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here you come with a shield for a heart and a sword for a tongue

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Once upon a time, there were two little boys with identical faces but different smiles. One little boy, younger by eighteen minutes, could smile so bright it lit up the room. The other little boy, smarter by miles, saw everything that was wrong in the world and rarely smiled at all.

The other little boy, the older brother, he saw the way people watched his brother, and he learned to fight. He learned to fight very hard, and he learned enough that he could get them away.

They went into a home, those two little boys. It wasn’t their home. They had no home. And when the people in charge, the ones who were supposed to care and watch out for all the problem children took the older brother away because he was too smart for that place, the little boy with the brilliant smile completely shut down for eighteen weeks – one week for every minute he didn’t get enough air on his way into the world.

And then he woke back up and started channeling his brother. Learned to fight. Learned to lie. Did everything he could think of to follow his brother, but it wasn’t enough. Wasn’t anywhere near enough.

But what he didn’t have in brains, he had in brawns, and eventually, someone came calling anyway.

.

Once upon a time, there were two little boys with identical faces but different smiles.

The older became a spy who couldn’t stomach failure, so he fell back onto his brain. He never told anyone about his brother, dead during war.

The younger let an agency he shouldn’t have trusted swallow him up, kill him, unmake and remake him, and then betray him. He never mentioned his brother, who he hadn’t seen in twenty years except when he looked in the mirror.

.

Aaron Cross is a legend. Only two genius intellects muddying the trail keep anyone not in the know from connecting him to William Brandt.

.

“Hey,” one man with an identical face says to the other, both smiling different smiles.

“Hey,” the other says back.

.

The little boy with the brilliant smile used to follow in his brother’s wake, always asking why but never understanding the answers. He’d wipe away the blood and press messy kisses to bruises, and he’d swear to take the next hit instead, but his older brother never let him.

No, he’d say, shaking his head, looking his little brother straight in the eye, because he never lied, not to him. No, Kenny. I’m older. I’m ‘sposed to protect you, not the other way around.

But, Will, Kenny would protest, looking past him to the bigger boys, all laughing together. You’re barely older.

And Will would stand up, on hurting knees and shaky ankles, and he’d lift his brother up beside him, and he’d ignore all those snickering maggots, and he’d say, I’m still older like that made all the difference in the world.

Until he was taken away, it did.

.

William Brandt had no relationship to Kenneth Kitsom.

Willis Kitsom, though…

But Willis Kitsom died, three days after his brother.

There are two empty graves in Reno, and no one remembers who should’ve been laid there to rest.

.

Will never thought his brother was stupid. Kenny saw the world a different way, that was all. He saw how bright it was, how fun. He saw how everything was connected. He didn’t like to read that much, and studying never helped his grades. He only liked going to school to talk to people and for lunch. Kenny loved talking, and joking, and smiling. He had a brilliant smile.

Will would do a lot of things to keep his brother smiling, and he’ll never regret any of them.

.

Kenny was never jealous of Will’s smarts. Will was always there to explain things, to read those books he loved aloud to Kenny, to make sure Kenny’s homework got done, even if it was nowhere near as neat as Will’s. Will liked learning new things, all these great ideas, and skills, and he broke down as much of it as he could, and even though Kenny never really understood, he listened anyway.

Kenny kept smiling, through the dark times and the hard times, because he knew how much his brother loved to see it.

.

Willis Kitsom tried escaping and returning to his brother a dozen times.

Kenneth Kitsom tried fighting his way out and finding his brother two dozen times.

They both failed, and it haunted them until the day they stood face-to-face once more, smiling identical smiles.

.

Ethan Hunt has never seen William Brandt angry. Neither has Jane Carter, or Benji Dunn. But the whole team is pulled out of an op for a meeting at HQ, and Brandt’s face is splashed across the screens, and the director is demanding answers.

Aaron Cross means nothing to them. Neither does Outcome. But Jason Bourne –

They all know who Jason Bourne was.

Brandt is too still, eyes on the screen, eyes on his own face. He is too still, and he is silent, and Ethan says, “Brandt.”

Willis Kitsom says, “Consider this my resignation, sir,” and he’s out the room before Ethan can move.

He’s out the building and gone before Ethan can catch up.

.

The first memory Will has is Kenny spilling a glass of milk. It wasn’t either of theirs, and Kenny accidently knocked it over, and their father started yelling, and Will jumped in front of his brother, like he would for the next fourteen years, until an entire continent separated them and an army was determined to keep them apart.

The first thing Kenny can remember is his brother saying, be quiet, please, be quiet, he can’t find us, be quiet, Kenny, and blood dripping down Will’s face.

.

“Hey,” Will says, after the door swings open.

“Hey,” Kenny says back.

.

Kenny still likes chocolate milk the best out of anything ever, even wearing Aaron Cross like clothes he can’t take off.

Will still slowly dissects his blueberry muffin, pulling the top away from the rest, and picking the blueberries out one by one, giving Kenny every second one.

Aaron tells him everything about Outcome, and Treadstone, and Jason Bourne.

Aaron tells him that Kenneth Kitsom is dead for good, buried beneath two altered chromosomes and augmented brains.

Aaron tells him that he’s not sorry, not for finally being his equal.

Will flinches, shakes his head, and says, “Kenny, you were always my equal. I was never better than you.”

Aaron’s smile is pure Kenny, and Will knows his little brother doesn’t believe him, and probably never will.

He’ll keep saying it, though, until they’re both dead for real.

.

Benji Dunn finds them three weeks later. Nothing connects William Brandt and Aaron Cross, not even their faces, but Will’s not surprised.

Aaron gives his brother’s team a smile. Will introduces everybody, and his eyes keep returning to his brother, and that deadly, dangerous smile he doesn’t recognize.

He would, if he’d ever looked in the mirror while standing between his brother and the world.

.

Once upon a time, there were two little boys with identical faces but different smiles. Kenny thought everything was an adventure, and he always met the day ready for something new. Will knew the world would eat them up and spit them out, but he’d do anything to protect his brother’s innocence for a little while longer.

Two little boys grew up into dangerous men, and it doesn’t matter if the whole world is after them. Will has scars Kenny doesn’t recognize, because Kenny only exists in Will’s eyes anymore. Will has scars and bruises on his soul, too, and Aaron can do things Kenny never could.

Aaron can burn down the world, and he just might, and Ethan Hunt looks at him like he can’t believe his eyes.

Aaron just smiles at him, the smile his brother wore, every time he got beaten into the ground because Kenny did something stupid.

Aaron just smiles at him, and he looks over at Will, and his brother is smiling, too, like they’re boys again, and if they make it through this, they’ll get blueberry muffins and chocolate milk.

Will doesn’t have to take the hits, now. Kenny’s all grown up, and even if Will is eighteen minutes older, eighteen minutes smarter, Aaron can throw punches of his own, harder and faster, and he’s got so much to make up for.

Will ignores his team, all still agog, and he says, “I’m older. I’m ‘sposed to protect you, not the other way around.”

Aaron’s smile softens into something brilliant, something young, and he says, “You’re barely older.”

And Will laughs softly, missing those easy days so damned much.

Kenny died, and Will wasn’t there.

Will died, and Kenny was gone.

What’s left of them both has been unmade and remade, and Aaron isn’t Kenny except that he is, and Brandt is scared of himself, and he knows he should have kept running until he made it all the way to Reno, no matter how many times those fuckers kept dragging him back.

“It was never your job to keep me safe,” Kenny tells him with Aaron’s mouth.

“I’m your big brother,” Will says, closing Brandt’s tired eyes. “Of course it was.”

.

Aaron Cross is done with government agencies. He tells Brandt’s boss that with a smirk, slouching insouciantly next to his all prim and proper brother, and Brandt doesn’t make excuses for him. Brandt’s calm and collected, and it is obvious to everyone in the room (Ethan’s team, the head of security, a few other people who don’t matter and would die quickly with the rest) that if Cross decides to burn the facility to the ground, Brandt will pour gasoline and light it up.

So, there’s that.

IMF lets Cross go. Brandt goes back to his team.

.

To everyone not in the know, Aaron Cross died in Manila.

To everyone in the know, he’s left alone. IMF keeps the rest of the alphabet agencies away from him; that’s best for everyone, really.

.

Every day is an adventure. Aaron Cross can ask why and understand the answer.

William Brandt will never get tired of explaining.

Their smiles still aren’t identical all the time, but they see Kenny and Will, and nothing else matters.

.

(Will doesn’t have to take the hits. Kenny can hit back harder and faster.

There are two empty graves in Reno, and two little boys grew up.)