Disclaimer: All characters, situations, and concepts herein are the express property of GAINAX Co, Sadamoto Yoshiyuki/Anno Hideki and all trademarks etc are the properties of their respective owners and copyright holders. This piece is not made for profit or exploitation purposes, and any use for such ends is strictly prohibited by the author, the creators, as well as federal and international copyright law. Neon Genesis Evangelion (Shinseiki Evangelion) © 1996-2005 GAINAX / Licensed by ADV Films

Author's Note: I'm sorry that updating this fanfiction took as long as it did. Many things got in the way (including scriptwriting for an animation show as well as my new Mobile Suit Gundam SEED fanfiction, and final preparations on a book, among many things). Thanks for your patience.

Shinseiki Evangelion: Never Look Back

Chapter 7 – Stab in the Dark

"Weakness should never be encouraged or nurtured.

Only in this way do we become strong."

Commander Ikari Gendo of NERV

'A Primer for Humanity'

Proposal submitted to the United Nations,

12 Before Impact (2002 A.D)

Sendai

Ayanami Rei stared blankly at the scenery outside the public transportation train in the downtown area of the city. It was bright outside, and though the train itself was cool, she knew it to be a sweltering day in the middle of July. Even though nearly fifteen years had gone by, Japan was still an abnormally warm nation compared to its pre-millennial past. That was beyond her fuzzy memories though, before she was even born, so she couldn't rightfully attest to it.

Lacking firsthand experience does not negate knowledge, she thought sedately as shadows blinked across her field of view, the train barreling past a long series of telephone poles. The car shook lightly as it careened down the rails, an air of hushed conversation permeating the compartment. People were on their way to work, on their way to school, going about their daily duties. In much the same fashion, Rei was no different.

Asano Kaede, she reminded herself pointedly. Rei knew it to be an exercise in futility, reaffirming to herself the assumed name she'd taken when she fled with Shinji from Okinawa, but it served to cement her frame of thought in the here and now, instead of dwelling on the intangibles of their mutual past. Ayanami Rei was the name of something sinister, something made by humans for human uses. She could not escape that.

Asano Kaede was infinitely more comforting, even if it was a lie.

It was already two weeks since Shinji began working at the publishing concern downtown, Bakufu Publishing Co.'s Shōgun imprint. He was doing well for work he was unaccustomed to. Now it was her turn to pull her own weigh. It bored her infinitely—more so than even dreary schooldays back in Tokyo-3—to sit around the house doing nothing at all. Though she knew how to clean and keep a tidy house, despite her displayed failures, she didn't see herself as a shufu, no matter who Asano Kaede was supposed to be or who she was married to. As such, she readily found work as an office lady for a trading company based near the seaboard.

It was necessary, as the last of their money went to procuring false documentation from illicit sources and a heavy bribe to an office worker at the prefectural capital's city records office, legitimizing their marriage. With nothing but pocket change, Rei waited for her arrival at the right station, dressed in a dark blue and white uniform worn by the female employees in her company. Her hair was now dyed jet black, and her irises, formerly a vibrant shade of vermilion, thanks to cosmetic contact lenses, were a neutral, dark brown.

Getting to her workplace was no trouble at all, and she was in before nine in the morning, starting the workday with the usual routines and rituals common to any corporate concern. The highly structured, gender-specific framework of corporate Japan hadn't changed much in thirty-five years, the business model viewed from a perspective of overall efficiency instead of equality or even merit-based rewards. If Rei decided to stay in the company, provided she didn't fail to meet expectations, she would go along a pre-programmed career route that wouldn't lead above the glass ceiling of the trading firm, where only powerful men with two children and a serene shufu at home could go.

Frankly, she could have cared less.

Asano Kaede was respected amongst her peers for her steadfast, diligent work, if not her abject disinterest in what she did. Sometimes Rei wondered privately if anyone in her office was truly interested in what they did, and if her neutral ambivalence was commonplace. When it came time for the lunch break, she made and brought forth tea for her fellow officemates, and sat in relative silence at a table in their midst. No one questioned her identity, or even suspected that she wasn't who she said she was, though a growing appreciation of irony was dawning on her.

Kudo, their section chief, a stout man with graying hair and a monochrome outfit, was finishing his lunch when he began talking to his coworkers. "So, did any of you hear about that fugitive announcement on the news last night?"

"The Okinawa bombing suspects?" Maya—who despite her name, reminded Rei in no way of Lt. Ibuki—a fellow 'OL' asked. "Did you see those two? I wonder if that girl's hair is naturally blue like that. That's crazy, Kudo-sachō."

"No kidding." Kudo said. He drank some of the tea. "Awfully young to be terrorists. Oh well, just goes to show you, this post-impact world is a little crazy. I remember growing up in a less shaken-up country than…" he gestured out towards a large window, "…this."

"Well," another man said, a junior member of the team, though more experienced than Rei by far, "the reward for their whereabouts was pretty high. I haven't heard about anything like that since my parents told me about the Old Tokyo subway attacks."

Sighing, Maya stared out the window, finishing her bottled water. "Ah…I wish I knew where they were! I'd never have to worry about my future again."

The section chief made a joke about her future that Rei did not understand, and they broke up to finish the workday. It was wholly uneventful, but the work kept Rei busy, and for that she was thankful. When it was around seven in the evening, she was on a train back to the apartment she shared with Shinji, who should have been on his way home from work as well, if not home already.

Shinji-kun. Rei contemplated their situation. Since her explanation of her origins and his declaration of love for her, they hadn't so much as spoken again of the entire affair. Though they were warmer towards each other than before, by a small margin, things went generally unchanged. A certain amount of awkwardness remained, which they were unable to exchange. It seemed Shinji was wholly afraid of how vehement he'd been, and Rei couldn't fathom how she, as the female party in the relationship, should react. The bottom line was, she supposed, she didn't not like Shinji, so she was willing enough to accept his affection.

Truth be told, she didn't have another option, if she wished to cling to humanity. She knew it may lead to a potential weakness, but she also saw many advantages to a romantic relationship with Shinji aside from his companionship per se. They were playing the part of a young, married couple, such affection could only add to the credibility of their claims.

"Tadaima." Rei said in a monotone when she arrived home, finding that Shinji was indeed, already back. The aroma of food in various stages of preparation tickled her senses, the smell of dry soba and udon, as well as the tangy scent of curry in the air.

"Okaeri, Rei-chan!" Shinji called from the kitchenette, glad to see her again. He smiled kindly and with enthusiasm, apparently still energetic even after a full day's work. She studied his jovial—even optimistic—expression, noting how starkly different it was from the Shinji she'd met in Tokyo-3.

Shinji too, had taken on a farcical appearance. His hair, grown out slightly, was in a permed, wavy hairdo dyed a dark brown, a look that seemed to be very popular amongst teens and college students, reminiscent of the 'rockers' of the late 1990s. His blue eyes were obfuscated and transmuted into nondescript black pools. Nothing could be done about his youthful appearance—if it weren't for the false documentation he carried, virtually no one would believe his claims to be a married man, save of course, the wily Etsuko.

"How was your work, Shinji?" Rei asked calmly, standing across the counter from Shinji as he finished preparing the soba. "You seem happy tonight."

Shinji continued to beam. "My office isn't bad, and the boss treats me well enough. They don't expect very much of me, so I guess I'm not having problems doing well. Though…" A shadow crossed his face briefly, and he averted his eyes. "It's still hard. I wonder how everyone is doing."

That was perhaps the greatest weakness of all, Rei reflected. Shinji, despite his uncharacteristic bravery and embryonic development of backbone back at Okinawa, still felt partially guilty over 'abandoning' Katsuragi and Sōryu. His sense of duty was stronger than his sense of self-preservation at times, probably the only thing that made him pilot Eva before deciding it may have been the only way to satisfy his father.

"They will persevere without us. They are talented individuals, Shinji-kun." She assured him. Glancing at the meager serving dishes, she decided to change the subject entirely, and with astonishment, noted that she was famished. "Is the food ready?"

Shinji nodded. "Almost."

This will have to do for now. Later, while they ate, Rei considered bleakly the prospect that she would have to be the mature one for the time being, something was entirely used to but not entirely comfortable with.

It was tiring.

Kagoshima-shi

(Earlier that same day)

"Thank you very much." Katsuragi Misato said to a woman behind a JAL ticketing counter, smiling with false enthusiasm but genuinely grateful that someone was able to give her and Kaji a lead on where the children had passed through. She was all but certain now that they had traveled back to Honshu, though she was also pretty sure that Kaji already knew that, or had suspected as much from the very beginning.

He's an infuriating person, as far as men go, she thought, chiding herself for ever getting involved with him nearly ten years before, during college.

Their search was hindered—and helped, in a sense—by the decision the Commander made over the issue of the children, using his authority granted by the U.N. to have an APB put out on the two youngsters. As of yet, only small trickles of information were coming back, nothing conclusive or damming. Wherever they'd gone, Rei and Shinji did a marvelous job of disappearing and melding into society undetected. That, she suspected, was Rei's doing. While not the most socially savvy, she definitely knew how to think rationally. Her intellectual faculties put her a step ahead of the multiple investigations aimed at tracking her down.

"So, Katsuragi?" Kaji asked when she met up with him near a small coffee shop inside the airport terminal in Kagoshima city. He sat with a tall cup of steaming-hot latte, smiling with unflappable charm. "Any leads?"

"Maybe if you didn't sit around looking at passing women," Misato rebuffed, pointedly giving an askance glance at a young woman in high heels sitting at an adjacent table, "we'd have some more information to go on."

Though Misato was making her annoyance clear, Ryōji Kaji only sighed and shrugged sheepishly, as if he couldn't help it at all. Since their gunfight at the shrine in Kyoto, mixing it up with forces from SEELE—if indeed they were to blame—she and Kaji were still forced to work closely together to draw up a map of what exactly was going on.

So far they had a few solid conclusions: the children were almost definitely alive, or at the very least, Rei was. Additionally, from Kaji overheard and other things he was privy to, they determined that both of the children were in fact, expendable. He wasn't willing to reveal to her why exactly though. The notion of expendability seemed entirely at odds with the gross amount of effort NERV's commander was willing to put into retrieving them.

"You should ask Rit-chan about that." Kaji had said dismissively but with an air of the ominous. "It isn't my secret to give out."

Sitting down at the table, Misato sighed with exasperation and restlessness. Without permission, she grabbed Kaji's latte and drained it, thankful he wasn't in the habit of drinking decaf. The coffee would work to stimulate her jangled nerves and ease her state of mind, though it paled in comparison with her inanimate lover, the old Yebisu. Kaji seemed to fight a scowl.

"Looks like they went to Osaka-2." Misato appraised him of what the clerk at the JAL terminal had to say about the customers she saw only a few weeks ago, remembered vividly because of Rei's outrageous hair color and fiery eyes. They of course, paid in cash, untraceable. It was depressing news though; from Osaka, the pair could have gone virtually anywhere; getting on a train, another flight, a ferry across the Seto Inland Sea; it was all equally possible. They could even have gotten out of the country on a trading ship or freighter. The dragnet that NERV and the U.N. put in place after Ikari's decision to make the APB was probably all but late. The best they could hope for was to eventually ferret them out, hoping they remained inside Japan, though if they were smart they would have left by now. She wasn't willing to believe they'd resorted to the reverse-psychology stratagem of staying in NERV's 'back yard' in order to avoid detection; such thinking was defeatist, paranoid, and only let to scheme and counter-schemes in one's own head.

Kaji mused over her conclusion. "That's inconvenient, but I guess not really unexpected. They're smart kids, even if Shinji's a little unconfident and unreliable."

Misato nodded absently. She received a report recently that Matariel, the latest in the series of Angels, made its attack. Very nearly Tokyo-3 and NERV was demolished because of an insidious and successful attempt to disrupt NERV's redundant power grid. Word from the top had it that SEELE was involved somehow. There was no question that it was sabotage. With two redundant backup generators, for a total of three power sources, and the MAGI's supervision, a failure of that magnitude was literally and scientifically impossible, or as close to impossible odds as Ritsuko could claim. That only confirmed what Kaji was preaching about the organization, that it was actively playing NERV against the procession of monsters that attacked Tokyo-3 for no apparent reason. It was frustrating, but at this juncture, unavoidable. Fortunately, Pilot Horaki managed to repulse the Angel before harm came to the Geofront base itself.

That was probably their only lucky break thus far. Misato wasn't counting on any others, wishful thinking aside.

"It's obvious then," Kaji said without warning sometime later, with a new cup of coffee in hand. "We go to Osaka-2."

Tokyo-3NERV Central Dogma

Sōryu Asuka Langley sat in muted indignation within the confines of EVA-02's entry plug. She breathed in the repulsive, transparent LCL fluid, tasting the mercuric tang so reminiscent of blood with palpable disgust, but for the moment keeping it to herself. She wasn't ready or willing to admit that she secretly appreciated it, that the taste of the horrendous artificial concoction was something of a badge of honor, a sign of her status that she was an Eva pilot, EVA-02's designated pilot, not someone else.

The trappings of station can come in many forms.

"You're done, Asuka, Hikari." Ibuki-chūi said to them over the open communicator-holograph link in the projection screens of their respective entry plugs. Her mousy, dark brown hair was burdened by her comm headset, but otherwise she looked impeccable, as always. It struck Asuka that she was trying to impress someone. "You can come back now."

"Alright." Asuka grunted and prepared to exit her giant, red humanoid robot frame. With a sigh, she added quietly, "It's so like Misato to leave us with so much work. First Shinji, then her."

Since the dissemination of information regarding Rei and Shinji's fugitive status—a fiasco for the Public Relations division after announcing that the two were among the casualties of the attack—Asuka and Hikari were informed that it was likely that their fellow students were alive somewhere, for unknown reasons. The way everyone talked about it, it even sounded like they were the ones that caused the attack in the first place, though few people who knew them willingly believed that. It was just too foreign a concept; neither Shinji nor Rei, despite their many faults and flaws, were capable of such utter violence and wanton destruction. Many of their friends lay dead because of the terrorist attack, friends that Shinji himself cared about. It was too convenient—and incongruous—to pin the blame on them. Nonetheless, it happened, and now the law was hunting them down.

Asuka suppressed a sigh of disgust while removing her slick, red plug suit and tossing it in a burnable garbage chute. Standing naked for a moment, staring at her reflection in her locker-housed mirror, she wondered what the two kids were up to. Were they even safe? Probably not.

"Hikari, I'm going to go ahead and shower down." She announced, walking unceremoniously towards the large and empty row of shower stalls. "Wait for me, alright?"

"Sure, Asuka." Horaki Hikari said from her place not far away, disposing of her own, black, gray, and navy plugsuit. She was used to the feel of the garment now, but didn't like how it made her feel exposed, showing off entirely too much of her figure by way of its skin-tight fit. There was nothing to be done about that.

Hikari found it easy to note the subtle changes in Asuka's behavior since the disaster at Okinawa—one that left both girls shocked and confused, though Hikari more so—with her growing sense of calm and self-restraint. It wasn't much, but she desisted from calling everyone a name for the most minor infraction. Of course, she still insulted Aida-kun, but it was more out of habit than ire. Not seeing two of the 'Three Stooges' made her heart ache in a mysterious way that baffled even Hikari. Now the mockery was almost, but not quite good-natured.

After the attack, Hikari visited Suzuhara's sister in the hospital. The girl was making a slow but steady recovery since her injuries in the months before, during what Hikari now knew as the attack of the third Angel. Painfully, for herself as well as for the younger Suzuhara, Hikari informed the girl that her brother passed away.

Surprisingly, she didn't cry. Instead, she'd said with remarkable maturity for her age. "At least now he won't worry so much about me."

The statement left Hikari absolutely heartbroken, and afterwards, she wept for hours and hours, until she thought that there no longer existed enough tears to enumerate her total despair. So many people were suffering so pointlessly, for no reason; it perturbed the normally steadfast and upright Class Rep deeply.

And there I was, Hikari thought lamely, that I was one suffering because my sister and I lost Mom. Stepping under a showerhead, Hikari allowed herself to enjoy the hot water that poured over her freckled, thin body. In the scant month since the death of Suzuhara Tōji and so many others, she'd grown nearly an inch, but lost some weight. Looking a little more gaunt than usual, she nonetheless still got lecherous glances from the boys, but it was now almost a pale reminder of times before. Everyone knew how hard Horaki-inchō took the disaster, something she saw with her own eyes. Virtually all her classmates were gone; on she, Asuka, Kensuke, and a few others were left. They had to consolidate classes from her grade to make a full class. Just looking at the different faces, not seeing people she'd grown up with, was almost unbearable.

Then of course, there was the entire matter of the Angels. What the hell were they, anyways? Like many others, Hikari had her ideas on the issue, but none of it really seemed to add up. Second Impact. Angels, Humanoid Fighter Evangelion, even NERV. The one thing she was glad for though—bittersweet really—was the pay she was given as an Eva pilot, seemingly the only consolation that Commander Ikari was willing to offer them.

That reminded her, as she turned off the shower and dried off, Ikari-kun's complaints about his father, back when. She honestly never thought he was that cold, that cruel and uncaring. She was disturbed to discover that Shinji hadn't exaggerated at all, the way she'd expected. The reality of Ikari Gendo's persona was chilling.

"Done." Asuka said later, emerging from the shower stall wrapped in a towel. The two girls finished dressing back into school uniforms, still faintly smelling of LCL, headed up the elevator to the control deck of Central Dogma. "Want to grab some take out, Hikari?"

Hikari noted the fake cheer and attempt at marginal good humor and accepted it at face value. She could get order-out and some extras for her sisters and father. They wouldn't complain, no, not after what she'd been through. Nozomi was even learning to cook, so if they hated take-out that much, they had options.

Upstairs at the Command and Control center of NERV headquarters, they were met by the blonde doctor, Akagi Ritsuko. She looked self-satisfied with the results of the test, smugly holding a NERV mug filled with coffee. From behind her round glasses she said, "Your sync scores are up, Asuka. So are yours, Hikari, but not by as much."

"See? I told you I'm better." Asuka smiled half-heartedly, unsure if she should even keep up the pretense. For some reason, she felt empty…almost betrayed by something. Anyways, her thoughts were elsewhere. Maybe if Baka-Shinji hadn't gone off and gotten himself killed and/or mixed up in whatever it was that was going on away from Tokyo-3, she might have felt better. Even seeing 'Miss Honor Student' again would have cheered her up somewhat—if only to give her an object to direct her frustrations. Currently, she was powerless.

It reminded her of film-grain, and watching an old movie with bad color and preservation; everyone looked much more drab now.

Asuka had the right mind to wonder where Misato was about now. She knew that she was off with Kaji somewhere, and the thought made her mildly jealous. However, for the time being, there were more immediate concerns, and she was forced to put the feeling out of sight and out of mind. She counseled herself that it would be a trade-off: acquiescence for a bit of satisfaction at a job well done.

"I know, Asuka." Hikari said, "You're better, but I'll catch up, you'll see." It was only banter really, but Hikari also felt the need to say something at least. This way, she figured, at least she could help Asuka somehow, if not helping herself. "Let's go get some food then."

With a steady gaze, Akagi Ritsuko watched the two young women leave Central Dogma to find their dinner hundreds of meters above their heads, in the city proper. Momentarily, she envied Horaki for being able to cook so well, and was none-too-kindly amused that she would have to eat take out, a staple of Ritsuko's diet for altogether too many years, at least since her mother committed suicide at the original GEHRIM installation. God knows she could have afforded better with the salary of Director of Project E, but try as she might. Ritsuko couldn't find the time, especially now that they were so absurdly understaffed.

When Katsuragi returned, Ritsuko was going to personally wring her scrawny neck…

The sudden, strangely vivid mental image shook Dr. Akagi momentarily as her breath caught, for inexplicable reasons. Something about that perception… Shake it off, Ritsuko! Akagi commanded herself, marshalling her faculties as one would an army, manipulating her mind and emotions to suit her goals. She couldn't afford idle thoughts or casual silliness to dull her wits. After all, there was still data to compile and analyze, though that duty fell mostly upon Lieutenant Ibuki Maya's shoulders. It was already late though…

God damn you, Katsuragi Misato! Akagi fumed silently. You haven't changed one bit in all the years I've known you. Still acting half your age. Putting her annoyance aside, she turned her gaze towards the bank of displays and readouts at her terminal. Indeed, there was a great deal of information at her disposal, but none that couldn't wait until tomorrow. She was tired from the constant work, which only seemed to double with every day Misato was absent. Almost by default, Ritsuko was acting as the Operations and Planning division chief, something that while trained to do in dire emergencies, she was willing to admit she didn't have the proper aptitudes—requisite patience—to do as well as Katsuragi. She was in the business of scientific research and application, not…personnel management.

"Senpai," Ibuki rose from her station with a graceful extension of her white-clad legs, pausing to pick up her mug of already-cold coffee and dumping its contents into a waste disposal chute, "Is it time to call it a day? I have enough data to begin calibrating for a cross-compatibility synchronization test tomorrow morning."

Ritsuko weighed her options. In truth, though Pilot Horaki was proving herself more useful than Ayanami—single-handedly dispatching an angel on her first sortie—they were still pressed to find a way to reactivate units 00 and 01. Privately, Ritsuko doubted that anyone besides Ikari Shinji would be able to use 01, and he was AWOL, or worse yet, actually dead, despite the Commander's changed stance. Asuka's 02 would probably be incompatible with anyone else, so that left them with one potentially operable unit, the blue giant known as the 00 Prototype, which Rei left in its current, useless state. Thawing out the beast seemed to be little more than a display of solidarity, because since then it only participated in one mission in direct fire. What was further annoying, but out of her hands, was that the Marduk Agency still hadn't found an additional pilot.

She hoped that would change soon. Ritsuko was sick and tired of other peoples' blame being passed off onto her. The buck did not stop at her desk.

Sighing with resignation, she looked at the chronometer on the large bank of controls, spying it between Aoba and Hyuga. Then, to Maya, she said, "I suppose so. Want to follow me for a drink? I think I need a stiff one today."

Ritsuko couldn't help noticing how Maya's face lit up at the prospect, prompting a tiny voice in her head to ask, what's got her so chipper? Did I say something particularly satisfying? She pressed the thought aside. Not her concern.

"Oh, of course, senpai!" Maya said cheerfully, working with renewed energy to transfer her console to the MAGI system's stand-by monitoring subroutine. If someone needed to quick-start the system, they'd be able to do it in a snap. "Just let me finish here real quick."

Ritsuko suppressed a chuckle. Being one of the 'Old Maids' of NERV, with everyone else getting married before her, she was definitely feeling old. She wished sometimes she had Maya's energy and enthusiasm. This job drains the life out of you. She figured a year here was like five anywhere else, and after working here for nearly ten, she felt old, wrinkled, and spent. But, there was cutting-edge science being done here, and in the end, that's what she was living for, just like her mother before her.

Mother, she wondered to the heavens, is this what you felt like before you threw yourself off that ledge, you old hag? With abundant gratitude that she received no answer from the nearly subliminal, subconscious question, she followed Ibuki out of Central Dogma, hoping that a good round of drinks would calm her nerves.

Aoba watched the two women leave with dissatisfaction, turning to his friend and coworker, who was about to punch out as well. Directing his gaze to the other young man's, he groused, "Why do those two always leave together, Makoto?"

The shorthaired kid smiled despite the complaint. He knew what Shigeru meant by that; his disappointment at being passed up daily in favor for 'women-only' barhopping was obvious. "Come on, Shigeru, cheer up. Besides, don't you think Captain Katsuragi is…well, sexier?"

The wannabe rocker and musician-in-training grimaced visibly, transferring his station to automatic control until the night shift came on. Palming his face, he cursed his life. Working for NERV definitely had its downsides. Such as no time for a life. He didn't mention his distaste of Katsuragi though, and instead let the thought hang in his own mind: Sure, Makoto, if you like alcoholics.

With knowing hypocrisy, he got up from his seat. "Come on, let's go find a bar."

Osaka-2,

Hyogo Prefecture

One day later…

Misato stood next to Kaji as a large pile of papers was unceremoniously dumped onto the table in front of them. The room was poorly lit, and crowded with filing cabinets and old computer parts, but the airport security clerk across the table didn't seem to mind at all, a half-spent cigarette crookedly hanging from the side of his mouth, which was contorted into a disappointed frown.

"I don't know what you're expecting to find. It isn't like we take documentation on domestic travel." The clerk said with a grunt, removing his cig to blow some smoke in another direction. He glanced from the papers to Misato, who stood in her militaristic NERV uniform and cap. "But good luck. You're going to need it."

Misato smiled half-heartedly. "We appreciate the gesture, but fortunately we're not depending on luck to get our needs. But thanks for this. Tasukata wa."

The clerk snorted, tossing his cig into a metal wastebasket and removing another Wild Seven from his pocket anxiously. "Huh. Well, I only hope you U.N. types don't hope we'll bail your asses out all the time."

"I wouldn't worry about that." Kaji said with a grin, patting the pile of papers, filled with satisfaction. "Instead I'd probably worry about lung cancer, but I'm no better. " His hand went up to his pocket to reveal a similar pack of cancer sticks. Turning to Misato, he added, "Will it be enough?"

"Should be," Katsuragi replied earnestly, staring at the papers, deep in thought. "There should be enough information here to sort out any false information if we cross-reference it with the Ministry of Justice's national ID database."

"The NIDD is incomplete, you know." Kaji reminded her, ignoring the disgruntled airport employee as he walked out with another uncertain grunt. "Ever since Second Impact, records haven't quite been the same."

Misato raised a brow. "Is that your SDF experience speaking?"

It seemed as if Ryōji was suppressing a laugh. "I thought you weren't supposed to know about that…?"

"You'd be surprised…" she muttered almost inaudibly, picking up the heavy stack of documents. Upon inspection, it revealed a long list-table of names, dates, airlines, and destination information for a period of roughly two weeks. It was a massive amount of data, but nothing they couldn't crunch. They would need to sort through that stack to find out where the children went. Simply looking for 'Ayanami Rei' and 'Ikari Shinji' on the list would of course, be fruitless. They without a doubt traveled under assumed names. It would only be a matter of checking names against NIDD records. They would start with at-the-counter ticket purchases. "Let's see what we have here."

Osaka-2's airport was massive, one of the largest—if not the largest—in the country. Thus the sheer volume of names was incredible. However, Misato had no intention of sifting through the myriad identities alone, or even with Kaji's finicky assistance. Instead, she would call in her newly-granted powers over requisitioning aid from Section 2 to accomplish the task. It might well take a week, just to compile a list of possible candidates for investigation through the NIDD, but it was the only manageable way to track down the children. Any other method would only take longer, with more opportunities for their unseen enemies to act against the investigation.

We have to remember…Misato thought with unaccustomed caution, whoever is controlling NERV and the commander is watching. SEELE even…

"Let's get to work." She said, picking up a phone. It was time to check in with the 'family'.

Tokyo-3

NERV Headquarters,

Section 2 (Security and Enforcement Operations)

(Same Week)

Charged with overseeing the security and safety of NERV's operations and personnel, Section 2 couldn't have been more upset over getting assigned to aid Captain Katsuragi in her search for the missing children—and bringing the would-be assassins to justice—considering that they felt it was her fault it happened in the first place. If she hadn't asked for the children to be sent to Okinawa, Section 2 would have one less crisis to deal with, and one less blemish on their otherwise sterling record. They were professionals; in their opinion, Katsuragi was not.

"So is this all of it?" Katsuragi Misato asked the Section 2 adjunct, Hachisuka, looking at a page-long list of compiled names from the first half of the romp through the land of faceless names Osaka-2's airport had given them. It was a substantial culling, in lieu of actual investigative data. None of the names checked out on the NIDD, (those that proved not to be part of NERV's investigation would also be in hot water for living under the radar, but it wasn't her concern) so they had their list of potential suspects in the fugitive case.

The adjunct felt like acting surly, but knew his place. So instead, offering a curt nod, he gave the summation report. "Yes. All the names there aren't documented in any way, were purchased at the counter, and were all domestic. We're done with the international flight record investigation you requisitioned yesterday. No leads."

Misato arched an eyebrow. "Already?"

The agent shrugged. "Our national requirements are a lot stricter. Virtually no one is allowed to book immediate passage out of the country without ID. It also wouldn't be smart…"

"I suppose that's true." The raven-haired woman looked down at the short list. It was organized by destination and flight, for convenience's sake. They could easily have sorted the names by who traveled together, but there was also a possibility that the children had thought to travel independently, however unlikely. They needed to have their bases covered, and Misato didn't feel like being blamed again for a potentially fatal misstep. She was already avoiding the commander for that very reason. "Thank you for your efforts, Hachisuka-san. I'm sorry for putting your office through this much work. Keep me up to date, alright?"

"Yes ma'am." The man saluted her and was on his way again, to his office down the hall, which joined with the large room now filled with office agents poring over the data she'd handed them.

Left alone, Misato headed several levels up to her office, reading over the suspect list with deep interest. It was only twenty names long, and only four of them traveled on the same flights, on different days. One of the final destinations was Akita Prefecture, to the north…the other, Takamatsu, on a charter jet. It was trip more easily made by ferry, which only would make sense for the wealthy…therefore the Akita pair was so far, her best bet. There was one other set of names with identical destinations, different days, but they seemed impossible to correlate.

The Akita names were also male and female.

It was then that she collided with someone, halfway to her office, passing Project E's main corridor of offices, experiment rooms, and storage closets. Blurting out an apology, she looked up from the sheet. "Sorry! I was being inattentive---Ritsuko?"

The fair-haired scientist with a mole on her cheek sighed depreciatively, shaking her head from side to side as she picked up a clipboard's worth of scattered papers. She looked more tired than Misato had ever seen her old collegiate friend.

"Misato," She greeted somewhat coldly. "You have to learn to at least pay attention to where you're going…it's something you were always bad at."

Something about Akagi's tone, the subtle creases at her brow, and the way she stared at Misato tipped the Planning Director off that she didn't necessarily just mean where she was walking. "Sorry, Ritsuko. Anyways, I'm in a bit of a hurry, can we talk later over a drink?"

"Damn it, Katsuragi!" Dr. Akagi groaned audibly. She narrowed her eyes in frustration and vexation. The expression conveyed her supreme distaste rather well. "Don't just coyly try avoiding problems! Where were you? It's not enough that I have to clean up after your mistakes as Director of Planning and Operations by training a new recruit, but you leave me with your work to do too? That's just unacceptable, I don't care who you are."

Misato was for a moment, lost for words, letting her arms drop to her sides. Such bluntness was unlike Ritsuko, unless she was severely irked. She looked Ritsuko in the eye, searching for a way to placate her after the outburst. She had to settle on indignation, fighting fire with fire. "Why do you put up with it then?"

The other woman's jaded eyes flayed with momentary suspicion, before averting from Misato's glare. "You wouldn't understand."

Misato crossed her arms. She didn't feel like putting up with Ritsuko's qualms today, not when she had a vital key in her investigation, so she didn't bother with tempering her words. "You sound more and more like Ikari-shirei every day, do you know that? I honestly don't have time to discuss this right now, so if you really want to chew me out too, you can do it over a beer later. So if you don't mind, I have an investigation to finish. I can deal with our new recruit in due time."

Without further warning, Misato navigated around a fuming Dr. Akagi and continued on her way to her office, intent of preparing to go to Akita personally to investigate the issue of the undocumented travelers.

As Katsuragi's echoing footsteps receded into the distance, Ritsuko finished picking up her papers, heaving a heartfelt sigh of despair. How was she to continue working in this environment if everyone was content with shirking responsibilities and passing them off to her? She wasn't here for that.

And what she said about the commander… Ritsuko recalled with a set jaw. How dare she talk like that! As if she even knows anything…always acting like we're still in college.

Despite all of this, she would have to persevere. Commander Ikari gave Misato a lot of rope when he opened the investigation. To Ritsuko, at least, his intent was obvious: after such a fiasco, it was enough rope to correct the problem, or hang Misato altogether for her failure. The thought forced Ritsuko to smile with a small measure of admiration.

Either way, Ikari wins.

End of Chapter 7.

End Notes: Thanks as always for reading! As you can see, the investigation is picking up speed, and NERV is drawing ever closer towards finding the kids. Will Rei and Shinji escape from the clutches of NERV's puppet masters? We'll see. In any case, in the next chapter: Misato continues her search for Rei and Shinji, while the two children try and find out what the meaning of living under the same roof is. Look forward to the next Angel battle, and the appearance of a certain character that everyone seems to love so much (though I can't understand why).

Please read on next time with Shinseiki Evangelion: Never Look Back, Chapter 8, Fragrance of a Distant Seashore!