Fandom: Dark Angel

Pairing: Gen

Rating: PG-13

Warnings: self-harm

Archive: Ask

Author: Lily Zen

Notes: Written for fic_promptly on dreamwidth. 'Dark Angel, Max, back in Manticore, back in uniform.'

Disclaimer: Not mine.

There's something about a uniform that strips a person's identity from them with far more effectiveness than anything else that Max had experienced. All the tortures devised never hurt quite so much and with so little effort as putting on those goddamn gray fatigues did. One minute she was Max…standing strong against the oppressive force of Manticore, locked in a tiny, glass cage refusing to break even as they wheeled in her brother Zack and made her look upon the horror he'd become, the unspeakable atrocities that had been forced on him all because he'd wanted to save her.

Why? Why? She wasn't worth the sacrifice.

However, she remained unmoved. She didn't break under the weight of her own guilt. She stayed Max despite their wishes to the contrary.

Then came the clothes. An innocuous looking pile on the end of her cot in the gray-walled prison cell that she was now expected to live in. A gray cotton t-shirt folded into a neat square, and the tri-colored camouflage pants peeking out from underneath it. Her provided underwear was as utilitarian as everything else: white briefs and a white sports bra and white socks to stuff into her matte black combat boots, which were lined up perfectly next to the cot on the floor.

She knew she was expected to wear them. The plan was to release her into gen pop, assign her to a unit to train with. Renfro thought she was tamed, or at least scared enough to be compliant. Max was going to have to dress like everyone else if she wanted to blend in. She was already at a disadvantage once they knew she was an escapee, an 09er. The only option for survival was to convince everyone that she was just the same as they were. Homogenous. A cog in the great war-machine that Manticore had created.

Max hesitated, staring at the uniform from the opposite side of the cell like it had the power to jump up and attack her, like it could erase her.

Approaching cautiously from the side, she picked up the t-shirt between her thumb and forefinger, letting it unfold in the air as she lifted. It was just a t-shirt, just spun cotton woven into a textile that was then cut and dyed. Taking a deep breath, Max put down the shirt, and removed the open-backed hospital gown. It pooled on the floor at her feet. Reaching for the undergarments, Max struggled into the sports bra. There was a time when all she'd worn were the breast-compacting garments, but Original Cindy had taught her to appreciate the more decorative side of underwear. She still wasn't into all the frills and lace that some girls were, but Max definitely was done with utilitarian.

The shirt followed the bra in a natural progression, but once the hem brushed her thighs Max froze. Standing there with her hair still tucked underneath the collar, she fought against the inner pull, the demon that tried to lure her into the darkness, into memories of her childhood before the escape. It wasn't always bad, it wasn't always torture and killing and brainwashing. There were good memories that she forcibly subdued, that she held down by their wrists and hips and anything else that provided a handhold, pinned so that the things she recalled with the most clarity were the awful things. Those were the memories that kept the monster at bay, kept her from sinking into complacency while she was captive in the belly of the beast that was Manticore.

"Hurry it up!" A guard shouted through the tiny slot in the door.

She almost flipped him off, but stopped herself at the last second. He had the power here. They had the power…to hurt her worse, to re-indoctrinate her, to beat her until every bone, every muscle, every tendon was bruised and torn and broken. Better not to fight them. She had to survive until…until…what? Hope of escaping at that point was dwindling. The longer she stayed the more she observed. Security was a lot tighter than she remembered it being, and for one X5 trying to make a break for it the odds were nearly impossible.

She could have calculated just how far-fetched it really was, but the idea of having an actual number of how not-probable her escape was…well, it was just too depressing.

So Max turned her back to the door and the guard leering through the peephole, and pulled on her provided underwear.

The pants were next, and she tucked in the shirt, put on the belt…

With every item she felt more and more of herself slip away. Gone was the leather-loving, motorcycle riding, cat-burglarizing Max Guevera. Someone else was emerging to take her place, and she wasn't sure yet if this person was someone she liked or not.

She sat on the bed to pull on her socks and boots, remembering to tuck the ends of her pants into the tops of the shoes. They liked that crisp appearance.

When the last lace was tied, she stood up and moved automatically so that she was at attention.

She didn't need a mirror to see what she looked like. She already knew.

She looked like 452: a soldier, a killer, an animal on a leash made of duty and discipline.

"Max," she whispered under her breath, "My name is Max. I'm MAX."

Abruptly, her gaze began to blur with tears of frustration and rage. The loss of herself was devastating. She had built Max from the ground up, defined her, refined her with every day, every moment that she spent free of Manticore. Max was freedom. Max was Self. Max was the shield to keep the automaton at bay. Now she was nothing. Just a number, a barcode. Reduced to so much meat held together by bone and skin whose only purpose was to obey. She was little better than a dog.

Reaching up, she grasped her own forearms, shaking slightly to hold it all in, to keep from making a sound that would attract attention.

The screech of metal on metal announced that the viewer was closed.

Her nails dug into her flesh, and then desperation coalesced into thought, and thought into action. High up under the sleeve of her t-shirt almost on her shoulder, she scratched, gouged, worked at the skin until she was gasping through her nose to hold back the sounds of her pain. Finally when it was done, when she could take no more, when she worried that the blood would seep through the cotton, 452 ran her fingers over a work of art. There in her skin was her identity. It would scab over and eventually fade away, but for now it was enough.

In bloody red furrows, she knew what it said.