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then darkness again and a silence

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Aaron Cross is a weapon, he is his weapon, and Eric Byer takes care of what is his. One way or another.

[we are morally indefensible]

"You don't have to bother with this," Dita says.

Eric nods, agrees. Still, "It will be a helpful experience when things go wrong." Because things will go wrong with one of the beta programs. He has no illusions about it or about the people he is working with.

So he will play handler for one of the program freaks, and he will be close enough to it all to stop the worst when the inevitable happens.

He chooses Outcome at random, he picks Kitsom by sheer luck.

It could have been Treadstone, it could have been Bourne.

But it isn't.

~*~

Kenneth James Kitsom is a wreck of a soldier, a shattered body and a mind that had never amounted to much even before he blew himself up in Iraq. He should never have been in the military, he should never have been near those other men fighting for their country in the dirt and ruins of foreign nations. But he had been, and Eric looks at the remains of that foolish decision with distaste.

"Sir," Kitsom says, a waver to his voice, his eyes nervous.

Eric looks at him, looks at the bruises that still run across his face, a modernist painting of a military mission gone FUBAR.

"Sir," Kitsom repeats. "Will I see the others again?"

The rest of his troop, the ones with injuries that rendered them unusable for the program, patriots most of them, without future all of them.

"No," Eric says.

Kitsom looks away.

~*~

Kitsom is a bad shot, his aim shaky after the explosion in Iraq left him severely injured. It's nothing the scientists and their chems can't fix, and Eric knows that the data that will come from Kitsom's development will help them in the future.

But for now, he watches Kitsom fumble his shots, and it's frustrating, it's annoying, and his voice is sharper with Kitsom than it probably should be. Trust can't be screamed into a person.

"I'm sorry, sir," Kitsom says.

Eric nods. "I know, soldier." He rests a hand on Kitsom's shoulder. "Take a breath, then try again."

Kitsom's answering smile is almost gentle, a toddler grateful for the attention given to him. It will be gone soon enough.

~*~

"Sir?" Kitsom asks, standing in the doorway of the office Eric uses when he is at the training centre. "You weren't at shooting practise."

Eric looks at him, raises his eyebrows. "Did I need to be?"

Kitsom shrugs, his face drawn, and Eric can read his disappointment easily. "No."

"But?"

"I did really good today," Kitsom replies, and Eric nods.

"I'll read it in the weekly reports."

Kitsom looks away, nods slowly. "Okay."

"Was there anything else?" Eric asks, half-impatient, half-curious to see Kitsom's reaction.

"No." Disappointment again, and Kitsom leaves the office with drawn shoulders.

Eric watches him go. Thinks of the easy way people break, how easy it will be to put Kitsom back together in the shape they need. Maybe he should pity him. But he doesn't.

Later, Eric visits Kitsom at his room, sits down on the narrow bed, takes in the bare walls, the grey closet, the window that opens onto the training ground. "I looked at your results," he tells Kitsom. "Well done."

Kitsom's joy is as easy to read as his disappointment before, and when he sits down next to Eric, Eric doesn't move away. Instead, he turns to him. "You're doing good, soldier."

Kitsom smiles at him, and Eric knows that the wrecked thing trusts him. He returns the smile, and he rests a hand on Kitsom's leg. "I'm looking forward to see how good you will become."

~*~

Eric gives Kitsom the Outcome number 5. He isn't the fifth agent, it's all out of order now, but they had to operate on him five times to pull all his parts into a human shape again after Iraq.

It feels fitting.

~*~

After a few rounds of the chems, Kitsom changes.

He becomes stronger, faster. Sharper, in some way. He becomes an asset. He might become Outcome's best result. It's satisfying to watch. It's dangerous, too, this time span between Kitsom and who he will become.

"Sir?" he asks, and there's something like a demand in his voice, something that could almost be an order.

Eric keeps his face impassive. "Yes?"

"When will I go on a mission?" Impatience, eagerness, and that's still Kitsom standing in front of him, still that puppy-dog boy who wants to please him. It's not somebody he can send out into the world.

"Not yet," Eric says.

A frown, a head cocked in question. "Did I fail a test?"

Eric shrugs, repeats. "Not yet."

~*~

Outcome isn't like Treadstone, it's not about destroying every shred of the assets' first personalities, it's not about making soldiers who don't remember who they were. Instead, they make them forget how to be anything but an Outcome agent.

But Kitsom is stubborn, and he refuses to be forgotten, refuses to become Outcome 5 as easily as the other assets before him.

"A better candidate for Treadstone, maybe," Hirsch proposes.

Eric shakes his head. "No." Treadstone has Bourne. They can't have Outcome 5 as well.

Later, Kitsom looks at him with his wide eyes, asks, "Can I stay?", and Eric nods. It's a lie. Kitsom is not the one he wants.

~*~

They are outside, running side by side through a beautiful morning, and Eric has trouble keeping up with the man running next to him. He thinks that's the reason Kitsom smiles. Though, knowing Kitsom, it could also just be Eric's presence.

Eric follows Kitsom's lead when he veers off from their normal track, breaking into the shadows of the woods surrounding the training grounds. He’s pretty sure that he never set foot here before. Still, Kitsom makes no sign of slowing down.

"Hey!" Eric finally calls, his breathing and legs turned shaky.

Kitsom stops.

Turns to Eric.

And Kitsom's face is terrifyingly open, vulnerable in a way it's not supposed to be; needy, too. And Eric shouldn't allow this, should turn away from him, but Kitsom says, "Sir," and he says, "Please," and he reaches out for Eric.

Eric lets him, lets himself be pulled closer.

He lets Kitsom kiss him.

~*~

They are building Kitsom's new identity, they're building a past that could hold up under scrutiny and curious eyes. It takes patience, and it takes intelligence, and Eric checks every decision his team makes. A mistake could cost them an asset.

It could cost them a mission.

They call him Aaron Cross. He was born in Indiana. His father left when he was 13. A few years later Aaron lived through a short stint in the military, looking for the father figure he lost. He doesn't last long. He ends up in the financial sector after, travelling the world, but all he ever sees are airports and meeting rooms and the bars of the hotels he stays at.

He has a sister he hardly talks to, the siblings too different to share much about their life. He sends her money, though, money to pay the rent because her art so very clearly doesn't. Their mother eagerly waits for either of them to call.

Eric doesn't tell Kitsom about any of it.

~*~

Kitsom waits for him when Eric does his weekly check-up, waits for him every time now. He's like a dog, Eric thinks, a dog waiting for his master to come home.

It's useful. It’s what he wanted, and it makes Eric's body go tight with an emotion he can't quite pinpoint. Some nights, when he falls asleep in lazy circles, his mind still locked onto something but too exhausted to really come up with anything, Eric thinks it might be pity.

~*~

There were shades of Aaron sometimes, a future taking shape beneath Eric's words and hands, but he's not breaking through, not becoming solid. A rumour of a person, a hint, and Eric is losing patience.

"What happens if you increase the dosage of the green pills?" Eric asks Hirsch.

"Untested," Hirsch replies.

For a moment, Eric is tempted. But Kitsom is valuable, and Aaron Cross is too valuable to risk him before he has even begun. "Any other ideas?"

"Push him."

"How?" Eric asks.

"A loss can disrupt somebody's sense of identity. Somebody an agent could have saved but Kitsom can't."

Eric thinks of the people that went to Iraq with Kitsom.

Says, "Okay," and wonders, for a brief moment, about deeds and consequences.

~*~

He sends Kitsom on a mission to Iraq, and he fakes a smile when Kitsom thanks him for it, expectation making his voice heavier, making his words finite in a way Eric has never heard from Kitsom before.

For a moment, Eric regrets his choices.

For a moment, he wonders about Kitsom.

He pushes it away.

The army sends their soldiers, among them one of Kitsom's friends.

The CIA sends an agent, one of the beta program assassins.

Kitsom doesn't stand a chance.

His friend bleeds out in a foreign country.

And Kitsom will never know why.

~*~

Kenneth Kitsom had been useless.

So they took him, and they made him better.

Eric made him better.

Maybe they broke him in the process.

Not that it mattered. He wasn't the mission, after all. They only made him for it.

Kitsom is gone now. And Aaron Cross is looking at him. Eric knows better than to ignore the challenge in his eyes.

[and absolutely necessary]

Aaron's first kill is a sleek, sudden thing; a mission gone so perfectly well Eric almost gets hard reading the report. Instead, he praises his asset.

Aaron only shrugs. "Just doing my job, sir."

Eric nods and lets Aaron go.

He doesn't think of the way Kitsom would have smiled in that very moment. He wouldn't remember it correctly anyway.

~*~

They send Aaron to one hell after the other, missions people won't ever know about, would never understand. Aaron survives them all, returns with perfect results, assassinations no one can prove, deaths that never make it onto anyone's radar.

It's turning into a routine, Aaron a reliable solution to the problems they encounter, and it's a relief. The world has gone a bit crazier again, after all, and they need tools and weapons and so much more to protect America.

"Your country thanks you," Eric tells Aaron.

Aaron raises one eyebrow but remains silent. It's unsettling.

~*~

Eric goes with Aaron on missions sometimes, though more often than not he tries to avoid it. They're too conspicuous together, the handler and his asset, and he knows that some of their enemies would see through the charade they put up for themselves. Still, he goes with him sometimes.

He's probably slowing Aaron down.

But Aaron never mentions it, never protests when Eric jumps into the chopper with him or loads up his equipment in the same rover. He only looks at the maps or at the road or sometimes, when it's still light enough and the air isn't burning with explosions or isn't grey with the dust carried up by the helicopter blades, he looks at the sky.

Sometimes, when it's dark and quiet, the ceiling of some safe house or a sky full of stars stretching out above them, he looks at Eric. He never says anything.

Eric closes his eyes, and he sleeps.

~*~

"Sir," Aaron demands, and Eric opens his eyes to the dim light of an early morning filtering through the flaps of his tent. He closes his eyes again, breathes.

"Yeah?" His voice is sleep-rough, his throat still dry, and he reaches for his water bottle, reaches for nothing until Aaron pushes it into his hand. The water is lukewarm in his mouth. Eric drinks it anyway.

Aaron is watching him.

There's something angry in him, Eric thinks, something unyielding and desperate, and Eric doubts their control over him. For a horrible moment, Eric misses Kitsom. Things were easier with him.

"Sir," Aaron repeats.

Eric steps towards him.

He pulls Aaron close, and Aaron falls in line with angry defiance in his body, his touch heavy with something Eric can't define, something new and unfamiliar. It doesn't stop him.

Aaron's fingernails leave angry stripes across his back.

They are easy to cover.

~*~

“Turn around,” he tells Aaron during a mission gone wrong. “That's an order.”

Aaron does.

There is anger in the set of his shoulders, in the draw of his brows. There's impatience, too, and Eric watches him carefully as he gives a speech about what they are, what they need to do. Watches and waits for Aaron to protest, to break the tenuous hold Eric has over him. Aaron is dangerous, after all, he's fast and skilled and strong. Smart, too, clever in a way they bred into him.

'Don't build bombs you can't defuse,' Eric thinks at 4 am in the morning, after they finally found their way out of that place. But he's tired, and he's stressed, and the thought is meaningless.

~*~

"How long will he last?" Dita asks.

Eric shrugs. "As long as we need him to."

~*~

Aaron is bruised, a shadow of Kitsom hanging over him, and there's something on his face, something in his eyes, that speaks of his most recent mission. It's been another fuck-up, the intel more of a mess than anybody realized, and Eric thinks that one day Aaron will be just done with things like that. He remembers a time when he would have felt the same.

“Can I stay here?” Aaron asks, and it's night and he is in Eric's living room.

Eric should send him to a safe house. Instead, he shrugs, and he doesn't think about the demand in Aaron's voice, doesn't think about him only turning it into a question because anything else might be reason enough for them to get rid of Aaron. “There's a guest room.”

Aaron walks past him without another comment.

Eric lets him.

He will ask about the mission tomorrow.

[this is the job]

When Bourne goes rogue, Eric shuts himself into his office for a day.

"We need to be ready," he tells Dita later.

She raises her eyebrows at him. "For what?"

"Everything."

A nod, and they spend a night talking about how they could dismantle the program, how fast they could do it. How they could kill every single asset and get rid of any trace of them.

“Even Cross?” Dita asks.

“Especially him,” Eric replies and thinks, for a moment, that it's oddly funny that they could kill the same man twice.

They keep talking even after Bourne vanishes, leaving the CIA in shocked disarray.

They both know better.

~*~

Aaron goes off the grid, is gone for days, and when he returns, he returns to Eric's home, is quietly curled up on his couch when Eric comes back from work. Eric doesn't comment, just walks past him into his bedroom, settling in for the night.

Aaron wakes him in the morning.

His mouth is rough on Eric's, his hands rougher, and Eric shouldn't give in to his touches, should maybe turn the moment on Aaron, turn it into something uglier than it is. But he doesn't. Eric moves into Aaron's touches, and he takes what Aaron gives him, bends when Aaron wants him to, opens up and lets go.

He can't quite remember if he ever did that before.

It doesn't matter. It's over soon enough.

They drink coffee together later, the both of them standing at Eric's kitchen table, no words between them. He drives Aaron to the safe house he's currently living in, and he doesn't follow him inside.

But he wants to.

~*~

It was not the first time Aaron has vanished. And Eric knows that it won't be the last, knows that something inside of Aaron is out of their control, is out of his control. It worries him.

It reminds him of Bourne.

And he knows what Aaron will be. But for now Bourne is gone, for now Aaron is still an asset and not yet a threat. Eric can give him some more time.

He will deal with it when it happens.

~*~

He's not the one to send Aaron off to Alaska, he's not around when the decision is made. He's angry when he hears about it, but swallows it down, doesn't explain to Vendel that Aaron is not the kind of asset you purposely lose track of. Instead, he tells him to target Aaron as well as he can, and he doesn't comment when Vendel tells him that Aaron has vanished a day into his punishment.

Eric tries to find Aaron himself, looking through satellite footage, looking at the terrain and all the possible paths Aaron could take. And he laughs when he figures it all out.

"That asshole is going across the mountain," he tells Dita, and he can hear the appreciation and pride in his voice. It probably shouldn't be there.

Dita raises her eyebrows. "He'll beat the record."

"Yeah," Eric agrees, and he shakes his head at the insanity of Aaron's actions.

~*~

Bourne comes back, comes to Manhattan, and he brings everything and some extra with him. Landy switches sides, aligns herself with the CIA's bogeyman, and every program is suddenly in danger. The head of the CIA panics. Hirsch might tell all. And Bourne... Bourne might come after everyone.

So Eric wipes Outcome, he kills every agent in the name of country and data and LARX. And he doesn't look back, doesn't hesitate for a moment, just does his job.

And yet, Aaron survives.

Eric isn't surprised, isn't even surprised that he's with the scientist. Aaron has always been intent on surviving, it's a part of Kitsom they never got rid of, never thought to. It served Kitsom well in Iraq, and it was a good asset for an agent, after all.

Dita, too, only shrugs it off once they are alone. “He was your pet project.” A smirk, cocky and confident in a way he would only ever allow her to be. Then, “I always thought he was your pet.”

Eric doesn't reply.

Just remembers Aaron's teeth sharp against the skin of his shoulder.

~*~

Aaron Cross is a weapon, too dangerous for the nation to be free.

Kitsom is gone.

And Bourne is still out there.

So Eric nods when Vendel proposes to send a LARX agent after Aaron, and he doesn't think of Kitsom reaching out for him, eyes wide and face open, or Aaron standing in the middle of his dark room, silent and still. Doesn't think of his eyes, narrow on the field and in the bedroom, or his hands, rough with use, a scar running across one of them. Doesn't think of anything and waits for the message of Aaron's death.

[do you know what a sin eater is?]

Yes.