An unattainable goal: to write 22 little drabbly things of varying length, from varying universes/realities, about those fantastic captains of industry, CEOs of Extensive Enterprises, the one (two) and only Crimson Twins? Unattainable?

Probably, knowing my habit of writing once a decade or so. (-_-)

But regardless, my attempt begins here. This takes place in the Sunbow universe, sometime in season two, following an incredibly badly executed Cobra plot (as opposed to the other kind). Xamot has taken quite a bad injury, but the next phase of the plan requires both twins to be up and around. Of course, Cobra Commander turns to Zartan to fill in as the missing half of the duo.

Warnings: Angst, severe injuries, mindfuckery.


The master of disguise threw his makeup brush down in disgust, and grunted an enraged, echoing grunt.

"This isn't going to work."

Tomax, relieved at the opportunity to exercise his stiffened facial muscles, shot Zartan a patronizing but hollow and exhausted smirk.

"To think, if only you had listened forty-five minutes ago when I said those exact words to you, we could have spared ourselves all this aggravation."

Zartan gritted his teeth and studied his reflection. On the surface, he had constructed a pitch-perfect mirror image of Tomax, right down to the perpetually amused and condescending brown eyes. He practiced a few of Tomax's facial expressions, a few of his gestures.

He had them down.

He had all of it down.

He had Tomax down.

He did not, however, have Xamot down. Not even close. And his mission, ill-considered as it was, was Xamot.

Zartan turned to Tomax, and could see in the eyes of his mirror image that Tomax was well aware of those failings (Though Zartan did appreciate the unconscious little jump as Tomax realized that he had severely underestimated the ability of the chameleon; for the first time, Tomax was genuinely looking himself square in the face).

Zartan spoke irritably,

"An artist is only as good as his materials, Brother Number One. Now, as you can see, I could pass for you, probably even better than you could." He mirrored Tomax's smirk and the air took on a chill as he continued speaking, in Tomax's voice, "Suffice it to say, my skill is not in question here."

It wasn't, but the lone twin was certainly not about to admit it.

Zartan continued,

"However, if I am going to pass as Brother Number Two, I will need to see Brother Number Two."

Zartan took careful note of the way Tomax stiffened. He took on a posture that was at once aggressive and vulnerable. It was the posture of a brown-eyed puppy who had already grown accustomed, in his short life, to being kicked regularly and biting back. World-weary, vicious, but still raw and innocent. Fiercely protective, yet resigned.

And at once, Zartan realized with an artist's frustration that he hadn't quite succeeded in capturing that little exhausted droop in Tomax's eyelids. The fatigued droop that came from trying to stay calm but not too calm, alert but not too alert.

One man literally trying to live for two.

Tomax shook his head briskly.

"Out of the question, Zartan. My brother is in no condition to deal with you."

"Deal with me? Now, that stung," Zartan exclaimed in his own voice. "Anyway, who's saying he would be dealing with Zartan?" he added in his flawless Tomax voice, sending an inaudible but yet deafening message:

I could replace you completely. I could take everything you are and duplicate it so that Cobra, the world, even God himself would never be the wiser. Would your brother even know? It wouldn't matter. I could replace him, too.

The twin's fists clenched, and Zartan unconsciously clenched his own fists. Adjusted his own posture to match that of Tomax. He suppressed an ironic laugh, because the longer he stood with his muscles tensed in just such a way, the more he became very aware that he almost certainly owed his continued existence to the fact that Tomax was forced, in that moment, to keep his blood pressure down at all cost. To avoid unnecessary acrobatics. To be calm, at all cost.

Well, not all cost. The cost was very clear, and quantifiable.

But their shared stance was a fighting stance, and Tomax's was one honed to lethal perfection over the decades. If he struck, it would be a killing strike.

Of course he couldn't strike. But Zartan would have been a complete idiot to assume he wouldn't strike.

So Zartan shifted back into a neutral position, and then a passive one.

We're all friends here.

Tomax's voice was strained and higher in pitch than usual when he spoke, indicating anything but friendliness.

"You are an execrable monster."

Zartan shrugged. He had been called far worse.

"I won't have you jeopardizing his recovery with your—"

Zartan's hands flew up.

"Now, wait just a minute! Be reasonable here. I won't be jeopardizing anything," he said in his own voice. "I just need to see him for a minute. Just… see him."

"Why? Damn it, just use me. It doesn't have to be perfect."

"And if I use you, it won't be perfect. It won't be right at all, it won't even be close. No, I can't use you. You're too different!"

Tomax was genuinely taken aback, startled right out of his aggression.

"Too different?" he repeated.

"Don't tell me you've never noticed," Zartan said sarcastically.

Tomax was silent, and Zartan simply smiled.

Oh.

No one else ever noticed, did they, Brother Number One? No one else ever took the time to notice. How sad.

Zartan had noticed because it was his job, his specialty to notice. And that put him in an entirely different category all of a sudden.

It made him somebody who understood. And accepted.

It gave him something of an upper hand, and oh, was he ever going to take advantage of it.

That ego. That bruised, battered, torn little ego. He wants me to tell him how different he is from his brother. How special and unique he is. He wants it. Look at that poor wretch. Oh, I've got to give him one.

"And I'm not just talking about the scar, of course."

Putty. Brother Number One is putty. But he doesn't want to be.

"No?"

"No." I'll give him two. "Or the voice."

"Then what-" go on, say it, "then what"—no, you won't. You won't admit you need this. But, well, I've been generous enough, Brother Number One, generous enough for now. Generous enough for a lifetime.

With infinite patience and a calm whisper of a voice, Zartan said,

"Now, you tell me, is he conscious, is he awake? Can he speak?"

Zartan paused, swallowed. Pried out something almost like respect.

"Right now?" he clarified. It tasted like bile. It acknowledged the special nature of Tomax and Xamot's abilities, acknowledged his understanding, acknowledged, in a small way, his own special abilities.

None of it was lost on Tomax.

And Tomax stared at him, long and hard. He knew he was being played, tested, but he wasn't sure if the situation was tolerable or not. Wasn't sure if there was a way to turn it to his advantage. Wasn't sure if it was worth the risk.

Zartan had a brief recollection to what must have been his own childhood, though he couldn't have been sure. He had seen, analyzed, even "lived" ten thousand childhoods, each one very much like the last. Always pain, always fear, always regrets, often giant, roaring, authoritarian adults who couldn't handle the "strange" children, and who passed them on to their quieter counterparts, who were more subdued but even less trustworthy.

This time, he recalled, in a flash, an adult who couldn't be trusted, but who could be played.

An adult woman with curly, flaming red hair. An adult who asked tentative questions in a gentle, sterile voice. Questions about the voices, and the sunlight.

"Can you change right now? Could you change right now if you wanted to, sweetie? Could you change into me?"

Pride and shame all mixed into one.

"I could change into you if you weren't so old, fat and ugly."

And the LOOK on her face! He had laughed for hours. Adults were always so touchy about how they looked-

A flash and it was gone. Zartan wasn't sure why it had come in the first place, but it brought with it a pocket of insight, and he was suddenly quite sure that Tomax and Xamot's childhoods had been full of similar, if not identical experiences, because of what they were. It couldn't be helped. People didn't understand. Couldn't understand.

And had they played the system? To be sure. They still played it, every day of their lives. Everything was a game to them. Had to be.

And now, they had made an unacceptable play. A play that had come very close to killing one of them, and leaving the other one to pick up the scattered game pieces. Zartan didn't know the specifics; didn't care to know. But he had gotten bits and pieces from the flapping jaws of the Crimson Gossip-hounds, and he knew that it didn't look good for Brother Number Two.

But it looked fine for Brother Number One.

Which seemed, Zartan thought with a bit of a frown, to be something of a pattern with those two. At least if the scar was any indication.

A strange game indeed.

Zartan, of course, was playing a game of his own, but his idea of a victorious endgame was far more flexible than that of the twins. As long as he came out on top, he didn't care what he was on top of.

So he would change his tactic, and let them think they had him where they wanted him, where they needed him.

Just for a little while.

He could understand them, accommodate them. It was all part of the game.

Tomax shifted uncomfortably under the long silence, favoring his outwardly undamaged left hip and leg. He sighed loudly.

"He's awake, now. Of course he's awake now, after all of that." He leaned against the wall, suddenly overcome with pain and exhaustion that were not his own. "Damn it. Damn it. I should have-"

Zartan turned away and pulled off his Tomax mask, discarding it on the floor. He would start completely anew for Xamot. He faced Tomax as himself, with his arms crossed across his chest.

"Listen. You have my word—" Zartan began, but Tomax's mocking laughter cut him off.

"Your WORD, Zartan? I have your word? No, you may as well keep that; I know what it's worth."

Zartan shrugged. Good point.

"Fair enough, brother number one. But nevertheless, I give it. I give you my word: Xamot will be unharmed. I only need to see him for a minute. You've seen how I work."

"Oh, yes, I've seen how you work," Tomax spat.

"Yes. I am very efficient."

And I understand you, don't I? And you can't resist that. Go on. Go on, do it.

A long moment of silence, and then all at once, a flurry of activity.

Tomax shot his Crimson Guardsmen a glance. A brisk nod, and a quick flick of his wrist.

In an instant, five of them surrounded Zartan, guns deployed. Zartan "tsk"ed with disbelief.

"Oh, now, is this really necessary? We're on the same side!"

Tomax's dark eyes presented a strong argument to the contrary, and Zartan let it go.

The game was getting to be an awful lot of trouble.

The seven of them entered the medical bay, and, led by a practically sleepwalking Tomax, headed for Cobra's surprisingly competent ICU. Medical staff froze in place at the sight of them, and Tomax irritably waved them off as they approached Xamot's room.

They reached a closed set of automatic double doors, and Tomax barked orders in his smooth, authoritative baritone:

"You and you, guard the door. You, you and you, come with us."

He turned to Zartan with a glare, which Zartan was strongly tempted to return… but it was all part of the game!

The doors whooshed open; Tomax took a deep breath, tried to calm himself, and crossed the threshold into the spacious, well-furnished hospital room.

Of course the hospital room was spacious and well-furnished. Tomax and Xamot had paid for it themselves, and their sophisticated touch was all over it. It was big enough to accommodate a dozen wounded in any ordinary hospital, furnished with lovely chairs, sofas and paintings, and wide open floor to ceiling windows.

And a host of medical equipment. A symphony of beeps and pulses and little clicks. And all the tasteful décor in the world couldn't make the room anything other than what it was: a depository for the almost-dying.

In any event, Zartan was grateful for the fact that it was after dark, because such a room in the daylight would have been completely bombarded with sunlight, and therefore impossible for him to enter.

The lights were off, and the bed in the center of the room was positioned just so, that Xamot was in dramatic profile, backlit by the large full moon. His inevitable wide but careful smile split his face, and he spoke in a strained, damaged but deeply amused voice.

"Well, what have we here? You know, you could have just brought me flowers, Brother."

Tomax's attempt to be calm was forgotten in an instant, and he roughly pushed past Zartan and the Crimson Guardsmen, crossed the distance of the room, and silently dropped down into a crouch at his brother's bedside.

"Messy," Zartan said aloud.

The twins shared a long stream of all but inaudible whispers, punctuated with pats and caresses.

Zartan tapped his foot impatiently and shot the impassive Crimson Guardsmen a frustrated glance. One shrugged in reply.

That's just how they are.

Several more seconds passed, and it was obvious that the twins were sharing a ride down a cascading river of emotion. Two laughs, identical in cadence and pitch. More whispers.

Whatever was going on, it was taking forever. And Zartan knew that he probably should have taken more of an interest in how they behaved together, but there were times when he just couldn't even. And this was one of those times.

And so finally Zartan could take no more, and he cleared his throat loudly and stepped forward. The Crimson Guardsmen had their guns to his back.

"Brother Number Two, how nice it is to see you alive. As much as I hate to interrupt this cozy little chat, Brother Number One and I are a bit pressed for time, you see, Cobra Commander expects us back within three hours."

Tomax whirled his head around and shot Zartan a look of rage, but a moment later, Xamot's bandaged hand cupped his brother's shoulder. Still, it was clear that now Zartan had two people who wanted to kill him, and they were the ones who could and would give the order.

Still, when Xamot spoke, it was in a quiet, almost personable voice:

"Yes, yes, of course he does. What can we do for you, Zartan?"

We. They instantly became we. And when they were together, suddenly their differences seemed more subtle, all but disappeared. Suddenly the two were one. One entity, one damned strange entity.

Look at them! They even breathe at the same time! Oh, this was going to be hard. This was going to be ridiculous.

But ridiculous or not, it had to be. So Zartan came closer to the bed. The CGs followed him.

"I'm afraid this call is business, not social. I need to borrow your face."

The twins shared a glance, and Xamot nodded.

"Yes yes, I suppose you do. Well, I welcome you to try."

I, not we.

"It would happen regardless of whether I had your consent, but thank you. Brother Number One, if you would," Zartan waved a dismissive hand at Tomax.

"If I would…?"

"Go somewhere else." Zartan took an exasperated breath, "Where I can't see you?"

A long moment of hesitation.

Yes, yes, I know what you're thinking. "You just said we were too different, now you're saying we're too similar?" Yes, Brother Number One, and both are true.

"It's alright, Brother," Xamot said too loudly, too deliberately.

Tomax took his sweet time stepping aside, and he eventually took his place behind Zartan, looking over the chameleon's shoulder like an impatient child, ready to strike a killing blow if necessary.

Keep that damned blood pressure down, Brother Number One. I don't want this one dying before I get a chance to figure out what makes him tick.

Xamot too-graciously reached over and switched on the light. Clean, sterile fluorescent light flooded the room, muting the moon and stars overhead, and putting all the focus on the broken mirror lying on the too-luxurious hospital bed.

With a sickening little emotion that Zartan tried desperately to interpret as amusement, he realized why Tomax didn't want him to use Xamot. For a brief moment, in fact, Zartan considered turning around and giving up entirely. Talk about something which wasn't going to work.

He felt his stomach turn.

An artist is only as good as his materials. Well, someone had spilled his paints on the floor. Stepped on the tubes. Torn up the canvas. Smeared it all into an indefinable mess. There was literally nothing recognizable that he could work with.

Bandages, covering innumerable burns and cuts. Deep blue and purple bruises. Devices he didn't recognize, probably courtesy of Destro or Mindbender, wired in to arms and legs.

An explosion, one of the CGs had said? More like three.

And not a scratch on the other one. They had been deployed on the same mission. He knew that. They had been in the same place at the same time. Always were.

Zartan kept his expression neutral, and two bloodshot brown eyes peered up at him from a hideously swollen face. The mouth was in there somewhere, and it split into another smirk.

"Well, then… Borrow away," Xamot said with a giddy, light little laugh.

A laugh which Tomax echoed. Their laughter bounced off the walls and hit Zartan like a thousand little needles.

Everything was funny to them. Everything.

Zartan had to look away. He could no longer keep his expression neutral.

He was creeped right the hell out, to be sure. But not necessarily by the situation; but rather, by his reaction to it. The way he felt, the things going through his head could not be reconciled with any known Zartan behavior or line of thought.

Acknowledgment of weakness and vulnerability, but no desire to exploit it.

An oxymoron if ever there was one.

He felt… how the hell did he feel?

Bad?

Bad didn't cover it. He felt sick. Unstable. He had gotten into something dangerous here, and it might have been time to pull out. Cobra Commander's bombastic wrath be damned.

Not every game is winnable.

Tomax may as well have read his mind, and he leaned over and looked Zartan square in the face.

"Are we done here?" he asked wearily.

He told me so.

Zartan turned around.

Both twins were in his line of sight now, and their differences were more pronounced than ever; couldn't help but be. To look at them now, you wouldn't even know they were twins if not for the way they behaved.

The way they behaved.

A slow blink.

Which hadn't changed, had it? Which would likely never change.

And there were other things that hadn't changed, other physical things that hadn't changed, couldn't change, despite the injuries and the weight loss and all of the... god. But the way Xamot carried himself had not changed, even when it wasn't him doing the carrying.

Xamot had been Tomax's mirror in terms of physical strength and power. But he had also been more delicate in his own way. Even while laid up in bed, blown half to hell, that was still apparent. With all of his might and brute strength, the man was almost absurdly graceful. Zartan would have to carry himself like a goddamn ballerina.

Zartan shouldered Tomax aside, needed to test a theory. With an ungloved hand so gentle he hardly recognized it as his own, he reached across the bed and, with the very tips of his fingers, stroked the least damaged part of Xamot's face, just above the right cheekbone. He murmured a bit, just vocalized nonsense, as he noted what was left of the expensively smooth skin and the very tip of that telltale scar.

Tomax's skin had felt the same, of course.

Almost.

Zartan took a second, with those guns pressed cold and hard against his back, to imagine the intricacy of the twins' skin care rituals. Exfoliants, emollient creams from strange exotic islands with hefty price tags. Complete spa treatments, steams, elaborate and bizarre procedures performed at unheard of expense with one single goal in mind: Staying Pretty.

Xamot sure took a loss on THAT investment.

And of course they used the same products at the same time in the same way… didn't they?

No!

Zartan cocked his head and locked eyes with Xamot, and another of those sweet little thoughts flitted into his subconscious like a long-forgotten dream.

Under the bandage was the rest of the scar, which up until this point, was the one glaring imperfection on Xamot's face. (Ironic that now it framed the only unmarked area.) Thick, protruding, curving, eminently noticeable. The first thing anyone noticed. Where had that thing come from, and with all of the twins' money and resources, why didn't he have it removed?

Why didn't he have it removed?

Why did he (is that possible) apply skin cream around the scar, exfoliate around the scar (really?), deliberately maintain a flawless, creamy canvas except for that rough, frayed, awful looking tear?

So people could tell them apart?

The hell with that. They can tell each other apart. No one else matters. They've made that abundantly clear. Everything they do is for each other.

Except one is completely blown up and one is fine. Something doesn't add up there, now does it? Seems almost like everything they do is for Brother Number One.

Which wasn't true. Which couldn't be true.

But even while laid up in bed, blown half to hell, possibly closer to oblivion than anyone present could fathom, Xamot's thoughts were entirely on his pristine twin. The one who had escaped without a scratch while his twin took the fall, and not for the first time.

Might be... a little bit true.

With Tomax breathing down his neck, he let his hand linger a little too long in a show of what might have been misconstrued as admiration and a hint of sympathy for Brother Number Two. He would, of course, go to his grave denying any such feeling.

Then he smirked.

"Piece of cake. Yes, I think we're done here."

The brothers shared a long look.

"If you say so," Xamot said lightly.

"You sound doubtful, Brother Number Two. Doubtful of my ability to become you."

"I have every confidence in your ability to look like me, mercenary. But that is as far as it will go. Tomax and I are..."

"...One of a kind," Tomax finished with too wide a grin.

"So I have determined," Zartan smiled far too kindly.

Possibly the most hollow checkmate of his life.