Step 3: Teeth

“What do you mean?” Scott asked, frowning at Virgil. His two younger brothers had tracked him down in the game room to ask their question.

“Don’t think we haven’t noticed, Scott,” Virgil said, folding his arms across his chest. “If it’s diet, and you know it, you won’t touch it.”

“So?” Scott turned back to the pool table. “Is there something wrong with not liking diet food?”

“But why?” Gordon asked, suddenly reaching out and picking up the cue ball. He nonchalantly tossed it up and down in one hand as he spoke. “The stuff doesn’t taste that bad. In fact, some of it’s pretty good.”

“But is it good for you?” Scott asked. He put down his pool cue, laying across the width of the table. “Have you read anything about those artificial sweeteners? What they can do to your body?”

“No,” Virgil stated. “What can they do? And where are you getting your information?”

“Come with me,” Scott said, indicating with a hand that his brothers should follow him. Virgil and Gordon exchanged glances; Virgil shrugged, and Gordon put the cue ball back down on the table before leaving in Virgil’s wake.

Once in his room upstairs, Scott showed his brothers a data pad. “See?” he said, pointing to a highlighted portion. “Gas, bloating, diarrhea — all from artificial sweeteners.”

Virgil scanned the article, with Gordon reading over his shoulder. When he had finished, he handed it to the younger man so that Gordon could finish reading. “Scott, those are the older sweeteners, the ones developed near the beginning of the century. I’d be surprised if anyone’s still using them. In fact, if you went up and snooped in the cupboards, you’d probably find that none of the stuff Grandma is using has those sweeteners in it.” He shook his head. “She’s never do that. It’d jeopardize our operations.”

“And you have to consider the source, Scott,” Gordon said, as he pointed to the URL where Scott had gotten his information. “This is from a subsidiary of Life Untainted, the people who are against agricultural, genetic and all other types of bioengineering. The loonies who ruined that crop of genetically altered wheat in the Congo last year.”

“Lemme see that,” Scott said, pulling the pad out of Gordon’s hands. He scanned the identification information at the bottom of the page. “How do you know they’re part of Life Untainted?”

“Read about them in the news a few weeks ago,” Gordon said. “A half dozen major companies are suing them for libel for the dicey information they’ve provided on this very website.” He caught his older brother’s eye. “Consider the source, Scott.”

Scott turned away, running a hand through his hair. “Okay, okay. You’ve made your point. I’ll try to eat whatever dessert Grandma makes, diet or not.” He turned around suddenly. “But it’s just not the same! Doesn’t have the same texture, the same… sweetness.”

“Ah, I see,” Gordon said, nodding sagely.

“See what?” Virgil asked, puzzled.

“The sweet tooth,” Gordon replied. “I went through it, too, when I was training for WASP. Train hard all day, eat balanced meals, and want something sugary and fattening from home at the end of the day.”

“Yeah,” Scott said wryly. “Whoever had a care package with homemade cookies had clout, I’ll tell you!” He sighed. “And it was a comfort, too.”

“Yeah, to know someone at home was thinking about you,” Gordon agreed.

“Y’know, I remember that when Mom died, Grandma made dessert a lot. I used to think it was to get John to eat,” Virgil said, his voice far away at first, then suddenly wry and full of humor.

“It was, sort of. More than that, it was her way of comforting us.” Scott sighed. “But we got into the habit,” he said, shrugging. “And it’s hard to break.” He sighed again. “I guess I need to, though. Either that… or…” An eyebrow went up and a surprised, pleased expression crossed his face.

“Or what, Scott?” Virgil asked, his tone warning.

Scott smiled beatifically. “Oh, nothing. Just a fleeting idea.” He shook his head, looking serious now. “It wouldn’t work out anyway. Don’t worry about it.”

Gordon and Virgil glanced at each other as if to ask, “Do we believe him or not?” Gordon shrugged a shoulder slightly, and Virgil sighed.

“Okay, Scott. Whatever you say.”

“Thanks, Virge.” He smiled widely at his two brothers. “Either of you up for a game of pool?”

Gordon was about to reply when the emergency alarm sounded.

“J-John, I don’t know that the Hollywood Report was such a good idea,” Brains said as he discussed the situation via wristcomm. “I’m just not that, uh, interested in the m-media.”

“But you want to know what people are talking about so you can converse easily. And the media is always a topic of conversation,” John argued. “New movies, new televid shows, celebrity gossip — you can’t go wrong.”

Brains gave John a dubious look, and his face twisted into an expression of disgust. “It seems like, uh, voyeurism, if you a-ask me.”

“Then just stick to the upcoming projects,” John told him. “Don’t mess with the celebrity gossip if you don’t want to.” He paused, running a hand through hair. “Did you get the Publisher’s Weekly? And The New York Times?”

“Yes, yes, I have, uh, subscribed to both,” Brains said with a sigh. “B-But I don’t see how I’m going to have time to w-work, if I’m trying to k-keep up with book reviews and such.”

“You need to read in your spare time,” John reminded him. “And not only the reviews, but the books themselves.”

“B-But I need to r-read about my own, uh, field of endeavor, too,” Brains countered. “And wh-what about, uh, Braman? He’s been feeling s-sorely neglected l-lately.”

John blinked and blinked again. “He’s been what?”

Brains rolled his eyes and shook his head quickly. “N-Never mind. I just don’t think I’ll have, uh, time to d-do all this reading. Especially with my eye s-surgery coming up.”

“You do realize that Dad will most likely give you some sick time due to the surgery.”

“Y-Yes, I, uh, understand that.” Brains looked uncomfortable. “I just don’t l-like taking sick time.”

It was John’s turn to roll his eyes and shake his head. “It won’t matter if you want to or not. If I know my father, he’ll make you take the time.”

Brains sighed. “I know.”

“So, make the most of it. Read some of the more talked-about books out there. Pick them up while you’re in Wellington. If the doctor says it’s okay, get some sun, kick back, and read.” John glanced away for a moment. “Gotta go. We might have a rescue coming. Talk to you later, Brains.”

“O-Okay,” Brains said. He pressed the button to end the call, and not five minutes later, the alarm sounded.

In the lounge, Jeff was getting the information on the rescue as his sons came rushing in. “Climbing party stranded on Mount Arkon,” he said tersely. He glanced up as Brains came in, followed by Tin-Tin, then turned to Scott. “Scott, take Thunderbird One. Make sure you’re dressed for the weather.”

“F-A-B, Father,” Scott said smartly as he headed for Thunderbird One’s entrance.

“Virgil, on your way. Gordon, Alan, join him in Thunderbird Two. I think we’ll need as much manpower as possible.”

“F-A-B!” “Right, Dad.” “F-A-B, Dad!” The three remaining Tracy sons scattered, Virgil going to the painting of the rocket and his ride to Thunderbird Two’s cockpit, while Alan and Gordon headed for the passenger elevator.

“I’m sorry, Brains, but unless we can get these climbers out quickly, I’m not going to be able to fly you to Wellington,” Jeff said as he settled behind his desk. “I’ll make arrangements so that Tin-Tin can do so in my stead, if need be. Is that all right with both of you?”

Brains nodded. “I u-understand, Mr. Tracy.”

“Tin-Tin?” Jeff prompted.

Tin-Tin gave Brains a quick glance and smile. “Yes, Mr. Tracy. I’m glad to help.”

January 20

“So, why do you need to be in Wellington so early?”

“For pre-op b-blood work,” Brains explained.

“But that’s not all, is it?” Tin-Tin asked.

The Tracy boys had returned in the wee hours of the morning, having rescued three of the six climbers, and retrieved the bodies of two more. The last body was irrecoverable, having fallen into a deep crevasse. Jeff had stayed up for the entire time, and as a result was in no physical condition to fly Brains anywhere. Ergo, they went with plan B, so it was Tin-Tin who sat in Ladybird’s cockpit as pilot.

Brains sighed. He didn’t want to tell her about the orthodontist appointment, but he couldn’t see any way around it. He wasn’t sure if he would need any anesthesia or a bit of sedative to help him through the process, and he really couldn’t drive if the doctor insisted on it.

“You’re r-right. This a-afternoon I have an appointment with an, uh, orthodontist.”

“An orthodontist? For braces?” Tin-Tin’s puzzlement came through clear from her vocal tone.

He nodded his head, trying not to sigh again. “Y-Yes. For b-braces.”

She took a moment to actually look at him. “But why?” She shook her head quickly and corrected herself. “I mean, I know why a person would use braces, and even why you personally would want them. I guess I’m asking, why now?”

“Well,” he began, trying frantically to find a way to answer her question without giving away his ultimate reason. “I have c-considered dealing with my, uh, malocclusion before, and th-thought that it would be more time efficient if I took the, uh, opportunity now, instead of l-later.”

“Hm.” Tin-Tin thought that over, then nodded. “I suppose I can understand that. I know you don’t like to be away from your work for long.”

“Th-That’s right,” Brains said, relieved that his explanation passed muster. “So, I’ll have the b-blood work done first, then visit my orthodontist, and tomorrow, the, uh, eye surgery.”

“You’ll look so different, when all of this is finished,” Tin-Tin said softly.

Her tone made him glance over at her. “Does that, uh, bother you?”

“Not if it’s what you really want,” she replied, just as softly. “As you said, I’ll get used to it.”

His shoulders slumped at the resignation in her tone, and he sighed softly, feeling defeated.

The blood work took only a few moments, then Brains could eat. He and Tin-Tin shared a late breakfast, and she was surprised to hear him talk about a new book he wanted to read, Looking For Winter: A Soldier’s Journey Through World War III. They checked into their hotel, in adjoining rooms, and Brains cleaned his teeth thoroughly. A short browse through a bookstore to buy the book – and a few magazines that made Tin-Tin frown – then they went on to the office of the orthodontist, Dr. Rangihau.

“I have your records and latest scans from Dr. Forbes,” she told him, the blue moto, or Maori tattoo,that surrounded her lips fascinating Brains as it moved with her speech. “I will take a scan of my own, then we can talk about what exactly you want to see happen in this correction.”

“H-How long will the, uh, correction take?” he asked as she prepared the scanner.

“Depending on what you want your smile to look like, up to six months. You’ll have to come for follow-up visits every two to three weeks for a new aligner. But the success of this will depend on you and how well you adhere to the program. If you don’t wear the aligners as prescribed, then treatment will take longer.”

The scan took a good fifteen minutes, then Brains waited for the doctor to look over the results and compile his options. While he waited, he opened the book and began to read. By the time the doctor called him into her office, he was a third of the way through, and shaking his head in incredulity.

“Hm,” she said as he set the book down on the floor next to his seat. “I’ve been wanting to read that. What do you think of it so far?”

Brains blinked a couple of times, put up a finger, opened his mouth, then closed it and shook his head. “I c-could talk for h-hours on what I think is, uh, wrong with this book, and I haven’t even, uh, finished it yet,” he finally explained. “Let’s just g-get on with the alignment.”

The doctor was taken aback. “Hours? And you haven’t even finished it?” She took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Whew!” With a last look of disbelief toward her new patient, she shook her head a little, then turned to the computer screen. “All right then, Mr. Hackenbacker. Let’s get to it.”

When Tin-Tin came in response to his phone call, she asked, “How did it go?”

“Well enough,” he replied, climbing into the Tracy’s car. “I h-have to go back after my, uh, surgery and get my f-first set of aligners.”

“Then you’ve got a busy day tomorrow,” she said as she pulled away from the curb. She flashed a winsome smile his way, and asked, “What would you like to do tonight?”

The question took him by surprise. “Well, I, uh, hadn’t really thought–”

She cut him off. “I know! There’s a club I’ve been to before, a nice place with dinner and dancing. Perhaps we could go there this evening.”

“Uh … sounds good to m-me,” Brains said. “Though I d-don’t think I packed the clothes for a night on the, uh, town.”

“Oh, Brains,” Tin-Tin said, laughing. “It’s only one club. Not a ‘night on the town’ at all.”

“I’ll, uh, take your word for it.”

“This is nice,” Tin-Tin said softly as they swayed on the dance floor. “This makes up for not getting to dance with you at Lady Penelope’s.”

“You p-picked a nice, uh, place, Tin-Tin,” Brains replied, smiling. “The food is very good, and I d-didn’t expect this kind of, uh, music.” I can’t believe how lucky I am! Her perfume, her smile, the softness of her skin, holding her so close — it’s exciting and frightening and wonderful all at once! Dancing with her was never like this before. If I died right now, I’d die a happy man.

“So,” Tin-Tin began, meeting his blue eyes with her green ones, “tell me about your resolution.”

Brains, still enthralled with her closeness, murmured, “Hmm?”

“Your resolution. Oh, come now, Brains,” she coaxed, smiling sweetly, “you can tell me. I don’t know why you haven’t told anyone else about it, but I promise I’ll keep it a strict secret. It will be just between us two.”

He looked down at her, coloring, the import of her words finally registering in his besotted brain. “I … I c-can’t, Tin-Tin. Really.”

“Why not? We’re friends, aren’t we?”

Her offhand comment cut like a knife. Friends, yes, but I want so much more! I want you to notice me, to be attracted to me!

She gazed up at him, concerned at his silence. “Brains? Are you all right?”

He swallowed his hurt, and nodded. “I’m, ah, okay, Tin-Tin.”

“Good.” They continued to dance as the music set a slow tempo. “If you won’t tell me your resolution, will you tell me why you’re doing all this?” She swept an arm out to indicate the city. “You’ve given us perfectly valid reasons, I know, but somehow I think there’s more to it.” She smiled, and with a chuckle, said, “If I didn’t know you better, I’d say you were trying to impress a girl.”

The words were out before he could stop them. “I a-am.”

“You are?”

He couldn’t decide if she looked puzzled or hurt or both, but he nodded. She was quiet for a little bit, then, in a voice that sounded as if she were being brave, said, “Well, she must be a pretty special lady for you to go to these lengths for her.”

Again, his response was without thought. “Sh-Sh-She is.”

Tin-Tin took in a deep breath and eased away from him a little. The music ended, and she drew back even further. “I … I think we’d better go. I’m getting a headache and you have surgery in the morning.”

“Oh, ah, okay,” Brains said, cursing himself for not taking the opportunity to tell her the truth.

He followed her back to the table, where she reclaimed her tiny handbag, and he took care of the financial matters. She led the way from the club, not speaking to him again until she murmured, “Good night,” at her hotel room door.

Back at Tracy Island, a stealthy figure padded cautiously toward the darkened kitchen, a piece of computer paper clutched in one hand.

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