The night was cloudy, cold, and raw. A driving rain kept most of the party-goers indoors where the dazzling chandeliers and bright music created a glittering, festive atmosphere. Delicious food, fine spirits, merry company; it all came together at Lady Penelope’s New Year’s Eve party.
Brains looked around the ballroom, a glass of wine in one hand and the other planted firmly in his pocket. He looked rather out of place, even wearing a crisp tuxedo with black bow tie. Few people spoke to him or even noticed he was there, which pleased him, to a certain extent. He always felt uncomfortable in situations where he had to carry on conversations with strangers. He was all too conscious of his stutter, his thick glasses, and the fact that he just didn’t know what the hot topics of conversation were. Put him in front of a group of scientists and he could soldier on. Have him meet face to face with one of his like-minded peers? He could talk for hours, often losing his stutter in the process. But the latest fashion? Gossip? Music? Theater? Art? No. It just didn’t impinge on his radar. So he stood in a relatively secluded spot, out of the way, to watch the people go by.
Jeff Tracy waltzed by, his hostess in his arms. They’re a handsome couple, Brains thought. I wonder if they’ll ever actually come to terms.
Scott and Virgil wandered into the room from the banqueting tables. Scott was peering over the heads of the crowd, obviously looking for someone. He seemed to have found whoever it was, because he waved for a moment before pulling on Virgil’s arm to drag him along with him.
Alan’s bright hair could be seen from where Brains stood. He was talking animatedly with two or three young women, but stopped when his grandmother, who sat nearby, demanded his attention. That elderly worthy was chatting with Deborah, the Duchess of Royston, and at her command, Alan – across whose face flashed a momentary panic – smiled wanly and offered his arm to the aged aristocrat.
The music stopped and there was a smattering of applause. Brains didn’t join in; he couldn’t tell a good ensemble from a bad one; besides, one hand was occupied. He took another sip of wine, watching as the population on the dance floor shifted. Some couples left as pairs – Jeff and Penelope were one of these. Some singles dropped out as their partners were claimed by others, or claimed others for themselves. A few new couples entered the throng – her Grace and Alan among them. More dancers – having taken a break – returned to the floor.
It was one of these last that drew his particular attention. A tuxedo-clad, ginger-haired young man with a ready smile escorted an exotic young beauty with jade green eyes and lustrous black locks pinned up in a flattering style. Her dark blue evening dress shimmered with tiny beads; it clung to her figure, exposing just the right amount of well-tanned skin. The pair chatted for a bit, waiting for the musical ensemble to regroup. Whatever the young man said made his partner laugh and he joined her in her merriment. Brains, on the other hand, sighed wistfully.
It had been hard to watch the friendship growing between Tin-Tin and Gordon since the previous January. Ever since the youngest Tracy son had decided that he couldn’t have a committed relationship, Brains had been hoping that Tin-Tin would see his own affection for her and perhaps even reciprocate. But their relationship as colleagues and friends had continued along the same lines as before, while her sisterly friendship with Gordon had strengthened over the months. He was now the first one she turned to for a friendly game of tennis or an afternoon of exploring the underwater caves. True, they often invited Brains to join them, but increasingly, he turned their down their offer. He didn’t relish feeling like a fifth wheel.
How I wish I could recapture the way I felt after Skythrust, he thought, reminiscing about the time when, flushed with the heady confidence of success, he dared to flirt with Tin-Tin and even asked her to dinner and champagne. She seemed to reciprocate; she acted so coy and flirty, and me? I felt like I owned the world. He unconsciously sighed again. Why can’t I be like that all the time?
The music started again, a more up-tempo number than the last two dances had been. Brains lost sight of Tin-Tin in the throng. He couldn’t even make out Gordon’s distinctive hair color. He blinked, and then took off his glasses to wipe them thoroughly on a clean handkerchief. Replacing them, he squinted through the lenses, looking for the couple. The ballroom, that jumbled mass of color he’d seen without his lenses, became distinctly clearer, but not sharply focused. Looks like another trip to the ophthalmologist, he realized with a pang. My eyes seem to be getting worse.
He finished his wine, and found a servitor who would take the glass from him. A bodily urge became mildly pressing, so he headed off in the direction of the upstairs rooms. Most of the other celebrants had to content themselves with the washrooms on the ground floor, but he was a guest in the house, and, as such, was granted full run of the place. Finding the guest room he was sharing with Jeff’s retainer, Kyrano, he slipped out of his tuxedo jacket and went in to relieve himself.
While washing up, he glanced up at the mirror and stopped, frowning. Looking back at him was a bespectacled young man with plain brown hair cut in a rather outdated fashion, a washed out skin tone, and pale blue eyes magnified by the thick lenses of his blue-rimmed glasses. His current frown displeased him, so he tried smiling, only to stop when he realized how crooked his teeth were. For the first time, he noticed an actual, visible gap between the front two. At least they don’t stick out, he thought ruefully. My ears are too small for my head — can’t do much about that. Hmm, my nose isn’t too big; that’s a good part of my face. But my chin — could I get that fixed? Hey! What the heck am I thinking?
He shook his head thoughtfully, the image in the mirror replicating the motion. Maybe … maybe I need to do something here. Something about my eyes — get rid of the glasses. I could grow my hair out, get a different style. Fix my teeth; I don’t think I’m too old for an orthodontist’s treatment. Perhaps a new wardrobe, something with some pizzazz. Pick up a new hobby or two. Do something about the stutter. I might even grow a beard! Maybe then Tin-Tin would notice me as I’d like her to.
As the plan began to coalesce in his mind, Brains smiled. Yes! I can do this! It’ll be my New Year’s resolution! He smiled wider, and winked at himself in the mirror. “W-W-Watch out world! Here comes a new, improved Hiram, uh, Hackenbacker!”
“Have you seen Brains?” Tin-Tin came up to Virgil as he led Penelope off the dance floor. “I’ve been looking all over for him.”
Virgil shook his head. “No, can’t say that I have.” He glanced up at the clock. “Just a few minutes to midnight, too.”
“Shall I have Parker look for him?” Penelope asked.
“I don’t — oh! There he is!” Tin-Tin smiled widely and waved her hand. “Hiram? Over here!”
Brains grinned and joined the little group. “H-Hello, everyone,” he said, rubbing his hands together. “Nearly the, uh, witching hour, isn’t it?”
“Very true,” Penelope said, smiling sweetly. “Ah, here is the champagne.” Each member of the group took a flute from the tray offered, then Penelope turned to her friends. “I must go and be a proper hostess. I shall see you in a few moments.”
As Penny walked off toward the musician’s podium, Tin-Tin turned to Brains. “I was looking for you, Hiram,” she said, her voice sounding a tad reproachful. “I haven’t had a dance with you all evening.”
“Ah, yes, w-well–” he began to stammer, looking down.
He was saved by Lady Penelope, who spoke into the microphone. “Good evening, everyone,” she said, beaming benevolently on the crowd. A few voices raised in reply, and she added, “I hope all of you have been having a splendid time here tonight. There was a louder, more general murmur of appreciation, and she replied, “Oh, very good!” She paused, craning her neck a little to see all the room’s occupants, then asked, “Does everyone have champagne?” Parker caught her eye and nodded; she returned the nod. The musicians, who had taken up their place behind her, were poised to play, and suddenly, the sound of the BBC radio was heard over the loudspeakers.
“…Twelve, eleven…” As the radio announcer counted, the guests joined in. “Ten, nine, eight, seven…”
Virgil drew Brains and Tin-Tin along to join the rest of the family as the countdown continued, “Six, five, four, three, two, one! Happy New Year!”
The ensemble broke into a sprightly rendition of “Auld Lang Syne”. Colorful, curly streamers fell from the ceiling and the ballroom looked as if it were the center of a confetti blizzard. People around the room raised their glasses to each other and drank their champagne. There was a good deal of hugging, back thumping, handshaking, kissing and the cries of, “Happy New Year!” echoed through the room again and again.
Jeff kissed his mother on the cheek, then did the same to Penelope as she joined them. The Tracy brothers thumped each other solidly on the back, and Alan nearly knocked Brains over with his overly enthusiastic greeting. Tin-Tin gave and received kisses, and Brains watched with interest as Gordon planted a brief peck on her cheek. At last she turned to Brains, smiling sweetly.
This is where it starts, he thought.
Very deliberately, he took Tin-Tin’s hand. The silver bangles on her wrist jingled a little as he did so. I don’t recall ever seeing her wear those. Were they a gift? From whom? Or did she buy them for herself? flashed through his mind. He studied her hand for a second, gently rubbing his thumb over the center knuckle. The skin was smooth and soft; the nails perfectly manicured and painted in a clear but sparkly polish. He bowed over her hand, a deep, courtly bow, then pressed his lips to the back of it, catching a whiff of an unknown but distinctive scent. In the background, he could hear the Tracys reacting. A chuckle, followed by a drawn out “Oooooh!” was Virgil’s. A choking, faux retching noise came from Alan, and a teasing “Whoa-ho!” was Scott’s contribution. Gordon gave a simple huff through his nose, while Eleanor Tracy uttered a coquettish, admiring, “Oh my!”
All of this happened in a second or two, then Brains raised his eyes to Tin-Tin’s startled face and declared, “H-Happy New Year, uh, Tin-Tin.”
She hesitated before nodding graciously. “Happy New Year to you, too … Hiram.”
He straightened and Jeff clapped him on the back heartily, dislodging his glasses. “Didn’t know you had it in you, Brains.”
“W-Well, I can be f-full of surprises, Mr. Tracy,” Brains replied, adjusting his spectacles.
“You most certainly can, Brains dear,” Lady Penelope said as she surprised him with a small kiss on the cheek. “But we knew that already.”
“Maybe you did,” Alan muttered under his breath. “But I still don’t dig him.”
“Come along, everyone,” Jeff said. “Time to follow our family tradition.”
“I believe Parker has prepared the drawing room for you,” Penelope said. She touched her golden hair, and her fingers came down with a morsel or two of confetti. “I must freshen up before I say farewell to my guests,” she told them with an apologetic tone. “There are times when the duties of a proper hostess interfere with what one would rather be doing.”
“Then chuck the hostess routine and join us,” Alan said, winking. “No reason that Parker can’t glad-hand the guests for you.”
“Alan!” Jeff said sharply. “Penny has a duty to perform. She’ll join us when and if she can.” He turned to her, and lifted her hand to his lips. “We’ll see you later, Penny.”
“Of course.” Penelope smiled at him, then turned and walked off down the hall, her pale pink satin gown exposing her back to the waist as she glided along. Jeff took a deep breath and blew it out slowly as she glanced over her shoulder to blow a kiss at him.
Virgil clapped Brains on the shoulder as he steered the engineer toward the drawing room. “Looks like you started something, Brains,” he murmured, amused.
Brains looked ahead of him. Gordon had commandeered Tin-Tin’s arm and was escorting her to their destination. “I most c-certainly hope I did.”
It was nearly two a.m. by the time their reminiscing wound down. There had been a lot to remember: rescues, injuries, a fire deep in the caverns of the island, mishaps that occurred while testing new equipment, the safari that Scott had gone on, and many more things.
“Hey, remember last year,” John, who was in contact with them via webcam and a secure computer, “when Gordon stammered out that resolution of his?”
“Oh, God, yes!” Virgil said, groaning. “And what we didn’t do to make him break it!”
“I still haven’t forgiven you for the crabs,” Gordon stated, spearing a finger in Virgil’s direction.
“I was very shocked to see Mr. Gordon’s new haircut when he met us at the airport,” Kyrano said, nodding. “He did not look like himself.”
“Remember the stunt Grandma and Tin-Tin pulled on us?” Scott said. He turned to Brains. “Never realized you were that much smaller than I am, Brains.”
“You, uh, ended up with my s-sash, as I recall,” Brains said, smirking.
“And your shirt, too, I think,” Scott told him.
“No, dear,” Eleanor piped up. “You had John’s shirt, Alan’s pants, Brains’s sash, and Gordon’s hat.” She smiled widely, a pleased expression. “That was rather inspired if I do say so myself.”
“You didn’t exactly keep the resolution, though, did you, Gords?” Alan said. He took a sip of his whiskey; it was his third and both father and eldest brother were keeping a weather eye on him.
“No, but then Dad told me I didn’t have to,” Gordon said mildly.
“He did cut back quite a bit though,” John admitted. “Though your excuse for that thing with the corn syrup and the baby powder has still got me puzzled.”
“I told you, John,” Gordon said, a lazy, cat-like look on his face. “Friday the thirteenth came on Wednesday that month, that’s all.”
John shook his head. “I still don’t get it.”
Jeff quickly cut in. “Speaking of resolutions, does anyone have one this year?”
There was a sudden silence and everyone glanced at each other, wondering who would be the first to speak.
“I have one,” Eleanor said.
“What’s that, Mother?” Jeff asked.
“I resolve to make fewer desserts,” she said proudly. She took a poke at Scott’s waist with a gnarled finger. “You are all putting on weight.”
“Not me, Grandma!” Scott protested. “That’s all muscle!”
“All muscle, huh? Not when I find you sneaking into the fridge at night and helping yourself to my apple pie!” she retorted.
“But Grandma,” Scott countered, a sly smirk on his face. “Aren’t you the one who always pours me a big glass of cold milk to go with it?”
Everyone laughed, and Eleanor said tartly, “At least I’m not dishing up a scoop of ice cream to go with it, like your father prefers.”
Jeff’s eyes widened, and he sputtered like a teakettle, while Virgil nudged him, grinning.
“Then there’s the chocolate cake, which is never safe around John…”
“Grandma!” John’s protests were barely heard over the laughter.
“And the cheesecake, which is Gordon’s favorite…”
“Aw, Grandma!” Gordon held his hands up. “Can I help it if you make such a delicious one?”
“Flattery will get you nowhere, grandson of mine.” She turned a baleful eye on Alan. “Chocolate chip cookies! I don’t know how many times I’ve caught you snitching those chocolate chip cookies, Alan!”
“You make the best, Grandma,” Alan said, leaning over to kiss her.
“Phew!” She irritably waved a hand at him. “You’ve had enough, Alan. Go sit down before you fall down!”
“This is all so very fascinating,” Penelope said, in a tone that indicated she was enjoying the discomfort of the men around her. “And what dessert is Virgil’s Achilles’ heel, Mrs. Tracy?”
“Virgil?” Eleanor winked at the aristocrat and a corner of her mouth quirked up in a smile. “Why all of them, of course!”
Virgil’s affronted, “Grandma!” was lost among his family’s hearty laughter.
When it finally died down, Eleanor sat up straight and primly on the settee, putting her hands in her lap. “Well, that’s my resolution. Anyone else?”
The room grew quiet again, the only loud sound coming from the fireplace, where the flames popped and crackled. At last, Brains spoke.
“I have a r-resolution for this year.”
He found himself suddenly in the center of attention. “What is it, Brains?” John asked. “Maybe we can help you with it.”
“We could keep you accountable,” Scott offered.
Brains shook his head vigorously. “I don’t want to, uh, tell you, because you might w-want to talk me out of it. And this is something I n-need to do for myself, anyway. But I d-do appreciate the offer of, uh, help. If I need it, I’ll be sure to, uh, ask.”
The silence this time was awkward, but Jeff finally broke it by saying, “Well, if there’s nothing else, I’m ready to head upstairs.”
“I am, too,” Eleanor said. She glanced over at Alan, who was slumped in one of the wing chairs. “You’d better come with us, Alan.”
“Oh, all right,” Alan said sullenly, rising unsteadily to his feet.
“Alan!” Jeff snapped, sounding stern.
Scott rolled his eyes. Alan was definitely drunk; it was only in this state that he’d dare sass their grandmother. “You and Grandma go ahead, Dad. I’ll bring him along.”
Jeff nodded curtly. “Thank you, Scott.” He paused, then relaxed and smiled. “Goodnight, everyone, and Happy New Year!”
“Goodnight, boys, Penelope, Tin-Tin, Kyrano. Get a good night’s sleep,” Eleanor said, a slight smile on her face. She took Jeff’s proffered arm as the two of them left the room.
“Goodnight, Dad! Goodnight, Grandma!” “H-Happy New Year, Mr. Tracy, Mrs. Tracy.” “See you in the morning.” “Sleep well!”
“I, too, shall retire for the evening. Goodnight, one and all,” Penelope said. The others said their farewells and she followed in Jeff’s wake.
“Come on, Alan,” Scott said to his youngest brother, who had dropped back into his chair. “Last call for you.”
“Okay, okay,” Alan muttered. He stood, swaying for a moment. Scott stood by to steady him, and when Alan was stable enough, herded him out of the room, calling his good nights over his shoulder.
“Well, I’m not sleepy,” Gordon announced. “How about a game of snooker? Virgil? Brains? Tin-Tin?”
“I’m game,” Virgil said.
Both men turned to Brains, who shook his head and said, “Th-Thanks but, uh, no thanks. Maybe s-some other time.”
“Tin-Tin?” Brains couldn’t be sure, but it seemed that Gordon’s voice was softer and his smile warmer when he addressed her.
She hid an obvious yawn behind her hand. “I don’t think so, Gordon, but thank you for asking. I’m just going to go to bed. Father?”
Kyrano, who had been dozing in a chair near the fire, roused. “Daughter?”
“I am going upstairs now. Would you come with me?”
“Yes. It is time I slept.” Her father began to rise from his seat, and she went to offer her help. The old man waved away his daughter’s assistance, and stood slowly. For the first time in a long while, Brains saw how old Kyrano really was; the retainer was usually so self-effacing and efficient that it took an effort to actually notice something about him. When at last Kyrano was upright, he gave the three younger men a short bow, and said, “Goodnight, gentlemen. Happy New Year.”
The Tracy brothers and Brains all murmured their goodnight to both Kyrano and Tin-Tin as the pair left the drawing room.
“Sure you don’t want to play, Brains?” Virgil asked again.
“I’m s-sure,” Brains replied. “I want to, uh, talk to John, if he isn’t too s-sleepy.”
John looked delighted. “I’m up for it, Brains.”
“All right then,” Gordon said. “Goodnight, John, Brains. See you later.”
“Later, guys. Happy New Year!” John replied as his brothers moved out of his limited view.
“Goodnight, g-guys,” Brains added. Virgil waved a hand in response, and he and Gordon left for their game of snooker.
“So, Brains,” John said as Brains pulled up a chair in front of the computer. “You want to talk about this resolution of yours?”
Brains nodded. “I thought you might be a good, uh, resource for ideas on h-how to carry this out.”
“Depends on what you want to do.”
“I want a … a makeover. I want to be more s-social, more of a–” here Brains blushed unaccountably, “–a ‘chick magnet’.” His voice got more serious. “I want to lose the stutter, and fix my, uh, teeth, and–”
“Whoa! Slow down, pal!” John said, holding his hands up in protest. When Brains stopped, John asked, “Now, where’s all this coming from? What’s got you so hot about changing yourself?” He regarded the engineer with a searching look, then asked, “Does this have anything to do with Tin-Tin?”
Brains’s startled look said more than his words. “N-No, no, John. Of course not!”
John rolled his eyes in a “tell me another one” expression. “Brains, you’re fine just the way you are. You don’t need to change a thing.”
“I knew you’d, uh, say that,” Brains replied. “John, I’m tired of being a w-wallflower. I want to be someone that people, uh, remember when they meet me. Not because I’m a g-geek, or because of my, uh, stutter, but because I’m witty and friendly and normal.” He sighed. “I want to be someone who p-people want to know.”
John shook his head. “I don’t know if I can help you, Brains. Change like that has to come from the inside. Just altering your looks isn’t going to cut it.”
“It’s not j-just the looks, John. I n-need some new hobbies, and I want to be able to converse about more diverse, uh, topics.”
“Hmm.” John looked thoughtful, and he rubbed his chin. “Well, I guess that’s not a bad idea, really. It’s always good to expand your horizons.” He raised an eyebrow and reiterated, “You’re sure this has nothing to do with Tin-Tin?”
“I sw-swear, it has nothing to do with, uh, Tin-Tin,” Brains said emphatically.
You’ve always been a lousy liar, Brains, John thought. “Okay,” was what he said. “You know I can’t do much up here at the moment; I’ve just begun my term of duty. But I’ll send you a list of some books you might find interesting. Current topics, things I hear people talking about when I’m up here. Are you going to look for a sport to participate in?”
“I h-hadn’t thought about that,” Brains said. “I suppose I should.”
“It’d be good for you in more ways than one. You should talk to Gordon about sports. And talk to Virgil about what’s hot in music and art.”
“G-Good idea. I’ve never had more than a, uh, passing acquaintance with music.”
“I know.” John did. He and Brains had been good friends in college while John was a lowly undergraduate and Brains, already in possession of two bachelor’s degrees, was working through his graduate courses as a research assistant. Their friendship had been an unlikely one, as their chosen fields of study didn’t overlap much, but John had been intrigued by the fertile, ever-turning mind of the grad student. Brains, for his part, appreciated the friendship and the fact that John had sought him out because of his intellect and didn’t find his peculiarities off-putting, as others had.
“Wh-Who should I talk to about, uh, fashion?”
“I’d say Tin-Tin–”
“No!” Brains’s exclamation cemented John’s appraisal of the situation. “No, not, uh, her.”
“Then Lady Penelope. She’d know what the well-dressed man was wearing.”
“G-Good idea! I can talk to her t-tomorrow. Maybe even shop on the day a-after.” Brains smiled. “Th-Thanks, John. I knew I could, uh, count on you.”
“You’re welcome. Just remember; who you are in the inside is far more important than what you look like. And, in my opinion, you don’t have to change a thing.”
“I’ll, uh, r-remember that, John.” Brains yawned. “I think it’s bedtime for me.”
“Me, too,” John admitted. “I’ll talk to you later.”
“R-Right. Goodnight, John.”
Brains hit a key, and the computer’s webcam shut down. Though sleepy, he felt good. He now had a plan; if there was anything he didn’t do, it was go into a situation without one. He rose, stretched, and shut the computer down completely before wandering off to his bed.
In Thunderbird Five, John sat back in his seat, rubbing his chin. I should have seen this coming since Alan’s stupid move last year. But I know Gordon’s gotten fond of Tin-Tin now. I’d hate to have him and Brains end up rivals for her, especially if things came to blows, as could very well happen considering Gordon’s temper. He shook his head. I just hope that, whatever happens, Tin-Tin makes her own opinion known. She’d be the only one who could defuse a potentially dangerous situation. He yawned widely, and shook his head. Well, no sense borrowing trouble. Brains may not even be able to keep this resolution of his.
With that, he ran a hand through his hair, setting the computers to automatic so he could get some sleep.