I'm back to school and I have internet again, so here's an update for you all! Many thanks to the lovely ladies fabulousanima and odat for helping me get this ready for posting! As always, I own nothing.

As far as Maka could discern, the System was sparsely populated. Though Maka and Soul had been walking for what felt like hours, they had only passed one small clump of buildings- though when they peeked into the windows, they all appeared completely abandoned. When Maka moved to enter one of the buildings, Soul brought her back with a sharp gesture.

"Not smart," he frowned. "Even if there are programs there, chances are that they're corrupted. I don't want to run the risk of one of us having our code infected."

She looked uncertainly at the doorway. "But I know how to fix the code…I could fix any malfunctioning programs."

"True, but only in the state you are in now. We don't know how fragile the Meister is, and we can't risk letting it get damaged." His eyes flickered. "I won't risk it."

Maka continued to stare at the building, but she followed when Soul began marching again. Sadness rose in her like bile. "This place is so desolate," she muttered.

"Well, that is somewhat due to the fact that my…enclosure…lies on the edge of the System." He patted his scribbled map, which he had slung across his back—he'd seemed so proud of it that Maka had made a special tube case for it. "According to Stein, the System is most concentrated in the very center. It gets less dense the further outward you go."

She was unable to resist the existential question. "Is there an end to the System, then?"

Soul shrugged. "I don't know—never thought to ask."

Probably a product of being stuck in a room all his life. Soul probably never wanted to hear about the limits of things—just the possibility of what was. Maka giggled.

"What now?" The security program's tone made it clear that he thought she was laughing at him. He shoved his hands in his pockets sullenly.

"It's just…I think I figured out why people outside the System are so obsessed with space."

Soul frowned. "What kind of space? Like…personal space?" He took a couple steps to the side with a look of embarrassment.

Leave it to the English language to cause this kind of confusion. Maka reached out and grabbed the program's hand, pulling him closer. "No, you dork. Space as in what lies beyond the planet."

Though he nodded, it was clear that Soul had no idea what she meant.

"You do know what the planet is? Earth?" Testing the waters seemed necessary.

"Yes. Well, at least I think so. Is Earth what you call your System?" Their fingers laced together as they walked.

"Yes and no. Earth is like the System, but it's very different. We're not…bound inside Earth like programs are bound to the System. We can leave." She pointed to the veins of blue above. "In the sky are lights. They're smaller than those, and rounder."

Soul nodded. He knew this one. "The moon. And the sun. And stars." His mouth formed the word with the same reverence of a kid saying 'Santa.' The red in his eyes brightened.

"Well, those stars look really small in the sky, but that's because we're really far away from them. And to get to the stars, you have to go into space."

"You can go to the stars?"

"No, not exactly. If we tried to touch a star, it'd kill us. But there are other planets, like Earth. Other Systems." Soul's face was twitching back into confusion again and she hurried, trying to answer questions before they were asked. "The sun is a star, but it's really close, so it's bigger in the sky. You…uh…remember the Greek Myths eBook?"

A nonchalant shrug. "It was all right. The gods seemed like morons."

"Right. Remember Icarus?"

This made him think for a bit. "Uh…wax wings, got too close to the sun, died?"

"That's the one." She moved her free hand for emphasis as she spoke. "So Icarus got too close and died. It may have just been a myth, but it's true in the fact that if you get too close to the sun, it's too hot and it kills you. So we go to planets, like Earth, instead."

For a moment, all that could be heard was their footsteps echoing metallically upon the ground. Soul appeared to be deep in thought. Maka took the moment to look around her, checking for other buildings or programs…anything that might alert her to where Stein and his catchall might be. At first there didn't appear to be anything, but as Maka examined the horizon, she saw another small cluster of buildings. She elbowed Soul, motioning towards the buildings.

"Not the catchall," he said. "I don't think so. But we should be getting closer."

There next few steps were taken in silence, but then Soul spoke up, voice thick: "I do wish I could see them."

Maka wanted to tell him that he could see them, wanted so badly to answer that sad glow in his eyes with hope. But reality struck hard and fast—regardless of how he acted or looked, Soul was a program. Security Operations Utility Liaison was a security program in a computer that Maka was going to have to relinquish to her research patron, who would later turn it over to the scientific community. She shivered.

Noticing this, Soul removed the jacket she'd coded for him and wrapped it around her shoulders. Maka tried to smile back at him, but it felt hollow.

If she made it back alive, it would be clear that her research had been successful. Every request for more time and grant money required a progress report and personal demonstration; she couldn't just lie and say that the Resonance didn't work. And while she could stall them for a bit, claiming that she needed to perfect the software, eventually her computer—and Soul—would be taken from her.

"You okay there?" Soul was leaning over her. "Do you need to rest for a moment? I'm sure that the Meister is unaccustomed to walking so long…."

Maka shook her head. "I feel fine. I just…got lost in my own thoughts."

Relief blossomed in his expression, warming the shade of his eyes. "Okay. For a second, I thought I might have been pushing you too hard." Color bloomed on his cheeks and Maka was uncertain if it was because he was blushing or because his gaze had suddenly dropped to his feet. It looked adorable.

She reached to muss the soft-static of his hair, trying to fight the sadness in her eyes. "I'm your Meister, a mighty dragon. I can handle this."

He smiled his razor grin. "Indeed you can."

The veins of light above them pulsed a deep purple when they found the catchall. According to Soul's map, it was relatively close to the center of the System, flanked by more squat buildings arranged in rings. Glowering through dark windows, the building towered over everything around it. A pool of luminescent liquid seeped out from under the front door, spilling onto the steps.

Maka recalled that she had seen smears of a similar color on some of the walls of other buildings and on the ground. She had thought it a product of the corruption of the System—just some sort of physical manifestation of its decay—but when Soul retched at the pool, it occurred to her for the first time that perhaps it was a something more lurid.

"This is the place." He spoke through clenched teeth, hand covering his face. The stench of ozone and battery acid hung heavy in the air.

Maka looked askance at the program, but he was unresponsive. She laid a hand on his still shoulder.

"What is this stuff?"

"The best word to describe it is blood." Disgust thickened his tone and stiffened his spine. He made a vague gesture at the pool. "It doesn't function exactly like your blood, but it serves a similar purpose. If there's this much of it, then a lot of programs have been completely destroyed here."

Part of Maka felt the irresistible urge to drop into the inner code to unravel the mystery of this ichor…physical remnants of deleted programs…did it only exist in the form of the subset code, invisible to the programmer outside? Or did it leave traces of code that she could use as a means of understanding the reason that her code manifested in a physical way?

Yet the expression on Soul's face spoke volumes: this was not a threshold to trespass. To pursue the matter would not only border on taboo—it would upset Soul deeply. And Maka found that idea abhorrent to her newfound sensibilities.

Her mental list was becoming a file in which she stuffed this matter hastily, and instead of investigating the code, she squeezed Soul's shoulder in a supportive manner.

"You ready?" The question was mostly courtesy; both knew that he had to go in, regardless of his preparation. The words mingled with the scent of ozone and befouled the air. Soul took a vestigial breath—a habit he had seemed to have adopted from Maka—and nodded.

Their feet hit the metal steps with a hollow clank. Maka cringed at the sound's volume; flashbacks to late night horror movies warned her that something could jump out at her at any moment.

Soul was careful to avoid getting the glowing liquid on his shoes, balancing on the edges of the metal of the top step. After a few seconds of his staring intensely at the door, Maka realized that he was waiting for it to blip out of existence like the one that she had made. Careful to not roll her eyes, Maka leaned forward and turned the knob.

It opened quietly—a blessing for Maka's nerves—but with a sickening churning sound, the ichor behind the door to gushed out, pouring over the steps and onto their shoes. Soul's arms flailed in a peculiar, jerky motion, face distorted with horror. It might have been amusing if Maka wasn't trying to keep herself from retching at the sudden onrush of hot liquid. Her fingers tightened on Soul's shoulder as she attempted to steady herself.

Beyond the door was a long hallway. There were no lights, but the glowing liquid was enough to light their way as they both stepped into the building, sloshing about in an ankle-deep pool. Maka noted that though the ichor was essentially program blood, it did not coagulate and dry as did normal blood. If not for the overwhelming scent of battery acid, Maka would have sworn that the stuff was the same chemical found in glowsticks.

Though it was unwise to make any more noise than necessary, Maka found herself speaking softly, hoping to take some of the edge off the situation.

"You said that Stein told you that you'd know his catchall when you see it?"

Soul nodded stiffly, eyes fixed determinedly away from the floor.

"How did you know this was the place?"

The red in his eyes flickered for a moment. There was no sound except the liquid rippling of blood.

"Stein is a database program," he began hesitantly, "and so it is in his nature to…investigate the inner workings of things. He hoards information."

They reached the end of the hallway, which opened into a large atrium. Another hallway lay to the left, curving beyond a wall to places out of sight. The blood was thinner there, running in small rivulets to join the larger pool. There were several doors lining the walls of the atrium, each lit up by bare bulbs hung haphazardly from the ceiling. A faint whirring could be heard, though Maka couldn't get a sense for its position. Soul began leading her toward the curved hallway and she moved her hand from his shoulder to his arm.

"The reason Stein liked Victor Frankenstein so much was because they shared a fascination for science—he found it so intriguing that someone would go to such lengths for the sake of figuring out how things worked. For information." He gave Maka a concerned glance. "He told me on a few occasions that he wished he could dissect a few programs to see if he could find out our inner workings. And if he could put programs back together, like Frankenstein did."

Maka grimaced. "And you liked this guy?"

Soul shrugged. "He was the only program that ever talked to me, aside from a few curious stragglers. And at the time I knew that he recognized the impulse as insane."

The whirring noise grew louder as they turned the corner. At the far end of the hallway, a door hung open, swaying drunkenly from only one hinge. Sickly light flickered within the room, casting eerie shadows on the wall. Soul's voice dropped to a murmur.

"I knew that if Stein went rogue, the first thing he would do is act upon that impulse. He's that kind of program."

The floor was blessedly dry as they crept through the hallway. Their footsteps luminesced wetly in the darkness. Maka leaned close.

"If he's in there…do you know what to do?"

"Protect you as long as you need to fix his code, yeah. Catch you before you fall and the Meister damages its head." He managed a sickly grin. "I wouldn't want your face to get all bashed up before I get the chance to kiss it."

Maka wasn't sure if she was outraged or flattered. "I thought that knights kissed princesses, not dragons."

Soul didn't have the chance to respond as he was cut off by an off-kilter giggling. The sound came from behind them, rather than from the room they were inching towards. Maka pivoted and nearly collided with a hunched figure.

Luminescent blood dripped to the floor from his face and fingers. He was shaking with insane mirth, each tremor of his body further splattering the floor. His jumpsuit was black as Soul's had been, but it was worn with a sloppy labcoat that looked as if it had been hastily sewn by an amateur. One of its shoulder seams was beginning to split.

Maka recoiled, but the figure made no effort to reach for her. She cast a darting glance around the hallway, looking for other assailants, but nothing else materialized. The whirring noise had quieted.

Behind her, Soul made a strangled noise. "Stein…is that you?"

He giggled, peering through his lank hair with dim eyes. The blood that dripped from his face was coming from a deep gash that ran over the bridge of his nose, stretching to both forehead and cheek. Light pulsed deep in the wound like a heartbeat.

"How good of you to finally join me." His reedy voice was affected by the same heavy filter as Soul's. The security program stiffened.

"It's him." It was a sad murmur. Maka made a small noise of understanding before inching behind Soul. There needed to be as much space between herself and Stein as possible.

"Be ready to catch me," she muttered.

"Now?" Panic rimmed his eyes as his gaze darted to hers.

Maka tried to him a countdown, but she began to crumple before she could get to three.

The web around her was precarious. While there was no way to fall, having no physical body, the angry pits of corrupted code were more than enough threat; if she made contact, there was a chance that her self-replicating subset code would be tainted as well. And Maka had no intention of discovering what would happen if her code decided to mutate.

She pictured St/In in her mind, trying to search out his code. She could easily sense Soul's, but beyond him, the code around her seemed unfamiliar and vague. Too many late nights of coding had blurred her memory of each individual program, and the signature was so distorted by corruption that she likely couldn't have recognized them, anyway.

Clinging to Soul's code for reference, Maka scanned the area around her, searching for a familiar string. If she could just find an uncorrupted line, she could work her way around. All she needed was a starting point, but she needed to work fast. While Stein hadn't seemed to be violent before Maka left, the ankle-deep blood in the atrium was sign enough that he might become so soon.

Stein's code was slippery. Maka could get a faint grasp of it, just in the corner of her perception, but whenever she tried to focus, it vanished. However she could get a peripheral sense of the thing that plagued Stein. The web of code quivered around her, moving in the wake of a virus, different from the corruption around it. There was something distinctly predatory about its focus; it ignored the uncorrupted code around it, chasing Stein's code every bit as doggedly as Maka. Even without vision she could tell that it was an ugly thing, wrapping its probing tentacles around Stein's code and ripping it to pieces. His subset code looked like a keyboard smash in its wake.

Yet the integrity of his code remained. Now that Maka had identified the virus, she could see Stein's code in better perspective. Though his periphery was shredded and unreadable, Stein's core functions remained more or less intact. A framework of placeholder code kept the virus in check, preventing it from damaging any of Stein's more vital functions. Relief flooded through Maka; St/in was completely retrievable if she could eliminate the virus. Her original plan- incapacitating the program and working on his corrupted code while he was unconscious- would have to be amended. Doing so would give the virus a chance to strike. Maka would have to eliminate the parasite first, leaving Soul with an insane and likely violent program to contend with.

Praying that the framework would hold, she slipped out of the network of code and reconnected with the Meister body.

Soul caught the Meister as it fell, grunting at the sudden deadweight. The light in the body's eyes flickered out and the security program had to quell the sudden fear that maybe she wouldn't come back this time.

Stall tactics. Soul glanced around nervously. The hallway was too narrow for proper fighting, especially when defending someone, and the way to the atrium was blocked by Stein. It might have been possible for him to retreat back into the flickering shadow room, but Soul was uncertain if that would improve the situation.

Yet for the moment, Stein seemed happy to simply observe, head cocked to the side as more blood dripped from the gash in his face. He hadn't made an aggressive move the entire time—just watched as Soul positioned himself in front of the Meister body.

"I see you escaped your cage." Stein's voice was higher than Soul remembered, but he had the same intonation, the same patterns of speech. "And you even brought the Meister with you."

Smiling hideously, he leaned forward. His tone held a sense of amusement. "Have you finally decided to help me with my experiments?" Soul tensed as the program made a shaky step forward.

Maybe there was enough of Stein left to reason with. Soul raised his hands in a gesture that was simultaneously defensive and pleading. "Stein, the Admin is using the Meister. We can't touch her—she's here to fix the System."

Stein cackled. "Fix what? This System has never been better. I can access everything now- all the information I want at my fingertips. I don't even have to ask permission anymore." Something akin to madness lit up his eyes. "I've learned so much, Soul. Oh, how I longed to tell you…."

A twisted, blood-stained hand reached out, clawing the air between them. Soul evaded it, sweeping his foot along the ground and breaking Stein's stance. The program toppled and Soul was dragging the Meister body away as fast as he could, though Stein didn't seem to be in a rush to return to his feet. Instead he lay on his back, laughter echoing through the hallway as Soul escaped to the atrium.

He tried to avoid the blood on the floor as much as possible, but Maka's skirt ended up getting soaked. Soul knew that if they made it out of here alive, his Meister was going to ream him for ruining her hard work.

The whirring noise resumed and Soul could hear Stein calling from the hallway: "Ah, thank you, Soul. Not only were you kind enough to incapacitate the Meister, but you brought her closer to my worktable." Footsteps sounded. "It's the door on the right, in case you needed to know."

Unable to resist the morbid curiosity that welled inside him, Soul looked to the right. Ichor oozed out from under the door in a steady stream.

"Would you be so kind as to put her on the table for me?" Stein rounded the corner, leaning heavily on the wall.

"Like I said before," Soul growled, "you can't dissect her. She's here to fix you!" He made a sweeping gesture towards the glowing pool around them. "This is madness, Stein; I know you know that. You have to stop!"

There was a slight flicker in Stein's eyes, and for a moment it seemed as if he had registered the betrayal in Soul's tone. But then he curled inward, racked with a sudden spasm.

"Ahh, I should have known that you wouldn't see it," he spat. Venom curdled his tone. "You never could understand the glory of science. All you ever wanted was fairy tales, never anything concrete." He laughed again, bitterness rising within the madness. "Poor little Soul, lost in his own little world, waiting for his Meister to come and give him a purpose."

Maka stirred, light filling her eyes once more. Disoriented and sluggish, she tugged at Soul's pant leg. He shot her a panicked glance.

"Virus," she said thickly. "It's a virus. I have to kill it first. If I try to incapacitate him, the virus will destroy him entirely." Concern filled her features. "Can you hold off a little while longer?"

"Yeah, but hurry, please."

She smiled vaguely and muttered something about 'asking nicely' before she fell slack against the wall again. Her brief shifting had moved her center of balance and the Meister body slid sideways against the floor. Battery-acid blood seeped into her hair.

Soul didn't have time to right her position. Stein approached, previous weakness evidently past as he strode forward with purpose.

"Ah, good, she went away again. For a moment, I thought I was going to have to rip her apart while she was still screaming." He grinned. "It's more fun that way, but it can be hard to record empirically." He twisted his neck with a sickening crack.

Agh I somehow ended up with an extra line marker at the end of this note. =_=;;

Thank you for your patience with my slow updates- I'm a college student taking two foreign languages at once and I frequently go without internet because my family doesn't have it at home. But I'm back into the swing of things and I should be updating this more frequently in the coming weeks. Thank you to everyone who has been so supportive of me and put up with all my whining on Tumblr. You're angels, the lot of you. 3