Lin is dead. Or close to dead. It is hard to draw a line between the two. He lies on the floor of the bar. The tiles of it are cool against his forehead, blood still wet and slick on the terazzo.
No one is around to hear him. There are people in the bar, but they are dead. Lin knows this, seeing how still everything is, his own small movements sharp and clear against the absolute silence and stillness of the rest of the bar.
The transmitter in his collar must be broken. No one can hear him, then. They know where he is, but they do not know how badly he has been hurt, how terribly he has been outnumbered. What a miracle it is that he is still alive. How painful it is.
Lin turns his head so that it lies with one cheek against the floor, and he looks at the man who has fallen headlong beside him, gun slipping from stiff fingers. There is, around the man's index finger, a thick pink ring of skin where a tattoo has been removed. Lin turns his head the other way, looks at another man who fell behind a table with his hand fallen outstretched and bullet-torn. There again, a place where a tattoo has been.
He remembers how much his own tattoo hurt, how the plastic wrap placed over it stuck to the skin and burned when he peeled it away; he remembers the silence of Spike, the look in Spike's brown eyes when Spike saw it. He had promised himself not to tell Spike, although he had wanted Spike to see it and approve of it. Perhaps Shin knew this. Perhaps that was why Shin had done the telling for him.
"I'll bet it hurt," Spike had said.
"I like it," Lin had replied.
"It's a little too big. Why didn't you try something smaller, first?"
"I don't want anything else."
"I guess you're not a kid any more, then," Spike had said.
Lin wishes that Spike had said something else. He does not want to remain a child in Spike's eyes forever; he wants to step outside of Spike's protection, so that Spike will never feel concern for his safety again. Wants, in fact, to protect Spike, who is worth the lives of a million men. He has killed for Spike, before; he and Shin, they have done well, extinguishing threats to Spike's life, cutting down unworthy opponents who dared to even dream of injuring Spike. He feels, though, that if he and Shin had not taken out these men, Spike would have had little trouble getting rid of the danger himself.
Maybe now I am truly not a kid any more, he thinks; not even in Spike's estimation. For these men were sent to deal with Spike, and I have cut them down...
If Spike had been here, had seen the way that Lin cut like a diamond-edged knife through the men who came pouring flood-like and heavily armed through the door, perhaps Spike would have known for sure that Lin had grown up. Lin remembers how fine and full and real those few moments had felt, the blood and the adrenaline honing his aim and tightening sinew and speed-jumping muscle; bitter the taste of blood in his mouth, his own, someone else's, his cheek cut on his own tooth, torso bruised from the punch of bullets into the Kevlar underneath his shirt. The heavy material itches now, hot on the sweat on his skin, and before he fell down, he managed to pull it off. He looks at it, lying just a few inches from where his hand let it fall. It is black and grey. If it had not been there, he thought, I would be a different colour now. Red and brown. Mostly red. Dying men do not usually stay long enough to watch their blood dry...
But he is red. On his back, caged in between lines of black and gold, a dragon dances along his spine, and it is the colour of the blood that comes from the corner of his mouth, stains the floor, bitterness mixed with the salt of sweat and the dryness of dust. He thinks of how great Spike is, how the Red Dragon will be in the future when Spike is older and the elders allow Spike greater control, greater power. He is glad that Spike chose to turn left at the door, instead of going through. He closes his eyes. In his memory he is saying:
"I will go with you."
"Then I will wait here for you."
"Why don't you just go back, Lin?"
"I was told to always go with you."
"I don't want you to be with me."
A coldness on Lin's face, in his bones. Spike's hands deep inside blue pockets, the cigarette drooping from the corner of the man's easy-smiling mouth. But Spike is not smiling now. Spike is dressed for travelling, the overcoat's collar turned up over his chin. On the street corner, a woman is selling flowers, their colour bright against the greyness of pillars and pavements of the city.
"I regret being a nuisance, Spike-san."
"You're not a nuisance. Don't talk rot."
"I will wait for you, inside?"
"Honestly, Lin, you live your life so strongly..."
But Spike pauses before he turns away, and Lin sees that his eyes are narrowed, the brows pressed together.
"Maybe that's a good thing."
Lin believes that Spike, too, knows how to live strongly, completely, intensely, making the most out of every second that he is alive, when in the next second he could be dead. It is just that Lin's priority is the Red Dragon, and Spike's priority is something else. Perhaps Spike is talking about those in-between moments, the times in between the running and the killing and the shooting; those moments when, while Spike lights up a cigarette and slouches in front of the television, Lin will take his boken to practice (but more to play) in the park, in the gardens, on the balcony with the city vibrant and pungent and solid around him. He wishes for the feel of his boken now, the grip-bound hilt of the wooden sword better to the touch than the cold handle of a pistol. Wishes for Shin, who would parry and spar with him, fight with a broomstick, a mop handle, spatula and spoon, laughing and joking and jeering.
He wishes especially for Spike, whom he knows is not coming back. He knew this when he started waiting, and he knew that he could have told this to the men when they came crashing through the door. But it would take some time to get away, even for Spike, and so Lin chose instead to protect Spike, give him the time that he needs. It is, after all, what the Red Dragon would want.
They find him, half an hour later, and the light that falls through the open door lights up the dragon on his back. He cannot even lift his head, but Vicious hears him whisper, bends down to listen.
"Where is Spike?"
"He turned left. He was not here."
Vicious rises, turns, leaves. Someone comes over to Lin, lifts him, gentle. Lin does not know this man, except as one of Vicious's Dragons, Vicious's man, as he is Spike's man. They have a stretcher to put him on, and Lin, turning his head to see what is going on, sees the man's hand holding the stretcher's handles. Around the man's index finger there is a tattoo of a small red dragon, twisted into a ring, exquisite in its detail and richness. Lin tries to look at the men whom he has killed, their bodies twisted on the floor of the bar, but they have managed to hurt him too well; his head aches and his neck is stiff.
They are Red Dragons, he thinks. I have killed Red Dragons. The Red Dragon is after Spike. They want to kill him. And I helped him get away.
Lin does not know that in a few more hours, Vicious will hunt Spike down, and Spike will pull off the most fantastic death-fake that anyone has ever tried on Mars. All he has in his mind now are two thoughts, and they will beat alternately throughout his head for a long time:
I have failed the Red Dragon.
I helped Spike-san get away.
I helped Spike-san get away.
It is the first time he has failed the Red Dragon. He will not be blamed for it; very few people were told about the decision to destroy Spike Siegel. But he blames himself, for letting it happen; he also blames himself, because if he had to do it again, knowing now that Spike was wanted, he would.
Lin is dead. The boy who waited in the bar for his mentor to return did not survive, died with his loyalty intact; killed and replaced by the young man who walks out of the hospital when his body is fully healed. This young man says nothing when he carries one of the ends of the empty casket that is used at the funeral; his face still makes Julia think of children, but now also makes her want to turn her eyes away. The child, she thinks, is dead. Lin's eyes, green and narrow, pass over her when she walks by him, and she knows that even if she ever forgets Spike, she will not forget the broken bits he has left behind. Her own heart, his best friend's bitter shell. A boy who will be forever in between the bliss of childhood and the horror of reality, a boy in between the good memories of yesterday and the emptiness of today. The boy fills himself with the syndicate, just as he filled the smooth, pale skin of his back with a red dragon. Julia feels sorry for him, feels responsible. You deserve your own life, she says to him, her mouth shaping the words, rain beating on the umbrella that he holds over her. Dirt in the grass that they step on, water trickling down the gravestones. Everyone deserves their own life, everyone deserves to choose a place where they want to be... She looks up at Lin, knows that he is still in between, in transit. Well, she thinks, so am I. And it is, in a sad and terrible way, good to know that you are not alone.