Disclaimer: I don't own GI Joe
*A couple of notes:
This is a very different piece than anything I've written before. I honestly don't expect many reviews, but it was something that I wanted to do. What you see below is a writing exercise that addresses psychological and philosophical issues.
Also, a character named Williams is mentioned in this fic. This character was created by willwrite4fics and is borrowed with her permission. Even in this story, Beach Head can't get rid of him.
This story was inspired by a quote from Zhuang Zi, which I have utilized throughout this piece.
Also, I'd like to thank TinySprite and willwrite4fics for offering suggestions during the brainstorming and writing process.
Butterflies in the Mirror
"Once upon a time, Zhuang Zhou dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased."
Tick. A clock hand moved a fraction. A pair of eyelids twitched. Lips parted as the sleeper muttered something incoherent. The hand on the clock moved again.
"As you can see…"
"…dear Cobra Commander…"
"With a little economic incentive, the fringe military factions in Borovia are ours to do business with."
Two men, both identical twin brothers, sat businesslike next to a man in blue. It was the seat of power, of control. Billionaire CEOS of a multinational corporation and the financial powerhouse behind Cobra, the Crimson twins had but to move their fingers to influence world events.
They hobnobbed with diplomats, business men, actors, terrorists, generals, and models. Nothing was out of their reach.
Tick. The sudden shrill noise of an alarm jolted the sleeper from his dream. A man wearily blinked his eyes open and peered up at the ceiling. His mind foggily drifted back to reality as it struggled to parse the dream from the waking world.
"Lying there will accomplish nothing, brother. You do not wish to be late for your appointment."
"Maybe I just want to lie here, Xandre," the man groaned. He stretched his aching shoulders and threw off the bed sheets. A pair of feet padded quietly into the nearby bathroom. Hands dipped into the cold water and splashed his face. He looked up into the mirror. The reflections of a thin man in his mid-fifties stared back at him. Grey hair lined the edge of his brown temples, while stress related wrinkles made him appear slightly older.
There was no other reflection in the mirror, no other physical presence in the small house.
"Don't look so grim, brother," the voice in his head jested. "After all, what's the worse that your new shrink will say…that you're crazy?"
"He's already more or less said that," the man replied in French. "As did the last one."
"Ah…C'est la vie then."
"You're the model of moral support, brother."
"Ah, Mr. Paoli, it's a pleasure to see you again." A tall, bald man with a mustache smiled and held out his hand. Thomas reluctantly shook hands with his newest psychiatrist. His previous one, Dr. Kenneth Rich, had referred him to a specialist in "dissociative identity and schizoid personality disorders." He wasn't so sure he was ready to trust a new therapist, regardless of how much Dr. Rich had recommended him.
"Of course, Dr. Bender," he replied quietly. The bald psychiatrist continued to smile at him, which did nothing to put him at ease. In his dreams, his current shrink had taken on another persona, one much less benign than his "real" counterpart.
Thomas silently followed Dr. Marcus Bender as he pondered what was "real." To him, his dreams were far more real than the life he was living in. Often, he felt more like he was going through the motions and viewing the man known as Thomas Michel Paoli from a distance, rather than taking part in things. He existed in a sense, but he wasn't alive.
Dr. Bender gestured towards a comfortable psychiatrist chair. Thomas hid a sigh and lied down on the piece of furniture. He folded his hands over his chest and tried not to visualize a corpse in a coffin. The psychiatrist opened up a folder and pulled out a pad of paper. Soon, the inevitable questioning once again began.
"How has work been?" the psychiatrist asked, holding a pen to his paper. The bald man gave him a supportive, yet professional nod. Thomas didn't hesitate to answer. The shrinks often took hesitation to mean that you were lying or that something was wrong.
"Fine," Thomas answered. "The Commander is working on a new contract for the company."
"Yes, the 'Commander,'" Marcus Bender continued. "He often appears in your dreams, yes?" Thomas shifted uncomfortably. The 'Commander," or Mr. Kessler, was the head of Extensive Enterprises. An old war vet, the man was known by his former rank by most of his associates. He seemed to prefer it that way.
"Yes," he answered after a moment. "Except…" Thomas trailed off and left the sentence unfinished. Dr. Bender waited a moment before prodding him.
"He is known as 'Cobra Commander' in your dreams, correct?" the shrink asked. Thomas Paoli nodded. The psychiatrist scribbled something onto his notepad.
"And…your company, you make car parts?" Dr. Bender asked him. Thomas nodded again before talking about his company for a few minutes. He knew that the shrink already knew all of it, but he would use any tactic to stall unwanted questions.
"Yes," he answered. "We made parts for the military in WWII, but Extensive was converted back to a car company in the 1950s. The Commander has been trying to expand our products the last few years to be more competitive on the market."
"But your company's rival, Flagg Industries, was able to keep some of its military contracts, yes?" Dr. Bender asked.
The next ten or fifteen minutes was spent on questions regarding his work place. How did he get along with his coworkers and boss? Did he like his job? Was there anything about his job he didn't like? Did he have any friends among his coworkers?
"And some of these people you've interacted with, they have also appeared in your dreams?" the psychiatrist persisted. Thomas tried not to shrink down into his chair. He nodded his head.
"Tell me about them…"
"I…I don't really remember…they're just dreams…" Thomas stuttered, trying to stall. He was lying, of course. He remembered most of his dreams…perhaps because his dreams were more "real" than the world he was living in. The shrinks called it his fantasy world, where he escaped to in order to avoid the problems in his life.
Marcus Bender saw through his act. The bald man intertwined his fingers and leaned forward slightly to give him a stern look. Thomas held his breath and waited. This wasn't real. It was all just an illusion that someone named Thomas was living. The real world, the one that really existed, was just beyond his eyelids when he went to sleep.
"Mr. Paoli…Thomas…." The psychiatrist rebuked gently. "I am here to help you. I cannot do that if you lie or withhold information." The other man sat back in his seat again and picked up his pen. "Now…tell me about these people, please."
Thomas closed his eyes a moment. Images of familiar men and women popped into his inner sight. He opened his eyes again and slowly, reluctantly began to feed the shrink pieces of information. He gave names and basic descriptions: Cobra Commander, Destro, the Baroness, Hawk, GI Joe… However, Thomas kept much of it back. He gave the shrink enough to be satisfied, without giving too much of his inner world away.
"And do I appear?" the psychiatrist asked curiously. Thomas hesitated a moment and then damned himself for hesitating. Never hesitate. With great reluctance, he told the other man that he had appeared…and that he was known by the name of Dr. Mindbender.
"Dr. Mindbender…." Marcus Bender mused, chewing on the edge of his pen. "Interesting. I like it."
"You're a mad scientist," Thomas offered. The psychiatrist's lips twitched slightly in amusement before settling back into a professional mask of sympathetic interest. He scribbled some notes onto his paper. Thomas tried not to feel panicked by the scritch scratch of the pen.
"Are you still hearing voices, Mr. Paoli?" 'Dr. Mindbender' asked. Thomas blinked his eyes. No, he was Marcus Bender. Dr. Mindbender was just the man in his dreams…in the dreams that were so real. They looked and sounded the same, but they were two different men.
They belonged to two different worlds.
"Thomas?" Dr. Bender prodded again. ""Are you still hearing voices?"
"….No," Thomas lied. The psychiatrist raised a knowing eyebrow, seeing through him once again. Thomas Paoli wilted slightly before quietly answering 'yes.' When the shrink asked him if it was his "brother," Thomas only nodded his head. No one believed him of course, which is why no one other than his therapists knew.
And even they didn't believe that the mysterious Alexandre "Xandre" Paoli existed.
"Have you ever seen Alexandre?" Dr. Bender asked. Thomas shook his head. Only in his dreams, only in his sleep…except recently. Recently, he had been catching images of his missing brother just on the edges of his vision, at the corner of his eyes. However, Xandre had yet to appear physically.
Just his voice. Always his voice.
"You were an only child, correct?" Dr. Bender asked. Thomas nodded his head and answered that as far as he knew, he had been. Of course, he was secretly convinced that his mother had been pregnant with twins, and that his brother had died in the womb or as an infant. That happened sometimes.
Of course, telling the shrinks that Xandre was really his missing brother's spirit talking to him was sure to get him sent to a crazy center. And so, Thomas played along with the psychiatrists. According to them, his brother was just an illusion of his disturbed mind.
"Let's go back to France, shall we?" Dr. Marcus Bender suggested. "I suspect that your current problems are a result of psychological trauma you endured during the war. You were born in Normandy, correct?"
"Tell me about it."
Normandy, France. June 1944
A young teenager huddled in the burnt out remains of a barn. He wrapped his arms around his knees and prayed that his hiding place wouldn't be sprayed by the heavy artillery that was currently being flung between the retreating Nazi forces and the incoming Allies.
Everything smelled of death. For the last few years, this area of Nazi occupied France had witnessed death, bondage, and war. Now, even more corpses littered the burnt out remains of buildings, forests, and farm fields. His parents and the rest of his family lay among some of the corpses. Some of them had been shot months before for resisting the Nazis.
Airplanes zoomed overhead. Young Thomas Paoli shook violently as he waited for the long nightmare to pass. Men shouted outside, but the scared boy was unable to determine if they were shouting in English or German. Barely fluent in English himself, the son of French farmers continued to hide among the rotting decay.
The boom of artillery died down slightly, but still Thomas huddled, half hidden among bits of straw. His nostrils stung from the smell of war and occupation. The boy's mind reeled as he finally dared to peek above a stall door. Several shadows moved near the entrance of the barn. Thomas ducked back down and tried not to breathe loudly.
"This isn't me, this is happening to someone else. This is all just a bad dream."
He tried willing himself to wake up, but the nightmare continued. Tiny movement in the corner of his eyes made him jump. Thomas barely managed not to thump his head against the stall door. Heart pounding in his chest, he slowly turned his head. A small butterfly was resting on a nearby post. The teenager stared at it, wondering how something so fragile had survived the current hell enveloping France.
Thomas continued to look at it and temporarily forgot about the soldiers lurking around outside the barn. He leaned forward and held out a finger to the insect. The butterfly's wings moved back and forth gently. A single touch of his finger, however, spooked the insect. It flew away and left the frightened boy to the mercy of his nightmare.
There was a loud crack of wood as a heavy boot kicked open the stall door. Thomas screamed and held his arms over his face. Tears rolled down his face. This wasn't him. This was someone else. The nightmare was happening to someone else.
"Ah fuck, it's just a sonavabitchin kid, not a dirty Kraut," a voice drawled. The teenager didn't understand the heavily accented English, but somewhere in his terrified mind, he registered that it wasn't German. He lowered his hands slightly and looked up.
A tall, heavily built soldier was staring down at him. He clutched a gun in his hands. Thomas stared at it for a long moment and wondered if he was about to be shot. There was a frustrated sigh. The man knelt down next to him, but angled his body so that he could watch the rest of the barn.
Thomas tried to bring himself under control, but his body continued to tremble uncontrollably. The unknown soldier stared at him a moment before his hard expression softened slightly. He pointed to himself.
"American. Ah'm American, do you understand?"
The teenager slowly nodded his head. The other man's English was hard to understand, but he recognized the word 'American.' Thomas watched as the soldier unstrapped a canteen and held it out to him.
"Water," the man told him. Thomas hesitated a long moment before taking the half full canteen into his shaking hands. The American patted him on the shoulder. Encouraged, the teenager took a long sip of water.
"Good kid," the American said, but Thomas didn't understand him. The soldier peeked out from the edge of their hideout.
"Grunt, report," the soldier ordered with a bellowed command. Another voice answered him, but Thomas again didn't understand most of what was said. He thought that 'Grunt' reported that things were clear, but he wasn't sure. The teenager took another sip from the canteen and handed it back to the American.
"Merci," Thomas said quietly. He thought hard for a moment and tried to remember the English equivalent. "Th…thank you," the boy added.
"Where are your parents?" the soldier asked. Thomas looked at him, trying to decipher what was said. The soldier sighed again and turned his head to bellow at his men once more.
"Where's that damn medic?" the man shouted. "I need him to check over this kid. The runt speaks French better than Ah do anyway."
Within seconds, a slight man with dark brown hair was bending down next to Thomas. The teenager gaped at the medic, as he'd never seen anyone move that fast. The other American gave him a quick, but thorough exam before looking up at the bigger man.
"He's fine. Other than being malnourished and dehydrated, there are no major wounds."
The other man nodded and said something to the medic before wandering off. The smaller American helped Thomas to his feet and walked him out to the open section of the barn. There was something very calming about the man.
"Who…who are you?" Thomas stuttered in French. The American made him sit while he dug through his medic pack. Finally, he pulled out a small ration and handed it to the teenager.
"My name's Ed," the medic replied in accented French. "Here, eat this. We can't spare much, but this should help."
Thomas took the offered package, but struggled to open it. His empty stomach roared with hunger. The boy had eaten very little in the last few days, but was only now realizing it. The gentle medic took the field ration back and opened it with an expert tear. He handed it back.
The teenager gratefully tore into the meal. Normally he would have found it repulsive, but food was food. The medic told him to eat it slowly, but within seconds, the boy had already inhaled the whole ration. The other Americans snickered at the medic's efforts.
"Leave him be, the kid probably hasn't eaten much in a long while," another American said. Thomas's ears picked out the words "kid" and "eat," but didn't understand the rest of the sentence. The medic replied with quick English before turning to translate it into French.
"They told me to leave you alone and I said that it would have been better for you to eat more slowly," the medic sighed. Thomas looked over the soldiers, who were resting wearily in an on guard position. The apparent leader of the group, the one who had found him, showed no visible signs of fatigue. However, when Thomas had first looked him in the eyes, there had been great a hint of tiredness inside.
"How…how long…" the teenager started to ask.
"Just a few minutes," the medic replied, still using French. "Our sergeant is giving us a ten minute break before we continue. The Nazis are retreating back towards the Seine, but they're still fighting hard each step of the way."
"What about me?" Thomas stuttered. The medic turned his head and addressed the sergeant in English. A strange mixture of pity and indecision crossed the larger man's face before it hardened again into a battle mask. The American shook his head and replied with his strangely accented English. The medic's shoulders slumped slightly before turning to look at the boy once more.
"I'm sorry," the medic answered honestly. "But we can't. This is a war zone. You're actually safest right here. Do you have any family?" Thomas shook his head and replied that they were all dead. The medic relayed his response in English. All of the soldiers stared at the French teenager with pity
"Fucking Nazis," someone swore.
"I have nowhere to go," Thomas added. He looked up at the slender medic with pleading eyes. Couldn't they take him away from this nightmare? While he was looking at the medic, the boy noticed with a start that there were no weapons on the man. When Thomas asked about it, the medic gave him a sad smile.
"I'm a pacifist," the American replied. "I don't believe in fighting. I heal people…that's my duty."
"B…but…." Thomas stuttered, trying to understand. He had heard that the Americans were all warlike…plus…how could one not carry a weapon in a war zone? The boy couldn't imagine wading through enemy fire without a gun to defend himself.
"I have plenty of defense," the medic smiled. He indicated the burly sergeant with a nod of his head. "Him? He's practically a damn beach head. At least half of our guys would have run when we landed on Omaha Beach, but he kept us all going. It didn't matter that the Nazis were slinging everything they could at us. Besides…" the medic added somberly. "I didn't have time to fight anyway. I was too busy helping our wounded."
Another soldier asked a question. The medic replied back and the two men exchanged a few sentences before the American looked back at the kid. He translated yet again for the boy.
"That was Williams," the American medic told him. "He said that Sarge may be a damn beach head, but I'm the lifeline of the group." He paused a moment before saying something under his breath in English. Thomas didn't understand it. However, the man seemed a bit doubtful about something.
The American medic didn't say anything else for a couple of minutes. His mind seemed preoccupied, so Thomas didn't want to interrupt him. The teenager was too busy worrying about his own future. They couldn't leave him alone like this. His heart started to speed up again. Panic began to return.
There was a sharp bellow of orders, causing every American soldier to bolt upright into ready position. Thomas hadn't understood the words, but understood the meaning. It was time for all of them to go. It was time for him to be left alone in the wilderness again.
"You should come to America," the medic told him, pulling his medic pack back on. The American patted him on the shoulder. "There's not much here for you, I'm afraid."
Thomas watched silently while the American soldiers waited for orders. The burly sergeant looked at him for a moment and asked something. The medic translated.
"What's your name, kid?"
"Thomas," the boy answered. "Thomas Michel Paoli."
The army sergeant nodded his head and reloaded his gun with fresh ammo. He and the medic exchanged a long look before they looked back at the boy. Both men seemed reluctant to leave him. Thomas felt a flash of hope, but it was dashed a moment later.
"Good luck in the world, Thomas," the medic told him. "Stay safe."
And with that, the Americans were gone. Thomas Paoli retreated back to his hiding place in the barn. He huddled amongst the straw and waited.
Thomas blinked his eyes as he came out of his memories. Nearby, Dr. Marcus Bender was still scribbling away at his notepad. The fifty-six year old silently waited for the psychiatrist to say something. While he waited, his mind tried to recapture the image of the Americans who had helped him in war torn France. It was so long ago, yet it seemed like yesterday.
"If you gaze into the abyss," Dr. Bender muttered under his breath. "The abyss gazes also into you."
"What?" Thomas asked. The psychiatrist gave him a faint smile.
"Friedrich Nietzsche said that," he replied. "And I think it's relevant to your case. I believe your dissociation with yourself, your ego, so to speak, began in Normandy. Your desire to escape the tragedy of your life resulted in the creation of a fantasy life and your 'brother.'"
Thomas said nothing. His brother was real. He knew he was.
"Speaking of your 'brother,'" the shrink continued. "Can you tell me more about the two of you in your dreams?"
Thomas Paoli stared down at his hands, unwilling to talk about it. In his dreams, he and his brother were different men…more powerful and influential men. Whenever "Tomax" and "Xamot" twiddled their fingers, things happened. People listened.
"We're always together," Thomas said quietly. "We were born in Corsica in poverty, but worked our way up in the world. We're….they're the CEOS of Extensive Enterprises, a multinational corporation."
"Interesting," Dr. Bender mused. "It's not a simple car parts factory?" The psychiatrist rubbed at his chin a moment before looking at his watch. "We have twenty more minutes left of your session today, Thomas. I'd like to spend the rest of the time talking about Tomax and Xamot."
Thomas closed his eyes a moment. He wasn't lying in a shrink's office. It was a man named Thomas, but it wasn't him. Somewhere, behind his eyelids, the real world was waiting. A better world.
He opened his eyes again and began to talk.
"He didn't know he was Zhuang Zhou. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuang Zhou."
Xamot's eyes shot open. He blinked them, but the ghostly image of an older man in a psychiatrist's office continued to haunt him. That man, who looked so much like an older version of himself and his twin, had been speaking with a man who had looked uncannily like Dr. Mindbender.
He blinked his eyes and again and looked over at Tomax. There was similar confusion on his twin's face. Through their telepathic link, Xamot realized that they had both been dreaming the same dream. Tomax seemed unsettled by it as well.
"That was…" he started to say.
"…strange," Tomax finished. "Why do we keep dreaming of that man?"
Xamot didn't have an answer for his brother. It was true that they often shared dreams. There were times, however, that only one of them would dream of the traumatized Thomas Paoli. Those dreams often left both of them unsettled. However, Tomax would always dismiss the dream after a short time and forget most of its contents. Xamot, however, never forgot.
How could he? In that world, he was just an illusion…the figment of a lonely, delusional man's imagination. "Xamot" didn't exist, except as the mirror of Thomas. He wasn't his own man. That thought greatly disturbed the scarred twin.
"Don't worry about it," Tomax reassured him. "It's just a stupid dream."
"Is it?" Xamot asked quietly. "Then why do both of us keep dreaming of a world where I'm just a figment of your imagination? Where I'm just a reflection of you?"
His brother raised an eyebrow. Tomax thought about that for a while, but didn't have an answer. Xamot couldn't help but think that the strange dreams were a manifestation of their subconscious thoughts. But if that was the case….
The younger twin shook his head to clear his thoughts. He didn't want to continue that line of thinking. Tomax was right; it was just a stupid dream. It was nothing to get worked up about. There was absolutely nothing to be concerned about.
"How do we know that's even supposed to be me?" his brother finally asked him.
"What kind of question is that?" Xamot asked. "That's….that's our 'real' names…the ones that no one else knows." Thomas and Alexandre had been the real names that their mother had given them, but both men had dropped their "Christian" names in favor of their current codenames. After all, shouldn't twins have similar names?
Although…the irony of it all was that the original meaning of Thomas in Greek was "twin."
Tomax stared at him a long moment before shaking his head. The older twin stretched his muscles out before pulling on a shirt. He looked at Xamot a moment before heading out of their shared bedroom.
"It's just a stupid dream, brother," Tomax told him. "You're reading too much into it."
Xamot quietly sat in his bed. The distant hum of the shower did nothing to settle his unease. Unlike Tomax, who so easily brushed off the dreams as superstitious nonsense, Xamot couldn't help but believe that they meant something.
Was he just a mere reflection of his brother? Or even a block to Tomax's development? In that dream, the phantom Alexandre was preventing "Thomas Paoli" from being able to engage in real life. Perhaps he was holding Tomax back?
Those possibilities haunted him for the rest of the day. When he finally lied back down to sleep that night, those thoughts had begun to turn slightly darker. What if everything was just an illusion? If so, what was real and what wasn't?
Xamot closed his eyes. He tossed and turned until sleep finally overtook him.
"I don't care if you have doubts about Mr. McCullen's newest brake system," a woman said. "It passed the minimum safety tests. It's cheap and we've done business with the man before."
Thomas opened his eyes. The dream wouldn't go away. No matter how much he wished he was at a different Extensive Enterprises, here he was…a lowly, mid-fifties man at the bottom of the totem pole. He shifted his gaze and eyed the dark haired woman glaring at him. Her eyes narrowed slightly and she pressed a finger to her glasses to push them up.
"Are you even listening to me?" the woman barked. Thomas nodded his head at his section boss, Ms. Anastasia "Stacy" Cisarovna. The beautiful woman, the daughter of Austrian emigrants who had fled the Nazi regime, didn't tolerate any sort of insurrection…not even constructive criticism.
Especially not constructive criticism from those whom she deemed beneath her.
"Of course, Ms. Cisarovna," Thomas told her, lowering his eyes slightly. The woman gave a hmph. There was a sharp click of heels as she gracefully walked in the other direction, feeling no need to further attend to a questioning employee.
"I hope she trips in those heels."
"Hush brother," Thomas muttered quietly. He looked around to see if anyone noticed him. Deciding that it was better not to speak aloud to his invisible twin, he switched to mental communication. After all, Alexandre seemed to have no trouble understanding him that way.
"Why?" Alexandre continued. "You're right. There haven't been enough safety tests on it. What if McCullen's brake system fails? You'd think Extensive would spend the money to test it, even if only to prevent potential law suits…let alone the fact that people's lives could be at stake."
Thomas debated how to respond that. He busied himself with filling out inventory sheets and tried to ignore his brother. However, Xandre continued to press the issue.
"What do you want me to do?" Thomas finally asked silently in exasperation. "This company has given me everything." And it had, too. When he'd finally moved to the United States as a young man to escape Europe, Extensive Enterprises had been willing to hire a new citizen with then limited English. Because of the Commander, he'd been able to build a new life for himself, a life that included a steady income and benefits.
"You have a point brother, but still…" Alexandre trailed off and was silent for a time. Thomas used the silence to concentrate back on his work.
It had been hard, unbelievably hard to adjust to American society. It didn't help that American society had changed tremendously since he'd first set foot on its soil. First it had been the Soviet scare and McCarthyism. Then the Sixties had come, complete with moon landings and the Kennedy assassination. Then the Seventies. Now it was the Eighties…
A flash of pink drew his attention. Thomas looked over at the source of it. A young woman sporting short cropped pink hair and a biker jacket was busily typing into a computer. She noticed him looking and waved cheerfully at him. Thomas faked a smile and waved back.
Zoe Natraz was a nice kid. The younger sister of another company employee, she was working part time at the company to help pay her way through acting school. He'd heard that she had a twin brother as well, but Thomas had never met him.
"How're you doing, Mr. Paoli?" she asked. Zoe always called him Mr. Paoli instead of Thomas. Sometimes Thomas wished she would use his first name. Other times, he was glad that despite her appearance and the drastic changes in social norms, she still respected age enough to use "Mr." and "Ms." for her elders.
Her older brother, on the other hand, had more contempt for social niceties…except when he was required to use them. The elder Natraz worked as a company plant in Extensive Enterprise's rival company, Flagg Industries.
"I'm fine, thank you," Thomas replied. "How is school?"
He tried to listen while Zoe chattered on about her acting classes, but Thomas felt his mind drifting. It all seemed so unreal, so disconnected. The young woman's voice inched in to the background. A flicker of movement drew his attention. Thomas watched as a tiny moth flitted across the office spaces. Just like a butterfly.
A hand slammed down on the moth, smashing the insect into the wall. Thomas flinched.
"Nasty things, moths," a voice complained. Mr. Kessler, 'the Commander,' rubbed his hands against his pant leg. The Korean War veteran, a former car salesman, had worked himself up in the world to become the CEO of Extensive Enterprises. His life story, in fact, was one of his favorite motivational speeches.
The Commander looked over at him and offered him a reassuring smile. Mr. Kessler placed a hand on Thomas's shoulder and patted him.
"Don't worry Thomas, I didn't mean to surprise you," Mr. Kessler told him. "How was your appointment this morning?"
"…Good," Thomas told him. His boss was the only one who knew he was seeing a psychiatrist. Any other CEO might have fired him, but Mr. Kessler had kept him on. In fact, the Commander often did that. The head of his security was a Japanese-American Vietnam veteran. Thomas Arashikage was well liked by the rest of the company, even though he had a tendency to play practical jokes.
Speaking of the other Thomas…
"Umm…" Thomas Paoli stuttered quietly. He wasn't sure how to ask this, or even if he should. However, he hadn't seen the Asian American for days. Seeing as the man was rarely sick, it suddenly seemed odd.
"I was just wondering…" he started to say, but Zoe suddenly beat him to the punch.
"Hey!" Zoe Natraz suddenly exclaimed. "Where's Tommy? He hasn't been here for days!" She pouted slightly. Thomas somewhat suspected that she had a schoolgirl crush on the former soldier.
Mr. Kessler's face darkened into a deep shade of red. Thomas was suddenly grateful for the young woman's brashness. Usually it made him a bit uncomfortable, but today it saved him from asking a question that the Commander apparently didn't like.
"He quit," Mr. Kessler answered stiffly. "He's working for Flagg Industries now."
Zoe's voice rang over the offices. The small background office chatter halted suddenly. An uneasy silence settled over the nearby employees. Even Thomas felt a bit shocked.
"It's true," the Commander replied, doing his best to hide his anger. "Apparently they offered him better pay and a couple of his Vietnam army buddies are working there too. Tommy said that he was more comfortable working with them."
"But…but…" Zoe repeated. "It's Flagg Industries! Our competitor! And what about your son, Billy? He adores Tommy!"
"You think I didn't tell him that?" Mr. Kessler barked. "I gave that boy everything! I hired him when no one else wanted to hire a 'Jap', even if he was a kid from California and a second generation army Vet."
Thomas silently listened while his boss continued to rant about the desertion of his security guard. After a time, the still fuming Commander calmed down slightly and left. His absence instantly attracted Stacy Cisarovna, who immediately berated young Zoe for speaking out of place with Mr. Kessler. By the time the woman finally stalked off, there were tears glistening in the younger woman's eyes.
"I hate her," Zoe muttered. "Who does she think she is, royalty?"
She ignored Thomas for a while, but he could occasionally hear her sniffing quietly to herself.
"Seriously, Ms. 'Baroness' should trip on her heels," Alexandre offered helpfully. "Maybe we should stick a cockroach in her desk."
Thomas rolled his eyes and sighed. His twin wasn't exactly making the situation better.
The next few hours dragged on, until the dreaded Ms. Cisarovna came back looking for him. The dark haired woman always terrified him, which seemed to tick his brother off. Xandre had no love for the uppity section chef. To the surprise of Thomas, however, the 'Baroness,' as his brother had dubbed her, was accompanied by a red haired young man.
"Thomas," Stacy Cisarova told him, indicating the red head. "This is Fred Ceares. He is Mr. Batson's replacement, so I'd like you to spend the next few days training him."
The red head immediately shook hands with Thomas. There was an eager look on the younger man's face. Thomas nearly smiled at the enthusiasm of his junior coworker. He'd never been able to muster up that kind of energy.
"Fred Ceares, is it?" Thomas asked. "What a pleasure. I'm Thomas Paoli."
Thomas's mood oddly began to improve after that. The new Extensive Enterprises employee was a hard worker and seemed eager to please. Being in the unusual position of directing and ordering someone gave Thomas Paoli an unexpected feeling of power and control.
It was a bit empowering, especially since he was still struggling to get control over his own life.
"Addicting, isn't it?" his invisible brother jested. "Careful brother, or the power might go to your head."
"Hush, brother," Thomas silently warned him. His brother shut up, but continued to laugh good naturedly in the back of his mind. The young Fred didn't seem to notice the hidden conversation. The older man figured that was probably for the best.
Tomax rubbed his eyes and looked up. His brother was sitting nearby in his desk, working away at something. He muttered to himself and sat up. The two brothers were currently sitting in their office at Extensive Enterprises. The older twin, however, had apparently fallen asleep at his desk.
He hadn't realized that he was so exhausted.
"Dream again, brother?" Xamot asked quietly. The younger twin looked at him for a moment with an unreadable expression. Underneath, however, Tomax sensed his brother's inner turmoil through their telepathic link.
"You watched it?" he asked. His twin shrugged and pretended to be unbothered by it. However, Tomax could easily tell that his brother was greatly disturbed by the dreams. For the life of him, the older twin couldn't imagine why. If it meant anything at all, it was that he feared losing Xamot.
Tomax didn't know what he would do without his brother and best friend by his side. Perhaps he would be as lonely as the other Thomas Paoli. However, Xamot was here and had always been with him. The dreams were just a stupid manifestation of his fears of being separated from Xamot, if anything.
Anything else was nonsense.
"Would you stop stressing over them?" Tomax asked his brother. "You're always such a worrywart. They're just stupid dreams."
His brother was silent for a long time; however, Tomax knew what he was thinking. The mere fact that Xamot's "existence" in the dreamworld was a fabrication was troubling the younger twin. Tomax didn't know how to get it through the other man's head that it didn't mean anything.
"We have a meeting with some of our Crimson Guard in half an hour," Tomax pointed out, changing the subject. "We should get ready for that." He carefully put his desk in order while Xamot followed suit.
The younger brother silently followed the older one out of the office.
Thomas stared down at the pills in his hand. They were a new prescription of antipsychotic drugs. His psychiatrist had given him a brief lecture on the drugs and had spent nearly an hour reassuring Thomas that he had nothing to be ashamed of, as sometimes people needed a little help to function. According to Dr. Bender, the drugs would help him to live a more normal life.
But what was "normal?"
Hesitating slightly, he finally swallowed the medication. Walking over the mirror, Thomas looked at himself for a long time. The world still seemed disconnected.
Several days passed and the dreams began to ease slightly. Thomas tried not to feel too disappointed. After all, wasn't that the point of the medication? However….
Three days after taking the drugs, his brother's voice disappeared. Thomas panicked. Rather than feel "better", he felt far worse and insecure. It also couldn't have happened on a worse day.
"Mr. Paoli, is it?"
Thomas looked up into the face of the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. He'd seen her several times before, as Alison Hart-Burnett was the legal consultant for Flagg Industries. She was probably at least ten years junior to Thomas, but the age difference didn't matter so much when you were past thirty.
"Umm….yes…" he replied, trying not to stutter. Ms. Hart-Burnett never failed to make him tongue tied. Alexandre usually helped him gather his courage around her, but since his brother's voice was now silent, Thomas was left to deal with her alone.
"Something wrong?" a smug male voice asked. Thomas sighed inwardly. It figured that the woman of his dreams would have to be accompanied by her arrogant lap dog. The man grinned at him, but Thomas didn't find it the least bit friendly.
Ms. Hart-Burnett jabbed her coworker hard in the ribs. Dash Faireborn immediately shut up and stopped sneering triumphantly at the mild mannered Extensive Enterprises employee. The female legal consultant cast a warning glare at her partner before turning her attention back to Thomas.
"We are looking for your employer, Mr. Kessler," she told him. "We believe that he placed a plant in our company. Our boss, Mr. Abernathy, would like us to speak with him about this."
"Um…of course," Thomas replied. This didn't sound good at all. Not only was his company possibly in trouble, but the arrogant prick walking next to Ms. Hart-Burnett kept turning his head to smirk at Thomas.
"Brother?" he asked silently. "What do I do?"
There was no reply. Panic ran up through his spine. It took all of Thomas's efforts to hide it while he led the two legal consultants to his boss's office. He wasn't sure how well he was succeeding.
Mr. Kessler took one look at the two Flagg Industries consultants before scowling. He led them into a back office and shut the door on Thomas. The fifty-six year old stared at the door for a moment before he turned around and headed back to his small desk. He noticed with chagrin that his hands were starting to tremble slightly.
"Brother?" he whispered. "Xandre…..Xamot?" he corrected tentatively. "Where are you?"
Time seemed to drag on. Shouting could be heard from the back offices, followed by Dash Faireborn storming out. The legal consultant left the building, while his calmer, female counterpart continued to meet with the Commander.
Thomas didn't quite remember how the rest of the day went. A full blown anxiety attack hit him about an hour before his shift was finished. No one else noticed. They were all too busy dealing with their own little worlds to notice the man hyperventilating in the corner.
When he finally arrived home, Thomas Paoli threw his pills in the trash. His psychiatrist be damned. His hands still shaking, the terrified man kept calling out for his brother, who still refused to answer him. Had even Alexandre abandoned him?
Thomas Michel Paoli poured himself a glass of brandy to ease his nerves. He crawled into bed and waited for sleep to overtake him. It was all just an illusion, this was happening to someone else. The real world was waiting.
A man silently stared out of a window. Rain dripped slowly down the glass and pooled at the bottom. It was odd how one simple piece of glass could separate two worlds. Outside, it was dark and wet. The wind was howling. Inside, it was bright and dry.
One thin piece of glass prevented the two worlds from meeting.
Xamot unconsciously ran a finger over his scarred cheek. It was only one single scar, but it was the one thing that separated him from his brother in appearance. One scar, marring what was otherwise an identical copy.
If the man was willing to contemplate it, he might wonder if the scar was a physical manifestation of his imperfection. Perhaps it was a mark that regardless of his appearance, he was an imperfect copy of his elder twin.
The phone rang. Xamot waited for his brother to answer it, but there was no movement. Turning his head slightly, he belatedly remembered that his twin was still asleep, as he should be. The thunder and lightning of the brewing storm had forced him to wake up.
If he was awake.
"Yes?" he asked, finally answering the phone. It was Cobra Commander, demanding to know when the newest batch of Crimson Guardsmen would be ready. Apparently the Joes had just decimated a platoon of regular Cobra troopers, as usual. Xamot yawned.
"Only half of them have received plastic surgery so far," he replied tiredly. "But the rest of them are scheduled to have it done by the end of next week. It will take another week before the behavior modifications are completed."
Rain dripped down the window pane. Movement outside of the window suddenly drew his attention. Xamot leaned closer to find the source of it. He half listened as Cobra Commander demanded that they pick up the schedule.
Outside, just under the eaves, was a single butterfly. The insect had crawled into a nook in an attempt to stay dry. Suddenly pitying the creature, Xamot opened the window with one hand while he listened to the Cobra leader ramble on.
"Are you even listening Tomax?" the man demanded. "Or is this Xamot?"
"Hmm…I'm listening," Xamot muttered, not completely answering the question. He very gently picked up the butterfly and brought it inside. Rain pattered on the inner window ledge and soaked it. Water dripped down to the floor.
"Anyway, I want a new unit by the end of this week!" Cobra Commander insisted. "I don't care how you do it, get it done."
"Of course, Mr. Kessler," the twin murmured, still looking at the butterfly. Its wings opened and closed slowly in an attempt to dry itself.
"…What did you call me?"
Xamot didn't answer, nor did he register the question at all. He set the phone down and stared at the insect. Water continued to hit a thin piece of glass and drip down outside. Inside, however, it was no longer completely dry. Rain dripped down the wall and pooled on the floor. The window had only been open for a short period of time, but it was enough time for the outer world to bleed into the inner world.
Later, when the water dried, there was no evidence that it had ever been wet. The only evidence that the event had even happened at all was a single butterfly, now resting on top of a bookcase.
"But he didn't know if he was Zhuang Zhou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuang Zhou."
Note: Thomas and Alexandre are my own creations for Tomax and Xamot's names. Their real names have never been stated, though Paoli has been used as a surname by them. I theorized that any half way decent mother would never name her children that.