deliberately.”
“I love you?” Tron tries.
“Yeah, I love you, too.” Sam aims a light kick at Tron’s shin. “No more cheating.”
Chapter 5: Catnap
So I've noticed a pattern. Apparently, I project my feelings onto my characters by constantly having them be asleep or on the verge of it.
For a moment, the noise swells, stutters, then abates. Sam blinks. “D’you hear that?”
“Listen,” he whispers, bumping a soft elbow against Quorra’s side. But Quorra can’t leave stuff alone, has to poke at anything that isn’t moving quickly enough to interest her, so she repeats her question (hisses a sharp-edged “what?” into Sam’s ear) and misses the noise again.
She sighs. “I don’t-”
“Ch.” Sam flaps a hand at her face; Quorra shies away from his flailing, eyes wide, lips firmly sealed. “I keep hearing… never mind. Just wait for it, dude.”
At first, there’s nothing.
Sam keeps one eye on a fidgeting Quorra and one eye on Tron, who’s crumpled up on the living room floor in a soft puddle of limbs-and-clothing. Tron’s hand flexes—he’s always twitchy, even in his sleep—but Sam knows the security program feels safe, comfortable, because Sam and Quorra have been staring at him for a minute straight and he hasn’t startled awake.
Hasn’t done anything other than curl tighter around a decorative couch cushion, mashing his face into the plush top of the pillow.
“Wait for it,” Sam repeats, words nearly silent, firmly tucked under his breath. “Wait-”
Tron’s forehead wrinkles faintly as he grunts, his body arcing in a languid, clumsy stretch. Gradually, rotating in slow degrees, the program rolls over onto his belly, baring the broad plane of his shoulders to the muggy sunlight slanting in through a window. His circuits bleed neon-bright through the thin fabric of his t-shirt, mixing pale blue radiance with the golden-edged heat of a Los Angeles summer. Pillow tucked to his chest, Tron squirms against the carpet, relaxes…
And begins to purr.
He rumbles, like a cat, from somewhere deep inside his chest.
It’s a warm, dusky sound, like the muffled drone of a computer’s vents, and all at once completely different from and weirdly similar to Rinzler’s corroded rattle.
Furrowing her eyebrows, Quorra shifts her weight against Sam’s shoulder, bringing her lips to his ear. “Was he doing that before?” she whispers.
“On and off.” Sam shrugs. “But not this loudly, nah.”
Tron kicks out at nothing, scraping his foot against carpet—Sam suspects he’s dreaming—and his purr falters, clicking unevenly, before starting up again. This time, the sound drifts into a faint, tranquil hum, and undulates, just once, with a deep and contented snuffle.
Wrapping the palm of his hand tight around his mouth, Sam smothers laughter, turning to look at Quorra. Mumbling around a mouthful of fingers, Sam manages a giddy “He’s kinda cute, isn’t he?” And though Sam technically has the monopoly on calling Tron ‘cute,’ he’d give anyone a free pass to that right now.
“He’s… different,” Quorra smiles, tugging her bottom lip between her teeth—the resulting expression on her face is affectionate, gently lopsided. “Vulnerable,” she finally decides, nodding. “It’s unusual, seeing him in recharge. He likes the sunlight.”
“Yep. Like photosynthesis.” Sam takes his hand off his mouth and scrubs it up his face, combing damp, tangled hair off his forehead. A few hours ago, the temperature outside peaked at a solid hundred degrees and stuck there, creating an oven out of the city’s heat-soaked sidewalks, reflecting harsh, white light off of skyscrapers lined with glass panels.
In Sam’s opinion, the weather is oppressive; he’ll probably sweat to death within the hour.
In Tron’s opinion (and Quorra’s, albeit less so), the weather is a source of energy. Program biology is, as always, ridiculous.
“Photosynthesis,” Quorra murmurs, putting emphasis on the wrong syllable, rolling the word off her tongue at a strange sort of angle. Sam snorts—it’s like she tried on the word, found out it didn’t fit, and just dropped it on the ground.
“Photosynthesis,” Sam agrees. He doesn’t understand the process nearly well enough to explain it to her, and his brain, officially, is down for the count. Slowly melting. Looking down at Tron again, he makes his decision. “Alright. I could use a nap.”
After all, Tron’s patch of sunlight is large enough to accommodate two people.
“Are you asking my permission?” Quorra teases, nudging her shoulder against his. Sam sways to the side and catches her on the rebound; he jabs two fingers into her stomach, just for good measure. Unfortunately, Quorra has a body like rock and, when she chooses to be mature, all the rigid self-control of an iron wall. She doesn’t even flinch, only clicks her tongue disapprovingly against the roof of her mouth: “Yes, Sam, go ahead. You can sleep.”
“So gracious of you.”
She steps on his foot. “Should I make dinner?”
He tries shaking his head ‘no,’ but Quorra raises an eyebrow, unimpressed, and promptly informs Sam that he “won’t be waking up anytime soon; don’t pretend.” Which is fair.
“This is Alan’s house,” Sam reminds Quorra,“and he basically keeps a supermarket in his fridge. That, and i-” he yawns, feels the dry corners of his lips pull unpleasantly- “in the pantry. You can eat what you want.” There’s something nagging at his memory; Sam scratches behind his ear, trying to recall…
“Right. There’s left-over lasagna in the fridge. I saved it for you.”
Quorra pumps her fist.
“You’re welcome, Q.”
She thanks him with a low kick to his ankle, turns herself over—as she does—in a graceful cartwheel down the hallway. Sam, with far less grace and a lot more five p.m. lethargy settled deep in his bones, lowers himself into a stiff squat. Flopping onto his side, he grabs at Tron’s shoulders and wriggles up against the program’s side. Angling his head down, Sam presses his nose against the downy hair at Tron’s temple, breathing him in.
Sam taps a finger against Tron’s shoulder blade. “Got it in one.”
Tron opens one eye by a couple of millimeters, and Sam doesn’t think he’s imagining the resentful glare . “Go back to sleep, geez,” Sam laughs. “I didn’t mean to wake you up.”
On second thought, since Tron is awake, Sam takes advantage of the opportunity to reposition himself.
Hooking a hand over the program’s far shoulder, he turns Tron onto his side and wrestles the program into his arms. He has to snicker again—this time, smothering his amusement against the nape of Tron’s neck—as the security monitor gives in to the adjustment and tries to hide his (taller, broader) body inside Sam’s frame, wedging the curve of his spine and shoulders against Sam’s chest.
Accidentally knocking his head back against Sam’s chin, Tron huffs, emits a muddled whrrr?
“Seri’sly,” Sam slurs. “Go to sleep.”
You’re barely awake as it is.
With a long sigh, Tron deflates into Sam’s embrace. Flattening his palm against Tron’s chest, Sam rubs lazy circles over circuitry, and loses himself in the dusty scent of the program’s hair. He imagines he’s dissolving in the heat.
He closes his eyes.
Chapter 6: Mud
Once again, I cannot explain why I wrote this. Enjoy.
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.
“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.
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…”
Sam bites back on a smile, makes a helpful comment of his own. “C’mon, Tron. Don’t be a wimp.”
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.”