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The Sin We Can't Swallow

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The assignment goes wrong in every way possible; the only saving grace in Eric’s eyes being that Aaron Cross hadn’t been lost in the massacre.  Two soldiers were dead and others injured, he knew from the reports.  Byer only knows that Aaron isn’t one of the dead because of the beacon still active in the operative’s flesh.  If Cross dies, that signal is snuffed out along with his vital signs; the invasive tracker was part and parcel of his signing on to Project Outcome.

Eric Byer’s feet hit the ground running before his Jeeps even comes to a stop.  He sees Aaron in the alley up ahead, preparing to load his gear in the back of an old truck to get the hell out of Dodge.  Eric moves toward the man without looking around at the devastation that he had ordered.

His only concern is the man that had carried out the orders.

“Cross,” he says to draw attention to himself even though he knew Aaron would have been aware of his presence before Eric’s feet even hit the ground.

 “With all due respect, sir,” Aaron says with an exaggeration on the ‘sir,’ “now is not the best time.  Twenty minutes this place is going to fall apart.”

“I’m aware of that.  I’ll take the chance,” Eric says, not caring what his choice of words might reveal to the other man.  “We need to talk.”

The soldier ignores him, lowers the tailgate and deposits his sniper rifle on the back of the truck before shrugging free from the straps from the pack on his back. 

Eric had earned degrees for Psychological Operations and Field Management from the Air Force academy, curriculum now dressed up as majors like Behavorial or Political Sciences and Military Strategic Studies.  He had fast tracked through his service career to retire young as a Colonel.  Those things alone had earned him a great deal of respect from peers and betters while making the lesser rank and file snap to immediate attention to strive to impress him.  Since his retirement, Eric had forged with shadows, making deals and decisions for the betterment of his nation.  He had made enemies and allies while his skill with navigating the murky world the CIA functioned in; the respect he received from his peers and betters quickly became fear as they realized his capacity for learning, retaining and using all manner of secrets.

No one ignored Eric Byer.

His rank and title dictated that he receive immediate attention from most any military personnel in the field; his personality demanded that he always be acknowledged.

That Aaron, the one man he had sometimes allowed himself to think of as a friend, was ignoring him confirmed Eric’s worst fears.

The other man was still alive, but Eric had lost him.

“I need you to stop what you’re doing and turn around,” he says with all the calm he can muster as Aaron throws his pack on the truck.  “That’s an order.”

There’s no immediate and compliant ten-hut to follow the command.

Aaron closes the tailgate and grips it for a moment, straining against his training and his emotions until Eric thinks the other man will disobey.

“We got screw on the intel, ok? Nobody knew that those people were in there,” he says, his actual attempt at explanation finally bringing the other man around to face him.

Eric Byer explains himself to no one.

Actions are justified to him for pardon or punishment; he has not risen as high as he has as quickly as he has by rationalizing to anyone.

Aaron knows this.  Aaron knows that Eric does not apologize or regret.  Aaron has to know what Eric’s being there meant.

”It would be perfectly normal for a person to have doubts about the morality of what we just asked you to do.”

“Is that a question, sir?” the soldier asks, shoulders tense with aggression to keep them from slumping with defeat.

It isn’t a look Eric would have ever expected or wanted to see on the other man. 

He knew little about the Private Ken Kitsom that had died to enter the Outcome project that Aaron Cross had emerged from, but he liked to think he knew Aaron.  Till then the man had been everything Eric and his government had hoped to achieve with these projects like Treadstone, Blackbriar and Outome.  A dedicated, faithful, strong and biddable supersoldier. 

He’d been perfect.  Fierce, deadly, precise and quick in carrying out his assignments yet retaining a measure of humanity that had drawn Eric against his will. 

Aaron was a smiler, laugh lines forever framed his eyes and mouth as if a grin has just passed or was about to light up the man’s face.  He’d offered light and warmth in a world the world of grays and shadow; cold and distrust that Colonel Byer served in.

There is no trace of that warmth in the eyes that refuse to meet Eric’s.

“No, it’s not,” he finally answers, taking off his dark sunglasses to look the other man in the eyes.  “Tune in to what I’m trying to say to you.”  Because if you can’t get back with the program, I will have to kill you and you cannot make me do that.  Please, do not make me do that.

Aaron looks away from the unspoken plea that Eric knows he has shown the other man with his eyes.

“Do you know what a sin-eater is?” he wants to shift to put himself in front of the wall that Aaron is staring at with such determined blankness.  “Well that’s what we are,” he continues at the man’s head shake to indicate he didn’t know the lore.  “We are the sin-eaters.  It means that we take the moral excrement that we find in this equation and we bury it down deep inside of us so that the rest of our cause can stay pure.  That is the job,” that I never wanted you to have to do.  “We are morally indefensible and absolutely necessary.”

Aaron’s eyes meet his then and Eric sees the boy; the lost teenager that had virtually sold his soul to join the military just to find some place to belong, some function to serve in his miserable life.  He wants to shield them from this; that boy and this man, but it’s too late.  It had been too late the moment the mission came down the pipe and Eric realized that Aaron was the only operative in place to carry out the objective. 

“Do you understand?” he hardens his stance and girds his defenses against the man’s vulnerability. 

Aaron is clearly lost as an ally, but they had to keep him as an asset.  Eric has to preserve the man’s dedication to the cause.

“There is nothing that you wouldn’t do for this country,” he reminds the man.  You’ve already died for it once, Eric adds for himself.  “You have the strength to do what is necessary.  I need you to push this down, all this that just happened and do your job.”

“Will that be all?”

Aaron addresses the question to a point above Eric’s left shoulder.

Eric stares at the man and knows that he has seen the last of the Aaron’s smiles aimed at him; heard the last joke and husky laugh, looked for the last time into those eyes that sparkled with an innocence afforded to the other man by his blind faith in the program. 

Fortunately for Aaron, Eric sees before him a soldier that would continue to follow and obey because Ken Kitsom was dead and Aaron Cross had nowhere else to go, but now it was all just a job.

They had never asked nor told, so perhaps a job is all that it ever would have been between them.

“Stitch that up,” he orders briskly, fighting the urge within to reach out and check the wound oozing blood into the left side of Aaron’s tee shirt.  “Put you on a plane to Yemen leaves in seven hours.”

“I’ll be ready.”

His eyes meet Eric’s then and the period is put to the end of what might have been between them.

Eric swallowed the knot in his throat and turns away without another word to the man, vaguely hearing the soldier climb on the back of the truck.

He looks for the first time at the carnage that he has asked Aaron to suppress and curses when he sees the tiny little hand of a baby poking out from beneath the dead weight of its mother’s body.

He puts his sunglasses back on to shield his thoughts from others and casts a glance back over his shoulder at the convoy beginning to depart.

And for thy peace I pawn my own soul, he recites the end to a prayer long ago learned in relation to the sin-eater lore. 

If he could erase this from their lives he would, but all the redacting in the world would not blot out this event.  He has more skill and experience at suppressing these horrors than Aaron, but even Eric knows that this is something that will come back to haunt him in more ways than the obvious.