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"So when some of the sentries started clearing out, I decided to investigate. Dumb, I know, but-"

Whatever words Beck might've whispered were drowned out by the tide in Tron's ears. He blinked down at his feet. There was something there, alright. Something he'd only seen once before, in passing.

Something unlike anything else on the Grid.

"You were right to bring me, Beck," he breathed gruffly.

"Well?" Beck pressed. The beta was behind him, peering periodically over his shoulder. "What is it?"

Once more, Tron paused to survey the scene. He sent out a second scan and was only slightly satisfied by the sense of security it provided. Eyes inscrutable, he knelt next to the puddle and put a single finger against it. The strange liquid yielded. It was sticky, and hot, not at all like the cool voltage of energy. The colour was all wrong, too. It was both brighter and blacker than energy, or even the Sea.

Feeling somehow sacrilegious, Tron brought the finger to his face and found his features reflected within. Up close the colour was even more mystifying. Red, like the circuits of Clu's occupation, but not. More old, more ancient.

More alien.

And yet, just as deeply unsettling.

Files opened and a rush of memories flooded to the surface of Tron's processes. Flynn had been all sorts of clumsy, accident-prone, and downright reckless... but invincible all the same. Even at his worst, he'd never produced more than a drop or two at a time. But now, there was just so much...

A shudder wracked Tron's frame and he pulled away. Realizing that Beck was watching him, he recomposed himself. Perhaps he'd been silent for too long, because Beck's next question was tinged with concern.

"Please tell me you know, and that it's not another one of Tesler's chemicals. I don't know if I could deal with that again."

At first Tron didn't know how to answer him. His gaze left the puddle to follow a pair of scarlet prints. From a sentry? Or its victim? Hunter or prey? Past that, the fluid dwindled into droplets, too tiny for most programs to notice. The trail rounded a corner and disappeared. A sudden compulsion pushed him to his feet.

Slowly, Tron spoke.

"I have a hunch..."

Chapter Text

"Can't you, I don't know, track them with your-" Beck waggled his fingers vaguely, fumbling for words. "-spooky monitor privileges?"

"What do you think I've been doing?" Tron huffed. He vaulted over a roadblock, noting the red streaked across its side. Footprints that only he could see seemed to rise up from the street, fog-like. They were getting close... "Users can be slippery, when they want to be."

"A User? That's what we're following?

"A wounded one," Tron amended. The roar of an engine stopped him short.

Together, they ducked behind a data receptacle as a bike blurred past. The blue of its light lines did little to settle Tron's nerves. Few programs ventured out after curfew, especially during a lockdown.

Fortunately, they were nigh-invisible in their stealth-suits. Tron had insisted on Beck stowing his usual look for this. The white was too bright, and there was too much on the line should they fail. These circumstances required covertness, not theatricality.

The bike did not falter in its course. Soon enough, it was gone. They waited a beat, then simultaneously slipped from the hiding spot. The movement was smooth and practiced. Before Tron could take another step, Beck's hand clasped over his shoulder.

"Users can get hurt?" he hissed. The sound was garbled by his helmet.

"Of course." Tron forged ahead, and Beck followed.

Fear spiked through Beck's voice, open and primal. "What could be capable of hurting a User?"

"More than you know. They're stronger than us, in many ways, but weaker in others."

Usually, Tron wouldn't be keen on talking in this sort of situation. Or, frankly, talking in general. As it was, though, the quiet conversation was keeping him sane. Concentrating on more than one thing kept the mounting anxiety at bay. Under his veneer of confidence, his brisk steps and curt responses, something inside of Tron was screaming.

Frankly, he was surprised that the whole Grid wasn't screaming along with him.

"How so?" Beck asked.

Tron struggled with an explanation. Users were a conundrum, even to him. A paradox. All Things and No Things at the same time. Not code, but matter, made by a code more basic and complex than even they could comprehend. They were One and Many, trillions of living blocks that had built themselves into One Organism, united in singular purpose: self-preservation.

Somewhere in the neglected recesses of Tron's memory, he heard the voice of an old friend, offering assistance:

"I'm deep into the Dao De Jing, man! 'Really opening my mind on how to run this project. Just listen to this: "Therefore the stiff and unbending is the disciple of death. The gentle and yielding is the disciple of life. Thus an army without flexibility never wins a battle. A tree that is unbending is easily broken-"

"Flynn, I don't know what a tree is."

...It was a User proverb that Flynn had once told him, and although Tron still didn't entirely understand it, he tried his best to apply it now.

"They're... made of different stuff than us. Sorta soft. Code is brittle, like ice. It's hard, but push it hard enough and it breaks, like a cascade, sometimes irreparably. Users are... limber. They bend. They adapt. They even heal, if given the chance. But everything has its limits..."

"You seem to know a lot about Users," Beck said.

"I worked with Flynn for many cycles, and before that I was a fixture in an open system. I actively aided Users in their requests, including my own."

Tron didn't bother to mention that some of his former, fellow programs had even been dedicated to the advancement of User-medicine. That was too much to tell a young program. Not all at once, anyway. When Flynn had asked him to help protect a brand new system, he'd obliged, but a part of him would always take pride in his old work. Often, he'd had an inkling that the Encom system was at the centre of something... big, even by User standards. Whatever discoveries their Users made were making a difference, somehow, someway. Nowadays, Tron wondered if he was still making a difference in this failed experiment of Flynn's. Life was so much simpler back then.

Best of all, Users didn't tend to rez in only to end up dead in a gutter.

Beck fell silent. With reverence? Respect? Tron didn't know and didn't care to ponder on it. In an instant he was all business again.

"That's enough talk. Tesler's forces may make another sweep. We're lucky to be dealing with him and not Clu."

On that dire note, the two programs became focused and reticent. They traversed the streets as a unit, an unspoken communication guiding their actions. Every so often Beck would offer an alternate route. Tron rarely challenged these contributions. Beck had the most experience navigating Argon, after all, and by now he trusted the beta's judgement. For the most part, however, Tron took the lead. Only Tron could fully follow that twisting, invisible trail, punctuated by smears of blood.

It wouldn't be long now. He could feel it. With each winding alleyway Tron found more of that otherworldly substance. A bead here, a spatter there... A bloody handprint against a wall held him captive for a moment. He stared, fists shaking, helmet fogging. Fighting against exception, Tron was beginning to accept that this trail could only end in a body.

Beck must've needed reassurance as much as him.

"Tron... what do we do when we find the User?"

He didn't answer.

'Truth be told, he didn't know.

Things got worse when it started to rain.

It started as a drizzle. A drop impacted Tron's helmet and he flinched. Then another. Soon enough the city was alive with the patters of rainfall. To his horror, the hand on the wall began to wash away. It bled anew, like a fresh wound rather than an old stain.

"No," Tron blanked. "Glitch, no-"

They were running now. No, not running. Sprinting. There was a strain in Tron's chest, just under his scars. With every pounding stride it spiked like so many barbs. He pushed it aside, panting through the pain, forcing his fragmented code to go faster.

The trail had been faint before, but now Tron couldn't be certain they were going in the right direction. Instinct and skill guided him, the kind that came with cycles upon cycles of practice. He dodged the wreckage of a tank, whipped around a pile of orange voxels, leapt over another—were those programs or vehicles?, he allowed himself to wonder.

Eventually they found themselves at the mouth of a drainage pipe, slightly less than program-sized, dark, and unpromising. It yawned in front of them, empty and taunting. Furthermore, they'd come to a fork in the road. On either side were paths, all equally unpromising. Tron had lost all trace of their quarry, and this was all he had to show for it. Just as he was about to give himself over to despair, Beck's breath caught.

Tron snapped his head down. Rain poured in a steady trickle from the bottom of the pipe, and along with it, sparse dashes of red.

Pinpricks of light illuminated the tunnel like dying lanterns.

Something ignited in the dark and a voice rattled from the deep.

"Stay... the hell away from me..."

Chapter Text

Selfish as it sounded, Tron had hoped it wasn't Flynn.

Now? He wasn't so sure.

The voice that'd spoke had been his own. Softer, clearer, perhaps, but still his. There was none of that flanged quality present in all programs' vocals. If anything, it was too real, to the point of sounding fake. A living contradiction, like all things from the User-world.

Beside him, Beck suppressed a shiver. The young program's helmet swung like a pendulum between his mentor and the stranger. Even with his face hidden, Tron could see the gears turning in Beck's head. He paid him no mind.

Alan-One, a chorus chanted in his head. Alan-One.

Alan-One.

Alan-One.

It shouldn't have been a surprise, but looking into the face of his User, Tron didn't expect to see himself staring back. There were subtle differences, of course. While Tron's eyes reflected the grey of the Grid, Alan's were blue and vibrant. The skin under those eyes was defined by hard lines, and Tron discerned the grey hair edging his ears. Full of fear and awe, Tron's eyes flitted from the User's face to his fingers. An active disc whirred in Alan-One's hand. Tron was all too aware that he owed his very existence to that same hand.

When you're face-to-face with the One who wrote you, how should you react? Should he kneel? Salute? Scream? Spit at his feet? Tron was torn. A sliver of bitterness welled in him. For just a moment, Tron considered demanding an explanation for that long and empty absence. His more rational self was reminded of all his failures during that absence, not the least of which was allowing hurt to come to not one, but two Users. Maybe the more logical course of action was to beg for forgiveness.

But no, there would be time enough for that later.

"Stay back. I swear. I've killed before and I can do it again."

Tron registered the tremble in his voice and knew he wasn't lying. Unwillingly, he remembered the remains of programs that they'd passed earlier. All the pieces were starting to come together, even if he was far from the full picture.

Upon closer inspection, Tron began to grasp the extent of Alan-One injuries. Though he stood ready for a fight, his stance was all wrong. He sagged against the tunnel, all of his weight resting on his right side. Two separate gashes ran up the other side of his body, one starting at his leg, and the other ending below his armpit. The light from his disc revealed a bruise against his neck, caked with blood. His eyes, blue and ethereal, were dim with pain.

It couldn't be more obvious that all of Alan-One's bravado was a desperate bluff.

"You're injured," Tron said dumbly.

Instead of hearing sympathy, Alan-One heard a threat. He bristled, circuits flaring.

"No shit? Come over here and... try me then."

That wouldn't be smart. Out in the open, Tron had no doubt that he could overwhelm Alan-One. He wouldn't be much of a challenge in his current state, despite the tough talk. But in close quarters, trapped in that tunnel? It would be impossible to avoid even the clumsiest jab from a disc. Just one touch, that's all it would take...

He had to reason with the man, make him come out of his own accord.

"Alan-One." Tron stepped closer, speaking in what he hoped were low, soothing tones. "We mean you no harm."

"Where did you hear that name?"

"Well that's your name, isn't it?" Beck finally spoke up. Evidently he'd decided that now was the time to get involved. Tron just about jumped. He'd almost forgotten that they weren't alone.

"My User-name," Alan-One corrected harshly. "Where did you hear it?"

"What, you mean you don't know who this is?" The question was genuine enough, but Tron nearly shoved the beta for his disrespect. "You wrote him yourself!"

"Did I?" The User said shrewdly. More and more, his too-clear-voice was devolving. He squinted at Tron with distrust. "I've written a lot of programs. You'll have to be more specific."

Tron stood still, mortified by Beck's abrasiveness, intentional or not. The choir in his head had cut out like a record player. He didn't know what was worse—Beck's lack of tact or Alan-One's casual response. Realistically speaking, Tron had always known that he couldn't be one of a kind, but he'd never stopped to think of the implications of that.

This line of thought was a waste of time. With every nano-cycle that went by, Alan-One would only grow weaker.

There was only one thing left to do that could resolve all of this.

Tron took another step, wincing when Alan-One shrank back. He removed his disc and Alan all but snarled. Carefully, Tron entered a few cosmetic commands, then redocked his disc. Four squares lit up Tron's chest, arranged in a distinctive "T". Tron had no idea if the symbol would mean anything to Alan, but it was worth a shot. At the same time, an unspoken command opened his helmet. With a hiss of air and a few quiet clicks it disassembled into pieces, pieces that were then absorbed by the rest of Tron's suit.

For the first time, Tron locked unobstructed eyes with his creator. Alan-One met his gaze steadily. Gradually, the disbelief bled from his expression. No longer so defensive, he shifted his posture into something looser.

"You," Alan-One said. Shame prickled under Tron's skin and concentrated along his scar like a branding iron.

Alan-One looked like he might say something else. He never got that far. Jaw dropping and eyes widening, he collapsed into a heap. Beck cried out at the splash, but Tron was faster. Immediately he was in the drainage pipe, turning the sopping User onto his side. Beck wasn't far behind.

"Alive," Tron announced, feeling the flutterings of breath on his hand.

For now. The blasphemous thought curled to the forefront of his consciousness.

"Help me get him out," he told Beck.

He hoisted Alan-One up by the shoulders. Obediently, Beck took Alan-One's feet. Quickly, but not ungently, they brought him to the mouth of the tunnel. A recognizer blazed overhead and stopped the two programs in their tracks. Just then, a second ship vibrated the tunnel around them. They retreated into the temporary shelter like startled gridbugs.

Time's up, thought Tron grimly.

"They must be doubling back," Beck noted with a hint of urgency.

As if from some great distance, Tron marked the red marring Beck's hands. Judging by the way Beck was trembling, he'd seen it too. He was frazzled and completely out of his field. Tron knew how he felt. Recognizers were one thing. That was nothing unusual, or at least, not to them.

But to hold a dying deity? To feel its lifeforce flowing onto your hands? Nothing could make a program feel more helpless.

"We could go to the hideout," Beck suggested desperately. "Try the healing chamber."

"That hunk of junk is hardly equipped for this. Besides, we'd never make it in time."

"Then where would you suggest?"

"...How close is Able's garage?" The question was more rhetorical than anything else.

"I- not far, but-"

"It's close and it's safe. It'll have to do," Tron said.

Without waiting for a response, Tron took Alan-One from Beck altogether. He started to sling the man onto his back, scars shrieking in protest. The weight wasn't much, but it was enough to make him double over. Alarmed, Beck moved to help.

"No!" Tron gasped. This was his burden to bear.

Gathering his strength and resolve, Tron adjusted Alan-One over his shoulders. One of the User's limp hands brushed the tetromino on his chest. It connected to the circuit like a power source to an outlet, locking in place. There was a discharge of energy so powerful that Tron had to gasp again. It was like nothing else Tron had ever felt before. Warm, in a way that was both comforting and painful. His scant light lines burned brighter than ever before, while Alan-One's own light lines remained completely unchanged.

Even on death's door, the User had so much life left to give.

Chapter Text

No matter what course they took, they were- what was that word that Flynn was so fond of?

Screwed?

He and Beck were helmeted and anonymous once more, refugees in their own city. All Tron wanted to do was hop on a light cycle and hightail it out of there. But with the sky infested with recognizers, and a sentry on every other corner? It would be a death sentence.

On the other hand, dallying would be a death sentence for Alan-One regardless. With each passing moment Tron grew increasingly agitated. Wasted nanos felt like wasted micros. Tron took solace from the air against his neck, where Alan-One's head dangled. It was proof, however weak, that the User still drew breath.

A signal from Beck stopped Tron mid-step. The younger program had taken point, scouting ahead while Tron lingered behind. His constant contact with Alan-One seemed to supply him with endless endurance. For the first time in countless cycles, Tron felt... whole. That said, he still wouldn't be much use in a fight, not with such valuable cargo. Their priority right now had to be protecting the User, even if that meant putting aside Tron's pride.

Scowling, Tron skirted around a corner and flattened himself against a wall. A camouflage subroutine helped his black gridsuit blend into the background, but there were limits even to that trick. All the while he was conscious of how much they stood out. Alan-One might've temporarily restored his strength, but he was hardly helping with the inconspicuous part.

There were a few scattered sounds—a shout cut short, some muffled blows, and then silence.

Good. The kid was learning.

After a few beats Tron "heard" the ping of a closed channel. He stole a glance from around the wall and saw Beck dragging a sentry off the street. When the evidence was attended to, Beck beckoned. Tron returned to his rearward position, an ever-present wraith.

It was a tedious process. Beck would creep forward, occasionally using a gesture or a non-verbal "ping" to warn Tron of something suspicious. Tron would halt, hide, and await the next prompt. Occasionally, he would reply with his own ping once it was safe, just to let Beck know he was still there. Whenever he could, Tron used his security access to sweep ahead. Repeat, repeat, repeat. It took too long for Tron's liking, but it worked.

Until it didn't.

Their luck ran out when Beck stumbled across not one, but a half-dozen sentries. Instead of the routine sounds that indicated a successful scuffle, Tron heard activated discs, plural. Not long after, he was alerted by unmistakable grunts of pain from his protégé. An alarm, quite literally, went off in Tron's head. He whipped around the corner to see Beck surrounded.

Apparently, the guards had gotten wise to Beck picking off their comrades one-by-one, and had opted to roam in packs. Smart, but as a principle, "safety in numbers" worked both ways. Tron let out a frustrated huff. Beck had bitten off more than he could chew, and it was time for Tron to bail him out, as usual.

With Alan-One dangling loosely from his shoulders, Tron charged. He took a running leap, aimed a heel at the small of a sentry's back, and knocked him out cold. The other sentries turned in unison, visibly spooked despite their concealing visors. Tron must've been quite the sight, all in black with a body on his back. Not to mention, the vermillion coating his gloves like war paint.

"Attack!" snarled one of the sentries, presumably the leader. Tron targeted her next.

The leader lunged for him, disc at the ready. Tron allowed her to come. At the last moment, he swept out a leg. The sentry staggered, severely unbalanced, but did not fall. Tron mended that mistake with a sharp jab to the neck. Crying out, she crumpled, disc clattering to the ground. She didn't move again.

"Call the commander! He has the-!"

In one cold motion, Tron retrieved his enemy's fallen disc and hurled it into the chest of another. They crumbled into cubes, permanently silenced.

Though Tron felt Beck's reproach, the mechanic withheld any comments.

A wiry sentry rammed into Beck but found himself floored after Beck flipped them both backwards. Tron was pleased to see Beck using his enemy's momentum against him. He'd come far since Tron had first found him, wandering the Outlands like leftover bits. As for their opponents... well, combat training must've truly gone downhill since Clu's takeover.

They fought for only a few nanos, but it was a furious and ferocious few nanos. One-by-one they dispatched the sentries, discs hissing through the rain. Beck was nimble and light on his feet, unburdened as Tron was by past battles and an unconscious User. Tron fought more methodically. There was no youthful flair, no showing off. Wherever he engaged, he won.

Accommodating for Alan-One's dead weight made things difficult, but the alternative was worse. Tron didn't dare put him down for even an instant, for fear that he would lose him forever. Any impracticality was worth keeping him close by. Besides, the power boost more than made up for the awkwardness Alan-One added to his movements.

For the most part Tron avoided derezzing programs, if only for Beck's sake. For the most part. Sometimes, out of necessity, Beck's disapproval had to be a secondary concern. There was too much at stake to cater to his strict morality. When Alan-One was stabilized, when Clu was deposed and Flynn was found, then they could discuss ethics.

The final sentry, dazed and desperate, made to snatch Alan-One by the leg. Perhaps he hoped to yank Tron off-balance, or to simply retreat with the User in tow. Either way, he paid for his gall with a punch to the jaw. Alan-One's body followed through with the movement, legs flailing into their common foe. As the sentry stumbled backwards, Beck clotheslined him with an arm, then slammed his helmet into the ground. A loud crack rang out. Tron spared a passing glance and saw that the sentry's visor had split straight up the middle.

All at once, it was over. Unfortunately, their triumph was short-lived and tainted.

Just then there was a break in the usual rhythm of Alan-One's respirations. His breath hitched on the inhale and came out muted and gurgling. Tron froze for a moment, then flinched as Alan-One coughed once. A thin stream of water and blood dripped down Tron's front. The rhythm resumed, but neither Beck nor Tron moved.

"Tron..."

"I know," Tron said flatly.

Tron ran a block in half the time it should've taken. He darted down a side street, feet slipping on simulated puddles. Beck caught up just as Tron was lowering Alan-One to the pavement. Tron's back was slick with blood and rain, and Alan-One slid off easily. He propped the User against a doorway, retracted his helmet, and grimaced. A bloody bubble welled at the corner of his mouth, and there was an ill-defined scent wafting off of him that Tron was only now noticing.

He almost gagged when he realized what it was.

Burnt, sodden User-flesh.

Hesitantly, Tron dipped a hand beneath Alan-One's left arm. He lifted it and leaned in, examining the damage with more critical eyes. The wounds were so much worse than they'd seemed on the surface. Black lines sliced through Alan-One's armour, connecting each of the larger gashes. Though they looked deep, they did not bleed. The discs must've partially cauterized the cuts. In hindsight, it had probably preserved his life up until now. That didn't make it any less painful though.

It still didn't explain the coughing episode, but then, Tron wouldn't be surprised if the User had taken some chest trauma as well. An anxious Beck watched him, shifting from foot to foot.

"Tron... what if Tesler tells Clu about this?"

"He won't tell—not until Alan-One is dead or in his custody."

Tron turned his attention to the weeping wounds he'd seen earlier.

"It's slowed down," he observed.

"That's a good thing... right?"

"Could be," he said noncommittally. "Could be the opposite."

As if incensed by Tron's composure, Beck suddenly demanded, "Isn't any of this freaking you out!?"

"Yes."

"...Oh."

Beck's shoulders sagged at the admission, all of the fight gone from him in an instant. Maybe Tron should've lied, let him believe that he had everything under control. Too late to take it back now. For his part, Tron tried to rally Beck back to the present. Programs functioned best with some task or purpose to distract them.

"We need something to staunch this."

"Able has patches back at the garage," Beck began dubiously. "That might work. But we're still a ways away from there yet. On foot, anyway."

Tron shook his head, pressing a hand into Alan-One's side. Alan-One shifted and moaned in protest of the pressure. It was a... promising sign, or so Tron strove to convince himself.

"Patches were designed for programs. I doubt they'll be compatible with Alan-One. Still... we can give it a shot when it comes to that. For now, we'll need something else. Fabric, anything."

Saying nothing, Beck strode to a data receptacle and burrowed through its contents. In short time he retrieved a tattered cloak. Tron made a sound of approval. The threadbare thing was hardly fit for wearing, but for now, it would serve their purposes just fine.

While Beck tore off large strips, Tron tied knots around Alan-One's leg, waist, and chest. Acting on intuition, Tron bound them as tight as he could. The work went by fast, but not fast enough. Recognizers were already circling the spot where they'd last fought the sentries. Their searchlights roved hungrily over the cityscape. They would be on them soon enough.

"Think we've attracted enough attention yet?" Beck sighed.

Tron didn't reply, temporarily absorbed by the blood on his palms. He was roused by a question, meek but full of dread.

"How much of that stuff can he lose before he... y'know..." Beck didn't dare say it. He didn't need to.

"I don't know. A lot, but then, he's lost a lot already. I think." Tron scratched his neck. It was the only sign of his nervousness. "By program standards he should've derezzed by now, but I'm not sure about Users. They can regenerate, to an extent, so long as we can get him out of here and somewhere safe to recharge."

Beck seemed to come to a decision. He took off his disc, twisted the outer-shell by a few degrees, and clicked it back into place. White pixels burst into being. They flowed like a wave over the contours of his body, leaving large light lines in their wake. It was a look Tron was very fond of, even with the bad memories associated with it. The pale carapace and complex circuitry had once set him apart, marked him as one from the old system. Now it was a sign of treason and outdated ideals.

It suited Beck.

"I can see how important this is to you—erm, that is to say, important to the Grid."

Tron's core went cold.

"Beck..."

Beck straightened defiantly. Garbed in those old circuits, he reminded Tron of cycles long past, of impossible odds, insurmountable foes, and incredible victories. "I know my duty. Tron fights for the Users, remember?"

"Beck." Tron swallowed, forcing down protests. "I'm proud of you."

"I know. Now go."

Without another word, the two programs separated. Each rezzed their own light cycle, one discreet and darkened, and the other awash with an active light wall. Tron had to do a bit of maneuvering with Alan-One. Light cycles weren't exactly built for passengers. Eventually the spine-like apparatus fitted over them both, holding Alan awkwardly in place.

As Tron took a detour to the garage, Beck barreled directly towards the recognizers, a lone arrow of light against a tide of orange.

Chapter Text

Usually Tron had no issues sneaking into Able's garage. Doing so with a whole 'nother person on his back made the endeavor a tad more difficult. Alan-One presented a whole new set of problems that Tron had to overcome. His favourite rooftop vent was no longer an option, and so Tron settled for the front entrance.

The only saving grace was that Able seemed to have closed up shop in light of the lockdown. Except for the vehicles, the garage floor was eerily empty. All of Able's programs were probably in their apartments upstairs. Once lively and full of activity, the overhaul area was now a crypt. Tron wandered through the shadows of machines in various states of repair, using them for cover whenever he could. Apart from a bored-looking program aimlessly vacuuming data, he encountered no trouble.

Maybe his luck was turning.

The door to Able's office admitted him without any fuss. The instant Tron stepped inside, however, his audio processes were bombarded by noise.

"Yes! Yes yes yes!" cried Able's beloved Bit.

Thoroughly jarred, Tron jumped and half-swatted at the pulsating thing. That only seemed to add to the Bit's enthusiasm. All at once the repetitive jabbering echoed throughout the garage. Tron hastily shut the door behind him in an effort to contain the noise. He retracted his helmet to shoot a glare at the pet, pride wounded and nerves fried.

"No yes no yes no yes no yes, no yes yes yes no no yes yes-!"

Alan-One, he hated those things.

"-NO yes yes no no yes no yes, no yes yes yes no no yes no-!"

Ignoring the grating in his ears, Tron brought Alan-One to Able's circular desk and laid him on his back. The Bit continued to circle above their heads, a diamond of flashing gold. There were few things more obnoxious. Instead of tiring itself out, its output only increased in volume and frequency. Alan-One shook himself out of his malaise for a moment. He groaned at the strobing and the Bit, impossibly, shut up. When next it spoke, its voice was high and tiny.

"Yes!"

"Hush," Tron chided it.

"No!"

"Bit?" A third voice entered the fray. Able's.

Footsteps outside the office goaded the Bit into a fresh series of airborne maneuvers. Tron turned to face the door just as Able entered. The older program blinked at the sight of him. His surprise faded fast, only to be replaced by resignation.

"Tron..." Able's eyes left him to land on Alan-One. "...Tron?"

"Able," Tron greeted him gruffly.

He was glad to have him here. Alan-One needed all the trusted help he could get. Both of them did. Tron's relief was contrasted by Able's displeasure. The long-suffering look on his face had been shaken. Every bit of Able's body language advertised his astonishment and scrutiny. He rubbed at his face, peeking with dread between both User and program.

"Good grief, please tell me I'm dreaming and that there's not two Trons in my office, in the middle of a lockdown, no less-"

"Able," Tron repeated, firmer this time. "Look more closely."

Able rolled his eyes before placing his hand on the panel that controlled the door. As soon as it was shut, he marched around Tron to get a better look at the doppelganger. At first he reacted with confusion and nothing else. Then, Tron saw his spine go stiff. He took in the makeshift-bandages, the colourless, minimal light lines that glowed brighter than any program's, the blue bruise blossoming on Alan-One's neck...

"What is..."

"He's a User. My, User," Tron explained heavily.

"Excuse me?"

"I don't know why he's here," Tron went on. He began to pace. "Or how he's here, but he is. There were always rumours... but then, when there's always rumours, you learn to never pay attention to them."

Able watched him walk for a while before his shoulders tensed.

"Where's Beck," he asked abruptly.

Tron paused. He left the glowing ring of Able's desk to riffle through some drawers. After a couple nanos he located a box of patches and put them atop the desk, right above Alan-One's head. Able caught on quick to his avoidance, and his voice rose in concern.

"Tron, where's Beck?"

"Playing tag with the occupation. He knows where we are, he should be by shortly." Though he hated himself for it, Tron forced himself to focus on Alan-One. He would have to redress those wounds soon, and patches were one of the few, proper resources they had. The only question was if they would work...

"He's what? Have you seen what it's like out there?" Able demanded.

"Yes. Up close and personal," Tron said dryly. "That's why Beck went off. We needed a distraction, he volunteered."

"And you didn't stop him!"

"We both know that Beck has gone up against worse before," Tron spat with sudden venom. "If I didn't know he could handle it, I wouldn't have let him go."

The first part, at least, was truthful. Beck was more than capable of escaping this intact. But even if he wasn't, Tron wouldn't have hesitated to throw him into the fray. He'd done as much before, for much less.

Did that make him a bad person? That he was willing to sacrifice a young program's life, just to further his own agenda? Possibly, but then, you didn't win wars by being a saint. That was probably why he and Able had never seen eye-to-eye. All Able wanted to do was shelter the workers in his employ, to shield them from the occupation for as long as possible. He was strong, but too soft. Tron was of the opinion that the only way to keep programs alive was to prepare them for the future. The entire Grid was living out its worst-case scenario, and to coddle Beck or anyone else about it was foolish.

...That didn't mean that he didn't understand Able. He was only worried. Tron was too.

"Enough of this," Tron said. "My User- Alan1- he's hurt. I don't know what to do and I need help."

"You're asking me for help? But I don't know anything about Users," said Able incredulously. "I'm a mechanic, not a medic. What can do?"

"You can start by helping me put on these patches."

"Will that even work?"

"Probably not, but we'll find out. They don't need to fix him—just stop the bleeding. I won't let a User die because I wasn't willing to try something."

"That serious, huh," Able muttered, making his way to Tron's side. "Alright. Let's try."

All Tron could do to express his gratitude was nod. As always, Able underestimated himself. Tron couldn't ask for a better ally—nor Beck a better mentor, his mind added ruefully.

Tron took the liberty of laying the first, square-shaped patch on Alan-One's midriff. Half-expecting to be shocked, he timidly touched the patch to the broken flesh, then smoothed it flat in hopes that it would catch. Upon initial contact it didn't appear to be effective. The patch's blue grid lines glowed angrily as Alan-One's system rejected the healing code.

Remarkably, the patch did not disappear or detach. Though it didn't dissolve into the gash as it might with a program, it did act as a physical barrier. As best as Tron could judge, the patch had bonded with the gridsuit that Alan-One wore. It showed no signs of integration, but instead stayed stubbornly in place, rendered inert.

Inert, but not useless.

Encouraged by the half-success, he and Able began to layer patches across every inch of injured tissue. Tron concentrated on Alan-One's chest while Able took charge of his leg. The entire time, Tron tried not to look too intently at the mirror that was Alan-One's face. Just being near it was enough to make gridworms crawl under his skin.

All things considered, the patches had worked out better than expected. They weren't a perfect solution, by any means, but at least Alan-One was no longer in danger of bleeding out.

At one point, Able's Bit decided that it was time to interfere again. Tron turned away to grab a patch, and when he turned back, the Bit had nuzzled itself into Alan-One's shoulder. It stayed there, immune to Tron's scathing stare as it vibrated in neutral blue.

"Yes," it chirped contentedly.

"Get out of there," Tron barked, his patience at its breaking point.

"No!"

"Out!"

A few firm swats in the Bit's general direction were enough to convince it to move. Tron shooed it all the way to the door, opening it just long enough to herd the Bit outside. While his back was turned, a soft impact coupled with a whuff of air made Tron perk. He pivoted to find an aghast Able clutching his chest. Alan-One's position had also changed, but only slightly.

"He kicked me!" Able wheezed, wide-eyed.

Tron raised a challenging brow, as if daring him to complain. "Well aren't you blessed. Want me to build you a shrine?"

Able rolled his eyes. "Flynn, you're annoying. And apparently, so is your User. I guess he still has a little fight left in him."

"Hopefully that will be enough," said Tron uncomfortably. He changed the topic. "Did you finish?"

"Yes. Not that I'd ever go within his kicking range again," grumbled Able with a wince. "What's next?"

Tron wracked his memory. He pulled up every audio file he had on Flynn, every interaction he'd ever had back in the more-open Encom system. There was a lot to sift through, but not enough results. Recalling an encounter with an old EHR program, he recited, "In the User-World, Users need to replenish lost fluids after exsanguination."

Able blinked at him. "I'm going to pretend I understood that. So... energy?"

"I guess. There's no other option, and Flynn was always fond of energy."

"Hm," Able grunted. "I'll go to the break room. We keep a stash there. Be right back."

No sooner had Able left than Alan-One started to stir anew. His eyelids fluttered and his brow furrowed. At a weak cough, Tron almost considered hiding. Truthfully, Tron had been dreading Alan-One's awakening, and he loathed himself for it. He could still remember the strain when their eyes had met, or that lone word, "You".

It was easy for Tron to imagine the disgust in that word.

"Aa-aah," Alan-One croaked. His head bobbed once before he finally registered Tron's presence.

Recognition dawned in his eyes. Tron was a storm of mixed emotions. All of the shame and resentment from their first meeting rose its head once more. He'd buried it because it'd been necessary at the time, and perhaps it still was.

"Alan-One." Tron hovered over him. "How do you feel?"

"I've honestly never felt worse in my life." At seeing Tron's stricken expression, he stuttered, "But thanks for asking, really. I appreciate it."

Despite that brief lapse, Tron managed to marshal himself back into formality. "I'm sorry," he said. "This is my fault and I take full responsibility."

"No, no it's not. It was a lot of people's fault, but not yours..." Alan-One drifted off, already succumbing to a second shutdown. His eyelids shut like weighted gates.

Suddenly Tron felt very small and very young. He spoke without knowing if the User could hear him.

"You're... not going to die... are you?"

"I'll do my best for ya," Alan-One mumbled wryly. "I have no intention of being buried in a damn computer."

Silence reigned between them. For a time, Tron thought that Alan-One must've passed back out. In the end, he allowed himself to relax too early.

"...It is you, isn't it..." Alan-One whispered as if in a dream. He was musing to himself more than to Tron, but the words still packed a punch, made Tron stand at attention. "TRON-JA-307020..."

Tron recoiled as though he'd been stung. The full designation resonated throughout his entire body. Each character of his code seemed to wither and shrink, before breaking into exultations. He never even noticed Able walking back in.

"...Tron?"

There was an uncharacteristic amount of concern in Able's voice. Uncharacteristic, at least, when directed at him. Tron knew that Able was very attentive with his betas, but it was strange being on the receiving end of that kindness. Shaking his head, Tron shot Able a reassuring glance.

"He... he woke up for a bit. We talked a little."

A snort escaped Able. "And did he apologize for kicking me?"

"Come now... you're not still sore about that?" said Tron with as much amusement as he could muster. "It wasn't his fault."

"No, I suppose not-"

Able was interrupted by the door sliding open. Faster than the eye could see, Tron drew his disc and set it to its highest setting. The disc roared to life and spun in deadly growls. He dropped to a crouch, ready to engage, but paused upon seeing familiar circuitry. Like a blown candle, his disc extinguished.

"Beck!" Tron cried out.

Beck grinned from the doorway. "Was there any doubt?"

Tron yanked him inside by the arm with every intention of an embrace, but hesitated when Beck stumbled. The beta seemed... dizzy. Off-kilter. Tron grabbed him by the shoulder with a steadying hand, a clear question in his gaze.

"It's OK— I'm OK. 'Took a bit of a tumble earlier, think I knocked something loose, but it's getting better," said Beck.

"Maybe you oughta sit down," Able suggested sternly.

Tron was about to agree when he caught sight of a shape behind Beck. The mass was built like a program, green on black, and unmoving. After following Tron's line of vision, Beck moved aside. He rubbed the back of his neck and prodded the program with a foot.

"Also, I kidnapped a medical program," Beck told them.

"You what."

Chapter Text

Tron couldn't stop glaring at the body Beck had dumped in the corner.

He alternated between prowling the length of the office or standing perfectly still, eyes fixed on the offending program. The green circuitry with its distinct cross marked her as a medic. She was short-haired, of average height and average build. Beck had put her in light cuffs—a bare-minimum precaution, in Tron's opinion.

All in all, she was hardly intimidating, but what had Tron riled was the armband she wore. It hugged her right bicep like an unholy growth, emblazoned with a downward arrow. He'd seen that symbol on many a pathetic program before.

This program, voluntarily, wore Clu's colours—yellow, like the virus he was. Just the sight of it was enough to put Tron on edge. He gritted his teeth and rounded on Beck.

"Did it ever occur to you that this program might be sympathetic to the occupation?" His tone was level, but his thoughts were anything but.

"Her light lines were green!" Beck said defensively. "And I didn't exactly have the leisure of browsing all the aisles."

Tron stood there and seethed. His circuits crackled and his scars simmered under the stress. Beck was being awfully blasé about potentially putting Alan-One in danger. He'd taken a tremendous risk by deciding to involve someone else—and an unknown, no less. That decision could end up jeopardizing everything.

What was he thinking?

He was thinking of me, Tron admitted privately.

Beck was always thinking of other people. Tron admired that quality, even if it got him into trouble here and there. Their current predicament was a perfect example of that.

The lapse in their argument was filled by Able, ever the beta's advocate. Even saying nothing, Able was a steadying presence, a calm contrast to Tron's own obstinance and paranoia.

"Most medical operations have been appropriated by the military," Able reminded him. "Nowadays, you'd be hard-pressed to find a medic not wearing an armband."

"Then he shouldn't have brought one in at all. It's not like a medic will have a clue what to do in this situation," Tron resisted.

"Weren't you the one who said, and I quote, 'I won't let a User die because I wasn't willing to try something'?"

That gave Tron pause. Imperceptibly, his head twitched toward Alan-One. He'd been so busy thinking about the security risk, that he'd almost forgotten the bigger picture. Deep down, he knew things were bad. Without the steady illumination from his circuits, the User might as well have been a corpse. The burns and blood loss had taken their toll. Alan-One could scarcely function without crashing, and there was nothing Tron could do about it.

Not on his own.

For just a moment, Tron allowed himself to entertain Beck's idea. His mind mulled over potential payoffs, percentages, and outcomes. A sliver of optimism pierced his walls.

Could Tron really risk sending the medic away? Just because he'd never seen Flynn manipulate his own code, didn't mean it wasn't possible. There was never a need for it until now. Perhaps it would turn out like the patches—not a cure, but invaluable nonetheless? If they could at least isolate the fault, then they might have a better idea of how to proceed.

He had to put things into perspective. If Alan-One died, then all his efforts for secrecy would be worthless. Worse, he would utterly fail in his directive, moreso than he already had. Everything would be worthless.

"Maybe you're right." Tron drew the words out like they pained him.

Beck's head shot up. "Wait, really?"

"We've had to make quite a few gambles just to get this far, and we'll have to make quite a few more before it's finished," Tron said. "I don't like it, but we're treading on uncharted territory here."

"So... you're not mad?"

"I'm frustrated, but not at you." At everything, Tron thought. Aloud, he said, "You were just going with your gut."

Another dilemma needed to be addressed. Tron moved closer to the medic, regarding her with different eyes. He turned back to Beck and died a little at the relief on his face. There was more Tron had to say, but he didn't know if he had the strength.

"You do realize that when we're done, I'll have to derezz this program?"

Beck's face turned to ash. "But-"

"It's either that or turn her into a stray, and you already know what the army does with strays. Derezzing would be a mercy," said Tron solemnly.

Beck was shaking his head, a tremor in his hands. "There has to be another way."

"Well, there isn't."

"What about him?" Able interjected, jerking his head at Alan-One. "Wouldn't he have the permissions to edit her memories?"

That idea made Tron pull back. As always, Able had an uncanny knack for producing patches in places that Tron would never think to consider. Could- would Alan-One do that for them? Perhaps, but Tron wouldn't presume to ask. And yet...

Gradually, Beck's crushed expression persuaded him. "If Alan-One is willing and able, I'll present the option to him. That's all I'll promise. I can't see any reason why he'd refuse, but in his condition..."

Hope flared in Beck's eyes and he nodded. It was a fragile hope, but Tron would do everything in his power to preserve it. For now, though, they needed to move along.

"While we wait for our guest to reboot... Beck, pass me that canteen," he said.

Tron was reluctant to leave the medic unattended, but Alan-One also needed his attention. As if sensing his distress, Able stepped up.

"I'll keep an eye on her," he volunteered. Tron acknowledged him with a nod.

Eagerly, Beck gave Tron the canister that Able had retrieved earlier. It glittered with energy, and Tron had to swallow around the dryness in his throat. He went to Alan-One, lifted his head, and placed the opening to his lips. He wetted Alan-One's tongue with a drop or two, enough to wake him up, but not to choke him.

"How has he been? Any change?" asked Beck.

"He's been in and out of rest-mode."

That was all that Tron could say, really. Any scans he sent came back as errors, which wasn't much of a surprise. Flynn had been the same. Users were an anomaly on the Grid, an enigma that existed, but did not belong. It was impossible to tell if Alan-One was any better or worse.

Or was there?

Something occurred to Tron, and he put aside the energy. His fingers moved from the back of Alan-One's neck to the front, feeling under his jaw. Flynn had shown him this trick, once, but Tron couldn't be sure he was doing it right. Panic gripped him briefly when he couldn't find what he was looking for. He placed his ear against Alan-One's chest, straight to the source.

Thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump...

It was there. Too fast and a tad too weak for his liking, maybe, but there. All he really had to compare it to was Flynn's, and that had been a long time ago.

"What are you doing?" Beck asked, oblivious to the emotions roiling within his mentor.

"Feeling for a pulse. It's a system clock that Users carry in their chest, and a sign of how well they're functioning. When a User runs out of time, their clock stops."

Tron knew he was oversimplifying, but how could he explain a concept that he barely understood himself? The way Flynn described it was baffling enough. At best, Tron could picture a sort of underlying circuitry, not unlike the ones programs wore on their skin. He saw invisible conduits carrying energy throughout the body, and at the centre of it all, a "pear"-shaped pump with the tiniest valves. Somehow, that unassuming lump was the most powerful organ in the body. Unimaginably small, unimaginably powerful.

It was that same pump that Tron felt beating at his ear, even now.

Somewhat satisfied, Tron stepped back and grabbed the canteen. The experience, while moving, was too profound and amorphous for Tron to decipher in any meaningful way. But it had offered him a certain comfort. He'd sought insight, and found it.

His eyes were off Alan-One for only a nano, but when he looked again, Beck had taken his spot. The beta's ear was flat against Alan-One's breast, eyes the size of saucers. Tron cleared his throat and Beck gave a start. Sheepishly, he withdrew.

Tron went back to dabbing energy against Alan-One's mouth, trying to tempt him awake. Beck watched, processing in silence.

Finally, Beck said, "That was freaky."

Tron ignored him.

And as always, Beck ignored him ignoring him.

"...And what about you? How have you been?"

Beck spoke carefully, and Tron felt eyes on his scar. It'd been creeping steadily across his jaw for some time now. Alan-One's natural energy had held it at bay for a spell, but the effect was wearing off, like it'd been a chance fluke. Tron knew he'd have to go to the healing chamber soon, but right now, it just wasn't feasible.

Before Tron could answer, Alan-One jerked. His left hand lashed out and gripped Tron's arm like a vice. Though his eyes were closed, his mouth was agape and gasping. Recovering swiftly, Tron began to pour the energy in earnest.

Beck flailed back. "Oh, hell-"

Still holding the canteen, Tron shot him a look.

"He said it earlier," he said plaintively, pointing at Alan-One as if that would absolve him of guilt.

Tron could only huff at that.

Alan-One guzzled the energy like it was a lifeline, gulping empty air when the canteen was empty. Overlaid with those sounds, Tron heard the medic shift. Able's urgent ping came not long after, confirming what he already knew. As Alan-One sank back into sleep-mode, Tron triggered the mechanism for his helmet. Beck followed suit. They exchanged a brief glance, visor to visor.

"Let me handle this," Tron said. Then, he turned.

Chapter Text

For better or for worse, their captive was awake. It was the start of a new game—a game played with wills instead of discs. Everything hinged on their success.

As luck would have it, nobody played games better than Tron.

The medic pushed herself to her knees, a whine on her lips. She lifted her chin, eyes blinking rapidly as she tested the light cuffs. Like twin shadows, Beck and Tron ambled into view. They fanned out in front of her, while a helmeted Able lurked in the background, closest to the door. Tron willed his companions to be quiet, and pinged them as much for good measure.

"Where am I...? The Renegade-"

"'Had to step out. You're with the Resistance now," said Tron. His voice came out as a deep rasp.

For the first time, the medic seemed to really focus on them. Her eyes flicked from Tron, to Able, to Beck, then back to Tron. A strange look came across her face. Tron couldn't be sure if it was dubiety, distaste, or dismay. Again, she tested the cuffs.

"Resistance?" Her eyes darted between each of them for a second time. "So... a resistance of three?"

Tron provided no further information. He pushed ahead of Beck and squatted in front of the medic, so that they were more-or-less on the same level. Even crouched, Tron had the advantage of height. He sized her up, helmet inclined ever so slightly. He allowed the silence to stretch until the medic broke eye contact. Even Beck shifted in place, uneasy. Perhaps he was grappling with his own misgivings, but it was too late to back out now.

This would require a lot of forethought, and Tron wasn't about to rush it. He didn't want to resort to clumsy blusters and bluffs, not when a more subtle approach could work just as well. In his experience, intimidation was an art that hinged on both trust and threats left unspoken.

"Identify, program," said Tron, channeling every byte of force he had into the command.

The medic shuddered as the full authority of The Monitor washed over her.

"Designation: CACHE_13x. Directive: program repair."

As soon as the words left her mouth, her eyes widened. The invention of a so-called "resistance" was one thing, but a rogue, high-clearance Monitor was something else entirely.

Now she was taking them seriously.

"Hello, Cache," Tron's voice rumbled through his helmet. He tilted his head towards the medic's arm. "We were just admiring your armband."

"Oh, this old thing?" she said, almost babbling. Clearly, she'd picked up on his undercurrent of contempt. The program was a fast-thinker, he'd give her that. Just not a good actor. "I only wear it because of my friends. It's more of a fashion statement than anything else."

"Seems pretty political to me," Tron said. There was a frigidness in his stare, undeterred by his helmet.

Cache balked. "Just what is going on here? Am I being held against my will because of an accessory?"

"You are here to do what you were programmed to do: heal. See that?" He pointed, and Cache followed his finger to Alan-One. Only his scalp was visible from this angle, but even with his face obscured, there was something different about him. Cache's eyes glittered before they rested back on Tron. "That, is your new patient," he said.

"A resistance of four, then," she said in an undertone. Louder, she said, "They must be pretty important, for you to go through all this effort."

Tron leaned forward an inch. "Extremely."

"And what if I refuse?" The question was more curious than confrontational.

"I don't have the time to convince you," Tron said bluntly. "We'd send you on your way—after a couple memory adjustments, of course."

That got Cache quiet. Tron could practically see the fear running rampant through her head. No doubt she was thinking of the crude methods popularized in Purgos, of histories burned clean by twisted instruments, and of codeworms crawling through splintered code. Tron conveniently left out that they were planning to have her memory erased regardless. In any case, User edits were far safer than the black market substitutes. He let her mull it over before speaking again.

"You can leave in cubes, if that's what you'd prefer," he said. Even Beck and Able seemed rattled at that, though they kept their silence.

"No-" Cache cringed, then tried to guard her expression. "No, that won't be necessary. I would never let someone derezz if I knew I could have helped them. I took an oath, as a medic."

"Then prove it."

He leaned over her, and with a single touch, deactivated the light cuffs. Cache straightened and rubbed at her wrists warily. When Tron stood, she did the same.

"And if I do this, you'll let me go?" she asked.

"Yes." Tron hoped he wasn't lying.

Before he could move, Cache held out a hand. "Hey, I told you who I am. Don't I get to know who you are, Monitor?"

"No." With that, he turned on his heel and marched past Beck.

She sighed, following. "Talkative bunch, then. Got it."

They walked up to Able's desk, and Alan-One. Tron grew more and more tense with each step. When they were close enough, he both heard and felt Cache stumble. A single word filled the room.

"Tron..."

"Not quite," Tron said. He didn't bother elaborating.

The truth would have to come out eventually, if she were to have any chance of navigating Alan-One's disc. Eventually, yes, but not yet. Tron knew he was stalling, but right now, his mind was on other matters.

What he was about to do was no less than sacrilege. He prayed that the inoperative User would forgive him for the violation.

Tron rolled Alan-One onto his side to retrieve his disc, and the User let out a pinched keen. Sympathy surged in Tron's core. Recalling the charred incisions he'd seen earlier, he gentled his touch. He removed the disc and returned Alan-One to his back with as much care as possible. Dimly, he was aware of how well the disc fit in his grip. Tron had handled many discs during his runtime, but this one felt like an old friend, almost as much as his own.

Meanwhile, Cache was frowning at the malfunctioning patches, her nose wrinkled as if against some scent. The stench of scorched skin was somewhat diminished, but there were other signs of Alan-One's Userhood. Red welled beneath the translucent seals of the patches, trapped. The blotch on his neck lacked the uniformity that one could expect from the Grid. The sheen on his brow—sweat, Tron remembered—was abnormal at best. All of these things were impossible to hide, so Tron didn't bother trying.

The final straw came when Cache took Alan-One's disc. Tron parted from it with great reluctance, and from the moment Cache came in contact with it, something changed. Her bearing was different, and even the disc seemed displeased, somehow. While Tron had held the disc with utmost reverence, Cache handled it like a gridbug, like it could derezz her by touch alone. She activated its interface and nearly dropped it.

"That is not a program," Cache said, gawking at the swathe of options in her palms. The statement was laced with horror.

"You don't say," Tron retorted. In the end, the truth came out without ceremony. "That, is a User."

Realization gleamed in Cache's eyes, wicked and wonderstruck. "The lockdown-"

"Correct." Tron kept his response cool and boolean.

"That's why Tesler put the city on lockdown. You're housing a User!"

"If there's a problem, just say so."

Cache blanched. "No, no problem. It's just..."

"You've never dealt with something like this?" Tron finished for her. Something in his voice sparked like a frayed wire. "I'm going to be frank with you, medic—neither have I. Neither has anyone. No one on the Grid has any experience with this, except Flynn himself. This is going to be the most difficult patient you've ever tackled. I'm not even sure you can help him, so if you start having doubts, let me know right away. 'Save all of us some time."

The tirade left Cache shaken, though she quickly collected herself.

"I... I understand. And I'll do my best."

"That's all I ask."

There was nothing more to say, so Tron left Cache to reconvene with Beck and Able. The three of them positioned themselves by the door, arranged in a sort of semi-circle.

Beck spoke like he was walking on glass. "Cache seems nice. Maybe we can recruit her instead of wiping her disc. A medic would be great for the cause."

Tron sniffed disbelievingly. In many areas, Tron trusted Beck's judgement as much as his own. Beck's recruitment sensibilities was not one of those areas. Not after Lux and Commander Paige, or even the so-called "Jolly Tricksters". Users, what a disaster that had been...

The fact of the matter was that Beck trusted too easily. He saw the good in every program, even when it was buried too deep to be of any use.

"That program hasn't stopped lying to me since she woke up," Tron said with cold certainty. "She's playing nice to save her own circuits."

"Well, we are holding her captive..." Able pointed out.

"Hmph."

"Hmph," Able mimicked. "Have I ever told you you're a pest?"

Tron didn't dignify that with a response, and Beck steered the conversation to calmer waters.

"Do you really think she can help him?"

"I think I scared her enough to do the job," Tron mused. "She has the motivation, just not the knowledge. We might be here for a while."

As he finished speaking, the lighting in the office changed, suddenly and drastically. Able, Beck, and Tron looked at each other. They spun as a unit and were stunned into stillness. Beck and Able gasped, while Tron could only stare.

Memories.

Memories revolved around Alan-One's disc, eidetic and blurred, faint and focused, invisible and visible, real and unreal.

The sight was enough to hold him transfixed.

In the past, Flynn had shared the occasional memory with Tron or Clu. For the most part, this was done in a purely utilitarian sense. "I want the coliseum to look like this", or "I saw some gridbugs in this sector", and stuff like that. Tron had treasured these gifts nonetheless, knowing that he was part of a rare, privileged few.

But this... this was different. There was no filter, nothing to stop the barrage of information.

As the disc disgorged itself, Tron saw places he'd never seen before, structures he had no names for, creatures that were impossible to catalogue, and acquaintances that were not his own. Even from a distance, it was overwhelming. He saw so much, and yet saw nothing. As quick as the information was absorbed, it was discarded.

Alan-One's memories were illogical. They were intensely vivid, and at the same time, incredibly indistinct. Both then and now, Tron got the sense that User memories were moreso impressions and feelings than exact recordings. Program memories tended to fragment with time, and Tron wondered if it was the same for Users.

Either way, there wasn't a memory bank in operation that could hold a User's memory in all its original formatting.

The memories began to compress into something more bearable, closer to what Tron was used to—basic images and garbled audio. Faces swam to the surface of the disc. User faces, Tron thought. Most were hazy, and the few he could make out were unknown to him. For a half-nano he thought he saw Flynn. Unrelated to old scars, Tron's chest ached.

Then he saw someone that looked too much like Yori, and his chest nearly split in two. Like Flynn, it was gone in an instant.

A couple lingering faces caught his eye in particular. The first belonged to a stranger, but not. Like someone Tron should've known, but lacked the necessary logs to name. It didn't take long for Tron to guess why.

The stranger had a very strong resemblance to Alan-One, but off somehow. At least half of Alan-One's most prominent features were missing. There was his straight nose, but not his soft hair, his sharp chin, but not his cobalt eyes. It disappeared before Tron could puzzle over it too much.

The second face was also similar to Alan-One's, and Tron's in turn. In many ways, it was Alan-One, just rounder, softer, and smooth like a fresh render. The User also wore a type of transparent, split-visor. Each lens emphasized his large eyes. Above all, though, this Alan was smaller.

A small User...

"I can't wait for you to meet Sam," said Flynn. "He may be small now, but one day he'll be a whiz with a light bike. I can feel it."

"So long as he doesn't crash them as much as you, I'll be satisfied."

"Come on man, it was one time..."

A thought hit Tron like a train, so surreal that it made him shudder.

This was his User when he was young.

In three strides Tron was in front of Cache, snatching the disc from her hands. Once more he was struck by how familiar the disc felt. As soon as he touched it, the projection flitted away and its outer edge activated, as if in reaction to his anger.

Tron spoke with narrowly-restrained rage. "That is not what we told you to do."

Beck called after him, "Tr- Comrade, calm down!"

"Give me a break!" Cache cried out, cowering under an arm. "This thing didn't come with a manual!"

His eyes narrowed into points. Her excuse, while not entirely false, still set off red flags. Tron wasn't falling for the bumbling-coward act, either. Call it a hunch, but he was sure that Cache was much smarter than she let on. Were Users complex? Confusing, even? Absolutely. But Tron didn't buy that Cache regretted the stumble, or that she wouldn't be tempted to try it again.

Cache was playing with fire. Programs were not meant to know any more of Analog than what the Users elected to divulge. And besides, people had a right to their privacy, program, User, or otherwise.

"It's bad manners to go snooping where you shouldn't," Tron said shortly. He passed her back the disc, but didn't move otherwise. This time, Tron would be watching. Closely.

Nervously, Cache reopened the disc's menu options. After a bit of searching, she found something that resembled a source codex. She glanced up at Tron and said, "I work best without an audience."

Tron said nothing, and she hastily ducked her head. There were no further protests.

As Cache perused the code, Tron noted how normal it all looked. Almost deceptively so, like camouflage. It was baffling.

"There's, uh, nothing unusual here," said Cache before moving on.

This wasn't Tron's area of expertise, but he had to agree. There was nothing to indicate that Alan-One was hurt, or even that he was any different from the average program.

The code flickered and faded, like a mirage. It quickly reappeared, but not before Cache could be tipped off. She blinked and doggedly resumed her search. An idea emerged in the middle of Tron's processes. The longer that Cache inspected the code, the greater it grew.

On the surface, Alan-One appeared as generic programming, but beneath that flawless veneer, there was another layer.

Tron knew that on some level, Users underwent a transformation during transference. Their true, incomprehensible selves were simplified into something akin to a program. Except they weren't programs, by any means. But neither were they quite the same. Users on the Grid could process energy, wield discs, sport circuits... all things that were nonexistent in Analog. This external code must've been evidence of that conversion.

Whatever Tron saw, Cache saw it too. She paused, tapped to zoom in, and uncovered a kind of compressed kernel. She prodded at it experimentally, forehead furrowed. Finally, she unraveled it.

An endless double-helix twined into existence. Alan-One's Code. The closest thing Tron could compare it to was an ISO's interface, though the shape wasn't quite right. Instead of variables, comments, or command lines, there were single characters arranged in pairs, always in the same, senseless pattern.

One whole micro went by, filled with nothing but Cache's scrolling.

"It... it doesn't stop," she said with renewed horror.

There was a lurch in Tron's gut, and an alarm blared in his head. "Wait-" he started, but it was too late.

Everything slowed to a stop.

All around him, the Grid went dark. Light lines dimmed to save processing power, and some went out entirely. Beck, Able, and Cache were identical, terrified statues. A soundless scream rose in Tron's throat. He tried to reach for the disc, but it felt like he was swimming through quicksand.

The world was ending.

"...st... responding... please... st... by..." the voice of the Grid grated out. It was distorted, like something spoken underwater.

A different voice replied, "End task."

In that same instant, a hand speared through the darkness. It slashed through the projection on the disc, shutting it down forcibly.

The world started moving again. There was a beat of silence as Argon came alive. Then, thousands of screams rang out. The entire Grid, every program, had just reckoned with their own demise. They'd teetered on the brink of collapse, only to be pulled back at the last moment.

Tron slumped forward, and when he lifted his gaze, it was Alan-One who met it.

"The problem," Alan-One said, forcing each word through his teeth. "Is not with my code. The problem, is the damn hole in my side."

Chapter Text

All the chaos in the Grid couldn't compare with the cyclone in Tron's core.

For one moment, he forgot about the blackout, about his mission, or how close he'd come to failure. Everything else ceased to exist. There was only his User.

"Well that's one way to wake up," Alan-One murmured, returning his disc to its dock.

He was half-sitting on Able's desk—not quite mobile, but more aware than Tron had seen him since first finding him in that drainage pipe. A shell-shocked Cache leaned away from him. Her hands were half-open, like she was still holding the disc that'd nearly doomed them all. Beck and Able shambled towards them like hollow wrecks.

Tron shook his head to clear away the fog. It took a very deliberate effort, but he eventually looked away from Alan-One. "Is... is everyone alright?"

"Y-yeah." Beck was the first to sound off. Cache and Able followed.

"Yeah..."

"Yes."

"No," Alan-One complained. "Could be worse though."

Tron wasn't sure how to properly react to that, so he settled for silence.

Upstairs, he could hear the clamour from Able's mechanics. Hurried steps, confused yells, and stifled screams echoed throughout the shop. Soon enough, some of those screams started to stream into the main repair level. Tron only had a few nanos' warning before Able's office opened. He shoved his body in front of Alan-One's face, blocking it from view. The User seemed to grasp his intention and made himself as small as possible.

"Able-!"

One of Able's mechanics burst into the room, her blue hair askew. Upon seeing five strangers, she froze in place. Hesitantly, her eyes landed on Able's light lines.

"Able...? Is that you?"

Tron groaned internally. That was one identity compromised, in front of Cache, no less.

"Doesn't this office have a lock?" he hissed to Able.

"Unlike some programs," Able said pointedly. "I put trust in my colleagues."

The mechanic was growing increasingly nervous. "What's going on here? Who are these people?" she said.

"Wait outside Mara," Able said, dismissing her with a stern jerk of his helmet.

"But-" Her head swivelled. "Beck?"

Make that two compromised identities.

As Tron recalled, 'Mara' was a close friend of Beck's, someone who would know his circuitry better than most. How inconvenient.

"Um, Mara, this is a bad time," said Beck. He looked like he wanted to sink into the floor. "We can talk later."

"The system nearly crashes, I find you and Able helmeted with a bunch of strangers, and you're telling me we can talk later?" Mara crossed her shaking arms. "I'm not going anywhere until someone explains what in glitches is going on."

"Mara," said Able, taking charge. He took her by a shoulder and guided her to the door. "We need to go somewhere else."

Beck called after her reassuringly. "I'll explain everything when I can, I promise!"

Though Tron had his own reservations about that promise, he chose to keep them to himself. Mara also looked uncertain about the compromise, but didn't argue any longer. Able brought her out of the office, with Tron watching all the while. He didn't relax until the door was closed, and even then, a part of him remained alert.

A feeble question floated behind Tron. "Can someone please bring me up to speed?"

Tron's breath left him in an instant. He shuffled around to face Alan-One, torn between relief and unease. Something in the back of his processes screamed at him to speak. His User had just made a request, and here he was, as idle as a glitched beta. When Tron didn't immediately respond, Beck took it upon himself to fill the dead air.

"You've been passed out for the most part—we brought you to a friend's place and tried to help, but..." Beck did a sort of understated shrug. "I guess it didn't work out so well."

Alan-One chewed the inside of his cheek sourly. "I... remember some of that," he said. Then he looked at Tron, who almost withered under his eyes. "I know who you are, I think-" his eyes moved on to Beck, "-but who are you?"

Tron chose that moment to cut in, though he had to gather his courage to do so. There was work to be done, and he needed answers. Forcing his voice into the cold professionalism of a monitor, he said, "We can worry about introductions later. Now that you're awake, you need to tell us what you need for self-repair."

Alan-One regarded him dejectedly. There was a slump in his shoulders and a pronounced weariness in the lines of his face. He started to speak, but stopped. A slight cough rattled out of his throat. He swallowed viciously, as if frustrated with himself, and continued.

"What I need, is a transfusion, O-negative, preferably, because I like living—and some stitches, neither of which are options right now."

Beck stared blankly. "You just said a lot of words that don't make any sense."

"I figured," Alan-One deadpanned. Then, something hopeful crossed his face. "You wouldn't happen to have any painkillers at least?"

"Uh..."

Alan-One's eyes closed. "Right. OK. That's fine."

"I don't know of anything that 'kills' pain, but I find that a cup of energy always helps," Beck offered. "We can get you some more."

A second cough—louder this time—brought Alan-One's fist to his mouth. "I'd... appreciate that," he managed.

Another question was burning inside Tron, itching to get out. He contemplated it for a couple of nanos, weighing the pros and cons of opening his mouth, of drawing attention to himself. After running some internal calculations, he came to a conclusion. Overall, the query was unnecessary to their current concerns, but important all the same. If he didn't ask now, then he would certainly have to ask later.

Relenting to the impulse, he asked, "Why are you here?"

"I was paged," Alan-One said, somewhat distantly.

Tron filed that away for later.

"And why are you here, in Argon?"

After a brief struggle, Alan-One focused his eyes on Tron. "I was looking for you."

Immediately, Tron went still. His limbs were pillars of ice and the scar on his face was a brand of flame. Guilt clawed at his insides, alongside a spark of tentative pride. Never before had Tron been more thankful for his helmet.

Alan-One was looking for him.

...Then it really was his fault Alan-One was hurt.

Unable to face the User, Tron turned, fists clenching periodically. He could feel Beck's and Alan-One's eyes burning into his back, but disregarded the sensation. He bridled his body into strict shapes, feigning interest at the rest of the room, ever the watchful monitor. As time went on, however, the act became real. Suddenly, Tron stood at attention, head rotating with continuous scans. He began to realize that someone from their little posse was missing.

Between the commotion caused by Mara, and the thrill of his User being awake, he'd almost forgotten-

"Where is the medic," Tron said.

It was Alan-One who answered, a quizzical lilt in his voice. "I'm sorry, was she not supposed to leave?"

Just then, Tron heard the roar of an engine. He swore and raced outside the room, shouting, "Watch him!", over his shoulder. The overhaul floor was flooded with programs, and Tron had to shove his way through numerous protesting bodies. He emerged just in time to see Cache streaking away on a stolen light cycle. A few mechanics yelled after her, arms waving, but the rest were otherwise indisposed.

A grim determination gripped Tron. Despite the sting from his scars, he took off at a dead sprint. In one seamless motion, he made a running leap, summoned the code of his baton, and split it in half. The chassis of a cycle formed around him. Tron gripped it with his legs, just as the bike materialized in a blaze of light. Its back tire hit the ground and sent him shooting forward.

The chase was on.

Cache had the advantage of a head start, but that was about it. Tron had been riding light cycles for as long as he'd been rezzed. He surged ahead, heedless to his speed and the danger that accompanied it. Soon, there were only a couple cycles' lengths between them.

Out of desperation, Cache activated her light wall. He evaded it with ease, but lost a lot of ground in the process. Fuming, Tron palmed the throttle. He went wide this time, hoping for a safer approach, and pushed the cycle to its limits. Though further away, he could see Cache's bike flickering in and out of existence.

Tron almost smiled. The problem with stealing a vehicle from a repair shop, was that one could never know if the vehicle was really repaired.

Cache had to know that she was running on borrowed time. She veered off the main road and disappeared around a corner. Tron followed the green of her light ribbon-

Right into a pack of pedestrians.

Tron swerved to avoid the crowd. He dissolved his cycle back into a baton and was propelled forward, body spinning end over end. Such a stunt might've been the end of an ordinary program, but not for Tron. He controlled the momentum and turned it into a flip. Halfway through the maneuver, he drew his disc from its holster.

Recovering from the error was the easy part, but the landing was rough. It would've been perfect, if not for the impact jarring his scars.

A wave of pain brought Tron to his knees. He paused for a nano, paralyzed by pangs that flowed over him in rhythms. Finally, he hauled himself to his feet, one hand clutching his side, and the other his disc.

He'd stopped in front of a mass of panicked programs. Some were kneeling, either in despair, supplication, or both. If he strained his ears, Tron could hear the chants of User-names. Other programs moved in frenzied swarms, voices raised in alarm. There were even a few military programs trying to keep the peace.

Somewhere in that writhing horde of functions was Cache.

Not one to be deterred, Tron forged a path through the throng, brandishing his disc whenever someone refused to move. Voices nearly overloaded his sensors, but Tron did his best to sift through them, searching...

"HELP! HELP-!" shrieked someone on his left.

"It's the end!"

"Mage! Mage where are you-?!"

"We must-"

"I'll bet the Renegade is involved again-"

"-Prepare for the inevitable!"

"Hey, that's mine-!"

"My friend needs help, please-!"

"-Out of my WAY, script!"

"Make peace with your User!"

"There is still a lockdown in effect, programs!"

"HELP, HE'S GOING TO KILL ME!"

One voice rose above the rest, piercing through the din. Tron whirled around and zeroed in on two programs, one red-lined, and the other green. Cache had a guard in her grasp, but with everything else going on, she just seemed like any other crazed program. The guard batted her aside like an errant disc.

Seeing his chance, Tron charged after her. She saw him coming and fled. Occasionally, she stopped to blather at another program. No one took her seriously. Everyone was too wrapped up in their own existential concerns. Even the word "User" was not unique, no matter how often she shouted it.

All the better for Tron.

To Cache's credit, she was a trickier target than she looked. Tron lost her on the other side of the mob. Without missing a beat, he fell into a crouch. He placed a hand against the ground and tapped into the Grid itself. An erratic mess of footprints appeared like overlapping mist. Tron surveyed the muddled tracks, momentarily stumped, until he saw a pair of prints split off from the rest.

He was running again, this time into a nearby construction site. The unfinished shell of a skyscraper loomed over him. Only the barest bones of code held it together, like a blueprint and skeleton all in one. Tron crept around a column and ducked as a disc came careening overhead. He followed the disc back to its owner and found Cache atop some scaffolding, cornered at last.

"You shouldn't have done that," said Tron.

He sprang into the air and perched effortlessly atop a beam. Cache reeled back and held her disc out like a shield.

"I tried to do what you wanted and nearly crashed the system!" she wailed. "If you really cared about freeing the Grid, you'd turn that thing in!"

Tron didn't reply with words.

One moment Tron was marching towards her, and the next he had her neck pinned to a pillar, disc raised for the final blow. Her own disc clattered to the ground below. Cache cringed away from the blade at her cheek. The medic was surprisingly good at running, but she was no fighter. She closed her eyes in acceptance of the end.

"You're him, aren't you," Cache wheezed. "That's your User back there."

Tron narrowed his eyes and updated his running tally: three compromised identities.

It would be so easy to plunge the disc down, to neutralize the security breach once and for all.

...But no, he'd promised Beck that he'd defer to Alan-One. A small, selfish part of him was also too tired for killing. He could picture the faces of Alan-One and Beck, condemning and distraught, respectively. The mental image made him more uncomfortable than Tron cared to admit.

Alan-One had programmed him to be brutal, but not a monster.

At last, Tron docked his disc.

"The only reason you're alive," Tron snapped frostily. "Is because I'm feeling particularly pious today."

Chapter Text

The drive back took no more than a few micros, but to Tron, those micros were long and agonizing. It only got worse when Tron had to abandon his light cycle. Walking was an ordeal on its own, without the added burden of an unresponsive program. He'd overexerted himself during the chase, and frequently buckled beneath Cache's torpid body.

Able must've gotten the garage under a semblance of control, because it was mostly vacant when Tron returned. A few programs idled around the break room, talking in worried whispers. As Tron slipped by with Cache in-hand, he was struck by a spell of déjà vu. Whether by a stroke of good fortune, or because of his stealth subroutines, he was able to escape notice.

The office was a little different from how he'd left it. For one, Beck was helmetless. His bare face broke into something bright and tentative, and Tron reluctantly removed his helmet to return the greeting in his own, stoic way. Able was still gone, though that was to be expected. He probably had his hands full with the rest of his hysterical staff.

Seated next to Beck was Alan-One, surrounded by empty energy canisters. Tron counted at least five, and a sixth in Beck's hand. It might've been wishful thinking, but Alan-One seemed stronger, somehow. Overcharged. His light lines had always been bright, but now they pulsed like reservoirs of energy. Even so, Tron could tell that he was far from recovered. He moved in that overly-careful way that Tron knew all too well. More curiously, he was leaning away from the energy in Beck's hand like it was poison.

Tron wondered, with some amusement, if Beck had been force-feeding the User in his absence.

To Tron's dismay, the Bit was also back. It must've snuck inside while the door was open. Save for the occasional "yes", it was silent, hovering in spirals by the ceiling. Alan-One traced its path with his eyes.

Beck laid aside the last bit of energy and let out a breath. "You got her."

Tron wasn't deaf to the unspoken subtext: "You got her, and she's alive."

"Stun bomb. 'Knocked her out," he confirmed. Even with so few words, speaking was excruciating.

He set Cache down, stiff from the searing in his torso. Beck rushed to his side, hands outstretched, but Tron brushed him off. Begrudgingly, Beck backed away. His lips and brows were drawn tight with anguish, and Tron couldn't tell if it was for Cache or for him.

Knowing Beck, it was probably both.

"Users, Tron, I feel awful..."

"Don't feel TOO bad about it," Tron snorted. "She was going to sell out Alan-One."

Beck winced like he'd been struck. "Well now I feel even worse. If I hadn't brought-"

"Stop. We already had this discussion, and we all agreed to take the risk. It's nobody's fault."

The disbelieving look that Beck gave him told Tron everything he needed to know. From their very first encounter, Beck had been easy to read. In many ways, he was too much like Able, too soft. By abducting that program, he'd not only put her in peril, but everyone else on the Grid as well. That was a heavy burden to carry, but one he had to drop, and quickly.

"Pull yourself together now," Tron ordered. A kinder program might've eased into the matter, but Tron was rarely one for patience or tenderness. "The self-pity doesn't suit you. I don't blame any of this mess on you, and right now, I need you more than ever."

The irony of Tron's words was not lost on himself, and he remarked—privately—that maybe he should take his own advice.

Easier said than done.

Visibly pulling himself together, Beck said, "You're right, you're right..."

"I'm always right," Tron said seriously.

A little laughter bubbled from Beck's mouth. "Sometimes I forget that you have a sense of humour."

Tron felt a half-smile twitch at one corner of his mouth. It was good to see Beck happy, even at Tron's expense. Discreetly, he peered over Beck's shoulder and saw Alan-One watching them. His face grew serious again.

"How have things been here?" he asked.

"Pretty good. We've been bonding," said Beck proudly.

Alan-One made a face that was both fond and long-suffering. "Yes... Beck here tells me that you were injured by Clu."

"Is that so?" Tron's eyes flashed to Beck's. "And what else did he tell you?"

"Uh, nothing much," Beck stuttered. "Just- stuff. Hey, did you know that Users have mechanics, too?"

Tron frowned steadily, unimpressed by his apprentice's antics. Beneath that frown he was a bundle of nerves. He took a moment to compose himself before bending over and detaching Cache's disc. The code of his throat felt raw as he brought the disc to Able's desk—to Alan-One.

"Alan-One, I need to ask a favour."

The User tilted his head. It was a benign enough gesture, but Tron still felt the overwhelming urge to squirm.

Was this what it was like for programs to look into the face of Tron?

"On one condition: you stop calling me 'Alan-One'."

Of all the responses that Tron had anticipated, this was not one of them.

"What?"

"My name's not 'Alan-One'. It's just Alan," Alan-One said patiently.

Tron was taken aback, locked in place with lagging processes. One less number made the name infinitely simpler, more intimate, and more confidential. Flynn had opted for a more straightforward User-name, "Flynn", but it was his User-name nonetheless. It was the name he logged into the system with and the name all programs knew him by. Alan-One's request was most unorthodox.

Nevertheless, Tron updated his identification logs.

"Yes Alan-One- I mean, Alan."

For the first time, Alan-One—Alan, smiled. "Thanks. I feel like I'm in a sci-fi film enough already without the wacky name. What do you need?"

Out of the corner of his eye, Tron saw Beck mouth the words, "Sci-Fi Film?".

A conversation for another time, maybe.

Opting to keep his request brief, Tron said, "This medical program knows too much. She needs to have her memory altered." A fissure in Tron's confidence made him falter. Was he being too forward? Too assumptive? He quickly remedied the blunder. "If that's asking too much, I can always dispose of the problem myself."

Alan accepted the disc and turned it over, examining it with lowered eyebrows. His voice, like a softer version of Tron's, was pensive.

"Seems kind of wrong, but if the other choice is deletion, then I see your point. I'll do it."

"Thank you," Tron said. "We'll watch the door."

It took all of Tron's willpower to walk and not scamper. He stopped a few feet away and beckoned for Beck. At the same time, Alan began to browse through Cache's memory.

Now that he had a chance to breathe, Tron's thoughts were a whirlwind of plans and contingencies. There was an inconvenient truth that they needed to reckon with. The two of them watched Alan work for a while before Tron spoke.

"We need to go," he announced.

Beck's head moved so fast that it became a blur. "To the hideout? Why? It's pandemonium out there."

"Because one, this location is no longer secure. We're drawing too much attention to ourselves by staying here," he said. He thought of Cache, Mara, and any other mechanics that may have noticed something suspicious. From the beginning, Tron had known that Able's garage could only ever a temporary refuge.

The next part was hard to admit, especially with Alan listening. "Two, I need to go back to the healing chamber—soon. Three, there is no better time to leave the city. The streets are full, programs are scared... Tesler's soldiers will already have their hands full."

"And four, there was just a Grid-wide event. No doubt Clu will run a diagnostic to find the source, and do you know where that will lead him?"

Beck paled. "Argon."

Tron nodded solemnly. "He won't be able to pinpoint an exact location, but Argon is about to get much more crowded."

"I couldn't help overhearing..." Alan looked away from the hologram on Cache's disc. "What's this about a healing chamber?"

Tron's circuits flashed irritably at the interruption. It was bad enough that Alan knew of Tron's injuries, but now he had to prod at the obvious? Surely he'd seen the scars? Surely he knew that the program he'd written with so much care was now damaged. Beck had already told him as much. Did he have to draw attention to it?

"It's a 'chamber' that I use to 'heal'-"

Tron cut himself off. What was he doing? Being short with his User, just for asking a question? Alan's surprise was only matched by Tron's shame. A perturbed Beck pulled a tool from his code and pretended to play with it. Even Able's Bit looked shocked.

"I- sorry. That was uncalled for," Tron stammered. He'd tried for friendliness, but the apology came out stilted and false instead. It was time for a switch in topic. "Can you travel?"

"I'll manage. Can you travel?" Alan countered.

Indignation seemed to stab at Tron from all angles. Was his User questioning his abilities now?

"Excuse me?"

Alan tapped the outside of his leg with Cache's disc. "There is an... alternative to this healing chamber of yours."

All of Tron's humiliation washed away at the implication. He stood in place, grappling with old yearnings.

Was it possible?

Long ago, he'd accepted the reality that Dyson's virus was slowly killing him, that he was degrading to a state that even the healing chamber couldn't mend. He knew there would come a point when the healing chamber would stop helping altogether. Each cycle was already worse than the last. That was why he'd taken Beck on as a student.

...Except he hadn't accepted it. Not really. It wasn't in Tron's nature to give up. So he'd kept fighting. He'd upgraded the chamber whenever he could, and turned a blind eye to the creeping scars.

And now, here was his creator, presenting him with a chance...

Something deep within Tron dared to hope.

After waiting for a reply that never came, Alan continued. "Your injuries are code-based, right? And I wrote that code. I'm sure if I took a look... I mean, I used to know the TRON source code like the back of my hand, and ever since I came here, it's been so much easier-" He coughed in a way that was both awkward and pained. "It's just an idea for when I'm done this. I'd rather not run into Clu or his guards again, and we'll travel a lot faster with at least one of us healed."

Run into Clu again?  thought Tron.

"I'll consider it."

Beck shot Tron a bemused look and made a few frustrated gestures. One of those gestures looked suspiciously like he was choking an invisible neck. Everyone else ignored his flailing.

Nodding, Alan returned his attention to Cache's disc. Whatever he was doing seemed to be working. He swiped his fingers through some files, which then disintegrated before Tron's eyes. The Bit fluttered this way and that before finally settling into the crook of Alan's neck. "Yes, yes," it chittered impishly.

"Hey-!" Tron took a step before forcing his voice to settle. "I'm sorry about that thing. I don't know why it's been acting like this."

"S'fine," said Alan. "Reminds me of my cat."

Tron lifted an eyebrow. "Cat?"

"Companion animal," he clarified.

"Animal?" questioned Beck.

"I- never mind. I think I'm just about finished." Cache's disc emitted a faint 'beep' before absorbing the rest of the interface. "I deleted everything from this day's "cycle", just to be safe."

With some trepidation, Tron took the disc from Alan's hand. He snapped it onto Cache's back and allowed it a few moments to sync. Light travelled around the inner ring of the disc, and another 'beep' announced a successful upload. The easy part was over.

"Beck, I need you to dump her somewhere, preferably close to where you took her. Don't be seen, and if she wakes up, don't say a word," Tron said.

"Got it," Beck grunted, hoisting Cache into his arms. "'Be back in a flash."

The office door opened and closed like an impenetrable barricade. Just like that, the medic was out of the picture. One problem had been resolved, only to be replaced by another. Tron had never considered himself to be claustrophobic—or afraid of anything, really—but alone with a very-much-awake Alan...

Suddenly the office felt far too small.

Alan was the first to speak. "While we're waiting, have you finished 'considering' my idea? Or do you need more time." He rubbed the back of his neck. "I meant what I said about not wanting to run into any more guards."

There was no denying Alan's logic, or Tron's own, personal desires.

Drawing a breath, Tron approached the desk. He knelt, lowered his head in submission, and offered up his disc. A number of nanos passed without any sound or movement. Finally, Tron felt the disc leave his palms. He pulled himself up, but kept his head down, afraid to see the expression on Alan's face.

Scars were one thing, but to have someone go picking through his code was quite another.

"Just until Beck gets back. Then, we leave."

"Sounds like a plan," Alan agreed.

Chapter Text

The disc flickered to life and Alan set it on his lap. Though Tron couldn't see his face, he sensed the bewilderment in the silence. Tron's code was a mess of faulty functions, missing constructs, and patchworked errors. It was a miracle that Tron operated at all, let alone as well as he did. For that, he had his User's ingenuity to thank. It was a shame that so much of that original vision was now corrupted.

Alan lightly rolled the last, full energy canister across the desk. "Do you want this?"

Tron wetted his lips indecisively. In all honesty, he'd been craving energy for most of this cycle. With the way things were, though, energy was a luxury that he couldn't afford to indulge in. His minor thirst was inconsequential next to his User's needs.

"You need it more than I do."

"I doubt that. It started to taste like battery fluid after the fourth dose. Here, drink."

Alan thrust out the canister and Tron, not wanting to be rude, took it. A subtle shock ran up his circuits when their fingers grazed against each other. It felt like the first time they'd touched, but milder. More mellow. Tron's scars seemed to boil before settling into numbness, all the pain alleviated. Unfortunately, the feeling only lasted for a few nanos, so Tron chased away the remaining aches with energy. He uncapped the capsule and downed its contents.

If Alan knew about the effect his touch had on Tron, he showed no signs of it. By this point he was utterly absorbed in Tron's code and oblivious to anything else. The Bit flew to its customary pedestal and descended into sleep mode. Out of boredom, Tron began to pace.

"Sit down, damn it. I can't concentrate."

Tron jolted at the reprimand and obediently dropped into a seat. He felt like one of Able's young mechanics, waiting to be chewed out by their boss.

Lost in his thoughts, Alan magnified the interface into a string of spinning lines. The light cast from the disc was a myriad of blue and yellow on his cheek. Though Tron could not read it as Users did, he instinctively recognized the code as his own. Eyes shining, the User started to scroll through a tangle of symbols. Tron wasn't sure what Alan saw, or what he did, but he felt the result.

Tron was no stranger to minor rewrites, to tiny tweaks, thorough debugs, and regular updates. Knowing that he had a diligent User was part of what made him so devout in his youth. But this was different. It'd been so long, and the feeling was ten times more intense from the inside, like fine fingers combing through his code. There was something electrifying about it, too, in more than one sense of the word.

Despite his best efforts, he flinched.

"Hm," said Alan, tightening his lips before delving deeper.

Whatever Alan touched became whole once more. He worked sedulously, acknowledging his successes with short huffs of air. His index finger was like an incision, and his hand sawed like a scalpel, leaving only healthy code behind. Each gap seemed to grow, sprouting correct information in its place. Gradually, after cycles of shambling through life half-crashed, Tron started to feel like himself again.

Then, seemingly by chance, Alan found the root of the decay—Dyson's virus.

It was small, but dense, and it would not leave easy.

"Ah-" Tron clamped his jaw shut and planted his heels into the floor.

Immediately, Alan stopped.

"Sorry, this sequence seems kind of stubborn. We'll, ah, take it slow."

Tron managed a nod. He felt like he was back on that board, unable to struggle or scream as Dyson carved into his eye. This is Alan[-One], he reminded himself. Not Dyson. He's here to help, not hurt.

"So. Beck seems like a good kid," Alan commented casually. He was using conversation as a distraction, which Tron appreciated.

"Nngh."

Alan bobbed his head thoughtfully, as though Tron had replied with something compelling or intelligent instead of a strangled whimper.

"I get the feeling that he really cares about you, looks up to you."

Leg twitching, Tron leaned back to stare at the ceiling. It was true. The kid really did idolize him, but beyond that, he was his friend, one of the few Tron had left. Beck knew him better than almost anybody, knew his insecurities, his shortcomings, and his quirks. He always wanted the best for him. Not that Tron deserved it.

"I haven't been here long, but it sounds like a lot of programs look up to you," Alan added.

Tron abruptly pulled up his head. Alan's observation brought up something else that had been bothering him. How long was "not long"? Tron kept an automatic clock at all times. He did the math, estimating the distance from the arcade-entrance to Argon, and adding on the time since he'd found Alan. The outlook wasn't good.

"The portal-"

"I know," Alan said, and Tron thought he heard his voice crack. "I watched it close."

Tron looked at his lap. He couldn't begin to comprehend what it was like to be banished from not just his home, but from his worldlocked from his very plane of existence. If he had to guess, it probably wasn't great.

Yet another failure to add to the list.

An intense twinge made him fidget in his seat, and Tron forgot all about failures and could-have-beens. The fidgeting soon turned into a sort of spasm, one that started at the top of his head, travelled through his torso, and ended at his toes. He was being torn apart, gagging on energy, dying. In his mind's eye he could see a cruel hand, dipping into his chest, yanking, yanking YANKING-

And then it was over. The experience, while unpleasant, was blessedly short. The ravaging pain faded into a dull throb. Unhindered by the virus, Tron felt himself begin to heal.

"Better?" asked Alan. There was a gentleness in his gaze.

"V-Very," Tron breathed shakily.

"Good. It looked rough on my end. There's just a few bugs left to sort..."

Tron gritted his teeth in a half-grin-half-grimace, almost eager for the final fixes. After that, he could take anything. Nothing could top that.

They spent a micro in silence. It was not a terribly comfortable silence. As the nanos wore on, and as Tron's elation waned, his eyes took to drifting around the room. He was determined to look at anything but Alan. He'd shown weakness. He'd bared his code for the User to see, only to come apart when prodded too hard.

Out of the blue, Alan asked, "Do you hate me?"

"What, no!" Tron sputtered, appalled by the suggestion. "Why would you ask me that?"

"I dunno." Alan shrugged. He didn't look away from Tron's code. "You've been a bit standoffish is all. Not right now, I mean. Earlier."

Fresh guilt and shame swelled inside Tron's core. Great. It'd been less than a cycle, and his User already thought he hated him. If only Dumont could see him now. The old Tower Guardian would probably have his hide. Tron shook his head at the floor.

There were many emotions that Tron was wrestling with in regards to Alan, and not all of them good, but hatred was not one of them. That much he knew.

"I'm just confused."

Once more, an immense silence swelled between him.

"You've inherited my RBF," Alan observed after a moment.

"What?"

"My Resting Bi-, forget it. Just something Flynn used to say."

That would explain it, then. A lot of the stuff that came out of Flynn's mouth was nonsense. Endearing nonsense, annoying nonsense, foolish nonsense, wise nonsense, User nonsense, and everything in between.

"Speaking of Flynn, he never told me about-" Alan gestured vaguely, "-this. He didn't tell me about you, the Grid, any of it."

Tron let that sink in. He wasn't surprised, just disappointed.

"Well- no, that's not entirely true," Alan continued. "I knew he was using you for some secret project, but that was about it. Where I come from, computer systems look very different."

"Flynn said similar things. I never understood what he meant, or most of the things he said, for that matter."

Alan made a sound that was somewhere between a cough and a chuckle. "If it makes you feel better, the feeling is mutual." His chuckles petered into a long exhale. "I miss him..."

Me too, thought Tron, though he was content knowing that Flynn was alive, somewhere.

He had a feeling that it was different for Alan.

"I guess what I'm trying to say, is that if I'd known-"

Just then, Beck burst in. He rolled his shoulders, as if preening, and said, "What did I say? Back in a flash."

Tron pinned him with an unimpressed lour. "You did the job?" he pressed.

"Of course."

"You got her far enough away?"

"Ye-"

"And you're sure she won't suspect anything?"

"YES."

"Good."

There hadn't been a doubt in Tron's mind, but sometimes it was good to humble the young program, lest he let the trust go to his head. He stood and was pleasantly surprised by the ease of the motion. Alan was still engrossed in his work, and it took a soft "ahem" to rouse him. Flustered, he returned the disc to Tron's waiting hands.

"Sorry, Lora always said I was a very... involved programmer." He pushed at the bridge of his nose and paused. "I missed some stuff, but this will have to do for now."

The mention of Yori's User was almost as painful as the removal of the virus. He'd known, courtesy of Flynn, that their Users were paired, just as they were. Flynn had gotten no shortage of amusement from that fact. Tron had always taken it as a sign that their love was divinely favoured. For the longest time, it'd felt that way. He no longer indulged in such fantasies.

He spared a glance at the svelte suit tucked away in one corner of the office. Yori's light lines burned in his irises. It was only a replica, created out of respect from one old program to another, but it hurt to look at all the same.

Tron docked his disc and repressed a shiver as the changes were finalized. Beck's gasp echoed in his ears.

"Wow. Your scars... they're nearly gone," said the beta.

Though Tron couldn't verify the statement by sight, he was compelled to agree. The scars felt faint. Smaller. There were still a couple of sore spots, but all things considered, he'd never felt better. Tron bit his lip and turned to his User. He opened and closed his mouth, unsure of how to thank him. How could he possibly, adequately express his gratitude?

Alan just nodded at him. No words were necessary.

It was at that moment that Able chose to make an appearance. Rubbing his face, the older program ambled into the office and shut it behind him. He looked tired—more tired than usual, anyway.

"Sorry. I had to console over sixty mechanics. Everyone is scared out of their minds, Mara especially."

"What did you tell her?" Tron demanded.

"Nothing much," Able assured him. "'Made up some story, felt like junk for doing it." Then, his gaze fell on Beck. "If any program deserves to know the truth, she does."

Beck suddenly became very interested in his fingers. Fiddling with nothing, he said, "Maybe, when things have calmed down a bit, I might, y'know... do that."

"You did promise," Able reminded him.

"Yeah, well, I break a lot of promises." Eager to change the subject, he straightened. "Shall we be off?"

"What, you're going?"

"Tron says it's time to go, so I guess it's time to go. I try not to argue," Beck replied lightly.

Meanwhile, Alan swung his legs over the side of the desk and let them dangle. His eyes were piercing as he regarded Able.

"I don't know who you are, but from what I can gather, you helped save my life. Thank you for letting me into your home. If there's anything I can do for you, let me know."

A favour from a User was no small thing, but Able brushed it off like it was nothing.

"The name's Able, and don't worry about it. It's been too long since we've had a User around here." A smirk played at the edges of his lips. "Also, I forgive you for kicking me."

Alan blinked. "I'm sorry?"

"Like I said, don't worry about it~"

Still uncertain, Alan slid off the desk. As soon as his feet hit the floor, his face lost what little colour it had. White-knuckled, he grasped the desk and swayed. Tron was surprised that he didn't topple over right then and there.

"Woah there," said Beck. He ducked under Alan's arm, and Tron supported him from the other side. "Don't go fading on us. You still have to tell me what a 'cat' is."

Alan's lolling head came to a rest against Beck's shoulder. He squinted at the program like he was seeing him for the first time. "Y'know... you remind me of someone. A paid-intern we used to employ at Encom," he slurred. "'Look just like 'im..."

All of the sudden, Beck became alert. "What was he like?"

"Hmm. Brilliant programmer, when he wasn't running off doing god-knows-what."

Out of nowhere, Beck's body began to shake. He laughed thickly and dabbed at his face. The laugh continued with increasing volume and distortion, and Tron wondered if Beck's voice box was glitched.

"Yep." Able smiled fondly. "That's our Beck."

Chapter Text

"So what's our game plan?" Beck asked.

"We make a run for the tunnels, but try not to look like we're running," Tron said.

The three of them had assembled near the entrance to Able's garage. Each had their helmets up, and Tron couldn't help reflecting on how similar Alan's helmet was to his. Come to think of it, so were his light lines. Alan's circuits were much simpler than Tron's preferred settings, but they reminded him of his stealth suit, with sprinkled lines defining his chest, arms, knees, and abdomen. The User leaned heavily against Tron's light cycle. Tron didn't trust him to ride solo, so for now, he would have to be a passenger.

Beck scratched a circuit on his wrist. His other hand tightened around a baton. "The tunnels? Won't that take longer?"

"So will sneaking past an occupation checkpoint," Tron maintained. "Consider this a shortcut."

"Well, when you put it that way..."

Tron wordlessly mounted his light cycle—a clear signal that he was done with debate. After a short effort, Alan got on behind him and wrapped his arms around Tron's front. The usual spark of energy passed between them before swiftly subsiding. Tron could feel the User's ragged breathing on his back and the shaking in his arms. A pang of concern juddered his core.

"Are you sure you can do this?" Tron questioned. The last thing he wanted was to smuggle Alan out of the city, only for him to fall off partway.

"Oh quit fussing. I'm fine. 'Feeling a bit better already," Alan puffed. His voice acquired a kind of far-off quality. Speculatively, he said, "I might be recovering faster from within the system. That, or it's a side effect of all that energy gunk. Lora would know. Who knew there would be health benefits to being zapped into a computer?"

"I'm happy for you, Al, but we need to stay focused," said Beck. He tossed his baton into the air and it came down in the form of a bike.

Neither Tron nor Alan commented on the "Al" thing.

Just before driving off, Tron spotted a blue-haired figure on the overhaul floor—Mara the mechanic, watching them leave. She shrank into a speck and disappeared. A pensive feeling alighted over Tron's processes before he shunted the sighting from his mind. There were more important things to worry about.

The way to the tunnels was long and winding, and they spent most of it dodging patrols or skirting around civilians. The roads were utterly packed with programs. Argon's citizens wandered the streets like strays. There were also plenty of soldiers, though they were more preoccupied with restoring order than pursuing Tron and Beck. Tesler's forces were in disarray, and Tron intended to take every advantage from that.

It'll be worse if Clu gets here, he thought more than once.

Still, they were moving too slow for Tron's tastes. Hopefully the going would go smoother once they reached the tunnels.

They passed over a bridge and sped up, encouraged by the lack of programs on the crossing. Unfortunately, the empty stretch was followed by what could only be described as a living roadblock. Tron's cycle screeched to a sideways stop, and Beck braked hard beside him. They sat astride their light cycles, at a loss on how to proceed.

The road ahead was clogged with errant programs. Most of them meandered and mingled in aimless currents, but others were motionless. Some stood like stationary fixtures, too shell-shocked to speak. A few of them knelt, addled with immaterial matters. Perhaps they simply needed the comfort of their fellow programs. For the moment, there were no guards or sentries on the premises.

Alan's whisper wafted over Tron's shoulder. "Do we go around?"

Tron didn't answer right away. He shifted his weight and fumbled with the cycle's controls. Now that they were stopped, something was wrong. Every piece of his programming was screaming, 'danger'.

They were being watched.

He sent out a series of rapid scans. They permeated the crowd like feelers, but yielded very little information. That wasn't surprising. Getting feedback from a gathering this big was tricky. On a whim, he scanned around the crowd, both in front and behind him, and was rewarded with a pattering of hits.

Troubled, Tron switched his attention to the surrounding buildings. He saw nothing. The danger was located outside the crowd, like a veil of malicious intent lurking just out of sight. Worse, it seemed to pen them in from all sides. A grumble crawled between Tron's lips. There were other routes they could take, but none of them as fast or direct, and with no guarantee of safety.

"No," Tron decided. "We go through."

It was a gamble, but a necessary one. They could just as easily run into trouble from either direction, and turning back now might make them a target. If they were lucky, they would lose whoever was watching them in the crowd. Safety in numbers, and all.

And if it came to a fight, then Tron could attend to any foe they came across.

Tron snapped the steering grips of his cycle back into a baton. Behind him, Alan let out a yelp as the bike disappeared. Beck followed Tron's example, and together, they advanced through the horde.

His audio input was besieged by voices. Like before, the lockdown appeared completely forgotten in the wake of system failure, and like before, Tron tried to sort through the conversations around him. They already had a name for it—'The Freeze'. Crass, but accurate. Programs convened in clusters to discuss theories, trade news, and search for missing friends. At times, it felt more like a congregation than a mob. Old litanies glided above Tron's head like relics from a bygone era.

"All that is visible must grow beyond itself, and extend..."

"HEY-!"

"First there's rumours from the Capital, then Argon goes into lockdown, and now this... Something's gone horribly wrong."

Halfway through the crowd, Alan brushed shoulders with a program. The contact only lasted for half a nano, but it was enough. The program's circuits brightened into spotlights. She gave a little start, spun on her heels, and stared after them like she'd seen a ghost. Tron's inner processors grinded together as they passed. He didn't relax until the program receded into the rest of the crowd. Sharing a look, Beck and Tron situated themselves on either side of Alan. They pushed ahead, more mindful than before.

"What was that about?" Alan asked.

Tron gestured helplessly. It was hard to put into words. "When you touch people, it can be a bit..."

"Energizing?" Beck supplied. "I've noticed it too. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. Watch-" he slapped a hand on Alan's shoulder. Something smug entered his voice. "See? Didn't work."

Hidden by his helmet, Tron's eyes rolled to the sky.

"I'll take your word for it," Alan said dubiously. "So, don't touch anyone. Got it."

With Beck and Tron acting as escorts, the rest of the walk went without a hitch. Each step left Alan winded and Tron allowed him to lean on his shoulder. He put an arm around the User, like they were old chums instead of battered fugitives. It wouldn't do any good for their party to appear weak.

When they finally reached the other side, the military had arrived. Tron jostled his companions into a sheltered side street and crouched in wait. A regiment of sentries went streaming past to disperse the dissidents. Luckily, their own paltry trio went overlooked.

Alan lifted a staying hand. "Wait, wait-"

"What is it?" Tron asked sharply.

"I need a break." Without further ado, Alan sagged against a wall and slid to the ground. "Just a few seconds..."

"I'm a bit fuzzy on 'seconds', but maybe you oughta rest on the bike," Beck said before urging the User up again.

Tron was about to agree when he heard the scuff of feet. At that same moment, his proximity sensors went off.

Out of habit, Tron swore, "Alan-One."

"Come again?" Alan said, only to be shoved behind Tron.

They had been under watch after all.

Programs crawled out of corners like gridbugs. They stuck to the shadows, but their light lines gave them away. Tron counted one score, about twenty. Their circuits consisted of every colour on the Grid except red. Like Tron's group, they were helmeted.

A breath whistled through his teeth. He would've expected this in Purgos, but not here. How ironic, that their first obstacle would be regular old programs, and not soldiers. The cycle's events must've dragged out opportunistic looters as well as fanatics.

And Tron, Beck, and Alan looked the part of easy prey.

"Hand over the bikes, and maybe we'll let you leave with your discs," ordered one of the larger programs. Tron immediately identified him as the leader.

"No thanks, we need these," Beck said tersely.

A sniggering lackey stepped closer. "Where are you guys going in such a hurry?" she sneered.

Tron studied their foes even as they surrounded them. In this climate, conflict was highly likely, if not inevitable. They would just have to make the best of it if it came to blows. The would-be-crooks were bold, but undisciplined. Only a couple looked comfortable holding their discs. The rest were a mix of overly-cocky and overly-jumpy. Tron's nose wrinkled under his helmet. Maybe, if they held their ground, they could frighten them away.

"That's our business," Tron said, cold but unprovoking. "Just let us pass."

Someone else spoke up, "Sorry pals, but it's a tough world out there, what with the occupation looking over everyone's shoulders... Well, y'know how it is." They at least had the decency to sound remorseful.

"Last chance," the leader announced.

Tron drew his disc in answer.

Just like that, the tension snapped in half.

The leader rushed at him first. He jabbed at Tron's neck but was met with empty air. Just as Tron ducked, another hand shot out to grasp the enemy's wrist. Alan stood over them both like a glacier. The program tried to tug his arm away, but the User's grip was like ice. A myriad of cracks started to spiderweb from Alan's hand. The arm attached to the disc shattered, and Tron closed his eyes against the rain of voxels.

Tron counted one beat of stunned silence. Even Alan seemed startled, though he quickly recovered. Then, a howl tore out of the program's throat. The rest of his body followed his arm and the howl faded into nothing. A tide of cubes crested against Tron's and Alan's feet.

No one said a word.

"...What, did, you, DO?!" bellowed one of the goons.

"I deleted him," Alan said coolly. Only Tron noticed the discomfort in his posture.

Perhaps it'd been an accident, or perhaps Alan had hoped to spook the others off. As it was, though, the programs just got angrier.

"He must be one of those ISOs!"

"Get them!"

"For Rex!"

Letting out one collective roar, the rest of the programs stampeded forward. Beck and Tron sprang into action. They fended the programs off with blurred discs and firm fists, shielding the User all the while.

The brawl was more exhilarating than it should've been. Tron was used to operating in perpetual pain. He'd learned how to limit himself and how to compensate for stiff joints. That knowledge still served him well, however unnecessary it was now. Everything felt fluid, freeing, like he'd been laden with weights before. His limbs were light and his disc moved effortlessly. It was almost enough to make him laugh.

From the back, Alan lobbed his disc with surprising speed and precision. It clanged across a program's helmet and knocked him clean out. When Tron glanced over, he saw a thin, sizzling line through the helmet's centre.

Beck whooped appreciatively. "Not bad, Us- uh, you! Where did you learn to throw a disc?"

"Frisbee golf!"

"OK now you're just saying sounds instead of words."

As fast as the fight broke out, it ended. Tron and Beck kept the thugs at bay for a frenzied micro, when suddenly, they began to break ranks. One shouted, "Scatter!", and they scuttled back into hiding.

"Uh, good job team?" Beck said skeptically.

Tron shook his head. Something wasn't right. They'd ran in the wrong direction, and without warning, too. He stole a peek over his shoulder and tensed. A nimbus of orange was rolling straight towards them.

"They're not running from us," he realized.

Their little scuffle had attracted the wrong type of notice. The same regiment that they'd seen earlier was on its way back, lured by the sounds of fighting. Their footsteps pounded into the pavement and their discs buzzed in their hands. Tron grabbed Alan's wrist and bolted. They were followed by yells of, "Halt!", and, "Stop right there!".

One of the sentries must've thrown their disc, because Tron heard it hurtling for his head. It was quite the distance away, so he ignored it for the time being. All he needed was a chance to rezz his light cycle.

The disc travelled in a low arc. Tron tracked it by sound, anticipating... At the last nano, he pivoted. He lifted his own disc to deflect it—too late.

Alan had been faster. He leapt in front of Tron and took the disc head-on. It slashed across his shoulder and Tron saw a small spray of blood. Instantly, the User stumbled, and Tron skidded to a stop. His circuits turned to ice.

"Alan!" he exclaimed.

Chapter Text

Tron dropped to his knees at the same moment as Alan, and Beck came to a stop shortly after. The beta bounded in front of them both while Tron laid trembling hands on Alan's shoulders. Distantly, Tron detected the aggressive footfalls from dozens of sentries.

The game had changed. They had maybe one micro, tops, before things got violent. Even if they could rezz their light cycles in time, Alan was in no shape to ride, and that was assuming the sentries wouldn't take chase on their own cycles.

There was no running now.

"Ow..." Alan mumbled.

That single, plaintive cry brought Tron back to the present.

Users above, Tron scolded himself, before the irony of his oath hit him like a brick. The only User that mattered was the one in front of him right now, and he couldn't manage to protect even thatGlitch, he wasn't sure who to be more cross with—Alan or himself. Of all the bit-brained...

With fumbling fingers, Tron touched the fresh indent in Alan's armour. Alan's helmet automatically unfolded as he gasped for air. He moved the hand aside, teeth gritted irritably.

"It's not bad," he grunted.

Tron wasn't so sure about that, but at least there wasn't much bleeding. The wound looked like it couldn't decide if it wanted to be a burn or a cut. It also looked very, very painful.

A kind of cold fury seized Tron by the core and caused his circuits to crackle. The sound of an approaching sentry only served to intensify that fury. At a smattering of blood, the sentry blundered to an abrupt halt, quivered, and lined his gaze with Alan's exposed face. He cried, "The fugitive!", but was forced back by the blaze of Beck's disc.

Just as the first sentry fell, three of his comrades showed up, with more on the way. It sounded like Beck was holding his own, at least for the time being. No program could last long against such odds, though. Not alone. Tron rose to help but was stopped by Alan's hand on his.

The User's steel-blue eyes seemed to drill into Tron's very core. Every component of Tron's code sang in notes that only he could hear. For just a nano, he could recall older cycles in the Encom system, back when Alan-[One]'s call was as constant as the beams from I/O towers. It was comforting. Invigorating. Inspiring. Energy seeped through Tron's arm like a rill. It ebbed up his shoulder, settled in his chest, then spread to the rest of his extremities.

Tron wasn't sure how he knew, but somehow, he could tell that Alan was doing the transfer on purpose this time.

A weight dropped in Tron's hand, and when he looked down, there was a disc sitting there, identical to his own. It glowed eagerly in his grip. Again, Tron met Alan's gaze. An unspoken understanding passed between them.

Without much conviction, Alan said, "I want that back."

Tron nodded, stood, and undocked his own disc. They ignited in the same instant and seemed to purr in harmony. Lifting them, he faced his attackers, and the one ally keeping them at bay. Maybe it was the two discs, but Tron felt twice as strong, twice as brave, and twice as determined.

They'd pay the price for harming his User.

Circuits thrumming, he raced into the ruction.

He collided with a wiry sentry first. Their discs clashed in a shower of sparks that seared Tron's eyeballs. Half-blind, Tron disarmed the sentry with his second disc, then tossed said disc at yet another sentry. The first sentry threw a clumsy punch, but Tron twisted the arm behind his back and booted him in the rear. He went flying, and Tron moved onto another, not a nano wasted.

Tron fought through a haze. His functions had been relegated to a list of basic commands and actions—things like jump, duck, punch, kick, flip, and so forth. He was a maelstrom of movement, of staccato punches, high-tempo pounces, and dancing discs. Beck was always in the background, hewing down programs out of the corner of Tron's eye. Although he wasn't as lethal as his mentor, he was no less aggressive.

With each foe that fell there were another two to take its place. Tron was undaunted. Every victory gave him impetus for the next. He engaged simultaneously in close combat and long-range battery, with one disc used for melee, and the other for throwing. The disc returned faithfully to his hand, regardless of whether it was Alan's or Tron's. No one was safe from his reach.

After a while, the guards lost interest in the stationary User and focused instead on the program thrashing their collective circuits. Tron underwent the distinct sensation of being herded and found himself surrounded. He readied his stance and lifted his discs challengingly. There was no room for fear.

Two programs ran at Tron from either direction. He sidestepped lithely, tripping them both with a swipe of his leg before being forced to duck under a disc. He retaliated with a toss of his own. While his foes were distracted, he ran at the nearest guard, intending to plow a hole through the ring of programs.

No escape route? Fine. He'd make one.

He rammed into the guard shoulder-first and heard code crunch beneath his elbow. The guard's functions shut down in a wave from his helmet to his boots. At last, he collapsed into a pile of twitching limbs. Nanos later, Tron recoiled from a glancing blow to the shoulder. He rounded on another guard and elbowed him in the neck, just under the rim of his helmet. A pitiful warbling came from the program's throat as he collapsed.

Tron could feel the fight reaching a crescendo, now. Whenever he tried to advance he became further fenced in. It was increasingly hard to maneuver. Fists, staffs, and discs seemed to be all around him, and wherever he turned, red lines dominated his field of vision.

Someone kneed him in the gut, leaving him wheezing from inflamed scars. Through a film of phosphene he saw a disc slice into focus. He caught the disc between his own, but was unable to stop himself from falling backwards. A bulky sentry wrestled him to the ground and more programs promptly piled on top. Crushed, Tron could only struggle as the disc's heated edge drew ever-nearer. Then, just as it began to chisel into his helmet, some of the weight vanished.

Beck had come to his aid by tackling the programs on top. He threw one program's body into another's and sent them both sprawling. Tron dispatched the rest with a few swings of his discs. They scurried out of range like disturbed codeworms. One of them reeled back, clutching a stump of bleeding code.

Tron's vision began to blur as his mind shut down. Faceless enemies seemed to encircle him on all fronts, and it was all he could do to keep fighting. He operated on an endless cycle of jump, duck, punch, throw... It felt like it might never end—

—Until it did, and he felt a final hand on his shoulder. Tron's own hand lashed out like a bolt of lighting. He grabbed the program, pulled him over his shoulder, and pinned him with one palm, the flat-end of a disc buzzing against his chest.

Rapid-fire pings rattled around Tron's helmet and a voice pierced through his processes, high and panicky.

"Tron! TRON! It's over!"

The program's helmet peeled back from a familiar face.

Beck.

There was a placating smile plastered on his face that fell mostly flat, and Tron could feel the undulations in his chest. Something stirred in Tron, like the sting of a gridbug, and he stepped back.

"You knew it was me, right?" Beck asked, nervous as he scrambled to his feet.

Tron refrained from answering. He gave Beck a quick once-over, just to be certain he was in one piece, before stalking off. He did a slow circuit around the carnage, scanning continuously for signs of life. All the guards were either unconscious, or in rare cases, derezzed. Tron counted at least a couple of program-shaped masses, outlined by cubes. There weren't many, but they were there. He edged around a mound of voxels, the code of his gut twisting into knots.

Something was missing from this morbid scene. Or rather, someone.

"Just gonna give me the silent treatment, huh? I see how it is. I'm OK, by the way. 'Can't say the same for some of these guys, but-"

"Where is Alan," Tron interrupted.

He watched Beck long enough to see him blanch, then resumed his frantic search. Even though Tron was overheating, he couldn't seem to get enough air.

"Alan?" he called, choking on nothing. "Alan-One? Alan!"

"Don't shout so loud." The User poked his head out from behind a data receptacle.

A wall of relief slammed down on Tron. Without being conscious of it, his legs began to move. He sprinted in a straight line while Beck trod sorrowfully around each orange voxel. They came to where the User was curled up and stood like skittish sentinels.

He must've crawled off during all the commotion. Smart.

Gingerly, Alan shifted his legs under his body, almost self-conscious in the movement. For a being so powerful, he was awfully small in this position. Tron clasped his hand and helped him up, holding both discs in his left. There was a moment of confusion before the right discs were returned to the appropriate owners' docks. Beck patted Alan on the back, still pale and jumpy.

"Don't scare us like that, Al," he said.

Alan made a face, as if debating the wisdom of answering to "Al". "Sorry. Didn't want to get in the way."

As glad as Tron was to see Alan, he also had to eye his new injury with distaste. They would have to patch that properly back at the lair.

"Are you alright?" Tron asked.

Alan gave a sort of stiff shrug. His eyes were clouded and he breathed through his teeth.

"Like I said, it's not bad. I'm just- really tired of having deadly discs thrown at me."

A frown flitted beneath Tron's helmet at Alan's answer.

The disc hadn't been thrown at him. Tron had been the target, and if Alan had just stayed his course, none of this would've happened. This wasn't the first time this had happened, either. If he hadn't interfered with those bandits, if he hadn't made such a spectacle, then things might've turned out differently from the start.

"I can take care take of myself, you know," Tron told him, as gently as he could manage.

Alan cast his eyes across the slew of bodies and cubes. "In hindsight, I can see that."

Tron continued as if Alan hadn't spoken. "You didn't need to do that back there."

"I did, actually."

"It's my job to protect you, not the other way around."

"I disagree."

Affronted, and perhaps a little accusatory, Tron rose to his full height. "What, you don't think I'm capable of protecting myself?"

Alan dropped his head meekly, neck almost disappearing into hunched shoulders. "No- no that's not it- It just... felt right at the time," he said.

"Explain," persisted Tron. Acid coated the word.

"Maybe later."

Though this particular conversation felt far from complete, Tron willed himself to let it go. He took a breath to allay the anger in his chest. All evidence to the contrary, he wasn't that mad at Alan. Not really. More than anything, he was mad at Clu, mad at those guards, mad at himself.

And more than a little afraid, besides.

He couldn't lose anyone else. Not again.

Tron was supposed to fight for the Users. It was more than his programming. It was his chosen purpose, an interpretation of directive, his calling—and one that he was more than capable of fulfilling. Flynn had understood that—why couldn't Alan?

And when all was said and done, the fact remained: Tron was expendable, Alan was not.

"Later it is," Tron said at last.

He pulled out his baton and bounced it in his palm. There was more that he wanted to say, and not enough time to say it. His injured pride wouldn't let him forget earlier, when Alan had put himself in the path of a disc, for him. The moment kept replaying itself in his mind, over and over, like a loop.

"I did have that disc," Tron said to no one.

"He did have that, y'know," Beck echoed helpfully. There was an exaggerated broodiness to the sentence that stood out like a sore thumb. It occurred to Tron that not only was he being imitated, but he was being mocked.

Tron cast him a petulant look. It burned through the shield of his visor and made the beta cough timorously. After a full ten nanos, Tron broke the glare and rezzed his light cycle into being.

"We should go before more show up."

"You're the boss," trilled Beck without a trace of argument. The remark was forced, somehow, and Tron guessed that Beck was more affected by the fight than he was letting on.

That, too, would have to be addressed later.

Tron straddled the vehicle and shifted forward, Alan following with obvious effort. Once Beck had done the same with his own bike, the journey began anew.

They drove uneventfully through the depths of Argon, past dwindling buildings, and into the tunnels that laid on the city's outskirts. Only once they were safely inside did Tron allow his helmet to open. That portion of the drive was just as eerie as it was entrancing. The echoes of their engines lulled Tron into a sort of cautious calm, and the lights passing under his wheels were like the tick of a system clock. Just as time began to lose some of its meaning, the tunnel opened up, and they emerged in the Outlands.

Tron had never been more grateful to see the snowy wastes.

They plunged into the darkness away from Argon's lights. Everything was colder here, removed from the dense energy of the city. It wasn't quite a dead-zone, but it was close. Unsurprisingly by now, Tron's proximity to Alan kept him fairly warm.

Mindful of his passenger, Tron expertly evaded any bumps, crags, and slick patches. Over the course of a few micros, he noticed a change in Alan's breathing. He could still feel it, but it was slower, more shallow, similar to when Alan had been unconscious. Moreover, his head kept nodding against Tron's shoulder.

"Alan?" Tron probed. He had to raise his voice over the rumble of the light bike.

"Hmn... hm?"

"You still with me?"

"...Yeah." He yawned, straining to say even that.

"Good. This is no time for a nap."

"Yeah..."

Alan gave himself a little shake and straightened in the seat, while Tron turned his attention to the treacherous peaks ahead. Far off, the jagged point of the Spire speared above the rest. Beck and Tron aimed their bikes at the landmark and drove at full-throttle, ice pixels trailing behind them.