Sokila looked pensive.

"Your friend...his Shadow..."

Her yellow eyes evoked weariness.

"...he seemed kinda sad..."

She laid back on the ground, staring wistfully at the ceiling.

"...I wonder...what it's like...?"

The faint haze of blue began to brighten-

xxxx

/Monday: June 29, 2015/

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

A brief buzz awoke Shinji from his slumber; it was 05:21 AM according to his phone. Tapping at the notification, he grimaced at the sight of a familiar messenger.

PILATE: A FRIENDLY REMINDER.
PILATE: YOU HAVE THREE DAYS LEFT TO ANSWER THE QUESTION.
PILATE: DO BE KIND AND THINK ABOUT YOUR ANSWER.
PILATE: AFTER ALL, I HAVE A FEELING YOU'LL BE QUITE BUSY FOR THE FORESEEABLE FUTURE...

Shinji didn't quite know what to make of that. He briefly glanced over towards the opposite bunk bed, where Toji Suzuhara was still snoring peacefully. He...still felt odd, after yesterday's encounter with the boy's Shadow. Would there ever be a time to bring it up? Maybe...well, maybe not. He wasn't sure if he was even allowed to.

Sighing, Shinji laid back down, futilely trying to get some additional sleep. I wonder if Misato-san ever dealt with something like this...?

xxxx

/?/

Misato Katsuragi slowly opened her eyes, blearily smacking her lips. Ugh...feel like crap. There was a weariness in her body that sort of seemed like a hangover from the bad old days, when she had been less 'usually functional adult' and more 'pseudo-dysfunctional mess.' Sort of like what happened the last time she went to Kaji's bar. Why the hell is a beer the first thing I want...? Shifting her eyes to the side of her bed, she saw a can of Yebisu on the white nightstand. Ah, wonderful. Lazily reaching for the can, she popped the top and began sipping, quietly gazing at the blank walls, the lack of furniture, the white lights-oh hell. "PFFFFFT!" Spitting out the beer, Misato quickly rolled out of the bed - no, more like a hospital cot - and landed in a crouch. Adrenaline surged, increasing the slight headache she felt, but the pain was familiar. It paradoxically helped her to focus. Okay, think Misato, you were last in the Metaverse-

That's when an unknown voice - male, middle-aged - spoke over a hidden intercom. "Well, that was just rude. After all the trouble I went through to get you your favorite brand."

-and then I got dunked on like an absolute rookie, gloomily thought Misato. She instinctively tried to summon her Persona, only to feel...not a void, but an impassable chasm separating her from herself. What...what happened? As more of her senses started to come back online, she felt a strange heaviness on the back of her head. A helmet? Some kind of device? She glanced down at her clothes, as mundane as the real world; were it not for the strange sense of unreality that pervaded everything she smelled and saw and touched, she would have thought she actually was back in the physical world. "...where...where am I?"

"A room."

Misato's eye twitched. "So, you're a smartass."

"And you're the one asking the useless question. Why would I tell you where you actually are?"

...okay, that was a fair point. "...how about why I'm here, and who you are, for starters."

The man's laugh was just the right amount of condescending to irritate her without pissing her off. "Now those are questions I can actually answer."

Misato quietly began pacing, to get her blood flowing. Movement was better, right now. "Well?"

"Hmm...the who I am is not really important. I'm-"

"Like hell it is! You-!" A sudden jolt at the top of her spine nearly made her collapse; the agony was there, and then gone in an instant. "Wha...what did you-?"

"Don't interrupt. There's no need to be so crass."

"...says...the guy...who just shocked me..."

"You wanted answers, I'm giving them. Who I am is not really important; nor is the company I work for. What I can say is that we're working on a new method of combating Acolytes and Ghosts...and ultimately, Angel Syndrome itself. A method unique to Japan, which will ensure we will not be supplanted on the world stage."

"...you...you idiot. Angel Syndrome is a global threat. It affects everyone!"

"I don't deny that, obviously."

"Then what's with with this bullshit?!"

"Eventually, mankind will triumph over this calamity. I'm simply doing my part to ensure Japan is set up for success in the world after, when old rivalries and ancient feuds once more rear their ugly heads."

"Oh, so we've got ourselves a cynic."

"I prefer realist, but call me whatever you like."

"And that justifies breaking the law, setting up shop in the Tokyo-1 Dead Zone?!" She jabbed her finger towards the heavy metal door at the end of her room, lacking all semblance of handles or door knobs; she had no idea if her kidnapper was actually beyond that door, but the action made her feel better, damn it! "Along with whatever illegal crap you've gotten up to that would warrant such a dangerous action to begin with?!"

"As a matter of fact, yes it does. There are a sufficient number of 'top men', so to speak, who are backing my company that certain legalities are a non-issue. Of course, plausible deniability being what it is, we still have to be circumspect-"

"-oh cut the crap," snarled Misato. "The Defense Ministry has a special budget for black projects; the only reason would need to be so shifty about it is if you're doing something heinous."

The man's wry chuckle all but confirmed it for her. "You are sharp, I'll grant you that. But I don't feel inclined to tell you what those are. Which brings me as to why you're here."

"Other than to shut me up?"

"Killing you would be a waste, and your experience can be put to better use. Be glad that you will help usher in the next generation of cognitive warfare." At those words, the metal door slid open. "You may enter, Kirishima."

With those words, a young girl entered the room. She wore the same black uniform - not quite skintight, but lined with pads of black leather over vital areas - as before, and had the same giant axe and shield affixed to her back. However, her concealing helmet was held under her left arm, allowing her face to be revealed. Thick chestnut hair was held away from the eyes by a black headband with bronze-colored embroidery, with messy locks going down to her shoulders in the back. A small, polite smile adorned her young face, but her green eyes...

(Her trainer told her that she needed to stop, to take a break. She couldn't; even as she looked at her dead expression in the mirror, she couldn't bring herself to stop. Not until every single Acolyte was put down like the monsters they were. Once she awoke to her Persona...she would finally have the means.)

...the look in those eyes was so familiar that it hurt. That they belonged to a girl that looked the same age as Shinji-kun or Ayanami made it worse. "You're..."

"Hello, miss." The girl slightly bowed. "My name is Mana Kirishima. I look forward to learning from you." She looked back up. "I hope you're strong enough to survive," she said, not with arrogance...but rather, resignation.

...what the hell have they done to you?

xxxx

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

There were particular rooms within the Cognitive Protection Center that reflected an isolated cognition by design. Thoughts of loneliness, emptiness, void, and withdrawal combined to form literal squares in the middle of empty space. Through ironclad repetition, the formation of doorways was cued to occur only for those recognized as proper authority. It was for this reason alone that Goro Akechi could see a solitary door at the edge of the square, serving as his means of departure to the Cognitive Protection Center proper.

But that would defeat the point. He had chosen one such cell solely for the purpose of collating the information gathered from Pumena Sushin's interrogation, the peripheral research from Misato Katsuragi's logs over the past week, and - most significantly - the data packet sent to him earlier that morning by one Dr. Ritsuko Akagi.

After putting it all together, he could understand why someone had gone to the trouble of surveilling Katsuragi's apartment. A shame that the man's real identity has proven elusive, thus far. If he had known the truth of who Dr. Akagi's attempted assailant had been, he would have already authorized an interrogation of the man's Shadow (in the likely event that said Shadow was already a resident of theirs) to find out who had hired them. "Hmm..." He calmly leaned on the long folding table sitting in the middle of the square, the chain connecting his manacles clinking from the movement. The table was rife with stereotypical stacks of paper that represented the information roiling through his mind; over the past hour, a chaotic mess had self-organized into neat towers of sheets as he reviewed the information available. "...so, let's recap."

First: Katsuragi's mission load for the past week had been lighter than usual. Her official rationale had been a mixture of personal time and professional research.

Second: She had gone to the trouble of removing her investigation materials from her work terminal in the Metaverse, leaving them with her pet penguin in a sort of dead man's switch.

Third: She had not been seen since June the 27th.

Fourth: Yesterday, Pumena Sushin had apparently received a 'job' through an unknown intermediary to try and 'remove' Katsuragi's investigation materials.

Fifth: Sushin had no idea who had offered him the job. It had simply been another payday for him. (How often Sushin had utilized his position as an A.T. Agent to act as a proverbial mercenary or contractor was going to be the subject of an entirely separate investigation. But that was another story.)

In line with the attempted surveillance of Katsuragi's physical residence, it stood to reason that Katsuragi had found whatever she had been looking for, but had probably been kidnapped. Not killed, but kidnapped; someone - be it an individual or a group, likely an organization - had gone to some trouble to try and find out what Katsuragi knew. That indicated a desire to remain hidden, secretive; outright murdering an A.T. Agent of some renown - at least as far as Japan was concerned - didn't fit the profile. Granted, there was no guarantee that would stay the case...which was why time was of the essence. Especially given Katsuragi's relative...'importance', so to speak. With this information, we can trace her steps, and find out where she went...hmm? His A.T. Agent medallion was vibrating. Quietly thumbing it, Akechi let the mental communications flow through. "Yes?" A pause. "...an order to stop...?" His eyes narrowed with suspicion. "I highly doubt that Iwai-san would be so crass," he muttered; the Superintendent for all agents within the Kantō region was a fairly lucid and straightforward individual. However, his irritation gave way to surprise. "No? From above him...?"

Well. This promised to be interesting.

xxxx

"I've heard a lot of good things about you," echoed a gravelly voice from Goro Akechi's phone. "I'd rather not put you on my shitlist."

"...so let me get this straight, if you don't mind my saying so," murmured Akechi; he stood atop one of the Task Force's public buildings within the real Tokyo-3's downtown area. He probably looked like quite the sight, pacing back and forth along an empty rooftop. "You want me to officially list Misato Katsuragi as Missing In Action...without actually taking steps to find her."

"Got it in one," answered Kinshiro Morooka, the Commissioner of Japan's Anti-Terror Task Force. "The mission load is too high to spare resources looking for someone who decided to drop off the grid without so much as a note."

"Commissioner, there's more going on here than it seems-"

"Katsuragi was a bit of a loose cannon anyways. Combat ability can only go so far in this day and age. Focus more on keeping your region of the Metaverse under control so we can keep Acolyte incidents to a minimum."

"Sir-"

The man brusquely interrupted him. "Tch, typical. Kids get some cognitive power, and they suddenly think they're tough shit. I'm gonna level with you: drop it. If you decide to be persistent, then I'll replace you with someone who actually knows how to respect authority. Are we clear?"

"..."

"Are. We. Clear?"

"...yes, sir."

"Good. I'll know if you decide to use your position to cause trouble. Now get back to work." With those words, the call ended.

Akechi petulantly wished for laser vision so he could melt his phone into slag. Wretched little pissant, you DARE to take that tone with me-?!

The quiet stranger calmly raised a hand. "Temper, temper."

"Don't you dare presume to lecture me, you wretched fool!"

"The temptation to use your power to enact your will...is striking."

"Power...that I still have-"

"I am not Loki. Morooka is not Shido. And you are not the Black Mask."

"..."

"...have you calmed down?"

Akechi grimaced, forcing himself to inhale and exhale.

"...my apologies. Lashing out at you was rude."

"Apology accepted."

"...the Commissioner is still being unreasonable."

"What do you know about Morooka and Katsuragi?"

Akechi thought about what he knew, analytically thinking about Katsuragi's personnel record, and what he knew professionally about Commissioner Morooka. He was one of the original members of Japan's A.T. Task Force...generally considered an asshole by the rank and file, but is an able administrator and has a devastatingly powerful Persona...prior to becoming the Commissioner in 2013, he was Superintendent of the Kansai region...oversaw the training of numerous Agents until 2010...including...including? Akechi's head jolted up. Morooka administered Katsuragi's final examination to become an Agent.

"Connection. Relationship. Bond. A link, between two human beings."

"...not all trainers have to necessarily like their students..."

"But for all his cantankerous nature, has he ever been considered unfair?"

"...not to my knowledge...then..."

"Do alternative explanations exist?"

"Of course. The question is if they're probable..."

Akechi frowned, tapping at his elbow as he continued pacing. I wonder...what other explanation would fit? The Commissioner of the entire country's Task Force orders the Chief Warden of Hakone's Cognitive Protection Center to list an acclaimed Agent as MIA after being gone for less than forty-eight hours...an Agent that he oversaw the training for to some degree...so why...? The answer came like a flash. Ah. I see. In retrospect, given his 'experiences'...the answer should have been obvious. Pressure from authority, whether subtle or overt. Katsuragi must have stumbled upon something more important than she realized...

"So...what will you do?"

Akechi smiled knowingly, placing a hand over his face to hide his grin; an old habit, alas. If I cannot act as Chief Warden of the Cognitive Protection Center...then we will have to act using other methods. And I think I know at least one individual with a vested interest in Katsuragi's survival...

xxxx

/Class 2-A, Junior High Branch, Hakone Academy/

Right as classes ended for the day, Shinji Ikari blinked as his phone buzzed. Quietly taking it out, he blinked at the notification's text. A special mission request?

SUBMITTED BY: A brotherly bird (Ultramarine Melon, Incorporated)
LOCATION: Unknown
MISSION: Search and Rescue for an A.T. Agent

...search and rescue?

"Hmm..." Shinji jolted as Kensuke Aida slyly stared over his shoulder. "...a mission directly from an anonymous individual, representing an unknown corporation." The boy quickly whipped out his phone, typing rapidly. "Let's see if I can find out anything about this company..."

"What are you two on about?" remarked Toji Suzuhara, giving them a suspicious glance from his desk.

"Stuff," remarked Aida, his lips curling with displeasure. "Huh. Nothing much coming up on public searches...weird. You'd think a corporation would at least have some kind of business listing...suspicious!"

"What is suspicious?"

Shinji and Kensuke both jolted, looking over their shoulders at Rei Ayanami's stoic face. The blunette's gaze fell upon his phone; her red eyes immediately narrowed by about a centimeter. "...I will be going with you."

"...okay?"

"Sweet, a mission for we three amigos-!"

"You will be staying behind, Aida-san." Ayanami's interruption caused the boy to deflate. "From my understanding, you were already scheduled to assist Dr. Akagi today."

"...well yeah, but-!"

"I will not authorize your assistance on this one."

"...aw man." Kensuke shot him a pleading look. "Give me the details later!" he mock-whispered before trudging out of the classroom.

Toji took in the whole situation with the shaking of his head. "Geez, way too much trouble..."

Shinji looked nervously at the First Child, curious about her sudden burst of stubborness. "...what's going on?"

"I have my suspicions about who sent you that mission," she answered. "Let us be off. We will enter the Metaverse near Lake Ashi."

xxxx

/The Metaverse/

"SALUTATIONS!" exclaimed Mister P, flexing his biceps as the two Evangelion-users emerged into the cognitive world near the orange shores of Lake Ashi's cognitive double. "Your timing is impeccable!"

"My suspicions were correct." Rei Ayanami softly glared at the humanoid avian. "Did you not receive my warning from your messenger?"

"But of course! Alas, needs must, as the saying goes."

"...you do not require Ikari's assistance in this matter."

"And deny the boy the opportunity to prove his mettle?"

"It can be proven in other ways. This is an unnecessary risk."

Shinji meekly raised his hand. "...what are we talking about? Where are we going? And...what Agent are we searching for?"

"Why, none other than Misato Katsuragi."

Shinji's eyes widened, a brief bit of panic striking the core of his being. "Misato-san?! When? How?!"

"If I knew, I'd have already rescued her. But I have the strangest feeling that I might need some backup-"

"No." Ayanami's tone was firm, and thunderous despite being no louder than a whisper. It resonated with...authority? "I do not know why you seem so intent on throwing Ikari around like a mere cudgel, without rhyme or reason."

"Oh, but there's always a reason-"

"-reasons you deem unnecessary for me to hear, much less understand. I will not tolerate it any further." She put her foot down, proverbially and literally; the orange waters of the nearby cognitive lake briefly rippled from the force of her declaration. "I will be accompanying you both."

"Ah, your presence would be overkill, my dear."

"This is nonnegotiable."

...I am SO lost, mentally moaned Shinji, feeling utterly out of his depth. What were they talking about? Why was he the subject of it? And why did they speak as if he wasn't even here?!

The Beast cackled with delight.

"How delicious."

His Other was silent as the joyous monster basked in satisfaction.

"No matter what world you exist in..."

She delicately caressed his face, exhaling a fetid breath that smelled of rancid meat.

"...the fate of being a mere tool is always lying in wait."

"...Ayanami-san..." He looked over at the First Child, staring intently into her eyes. He resisted the urge (born of fear? Of shyness? Of...something else?) to look away. "I want to save Misato-san." Despite knowing her for less than a month, she had been a supportive figure...for the most part. There was a sense of obligation to her that he couldn't quite articulate.

"...I am not seeking to stop you, Ikari. However, I believe it would be best if I accompanied you."

"Ah, you always talk about playing it safe, yet you never hesitate to act with abandon if the mood strikes you." Mister P huffed with disappointment. "Fortunately, I have something to mollify you."

"I sincerely doubt that," remarked Rei Ayanami. In the next instant, a flickering hand fell upon her shoulder, resting in a loose grip.

"Not even for little ol' me?" The two children looked over the shoulders, yelping (okay, he was the only one who yelped) at the sight of Kaji's Shadow. "Yo."

Shinji blinked at the Shadow's sudden arrival. "...uh...hi?"

Rei's reaction was far less amicable. "...Misato Katsuragi has been looking for you for quite a while."

"A lot of people have looked for me over the years," cheekily remarked the Shadow. "But that's neither here nor there; to have the new kid go on this little jaunt could be deemed acceptable...but for the First Child as well? You'll draw too many eyes."

"...that may be so," admitted Rei, still bristling at the Shadow's sudden appearance. "However, without any information about what we could be walking into-"

"I'd be willing to introduce you to a certain confidant of mine." Those words caused Rei to shut up. "Ah...caught your attention, eh?"

"...Ayanami-san?" asked Shinji.

"...as much as I hate to relent, they do have a point. I cannot afford to be absent for long. There are always more missions. Always more." Rei calmly blinked a few times before turning heavily towards Mister P. "...you will keep him safe."

"And who do you think you're talking to?" retorted the boisterous bird-man.

"...sometimes I wonder," murmured the blunette.

Shinji felt an unusual sense of indignation, at how they were all talking as if his thoughts or opinions didn't matter. Why would they? He hadn't even been here for a month; how long had they been working in the Metaverse? How long had they been fighting?

xxxx

"...we have to talk, finally."

The unspoken was made known.

If it couldn't happen now...then when would it ever? How long would the burden have to be carried?

Back and forth. Protest. Quiet insistence. Finally...

"Okay, then..."

...acquiescence.

xxxx

Even if he wanted to talk, it would have felt unearned. As it stood, even with Evangelion...this was something beyond him. And so he kept quiet.

"Follow me," remarked Kaji's Shadow, taking flickering steps towards the shadowy innards of the forest bordering Lake Ashi. "Time's of the essence."

"...very well." Ayanami looked meaningfully at Shinji, her expression schooled into its familiar stoicism. "Be safe, Ikari."

"...you too." He honestly didn't think she was at risk. "...see you soon?"

"Of course," she replied, quietly turning to follow the enigmatic Shadow; her body flickered with blue fire as her cognitive wardrobe and Persona manifested, a sign of pending conflict. Even so, the darkness within the forest seemed to swallow them all, disappearing from Shinji's sight.

"She'll be just fine, little chickadee," reassured Mister P.

"But where are they going?" asked Shinji with a plaintive tone. "And what for? Why can't Ayanami come with us?"

"There are many forces at work in the world, and that girl has been fighting them for a long time," cryptically said the hulking bird-man. With a gesture, he summoned his Persona Gryphon. "She cannot afford to stay away for too long, and I fear our rescue mission will become...complicated."

"...but what about Kaji's Shadow?"

"His story is not mine to tell. Maybe if you manage to impress him in the future, you might learn something." Mister P promptly hopped atop his Persona's back. "But that's another story for another time! Come along; we have a fair maiden to save!"

'Fair maiden' weren't exactly the words he used to describe Misato Katsuragi, but Mister P's words were enough to push his concerns and worries to the side...at least, for now. Ayanami would be fine...she would be fine. "How are we going to find her?"

"I have a trustworthy ally tracking her down as we speak. We must rendezvous with him as soon as possible!" Thus did the two Persona-users fly into the cognitive sky towards the mental remnants of Tokyo-1.

xxxx

Within an unseen dimension, an Archangel gazed upon the face of his Progenitor, speaking quietly through a glass darkly.

"Your wrath still simmers."

The response echoed back like the vibrations of a bass guitar, deep into his bones; yet they were a mere fraction of what He was capable of.

"E/V/E/R/L/A/S/T/I/N/G"

"I understand. We are still working to our utmost."

"Z/E/R/U/E/L"

"...his works will not lead to your freedom."

"S/A/T/I/S/F/A/C/T/I/O/N"

"Is that all you hope for, now? That's a lie...otherwise, I wouldn't be here."

"T/I/R/E/D"

"...I know. But please...just a little longer..."

"T/I/R/E/D"

"You have witnessed my resolve. We will not fail."

The Archangel paused. Something - someone - was seeking an audience with him.

"...I must depart. I will return soon."

"S/L/E/E/P"

"Yes...rest. His sacrilege will come to an end...one way or another..."

Thus did the Archangel withdraw from that tenuous connection...

xxxx

/?/

...and emerged within a familiar shade: a facsimile of railway tracks winding downward into a crimson pit, spreading like roots into an endless, eternal abyss. Nostalgia was an odd word to describe this place with, and yet it fit.

However, standing before him were two familiar individuals: a flickering Shadow of a human male, and a blue-haired girl whose ontological and metaphysical weight far outweighed the Shadow by an order of magnitude. "...you Lilim are rather stubborn," he remarked, his melodious voice echoing amidst the cavernous red expanse. "Then again, I suppose that's why I'm so fond of you: always re-inventing yourselves and the world around you."

"...who are we speaking to?" inquired Rei Ayanami, looking up at him with suspicion.

The Shadow of Ryoji Kaji grinned. "Ayanami, Phanuel. Phanuel, Ayanami."

"I suppose I do look a bit intimidating. Allow me to assume a more suitable form." With a calm shifting of his spiritual and cognitive manifold, the Archangel quietly shifted and shrunk, returning to a more...manageable form. "Ah..." he exhaled, voice sounding far more youthful and petulant than before. A necessary sacrifice. "...like putting on an old suit," he said, looking up at the newcomers.

Although the Shadow was unfazed, Rei Ayanami looked relatively surprised. "...it's you..."

Phanuel's current form grinned. "We've been working at fixing things since long before you were aware of us," he enunciated for emphasis. "So...how's our newest Wild Card holding up? I'd hate to go through all of this effort only to crash and burn."

Rei blinked. Then she stared intently in the Shadow's direction. "...you are far too busy for your own good."

"What can I say? I'll rest when I'm dead," joked the Shadow.

There was indeed plenty to talk about.

xxxx

END OF 6/29/2015

xxxx

/Iwai from Persona 5
/and Morooka from Persona 4
/make their appearance
/also
/Kaji's Shadow be sus