The Error of Sun Tzu
Title: The Error of Sun Tzu
Author: Del Rion (delrion.mail (at) gmail.com)
Era: Future, post-Heroes
Rating: M / FRM
Characters: Peter Petrelli, Sylar
Summary: Sylar feels like Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” doesn’t really manage to describe how things work between Peter and himself.
Part of the “Broken World” -series. Complete.
Written for: Heroes_Contest’s (heroes_contest) One-shot Challenge 21: Art of War Quote (“If you know both yourself and your enemy, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss.”) The story wasn’t finished by the time for contest deadline, but was inspired by the challenge nonetheless.
Warnings: Language, implied violence, gore and murder. Spoiler warning for the end of season 3 and all season 4 (when it comes to Nathan Petrelli, anyway).
Beta: Mythra (mythras_fire) (thank you so much again for all your hard work!)
Disclaimer: The show, its characters, its places, and everything else belong to Tim Kring and other respective creators and owners of ‘Heroes’. I have made no profit by writing this story, and make no claim over the show.
Feedback: Much appreciated, as always.
About The Error of Sun Tzu: This piece takes place before “Deep Sleep” – and even before “Ashes to Ashes” in my “Broken World” –series. It was originally intended to be written for a Heroes_Contest challenge, but writing at the time didn’t really agree with me, so it is posted by itself. Nonetheless, the inspiration came from the challenge.
I own “Art of War”, but haven’t really read it yet. I browsed through a copy, though, and found that it fit Peter and Sylar’s struggle pretty well – while at places it was a perfect opposite to describe their dysfunctional relationship.
Story and status: Below you see the writing process of the story. If there is no text after the title, then it is finished and checked. Possible updates shall be marked after the title.
The Error of Sun Tzu
Author’s Note: Part of the Broken World -series.
I have used a lot of references to Sun Tzu’s Art of War, as you are about to see.
Written for Heroes_Contest’s One-shot Challenge 21 (Art of War Quote: “If you know both yourself and your enemy, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss.”). I wasn’t able to finish this for said contest, but the story was inspired by the challenge nonetheless.
Sun Tzu must have been a wise man in his time, but in Sylar’s opinion there were several errors in his famous book on warfare. Or rather, the book in itself was very good, but Sylar found that some things in his life were… contradictory to what the Chinese man had presumably written thousands of years ago.
Or perhaps it was Peter who was the exception to the rule.
Sylar found the book in the home of the late Angela Petrelli. It was a bit of a shock, knowing how her family had always been the type to lie, deceive, and manipulate their way through life to seize their goals instead of seeking honorable ways to achieve them. He browsed through the book at his leisure while he waited for Peter to come – either to find him, or to take one last look at the place he used to call ‘home’.
He could understand why Peter didn’t like it here, though; in the room next door, just three months ago, Peter had discovered that his brother Nathan was actually dead, and Sylar had been riding his skin all this time, waiting to be released. It had been a bit of a shock for the man, but that also awoke such hatred in him that Sylar was fairly certain no ghosts from the past would stop Peter from hunting down his brother’s murderer.
With Angela dead, Sylar eagerly awaited Peter’s thoughts on the subject; did he believe it to be an accident, suicide, or murder? After the truth about Nathan came to light, Peter had pretty much forsaken his mother, hunting Sylar like a dangerous parasite. Perhaps he now regretted not spending more time with the last living member of his family – if you didn’t count his niece Claire, of course. She wasn’t around all that much anymore, especially when Peter had cut himself off from everyone, solely focused on the single thought haunting him day and night…
Sylar had taken a good enough look into his mind to know that Nathan’s fate ate him up inside, and killing Sylar was the only thing that kept him together.
Thus, he knew Peter would come after him, no matter where he waited for him.
Standing in the lavish study, Sylar turned the page of the book.
If the enemy leaves a door open, you must rush in.
At that very moment, he heard the front door open and close, and Sylar raised his head, snapping the book shut. He slid it into his pocket and waited, knowing that any moment now…
He heard steps. Then they halted, and Sylar knew someone had stopped before the door of Nathan’s study. A moment later he heard the door open, and a smile spread across his features. Very slowly and silently he exited the room and turned the corner, seeing that the door that had previously been shut was now ajar, just enough to let someone slip in.
Sylar moved to the door, pushed it open with telekinesis, and stepped into the doorway.
Peter was standing with his back to the door, staring at the exact spot where he had seen his brother three months ago, shifting between his and Sylar’s form.
Sylar couldn’t resist the temptation; he concentrated, and although he hated even the reminder of the time he had been captured inside his own mind, thinking he was Nathan Petrelli, it had its advantages to be… him.
“Hello Pete,” he said after a few seconds had passed, his voice different even in his own ears. To Peter, it must have been a dream come true – or the nightmare he was desperately trying to shake off.
Peter spun around, his eyes wide for one, hopeful moment, but then that familiar fury stole over his features. It wasn’t the first time Sylar had seen it, and he knew he was the first person to ever see such deep hatred on Peter Petrelli’s face. Not that he really deserved it, because it certainly hadn’t been his idea to turn him into Nathan. Of course Peter didn’t understand that – and if he did, he just wanted someone to blame – but the fact that Sylar had killed his brother was enough to fuel his anger to dangerous levels.
He didn’t ask what Sylar was doing here. He didn’t swear or threaten him. Instead he lunged at him, silent and determined, breathing hard, and it took a second for Sylar to realize what he was aiming at. But when his own telekinesis was used against him, making him fly back through the doorway, he had to congratulate Peter on his move.
Still forced to deal with just one power at a time, Peter was significantly weaker than before, but he also knew which power to pick from Sylar to make the greatest impact, and Sylar was often looking forward to seeing which one he would choose. He often felt tempted to ask whether it was a conscious choice or just a random power passing to him when they touched.
He was quite certain that Peter wouldn’t tell him even if he asked.
Another invisible wall of telekinesis hit him, and the wall behind him broke as he was smashed against and through it. Peter wasn’t holding back, and Sylar grinned, still wearing Nathan’s face, his wounds beginning to heal as fast as they appeared. This would have been significantly more uncomfortable if not for Claire Bennet’s power.
Peter followed him through the hole in the wall, his breaths quick and angry. Too much anger to really help him achieve what he no doubt wanted to do; Peter stopped thinking whenever he was mad, and to kill Sylar he needed much more precision than this.
In that respect, Sun Tzu had the right idea:
There are five dangerous faults which may affect a general: (1) Recklessness, which leads to destruction. (2) Cowardice, which leads to capture. (3) A hasty temper, which can be provoked by insults. (4) A delicacy of honor which is sensitive to shame. (5) Over-solitude for his men, which exposes him to worry and trouble.
Peter most certainly was no coward, but he was reckless. Not to mention all that suppressed guilt about a dozen different things he could have and should have done differently. Sylar never understood how he got anything done while he dwelled on things that he couldn’t change. Trying to protect everyone never worked as wonderfully as Peter imagined because some people just didn’t want to be helped. Just like saving the world was a waste of time because there were so many lost causes…
That, of course, never kept Peter from trying.
Even now he attacked Sylar with his fists, wanting to make it more personal than a telekinetic punch. For someone who used to be a nurse, his need to feel blood on his hands was startling. But they had played this game before, and Sylar wasn’t shocked by it. He actually felt proud, because all the hesitation of the past was gone; Peter acknowledged that his brother was dead, no matter how much Sylar looked liked him, or acted like him when he turned into Nathan Petrelli. He had helped to shape Peter into what he was today, more secure about what he wanted – even if it was to kill Sylar. And wearing his brother’s face was an insult that Peter couldn’t allow to pass, and Sylar knew that.
Forestall your opponent by seizing what he holds dear.
Maybe Sun Tzu was right, but it might have been better to point out that one needed to stay ahead of the game, and make sure that whatever they had in their grasp still meant something to their adversary.
The opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.
“Change… back,” Peter spat, his punches slower, and Sylar seized the moment. He could have reacted earlier had he wanted to, but once he had Peter engaged in a fight, he didn’t want it to end too soon. But the lack of passion in Peter’s movements was too great for him to ignore, and Sylar threw him off, shifting back to his own body as he stood up, brushing sand and paint off his clothes.
Peter seethed at him from the floor, still breathing hard, but he didn’t get up to his feet. He seemed almost… defeated. Was he tired? Sylar wondered about that as he released a bolt of electricity from his fingers, savoring Peter’s scream until it was abruptly cut off as the man lost consciousness.
Sylar could have burned him to a crisp, but once Peter was unconscious he stopped. No need to make him suffer. As he didn’t currently possess the healing power provided by Claire, it would take him longer to heal anyway, and Sylar got bored very easily these days.
“See you soon, Pete,” Sylar told the unconscious man before stepping over him and finding his way back to the hallway. Whatever he had come looking for… He smiled and snatched the small book from the floor where he had dropped it earlier when Peter attacked him. Maybe there was more wisdom that he and Sun Tzu could share.
In general, people might think: a weakened prey and enemy have something in common; they are easy to defeat.
Sylar, however, couldn’t have been happier than when he found out that Peter had regained his empathy. Years of meaningless toying and constant compromises were over. He hadn’t found the will to kill Peter before, for some reason, and that had always made him rather annoyed with himself. But now, as their powers were finally even, there was no reason for him to hold back or feel bad about sparing a weaker man’s life.
Now he could have a worthy opponent.
He wasn’t sure how Peter did it, exactly. Had he known how it worked, he might have even helped him to patch up his power sooner, but as things stood, Sylar was pleased. Although Sun Tzu said:
In war, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns.
Sylar couldn’t quite agree. He was willing to wait a considerably long time for Peter to catch up if that’s what it took. And he had been rewarded, finally, for his patience. The dullness in his life was over. Now all he needed to do was provoke Peter.
It was easier than he thought.
Peter came onto him like an enraged animal. How he found him, Sylar didn’t know, but neither did he really care. Peter was there, various powers at his disposal, and his rage knew no bounds.
At first exhibit the coyness of a maiden, until the enemy gives you an opening; afterwards emulate the rapidity of a running hare, and it will be too late for the enemy to oppose you.
Sylar waited, keeping the wall of fire a few inches from his face as Peter sought to burn him alive. That simply seemed to fuel Peter’s attempts to destroy him, because the zap of electricity that followed was truly remarkable in its intensity. Sylar shook his head, his hair standing up, his heart beating madly, trying to find its own rhythm again. Despite the pain, Sylar smiled, licking the blood from his teeth, then finally decided it was time. No more games. No more waiting. No more “all warfare is based on deception”; he wanted an honest, brutal, skin-splitting, bone-breaking fight that would smite a normal man from his feet so that he would never rise again, but which between Peter and himself was like the sting of a mosquito.
First he pinned Peter with telekinesis, during which he prepared to deliver his next blow. He was in the middle of changing the molecules of his hand into an iron fist – literally – when he saw Peter blink – and disappear.
Sylar smiled, clenching the fingers of his right hand that now felt stiff, yet very solid; hard enough to punch a hole through Peter when he next reappeared.
He felt pain slash through his back and whirled, but saw nothing. He could sense Peter, though, and hear his thoughts, so he knew he was close. Another slash of pain, like extremely long and sharp claws running through his skin, and he turned his head to see his back bleed profusely before his skin began to close again.
When able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.
Peter must have read that part of Art of War because he was staying invisible while using some kind of speedster power. And the claws…
Peter finally appeared, crouching several yards from him, one hand gently resting against the ground. Indeed, his fingers extended in foot-long claws that were still smudged with Sylar’s blood. His other hand was raised, the claws twitching, and he was gazing at Sylar as if calculating where to hit next.
Sylar moved towards him, but Peter didn’t teleport this time. His claws were buried to the hilt in Sylar’s chest, but that didn’t keep the taller man from hitting him as hard as he could. The problem was that he instinctively used his left hand as the right one was currently pinned under Peter’s weight. So much for his iron fist. It was too heavy to move in a small space and would have hardly been as lethal as it should have been.
Instead he grabbed at Peter’s fingers with his hand and twisted.
Peter actually screamed and moved back, three of the claws on his left hand broken, clutched in Sylar’s iron fist. He seethed for a while, and the claws drew back into his hands, disappearing.
Sylar smirked, dropping the sharp pieces in his hand and advanced again. Peter moved faster than his eye could see, a breeze as he passed him, and Sylar swung although he knew he was going to miss. Annoyed at how slow he was, he allowed his hand to turn back to normal.
Peter had disappeared again. Maybe he was invisible, or maybe he had backed off to prepare another attack. Sylar closed his eyes, trying to reach out and find his thoughts. Knowing Peter, he would be very loud and careless…
O divine art of subtlety and secrecy! Through you we learn to be invisible, through you inaudible; and hence we can hold the enemy’s fate in our hands.
Sylar opened his eyes, and started. Peter was standing before him, his face an inch from his, and it was impossible he hadn’t heard him. Sylar frowned, moved to attack, and suddenly he felt his feet go numb and fell to the ground like an abandoned rag doll.
“A fancy power,” Peter told him, his voice clear as if someone had just popped Sylar’s ears. “I can temporarily shut down one organ or function in your body. Like your hearing a moment ago… And now your body just can’t seem to follow what your brain is telling it to do, right? How does it feel? Being so… weak. Out of control.”
No doubt he was referring to how Nathan had been stuck inside his head – or rather, Sylar had been stuck in Nathan’s head… Well, either way Peter was angry as hell, and although it brought him a certain level of satisfaction, Sylar knew he needed to find a way out of this now or Peter was going to shut down some very important part of his body soon.
“I wonder if it will work on your brain,” Peter mused. “Want to try?” he asked, crouching down next to Sylar. “If I kill you for long enough… maybe Claire’s power won’t be enough to bring you back.” His eyes were dark with anger, and Sylar stared back at him, still fighting to get up. It took him a second too long to decide he needed to find another approach before he felt a hot flash of pain in his head, then…
Peter had done his best to try and kill him, Sylar was sure. After shutting down his brain, he had cut him to pieces and buried him twenty feet deep underground, but maybe he should have tried a bit harder because Sylar slowly but surely came back to life and dug his way out, feeling slightly disappointed with himself.
If he is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him.
So, Peter had won that round. Maybe that had been his intention as well; why he hadn’t cut off Sylar’s head, he didn’t know, but somehow it felt like Peter too wanted this to go on a bit longer. Maybe he wanted to make him regret each ‘bad deed’ he had committed in his life, and only then kill him.
Or maybe Peter just didn’t have it in him to end his life.
Shaking dirt from his body, Sylar stumbled up and gazed around. No sign of Peter. Not that he had thought so; he didn’t know how long it had taken him to dig his way back up in the condition he was in, but he could guess it had been a while. Had Peter been on the spot when he emerged from the dirt, Sylar might have killed him out of mere annoyance.
But he wouldn’t kill Peter. Some things had to last, because they couldn’t be brought back once they were gone:
A kingdom that has once been destroyed can never come again into being; nor can the dead ever be brought back to life.
Sylar had to admit that his approach was sometimes tasteless, yet effective.
Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.
He watched Peter stand in front of his brother’s grave, shoulders slumped. It had been raining, and Peter’s hair and clothes looked like he had been swimming instead of standing on damp ground. The grass was wet and the sand muddy beneath Sylar’s shoes, but it seemed Peter didn’t hear his approach – nor felt it. He could tell he wasn’t expecting company.
“I guess I should have brought flowers, but I didn’t know what he would have liked. He didn’t like envisioning his burial too much.”
Peter whirled around, barely keeping his footing on the slippery grass. “Don’t you fucking dare to come here!” he spat before he even got a good look at Sylar.
“Sorry, already here,” Sylar shrugged, a smirk plastered on his face; not a big one, but enough to show his amusement.
“I’m gonna fucking kill you…”
“Language,” Sylar tut-tutted – and didn’t get any further than that before a flash of electric light hit him, air crackling around him, his heart and each nerve jumping at the hot, sparkling pain. The downside was that Peter’s aim was poor, and he managed to hit the wet ground as well, which made them both fall back and jerk uncontrollably for a bit.
If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant.
Sylar recalled the line from Sun Tzu’s book, but found it somewhat faulty – at least in Peter’s case; although he was mad, and was already struggling to get up to his feet while Sylar still tried to make his head stop ringing, there was no arrogance in him. Never, not once, especially after Nathan died, had Peter been haughty or overconfident even when he was sure to win a minor victory over Sylar. Maybe with a pain and betrayal as big as his, the only thing he could concentrate on was revenge, however he could get his fingers on it.
And yet it seemed it wasn’t even always the need for revenge that drove him, because there were times like this when Sylar had to seek him out to get a fight going, not the other way around.
Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.
If only Sylar’s baits ever worked that well. Even now, when he was lying dazedly on the ground and Peter was already on his feet, albeit a bit shakily, Peter didn’t attack. He didn’t move in for the kill.
Struggling to sit up, Sylar kept his eyes on Peter, who stared back at him malevolently. Then, instead of attacking, he turned around and sat back on the ground, staring at Nathan’s grave. Maybe the shock to his brain had unsettled something…
“Leave,” Peter told him, as if he was reading his mind – and probably was. “I’m not going to fight you here.”
“We could go somewhere else,” Sylar suggested.
“What is it with you?” Peter finally snapped, looking over his shoulder at him. “Isn’t it enough that I try to kill you half the time? Why do you have to come baiting me like this? Are you so goddamn bored?”
Sylar thought about that. Was it really boredom? Or… was it that funny feeling that Peter was the only person he really knew in this world, although almost all of those memories were not his, but Nathan’s. Was he, perhaps, lonely? The idea made him chuckle. He didn’t need anyone, or anything when he had all these powers at his disposal, and Claire’s sweet power that would keep him going forever. He was immortal and unstoppable. Fighting with Peter was just… cheap amusement.
“I’m not in the mood,” Peter muttered, no doubt listening to his thoughts again.
Sylar reached out, feeling the hurt and coiling anger beneath the surface of the younger man’s mind. But Peter was being honest; he wasn’t in a mood to fight. And if Sylar made him, he wouldn’t have his heart in it.
Sighing, Sylar stood up. “I suppose we’ll have to continue this another time.” It did cross his mind that if he destroyed Nathan’s grave, Peter might be more than willing to fight him, but at the same time that was too tasteless even for him. Peter needed this sadness and anger to keep going; he needed to be able to touch a proof of his brother’s death with his hands and gaze upon his last resting place. If Sylar took that away from him, who knew what would happen.
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
Sylar knew Peter better than most – because Nathan had known his brother so well. But there were many things that he couldn’t predict in the other man, and that both unsettled and intrigued him. Could he ever really overthrow Peter? Could this weak, sad man ever destroy him as he wanted to? And even if one could overpower the other in the end – would they do it?
Because after one was gone the other would be alone, and the balance they created would fall apart.