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One Miracle at a Time

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The sun comes up on his first day out of the Grid, and the first thing Sam Flynn does is make Alan Bradley chairman of Encom's Board of Directors.

It's not a painless process. A lot of feathers get ruffled, a lot of angry words are exchanged. Lawyers are called in, paperwork gets thrown around. All in all it's a maelstrom of noisy bureaucracy.

Sam learns more about what it takes to run a major corporation in that one day than he has in a short lifetime as majority shareholder. He learns it's not going to be easy, it's not going to be boring, and he's going to have to work on his people skills.

"I've made a mess, haven't I," he mutters, slumping forward over the conference table. The surface is cool and smooth against his forehead, and the room is blessedly quiet.

"You certainly have," says Alan, but there's genuine humor in his voice. "Don't worry, though. It's my job to help you clean it up." Alan's hand squeezes his shoulder, and Sam smiles despite his exhaustion.

"Tell me it gets easier." He eases himself upright and cocks his head so he can meet Alan's wry look.

"It will," says Alan. "Eventually." He lets go of Sam's shoulder and starts gathering documents into his briefcase. Those are important documents, Sam knows. Documents with bylaws and signatures and information about just who gets to be in charge of Encom.

"Eventually could be a long way off, Alan. I was hoping for a little more instant gratification than that."

Alan's expression is humoring as he snaps his briefcase closed and turns his attention back to Sam.

"They'll never stop fighting you," he says, sounding far too cheerful about it. "But once they know you're in for the long haul, they'll come around a little. This is a good company, Sam. It just… got a little off track."

Sam stands then, and takes a step around the table towards Alan.

"Thank you," he says. He feels self-conscious voicing the words. He's not really one to talk about feelings, even with Alan

Alan blinks at him, surprised confusion on his face, and asks, "For what?"

"For everything."

Sam tries to imagine where he'd be standing right now if not for the unfailing loyalty of his father's best friend. He finds it impossible to picture.

"You've always been there, even when things were crazy," Sam says with a sheepish shrug. "And you never gave up on me, which… fuck, man, you must be a saint or something." If it weren't for Alan Bradley, Sam would never have known what happened to his father, and that possibility is too awful to consider.

Alan looks both pleased and uncomfortable, and Sam knows his words are hitting their mark. He also knows with a surreal certainty that Alan is inches away from bolting out of the conference room. Not without a polite farewell, of course, but fleeing all the same, when what Sam needs is for him to understand.

The depth of Sam's gratitude is staggering, and he doubts he'll be able to work up the nerve for this conversation a second time.

Alan is already standing with briefcase in hand, facing Sam down like he's trying to find a way to make a dignified exit.

Sam steps forward abruptly and hugs him, not giving himself a chance to over-think it and chicken out.

Alan freezes in surprise at first, and Sam doesn't blame him. The last time they hugged was Sam's high school graduation. Sam feels guilty as hell for the distance now. He's kept Alan stubbornly at arm's length for damn near a decade, and why? Because he wanted to pretend he didn't need to rely on anyone.

Eventually Alan hugs him back. Hesitantly at first, then more confidently when Sam tugs him closer. Sam feels a little silly squashing his face against Alan's shoulder, but he doesn't let go.

"Thank you," he says again, and the words get muffled in Alan's suit jacket.

"You don't need to thank me, Sam," says Alan, patting him on the back a little bit awkwardly.

Sam laughs and finally steps back, forcing himself to ignore the way Alan's eyes are shining—the way his own eyes sting despite the smile on his face.

"Still," Sam says, scrubbing at the back of his neck with one hand. "Thanks. I mean it."

Alan nods and smiles, and doesn't contradict him again.

 

- — - — - — - — -

The second thing Sam does, the very next day, is find Quorra her own apartment.

She looks confused when he mentions his purpose at breakfast. She looks even more confused four hours later when he shows her the place. It's short notice for the landlord, but Sam's got enough money to make it happen anyway.

"I still don't understand," she says, trailing curious fingers over a lampshade in the fully furnished living room.

"I just thought you might want your own space," Sam says. He feels inexplicably sheepish. "Let me know if you don't like it. We can look at other options."

Quorra blinks at him, eyes wide and dark as she processes his words.

"My own space," she repeats tentatively.

"Yeah," says Sam. He moves to the window and pulls the string to raise the blinds. "It's only a couple blocks from my digs, see?" He points toward the water front, down past the bridge to where his own garage-cum-apartment is nestled in the tall shadows. "You deserve something nicer than my couch to sleep on."

When he turns back around he finds Quorra watching him with a hesitant smile on her face.

"My own space," she says again, this time as though testing the words on her tongue. "I've never really had that before."

Sam can't imagine what that's like, but he smiles and says, "You'll have to let me know what you think."

 

- — - — - — - — -

The third thing he does, that same night, is let himself hope.

He's got a self-contained hard drive in the alcove that passes for his office, and after reformatting it to a clean slate, he reaches for the small blinking pendant hanging around his neck.

His hands shake as he plugs the backup memory drive into the computer, and his heart lodges in his throat as he watches the data transfer onto the new mainframe. The bar of color expands grudgingly, seconds upon seconds, until finally the transition is complete.

Sam puts the backup drive around his neck again. Then, pulling the keyboard towards him, he delves into the system.

The code is a mess. Fragmented subroutines, glitches, corrupted data… He can barely make out the infrastructure his father was trying to build.

But the framework is there. His father's code, his vision, wrapped up in even the disrupted information scrolling before Sam's eyes. The Grid is still in there somewhere—he can almost see it. The question comes down to the extent of the damage, and whether Sam is capable of reconstructing the scrambled, outdated code.

It might take a miracle, but he's determined to try.

 

- — - — - — - — -

He falls asleep only reluctantly that night, and then only because he doesn't trust his bleary eyes to read the computer screen.

He barely registers his bed or pillow, or the clock by his head glowing green and telling him it's late as hell. He just collapses, instantly unconscious.

He dreams of dark skies and red circuits, and programs chasing him through empty streets.

 

- — - — - — - — -

Sam wakes and it's nearly noon. He shuffles towards the kitchen, and is halfway past the couch before he realizes the low piece of furniture is occupied.

He stifles a startled noise and, despite the racket his heart is making in his chest, a small smile tugs at the corner of his mouth.

Quorra is asleep, sprawled across the couch with one arm tucked under her head, the other squashed close against her chest. Her hair sticks up strangely, as though she's repositioned several times during the night, and she's wearing the same outfit now as she was when Sam last saw her. Only the boots are missing, abandoned beside the couch.

Marvin snores noisily, curled into a contented ball on Quorra's hip.

Sam doesn't have the heart to wake either of them.

It's Saturday, but he checks in with Alan anyway. Sam is in for the long haul, and if there are any fresh fires to be put out at Encom, then Sam damn well wants to know.

But as soon as the call ends, Sam is back at his desk, buried in the same code as yesterday. Doing what he can to reconstruct it into a coherent whole.

He nearly jumps out of his skin when a hand closes on his shoulder.

"Jesus," he gasps when he realizes it's just Quorra. "Give a guy a little warning."

Quorra gives him a strange look and says, "I've been watching you work for an hour, Sam. I thought you had noticed."

"Oh." Sam closes down the current string of code, suddenly self-conscious.

"What are you working on?" Quorra asks. "It looked like—"

"The Grid," Sam says. "Yeah. I'm…. just trying to see what's left."

Quorra watches him for a moment, quiet and inscrutable, and Sam resists the urge to fidget. Then her expression brightens, excitement and comprehension breaking over her face, and she gasps.

"You can fix it," she says. Her tone is breathy with awe, and now Sam does fidget. He twitches beneath the impact of the unexpected faith shining in Quorra's eyes.

"I'm trying," he says. "I honestly don't know if there's enough left to fix, but…" But he has to try. He has to try, and he can't bring himself to put the reason into words.

But Quorra—bright and fast and too observant for her own good—puts it together for him.

"Do you think he's still in there?" she asks.

"I don't know," Sam admits. "Probably not." Reintegration. He saw what happened just before he and Quorra were swallowed up by the light of the portal. "But if there's even a chance, I have to try. I can't risk leaving him trapped again."

"Do you need me to leave so you can work?" Quorra asks.

"No," says Sam. "Hell, maybe you can help. What are you doing here, anyway? Didn't you like the new place?"

Quorra looks sheepish now, ducking her head and smiling at him through her bangs.

"It was too quiet," she admits. "And your couch is nice."

Sam chuckles and Quorra smiles wider.

They'll have to find a better solution eventually. This place isn't really big enough for two.

But he's never had a roommate before. And while Sam's never really been big on company in general, Quorra's presence he doubts he'll mind.

 

- — - — - — - — -

Weeks turn into months, and Sam's miracle doesn't come.

It turns out there's only so much code he can rebuild this way. He's limited by screen and keyboard, by his ability to decipher line upon line of scrolling text. Eventually he hits a wall, and no amount of tweaking and fiddling and looking at the problem from different angles is enough to surmount the obstacle.

"I have to go back in," he tells Quorra.

"That's probably a bad idea," she says in a light tone. Almost teasing him. She obviously knows he can't be dissuaded.

"Will you monitor the Grid from the outside?" he asks. She won't be able to do anything if his plan goes poorly, but he feels reassured just thinking about having her there.

Quorra looks surprised and says, "You don't want me to go in with you?"

"I need you here," says Sam. "As long as you're safe outside, the aperture can't close on me. You'll be able to reactive the laser sequence and give me another chance."

"What if I reopen the portal and you don't come back out?" she asks. She looks a lot less happy with his proposal now that it's clear Sam intends to go in alone.

"We'll have a backup plan," he says, already twisting the possibilities around in his head. "We'll set a limit, say three intervals, and if I don't come back, you call Alan Bradley and you tell him everything." He's speaking the thoughts as they occur to him, but he already knows it's a solid plan. He knows Alan would never let him down.

"Are you sure about this, Sam?" Quorra asks. She won't try to stop him, but that doesn't mean Sam misses the disapproval knitting her brows and darkening her features.

"Yeah," he says, offering what he hopes is a reassuring smile. "I'm pretty damn sure."

 

- — - — - — - — -

Physically, the Grid is in chaos.

Buildings stand jagged and patchy, partial towers and ragged structures that fizzle brightly along rough edges. The city looks staticky and incomplete.

Sam watches the uneven skyline from a distance. Quorra is in the arcade, monitoring things from the outside as best she can—watching on the screen Sam brought over along with the computer itself. The last thing they need is her sitting at the center console, right in the laser's line of fire.

Sam is surprised the laser put him at such a distance from the city itself. But then again, Sam has been recoding for months now from the outside. A lot has changed down here, between the cataclysm of Reintegration and the work he's done since. Who knows if the Grid re-creation of Flynn's Arcade is even still standing, considering the view before him now.

The Sea of Simulation laps at his heels, and Sam weighs his options. If the physical structure of the Grid is in such ragged pieces, the people of the Grid can't be much better off. Which means the city is probably not the safest place for a User right now.

But if he's going to fix things, he has to get closer. And he has to move fast now that he's here. The portal is open behind him, a bright screaming beacon to tell any program who notices that a User is stepping back onto the Grid.

If he doesn't move now, they'll come for him soon enough anyway.

He glances down and sees he's in some colorless semblance of his normal clothes rather than the sleek, black, brightly-circuited bodysuit from his first visit.

He's too conspicuous like this. The clothes look too much like something from the world above. They're dark, but still nothing like the skintight fashions marking denizens of the Grid. And a body that emits no light will inevitably stand out.

Sam reaches down with one hand and realizes this will be his first real experiment to see what he can do. He's never manipulated code from inside the system. He's not even sure he can.

But as his fingers skate the air he can feel, if he focuses just right, the algorithmic contours of the world around him. He tweaks and readjusts, watches white bursts of code ripple away in the air, and smiles in satisfaction when several slim panels of blue-white light form along his sleeves, his sides, the zipper of his coat.

It's still not quite enough. He dances his fingers through the air a second time and calls a dark, heavy cloak into being. If no one recognizes his face, if they can't see the details of his attire, he might just pull this off.

With the cloak in one hand, he reaches over his shoulder with the other and feels a soft thrum as his fingers graze his disc. He settles the cloak securely across his shoulders, draws the hood down over his face, and heads for the city.

 

- — - — - — - — -

He's not sure what he expects to find when he reaches the city limits. Some sort of de facto government, maybe, or warring factions vying for control in a leaderless vacuum.

What he finds instead is chaotic disorder. The people of the Grid are lost, fighting and struggling amongst themselves. There's not enough of anything to go around, not even shelter since the physical infrastructure of the city is so widely compromised.

Sam doesn't talk to anyone at first. Mostly he doesn't trust himself not to draw unwanted attention, but he also doesn't know what questions to ask yet.

He can't very well walk up to the nearest Siren and ask if she's seen Kevin Flynn wandering around.

Besides, much as he may hate to admit it to himself, Sam knows his father isn't in the city. If he were, things wouldn't still be in pieces. Repairs would be underway on the most important buildings. Programs wouldn't be wandering around wearing pixilated scars that leave them hobbling and incomplete. Citizens wouldn't be moving through their city with the lost dejection of abandoned children.

There are some excited mutterings about the relighting of the beacon, but they die down quickly when Sam doesn't reveal himself.

He can't afford to give himself away yet. For all he knows, he's as likely to be lynched as lauded.

What he needs to do for now is lie low, and figure out his next plan of attack.

 

- — - — - — - — -

He tries to think in terms of what-if.

What if his father survived Reintegration: where would he go? Would he be weak and vulnerable? Would he even remember who he was?

Sam imagines his dad hiding somewhere and remembers the off-Grid domicile. There's no way he would choose the same hideaway twice.

If Kevin Flynn is hiding somewhere off-Grid, Sam's got no idea how to find him. But there's another possibility. Certain sectors of the city are so damaged that not even the most desperate programs live there. Those are places where the streets themselves are unreliable, the buildings drowning in glitches and grid bugs on a massive scale. Deadly to programs. Dangerous enough to a lone User.

Sam starts asking questions, then. Quiet and discreet. Which districts are the worst? Which corners are to be avoided at all costs. Those are the places he needs to start his search.

"Plan to go treasure hunting, do you?" asks a pale program with a plasticky smile. "Dangerous business. Especially in those sectors. You'll probably need this." He reaches out to offer Sam a light stick, but when Sam reaches to accept it the program doesn't let go.

"What's your price?" Sam asks. The program smiles wider.

"Just that, should you happen to survive and return with anything… interesting. You come to me first."

Sam nods. Even if the program's offer stems purely from self-interest, Sam will happily repay this favor.

"What's your name?" he asks.

"Perl," the program says, and lets go of the light stick.

As Sam turns to leave, the program speaks again, calling from behind him and making Sam turn around.

"Keep your eyes open when you're out there, my friend. Rumor has it Tron might not be as dead as history has led us to believe."

There's a hint of bitter malice in the words. Sam turns and leaves without acknowledging them.

 

- — - — - — - — -

Sam starts in Zeta Sector. He plans only to search, as cautiously as he can, and then move on.

But as he dismounts his Lightcycle and steps onto the glitchy, empty street, a surge of something sharp and guilty lodges in his chest. He can't leave things like this.

His cycle collapses and he tucks the light stick into his back pocket. His robe, shed by necessity for the duration of his journey, is tucked under his arm, but he doesn't put it back on yet.

There's no one here to see him.

Sam surveys the damage for long moments, feeling sick and overwhelmed at the extent of the corrupted data. Christ, he doesn't even know where to start.

Then he looks down, at the tiny patch of solid ground beneath his feet, and knows what the first step has to be.

He drops to one knee and, setting his cloak aside, presses a hand flat against the smooth pavement. He can see the length of the street in his mind, the planes and gaps spreading in either direction. He can see fractured code, and he can see what that code is supposed to look like, and gradually—carefully—he starts filling in the holes.

He doesn't know how long he works. When the first street is solid, he moves on to the next, then the next after that. He moves on to a building without heed for the danger that it might simply fall down on top of him. The wall shakes beneath his touch, and he shores it up the best he can. But the corruption lies at the building's foundations, so he goes inside.

Sam finds his way down through basements and sub-basements, and he patches the structure back to a smooth, seamless whole.

He moves on to the next building as soon as he finishes, and another edifice after that. He works without pause, without conscious thought, until finally he steps back onto the street and sees nothing else to fix.

The sector stands bright and smooth as new.

And Sam, suddenly exhausted, wonders where he left his cloak, just as weary darkness washes over him and drags him down.

 

- — - — - — - — -

He comes awake with a jolt, already cursing his own stupidity. He overexerted himself, fell asleep smack in the middle of the street. What if someone had found him, Jesus, he's lucky to be waking up at all—

But he's not in the street. He's in a small room he recognizes, high in one of the buildings he just finished restoring.

There's a large window on one wall, and through it Sam can see the revitalized skyline of the sector. Beyond that, from this vantage point he can see the staggering damage that still tarnishes the rest of the city.

He's lying on something soft—a tall couch, he realizes as he sits up—and his cloak lies folded near his feet.

There's a glass of glowing blue liquid on the floor beside him, and Sam's eyes dart around the room in search of whoever is responsible.

The room is empty except for him. He's not surprised to find it so.

He dons his cloak as he stands, picking up the glass and moving closer to the window. He considers the drink suspiciously for a moment, then decides there's no point worrying. Whoever left him the drink had ample opportunity to do him harm. Why poison him now?

His first sip is tentative, but then he swallows the rest of the blue energy in greedy gulps. It settles and swirls inside him, makes him realizes just how drained his marathon of reconstruction left him.

He'll have to be more careful about pacing himself. Guardian angels are all well and good, but whoever finds him next time could be just as likely to slit his throat.

He's considering this as his eyes, already surveying the next sector over, are drawn down by the sight of movement on street level.

A small crowd of programs has found their way here, and now explores with cautious fascination. They must have noticed the changes in the distance and come to investigate. Sam is too high up to make out their expressions, and he suddenly wishes he could see.

He steps back from the window, already planning a route to avoid attention on his way to the next sector.

His father isn't here. There's not a single building Sam hasn't touched in this sector. If his father had been hiding in any of these structures, Sam would know.

He sets the empty glass on the floor, tucks his cloak more securely around himself, and moves on.

 

- — - — - — - — -

He takes longer repairing the next section of the Grid. He keeps to a slower pace that doesn't leave him nearly as drained, while he searches fruitlessly for signs of his father in every repaired corridor and street.

He might be imagining the sensation that he's being watched, but he doesn't think so.

Programs start turning up before he's finished his work this time, and he has to be careful to avoid detection as he finishes raising and repairing structures around them. It's even slower work, then, and he ends up creating more than a few back doors from scratch.

When his work is complete, still with no sign of his father, Sam moves on to the next sector on his list. And the next after that. The beacon has vanished, the portal closed, but he knows exactly how long it will be before Quorra reopens it.

 

- — - — - — - — -

In the next sector, he's not quite fast enough.

His cloak feels like insufficient protection against the circle of programs penning him in against the wall of the tower he just finished restructuring.

"Who are you?" a tall, stark program demands. She would be beautiful if it weren't for the jagged pixels of broken code that slash at an angle across her face. Sam thinks maybe he could fix her, if he could just get close.

But she sounds scared and angry, and he knows better than to reveal himself.

He knows what terror can do, and he doesn't think a truthful answer will earn him a relieved smile and a pat on the back.

The Grid has given up on itself, and on the concept of Users. He'll find nothing here but distrust and violence, unless he can manage to heal more than just the physical damage that was done. The nearest programs are already twitching towards their light discs.

Sam's still trying to come up with a plausible lie when an explosion of light draws the programs' attention farther down the street. Sam stares, half expecting to watch one of his freshly repaired buildings crumble, but there's no new damage. Another surge of light bathes the horizon.

"What is that?" one of the programs asks, and Sam's own curiosity doesn't matter. This is his chance to escape.

The programs aren't look at him, and he presses back against the wall. It takes the tiniest manipulation of code to make the surface swing out and rotate, and then he's on the other side, the wall unbroken, and he runs.

His questions about the well-timed fireworks will have to wait. What he needs right now is backup, and he sets off down a narrow alley, towards the edge of the sector, with an eye towards returning to the center of the city.

 

- — - — - — - — -

Sam's honestly not sure what qualifies as 'anything interesting', but he has a couple crystals of data in his pocket now. He found them in a ravine between sectors. He's already absorbed the information for himself. The crystals contain dark recordings of the early days of the purge, images that leave his stomach twisting and his heart sore. They might be sufficient to repay the favor he owes.

He hopes they're more than sufficient (and considering the value of information on the Grid, they might be), because now he needs some fresh information himself.

"I'm looking for Perl," he says to a silver-faced program beside a noisy overpass. The program directs him to a bar several blocks away and then leaves him without a word.

Inside, Perl finds him.

"Well this is a surprise," the program murmurs, sidling up beside Sam and handing him a drink. "Not just alive but looking for me? Tell me, what did you find?"

There's a look in Perl's eyes that goes deeper than curiosity. Suspicion. Maybe hope. Sam prays Perl is a program who knows how to keep his mouth shut, because suddenly he thinks he's damn close to getting found out.

Sam produces the crystals—tiny things that rest sparkling in his palm—and holds them out. He doesn't plan on snatching them away if the program tries to take them. He figures, balanced trade or not, he's still got that debt to repay.

But Perl just stares at the two crystals in Sam's palm, expression eager and excited, and says, "My, my… Where did you get those?"

"In Gamma Sector," Sam lies.

"Did you?" says Perl, raising his eyes to Sam's face and looking right through him. "And… is there anything you might consider a fair trade for them?" The fact that he's still hesitating tells Sam the crystals' value exceeds his expectations by more than he realized, and he gives a tight smile.

"Just some information," says Sam. "They're yours if you promise to answer some questions for me. In good faith."

"And if I don't have the information you need?" Perl asks, eyes gauging.

"They're still yours, but I'll know to take my business elsewhere next time."

Perl's face lights up at that, bright and genuine, and he holds a hand out, palm up. Waiting for Sam to drop the crystals into his hand. Sam obliges, and Perl guides him to a relatively quiet corner.

"Now, my friend," says Perl. "What can I do for you?"

"Tell me what you know about Tron."

Perl's eyes widen at the demand, but he doesn't balk.

"Well," says Perl. "Obviously you know the rumors."

"Pretend I don't," says Sam. When Perl looks at him skeptically, he adds, "Humor me. Just start from the beginning."

"Officially? No one has seen him since before the Purge. He fought Clu. Most say he was derezzed for his resistance."

"And unofficially?"

"Unofficially, there are those of the opinion that he simply left. That he's been out there all along. Biding his time, or maybe just hiding like a coward. There have been… incidents in recent cycles. Sightings, if you prefer. A program with a dark helmet and blue circuits. No one's gotten a good look, of course, assuming the stories are even true."

"Do you think they're true?"

Perl pauses. Considers him with a heavy stare that leaves Sam fidgety and uncomfortable. Finally he opens his mouth to speak.

"I think there's more than one familiar face on the Grid right now," says Perl. "And I think hope is a dangerous luxury. But then, without it, where do we find ourselves?"

"Will you help me?" Sam murmurs.

"In any way I can."

"Then where can I find him?" Sam asks. "How can I find him."

"My dear boy," Perl laughs. "If he's really out there, don't you think he'll find you? Who do you think he fights for, after all?"

The Users, Sam realizes with a jolt. Tron fights for the Users.

He thinks back over his repair efforts—passing out and waking in safety, the glass of blue energy, the perfectly timed light-storm enabling his most recent escape—and realizes Tron has been fighting for him since his first moment back on the Grid.

"Thank you," he says, and in a surge of gratitude reaches out and squeezes Perl's arm. "Thank you," he repeats, and then, "If I can come back, I will."

Then Perl leans in close enough to whisper in his ear, so softly Sam can barely make out the words. "Be careful, son of Flynn. The Grid is not safe for you, and there is much work to be done."

Sam withdraws with a grim nod, and turns to leave the bar.

 

- — - — - — - — -

He makes for another abandoned sector, this one more remote than the others. It's not quite as badly damaged as the areas where he began, but he'll be able to work in peace for a while. This location breaks pattern, and it will take longer for anyone to notice the changes in this segment of the horizon.

There's even more extensive damage between this neighborhood and the next populated area of the city. The sight of gradual repairs should be shielded from prying eyes.

Except for the eyes he wants to have prying. He knows, somehow, it will only be a matter of time before his target catches up with him.

Sam doesn't know why Tron hasn't approached him yet, but he's got some idea now what he has to do.

He works slowly, taking the time to feel deeper—searching for the first time beneath the Grid, and discovering that some of the fault-lines run deeper than he realized. Once he's got the surface world stable, he's going to have to go in and do a more extensive reboot. The fragmentation is too much for him to take on like this.

He waits until the sense of being watched is completely unmistakable, and then he pauses in his work and stretches out with his programmer's senses. He wouldn't have been able to do this before, but he's become more familiar with this world. He understands the mechanics, the rules, and he can feel where those rules bend and intersect.

Everything is within his reach.

There's a shorter building on one corner, less damaged than the rest. Bands of light zigzag up its sides, and a flat roofline looks out over the street.

Sam knows he has to move fast, or that rooftop will be empty by the time he gets there.

He doesn't actually look at his destination. He tries to keep himself to his usual pace as he rounds a corner, out of sight, and then darts into the first building he sees. The basement is intact, and he makes himself a sleek passage into the next building over, then the next, until he's beneath his goal.

There's already an elevator here, and he hits the top button hoping it will take him to the roof.

It does.

He steps out into open air, and he's not alone.

The figure at the edge of the roof turns instantly when Sam approaches, about to bolt.

"Wait," Sam says in a soft, commanding voice. "Please don't go."

He stares at the program before him and takes a few cautious steps closer. It's not a large roof, and a moment later he's close enough that he might even be able to catch the program if he tries to run. He can't see a face through the impenetrable back helmet, but he recognizes the blue lights and circuits from the action figure on his shelf.

He's seen them in red, too, but he feels no fear at the thought.

"Tron," he says. He knows he's not looking at Rinzler, but the name he uses still makes the program in front of him flinch.

"You've been following me," Sam says. Tron doesn't turn to face him more fully. He stares off to the side, as though the jittering horizon is more fascinating than Sam.

"You needed protecting," says Tron. His voice comes out a familiar, muffled hiss through the helmet. "You've been imprudent."

"You're right," says Sam, risking another step forward. He's almost close enough to reach forward and touch Tron's arm now. "Thank you," he says, "for keeping me out of trouble."

Tron does look at him then, head cocked to the side. He doesn't seem to have anything further to say.

"I need your help," Sam says in a rush. It feels ridiculous once he hears it out loud. Tron has already been helping him. He wouldn't be standing here otherwise. But Sam needs more than a distant bodyguard. He needs a partner. Someone who knows the Grid better than he does. Someone who knew his father better than he did, who might have a chance of leading Sam the right direction.

He's not sure what he expects in response, but the calm, immediate, "No," seems way off its mark.

"What do you mean no?" Sam gapes.

Tron is still and silent for a long moment. He's motionless for so long that Sam startles when the program's helmet begins to retract.

He startles again an instant later, when he sees the face revealed as the helmet vanishes into the collar of Tron's armor.

It's rude to stare, but Sam can't help it. This is too surreal.

"Are you all right?" Tron asks him, brow furrowing.

"I'm. Yes, I'm fine. I just." He stops, collects himself, shakes his head. "You look like Alan." Sort of. Sam never knew an Alan who looked as young as this. Programs don't age the same way Users do, Sam gets that, but if he had to place Tron's age in human years he would guess Tron is barely older than Sam himself.

"You know Alan-One?" Tron asks tightly.

"Yes," says Sam. "He's a good friend." Understatement of the century. The man is more than a friend, he's family, but Sam doesn't know how to say that out loud.

Tron falls silent again, watching Sam with a blankness that makes Sam's skin itch.

"Why won't you help me?"

Tron looks away then, and Sam can see an unhappy tick in his jaw, an anxious swallow, and he knows the blankness is an act. Whatever's going on in Tron's head right now, it's not pleasant, and he obviously doesn't want to share with the class.

He doesn't need to share. Sam can imagine well enough. He knows what Clu made Tron into, and if the security program remembers half the things he did as Rinzler—

"Because it's not safe for you to be near me," Tron says, interrupting Sam's bleak train of thought.

Sam stares, caught off guard by the confession.

"That's crazy," he says. "My dad told me all about you, man. I know what you can do."

"Exactly," says Tron. "You know what I can do." He's still avoiding Sam's eyes. His poker face is crumbling around the edges.

"I don't follow."

"I've almost killed you three times, Sam Flynn."

"You've—… Tron, come on, we both know that wasn't you."

"Wasn't it?" Tron's gaze finds him, sharp and piercing, and Sam feels frozen beneath the intensity of the look. "Clu didn't repurpose me. I'd have been no different from his other security drones if he had."

"Then how?" Sam asks, suddenly confused.

"He corrupted my programming." The blankness on Tron's face has melted completely away now, and the expression in his eyes is agony. "He broke it apart piece by piece until he got what he wanted."

"Rinzler," Sam breathes. "But you fought him. You found your way back. I mean… look at you. You're right here. You've been protecting me."

"That proves nothing," Tron growls. He stares at the ground between them for long moments, visibly shaken. Finally he says, "I am damaged, Sam Flynn. I can't promise I won't hurt you."

Sam considers the possibility. He knows better than to reject it out of hand. This isn't just guilt talking. If Clu took Tron apart and rebuilt him the way the picture is forming in Sam's mind, then it's a marvel Tron managed to fight his way back at all. There's no telling how deep the damage runs, or how reliable Tron's true personality will be now that it's resurfaced.

But Sam can't do this alone. So he steps forward, closing the distance between them and clasping a hand on Tron's shoulder. Tron raises his eyes, surprised, and Sam forces his own expression into something lighter, something a little more like a smile.

"Let me worry about that, okay?" he says. "And how about just calling me Sam?"

Tron stares at him for a long moment. The air feels taut and electric, and Sam is terrified the program will still say no. He's not sure what he'll do, then. Probably continue on the way he has been, stumbling around in the dark and trusting his ominous guardian angel to fish him out of trouble at the last minute.

But finally Tron nods, and Sam's smile turns a little more genuine.