Simon Tam thought that going to the tailor's would have been wonderful, if it weren't for the fittings. Standing there like a stuffed mannequin while Mr. Choo and his assistants draped him with cloth and measured his limbs and exclaimed to his father how much Master Simon had grown since last season was hardly his idea of a good time. It was almost worth it, though, to get to be in the back room. The walls there were lined with reams of exquisite fabrics; red cotton the deep color of the expensive pomegranate juice his family had on special occasions, green velvet like the lawn at the club, gold silk shinier than the cherub figurine on the mantle that River had picked out one Christmas to go on top of the tree, and never allowed them to put away. Simon's favorites, however, were the brocades, which always told a story. There was a boar hunt on one, a colony of dragons on another, and a scene depicting the desertion of Earth That Was on a black bolt near the ceiling that Simon didn't think anyone had ever touched. They were like complex picture books with no words to dictate the story, tiny worlds that he could narrate in his mind, like the games he and River played, but only for himself.
He didn't tell his dad any of this. Dad would have laughed at him, patted his shoulder, and told Mr. Choo that Simon was spending too much time with his younger sister. He'd be wrong; that wasn't why Simon liked the fabrics, although it was true that River liked them too. Simon just thought that there was no point in having money if you didn't enjoy the things it brought you. His father didn't seem to enjoy anything; not particularly. He liked expensive things because they were expensive and because he knew he could buy them, but not because he appreciated the objects for what they were.
Instead, Simon bit his lip to keep from fidgeting and looked around at the beautiful fabrics, wishing River were here to enjoy them. She was at the dressmaker's with his mother, and Simon knew that she was probably wishing for him as much as he was wishing for her.
"So tall!" Mr. Choo exclaimed with a smile, looking up from the screen on his virtual measurer.
"Yes; we're hoping that he's inherited my height, rather than Regan's," Dad said from his seat by the door. He winked at Simon and Simon smiled back. He hoped he'd get as tall as his father, too. He was fourteen and the shortest boy in his class. Granted, everyone else in his class was sixteen.
"You want same cut as last time, Mister Tam?" Mr. Choo asked. He gestured Simon down from the pedestal in the center of the room, and Simon stepped off of it with relief.
"That will be fine," Dad said. "Upgrade the style, of course. We'd also like something appropriate for a ball. In that blue silk my wife picked out last week."
"Ah, Master Simon is going to first ball?" Mr. Choo asked, his eyes crinkling as he looked down at Simon.
"I am," Simon said politely. He bit the inside of his cheek to keep from smiling. River had told him once that Mr. Choo could speak perfect English, but that he faked his broken dialect and Chinese accent to appeal to customers. Simon wasn't sure how River knew that, but he knew better than to doubt her.
"How joyful!" Mr. Choo said, clapping his hands.
"Have you heard our other news?" Dad asked, clapping Simon on the back. "Top of his class this year."
"Oh, how very clever!" Mr. Choo exclaimed. "Well done, Master Simon. We make very nice suit for you."
"Thank you," Dad said with a smile, his hand settling into its customary spot on Simon's shoulder. When he was younger, Simon had loved it when his dad did that. It had seemed like a grown-up sign of affection from the man who had stopped hugging him when he was about eight. Now that he was fourteen, it just made him feel even shorter than he was. "Have a good day, Mr. Choo."
"Thank you, Mister Tam. Have good day." Mr. Choo bowed as they walked past him into the store's main room.
Simon noticed his mother hovering nearby, plucking anxiously at her jade necklace as she examined a casual suit on a mannequin by the window. Simon looked around for River, but didn't see her anywhere. His mother looked up as they came in.
"There you two are," she said, coming towards them. "Is River with you?"
"No, of course not. She was with you," Dad said, his fingers tightening on Simon's shoulder. Simon didn't notice enough to mind. His mother was plucking at her necklace again.
"I just looked away for a second and she was gone," Mom said, her voice higher than usual. "She must have slipped away. I thought she'd come here to find Simon, but…" She trailed off and swallowed hard.
Mom's eyes were damp and her hands were shaking. Simon reached out to take her hand and she smiled at him, wrapping her fingers around his and giving them a squeeze.
"We'll go to the feds," Dad said, his voice smooth and decisive, like it always was. "They'll find her in no time." He started towards the door and Simon hurried to keep up.
"I'm sure she's around here somewhere," Mom said, following them. "If she's not here, she'll be in Beckert's Toy Store, or the candy shop."
"She'll be at the docks," Simon said.
His parents turned to stare at him. Simon didn't know why they were surprised; they should have been able to guess the docks themselves. River had been obsessed with space travel ever since they'd taken that liner to Londinium to visit their family in New Manhattan last winter.
"The docks?" Dad repeated, looking dubious. "That's ridiculous. How would she even know where they are? Did you tell her?"
Simon raised his eyebrows. It always confused him when his parents seemed to forget how smart River was. It was like they didn't want to remember. There were pictures of Simon and River on top of the antique piano in the drawing room, and nearly all the pictures of Simon showed him receiving awards for projects or test scores at school. River won academic awards, too, but all the pictures of her showed her at dance recitals, or wearing the frilly dresses Mom liked to put her in.
Dad gave a weary sigh and shook his head. "Of course she knows where the docks are," he muttered, almost to himself. "All right, let's go."
The docks were in the industrial district, which was a good distance from the shopping center, and Dad hailed a hover cab rather than waiting for their driver to come get them.
"The docks," Dad instructed the uniformed driver as he slid into the back seat opposite Simon and Mom.
As they sped towards the industrial district, Simon craned his neck out the window, looking for River in the street, but of course she would have been smart enough not to try to walk to the docks, and would have employed some sort of transport for herself. Dad said Mom was spoiling River by giving her charge of her own allowance, but he'd never stopped the practice. Simon thought this was due to an incident two years prior, when River, bored with her homework, had asked Simon to set her a harder assignment. Dad had found them in his office half an hour later, balancing his company's accounts. It was hard to tell someone they couldn't carry five credits when they could do math better than a trained accountant.
The cab pulled up at the edge of the docks, and Simon and Mom climbed out while Dad paid the driver.
"Do you see her?" Mom asked, peering around. "She's wearing gold."
Simon knew what River was wearing, but he didn't say it; Mom was clearly upset enough. Simon knew River was smart enough to avoid danger if she could, but she was just a little girl – an obviously wealthy little girl – and the docks were very crowded and much less friendly looking than the shopping center.
"I'll ask there," Dad said, pointing to a tall, shiny ship that resembled the liner they'd taken to Londinium. "Regan, you ask over there. Simon—"
"She won't be on any of these," Simon said, looking at the ships docked around them. Some were short, some were tall, some were shaped like birds, others like disks, but they were all sleek and shiny, and that meant River would find them dull. He remembered her complaining about not being allowed to see any of the machinery on their space liner.
"It's all covered up," she'd said, frowning at the smooth, plexi-wood paneling on the walls of their staterooms. "How are we supposed to learn how it works?"
Eventually, Simon had managed to interest her in the view from the passenger deck, and they'd spent most of the journey pointing out the stars they recognized, and making up constellations and myths to go along with them.
"Are you sure?" Mom asked, frowning at the expensive ships. "These look just like that liner we took to see Reginald and Geraldine, and she was so fond of that ship."
Simon only shook his head, deciding not to correct her.
"She'll be on a ship where you can see how it works."
He looked towards the end of the docks, where the ships were the reddish-orange of rust rather than the purplish-silver of fresh plating. Without looking back, Simon started forward. He knew his parents would follow him. In matters involving River, they'd started to defer to him more and more recently. Simon thought it wasn't exactly fair – they were supposed to be River's parents, he was just supposed to be the big brother – but he didn't mind playing with River, and it was obvious he understood her better than Mom and Dad did. River's mind was like a riddle, and it was easy and fun to figure out the answers. His parents, he knew, didn't think that little girls should be like riddles.
The dock people grew poorer and dirtier as the Tams walked towards the end of the pier.
Simon had just drawn level with a booth selling kabobs of fried cat meat when he noticed a tall, thin, dusty ship parked in the shadow of two hulking freighters. It was the first ship they'd seen that Simon thought might appeal to River.
"We should check there," he told his parents.
"There?" his mother repeated, frowning with distaste. She was eyeing the barker that stood by the ship's lowered gangplank, a balding Asian man with patches of long, scraggly hair and a wrinkled face that stretched and contorted as he chewed on something that made his left cheek bulge. Simon hoped it wasn't cat. The man was staring back at the Tams, and Simon supposed they did sort of stick out, with their tailored clothing and basic knowledge of hygiene.
Simon tried not to wrinkle his nose as he approached the man.
"Excuse me, have you seen a little girl with black hair and—"
The man interrupted him with a laugh. "Yeah, I thought that's what you folks was about," he said with a gruff Rim accent. He curled his tongue around whatever was in his mouth and made a slurping noise. Simon pressed his lips together to keep them from curling. "I let 'er on board a while ago."
"You what?" Simon's father snapped from behind him.
"Oh my God!" his mother said, but Simon wasn't sure whether she was expressing anxiety over River's situation or disgust over the fact that the man had just spat a slimy wad of chewing tobacco onto the pavement.
"You let an eight-year-old on your ship?" Simon demanded, his brow furrowed.
The man shrugged, remorseless. "Girl gave me two credits." He smiled. "What d'you got?"
"A promise to go to the feds if you don't let us on your ship this instant to retrieve my daughter," Dad said, his voice as angry as Simon had ever heard it.
The man chewed for a minute, seeming to consider. "Fair 'nuff," he said, shifting to let them pass.
They stepped through the door and found themselves in a huge, vertical room ringed with adjoining catwalks and stairways. Dad hurried forward, his pace somewhere between a walk and a jog, Mom clattering along behind him in her silk heels. Simon, being fourteen and without grown-up constraints, ran ahead, and so he was the first to meet the captain.
"Ho, there!" a voice said as Simon reached the top of a flight of stairs.
Simon gasped and looked to his right as a hand closed around his bicep and nearly pulled him off his feet. The man that held him was tall and broad, with a handlebar moustache and a chunk missing from one ear.
"Where you think yer goin', youngin?" he growled, narrowing his eyes at Simon.
"My sister—" Simon began, but his dad cut him off.
"Excuse me, sir," Dad said, arriving on the landing. "Would you be so kind as to unhand my son?"
The man sized Dad up and let Simon go.
"Sorry, sir," the man said, saying the word without the sarcasm Simon's father had used. "Get a lotta kids down at the docks lookin' for a thrill by sneakin' onto ships. Once we didn't find one 'til after we'd broke atmo. Can't be too careful."
"So this sort of thing happens often?" Dad asked, folding his arms. "Well, then I'm sure you won't be surprised to hear that your man out front let my eight-year-old daughter on your ship some time ago. We're here to retrieve her."
The man sighed and closed his eyes, and Simon almost felt sorry for him. He might have felt sorrier if he hadn't been able to feel the numb ache of a developing bruise on his upper arm where the man had grabbed him.
"I gotta find me a new cook," the man muttered under his breath. "Bridge is at the top," he told them, opening his eyes. "Most a' the doors along these stairs is locked, so the bridge is where the kids usually go. I'll take ya up right now." He led them towards the next flight of stairs. "I'm Captain Dalton, by the by."
"And what's your business, Captain?" Mom asked, peering down into the huge, empty cargo hold.
"Transport," Dalton said. "Freelance, but we mostly been carryin' supplies for the troops since the start a' the war. Arms, rations, armor, mail from home; whatever our boys an' girls on the frontlines need."
They passed several doors on their long trek up the stairs, all of which were, as Dalton had said, locked. Simon wished they could go faster. He kept close to the wall, not wanting to look over the railing into the cargo hold. He'd never been afraid of heights, but these catwalks were starting to feel more like scaffolding than stairs.
As the group neared the pinnacle of the ship, Simon heard a voice up ahead that was unmistakably River's.
"No, that's silly," she said. "It doesn't work that way."
"They said it did in flight school," a male voice replied with mingled irritation and awe.
Simon pushed past Dalton and ran up the last few steps to the bridge.
"It only does if you force it, and she doesn't like to be pushed," River was saying. "You have to be gentle."
The bridge was shaped like a half circle, with a wrap-around window that afforded an impressive view of Capital City's industrial district. There was a huge console with dozens of buttons and screens, and underneath the console he could see a pair of man's legs and most of River's dress. She was folded up so that she fit under the console, her dragon-patterned silk skirt flared out around her legs. Simon could see most of her top half, but her head was blocked from view, and her hands were hidden somewhere above her head.
"If you just go easy on her," River said, her hands working at something. "And plug this into that, she'll turn more smoothly."
Simon looked over his shoulder. His parents and Dalton had arrived on the bridge.
River's face appeared under the console and she smiled, seeming blissfully unaware of how much anxiety she'd caused. Simon knew that River, looking at their parents, could see exactly how much anxiety she'd caused, but that she knew it would go better for her if she pretended ignorance.
"River!" Mom said again, rushing forward and pulling River out from under the console and into her arms. "Sweetheart, are you all right? Don't ever do that again!"
"I'm fine, ma ma," River said. She looked over Mom's shoulder and rolled her eyes at Simon. Simon's lips twitched into a smile and he shook his head at her.
"You scared us half to death," Dad said, standing next to River and Mom. "And your hands are filthy!"
"I'm sorry, ba ba," River said. Mom let go of her and wiped at the back of her dress where River's hands had been. "I just wanted to see the ships."
"Cahill, what's she doin' up here?" Dalton demanded of his pilot, who had come out from under the console himself. He had a wide, ruddy face that was currently wearing an embarrassed expression.
"Oh, uh, she was just showin' me – I mean, I was just showin' her how the wirin' for the thrusters work, Cap'n."
Dalton sighed and smiled at Dad, who was wiping River's greasy hands with his handkerchief.
"Well, there ya have it. 'Bout as easy ta keep track of my grown crew as that adventuresome little girl ya got there."
"We'll certainly speak to her about this when we get home," Mom said, giving Dalton a weary smile of her own. It was a look she often wore when she talked about River, and Simon didn't like it. "We're sorry to have troubled you."
"Not at all," Dalton said. "Can I show you off the ship?"
"Thank you; we'll find our own way out," Dad said, taking River's newly clean hand and leading her towards the door.
"Ya'll have a good day," Dalton called after them.
River slipped away from their father and ran forward to put her hand in Simon's.
"I got to see the engines!" she told him, her voice excited. "There are three. Gurstlers. It's an inefficient design. They need so many because you can only run them at half power before you strain the primary artery function. There's a way to work around that, but it's difficult – nearly impossible with an older model like this. They'd have to take most of it apart to fix it. And the shaking's a problem."
"Is it?" Simon asked, smiling down at her. River's ringlets had started to droop and there was still some grease under her fingernails, but she didn't seem to mind.
"Cahill's not a very good pilot," she confided. "The captain only keeps him because there aren't many people willing to fly a ship that's this hard to manage, and there are even fewer who can hold their lunch with the ship shaking the way it does. But I think I figured out a way to fix it."
"I'll draw you a picture when we get home," River said. "Twirl."
Simon obliged, raising the hand that held his sister's and spinning her around so that her skirt and hair swirled around her. She grinned and swung his hand back and forth as they started down the next flight of stairs.
Simon glanced over his shoulder and saw their parents a good distance behind them, engrossed in a conversation that made both of them frown, and he guessed they were talking about River. His parents always seemed to be frowning about River, which Simon couldn't understand. They should be happy that she was so clever and lively, but they didn't seem to see her that way at all. He'd heard them talking about how River didn't fit in at school, how she didn't have any friends her own age, how she didn't act like a normal little girl. But who wanted a normal little girl when you could have River instead?
Simon remembered a year ago when River had taken his datapad apart to see how it worked. He'd been annoyed, and had explained to her how that wasn't nice, and then set to work putting the machine back together. "You're such a good big brother, Simon," their mother had told him with a weary smile.
River's eyes had widened as if their mother had said something mean to her, rather than something nice to Simon. Simon, feeling bad, had kissed River's head and told her he wasn't mad at her. Ever since then, River, who had always tagged around after Simon anyway, started holding his hand instead of Mom's, and sitting on his lap instead of Dad's. Simon didn't mind, but he knew it made his parents even less fond of her, and he wished he could make them love River as much as he did. It was becoming increasingly obvious, however, that they didn't. He hoped River couldn't see it.
"Mom and Dad are angry," River observed.
Simon tugged one of her ringlets. "Don't worry about Mom and Dad. They'll get over it. I'm not angry."
"How was Mr. Choo's?" River asked as they reached the cargo hold floor.
"It was boring," Simon said. "Mr. Choo still has his accent."
River grinned. "The dressmaker was boring, too. You should have snuck out, like I did."
Simon smiled and twirled her again. "I guess I'll never be as smart as you."
A/N: Anyone else miss this show as much as I do? Thank you for reading! If you enjoyed it, please leave a review!