The silver-haired girl with yellow eyes (Sokila, was it? What an odd name...) was smiling.

"It's going to be tough for you, isn't it? Sorry..."

Why was she apologizing? That was his job, wasn't it?

"...well, you can't quite come back to the Velvet Room yet. You still haven't signed the contract!"

...contract? Hadn't Shogoki said something about a contract...?

"Not that one, silly!"

...then what was she-?

"You'll see. Hopefully. Maybe...?" She shuffled her bare feet nervously.

...what-?

"Time to wake up now. Bye-bye!"

The faint haze of blue began to brighten-

xxxx

/Sunday: June 7, 2015/

Shinji Ikari slowly opened his eyes. Another unfamiliar ceiling. The room appeared similar to the hospital he had previously woken up, except...more high-tech.

"Ah. You're awake."

He slowly looked to his side, blinking at the sight of a woman with dyed blonde hair and disinterested emerald eyes. Her white lab coat was rather pristine, relative to the rumpled look of her blue blouse, black skirt, and brown pantyhose. She was jotting down on a clipboard, adding, "You were out for about nine hours. Your forced ascendance in the elevator was rather traumatic to your spiriology. However, repeated Evangelion usage should fix that."

"...huh?"

"It's a basic metaphysical biological term. Consider it the spiritual equivalent to your body's physiology," she explained, with the tone of one who had explained it way too many times. "Either way, you appear to be relatively whole...for the moment. Though that might change if you wash out of the program...but let's be honest, given how rare your mental and metaphysical profile is, you won't be allowed to wash out."

...kind of getting tired of not knowing what's going on, he petulantly thought. This was meekly translated as, "um...what are you talking about...?"

"First things first. I'm Dr. Ritsuko Akagi, the head of NERV's Technical Branch and the scientific lead for Project E. My job right now is to get you up to speed on the theoretical aspects of our work, because you're going to be expected to perform." She quietly reached around his cot, undoing the various restraints - wait a second, why were there so many straps holding him down?! - as she continued, "can you tell me what you know of Second Impact?"

Shinji blinked at the sudden question, and recalled his history lessons automatically. "It...it was an event of mass insanity and hysteria that struck the entire world on September 13, 2000. Millions of people suddenly went crazy and berserk." The chaos had resulted in the deaths of...well, a lot of people. Shinji couldn't recall the exact figure, but it was in the hundreds of millions, at least. "Nobody ever figured out what the cause was...but they ended up calling it Angel Syndrome." And to this day, nobody knew exactly how it was triggered...at least, as far as he knew. "It...it was also the event where Personas became public knowledge."

"That'll do." Dr. Akagi undid the last restraint, and promptly turned towards the door. Shinji gingerly followed, wincing at the soreness of his diaphragm. "What's your knowledge of cognitive psience?"

"...um...it's...the science of...Personas?"

"And what about metaphysical biology?"

That one he was less sure on. "...er...the science...of the soul...?"

The woman nodded. "Fair enough. Both cognitive psience and metaphysical biology could be considered sister disciplines, of a sort." As they walked through the white-washed halls of NERV - past a multitude of doors, the doctor's heels click-clacking and echoing loudly - she continued, "cognitive psience deals with the study and analysis of the psychological archetypes that comprise Personas, along with related studies of the cognitive world they inhabit and its characteristics. Metaphysical biology, meanwhile, deals with the study and analysis of the soul and its various characteristics, with related applications. Does the term A.T. Field mean anything to you?"

"...er-"

His stutter was enough to make Dr. Akagi huff with irritation. "That's Metaphysical Biology 101. We'll make sure to get that fixed."

Shinji blinked, rather flummoxed by the sudden knowledge dump. "Uh, why exactly do I need to know-?"

"Because your job demands it, and the Commander wants you in the field as soon as possible. The number of Angel Syndrome incidents are on the rise worldwide, to the point where government officials are seriously beginning to consider the possibility of there being a Third Impact; we need as many weapons to stop it as soon as possible. That's where you come in."

"How-?"

"We'll get there." Dr. Akagi stopped by a pair of sliding doors, formed of interlocking panels of metal and hardened polymer. After she scanned her badge, her thumbprint, and her retina, the two doors slid open with a seamless woosh. She stepped into a larger room, one that was almost cavernous; rows and rows of computers and terminals surrounded a central podium containing three red-and-white blocks, each one larger than a van. "Behold the MAGI: our means of accessing the cognitive world."

There was a strange heaviness to the word 'MAGI'.

(The TV newscast droned on. "-the inability of Anti-Terror agents to access the Metaverse in St. Petersburg was linked to a brief outage of MAGI functionality in Moscow, according to-")

(The TV newscast droned on. "Our top story tonight: in America, the municipal authorities of Boston-2 were forced to announce that they had received a government grant to construct their own MAGI facility, after reports were leaked concerning-")

(The TV newscast droned on. "-officials have yet to disclose whether the bombing of the MAGI complex in Jerusalem was a result of terrorism or Angel Syndrome-")

"...I've never seen one before, except in pictures."

"You wouldn't have. Operational security on a grand scale," remarked Dr. Akagi, calmly descending the stairs towards the mainframes housing the three biological supercomputers. "There are currently thirty MAGI units active throughout Japan, with seven hundred and two worldwide, and more being built every year. The more coverage mankind has for accessing the cognitive world, the better. The ones you're looking at right now, however, are actually the originals." There was an odd hint of pride in her voice, yet...remorse, as well?

Shinji soldiered on. "...how exactly-?"

"Do they enable access to the cognitive world? It would take too long to explain, and would be beside the point. Tell me: what is the extent of your knowledge about the Anti-Terror Task Force?"

That was an easier bit of knowledge, if only for practical reasons.

(His sensei made him memorize the contact information for their town's lone Anti-Terror operatives. "Don't try to be a hero, and let the professionals do their job.")

"...they're able to remotely access the Metaverse with specialized devices linked to the MAGI, and use their own Personas to stop Acolytes in their tracks." A brief grimace from Dr. Akagi prompted him to ask, "did I say something wrong?"

"No. Personal distaste for the term Metaverse, even if it is the colloquial term for the cognitive world. Just a foible of mine, don't worry about it." Dr. Akagi ran a hand along one of the MAGI mainframes, one bearing the name of CASPER in thick, bold English letters. "Victims of Angel Syndrome...the Acolytes...have to be put down by either a cognitive assault with Personas, or by overwhelming physical firepower. The former has long proven itself to be more efficient and cost-effective in terms of lives saved and collateral damage. Before the Anti-Terror Task Force became more prominent worldwide...well, I'm sure the ruins of Tokyo-1 are testament enough to the results of conventional weaponry."

Shinji wasn't sure he could accurately attest to that; he had never visited Tokyo-1, after all. The tragedy had happened before his birth; it was hard to envision or imagine it, in his mind. "...but if there are more MAGI, and more A.T. agents with each year...why is Angel Syndrome rising?" It didn't make sense.

"That's the thing: to this point, the actual cause of Angel Syndrome can't be countered. Essentially, for the past fifteen years, we've been treating the symptoms and not the disease...by necessity, unfortunately." She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. "Now, what's the extent of your knowledge about Ghosts?"

Shinji went quiet. Solemn, almost.

("It was your first time seeing a Ghost?" inquired his sensei, speaking with the tone of one who had grown used to the suffering of the world. "It could have been worse. That one was fairly benign, in the grand scheme of things...but that's why quarantines are established for a reason, you foolish child.")

"...sometimes...the souls of those who are killed by Acolytes...they don't move on."

Ritsuko nodded grimly, accepting his rather laconic answer. "That's the other nasty thing about Angel Syndrome: sometimes, the souls of the recently departed are changed; altered; transformed into spectral wraiths that continue the killing that the Acolytes started. Even the dead aren't immune to Angel Syndrome...and unlike the living, Personas have no effect on the dead. No mind to target, after all..." she briefly chuckled, a sound more bitter than a ginger-coated orange peel. "...however, this logically means the causes of Angel Syndrome aren't purely cognitive. It has a tangible, spiritual component as well...hence why I think cognitive psience and metaphysical biology are truly sister disciplines: both are necessary to ultimately end this threat, once and for all."

"...but...how in the world do I fit in here?" Why had he-?

"Personas are unable to manifest in our physical reality, yet their flexibility and versatility are undeniable...which is why companies, governments, entire nations, have poured countless hours of research and development into trying to make them corporeal. Anything to provide a hard counter to Angel Syndrome. NERV, however, decided to take a different path: the soul is already a tangible reality that straddles the boundary of physical and metaphysical, so why not imbue it with the capabilities of the mankind's varied psychological archetypes?" Dr. Akagi turned around, gazing intently into his eyes. Every word was laden with meaning, intent on impressing the importance of NERV's mission into him. "The fusion of mind and soul, the embodiment of Persona and Spirit...that, Shinji Ikari, is what we call Evangelion."

That word. 'Evangelion'. There was a harsh weight to it, unrelenting and jagged. It felt odd on his tongue. "Eee...van...gell...eee-un...?"

"There was a lot of name shopping for what NERV would call these fusions. We eventually settled on a term from ancient Greek that means 'good news'." Dr. Akagi shrugged nonchalantly. "We could use good news, in this day and age."

"...why me?" Why. Why. Why. It was a familiar sentiment. A familiar question. "Why...why me?"

"Because after all the screenings and censuses performed by the Marduk Institute, the number of individuals we've positively identified as being compatible with Project E is infinitesimal. One in a billion is our upper bound. Prior to you, we've only successfully identified two. You've already met the First Child, and the Second Child is operating out NERV's secondary branch in Europe. You're the Third."

First Child: that girl with the blue hair, and the yellow-then-red eyes, the one his father had called 'Rei'. That thing had been...her Evangelion, then? "When-?"

"Were you identified?" anticipated Dr. Akagi. The faux-blonde shrugged, letting a trace of professional irritation slip through. "Above my pay grade, unfortunately. I don't know if you were identified years ago, or last week. Marduk's selection process is kept separate from NERV. To minimize 'legal complications', or so I'm told." The woman loosed a delicate snort, in spite of its contemptuousness. "Unbelievable, that there are those who still think of such trifling things..."

Shinji blinked at the woman's rather open disdain for something as basic as legality. Or maybe it was how she considered it 'trifling'. And seriously, why was he here?! "I...I only came here because my father asked me to come here. His letter...it didn't say anything. Everything was blanked out, except one word that he wrote himself."

"That word being?"

"Come."

The woman rolled her eyes. "Typical. Then again, that's why I'm talking to you now." In the face of his uncertainty, Dr. Akagi plowed on, blunt and brusque. "I'm not normally known for my bedside demeanor, so I'll be straight with you: the fact that you've manifested an Evangelion twice means that you're going to be an object of interest for those seeking to end Angel Syndrome. NERV isn't the only game in that metaphorical town, and the show you put on in the train wasn't exactly subtle." What show?! "You're going to be trained in the use of your Evangelion, as well as how to coordinate with other Persona-users. Be it with NERV or otherwise, you will be deployed against Acolytes and Ghosts, for the sake of mankind. Essentially, you've been drafted into a war of unknown length against a psycho-spiritual enemy that we've yet to fully identify in terms of motive, objective, or metaphysical composition. There aren't any days off, and you likely won't receive any accolades from the public at large. 'Thankless' would be a good word for what you're going to be doing." A beat. Two beats. "Also, the probability that you'll die in the line of duty is nonzero. Closer to one than it is to zero, if I'm honest."

Shinji wondered if Dr. Akagi thought she was trying to be kind - in some sick, perverse way - by being as callous as possible. An instinctive wellspring of bitterness and petty spite roared within him, manifesting as words, "I...but, that's not fair! I didn't ask for this!"

"Nope. It also doesn't matter."

"Then why?!"

"Because the other two people who can do what you do are already employed by us, and they're stretched thin as is. There is literally no one else who can do what you can do."

That wellspring threatened to become a geyser. Nay, a gout of flame, one that would erupt and burn everything into ash, just like before. His hands clenched and unclenched slowly, seeking something to grip and rip and tear-!

xxxx

The voice of the other him was brimming with furious wisdom, bound by instinctive knowledge.

"You know why you came here...so why are you hesitating?"

Yellow eyes started at him, almost mocking, or perhaps merely challenging. An echo of his own voice joined the feminine Beast.

"The other you knows the truth of why...so what shall you do NOW?"

xxxx

-and he forced himself to exhale. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. I mustn't run away...I mustn't run away...I mustn't run away! "...fine. I'll do it."

For once, the woman actually looked surprised. "Oh?"

There was a whoosh from far behind, followed by rapid footsteps. "Hey, Ritsuko!" The voice of Misato Katsuragi rang out, slightly irritated. "You couldn't have waited until after I woke up?! I still haven't given him the tour!"

A small, yet wry smile came to the faux-blonde's face, the first smile she had demonstrated since Shinji had woken up. "Commander's orders, I'm afraid."

Katsuragi's brown eyes narrowed with suspicion. "...did you at least go lightly?"

"You know me better than that, Misato."

"I bet you told him something awful. Like no performance incentives, or no paid vacation."

"Actually, I told him no days off. Among other things!"

A gasp of pure shock came from the vivacious woman. "That's a load of bee-ess!" roared Katsuragi, somehow angry yet playful at the same time. She turned towards him with a nervous smile, bowing somewhat exaggeratedly. "Sorry if she made you scared or angry or...well, anything really. She's not known for her bedside manner."

"Already told him that."

"You are no longer involved with this conversation!" she snapped. "But seriously, Shinji-kun...whatever she told you...well, some of it's true. Not gonna lie. But it won't be all bad either. I can promise you that."

The back-and-forth had been so sudden that Shinji didn't know what to think. "...can we go? I need to think."

The faux-blonde nodded. "You've certainly earned that much. And breakfast from the cafeteria, for that matter." Dr. Akagi briefly ran a hand through her hair, almost looking contrite. "For what it's worth...I think you have what it takes."

"...to do what?" Shinji asked, regarding her with a measure of trepidation, not sure if Ritsuko Akagi's demeanor from earlier had been an act or not.

"I suppose you'll have to find out day by day, same as anyone."

xxxx

And all the while, on a subconscious level, in words he had no way of knowing...a familiar voice spoke, within the depths of his being:

I am thou, thou art I...
Thou hast acquired a
new bond.

It shall lead thou to the truth
that
parts the seas of depravity.

Take hold of the Moon Arcana,
and let it
guide you
to a new Promised Land...

xxxx

"...I guess so," murmured Shinji. The suspicion was still there, yet it was checked by a small measure of curiosity. He would give this woman a chance.

"So!" exclaimed Misato, latching a grabby hand onto Shinji's shoulder. "Let's get some grub, and then we can cover some more details of what you're going to be doing, without the doom and gloom." She shot the other woman a stink-eye before leading him away.

xxxx

As Misato led the Third Child out of the MAGI Chamber, Ritsuko briefly loosed a sigh of frustration and discontent and regret, wrapped up in a cocktail of self-recrimination. Well, time for a smoke break. She needed to take the edge off.

At least the boy appeared to have some spine. An unexpected surprise.

It was still horrible, this whole state of affairs. She didn't know whether his acceptance of that made it less sad or more so. Then again, he probably has no idea of what's being asked of him...damn it Gendo, what were you thinking?

Just another problem on a list of countably infinite length.

xxxx

True to her stated intent, Misato Katsuragi gave him a guided tour of NERV. Mostly. There were some places below ground level that were off-limits even to her, apparently.

("Eh, can't really blame them. I may be Director of Operations, but that's kind of a ceremonial title unless it comes to anti-Acolyte and anti-Ghost ops." Katsuragi flashed him a medallion of sorts, bearing the letters 'A.T.' in a stylized font, against a background of spectral fire. "I'm actually on loan from Japan's Anti-Terror Task Force. You could say it's where I earned my chops!")

He wasn't quite sure what pork chops had to do with anything, but he dutifully followed the woman who had undoubtedly been the friendliest figure to him since arriving in Tokyo-3. Slowly, they had ascended upward, eventually emerging above ground. If nothing else, there was a lot of variety.

Barracks, shooting ranges, recreational rooms, cognitive testing chambers, plain offices filled with accountants and paper-pushers, and - to his strange surprise - an entire floor dedicated to in-house psychologists and psychiatrists.

("Well, we're dealing with 'psychic' entities, the stuff of minds gone mad! If something goes wrong, we've gotta be able to treat it, you know.")

For some reason, that struck him as utterly hilarious, but he wasn't quite sure why.

Which brought the duo to the in-house cafeteria, where Shinji was currently digging into a bowl of udon soup. He had been famished. As he ate, Katsuragi was walking him through a rather thick sheaf of papers, his...'contract', of sorts, with NERV. Misato was skipping most of the pages. "Boring legalese..." Flip. "Boring legalese..." Flip. "...ah, basically, no talking to media figures without prior authorization. PR's a nasty game. I usually default to throwing the Commander at them." Flip. "Boring legalese..." Flip. "Boring legalese..." Flip.

And so it continued, as Shinji mulled over his current situation. His current 'status' as someone who had an 'Evangelion'. Somehow, for reasons nobody was apparently sure of. "...um...what would happen if...if I were to just leave?" This question prompted Misato to pause, her eyes looking curiously at him. "Er...you know, to just leave this city...?" Hypothetically speaking.

"...well, borrowing a page from Ritsuko? You'd probably get kidnapped by some NGO, private firm, or government agency for study." He blinked, which prompted her to sigh. "...Ritsuko can be blunt, but her intentions were good. If I'm being honest, I bet dissection wouldn't be off the table." His lips twisted with shock, skin turning puce from nauseous anxiety. "Yeah...NERV's had to rebuff quite a few kidnapping attempts on the First and Second Children over the years. You'd think we'd be on the same team, when it comes to stopping the end of life as we know it, but that's humans for you, neh?"

"...Rei is the First Child, right?" Dr. Akagi had referred to her as such.

"Ayanami? Yep; has been for years. Unfortunately, I don't have access to her personnel file." She winked saucily at him. "Maybe you can charm her into revealing her many sordid and personal secrets~"

The innuendo elicited a blush from Shinji, as he tried his best to move on. "...and...the Second?"

"Girl by the name of Asuka Langley-Sohryu. She provides coverage over most of Europe, but given the dramatic rise in Angel Syndrome incidents in the Far East, there's been talk of reassigning her out here. Who knows, maybe you'll meet?" She went back to work going through the contract. "Boring legalese." Flip. "Boring legalese..."

Rei Ayanami...and Asuka Langley-Sohryu. The names settled in the back of his mind, curiously exotic yet pleasant...well, save for the stark memory of Rei burying her fist into his abdomen. Ugh...

He quietly tried to distract himself by slurping up the last of his noodles, right as Katsuragi reached the last page. "Okay Shinji-kun..." She reached into her jacket pocket, pulling out a pen. "If you sign this, then you're agreeing to become a contractor for NERV, subject to the provisions of Japan's Cognitive Service Act, and the Child Soldier Laws from the UN Valentine Treaty. You will be provided free room and board, a modest salary, and paid tuition in return for becoming the ward of NERV, subservient to its command structure and subject to its custody. By signing this, you are acknowledging as a documented Persona user," however much an Evangelion counted as one, "that you have accepted the position freely and without coercion. If you do not sign, then you will be escorted from the building, and custody will be remanded to your prior guardian. Any and all consequences of a cognitive or metaphysical nature will no longer be NERV's responsibility."

...in other words, if someone does come after me, then I'm on my own. Judging by Katsuragi's strained smile, she knew that as well. At least she sounded somewhat apologetic about it. "...I guess I really don't have a choice, do I?"

"We always have a choice, Shinji-kun." Her sad smile briefly twisted into something bitter and painful. "It's just sometimes, the choices suck."

"...I...I think I understand." As much as a boy of fourteen could. And yet...he had come to Tokyo-3 for a reason. A reason he wasn't quite sure of, that he couldn't quite articulate...but it was important to him. He couldn't run away. If he did, what good would it do? I...I mustn't run away. And with those thoughts, he resigned himself to his fate, and signed the contract.

"...welcome to NERV, Shinji Ikari." Misato deeply inhaled, trying to clear the unpleasant air, before smiling widely. "So! Now that you're officially on the level...how would you like to visit the Metaverse?"

"...eh?"

xxxx

The abilities of the Anti-Terror Task Force had been played up for years; understandable, in light of their work. Downright obvious, when it came to hyping up mankind's most famous protectors against the supernatural. Yet, Shinji had never thought about being in a position to witness them first-hand. Just something else he was going to have to get used to, apparently.

Such thoughts filled his mind as he stood on the roof of NERV, its skyscraper headquarters peering over the skyline of Tokyo-3. The light of the Sun glistened off of the surface of Lake Ashi to the south, creating a glittery reflection against the contained sprawl of the city. "Is...is there something I need to do?"

"Nope. Just hold onto my hand, and I'll take care of the rest." He dutifully did so, holding onto her left hand as her right gripped the Anti-Terror Task Force medallion that she had shown him earlier. "Try not to think too much, okay?" She punctuated those words with a playful wink, before holding the medallion up with a stern expression. "Agent Misato Katsuragi, identification zero-one-whiskey-alpha-four: activate cognitive tunneling!"

Moments letter, a digitized voice emerged from her medallion. "Cognitive tunneling: authorized."

Then...there was a subtle whisper.

zhuu

Strangely alluring, emanating within his mind...

zhuu

...slowly becoming more prominent as the air around them began to waver with flickers of red and black and orange and yellow...

ZHUU

Shinji clenched Misato's hand tightly, impulsively closing his eyes against the unpleasant sensation.

ZHUU

Then, it was over. His mind felt strangely...open, as though the thoughts within wanted to spill out and run free...

"You can open your eyes now, Shinji-kun."

He did so...and his jaw actually dropped.

The entirety of Tokyo-3 had been transformed, overtaken by a sepia filter. The sky had become a staticky pattern of red and black waves, jagged and strangely menacing. yet moving as slothful ocean waves; angular black lines and smoky wisps traversed the air, manifesting and winking out of existence at random intervals. Roots sprouted from the ground, writhing and digging into the city's buildings, flowing with what looked like orange juice, or brightly tinted blood. That was not where the differences ended, alas; roving drones - more like synthetic eyes, glowing with rainbow colors - gazed upon the city from above at numerous intervals, emitting manifold spotlights that roved over the landscape. Meanwhile, hovering in the sky - seemingly floating without any form of support or propulsion - was an immense gray sphere that bore the logo of the Anti-Terror Task Force in bold letters, which had the colorful eyes moving in and out of its immensity. Finally, as he focused more, and paid more attention...he could see various figures moving about in the skies above and the streets below, various creatures and humanoids and beasts and things of all shapes and sizes. "Wha...what the...?"

"Pretty crazy, isn't it? This is the Metaverse...the cognitive world of mankind...the manifestation of humanity's collective unconscious."

Shinji turned to his right and yelped because what in the world had happened to Misato's clothes?!

The woman smirked, lowering her blue-tinted shield sunglasses over her nose. "Ah, guess I should'a warned you. Force of habit." Her wardrobe had seamlessly transformed into a dark blue combat uniform of some type, bodysuit covered with plates of segmented armor; most prominent was the gunmetal breastplate bearing the logos of the Anti-Terror Task Force and NERV, side-by-side. A short cloak went down to her waist, but underneath it could be seen evidence of a holstered pistol and a sheathed short sword. However, there were...more personal elements to her new outfit: a white cross dangling on a necklace; the brand logo for the beer Yebisu, almost lovingly painted on the back of her cloak; a wedding band of plain white gold on her left ring finger. "A.T. agents have to have a recognizable uniform...but we all have our own quirks. You know, being people and all. Speaking of which..."

There was a flash of blue fire, and a large figure stepped into existence on the other side of Misato. Shinji paled, stepping back with shock: it was a tall woman - easily over fifteen feet! - wearing traditional samurai garb, clad in colors of red and purple and white and green. Black hair was tied back into a long ponytail, but the woman's face was hidden by a large white mask, bearing a blue cross on the front. Twin swords of different lengths were strapped to the side of her hakama, one bearing the title of Oribe, and the other Shima. "...this is my Persona, Tokoyo."

"...hello, Tokoyo?" he politely offered.

Misato waved it off. "Eh, you're pretty much just saying hi to another part of me. Was all a part of dealing with my daddy issues; remind me to tell you sometime!" With that relatively flippant comment thrown out, the woman swept her arms out, gesturing at the macabre majesty and somber strangeness of the Metaverse. "So! What would you like to see first?"

"...uh..." The sheer enormity and oddity of this place - this Metaverse - was almost overwhelming. He'd heard anecdotal stories of this place before, but the reality of it was...it was...just...what was he looking at?! "...I'd like to leave, please."

Misato actually looked put out by this. "Aw, that's not a lot of fun! You know, you're gonna have to get used to coming here as part of your job. Might as well get your feet wet now, when everything's calm."

"Calm? Calm?!" The sheer amount of activity and things happening did not strike him as calm. "This...this is calm?!"

"Well...yeah." The older woman sighed, leaning against her Persona's leg; the gigantic figure of myth didn't even budge. "Look...I get that your circumstances are less than ideal. I get it." Privately, Shinji wondered if she truly did, but he didn't interrupt. "But at the end of the day, you gotta deal with the hand you're dealt."

"...I guess..." He must have looked somewhat irritated, judging by the amused expression on Misato's face. "Fine..."

"That's the spirit! Now...where to?"

Shinji thought. He thought hard. This whole place was honestly too...intimidating, for him to want to explore, or check out. In all honesty, he wanted to lie down somewhere and just go to sleep...

xxxx

Yellow eyes, hidden by a demonic helm of purple, gleamed knowingly at him.

"You have a gap that you'd like to fill, wouldn't you...?" A hoarse chuckle. "If you don't know where you came from, how can you know where you're going...?"

xxxx

...but not yet. Not now. "Um...can...can we see the train station? Where I arrived at Tokyo-3?"

Misato looked heavily at him, a brief hint of her brown eyes visible over the top of her sunglasses. There was a hint of...concern? Understanding? Before he could ponder further, she readjusted her shades, blocking sight of her eyes; however, her smile seemed more genuine. Maybe. "Okay then. Hang on tight then."

"Wha-?" Tokoyo suddenly hoisted him into the air, wrapping him securely in her arms and pressing him tightly against her chest. Her hold was secure, comfortable, almost motherly; then, without warning, she jumped off of the roof. "AAAAAAAAAAAAH-!"

"Gotta get your feet wet, Shinji-kun!" exclaimed Major Katsuragi, as she followed them with a boisterous leap.

xxxx

Meanwhile, a rainbow eye watched the scene with a tireless gaze. It transmitted this footage to a particular room, in another place, lined with television monitors: dozens, hundreds...maybe thousands. These monitors showed images transmitted from all over Tokyo-3's cognitive region, focused primarily on the Archetypes that traversed the realm, as well as the relatively few Shadows that had declined the safety and hospitality of the A.T. Task Force's aerial juggernaut.

Namely, the spherical Tokyo-3 Cognitive Protection Center; a rather generic name in all honesty, but it carried that sense of municipal banality which calmed and soothed the minds of the general public. It was expected, and official. It made the civilians' cognitive doubles more...pliable, and soothed the Archetypes that trudged along the contours of humanity's collective unconscious.

However, one particular monitor showed something unusual, and unusual things were interesting.

"Hmm...Agent Katsuragi has a new friend, it seems..." The young man zoomed in on the footage of the terrified-looking teenager, looking rather haggard as Katsuragi's Persona landed softly on the street. "...so, that must be the Third Child that the others have been buzzing about..." How intriguing. "Shinji Ikari...how shall you perform, I wonder...?"

xxxx

"Hey, it wasn't that big of a deal."

"We jumped off of a building, Misato-san!"

"And we landed light as a feather! I bet you didn't even feel it."

Truthfully, he hadn't. Despite falling dozens of stories, Tokoyo had set down softly, as though the distance had been five feet instead of hundreds. Misato had landed with equal gentleness, something he was still trying to wrap his mind around. Was it a function of the Metaverse...?

"Hah! I know that look on your face. You're just trying to be difficult."

No I'm not...

"You kind of are..." murmured the brain that was floating above the sidewalk, various nerves and tentacles ending in blue eyes wiggling beneath it. Dozens of other such brains were floating along with it, as though they were salarymen headed to work. "Could you tone down your thoughts, please? They're making us uncomfortable..."

You're one to talk about being made uncomfortable!

"Now you're just being rude..."

"Aw, it's just a dutiful Omoikane!" Misato gave the floating brain a charming smile. "Don't worry, I'm setting him straight. Just keep being you!"

"Okay." The 'Omoikane' floated on ahead, seemingly content with itself.

Shinji stared pointedly at Misato, trying his best to ask 'Explain please' with his eyes. He didn't want to ask, because he didn't trust his own ability to talk while walking near a bunch of floating brains.

"Okay, okay, I get it! Now, let's cover a bit of Metaverse 101. First up: Archetypes." She paused for a moment, gathering her thoughts. "So...the Metaverse is a strange place. As you can tell."

Shinji stared at several figures looking like onis and walking horses amidst the floating brains. "That's...putting it mildly." Tokoyo moved forward, stepping between him and the sidewalk laden with what appeared to be otherworldly creatures.

Misato nodded knowingly. "From what we've been able to ascertain, all of humanity's thoughts, emotions, and mental expressions have a concrete form in this place. However, these things are varied and numerous...I mean, you've got more thoughts and emotions in your head than just you as an individual, neh?"

"...I guess?"

"But basically, these intangible aspects of the human psyche manifest in the cognitive world as discrete forms, actual bodies. There were a lot of classification systems thrown around about what to call em' and how to call em', but the science-y bigwigs eventually settled on calling them Archetypes, based on the work of some famous psychologist. Every single creature you're seeing right now? A bundle of human thoughts and emotions, given form."

"...but why these?" he inquired, desiring a sensible explanation for the craziness he was seeing. Further down an adjacent road, he saw a bunch of winged women, naked cherubs, and alcoholic jars with eyes floating around what appeared to be bars or clubs of a sort. "I mean, why would they look like these?" He waited for Misato to respond. He kept waiting. "...you don't know either, do you?"

"Hey, I never claimed to be an expert!" sputtered the woman. "I mean...okay sure, it is weird. I have no clue why our ambient thoughts and expressions manifest like figures from folklore and myth, but they do, so I just rolled with it." Regaining her composure, she then continued, "now...all of these can be considered...well, I guess dandruff is a good word. The flaky bits falling away from the real head of hair."

"...huh?"

"Generally, when someone is sufficiently 'mature'," she said, complete with finger-quotes, "their thoughts and emotions finally coalesce into something approximating the original person in reality...accept, for the most part, they tend to embody the parts of the person they'd rather not think about. Some say they're our primal essence, or our true selves, or just the feelings we refuse to deal with out in the open...we call those Shadows." She pointed down a random alleyway. "Like that one right there."

Shinji followed where she pointed, and shivered at the yellow eyes looking at him. The owner of those eyes appeared to be a high school delinquent of some sort, judging by his attire and hairstyle. He also appeared to be entirely too comfortable with the Archetypes mingling around him: living lumps of green slime with red eyes, and floating commas with angry red faces. "...he looks scary."

Misato snorted. "Eh, most Shadows will leave you alone if you don't bother em'. Crazy thing is, that may not be a reflection of the real-life person in terms of what they look like. I wouldn't be surprised if, in the real world, that Shadow belongs to a quiet kid with top marks. Might be one of those who keeps to themselves, who's really itchin' for an excuse to punch someone, but keeps a lid on it because it wouldn't be proper...or he could be an actual delinquent in real life. Who knows?"

"...so everyone has a Shadow?"

"Most people end up having one by the time they're a teenager, usually before that."

"...so, where's yours?"

Misato jerked a thumb towards Tokoyo. "You're lookin' at her." His confusion must have been obvious, judging by her smile. "See, that's the other thing about Shadows...people who accept em'? Who come to terms with some of their less pleasant parts? Who deal with their faults, one way or another? Those Shadows become their Personas. Ritsuko would throw a lot more complicated terminology at you, but that's the basic gist of it."

Shinji marveled at the sight of Misato's Persona, bewildered at this larger-than-life manifestation of her...self-acceptance? Self-love? He wasn't sure how to quantify it. "Then...the Evangelion, that Dr. Akagi talked about...is that my Persona...?"

Misato was silent, mulling over her words. "...judging by my experience, I don't think it is. Evangelions are a fusion of the mind and the soul...you could say that the Evangelion is the Persona empowered by your soul, able to function in reality. The way Ayanami-kun always speaks of hers..." Her lips twisted with a complicated expression, halfway between a flat look and a grimace. "...well, I guess you could think of the Evangelion as the vehicle for your Persona. Or its armor, made out of your soul." She shrugged. "It's kinda weird. I just let the eggheads haggle over the details."

...so Shogoki...is my Shadow, wearing my soul? That seemed so odd. And yet...it had appeared for him, hadn't it? If that was the case...

xxxx

"What shall you do, with this knowledge? The real world is familiar, with rules you understand...but this place is foreign. Unfamiliar. Yet...your instincts know."

A wistful sigh.

"The A.T. Field is the wall that protects and defines, in the world outside...but you have no such protection, in the realm of the mind's eye."

A knowing smile. The tone of the Beast faded, leaving a voice that sounded like him.

"I look forward to facing you again..."

xxxx

...then where was his Persona? Everyone seemed to believe that it already existed...and yet, he had never faced his own Shadow.

Hadn't he?

"We're here."

Shinji's thoughts came to a halt, as he suddenly realized that they had arrived: Hakone-Kintoki Station, the terminus of the Gotemba-Hakone Line, on the north side of Tokyo-3...or at least, that's what he thought he would see, at least some weird cognitive version of it.

Instead...there was nothing.

Quite literally: the bizarre colors of the Metaverse seemed to fade away as one got closer to the train station, bleeding away into a wavy smoke that eventually terminated in an event horizon of pure void. "What..." The dividing line between the colorful cognitive world and the gray emptiness seemed to sizzle. "...what happened?"

"Another reason why Angel Syndrome is such a big deal, Shinji-kun...because however it works, it scars the cognitive world in its wake."

Shinji stared quietly at the dead zone, the psychic scar tissue that allowed no thought to trespass. He slowly - unthinkingly - reached out-

"Don't."

The boy blinked, feeling Misato's iron grip on his wrist. Wait, what was I-?

"You don't want to cross that threshold. Not while we're in the Metaverse." The woman's eyes were focused upon the threshold between thought and anti-thought, her expression veiled by her sunglasses. "...it's hard to think, in places where Angel Syndrome's run amok. Makes trying to get things back up and running...difficult, at first. With enough people, and enough effort...small areas can be fixed. Healed. But...some places are too big to fix. Too wounded. Like the original Tokyo..." A somber huff, too loud in the quiet ambience of this place. "...it'll probably be another week before this station is fully back up and running. There haven't been any Ghost sightings, fortunately. Your intervention minimized the damage."

"...my...intervention...?" The utter emptiness of the space in front of him was considered minimal damage?

"It's why Ritsuko and your father were so...blunt. It's why I've been so forward with you about this place: we're running out of time." The A.T. agent sighed, her free hand fiddling with the ends of her hair. "Nobody can give any specifics, other than the rate of Angel Syndrome incidents...but there's been an odd feeling. Call it a gut instinct, maybe. We can only do what we can." Her other hand had yet to release his wrist. "...do you remember anything else, about what happened on the train?"

"..."

xxxx

The gangly creature suddenly advanced, movements animated by malice and speed.

The thing that he had ripped out of his head - this Shogoki - shot forward, grappling with the creature, blue fire leaking from every movement.

The berserk man - the one touched by the creature, reduced to a crazed killing machine - stepped over the mauled body of a woman, reaching for a young girl.

A bestial roar - something primal, something old - erupted from his gullet as he himself charged at the man.

xxxx

"...I'm tired, Misato-san..." murmured Shinji, feeling drained. He wanted to sleep. "Can we please leave?"

"...sure thing, Shinji-kun." The woman released his wrist, reaching up for her medallion. "Agent Misato Katsuragi, identification zero-one-whiskey-alpha-four: initiate cognitive evacuation."

"Cognitive evacuation: authorized," calmly hissed the medallion.

The subtle whisper returned, strikingly loud in the silent ambience.

ZHUU

Slowly, did that noise dissipate.

ZHUU

His mind began to pull back, consigning itself once more into the constraints of flesh and blood, space and time.

zhuu

Colors shifted and faded and blossomed, transforming into a familiar palette.

zhuu

And just like that, Shinji Ikari and Misato Katsuragi were once more in the real world, staring at Hakone-Kintoki Station in its mundane fullness. In lieu of an empty void, there were teams of individuals in hazmat suits cleaning out the interiors of the rail cars. One car was isolated on a separate track, looking like it had suffered an explosion from the inside. Every ten minutes, those who were working would switch out with other teams waiting beyond rows of temporary barriers and caution tape. The roads leading up to the station were blocked off, lending an oppressive isolation to the whole scene. If their sudden appearance shocked them, they did not show it.

Maybe they were used to members of the Anti-Terror Task Force going in and out of the Metaverse at will.

The full enormity of everything he had witnessed and experienced that day seemed to hit all at once, as his legs seemed to lose their strength. He leaned against Misato's side, struggling to keep his eyes open. "...tired..."

This seemed to amuse Misato, judging by her tone. "Heh...I imagine you are. Go ahead and have a nap, okay?"

That sounded like a fantastic idea. He promptly followed her order, closing his eyes and letting everything around him fade away...

xxxx

...and then he awoke once more, in a metal chair in an empty auditorium, with the music of a piano and wailing woman faintly echoing. The short and bizarre man was there as ever, amidst curtains of blue velvet. His silver-haired assistant stood by his desk, trying to stand still and failing miserably, judging by how she fidgeted.

"Welcome back to the Velvet Room," said Igor. "It has been quite an eventful day, hasn't it?"

...an eventful day would be putting it mildly, mused Shinji. More importantly, how did he get here? He voiced these thoughts.

Igor chuckled. "You are fast asleep in the real world; this visit is akin to a dream! But worry not; you will journey here of your own accord, when the time comes." He leaned forward, calmly tapping his fingers in a legato rhythm, smooth and repetitive. "More importantly...you have signed the contract." Tap-tap.

...that's right. The contract that bound him to NERV.

"That contract has placed an indelible mark upon you, binding your fate to that organization." Tap-tap. "Tell me, Shinji Ikari: what are your opinions of NERV?"

"...my...opinions?" His gut impulses were less than pleasant, colored by his father's behavior, and Dr. Akagi's rather callous mannerisms; Misato Katsuragi's relative friendliness brought them to an unpleasant neutrality, marred by an instinctive dislike. "...um...they're heavy-handed...?"

Igor's assistant tittered, rocking back and forth on her heels. "I think you have other things you'd like to say...like stupid!"

"..."

"You will have to forgive Sokila; as far as residents go, she is a rather unusual case...but one that is warranted by the circumstances." Tap-tap. "NERV: an organization driven by a desire to combat a dire threat, one that threatens the world. And yet, what world will remain at the end, should their victory be obtained? A world reduced to cold logic, all mysteries done away with?" Tap-tap. "A world where the mind is completely mapped, a world where the soul is laid bare in all its intricacies; where does this leave the heart, with all its boundless potential?" Tap-tap. "Life without mystery is one that many humans would find unfitting. Do you agree?"

Shinji thought about it. In this place, he felt like it was safe to simply be, to think and ponder, without pressure or expectation. "...I think people like things being predictable...to a point." Yet he had come to Tokyo-3, driven by a nebulous motivation he couldn't quite articulate, even now. "...I...I guess unexpected things make life interesting. But those can be good or bad."

"Indeed. One such unexpected event would be the power you awakened to: that of Evangelion." Igor leaned forward, his bloodshot eyes peering directly into his soul. "It is a power that you shall come to understand more in the days to come...especially when you face the manifestation of your psyche that lies within: the Persona."

"...like Misato's Tokoyo." He still couldn't quite recall the appearance of Shogoki in its fullness. What lied within that strange power...?

"The world has endeavored to categorize and study the Persona in great detail; it will suffice to say that the Persona is a part of your personality that surfaces to handle certain events: a mask to protect you, a Shadow that devours the uncomfortable. Truly, your strength will grow if you come to accept it in its fullness."

Sokila nodded. "I bet your Persona's gonna be awesome!" The girl's cheerfulness was oddly comforting.

"However, no one can stand alone in isolation forever, and the human heart is one that grows stronger in the company of others." Igor drew three cards off of his card deck, holding them aloft in one hand so that he could see the stylized images of the sun, a demon, and the moon. "The Sun. The Devil. The Moon," said the bizarre man, before flipping them around in a seamless motion. On the other side of the cards were images of three people. "Misato Katsuragi. Gendo Ikari. Ritsuko Akagi. Your heart has already established links with these individuals."

"...I can understand Misato-san...but Dr. Akagi? My father?" Shinji wanted to sound incredulous, but it came off as false. Did a part of him still hope for reconciliation...?

"The emotional bonds that you bear with others can be complicated, for the heart is intricate. Not all bonds are always joyful or happy...yet, as your ties grow and develop, you will come to understand not only them, but yourself as well. Thus will your inner strength reach new heights." Igor merged the trio of cards together, and with a trick of the hand, they vanished from sight. "Seek other Social Links; be willing to engage with new Confidants; as they grow in strength, so will your Persona...and Evangelion, in turn. Please remember that."

Sokila hopped off of the stage, skipping over towards him. "Mister Igor wants you to have this!" She handed him a digital audio tape, its shell colored a pleasant shade of blue.

"...uh...thanks...?" He dutifully pocketed the DAT cassette.

"You are an important guest of the Velvet Room," explained Igor. "That shall serve as your key to return to this place. Now...time marches on. I shouldn't delay you any longer. Next time, you shall come here of your own accord. Until then...farewell."

The silver-haired girl grinned, stepping away from him. "See you later! Come back soon!"

And just like that, the Velvet Room began to fade away...

xxxx

...and he awoke, blinking wearily. Where...am I...? He was lying on a couch, covered with thin sheets; the room was dark, but a distant digital clock on the wall showcased 23:12. He sluggishly translated the time in his mind; it was past eleven o'clock at night. Is this...Katsuragi's place...?

In his peripheral vision, he saw part of the wall open up, unveiling a glowing white void. None of the ambience brightened the room, an incongruity that his mind was too tired to fully process. Out of the void walked...a penguin. Or perhaps waddled would be a better word. What? The white void slid shut as the penguin waddled forward, calmly passing the couch...until it backed up. The penguin turned - he could barely make out green eyes and a feathery red crest - and stared directly at him. Uh...

The penguin didn't move its beak, and yet spoke regardless. "This'll be our little secret." The tone was male, he felt in the fatigued loopiness of his mind, because this was clearly another dream.

...uh...

"Sssh." The penguin raised a flipper - that had claws for some bizarre reason - and pressed the tip of one talon against his lips, slowly stroking them as he shushed him. "Go back to sleep..."

"..."

"...wark," quietly quacked the penguin, before waddling away into the adjacent kitchen. He opened up a small refrigerator and hopped inside, closing it behind him.

...definitely a dream. Because honestly, some things were too weird to contemplate.

And so Shinji Ikari closed his eyes.

xxxx

END OF 6/7/2015

xxxx

Author's Note: ...okay, going back to Acts of an Old Exodus is turning out to be harder than I thought.

As you can see, various themes and motifs from both franchises are being played with here.

Misato's Persona, Tokoyo, is real figure from Japanese folklore. She has her own Wikipedia article.

Next time, we gaze upon the adventures of Shinji Ikari, transfer student!

See you soon, and please review!