Her skin is flushed, heat prickling up her neck to where a wisp of blonde hair has slipped loose of the band that holds together her ponytail. Elle's hands are shaking; her calves feel light. If she needed to stand, she's not sure she could. The cement room, just moments ago alight with the glow of bright blue streaks of electricity (her offering to keep this place running), was now much dimmer, lit only by florescent bulbs carved into the ceiling. She's sitting on a plastic fold-out chair, in front of some kind of instrument, which to her only looks like a steel version of the kinds of scepters held by the kings and queens she'd occasionally seen pictures in her father's books: tall metal rod with a steel sphere on top. Her hands had to be about eight inches away from the sphere. Thick black cords ran from the rod into the cement wall.
A speaker on the wall behind her relays the voice of the man watching her from the next room. "Elle, that's enough."
She doesn't protest it this time. The metal door at the side of the room opens as she attempts to lift herself from the chair, and when she stumbles he's at her side, lifting her a little roughly by her arm.
"I thought you said you were okay." Bernard – light brown skin, dark brown hair, and a white lab coat. Young, as far as Elle was used to – only in his early thirties. For him, the coat was a sign of status and authority, and of comfort. Something he'd worked for years to achieve, before having to leave the world where it was so powerful and instead work down here. Elle doesn't know how to feel about it.
"I am okay," she mutters, pulling her arm away and walking of her own accord toward the door in slow but steady steps. Today she wears a black tank top and slacks, simple slip-on shoes on her feet.
"You don't need to do so much, we're not exactly running out."
"I said I'm –"
But she lets the word fall as she walks through the door. On her left side, there's a large sheet of glass through which she can see the chair she was just sitting in, below it metal table set with controls and instruments she doesn't understand. The chair in front of them is empty, but a man wearing a long brown coat and horn-rimmed glasses is looking over the controls, lenses illuminated by the yellow-and-blue lights.
Bernard steps into the room after her. "Who are you?"
"You haven't been following your instructions," Bennet says, instead of answering. "I left specific instructions concerning how much she can be expected to produce, and you've exceeded those."
Elle wants to leave the room, but stays put, trying to slow her breathing. Bernard, apparently distracted from trying to figure out who this intruder is, gives a defensive reply. "She said she was fine."
"You don't pay attention to her, you pay attention to me. You don't ask anything more from her than I say you should, no matter what she says."
Bennet hasn't shifted during this; the lights still glint over his glasses. For a moment, Elle is still, feet rooted to the spot as though the floor is quaking, acutely aware of Bernard swaying behind her, and Bennet, still as she is, hiding his eyes and his composure behind a panel of bright lights.
Then she steps forward, loping one foot over the other. "Mr. Bennet really cares about his freaks."
It will be enough for Bernard – Noah Bennet is spoken of so much by a certain subset of the crowd that anyone in this bunker will recognize his name, even if they don't know him by sight. Bennet finally looks up, watching as she steps past him and then abruptly reaching out to grab her upper arm. (The left one, not the one he shot.)
"You know you shouldn't be overexerting yourself, Elle."
She did. No more excuses. Not that those parts of her mind are in the best condition to tell her anything, but she could watch what they knew like film reels in her mind. Gasping for air, coughing up blood, the beep beep beep of the heart monitor, evening out and then staggered once more. All things she could watch in her mind as though they had happened to someone else.
Still, she answers, her voice smooth as it slides up and down in a near sing-song way, "We all have to do what's best for this company."
He drops her arm, but is otherwise still. Like he's so fucking hurt that now she can throw all of this in his face. She doesn't care if it's fair or right, if he deserves it or not, because she will not let him act like he's so clean of it.
Finally, hesitantly: "Elle, I just meant –"
She doesn't lose her sickly sweet tone. "That you know what's best for me?"
Bennet looks away from Elle, turning to Bernard, who is still by the door to the next room. He's looking between them, eyes glancing from one to the other, mouth hanging open slightly. Bennet doesn't seem to understand, but Elle does at once. As far as he's concerned, there are two new people in this room.
It doesn't matter, really. It's not like her disguise is finally revealed, some curtain lifted. The way she was before had just as much truth in it as the person she was being now. She didn't mean to hide anything. But around Bennet, this truth was so much easier.
Still, her voice has dropped any melody when she tells him, "You don't look after me."
Bennet has turned back to her. Perhaps still trying to spot whatever he's missing, or to formulate his response. Bernard decides to beat him to it, however, piping up, "Really, um, Mr. Bennet, she did say she was all right –"
"No," Elle cuts in, breaking Bennet's gaze to look over to Bernard. "He's right. Don't let me do that again."
And before anyone else can say anything about just what she can take, Elle leaves, walking straight through the door that leads to the concrete hallway beyond. She can hear footsteps rushing to follow her, however, and is neither surprised nor especially pleased to see that it's Bennet who has come after her.
"I did come down here for a reason, Elle," he says, stepping into stride with her as they head in the direction of the living compartments.
"What, not just to show off?"
"They're having a meeting in Communications – they sent me to get you."
"Fine, I'll –"
She'll take Staircase B and climb the three floors to the just sub-surface room. It's what she's thinking, already routing the trip in her mind. But something else catches it, her speeding mind hooked so quickly that it takes her a moment to realize what it is that's made it stop –
"No, they didn't."
Elle stills, Bennet taking a few steps ahead of her before he also slows, and turns back. She's pretty sure Bernard's probably watching them from the door to his lab, but she doesn't care.
"You're not here to be their messenger. They wouldn't have sent you unless you wanted to come."
So she caught him. Big deal. A simple enough lie that she would have ignored before but now, for some reason, had to pick on like a scab. Bennet takes a moment, seeming to weigh his options, before he turns, facing her once more.
"What did you do?"
Elle doesn't answer, not even to tell him that he'll have to be a little more specific. But the next question Bennet asks is: "What did Arthur Petrelli do to you?"
She offers no answer, but does ask, "Why?"
"Because it worked." She'd been willing to slaughter Sylar, help destroy what was left of the Company. She'd sacrificed herself and protected Claire. But Elle realizes now that he hadn't really known, not for sure, if their deal had worked. If Elle or only her choices were different.
She thinks about it, and actively chooses her empty personality for this. "It was supposed to."
"And you remember everything?"
Each word is like a dropped coin. It flops and spins and somersaults slightly before she settles on its meaning, and how they come together.
No, she doesn't even know what he's getting at.
"I hope so," she answers.
He takes a step toward her. "Then what are you doing?"
(She still doesn't know.)
Bennet's voice rises; he's yelling at her by the time he's reached the question, the sound of it echoing around the concrete walls.
"If it worked how are you doing this? How can you just stand there and talk to me?"
How can she walk and talk and think and eat, with all of that in her mind. The gift Arthur Petrelli had unknowingly given her – he'd meant her to fall apart much sooner, without even knowing it all. But it hadn't worked – and he was the one who'd left her with no choice about it.
Elle steps around him, continuing on down the hall. Without any pause, Bennet follows her.
"How would you do it?" she asks. She stops when they reach a set of double doors, slamming her hand into a button at the side, and the doors slip away into the walls. "How would you beat a telepath that knows all our protocols?"
At first, there's only the sound of his footsteps. Then, "I don't know."
"Then think about it."
They're twenty feet from Staircase B when she realizes hers are the only footsteps in the hall. She turns around to see that he's stopped again. It's dark in this hallway – even the florescent bulbs along the ceiling can't brighten it. From the light in the hall beyond, she can see that his head is tilted upward, the rims of is glasses silhouetted – he must be looking at the ceiling.
"Who did this?"
Suddenly, Elle remembers why this hallway is so dark. Rati had started decorating them – she could lay her hands on any surface and change its color, no need for paint or ink. It had been explained as something about changing the waves of light, the way they refracted, but it meant that she could create nearly anything. Images that looked startlingly lifelike, colors that couldn't otherwise exist, blend photograph-perfect scenes of real things like flowers, trees, and animals, with things that were imagined – the color of heat that rose from the hot, dry earth. Silver-winged butterflies resting on blades of jade grass.
This hallway looks like the night sky – little white-gold pinpricks in inky blue-black. In some places it looks as real as gazing up into a cloudless night, in others spirals of blue and gold twisted around the stars, outlining constellations that Rati had made up, because she couldn't remember any real ones. Elle is so used to it by now that she hadn't even noticed.
And though the Company's gone, though they're really all on the same side now, Elle can't bring herself to answer. She turns away, and continues walking toward the staircase.
There were two kinds of people here. Those who knew, and those who didn't. Elle doesn't really blame the ones who didn't know for resenting the ones who did, but that's as far as her feelings go. Even among the one who knew, however, only Bennet really rivals her when it comes to experience in tracking people like her down, and knowing what to expect from them.
Which is why she's here. Why Hiro tells her to come, and she does, because she doesn't ignore requests. (Bennet was right – she shouldn't overexert herself. But she doesn't know how to do anything else.)
'Communications' was a circular room with a big, rectangular, white-plastic fold out table in the center, covered with laptops and cellphones. It was chosen for this purpose because it was close to the surface (only a single, thick layer of cement above them) and had five already-installed outlets, which were taken up by large extension cords and all powered by the electricity Elle had just donated. There was also a screen pinned to one wall, onto which satellite images of the desert above them were projected. Elle was standing beneath the projector. Bennet was on the other side of the room, next to a tall, blonde woman – the only second-ever time-space manipulator, whom they'd picked up in Munich.
Hiro was wearing his sword on his back. There were a dozen more others, all alternately leaning against the concrete walls or sitting in plastic fold-out chairs that matched the center table.
"The problem is, we need a game plan. Something long-term." It was Cynthia Sakamoto. Who had survived both Linderman and the Company. And, briefly, Elle. She'd talked like this a lot, like a leader, but when it came down to it, there were no leaders here. The ones from before were dead, or had taken the other option.
"We can't just keep bringing people here," she continues. "We're talking about at least a million – this place can't hold five hundred."
"They won't all have to come," Hiro pointed out. "We know we can't just hide forever."
"Then what?" the woman next to Bennet asked. "We're not all going public yet. Some of us can't."
Elle can't – she doesn't exist in the "public" world, after all. Even the ones who might would be risking a lot – that the hunters might not care that they went public. That they wouldn't get enough attention for it to matter. That even if they were safe, their families could still be threatened, as they always were when a target was chosen. Rati had gotten out early enough that she hadn't been identified – she could write her family back in Bristol that she was studying on a scholarship in the States. Their powers combined, the two hundred or so down here could make an excellent forgery of NYU letterhead.
Bernard was 'lucky' and only had to leave a wife. The woman from Munich was found only after her sister had already been identified.
"We should hit them," the Munich woman (Dana? No, Elle thought, that wasn't it) added. "Show them we won't just take this."
"It'll make you look dangerous," Bennet interjected. "If they see you as violent, they won't even have to keep it a secret that they're killing you anymore."
"Maybe if we can keep it to just them," the woman answered. (Maybe Elle would just think of her as 'Munich.') "If Dawson could give us more abou–"
"Monica's doing enough," Hiro said flatly. "We're not risking the one person we have in there. No to try to launch some violent attack."
"But Hanna –" (that's what it was!) "- is right," Sakamoto points out. "Picking people up and hiding them until whoever's funding these hunters decide they don't want to kill us anymore isn't going to work. And we also can't all be like the Petrellis or Bennet's daughter."
All public, daring anyone to take a shot at them when cameras were rolling and their deaths would get more than a cursory glance from the police. And hunters did, apparently, care what the public knew. Elle had already watched the job that had been done covering up the Stockholm café bombing – though the hunters almost certainly had images of her and Hiro below the explosion, it had all been explained away as some resident's private science experiment gone wrong. No casualties meant no one looked into it too much, and with no obvious culprits, there was no desire to spin it as a terrorist attack. They'd reasoned that as there was no record of Elle's existence, and Hiro was brother to the heir of one of the most prominent corporations in Japan (with Kimiko having already come out publicly), trying to spin them as terrorists would have caused more harm than good.
But it didn't afford them any sort of safety.
"What're you thinking about, Elle?"
Of course, it was Bennet. Elle had been content to sit quietly and watch the satellite photographs over his shoulder. Of everyone in this room, she was the least equipped to be a leader. She was much closer to X, much closer to a weapon than the person who held it. And she didn't feel any shame in that.
But she had been thinking. Maybe she looked a certain way when she did – her eyes had been over Bennet's shoulder, but she hadn't really been watching the photographs too closely. Not liking to think she had a tell that Bennet recognized but she didn't, she tried to put it out of her mind.
But she also answered.
"That we're lucky."
She knew they were all looking at her now. Even the ones who usually ignored her. But she kept her eyes on Bennet.
"They haven't figured it out. That we're way more use alive."