Notes: Good lord, haha, my apologies to all the wonderful folks who have been faithfully commenting and following this fic. I love you all, I seriously do, and you really do make a difference - I may take forever to post a chapter, but you guys keep it from becoming "never". Thank you so much!
Sorry, this is more of a stage-setting chapter than a plot-moving one, but I'll get there, promise!
Chapter 8 - Honey, I'm Home!
When Sam had been young, witnessing the dawn had always come with a little lurch of panic. It meant broken rules, lectures about poor judgment, even potential groundings depending on what day of the week it was and who was on hand to deliver the reprimand.
When he was older, the dawn had dragged with it a weary finality; it was the signal of a night spent too long partying, on coding, on whatever the hell he was doing except sleeping the sleep of the righteous and responsible, heralding a new day that he would spend half of in bed if he was lucky, or listening to someone else's disappointment if he was not.
So, no, the dawn and he were not exactly on speaking terms; more often than not, he tried to slink by and pretend that they never passed each other in the hallway. But this once, perhaps, he could acknowledge that he was out and about in its presence, and not be embarrassed to subscribe to every new age platitude and motivational poster lauding its power of renewal in existence.
After all, he had survived a long nightmare to return home, whole and safe, feeling far more settled in his own skin than he could ever remember. Had managed, against all odds, to break an even longer nightmare - discovered his father's secret, found his father, even brought his father back. There was a miracle riding pillion behind him, all but buzzing with excitement and wonder, too overwhelmed to even ask her usual slew of questions and just soaking in everything about the world. Yeah, there were still some issues left, but with the crisp wind in his face and the soft light banishing the world's harsher edges, they all seemed insignificant and manageable in the face of everything else that had happened …
And then he returned home, and reality woke him with a sharp slap across the face.
" - lotta nerve, buster! And Flynn, don't you even think about - "
" - what you - Lora, please, just calm down for - !"
The sounds filtered through as soon as the garage door started rolling up to the ceiling. Voices, high and strident; an insane amount of barking; and a dry, wheezing guffaw, as if someone was having an asthma attack. Quorra's arms had gone tight and tense around him, but otherwise, she remained just as motionless and mute as he was while his living room was revealed by slow increments.
Marvin was barking hard enough that his little body jumped with each high-pitched yap. Lora stood crouched upon the sofa, a cushion held before her like a shield while the other hand held a - was that his table lamp? - high above her head, ready to cast. His father, looking harried and rumpled and human in a way that Sam had never noticed was missing on the Grid, had both hands up placatingly, swaying to intercept each of her attempts to see around him. Clu was doubled-over as much as his bonds allowed him to be, looking as if he might asphyxiate himself at any moment with his own mirth.
Tron was where the coffee table had been, the furniture now skidded off-kilter, the program sprawled upon his rear with legs akimbo and one hand braced behind him, the other held to one side of his face. He was staring - staring at someone for once, at Lora specifically - eyes so wide and frozen that Sam couldn't help remembering how Quorra had looked when she had lost her arm, and wondered if programs could crash while in the real world.
He automatically jerked to attention at Lora's snap. Biting back a reflexive denial of culpability, he quickly swung off his bike and slid toward the knot of people as if he was approaching the open door of a tiger's cage. "Okay, okay, just - everyone, just calm down, everything'll be alright - "
Lora pinned a single, incredulous look on him.
Sam winced sheepishly. "Hey, look, I'm doing the best I can, okay? Just put the weap-my light, just put my light down, and let's talk it out like … like … adults and stuff." He could feel himself flushing automatically at her narrowed look, and then felt his face burn even more at the juvenile reaction he had yet to shake in the face of her disapproval. "C'mon, I'm trying here, give me a break," he finally declared in exasperation.
Lora's gaze rested on him for a moment longer before swinging to Kevin, and at the man's soulfully imploring look, she finally rolled her eyes and let her hands drop with something that sounded suspiciously like a disgusted, "Flynns," muttered beneath her breath.
Sam rocked back on his heels with a long exhale as the woman batted away Kevin's solicitously extended hand and descended from the couch on her own. Quorra had crouched next to Tron in the meantime, and though there was a quiet one-way murmur going on, Sam couldn't catch what was actually being said. It was enough, though, to finally get the former security program moving - Quorra straightened and stepped back as Tron pushed himself to his feet.
The program's head was turned blatantly aside now, rather than angled at its usually subtle slant, gaze completely averted. Sam could see a wide, red mark just beginning to bloom on the left cheek - he suspected it would correspond roughly with the width of Lora's knuckles. Between that and the scabbed over cut on his brow, Tron was beginning to look like a victim of battery and abuse.
"Christ." Sam rubbed a hand over his face. "So, what the hell happened?"
"I was brainstorming with Bradley on how to keep you out of jail and - "
"I came over with the clothes like Alan asked and this imposter - "
In the background there was a distinctly amused and unimpressed snort, and Sam stabbed a finger in Clu's general direction without bothering to look. "Don't you start," he growled through a building headache. "Wait, hold on, what's this about jail? That's supposed to be past tense - "
"The board's come up with some new scheme to remove you and Bradley's trying to work damage control - "
"Flynn, I think that can wait for the thirty seconds it takes for you to explain why someone is impersonating a thirty-year-old version of my husband - not to mention you - and then tried to kiss me - "
Sam's brain tripped over itself. "He - Tron - what?" Too baffled to even wonder at the sudden, stoic silence from his father's corner, he stared at the program. "Do you even know what a kiss is?"
There was a splutter from Lora's direction, but it was Quorra, standing just behind Tron's shoulder, who unexpectedly piped up with a scoffing, "Even I know what a kiss is."
Feeling strangely unmoored, Sam asked faintly, "Why do you know that?"
Kevin cut in with sudden haste. "Hey, even the classics talked about people kissing - "
"And when I asked what it was, Flynn showed me," Quorra finished brightly.
Sam choked. Lora's arm swung with unerring accuracy. Kevin staggered beneath the cushion's impact, both arms raised, voice emerging meek and muffled. "It was just a demo!"
Giddy and half-hysterical, Sam asked, "What, did you give a demo to Tron too?"
Half his hair standing on end from the cushion's swipe, Kevin straightened with a wary glance Lora's way and answered with as much dignity as he could muster, "Of course not. He learned it from Yori."
"Yori," Lora echoed, tight and controlled. "And who is Yori?"
"Oh, well … ancient history. Way before Jordan. All the way back in '82, in fact … "
Movement distracted Sam from his father's mumbled prevarications. Tron had canted his head toward the conversation, displaying an atypical interest, and there was just the subtlest lean of his body toward Lora that, at any other time, Sam would have interpreted as threat. Except … Sam had to swallow around suspicion, congealing thick and heavy in his middle.
Tron had, apparently, learned the behavior from another program. A program written by another user, back at the original Encom. And just what were the odds that programs, who seemed to inherit the most intrinsic traits of their users, wouldn't have also inherited this most basic of connections … ?
He was saved from further metaphysical headaches by the rumble of an approaching car and sudden screech of tires just outside, but found himself tensing all the same. True, he had no neighbors, but the wharf was not completely abandoned, particularly on a weekday morning. Wincing, he was already trying to line up the most palatable explanation for the scene in his living room - an oddly-attired Clu, duct-taped to a chair; a furious Lora who had been obviously assaulting a much-chastened Kevin; a battered and shell-shocked Tron, and Quorra clad in his ill-fitting sweats - before relaxing with a grateful wheeze when he turned to find it was only Alan, already stumbling out of his car, not even bothering to turn off the ignition.
"Oh thank god, Lora, you haven't killed him yet - "
"What?" Lora said, low and dangerous. "You know something about what's going on?"
Alan grimaced, approaching his wife in much the same posture as all the males had done - hands raised, head down, utterly cowed. "Uhm, yes dear, but I promise it was just a few hours ago - you hardly missed anything … " he tried gamely.
"Aren't you supposed to be talking the board down right now?" Kevin interjected, bemused.
Alan winced again and glared. "I pulled the fire alarm."
"Bradley," Kevin said, looking delighted. "I'm impressed."
"Well, I'm not," Alan shot back. "False alarm penalties aside, I shouldn't have even needed - !"
They all jumped when Lora clapped sharply and declared, "Boys!" Leveling a glare on all those present, she had only to command, "Alan Bradley … " before Sam's godfather sighed and stepped in.
"Sam, why don't you and Quorra see about getting Clu changed into something else. Flynn, time for iteration two of your story … "
" … drove us back. We secured Clu, I gave Bradley the download, and that's where we are now."
Kevin's brows arched as he eyed Lora eyeing him back, and Alan could feel it coming; that sixth sense that went with having a life partner for nigh on thirty years stiffening his spine until he could barely cringe when the man finally turned to him and beamed. "There, see, Bradley? She did take it better than - "
"I'll … uh, get breakfast started," Alan muttered beneath his breath, hastily pushing himself out of his seat.
"Kevin Flynn, you - you selfish, idiot bastard! Do you even know what you've - "
Sighing, Alan deliberately loosened his shoulders as his wife's voice fell behind him and eyed the rest of the bodies clustered nearby. Sam was right, the place was feeling a little crowded by now. As he pondered the probability of passing the 'newcomers' - and any strange behavioral tics - off as foreigners with odd customs if his neighbors got nosy, he nodded toward the newly secured Clu, now clad in a t-shirt and another set of sweatpants, feet incongruously bare beneath them. "You got him?"
"Yeah, though I'm starting to run out of duct tape," Sam grouched, and when he glared at Clu, the administrator gave an eerily similar glare back.
Like father, like son, except with some binary code and two missing decades in between. Alan had to suppress the shudder that wanted to creep down his spine. "Okay, great, I'm going to get some food started then since pure caffeine's not gonna cut it for much longer," he said as he began herding Quorra and Tron before him. "Maybe you can start thinking about some other ways to secure him? Don't think we can just keep him taped to a chair all the time."
"Why not?" Sam grumbled, but was already stumping toward his work area and dragging out his toolbox as Alan finally segregated the other programs into the attached kitchen.
Alan considered his two charges - an attentive, obviously curious Quorra, and a distant, but at least obedient Tron. They were all lucky that it was Lora's turn to be in Seattle this week and was available to take a look at the laser, but until that was repaired, the programs were stuck here.
In which case, first things first. "So, have either of you ever used a stove?" he asked as he rolled up his sleeves.
It turned out things needed to be even more basic than that. He gained a fresh handful of white hairs when Quorra picked up a knife for the first time, and he discovered that 'hardcoded sharp edges' were a completely new concept. Tron had followed his defrosting instructions to the letter, and Alan had been forced to pause, bemused, as he listened to his own voice with the odd, rumbling undertones instruct the microwave to cook "three minutes, medium power" while the program stared expectantly at the inert box.
Ingredients and recipes had been an exercise in frustration until Quorra exclaimed, "Oh, it's a makefile!" and even Tron's usually impassive mien perked up a bit at the epiphany. Heat had been another gray-inducing notion - at least the sullen red glow of the stove was a warning that the programs could appreciate, from Quorra's descriptions of the light-limned weapons of the Grid. But the possibility of damage from a visibly unchanged pan that had been sitting atop a burner was a grievance that had been taken on an inordinately personal level. He could have sworn he heard 'virus' muttered at one point, but was too exhausted by then to try and chase down the context.
By the end of the experience, six omelettes-cum-scrambles were sitting steaming on the counter, two half-burnt and one slightly undercooked. Alan felt like he had pulled two all-nighters instead of merely one, and wondered how he could have ever been naive enough to think that no one was more difficult to handle than Sam on the cusp of his teenaged years. But he had gotten to know the two a little better, learned a bit more about their world, and maybe even started feeling a bit of wistfulness for having missed experiencing the Grid for its own sake, rather than just as a safety net for Kevin.
It sounded like Lora was finally winding down. Their voices had dropped into unintelligibility, with Kevin's tone grudging and resigned to Lora's low-key anxiety and exasperation. When Alan saw his wife reach out to pull their long-lost friend into a fierce hug, he nudged Quorra. "Why don't you go let everyone know that breakfast's ready?"
"Okay," she acknowledged promptly, and Alan couldn't help the curl of his lips at her enthusiasm. It had been a long time since Sam had grown up, and he had forgotten how much an innocent's perspective made everything new and fresh again.
Alan felt his mood take a dip just as abruptly though, when he gave a sidelong glance toward his remaining pupil. He still wasn't sure what he was most disturbed by - Tron's uncanny resemblance to his younger self, or the obvious mental imbalance - but he had made his best efforts to reach out to the program. Quorra had hardly needed any encouragement at all, but Tron had shown even less initiative than the standard stable of union workers, and had carried out his assigned tasks with a confusing slew of hot-cold signals. Sometimes Alan thought the program could barely stand to be in his presence, while at others, he could have sworn Tron could hardly wait for his next few words.
"Hey, stop slouching so much," he prompted with a gentle slap to Tron's back, and the program startled visibly, gaze meeting his for a rare, fleeting moment before sliding off-center again. But at least the spine had obediently straightened and the shoulders pulled back; in fact, the pose looked almost militaristic in its squared-off intensity, and Alan snorted. "You never do things by halves, do you? Come on," he shoved a plate into each of Tron's hands, "let's go set the table."