Summary: Zack gets his tattoo removed, circa "411 on the DL."

AN: Ever since catching this ep on DVD, I've been curious about Zack's *other* tattoo-not the barcode, but the Chinese character on his arm.

Warning: I consider this fic completely AU after 411. It may (and probably does) contradict information we learn about Zack in later episodes, since I quit watching after S1 back in the day, and I'm just now checking out the DVDs. Hell-for all I know, his tattoo was explained on the show and I missed it. Please forgive any resulting continuity errors (but if you know what the tattoo means, please drop me a line).

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Removal

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"In case you've forgotten, we're not at Manticore anymore." Saying-no, yelling-those words at me is like throwing something hard against a wall: nothing sticks. We're not at Manticore anymore. Everyday, I remind myself of this, and everyday, I forget.

They say the X5s are flawed, and sometimes I think that as their leader, I must be the most flawed of all of them. The real weakness, though, is not the need for tryptophan or the seizures or the bizarre mating behavior. The real weakness is the inability to grasp one simple idea: we're not at Manticore anymore. Without the little white pills, I seize. Without Manticore, I short circuit.

What does a soldier do when the mission is complete, and there's no one left to give orders? What does a soldier do when all the kids- agentsoperativesassasins-have been checked on this time around, and there's nothing left to do but lay low and stay out of trouble?

Sometimes I sit in the world and can't breathe, feeling like a limb grafted onto some foreign body. Sometimes I feel that I grew up so used to being chained to the bottom of Lydecker's pool that I should be breathing water and choking on air.

I nearly do choke as I enter the smoky tattoo parlor and wait, checking out the place, making sure of the exits again even though I've already staked it out a dozen times in preparation for this moment. Eventually, a woman beckons to me, and I follow her finger and sit in the dark chair at the end of the room.

"You're sure about this?" she asks, looking at the back of my neck, and I nod. In the mirror, she smiles, and I see suddenly that there is a big gap between her teeth, as if something has been removed. And of course, something has-as I look at her teeth, I can almost visualize the row of introns and extrons and the piece of DNA that got left out before she was born to make her look exactly like this right now.

I smile back at her for a full ten seconds before I realize what I am doing.

She's pretty, I think, and that's a strange thought, not only because I'm thinking it, but also because she's so openly flawed. She's young but slightly overweight, her skin uneven; her hair overdyed. She could never be an X5.

For once, this thought calms instead of disappointing me.

When she begins, pain wires down my back, but I stop its movement quickly, compartmentalize, and then it is only a contained sensation deep in my brain, filed away along with similar undesirable memories of feeling. I achieve this by concentrating on other things. Usually it is something to watch; some movement in the sky; a red balloon floating up to the sun. Now, strangely, indoors, it is the way her hand brushes through the hair at the nape of my neck; the way my whole body shivers as I watch her flawed face twist in concentration over the top of my spine.

"Are you okay?" When her fingers slide through my hair, there is a split second when I think I am seizing. I try to nod, but my body has decided that it doesn't like taking orders. It's cold and I'm sweating, and now I know it's got nothing to do with the seizures. I wonder what Deck would say if he could see me now.

Suddenly, there's a resounding noise outside the door, the needle jumps, and no amount of concentration can spare me from a sensation like a drill in my neck. Someone is coming inside.

In a movement born of training; in a movement that comes before thought, I rip her wrist away from my spine and flip up my collar. Her fingers are still spasming by the time I slam open a book filled with Chinese characters and point to one in the middle.

"That one," I say in a tone that brooks no argument, and she understands when I rip the right arm of the jacket from my shoulder, showing her my bicep. She flinches a little. Of course she understands. I was trained to make myself understood. She has the needle in her hand before the door opens, and the color is already moving inside my skin when the man in the sector police uniform enters the room.

"Let's see your license," he tells the older man standing behind the counter. As he takes a look up and down the room, everybody in the place gets visibly restless. I can feel the mess on my neck burning underneath my collar.

"If I may have a moment, Sir-"

The tattoo is already taking shape on my arm. I can see it in the mirror in periphery as the first blow falls. The policeman hits the older man in the face, and I can see the girl grimacing (her father?) but her fingers don't stop for a moment.

Her hand is hot on my arm, and I wonder if she can feel the throbbing; the low pulse that goes all the way from my shoulder to my head. When I lean against the chair, my shirt catches the drop of sweat that falls from her chin. The upholstery sticks to my back. Her hand is shaking, but she goes on, clutching my arm tightly with the other hand as negotiations escalate down the hall. The proprietor's license is starting to look suspiciously like a stack of green paper, and his face is a sickly shade of red.

It looks like my finished tattoo.

"How much?" I say, barely moving, though the men in the front of the parlor are so loud now that it hardly matters. Her hand, warm and close, flexes convulsively over my elbow as if to hold me there. But she is not expecting me to do anything. She doesn't know what I am capable of. She is simply afraid, and I'm right there under her hands.

"Forget it," she whispers back, disconnected, her eyes focused entirely on the scene ahead of her, so I don't bother to go through the pain of attempting to nod again. I'm sure this won't get any further than a few punches.

I'm pretty sure.

I peel my back away from the chair and her hand slips from my arm. It's only when I am back on the street in the rain, looking at my tattoo, that I realize I've got no idea what it means.

As my neck throbs; as number 330417291599 stitches itself slowly back together under the blood beneath my collar, I am glad for one mark whose meaning I don't know.

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