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The Key to Alchemy

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ONE

She wakes up breathing hard and sweating.  She wakes up.  Quorra stares straight up, holding her eyes wide open until her vision adjusts to the not quite black of the room.  Only when she can make out the raised spackle dots scattered across the ceiling does she give in and grip her left arm, right pinky finger pressing into the notch just above her elbow, closes her eyes again and takes a couple deep breaths through her nose.  Flynn used to try and get her to visualize, and she would try for it, or for whatever reasonable facsimile she could generate at the time.  You can’t visualize calm blue oceans or wide open fields if you’ve never seen them.  

Despite the fact that she’s seen water now, seen the green of trees and sun reflecting off of its surface, she doesn’t bother with the practice, just counts her breaths and focuses on the familiar creaks of the house until she no longer see’s the afterimage of orange light arcing through the air toward her.  The night time sounds remain steady; there’s no Sam resting his hand gently over her wrist, with the red glow from the digital clock catching against his cheek where he crouches next to the bed, silently waiting until she falls back asleep.  There’s no Marvin either, who hears everything.  So she didn’t shout this time, maybe she’s getting better.  Quorra turns her head until she can press her hot face into the cool empty space of her pillow, folds her hands against her collarbones and watches the numbers change until everything blurs and the blackness of sleep swallows up the last bit of the Grid.

The first time, Quorra had yelled so loudly she’d woken herself up.  Opened her eyes to Sam slamming on the light to her room and stumbling over Marvin to get to where she was kneeling in the middle of her bed, nails digging half moons into her palms; Sam had slipped through her fingers, she hadn’t held on hard enough.  The afterimage of Sam’s face disintegrating like Flynn’s had while she was trapped inside the portal stared back at her whenever she blinked.  Sam had gently opened her hands until her palms rested on the inside of his wrists and they curled they’re fingers, wearing each other’s grips like bracelets.

‘Quorra,’ he said her name softly, ducking his head slightly to keep his face directly in her line of sight.  It helped.   ‘It wasn’t real, I promise whatever it was, it wasn’t real.’ Sam’s voice was rough from sleep and he was wearing a CalTech t-shirt that was too big in the shoulders and so faded the writing was barely visible.  Marv’s collar made a chiming sound and Quorra could tell without peering over the edge of the bed that he was standing on his hind legs, paws reaching out to her.  Quorra tried blinking again and Sam’s face was still there, but it flickered over the real Sam like a filter when she opened her eyes again.  Not real, Sam said, not real.  She knew what this was, they’d talked about it.

“A dream” and the end of the word tilts up slightly in a not quite question and Sam smiles a little, squeezes against her wrists, thumb and forefinger meeting easily. 

‘A dream’ he nods when he says it, definitive.  Dreams were not real, Quorra knew this, they just felt like they were sometimes. 

“Clu had you,” she says in rush, “I couldn’t hold onto you and he pulled you out of the portal and you  just disappeared right in front of me.”  Her fingers are hard against his skin now, “I couldn’t-“ her chest hurts a little like it does when they run the trails and try to race each other, “and you were just, gone.”  Quorra’s shoulders jerk up and down like part of her is still trying to reach out and snatch Sam back.  “You died.”  She says it so quietly it’s barely more than a whisper.  Sam slides his hands up her arms until suddenly he’s got his arms around her shoulders and he’s hugging her tight; tight like how Flynn had hugged him.  Hugs say things, she’s found, and Quorra would know what Sam meant even if he hadn’t said the words out loud.‘I’m right here, and I’m not going anywhere.’  Quorra shifts until she can clutch at the warm cotton of Sams’ shirt and lets the feeling of holding on slot her back into place.  She hooks her chin over Sam’s shoulder in time to see Marv spread himself out in the doorway. 

“Okay.”  She says after they’ve been quiet long enough for Marv to have fallen asleep on the floor.  But she turns her cheek against his shoulder, pressing me neither into the shirt that used to be Flynn’s.

            Just like after that first time, it’s better in the morning, with the sun cutting through the open slivers of the blinds and Marvin staring at her, inches from licking all over her face where her head is hanging mostly off the mattress.

‘I’m up, I promise’  Quorra smooshes her hand gently against the side of his head while she manoeuvres her legs out of from the covers.  Because she can, she sits with her feet on the floor and wiggles her toes against the cool wood panels and stretches her arms straight up over her head.  She can’t see herself yet, but she knows from experience now what her hair looks like after sleeping and mostly just pushes it out of her eyes so she doesn’t step on Marv on her way toward the kitchen.  His food dishes are drying by the sink but the water bowl is mostly empty. 

Pressing the button on the coffee machine Quorra holds the bowl under the sink at the same time, waiting for it to fill and trying not to doze off against the counter while the bowl overflows, again.  Mission accomplished and Marv dancing all over her feet in anticipation, Quorra sets the bowl down by the kitchen door then sits on the floor with Marv until the coffee stops percolating. 

It smells like dark roast and lemon Lysol and Quorra grins with Marv’s face caught between her hands while she thinks about Sam cleaning off the counters earlier in the morning before he left to meet Alan at their board breakfast meeting.  Which Quorra knows for a fact is just chocolate croissants at the cafe two blocks from the Encom building.  She may or may not have followed Sam the first couple of weeks back when he’d left in the morning, thinking her still asleep. 

She was worried, is still a little bit worried, although it’s shifted now.  Quorra’s worst nightmares are where Sam goes back and gets trapped, like Flynn did, and leaves her alone.  She dreams of walking through the house, Marv at her ankles, waiting for Sam to walk in the door and he doesn’t and it’s just her, the last one left, again.  She knows when she’s awake, that that won’t happen to Sam.  Not just due to the fact that Sam is not his father, blinded by the thrill of pure creation, but Sam has her and Quorra would break back in and drag him out. 

She wonders though, usually after jerking into consciousness in the middle of the night, about what’s left on the grid.  It hadn’t been home since the Purge, not really, although Flynn finding her was the closest she’d come since everyone she’d known was killed.  But it was all she’d ever known, and with Clu gone, whatever programs were left had a chance to do something.  She wasn’t sure what, exactly, but what she and Sam agree on is that it’s important that they have it. 

So she plays tug of war one handed with Marv, using the ugliest of Sam’s ugly socks and pours out coffee into a juice glass.  It’s a good day out, blue skies with just the hint of cloud rolling in the storm the weather channel starts talking about when she turns on the television, which is very large.  But Sam says he likes feeling like Tony Stark when he hooks everything up and starts writing code on what looks like a theatre screen.  Quorra hadn’t known what he was talking about but after Sam had plugged everything in and pressed all the right buttons, they watched the movies and Quorra could admit she was tempted to get more than one television.  Even if it did take getting used to the people on the screen being mostly life sized.  Quorra took consolation in that it hadn’t just been her cereal all over the floor when she’d walked in to see Horatio Cane putting on sunglasses in the living room. 

There’s nothing but news and channels selling jewellery on at this time of day and she does plan on leaving the house at some point, so that previously ignored situation regarding her hair is going to have to be dealt with.  Quorra takes the time eat the last banana and a piece of toast before cleaning her dishes and resting them next to the food dishes on the dry rack. 

There’s a note on the mirror of the bathroom for her when she stands in front of the sink, toothbrush in one hand, hairbrush in other.  It’s written in lipstick, waxy red writing taking over the whole mirror so her face is a criss cross of lines and the odd loopy letter.

We need bananas -S    

Quorra does the grocery shopping now, unless Sam decided they weren’t spending enough time together (which she finds very funny while also being very happy, because they are together all the time) and leaves Encom at lunch time to tag along.  Pushing the cart and picking things off the shelves that are not anywhere on the list Quorra always works up before she leaves the House, capitalized often in her head because after riding on the back of Sams’ motorcycle to see the garage he’d been living in, almost anywhere else deserves a proper title.  Their house is very nice though, if still a little bit empty and Quorra will take stock of everything in the kitchen before making her list so she knows that the pop tarts Sam just tossed in next to the broccoli are definitely not a staple.  If they’re the ‘smore ones though, and she loves those almost as much as pancakes, she’ll let it go and toss in a second box.  Peanut butter is always on the list, because she’s allowed to have more than one weakness (Alan told her that) and then milk and food for Marv. 

Today will include bananas, and even though she could really use a clean mirror, she’ll leave the message until Sam needs to write a new one.  Quorra showers and afterwards, carefully wipes off the steam around the letters so she can use the small clean spaces.  She likes seeing the messages on the mirror throughout the day, sometimes red if the lipstick was left out on the counter in easy reach, but other times it will be one the grease pencils Sam uses when writing out code.  Eyeliner is good and mascara will work if Sams running late and forgets she keeps the lipstick in the top drawer. 

Regardless, she always smiles when she catches the words out of the corner of her eye when she’s peeing or grabbing a tissue, and Sam always says it’s nice to have something to read in the bathroom.  She agrees.  Running the brush through her hair quickly, Quorra picks up the lipstick and uses the space left in the corner of the mirror, smears some across her lips with the worn down nub.  She’ll need to put that on her list as well.  She wants to make Sam come with her again, like when he’d taken her shopping for  clothes.  He’d offered to have Alan’s wife Lora go with her, saying something about having a woman who might be able to answer her questions better.  Quorra had tugged on his sleeve and laughed, there were books and the internet for things they couldn’t figure out together, she didn’t need anyone else.

“It’ll be an adventure!”  He’d said, smiling at her, the one that shows all his teeth, and they’d rode the bike to the shopping mall and Quorra had wanted to do everything at once.  There were so many colours everywhere, behind the front windows of the stores, on the people moving past them like waves.  Even the smells were colourful, she’d wanted all of it.  And there were things that Lora probably could have answered, like what was a chemise and what was the difference between tights and pantyhose, was there a difference?  When they couldn’t figure something out right away, they guessed, or as was the case with the cosmetics, let the smartly dressed woman in the lab coat explain what everything did.  Sam trying out different shades of lipstick with her is easily her favourite thing about the whole day.  She’s bought clothes with the card Sam gave her, very similar to the credits they’d used on the Grid, with her name on it. On paper, and on the small square cards they used here instead of disks, she was Quorra Flynn. 

Sam had asked her what she wanted her name to be here, explaining how they needed a ‘paper trail’.  It wasn’t safe for the world to know who she was, not really, so Sam had given her an identity one night when the only people in Encom tower were the two of them and the security officer Sam brought coffee in for. 

‘You can have anything you want,’ Sam had said, sitting in front of the huge monitors where several systems were running simultaneously on the screen.  ‘I’ve already generated your basic history, we just need your name. Your birthday’s the thirteenth of June by the way,’ he throws her a quick grin over his shoulder, ‘you seemed like a Gemini to me.’  Quorra smiled because what else could she do,

“I have no idea what any of that means,” She’d replied back, still grinning, “but my name is Quorra, I want to be Quorra here too.” 

‘You need a last name, Q, you’re not Madonna..’  Quorra could feel the skin between her eyebrows coming together while she tried to figure out what a Madonna was.

“I don’t know what that means either- and what’s a ‘Madonna’? “  Sam spun the chair around to face her and he had that look on his face that he got whenever he forgot she wasn’t from around here.

‘Not a what, Madonna is, um, she’s a- well, that’s not really important, but a ‘last name’ is a second name.’  He pointed at himself, ‘There’s so many ‘Sam’s’ in the world we started to need second names to tell all of them apart.  Humans started doing it hundreds of years ago to keep track of each other.’  Sam gestured to her now, both hands making lazy finger guns, ‘you need a second name.’  Well that made sense; she needed a name like a User, like Kevin Flynn.

“I want to be Quorra Flynn.”  Quorra couldn’t’ help but smile more when she said it, she liked how it sounded, like belonging, but Sam got a strange look on his face and she became unsure.  “Is that,” she searched for the word she wanted and could only come up with “wrong?”  If she’d missed something again Sam needed to tell her, this wasn’t her world, the rules were different up here.

‘No,’ Sam said quickly, he rolled the chair over so their knees were on either side of each other and he covered her hands, she’d twisted them together in her lap.  ‘Not wrong,’ he shakes her hands a little bit, gets them to unclench, ‘having the same last name as me can have a different meaning here, that’s all, and I don’t want you to feel like you have to-‘  Sam hesitates.

“You and Flynn have the same second name, you’re family, I know it means that.”  Quorra says in the opening, “and we’re family.”  She knows this to be true, even if they’ve never said it before.  Same second names mean family and they were family, so she’s Quorra Flynn. 

‘Yeah Q, we’re family.’  Sam says, squeezing her hands and the corner of his mouth tilting up.  She’s never seen that expression on his face before and it’s not a smile but it doesn’t look all sad either, it looks a little like he’s waiting for her to say something, so she tells him.

“Same second names mean family, so I’m Quorra Flynn.  I want to be Quorra Flynn.” She’s returning the pressure of his hands now, hoping it’s telling him whatever he needs to hear to know that she’s with him.  Flynn is gone now and Alan will never really know everything so it’s just the two of them.  The not smile is still around his mouth but his eyes are crinkling around the corners like they do when he smiles for real, so Quorra lets out a small breath and relaxes.

‘You are.’  Sam releases her hands and rolls back over to the monitors, brushes his hands over the table and starts typing when the light keyboard appears under his fingers.  That’s the only sound in the room for a few minutes, the hollow tap against the table while Sam creates her past out of thin air and the intermittent beeping of the commands completing on the monitor.  She still doesn’t understand something though.

“What’s the other meaning?”  Quorra needs to know now, has a feeling it’s important.  Sam doesn’t look away from the screen but makes a sound in his throat that he’s listening.  “Same second names, you said it can mean something different here, something different than family?”  Sam still isn’t looking at her, but he’s not typing anymore, and he’s quiet long enough for Quorra to start worrying she’s said the wrong thing again.

‘It still means family, just,” he pauses, “Humans do it sometimes when they find someone they want to spend the rest of their lives with.’ 

“Like Alan and Lora?”  She guesses, because that sounds like what they did, from what Lora told her anyway.  Sam meets her gaze over his shoulder, eyes a little wide and hair tinted blue from the screen in a way that reminds her of the Grid, tilts his chin down at her, nodding once.  This time when Sam turns back to the monitor, the not sad smile reflects briefly before he changes the screen. 

She doesn’t understand why Sam said it so carefully, like he was saying something he thought she wouldn’t like, because it’s not like she’s confused about the meaning now that he’s explained it.  How could she be?  Isn’t it what they did too?  There’s only the tapping sound in the room though, so Quorra had pulled up a drafting program on the spare monitor and written her name until it felt like she could do it with her eyes closed.  So she tried that next, until Sam tapped her on the shoulder and they went home, waved goodbye to the security officer, walking so close their elbows brushed when they moved. 

They hadn’t talked about it after that, haven’t talked about it, and even though Quorra still thinks about it sometimes when she’s signing receipts and see’s her name right there, she’s learning that sometimes just because you think something doesn’t mean you have to say it out loud.  She thinks almost everyone else in the world must know that already, but she’s new here; stabs herself accidently with the mascara wand while trying to get the black goop even across her eyelashes. 

Holding her eye closed until it tears and stops burning, Quorra washes her face a second time and decides to forgo that particular device today and just reapplies the lipstick.  It really is very close to being finished, probably enough to last one more mirror message but not much else.  Walking quickly because her skin is still damp and the air is cold, Quorra pulls out jeans and a bright green t shirt from her closet and dresses, Marv trailing behind her faithfully now that she’s left the bathroom.  Her bed needs making, but she likes how it looks like she just left for a second and will be right back to crawl under the covers so she leaves it messy, chatting at Marv about bananas and new sweaters because it’s getting colder out and would he like a sweater?  Do they make sweaters for Marvin sized dogs?  She’d have to ask Sam.

 Marv’s leash is on a hook by the kitchen door, and she grabs it, holding it in one hand while she searches through the sofa trying to find where the remote control slipped to.  Quorra finds it under a spare pillow and turns off the television as another mostly life sized person tells her about the storm rolling in for this afternoon.  Plenty of time then, she decides, and clips the leash to the hook on Marv’s collar and leads, is dragged; back out through the kitchen door to do go around the block. 

Keys in her spare hand, Quorra locks up with a satisfyingly heavy click and then kisses three fingers and presses them back against the door, which is bright yellow.  Not for any particular reason, just because the house is here and she’s here and she loves it.

...

    If you had asked him, Sam would have probably guessed temperature as the first thing Quorra would twig to outside the Grid; she would notice heat and cold.  It's why he so desperately wanted to show her the sun.  He’d done an awful job of describing it to her and he chalked it up to never having had to do it before. 

He’s trying to be better at that though, since they’d been back, explaining things.  The first thing she noticed though was weight, mass; gravity.  They had gravity on the Grid, Quorra told him Flynn had explained it to her, but that even then she’d known gravity was only real on the Grid in the sense that Flynn had brought it with him; it was there because they thought it was there.  In the world though, Quorra’s feet are pulled to the earth regardless of whether she thinks she can fly. 

Leaning against that light post, she unbalances twice while Sam is still inside the arcade, he sees her through the dirty window.  Watches her uncross her arms from over her chest and flap them around a bit.  Like they’re brand new and when she bends her knees into a lunge position, he sees the rush of pushing herself back up, pressing into the ground and moving, spread out over her face.

 Some things carried over though, electrical networks in her brain remembered attack positions and defensive stances, but there's an adjustment period.  The first few times she drops into a crouch she tips over onto her ass, gets bruises and pokes at them, just another intriguing side effect of flesh and blood.  It's a different kind of fragility.  So much force in a contained space, but the heat from the stovetop blisters and burns.  She races him on the trails and when she beats him up a hill she smiles so wide, panting out carbon dioxide, sweat making the collar of her shirt stick to her neck while she swings both arms up in victory.  He can’t get enough of it. 

There’s barely any lipstick left when he writes her message on the mirror that morning, half of the second last banana in his mouth while he scrawls across the glass and tries not to break the end off the remaining centimetres of the colour.  Sam checks on her once, just before he leaves to meet Alan, and he’s not surprised to see her almost fully off the mattress, chest rising slow and steady in sleep. 

He’s pretty sure she had a nightmare, found himself waking up for no reason in the dark early hours of the morning like he’d heard something out of place, but she hadn’t shouted and there was no sound of Marv’s collar clicking while he ran into her room. So he’d lain in bed until he’d fallen back asleep and hadn’t gone in to check on her like he’d wanted to.

He’s trying to give her space, not smother her.  She’s wasn’t a child.  Sam knows Quorra has dealt with more than anyone in his acquaintance, his own orphaned upbringing included.  He doesn’t want to make her feel like a victim or take away her agency. 

So maybe he’s been reading a bit, about post traumatic stress disorder and survivor guilt, so he can be there for her without taking anything else from her.  He’s not sure if he’s doing anything right and there’s no one he can ask so he’s left trusting that Quorra will tell him if he’s doing it wrong. 

Sam meets with Alan, the chocolate croissants are really great and although he’s careful not to get anything smeared on his person, Sam is pretty sure Quorra knows his early morning board meetings are really just an excuse to put off being a responsible member of society for a little bit longer.  Alan has told him, several times, that he’s not very convincing at being an underachiever, but it’s still an adjustment to walk into the tower everyday and know that the responsibility he’s jumped off buildings to avoid is now firmly laced around his shoulders. 

Reshaping a company is more than the flex of one muscle, it’s a full body convulsion that aches in Sam’s temples and makes him think about his dad even more than when he thought he’d been abandoned; which is saying something.  Everything is different now, and it’s not very often that you get to throw that phrase around with real conviction behind it. 

From all the reading he’s been doing, and despite previous evidence he’d projected to the contrary, Sam is self aware enough to recognize he’s in mourning.  He lost his father all over again, and while he has several years’ worth of issues worked out knowing he was never left behind on purpose, it’s a bitter sweet salve against the image of his dad going crystalline and leaving him again, for keeps this time.  He’s not even really following the proper stages of grief protocol here, because when does he ever do exactly what he’s told? 

He’s mostly just sad, and if it weren’t for Quorra in his face, in the house, circling around him like they share an orbit Sam is certain that while he’d still pull every muscle in his body to fix his father’s company, he would be unbearably lonely while he did it.  She’d asked him what grass tasted like the other day.  When he said he couldn’t remember, she’d walked out to the backyard, pulled out a hand full from the lawn and bit into the end of a blade, stretching out the rest so close to his face Sam had nearly got a mouthful of dirt he’d been laughing so hard.  It’s part of why he’s trying to be so careful with this, whatever it is, that makes him want to be around her all the time.  He can’t project or tie her down just because she’s been through this with him.  That’s not right or fair to her and Quorra deserves the chance to do whatever she wants. 

The most he can allow himself is to help her, if he can, to get that.  She deserves everything she can grab with both hands and no matter how much he feels for her, Sam won’t be the one to hold her back.        

It’s dark when Sam elbows open the door of the house, there’s a light on in the living room and there’s the reflection on the walls of the flicker steady flash of colour indicating the television was on.  He hears Quorra say something, presumably to Marvin, who comes sliding around the corner to join him in the kitchen where he’s looking into the fridge. 

Sam wastes two minutes staring at a pre-marinated chicken breast before he drops it back into the meat and poultry drawer and calls for pizza.  He even gets vegetables on it, well, on half.  Quorra yells hello just as he hangs up the phone and he’s smiling before he realizes it.  Marv is dancing over the tops of his feet and when Sam looks down to acknowledge that yes, he did in fact notice Marv was there, he’s distracted by what looks like a bright blue sweater that’s wearing his dog. 

‘Why is this sweater wearing my dog?’ he asks, throwing the question out to the universe, just as Quorra walks into the kitchen.  In an exact human sized copy of the sweater trying to swallow up Marvin.  She’s got her arms thrown out to the side, like she thinks maybe he won’t notice the sweater unless she draws specific attention to herself.  ‘Oh my god,’ is all he can manage.

“Did you know they make clothing for dogs?”  Quorra asks, excited and moving around the kitchen island to sit on the floor with Marv.  Their matching sweaters smudge together in Sam’s vision until they look like they’re slowly being devoured by a large alien symbiote, with hugely disproportionate snowflakes patterned across it.

‘I had heard something about that,’ Sam says carefully, because he’s starting to feel confident in the possibility of a snowflake symbiote of his own in the near future.  He crouches down onto the floor so his shoulders can rest against the lower cabinets and when he stretches out his legs, Quorra’s line up diagonally and they trap Marv in a roughly diamond shaped box of limbs. 

There’s easily half an hour before he has to move to pay for pizza, and after sitting in board room chairs off and on all day, slightly cramped in the bright corner of the kitchen draws the last bit of Encom out of Sam’s lungs and he feels everything settle into place somewhere in his ribs.

“The woman at the store said it’s very popular,” Quorra pulls out the bottom of her sweater so she can look down at the front properly, “do snowflakes really come this big?”  Marv is trying to use the knee of Sam’s bent leg to level up onto Quorra’s sweater, so Sam picks him up, holds him at a safe distance while looking over the pattern.  The snowflakes are the size of his hands.

‘Not that I’ve ever seen, but then again, I don’t have a whole lot of experience with snow.  Too warm here most of the time.  You have to go North to get real snow, to like, Canada.’  Quorra looks up from her sweater, thoughtful.

“Well this is not accurate at all then, is it?”  She’s pointing back and forth between the snowflakes on her and Marvins’ sweaters and Sam concedes her point.

‘Not particularly, but it doesn’t really matter,’ and here he treads lightly, ‘these ones don’t melt, so they have that going for them, size misrepresentations notwithstanding.’  Sam thinks he’s being supportive but his apprehension must show on his face because Quorra starts laughing almost before he’s finished speaking.

“They didn’t have your size, stop looking so scared!”   Marv had got wise and jumped over Quorra’s leg, so the sounds of him running around the island mix in with Quorra’s snickering laughter.  Sam relaxes fully against the wood door of the cabinets, not even minding when the handle digs into his back a little.  He’s smiling, almost laughing with her just because she’s laughing, and Sam knows that if Quorra had found a sweater for him, he’d have worn it.  If only to get her laughing at him like she was right now.  

‘Oh good, because I’m more of a winter and this colour would have washed me out.’  This just makes Quorra laugh louder and stutter out breathlessly,

“What does that even mean?”  Sam wants to tell her, really he does, but she’s laid out on the floor now hiccupping out more of that snicker laugh, there are no shadows on her face anywhere and he can’t bring himself to say anything that might make her stop. 

So he stays on the floor, foot inches away from her knee and Marv climbing over both of them, tripping every once and a while on the dragging ends of his sweater creature until the doorbell rings and he has to get up and pay the delivery guy.

 

 

TWO

            Sam forgets, not often but it happens, that when his dad had found her Quorra was the only ISO left on the Grid.  She’s the last of her kind. 

Sam can’t even begin to try to understand what it must feel like to know that there are no more ‘others’ out there like you, that it’s you and only you.  Sam is surrounded by people every day and it seems impossible that one day he could look around and be the only one left. 

Human history is a tapestry made up of the ugly things people will do to each other, the marvelous things, so he’s not unfamiliar with the dogma that Clu was pushing about perfection and the horrific consequences that kind of thinking can have when it gets any kind of momentum behind it. 

Even so, the understanding had been purely theoretical up to this point.  Sam had never looked those consequences in the face before.  He could recognize it now.  Sam would know what that kind of devastation looked like in a half dark room wearing a blind fold and being hung upside down from the ceiling. 

It’s burned into the deepest part of his brain, Quorra’s face when she wakes herself up from a nightmare; scream in her throat and her face so pale you could lose sight of her against a white wall.  It’s not there all the time, or even most of the time, for which Sam is eternally grateful.  He’s not sure who he should be thanking that Quorra is made of something not of this world, Quorra herself probably, maybe his father for creating the environment where she came into being.  That she hasn’t collapsed under the weight of her circumstance only reinforces what he already knows about her.  She’s remarkable. 

            They never got the chance, Sam and his dad, to talk about what Flynn’s plans had been for the ISO’s.  So Sam’s mostly winging it, with valuable input from Alan at their morning meetings, which had truly been the reason for them in the first place; the croissants had merely taken over at some undetermined point. 

Sam doesn’t know if his dad meant to bring people onto the Grid, to open the doors and challenge human existence up close and personal, or if he had something more subtle in mind.  Well, Sam thinks about what he knows of his father, of himself, and decides ‘subtle’ may not be the best word for it.  Strategic might be better.  Something more along the lines of what Sam himself is doing now, maybe.  Protecting Quorra’s identity but charging ahead with innovations made possible through her very existence. 

They’re partnering with medical research facilities now, providing funding that allows Sam some measure of personal involvement with the information they share with researchers, developed from lines of code on the Grid.  Sam’s trying to be careful though. 

Not just because Quorra is a person and deserves to be treated like one, not some curious discovery to be measured and quantified.  Not just because she’s the only one left and any plans his dad may have had Sam is certain they hadn’t taken into consideration genocide.  Quorra bleeds red like everyone else and Sam maintains his place between her and the rest of the world without hesitation. 

It’s a dangerous thing, good intentions.  His father had them, had wanted to better the world, both worlds, and along the way all those ideals had grown minds of their own.  It wasn’t that Sam could see how everything might turn out badly, that was the point, there was no way for him to know if the knowledge he had was going to stay his and not start to belong to itself instead.  And as any parent knows, once your child understands they can think for themselves, any illusion of control is shattered and the strongest lead in the world won’t hold against a wild thing once it’s tasted freedom. 

The last thing he wants is to unleash a monster onto the world, even if it’s his monster.  Especially if it’s his.  Difficult as it is sometimes to temper his own impulses, Sam is trying to do the right thing with the knowledge he gained from the Grid.  Slowly implementing changes to Encom that bring it back around to the type of company it had aspired to be when his dad created it; innovation for the benefit of the people. 

Alan is a steady presence throughout, which helps, because Sam and his dad never did have that talk and Alan remembers how it was back at the beginning.  Remembers what his dad had wanted to achieve, what they had wanted to achieve together.  To say that Sam has had a lesson in humility is understating the obvious.  But he’s selfish, Sam admits this to himself, and he’s most selfish when it comes to Quorra. 

She wants to be involved, wants to help if she can, and it’s her choice to make, of course it is.  Sam will never take that away from her, but he’s explained why he wants to have her be the wizard behind the curtain.  Quorra understands, for all that she’s new to flesh and bones, better than most the danger that breeds from power in a certain pair of hands.  Sam will keep her as the Shadow King for as long as he can, he’s not naive enough to think that any secret can be kept forever.  And when it gets out (when), if he angles himself slightly between her and the things in the wild, well, it’s not like she doesn’t know what he’s like.  She’ll end up saving him again anyway- between the two of them, Quorra will always be the better fighter.

...

            They eat the pizza, and channel surf on the excessively large television.  Quorra had to roll up the sleeves of her sweater three times to maintain the non contamination radius of the pizza. 

Sam likes to think he’s a man with a bit of an edge to him, but he can’t say with any certainty that he’d be able to eat of piece of pizza that was touched by that sweater.  If he stared at it too hard he swore the snowflakes moved.  When he’d suggested taking it off to eat, so she wouldn’t stain it, obviously, she’d squawked at him and gripped the collar of the sweater like she thought he’d try to remove it by force. 

And that line of thought was straying dangerously close to the no fly zone he’d constructed in him mind when it came to Quorra and the thing he won’t put a name to.  Hands held up, palm out in surrender, he’d settled onto the couch and slid the pizza box closer to his side until he was mostly cradling it in his lap.  Eyebrows arched up pointedly at the cuffs of her sleeves, so long on her that only the tips of her fingers were visible.

‘You are not touching this until you fix that situation right there, I swear to God.’  Sam had said as gravely as someone could say anything with a mouth full of hot cheese and spicy pepperoni.  Quorra had followed his gaze and then looked quickly between her hands and the greasy top of the pizza before shrugging and methodically rolling the sleeves out of the way.

“That’s fair.”   It takes her so long that Sam has his second piece halfway to his mouth, watching the underwater shark footage on the screen (Shark Week will always be a good choice) by the time she’s sticking her hands, visible now up past her wrists, in front of his face for inspection.  “All fixed, stop eating it all.”  Sam holds the pizza box out to her without looking away from the Great White being a killer of the deep on screen. 

They don’t say anything more until Shark Week finishes for the night and they have to decide what to watch next, but even then, it’s barely more than two words since they both want to watch the same thing. 

Sam’s discovered a previously undiscovered appreciation for this particular kind of quiet.  Undiscovered mostly because Marv was the only consistent interaction he’d had before, periodic drop-ins from Alan didn’t count.  It’s nice though, comfortable.

  Especially now when he’s feeling sickly full and Quorra looks like she’s mostly asleep, the fact that her eyes are still open is almost a non issue.  He’s weighing the cost benefits of falling asleep on the couch and just not moving, maybe ever again, when Quorra mumbles something that sounds like “turkey pizza.”  Sam makes a ‘hmm’ sound and elbows her arm a little bit to get her to repeat herself.  “I said can you have pizza with turkey?”  Taking the question seriously, because what else can he do, Sam thinks about it for about three seconds before responding.

‘I guess you could, do you mean turkey on pizza or with pizza, as a side dish?’  Quorra wiggles her fingers and there’s the pop of knuckles and she sits up a little straighter.

“For Thanksgiving, can you have pizza and turkey?  Because if you can, should we just bring pizza to Alan and Loras’ on Saturday?”   Sam turns his head against the cushion of the sofa so he can look at her when he smiles.  She catches sight of it out of the corner of her eye and shifts in her seat to see him properly.  “That’s not right is it?” she says, resignedly.  Sam keeps grinning because he’s constantly surprised by her.

‘Well it’s not wrong.  You could eat whatever you want for Thanksgiving, including pizza.’  The line between her eyebrows that pops up whenever she’s frustrated by her lack of knowledge becomes less severe, so he continues, wanting to smooth it all the way out.  ‘It’s mostly about sharing food with people who are important to you; everyone has their own ways of doing it, including what foods they eat.  So sure, we could bring pizza, start a new tradition.’  Alan and Lora wouldn’t care; they’d probably get a kick out of it.

“Turkey pizza,” Quorra says, face clear and teeth all on display in her excitement, “can we buy that?”   The oversight flicks Sam in the face and he’s frowning a little now, sighing out the sigh of the wrongfully persecuted.

‘Probably not.’  This just makes Quorra clap her hands together in excitement because Sam honestly doesn’t think she can grin any wider, her face would literally split in half. 

He resigns himself to several hours with flour in inconvenient places and settles back into the couch to listen to Quorra throw out different Thanksgiving appropriate toppings.  If he dozes off at some point between cranberries and broccoli and wakes up in the morning with a crick in his neck and the comforter from his bed tucked up around his shoulders, well, there are worse things.

 

 

THREE

            There is a limit to how much Quorra can learn from books, which is something she hadn’t considered until she was wrist deep in the first batch of pizza dough and it kept crumbling between her fingers.  That first batch did not turn out, neither did the second.  The third one had the consistency all the internet recipes said it should have and Alan and Lora had thought the ham and cranberries had been innovative.  Quorra felt very proud of herself, even more so after Sam had taste tested and not gotten horribly ill as a result.  Quorra saved the recipe, with her modifications, with no little amount of satisfaction.  They had a tradition now. 

She wanted to bake cookies next, and not just say she was going to bake cookies and buy the frozen dough and eat it in front of the television with Marv right out of packaging.  Quorra would use the oven, and the cookie sheet.  Christmas is next, so she’s got time to practice before she leaves some out for Santa.  Who she knows is not real, but Quorra loves it anyway and fully intends to leave out cookies and milk like all the stories tell you to.  Sam will eat them, she’s sure of it. 

Additionally, Jules Verne is dead.  To his credit, Sam broke the news to her in fairly short order.  His face pinched with worry when he tells her, little lines between his eyebrows and his mouth twisted down at one corner.  ‘Sorry Q.’ He says quietly, and Quorra takes a sharp breath that she lets out slowly, there's a little twist in her chest that feels like how Sam's mouth looks.  She is disappointed, she’d thought about it so much on the Grid.  Reading and rereading until she had whole sections memorized, could recite her favourite parts even now if she thought about it. 

But she drinks coffee now, brushes her hair, cooks on the stove and eats ice cream whenever she feels like it.  So she reaches out and hugs Sam; smiling when she says "That's alright" into his shoulder.  And it really is alright, because Sam has his books and Quorra is out of the ocean now and there's air everywhere and Marv just peed on her foot.  She would have just wanted to ask Jules Verne about what it was like not being in the ocean anyway and now if she has questions, she just asks Sam and usually she gets her answers by doing something. Quorra has more now and if she sometimes wishes she could tell Jules Verne how much she loved his books, Sam reassures her that that’s not particularly uncommon. 

...

“You should give me a job,” Quorra says over breakfast one weekend in December. They’re seated side by side at the island and Sam has part of an egg hanging out of his mouth when he turns to look at her.   The ‘What’ is garbled through the mostly chewed omelette, but Sam has the look on his face like he has more words so she stays quiet and eats her toast until he can talk without spraying yoke everywhere.

‘You want to work with me?’ And Quorra was expecting this question, but she still scrunched her face up in uncertainty; she might have read this wrong, but she was pretty sure they were a team.  Sam was working too hard, and it was making his skin look thin around his eyes. 

Quorra had successfully assimilated into the world, she did the grocery shopping, she’d made a pizza, and the house could stay up without her in it all day. 

 “Yes.”  She said clearly, because honesty here was best and if Sam didn’t think she could do it she’d rather prove him wrong right now so they could get a move on, get to the good stuff.  “I can help, Sam,” Which is the best way she can think to say that describe what she wants, it’s her goal at its most basic, “I want to help.” 

‘This is what you want?’  Sam’s looking at her like he honestly hadn’t considered that she’d want to be a part of this, which is ridiculous.

“You’re ridiculous.  Of course this is what I want.  We’re a team,” Quorra motions her right hand between them, the backs of her fingers briefly pressing against his chest for emphasis, “Alan too.” She adds, decisively, now that Sam isn’t looking like he’s going to need convincing.  His mouth is a little turned up at the corners, not a smile, more like it could be one any minute if you were just patient enough to wait for it. 

‘Well if you’re volunteering I’m not going to say no.’ Quorra throws up both arms, victorious.  ‘Alan will be thrilled; you’ll be ganging up on me in no time.’  Her patience rewarded, the smile that breaks across Sam’s face is a combination of resigned happiness.  It crumples slightly when she asks

“Can we go now?”  Sam doesn’t even answer, just picks up his coffee and leaves the room.  Quorra is still sitting on her stool when she hears the television turn on.  “Is that a no?”  Sam’s only response is to turn up the volume.

...

            Alan sees it right away-of course he does, because Sam’s life is nothing but a reoccurring trage-comedy at his own expense.  He didn’t even have the courtesy to feign ignorance until Sam eventually broached the subject at a future point of his own choosing.  Alan is a consistent positive influence in Sam’s life and he continuously takes advantage of every opportunity presented to him to get back at Sam for all the years he was a little shit.  Not for the first time, Sam is regretting his past choices, purely for how they keep popping up and inconveniencing his present. 

They’re at the cafe when Alan blindsides him with it, completely unable to work up any defense with his fingers deep in the guts of the croissant.  There is no way to maintain any sort of dignity as a grown man with chocolate all over your fingers.  Sam had been talking about Quorra, something mundane about her buying three different kinds of peanut butter, and when he finishes Alan is quiet for long enough that Sam really should have seen it coming.  But the croissant was right there, and it was very early in the morning, so Alan’s faux casual,

“She’s something alright,” brought Sam’s head up so fast he felt the tingle burn down his neck from pinching a nerve on the way up.  Sam blames the pain, and the croissant, and the morning in general for not being able to come up with anything to say to Alan’s completely innocuous comment.  It takes ages for his brain to reengage and when he finally gets his mouth working in tandem with his voice he only manages to get out a

“Yes.”  Which even to his own ears sounds too full of things, like it’s not even trying to contain everything he feels (so much) and instead is laying it all out on the kitschy bistro table.  Sam forgets about his croissant, which is fortunate.  His stomach has shrunk and turned to lead in his gut and when he catches sight of himself in the faint reflection of the window, trying to look anywhere that isn’t Alan, he’s all eyes and there’s hardly any colour in his face.  He couldn’t look guiltier with a bloody knife in his hand over a dead body. 

Wiping off the chocolate with the napkin, Sam resists the urge to try to stick his hands in his pockets while sitting down, finally looks back at Alan.  Expecting, he’s not sure what he’s expecting exactly, except he’s prepared for it to be unpleasant.  Alan doesn’t do anything though, no speech, no lecture, no reaching across the table and squeezing the life out of Sam for continuing to be such a disappointment.  He just smiles, and not even meanly.  If anything, it’s commiserating, and Sam feels something shift from the back of his neck when he sees that Alan isn’t angry.  He doesn’t even make Sam talk about it, just switches the conversation to hockey and how it looks like they might finally have a shot this season.  Sam should have known.  If something feels too easy, it probably is.

    

“Are you going to tell her?”   Alan asks, four hours later when they’re alone in the board room, the last manager just having left the meeting.  Sam wishes he could say he didn’t spit take coffee all over his pants, but that would be lying, and lying badly.  Both thighs of his jeans are splotchy wet with lukewarm mediocre board room coffee.  The evidence is literally right in front of him. 

Sam just sighs, not bothering to try to clean up his pants, and turns to look at Alan sitting serenely next to him.  Somehow having managed to position himself perfectly outside the splash radius.  The look on Alan’s face is the one he wears for negotiations, which means it says both ‘I’m listening’ and ‘I’m not going to budge until you give me what I want’.  It’s very effective.

“There’s nothing to tell.”  Alan just looks amused.

“I’d call bullshit on that, but I can see from your face that you actually believe what you’re saying.  So I’ll rephrase, would you tell her if there was?”  Honesty, Sam thinks to himself, or at least mostly honesty, that was the key to getting through this conversation.

“She deserves a life, Alan.”  And Sam won’t take that from her, it’s as simple as that.

‘And Quorra knowing how you feel, in theory’ he prevaricates when Sam frowns, ‘would make that impossible?’ 

“I won’t hold her back.”  Sam is certain here, knows that if she knew, Quorras’ compassion, her affection, would tie her to him.  He can’t risk it.

‘Again, I’d call bullshit, but I can’t make you see sense if you’ve already made up your mind.’  The muscles in Sam’s back relax, hearing only that Alan won’t push this, at least not right now.  ‘Think on it though, if anything you know suggests she’d be here if she didn’t want to be- if there wasn’t something important to her here.’  Sam opens his mouth to say something, maybe deny everything again for all the good it would do him, but Alan holds a hand up.  ‘Just think on it, you’re a smart kid Sam, you’ve always been.  You maybe need to use a different part of your brain here, if at all.’  Alan puts a hand on his shoulder briefly, before getting up and leaving him alone at the table. 

Think on it, he says, like Sam hasn’t spent the better part of six months trying to ignore this huge animal living inside him, like the fucking Alien. 

Think on it, like he’s not waiting for the thing to finally break through his chest plate when Quorra laughs at something he says or makes faces at him in the middle of a crowd. 

It’s all he thinks about.  Tries to rein it in and not take too much, not take any more than what she offers.  Tries not to fuck it up. 

Sam goes home that night and opens to door to Quorra mangling a song on Guitar Hero, dancing like her rock star avatar and singing out every third word she knows.  He has to lean against the wall for a minute, swears he feels his ribs crack at little.  He is in so much trouble.

FOUR

“Should I wear a tie?”  Quorra has to yell it because she’s almost completely inside her closest trying to figure out what to wear for her first day.  She’s holding up a plain black tie in one hand, and what Sam called a ‘hipster’ scarf in the other. 

The sales man had said the tie was professional, and when Quorra had asked if she wanted to be professional for a new job the sales man had nodded a lot and handed her three other ties.  The black one she was considering right now wasn’t one of the power ties the consultant had picked for her but this was a new environment and she didn’t want to draw too much attention to herself until she was more familiar with it. 

‘What?’  Sam yelled back, it was louder than hers, echoing off the walls of the bathroom and trying to compensate for the running water from the shower.

“Should I wear a tie?” She asks again, yelling slowly and clearly so Sam can hear her.  “To be professional!”  When he answers, Quorra can practically see the shrug,

‘Wear whatever you want.’  Which is extremely unhelpful.  Quorra is going to do what she wants; she just wants to know if what she wants to do here is be professional, with a tie.  Quorra has fought, literally fought, for her life.  Dressing herself should not be this complicated. 

In the end, Quorra forgoes the tie, not liking how tight it had been around her neck when she’d tried it on.  She settles on a pair of pants and a dark shirt with long sleeves that reminds her of her suit on the Grid in a way that’s comforting.  It’s cold enough for her heavier boots, and they’re riding the bike in, so they’ll double as protection. 

She heard Sam leave the bathroom, see’s the wet footprints he left leading down the hall to his bedroom, and goes to the sink to brush her teeth one more time.  You look great, very professional! –S Is written on the mirror in her bright red lipstick.  Quorra grins around her toothbrush, some of the toothpaste foam slopping onto the counter.  Wiping away the steamed fog around the message, Quorra looks at herself in the mirror. 

When Sam yells for her to hurry up, she hesitates for half a second before snatching up the lipstick and painting it on quickly.  Critically assessing her reflection one more time, Quorra nods at the mirror, satisfied. 

Sam got distracted by Marv, who is already whining at being left alone, so Quorra scoops up the keys from the kitchen counter and tosses them between her hands. 

“Let’s go, let’s go” She says brightly, waiting for Sam to finish putting Marv’s water out and coming around the island toward her, he reaches for the keys but she holds them tight, “I’m driving.”  Sam just laughs, plucks the keys from between her fingers while she’s distracted, chirps out

‘Nope’ popping the ‘p’ obnoxiously while he jingles the keys with one hand, opening the door with the other.  ‘Get it moving Q,’ Sam’s still smiling when he jerks his head to the driveway where the bike’s resting on its kickstand, ‘we gotta change the world.’  Quorra pushes a hand against his arm to get him to move out of the doorway so she can lock the door behind them. 

They’re pulling out onto the highway when it occurs to her that she’s really not sure what her actual job is going to be.  Sam would have told her if it wasn’t safe to be herself at Encom, he would have said something if she was going to need to pretend to be someone or something else while she worked there.  He hasn’t said anything, so Quorra has to think that there’s no danger, or at least whatever danger there is it’s manageable.  She has to check though, because certain habits were wired into her long before she could bleed like a User.

“Who am I here?”  They’ve parked the bike under an overhang at the rear of the building and Sam has his hand raised to enter the access codes into the keypad by the door.  He looks at her, hand still poised over the keypad and raises an eyebrow at her.

‘You’re you.  I’ve brought you in as a part time consultant.  You’ll help me troubleshoot with some of the new systems we’re working on.’ 

“Oh.” She says, that makes a lot of sense, very practical.

‘Is that okay?’  Sam asks, both eyebrows raised up on his forehead now. 

“Yes, very much.” Quorra nods as reinforcement, “Practical.”  Sam finishes typing in the pass code and they hear the locks release.

‘Alan and I figured keeping you mostly visible was the best alternative, hiding you in plain sight.’  Quorra nods again, because it really is a good plan, uncomplicated and better for it.  They take the stairs up to the seventh floor where they switch over to the employee elevator until the doors ding open on the twenty third floor. 

Sam introduces her to the floor receptionist and then they meet Alan on their way to Sams office.  Several eyes flick over her curiously but nobody tries to attack her, or even question why she’s there.  Quorra notices the way gazes linger over Sam and thinks that he could be walking down the hallway holding nothing more interesting than a potted plant and people would watch him. 

Sam’s office on this floor is mostly for show, he does the real work on the very top floor where all the core processors are held, but there are still three large monitors that are motion triggered and turn on when they enter the room. 

Sam pulls up several different programs and before he can say anything she’s moved forward to touch the screens and drag out the piece of code she’s see’s is causing problems.  Alan is sitting comfortably in one of the guest chairs, smiling at her, and Sam doesn’t even look at her.  Stares at the screen where the corrected system is performing properly and says slowly, voice slightly defeated ‘you’re going to code circles around me aren’t you?’ he’s not really expecting an answer, Quorra can tell, so she catalogues the way the sharp line of his profile cuts through the screen behind him and doesn’t argue. 

This in her blood after all, it used to be her blood.  She can do this.

...

            Working is not quite what she’d imagined it to be, and it’s certainly not like most of the television shows had her believe.  For one thing, if her first day is anything to judge by, Quorra will be too busy most of the time to have life altering events start and resolve within one cycle.  “This is nothing like Friends,” she says to Sam when he comes into his office-which is now apparently going to be her office- shortly after lunch, “how did those people keep their jobs? They were never at work!” 

Sam is carrying two coffee mugs; he sets one down on her desk and rotates it until the handle faces her, the other he keeps in his hand, sitting down in the high backed guest chair.  There is a bagel in his mouth.  Quorra sets down the package of progress reports she was suffering through and picks up the coffee.

‘We talked about this Q,’ free to talk now that the bagel was held in his hand, Sam gestures carefully at her with his cup, ‘television is not a true representation of reality.  Nobody’s hair is that nice all the time, it’s a scientific fact.’  She drinks too much too fast and grimaces at the burn of hot coffee over the roof of her mouth.   

“And everyone is asking me questions,” and this is really her main concern, the reading of multi sectioned documents she can do, but what’s a Cosmo?  Quorra had just listened and tried to look like she knew what everyone else was talking about it in the ladies bathroom.  Sam doesn’t look surprised but he’s leaning forward a little in the chair, not as relaxed as he was before when he asks

‘Questions like what?’  Quorra realizes what he must be worried about and shakes her head to stop him from thinking the worst.

“Nothing bad, just- what’s a Cosmo?”  The stress lines fade immediately from Sam’s face and he finishes off the last of his bagel.  Quorra looks at him and shrugs her shoulders in a hapless little gesture, but Sam answers her question, like she knew he would.

‘It’s either a kind of drink, or a magazine,’

“Oh,” Quorra is especially glad now that she’d refrained from talking about astrology, “okay.” 

‘Anything else?’  Sam still looks apprehensive, like he’s waiting for her to tell him that two of his staff accosted her in the hallway and demanded to see her birth certificate, or asked about who the Jonas Brothers were.  Which she could have answered because they get the Disney channel at home and she’s usually the only one awake on Sunday mornings and there is only so many times you can watch the weather network.  Quorra kind of wishes someone had asked her about the Jonas’, it would have been much less stressful than thinking she’d forgotten to write a test that day. 

When May, the graphics illustrator, had asked her what her ‘number’ was Quorra had been so stymied she’d just said she didn’t have one.  Which was true but for some reason May had smiled a little and made a noise in her throat that suggested she didn’t quite believe what Quorra was saying but was going to go along with it.  She had a name, she’d always had a name, even basic programs on the grid had had names.   

“Are people numbered here?” She asks, because she needs to blend in here and if she’s supposed to have a number why didn’t Sam give her one?  Sam’s look of apprehension is replaced by confusion.

‘What?’

“May asked me today what my number was, when we were talking Cosmos in the bathroom, I thought everyone had names here.  Do I need a number?”  Sam’s staring at her like she’s tried to put peanut butter on pickles again, it was one time, but then realization breaks over  his face and he narrows his eyes critically at her

‘That’s what girls talk about in the bathroom?’ he asks, but then shakes his head like he’s trying to refocus on something, ‘No Q, you don’t need a number.  It’s a game, sort of.’  The words lilt at the end, as though that’s not really the best way to describe it but it’s all he’s got at the moment. Quorra is still confused so she makes an encouraging motion with her hands for Sam to continue.  He clearly knows what it is and he’s going to tell her so that the next time someone asks she doesn’t start talking about the Jonas’ just to have something to say.  ‘People count the number of people they’ve had romantic relationships with, the number of people is your ‘number’’ Sam holds up his free hand to make finger quotes around ‘number’. 

“Is there a right number?  What should I say next time?”  Quorra really doesn’t want to reveal just how much she knows about the Jonas’, this is all about self preservation at this point.  Sam leans forward again, shoulders still a tense line but he doesn’t look worried anymore, just serious.  Like whatever he’s about to say to her is important.  Quorra leans in too, tilts her head to show she’s listening.

‘No Q, there’s no right number and there’s no wrong one either.  It’s a personal question, so if you don’t want to answer it next time, you don’t have to.  Do what you want,’ His face is less serious for the last bit, ‘you always do.’  Quorra can’t help but smile because he says it like it’s a good thing.

“Okay.”  Everything settled, Quorra waves a hand at him and picks up the progress report again “Now go away, I have things to do.”  Sam laughs and pushes himself out of the chair, is already out in the hallway when she remembers to yell “Thanks for the coffee” out after him.  He waves a hand over his head and keeps walking.

...

            Confusing bathroom interludes aside, Quorra falls into a rhythm easily enough.  It helps that Sam introduces her briefly to everyone at a staff meeting, she waves at the faces around the table when Sam says she’s going to be helping out with the rough work and that seems to satisfy basic curiosity. 

After that she works on code with Sam and helps out the other engineers, mostly floating between the different project teams wherever an extra pair of hands is needed at the time.  She’s good at it too, which is rewarding and also convenient; Quorra has found that competence is a redeemable quality here.  Sam says it’s her sunny disposition that endears her to people, that they’d like being around her even if she wasn’t scary good at fixing the broken pieces that always manage to find their way into an operating system. 

She doesn’t go in with Sam every day, her schedule is a bit more flexible, dependent on which team she’s going to be working with at the time.  When she’s there though, she’s in Sam’s office, and Quorra becomes accustomed to Sam or Alan dropping in to visit with her at least once.  May, who continues to be friendly and helpful when Quorra has questions about procedure and she doesn’t want to bug Sam, will come and eat her lunch with Quorra and they’ll talk about movies and the best toppings to have on pizza. 

If she’s there late and she knows Sam is two floors up messing with the processors, Quorra will wait until the main lights go off to save power before heading up to what Sam calls the penthouse, emergency lights guiding her up the stairwell.  She’ll waive at the security camera by the door until Don sees her and unlocks it, grinning up a thank you as she walks through the doorway into the maze, searching for Sam.  He’s in the middle row, off in the north east corner tonight, cells pulled out next to him while he runs through data on the tablet he’s hooked directly into the core. 

Quorra can usually manage to sneak up on him, depending on how involved he is with whatever he’s working on, but tonight he looks up at the first step of her foot toward him down the row.  He pulls out his headphones, he must have seen the door open to know she was there, and loops them around his neck.  ‘Dinner?’  He asks,  hopeful edge in his voice.  Quorra sits down angled slightly behind his right shoulder so she can peer over and read what he’s doing on the tablet.  Systems check, security mostly.

“Only if you’re making it, and don’t say Kraft dinner,” she adds quickly because she can see the thought forming.  He snaps his mouth shut on what she knows was going to be an offer to make macaroni and cheese.  Pasta is the only food Sam can cook well with any kind of consistency. 

‘Well then I am out of ideas.’ 

“That does not count, you always pick Kraft dinner, I refuse to acknowledge that as a viable dinner idea anymore.  It’s banned, I’ve just banned it.”  Still running the scans, Sam doesn’t turn to look at her when he replies so much as he moves his head in her general direction while he keeps his eyes of the screen, tapping out instructions every so often.

‘You love Kraft dinner though.’  Quorra huffs out a breath, ruffling the hair behind Sam’s ear.

“That is not the point, Sam.  The point is new ideas, dinner ideas.  We can’t eat Kraft dinner every time you have to cook.  I read that complex carbohydrates this late at night are bad for your digestion.”  Quorra can’t see Sam’s face fully, but she can read skepticism in the set of his shoulders, the little muscle jump in his jaw.

‘Uh huh,’ he draws it out, sarcasm practically a physical thing, ‘and where did you read that exactly?’  Quorra shrugs even though nobody sees it,

“Cosmo.  May lent me her copy, I learned a lot.”   Sam puts the tablet down and looks at her over his shoulder.  He’s wearing his Kraft dinner face again, like she’s pulled a thought directly from his brain.

‘Uh huh,’ it’s drawn out again, but without sarcasm.  Quorra reaches up to pull a piece of her hair out in front of her face, feels herself go slightly cross eyed to keep it in focus.

“Apparently honey is good for strengthening your hair, but it seems like it would be hard to wash out so I don’t think I’ll try it.”  Sam barks out a laugh, she can feel his back shaking with it where it’s pressed up against her knees.  He shakes his head a little bit, looks up at her briefly before shutting down the program, slots the cells back into place, unplugs the tablet from the core. 

‘There’s chicken in the fridge, I can do it on the grill, we’ll have that for dinner.’  Sam says as he gets to his feet, hand held out to pull her up.  Quorra clasps her hand around his wrist, feels Sams answering grip around her forearm and allows him to pull her to her feet. 

“Yes,” Quorra says, with feeling, because that suddenly sounds like the best dinner to have ever happened in the history of dinners, including Thanksgiving pizza.  “You do that, and I’ll walk Marv.”  They’ve made it through the maze of towers back to the security door at this point and Sam raises his head to nod up at Don through the security camera, Quorra following closely behind and waves.  The stairwell intercom thrums to life as they close the door behind them, and Don’s voice echoes against the walls 

‘Goodnight Mr Flynn, Mrs Flynn.’ 

“Goodnight Don,” Quorra answers cheerfully back.  Even though he can’t hear her, he’ll see her speaking on the video feed.  Sam pauses, mid stride, and Quorra nearly walks straight into his back but he’s moving again, lifts a hand to wave at the camera, but there’s something off in the way he’s carrying himself.  Quora doesn’t know what’s wrong, isn’t sure how to ask if everything is okay, so she doesn’t say anything.  Sam’s himself again by the time they reach the bottom of the stairwell and walk out through the door to see the bike where’d they’d parked it that morning.  She’s about to climb on behind Sam when she considers something, weighs the potential consequences of asking now that she has what she thinks is the right question.  Quorra shifts her weight from one foot to the other; they’re a team, family.  Family helps each other.  “Was it because he called you ‘Mr.Flynn’?”  Sam has to tilt his head up at this angle to see her face properly.

‘What?’

“You looked strange,” Quorra repeats herself, “When Don said goodnight.  Was it because he called you ‘Mr Flynn’?”  Both corners of Sams mouth turn down. 

‘Q, I wasn’t-,” he starts to say, but then cuts himself off, seems to consider where the question is coming from.  ‘It caught me off guard-it catches me off guard sometimes, when I hear that.’  There’s a laugh and it’s self deprecating.  ‘I want to look over my shoulder, see who they’re talking to,’ is what he says.  See my dad, is what he means. 

There is nothing Quorra can say here to make things better, so she nods, lets Sam see that she understands, even the parts he didn’t say out loud, and throws her leg over the bike.  She wraps her arms tight around his chest on the ride home, tighter than is really necessary considering there’s little traffic and Sam is actually going the speed limit.  It might not be much, but it’s the only thing she can think of that might help.  Sam takes the next corner two degrees too sharp and she hugs him harder, holds on.

 

 

FIVE

 

Winter is not really a winter in California, Sam had told her this before, but as they move deeper into December there is a noticeable drop in temperature and the days are shorter.  Quorra notices the difference more so now than she would have six months ago when she was still fresh from the Grid.  There was no sun there, no blue sky or clouds, no colour at all really, just differing shades of charcoal with manufactured light interspersed as an accent. 

Quorra crawls out of bed to a dark sky the closer they get to Christmas and she has to check herself, heart rate thumping fast in her ears, to make sure that she’s still out, that she still made it out of the Grid.  Usually she’ll walk, bare feet padding quietly down the hall, to quickly look in on Sam, just to make sure even though she knows that even if she’s dreaming that still means she’s out.  Quorra never had dreams on the Grid.  She never really slept either, when you get down to it.  Her room in Flynn’s cliff house had a bed but she’d mostly just read through the hours that Flynn was sleeping. 

Sleep was something Users did and Quorra had never been on friendly enough terms with other programs to ask if it was something Flynn had programmed into them as well.  She’d never asked Flynn either.  She could ask Sam, maybe, and they could search through the coding.  It’s not terribly important, in the big scheme of things, but she’d like to know.  For now though, Quorra will take the dreams, even the bad ones.  They mean she’s alive. 

...

Christmas is just the two of them, and Marv.  There’s no snow, for obvious reasons, but Sam find the Edward Scissorhands movie and they watch that while waiting for the oven timer to go.  Quorra likes the ending the best, even if it makes her a little sad, because Edward gives them snow.  Quorra had found more recipes online, and Lora had come over on Christmas Eve to walk her and Sam through cooking the ham properly. 

Sam had listened closely until Lora had started talking about garnishes; he developed a half terrified twist in his eyebrow region and volunteered to make the sides.  He even made mashed potatoes and Quorra had made him steam vegetables.  They used a microwavable stuffing, and there’s no macaroni and cheese anywhere. 

They’d spread out their gift giving during the day, saving the last one to open after dinner, so Quorra was perched on the back of the couch wearing the new scarf Sam had bought her.  One eye watching Kim dance in the snow, Quorra kept the other on the clock above the stove, currently counting down to when they could finally start eating.  The credits rolled just as the chime went and Marv ran over to the oven, paws sliding on the floor and barking. 

Sam rolled himself off the couch where he’d been taking a pre dinner post cooking nap and started moving the finished dishes over to the kitchen table.  Quorra secured her scarf around her neck, made slightly more difficult by the bright green oven mitts (an earlier present) already on and went to open the oven door.  The ham looked sweaty and glistening, just the way Lora had said it should, so Quorra pulled it out to sit on the cooling rack while she closed the oven door back up carefully with her foot. 

Carving was a little tricky, but she found removing the oven mitts helped significantly and once she had a good grip on the knife handle she managed several even slices.  Carrying the serving plate over to the table, Quorra set in down in amidst the other steaming dishes and then moved to the only other chair. 

‘I think this is the first time we’ve used this table.’  Sam said, holding out his Christmas cracker so she could grab one end and pull.  The resulting crack startled her into laughing loudly while she held her own cracker out.  The second crack was no less exciting and Quorra got a pair of playing dice that matched her bright red paper crown. 

Sams crown was blue and his cracker yielded a whistle, which caused Marv to hop in place and bark madly when Sam tried it out.  Quorra carefully placed her crown on her head, reached over and adjusted Sams so it sat at a jaunty angle across his forehead.

“Okay, now we can eat.”  Sam pulled the bowl of mashed potatoes closer and dug in with his soup spoon, potato mash halfway to his mouth when he looked up and met Quorra’s gaze

‘You didn’t want any of this did you?’  He says, seriousness of his voice betrayed by the grin stretching over his face.  Quorra just picked up her own spoon and reached across to where Sam held the bowl next to his plate and dug out her own serving,

“Nah,” she says before shoving most of it into her mouth “M’goo.”  She tries to smile but she can feel mashed potatoes squelching in her cheeks and Sam nearly drops the bowl he laughs so hard.  They manage to get proper selections of everything onto their plates and through shovelling, they really are graceless about it, forkfuls into their mouths they talk about the new Sherlock Holmes movie which leads into listing their favourite of the stories which somehow leads into trying to figure out who would win in a fight between the Hulk and Wolverine. This last bit is mostly Sam, although Quorra asks pertinent questions throughout his monologue. 

There’s apple pie for dessert, a gift from Lora, because both times they’d tried to make pastry Sam had had to spit out the result into the sink.  Her innocent question of “too much salt?” had led to her being relegated into asking Lora to take pity on them.  Quorra feels like she might never be able to eat again though, so her and Sam move very slowly back into the living room and stretch out until their legs are on the ottoman and they’ve achieved mostly horizontal status, the television now showing Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.  They were still wearing their crowns.  “I love Christmas.”  Quorra, extremely full and very happy, feels like it’s extremely important that she tell someone this.  “Merry Christmas Sam.” 

Sam rolls his head in her direction, careful to move no other part of his body, his crown has moved past ‘jaunty’ and into ‘severely intoxicated at a bachelor party’ in terms of its angle, so most of Sams left eyebrow is no longer visible when he looks at her.

‘Merry Christmas Q.’ His face is clear and his eyes aren’t doing that squinty thing they do when he’s tired but trying not to show it.  Quorra realizes that this is the most relaxed Sam has looked outside of sleep.  His hands are folded over his stomach and he’s wearing the thick knitted socks that she’d given him that morning, bright blue with a hand sized snowflake on top.  He’d held the socks like a bomb for all of two seconds before he shrugged and pulled them on.  She hadn’t even lied before; there really wasn’t a sweater in his size.  Quorra had had to make do. 

He really did look ridiculous in that hat and Quorra has that familiar feeling of wanting to be with him all the time wash over her all the way up from her toes.  ‘I may never eat again.’  Sam says, blue crown slipped even further down his face until it’s covering everything above his nose. 

“But,” Quorra interjects, because “pie?”  Sam raises the index finger on one hand, making a small circle motion with it that Quorra recognizes as a much more subdued version of his ‘making an executive decision’ gesture.

‘Except for pie,’ for a second it looks like Sam is going to try to get up off the couch, but he’ barely raised his shoulder off the back cushions of the couch before he’s flopping back down, ‘later.’  Quorra can’t really feel anything below her knees at the moment so she nods, sending her own crown further down her face until it’s a red blur at the very top of her vision.

“Much later.”

They fall asleep on the couch and end up eating pie and exchanging their last gifts at half past midnight when they come to, the theme song for Jaws causing Sam to nearly jerk himself off the sofa.  After they say goodnight for real, Quorra takes the wrinkled paper crowns and smoothes them out as best she can with her hands before taking them back to her. 

There’s a hardcover copy of 20 000 Leagues under the Sea that sits in the small bookshelf near her closet.  Quorra flips the pages until she reaches the very middle of the book and slips the crowns in carefully between the two pages.  Closing the book back up gently Quorra slides it back in its place.  There’s a good chance she’ll forget she even put them in there but that’s partly what Quorra is counting on.  She wants to find them in five years and show Sam-to have this little piece of their first Christmas she can look at and touch with her fingers.  It’s not much, but it’s hers.

...

Dinner at the company New Year's Eve party is exhausting and Quorra can see the strain around Sam's eyes show up during the salad and stay all the way to dessert.  They’re seated next to each other at a table with Alan and Lora and two other members of the board and the men they introduced as their husbands. 

The exit is slightly behind them to the left and Quorra watches Sam’s eyes flick past her three times in as many minutes, like he’s gauging the distance between him and the double doors leading out into the elegant staircase and out, out, out onto the street.  They almost hadn’t come at all, and watching the sporadic silent tapping of Sams thumb against the cloth table cover, Quorra wishes they’d just stayed home and eaten the last of the pie. 

It was almost eleven thirty and Quorra felt reasonably confident that if they just waited another ten minutes, she could grab Sam by the elbow and have him walk her out ‘to get some air’ and then just not come back.  It was getting to a point in the evening when all the people were starting to become a bit blurry with champagne; no one would even notice they were gone.  Quorra catches Alan’s eye across their table and she makes what must be an understandable non verbal communication of her intentions because Alan looks surreptitiously at Sam, now staring at the blinking sign over the emergency doors, and nods at her. 

Alan leans over and whispers casually to Lora and her eyes quickly sweep between Sam and the emergency door.  She lifts her hand a little and mimics a sweeping motion at Quorra who smiles at both of them before tapping the back of Sam’s hand with two of her fingers. 

When he doesn’t do more than tilt his head up to where she’s now standing next to his seat, Quorra laces their fingers together and starts walking toward the huge staircase.  Sam follows.  Alan and Lora nod goodbye and it’s fifteen steps through members of the board, a cluster of receptionists, their laughter ringing against the glasses in their hands. Sam gives her a questioning look, no longer lagging behind.  Quorra lifts one shoulder and releases his hand, hook her arm through his elbow and slows down from their almost frantic dash now that they were almost to the front doors, she could see the street through the large glass windows. 

She hadn’t thought this far ahead, honestly, had just been thinking about how quickly she could get Sam out of the ballroom and into fresh air.  Maybe how quickly she could get herself out too, if she’s really being honest.  Large groups of people are still sometimes difficult for her.  “I didn’t have much of a plan,” Quorra admits, when they’re through the doors and out in the street.  Finally she can breathe. 

The sidewalk is lit up from the street lamps and the wash of light from the foyer tints everything gold and catches on the sequins of her dress, little dots of rainbow light dance over Sam’s suit.  “This was mostly as far as I got,” she sweeps a hand out, indicating the street and the air and generally being outside. 

‘We’re going to miss the show Q,” Sam says, a hint of exasperation in his voice, even though he looks more relaxed, the tension out of his shoulders now that they’re outside.  Quorra lifts a shoulder again, because she really doesn’t care.  She must do something funny with her face, or maybe he’s relieved to be out of that room, but he’s laughs and turns in a semi circle, hands in his pockets as he scans the empty street.  He stops mid way through the one eighty and nods at something up over her right shoulder.  ‘Think we can make it?’  Quorra turns her head to follow his gaze; see’s the blaze of the ENCOM tower sitting two blocks away. 

“If we run,” Quorra says, slipping off the high heels Lora had helped her pick out for the night, “race you.”  She tosses out, and then she’s off, feet barely touching the pavement as she moves.  She hears Sam shout ‘Hey!’ but she’s already at the corner, shoes gripped tight in one hand and the sequins of her dress making a whooshing sound with every step.  There’s no one on the street but them and she runs like she was born to do it.

            Quorra doesn’t think she’s ever seen the building so empty before.  Not even on the night they created her name.  Sam catches her by the time they round the last block and they sprint to the service door, Quorra slightly ahead with her hand outstretched to tap in the pass code.  Taking the stairs two at a time its nine minutes to midnight when Sam presses the call button for the service elevator to take them to the top floor.

They’ll have to take the maintenance stairs up to the roof, but with the elevator doors opening almost as soon as Sam presses the button, Quorra, who started counting down the seconds in her head, is pretty sure they’ll make it in time.  Standing in the elevator, the adrenaline is starting to wear off and Quorra can feel the imprint of the sidewalk interspersed with asphalt all along the bottoms of her feet.

Running barefoot had probably not been the safest decision but she knows that if she’d tried to run in the heeled shoes they never would have made it, and she would have turned her ankle over, repeatedly.  Sam notices and looks down, arching his eyebrows at her feet, Quorra is curling and uncurling her toes against the cool floor and trying not to think about that stone she’d stepped on thirty seconds into the run over. 

‘Probably not your best idea,’ he offers, watching the elevator screen change as they get closer to the penthouse, pointedly no longer looking at her feet.  Her pedicure is thoroughly ruined and Quorra can’t bring herself to feel too badly about it. 

“Four minutes, thirty seconds,” she says instead of agreeing.  They both know he’s right.  The doors slide open with a ding on the top floor and Sam beats her out of the elevator by two strides. 

Mostly running again toward the door at the end of the hall, the stairs are right behind it, thirty five steps up to the roof.  They take them two at a time again and Quorra hasn’t managed to make up the scant distance Sam put between them so when he reaches his hand back for her, to pull her along, she takes it.  One minute, fifteen seconds. 

They burst through the door and Quorra nearly dislocates her shoulder when she tries to keep moving forward, held up short by Sam reaching down to wedge the door open with the cinderblock sitting next to the frame.  “Thirty seconds,” she pants out, Sam upright now and pulling her toward the northwest corner.  They stop just before the edge, and lean back against the base supporting the beam Sam had parachuted off of.  If they look slightly below the horizon line they can see the convention centre where Allan and Lora are probably holding flutes of champagne as the crowd chants the last ten seconds.

‘Ten seconds,’ Sam says quietly and Quorra turns her head to look at him.  She stops counting entirely and the colours sparkling over Sam’s face tell her when the clock hits midnight.  Quorra’s fingers are still looped between the straps of her shoes and her feet are more than stinging now but Sam is smiling at her with his mouth open and the reflection of the fireworks look like they disappear in his mouth, or like maybe that’s where they originate and he smiles them into existence.  ‘Happy New Year Q,’ his lips move, the sound of the fireworks drowning out his voice.  Quorra squeezes his hand tightly and says it back, tears her eyes away from his face to look out into the sky.  Happy New Year, she thinks again. 

There are fireworks and they are beautiful and Sam holds her hand the entire time.

 

 

SIX

            There’s a brief period when January moves into February slides into March that Quorra wonders if maybe she’s just being paranoid, maybe she hasn’t assimilated as properly as she thought and this was a side effect. 

Sam has been doing a lot of security scans. 

Quorra logs into the system one night, she’s in the twilight time she allots herself where she waits for Sam to either come get her on his own or she gives up on patience and goes to the penthouse, pulls him home by his t-shirt.  The latter has become much more typical lately. 

That’s when it catches her eye, the security activity, much heavier than it was in December, than even in February.  Quorra pulls up the activity logs and reads through the master key strokes left over from Sam’s work in the core.  There’s a noticeable increase in the volume of security scans and firewall adjustments, it’s borderline excessive, especially considering there’s been no identified threats presented at meetings and there’s no staff gossip about foreign bodies in the system.  There’s nothing in the code except Sam. 

Quorra reads through the records and then exits the system.  She doesn’t make copies or file anything away on the separate protected server Sam set up for her, a twin to the one he uses for himself.  Theoretically she could transfer the logs over, she’s the only one with access to her server, and no one other than Sam even knows it exists, but she doesn’t. 

At this point she honestly doesn’t even think to, decides to bring it up with Sam later, trusts that if it was something she needed to worry about he’d tell her.  Quorra checks her watch, turns off all the lights in her office and makes her way up the stairs to pull Sam out of the core again.  Convinces herself she’s worrying over nothing. 

...

            The sun comes back with the spring, pure gold and pouring white heat over everything it touches.   It’s already up when Quorra opens her eyes in the morning and she’s so happy to have it slanting through the blinds again that she doesn’t even mind too much when it wakes her up before her alarm. 

They’re warning for a dry spring leading into an even drier summer.  She doesn’t really think too much of it though, that is until Quorra finds herself out in it.   

It is brutally hot out.  Quorra can feel the prickle heat of the sun along her forehead and neck.  Her cheeks are going to be red with more than simple exertion when they get back to the house.  Sam’s going to rub aloe on her face and nag her into using a higher SPF. 

She can hear Sam, keeping pace but staggered behind her to her left so that there’s room on the trail for other hikers and cyclists taking advantage of the weather.  There’s a bead of sweat running down between her eyebrows and it’s a toss-up whether she’s going to end up swallowing it when it drips down from her nose or having it veer off course and get right in her eye. 

She closes one eye pre-emptively, just in case, because salt in your eye is not a party and she’s already scratched her arm on a bramble, the cut switching between a sting and a burn as she continues to sweat.  They round a corner and Quorra drops back in the habitual manoeuvre her and Sam have practiced on this route dozens of times, Sam picks up his pace just enough to put him in front her.  It’s his turn to lead and he likes the challenge of this next incline so she always makes him take point. 

She’s still got one eye closed against the errant bead of sweat, so when Sam tells her to watch out, Quorra doesn’t immediately see what he’s talking about until she nearly trips over the bike leaned up against the railing at one of the lookout points. 

There’s some mild flailing to avoid colliding with a stationary object, and Quorra has to open her eye, giving the sweat the perfect opportunity to creep in and slide against her tear duct.  She manages not to swear and still avoids impact. 

She’d let out an involuntary noise though, and Sam turns around jogs slowly backwards so he can check on her.  Quorra’s rubbing at her eye, trying to tear up faster so she cries the sweat out, and her arm is still stinging and it’s really hot out and “this sucks,” she pants out, “Whose idea was this?  I think it was yours, this feels like a ‘you’ idea.”  Sam huffs, because he’s too winded to laugh properly, and points the index fingers of both hands at her before turning back around and yelling over his shoulder,

‘This one is all you Q,’ His shirt is sticking to him, making lines of his shoulder blades, the little divot in between of shifting muscle, stand out.  They move a little with every step and Quorra loses some time watching the rhythmic rise fall as Sam continues to run ahead of her.

“Why is it so hot?” Is all she can manage, and she’s not really expecting a reply, she’s too hot and sweaty to care at this point when Sam doesn’t say anything in response. They’re just about at the turn around point and it’s mostly levelled out now so they start running side by side again. 

Quorra has sweat so much that her shirt is a shade darker than it was when they started out, she rolled her ankle avoiding that bike and she is definitely going to need some basic first aid on her arm when they get home but this easily one of her favourite things.  She’s smiling almost the whole time and she can’t even blame it completely on the endorphin rush. 

They don’t look like it, but her and Sam have very similar strides when they run, it makes running together easy and like every footfall that lands in sync is part of a dance.  The steady impact of their feet sounds like a heartbeat and Quorra likes to look over at Sam when they run, stare at him hard until he looks back and she can make her eyes cross, listen to him chuff out chopping almost laughter. 

They’d tried bringing Marv with them once but his legs were just short enough that running with them for the full distance was impossible.  Quorra hadn’t known it was possible for such a small dog to look so distraught, but Marv had managed it and somehow made them feel like it was their fault his stride wasn’t long enough to keep up with them. It was alright though, Quorra took Marv out after dinner and they snooped on the neighbourhood, maybe getting ice cream from the convenience store. 

There was a shaded canopy of trees leading down to the last leg of the trail and Quorra slowed down a little to prolong her time out of the sun.  Sam followed her lead and they switched to a slow jog, occasionally moving to single file to make room for the mountain bike groups that were going up and down the trails today.  One of the last cyclists to pass them had an ‘Everythings bigger in Texas’ slogan printed across the back of her shirt and it reminded Quorra of something she’d been meaning to bring up.  “Where am I from?”  Sam looks over at her and his eyebrows pull together,

‘What do you mean Q, you know where you’re from,’

“Well yes, but what do I tell people here?  I can’t say the true answer.”  Realization dawned and Sams eyebrows went back to their regular position on his face.

‘Oh,’ he huffed out, ‘well I told everyone you’re from Canada, it’s what all your documents say.’  He shrugs a little, which is a little more jerky than usual now that they’re running downhill.

“Canada,” Quorra repeats, “with the snow.”  It was really the only thing she knew about Canada at this point.  She was lucky Sam had apparently already told people.

‘Yeah exactly, specifically the Yukon.’  Sam gives her that shrug again, ‘most people don’t know shit about Canada, so you could make up a town and they’d just nod along.  I figured it was a safe bet.’  Quorra doesn’t really know anything about Canada either, so she can’t exactly fault his logic.  Although apparently she’s from the Yoo-kon. 

“I’m from Canada, the Yukon.”  She repeats it, just to make sure she’s pronouncing everything right.  Sam nods at her just as they break from under the canopy and the sun pours back onto them like a physical weight.  “No wonder I find it so hot here,” it’s mostly wheezed out, the heat has snatched her breath away and makes her limbs feel twice as heavy as they should. 

Sams’ feet stumble a little he laughs so hard, but he recovers and then they’re racing toward their arbitrary finish line. Quorra edges out another victory and dances a quick circle around Sam with her arms in the air.  There’s four bottles of water between the two of them and when they get home Sam basically covers her face in aloe and lectures her about proper sun protection.  Quorra can’t even talk back at him because the aloe would get in her mouth, but she really doesn’t mind. 

...

            They’re coming up on the anniversary.  Quorra hasn’t said anything about it and Sam’s not really too sure if she wants to make a big deal out of it or if she wants to ignore the significance of the day all together.  Sam buys ice cream and a cake anyway, just in case. 

According to all of her identification, Quorra was born five days before they climbed out of the Grid and seven days before Sam.  Alan and Lora take them out for dinner at Chilli’s, Quorra’s choice, and Quorra gets the birthday treatment.  Clapping along with the staff as they sing to her and trying to blow out the sparkler stuck in the special birthday brownie. 

Sam gives her some new books, a new apron, and they eat ice cream out of the carton when they get home.  Quorra hasn’t acted like she remembers the date at all and Sam figures maybe they’re just going to skip past the day and he’s been over thinking this whole thing for no reason. 

            It’s thirteen minutes after one o’clock in the morning of the day they beamed back when Sam wakes up to Quorra’s hand around his wrist.  “Shove over,” she says, so quietly it’s barely a whisper.  There’s no sound of Marvin anywhere and Sam realizes she’s trying to keep it that way. 

Still mostly asleep, Sam slides himself over to the unused side of the bed, grimaces slightly when his skin comes in contact with the cooler sheets.  Quorra lies down on her back over the covers, close enough their shoulders are almost touching but she’s not looking at him at all.  Her hand is still around his wrist.
"Are you worried?"  The words are mostly breath exhaled.
‘Hmm?’ Sam shifts his head on the pillow.  He doesn’t say that he’s worried about everything, things she knows about, things he can’t bring himself to tell her yet.  Sam feels like his thoughts are a roll of film caught replaying one scene over and over again.  But he knows she’s working up to something specific here so he stays on his side, facing her and waits.  Quorra rolls her head to the left so she can see his face.
“Are you worried he'll get out?" Her hand spasms against his wrist, it feels involuntary.  Sam doesn’t have to ask her what she means. 

Of all the things he worries about, and worries about Quorra asking about, this one is the easiest.  Quorra’s not the only one with dreams, he’s just been doing it longer; so when he wakes up with Clu’s face floating in front of him, hands outstretched toward his throat, it’s mostly a snap awake reaction with a side of fear sweat cold and sinister on the skin of his neck.  But this fear is basic monster under the bed, beast around the corner, because Sam watched Clu die through the light of the portal.  Watched his dad give everything away to pull Clu back for good. 

So yes, Sam worries, but it’s the worry you have in your room at night, where you know that it’s just your jacket hanging on the door of your closest but your mind tells you it’s something else entirely.  It’s manageable.    
‘All the time.’  He says honestly.  Quorra looks at him very closely before she turns her head again so she’s looking straight up at the ceiling.    
"We're not going back."  Quorra's voice is steady, like this is something she's been thinking about too and they came to the same conclusions without having to talk about it, like she's plucked the thought from his brain as she so often does. 

Despite everything his dad wanted to achieve, the change he wanted to bring to the world with what he discovered on the Grid, how never going back means those ambitions may never be achieved; Sam is relieved.  Quorra is here now and they can help people just by her existing, using her DNA to spawn innovation. 

They don’t need to bolt open the doors to the Grid to make a difference.  It feels too dangerous, like inviting trouble in for dinner with involvement an uncomfortable synonym for invasion.  There is such a thing as too much power. 
'I don't think we're supposed to.  It's not- it’s not ours' He stumbles over the word here, a little unsure even though Quorra continuously makes it clear that she's where she wants to be, has even now stated plainly that she wants to stay, 'not anymore.'

More than that, Sam doesn't know what would happen to Quorra if they tried to go back, would she retain everything she's become here in the world or would it be a hard reset back to the form she was born into on the Grid?  Would she simply break a part in front of him if they tried to go back through the doorway again?  Sam can’t help thinking that getting out had been a one way ticket.

“Good.”  Quorra whispers out and this time when she squeezes hard against his wrist he can feel the bones of her hand pressing against his through their skin, the edge of pain is a statement. 

Quorra tucks her feet under the comforter, pulls it up to her shoulder using her free hand and then turns onto her side; body curled up slightly like a comma and angled towards him.  Her eyes are closed and she’s breathing deep and even.  Sam matches his breaths to hers, lets her pull him by his wrist down into sleep.

...

            The leaves change colour on the trees and Quorra notices the lines of strain that stay permanently in the corner of Sams mouth, he’s pale despite having spent his free time over the summer with her, outside in the sun; she starts to look at him with what she knows is a pinched expression on her face, it matches the look of exhaustion he wears whenever he thinks she’s not looking. 

She can’t remember the last time they weren’t the last ones to leave the tower in the evening and even though she knows he’s sleeping, has developed the habit of crawling into the free space on his mattress when she wakes up in the middle of the night, Quorra suspects that he only sleeps the few early morning hours where she leaches off heat from him. 

There are smudges under his eyes that weren’t there a year ago, not even when they were first back and Quorra could read grief in every line of Sams body.  She keeps waiting for him to tell her what’s going on, and there are mornings over coffee where she’ll catch him look at her out of the corner of her eye and she tenses up.  Waiting. 

Because maybe this time he won’t shake his head and start talking about Marvin or the new red ties Alan has started wearing, maybe this is when he’ll tell her why he looks so wrecked all the time.  Quorra very deliberately does not think about security scans. 

...

            Quorra is at Alan and Lora’s, shadowing Lora in the kitchen while she works up pastry dough to set in the freezer for Thanksgiving.  She’s wearing the apron Sam gave her for her birthday and her hands have flour on them up to the wrists, patiently measuring out cups and then setting them aside so Lora only has to reach for them when starting a new batch.  Quorra likes spending time with Lora, she never laughs at Quorra’s often strange questions, always thinks seriously about them before answering. 

It was especially nice to have another woman around to talk to, or even just to navigate around a kitchen with like they were doing right now.  And Lora had known what the difference between panty hose and tights was; there wasn’t much of one it turned out.  But even though Quorra usually found herself feeling better after being with Lora, she was mostly using her job of measuring out flour to ostensibly ignore the memory of Sam’s face that morning when she’d woken up to find him still asleep, forehead barely an inch from her own and the lids of his eyelids tinged purple. 

The twin feelings of terror and anger had welled up so quickly she’d wanted to shake him until he told her why he was working himself to death.  Why wouldn’t he tell her?  Quorra heard Lora saying something from behind her and mentally straightened herself out, “I’m sorry Lora, I wasn’t paying attention, what did you say?”  Lora came to stand next to her at the counter and hip checked her gently, gesturing to the portions of salt and baking powder Quorra had measured out,

‘I’ll only need one more set of everything.  We’re on the last batch.’  Quorra worked up what she hoped was a passable smile and nodded back.  It must not have been convincing enough because Lora was looking at her with her head tilted slightly to the side and she was frowning.  ‘What’s wrong chicken? You’ve got a look,’ Lora waved a hand back and forth in front of Quorra’s face, ‘all over your face.’  Quorra stuttered out an “everything’s fine,” that was weak to her own ears and Lora’s face said she clearly did not believe a word of it,

‘I don’t believe that for one hot minute.  You’ve got a face on, I recognize that face, I’ve worn it myself.  You’re worrying yourself sick about something.’  Quorra opens her mouth to argue again but Lora levels her with a look that says she will be taking no more of this foolishness so Quorra says the most truthful thing she can,

“Sam’s working too much, he looks exhausted all the time, and he won’t talk to me about it.” She gets the words out and immediately feels like crying, because that’s not even close to all of it but it’s the first time she’s said anything about it. 

She’s been worried for months and telling Lora is kind of awful, now she has to feel it all, she’s said it out loud, made it real.  Lora doesn’t even waste time dusting off her hands before she’s got her arms around Quorra and is hugging her.  Tugging Quorra close into the soft give of her body.  Quorra pulls her hands out from where they were trapped between them, twisted nervously in the fabric of the apron, and hugs Lora back.  Quorra feels her shoulders dip and Lora doesn’t even comment when the tears escape and dampen the collar of her shirt. 

‘There now pet, let it out a little,’ is all Lora says, hand soothing against the middle of Quorras back and Quorra thinks this must be what it feels like to be held by a mother. 

Quorra comes back to herself not too long after and Lora must sense it because she lets go, pulls back just enough so that she can keep her hands on Quorras arms and see her face at the same time.  ‘Better?’ her voice is kind.  Quorra can only huff out a breath and wipe at the wet under her eyes, smile weakly and nod.

“I’m so sorry for,” Quorra waves a hand here, trying to encompass the falling apart that just happened in the middle of Lora’s kitchen, “that.”  Lora just cuffs her palm against Quorra upper arm and scoffs out,

‘Don’t bother, sometimes you just need to let the worry out, a little crying jag is nothing to be ashamed of.’  Lora turns back to the counter, washes her hands quickly in the sink and starts back in on cutting the pastry dough.  ‘It’ll eat at you, if you let it.’  I know, Quorra thinks desperately despite the small respite, she’s watching it eat at Sam and she doesn’t know what to do. 

“I don’t know what to do.”  Quorra is measuring out the last batch of dry ingredients and the words settle heavy on flour in the bowl.  She see’s Lora lift one shoulder in a half effort shrug out of the corner of her eye,

‘Not much you can do chicken, other than what you’re doing already,’ Lora stops working the dough and catches Quorra’s gaze, eyes sharp, ‘which is being there.’  Quorra still feels like crying but it’s less jagged now.

“I just wish he would talk to me about it, let me help.”  Using the wooden spoon, Quorra mixes the dry flour in with the baking soda, the salt, so everything is even when Lora has to add the shortening; sets the finished bowl aside and grabs a cloth to start cleaning up the counter.  Lora’s wrapping up the finished dough in saran wrap before placing it in the freezer with the other three they’ve already worked up.

‘Sometimes waiting is helpful.’  Lora offers, dropping the cubed shortening into the last bowl.  ‘It’s a hard thing, inaction,’ Lora gives Quorra a sharp look again, knowing, ‘and I get the feeling it’s particularly hard for you not to be doing something.  But sometimes what our partners need is for us to just be there when something goes to shit.’  Quorra hears everything Lora says, is willing to consider anything right now that might help her be whatever she needs to be, but she gets hung up on a word, has to try it out,

“Partner,” Quorra says it softly, thinks of all the police shows her and Sam will watch, thinks of Horatio Cane dramatically removing his sunglasses.  Lora doesn’t seem to notice Quorra’s sudden fascination with this new implication to a word she’s long familiar with.

‘You’re on the same team, that’s the important thing, and Sam knows that.’  Lora smiles, it’s full of compassion and the type of understanding that Quorra assumes comes from having been with Alan through all the years Flynn was missing and Sam was lost in every way but name.  And that’s something Quorra can relate to, because she’s always on Sams team.  The two of them are the team.  But she likes the way Lora had said partner, like it was family, only more. 

“Team Flynn.”  Quorra says, attempting to return the smile, her eyes are still watery and she knows the skin under her eyes is probably blotchy and pale underneath it all; Lora nods back at her in approval anyway.

‘Hell yes.’  Lora says, slapping her hand down against the counter in exclamation, ‘Now start in on those dishes, I still have to show you how to boil up the filling for cranberry pie.’

 

 

SEVEN

            There’s something in the machines. 

At first, it was barely noticeable, just a random segment of coding activity that Sam hadn’t entered but anyone who’d spent time inside the bowels of a compute knew that sometimes that happened.  For whatever reason, coding would break off from the main commands and sit in the system like the partial strands of a helix. 

Sam swept through the core, cleaned them up, and double checked that all the main operating processes where unaffected.  Nothing that hadn’t needed to be done on a semi regular basis anyway.  Sam couldn’t even say when it started, so used to having to do basic housekeeping in the system that there was no way for him to be sure which strand was the first one that really hadn’t belonged. 

It started to become once every two weeks, then sometime after Thanksgiving Sam was running the sweeps every week, late at night when almost everyone else had gone home.  He’d hole up in the penthouse running scans until Quorra came to get him. 

He didn’t tap in to the network from home because Quorra would have noticed and asked questions and Sam didn’t want to lie to her.  Sam would have had to lie to her if she asked.   He didn’t know what was going on in his machines and while it probably wasn’t dangerous, Sam knew by this point that it probably wasn’t good either, his life up to this point did not lend itself to unexpected events of goodwill.  Quorra was the exception. 

By Christmas he was doing security checks every night. 

Every night he’d pour through the system weeding out the bits of strange code that sprouted up like dandelions, go home when Quorra came to fetch him, eat dinner with her, smile and fall asleep, wake up, go to work; until the next night when he logged in and prayed that this time there’d be nothing broken and matriculating through the core like a virus, a cancer. 

But it wasn’t a bug.  Sam had crossed that option out almost immediately.  The broken pieces weren’t orders, or commands, not even a half assed curse word buried in the code as a prank.  They served no purpose, simply sat in the system where they did not belong.    

And they were all over the map, never in the same place twice, never the same permutation of code; always different but glaringly ‘other’ when Sam came across them.  That was the most frustrating aspect of this entire maddening process; the dandelions moved around. 

No particular pattern that Sam could discern but it was like whatever was breaking off code was walking its way down every street and backward alley, pushing through the millions upon billions of lines making up the core and making itself at home. 

Sam knew it probably made him more than a little crazy, but what made it get harder and harder for him to sleep through the night was the feeling he got every time he swept through the system, erasing strands of code that were so out of place they practically danced off the screen, that whatever he was cleaning up after knew what it was doing.  Sentience. 

What made it hard for Sam to close his eyes now was the fear that he hadn’t managed to protect anyone in the end, that he’d let out some wild thing after all. 

The night of the anniversary tipped the scales.  After that, Sam woke up in the mornings with Quorra taking up the other side of the bed.  Her hair everywhere and at least one of her limbs off the mattress if she wasn’t gripping the collar or sleeve of his t shirt. 

Once, he woke up because the hand she’d secured around his ear slipped off and hit him in the face when she sneezed in her sleep.  It made this simultaneously so much better and so much worse.  Sam was pretty sure he wasn’t doing a very good job of pretending everything was fine, he was never that good of an actor to begin with and by this point Quorra could read whatever she wanted to know in his face. 

He couldn’t hide anything from her that way, so he pretended not to notice how she started to look at him and he didn’t mention her new habit of migrating to the other half of his bed during the night.  Sam kept waiting for her to demand he tell her what was going on, and he couldn’t figure out whether he was depressed or relieved that five months in she still hadn’t gotten all up in his face about it. 

He’d probably still lie, but there’s a chance she’d beat it out of him just by asking and Sam is selfish enough to not want to have to do this alone; even though he knows that right now he’s responsible for whatever is running unchecked through his system.  His place is between her and the monsters, he just wishes he had some help, he’s pretty sure he’s running out of time. 

...

The weekend before Thanksgiving Sam is dragged up to consciousness by a pressure against his eyelids, and part of his nose.  Blinking open his eyes reveals nothing but more darkness, which doesn’t make sense because Sam can hear what sounds like Marvin butting his head against his food dish, meaning it’s at least feeding time. 

It should not be this dark, or hot, and why can’t he breathe properly through his left nostril?  When his brain finally comes on line roughly two Mississippi’s later, Sam realizes Quorra has placed her right hand directly over his face during the night, pressing the base of her fingers against his eyes while the meat of her palm pushes down on his nose, closing off the airway just enough to notice.  Her hand has almost completely star fished over his face. 

Sam can feel himself grinning before he thinks to do so.  For one desperate minute Sam can think of nothing but tilting his head slightly so that he can get his mouth on the skin of her palm.  Maybe do something ridiculous like blow a raspberry, loudly, just to startle her out of sleep.  He almost does it too, but luckily she moves, still asleep, and her hand falls into the hollow space between them, they’re on Sams pillow, and Sam knows it’s his because there’s a goose feather poking out of the cotton casing and sitting against Quorra’s eyelash. 

Quorra has never said anything out loud but he knows she secretly covets his down pillow over the standard microfiber ones he uses mostly to take up space on the bed when he gets around to making it properly.  He watches the edges of the feather move imperceptibly, white grey against the dark brown of her lashes, fluttering every time he exhales; has to curl his hands up under the pillow so that he doesn’t reach out and touch her hair, trace the shape of her face.  She’s so close Sam could count the individual lashes on both eyes. 

He should tell her, he knows he should, she deserves his honesty.  But bigger than the fear of whatever is loose in the core, bigger than his guilt and the gaping chasm of his inadequacy is the fear that Quorra will want to fight it.  The certainty that comes from prolonged and up close exposure that Quorra will want to go back in, back through the doorway that Sam wants to bar closed with cement and metal rods. 

She’d said they weren’t going back, they’d both said it, but that was before.  Quorra wouldn’t be able to ignore it if they accidently brought something over with them, (oh god he thinks they brought something back with them).  If she knew he was making decisions for her, she’d throw something heavy at him, and there would be yelling. 

This is probably not the right thing to do here, Sam acknowledges that.  It’s just the two of them really, and he knows he’s doing her a disservice by keeping this secret.  They’re a team and a fundamental to that structure is leaning on each other, but that sounds too much like sacrifice at the moment for Sam to risk Quorra.  Even if she hates him for it later, he’ll bear that, because she has to be alive to hate him and the number of things Sams ever been sure of in his entire life he can count on his left hand; and one of them is Quorra has to live.  ‘So what are you going to do Flynn?’ he asks himself quietly, ‘What the hell are you going to do?’  Quorra, sound asleep next to him, breathes in and out and the fingers of the hand trapped between them twitch, but she has no answer for him. 

...

Sam is balancing two pie filled dishes carefully between his right forearm and the slats of his ribs.  He’s holding Marv under his other arm like a football and Quorra is humming ahead of him, walking cum dancing up to their yellow door with the empty pizza pan resting on her head like a hat.  She has to shimmy a little bit to get the keys out of her front pocket but she’s still mostly singing when she unlocks the door and moves to hold it open so Sam can get into the house without dropping anything. 

Marvin is thrilled with life at the moment, having spent the majority of the Thanksgiving dinner getting snuck not so subtle scraps from Alan.  Sam was mostly concerned with getting him set down in the backyard before he peed everywhere out of sheer joy.  Not dropping the pies in the process would also be a victory. 

Sam shuffles a little, trying to edge around Quorra’s sporadic dancing, the pizza pan is safely on the counter, but she just adjusts mid stride and takes the pies out of his hands so he can set Marv down and gently nudge him out the back door with a foot against his rump.  Closing the door one handed, Sam turns back to put the pies away and sees Quorra has already done so and is now doing what looks like the Macarena in the middle of the kitchen.  He grins helplessly at her. 

She hops around, changing direction to face him and shrugs a little bit, still dancing; only now there are added steps.  Sam is no expert but he’s pretty sure that’s a chicken dance happening in front of their kitchen sink right now.  “I think I finally know all the steps, Lora was teaching me,” 

She’s doing the beak part now and Sam just gives in to what he wants, it’s been a really good day and he just needs to take a little bit more of it, make it stretch just a little bit longer so that when they wake up tomorrow and he can see the worry slide over her face like a mask he has one more memory to remind him why he’s putting them both through this. 

Sam grabs her hands and laces the fingers of his right hand through hers, pulls the other up onto his shoulder and dances with her like nobody seems to dance with anyone else anymore.  Swings them around the island, the slow measured steps out of the last memory he has of his parents doing this in the living room after they’d finished the dishes.  Quorra keeps looking down at their feet, trying to match the steps, but she’s doing that open mouthed smile she only breaks out for special occasions every time she looks up at him. 

Sam knows he hasn’t stopped grinning since she’d hopped around, singing ‘heeey macarena’ mostly under her breath.  Marv eventually figures out the doggie door and it becomes too hazardous to sweep around the room so Sam just stops, stays in place in the open area before the living room becomes the kitchen.  Their feet are interlocking now, Marv circling them, still high off human food, and Sam can feel Quorra’s ribs shift against his hand on her back when she breathes. 

“I like that dance,” she’s got her head tilted up at him, just slightly; he always forgets they’re mostly the same height, “what’s it called?” 

‘A waltz,’ Sam taps his fingers in a nonsense rhythm against the back of her hand, ‘my parents used to do it after dinner.’  Sam speaks the words almost independent from his brain, but he doesn’t regret telling her.  Quorra had been dancing and he’d thought about his parents, he’d forgotten he even had that memory of them.  It was a really good one, Sam was glad to have it back.  ‘I’d forgotten about it until I saw you dancing, so I owe you one, it’s a good memory.’  Quorra beamed at him.

“Good.”  And then she edges just that little bit closer and rests her cheek against his shoulder.  “Is this a waltz too?”  The words are slightly smudged through the fabric of his dress shirt, Lora insists on business casual for their pseudo family dinners.  Sam chuckles a little at the mostly standing in place dancing they’re doing at the moment.

‘No Q,’ Sam allows the edge of his jaw to press against her hair, ‘this is more of a clutch and sway.  Usually what you do if you’re clumsy, or tired, or just not a great dancer.  It’s kind of universal.’  Her hand is a heavy weight between his shoulder blades.

“I like it,” the hand on his back increases in pressure for a second, “even more than the Macarena.” Marv has insinuated himself into the space between Quorra’s right foot and Sam’s left, his head tilted up so he can stare at them with one eye while his legs stretch out on either side of Quorra’s ankle.  They’re not even moving their feet anymore, afraid of stepping on something important, mostly just redistributed their weight from side to side, the subtle back and forth movement barely a movement at all.  “It’s nice.”  It’s barely words at all, mostly just air exhaled hot and a little damp against his shoulder. 

‘Yeah,’ Sam answers just as quietly, ‘it is.’

...

            Eleven o’clock on a Friday night is when everything goes to shit.  Quorra doesn’t know this at the time, when she’s settling in to wait for Sam at the end of the day, but she made a decision that morning and this time she wasn’t going to tug him out of the attic- she was going to sit in her office and find out if he was still capable of coming down from the core on his own. 

It’s way past quitting time and the night cleaners are humming along the hallways while Quorra leans back in her chair.  She’s got her feet propped up on the desk and she hates this position but it’s the only way she can stretch her legs out fully without mostly sliding off the chair and onto the floor and it keeps that kink from forming just behind her knee.  Her ankles pay for it though, and the back of her shins, so every five minutes or so requires an adjustment to change where the edge of the desk will dig into her calf muscles.  Quorra finds herself closing her eyes every so often, she won’t nap, but it’s nice to pretend. 

She’d woken up so close to Sam this morning that she could feel the skin of his neck move with his pulse, the faintest of pressure against the thin skin above her eyebrow.  He was already awake, his breathing always went so uneven that it gave him away, but Quorra was much better at blending in.

 Keeping her breaths a steady in two three hold two three out two three, Quorra feigned sleep and stretched out the rest of her senses.  This little pocket where they weren’t lying to each other, while the faint cast off from the nightlight in the hallway made what little she could see of Sams neck when she looked through her lashes charcoal grey rather than full black. 

Quorra could feel Sam’s chin against the crown of her head, and her left arm was angled between them so the backs of her fingers were lax against his chest, the beat of his heart an echo she could feel all the way up her arm.  Her left foot was trapped under his leg, the urge to wiggle her toes was unbelievably strong, but she was on a mission here, this moment was for reconnaissance. 

Quorra was desperate to know if Sam would tell her secrets while she slept.  Please tell me, let me help, circled like an anthem behind her teeth, she used the syllables to measure out her breathing.  Answer me, she would beg were she not sleeping, don’t you know that I would hold on to you even if my hands were broken?  But Sam doesn’t say anything and neither does she and when the alarm goes Quorra rolls away to shut it off, but her left hand stays exactly where it was. In the time it took to slam the alarm silent, Quorra had had enough, clearly passivity was getting them nowhere. 

When you got down to it, she’d always preferred an aggressive approach. 

So here she was, a soldier in the tower, doing more of that hurry up and wait she became so accustomed to after Flynn found her.  It’s different this time though, because now she has something to lose. 

...

            The clock creeps on and Quorra stares out the window, looks out at the lights and the faint smudge of the skyline through the steam rising up from her cup.  She’s drinking tea because at this point, the coffee would just burn away at her insides like battery acid.  Tea felt calming, like she hadn’t been sitting in her office for almost four hours while Sam did god knows what two floors up.  Quorra wasn’t leaving though, the light in her office was on and even if Sam left through the stairwell like they usually would, he has to pass through this floor and he’d see it. 

She keeps telling herself that tonight he’ll tell her, he’ll see that she won’t take no for an answer and he’ll tell her whatever’s been eating at him and then everything will be alright- even if it’s not, because they’ll be a team again and she won’t feel useless anymore. 

Five hours on and Quorra has the thick reference manual wedged between her legs and the edge of the desk for cushion when Sam comes through the stairwell door and leans against her wall.  He looks awful.  There are dark blurs under his eyes that remind her of what mascara turns into on her face if she forgets to take it off before bed.  They stand out like ink against his skin which has gotten so pale lately that the glow from the overhead lamp makes him look almost grey.  He lifts a hand and rubs it roughly over his face, even his wrists look tired, Quorra didn’t think that was possible. 

‘Sorry Q, why didn’t you come get me?’  Sam drops his hand and crosses his arms over his chest, the shoulders of his t-shirt droop a little, and Quorra hadn’t noticed until this second but he’s lost weight too.

“I was waiting.”  Is all she says, because looking at Sam right now the only other words she can think of are curses and Quorra wants to grab onto him and shake him until all his secrets fall out.  She drops her feet from the desk but doesn’t stand up, the tea is a little cold in her cup but it’s giving her hands something to do.

‘You ready to go?’ There’s nothing hidden in the words at all, he’s acting completely normal, save for the face that he looks as though the wall is doing more than its fair share in keeping him upright, like the past seven months haven’t happened and there is nothing hidden between them. 

Whatever patience Quorra had left in reserve snaps neatly in half and she’s up from her chair and up in Sam’s face before she even thinks about it.  Sam’s eyes widen and when her hand comes up to point at him, still not making contact, his head jerks back slightly, like he expected her to hit him, or barrel right through him.

“No,” and the word has to make it past all the feelings and denial in Quorra has in her throat so its low and rough when she gets it out, “No.  You don’t get to do this.”  Sam uncrosses his arms and has his hands out in the space between them.  They are very pointedly not touching each other.

‘I don’t-‘ and Quorra doesn’t even let him finish before she interrupts,

“Stop it, stop lying to me.”  She watches as what little colour there was leaves Sams face, his voice is slightly hoarse when he answers, as though his words need to battle past a few things too, and it’s just her name

‘Quorra.’  He says it like she’s hurting him, which just makes her angry, they’re hurting each other here and she doesn’t even know why.  She doesn’t know how but she’s going to fix it.

“Goddammit.”  Quorra touches him now, breaks the barrier and fists the collar of his shirt in her hand. “Sam, tell me what’s going on.”  And she does shake here, she pulls and pushes her fist and ends with the knuckles of her hands skimming against the skin of his throat.  Sam’s not saying anything though; he’s just staring at her like she’s going to disappear.  “Tell me,” she’s begging now and too desperate, her anger is bleeding out and colouring everything, “tell me so I can help.”  She’s trying to be there for him, remembers Lora’s advice, but Quorra knows immediately she’s managed to say the wrong thing. Sam’s face hardens and he covers her fist with his hand, he’s not pushing her away though, just holding her in place.

‘There’s nothing going on,’ Sam’s voice is tired but steady, full of new conviction that doesn’t match the exhaustion lining his mouth, around his eyes.  Quorra can feel tears burning in the backs of her eyes, pure frustration.  She lets her hand unclench until her palm is flat against his collarbone, feels the fight go out of her as quickly as it came.  He’s not going to tell her, Quorra can see it all over him.  Sam isn’t even looking at her anymore, is staring over her shoulder out the window and everything about him is completely closed off except for the hand holding hers against his chest. 

“Don’t do this Sam,” She digs the tips of her fingers in, tries to make him look at her again.  Quorra rises up on her tip toes just enough so that she can press their foreheads together, “don’t shut me out.” The words are pressed into the high bone of Sams cheek and when he leans into her Quorra holds her breath, thinks maybe, maybe.

‘You should go.’  It’s quiet and Quorra jerks away from him like she was burned,

“What?”  She chokes on it and Sam drops his hand and hers falls away from him, back against her side.  There are wrinkles where she’d been digging her fingers in and Quorra keeps flicking her eyes between them and Sam’s face. 

‘I’m going to finish up here, I’ll see you at home.’  He’s still talking to her with that tired steadiness and Quorra thinks she’s never hated anything so much as that, there’s no tone in it, like someone is using Sam’s voice but have never heard him talk to her before.  Quorra feels unsteady on her feet, like when she was brand new and gravity kept literally knocking her on her ass.

“Will you?”  She asks quickly, knows it doesn’t make much sense, but it’s out before she can take it back.  Sam keeps staring over her shoulder, reaches into his pocket and holds out the keys to the bike. 

‘Take the bike.’  Quorra doesn’t shove him against the wall like she wants to, she doesn’t leave him standing there holding the keys out like a caricature.  She lets him place the keys into her palm but she traps them there, between their hands when she grips her fingers tight, an awkward almost gesture of holding hands.

“I am on your team,” Quorra bites out the words, “I am always on your team.”  And then she walks past him, purposefully leaving more than enough space between them.  She thinks there might have been a half second where he gripped her hand before she let go, but as Quorra walks down the hallway lit with the emergency lights towards the elevator, she’s almost positive she imagined it.  If there’s a phantom pressure of Sams thumb on the back of her hand, Quorra presses the buttons a little harder than necessary and writes it off as wishful thinking.

...

            Quorra skips a step and just goes straight to Sams room after she’s banged her way into the house, let Marv out and then back in for the night.  He’s happy to see her and in the way of animals, or maybe just Marv, he knows something’s wrong, following her even more closely than usual when she bypasses her door completely. 

Kicking her way out of her pants and tossing her bra onto the floor, Quorra takes a shirt from Sams drawer, something with a Batman symbol on it, drags it on and climbs onto her side of the bed.  She falls asleep through sheer determination, arm hanging off the side so she can pet Marv until they both drift off. 

She wakes up alone. 

The covers on the left side of the bed are still pulled straight, tucked in at the corner like she left them last night, and when Quorra realizes this there’s a fear pulled straight from her nightmares, it’s a static cutting through everything in her head.  Quorra feels all the blood leave her face as she shifts and nearly stumbles out of bed. 

She’s out of the room and down the hallway, checking her room, the bathroom, the kitchen and finding only empty space; her ribs feel like they’re too small in her chest.  Quorra has what is probably her first moment of indecision in her entire existence, she’s still moving through the house but her mind is completely blank. 

Sam is asleep on the couch and Quorra wheezes in air, the relief like hit to the gut that restarts her brain and she has to sit down in the middle of the floor and press her hands to her face.  Taking deep breaths over and over until her heart stops pulsing in her ears and the tips of her fingers stop tingling.  Whatever is happening, however bad it is, and Quorra is beginning to think that it’s even worse than she’d thought, they are both still here.  And while that holds true Quorra knows that they can fix this. 

Quorra lays out flat on the floor and just keeps breathing.  Sam may not want her help, but that’s just too bad, they’re partners and Quorra knows enough to know that sometimes that means doing the hard things for each other.  Quorra is going to need to stop ignoring the problem, despite the fact that she’s not quite sure what it is exactly, but she’s the last ISO, there are none like her in all the world; that has to count for something. 

There are the security scans Sam has been running almost nonstop and Quorra decides to start there, quietly, covering her tracks.  She’ll follow him back to the Grid if she has to, but Sam doesn’t get to decide when she will and won’t help him.  That’s not how they work, that’s not how family works.  So if Sam needs to think she’s listening to him right now, Quorra can give him that.  At least until she has what she needs, which is this case is probably going to mean that she’s already in too deep to get out and Sam has to bring her in out of necessity. It only seems fair to allow him that peace of mind when she’s going to be following him through the core like a shadow against his not so explicit demands. 

Quorra is not so new that she doesn’t realize he’s most likely acting out of protection for her, he may think he’s been subtle about it up to this point but Sam has never been good at layering his actions to hide his motives.  Sam wants her safe, and he thinks shutting Quorra out will guarantee that.  He should know better by this time, his blood is not like hers.

            Quorra heads back to the tower that morning, Sam still asleep on the couch with the spare blanket from the linen cabinet spread out over him.  She’d had his comforter in her hands to do the job originally but she’d been struck by the thought that it might smell like her, and that that might be undesirable.  So Quorra had dug in behind the guest towels that have never been used and find the blanket, lays it out gently over him and leaves the house. 

The keys to the bike were still in her jacket pocket so she starts it up without a second thought and takes the familiar route back to Encom.  The roads are not quite deserted, even though it’s barely eight am on a Saturday morning, but there’s no traffic and Quorra walks the two blocks over to grab a chocolate croissant and a coffee from the cafe after parking the bike.  The barista, David, smiles at her, knows her order, has seen Sam and Alan every work day for over a year.  ‘Running solo today?’ He asks while he works the button lever button combination that makes her coffee.  Quorra smiles, because that’s what’s expected in these types of interactions, and shrugs a little.  Her mouth is already full of chocolate croissant so she has to chew carefully and swallow before answering. 

“Someone has to get the work done.”  David laughs and writes a quick smiley face on her coffee cup, there are two people forming not quite a line at the till now so Quorra twitches her hand holding the croissant quickly in a wave and lets the chime over the threshold see her out the door.  Don isn’t the security officer working at the desk today, because it’s the weekend, so Quorra says good morning to the Saturday day shift officers, swiping her ID car with her free hand.  She finished the croissant before she walked through the revolving doors of the tower and regretting that she didn’t get a second one.  Quorra is under no illusions that Sam won’t figure out what she’s doing eventually, but she’s got a small window this morning before he wakes up and she’d left a note on the coffee maker saying she was grocery shopping.  She had some time, not a lot, but enough.  Quorra needed to work up a way to track Sam through the core without anyone noticing, ideally without Sam noticing, but Quorra was done being naive.  Sam was exceptional and she knew that there wasn’t anything she could do that would keep her hidden from him indefinitely.  So she had to decide how long she’d need and try to design a splinter that would buy her the access and flexibility she’d need until Sam got wise and noticed she was tailing him through his own system. 

The elevator ride is long minutes of Quorra rocking back and forth on her heels until the doors slide open and she can make her way down the dim hallway back to her office.  The door is closed and locked, and she knows Sam would have done that before leaving the night before and coming home to fall asleep on the couch.  She has a brief moment where she thinks she might start crying when she opens the door and she misjudges and grazes her shoulder off the beam Sam had leaned against last night, but it comes quickly and Quorra tucks it away to be dealt with later.  She closes the door behind her, locks it, and leaves the blinds drawn.  Security knows she’s here, so it’s not as though she’s really hiding her whereabouts from anyone, but she doesn’t want to risk one of the system technicians coming in on the swing shift and see what she’s working on.  The large flat screen against the wall comes to life when Quorra taps her stylus against it.  Quorra starts at the beginning, traces through the logs chronologically until she can find that entry from March when she’d checked in on Sam.  She’s more thorough this time, cross references Sam footprint with commands for security scans outside the typical system checks they run on a fortnightly schedule. 

Sam’s commands are just different enough from the basic checks that you wouldn’t notice unless you knew to look for something.  It’s premeditated, the difference is subtle and Quorra tracks it through the system until she fills the second monitor with a list of all the scans Sam has completed in the past seven months. 

There are thousands. 

Quorra keeps scrolling down and she’s easily twenty five pages before she even makes it to the end of March, and it just gets worse the farther back she looks.  Quorra doesn’t bother to sift through the scans after April, the scans are consistent on a day to day basis and she’s trying to get to the inception point.  You can’t just treat the symptoms, you have to treat the disease, and Quorra back tracks through February, January, December, trying to figure out when Sam first noticed there was an illness here in the first place.  Last December makes the hairs on the back of her neck stand up, there’s a jump from weekly scans to daily literally overnight.  But they taper off, weekly, bi weekly, and then they’re the clean six months after they climbed out of the Grid. 

Quorra makes clones of all the data she’s mined and transfers it over to her shadow server like she’d considered doing in the beginning.  She has to delete all of her own searches from the system, sweep away the footsteps she’d left in her wake, but once that’s done Quorra logs out completely before coming back online through her own server.  Much easier to hide your movement if you’re walking somewhere nobody else knows about. Quorra pulls up the command Sam had been using to action the scans, they weren’t on a rotation or set to occur automatically, Sam had to enter them manually every time he want them to run through the core.  Staring at the line of code on her monitor Quorra tried to think strategically. 

If it were purely an external threat, why not have the system run through a sweep every twelve hours automatically and then update you on any occurrences.  That seemed a much more effective use of time, especially if the threat was identified as potentially malicious.  Quorra couldn’t help thinking that you’d want even tighter scanning cycles, scan continuously, that way you’d be notified as close to the moment of infiltration as was possible.  But Sam’s coding wasn’t complex or layered for that type of process at all; it was incredibly basic and almost completely mirrored the scan command built into the core already. 

Quorra decided to just weave a spook through the existing code and have it act as an invisible tag along and record whatever Sam entered in as its commands.  She needed to find out what he’d been looking for; he’d erased everything too well for her to find anything.  There were just black holes of space in the core when she tried to follow the trail of Sams code.  Why would Sam want to hide himself in his own system if all he was doing was security checks?  Quorra has her bottom lip between her teeth, and she can feel the ache where she’s cut through it a little worrying the same spot over and over like she’s been doing for the past hour.  “You wouldn’t,” she answers herself, and then there’s blood in her mouth for where talking split through the thinned skin, Quorra couldn’t bring herself to care though, she was too busy having some kind of twisted epiphany. 

You wouldn’t need to hide your own movements in your own system if you were worried about an external threat, but what if it was an internal threat?  Quorra’s breath hitches in her chest and the air gets trapped somewhere between her ribs, the stab of pain layers over the sting of her lip and she’s staring at the screen, scared like she hasn’t been since Flynn jumped in front of her and saved her life.  Oh, she thinks as her throat dries up, there’s something in the machine.   

Quorra can’t stay in the tower after that.  She exits everything, as quickly and with as much routine as she always puts into something as familiar as closing down the system, but she’s second guessing everything now.  These are steps she’s taken hundreds of times and Quorra can’t remember if she ever used the keyboard short cuts for this part or if she always used the stylus.  She goes through the motions anyway though, now that the initial shock is worn off, Quorra is mostly thinking defensively.  Is it watching her now?  Had it known when she logged into her own server, how secret was it now, was she being tracked?  Quorra put the monitors to sleep, turned off the light and stood in the dark with her hand on the door knob for a whole ten seconds before she unlocked herself and stepped back out into the hallway, just to prove she could. 

Assume everything is compromised, that was the safest option from this point on.  They weren’t going to be lucky enough for whatever Sam had been tracking to not be sensitive enough to know that its presence was being monitored.  If it was operating within the core of their system and no one but Sam had noticed, it was a sophisticated program, far beyond anything she’s encountered since coming out of the Grid.  And today must be the day for uncomfortable realizations because the possibility that whatever is squatting in their system is not from around here really should not be this much of a surprise. 

Running quickly down the stairwell, Quorra is done with the momentary paralysis her fear had created back in her office though, she’s already in motion and an object put in motion tends to stay in motion.  She’d watched Clu come undone in front of her but if he’d managed to glue himself back together, he’d want Sam.  Quorra let purpose burn through her fear and ionize it, until she felt like she’d shake apart.  Clu would have to do more than cut of her arm if he wanted to get to Sam.  Quorra pushed through the service exit and almost expected the door to crackle with electricity when she touched it.  Quorra climbed onto the bike and let the thrum purr thrum whine of the engine ground her back to the earth, she turned out of the parking lot and headed for the main street; she had grocery shopping to do.

         The driveway is empty when she gets back from grocery shopping, telling Quorra before she’s even inside that Sam’s not home.  She’d dropped the bike off and then gone to catch the bus without even going back into the house, just left the keys in the mailbox like they usually do.  So she’s carrying two of the environmentally friendly canvas bags the store uses and she’s not sure if he’s only just left or if he’s been gone since she left to get the groceries. 

Moving carefully to avoid knocking the egg carton into anything, Quorra manoeuvres the door open and shoves it closed with her hip.  Marv comes dancing out of Sam’s room, one of the hideous knit snowflake socks held in his mouth like a trophy.  He must have found it under Sams bed, which is the catch all for crap Sam thinks she doesn’t know about.  The note she left on the coffee maker is still there but there’s added scribble underneath it, At ENC, see you later –S ps. We’re out of eggs.  Quorra take the note and tucks it carefully into their crap drawer and starts to put everything away. 

It’s an acceptable dinner time when she finishes tidying up, ran a quick vacuum over the floors and wiped down the kitchen counters just to give herself anything to do that wasn’t standing around wanting to fight something.  Quorra orders pizza and eats her half with Marv on the couch, watching Friends, she wraps the rest up on a plate and sticks it in the fridge for Sam.  When it’s still just her and Marv watching the nightly news, Quorra refolds the blanket over the back of the couch and heads to the bathroom to brush her teeth.  Did you get eggs?-S is written sloppily on the mirror in mascara and Quorra smiles around her toothbrush, pretends it’s the mint scent that makes her eyes water.  Quorra washes her face, moisturizes, and plucks her eyebrows, flosses.  She puts the Batman shirt back on and climbs into the unmade side of the bed. 

She leaves the note on the mirror and closes her eyes, and when she dreams she dreams of the Grid, watches Clu disappear with the force of a bomb and she is not afraid.

 

 

EIGHT

            Sam will be the first one to tell you that long term strategic thinking is not his area of expertise.  He has Alan for that, and even Quorra in most cases, because despite her preference for action she is easily the more level headed out of the two of them. 

When Quorra leaves him standing alone him in her office, knowing he was lying to her and calling him on it but not forcing it out of him like he expected, Sam has to acknowledge that his methods up to this point have been mostly reactive.  It’s been a year and Sam is still no closer to figuring out what has taken up residence in his system than he was when he first started running weekly scans to clean up the broken code it was leaving behind. 

Sam watches Quorra leave and knows that the time is up for this kind of case management, Quorra isn’t going to sit on her hands and he needs to solve this before she gets too involved.  So he heads back up to the core, locks Quora’s office behind him, and spends the next three hours drawing up algorithms to analyze the core for movement patterns.  He uses the data from all the previous scans, where he found coding, what was its type, trying to formulate some sort of pattern out of the seemingly random discoveries throughout the core.  Sam rolls out the patchwork algorithm before he leaves, already planning on catching a few hours sleep and then heading back in to go over any findings. 

He takes a cab home.  Sam almost took the bus, but the thought of being around strangers in an enclosed metal tube after the night he’d put in, Sam considered it and then discarded it almost immediately.  He walked into the house as quietly as he could, mindful of the creaking floor board just next to where Marvin liked to curl up at night, even though the empty dog bed suggested he was probably keeping Quorra company somewhere else in the house. 

Sam stepped carefully out of his shoes and placed them in the closet, made sure the door closed and that he’d locked up behind him.  Turned out the porch light Quorra had left on for him and then made his way down the bathroom, gave a cursory brush to his teeth, not bothering to floss, he walked through his doorway on autopilot and nearly tripped over air when he registered Quorra curled up on her side of the bed. 

Sam wanted very much to just carry on business as usual and climb in next to her but he knew that now, if he woke up in the morning with her right there, and she asked him again to tell her what was going on, he wouldn’t be able to lie.  Not with her that close.  And he couldn’t afford to tell her the truth yet, he needed better data before he even knew what kind of whiskey tango foxtrot situation they were dealing with.  So Sam padded silently in sock feet over to her side, gently adjusted the covers around her shoulders and bent to brush the bangs out of her face and off to the side of her forehead.  She didn’t even stir.  

Still moving quietly Sam walked back out down the hallway and spread out haphazardly across the sofa.  Figuring it might be near impossible to actually sleep at all.  He closed his eyes and lay awake for a long time, waiting for sleep to get its claws into him but the couch was too narrow and Quorra was sleeping twenty five feet away.  He knew he should be able to fall asleep on his own, he’d been doing it for more than most of his life at this point but he was spoiled now and Sam found it foolishly difficult to fall asleep knowing that he wouldn’t get and elbow to the face or a finger curled into his shirt as a wakeup call the next morning.  Well, later on that day.  Sam kept his eyes closed and waited for his body to give over to his exhaustion.

 

...

When he woke up the next morning to the house empty, it was full daylight and Sam tried to tell himself it was better this way, and that maybe some distance was a good thing.  Marv is sitting at his feet while he waits for the coffee to percolate, looking up at him like he knows what Sam was thinking and he’s thinking Sams’ a dumbass.  ‘It could be healthy though, space is good,’ Marv just tilts his head and goes to bark at his reflection in the glass door leading out to the backyard.  He eventually gives up and goes through the doggie door, runs around fitfully for a few seconds as though expecting the other dog to still be there. 

‘Yeah,’ Sam allows, voice barely working after a handful of sleep, ‘I don’t really believe that either, buddy.’  He see’s Quorra’s note and checks the clock on the wall behind him.  Eleven.  Sam pushes down the anxiety, the guilt, and takes his coffee into the shower, drinks it one handed and then switches hands to write a message on the mirror while he brushes his teeth.  He should be able to get out of the house and back to Encom before Quorra makes it back.  And he wants to be able to say that he’s not avoiding her, but that would be a lie and he doesn’t have the energy to pull off lying to himself this morning. 

Making sure Marv has a treat and water in his bowl, Sam is out the front door before he remembers that he gave Quorra the keys to the bike the night before.  But he’s two steps down the walk and the bike is sitting innocuously in the driveway.  Sam turns around and reaches into the mailbox, fishes the keys out and purposefully doesn’t think that maybe he’s not the only one playing at avoidance today.  The ride back to Encom fails to provide a calm or mind clearing reprieve, it serves to give him more time to think and Sam finds himself thinking in circles.  He needs to know more about what’s moving through the system, that much is obvious. 

Sam has little to no actual data on whatever was leaving broken commands through the system, but there wasn’t anything malicious in the remains.  No hidden spyware or drilling software designed to embed itself into the core.  The activity increased seemingly without provocation though, so there might be something there; what if the spikes of multiple abandoned strings followed a pattern.  What if this whole thing is just a cause effect of Sam increasing the number of scans and there’s nothing happening and he’s been lying to Quorra for nothing.  Sam switches gears, pops the clutch and shifts up more aggressively than he needs to.  That’s not the case though, Sam wouldn’t be that lucky. 

There’s more going on here and Sam does not like his odds.  The working theory, and here comes the fear again if he lets it, something latched onto them when they climbed out of the Grid, or it slipped through a crack after they’d already made it out.  It dug its way out and found the closest fertile soil to bury itself in.  Looking back, Sam wasn’t particularly careful about when or how often he went into the core and messed around with coding he’d developed from the Grid. 

The SIM card from his dad’s old console had been hooked partially into his own server for research; he’d needed to access certain algorithms he hadn’t been able to memorize, pull up information on Quorra and the other ISO’s.  Sam had figured there was no danger in it; after all, his dad had said the door only opened one way.  Part of that though was relying on the doorway opening at unspecified times, for unspecified durations. 

The whole premise rested on the foundation that what lay on the other side of the doorway, didn’t know how it opened.  If you could be patient though, if you paid attention, Sam was confident that you could bide your time, wait for your moment; he’d bet money there was a split second when the door was first opened and right before it closed completely that it was vulnerable and whatever veil separated the Grid from the world was thin enough that you could send something through.  It wouldn’t have to be much, just enough.  Plant a seed, let it grow.  Continuing in that theme, Sam had been doing piss poor garden maintenance to this point, generally snapping the heads off the weeds and missing the roots, so when they sprung up again they spread out.  Dandelions blowing seeds all through the core until it looked like the yellow brick road to Oz.  Sam needed to follow the veins until he found the tap root and severed it, without it, the rest of the roots in the system would die.  Sam bypassed the street with the cafe, deciding he’d grab a bagel from the break room, parked up behind the tower, and used the service entrance like always. 

Weighing the pros and cons of subtlety over brute force Sam road the elevator up to the break room, cream cheesed a bagel and grabbed a second cup of coffee before riding the elevator to the core.  Ideally, the longer he could go undetected by whatever what squatting in his system, the greater his advantage.  The cost of that approach was time- Sam honestly didn’t think he had a long enough time line to devote to that kind of long con.  It seemed ridiculous out of context to say that the broken pieces of code were starting to read like intentions, Sam could only go by what he felt when he found them though, and what he felt was something establishing a presence. 

Sam swiped his card through the security module outside the penthouse door and walked through, nodding up at security camera even though Don didn’t work weekends.  Situating himself on the floor in the middle row of the processing towers, Sam sets down the coffee at a safe distance and logs into the core.  Calling up the results of his algorithm is done in a matter of seconds, and while he’s still cloaking his movements Sam isn’t holding out much hope that the intruder doesn’t know what he’s doing. It’s managed to camp out this long, and while part of that is because Sam wasn’t looking properly, there’s also sophistication there in its ability to maintain anonymity.  Sam’s looking through the results and they’re not exactly what he expected. 

It’s been everywhere at least once, that’s not surprising, what is surprising, is that according to the time stamps on all the activity when the rogue smashes through the system it’s all in concentrated time slots.  There’s no twenty four hour assault like Sam was expecting, it’s more guerrilla warfare with pockets of intense activity followed by radio silence all along the western front.  Sam takes the results from the equation analysis and transfers all the information onto his tablet.  He needs to use Quorra’s office, needs the privacy and the huge wall monitors to lay out everything in one place.  His coffee is still mostly warm so he carries it back down two floors and sets it on the corner of Quorra’s desk where he promptly forgets about it again. 

The screens come to life and he grabs the stylus Quorra had left in the centre of her desk, brings up all of the data from the core onto the screen with a flick of his wrist across the surface of his tablet.  This new information is doing nothing to alleviate Sam’s apprehension, especially when he starts noticing the similar dates and times for his own activity with that of the rogue. 

There’s the feel of cold fingers pressing against the back of his neck, dread like a physical touch.  Sam starts grouping all the activity by the time stamps and the information spread out in front of him is proof of his hypothesis in hard facts.  For every log in he initiated into the core with the Grid access, there’s corresponding trails of broken codes throughout the system, seemingly generating at different points simultaneously.  He was right, and it sits heavy in his gut, whatever is getting in is doing so in the brief barely there second when he first opens the portal on the Grid.  Sam stares at the entries that catalogue the steady increase of his scans on the system. 

He’d thought the uptick in broken codes had come first, but now Sam realizes that it had been the other way around.  The intruder had come in and broken sections all over, in one specific time slot, and Sam had found them and assumed that the increased number meant increase in the intruder gaining access.  Which led to Sam doing more sweeps, logging in more frequently until the rogue got exactly what it wanted; daily access to the core held up on a silver platter, with Sam holding the door open for it.

Sam’s hands have gone numb, doesn’t feel the stylus still trapped between his fingers until he tries to run them through his hair.  His skin feels tight, like he’s going to split at the seams from trying to drop the stylus back onto Quorra’s desk.  Clumsy with shock and fear, Sam knocks over the empty mug Quorra has sitting at the edge of her desk blotter, spilling pens and pencils onto the monthly calendar and over one of the books by the edge.  His hands won’t work quite right, but he scoops up the mess, tries to arrange all the pencils lead side down and there it is.  The solitary light from Quorra’s private server, steadily glowing out from the alcove hidden behind her desk, hits him like the swing of a bat.  Adrenaline dumps into his system, his whole body twitches and the mug is knocked over again.  The sound of pencils hitting the floor is an echo to the pounding of his pulse.

She knows.

Sam doesn’t speed on the way home; he very deliberately does not speed.  There is traffic and a cyclist passes him at one point and the line of sweat down his back catches the wind and spreads goose bumps all the way up his neck, but his corners are smooth and on the straight shot leading back to the drive way he stays ten miles under the limit.  Sam parks the bike at the top of the drive, palms the keys and slowly unseats himself. 

He takes five steps in his mind in the time it takes him to walk one, his brain lurching ahead of his body while he tries to fill and collapse his lungs evenly.  Has to keep steady the nitroglycerin running through his bloodstream, one wrong step to ignition, he can feel it burning under skin that feels like tracing paper.  Waiting for him to trip and burst into flames.  Sam wants to think be here be here when he opens the door, wants to wish Quorra into existence in the living room or dancing in the kitchen, but he’s all out of believable lies he can tell himself.  Instead he thinks don’t be where I think you are, don’t be there Q, don’t be there.  The house isn’t dark, but it’s too still when he walks into the hallway.  Even Marv is quiet, curled up on his dog bed.  Sam heads straight for the bathroom, stares at the letters drawn huge over the mirror.

IT WANTS OUT.

 Sam shakes once, hard, feels the burning sensation licking at the corners of him.  He doesn’t even bother to turn off the bathroom light, only pausing to run his hands over Marv (we’ll be back) before Sam is locking the door behind him and settling onto the bike again.  There is very little chance he’ll get there before she does, she’s probably waiting already, has been waiting all day.  Sam fully expects to have her show him up, one more time.  He twists the throttle, engine turning over, a slick trembling whine; he speeds.

“You need to plug me in,” Quarra says, instead of a greeting.  Standing in Flynn’s old office with Sam angled with his back to the console, keeping himself between her and the Grid.  They’re standing close enough that she can see the places where his collar is sticking to his skin, like he ran here even though she knows he didn’t; had heard the bike even through the stone of the old passageway.    Quorra’s not sure what Sam was thinking the plan was on his way over, probably something to do with him going in solo and her waiting safely here in the world.  But Sam knows better, knows her better, than to expect that to be the way this all goes. 

She can see the chain for the access key glint in the dim light of the room, still as dusty and unused as it was when they crawled out of the Grid more than a year ago.  Sam hasn’t been back since, neither of them have, and stepping back through the secret door and down the hidden stairs had been sensory recall of her first breathes of fresh air.  Full of dust motes and the scattering dance of insects.  Maybe not the most romantic story of new life, but Quorra liked it just the same.  It was hers, after all, and from what she’d read, the true fairytales were always darker, and the bleak bits made them real.  Sam is pale and angry, scared, and all Quorra can think about is how they finally followed the breadcrumbs, only to enter the witches house fully informed.  She doesn’t know how she knows, but Quorra needs to get back in there, even though it means breaking the promise she made Sam give her.  There’s something bad in there that needs to be put down.                  

‘This isn’t the matrix Q, we don’t even know if it’ll work that way.’ 

“We don’t have another option Sam, whatever bent program that’s managing to shift into the core is getting better at staying in longer.”  Quorra puts her hands up to Sam’s face, turns his head with her palms so he’s looking at her properly and can see that she’s not blaming him.  “What happens when it makes it all the way through?  We don’t know what it is, it could be-” her throat clicks, dust dry, and she doesn’t finish the thought, they both know who she means. 

Suddenly, the memories of seeing everything explode and break to pieces in a flash of light doesn’t seem as final as it used to.  Sam lifts his hands until he’s holding her wrists, holding her hands in place so her fingers are separated on his cheeks and his neck by the hinge of his jaw. 

‘You’re human now Q,’ but his voice isn’t quite steady.  Quorra smiles at him, even if it’s not happy.

“Am I though?  All the way through?”  Sam opens his mouth to argue but he stops, she can see it on his face that he’s not sure.  Of course he’s not, she’s the only one of her kind.  How could they possibly know anything for sure? 

‘What if you,’ he closes his eyes, tilts his head down until their foreheads touch, ‘what if it was a onetime deal?’ The last time, he means.  What if she only got one free pass when they climbed out the last time?  What if she breaks apart like his father did, leaves him behind.  Quorra has to close her eyes because she’s thought about that and she doesn’t have an answer.  She just tightens her grip, pulls Sam closer until her hands have slide back and she can feel the thin skin behind his ears under her fingertips, the curve of his neck under her pinky.  ‘I won’t let it keep you.’  They’re so close she can feel the air in the words against her cheek.  It’s rough with honesty and all the things they are to each other and Quorra loves him impossibly.  She rolls her temple slightly against his anyway; best she can do without backing up to shake her head.

“I’m not worried.”  Which is a lie, but a small one, and it’s okay because they both know it.  Quorra opens her eyes to find Sam already looking at her.  They’re still close, and Quorra could make her eyes cross and relieve the tension but she’s about to do something that might tear her away from him and he’s going to let her; so she tilts her chin up and presses a kiss to the corner of his mouth.  It’s off centre and she gets part of his bottom lip but she holds out until she feels Sam sway against her and when she pulls away she’s got the Grid access key in her hand, chain unclasped and falling through her fingers.  “You’ll come get me, right?”  She knows he will, she just needs him to say it.  They both need to hear Sam to say it. 

‘I’ll tear it apart to get to you.’  There’s a look on his face that Quorra’s only ever seen one time, and she wishes she could be doing this without making Sam remember his fathers’ sacrifice.  She takes the card, inserts it into the console and sits down in the chair that used to be Flynn’s.  The screen comes to life, lighting up under her fingers and she types in the command to run the last program.  She looks over at Sam just as she’s about to press enter, he’s back behind the laser and she has to twist her body to keep her eyes on him. 

He’s got his hands out in front of him, like he’s half way to reaching out to grab her shirt and pull her out of the chair.  Quorra see’s the shift of his leg, like he’s going to step forward so she does what needs to be done.  Flicks her gaze up so their eyes lock and she thinks he says her name, but she’s pressing enter down hard with her index finger and everything just stops, there’s nothing but black bruise flash of red and are her eyes even open anymore, she tries to blink and suddenly she’s on her knees. 

Hands spread out on her thighs and breathing hard, the not quite air doesn’t have a smell but there’s texture to it that feels like the first ten thousand cycles of her life.  She’s still staring at her knees but there’s something trapped under her shin.  Shifting slightly Quorra reaches under her leg and pulls out the familiar identity disk, she taps into it and see’s Flynns face pop up.  It’s the first she’s seen him in over a year and it’s just a hologram, but it still counts and Quorra wishes she could take this back with her so Sam could see him, just to remember. 

The only photos Sam has are from before Flynn got trapped, but the holo is the image of him when he died.  Older, more tired.  Real.  Quorra stands up and tucks the disk into the waist of her pants, so it stay snug against her back, held in place by her belt and covered by her shirt and jacket.  Quorra looks around for the first time and has to shake her head, does a full circle.  There’s nothing here, just the Grid under her feet and she thinks that’s mountains in the distance but the city should be there, off to her right and there’s nothing. 

There are not quite clouds along the horizon, like a warm front coming in from the ocean, she can see them roll and shift even though no wind brushes against her face.  The sea of simulation is just behind her, the glow of the portal is dim, much less radiant than she remembers.  It could be that she’s seen the sun now and Sam was right, it really does pale in comparison.  But there’s something wrong here, everything is gone and there’s no way the explosion managed to destroy everything. 

Her and Sam have been operating under the assumption that the programs here were free now and living how they wanted.  No Clu to re indoctrinate them for his own purposes, the resistance objective met.  Freedom.  The freedom to live and govern themselves.  It’s what she had wanted for them, what she knows Sam had wanted for them eventually.  She takes a step forward and the square beneath her foot lights up, which is just one more disconcerting thing to add to the growing list of disconcerting things.  Quorra’s not scared, not yet, but the Grid doesn’t look right, she wants to tilt her head to bring everything back into focus. 

It feels like somebody made a replica of it but skewed everything two degrees to the left.  She wants to move, but the lit sidewalk is going to be too much of a beacon for her to feel comfortable with, just because she feels alone does not mean that she is.  In fact, Quorra is going to go ahead with the theory that because she feels alone, she most emphatically is not.  The program, and it has to be a program-there’s no other explanation at this point, that has creeped its way out inch by careful inch is definitely here.  It would have sensed the doorway opening and based on past behaviour there’s no way it would have been able to resist gaining just that little bit extra.  So it’s around, Quorra can practically feel it breathing down her neck, so she sits back down.  Quorra makes no move to touch Flynn’s disk, just crouches back down until she’s resting her knees onto the Grid, and waits.

...

Time is different here, with no weather, no sun to track, and she’s out of practice.  Quorra knows she’s been sitting long enough for both of her legs to have gone numb and woken up twice, and there’s that twinge behind her knee becoming a steady pulse that matches her heartbeat. 

Sitting is making her anxious, which she knows is mostly counterintuitive, but there’s only the differing shade of charcoal around her and even though there’s nothing as far off into the distance as she can see, Quorra is starting to feel trapped. 

Starting to feel like going feet first is bad idea, there is no one around and her body is throwing out adrenaline with every breath.  She’s run through all the visualization techniques Flynn had tried to teach her before, which she can actually use now that she’s seen those calm blue oceans and wide open green spaces Flynn was trying to get her to picture; but no matter what she started off thinking about Quorra ended up picturing Sam running next to her on the trail. 

Opening her eyes to nothing but pseudo darkness had anxiety nipping at the edges of her self control.  Quorra wanted to fight something already.  She was still weaponless, her and Sam were pretty sure nothing tangible would have made the cross over, and Quorra was reasonably sure the disk would work if she needed it to, but this wasn’t the Games. 

The clouds that are not really clouds were moving closer, had moved significantly closer in however much time has passed.  Quorra is pretty sure whatever she’s waiting for is coming with them.  It’s getting even darker, the grey bleeding to black with the portal barely a speck behind her.  The cliffs are there though, and she wants to hide.  Quorra watches the front and it’s definitely moving closer now, faster.  That makes up her mind for her. 

She’s close enough to the edge of the old system that she only lights up a dozen squares getting to the digital terrain.  There isn’t much in the way of caverns this close to the portal, but Quorra manages to find a person sized break in the wall of rock and slip inside.  The sharp rough edges press uncomfortably against her shoulder blades and her elbows are going to scrape.  She’s out of sight now though, so she’ll take the inevitable first aid doctoring. 

Trying to get comfortable in her new space is difficult and Quorra has to wedge herself almost on a diagonal to be able to maintain her position and remain upright while she closes her eyes.  There’s no action yet, and Quorra doesn’t know how much longer she has until she’ll have more pressing things to worry about than a little scraped elbow.  She leans her head to the side, tries to tuck her chin down to her shoulder to she isn’t so much resting her face on the rock, and wills her breaths to even out, forces her mind blank. 

If she can grab a handful of sleep now, just in case, Quorra tells herself she’ll be out and back before she needs to sleep again.  The collar of her jacket is curling awkwardly into her neck and Quorra pretends it’s the edge of the boring pillows Sam keeps on his bed but never uses.  It’s some sort of fashionable microfiber and Quorra can’t sleep on them for anything,.  She has good intentions, will start off on the spare pillow fully intending to ignore the odd squishy hardness and fall asleep.  It doesn’t matter though; she wakes up on Sams down feather one every morning regardless, sometimes having pushed Sam off of it so he’s sleeping directly on the mattress, the four microfiber pillows all chucked onto the floor at some point while she slept.  Sam hates them too, but they’re on the bed every night. 

Maybe he’s hoping she’ll one day wake up having fallen in love with the hippy microfiber and he’ll be able to gain back full custody of the goose down.  Quorra thinks that’s a nice thought, even though she knows it will never happen.  Microfiber is unnatural and you will have to pry that pillow away with the jaw of life she learned about on the discovery channel.  Her knee sends up a fresh pang when she moves to lean a little more of her weight against the wall, pulls her out of thoughts about Sam and his bed. 

It’s not that she hadn’t known what she was risking, coming back to the Grid, potential disintegration notwithstanding, Quorra knew this might literally be the last thing she does.  She doesn’t want it to be, Quorra has plans, and she can’t go to Disneyland and make Sam wear Mickey Mouse ears the whole time if she’s dead, or caged in the Grid. 

They were going to Alan and Lora’s holiday party and Quorra was in charge of bringing pie this time.  She wanted to watch the fireworks on New Years on the top of the Encom tower with Sam again.  She wanted to wake up tomorrow to see Sam drooling into the pillow case Marv standing on hind legs to breath in her face, trying to wake her up quicker so she can feed and entertain him. 

More than Disneyland, or New Years, or pie, she just wanted Sam.  And she really didn’t want to be another person who leaves him.  He’s had more than his share of that and if Quorra gets any say in when she shuffles off this mortal coil, she won’t be adding to it today.  But it had to be her, this part here, it could only be her.  She who is not quite all the way human here, knows that Sam hadn’t been able to sense what felt like every individual digital atom shaping the ground here. 

If she concentrated, she was pretty sure she could count the granules that composed the jagged corner of rock against her temple.  The Grid responded to her too, like it had to Flynn.  Quorra wasn’t quite sure what that meant.  There was a scrape along her knuckles, pink in the centre like she’d missed breaking the blood vessels by a literal layer of skin. 

So she still bled here, which was both reassuring and made the muscles in her stomach tighten up with apprehension.  There’d be no regeneration of her limbs this time is she was careless enough to lose one.  Quorra stared at the back of her hand carefully, wiggled her fingers and was struck with a thought that had her scrambling inelegantly out of her jacket.  Elbows of both arms jarring painfully against the walls on either side in her haste.  Quorra shrugged out her shoulders, got the jacket down far enough to see her upper arms in her t-shirt.  All the visualization techniques Flynn had patiently taught her turned to dust in the faint glow of the ISO brand blazing cold hard white light on her arms.         

...

Quorra manages to fall asleep, after she’s covered up the glow of the ISO tattoo with her jacket again.  She’s not sure how long she’s out for, but it feels like seconds, before she hears the measured rhythm of someone walking, something moving.  The front is fully over her now, there’s nothing but cloud and an almost transparent kind of fog settled just off the ground.  From her slit in the wall Quorra’s view is fairly limited, but she doesn’t want to risk sticking her head out for a better look until she has some idea what it is that’s moving around in the fog. 

The rhythm get’s louder, but doesn’t speed up, whatever it is, it doesn’t sound like it’s in any sort of hurry.  Patience.  Not surprising, Quorra admits to herself, considering it’s been inching its way out of the Grid for over a year.  It doesn’t appear to be particularly hasty.  Which is unfortunate, Quorra has always done better against that kind of reckless action; it tends to not think things through very well.  There’s a beat, and Quorra hears the next step come from her blind spot off to the left.  Afraid of giving away her position, Quorra holds her breath and waits for the thing to walk past the slit in the rocks.  When it does, it’s vaguely human shaped and close enough that Quorra could have reached out and grabbed its neck with her hands, she doesn’t though.  Like everything else since she got here, it doesn’t look right. 

Sam had made her watch the Batman movies, not that she fought very hard about it.  Quorra loved movies, but the part where Harvey Dent turns his face and the audience see’s the burns for the first time, Quorra had burst into tears.  Sam had looked over at her so quickly she’d heard his neck crack a little and he looked terrified.  He turned the movie off and then just rested his hands on her feet where they were thrown over his legs on the couch.  He was just shy of close enough so he had to stretch his arm all the way across when he reached out to pull her hands away from her face, gentle pressure against her wrists, Quorra knew her face was white, could feel the numb signifying that all the blood had left her head.  Sam was looking at her with wide eyes and she knew he felt guilty for making her watch the movie.  They didn’t finish it and Sam put on Tangled and sat with her legs on his lap, hand over hers where it rested on her knee until she fell asleep. 

She still hasn’t seen how it ended, but the thing that’s steps out from the not fog scares her like Harvey Dent had.  It moved normally, gait smooth with one foot in front of the other, but the angle of its shoulders was wrong and when the light from the portal hit across its face Quorra thought about Harvey Dent and the face that didn’t match.  ‘Sam Flynn,’ the thing said, ‘I know you’re here’  And oh it was easy now, Quorra breathed in deep and even like she did when she wanted Sam to think she was asleep.  She shifts out of her hiding place, directly behind it. 

There’s adrenaline jumping through her like an exposed wire; it feels like her skin wants to crack apart, the muscles in her legs quiver and the tremble courses up her back, follows her spine until she thinks her hair must be crackling out from the static.  Her hands are shaking. 

“Not quite.”  Is what she says, and her voice is steady.  This is hers now, whatever happens.  She’s got one foot angled ahead of the other, and her knees are bent slightly, just enough so she can move quickly if she needs to.  The twinge in her knee is gone, the throb of her elbows drowned beneath the river of adrenaline coursing through her. 

The curve of Flynn’s disk is a welcome edge against the skin of her back.  After all, Quorra thinks as the thing stops walking and turns around to face her, she was always the better fighter.  It’s only got half of a face, is what she thinks at first, the angle is bad and it takes until its facing her fully before Quorra registers that what she thought was missing space is actually part of a helmet. 

There’s nothing in her stomach, thankfully, because the first real look Quorra gets at the thing makes bile burn at the back of her throat.  It’s like somebody tried to make a person with pieces they had just lying around.  And the half of the face with the eye and the mouth is smiling at her, pixels shifting like scales across its chest, up its neck.  Its arms don’t match. 

While she watches, the plains of its face shift back and forth, becoming almost completely the black helmet before being pushed back and a familiar smile greets her. 

‘Quorra,’ Clu coos at her, his voice breaking on the syllable as the helmet creeps back over and he’s two faced again, ‘what a pleasant surprise.’  Quorra does not need her experience with the real world to hear the lie, his one eye is tracking her like Marv tracks the cat that lives next door.  He thinks her prey. 

“You should be dead.”  Is her only response here, because it’s true, he should be.  Or for any given definition of the word dead.  She’d watched him explode, watched the pieces of him synthesize back into Flynn and if he’s somehow still here then Flynn died for nothing.  That is not okay with Quorra.  The half of Clu’s mouth still there on his shared face is laughing.  His voice still sounds broken though, and Quorra hears something layered in it, like there are two signals trying to be played at once and their stepping on each other.

‘Sorry to disappoint you.’  Quorra feels the hairs on the back of her neck stand up.  Clu does not sound sorry, his half face is twisted up.  The black shadow of the helmet keeps pushing against the pale digital space, tracking over like Tetris pieces before Clu manages to hold it back.  It looks like it takes effort to do so.  ‘Tell me where Sam is.  Is he hiding?’  The last bit is a shout and whatever is controlling the other part of Clu takes advantage of his rage and suddenly Quorra is staring at a figure in a full faced black helmet with mismatched arms.

“Tron?”  Quorra breathes out, disbelief even though it’s obvious now that the helmet is covering Clu’s side of their shared face. 

‘Run’  And if Clu’s voice was garbled with static, Trons’ is like a record run backwards.  Quorra wants to step forward but Tron has his one arm thrown out in front of him, palm out like he’s trying to keep her back.  It’s obvious that Clu is the fairly dominant party here, and Tron is shaking his head every few seconds, trying to shake away the pale spot spreading up from his neck.  ‘User.’  He grits it out and falls to his knees, digs his one hand into the dirt as though it will keep him in place, hold Clu back from attacking her like he so clearly wants to. 

Clu must have found the nearest available program and latched on when Flynn initiated the reintegration.  It’s the only explanation.  Tron had to have still been functioning when they left him behind as they raced toward the portal, he’d fought for them.  Quorra could put two and two together here, and they made up this awful digital hybrid kneeling less than fifteen feet away from her.  Quorra took a couple deep breaths, just to feel the weight on Flynn’s disk against her ribs when she expanded her lungs. 

There was only one this could go.  Clu had to die, for good.  Tron couldn’t tell her, too busy pulling on the leash that had a rabid Clu attached to the end, how exactly Clu had managed to wedge his foot in the door and run his hand through the core.  She couldn’t know for certain what he’d been planning, if he had an endgame here or if this was purely his base coding demanding perfection, demanding he correct inconsistencies.  Quorra knew everything she needed to know already.  Clu was still alive, he wouldn’t’ stop, and he wanted Sam. 

She shook her hands twice, sharp flicking motions from her wrists, and took a step forward.  Tron’s head snapped up and she could just barely see his eyes through the shaded visor covering his face, but his eyes looked huge and afraid.  He wasn’t going to be able to hold Clu off much longer, he wanted her to get away.  Clu was here though, and until she’d watched him turn to nothing more than a handful of crystal shards Quorra wasn’t going anywhere.

“Tron,” Quorra takes another careful step toward him, “I need your light staff- do you still have one?”   Tron jerked his head down once in affirmation.  He tilts his head to the left side of his body, the side Quorra thinks of as Clu’s, and see the edge of the staff  on the outside of Clu’s leg.  “Keep him back.”  She orders, and Tron shakes his head, the pixels of Clu’s face surging across the helmet before Tron gets back in control and the mask is full black again. 

Quorra is within two feet of them now, and she knows the second she gets her hand on the staff Clu is probably going to grab her.  She keeps her arms in tight to her body so it’ll be harder for his to snag her if he gets free before she’s got the staff.  Her gaze fixed on the helmet, watching for that tell tale shift, Quorra reaches down, carefully lowering her centre of gravity so she can maintain her balance while she leans in.  Her hand closes over the hilt of the staff and she’s about to detach it when Clu’s hand snaps out snake fast and grips her wrist, squeezing so hard Quorra can feel the shift of her bones under his palm.  Still staring at Trons face she hears him choke

‘Run’ before there’s a burst of white and then it’s Clu’s face grinning at her.  Maintaining her grip on the staff, Quorra jerks her hand sharply to startle Clu into releasing her.  He puts up no resistance and the momentum pulls Quorra back and she’s scrambling to get back to her feet when Clu roars at her

‘Where is Sam!’  It’s not a question.  Clu is getting to his feet, and he’s managed to hold onto the light staff, it’s glinting in his hand, swinging dangerously at his side and Quorra pushes herself up and lets the fear pour through her, lights the match and then her anger swallows up everything and she feels lit up with it.

“You can’t have him.”  She doesn’t shout back and oh but she wants to.  The words are hard out of her mouth, bruising.  This is between the two of them.  Clu laughs again, swishes the staff in a lazy figure eight.

‘You think you can beat me?  You can’t beat me!’  His smile is black and wide.  ‘You think he won’t come in after you, and I’ll be right here waiting for him.’  Quorra squares her shoulders and adjusts onto the balls of her feet.  She tucks her right hand into the waist of her pants and pulls out the disk.  It’s her only weapon now, though she loathes letting Clu know she has it, she can’t fight the staff with her bare hands.  He’ll have to crawl over her dead body to use the portal.  It’s not ideal, but there are no other options at this point.  Kill or be killed, Quorra thinks as the disk hums to life in her hand, blade of light burning in her fist.

“No,” Quorra says calmly, she finally understands that saying about ice water in your veins; as if the burning fire deep in her chest is encased in glass, everywhere else is cold as stone, “you won’t.”  He charges at her, awkward and listing to the left, Tron must still be in there somewhere.  Quorra dodges and raises up her disk to deflect the slash of the staff. 

With no walls to work with, the disk is insufficient in hand to hand combat, but Quorra makes due.  Waits for the opening when Clu arches the staff down toward her shoulder and slashes out before spinning away.  There’s a line burnt through Clu’s side, just under where his ribs would be, and Quorra watches as the digital granules fall to the ground. 

No blood for a program, she thinks wildly, blocking three more blows with the disk before crouching down and nearly taking off his leg at the knee.  Clu moves to quickly though and she swipes at air, barely a scant inch of space between them.  There’s little finesse to his attack, too uncoordinated with Tron constantly trying to regain control, but it doesn’t matter. 

He’s just fast enough here that when her next defense leaves her right side exposed he gets in with an underhand angle and Quorra feels the singe sizzle burn of the staff.  She can smell it, manages to twist just enough that the strike doesn’t sever her arm from her shoulder, but there’s blood along her flank and the sleeve of her jacket is cut, mostly hanging by the few inches of fabric left on the unexposed side of her arm. 

Stepping back, Quorra steadies herself and brings up the disk to cut away most of the strip connecting her sleeve to her jacket, rips the rest of it off.  There’s blood along her bicep too, but the glow from the ISO mark burns through the red.  She watches Clu note the blood, the tattoos still on her arm, and when he swings Quorra blocks it but it’s harder.  Her side hurts with every inhale and her movements are sluggish.  She can feel blood running down into the waistband of her pants.

‘Well well,’ Clu tosses out, conversationally, ‘a real girl now are we.’  He looks triumphant and Quorra can see it in his face, the greed.  So she’s figured out his endgame after all.  What does the humanoid digital program want? She parrots to herself internally, but to become human of course.  Human blood and human flesh and human teeth; the better to eat you with my dear. 

Quorra is feeling light headed, blood slick where she’s holding onto the disk.  It’s getting harder and harder to block the blows.  Clu’s confidence leaves him open on a downswing and Quorra surges up, disk digging into the meat of her palm, drags it across the vulnerable space under his arm but he doesn’t jerk away like she was counting on.  He shoves her back and she overbalances, landing hard on the hip of her injured side, and she’s got the disk up almost immediately to deflect his attack. 

Quorra can’t get to her feet, and defend herself at the same time, so she kicks out and gets the heel of her foot right against the cap of his knee.  Clu goes down hard but doesn’t stop the movement of the staff, curving toward her throat.  Quorra has the disk in front of her but Clu pins her down and traps her arm between them, restricts her movement.  She’s holding him off, but it won’t last, she can feel the heat of the light staff as Clu presses it closer.  The disk is useless, trapped under Clu’s forearm while he leans in and that’s the smell of her hair burning as the staff is near enough to turn the whole left side of her vision white.

“Tron!”  Quorra yells it.  Clu’s grip stutters.  “Tron!”  She yells it again, staring straight into the grey nothing colour of Clu’s eyes.  Theres black tracking up Clu’s neck, she watches it climb over his cheek and then she’s staring at Tron, mask reflecting the white light of the staff back at her. 

‘Finish it.’  It’s Tron’s voice, but Quorra can hear the thrum beneath it, Clu howling from behind Tron’s helmet.  Quorra doesn’t ask if he’s sure, she doesn’t ask if he knows what he’s saying.  She just nods, careful with the staff still so close.

“You’ll need to hold onto him for me, we need to be sure this time.”  She can’t risk ending only one of them and having Clu manage to slither around deresolution. 

‘Free me.’  And Quorra wishes there was another way, one that didn’t require more sacrifice.  They were entwined though, Tron and Clu, she could see it.  They were spliced into each other, two halves stitched crudely together and Tron had been forced into it against his will.  Clu had stung into him and ravaged his circuits like a virus.  He was asking her now, to do what he couldn’t on his own. 

“Yes.”  Quorra manages to get out.  And then the weight of Clu against her eased, just enough that Quorra could work the disk free and with the twist of her wrist,slice up and sever Clu’s arm just under the elbow.  The staff clattered to the ground next to her head, the hand splintering and disintegrating into grains of crystal sand.  Quorra bucked up, forced her knees into the small space between them and with her shins she shoved Clu over hard, away from the staff. 

Rolling away, Quorra reached for the staff and grasped it in her free hand.  She turned back and before Clu could break his way back out she drove the staff into his chest and pinned him to the ground with it.  Tron raised his arm and gripped the remaining sleeve of her jacket tightly and then it was Clu looking up at her.  He killed every one of her kind, hunted them down.  Broke them apart under the arch of his disk, his staff and claimed victory over the broken remains of their bodies.  And now she watched as his feet, legs, torso turned to sparkling dust slowly under her hands. 

She still held the disk against his throat, just in case, but when the last of his arm turned to glittering sand he gave one last look her and she felt the shout of rage despite the lack of sound coming from his throat.  Quorra blinked, and then it was Tron under her.  Quorra tucked the disk quickly back into her waistband and lifted off the face plate of his helmet.  Under it, his face was exactly what Alan looked like in photos from when Flynns Arcade was new, the old photos Sam still had of his dad.  But Tron’s eyes looked like Flynns had, at the end.  Older, tired, despite the unlined skin of his face. 

‘Thank you.’  And now his voice was only his own, and it reminded her of how Alan sounded late at night when they’d been talking all through dinner and his voice had mostly given up on him.  Quorra lifted her hand to place her fingers lightly against his cheek. 

“Sweet dreams, Tron.”  Tron smiled at her, and he looked like he was about to ask her what that meant, but his chest had turned to dust beneath her and he only had time to meet her eyes before Quorra was kneeling over what looked like granite crushed into sand. 

She was still holding the staff in one hand, primed in the centre of the black dust that was even now dissolving into the ground.  Quorra rocked back onto her heels and watched until there was nothing but the simulated earth of the Grid beneath her knees.  Using the staff, she pushed herself shakily to her feet and after the dots disappeared from her vision Quorra turned and walked the dozen or so steps back to where the Grid started beneath her feet. 

Crouching gingerly, weight balanced on the staff she leaned over, pressing her hand to the closest square, Quorra reached out through the system and searched.  The blood from her arm was pooling against the lit square, little shocks making their way up her arm from her fingertips where the circuits were stretched out through the system.   There was nothing but the low hum of static, no jumps anywhere in the signals that might mean a program was hiding somewhere beyond her reach.  She stayed there, hand outlined in her own blood, until the throb of her heartbeat was the only change in rhythm.  Barren. 

Quorra wouldn’t get to ask what had happened, if the reintegration had destroyed everything or if programs had died out, with Clu’s help, as he walked around in Trons hijacked circuitry.  Quorra didn’t want to lift her hand, kept waiting for something to shift, one little blip on the Grid is all she was waiting for.  But there was nothing, and Quorra could feel her heart breaking at it, at knowing that there was truly nothing left.  She only realizes she’s crying when a tear falls and lands on the back of her hand, a perfect circle through the smears of blood. 

Quorra lifts her hand away from the Grid and everything goes dark, raising her hand she wipes at her face, and then wipes them on her pants.  Brown stains like dirt or old paint left behind.  Taking a deep breath, Quorra exhales and with it goes the last hope she’d held on to, the Grid was nothing but a simulation, barely more than the skeleton of a structure, there was no freely operating programs experiencing the only existence they knew.  She could do no more here; wishing for something different was painful and did her no good.  Quorra pushed herself to her feet, one hand on her knee and the other still gripping the staff.  The print of her hand remained. 

She turned to make the slow trek back to the portal but stopped and moved back to place her hand over the red print.  Feeling the burn of her tattoos on her arms Quorra pulled a shape out of the Grid, it rose up like a wave, one single stone pillar.  She had to step over to it, place her bloodied palm against its surface, but when she did, Flynns name etched itself under her fingers and the brand of the ISO glittered white light over it like a beacon.  Quorra ran her hands over both marks, traced her fingers through the grooves once, before turning and pointing her feet at the light calling out to her over the sea.  Time to go home.

...

Getting back through the portal is painful.  Not just because every bruise on her body is fully awake by the time Quorra holds Flynn’s disk above her head, it had taken three tries before she could raise her right arm up past shoulder height.  She’s treading sluggishly through the sea of simulation, the platform destroyed from when she and Sam had made it out last time. 

The portal runs straight into the sea now and swimming with her injured side had slowed her movements.  The cut from the staff burns and throbs all down her right side and she’s making little grunts of pain with every breath but she can’t stop.  She’d lost her jacket on the way over, had shrugged out of it painfully with the disk held in her mouth to keep it from falling forever, never to reach the bottom and leaving her trapped to drown in the closest thing the Grid has to water. 

That’s before the wall of light charges up around her and it feels like heat and the pin pricks of needles all along her skin.  It builds like a wave and Quorra keeps waiting for it to crest and recede, teeth clenched tightly enough to make a new ache pinch along the hinge of jaw, but the pain just goes deeper; keeps building.  Quorra can just make out through the wall of light, the cliffs are collapsing. 

Everything is shuddering around her and Quorra can feel the vibrations through the liquid lapping against her neck.  The pain crescendos and Quorra’s head sinks beneath the surface, arms still holding the disk aloft, but it feels like something is trying to tear her bones from her body.  She screams, bubbles exploding in front of her face and there’s not enough air in her lungs but her legs aren’t working, she can kick her way back to the surface, she’s not going to make it, she’s not going to make it, she’s going to die-

Something locks around her throat and tugs, hard, and then she’s laying soaking wet with her blood staining the water pink on the floor of Flynn’s office.  The dirt on the floor is turned to streaks of mud where she’s dripped damp over it and she’s landed awkwardly on her front with her injured arm wedged painfully under her. 

Sam is there, and he’s talking to her but Quorra can’t make out any of the words, except her name.  He’s saying her name a lot.  But then his hands are on her, one arm moving to brace along her shoulder blades so he can use the other to turn her over, a gentle hand lifting her bodily by the belt loop on her pants.  Quorra is having trouble keeping anything in focus and her eyes don’t want to stay open.  Everything hurts.  Sam gets her up off the floor with his one arm still against her shoulder blades, the other under the bend in her knees. 

The way he’s holding her is pulling at the gash on her side but her good arm is tucked up against her chest and it hurts the least, so she lifts it up, a jerky movement that makes Sam pause on his way up the dark stairwell.  Quorra is trying to touch his face but she only manages to tuck her index finger into the collar of his shirt.  It gets him to move his head closer to her though, ducking down just enough that he can hear her when she croaks out “Hi Sam,” before she loses consciousness completely.

 

 

NINE

            Quorra had been on the Grid for six hours.  Six hours of Sam staring at the console screen, at the empty chair, picturing her face so hard he thought she’d come back already, only to blink and have the chair remain empty.  The second she’d disappeared, rather, the second she’d sat down in Flynn’s old chair Sam had the feeling that this was the worst of all bad plans.  The laser had come on and Quorra was gone, not even a slow fade, she literally ceased between one second and the next. 

Sam is not too proud to admit that he’s lunged for her, the chair already empty.  It had been a battle, every second the chair stayed empty, not to just throw himself in after her.  Sam literally sat on his hands at one point.  Nothing shut down on the console and the lights of the input output portal where the SIM card was slotted maintained its steady pulse blink pulse the whole time. 

So he knew something was wrong before Quorra came through.  The script on the screen of the console was writing line after line, he couldn’t make it out from his position behind the laser, but the SIM card connection light became a solid before flickering erratically, almost like there was a short somewhere in the system.  Then Quorra was on the floor, soaking wet and not moving.  Sam turned the laser sharply with one hand so it pointed innocuously at the brick wall rather than the console and he dropped down beside Quorra, held his own breath until he saw her chest rise and fall; heard the small noise of pain she made in her throat. 

Once he could breathe again, Sam started talking at her, desperate for some sort of response.  Supporting her back with one arm, he turned her over so he could steady her against his chest while he got his left arm under her knees.  Testing her weight in his arms, he lifted in one smooth movement and once he had her off the floor Sam tried not to jostle her too much while he carried her out of the office. 

He knew he was probably aggravating the jagged cut all along her side, but he was low on options.  He made it two steps up the dank stairwell before she managed to snag his shirt weakly between her fingers.  Sam watches her mouth form his name, her voice wrecked and barely more than a rasp, then her eyes are rolling back in her head and Sam is take pushing himself up the stairs and out through the secret door.  He’s out in the street, trying to gently ease Quorra into the space between him and the handlebars of the motorcycle, doesn’t realize it’s raining hard until he has to shake his head to get the wet hair out of his eyes. 

Sam takes a deep breath, lungs shuddering with panic and wedges himself right up against Quorra’s back, tucks his knees behind hers so her heels rest on the tops of his feet on the pedals.  Takes her arms gently and puts her hands under his on the handles, keeping her as secure as possible.  It’s fifteen blocks to the hospital and if he cuts through the side street near the Encom building he can save some time.  Sam starts the bike and still working at keeping his breathing under control he pulls out onto the road, squinting against the rain and trying not to make any sharp movements that might dislodge Quorra from her precarious position ahead of him. 

The roads are slick and Sam can feel the give of the back wheel as he takes the turn onto the side street that runs behind the tower, just two blocks more.  They can make it two blocks, the lights solid green ahead of them, and Sam can just see the white square of light signalling the Hospital.  Sam’s talking, chin hooked over Quorra’s shoulder so he can see better, voice low and urgency edging every syllable ‘Hang on Q, almost there, almost-’

The sedan hits them just as they’re about to clear the intersection.  Sam leans forward, pushing Quorra under the cage of his body, and then there’s nothing but black.

...

            ‘Mr. Flynn,’ there’s a voice coming from his left, he thinks, but he’s not sure ‘Mr.Flynn’ it says again.  There’s a hand on his wrist but it’s not Quorra’s and Mr.Flynn is his father and his father’s not here either.  Sam is having a hard time opening his eyes. 

He manages it though, after the hand finishes taking his pulse, because he’s figured out that’s what it was doing.  Everything is very dim, except where the lights are flashing next to him, with corresponding beeps and clicks.  Sam is putting things together quicker now and he realizes he’s in the hospital.  It comes back like a walk into a brick wall and Sam’s gaze snaps onto the nurse next to his bed and he tries to sit up,

‘Quorra’ he gasps out, pain shoots out seemingly from everywhere and steals his voice.  The nurse puts his hand gently on Sam’s shoulder and holds him down to the mattress with little effort.  His nametag says Daniel and he’s saying something.  Sam pushes past the blood rush of fear  throbbing in his ears, can’t quite do it ‘Where is she?’ he asks, throat dry and desperate.  Daniel checks the numbers on one of the machines next to the bed, his hand still holding Sam to bed.  It’s probably a wise move. 

Sam can feel the tell tale itch of stitches but he’s about four seconds away from falling out of bed and crawling out of the room to find her.  Daniel is apparently satisfied with whatever the machines are telling him because he turns back to Sam, looks him straight in the eye and says clearly,

‘Your wife is just down the hall.  She suffered a few lacerations from the crash and she has a concussion, but she’s resting.  You’re the first one to wake up.’  The fight goes out of him and Sam has to close his eyes, has to ask

‘She’s really okay?’  Sam can’t see his face, but Daniels’ voice sounds kind when he answers.

‘She’s banged up, but yes, she’s okay.’  Sam exhales long and slow, and if it’s a little damp around the edges, well, he doesn’t think Daniel will judge him.

‘Okay.’  Daniel pats him on the shoulder, says

‘A Mr Bradley is waiting outside for you, if you’re up to a visitor.’  Sam opens his eyes and nods at Daniel.  He’s only gone maybe thirty seconds before Alan is walking into the room, face pale but smiling.  Relief practically oozing out of him like an aura. 

‘She’s still sleeping, Lora is with her,’ Alan says, before Sam can even ask.  ‘They want to keep both of you overnight, but barring any unforeseen complications, you’ll be checked out tomorrow.’  Alan pulls up one of the free chairs from the side of the room and sits down next to the bed rail.  ‘You are so goddamn lucky Sam.’  It’s sharp with residual fear and Sam never really notices Alans’ age, but he’s wearing every year now.  Sam twitches up his right hand, the only thing that doesn’t tug at his stitches.

‘What the hell happened?’ 

‘Funny,’ Alan says, ‘I was going to ask you the same thing.  What were the two of you doing at the tower last night? And why didn’t you just call a taxi when the weather turned?’  Sam waves his hand again, a side to side motion like he’s shaking his head.

‘We’ll have to explain it to you later, Quorra has most of the answers.’  Sam gingerly shifts his shoulder up onto the pillow, careful not to move too quickly and pop a stitch.  He nods down at himself slowly, ‘So what’s the damage here?’  Alan takes his glasses off and wilts into the chair.

‘They had to do some serious needlepoint on your leg there,’ and Sam can feel it, tight and hot, ‘some pretty intense scratches along you side, up to your shoulder.  But the driver clipped you, set you into the grass, otherwise you’d probably be dead.’  Sam doesn’t remember any of that.  ‘Quorra has some pretty deep gashes, but you took most of it when you separated from the bike.’  

‘I remember that, covering her.  But that’s it.  Everything else is all white noise.’ 

‘The driver called 911, ambulance got there almost immediately, you were only two blocks away.’  Alan puts his glasses back on and gets slowly to his feet, like maybe he’s the one who got hit.  ‘It’s almost three in the morning, and technically visiting hours ended almost five hours ago.  We’ll be back tomorrow when they clear you.’  Alan puts his hand on his shoulder, similar to how Daniel had done, but the weight was different, felt like more. 

Sam lifted his mostly uninjured arm and gripped Alan’s hand to his shoulder, just a second of pressure.  It said thank you, I’m lucky to have you, sorry for worrying you, thank you.  Alan left and Sam stared at the ceiling for thirty one locomotives before he was manoeuvring onto his good side, weight on his right leg so he could shuffle into a stooped upright position.  The stitches and the scrapes were still humming uncomfortably, but he’s pretty sure Daniel pressed a magic button before he left and something seriously high test was killing most of the pain right now.  Doing a good enough job that Sam made it the two rooms over leaning on his IV rack, slow going, to rest briefly against the doorframe of Quorra’s room. 

She was in the bed closest to the door so the light from the hallway slanted over part of her shoulder and neck, the white gauze wrapping the cut on her arm was peeking out from the sleeve of her hospital gown.  Sam step pause stepped to the opposite side of the bed and lowered the bed rail.  It was probably going to get him yelled at, scratch that, it was definitely going to get him yelled at because he knew despite how careful he was moving he was going to pop at least two stitches trying to angle himself up onto the free space on the bed. 

He arranged himself carefully, injured arm resting along the line of Quorra’s side, his upper body curved slightly over her, body a modified question mark.  Sam let his head settle onto the top part of the pillow and his forehead touched the side of Quorras head, her hair brushing against his nose.  The beat of her heart was a measured beep on the machine next to the bed and he could feel her breathing, could feel his own breaths slow to match. 

There was a bruise along the side of her face, skin raw and held together by three butterfly bandages, and the knuckles of both hands were bandaged.  The discolouration under her eyes had nothing to do with the accident and everything tod with the past seven months piling anxiety on top of worry.  Sam tucked his feet against the line of her shin, let the thumb of his good hand rest barely against the pulse at her throat, just so he could feel her heart beat, hear the echoing beep of the machine like an exclamation point.

Breathing in the lingering smell of her shampoo buried under the faint smell of blood and antiseptic, Sam feels calm for the first time since Quorra had looked at him standing between her and the Grid, face telling him she was going to do this thing and nothing was going to stop her.  And of course she did, Sam doesn’t even need to hear her tell him what happened.  He knows Quorra.  She wouldn’t have come back unless she’d stopped whatever it was.  She saved the day. 

Sam drifts, and he’s pretty sure Daniel comes in at some point.  He’d been mostly asleep since the minute he’d pressed his forehead into Quorra’s hair, but there’s no yelling.  He thinks Daniel even pulls in another blanket and covers both of them with it.  Sam doesn’t even bother to open his eyes, just turns his face more fully into the dark shadow of Quorra’s hair and follows her down into sleep.

...

            Quorra thought she was at home.  They must have fallen asleep on the couch again, could feel Sam doing that stutter breath he did whenever he was sleeping sitting up.  Her body felt weirdly heavy though, not quite like the spare blanket but close, something weighing her down even though she wanted to move.  Quorra tried shifting so she could sit up, Marv would need to be put out, coffee started. 

What day was it?  Was it a work day?  She was having trouble remembering.  Maybe it was the weekend, which would be fantastic as she was finding it harder than usual to wake herself up.  As soon as she could sort herself out, Quorra was making waffles, maybe, she thought she was hungry but now that she’s thinking about food her stomach rolls and she has to breathe through a wave of nausea.  So she was sick?  That explains why she still hadn’t opened her eyes. 

Quorra feels Sam shift, his hand brushing her hair back off her forehead and he’s breathing normally, the little exhalations puff against her ear.  ‘Q,’ he whispers, ‘you awake?’  Can’t you tell? She wants to ask, but instead she just makes a noise of assent in her throat.  Her eyes are still fighting against opening, something is sitting on her eyelids too, and she’s mostly feeling too tired to try to speak properly.  Quorra turns her head toward Sams voice, can feel when they’re noses bump together.  Not on the couch, apparently.  Quorra’s brain feels fuzzy, it’s making her feel uncomfortable, she doesn’t remember going to bed.  Sam’s hand is still in her hair, gently smoothing her bangs away from her eyebrows, tucking the strands behind her ear. 

Something is off, Quorra can smell it, literally, it doesn’t smell like home and she can’t hear Marv running around anywhere.  She takes a deep breath and forces against the weight on her eyelashes, squints into the darkness.  It’s dark where they are, but there’s enough light coming from over her shoulder that she can make out Sam’s face in the shadows.  “Sam.”  His name is a whisper along the dry plains of her throat.  She tries to move her arm to touch his face, just to reassure herself, but she can barely manage a twitch of her fingers. 

‘We’re in the hospital.’  Quorra hears him, but doesn’t understand, until she tries to lift her hand again and the burn of pain blazes up her arm, shocks her into remembering.

“It was Clu.”  She says, voice still raspy but stronger now for all that she’s still whispering.  Hospitals mean people, mean they need to be careful what they say.  Sam’s eyes widen and he takes his hand out of her air, carefully nudges the arm between them closer until he can tuck his fingers up under the sleeve of her thin papery shirt. 

‘What happened Quorra?’  And Quorra can hear the fear in his voice, the pressure of his fingers on her skin, like he needs physical contact to remind himself that she’s really here.  She can understand that, she needs it too.  This time, when she raise her arm to moves it laterally, less vertical so the stitches don’t pull or strain her shoulder.  Quorra gets her arm across her chest on an angle and her fingers pressed into the hollow of his throat.  An echo of the touch she managed when he was carrying her out of the arcade.

“He took Tron over, forced in.  Wanted out, wanted you,” she almost doesn’t say it, but not being honest with each other did nothing but increase the hurt between them.  Quorra was tired of that, she was tired of a lot of things, she was just really tired.  She taps the tips of her fingers in the divot made by his collarbone.  They’re awkwardly arranged and Quorra can see the white of the bandages on the arm Sam’s got tucked up against her.  “Your turn.”  She says, because something is missing from when she lost consciousness in the arcade to waking up here, with her and Sam wearing matching shirts in the hospital.

‘The bike got hit by a car when I was taking you here to get you fixed up.’  Sam blinks at her, eyes tracking to the gauze on her arm.  ‘You scared years off of me, Q.  I’ll remember you bleeding on the floor for the rest of my life.’  Quorra stretched her neck so she could push their foreheads together, dug her fingers into the hook made by his collar and tried to get closer.  Sam breathed in carefully, like he was also navigating movement around stitches, and he rests his left arm gently across her stomach.  Cupping his palm over the uninjured space on her hip he slid her closer until he was a warm line all along her side.  ‘Don’t ever do that again.’  It was saved from being a beg by virtue of volume only.  ‘Promise.’   Quorra kept their foreheads together, a miniscule up and down pressure between his eyebrows.

“I promise.”  She gives it easily.  They’re quiet for awhile, just breathing next to one another, communicating occasionally by a press of fingers on skin.  Not speaking but saying in the subtle scratch of a nail I’m here.  Quorra thinks Sam has fallen back into a light sleep when he makes ahumming sound in his throat.  She’s still got her eyes closed, resting delicately on the edge of sleep, but she taps her fingers against his neck.  Go on, it says, I’m listening.

‘Additionally,’ and it’s drawn out, like Sam is trying to suggest macaroni and cheese as a viable dinner option again.  Quorra is immediately wary.  ‘We’re also married.’  There’s a pause. ‘On paper, technically.’  Quorra opens her eyes now, this feels like something they should see each other’s face for.  She’s raising an eyebrow at him, because he’s saying this like she didn’t know.

“Yes.”  It’s said very matter of fact and Sam’s own eyebrows shoot up in surprise.  “Of course we are, why do you look surprised?” 

‘Why do I- how did you- you knew?’  Sam still has a look of shocky disbelief on his face and Quorra thinks back to when they gave her her name.  It had seemed pretty clear to her then. 

“Was it a secret?”  It hadn’t felt like one, at least not to her.   Sam looks at her sharply.

‘I’m not ashamed of you.’  His voice is very steady, each word measured out. 

“I’m not ashamed of you either.”  Quorra tells him back, this is one of those things that needs to be said out loud so there’s no confusion.  Sam smiles at her, it’s small and tired but it’s real. 

‘Good.’  Sam taps his fingers lightly against her hip bone, turns his face into the thin pillow they’re sharing.  ‘You should sleep.’ Quorra already has her eyes closed.

...

            Alan and Lora come to get them the next day.  It’s mid morning and their nurse Daniel, doesn’t seem surprised to find Sam in her room when he comes in to look her over.  Apparently the biggest concern was her concussion.  The rest of her injuries were mostly superficial, closed up with stitches and butterfly bandages.  Sam would need a crutch until the long gash his left leg was better healed, but Daniel was very clear about how fortunate they’d been. 

Not just that Sam had managed to mostly keep control of the bike to steer them out of oncoming traffic, but also that the car had only clipped the rear wheel.  One second sooner and it would have hit them square, t-bone Sam said later, explaining with his hands the point of impact.  Aside from the painkillers and light physiotherapy Sam was going to have to do for a few weeks, Quorra could only say an emphatic yes in agreement when the presiding physician looked at both of them and said they were very lucky.  Lora had thought to bring them both a change of clothes so Quorra shimmied into a pair of sweatpants she was pretty sure were Sam’s.  She was still wearing the hospital tunic on top though, staring balefully at the shirt Lora had brought.  Getting this on was going to be difficult. 

Sam was wearing the track pants he used when they ran in cold weather and the faded Cal Tech t-shirt.  Alan had gone to pull the car up to the patient pick up area and Lora was waiting outside the room, chatting with Daniel while they stood with two wheelchairs.  Quorra and Sam had been sternly informed they would be riding them out of the hospital.  Quorra could see Sam wanted to fight it, despite the fact that he was putting barely any weight on his left leg.  She’d reached out instinctively and flicked him gently in the shoulder with the fingers of her uninjured hand.  He could stumble around like a martyr when they got home.  Sam sat on the edge of the bed, holding himself carefully so none of his stitches pulled, raised an eyebrow at her.

‘Maybe you should just wear that one out,’ he nodded toward the hospital standard issue papery tunic, ‘I don’t think you’re getting your arms through the other one.’  Quorra looked down at the bright red t-shirt Lora had brought for her and even shrugging her shoulders in response made everywhere she was stitched up sing a little.  She doubted she could even lift it high enough to get over her head at this point. 

Quorra sighed and tucked the shirt back into the bag the spare clothes had come in.  At least she was wearing pants now.  She hasn’t been really hurt in this body before, she’s not sure how long the healing process typically is.  Quorra slides her feet into flip flops and wiggles her toes, just because, and wonders if she’d just be better off to wear this hospital shirt until she could lift her arm higher than her shoulders.  This was going to be challenging, especially if she wanted to not smell.  What if it took days before her arm was good enough to use in a mostly normal capacity.    

“Showering is going to be complicated.”  Quorra zips up the bag slowly before straightening and scowling at it, like its somehow to blame for her not being able to wear her red shirt.  Sam taps her calves with the end of his crutch, laughing a little when she turns around and aims the scowl in his direction.

‘Let’s get out of here Q, I want my own bed.’  Quorra can’t argue with that.  Lora, with the perfect timing of someone skilled at eavesdropping, rolled the first wheelchair into the room and jerked her head in Quorra’s direction.

‘Hop on chicken, we’re gonna blow this Popsicle stand,’  She taps her fingers across the back of the chair and waits for Quorra to step pause step over and lower herself slowing into the chair, put her feet up on the built in steps.  Daniel pushes the second chair in and pulls it around next to Quorra’s.  

‘Mr. Flynn.’  Sam picks up the bag and levers himself into the chair, sets the bag on his lap. 

‘Call me Sam.’ He says it offhand, easily playing it off as being friendly.  Quorra knows better.  Sam’s shoulders are still a harsh line, tense from more than just the effort of maintaining less a relatively comfortable position.  He keeps shooting her these little looks out of the corner of his eye, has been since they woke that morning, and Quorra knows he’s seeing how she looked on the floor of the arcade; wet, bloody, disoriented.  He’s going to want to know everything and Quorra is going to have to do what she can to cut out the guilt that’s going to plant itself somewhere in his ribs when she does. 

They’ve got things they need to talk about and curled together on a narrow hospital bed is not a safe space.  Quorra wants to go home.  She lets Lora chat at her about pie and Marvin and catches Sam’s gaze as they’re pushed out the sliding doors of the hospital, Alan waiting with the car doors open.  Quorra smiles, reaches out to smooth a nonexistent wrinkle from the shoulder of his shirt.  They’re alive.  They can deal with anything else.

...

            The house is dark when Alan pulls the car into the driveway.  It’s such a little thing but it sticks with Quorra all through the slow trek up the walk and into the house.  They typically leave lights on for each other, nothing excessive, but the house has never looked condemned or abandoned when she’s come home before.  Alan is shadowing Sam a bit, as they walk carefully down the hallway to his bedroom.  Marv is dancing around, barking with joy, like they’ve been gone for weeks rather than slightly less than forty eight hours. 

Sam has to move very slowly so that he doesn’t accidently catch Marv in the head with the crutches.  Quorra is carrying the overnight bag with her good hand, it’s hardly more than empty at this point, and they’re wearing most of what was in there.  She can hear Lora moving around in kitchen, the tell tale clatter of kibble hitting a bowl and then Marv is off like a shot, on to greener pastures. 

‘Did you want to eat something?’  Alan is asking, he’s looking at Sam but it’s directed at both of them.  Quorra probably could eat, but she’s fairly fixated on taking some pain medication and then lying down to sleep hard for at least twelve hours.  Sam looks at her over his shoulder to check her opinion, and Quorra shrugs, like she could do whatever.  Sam must see something in her face though because he shakes his head a little and answers,

‘Nah, too tired, pain meds and sleep.  Eat later.’  It’s true, it’s very obviously true that Sam is tired, his face is pale and there are grey circles under his eyes, it’s just not the whole truth.  Sam doesn’t know what happened on the Grid, doesn’t know if it’s safe yet, truly safe, and the sooner Alan and Lora leave, the sooner they can sleep, wake up and he can grill her for all the details.  Alan raises a hand and settles it gently on the slop of Sam’s shoulder as they pass through the doorway.

‘I’ll get Lora to grab the drugs and then we’ll let you sleep off this whole thing.’  Alan is wonderful, Quorra thinks, moving to sit on the end of Sam’s bed, Alan is the most wonderful and this bed is wonderful and the sheets are still tangled from two days ago and it smells like home.  Quorra is having trouble keeping herself from slumping down onto her uninjured side right now.  She feels like she hasn’t slept in days.  Sam rests the crutches against the night table on his side of the bed and then sit slides on to the bed while trying not to move any part of his body.  Lora walks in then, exceptionally timed with a glass of water and two pills cupped in her palm. 

‘One each, chase it with this.’  Quorra and Sam take a pill and down half the glass each before carefully adjusting themselves so nothing pulls or tugs anywhere.  Lora swoops in quickly, kissing their foreheads in turn.  ‘Sleep tight my chickens, we expect you for New Years this year.’  She moves to turn off the bedside lamp and pauses with Alan in the doorway, hand over the main light switch.  She’s giving Quorra a look like she’s trying to wink without moving her face and while Quorra doesn’t know exactly what she’s trying to convey, it’s a good look. 

Quorra smiles, and waggles her fingers in goodbye.  Lora shuts off the overhead light and Quorra tilts her head toward Sam’s, they’re breathing quietly, listening to Lora and Alan talk in low voices to each other as the go through the house, shutting off lights and murmuring goodbyes to Marvin.  The click of the deadbolt on the front door is scissors to the strings holding them up.  Quorra can feel Sam relax next to her. 

“Can we sleep first,” she whispers, Marvs collar chiming out background noise as he settles into his bed by the door, her eyes are mostly closed.  Sam lifts his good hand and brushes her hair behind her ear like he had in the hospital.

‘Yeah,’ Sam answers, voice low and a little rough, ‘sleep first.’  It’s a little uncomfortable, but they manage to get the comforter up and over themselves and Quorra can’t even bother with pretense, just tugs Sam’s pillow, and by extension Sam’s head, close enough that she can settle her own face on the spare space available.  The house is creaking around them, familiar white noise, and Quorra links her fingers between Sam’s, gentle so she doesn’t move it from the specific angle he’s managed between them.

“Then pancakes.”  Quorra mumbles out, which felt like a good idea when she thought it, but sounds like an even better idea when she says it out loud.  Sam doesn’t answer, but Quorra doesn’t mind, he’s already fallen asleep. 

...

            They’re out of eggs.  Which, Sam finds both awful and hilarious, considering they have easily twelve bananas sitting in the basket on the counter.  This does however mean that there will be no pancakes this morning, which is awful, but the disappointed look on Quorra’s face is so similar to one Marv gets when they won’t let him have human food that it balances out for Sam. 

Making do, Sam pulls out bowls from the cupboard and they eat regular Cheerios with banana slices on top.  Sam is half way through his second cup of coffee when Quorra starts tapping a nail against the counter.  Sam watches her do it, takes in the considering look on her face and figures she’s trying to think of the acceptable way of starting the conversation they desperately need to have. 

Having her here, alive and in front of him, has culled back some of the urgency that’s dogged him since she beamed back onto that dirty floor; even if she is still wearing the hospital shirt. It’s still there though, and Sam’s at the point where he knows that if there was immediate danger Quorra would have already told him, but that doesn’t mean there still isn’t the potential for future danger.   And neither of them are operating at full capacity, the crutch digs in to the soft spot under his arm, a reminder.  His leg is starting to ache a little along the hip flexor and Sam doesn’t know exactly how long this explanation is going to take.  Sam finishes off the last of his coffee and sets the cup in the sink. 

Quorra is watching him now and he jerks his head towards the couch.  He’s reasonably sure he can find a way to sit down that doesn’t make him aware of every stitch holding his skin together.  Quorra follows him silently, the click of Marv’s feet against the hardwood the only accompanying sound as Sam leads them ever so slowly over to the living room.  Quorra stands by the couch, takes Sam’s crutches when he tries to prop them on the arm of the sofa and nearly unbalances himself trying to keep them from falling over.  She holds out her good hand and lets him use her for leverage as he lifts his leg up without jarring anything.  There’s just enough space at the end of the couch for Quorra to tuck into, cross legged and sideways so she can face him while she tells him all the things he’s afraid of hearing.  Quorra takes a breath and jumps right in.

“Clu hijacked Trons programming, his body on the Grid,” she interlocks the fingers of both hands loosely, “he looked like Two-Face.  Most of the time they shared Tron’s face, half Clu, half Tron, but-” Quorra stutters a little, “Clu wanted out.  He’s what was messing with the system, I don’t know how, Tron never got a chance to tell me and Clu didn’t want to talk to me at all.”  The click in her throat when she swallows is audible.  “He wanted you, wanted to get out so he could get at you.”  Sam taps her shin with his foot, I’m okay, it says, I’m alright.  “I didn’t let him.”  Her gaze is steady, like that was the easy part.  It probably was.  Sam has been made aware of a few things in the last couple of days and the reality that they are each the others vulnerable spot is startlingly apparent.  Sam knows there’s a small smile playing around his mouth, it’s not necessarily a happy one, but it’s proud. 

‘I’ll bet.’  Is all he says, lets Quorra read everything he means in it, because of course she did.  It’s how she’s built. 

“Tron helped, held him back just long enough for me to,” her mouth is a thin line coloured with grief, Tron had been theirs in the end, “for me to stop Clu.  Permanently.”  Quorra’s been looking straight at him the whole time she was talking but her eyes flicker down to her shoulder briefly.  “There was nothing left Sam.”  And that can’t be right, they left a whole city behind last time, a digital metropolis. 

‘What do you mean?’ 

“I mean Clu and Tron were the only programs left.  There was nothing but simulated landscape, the city was gone.” 

‘What happened to everything?’  Sam asks, but there’s really only a couple scenarios to choose from and neither of them are what he wanted for the programs on the Grid.  He hadn’t wanted to go back, but it wasn’t that he wanted it gone; there was just too much potential damage if he stayed.  The whole experience made Sam think in literary parallels to Animal Farm and he’d be damned if he became the Pig on the Grids .   Quorra jerks her shoulders up and immediately regrets it if the wince is anything to go by, she shakes her head instead.

“Clu?” and it sounds like a question but it’s not.  “Tron didn’t- there was no time for him to tell me what had happened, it felt like it was over in seconds, although I know it was longer.  The platform was gone, so I had to swim out to get to the portal.”  She pauses, “It hurt coming back this time, felt like I was being pulled apart, I don’t think I could do it again.”  Sam takes a minute to let the high octane terror of that possibility roll through him.  It recedes, like the tide, but it’s not gone completely, still humming off to the side.  Until Quorra speaks again, “We can’t use the Grid anymore,” and Sam can tell she means it for keeps this time.  No take backs.  “It’s not safe.”  Sam pulls the chain out from where it’s been tucked under his shirt, the SIM card hangs from the metal between his fingers.  He loops it from around his neck and holds it out to her.  It’s hers, the Grid, more than it’s ever been his and whatever they do has to be her choice. 

‘Your choice Q,’ Sam says, hand still outstretched, dangling the card in her direction.  Quorra takes the card and holds the edges between the index finger and thumb of both her hands.  Wincing against the burn in her arm, Quorra snaps the card in half.  It sounds like a door closing, like a key turning in a lock. 

“It was a powerful vision your father had, flawed, but powerful.”  Sam nods slowly, considers the two pieces lying in each palm. 

‘Yeah,’ he looks at her face when he says it, takes in her messy hair, the bandages, strong cheekbones over a soft mouth, ‘it was.’      

 

 

TEN

            It’s subtle at first, buried under the awkward living that comes from healing injuries, and Sam nearly misses it.  Something shifted between them. 

He’s not sure when, and he not sure that it matters, but everything is just that little bit sharper now when they’re together.  Not harsh, more like the crispness you get when the focus is on the right setting.  But at first, it’s barely noticeable under the aches and pains of waking up and getting out of bed without reopening a wound.  Quorra’s initial observation had been accurate, showering was extremely complicated.  There was a lot of plastic bags and duct tape used until their scrapes and especially the cuts from the light staff had closed up enough to be able to handle direct contact with water.  They did manage to get Quorra into a real shirt, eventually. 

She wore the hospital gown for two more days before she could lift her arm up high enough they could tug the Batman t-shirt on over top, cutting the seams of the gown and pulling it off from underneath, like removing a tablecloth while keeping the plates on the table.  Sam may have said ‘Shazaam’ when they successfully switched wardrobe for the first time.  Quorra didn’t get the reference, but she laughed anyway.  The whole rear end of the bike needed to be rebuilt, but the scrapes across Sam’s shoulders made it hard for him to sit anywhere for very long without an icepack on his back.  It would have to wait. 

In the mean time, Sam leased a car, and he and Quorra would go grocery shopping.  Sam reading off the lists, arm balanced over his crutches, while Quorra pushed the cart behind him.  It was so much like when they first came back that Sam catches himself experiencing weirdly detailed déjà vu in the cereal aisle of all places.  Even the not so secret marriage secret kind of tucked itself into their lives with little to no adjustment.  Quorra had moved her clothes from her own dresser into Sam’s, which were now full to capacity.  When he was done with the crutches, Sam had already decided to just slide Quorra’s wardrobe chest from her room down the hall to his.  There was space by the window where it would fit, and he’d be able to close all of his drawers properly again.  The bottom one was making a disconcerting groaning sound every time he went in there for a pair of socks.  How heavy were socks anyway?  If you’d asked him before Sam would have guessed at them being the lightest of the clothing types, after underwear maybe. 

            By the time Christmas rolled around again, Sam was down to one crutch and they’d both been officially back to work for a week.  The tree was taking up space in the corner by the television, but aside from a wreath on the door, the house was relatively bare of holiday decorations.  Lora had brought over pies, pecan and apple, but Quorra hadn’t bothered with any of the labour intensive cooking endeavours.  December twenty third had them standing side by side against the sink, staring at the oven.

‘We could do the whole spread again this year, if you wanted,’ Sam offered.  It wasn’t his favourite thing, all of the cooking, but if last year was anything to go by the end result is always worth it.  Quorra blinked several times at the stove, even wiggled her nose at one point, but nothing Bewitched itself onto the counters.  Quorra sighed, and they looked at each other, looked at the kitchen, back at each other, and then Quorra was reaching out for the drawer that held their entire collection of take out menus. 

...

The tower was mostly deserted on Christmas Eve, but the few people running the skeleton crew brought in cookies and other finger foods and Sam spent a good portion of the day going up and down the stairs from the lunchroom to refill his plate with the little mini cookie sandwiches one of the tech support staffers had brought in.  They were miniature chocolate chip cookies held together with either mint or cinnamon icing.  Quorra caught him on his third trip and he smiled at her, cheeks full of mostly chewed cookie.  She laughed so hard she snorted and nearly dropped the mug she’d been carrying. 

“There is chocolate, all over your teeth” she wheezed out, bracing herself on the counter with her legs crossed, “I nearly peed a little.”  Saying this out loud sends her into another roll of laughter.  Sam swallowed, making room for more cookie sandwiches, and kept smiling holding his plate close to his face to catch delicious crumbs.  “Are those the last of them?”  Quorra’s got herself under control now and she eyes the cookies on his plate with interest, “did you leave any for the rest of us.”  The three cookie sandwiches on his candy cane holiday plate are in fact the last of the batch, so Sam keeps chewing and shakes his head slowly.  Quorra’s eyes narrow and Sam holds the plate closer to his body for protection,

‘Uh uh,’ he mumbles through cookie pre-emptively, ‘No’ Quorra scowls at him for a second before exhaling, body relaxing against the counter while the electric kettle whooshes behind her. 

“Fine,” she grumbles, before looking over his shoulder and smiling, “Alan” she says brightly.  Sam turns his head to say hello but there’s no one there, “wow,” he hears behind him, and when Sam turns back its to see Quorra eating one of the sandwiches of his plate, the one with the mint icing, “these are great.”  There’s green icing all over her tongue, he can see it when she speaks and it should really be gross, it should.  But all Sam can think about is how mint is his favourite flavour and Quorra isn’t wearing any lipstick today. 

He remembers he’s supposed to be annoyed.  Quorra is smirking at him, clearly very pleased with herself.  Sam picks up the last cookie from his plate and shoves it in his mouth.  Truthfully he’s not even enjoying it at this point, feeling a bit sick now honestly, but it’s the principle that matters.  Quorra pours out the hot water into her mug, and Sam waits until she’s poured in the milk, turns to put it back on the fridge door.  When her back to him, Sam takes the cup and leaves with it before she can turn back around.  Quorra is too professional to yell at him at work, but the “Well, shit,” he hears makes him grin even as he burns the roof of his mouth on the mostly boiling tea.  Worth it.

...

Sam wakes up Christmas morning with Quorra still sleeping next to him, the hand of her injured arm was all the way over her head, fingers amazingly close to going up his nose.  Although mostly healed, Sam knew the jagged cut on the inside of her bicep would ache for the rest of the day if she left it in that position.  He carefully readjusted, moving smoothly so he didn’t wake her, until her hands were trapped between them before falling back asleep.  It’s easily past ten in the morning when Quorra drops Marvin onto his chest, clapping her hands together loudly and yelling an exuberate “Merry Christmas” at him in her sleep rough voice.  Marv is licking all over his face, stepping on his windpipe, but he croaks out,

‘Merry Christmas,’ before just lifting Marv off of his face with one hand, praying he doesn’t get peed on when Marv realizes he’s mostly airborne.  There’s cartoons and coffee with cinnamon flavoured creamer on the sofa while they exchange the only gifts they’d bought each other this year.  He’d called up Lora the week before, trying to figure out what kind of jewellery was the right kind of jewellery and she’s just laughed at him over the line for five minutes straight.  He knows it was that long because he’d counted.  Sam really hadn’t wanted to get the wrong thing. 

After she’d stopped laughing, Sam was reasonable informed that there was no such thing as the wrong kind of jewellery.  He settled on a bracelet, interlocking circles reminding him of her ISO tattoos.  Quorra put it on right away and the sparkle against the plaid of her pajama pants caught his eye the whole day.  She handed over a large narrow rectangle wrapped in green paper, looking unsure. 

“I just,” she starts to say, but stops herself, waits for him to rip through the paper, reveal the blown up photo of his dad from that day of the lake.  They took it right after he’d taught Sam how to skip rocks over the water.  The wind was coming off the lake and blowing his hair everywhere but he was smiling so wide Sam could have counted his teeth.  His mom had taken the photo.  “There aren’t many photos, I just wanted,” Sam looks up at her over the frame, “I thought you should have one.  We should put it up in the house.” 

‘Thank you.’  Sam couldn’t help himself, reached over and tugged her close by the sleeve of his batman shirt.    Pulled her into an awkward hug over the frame in his lap, buried his face in her hair.  ‘Thank you.’  He says again, barely audible.  Quorra grips tightly, her right arm against his ribs and her left around his shoulder.

“You’re welcome,” she murmurs it into his shoulder before leaning back and away.  “Now, bacon?”  Her eyebrows shot up in question and she kept nodding her head a little, like she was trying to convince him what a great idea bacon was.  Bacon is always a great idea.  They fry eggs and bacon on the range and eat in front of the television, watch the Grinch trying to steal Christmas while dipping toast into the yoke on their plates. 

        They spend the day on the couch in their pajamas and when the clock inches over into an acceptable dinner time, Quorra orders enough Chinese food for five people.  Watching her try to master chopsticks is on par for the best present of the season.  They make it through most of the fried rice and all of the stir fry before they tap out.  There’s still noodles and some other chicken thing that Quorra ordered left over, but neither of them can move without groaning. 

They’ve got the ottomans situated perpendicular to the couch so they can slouch down and spread their legs out.  Sam’s hip still twinges if he has it at the wrong angle for too long so there’s some shuffling every fifteen minutes so nothing cramps up.  Quorra is almost completely mobile now, the cuts along her torso and on the inside of her arm have mostly healed over, the dissolvable stitches almost completed disappeared.  She’s going to have wicked scars, despite the neat needlework done by the doctors, the gashes were deep and she’s lucky she didn’t bleed out before they made it to the hospital.  Sam’s own injuries save for the joint tear in his left leg, were more surface area than deep gauges. 

He hadn’t needed skin grafts, which was a bonus, and while the new skin was still tender across his back and shoulder, it no longer looked like an animal had taken bits out of him.  They were mending, slowly but surely.  Wouldn’t be much longer before they could hike along their trail again, although running was still in the future.  Lora and Alan call in the evening, wishing Merry Christmas and reminding them that they still had to make an appearance at the New Year’s party they were putting on next week.  Quorra had suggested foregoing the company party this year and Sam hadn’t had it in him to argue about it.  The thought of having to make small talk all evening, even without the added accessory of the crutch, was exhausting.  Besides, they hadn’t even made it to the countdown last year and nobody brought it up. 

The rest of the directors could handle it this year; Sam was not above throwing down the ‘recovery’ card if it meant nobody gave him shifty eyes at the Board meetings for missing out on a company organized event.  They’d switched over to watching Mama Mia at some point, probably when Sam was still disoriented from the food coma, and Quorra was singing along.  It wasn’t loud though, mostly under her breath and in that soft soprano people tended to use when singing lullabies, so Sam figured she hadn’t realized she was doing it. 

Her hair was still bed head catastrophe and he was pretty sure that was peach sauce smudged above one of her eyebrows.  His heart did a funny thing in his chest.  Sam didn’t get a chance to analyze it though, as Quorra seemed to jump out of the chorus to Money Money Money to ask

“Hungry enough for pie yet?”  And Sam had to take a minute to do an internal systems check, they really had eaten an excessive amount of Chinese food.  Shifting his shoulders a little against the back cushions Sam was pretty sure he had room for pie.  He honestly couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t had room for pie.

‘Yes.’  It’s matter of fact. ‘Excellent.’  Quorra got up, which was fortunate, as Sam legs had fallen asleep below the knees, and set about bringing to two pies over.  Shuffling them side by side into the sliver of cushion space available between them, Quorra handed him over a fork and stuck the second one in the centre of the pecan so it stood upright like a flagpole.  Then she disappeared back behind the couch and out of his line of sight, but he could hear the facet going on and the click of the kettle being turned on. 

“What are we brining to Lora’s party?”  Quorra called out from the kitchen, “it’s proper etiquette to bring something, I read about in online.”  Sam was distracted from her question by that last bit about the internet,

‘Where are you reading about etiquette on the internet?’ 

“There’s a website, this woman named Emily runs it and tells you everything you need to know about social interaction.”  The name twigged something in his memory,

‘What’s her name again?’

“Emily Post,” Quorra calls back over the sound of water boiling, “she writes about everything, she seems very nice.”  Sam makes a non committal sound in his throat just as Quorra is coming back around the arm of the sofa, carrying a mug in each hand.  She takes one look at his face and deflates.  “She’s dead isn’t she?”  It’s not really a question.

‘Sorry Q.’  Quorra shrugs her shoulders and places the mugs carefully onto the end table coasters.

“Why are all the good ones dead?”  She asks, sounding very disappointed.

‘You are not the first person to ask that.’  Quorra perks up a little and takes the fork out of the pecan pie, lifts the pan so it rest on her thighs, brings a huge forkful up to her mouth.

“Really?”  Quorra get’s it out before filling her mouth with pie.  It’s a truth you’ve only got to turn on the radio to realize.  Sam nods into his own pie, tries to get an even arrangement of pastry and fillings onto the fork.

‘Really.’            

“That doesn’t make me feel that much better.”  She talking through the pie, but Sam doesn’t care.  Emily Post can’t teach you everything, apparently.  Or maybe she just hasn’t read that section yet. 

‘Hey now, at least we still have The Meryl,’ he gestures with his fork to the screen where the choreographed number to Dancing Queen just started.  Quorra looks over at the screen and smiles, looking a bit like a chipmunk.  She loads up her fork again and holds it out so they can knock the tines together in cheers.

“Thank goodness.”  Quorra eats half of the pie and spills tea all over both of their pants when Pierce Brosnan has to sing.  The skin above his knee feels a little bit burned and his pajama pants are soaked in three places, but Sam can think of worse ways to spend the holiday. 

 

 

ELEVEN

            The wreath on Lora and Alan’s door is huge.  Quorra holds up her hands to measure the circumference while Sam presses the button to ring the doorbell.  Keeping her hands in position she shifts and measures the width in relation to Sam.

“Two of you could fit in this wreath,” Quorra can feel her eyebrows rising on her forehead, would not be surprised if they were up to her hair line at this point.  “This is the largest wreath I have ever seen, why don’t we have a wreath this big?”  Sam looks patiently at her and carefully holds the tray of Nanaimo bars they’d brought as a contribution.  Sam had had to help make them all last night as they never got around to deciding like they intended on Christmas. 

‘Our door could fit inside this wreath Q, we’d have to duck under it to get into the house.’  This is a perfectly reasonable argument but Quorra still feels like her holiday experience has been incomplete up to this point.  Clearly, this wreath is the missing link.  ‘We cannot have a wreath this big.’

“I’m hearing what you’re saying, but I’m not convinced.  Look at it,” and she sweeps one arm out like Vana White, “it’s just so beautiful.”  Sam has a long suffering expression on his face, but he’s saved from having to respond by Alan swinging the door open.

‘Come in, come in,’ he pulls the door wide so they can step into the foyer already full with shoes and coats.  Lora comes around the corner just as Quorra is carefully taking the tray from Sam so he can hang up his jacket.  She’s beautiful in a grey sweater and black trousers, diamonds winking at her ears.  Leaning in she smacks kissing on both of Quorra’s cheeks before turning and doing the same to Sam.  The tips of Sam’s ears go pink and Quorra grins hard enough she can feel the hinge in her jaw hurt. 

‘You know everyone already,’ Lora is saying as she leads them in through the living room toward the kitchen where all the food is spread out, ‘so grab yourselves something to drink and mingle.’  She flares her hands as she says mingle, and Quorra assumes that means dancing will happen later.  She could be wrong, but she doesn’t think so. 

Quorra sets the tray of bars down next to the other dessert type offerings and Sam touches his hand lightly between her shoulder blades, tilts his head toward the wine and soda collection arranged on the kitchen table.  Quorra makes a go on gesture in response and starts taking the bars out of the transport tray and placing them onto the serving plate Lora left available. 

Sam drove, but Lora and Alan already offered up the guest room for them so there’s no reason for Sam to spend the evening dry.  Technically, she could have driven them home, but she hasn’t really practiced operating anything other than the bike, hadn’t needed to until the accident.  She could do it, in a pinch, but Lora had made it sound less like an invitation and more like a command, so this was good too.  Quorra is lining up the last of the bars when Sam slides up beside her, holds out a tumbler.

‘It’s ginger ale.’  Quorra tucks the tray under the table with the other containers and accepts the glass.  ‘There was mostly wine and liquor.’  Quorra tucks links her arm through Sam’s and squeezes their elbows together in gratitude.  She’s sure once you get past the smell, wine and liquor and alcohol in general are great.  Quorra just hasn’t managed to get past the smell yet.  Sam has a matching tumbler, half full of a dark amber liquid that reminds Quorra vaguely of the paint thinner Sam used to clean off the used brushes after they’d painted their front door.  Bumping her hip against his, Quorra motions toward the hallway and all the voices carrying out from the living room.

“You ready?”  She asks, and Sam looks over at her, scoffs and nudges her forward.

‘Waitin on you Q.’ His smile is just a pull on one side of his mouth and Quorra can’t stop looking at it. 

            There are probably two dozen or so people occupying the large living room, settled into conversation on the chairs and the sofa.  The fireplace is hosting a fire behind the glass and the Christmas tree is still up in the corner, lights on and making the room look like something out of a magazine.  Quorra sticks with Sam as they move through the room, making small talk about the holidays and plans for the New Year.  Sam is barely even tense; nothing like last year when he’d looked tired and pale, uncomfortable in his suit surrounded by hundreds of people. 

Quorra lapses into a conversation with someone’s husband about the wreath on the front door and thirty minutes go by before Sam presses his shoulder to hers and gestures with his glass to Lora and Alan who are waving them over to the sofa.  Just as she’s about to sit down, one of the guests walks beside her carrying what looks like some sort of fudge cookie bar in an individual sized pastry tin.  Her attention is severely caught and she pats Sam on the arm and motions toward the kitchen, where she intends to get one of those whatever it was’s and possibly never return. 

It turns out to be a fascinating brownie cum fudge square hybrid and Quorra is working through her second one, a spare in her hand for Sam, potentially vowing to never eat anything else ever again.  Sam meets her at the entryway to the living room and raises an eyebrow at her, the dessert half in her mouth.  Quorra holds out her other hand with the one she’d brought along for him (he should be thankful it got to him, honestly, she is eating the giant wreath dessert equivalent right now; her life is forever changed) when Lora shouts something in a very high register. 

Quorra is still chewing so she misses whatever it is Lora says, but Sams ears have gone pink again, so whatever it was must be good.  Looking over Sam’s shoulder into the room, Quorra makes a questioning face at Lora, who is smiling very widely, and then at Alan, because Lora was no help.  Alan tilts his head up pointedly and Quorra follows his lead.  Strung from the ceiling right next to the entryway into the living room is a little green plant, hanging from a string less than a foot above Sam’s head.  Sam is looking somewhere over her right shoulder and she has to say quietly,

“I don’t know what this means.”  Sam smiles at her, the little one that hides most of his teeth, and reaches out to pull her closer, hand around the bend in her elbow.

‘Tradition, just go with it.’  He’s shrugging a little and still blushing, but there’s nothing bad on his face, so Quorra steps closer, careful not to squish either of the desserts in her hands and waits.  Sam leans forward and bumps their noses together, so she’s laughing when he takes her completely by surprise and gently presses his mouth to hers.  It’s barely two full locomotives but Quorra feels like something in her brain just short circuited before snapping back in place, everything lighting up at once. 

It’s nothing like the half kiss she’d given him before launching herself back into the Grid.  For one thing, there’s no fear in it, which if you’d asked Quorra two seconds ago she wouldn’t have said you could notice in a kiss, but she’s singing a different tune now.  Metaphorically speaking.  But the best part isn’t even the kissing, and that is really great, it’s super great actually.  It’s hybrid dessert largest wreath in the history of wreaths type of great, but the best part is that Sam brings his hand up, the one not holding her steady at the elbow, and brushes the crumbs off her cheek. 

When he pulls back, and Quorra knows it was only seconds but it felt like years, the half smile is still on his face and she knows her eyes must look wide and kind of shocky but he’s plucking his dessert out of her hand and sliding his hand from her elbow down to tap his fingers along the inside of her forearm.  There’s whistling and happy cheerful clapping coming from the living room. 

“Oh,” she says, and really, that’s all she’s got.  Lets Sam tug her gently back over to the sofa to sit between him and Alan while Lora waggles her fingers at the both of them and tosses brightly wrapped candies at someone across the room.  Sam leans back against the sofa and taps her wrist with two of his fingers.  His mouth is full of hybrid dessert and he’s making an agreeable noise in his throat.  “I know right?”  Quorra answers, because that sound clearly said some variation of amazing and she wasn’t kidding before, she could eat that for the rest of her life.  Alan has turned to the New Years Eve coverage on the television and Quorra hooks her ankle around Sam’s while they watch the pre countdown performers, eat the candies Lora throws at them periodically. 

            When it’s five minutes to midnight, Lora and Alan pass around flutes of champagne and they turn the volume up so when they all start shouting out the countdown it’s buried under the thousands of voices recorded downtown.  There’s cheering, someone has a cow bell and everyone is kissing their neighbour and singing along to the song playing out on the television but Quorra doesn’t get any of the words.  She’s got one hand holding the fabric of Sam’s sweater and he’s smiling at her, Quorra sways in, presses her mouth to the slight curve of his smile.  It’s just as great the second time and Quorra gives herself two and a half locomotives before breaking away. 

“Tradition?”  She asks once she’s pulled back.  Sam takes a sip of his champagne doesn’t stop smiling at her.

‘Absolutely.’

            The party winds down fairly quickly after that, and within the hour it’s just the two of them stretched out on the sofa in front of the fire, Quorra’s stocking feet resting on the space just above Sam’s knees.  Lora waltzed in fifteen minutes ago and kissed them both on the cheek again, wished them good night.  Alan peering in after her and saying there would be waffles in the morning and giving them directions to the guest bedroom down the hall.  Quorra has four of the hyrid desserts balanced on her stomach and she’s trying to figure out the best order to eat them in.  Sam is eating a cookie the size of his hand.

“I liked this better than last year.”  Sam pats his hand down over her ankle in agreement, leaves it there resting against the top of her foot; he can’t really talk past the cookie in his mouth.  “No fireworks though.”  Quorra looks up when Sam makes a considering noise in his throat, meets her eyes over the dessert held halfway to her mouth.

‘Sure,’ is all he says, and there’s something a little extra in it that Quorra doesn’t know the name of.  They stay up, because why not, and if Quorra maybe wants to imprint everything into her memory, it’s not like anyone knows about it.  The fire dies down to glowing embers and Quorra is pretty sure she dozed off at one point, when Sam lifts her feet off his legs, sets them down onto the seat cushions still warm from his body and goes to kill the last of the fire. 

Her eyes feel gritty and she knows that once her head hits a pillow it’s going to be lights out in less than five minutes.  Sam turns off the lights of the tree and navigates the two chairs between her and the fireplace carefully in the full dark.  She can just make out his shadow next to her when he takes her hand and pulls her up, tucks her in close to his side and leads them down the hall toward the guestroom. 

The glow from the digital clocks on the appliances is an eerie blue haze from the kitchen, but it’s just enough to get them into the room without knocking over any furniture or clipping their shoulders off any of the corners.  The bed is pushed up against the wall and there are two sets of pajamas folded at the foot of the bed.  A door connected them to the small powder room where two plastic wrapped toothbrushes rested on the sink.  Quorra grabs the smaller set of pajamas and changes quickly while leaning over the sink, trying not to get toothpaste all over the clothes.  She tags Sam in after her and moves to climb into the bed, the duvet and sheets already pulled down by Sam while she was multitasking in the washroom.  Sam clicks the light off and Quorra can feel him trail a hand along the edge of the bed so he doesn’t trip over it in the dark. 

He’s still limping a little, more when he’s tired, but he really only needs the crutch at work now.  His hand passes over her foot on the bed and he grabs at and tugs playfully before climbing carefully onto the mattress.  There are at least four pillows on the bed but Sam just tugs her closer until they’ve curled like comma’s onto one.  ‘Your feet are freezing,’ it’s a low whisper, ‘I can literally feel the cold radiating off them.  Wear socks Q, it’s not hard.’  Quorra deliberately wiggles her toes forward until they flick against the bare skin of his shin.  The whole of his body tenses, she can feel it through the mattress.

“I just end up kicking them off, there’s no point,” Which is completely true, and usually results in her kicking him in the process.  Cold feet is the lesser of the two evils, Sam should realize this.  He’s lying on his left side to face her and Quorra really doesn’t want to be responsible for a rehabilitation set back so she reaches out and puts her hand flat against his chest, pushes until he gives and rolls onto his back.  “Other side,” she says, words slurring a little as sleep creeps up around the edges.  Sam exhales like he’s doing her some kind of favour by moving and allows her to nudge him over until he’s settles on his good side.  Satisfied, Quorra shuffle slides into the open space until her forehead is curled into the curve between his shoulder and neck, “Happy New Year Sam,” she mumbles into his t-shirt.  When she taps his calve with her toes he doesn’t say anything, just tangles their feet together.

Waffle breakfast on New Year’s Day?  Alan puts caramel chips in the batter.  New tradition. 

...

            They’re given the all clear, medically speaking, just before the end of March.  The weather is warming up and Quorra is chasing Marv around the backyard.  From what Sam tells her, this is something of a role reversal, but Quorra’s not quite sure she understands what he means.  She’s jumping up from her crouched position, because this is how the chases always start, her and Marv staring at each other like gunslingers at a standoff, says “I need a hobby.”  And then looks at Sam like he’s going to provide her with the answer to all of her problems.  To be fair, that’s usually how it goes.  What actually happens is Sam stares blankly back at her from where he’s grilling fish and swings the metal spatula back and forth.

‘Um.’  Is his helpful contribution, unless the spatula swinging was code for some sort of dance or sword fighting she’s not familiar with. 

“Was that code for sword fighting?” She has to ask.  Stranger things have happened.  Sam looks down at his hands in a way that suggests they’d been moving independent from his brain.  So not sword fighting then, probably not dancing either. 

‘What kind of hobby?’  This is even less helpful, because if she knew that than Quorra would have a hobby already.  She pirouettes and then jumps toward Marv before answering.

“I mean, I don’t want to just work all the time, although it is great.  And so is reading, but” and there’s another pirouette just to confuse Marv, “you fix up your bikes, which, and I don’t want to pressure you into reinjuring yourself, but you could pick up the pace on that.  I really hate the car, I want the bike back Sam, I miss the bike.  I want something for me too, like you and the bikes.”  Sam flips over the fish and then closes the hood of the barbeque, still wielding the spatula like a fencing instructor.  Maybe she should take up sword fighting.

‘Well,’ Sam’s tone is the one he gets when the answer required is made up of a lot of words and he’s tired already, ‘ you’ve got a ton of options.  There’s painting, photography, rock climbing, bunging jumping, you could fly planes,’ he points at her here, emphasizing with the spatula, ‘you already know how to do that mostly, fishing?’  Sam asks the last one like a question before lifting the hood to adjust their dinner. 

“This is more complicated than I anticipated.”  Quorra admits.  Brain full of possibilities she starts running in circles with Marv so it becomes unclear who is the chaser and who is the chasee.  Sam turns the heat down low on the grill and sits down on one of the liaise chairs Lora convinced them to buy, snags Quorra by the hand on her next go around and tugs her down to sit next to him.  They’re close enough that she can feel his hip bone digging into the skin just below where her ribs start.  Marv doesn’t even bother to follow her over, there’s a bird in the neighbours tree that has captured his full attention.  Sam doesn’t let go of her hand.  

‘Well, think of it this way: what do you like?’  Quorra answers that question easily,

“Running, desserts, singing, reading, the sun, you.”  Quorra shrugs, “None of those are hobbies though.”  Sam has his thinking face on and he’s fanning his fingers against the inside of her wrists, tapping lightly against the skin there one finger at a time.

‘That’s true, but it’s a start.’  Sam gets up and takes her with him, curls his fingers through hers briefly before lifting up the hood and checking on the fish.  ‘We’re good here, if you want to bring me your plate.’  He releases her fingers and Quorra heads into the house to grab the plates stacked on the counter, vegetables already on one half.  They’re sitting at the island, knees knocking together under the counter, and Quorra is still thinking about the hobby that she does not have.  ‘Relax Q, if you really can’t think of anything else, sword fighting would make a great hobby, and I bet you’d be really good at it.’  He’s laughing at her a little in between forkfuls of fish and vegetables, but Quorra doesn’t mind.  As far as backups go, it’s a pretty good one. 

            She settles on knitting.  Don’t ask Sam how they went from sword fighting as a viable hobby to knitting, but there you have it.  Sharp pointy implements are really the only correlation that’s coming to mind.  At least with sword fighting there was the danger element for excitement.  The only danger element incorporated into knitting had to do with how offensive the finished product was.  Judging by the mess of stitches growing like a swamp thing in Quorra’s lap, this particular project had a high coefficient of danger.  Sam wasn’t even sure what it was supposed to be, except for bright orange

Part of him still held out hope that it was a sweater for Marv, or a cloth, or a tea cosy, and not his Christmas present for the next year.  People sweaters were hard though, right?  He thinks he remembers reading something about that.  It will probably take her months to finish this and at least two more attempts to get the pattern right.  It was fine, he had time.  Panicking now was stupid.  If he had to remind himself of that every time she whipped out the orange monstrosity and her equally terrifying metal needles, well, there were worse phobias to have.  He’d read about those too.  The fact that it didn’t make her less attractive spoke volumes about his preservation instinct.  Denial was a versatile and many splendored thing, however, dish him up another plate of that. 

The scarf cum blanket was the size of a place mat when Sam walked out into the first truly nice day of spring.  It was Sunday and Quorra had fallen asleep knitting, and Sam was mostly just grateful at not having woken up sporting any additional holes on his person.  He spent the morning working on his dads Ducati and trying out denial for other facets of his life. 

            Sam kept waiting for her to leave.  It wasn’t rational, probably, and for all that happened on New Year’s and the new way they were around each other, Sam couldn’t help the clock counting down in his head.  Numbers getting closer and closer to zero and the inevitability of her realizing there was nothing holding her with him anymore pressing in tighter around him.  She was healed now, scarred, but full range of motion restored and they’d gone running like before.  Slower, both of them rusty from the forced hiatus, but it felt the same.  Even if they needed a bit more ice and ibuprofen afterwards right now. 

Sam rubbed his hands ineffectually on his pants to get rid of some of the grease before picking up a wrench again.  Quorra hadn’t said anything, hadn’t even hinted.  Even still, he waited.  It was only a matter of time now, he figured, no danger, no Grid.  She could go wherever she wanted, be whatever she wanted.  With everything that’d happened, there was a chance Quorra hadn’t figured out that she had the option to leave now.  She would though, Sam knew, and he wouldn’t be able to have this forever. 

At some point, and it would be sooner rather than later, it would be Sam alone in the house.  No one putting on Fern Gully and coaxing him into singing Batty’s parts with her, or looking at him completely despondent when he had to tell her that Aunt Jemima on the syrup container was probably dead too.  There would be no one to snort laughter at him or potentially maim him with knitting needles.  No one to run with, fall asleep with, wake up to.  It was going to wreck him. 

The wrench slipped in his grip and he nearly dinged the suspension trying to keep hold of it.  Shaking his head, Sam refocused on the belt drive in front of him; he’d cross that bridge when he came to it.  For now, they were going to the aquarium today and at some point there would be ice cream.  Sam refused to think beyond the now.  Sam heard Quorra curse followed by a thump, hopefully she hadn’t poked herself in the eye with her knitting needle.  Focus on now, he repeated to himself, now was pretty good.

...

            Quorra loved the aquarium.  There were sharks! And penguins!  The whole time, every one of her sentences had an exclamation point at the end of it.  She’d grabbed Sam’s hand the minute they got through the gate and then just hadn’t let go.  It was so much easier to get him to keep up with her when she had a hold of him.  Quorra touched a shark, a real shark, with teeth.  Sam had taken a photo but refused to put his hand anywhere in the water, saying something about tempting fate. 

Quorra hadn’t really understood the reference but he’d squeezed her hand while he said it, so she couldn’t find it in herself to care very much.  There were three flavours of ice cream on waffle cones while the sea otters played and pressed their noses up against the clear walls.  Children were everywhere, laughing and shouting and everything bright and colourful.  They would never stop being fascinating, there were no children on the Grid.  No babies. 

The first time she’d seen a baby it was a diaper commercial and she was standing with her hand against the screen without even realizing she’d gotten up off the sofa.  Sam had looked at her with a strange expression on his face, like he was happy and sad at the same time, which shouldn’t be possible.  She’s seen babies in real life by this point, in the shopping mall, getting groceries.  They were perfect miniature humans and Quorra could read- she knew how babies happened ( no really, stop looking so panicked Sam; I read a book about it).  So Quorra knew, the medical terms and the harsh terms and the Lora terms.  The latter were, for obvious reasons, her favourite. 

‘When you love somebody so much you almost wish there were two of them, just so you had somewhere to put it.’  She’d looked over at Alan when she’d said it, and everything Lora was feeling seemed to shine out of her face.  The second she’d said it, Quorra knew exactly what Lora meant.  Knew that Lora looked at Alan the way she looked at Sam.  Like there was all this love for him and her arms were overflowing with it.  Sam looked at her that way too.  Although sometimes it was like he caught himself doing it and stopped.  But that was before she’d gone back to the Grid. 

Sam looked at her like that all the time now, Quorra thought he might not even realize he was doing it.  He was doing it right now, while ice cream dripped down her hand and onto her arm because she’d gotten distracted by the otters.  Sam just leaned over and wiped off the liquefying ice cream with one of the flimsy tissue paper napkins the vendor had had next to the jars of sprinkles and chocolate sauce on the counter.  It was possible Quorra maybe had put both on her cone and now several faded sprinkles were working their way down her knuckles.  She really should have been paying more attention.

‘Can’t take you anywhere Q, you’re a bit of a disaster.’  He was grinning at her while he said it though, taking the sting out of the words.  And it wasn’t like this was new information.  Sam has seen her eat pasta before, also soup.  Both instances of which had ended with stains on clothes and at one point a piece of noodle in her hair.  Spaghetti was hard.  Quorra made it through the rest of her ice cream by diligently focussing on what was directly in front of her.         

There was a small mishap when the waffle cone cracked precariously down the middle, but there were more napkins, and the ice cream only dripped onto her leg once.  She was wearing shorts; it didn’t even count as a stain if you could just wipe it off.  Quorra was pretty sure that was a rule somewhere.  She made a mental note to check with Emily Post.  Once the cone was demolished, Quorra helped Sam gather up the small mountain of used napkins and dispose of them in the nearby trashcan.  The sun was past its zenith, but no less bright for it, so Quorra grabbed Sam’s hand again and walked him down the exhibits so they could look at all the tropical fish.  And also the tortoises.  Because Finding Nemo is priceless and Quorra loves it when Sam says ‘Killer wave bro.’ 

By the time they make their way up the stairs from the pacific gallery, the sky is bleeding purple red on the horizon and Quorra has to drag Sam over to the railing overlooking the marina, hand fisted in the sleeve of his shirt.  ‘Never gets old does it.’  Sam says, leaning so his forearms rest against the rail, she mirrors him and he winds their fingers together again. 

There’s something happening here, Quorra can feel it.  There’s a breeze coming off from the water and it catches Sam’s hair.  He turns his head to smile at her and Quorra can see the resemblance to Flynn in the crinkles around his eyes, in the stretch of his mouth wide and happy across his face.  ‘What?’ Sam asks, and she must be looking at him oddly, he starts touching his face, wiping around his mouth.  ‘Is there ice cream?’   Quorra raises her free hand and pulls his hand down by the wrist, lets it go, shaking her head.

“No, no, there’s nothing.  I was just thinking.”  Some of the humour goes out of Sam’s face but Quorra can’t guess why. 

‘About?’  He asks in a tone he probably thinks is casual but is anything but.  Quorra lifts a shoulder, tries to encompass the everything she’s referring to with the movement.  It doesn’t quite translate.

“Things.  Stuff,” she amends, looks out at the sun, burnt orange and cutting through the clouds as it sets, “you things.”   That doesn’t help though, just serves to make Sam look even more resigned, but he nods his head.  They’re quiet for long enough that the sun is half gone into the water.  When he speaks it comes out of nowhere and it takes Quorra a second to catch up.

‘You’re free now,’ Sam’s fingers press into the back of her hand, she’s pretty sure he’s forgotten he’s touching her, ‘you could do anything.’  Quorra nods, because this is true.

“I could.”  There are probably five things off the top of her head that she thinks she could do, and only two of them are from the Discovery Channel, but that’s not the point, Sam seems to be missing that.  “You’re right, I could do anything, but it wouldn’t be what I wanted.”  Sam is looking at her like she’s suddenly started speaking a different language. 

For someone who is so quick at making connections in every other area of his life, Sam is being remarkably obtuse here.  Quorra doesn’t even think it’s on purpose, which just serves to exasperate her and fill her with affection simultaneously.  It’s like he hasn’t been paying attention, if he had, he’d know.  She’s not going anywhere.  “I’m not going anywhere,” she says, “here is what I want.”  Sam still doesn’t look convinced though and Quorra pulls her hand out of his gently, lifts both of them up so she can frame his face like she did before leaping back into the Grid.  “This,” and she wiggles his head between her hands gently in emphasis, “is what I want.”  Sam doesn’t look relieved though, if anything he looks worse.

‘I won’t hold you back, Q, don’t stay here for me.’  Quorra has to laugh, or she might yell at him and this horrible misconception he’s been apparently operating under since they crawled out of the Grid almost 2 years ago.  She tugs his face close, make their noses bump until they line up next to each other properly, the little space between their eyebrows touching.

“I’m not,” and her voice is a bit ragged, because she doesn’t know how to convince him if he won’t believe what she says, “It’s not for you,” Quorra pushes closer, wants the pressure to help make her point, “it’s for us.”  They’re so close it’s an effort to keep from going cross eyed but Quorra keeps eye contact.  Wills him to hear what she’s saying, to hear the truth behind it.  Listen to me, she thinks forcefully in his direction, I love you, I love you-

‘I love you,’ Sam says, hands raised to cover hers, hold them in place, ‘I’m in love with you.’  Quorra exhales, feels the ache in her cheeks she’s grinning so hard.

“Yes.” Her fingers curve and dig in, Sam is going to have little crescent moons imprinted on the side of his face for sure.  There’s a flash in the corner of her eye as the sun dips below the horizon and closes the distance between them, lets the press of his mouth light up the circuits that cut paths through her brain.   I’m in love with you, it echoes in her head, and she thinks

Yes, exactly that.