LAST EDITED ON Oct-22-12 AT 11:42 AM (EDT)
I was looking through the files for something I might be able to share with the class by way of apologizing for nothing much having gotten done lately, and it suddenly occurred to me that this bit - originally written as a piece of the still-incomplete TIA04 draft shortly before the Summer Medical Adventure - is really a complete little story in itself, not unlike Warrior Dawn: The Contract, and a pretty good teaser for 04 into the bargain. Enjoy. --G.
Friday, February 5, 2027
A gala evening at the Thunderdome, Hanoi's hottest nightclub; or so Tony had claimed when he dragged Ben Hutchins out of the Stark Industries compound just outside the city and into the maelstrom that always was a Friday night on the town - any town - with Tony Stark.
In practice, about all the Thunderdome had going for it in Ben's opinion was its eccentricity. It actually was a dome, a geodesic structure made of aluminum tubes and some kind of plastic sheeting. If he had to guess, and he did, Ben would've said that it had originally been erected as a greenhouse or some such thing, though it had to be admitted that it was in an odd part of town for that kind of thing. Then, at some later point, a semi-outlaw DJ outfit and (as far as he could tell) entirely outlaw cash bar had moved in, installed tables and garish lighting, and set about annoying everyone within a mile or so who might've been trying to get some sleep.
It so happened that nightclubs - even less half-assed ones than the Thunderdome - weren't really Ben's cup of tea. As the evening progressed, he found himself mainly sitting at a table crammed into a corner, organizing some of his notes from the week and doing his best to tune out the shatteringly loud twenty-year-old house dub that seemed to be the only tunes the DJ felt like spinning. Every now and then Tony would swing by, put another drink on the table, cajole him cheerfully for being no fun, and then disappear back into the heaving throng of servicemen, go-go girls, agents provocateurs and who the hell knew what else that filled the dance floor between their table and the bar.
Truthfully, he wasn't having a bad time. The music wasn't great and the strobey, multicolored lighting was worse, but the beer was (somehow) imported and (somehow) cold, and nobody was giving him a hard time. The noise level alone prevented it from being the kind of place where a certain class of social worker, of either or indeterminate sex, would suddenly appear on the seat next to him and demand, "Hey, GI, you buy me one drink," like an extra in a movie about the last Vietnam war. Tony could work such a situation so that he was being bought drinks by the end of an half-hour or so, but Ben just found it annoying.
On his last couple of orbits, Tony had had a peculiarly well-dressed blonde woman with him, which was the sort of concretion that the glamorous billionaire tended to gather while circulating in environments such as this. The next time he appeared, though, there were two women with him, the young blonde and an even younger redhead dressed more appropriately for the environment in ratty Red Army-surplus jungle boots and fatigue pants, an Aeroflot T-shirt, a many-pocketed photographer's vest not unlike Ben's own, and the biggest damn wristwatch he had ever seen.
"Hey, WorldWatch," said Tony, grinning. "Look alive, I found you a colleague."
"What?" Ben asked.
Tony indicated the redhead. "This is Natasha, she's one of you press people. So now you have someone to talk to! You're welcome."
Ben hesitated for a moment as Tony and his blonde companion made to disappear into the crowd again, then turned to Natasha and said, "Would you excuse me for a second? Thanks."
Then, bolting up from the table, he managed to catch Tony before he could follow the blonde out of sight, leaned next to the billionaire, and half-shouted in his ear, "Tony, what... ?"
Still grinning, Tony slapped his friend on the shoulder and replied, "Hey, someone has to be your wingman!"
"Aren't you supposed to demo the new Mark IV updates to General Rosario in the morning?"
"Yeah, but that's in, what - " Tony glanced at his Rolex. " - nine hours."
Ben suppressed the urge to facepalm. "Tell me you're not carrying the specs around with you."
"Don't be stupid!" Tony replied. Angling his head back toward the bar, where Ben could just make out the blonde getting a couple of drinks, he added, "Oksana works in the Soviet embassy! She's almost certainly KGB!" Then, tucking a data tab into one of the upper pockets of Ben's vest, he smirked, slapped Ben's shoulder again, and said, "YOU have the specs. See you at 0830!"
By the time Ben replied, "I hate you so much," he was speaking only to the space where Tony had been. Then, sighing, he turned and went back to his table. The redhead in the Aeroflot T-shirt was sitting in the seat next to the one he'd vacated, sipping from a bottle of Zhigulevskoye beer and smiling enigmatically.
"So. Uh, sorry about that," he said, resuming his seat. "Tony takes a little managing sometimes."
"I do not doubt it," said Natasha dryly.
"Anyway, hi. Ben Hutchins, WorldWatch," he said, feeling like he ought to be offering her his card.
She kept smiling and nodded cordially, flicking a finger against the laminated press badge clipped to her vest. "Natalia Volkovskaya - TASS." As they clinked the necks of their beer bottles together, she added, "You can call me Natasha."
"I have to say, if you wanted an interview with Tony, you shouldn't've let your blonde friend see him first," Ben said wryly.
"Ah, the story of my life," said Natasha philosophically. Then, surprising him, she suddenly seized his wrist and, rising, declared, "Let's dance."
# Taio Cruz
# "Break Your Heart"
# Rokstarr (2009)
Ben could count the number of times he'd been in a nightclub such as this on both hands, with a little concentration, but the number of times he'd actually danced in one was a much simpler figure to remember: none. As it turned out, though, it wasn't that difficult, or maybe Natasha's standards just weren't that exacting, because she seemed to be having a good time. More than good. Her energy was infectious, her bright eyes and ready smile engrossing, and even dressed in ratty combat pants and a T-shirt with the logo of an airline on it, she easily managed to be the sexiest woman in the room.
It occurred to him briefly to wonder what on Earth kind of guidance system malfunction had brought her to him, of all people, but by then he had decided he shouldn't be so cosmically ungrateful and just get on with... whatever the hell was happening. From speakers overdriven to the edge of the envelope, a club track from a byegone decade blared; Ben let the beat take over, doing his best to keep up with Natasha's moves, and she seemed to think his best was good enough.
Now listen to me baby
Before I love and leave ya
They call me Heartbreaker
I don't wanna deceive ya
Some part of him wondered as to the secret behind the enduring popularity of Taio Cruz's second album in this part of the world. He supposed, supply matters being what they were in Hanoi at the moment, it might be all the DJ had.
If you fall for me
I'm not easy to please
I might tear you apart
Told you from the start
Baby from the start
I'm only gonna break break your
Break break your heart
I'm only gonna break break your
Break break your heart
Ben Hutchins did not believe in omens, so he gave the lyrics no particular thought as he danced with the young Russian. They stayed out for half a dozen more tracks, each much like the one before. When, at the end of the seventh, she leaned close to him - her body heat tangible on his face, like standing near a fire - and suggested that they adjourn to someplace quieter, he didn't need to be asked twice.
Since the Stark Industries compound, where he'd been given guest quarters since he started covering Tony, was an area under semi-military security, they didn't go there. He and Tony generally didn't go back there when they'd been out on the town anyway, since getting past the security was a serious pain if you'd had a few. Instead, it was their habit after gala evenings to retire to adjoining balcony rooms on the top floor of the Pha Qing Palace Hotel, which, as luck would have it, was only a couple of blocks from the Thunderdome. The Pha Qing had horrifying coffee, but it was clean and secure, and the perfect place to sleep off one of Tony's patented search-and-destroy evenings before slinking, chastened by the remorseless glare of the accursed daystar, back to the farm.
Of course, tonight was a little different from the usual cataclysmic crash at the end of an expedition with Tony, in that Ben was hitting the Pha Qing a) without his wingman, b) with a woman and c) completely sober. He was particularly pleased about that last part; he was reasonably sure by this point that he was going to need all his faculties for what was happening next.
Natasha very considerately let him take a moment to himself in the bathroom when they arrived in his room, but the moment he emerged she had him up against the wall next to the door and they were off to the races. She kissed, he discovered, the same way she danced: with every resource available. A line from an old song - not one that they'd play at the Thunderdome - ran through his head as she clawed at the buttons of his shirt with the hand that wasn't locked on the back of his head.
(Get me out of my mind; get you out of those clothes...)
Her aggression didn't put him off. Score one for being a very modern sort of boy. Under the circumstances, it wasn't even so much a case of letting himself be seduced as of making no effort to avoid an airstrike, but it was all good as far as he was concerned.
Morning, and Tony Stark was barging into the room, fresh and chipper as if he'd just come from a good night's sleep, to yank the drapes open and declare,
"C'mon, sport, we've gotta be back on the farm and ready for General R in 30."
Ben stirred, turned over, and sat up, blinking. The room looked like a bomb had gone off in the night, if bombs scattered articles of clothing instead of shrapnel. His pants were inside-out and hanging by one leg from the (nonfunctional) ceiling fan; one boot was on top of the fridge and the other couldn't be seen from where he was sitting; his shirt was draped over the TV set. Only -his- clothes were in evidence, though. Of Natasha's - and of their owner - there was no sign, apart from a faint depression in the temperfoam mattress and a couple of red hairs on the pillow.
"Hnnh," he said, then got up (dragging the sheet with him), collected his trousers from the ceiling fan, and went into the bathroom. When he emerged, wet-haired and enpantsed, Tony was standing by the minibar, holding Ben's vest in one hand and a small piece of paper in the other.
"What's that?" Ben asked. Without a word, Tony handed it over. It was a sheet from the Pha Qing notepad by the phone, and it read,
next to a red lipstick kiss.
"She got the tab," Tony observed matter-of-factly, looking into the empty top vest pocket.
"Of course she did," Ben replied, unconcerned. He spent a few moments hunting for his other boot, found it under the foot of the bed, and sat down to put them both on, then collected his shirt and shrugged into it. "And I hope she enjoys it very much." He smiled. "Not to be too indiscreet about these things, but she earned it."
"Well," said Tony philosophically as he handed over the vest, "one-night stand with Soviet agent... check. Off your bucket list. I told you hanging with me would take you to new places," he added wryly. "At least the Russians aren't helping the Chinese these days, so we probably won't see countermeasures turning up at the front in -this- war, anyway... "
Ben turned to go, then held his left hand up above his shoulder, a small object jutting from between thumb and forefinger. "Particularly not based on this data," he said.
Tony snatched the tab from his hand, turned it over, and checked the holographic serial number. "Wha - how did - "
"I'm a reporter, Tony," said Ben as he left the room with his amazed friend in tow. "I handle a lot of stuff from confidential sources. Stuff that I might get stopped and searched for. The old datatab switch is the first thing you learn." He glanced back over his shoulder with a faint grin. "And the second is how to spot people who aren't really from TASS."
Then, hands in pockets, he strolled whistling down to the elevator, leaving Tony to look from him to the tab and back before trotting to catch up.
In a more utilitarian hotel room across town, Natasha (whose last name was not really Volkovskaya) sat reviewing the data her icebreaker had just liberated from her newly purloined tab.
It was interesting, and unlike anything she could remember having seen before, but she doubted her superiors would really be that interested in a complete archive of puppet-based British children's television programs from the 1960s... and she was certainly not going to share with them the text message attached to the index file, hastily thumbed in the "scratchpad" app of a portable phone:
She smiled, ejected the tab from her portable, and wiped the icebreaker's logs. Better to report this contact as Simple Unproductive and move on to the next assignment...
... but she wouldn't mind encountering this American again one day.