A/N: ...and we're done. Hope you guys have enjoyed the experience as much as I have; I've had a lot of fun going through this.
Much, much thanks to all who've been reviewing, especially those of you who've put in the effort for longer comments. You are quite definitely what motivated me to keep working and update quickly. Additional thanks to those on the meme who provided encouragement when I was writing it little chunks at a time; those people (and the awesome prompter) are why this story exists at all.
...End of Line?
The dark water rushed up below. Clu's poison. Flynn's hope. Clu had corrupted it so long ago, in a place not much different from this—and he had failed to stop it. He could have. He was capable of so much more, then.
But he had failed to act. Let Clu destroy the Sea. Destroy the ISOs. Betray Flynn. He had failed to fight hard enough. Let himself be warped and limited and ruined until he couldn't win. Couldn't fight at all.
Until this was all he was.
Yellow fury burned outside the dark shell of his helmet, and he could feel Clu stiffening, shock and rage twisting the form in his grasp. Too late. He couldn't fight, but he could fall. Couldn't strike out, couldn't derezz his destroyer. But he could hold on. Could grasp Clu, pull him close as they both dropped towards the end.
It was all he could do.
The snarling face disappeared, helmet sectioning over it in pieces, melding seamlessly in the space of nanocycles. This visage was hardly better—it still called to broken commands, corrupted protocol twisting inside. Pressing him to obey, submit, bow for repairs and be filtered, restricted. Caged. Like so many times before. The sickening fury/shame/uncertainty still surged through his processing, conflicting directives trying to delete, rewrite, block each other out. I'm gaining ground. He almost laughed. It didn't matter now. None of it mattered. Helmet and armor might give some shield against the virus, stop Clu derezzing of his own corruption. But the Sea was deep, shattered code blinding, currents broken and fragmented. Clu would be lost, uncontrolled, float forever in the unending glitches.
Tron would be lost.
The program smiled. Tron had been lost for hundreds of cycles. Since he had failed to fight. Failed to stop Clu. Failed at so much. What he'd done, what he'd become… No. He wrenched his thoughts away. Redirected. This was what he deserved. What he wanted. What he'd expected since he found himself in the sky. Crashed above the water. Even then, he had failed to fight back. He would have fallen. Been glad to fall.
The user had needed him. Stayed with him. Fought for him. Fought to save him. The program's eyes flickered, sharp, painful loss cracking through the dull regret. Sam had refused to leave. Refused to let go. Had made him think, if only briefly, that he could be himself again. Had refused to let him think otherwise.
He hadn't looked away, not even at the end.
He should let go. The program knew that. But the wish was a lie he couldn't bring himself to hope. Sam cared. Would be hurt. Had been hurt, for his sake. But no matter how illogical the thought, no matter how much better it would be, he couldn't wish for the user's indifference. He was glad Sam had cared (so desperately glad), even as he regretted the pain it would cause.
The smile twitched faintly. He was imperfect like that.
The water was there. Clu, shoving, striking, pushing away. And Tron laughed as he let go, orange mask bleeding from his circuits, because it didn't matter. Nothing mattered anymore. And he watched the shifting waves, the seething data as the yellow program crossed the line, and Tron fell, found his own boundary between air and Sea and—
Jerked, body spasming around the bright line of pain across his chest. Cutting into him, immobilizing, and Tron's head snapped back inside its black confinement to stare behind.
His eyes widened.
He was alone. Safe. Clu was gone.
Tron was gone.
Sam's breaths came in jagged bursts as he stared across the clifftop. Black rock. Dark sky. Empty.
This isn't happening.
But it was, it always was, and his fists curled on the broken stone below as it hit him. Despair, panic, desperate refusal. No no no no no… Tron had done it again. But he hadn't just risked himself for Sam, hadn't just been hurt (this time). He'd thrown himself away.
He hadn't wanted it, hadn't asked for it, but what difference did that make? It was Tron. He fought for the users. Even Clu couldn't break him of that, not in the end. He'd fought for Flynn, crashed to save all of them, stepped between Sam and danger again and again.
Why the hell did he do that?
Sam's vision blurred, frustration catching in his throat with a rough sound. Tron didn't have to. He could have run, could have left. Could even have joined Clu willingly. The yellow program's words echoed mockingly through Sam's head. 'He took the hit for you.'
He shouldn't have.
Tron, grey-blue eyes wide as he stared at the world unblocked by Rinzler's mask. Circuits glowing, expression uncertain as he returned Sam's gaze. Tron smiling, faint and rare but fucking beautiful to see. He was just beginning to smile, to be himself after… centuries? That's what Quorra had said.
And now he was gone, taking Clu with him as he threw it all away. Threw himself away. For Sam.
His head snapped up. Quorra's voice. And fuck, he was so glad to hear her, so glad to know that she was safe. That Clu had lied. About that. But somehow the hollow ache didn't leave his chest. He pushed himself up anyway, twisted unsteadily to look around.
She wasn't there.
"Sam!" Sharper, louder. Strained. He could hear it, and he turned, but that doesn't make…
He froze. Then he moved, running, tripping, stumbling towards the edge.
And there was Quorra, face pained and anxious as she stared up from under the rough overhang. She was holding on, he had no idea how, one arm up, grabbing at the rock near the lip, lower body somehow wedged in beneath the edge.
Her other arm reached down. Gripped her baton, held inwards, flat against her forearm. A blue-white cord extended from the rod, wrapping around her wrist several times before it stretched down towards the water. Where it… stopped, just above the waves, coiled around something dark. Someone.
And Sam stared, shocked and disbelieving and fucking incredulous with joy as Tron looked up, blue light reflecting of the helmet, spreading across the program's form as the orange faded from his circuits. And Sam's could feel the crazy grin splitting his face, because Tron was there, and Quorra was there, and—
Right. His throat tightened with urgency, and he crouched down, braced, reached out to grab the ISO's shaking arm. She gripped back, and he heaved, pulling up Quorra as she pulled up Tron. They came over the cliff in a heap of tangled limbs, and Sam laughed, winced at the pain in his ribs but grinned anyways. He looked at Quorra, cut dark across her jaw as a smile spread with tired satisfaction. Looked at Tron, the program's head jerking sideways, helmet folding back to a look of utter confusion. Sam grabbed them both and pulled them closer, grip desperately tight.
They sat like that for a while, half-broken user and two half-broken programs. Sam's breaths came ragged and shallow, worse with the pressure, but he wasn't letting go, he wasn't ever letting go of them again. It didn't have to make sense.
Quorra's voice was muffled against his shoulder, and he reluctantly gave her space as she pulled back slightly, no longer leaning on him. She was damp—not her face or head, but small droplets trickled down her black suit. Her head tilted as she examined him. "You appear to be injuring yourself."
Tron's head lifted at the words, gaze dropping to Sam's side. The program shifted, drew away, expression tensing. Oh, hell no. Sam grabbed him closer.
"No you don't. I'm fi—" he paused, sudden intake of breath making him grimace. "Okay, shit, it hurts. But you're not going anywhere."
"Sam—" Tron was still trying to pull back, if more carefully.
"No. No—" arguing, he'd meant to say arguing.
The noise that came out of his mouth was entirely less coherent as his hand found the round circuits on the program's back. There was a flashing surge, and Sam was suddenly acutely aware of their points of contact. The way the panels of light down his front pressed against Tron, the vivid shock where the lines on his arm brushed the blue-lit accents to the side of the program's chest. A wave of sensation rippled through him, and he was glowing, the light of his own circuits blazing brilliant white as the electric pulse left him lightheaded.
If the strangled gasp and fluctuating blue flare was anything to go by, Tron was at least as affected. As the program shook in his arms (or maybe he was shaking in Tron's), the distant fragment of his rational mind stilled in understanding.
Sam thought about it.
Well, he stopped arguing.
Their lights had mostly steadied, but the program was still trembling faintly. Sam wondered if it was the circuits or just the shock of everything catching up. He held Tron either way, marveling at the solid weight of the program in his grasp, the soft brush of his hair on Sam's face as Tron rested against his shoulders. Yeah… it was still hitting Sam that they were both here and safe. Tron probably had it ten times as bad.
He glanced up.
Quorra was looking at them.
Her face was mostly even. Mouth closed, features still. But there was something about the angle of her head, the slight widening of her large eyes, that managed to convey… well, a lot of surprise. She blinked slowly. Gave a small shake of her head. Sam wondered if this was the program equivalent of a facepalm.
She'd drawn back at some point, and now pushed herself up slowly. Sam opened his mouth, but she cut him off, a bemused smile flickering faintly across her expression. "I'll find your disk. You really shouldn't leave it lying around."
Sam looked at her, a variety of awkward, apologetic, indignant, and anxious responses coming to mind. He'd nearly settled on 'don't go anywhere' when he was beaten to the chance.
"Wait." Tron seemed to have regained his composure. His grey-blue eyes were intent as he stared up at Quorra, head tilted.
He wasn't asking about the disk. Quorra gazed back, impassive, and their similarity caught Sam off-guard. Or maybe it was just seeing two unblinking programs stare at each other. Definitely weird.
Quorra's voice was carefully even. "I'm coming to believe that… removing oneself from the equation isn't always for the best." Her mouth quirked upwards as her eyes flicked briefly from Tron. "And Sam's bad at letting go."
Sam had a vague feeling he should object, but it would be difficult to manage while still clinging to Tron. And that wasn't changing. Tron's sideways glance seemed to reach the same conclusion, and he smiled faintly as Quorra turned to move off. Wait, Sam had meant to…
"I won't go far." She didn't bother hiding the amusement in her tone as she gave a vague wave behind and kept going. Sam watched her uneven steps, unable to completely lose the anxiety—Tron wasn't the only one who kept getting hurt because of him. But she settled well in sight, crouching to inspect the rocky ground.
Sam turned back to Tron. The program had been looking at him, gaze flickering across his body. At Sam's regard, Tron's grey-blue stare came up to meet his own, full of something he didn't know quite how to interpret.
"Are you all right?"
Sam's eyebrows rose. Really?
"I'm not the one who just jumped off a cliff. And Clu…" He shook his head. "Are you okay?"
Tron's gaze unfocused for a moment, then he nodded, mouth an unhappy line. "Under… most circumstances… an active program has some control over how their disk syncs. Clu didn't think that applied to me."
Which means it didn't, before. And Tron had knowingly risked… Fuck. Sam pushed the thoughts back. Hating Clu more wasn't going to do anything now. Besides…
"I'm glad—really, really glad—it did." He waited until Tron's eyes met his. "But that's not what I meant. Are you okay?"
The program blinked. He opened his mouth, then hesitated. Closed it. He looked at Sam for a long moment. Then Tron nodded, a small smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. "I think so. Yes." His voice was unsteady. Drained.
But he was smiling.
"…Fuck." Sam pulled Tron closer, grip desperately tight as he blinked back moisture. "Don't you ever—do anything like—like that. Ever again." It wasn't okay. Hadn't been, and he was so furious and so glad and… it just hurt.
He could feel Tron's tension. The program held him back, more cautiously, gently, though the blue-lit hands on Sam's side and back clenched, loosened, grasped him again with restrained urgency. But he could see the strain in Tron's expression too, the conflicted unhappiness as he struggled to respond.
"It… I—I couldn't do anything else." The words were bleak.
"You could have run! Damn it, Tron, you could've left." The program shook his head slightly, started to reply, but Sam was not hearing it. Not now.
"Clu came for you. That's why he was here! He could care less about me—he fucking admitted I had to stay alive!" Tron's eyes were dark as he tried to cut in, but Sam kept going. "And I don't care what he would've done, it couldn't have been worse than…"
Fuck. He couldn't get the images out of his head. Tron—Rinzler in the arena cage. On Clu's ship. On the Rectifier. Head bowed, hands rigidly tight. Faceless aggression, voiceless noise. And again on the clifftop, circuits dull orange, corrupted rattle empty as the black mask turned up towards Clu. It didn't even matter that it had been a trick, that Tron had been waiting beneath the shell. Because it could so easily have been real.
He fixed on the grey-blue eyes. "You could have run. You could've… fuck, Tron…"
Tron looked back at him, gaze intense. His mouth opened slowly. If he answers with some 'user' line, I'll scream. Yes, Tron fought for the users. But damn it, he was more than that, too. Clu was wrong. He had to be wrong. Tron had a choice. Sam stared at the program. …Don't.
Tron didn't. He paused for a moment, watching Sam silently. The faint smile was back, but subtly different. Challenging. Almost amused. Tron's voice had a strange note in it, surprise and warmth mixed with something stronger.
"You didn't run."
But… oh. Sam closed his eyes. Because what the hell could he say?
He felt the program shift in his hold, and his grasp tightened frantically before he made himself let up. Damn it, but he was so panicked, so stupid with need and painful terror. He couldn't lose Tron, couldn't let him throw himself away—no matter the reason. Tron had no idea how much he mattered.
A huffing breath of soft laughter brushed his cheek. The program hadn't been moving back.
Sam opened his eyes. Tron's face was inches from his own, features cast an almost ethereal blue-white in the mingled light of their circuits. He stared at Sam, head tilted slightly as his mouth twitched in something too painfully desperate to be called a smile. The program hesitated.
Then Tron kissed him.
His lips were soft, a gentle press against Sam's own. Insistent, brief—and Tron drew back, expression uncertain.
Sam followed him.
Blue-white light flared as he found Tron's mouth again—then Sam half-yelped as a ripple of sensation pulsed across his body. Tron was grasping him gently, hands trailing down the long circuits down his back, and the program laughed softly as Sam's head jerked up at the jolting contact.
Right. Sam retaliated, finding the bent blue lines near the side of the dark suit and pressing, feeling hot electricity prickle across the connection. The program's circuits surged, and Tron's sharp gasp opened his mouth enough for Sam to move back in.
His tongue poked between their lips, but it wasn't fair; Tron was reaching, tracing, blue-lit fingers sparking contact along Sam's suit in a way that made it impossible to concentrate. A touch found the junction of lines and circle by his hip, and Sam shuddered at the wave of pleasure, white glow blazing as he resisted the urge to pull away and swear. Tron's eyes smirked at him, and Sam's own gaze narrowed.
He slid his hands around the program, one reaching up behind Tron's head while the other felt downwards. Sam hit the circles low in back, and Tron's eyes widened. Then it was the program's turn to tip his head up with a harsh intake of breath as Sam's left hand found what he'd been looking for. The vertical stripe at the back of Tron's neck—not quite a continuation of the line he'd first set off removing the helmet. Close enough. He grinned at Tron as the blue eyes seemed to flicker with light, shifted his gaze to the four squares below the program's throat.
Sam lowered his head, stared fascinated at the pulsing 'T'. His mouth twitched upwards, then closed against the shape, tongue flicking out to taste the pricking hum of power. The force of it stunned him, crackling in his mouth as Tron trembled. The program was making rough, shocky little noises—or maybe Sam was, as Tron's touch traced unsteadily up the lines to Sam's shoulders, feathered down the panels on his front. And he couldn't stand it anymore, and then they were pressing together, just holding each other, shaking and laughing and there.
And that was everything, somehow.
It was several minutes before Sam trusted his tone enough to speak. Not that he minded. He watched Tron, felt the program's warmth against him, listened to a faint even humming that seemed to come from his center. Tron watched him right back, eyes impossibly bright, reflecting Sam's glow.
"Are you—do you want to come back with us?" His voice was still uneven, but Sam couldn't bring himself to care. "Through the portal?"
Tron didn't answer right away, and Sam glanced down as he struggled to contain the want behind the question. And the painful disappointment when the program shook his head.
"Not now." Sam's gaze came up. Tron was smiling at him, expression blending the recent smirk with something that ran much deeper. "Though you make a convincing argument."
Sam was pretty sure he could make a better one. …Definitely up for trying.
"Clu's… gone." There was a world of emotion in the words, disbelief and joy. Pain. Edged satisfaction. Wonder. Tron's look was distant, and then he met Sam's eyes again. "There's… a lot of things are going to change. Quickly. I want to help that happen. Make sure…"
"Make sure it works out well." Sam understood. Tron was too damn selfless for his own good—and probably still dealing with the stupid self-blame. But that didn't make what he said less true. He'd been the Grid's protector. And maybe that was what it needed now.
What they both needed.
"…I guess I'll just have to visit. A lot." Sam could deal with that.
Tron laughed, and the sound was so damn beautiful. "I'd like that."
They sat there for a while in silence. There were things Sam wanted to say, to ask, but it was tangled up and complicated, and he couldn't find the words. And that was okay. They were okay. And that was really all that mattered.
Tron looked up first, then the sound of steps hit Sam's ears and he turned his own head. Quorra was there, his disk in hand, eyes bright with excitement. Amused resignation flickered across her features as she stared down at the pair of them, but her voice brimmed with eager readiness, intense gaze meeting Sam's own as she passed the disk over. "Are you ready?"
Sam took it with a nod of thanks, gave her a quizzical look. Glanced at Tron—back to Tron; he hadn't spent much time looking away. The program shrugged.
Quorra stared at them, head tilting slightly, then shaking in faint disbelief. "…Both of you?" Yep, definitely a facepalm. She sighed. "Look!" Sam turned.
Across the sea, a bright star had risen. The white light spilled across the air, a beacon. A promise.
Quorra's face was alight with joy, hope and wonder radiant as she smiled at him. "Ready to try again?"
Sam looked up at her, unable to stop grinning. She was amazing. And she would have so much to see and wonder at. This is definitely going to be great. He nearly laughed as her look turned expectant. Right, should answer that.
He gathered his legs under him and pushed up unsteadily. Then he nearly fell over. Somehow he'd been distracted recently (he couldn't imagine how), but his side still stabbed sharply as he tried to breathe in deep, and… something was wrong with his head. Right, he'd hit it. Hard. More than once? The world tilted a lot more than he felt like it should, and he swayed before an arm caught him gently. He blinked, focused, and Tron was there, holding him up, steadying. The program smiled, expression faintly wistful, but mostly just glad. So, so glad.
"Sam?" Quorra sounded concerned.
"I'm good," he replied, looking back at Tron.
"Are you ready?" She's so ready. He grinned.
He drew Tron close one more time.
Not that they'd ever let go.