# # # presenting # # #


THE COLOR OF BLOOD

Written by Lavanya Six

(please don't sue)


# # # a one-shot # # #


The still-warm body of the man lay flat on its back. It was reposed in quiet.

And then it wasn't.

"GUUUUUUUUUUUUH!"

Ryoji Kaji's first breath was a gasp. His eyes fluttered open as feelings of taste, smell, sight, sound, and touch flooded his previously deprived sense organs. The power of that transitory moment of awakening rocked him to his core. Had he been more coherent Kaji might have groaned in ecstasy, for that moment was, like the act of making love, tied into the stuff of life itself. He might have made a sly quip along the lines of "If I could do that to Misato she'd never leave the bedroom."

Instead he jammed his eyes shut and tried not to vomit.

"Ugggh."

The world swam around him, the earth underneath felt fluid. Ryoji Kaji frowned as he tried to orient himself in space and time. Where was he? What had happened?

"You're a little late."

Yes. Yes, that's right. The shooter. He remembered that. He had been shot.

Slowly, the man opened his eyes.

Ten meters above was a corrugated metal ceiling. The steel was old and rust streaked across the whole thing. Kaji couldn't see the rust, not in the twilight, but he had been to this particular Geo-Front air circulatory station before. It was his meeting point for his SEELE contact.

He had come here to die.

And yet… he was still alive.

He sat up and looked around. That's when he noticed the blood. It was all over him. His shirt, that nice powder blue one Ritsu had bought for him as a Christmas present, was drenched with it. On the upper left side of the shirt were two neat holes.

Kaji fingered the bloodied holes in his shirt. The crimson red stain was still wet, still warm. He rubbed some of the liquid between his thumb and index finger. He brought it to his nose and sniffed. Coppery. It's blood alright.

His first thought was: Too much blood loss to live.

His second thought was more incredulous: It took him two shots to do me?

That's right, he remembered, stitching the memories back together. I told him he had poor aim.

But poor enough to leave him alive with two rounds in the chest? Even SEELE's hired thugs weren't that incompetent. And the blood was real.

Unless it wasn't his blood.

He was still alive, after all.

Kaji ripped open his stained powder blue dress shirt.

There was blood. A lot of blood. But no bullet wounds. Not even a scratch.

"What the fuck?"

Kaji wasn't much for cursing. It just didn't jive with the gentlemanly persona he tried to project. But this was too much. He remembered being shot. Twice. Here was his bloodied shirt, with two bullet holes in said shirt, yet there wasn't a mark on him.

There was only one possible explanation: someone was playing a game.

"Ikari, you magnificent bastard," he said with a half-grin. Kaji wasn't sure how the Commander had arranged this stunt but it only made sense that he'd be responsible. SEELE wanted him dead. The JDA couldn't pour sand out of a boot with instructions written on the heel. No other players on the scene would care about him. Gendo Ikari had to be the one. "Looks like I owe you one."

And the Commander would call to collect. That much Kaji was sure of.

But he was still alive. He could still play Ikari at his own game.

Pleased with his own reasoning, Ryoji Kaji picked himself off the ground and took one last look around the ignominious place he had thought he was destined to die in. He took a crumpled pack from his back pants pocket, fished for a cigarette undamaged in his fall to the floor, and lit it up. The rich flavor of the smoke filled him with ease.

Ryoji Kaji's back in business, he mused to himself, and all's right with the world.


#&#&#&#&#&#&


His first order of business was a change of clothes. His shirt and tie were stained with someone else's blood so they were trashed. His pants were dirty from the grime on the air circulatory station's floor but otherwise clean of blood. Walking around shirtless wasn't ideal but it would do for now until he could get to a safe house.

No shirt, no service. So much for a celebratory trip to the golden arches.

The second order of business was cleaning the blood off him. Kaji knew he was dashing enough to draw attention if he walked down the street sans shirt. That was fine by him but all the crimson would draw the wrong sort of attention. Fortunately there was a disused but functioning rest room half a block away from the station. The area was deserted but he still walked there carefully, his movements aided by the dawning darkness. A half hour of clumsy fiddling over a dirty sink and Kaji deemed himself fit for the public.

The third order of business – find a place to hide away for the night. Again, Mister Kaji was prepared. In addition to the JDA's safe houses, Kaji had set up several of his own hideaways over the months he'd been in Tokyo-3. When you were playing three sides against each other in the intelligence game it was always good to have places of your own making to fall back on if things went south.

And boy, had they ever.

His car was out of the question. He needed to stay "dead" for now. So Kaji started walking to the northwest, keeping to the outskirts of the city, away from the prying eyes of the MAGI's CCTV cameras in the more developed sections of Tokyo-3. It took the better part of an hour. The sun had set and the stars, such as they could be seen through the city's light pollution, came out. When he spotted a buzzing yellow neon star closer to the earth Kaji knew he was nearly there.

The Lucky Star was the only business within a block of the condemned apartment buildings. Years ago it would have been an ideal location to service workers coming off shifts constructing the rest of the city or the Geo-Front. Now the area all around was practically a ghost town. Surprisingly the Lucky Star was still open. Kaji smiled at the tenacity of its owner, keeping the spirit alive even in a city that had passed the brink. Too bad the beer there tastes like piss.

Kaji stumbled as he passed by the bar. "Damn," he winced, as a migraine pulsed through his head. Shit. A concussion. Just what I need. But by the time he finished his bitching it was gone.

He moved into the abandoned apartment block.

This entire block of Tokyo-3 was filled with condemned buildings scheduled for demolition, any one of them perfect for hiding away in. The First Child actually lived in one these rat holes but Kaji was canny enough to recognize that it'd be in the interest of his health to stay the hell away from the Commander's favorite. Besides, if Section-2 had spotted him stalking Rei Ayanami they might have found out about this hideaway.

It was a faceless, grim-looking apartment building, one of any number that hadn't been occupied since the earliest days of Tokyo-3's construction a decade ago. The building Kaji had picked out had no working elevator and no other occupant. There weren't even any bums or squatters. The Angel attacks, especially the 14th's assault, had scared the last of them away to greener pastures. So Ryoji Kaji climbed five floors without anyone to bear witness to his passing.

The safe house – Apartment 506 – was a frightful sight inside. Kaji had never bothered to do much more than stash supplies inside, figuring that if he came here then he wouldn't be in Tokyo-3 for much longer. Or on the good Earth. But it had a change of clothes and a cot to sleep on.

"Home sweet home," he sighed, locking the door behind him.


#&#&#&#&#&#&


The next morning something unusual happened. Gendo Ikari found himself visiting the Vice-Commander's office.

Even with the man he might charitably call his last friend, Gendo Ikari liked to keep up the trappings of power. Once upon a time Fuyutsuki had been a moral crusader, and though the Plan and his affection (Gendo could never think of what the elderly man felt as 'love') for Yui bound him to NERV it was still a wise precaution to remind Fuyutsuki of his place.

Today, though, Gendo Ikari was feeling especially charitable. Kozo rarely sacrificed himself personally for the Plan and such loyalty needed rewarding.

He opened the door to the Vice-Commander's office without knocking.

"Fuyutsuki," greeted the Commander.

The Vice-Commander was hunched over a copy of the Tokyo-2 Times' crossword. In one hand he held a pen, in the other a mug of steaming coffee. He looked tired. Torture did that to a man. "Good morning, Ikari."

Gendo glanced around the cluttered office. Papers and folders were stacked everywhere: on the desk, atop the overstuffed filing cabinets, and even thigh-high in one corner of the room. The appearance was bothersome to Gendo Ikari, who was of the school of thought that one's work place reflected one's mind. It was the philosophy behind his own office: elegant, quiet, and surrounded by the glory of the Geo-Front's gardens – a palace dedicated to reflection. The Vice-Commander, in contrast, had never shaken himself from his bad habits as a professor in Kyoto. He preferred functionality above all else and, as with many among the older generations, liked having hard copies of important documents on hand even when a computer index was more practical.

"This place is a fire trap, Fuyutsuki."

The Vice-Commander sipped from his coffee mug. It bore a faded 'GEHIRN' logo. "At least my office has some character."

"I prefer ambiance."

"Ambiance is for restaurants and funerals." Kozo frowned, upset at what he had let slip. He glanced at his friend, then found a spot on the far wall to stare at. "Speaking of dead men…"

"Mister Kaji is no longer with us."

Fuyutsuki continued to stare at the far wall. "I expected as much." He sipped his coffee. "Has the JDA found the body yet?"

"No."

"Sloppy."

"It's because the body is missing."

THAT got Fuyutsuki's attention. "What?!"

"Most likely SEELE's work." Gendo adjusted his glasses. "Though considering the ultimatum Keel sent me to not interfere with their retribution I am at a loss for an explanation as to why they moved the body. To do so weakened the trail of evidence leading back to us."

"Perhaps a co-conspirator of Mister Kaji moved him?"

"Perhaps," said Gendo, dubious to the notion. "However, it is more likely that the JDA retrieved the body without our moles inside the organization knowing."

The Vice-Commander frowned. "That makes even less sense," he said, absentmindedly tapping his pen on his desk. "Mister Kaji's death is an open secret. Why expose their counterintelligence for such a pointless exercise?" Fuyutsuki suddenly gripped his mug tightly. "Unless he survived."

"Even SEELE's hired thugs aren't that incompetent," scoffed Gendo.

"Mister Kaji was… or perhaps I should say 'is'… quite resourceful."

"The amount of blood at the scene was too much for any person to survive losing, and the MAGI matched the DNA to Mister Kaji's records. It all belonged to him. None of the markers were present that might suggest the blood was anything but what could bleed out of a dying man's veins. Nor was there any evidence that he might have had someone assist him with an emergency transfusion onsite."

"Curiouser and curiouser."

"I had hoped Mister Kaji would no longer be a concern. Now it seems he will cause me one more headache with his death."

Fuyutsuki chuckled.

Gendo kept his tone level. "I fail to see the humor of the situation."

"Ikari, I realize you don't get out much, what with all the plotting you do in your office of ambiance, but t-"

"Fuyutsuki," he warned, now feeling less charitable.

"-the first rule of any good murder mystery is that if you haven't found a body then you shouldn't assume that anyone is dead."

"…"

"By the way," he said, looking down at the newspaper crossword on his desk, "do you know the first name of the Prime Minster in office during the Second Impact? It's seven letters and the second one is an 'o'." He paused. "Or maybe an 'a'."

Gendo left the Vice-Commander's office without another word.


#&#&#&#&#&#&


She thinks I'm dead.

Ryoji Kaji stared into the greasy bathroom mirror. He had planned on shaving but the cold, off-color tap water dissuaded him of that plan. However the sight of his bare chest reflecting in the mirror had caught his attention.

She thinks I'm dead, he thought to himself, running a hand over the unblemished skin, and I should be.

He had been shot. He remembered it happening, the pain burning in his chest, the sensation of his right lung collapsing. That had been real. That had happened.

And yet he was alive.

Better than alive. His body was healthy and fit.

"Goddamn it, Ikari. How did you do it?"

Owing Gendo Ikari his life didn't bother Ryoji Kaji too much. Not knowing how the Commander saved his life did. He had gone over everything that had happened the previous evening, his trained analytical mind breaking it all down, trying to at least find a clue – any clue – to could lead him to an explanation. He had nothing. Zip. Zilch.

Sure, he could ask Ikari later today how he did it, but knowing the bearded bastard he'd just smirk at him and mouth something cryptic. Ikari would hang the secret over Kaji's head, using it as a carrot to spur him forward in whatever Machiavellian scheme he had brewing.

It pissed Kaji off.

Exiting the dank bathroom, the spy set about getting dressed for the day. The sky was overcast and the dark clouds suggested rain but Kaji hadn't packed an umbrella. All he had was a long raincoat. He threw it on over his sloppily-arranged dress clothes.

Kaji added a few accessories to his raincoat's pockets before leaving, among them a wad of non-sequential yen bills and a fresh pack of smokes. He fitted his gun into the back of his waistband, underneath the raincoat. He doubted he'd run into trouble but in Tokyo-3 it paid to be careful.

Then again, even if the worst happened you might still have a guardian bastard watching out for your skin.

The spy handled the new cell phone in his hand with unease. More than anything he wanted to call her. To tell her the words he had wanted to say years ago. But not now. Not yet. He couldn't. Not with Ikari's new game hanging over his neck like a sword. He had to find out what the Commander wanted. The game had rules, after all.

Kaji left the safe house.

A few minutes later he paused crossing the middle of an empty street.

"Damn!" Kaji clutched his head. Wonderful. Another migraine.

But, as with the night before, the pain was gone a few seconds later.

What the hell did you do to me, Ikari?

Kaji shook away his irritation at the Commander and pressed on. Half a block down the way he took a turn into an alleyway to avoid a traffic camera at the next road intersection. In the middle of the alley Kaji heard a shuffle of feet behind him. He turned, ready to draw his gun.

There, not ten meters away (how the hell did she sneak up so close to me?), stood a lanky blonde woman with a shoulder-length ponytail of wavy hair. Her figure was naturally slim, though Kaji could see that her musculature was well developed. If the way she carried herself didn't tell Kaji this woman had combat training then her eyes did. Kaji recognized that gleam.

"Hello," said the blonde woman in perfect Japanese.

Kaji smiled roguishly, putting on a show as he sized up the hostile. "Nice morning for a walk, isn't it?"

"That it is." She glanced over her shoulder back towards the empty street. Kaji didn't know why she bothered. Tokyo-3 was nearly a ghost town. "I've been looking for you all night, ever since you passed by the Lucky Star."

SEELE. Kaji kept his demeanor calm as he studied the surrounding area. She wouldn't be confronting him like this if she didn't have backup. "Oh?"

"Yeah." She tucked a loose hair behind her left ear. "Now draw your sword."

"Sorry?"

"Draw your sword," she ordered.

Okay, not what I expected from SEELE, but I can work with it. Kaji smirked. "You first."

He dropped his veneer of amusement when the blonde woman did in fact draw a sword from her trench coat.

"I am Nadia Fedorova." She whipped her broadsword into what Kaji recognized as an attack stance. "Prepare yourself to meet whatever Gods you believe in, Mister…?"

Kaji, however, was not content to answer. "What the hell?!" he exclaimed. "Who are you? And why the fuck do you have a sword?!"

Nadia frowned, then, after a moment, smiled. It was an utterly confident smile, one tinged with amusement. For a moment he felt like he was staring into the face of Gendo Ikari. Kaji's estimation of the danger of the situation ratcheted up. "Who do you work for?" he asked levelly.

"You have no idea, do you? About the Rules? It just happened for you." She laughed. "Too bad. I was hoping for a better reward from taking your head."

What the fuck?! She wants to BEHEAD me?! "What are you talking about? What are the Rules? Who ARE you?"

"All you need to know is this, young man," she raised her sword and leveled the tip at Kaji, "in the end there can be only one!"

The pony-tailed blonde dashed forward, aiming to make good on her promise. Ryoji Kaji, however, was not the unarmed prey she was expecting.

BLAM! BLAM! BLAM!

"Guggugh," gurgled the woman as she dropped to her knees. Her grip on her sword, however, remained constant. She leaned on it, balancing the tip on the dirty concrete to steady herself as a dark stain spread across her royal blue blouse.

Kaji lowered his smoking gun.

"Y-y-you sooka." And with that final insult Nadia slumped forward.

Kaji waited a few moments to make sure the Russian woman was good and dead. Satisfied, he moved to search her corpse. She was probably just an insane person (what kind of assassin uses a sword?), he reasoned, but she might have something useful on her.

"Crazy bitch," he declared, clicking the safety on his gun and returning it to his waistband. "Who walks around with a sw-"

Before he could react Nadia's corpse lurched and her sword lashed out at his legs. The angle was bad and the attack didn't have much speed or force to it, but it was sufficient to cleave the blade halfway through his right ankle. Crying out it agony, Kaji toppled over.

The blonde woman – very much alive – pounced on Kaji. She brought her sword to his throat, the metal scrapping into his skin for an unwanted close shave, trapping him underneath her. She got up into his face. Her green eyes were brilliant with rage. "You little shit," she cussed. "I was going to make it quick and clean for you. Now I'm going to take my time and enjoy taking your head."

"Let him go, Nadia."

The blonde woman looked up. Kaji, the pain in his ankle oddly dull (shock, he told himself), strained his muscles as he twisted his head around as much as he dared with the blade digging into it. He had just enough maneuvering room to make out the owner of the strangely familiar voice.

The newcomer was a Japanese man dressed in a NERV uniform. His build was average but he was slightly taller than the average man. It took Kaji a moment to recognize him, despite his familiarity. Kaji never thought of this man as anything special, just another schmuck punching the clock at NERV. But the man he saw now, brandishing a katana in one hand and wearing a coldly determined expression on his face, was nothing like the easygoing long-haired dude he had treated to a beer once in a bid to find a new source of information on the inner workings of NERV. This man was a warrior.

"Really?" Nadia brushed a stray hair out her eyes and tucked it behind her left ear. She kept her other hand (and the sword it held) firmly fixed against Kaji's neck. "And why would I do that?"

"Two reasons, Nadia." Shigeru Aoba tugged at his collar. "The first is that he's a newbie, and I know you're not one of those bottom feeders who take the heads of those of us who've just turned. I taught you better than that." Using one hand, he unbuttoned his pale beige NERV uniform jacket and shrugged it off. Aoba tossed it onto a nearby crate. All he wore above the waist was a black undershirt that hugged his finely toned muscles. "The second reason is that if you take his head I'll take yours before you've recovered from the Quickening."

Kaji rolled his eyes back to see that the blonde was smirking. Kaji could tell, however, it wasn't backed by the absolute confidence she sported against him a moment ago. "Not exactly honorable of you, sensei. Would you really kill a defenseless woman? A woman that loved you all those years ago?"

"Yes."

Nadia sighed, then smashed the butt of her sword against Kaji's forehead. Pain and stars swam over his vision. When he recovered he looked up to see yet another unexpected sight in an increasingly bizarre day.

Aoba and the blonde woman were saluting each other.

"Sensei," she said.

"Captain Fedorova," said he.

"I'm retired," Nadia replied, lowering her salute. She placed both hands on her broadsword's hilt.

"And I'm a First Lieutenant."

She laughed. It was surprisingly light-hearted. "I'm shocked, sensei. I'd heard you'd given up on military life after what you saw in Nanking. That you'd squirreled yourself away in that monastery."

Aoba smiled. "What can I say? The Second Impact changed a lot of things."

"But not this."

"No."

The two opponents began to circle one another in the cramped alleyway, swords at the ready. Kaji recognized the look in their eyes. He'd seen it in the eyes of men he'd fought to the death, who knew that if they lost the fight (and they always did) that there'd be no tomorrow for them. It was a look of absolute seriousness, of perfect concentration, of peace.

"Mister Kaji," called out Aoba, still circling, "are you alright?"

"Crazy bitch tried to amputate my foot," he said flatly, his good humor exhausted.

"I think you'll find you're better now," said Nadia.

"You damn near cut it off! Look at i-"

He glanced down. The cuff around his right pant leg was in bloody tatters but the ankle's flesh itself was fine. Kaji twisted the foot around. It moved perfectly. There was no pain. "What the hell?"

"God," chuckled Nadia, as if his confusion was the funniest damn joke in the world, "was I ever that young?"

"Yes." Aoba stopped walking. "Mister Kaji, don't interfere. The Rules are quite specific that these fights have to be one-on-one."

"Don't bother, sensei. He won't be around long enough to learn anything important. Neither will you be around to teach him. God, I've dreamt of this moment for over a century and now it's finally happening. I finally get to take your head, sensei. I knew the rumors were true about this city!"

"Nadia," said Aoba, "there's more going on than you know in Tokyo-3. That man over there? He could be the key to stopping Keel's Third Impact."

"Don't dirty this moment with lies!"

"Na-"

The Russian woman didn't give Lt. Aoba any more time. Instead she sprang forward in attack that left Kaji dizzy trying to follow it.

Aoba parried.

In fact, by the time Kaji registered that the NERV tech had parried Nadia's attack the pair were already many many moves and countermoves into the sword battle.

The ringing of steel on steel helped Kaji to decide that maybe it was best if he stayed where he was on the ground. If Aoba was defending him, fine, but that woman could clearly cut him down if he tried to run. Besides, Aoba had mentioned Keel Lorenz and his Third Impact, which was… interesting.

The fight between the two went on for five straight minutes. Neither fighter ever slowed, ever appeared to tire from the intense exertion. And their attacks! Kaji had never seen anything like them, not outside f/x heavy wire-fu movies. How could two people not even Kaji's own age move like that? And even if Kaji drew his gun he wasn't sure he could hit the blonde Russian without hurting Aoba.

Not that it mattered. Easygoing Lt. Aoba ran the blonde through with his katana. When he pulled his blade out at an angle some of her guts followed. Nadia fell to the ground, coming to rest on her knees. She dropped her broadsword and clutched her abdomen, trying to keep the rest from spilling out even as the flayed meat dribbled through her fingers.

Kaji got a good look at the two fighters. Despite their awesome endurance both looked like hell. The blonde heaved as sweat poured down her face. Aoba didn't look much better.

The long-haired man drew his katana back for a killing blow. Then he hesitated.

"Do it," urged Nadia, clenching her stomach. "DO IT, GODDAMN YOU!"

Aoba beheaded the kneeling woman.

Lightning exploded from Nadia's corpse, arcing out in bolts that shattered nearby windows and rattled the concrete pavement under Kaji. The NERV technician raised his bloodied katana over his head and hollered. The lightning spraying out of the Russian's corpse flowed into him, along with an otherworldly white mist that appeared as if from nowhere. After a few moments it was over. Aoba fell to one knee, gasping for air.

Kaji just stared, his mouth hanging open.

"Huff. Huff. Huff." Aoba raised his bowed head, the sweat-drenched brown locks falling away from his eyes, and he looked over at Kaji. "Wow. I'd forgotten what a kick that was." He stood and shuffled towards the prone spy. Kaji noted the technician sported several wicked crimson cuts on his arms and legs. They didn't seem to be bleeding enough, though. "We need to move. There's no way the MAGI didn't pick up that energy surge."

Ryoji Kaji eyed the katana in the technician's right hand. "Okay, care to explain what the hell just happened?"

"I can tell you a little now, but then we gotta hustle." Aoba offered him a hand. Kaji debated a moment, then took it and pulled himself up. "Where would you like me to start?" asked the long-haired man. "With her?"

"Sure, sure. Or, you know, we can start with you absorbing the lightning that exploded out of her headless body."

"That was a Quickening." Aoba tucked a strand of hair behind his left ear. "By taking Nadia's head I received all her power and knowledge. What she was, I now am as well."

"Rrrright," said Kaji, wondering how best to drop the sword-wielding man standing in front of him and run like hell without getting gutted.

"Nadia was an Immortal like me," added Shigeru Aoba. "And like you."

Ryoji Kaji blinked. "Huh?"

Aoba grinned. "Mister Kaji, how would like to expose SEELE, stop Third Impact, and save the world?"

That Kaji could understand. "Tell me more."