A/N: I'm taking a break from my original work for NaNo and working on some fanfiction, so here we go! Thank you for all your patience, my friends. Also thanks to Fab and Odat for helping me edit this. ; u;
The Update supplied a patch to facilitate easier transitions in and out of the code. Maka wasn't really sure how it got there- she assumed that the organic phantom code was responsible- but coming back to the Meister body was now almost seamless. Phasing in and out of the webbed code came with only brief disorientation. It needed more polish to be combat-ready, but Maka was confident that she and Soul could start tackling the System at last.
When she'd first entered the code, it had given her the illusion of a complete web, but as she spent more time within, she realized that it was rather incomplete. Large sections of the code seemed to be burned off or simply absent, leaving the web more insecure in its wake. The enclosure that housed the Meister program was relatively safe, but as Maka ventured further into the inner workings of the System, it became more difficult for her to navigate without running the risk of corrupting her own code. Without knowing the context of what she needed to fix, Maka was uncertain of how to proceed without further complicating matters.
Soul had a theory, however:
"If we can reclaim Stein, we might have a shot at this." He was hunched over his crudely drawn map, eyebrows furrowed. Maka stood beside him, arm still braced on his shoulder from her last jaunt into the code. Though she no longer needed the support, she found comfort in the contact. She pointedly ignored the warning bells that went off in her head; things were too complicated for her to try and sort out the ethics of maybe liking the program too much for her own good.
"Reclaim him?" She tilted her head, meeting Soul's eyes for a brief moment.
"I don't have the power to delete another program," he explained, pointing to a spot on the map. "So when Stein became a threat, I blocked his access to both myself and the Meister. We had discussed the possibility of this happening in the past, though, and Stein had supposedly built himself a catchall."
"So if things went according to plan…"
"He should be here," he tapped the map again with a long finger. "But we honestly don't know for sure. We need to be prepared for the possibility that he's not here at all."
"Do you know what St/In's catchall was?" Soul gave her an irritated look over her verbal slip. Rolling her eyes, she muttered a quick 'sorry.' He continued through somewhat thinner lips:
"Not really. He told me that it would be a building and that I would know it when I saw it. He said that no matter how corrupted he became, so long as he was still himself, he could never resist it." Soul leaned back, causing Maka's hand to fall from his shoulder. It dangled in the space between them.
"So our first priority is to find the catchall?"
Soul nodded. The hand that had been tapping at the map ran through his hair again. "If we have Stein, we will have informational access to virtually all of the system. It will make our job a lot easier." Uncertainty filled his voice. "The problem is that I have no idea how we're gonna recover him."
"I can handle that," Maka said. The determination in her voice was strong. "I've been able to examine sections of the contaminated code and it should be pretty simple for me to be able to go in and alter it." She caught herself running a hand through her hair, mirroring Soul's movement. He was leaning against the table, staring down at the map intensely. He was there. In human (or something close to it) form. A program. A program that made her feel more sexually interested than any other man had for at least a year.
Something broke inside of her. Laughter bubbled forth, echoing loudly in the room. Maka tried to silence the racket, but she couldn't help it; the situation she had found herself in was just so ludicrously impossible. Here she was, in the body of a program she had unknowingly written for herself, accidentally picking up the mannerisms of her security software.
Said software looked at her in concern as she curled in on herself, choking breathlessly on her laughter. Red light washed over her shoulders as he hovered over her in concern. Maka tried to wave him off, but seeing his baffled face made her laugh even more; she had to use the table to help support herself. Beside her, Soul was making a concerned hum that sounded amusingly similar to the one that had filled her apartment for the past few weeks. Maka hiccoughed.
"I—I'm okay, Soul, just—eheh—give me a couple minutes so that I can…" Maka tried to calm the spasms in her stomach, reminding herself that she didn't need to breathe. All attempts to take deep breaths just came out airless, making it harder for her to stop the laughter; Soul's wide-eyed look wasn't helping. "You look like both the deer and the headlights," she giggled.
"I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about, but you're scaring me, Meister. Is your code malfunctioning?" He rested his hand between her shoulder blades, applying a gentle but comforting pressure. Maka tried to shoot him an irritated look, but judging by the twitching of his lips, she assumed that the attempt had gone awry.
"My name is Maka."
Soul drew closer, his other hand moving to cup the side of her face. Maka stilled as she felt his forehead press against the nape of her neck. He made a noise that might have been a sigh and murmured into her skin:
His voice was muffled by her hair, masking its typical electronic filter. The sound of it seemed to vibrate in her bones. Soul held himself impossibly still, careful to keep a small distance between his body and her own— only his hand and his forehead touching her. Maka's own vestigial breathing halted, the last of her mirth draining away as she felt the warmth emanating from him.
"Please what?" Her voice was surprisingly calm, though her wavering undertone betrayed her uncertainty. The fingers along her face lightly stroked her cheekbone.
And then he was gone. Soul stepped back from her, a smile curving at his lips. It broke into a full grin when Maka angrily whirled on him.
"What the hell was all that about?"
Soul attempted calm disinterest, but failed to conceal his amusement. "I dunno. Maybe it had to do with the fact that you needed to calm the hell down?"
Maka threw her hands into the air in frustration. She jabbed a finger in his chest. "Aren't you even a little bit alarmed by all this?"
The look of genuine confusion again. "All of what?"
"This," Maka said emphatically, "my being here, in this form. That we're now about to trek out to recover the database program so that we can track down another program that went rogue because he's paranoid." She took a deep, airless breath. "All of this is just so weird. You guys were supposed to just be numbers." As if cold, she wrapped her arms around herself and tried not to shake.
His face softened as he hummed in a comforting tone and took the hand that she'd used to poke him in the chest and enveloped it with his own.
"Maka, I am sure that this is very strange for you. And I am sure that if I were in your world, I would be equally as overwhelmed. But this is the way we live and this is the system that you spent all this time constructing. Protecting you has always been my purpose," he raised their joined hands to his lips and gently kissed her knuckles, "and I promise that I will fulfill that purpose with honor."
Soul's chivalry turned to cowardice when it came time for them to leave his enclosure.
"Uh, Maka?" He hovered beside her shoulder, flickering smile betraying his nervousness. The glow of his eyes seemed brighter. "Are you sure you don't need to…you know…do a few more runs in and out of the code before we leave?"
Maka gave him an offhand look before returning to the keyboard in the wall to finish a message to Black*Star. "Yeah, I'm sure. I've interwoven a communicative system so that I can confer with you when I'm inside the code, I've changed your networking abilities so that you can freely communicate with other programs, and I even gave this place a door." She jerked a thumb at the aforementioned portal. "If you're antsy, you can go ahead and leave without me. I'll be right behind you."
Soul glanced shiftily at the door. "Are you sure that putting that door in was a good idea? Anything could come in."
"It's fine, Soul." She tapped the enter button and folded the keyboard back. "We're the only two who can use it. It's password protected and only the Admin can change the coding." A small chime rang through the small room to say that the message sent. Sighing, Maka flopped onto the bed, raising an eyebrow. "Are you…wringing your hands?"
His hands flew immediately to his sides and he did that thing where he held really still again. "No." Even through the heavy filter, Maka could hear the guilt in his voice.
She gave him a wry smile. "You're an awful liar, you know."
The program sat close beside her. Though she could feel his warmth, he was careful that their bodies didn't touch. Rolling her eyes, Maka scooted so that their thighs were in contact and pretended not to notice that he started at the touch.
"Jesus, Soul, you're jumpier than a meth head."
His expression was amusingly bewildered. "A what?"
"Meth heads—" She stopped. Soul's eyes were wide as dinner plates and his hands were twitching in his lap. "I'll explain it later. What's the matter?"
He gave a long look at the door. "I've never left here," he began. "And though I've always wanted to go out into the System, I..." Running a hand through his hair, he smiled bashfully. "I guess I'm scared to leave."
"No shit, Sherlock." The snarky response was reflexive; Maka was chastising herself even before Soul's expression reverted back to the confusion that was becoming his normal expression. Maka had to remind herself that Soul was not another coarse programmer friend- for all intents and purposes, speaking to him like this was like speaking to a child.
"I don't understand. Do you mean Sherlock Holmes, the detective? Stein read me some of the stories and—"
"—it's a figure of speech," Maka reassured, patting the security program's hand. "And I need to remember to stop using those with you." As well as to control her tone.
"Another thing to be explained later?"
"I promise." Ignoring the voice of good advice in her head that kept telling her not to, Maka entwined her fingers with his. "Whatever happened to your whole knight in shining armor routine?"
He squeezed her hand gently. "I guess maybe I'm more like the princess stuck in a tower."
Warmth blossomed in her and for a moment, Maka felt something like maternal instinct. Though she had never expected the manifestation of physical form, now she was here…watching her own creation as he tumbled out of the nest. Something casually reminded her that she wasn't allowed to be maternal and attracted to Soul at the same time, but she just as casually shoved it into the deepest corner of her brain.
"Well, in true dragon form: I'll kidnap you." And then she was tugging at his hand, leading him off the bed and towards the door. Soul followed, a trace of reluctance in the movement.
She motioned for Soul to place his palm on the door. It was keyed to open only at the touch of two hands: hers or Soul's.. Swallowing thinly—Maka wondered how he picked up that habit—he touched the door as if it might catch on fire at any minute. Maka had the decency not to laugh. Instead she raised her hand, stopping just short of the metal surface.
His eyes flickered briefly, but he nodded and Maka realized that it was the closest thing to 'yes' that she was going to get. She tapped the door with a quiet thunk.
The opening of the door was surprisingly anticlimactic. Maka hadn't really gone into much detail with the coding, so when it "opened," it just blipped out of existence long enough for she and Soul to leave the room and then reappeared just as suddenly when they crossed its threshold.
The security program seemed thoroughly perturbed.
Maka gave him an irritable look. "It does its job just fine. Give me a break."
"You mean that doors don't normally do that?" He sounded too alarmed to be teasing. Maka knew she couldn't smack him for it.
"No," she responded crisply. "At least not outside of here. But who the fuck knows what counts for normal in this place?"
Soul shrugged. They stood silently for a moment. Then:
"Do you think we should turn around?"
Humming, Maka smiled. "Are you prepared?" She carefully pretended that she wasn't scared to turn around, as well.
"If we're gonna wait until I'm prepared for this, then you'd best give Asura your passwords now." He grinned. "Maybe your credit card number, too."
"But I don't know the expiration date off the top of my head," she chuckled. "So I guess we'd better just turn around."
He somehow managed to look sagelike as he nodded. "Sound wisdom, Maka."
Soul reached out and entwined their fingers again before they turned. In unison, they both looked up at the sky.
It appeared to Maka that the System didn't have a regular cycle of day and night. The space above them was vast and largely dark, though thin veins of blue occasionally streaked through, pulsing with light. If she didn't know better, she might have said that it looked like the wiring on a microprocessor.
These veins were seemingly what lit up the area, covering the world in a wan blue glow. The color in front of Soul's eyes was slightly purple.
The program was currently looking at the sky in awe.
"It's…big," he whispered. "There's so much space."
Maka grimaced. "I really did you a disservice when I cooped you up in that room." A reminder to get an online subscription to National Geographic joined her mental list. What was it that she had to do? Replace lightbulb, clean, yoga—
"Is this what the sky is like?" Soul asked excitedly. "Where's the sun? Or the moon?"
Maka scanned the sky, looking for some sort of celestial body. Though she found none, she noted that the blue wiring in the sky seemed to fade into purple in some places, eventually filtering into a livid red somewhere near the horizon. "No, the sky doesn't look like this," Maka replied. "And I don't see a sun or moon."
"Damn." Soul met Maka's gaze sheepishly. "Stein and I had a bet. We knew that the sun was round, but the description of the moon was always changing. He said that he doubted that the moon looked like this," he gestured openly above them, "but I told him that I thought it might."
Maka quirked an eyebrow at the program. "Why would you make that bet when you'd never even seen what the sky looked like?"
"I was on the other side of an impassable wall. How was Stein ever doing to make me pay up?" His tone was dry.
"Fair point." Turning, Maka surveyed their surroundings. She knew from her time in the code that Soul's little home was surrounded by placeholders and skeleton code—there was no other software for miles. Or at least what felt like miles…she wasn't sure how distance translated inside the System. "How much do you owe him?"
"Ten bucks," Soul replied. He sounded proud of himself. "Stein said he'd accept either the money or the deer."
Hehehe. Finally out of the enclosure! The next chapter, as I've written it, definitely needs an overhaul, so it might be a little longer in coming to you guys. Thank you for your patience, support, and all your kind reviews!