Characters: Sylar, Luke
Rating: R for violence, death, and grotesque descriptions
Spoilers: Post 3x16 “Shades of Gray”
Warnings: Character death (not Sylar or Luke), wing!fic
Disclaimer: Heroes belongs to Tim Kring, NBC et al.
A/N: Written for the lukexsylar’s Christmas in July Challenge for ashedrake’s prompt: “Luke with wings - any way you wanna write it as long as they're real.” Thanks to brighteyed_jill, hihielmo, and perdiccas for betaing.
Summary: When Sylar rescues Luke from being a test subject, neither of them are ready for the aftermath.
Mohinder made a strangled sound through Sylar’s telekinetic grip around his throat, clawing at nothing to try to get a single desperate breath.
“What the hell did you do to him?” Sylar snarled. His face was streaked with blood from the agents and hunters he’d fought to get into the heart of the facility, and that plus his expression of rage made him look like some kind of demon.
“W-who?” Mohinder gasped. He’d never guessed working for the Company would have these kinds of consequences. He would never have guessed that Sylar would bother to come for anyone they had in custody. No one was that persistent… no one but Sylar.
“Him!” Sylar yelled, pointing at the huddled heap of a young man behind him on the floor. He was curled up in one of the Company-issued blankets with his face barely showing. Mohinder didn’t recognize the man, not from his position on the wall, and he was terrified Sylar would kill him for that lack of knowledge.
“Luke Campbell,” Sylar hissed.
Oh. Now Mohinder remembered him. Campbell, L. White male, eighteen years of age, runaway, juvenile delinquent, microwave emitter, very intractable unless sedated. One of his test subjects.
“He was-,” Mohinder hesitated, and Sylar’s expression darkened.
“Don’t lie. I know when someone’s lying now.”
Mohinder blanched, and wondered what his father was going to say when he saw him again. It would be very soon, after all.
“Test subject,” Mohinder ground out, eyes closed, forehead beading with sweat. He desperately tried to push away from the wall, but even his enhanced strength couldn’t compete with Sylar’s powers.
“What. Kind. Of. Test subject?” Sylar demanded.
“DNA. We were trying out new combinations of powers with the formula. We had to test it somehow, and they were all I was given-,” Mohinder babbled, starting to become incoherent at his growing lack of air.
“What did you give him?” Sylar asked, sounding almost gentle.
“I don’t know. That’s why these were experiments. Sylar, I didn’t have a choice-!”
Mohinder’s protest was cut short as Sylar casually snapped his neck.
Walking over to the young man on the floor, Sylar carefully heaved him up over his shoulder, and carried him away from the burning building.
Luke remained unconscious for almost six hours. While that wasn’t exactly a good sign for his health, it did give Sylar the time to start to work through the genetic research he’d stolen from the Company labs before he’d burned them to the ground. He might no longer have the enhanced memory he’d stolen from that waitress in Texas, but he was still an intelligent person with access to the Internet. An amazing amount of information could be obtained if one just had the patience to obtain it and the capacity to sift the wheat from the chaff.
The experiment files weren’t encrypted, not on the government-issued laptop, but they were in a jumble of shorthand and technical genetic jargon that was difficult to unravel. Picking through the terms meant having five or six search windows open simultaneously to genetics websites and Wikipedia, painstakingly trying to understand what he was reading, all for Luke’s benefit. In a lifetime Sylar had lived a few weeks ago he would have let the government have Luke without a backwards glance. Sylar certainly wouldn’t have gone back for such a troublesome travel companion, no matter his connection to Sylar’s past.
But finding out that specials were being captured for experimentation in order to give abilities to people who hadn’t been born with them had made Sylar see red. He had worked and worked hard all his life to gain everything he’d ever gotten, from his father’s watch store to the dozen powers he now possessed. The thought that people would be able to gain abilities from a simple injection, with no work involved, no destiny, no trials, was absolutely intolerable.
And finding that Luke was there had somehow driven Sylar past anger and nearly into madness. After he’d found himself alone in a hotel room with the unconscious young man, he’d tried to analyze his own actions. He’d wanted to shut down the Company. He’d wanted to punish anyone stupid enough to have gone along with the program. He’d wanted to kill anyone who’d been used as a test subject so no one else would ever get the same bright idea.
But he’d saved Luke. He’d killed Suresh, and he’d saved Luke. He’d been livid at the idea of someone meddling with his former protégé, and he wasn’t even sure why. He’d been the one to leave Luke behind in the first place. Twice. But right then, that hadn’t mattered. Sylar had seen someone putting their mark on his… property, and he’d snapped.
Mentally shaking his head, Sylar put all of that aside. Right now he had a mystery to solve -what exactly had been done to Luke- and that was enough to occupy his attention.
Luke woke up shortly after midnight and immediately bit back some kind of cry. Sylar woke up with a start and flipped on the light to see Luke curled up on the other bed, covering his face with his hands and shivering from head to foot.
“Luke?” Sylar asked, keeping his voice low. Not that he was being excessively compassionate, but the walls in this cheap motel weren’t exactly soundproof, even after making sure the rooms on either side of his were vacated.
“S-Sylar?” Luke whispered, peeking through his fingers. He immediately covered his face again and resumed his shaking. “S-s-sorry. The light’s really bright-.”
In a single sentence Luke had managed to make Sylar feel guilt he hadn’t felt in over two years. The kid had been abandoned, imprisoned for six weeks, experimented upon, and God knew what else, and here he was apologizing to Sylar. He abruptly turned off the light and crumpled one hand in the covers. He’d barely managed to start deciphering what had been done to Luke, and didn’t have any answers for either of them yet. He didn’t even know what to say…
“I’m- hungry,” Luke said haltingly, sounding like his face was still covered. “Is there any food?”
Bewildered at Luke’s priorities, Sylar grabbed some of the granola bars in the bottom of the bag next to his bed and tossed them over. There was about thirty seconds of eating noises, and then Luke fell silent for a long moment.
In a remarkably short period of time, Luke managed to eat everything even remotely edible in the room, and only stopped his begging for food when Sylar finally snapped at him that there wasn’t any more.
“Sorry,” Luke said finally, and went silent.
Sylar stared at the ceiling for twenty more minutes before getting up to study the files again.
In the morning light, Luke was still awake, but looked even worse than before. He was definitely thinner now that Sylar actually looked at him; Luke’s plaints for food weren’t just cries for attention. He was still shivering too, though a question about that only got a vague, “My back kinda hurts.”
Holding back frustration, Sylar left long enough to get more food for the bottomless pit. Luke had always managed to pack away an astonishing amount of food when they had traveled together before, and Sylar didn’t think that had changed now. He just needed to keep him quiet so Sylar could finish trying to crack Mohinder’s wretched shorthand.
Dropping a bag of provisions in front of Luke, Sylar went back to the computer, furiously trying to decipher term after term. It was only when the eating sounds stopped and the very muffled moans of pain began that his concentration was broken.
Whipping around in annoyance, Sylar was astonished to see Luke had managed to eat what he had thought might be enough food to last them both for at least two or three days. Luke now had his face buried in the mattress, and was desperately tugging at his t-shirt, pulling it off his body with a sob. Sylar shot to his feet when he saw Luke’s back was grotesquely swollen and deformed, with lumps all along his shoulder blades and down the line of his ribs.
“Luke?” Sylar asked, shocked.
“It just- hurts,” Luke said, clearly trying to sound casual.
Sylar took several unwilling steps towards him and laid one hand lightly on Luke’s shoulder. Sylar’s clairsentience slammed into him with the force of a freight train, a searing, bone-deep pain erupting in his back and chest, along with a gnawing hunger almost as intense. Hard on the heels of that came a freezing fear of what was going to happen to him.
Sylar yanked his hand away, stumbling backwards to half-collapse on the opposite bed. He almost couldn’t believe that Luke was holding all of that inside him, aside from a few mild complaints. Almost couldn’t believe, except for the fact that Luke had wanted to go with him in the first place, some two months ago. Sylar knew the kid had to have some toughness in him, no matter his ignorance and inexperience. He just hadn’t realized how tough he could be.
Taking a deep breath, Sylar stood up and leaned over Luke’s warped back, not touching the over-sensitive skin, staring at the deformities, trying to make sense of them. They ran up like an arc over each shoulder blade, starting from the spine and-.
Sylar blinked. He might not have been a geneticist, but he had been raised Catholic, and the pattern of growth on Luke’s back reminded him of only one thing. He slid back to the computer and rapidly hunted for some terms in Mohinder’s files. It came back with one paragraph that explained everything:
“…combined DNA strands from donor 5A-7PK show distinct characteristics with avian specimens, and will be injected into test subject 7D-6LC to see if the power manifestation can be repeated. Rapid bone, muscle, and ocular changes are expected, and will have to be monitored. Subject is healthy WM, 18 y.o., and is the mostly likely candidate to survive this process.”
“Luke,” Sylar said, going back to the bed. “You’re growing wings.”
Luke stopped trembling, he was so surprised, probably no less so than Sylar. Flight was one thing, but actual wings to go with it? That was something else entirely. Sylar hadn’t even known that was possible; no powers he’d encountered yet had a permanent, visible change associated with them.
“Wings?” Luke repeated, turning his face to Sylar and blinking rapidly, forcing his eyes clear. “I’m- I’m going to fly?” He sounded so hopeful that Sylar had to clench one hand into a fist, letting the nails dig into his palm until he’d calmed down.
Of course the kid wanted to fly. He wanted to be “free,” never mind that he might die trying to grow wings, and whatever other changes his body would have to undergo to support them.
It made Sylar almost reflexively angry. Here was someone who’d been given a power, handed it like a free lunch, something that Sylar himself could have made use of. Something Sylar could have used to fly…
No. Not like this.
“I think so.” Sylar tried to smile a little, and Luke managed to smile back.
“Worth it,” he whispered, and put his head back down, trying to go back to sleep.
Sylar felt his stomach churn with something not quite identifiable, and left to go find some more food. Whatever else was going to happen, Sylar needed to know if Luke would fully manifest this ability. And he couldn’t let the kid die of malnutrition before then. Luke needed strength if he was going to handle this.
Part of Sylar hungered for the knowledge of what exactly was happening here, knowledge that he usually seized in the most bloody, direct fashion possible. A slightly more practical part pointed out without full manifestation, there wasn’t any guarantee that Luke would get functioning wings at all. Sylar had to know if it would happen, and if Luke would be all right afterward.
Snarling internally at the unwanted feelings of compassion and pity, Sylar locked the door behind him.
Sylar and Luke settled in a bizarre routine, traveling in the late evening hours, when the pain was too severe to let Luke sleep anyway. Sylar told himself it was easier to ignore the moaning in the back of the van while there was highway noise to drown it out, not wanting to admit to himself that knowing Luke was in so much pain made him want to go on a completely undifferentiated murderous rampage against anyone that had ever hurt the kid. He didn’t want to admit that at all. It was easier to pretend he had ice water in his veins when he didn’t have to look Luke in the face.
In the mornings, Sylar would find some cash-only no-tell motel, and Luke would sleep the sleep of the utterly exhausted. Sylar would spend the time doing further research, and getting food for both of them, only catching his own sleep when Luke was awake.
Luke would literally eat anything Sylar set in front of him, from greasy burgers to broccoli. It didn’t matter; his body needed fuel to sustain the changes it was undergoing, and taste apparently no longer mattered. The wings were going to be enormous; the seemingly grotesque lumps were smoothing out into a clean arc looming over Luke’s head and sweeping down his back, still covered with skin. Feathers were apparently growing under there, the fragile shield of skin providing protection and nourishment, like the velvet of a deer’s antlers, or an egg.
Sylar had finally ended up getting books on birds from the nearest store so he could try to keep on top of everything else that was happening to the kid. Luke’s chest was subtly changing, getting deeper, strange muscles starting to stretch over new bones, similar to a bird’s keel bone. Sylar could almost hear Luke’s heart pounding with renewed strength, and judging by the dramatic reduction in weight whenever Sylar had to move him, his bones were starting to hollow out too.
When Luke’s light-sensitive eyes seemed to sporadically develop a film, Sylar examined them carefully and found a second eyelid under his normal ones. Nictitating membranes, according to his research, to keep the eyes of birds clear of dust and debris during flight.
It was working. Whatever else Suresh had done, he’d managed to make a working formula.
Luke wasn’t talking a whole lot these days, a startling contrast to their road trip just couple months ago, but he seemed incredibly relieved every time Sylar seemed to know why his body was changing all out of recognition. He was… depending on Sylar, and not in that grasping, personal fanclub sort way that Sylar had found simultaneously amusing and annoying before. Despite the fact that Luke was far more helpless right now than he ever had been, Sylar didn’t mind it. He felt responsible for Luke being in this position in the first place. And for some reason he couldn’t quite articulate to himself, Sylar wanted to see Luke reach his full potential, whatever the cost to both of them. He had to see this through.
Sylar soon discovered some of the changes couldn’t be justified by a simple physical explanation. Even almost two weeks after the rescue, Luke’s trembling never really stopped, not even when the pain would occasionally abate slightly. Sylar grimly began to read the chapters about avian behavior to see if anything would offer an explanation. One day he finally found something useful in, of all places, a falconry book.
“The chick needs the physical presence of its mother during this vulnerable time of development. When lacking its mother, the human must use some of the same physical cues to comfort and soothe the chick. A mother falcon will wrap its wings around her chick to protect it. Imitating this move will allow for a closer bond…”
Feeling utterly ridiculous, but willing to try anything that would stop Luke’s incessant trembling and faint cries during the particularly painful early morning hours, Sylar got onto the bed behind Luke and gingerly put his arms around his shoulders, trying not to put pressure on the growing, skin-covered wings. Luke went still, and then fell instantly, deeply asleep with a sigh, relaxing in complete trust. Sylar froze in surprise, almost unwilling to believe that had worked, and felt something inside him warm in pride.
Traveling was becoming harder and harder, not just because of Luke’s condition, but because teams of hunters were getting more and more persistent in their sweeps. Sylar had to keep pushing their time on the road longer, holing up for days at a time at increasingly obscure little motels and backwoods rental cabins.
One night, sometime in between lying Luke on the newest motel bed and his collapsing into exhausted slumber, the kid actually voiced a question.
“Why did you come back for me?” Luke’s voice wasn’t plaintive, which Sylar didn’t think he could stand to hear. It was almost resigned, as if Luke had already figured something out.
Sylar initially opened his mouth to say something about necessity and experiments and wanting to know what had been done to Luke just for sheer knowledge’s sake, and shut it again. He’d begun to realize that the lie-detecting power had a downside; it was harder and harder to lie to himself. The incessant tingling became an intensely annoying buzz when he tried to bullshit himself. And that answer was complete bullshit.
“Because no one else deserved those powers. I hated them for experimenting on you,” Sylar said quickly, surprised at himself.
“No one else even cared. Not even that scientist you killed,” Luke whispered.
“I care-,” Sylar stared, and abruptly shut his mouth. Why should he care? Why? He did though; he cared enough to have abandoned all his old goals for the one of keeping Luke safe. And it no longer seemed to be just for the sake of proving Suresh’s formula had worked. It was just because Luke was depending on him.
Sylar didn’t want to care. He didn’t want to have to take care of anyone other than himself. He didn’t want responsibility for another person, to have Luke looking up to him for direction, listening to his every word, learning from him-.
He had to stop that train of thought as the buzzing in his head reached unbearable levels.
“Thanks,” Luke said quietly. “I’ve… never, you know, had anyone say that to me before. And mean it.”
Sylar clenched one fist behind his back, and wished he had the luxury of crushing some piece of furniture, or an agent, to relieve his conflicting frustration. He wished Luke would be whining and irritating, talkative and annoying, so he could legitimately focus his anger. But he couldn’t.
“It’s ok,” Sylar got out finally.
“When… I was in there, I kept thinking about you. I was pissed; I wanted you to die for abandoning me,” Luke said, staring at the wall behind Sylar, not willing to make eye contact for this. “Then I thought it was a test or something. Like you wanted me to figure this out on my own? And when that scientist kept knocking me out so I couldn’t fight back, I just kept thinking of you. You know, having goals. I wanted to survive.”
Sylar stared rigidly at the ceiling, his mother’s voice echoing in his mind, “You can be anything you want to, Gabriel.”
“You did,” Sylar responded. “And now I think we can do better.” Bile and acid raged in his guts, compounded of uncertainty and indecision. “Together.”
He paused once more, and caught Luke’s eyes, for once actually seeing him and not a scared test subject, or brash teen with something to prove. He only saw Luke.
“Yeah.” That was Luke’s only response before he fell into sleep, but it was more than enough.
Sylar jerked the van to an immediate halt, the alarm in Luke’s voice reaching a pitch that clearly indicated something a little more serious than just another bout of growing pains.
It was growing close to a month since Sylar had rescued Luke, and his wings were always straining against the skin now, flexing almost involuntarily as if trying to get out. He was close; they both knew it. Sylar would have simply cut them open to free them days ago, if he hadn’t feared that something deadly would happen. A paragraph in the falconry book had drawn him up short from a bout of impatience:
“There is a difference between assisting a hatch and forcing it. If the hatching is forced, it is very likely the chick will die, despite all modern veterinary medicine can do to help…”
It was dawn, just before Sylar was about to find a new motel for them, when Luke started to have a full-on panic attack in the back of the van.
“I can’t-! I have to get out, I can’t stay here!” Luke screamed, frantically batting at the back door. Sylar’s heart moved to his throat as he threw open his door and ran around back to get Luke out. The kid had been having intermittent bouts of claustrophobia for the past few days, and Sylar finally knew what those meant. The wings were about to come out.
As soon as Luke could see the pale pink of the dawning sky, he calmed down marginally, enough for Sylar to lead him out of the van and away from the road. This was going to happen now, in a stretch of prairie in a state park in the Midwest, with no cover or place to hide, in full view of the rising sun. Some purely aesthetic part of Sylar’s soul appreciated the symbolism, and for some reason that calmed him.
“It’s ok, we knew this would happen, it’s ok,” Sylar tried to soothe, finally stopping when it seemed Luke’s legs were going to go out from under him. The skin-covered wing arches shifted, flexing again, and Sylar could see the muscles in Luke’s chest working, fighting against the restraining cocoon.
Luke’s teeth were chattering as he collapsed to his knees, and Sylar leaned forward, putting his arms around the kid’s shoulders and pulling him against his chest. Luke’s frantic, panicked breathing eased with the now-familiar feeling of comfort Sylar’s contact invoked, and the wings began to move with more purpose.
“You can do this,” Sylar said firmly, his mouth by Luke’s ear. “You can survive this. You’re going to fly.”
Luke deliberately seemed to take himself in hand, and clung hard to Sylar. Breathing easier now, Sylar could feel Luke straining hard, pushing with unfamiliar muscles to free his body of its self-imposed prison. The rising sun settled warmth over both of them as long minutes passed, but Luke still remained trapped, and his panic was returning.
“Luke, this is going to hurt, you know that, right?” Sylar asked to distract him. Luke nodded, his head right next to Sylar’s. Sylar hoped he had read the book correctly, that he could assist and not force, because he didn’t think he could take another minute of Luke being in near-constant pain by a body warped and twisted out of all recognition. Using his telekinesis with the delicacy of a surgeon, he put small slits in the cocoon-like covers of skin.
Luke suddenly screamed right in Sylar’s ear as his body arched like a bow. Shadow fell on both of them as the wings suddenly tore free, glistening in the sun with wet, red-brown feathers. Sylar fell backwards on his hands, head turning side to side to take in a glorious, thirty-foot wingspan as Luke flapped once, twice, three times, stirring up dust, grass, and seeds to make an inadvertent windstorm.
Luke’s jaw dropped as he turned to look at himself, his expression clear of pain for the first time in a month. Sylar pushed himself back up and helped Luke to his feet, and was almost unsurprised to find himself smiling. Protecting his eyes from the backwash, Sylar kept holding on as Luke flexed and flapped his wings furiously, seeming to revel in how they moved after all that time trapped.
“Worth it?” Sylar asked finally.
“Yeah,” Luke whispered. Before he could calculate what he was doing, Sylar pulled Luke into a hard embrace, his heart swelling with a pride he couldn’t quite define. He’d felt something like this before, a tiny, miniscule something like this when he’d fixed a particularly difficult and damaged watch. But now, he felt a pride and protectiveness he’d never known before, an upwelling of something in his chest that nearly choked him with its intensity.
But even through the emotion, Sylar couldn’t miss the slams of a car door. Turning, he saw two vans of hunters parked next to his own, a dozen agents fanning out across the grass, moving to bracket him and Luke. There wasn’t any time to plan an escape, no way to get back to the car, no cover they could use to hide. Sylar’s only assets were his own powers, and Luke.
The decision was surprisingly easy.
“Go, run!” Sylar yelled.
“Sylar-!” Luke started, and Sylar cut him off.
“Fly! You deserve it, fly, get free, and don’t let them catch you! I’ll hold them off as long as I can.” Luke hesitated another moment, and Sylar gave him a light telekinetic shove. “GO!”
Luke made a choked sound in his throat, almost like a sob, and ran, wings flapping madly as he tried to strain for the sky. Sylar had no idea if Luke would be able to fly so soon after “hatching,” but never entertained the idea of saying otherwise.
Narrowing his eyes against the agents, Sylar spun around screamed, sound waves flattening the grass and the first wave of hunters. He’d rarely had occasion to use the obvious, flamboyant sonic power he’d taken from that Level Five escapee in the bank, but if there was ever a time for it…
The remaining agents, shaking their heads against the stunning sound, kept advancing, and darts started to fly. Sylar caught a few in mid-air, and grunted as the others slammed into his body. Flinging the caught darts back at their owners, he sent bolts of electricity at the others, ignoring the stinging pain of the darts in his flesh. The remaining agents were smart, and ducked and dodged in all directions, forcing him to divide his powers and attention. A blast of lightning to the side, a thrust of telekinesis behind, stabbing out blindly at the danger that had to be behind him, screaming at the sacrificial fools who’d stayed in front, each moment he kept the hunters’ attention on him another moment for Luke to get away…
There were no walls to throw the agents against here, and no easy way to knock them out. Sylar just had to keep knocking them down until they couldn’t get up again… or until they got a lucky shot against him.
The agents were undeterred; weeks of frustration in not being able to find him had honed their survival skills to a sharp point. They refused to stay down, dodged the lightning again and again, and kept hitting him with dart after dart, hoping eventually his regeneration wouldn’t be able to cope.
Behind him two agents suddenly screamed, and the grass around Sylar burst into flame. A huge shadow and draft of wind passed over him, and Sylar gaped to see Luke flying overhead, hands outstretched, heat shimmering from them as the agents fell to the unexpected attack from above. Flying, red-brown wings catching the sunlight, disappearing into the sky, flying free… Sylar felt his heart pound in his chest in triumph and joy.
Two agents, still only scorched, not burned, swung their rifles up to take a bead on Luke. They got no farther than the beginnings of the motion; Sylar reached out with his mind, panic giving him strength and reach, and snapped their necks before they could hurt Luke. As they fell, Sylar realized he was surrounded by flames, ringed by fire, with no way to escape.
He could survive fire, though he wouldn’t enjoy it. Taking a deep breath, Sylar flung himself through the blistering heat, rolling on the grass beyond, shouting as two remaining agents pumped two more darts into his side. Vision darkening, he heaved himself up, prepared to kill until he was the last one standing.
The agents shouted in surprise, and suddenly Sylar felt someone hit him in the back, pulling on his arms… and the world fell away beneath him. Wind buffeted him from every angle, and the morning sun was shining into his eyes.
“I got you! I got you, it’s ok!”
Luke’s voice sounded so strange, coming from above him, and Sylar twisted to look up at him, the massive wings framing him as he strived for more altitude. Sylar reached up and grasped Luke’s arms, catching his eyes, and smiled.
“Keep going, and don’t look back,” Sylar said. Head clear of any lies, Sylar took a deep breath, feeling free for the first time in almost a year. Free to say what he wanted without worrying about his own pride.
“Luke, I’m proud of you.”
Head up, hearts light, both of them disappeared into the rising sun.