So, in case y'all haven't noticed, this story has cover art now! Courtesy of the talented Renu of the Sufficient Velocity forums, it is a commissioned piece of Shinji and Hamlet. The full size version can be found on the story thread at either Sufficient Velocity, Space Battles, or the story version hosted on AO3.

Now, onward to the actual story.

xxxx

Sokila idly doodled on the floor with a red crayon, reduced to a nub.

"You hung out with two old guys..."

She had drawn Keel Lorenz, firing laser beams from his visor.

"...this one is kinda scary though..."

She looked back at him, a childish pout on her face.

"...you'd have more fun hanging out with me..."

The faint haze of blue began to brighten-

xxxx

/Sunday: June 28, 2015/

/2nd Floor, Izanagi Dorm, Hakone Academy/

Only a few other boys were up at this time of morning; most were probably taking advantage of the Sunday to sleep in. With less than a month until finals for the first term, most of Shinji Ikari's fellow students were likely taking the time to rest and recuperate.

That suited him just fine; he appreciated the quiet. He quietly waited in the common kitchens, waiting for his English muffin to toast. In the meantime, he was quietly browsing through the Mission Board app. Just two more missions, he thought to himself; hopefully he'd be able to take care of them today. I wonder how many they'll want me to do for July...

There were various missions submitted from municipalities throughout Japan, citing minor Ghost activity, or potential Acolyte sightings. However, those were quickly taken by others, falling off of the Mission Board within mere minutes of them appearing. Scrolling down, he reviewed missions that were older, and of lesser...priority, apparently?

SUBMITTED BY: Goro Akechi (Anti-Terror Task Force)
LOCATION: Cognitive Protection Center (Tokyo-3)
MISSION: To assist local A.T. Agents in the pacification of Shadows held within the Panopticon.

Doing that again didn't sound too bad...but some of the Shadows in the Panopticon had been kind of extreme...maybe he'd look for another one?

SUBMITTED BY: Office of Cognitive and Spiritual Affairs (Kyoto Prefecture)
LOCATION: Kyoto
MISSION: To corral and organize local Archetype activity to minimize social disruption in the wake of Governor Yoshida's stroke.

There was something that felt oddly foreboding about the way that was phrased...

SUBMITTED BY: Ritsuko Akagi (NERV)
LOCATION: Tokyo-3
MISSION: To provide supplementary research data for Project E. (Active Evangelion-users need not apply.)

...well, that's not for me then.

SUBMITTED BY: Mamoru Hayase (National Olympic Committee)
LOCATION: Tokyo-2
MISSION: To corral and organize suitable Archetypes to increase cognitive performance of athletes in preparation for the 2015 Summer Olympics.

Shinji blinked. That was actually coming up soon, wasn't it? He had overheard some of the Track Club members talking about it. I wonder where it's going to be?

SUBMITTED BY: Office of Cognitive and Spiritual Affairs (Kanagawa Prefecture)
LOCATION: Tokyo-3
MISSION: To assist authorized personnel in a welfare check on unregistered Shadows.

Shinji blinked. What was a 'welfare check'? Would Aida-san know? Or maybe Dr. Akagi?

He pondered and wondered about what he should do as his muffin popped out of the toaster; spreading some butter and a light dollop of cream cheese, Shinji thoughtfully chewed on his breakfast, wondering what awaited him this day.

xxxx

/Room 23, 2nd Floor, Izanagi Dorms, Hakone Academy/

"An actual welfare check? Sweet! Mind if I tag along?"

As it turned out, Kensuke geeking out was what awaited Shinji. "Um...first of all, what is a welfare check?" he asked. Toji was out doing some track practice in his free time; Kaworu was absent as well, apparently practicing for some regional tournament that was going to occur over the Summer break. As such, only Kensuke was present.

"Ooh, it was one of my mom's favorite assignments! She said it provided insight into some rather cagey individuals. 'Better drama than anything on TV,' she'd say!"

"...that sounds-"

"-kinda morbid in retrospect, yeah." Kensuke paused, but quickly picked up steam. "But basically, although most Shadows accept the A.T. Task Force's protection, there's a few who are...rebels. Or just stubborn. For whatever reason, they just decide to not go along...and since the Task Force learned the hard way early on that trying to force Shadows just led to unnecessary collateral damage, they set up a system to perform regular welfare checks on Shadows to make sure they're...well, doing okay."

"...huh. Sounds simple enough...?"

"So. Can I come along?"

"...can you?"

"Well, as an official intern with NERV and a registered Persona-user, I qualify under Article Three, Section Five of the Cognitive Service as a lawful entrant...provided I have prior approval from someone authorized to enter the Metaverse. Which, as an Evangelion-user, you have that inherent authorization per Amendment E which got passed in 2010."

"..."

"...Dr. Akagi made me read up on a lot of legal stuff. To make sure I know the boundaries, you know?"

"..."

"...so...can I?"

xxxx

/Tokyo-3, the Metaverse/

As it turned out, the 'authorized personnel' from the selected mission - a rather laidback A.T. Agent with an unassuming expression named Pumena Sushin - was fine with Kensuke's presence. "Kind of odd for an Evangelion-user to spend time doing grunt work like this, though," murmured the middle-aged man with some suspicion.

"Oh...um...I'm just...trying to fulfill my quota...?" muttered Shinji, feeling rather awkward by how pointed the man's stare was regarding his outfit. At least Hamlet's presence seemed to mollify his concerns; even Kensuke Aida, with his faux-Agent wardrobe, seemed more properly dressed alongside Ozymandias.

"...eh, I'm not going to complain." The man pulled a notepad out of a satchel on his left hip, which had various identifying tags and locations jotted down over a few pages. Without much in the way of ceremony, he tore out one page and handed it to Shinji. "Here's your share." He then handed him another notepad, each page showing a checklist of sorts comprised of a dozen questions listed. "Just ask the Shadows these questions, and jot down their answers. Notate any observations that strike you as unusual, and we'll consider that meeting the legal minimum for a welfare check."

Kensuke narrowed his eyes. "...this seems rather lackadaisical. And unofficial. Shouldn't we be the ones accompanying you on this mission?"

Sushin loosed a tired sigh. "Look, kids..." He tried to find words, then decided on something new, turning towards Shinji. "You've worked with the Chief Warden a couple of times. It's no secret that we're short-staffed. Our attention has been focused on Acolytes and minimizing Ghost occurrences in the real world...and they've been getting more aggressive. Leaves fewer bodies for all the 'societal welfare', which could honestly be taken care of by the Ocular Drones, if the law would allow for it..."

"I'm sensing some subtle hostility, there," remarked Kensuke with a raised eyebrow.

"Given that you two are able to enter this world to begin with, I don't feel the need to bullshit you," he crudely retorted.

Kensuke held up his hands. "Point taken!"

"...so...we just go to these locations, find the Shadows, and complete the checklist?" asked Shinji, trying to make sure he was going to do this right. Because some of the locations seemed...vague.

"We've placed markers corresponding to their assigned ID tag around the edge of their Realm. Makes it easier to find them." Sushin scratched the back of his head, idly summoning his Persona: a shadowy, wraith-like man covered by a dark green robes, with cloak and shawl hiding his face from sight. "I gave you two the easy ones; most of the Shadows around here are rather easygoing...even with all the crap that's been going on..."

"Would you stop throwing up flags?!" griped Kensuke.

"Don't know what you're talking about. Whatever it is, no need to make life harder for yourself." With those words, the A.T. Agent clambered onto the back of his larger Persona. "We'll rendezvous at 1300. If a Shadow gets too ornery for you to approach without escalating, feel free to leave it for later." With those words said, the unnamed wraith floated down the street, with his Agent in tow; the ambient Archetypes shambling around made sure to give them a wide berth.

"...you know, there is such a thing as too laidback," grumbled Kensuke.

"I thought he was just fine," said Shinji, looking down at the sheets and notepad handed to him. "So...it looks like our first stop is Kobayakawa Memorial Hospital."

"...I think I know where that is," said Kensuke, a confused frown crossing his face. "But why...? Eh, I'm sure I'll remember. Follow me!"

And so the two boys took off in the opposite direction, delving towards the downtown of Tokyo-3's cognitive double.

xxxx

Kobayakawa Memorial Hospital had been relatively...haphazard, in terms of its appearance within the Metaverse. Some halls were practically reflective on every surface, indicative of the obsessive cleaning by hospital staff, with four colored Mitama Archetypes floating about with abandon; however, the rooms varied in appearance, reflecting the cognition of the patients...or the general mood and atmosphere, alternating between dim and desolate grunge to places where cadavers lined the walls.

("Ah...kind of forgot that this place is also a research hospital..." murmured Kensuke Aida, as they tried to skirt around the intimidating Ghoul and Gurr Archetypes that hung around the outside. Trying to be discreet failed, as the horrid thoughtbeasts seemed to take great offense at their presence.)

Rooms dedicated to religious personnel stationed at hospitals - mandatory in light of potential Ghost activity - were rife with angelic and sagely-looking Archetypes, often guarded by intimidating Shiki-Ouji; meanwhile certain places had holes plunging into the basement, lined with bones all the way down.

(They both looked down one of the pits. A Pale Rider peered up at them silently from the darkness below. "...let's not go down there," whispered Kensuke.)

However, it had been productive in a very different way.

"...look, I'll be frank with you," muttered the Yaksini Archetype; despite having been weakened by Ozymandias and slashed repeatedly by Hamlet, the demonic woman with purple skin still managed to look imperious and not intimidated in the least. Given that her only article of clothing was a red and white skirt, perhaps that had something to do with her lack of shame. "It's hard to take you seriously when you're not looking at me."

Shinji, with his hands covering his face, replied, "I'm trying to be polite!"

"Come on Ikari, it's a literal figment of the imagination," replied Kensuke, who seemed less bashful than him.

"See, at least he's honest about being a rotten pervert," retorted the Yaksini, her long black hair barely covering her breasts.

"Hey, it's just that I've seen worse on the Internet," shot back Kensuke, who only had a bit of a red blush on his face.

Shinji didn't know how to feel about that. "Look...we've already beaten you. Instead of destroying you, it's better to help us out, right?" To accentuate the point, Hamlet held his sword at the Yaksini's face.

The purple demon grinned, flashing her fangs. "A fair point! Lease you have some guts...which actually reminds me...of what I am! I am thou and thou art I!" The golden cuffs around her ankles and wrists shimmered, as did the horned tiara adorning her forehead. "I'll make you pay if you chicken out!"

"...I won't."

"Then with my blades, I'll help you consume your enemies..." With a flourish of azure light, the almost-naked woman dissolved, merging with Shinji Ikari.

"...I don't know how to feel right now," murmured Shinji, rubbing at the bridge of his nose.

"Neither do I. It still weirds me out how you can use multiple Archetypes alongside your own Persona," countered Kensuke. "But hey, it means more power for you to use, right?"

"I guess." With Yaksini, that made three new Archetypes to call upon in battle, on top of Ara Mitama and Onmoraki. "I just...how am I supposed to think about the fact that in my mind, I apparently have a Shakespearean prince, a horse-man with a lyre, a cat with boots, a snowman, a dead chicken-demon...thing, a red magatama with an angry face, and now a barely-dressed demon woman just...doing what? Hanging out? How does any of this work?!"

"How should I know?! Personas are supposed to be reflections of parts of ourselves; there's never been a documented case of anyone having more than one, much less being able to take Archetypes into themselves to use like Personas. You are, quite literally, one of a kind."

Shinji resisted the urge to pout. "...I don't really like being one of a kind..."

"Well, that's the way it is. Anyhow, according to the list, our first Shadow should be on the next floor!"

Shinji quietly followed Kensuke up the stairwell; sometimes, certain stairways seemed to go on forever - a reflection of just how much people in this hospital must of hated stairs - which forced them to traverse floors to try a different one. The elevators...

(As the elevator doors in the lobby opened, they stared quietly at the seven white baboons sitting within, clad in Egyptian regalia and all reading from the same book. The Thoth Archetypes all stared back with yellow eyes, waiting for the elevator door to close. "...let's try the stairs," said Kensuke with a gulp.)

...well, they hadn't been accessible.

Emerging onto the eighth floor, they were near the end of the hallway; sure enough, there was something out of place: a holographic tag, bearing the combination of letters and numbers designating the first Shadow on their list. Right beyond it, the hallway seemed to distort, looking awfully similar to the entrance of Kensuke Aida's Realm from two weeks ago in terms of its staticky appearance. "...how come they don't tell us who the Shadow is?"

"Randomized ID tags keep the names of unregistered Shadows from becoming public record; it's to minimize the chances of nefarious actors from specifically targeting people they may have a grudge against..." Kensuke looked around the hall, feeling a sudden sense of deja vu. "This place...why is it so..." The bespectacled boy paused behind him, coming to a stop; Shinji slowly moved forward, steeling himself for crossing the threshold. "...oh...oh, wait Ikari-!"

Shinji crossed the barrier, entering the Shadow's Realm...

"The hell are you doing here?"

...and came to an immediate halt at the sound and sight of Toji Suzuhara.

Yellow eyes glared at Shinji. "Well? Waitin' for an answer."

No; not Toji Suzuhara. His Shadow. "...wha...?" Shinji was stunned; never had he expected such an occurrence. Even with the relatively recent encounter with Kensuke's Shadow, the prospect of running into the Shadow of someone he knew had been incredibly low on his list of probabilities.

There was an odd sound - a hollow hiss crossed with the tearing of bubble wrap - as Kensuke Aida entered Suzuhara's Realm. "...just now remembered why this place was so familiar," he muttered, looking wearily at the Shadow of his best friend. "This...this hospital is where his little sister's been residing."

His...sister? That was the family member that he'd been visiting, according to Horaki-san?

Before Shinji could even voice his thoughts, Suzuhara's Shadow snorted. "Seriously, am I talking to a wall? What. Are. You. Doing. Here?"

Kensuke placed a hand on Shinji's shoulder, stepping forwards the irritated Shadow. "I'll handle this," he whispered, before grabbing the notepad from Shinji's grip. "Actually, we're here on business. Welfare check, since you're not a Shadow registered with the Cognitive Protection Center, you know?"

"...ah. You got roped into that?" The Shadow huffed, crossing his arms; rather than his normal tracksuit, he was wearing a green tunic, with a cape of animal skins draped over his back. The right shoulder of the tunic was missing entirely, exposing a torso which was way too muscular for a boy of thirteen years to have, yet not bulky enough to appear outlandish or cartoonish. Rather, he evoked...danger, and a willingness to fight. "Feh. You and your gungho ways, getting involved in stuff way over your head. It's going to backfire and involve more than just yourself, you know? Oh. Wait. It already has."

Kensuke pointedly ignored the Shadow's barbs as he began reciting from the checklist. "How long as it been since your last welfare check?"

"Not long enough."

"...an actual answer, please? We'll be gone that much faster, I promise."

"...three months, give or take a few days."

"Have you encountered any unusual activity within your Realm?"

"Besides seeing you? Nope."

"Has anyone tried to coerce you into activity that you didn't want to do?"

"Nope."

As Kensuke continued asking questions in a relatively professional manner, Shinji gazed around the Realm; they were situated at the top of a conical pyramid, which spiraled downward to plains littered with human bones; statues of Toji Suzuhara towered over them, formed of immaculate and unblemished marble. Lining the spiraling path up the pyramid were more statues of Toji, sitting atop weathered gravestones. Without any way of knowing who the gravestones represented, Shinji could only speculate as to their meaning; various hulking warriors in blue masks roamed the pathway, their backs pierced by numerous swords without affecting their movement at all. Looking back up, his gaze focused upon the clear centerpiece of the Realm: a golden coffin embossed with the images of various people along its side. The relief of a young girl laid upon the coffin, both a part of yet separate from the coffin; he couldn't quite tell if she was asleep or dead. However, it was polished to an almost immaculate shine. I guess...that must be his sister?

"Lastly, do you have any recommendations for us?" Kensuke's voice brought Shinji out of his musing.

"Yeah. Send someone other than you two. You piss me off."

"Understood," replied Kensuke, jotting down the answer. Finally, having dispensed with the 'official' part of his duty, the boy finally asked, "look...I know I can be difficult. I have been. But why are you so mad?"

"...you seriously don't get it?" The Shadow stared angrily at them. "You're gonna get me killed one of these days. Don't much appreciate it."

"...let's go Ikari," said Kensuke with a frown, quietly turning to depart.

As the uncharacteristically somber boy left, Shinji glanced back at the Shadow of his roommate; rising from his chair, Suzuhara's Shadow grabbed a severed human arm from the other side of the coffin, squeezing it harshly. Blood trickled upon the coffin; using a well-worn rag, Suzuhara began polishing the gold, impossibly cleaning it of impurities. "...Suzuhara-san?"

"What? You gonna try and get some insight? Gonna try and change me? Won't work. You're not the one that pisses me off the most."

Shinji squashed the urge to ask who he was referring to. "Is...is there something I can do to help? Anything?"

Yellow eyes glared intently at him. "You can stop trying to get close to me...also, tell the other me to man up." Suzuhara's Shadow receded from the coffin, sitting back down with a hearty smack. "Now beat it."

Knowing that he had overstayed his welcome, Shinji quietly withdrew; the distortion faded, and he once again stood in the cognitive double of Kobayakawa Memorial Hospital. "...um..." He looked over his shoulder at Kensuke, who had a complicated expression on his face. "...you okay, Aida-san?"

"...I honestly don't know." The boy scratched at his sandy hair, out of nervous habit than anything else. "Let's get out of this hospital. We have a list to finish, don't we?"

xxxx

Fortunately, the other individuals on their list proved to be less confrontational than Toji had been. They were the Shadows of older individuals, who had long become accustomed to the fact that their freedom from the Cognitive Protection Center came with a certain level of oversight.

Still, some of their quirks were rather outlandish.

"So, is there anything else you need to ask?" inquired the Shadow of a man wearing a jumpsuit patterned off an American flag. "I have to get back to improving the national anthem." Said anthem being some bizarre mixture of what sounded like a video game fighter's theme and some American R&B song...at least according to Kensuke...

...who hadn't stopped bopping to the beat ever since it had begun. "Why can't other Shadows be as rad as you?"

"Truly, one of life's great mysteries," said the middle-aged man, his eyes hidden by star-shaped sunglasses that had images of American Presidents imprinted on them. In the background, a buff wrestler with the head of a bald eagle was wrestling with...an anthropomorphic handgun? A handgun with an afro?!

Shinji didn't mind it when they finally left the Shadow's Realm, which was centered in the cognitive double of what was a rather upscale apartment building in the real world. "...that...that was..." Odd. Weird. "...unexpected."

"Someone with a bit of a thing for Yankee gaijin," joked Kensuke, edging around a large stack of yen paper notes, if only so he didn't excite the ire of the Oni Archetype guarding it. "Probably something he doesn't really wanna talk about either, given who he is."

"...you recognized him?"

"Some diplomatic bigwig with the Defense Ministry. I've seen him doing a few television interviews from time to time." The bespectacled boy adjusted his eyeglasses, letting Ozymandias lead the way down the hallway. "Can't recall his name off the top of my head though...would probably be a bit of a scandal if it became known just how much his love for another country went!"

"...why would it?" asked Shinji.

"A guy in the Defense Ministry, being so gung-ho about a foreign nation, even if they are an ostensible ally? It just wouldn't sit right with a lot of people. Divided loyalties, and all that."

"...do you think that's the case?"

Kensuke shrugged. "Probably not? I mean, it seemed relatively harmless; maybe he just likes their culture compared to Japan's. Not exactly our place to question, you know? I'm sure he's already been tagged by the A.T. Task Force for review in the event a court wants to do...well, whatever."

Shinji let the silence stretch, balancing his shovel over the back of his shoulders as they left the cognitive apartment complex. They began making their way back to where they were supposed to rendezvous with Pumena Sushin, less than thirty minutes from now. It was...a tense silence, now that they weren't looking for the next Shadow.

Maybe...

xxxx

His Other looked at him, expectantly.

"You know what you want to ask."

His expression evoked...empathy.

"Do not fear his response."

Or perhaps patience.

"After all...you have a bond, do you not?"

xxxx

...maybe he could ask. "Aida-san...is everything okay? You've been...down, since we saw Suzuhara's Shadow."

"...I don't know what you're talking about," replied Kensuke.

Silence trailed on. Shinji tried to break it. "...well-"

"Yeah yeah, I know, that was pretty unconvincing," admitted the bespectacled boy.

...that wasn't exactly what he was going to say, but Shinji wasn't going to complain. "...Suzuhara's Shadow was pretty harsh, wasn't he?" It's not like he had much cause to feel too broken up about it, given their mutual roommate's rather chilly disposition to him in general. It had softened up since the new moon...but only just.

Kensuke huffed. "Yeah, he was. Given where his Realm is located, I'm honestly not surprised...he's always been pretty private about that sort of thing."

"...what happened to his sister?"

"Not my place to say. I've known Toji since our first year in middle school..." The boy trailed off, as though surprised by that realization. "Wow, it's been four years already...huh. Time flies." He scratched at the back of his head with his right hand, a nervous tic of his. "Anyhow, it was well over a year before Suzuhara was comfortable enough to tell me about his family circumstances...and that's all I'll say about it."

"Except that's not related to the original line of inquiry, isn't it?" remarked Ozymandias, threateningly aiming his shepherd's crook at a group of Oni Archetypes prowling in a nearby alley. "Be honest."

"...sometimes, having your other self walking around can suck," griped Kensuke. "Then again, since it's me, I guess part of me really wants to talk about it...darn it, there's no winning." Sighing theatrically, the boy continued, "I guess Toji saying I 'piss him off' hit a bit close."

"...but, don't you and Suzuhara bicker? A lot?" Like, all the time?

"Eh, that's just us messing around...I think." The recent encounter apparently had the boy second-guessing things. "Suzuhara...his Shadow was trying to sound mean. Coupled with how freaky the rest of his Realm was, it...it's making me think about whether or not things are as okay as I thought they were...not like our family situations are 'okay'."

That was a sentiment that Shinji could wholeheartedly empathize with. Speaking of not okay, "there were a lot of bones..."

"So many bones! Like, an uncomfortable amount!"

"...is...is he okay?"

"I...I honestly don't know. He was in a bit of funk after Tomochika died, but I thought he'd been getting better..." The boy went silent for a moment, as if trying to figure something out. "...maybe he's just better at hiding it behind the 'moody teenager' mask than I gave him credit for...man, what world do we live in when Nagisa-kun is the most well-adjusted roommate I have?"

Shinji let the comment trail off, content to let Kensuke be. Digging any further seemed rude...but all the Shadows he had come across before related to sides that people refused to acknowledge about themselves...so what did that Realm signify about Toji Suzuhara as a person? Quietly, he glanced over his shoulder, looking back at his Persona; Hamlet knowingly raised his left hand, presenting the human skull bereft of a lower jaw.

Maybe...

xxxx

His Other stared at the human skull.

"Death comes for everyone."

Lightning flashed in the distance, as the Beast hissed.

"There are no exceptions."

xxxx

...maybe Suzuhara simply understood death in a deeper - or more morbid way - than either he or Aida-san gave him credit for.

xxxx

Compared to the drama involved with facing Suzuhara's Shadow, completing the mission was almost anticlimactic.

"Huh. You actually got through all of them," remarked Agent Pumena Sushin, perusing the notepad and the checklists that the two boys had completed. "I'll actually be able to update the log early..."

"...how do you even know our answers are legitimate?" inquired Kensuke.

"There's some similarity in terms of responses I've gotten before from some of the Shadows on your list...plus, with all the Ocular Drones, I'm pretty sure there's enough footage to trace your tracks...and any falsified information would be caught, which comes with legal ramifications-"

Kensuke waved his hands back and forth rapidly. "Okay okay, I get the point!"

"But seriously, not bad, you two."

"Thank you, Sushin-san," said Shinji. "...so...do we do anything else?"

"Nope. I'll be the one to file this in at the CPC," said Sushin, looking up at Cognitive Protection Center, looming in the sky. "You two can go and do...well, whatever. Doesn't much matter to me. Unless it's illegal. Don't do that." The Agent's Persona exhaled a cloud of greenish-gray smoke, shrouding the man from sight. "So...see ya."

Shinji and Kensuke both backed away from the smoke, which lingered like a bad neighbor. "Ah, the vanishing act type," remarked Aida, readjusting his eyeglasses. "So...did you have anything else planned for the day, Ikari?"

"...no, not really." He was honestly kind of hoping to work one more mission, just so his quota would finally be done for the month. But he didn't have another mission selected yet, so technically he didn't have anything planned-

"Then can we train?!" exclaimed the bespectacled boy, bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet. "I want Ozymandias to get stronger!"

Shinji blinked, perplexed by the question as asked. "...but why me?"

"...dude, seriously? You've got multiple Personas! You're like, the best possible training partner!"

...well, he couldn't deny that that was a little flattering.

"Besides, better to train and get a better handle on our abilities in a controlled environment...one that's less stressful..."

Shinji frowned as a disturbed look came over his roommate's face. "...are you okay?"

"Sorry. Just thinking about Ayanami's...training..."

"...wha-?"

"I don't wanna talk about it."

xxxx

/The Cognitive Protection Center, Tokyo-3, Metaverse/

Pumena Sushin quietly walked through the halls of the Cognitive Protection Center, his Persona shrouding his body. Archetypes ignored him. Agent activity within the CPC was minimal, at this time of day; most were likely on missions.

He honestly hadn't expected those two kids to legitimately finish up their portion of the mission within the allotted time. There were things to be said about serendipity, apparently.

Entering the large, sprawling office that all A.T. Agents stationed within the region used; he briefly passed by his terminal - leaving a dollop of smoke that took on his form - before heading towards Agent Katsuragi's terminal. He sat down at the desk, shrouded by his Persona. Now...let's see. His Persona quietly immersed itself within the ambience of Katsuragi's desk: the drinks had, the irritated shouting, the long hours...the patterns those thoughts had carved...

Acting as if in a trance, Sushin typed in the password, gaining access to Misato Katsuragi's terminal. With focused intent, he tried to find the data he was looking for. As the minutes went by with no luck, Sushin's frown increased. Her logs showed a lot of work done here over the past week...there has to be something here...

"You seem rather focused, Sushin-san."

Without warning, hulking hands grabbed Sushin and his Persona, slamming them into the nearby wall. The agent gagged with shock, and his wraith-like Persona struggled futilely; it was none other than Robin Hood. The Chief Warden stood quietly, a nonchalant smile on his face. "You've never been much of a talker, from my experience...not even speaking your Persona's name out loud when using it in joint battles...a quiet, dutiful Agent."

Sushin said nothing. The look in Akechi's eyes already signalled that the game was up.

"And yet, personnel profiles always indicate basic details about the Personas of A.T. Agents...including the name of yours: Dolos. Spirit of trickery, deception, cunning, guile...and treachery."

Wait...what was that odd flicker...of a black mask around Akechi's head...? Had he imagined it?

"I always keep my eye on those who manifest Personas of a questionable nature...an interesting ability, to hide your presence and mask yourself from everyone. Unfortunately, that ability is useless against someone like me." The Chief Warden's lips quirked into a smug, wicked grin. "Now...why don't you tell me why you tried accessing Katsuragi-senpai's terminal? She hasn't been seen since yesterday, after all..."

xxxx

Dr. Ritsuko Akagi was in a really rotten mood right now.

Mostly because of work, to be honest. Work that she really needed to get back to, because the data she had gotten today from the Cognitive Freelancer who had signed up for her mission had been rather interesting. That there was one operating in territory 'claimed' by the Anti-Terror Task Force was almost as surprising. Not going to complain...much. Sighing, she stepped out the elevator - gods, the wiring on this place needed work in the worst way - and began strolling along the balcony towards the door to Misato's apartment. She glanced down at her phone, gazing at the text log from yesterday morning.

The Lush: Yo, Ritsky
Me: What?

Custom titles for her personal contacts were utterly immature and childish. They also provided one of the few coping mechanisms she had in this world that didn't actively shorten her lifespan, unlike the death sticks she favored on a daily basis.

The Lush: gonna be on an extended mission starting today X.X
Me: And this concerns me how?
The Lush: mwa, so mean~ (・
´з`・)
Me: just get to the point
Me: I'm in the middle of something
The Lush: bah, you're no fun
The Lush: need ya to feed Pen-Pen
Me: the penguin can take care of himself
The Lush: but P2 misses you~~~
The Lush: you havent visited in 4eva (人◕
ω◕)
Me: ugh, fine
The Lush: he'll be good for tonight
The Lush: but if i'm still not back, hit him up tomorrow
The Lush: I left a tin of the good stuff! you'll recognize the brand from college!
The Lush: he'll enjoy the treat ^.^
Me: text me if you get back early
Me: that way I can actually keep working
The Lush: will do! (^3^)~+

That had been the last text from Misato.

The fact she had used the penguin cipher was concerning enough, because they both knew that Pen-Pen was practically self-sufficient.

Turning her copy of the apartment key, Ritsuko walked into the apartment, nose briefly curling at the sight of the stacked beer cans and magazines. Well...I have seen worse, she thought to herself, turning towards the nearby couch; sitting on it was Pen-Pen, idly eating out of a bag of salmon jerky...while watching a show about financial markets. "I'll never understand you..."

"Wark."

She quietly knelt down, looking at the decorative plate affixed to his metal collar, bearing the name of PEN2. A 'tin' of the good stuff indeed-

"WARK!"

Pen-Pen's squawk of warning - his eyes glancing towards the front door - forced Ritsuko to stand up, looking over the back of the couch-!

"You..." grunted a familiar man with a ponytail, currently performing a standing arm-triangle choke on the rather nondescript man who had apparently been following her, because WHAT?! "...need to work on your paranoia, Ritsuko-chan...been sitting in the office too long?"

"...Kaji...?"

The stranger slowly went slack, rendered unconscious from the restricted blood flow; as the part-time bartender slowly lowered the man to the ground, he brushed his hands with a relieved sigh. "This guy's been watching the apartment all day, waiting for someone to come by."

"What for?"

"To try and take care of any loose ends regarding whatever trouble Misato-chan's gotten into."

"...how much do you know?"

"Less than I'd like," admitted the sketchy man, looking rather nonchalant for someone who had just choked a guy into unconsciousness. "One of my contacts in the Task Force dropped me a line; apparently, someone tried to hack into her terminal. Don't know if the one responsible is an actual mole or just someone who got paid to do a job."

"...is that a fact?" Ritsuko turned back towards Pen-Pen, inserting her fingers into the space between his collar and the white down on his upper chest; with a few presses of her fingers, a compartment snapped open, dropping something into her hands. She knew by the feel of it that it was a flash drive, even before withdrawing it into the open. "...then whatever's on here must be pretty important." Damn it Misato, what the hell have you gotten into?

xxxx

As the two humans continued their conversing, Pen-Pen mentally sighed. Oh Misato...always trying to set things off too early. But that was just like her, though. Looks like I'm going to have to put the lad through the paces tomorrow...

Because one way or another, Shinji was going to help him rescue Misato.

Whether Ayanami wanted to or not.

xxxx

END OF 6/28/2015

xxxx

/for those curious about the strange mash-up song that the America-fanboy Shadow was listening to
/ /here
/ / / youtu . be / pLT6sEGD5Rw
/ / / /have fun getting that out of your head :D