Pass the Popcorn

Betty endures some good old fashioned Sterns' torture disguised as entertainment, learns more cryptic information, and Trent gets a bit of revenge.

Betty's Cell, Russian Underground

"I think that deserves a replay!"

It had been nearly a day since Betty had been returned to her aptly named pen. The white of the room had, if anything, become more mundane in light of her near break-out. And, for a time, Sterns had left her to her solitude. Planning, or scheming, or something, no doubt.

But then it had happened.

The first change had come when the slot in the door through which meals were dispensed had a new package. A brown package of overly-buttered and overly-salted popcorn.

For the most part, Betty has been laying on her white bed. The pen she smuggled out of the control room is well hidden by the wall. For now she has nothing to write. However, she can also imagine using it as a weapon should it come to that. Her arms are draped over her eyes and she has done not much other than stew in suppressed anger and think of ways to take revenge on Sterns. When the new package is slipped through the slot, she lifts her head slightly and then just places it back on her pillow. Whatever, she might as well be saying out loud.

Oh Betty.

You will be playing Sterns' games.

Or at least, get moderately tangled up in them.

The screen wall lights up and splits. Visibly splits. Even with the darkness that edges both of the images. Like two screens when Sterns had insisted on having a three-way conversation with Natasha and Betty at the same time. And after that had gone so well for him, who would have thought him to do it again?

The sound comes first. The commotion across the screen. Something loaded onto YouTube. Something with incredibly shoddy camera work.

It's Culver campus.

When the screen wall lights up, Betty ignores it. It's only when the sound starts that she takes a peek through her arms. There's a visceral reaction when she recognizes Culver's campus. Did something happen there? She picks her head up. But, then, she remembers that this is being played for her by Sterns. There's a reason he's showing her this and it can't be for anything good. Reluctantly, she lowers her head and tries not to pay attention.

The sound changes as a student points towards upwards, "Look, up there!" Glass shatters from a window high up in one of the buildings. The science tower— the place where Betty's own office had been located, although, not nearly that high.

A figure, recognizable to Betty as Bruce, launches itself from the towe. Students scream. Some express astonishment. Others literally run away. One presumes that something is escaping from the biology lab.

It's just then that the second half of the screen flicks on. And the pink bow-tie wearing Samuel Sterns claps emphatically. "That's my favourite part." He reaches down, and pops up with a little brown bag of popcorn that mirrors the one he's left Betty. A handful is shoveled into his mouth. "You're not eating your popcorn!" he accuses rather than observes. "It's almost healthy, you know. But not too healthy. Just enough that it's so good while being so bad." He virtually beams at her. Evidently he's in a good mood.

As much as she doesn't want to watch, the loud sound of glass shattering and the large green figure is enough to cause her to sit up. "Bruce…" Betty clenches her hands together and rests her forehead on them. That wasn't from before. It was a new video. He's looking for her. All she has done is engage this man, plead with him, ask him questions and that has gotten her nowhere. So, now, she'll engage in the only thing she can think of - the silent treatment. Resolutely, she lies back down.

"I think that deserves a replay!" Sterns nearly cheers as the video comes to a close. And so he rewinds, and lets it play again. "My my my, what form! What… perfection." His eyes squint as if to hone in on the Hulk. "Even the landing— it's incredible." He shovels more popcorn into his mouth and speaks around it while chewing, "I get… why.. Daddy dearest," he coughs. Evidently talking with your mouth full is ill-advised. Clearing his throat he continues again, "…has such a vested interest in our friend, Mister Green."

The bag is set on the desk beside him and Sterns' fingers steeple together. "I'm thinking it may be time we move." His teeth toy at his bottom lip. "I've set things in motion— " he smiles wolfishly. Things. "— and it might be time we relocate. Evidently this facility is just one in the network. It's brilliant. Couldn't have planned it better myself."

Betty has seen the Hulk in action and from much closer than whoever was holding that cellphone. She knows exactly what sort of force and form he has. The line about her father almost gets her to speak out, but she keeps her mouth shut and the bag of popcorn where it is. If they move, the information they sent Clint and Bruce would be outdated. "Sounds like you're running." That's all she'll say on the subject for now.

The video finishes and is replayed again. Evidently delighting at least one watcher. "See that form— " Sterns states again as Bruce barrels through the glass. "Not running per say," he taps his chin once as he stares at the Bruce and actually cheers at the fellow's landing. "More like… relocating. Wasn't thinking grand enough. Besides we really need something above ground to make things work." His eyebrows tick up with delight as he rewinds the video once more. He taps on the image. "See, you need to study this. Know how that one moves."

A familiar unaccented voice can be heard off-camera, "You don't pay me enough to watch this." Natasha's tone is flat. Betty might not be able to see her, but Romanoff is there. Or whatever incarnation Sterns has awoken is there.

Hearing Natasha's voice is like a punch to the gut. It's a sick reminder that every attempt at help has turned out to be a disaster. Betty refuses to watch Bruce jump out of the window multiple times. She catches quick glimpses of him at the right moment, but it's just as upsetting to know that somewhere on Culver's campus was an incident that caused him to lose control. Was he looking for her? Did Sterns lay a trap for him there? Was it her father? Fine, if they're above ground, there has to be windows or other ways for her to escape. Better for her. "Good. They'll find you and stop you quicker."

"Ha! You're very naive Doctor Ross. Brilliant, but naive," Sterns taps lightly on his nose three times. "No. You see, being above ground will, eventually, mean they won't look for me at all. And your desire to leave will become" he parts his thumb and forefinger, "miniscule." At his new toy, however, his throat clears, "I pay you to do what your skills— "

"Give me the list," she states flatly. A single hand reaches across the screen.

"A little— "

"The list."

Reluctantly, Sterns hands it over, shoving it into her grasp. The creak of a door indicates that Natasha has probably left the room, prompting Sterns to turn back to the screen, "Very humourless, that one. Don't worry though, I'm told she gets the job done."

"No, I don't think I am." There may be no one coming to rescue her, but that doesn't mean Betty isn't making her own plans. If they move, that means they'll have to move her. And operation pen attack will have a chance to come into effect. "If you really meant for me to be under the effects of that gamma radiation again, you'd have done it by now. You'd have done it while you were overwriting Natasha. The effects aren't permanent, so you can't go 'global' with it just yet. You're just bluffing and stalling now."

"You're wrong, doctor," Sterns states. "Quite simply, wrong. I know how to make them permanent. It's just a matter of doing so." And with that, he grins. "You might even be the answer to all of my troubles." His lips hitch up to one side, "Spoiler alert," he points towards what he thinks is the other side of the split screen; in actuality it's the wall because the image is reversed for Betty, "boyfriend still cares about you, girlfriend," he snaps. Like a valley girl. Yeah, he went there. "Don't worry though, Daddy will still suffer my vengeance. Plans evolve and all that." He waves a hand flippantly. She can rest assured that Thunderbolt's suffering is far from over.

The answer really is Bruce. Betty knew she was taken because of her father - however this just confirmed what she feared. She's bait. How insulting. Bruce, certainly, knows better than anyone else the effects of gamma radiation. Either he's being lured here to be Stepford Wife'd or his blood is the key. Whatever it is, it's not good for anyone. So, Bruce was looking for her at Culver. He knows that something is fishy about her disappearance. Oh, Bruce. "He's ten times smarter than you. He obviously knows that where ever I am is a trap. As far as he knows, I'm dead. I haven't been seen in months."

"And yet he obviously doesn't care!" again Sterns points to the wall and replays the footage of Bruce bursting through the window. "This really is a work of genius." And as far as not knowing anything is concerned, "Whether he knows it or not, I'm sure he'll be in touch. Those SHIELD folks reaaaaalllllly need to work on their firewall. I've hacked it— I'm sure he could hack it. Probably that IronMan fellow who took out my bomb c…" his bottom lip begins to stick out. But no! No! He's having a good day, so he forces a smile and a stiff upper lip. "I'm working on getting some important files of my own from their server. We'll see if they respond in kind."

He taps a few keys on the keyboard. "You see, our spider friend, well she lied. Turns out she didn't defect from the Russians— dates don't add up. I suspect she freelanced in between and for whatever reason, didn't want to discuss it— " pause. "Can you imagine that, trying to hide information from me?" He raps on the keyboard a few more times. He clucks his tongue, "She's going to pay doubly for that one. Not that… not that she'll know. She won't know she's paying doubly because well she doesn't remember anything about her post— never mind. She'll pay. Like old her— past tense. Whatever."

The SHIELD server may get a blip…

Into old files. Ridiculously old files. Personnel files.

Then case files…

As for whether Bruce cares or not, well, that was never the issue for them. "If he thinks I'm dead, he won't come after me. He'll just find a way to cripple you from where ever he is. He wouldn't be anywhere you could find him. If my father - with the power of the US Armed Forces - couldn't track him when he didn't want to be found, you won't be able to either." Betty sounds quite sure of that. Call her naive, but she does have her beliefs. "Well, no matter what you've found out, it sounds to me like things aren't exactly going the way you planned."

Back in SHIELD Headquarters, Trent has fallen asleep in his ergonomic chair. His desk is covered in cans of Red Bull and Five Hour Energy which he has taken intermittently to make sure he'll be alert should any one else attempt to hack into the computers. It's a party on his servers, apparently, and everyone thinks they can gatecrash. Not any more. There's a loud alarm system that sounds as Sterns hacks past the SHIELD Firewall. Trent startles, falls off his chair and then stares at the computer. With a wide - almost maniacal - grin on his face, he rubs at his face and then cracks his knuckles. "Come to papa."

"He won't think you're dead," comes Sterns distracted reply while he raps again on the keys. "And your father— well, he couldn't find us either." Pause. "Until I wanted him to." His lips twitch upwards, "It's all a matter of accounting for everything and… knowing the players."

Back at SHIELD Trent can see Sterns' flipping through case files, one after the other— paying special attention to anything connected to Clint Barton. But each of the files he encounters are cast aside— that is, until he finds a particular hit from some time ago. This particular report is flagged yellow, which to Trent will mean one thing: its objectives were never fulfilled.

Mostly because The Black Widow lived.

The file is clicked to be opened, perused, gleaned, even. But even as he attempts to open it, his attention moves towards personnel files.

"Bwahahaha," Trent actually says instead of laughing evilly because he is working on quite a lot of sleep deprivation. He knows this code language. Every hacker has their own ways of bypassing systems and he can tell who this intruder is from his keystrokes. As he watches Sterns' actions on the screen, he pulls that window to another screen and starts typing in the fail safe code that he worked out because of Tony Starks' previous expedition into old files. Poised and ready, he hoovers a finger over the enter key, just waiting for Sterns to access the next file.

Betty watches Sterns, pulling her knees to her chest and hugging them. While she may be on a bed and refusing the popcorn that was meant to go along with watching someone she loves jump out a window, she has some control over the situation - she has the control over her own reactions. "But, you don't know all the players, do you? You just said something Natasha did was unknown to you. And Bruce will always be a wild card. You put out a good first move, but now the board is changing."

"Not unknown— " Sterns begins as he taps a few more keys. "— just not… " his teeth toy with the bottom of his lip. It's distraction. All of it. But he continues with the talking just the same, "well predictably unpredictable." He smirks. "I expected her to lie. But not about that detail." His eyes narrow. "I've been told that it's her nature. And perhaps… " he types again "…we all return to our natures in the end."

And then he finds it.

Large capital letters. BARTON, CLINT. Exactly what he's looking for.


"There's nothing natural about what you turn people into." Betty is quite firm on that. Whatever she saw happened to Robert was not natural. Whatever is wrong with Natasha is not natural, either. She'll help them, she'll solve the problem.

The evil grin has not left Trent's face and as soon as he sees Sterns access Clint's file, he hits the enter button with exact ferociousness. It may not keep Sterns from actually taking the file, but it has encoded it in a virus. As soon as he opens it, his entire system crashes, leaving only large blinking text that reads, "Samuel Sterns is a stupid jerk."

"It's the most natural— " Sterns is distracted. It's obvious in his tone. He downloads the file. Sweet, sweet success. He beams as he leans back in his chair at his desk. Information. Sweet, sweet information. "And besides, whatever our redheaded friend hid will soon be known. I've gotten what I needed. And, truth be known, should things work differently than expected, well— " he actually smirks. "I have a contingency plan. I have a million contingency plans. That's how this works. That's what it did to me. I may not be green and large and glorious, but I think. I think in ways no human was intended. And, believe me, doctor, it's more than one skull can truly hold." His lips press together tightly. "It's why I put those names first on the list. Like the destruction of redemption itself," he notes cryptically.

And then he double clicks the file.

And the lights go out. As does the screen. Only to come back on and flash one thing and one thing only: Samuel Sterns is a stupid jerk.

Sterns face is gone.

Leaving Betty to decipher the crypts Sterns has left her.

Betty rolls her eyes. No one has contingency plans for contingency plans. And Sterns must be running out of some sort of time. He's changing, according to Natasha. And, now, he's a stupid jerk. With the first truly pleased laugh she's had since waking up in the white room, she moves for the door. She takes the bag of popcorn, pulls it open and eats it happily while she watches the flashing letters that prove that Sterns did not, in fact, plan for everything.

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