Sokila looked worried.

"...so much stuff is happening..."

She knelt down, fiddling with her toes.

"You must be all confused..."

Without warning, she jumped up, getting right in his face.

"But don't worry!"

She smiled brightly.

"I'll be here for you, always!"

The faint haze of blue began to brighten-

xxxx

/Tuesday: June 30, 2015/

/The Metaverse/

Shinji jolted awake, blinking rapidly. The tiny, nondescript clearing he had fallen asleep in was now populated by several Sandman Archetypes; the moon-headed, pajama-clad thoughtbeasts stretched their limbs, scattered amidst the piles of fine sand. Sand that hadn't been there when he had fallen asleep. What time is it...?

"Good morning!" Without warning, Mister P fell from above, landing atop a Sandman. As the creature was pinned to the floor, the others scattered to the proverbial wind. "Enjoy your little siesta?"

"...um...I slept well?"

"Excellent! I think my friend should have picked up the trail by now," said the bird-man, arms crossed with confidence.

"...okay," he murmured, flexing the kinks out of his arms. Their search hadn't...

xxxx

/Yesterday Evening/

/Outskirts of Tokyo-1 Dead Zone/

Shinji stared at the empty space where collection of buildings used to be...apparently. Only an even patch of empty field remained. "...this is where Misato-san last was seen?"

"This is where my associate said her scent last left off," remarked Mister P. "Though it appears our target has vanished..."

"Wait...her scent?"

"Ah, I don't believe you've ever been introduced!" Mister P gazed around the horizon, pointedly looking away from the great void that had consumed almost the entirety of the city. "Knowing him, he'll have begun searching on his own..."

"...so, what now?"

"Why, we can get in a spot of training!"

xxxx

...well, it hadn't panned out as expected. He had obtained a couple of new Archetypes since yesterday (there had been an odd mental pressure, which had been...striking; why had there been a sensation of releasing beasts back into the wild to make room for the newcomers?), but they had meandered around the edge of the Dead Zone for a few hours until he had succumbed to exhaustion. Hence their current situation. "Who is your friend?"

"You'll see soon enough! But for now..." Mister P tapped the side of the Sandman's elongated head, which was still struggling futilely beneath him. "...would you like to add another to your repertoire?"

"...I suppose," muttered Shinji, summoning Kinnara. The horse-man played his song, shouting, "Agi!" Mister P leapt away just as an orb of fire slammed into the hapless Sandman.

The battle was short-lived, and the negotiation had gone...relatively well. "I just wanna be around sleepy people, is that a crime?!" wailed the charred Sandman.

"...well, you can always sleep inside of me," remarked Shinji (trying to ignore the odd little twitch in the back of his head that this comment would have gone over just as well as his ill-advised 'beaver' comment from school. Fortunately, only Mister P was around, and he didn't seem inclined to comment).

"Huh...good point. Well, that makes it simple, Mr. Lazy Bones! I am thou, and thou art I! I'll make sure your enemies have sweet dreams!" With a flourish of spectral fire, Sandman flew into his body-

xxxx

Within a strange and otherly place, the facets of Shinji Ikari were manifest.

Hamlet looked quietly at the newcomer, knowing that someone would have to depart. Shinji Ikari was not yet large enough to accomodate more than seven.

Cait Sith had departed in favor of Berith. Onmoraki had withdrawn to allow Pixie in.

Thus did Hamlet 'decide'.

Ara Mitama returned to the depths of humanity, thus leaving room for Sandman.

Facets of Shinji Ikari, that's all they were...and yet, depending on time and place, certain facets were more necessary than others.

xxxx

-and Shinji exhaled as the Archetype settled deep within his being. "I wish I knew how this worked..."

"You and a lot of other people would like to know," commented Mister P. From atop a nearby tree, the bird-man's Persona Gryphon chirped loudly, drawing their attention. "Oh, so he's returned!"

Shinji dearly wondered who this 'he' was.

"Arf arf!"

As it turned out, 'he' was a Shiba Inu. An albino one, at that...one wearing an orange sweater-vest, with white, angelic wings sticking out of his shoulder blades. I...don't even know why I'm surprised.

"This here's Koromaru," said Mister P, introducing the unique dog. "An old acquaintance of mine!"

"And...he can help us find Misato-san?"

"His nose can find many things!"

The winged Shiba Inu walked up towards him, sitting on his hind quarters with an expectant look in his crimson eyes. "Woof..."

...well, he seems friendly enough. Thus, Shinji didn't feel too concerned about crouching down to scratch Koromaru behind the ears. "...good boy?" I think that's what I'm supposed to say. He'd never had a dog before.

"So, Koromaru." Mister P slowly walked towards them; as he spoke, Gryphon dropped down onto the ground, flapping his wings to slow momentum before impact. "Have you managed to find our missing A.T. Agent?"

"Arf!" barked the dog in affirmation.

"Wondrous! Then lead the way, my chum!"

"...wait, you can speak dog?" asked Shinji, eyes wide with disbelief.

Mister P's mustache wiggled, and his eye twinkled knowingly. "I can speak a great many things."

Not for the first time, Shinji wondered if he was being too blase about the bird-man's weirdness. Alas, if following a flying Shiba Inu alongside a boisterous tuxedo-clad bird-man would help him save Misato, then it was a small sacrifice to make.

xxxx

/?/

The previous day had been dedicated to a few of things, at least as far as Misato Katsuragi was concerned.

First: at some point, there had been an undeniable shift in the metaphysical landscape, one she could feel in the back of her head. However, the interior of the facility hadn't changed at all (as far as she could tell), and so the nature of the shift was...unknown.

Second: she had been forced to watch Mana Kirishima train, facing off against Archetypes of various types. The skill of the girl appeared to be tied to her unique weapons more than anything else; that axe seemed to tear through the thoughtbeasts without much effort, while her shield seemed all but impervious to their attacks. The exact mechanisms...had escaped her. Even after having an entire night to think about it an isolation, she still hadn't deciphered the 'why'. Huzzah and hooray.

Third: a supervised trip to the restroom (thanks, jerks) had finally given her a chance to look in a mirror; a sleek device had been grafted over the back of her head, bolted down and connected to the top of her spinal cord. It probably interfered with her cognition on some level, preventing her mind from unleashing her Persona. Really hope they didn't ruin my hair. It was an awful petty thing to worry about, but she looked good, damn it!

All in all, the whole day had cemented her lack of control over her current situation. Really hope Ritsky got the data from Pen-Pen...they should be able to track down my last location if that was the case...

None of her hopeful thoughts translated to her face, schooled as it was into a professionally stoic expression; she was being escorted by security personnel of some kind, their features hidden by visors. Their black fatigues revealed nothing in the way of identifying marks. As they moved down one blank, featureless hallway after another - so lacking in characteristics that it signified deliberate cognitive engineering - Misato wondered just what she was going to do.

("Rise and shine," spoke her asshole of a kidnapper over the intercom. "There'll be a nutrient bar at the foot of your bed. I highly suggest eating it.")

Hunger, more than anything else, had compelled her to eat. Secondarily, however, was her desire to have enough reserves to handle whatever bullcrap was going to be thrown her way.

Before long, they arrived at a sliding metal door; as her quartet of escorts opened it, the ambient, unreal light of the Metaverse's sky filtered through. The sight of those lazily-flowing waves of red and black bands was comforting. Now, if only I can summon my Persona. She had been led to an open arena of some sorts, judging by the high walls and floor markings evoking a fighting ring. Standing in the middle of this arena was none other than Mana Kirishima, her great axe and shield at the ready. Hmm, wonder what they have in mind for me, she mentally snarked.

"Glad to see you in good health," remarked her kidnapper. "Today, you'll be facing Kirishima in battle. You will be fighting until either one of you is incapacitated." His voice echoed from intercom speakers arranged all over the walls surrounding the arena; she noted the reflective windows on the walls, likely hiding however many people were observing. Wonder which one this jackass is hiding behind? "I highly recommend you fight as though Kirishima is a Shadow that needs to be restrained."

Misato stared intently at the younger girl, who held her oversized axe and shield as though they weighed nothing. Hmph. Lovely. "Gonna be hard without my Persona, you realize?"

"Already working on it. Your restraint will be lifted in three, two, one..."

With a sudden burst - like a dam being opened - the pressure in the back of her mind faded. The sensation was akin to being relieved of a headache you hadn't even known existed. Tokoyo?

Her Other rose to her feet.

"Your patience has been praiseworthy."

Her hand, resting upon a gravestone, clenched tightly.

"Be ready to act when the time is right."

Misato exhaled, manifesting her Persona in a burst of blue embers. The familiar garb of an Anti-Terror Agent adorned her body; however, the restraint on the back of her head remained, stubbornly real. "I hope I don't have to remind you to leave your headgear in one piece; it'll sense any intention to destroy it before you even get a chance." Figured as much, but thanks for confirming. No need to test it until she absolutely had to. Cooperate for now: you'll get your chance. In the meantime, serving a little bit of karmic retribution to the brat that had coldcocked her would have to suffice. No hard feelings, kid. After all...she knew exactly what to do.

"You may begin whenever you please."

"Heat Riser." Four columns of color erupted around Tokoyo; the swordswoman slowly stepped forward, acting very unconcerned for someone who had gotten OHKO'd in their last match.

Mana Kirishima responded by swinging her axe, unleashing a wave of cognition-devouring energy.

Tokoyo dodged, and actually threw her swords directly at Kirishima.

Kirishima raised her parma, blocking the swords; the two blades bounced away, leaving not even a single notch in the shield.

However, Tokoyo had already moved in close; the gargantuan swordswoman crouched down, using her left hand to press at the crook of Kirishima's axe-wielding arm. Her right, meanwhile, shot forward to deliver a straight into the girl's torso.

SMASH!

The girl audibly gasped from the force of the blow; so swift had the impact been that she impulsively released her sword and axe, rolling backwards before crashing into the walls of the arena.

"I noticed it from all of your training battles against the Archetypes yesterday," remarked Misato Katsuragi, speaking aloud with purpose. "Your shield seems impervious to everything, and your axe is capable of tearing through Archetypes with ease." How the hell is that possible, though? "You've been able to take down enemies well before they can actually threaten you...but what if someone were to get close enough that you couldn't use your axe and shield?" She cracked her knuckles as Tokoyo retrieved her swords. "I think you've seen the answer to that."

"An excellent demonstration!" exclaimed her unseen kidnapper, sounding far too pleased about this development. "Your reputation precedes you."

...okay, not the response I thought I was going to get.

The man's chuckles echoed through the arena. "You seem surprised. It's quite simple: Kirishima's aptitude against Archetypes and Ghosts has already been well-established. However, before I can authorize deployment against an Acolyte, we have to ensure our backers that her combat ability is...sufficiently advanced."

"...you know, if making her a more able combatant was your goal, you could've done far better than me."

"The need for confidentiality makes our available pool of potential trainers rather...shallow, alas. Besides, even though we have a few employees who do fit the bill, I'd rather not risk Kirishima accidentally killing them."

"Gee, how considerate of you," mocked Misato. "And let me guess: I'm expendable."

"That would be correct!" willingly admitted the jackass. "Take heart in the realization that you will make Kirishima a more effective weapon for our country. Speaking of which...Kirishima, continue."

With a pained groan, the girl slowly rose, a blue aura shining around her body. With a sudden flicker of light, her axe and shield vanished, manifesting in her hands as if summoned.

...well, that's going to be annoying. Tokoyo held her blades at the ready in response to Misato's irritation. Don't take it personal, kid; I'm not going to die today. And so did Misato steel her heart as Mana Kirishima charged into the fray.

xxxx

Rei Ayanami emerged from the Metaverse, within the forests of the Kanto region...in the Gunma Prefecture, near its western border with Nagano Prefecture. That...was quite an interesting conversation. It was edifying, to realize that at least one other facet of ADAM wasn't inherently antagonistic. Little wonder also that she hadn't recalled Phanuel's presence from before, for his was a 'unique' existence. All the more curious as to how Kaji's Shadow managed to establish contact with him.

("Keep careful in the months to come," advised Phanuel as their conversation came to an end. Resuming his true form, he added "oh...and be sure to deliver my message when you next have an opportunity." With those words, the Angel departed, vanishing from the mental dimension.)

Although they had managed to synchronize their knowledge to some extent, there were still some aspects that they had...declined to share. Still, it was important to think about where they stood.

First: ADAM's wrath against humankind was still extant. Quelling it at this point seemed unlikely, even with the aid of Phanuel, Tabris, and - much to her surprise - Arael.

(Her irritated gaze at Kaji's Shadow didn't faze him in the slightest. "What, I'm not allowed to have any friends?")

Second: the growth in Angel Syndrome incidents was a consequence of his increased anger.

Third: ADAM's anger grew in proportion to the activity of Evangelion-users...particularly with regards to the Third Child.

("After the death of Shamshel, we all can sense who he is," remarked Phanuel. "Most of my kin are...predisposed to desiring his demise.")

Fourth: even the prospect of finally triumphing over their mutual enemy wasn't enough to sate ADAM's desire to annihilate mankind.

("The Usurper's reign has been long. Too long, for most of my kin." Phanuel sighed, shaking his head. "They have resigned themselves to a miserable fate...content only with petty vengeance.")

Truly, a most unbecoming state of affairs. A shame that we cannot cooperate as much as I would like. Alas, it seemed that their long ordeal had taken its toll in more ways than one. Then again...it's taken a toll on many of us. Gendo Ikari, the Angels, herself...no. She had work to do.

xxxx

Right as Phanuel departed, Ayanami's Persona grabbed Kaji's Shadow by the neck, holding him high.

"...bit rude, don't you think?"

"...for all your secrecy, your motives and aims seem good enough."

"Then why the hostility?"

Rei's crimson eyes narrowed. "I just have one more question for you: how did Pen-Pen attain such power? The abilities that he possesses as Mister P are...not normal." To emphasize her point, Lilith's hand tightened.

The Shadow was unaffected by the threat. "Not my secret to tell."

Silence lingered within the crimson pit, long after Lilith released the enigmatic Shadow. With an easygoing grin, the Shadow departed without another word.

xxxx

So great had been her irritation that she had undertaken available missions with renewed vigor, focusing on Acolyte sightings throughout the Far East. It had managed to occupy her attention since late last night. I do not like being kept in the dark. She had worked far too long for everything to come undone because of the haste of Misato's unconventional pet. I wonder...is my caution truly unwarranted, at this stage...? There would be time to find that out later.

The First Child quietly glanced westward, absorbing the sight of Mount Asama's ashy slopes. How odd...for such a thing to repeat...

("Ah, I'm reminded of something," said Phanuel. "Sandalphon...professes a fondness for volcanic regions. I'm not sure why...")

...what is the significance of this? She would have to keep an eye out for this region in the future. However, in the meantime...she had a message to deliver. Mind and body and soul synchronized...

xxxx

...and so she transitioned through dimensions, briskly walking past grayscale landscapes...

xxxx

...and Ayanami emerged outside Hakone Academy's High School Branch within a matter of minutes. Rei glanced at her phone; lunch period would be ending soon. Plenty of time to leave Phanuel's message. After that...it would be back to more missions.

She dearly hoped that Ikari was doing okay.

xxxx

/Later that Afternoon/

After the conclusion of classes that day, Ren Amamiya stood calmly in front of his open getabeko, eyes wide behind his glasses. To be honest, he hadn't gotten a letter in his shoe locker for quite a while, so the presence of one was a bit of a surprise.

As he quietly opened it and read the contents within, he resisted the urge to smile. Or cry.

With an impressive amount of willpower (if he did say so himself), Ren resolved himself to thank Ayanami the next time he saw her. Just endure, he repeated to himself like a manta. Arisato and Narukami managed to make it this long; you can do the same.

Bits of encouragement like that message made this entire mess just a bit more bearable to deal with.

xxxx

/Arena, Unknown Location, the Metaverse/

Misato Katsuragi grimaced from the fatigue; they had been going at this for hours now, and the girl just would. Not. Stay. Down!

(Every time the girl grabbed her exotic weapons, a spectral aura flared around her; then she would rise, seemingly rejuvenated.)

Given that the point of this whole exercise was about increasing Kirishima's capabilities in close quarters, Misato had made it a point to have the girl fight without her weapons.

("You won't get better if you use those as a crutch." Her words seemed to infuriate the girl, but Kirishima seemed to tamp down her anger into a sense of focus.)

Her forms were full of youthful vigor and equally youthful ineptitude. Gaps were ruthlessly exploited.

(She slid aside from the girl's kick, delivering a quick punch to her torso. The force made the girl double over from shock.)

Why so ruthless? Because she had no choice. Attempts at 'going easy' were rebuked.

("Don't pity me..." growled the girl, throwing off her helmet. Her green eyes were narrow, full of frustration and anger. "I need this," she hissed.)

Thus did Misato teach Kirishima by way of example, even if the girl's temper could use some work.

(Her form improved. Slowly. Surely. Yet, sometimes, certain blows elicited bursts of deep-seated rage, stemming from something beyond this long spar. During those moments, Kirishima would impulsively summon her axe and swing.)

Fortunately, her Persona had been on hand to perform some anger management.

(Every single time Kirishima tried to strike at her with that massive weapon, Tokoyo would flash in from the sidelines, delivering a punishing blow that would send the girl careening out of the arena.)

Rinse and repeat.

"Again," growled Mana Kirishima raising her hands in a peek-a-boo guard that she had naturally settled on as the spar had progressed.

Misato lashed out with numerous jabs and one-twos at the girl's head; she managed to weave around most of them, using her hands to brush away those that got too close. She lashed out with a roundhouse to the side, which the girl managed to raise a knee to block. Reflexes are definitely improving. Kirishima retorted with a side kick that she leapt back from, using her superior reach and height advantage. To Kirishima's credit, she didn't immediately pursue; rather, she slowly inched forward, keeping her guard up. Good. She's still thinking. It was time to mix things up a little. Without hesitation, Misato charged forward; blinking, Kirishima retaliated with a punch that she actually grabbed, twisting it behind the girl's back into hammerlock hold. With a seamless sweep of the legs, Misato carried the girl to the ground, pinning her in place. "You should get some practice with grappling as well."

"Let me go!" she growled, struggling futilely with her free arm. Kirishima's enhanced strength within the Metaverse was countered by Misato's own, because she knew - she knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt - that she was stronger.

That cognition cemented itself as truth. "Not until you yield, kiddo."

"Can't give up, I won't give up-!"

"...stubborn brat," Misato murmured.

("I can keep going," she gasped, staring intently at the A.T. Agent serving as her instructor. Her mind itself seemed sore, spreading fatigue over her entire body. "I can...keep...going...!")

It was almost nostalgic. The girl's unnatural (or perhaps supernatural) stamina and regenerative capabilities were the only things keeping her from feeling bad about the beatdown she had been given. (Then again, after dealing with some wunderkinds over her career - of those who weren't Evangelion-users, Goro Akechi immediately came to mind - her tolerance levels for physically harming teenagers was much higher than some civilians would have called healthy.

"I think we'll call it for the day."

Fortunately for the girl, Misato's jackass of a kidnapper decided to end it. The moment he spoke, Misato quickly backed away, releasing the young girl from the hammerlock. Kirishima slowly rose, rotating her right arm. With that familiar flicker, her axe and shield flashed into her arms. That same distinctive aura flowed over her body before she exhaled with satisfaction, as one on multiple pain relievers. What are those weapons? "You doing okay?" she said, letting none of her suspicion show.

"Better. Thank you." Mana Kirishima turned and actually bowed, ever-so-slightly. "Thank you for not going easy on me."

"S'what I got kidnapped for," she snarked, trying to reconcile her conflicting thoughts about this turn of events. For all her irritation and justifiable frustration in getting kidnapped, her curiosity about the nature of whatever project Kirishima was involved in was mounting ever higher, especially in light of the strangeness of her weapons. There was also the matter of something else...

"Kirishima, I think you've earned a chance to talk to your brothers. Please depart the arena, so that we can begin a statistical analysis."

The girl brightened, even as more red flags triggered in the back of Misato's mind. Bowing once more in thanks, the diminutive berserker walked towards the arena's exit, axe and shield affixed firmly to her back. Right as she left, more of the armed security entered the arena, identical to her escorts from earlier.

"As for you, Katsuragi...I think you've earned a late lunch. You must be hungry."

Misato didn't dignify his sarcastic words with a response.

"Why don't you dismiss your Persona? I'd rather not force the issue."

Misato glanced over her shoulder, gazing at the upper walls of the arena; her Persona was balancing upon the blunt reverse sides of her twin katana, which were embedded into the walls. With a quiet nod, the swordswoman leapt into the air, twirling wildly before landing with a thud by her side; in a flash of blue flames, the Persona vanished, once more merging with Misato.

"Good. Please follow your escorts."

The A.T. Agent didn't answer; rather, she was busy reviewing the information that her Persona had witnessed during the entirety of the battle. There was quite a lot to process: the odd fluctuations in cognition whenever those two weapons activated; the strangely familiar sensations that the weapons evoked; most importantly, however, were the sights from beyond the walls of the arena.

(Kirishima had bounded away early on, summoning her axe to unleash a destructive wave in a fit of pain-induced rage; Tokoyo had responded by leaping high into the air and dive-bombing the arena, causing part of it to crack apart. The girl loosed an undignified yelp as she sank into one of the fissures. It was only afterwards that the close quarters sparing - melee only - began in earnest.)

Namely: a threadbare island, bereft of life; orange waves lapping the shores; beyond a certain distance, utter void, as cognition fell away to inky blackness, befitting the intimidating deep of the Pacific.

So. From Tokyo-1 to some unknown island in the middle of who-knows-where. That...put a bit of a damper on her thoughts of escape.

xxxx

Mana Kirishima felt a sense of catharsis after the events of the past hours. She felt sore, tired, almost...exhausted, in spite of the fact her physical injuries had been healed by her weapons. It was a deeper ache, from the bottom of her heart. It wasn't pleasant...but it felt good.

xxxx

Two souls flickered with concern, bound by a slim yet stubborn tether. The wretched foundation they stood upon remained constant.

xxxx

...I'm doing all right, she thought to herself. I'm...I'm managing.

Katsuragi had been the first person to not treat her with kid gloves since...what seemed like forever.

(Agony seared through her veins. With impulsive rage, she took hold of the axe - it felt so impossibly light and right - and sliced through the nearest technician. She managed to kill three others by the time the others had fled, locking her in to be subdued by knockout gas.)

She didn't care that it was probably due to ignorance. That the woman had apparently elected to actually help her improve was a sign of either surrender or cunning. Either way, Kirishima was grateful.

(The more time passed, the more her axe and shield gained in power. With each sacrifice - physical, mental, spiritual - they grew stronger, and so did she in turn. Yet it wasn't enough to accomplish what mattered.)

Maybe...maybe...

xxxx

One soul blazed with indignation. The other glowed with protective grace. Their intent was one and the same.

xxxx

...maybe Katsuragi could help in more ways than one?

Kirishima schooled her features as she entered a very particular room, which consisted only of one chair in front of a transparent barrier. Two chairs were placed on the other side; had she known about certain police procedurals, she would have recognized this as a type of visiting room from a prison. (She would have agreed wholeheartedly.)

Taking a seat, she quietly waited.

Within a half hour, two young men - boys, really - quietly entered from the other side of the transparent barrier, wearing green jumpsuits. One possessed brown skin with short, dark purple hair and hard eyes; the other was fair-skinned with a freckled face, closely-shaved black hair, and a melancholy expression. At the sight of her, the former's gaze softened, while the latter brightened. The former was holding an aged book of some sorts; a tome of philosophy, from the looks of it.

"Musashi-niisan. Keita-niisan."

"Mana-neesan," echoed both boys, their voice sounding slightly garbled over the intercom.

("Now, I don't know how old any of you are," drawled Big Sis, keeping a protective hand atop Little Sis's blonde hair. Wind blew through the dark alleyway, yet the long-haired woman acted as one without fear. "But my imouto likes ya, so I'm bringing you three along!")

They didn't know their own ages. Even so...Mana thought this might have been what true brothers were, just like Big Sis and Little Sis wanted. "...have they been treating you well?"

"Same as ever," muttered Musashi, letting his mulish personality through. "Been reading to pass the time. Beats meditating all day," he said. "They told us our physical workouts starting tomorrow are going to be more intense."

"...is...is everything going okay?" asked Keita.

"...yeah. I'm still getting stronger." I won't let you become me. "Though...I wonder if it has anything to do with my training session today." Will they make you two spar with me? She simultaneously recoiled and rejoiced at the prospect.

"How that'd go? Did you kill any of the bastards?" Musashi arched an eyebrow out of curiosity, no love lost for Shiro Tokita, his subordinates, or the people he worked for.

Mana shook her head. "No. The woman I trained with today...she wasn't one of Tokita's."

Keita blinked. "Who was she?"

"A member of the Anti-Terror Task Force." She quickly snuffed their hope before it could bloom into something harmful. "I...kind of kidnapped her when she got too close. I don't know if anyone's coming after her." Given where we are, I doubt it'll change anything even if they did try and find her.

"...feh," griped Musashi. "So, how bad did you beat her?"

"She actually kicked my ass," she said with a smile.

"Are...are you okay?!" Keita suddenly looked worried.

"What happened?" demanded Musashi.

"It was just training that went harder than usual, that's all!" She said, trying to calm them down. "I'm fine now." She calmly brushed the rim of the shield affixed to her back. "They protected me as always..." Only her. Never anyone else.

(The first time a chance had made itself known, she tried striking at the barrier, to free her brothers. In an instant, the walls of her side of the visiting room opened up, lashing out with electrified ropes and thick manacles that bound her limbs. As she screamed from the sudden pain, a cognitive message seemed to beat itself into the depths of her mind: THERE IS NO ESCAPE. THERE IS NOWHERE TO GO BUT HERE. THEIR FREEDOM DEPENDS ON YOUR OBEDIENCE. What else was there to do, but comply?)

For now...and only for now. She had to get stronger. "Anyhow, enough about me! Tell me everything that's happened since we last talked!"

And so the orphaned children, bound not by blood, but by will and circumstance, spoke as much as they could, however little time they had.

xxxx

Misato glared at her kidnapper as he took a bite from his bowl of ramen, slurping loudly.

"You know, the food isn't poisoned," he remarked. He looked...painfully ordinary, akin to an average salaryman with a thick head of short black hair.

"Uh huh. I believe you," she said, thick with sarcasm.

"The cook poured it from the same pot and into our bowls. Right in front of us."

"You could be immune to whatever he used."

"...that's an unhealthy level of paranoia."

Misato leaned back in her chair, crossing her arms petulantly; out of the corners of her eyes, she took in the room - a rather basic cafeteria-style eating area, with a mix of small cafe tables and long dinner tables; the room was otherwise blandly lit, devoid of much in the way of character. "Nice place," she droned.

"Most of my subordinates prefer to eat in their own quarters, where they have their own personal touches for comfort. This cafeteria exists as a matter of practical necessity."

"You speak as someone who's done a lot of cognitive engineering."

"We made quite sure that certain facets were baked into the mental architecture. A lot of literal brainstorming." Slurp. "I do recommend that you eat."

"Maybe I'll just imagine my hunger away. Or think food into existence."

"Even if I believed you have that level of mental discipline, I doubt you'd do it anyway. After all, you have your normal routine; how often have you left the Metaverse to grab a meal? With your A.T. medallion, it would have been so quick. So simple. So...normal. Habits like that are hard to break."

"...hmph." As a silent hunger pang struck, Misato finally broke her chopsticks, digging into her ramen. It tasted like...pretty good ramen, all things considered.

"There we go! If you're going to be helping Kirishima achieve her full potential, it only benefits us for you to stay healthy."

"...so. Got a name?"

"You can call me Tokita."

Tokita. Tokita. Tokita. Irritatingly, she couldn't think of a single person of influence. "Never heard of you."

"Not surprised. I'm a relatively unimportant individual, in the grand scheme of things. If my company's project gains more notoriety, that could change...but all things considered, I would have chosen a different life if fame and fortune were the goal."

"Your goal's apparently using a child soldier against their will. I wonder how many violations of the Cognitive Service Act you've incurred?"

"I can tell you precisely how many."

"...you're a sick son of a bitch, aren't you?"

"Just someone who's painfully aware of how many lines we've crossed. Of course, the amount of youths who fight within the Metaverse with legal sanction would have been deemed unimaginable before Second Impact."

Misato had no immediate comeback for that. "...you're still breaking the law."

"The letter, to be sure. Yet what was the spirit of the Child Soldier Laws?" Slurp. "Nothing more than to provide a proverbial fig leaf for an undeniable reality: that young children could be more useful in battle against cognitive horrors than most adults. They're just legal fictions to make us feel better about what we're doing as a species."

"I'm sure you sleep well at night."

"Better than those who perished within the Sapporo Dead Zone."

"...so that's where you're from, huh?" There was an uncomfortable tension in the air.

"...there was a lesson I learned there." He devoured the remaining broth with a long sip. "That any alternative is preferable to extinction."

"...that's one hell of a way to look at the world."

"At least I'm capable of looking at the world. The dead don't have such a luxury." With those words, he quietly reached into the pocket of his suit jacket, pulling out a very familiar medal. "I noticed your Persona got awfully high into the sky. I wonder if you saw beyond the walls of our facility?"

Misato started intently at the insignia of her A.T. Agent medallion. Wary of a possible trap, she quietly reached for it, pressing against the familiar metal.

"Go ahead. Do what I know you want to do."

...hmph. You're just trying to rub it in. "Agent Misato Katsuragi, identification zero-one-whiskey-alpha-four: activate cognitive tunneling." As the seconds trailed on, Tokita's knowing grin became more and more smug. Nothing happened. "What the hell are you trying to prove?"

"Making a point about your current circumstances. It's in your best interest to cooperate."

...so, we're on an island that's isolated enough to be beyond the range of any MAGI unit. Given how the A.T. Task Force relied upon the MAGI for crossing the threshold between real and mental, that meant she was well and truly on her own. Fantastic. "For how long, though?"

Tokita casually shrugged. "That's entirely up to you."

Misato bit down on her impulsive rage, and settled for quietly stewing. Your arrogance is going to be your undoing. She still made it a point to petulantly finish the rest of her ramen, if only to passive-aggressively show Tokita how much of an asshole he was.

That this only seemed to amuse him only served to make her angrier.

xxxx

As the orphans' allotted time came to an end, Mana Kirishima looked quietly at the book that the purple-haired boy was holding. "...you don't have to do it, Musashi-niisan."

Keita answered for the stern boy, who was busy focusing on a blank page near the back of the book. "Mana-neesan; we want to," he said with a shy smile.

(She looked at the tiny piece of paper detailing her 'official' record, as created by Tokita's company: born in Nagoya; parents unknown; last name Kirishima; all sorts of other items were listed, but they were naught but noise. Her new surname wasn't shared by any of her siblings, and so she resolved to despise it.)

"...just don't do anything rash..."

"She has long purple hair, you said?"

"...yeah."

xxxx

Misato tried to keep a stoic expression on her face as her armed escorts accompanied her back to her 'quarters'. So. They're confident enough in their security measures to leave me with my A.T. Agent badge. At this point, she resolved to find a way to boost its signal, if only to get a message to other Agents within the Metaverse...the question was 'how'. First thing's first is getting this damn helmet off my head...

They neared a four-way intersection; turning towards them, walking on the opposite side of the hallway, were more armed escorts. Between them, however, were two teenage boys in green jumpsuits; the meek boy with pale skin was gingerly holding a thick book of some sorts, while the focused boy with darker skin walked with balled hands. Hmm...

("Kirishima, I think you've earned a chance to talk to your brothers." She filed that away for future reference.)

...I wonder if that's them?

The stern boy glanced straight at her out of the corner of his eye. Then his gaze sharpened into something ugly.

Aw hell.

Without a word, the boy charged at her, reaching past the folds of her jacket to grip her shirt with frenzied hands. "So you're the one who beat up our sister-!"

Two of her escorts quickly removed the boy, kicking him down and restraining him with a chokehold and leg lock combination. "Pipe down, kid," grunted one. "Get Katsuragi out of here."

Her other two escorts nodded, forcefully gripping her shoulders to usher her along. Misato, hands holding tightly around her jacket, forced a neutral expression onto her face as she was led away. Well then.

After several minutes of walking, she was back in her quarters, once more locked within. She slumped against the door, sitting on the floor with a somber expression; after a few minutes, she finally loosened her jacket, letting a crumpled piece of paper fall out. Okay...

(The boy released something against her chest right before he was dragged away by security. Taking a gamble, Misato tightened her hold on her jacket, keeping whatever it was from falling out.)

...let's see what this is. She calmly uncrumpled the paper, and began to read words that had seemingly been burned onto the surface with an impossibly fine fire.

xxxx

man being able to think words onto paper is awesome

damn it, ignore the above. I think part of me just really wanted to brag about that

haven't been able to figure out how to keep this from being a stream of consciousness. damn it, the fact you kicked her ass makes me mad

going to be brief, don't know how long neesan and niisan will be able to talk about nothing without sounding suspicious to our minders

Mana thinks you're on the level. you'd better, or I'll never forgive you for getting her hopes up

xxxx

Misato was reluctantly impressed. Man, to have the mental discipline to just imprint words onto a piece of paper is something else. Either that, or the boy had way too much time on his hands; cooped up in this place, he may have had little in the way of hobbies.

xxxx

name's Musashi. don't know how long Mana, Keita, and I have known each other. we've just always been together as far back as I remember.

a long time ago, we encountered a young woman and a young girl. they never told us their names. maybe they didn't know them? all we knew them as was as "Big Sis" and "Little Sis"

we were still young. even though I called her Big Sis, we always thought of her like a mom

we never told her though, cause it would be super embarrassing

and Little Sis was always so sweet and so protective

please ignore the last three lines

xxxx

The earnestness of Musashi's cognitive letter managed to elicit a smile from Misato.

xxxx

don't know many years ago it was, but we got kidnapped

they were looking for "volunteers" for an experiment. I won't ever forget the expression on Tokita's face

that bastard, I wanna knock his teeth out so bad

Big Sis and Little Sis volunteered, because of course they did

I never saw them again

time was difficult to keep track of

then, of the three of us, neesan was the first to have her Shadow manifest.

xxxx

Misato frowned, because this hit on something she had been wondering about for a bit: for someone with so much apparent experience operating in the Metaverse, why didn't Mana Kirishima have a Persona?

xxxx

Keita and I didn't see Mana for a long time

we went through physical conditioning and cognitive training. so boring and time-consuming. not relevant.

then we finally saw her again. she was so different. deadlier. colder. driven.

I will never forgive Tokita

neesan managed to tell us what had happened to her. that Tokita never bothered to stop her from telling us means we're never getting out of here. we've all come to accept that

but I don't care. someone has to know. if someone else knows, it means I'm not crazy, that this is actually real

xxxx

Misato read the remaining lines, eyes widening with shock. What...

xxxx

Elsewhere within the facility, within her personal quarters - bare of ornamentation - Mana Kirishima sat on the floor. With knees curled up into her chest, she kept a loose grip upon both her axe and her shield. The gemstones embedded within each pulsed warmly, synchronized with each and every breath.

It was...strange.

It was only in times like these, isolated from the rest of the world (as isolated as she could ever be, in this place), that Mana could let her guard down.

Even if her weapons had official names...

("Look closely, Kirishima: these are the fruits of PROJECT LABRYS and PROJECT AIGIS." As Tokita spoke, she looked quietly at the double-headed axe and the great shield. "They will be your tools in the trials to come.")

...she would always think of them as her Big Sis and Little Sis, still protecting her...through thick and thin...so close that they might as well be a part of her...

xxxx

...the hell?! Misato read them again.

xxxx

Big Sis and Little Sis were both sacrificed for PROJECT LABRYS and PROJECT AIGIS

Big Sis is bound to that giant axe; Little Sis to the big shield

but that wasn't enough

in order to ensure a strong connection with the things he turned our family into, Tokita took something from neesan

Mana's Shadow. it was broken down and transformed somehow

they used her Shadow to bind her to Labrys and Aigis

and it worked. Mana's bound to her weapons

because of that, her other self is now indistinguishable from the weapons she wields

because of that, she'll always think of herself as a weapon in some way

and she'll keep doing it to keep me and Keita safe

I hate Tokita. I hate him so much

getting hard to think straight

fadfrglthjji

xxxx

The final line was an unrecognizable scribble of words: a burst of mental anguish and emotion.

Misato reread the letter again. Twice. Thrice.

She managed to keep a hold on her temper, channeling it into a more productive iciness. Okay then. She crumpled the letter back up and put it within her pocket. Next opportunity I get...I'm killing Tokita.

xxxx

From within his office of their secret Metaverse facility, Shiro Tokita - one of several leads for the black projects of Nippon Heavy Chemical Incorporated (NHCI) - quietly looked over the security imprint from the orphans' visiting room and Katsuragi's temporary quarters. Not footage, not a log in the standard sense, but an 'imprint'; the very architecture of various places within the facility sensed the thoughts and intentions of the occupants, translating them into narrative prose that described what was occurring as events happened. The nature of the Metaverse meant that mental activity could be a more reliable indicator of what was going on than any level of video or audio footage...and a far more subtle one, at that.

(Tokita quietly looked over the blueprints, marvelling at some of the ingenious steps being taken. Groups of people sat within model rooms and hallways, thinking in unison about how their thoughts were like an 'open book' for security to read though. With enough 'brainpower', the only limit was the imagination.)

From within the visiting room, a few lines of the literary script had caught his interest: Mana Kirishima and Keita Asari are discussing unimportant matters. Meanwhile, Musashi Strasberg is trying to imprint his thoughts onto a blank piece of paper.

That led to the encounter within the hallway: Musashi Strasberg slipped a piece of paper to Misato Katsuragi. His ruse involving an assault on Katsuragi's person successfully fools their armed escorts. Hmm. Guess we'll have to conduct a refresher on security drills.

Finally, that led to Misato Katsuragi's quarters, which very pointedly had no visible cameras or sensors or bugs in any of the usual places, precisely so that any occupant would have their guard down. Misato Katsuragi becomes cognizant of PROJECT LABRYS and PROJECT AIGIS to some degree. She is now very angry with Shiro Tokia. She's a good soul. A shame that her talents won't last beyond increasing Kirishima's capabilities. Still, he was confident that he would be able to handle any outburst of anger from the A.T. Agent, for reasons the woman was surely unaware of.

(As he finished relaying his progress report regarding JET ALONE, his supervisor raised a salient point: why not inform the orphans of the fail-safe's existence? "I am not ignorant of their animosity for me," he calmly replied. "It has been allowed to bloom by design. If all avenues of retribution were denied, then they would likely fall into despair over their circumstances, and probably resort to suicide as their only form of viable protest. By remaining a viable target for their outrage, they will continue to endure...if only out of a spiteful desire to one day have their revenge against me.")

A risky gamble, to be sure, but that's what the other safeguards were for. Fortunately, Kirishima's predicted cognitive shifting had already begun: the data from the hours-long spar with Misato Katsuragi revealed that her capture was already paying dividends. Katsuragi's nosiness has been an unexpected boon; to have a skilled combatant fight Kirishima, yet one without an attachment to NHCI, thus mitigating the girl's usual temper.

(Last year, the company had loaned a skilled Persona-user in their employ to JET ALONE to test Kirishima's skills. Within three minutes, Kirishima had killed the man; although positive in one sense, it limited their chances to test Kirishima with regards to foes beyond Archetypes, Ghosts, and Shadows, since NHCI wasn't going to waste the lives of their own stable of Persona-users so willy-nilly.)

For a time, Tokita had seriously considered trying to see if there was a way his supervisor could negotiate for the release of a Persona-user from death row into their custody.

But now, Katsuragi had fallen into their proverbial lap. She'll help Kirishima fix the current gaps in her combat capacity, and then we can replicate the process with either Strasberg or Asari...probably Asari, with Strasberg serving as the weapon base. Despite Asari's relatively placid demeanor, he would be more predictable and reliable than Strasberg. If we can duplicate our work, then NHCI can officially begin marketing the process to the Defense Ministry. From this point on, maintaining secrecy was paramount.

Fortunately, the measures taken to keep the A.T. Task Force off of Katsuragi's trail would suffice.

xxxx

/Dr. Akagi's Office, NERV HQ, Tokyo-3/

Ritsuko Akagi glared at the e-mail currently displayed on her screen. Beneath all of the official verbiage that basically said 'there will be no missions to search for Misato Katsuragi', there was an additional postscript blurb from Goro Akechi: Unfortunately, my hands are officially tied. No A.T. Agents will be spared for a mission to look for Katsuragi-senpai. So, sounds like behind-the-scenes political bee-ess.

Glancing down at her phone, Ritsuko looked at a series of texts she'd received from Kaji earlier that day.

Mr. Katsuragi: By the way, Ritsuko-chan.

Yes, she still had the man in her phone as 'Mister Katsuragi', because even all these years later, she was still salty at the man breaking off his wedding with her best friend.

Mr. Katsuragi: From what I've been able to ascertain, an associate of mine should find Misato-chan by tomorrow.
Mr. Katsuragi: It's a little out of the way~
Mr. Katsuragi: Make of that what you will.

Cryptic bastard, thought Dr. Akagi with a frown. Fortunately, it provided enough leeway for her to work with, because the data from Misato's hidden flash drive had allowed her to pinpoint just where her friend had intended to investigate. Well...I may not be able to commission a search-and-rescue mission, but I can do the next best thing. With a quick dip into her R&D budget and ten minutes of time, the next phase of her plan was implemented on the Mission Board.

SUBMITTED BY: Ritsuko Akagi (NERV)
LOCATION: Outskirts of Tokyo-1 Dead Zone
MISSION: To analyze anomalous signals within the Metaverse for research purposes.
ADDITIONAL DETAILS: Minimum of 10 Participants requested. Active combat is likely. Expected mission duration is unknown, but commencement will begin at 0800 on July 1. Specific locations and mission parameters will be provided by Dr. Akagi to all Participants upon mission commencement. A.T. Task Force experience is preferred, but not required. Staging Area for mission will be provided upon acceptance and confirmation with Dr. Akagi.

...damn it Misato, this is going to bite into my quarterly mission budget. You'd better still be alive!

xxxx

Even in the unlikely event that someone would find Misato Katsuragi's last location within the Metaverse, they would be stuck on a wild goose chase, fruitlessly searching the remnants of the Old Tokyo Metropolitan Area. The Transfer Warp removed all traces of our facility and its cognitive mass back to its point of physical origin...so even searching in the real world won't turn up any clues.

(Bit by bit, larger portions of NHCI's island facility were mapped from its point of origin to the outer rim of Tokyo-1's Dead Zone; this not only afforded them a greater opportunity to obtain Archetypes from the mainland, but would also serve as a suitable smokescreen in the event they were ever compromised.)

Tokita smiled, feeling rather satisfied by how things were progressing. After staking his life - through untold hours spent of labor and research - on JET ALONE, things were finally coming to a head.

xxxx

Shinji Ikari looked at the seemingly endless waves of orange, fading away at the horizon into blank nothingness. "Misato-san's...that way?"

"Arf arf!" barked Koromaru, his wings flapping with excitement.

"Hmm...based on how far the scent goes...you must be referring to somewhere around Hachij┼Ź-jima," remarked Mister P, twirling his mustache with intrigue. "An island that was depopulated during Second Impact, like most others in the Izu Archipelago."

"...how far away is that?" They had spent the entire day retreating west from the Tokyo-1 Dead Zone, bypassing Tokyo-3 and heading south along the Izu Peninsula (which had been rife with volcanoes and massive hot springs, visibly wiggling in a mirror that evoked how earthquake-prone the place was in reality), until they had reached the 'shores' of the Pacific.

"Arf!"

"Just shy of two hundred kilometers."

"Eh?!"

"Bah, have no fear! At a leisurely pace, Gryphon will have us there by morning." The tuxedo-clad bird-man ran a hand along his Persona's avian neck, eliciting a pleased coo from the majestic beast. "You two can sleep soundly; I'll wake you when we reach our destination."

"...um..."

"Fear not; I won't drop you!"

Shinji blanched. "That wasn't what I was-!"

"Arf!" The winged Shiba Inu had already hopped upon Gryphon's wide back; with a few cheerful turns, the dog curled up, his wings folding up compactly.

"...well, if Koromaru's fine with it..." After all, dogs tended to be pretty canny. If Koromaru felt safe enough to sleep on Mister P's Persona...then he would probably be fine?

That was how Shinji Ikari found himself lying down on Gryphon's back, one arm held around Koromaru; Mister P sat behind them, keeping a steady hand upon Shinji's back as Gryphon took to the sky. Somehow, the bird-man's hold was...reassuring, instead of unsettling. It was as if he was communicating with touch alone: you are safe; you won't fall. Thus, the boy allowed himself to fall asleep, letting the wind soothe him to sleep. Misato-san...we'll find you...

xxxx

END OF 6/30/2015

xxxx

/holy crap
/guys
/after 160k+ words
/WE'RE FINALLY OUT OF THE MONTH OF JUNE