The feeling of being watched haunted Simon's dreams.
He'd been dreaming of his childhood, of playing hide-and-seek with River. They hadn't played it often. In real life, she always found him too quickly -- quickly enough to make the game boring...and a little humiliating. He was the elder by several years, after all; surely he should be able to out-fox his little sister at a game as simple as this? Not so, apparently, so they'd found other games to play: Alliance and Independents soon became a favorite. He'd give in if she begged, though. He never could deny her anything she really wanted -- if it made her happy, the slight sting to his pride at being beaten at a child's game was more than worth it.
This time, in the dream, she never came. He waited and waited, and his excitement at managing to trick her for once soon turned into anxiety as the time passed. "River?"
He crawled out of his hiding place and looked for her, but she wasn't there. The landscape was featureless and indistinct; his hidey-hole soon disappeared into the nothingness. There was nothing to hide behind. So where was she? "River?" Gray, still and dead, everywhere he turned, so she was obviously not there -- she was movement and life and vibrant, glowing color. This blank and empty void could never contain her. "River!"
She was missing.
He had to find her.
So he looked frantically, turning in circles, running over an endless plain after shadows, arms outstretched, sobbing in despair. He ran until his lungs burned and his legs ached, but he still could not see her anywhere. He ran until he lost all sense of direction, all sense of where he himself -- where anything -- was. There were no familiar landmarks, nothing to orient himself with.
It didn't matter. He kept running. She was out there somewhere.
The shadows slipped through his fingers, leaving him empty and hollow, but he kept at it. He'd find her. She was close -- if not around the next corner, then the one after that. He just had to keep trying. He'd find her. He would.
But he never did.
A vague sense of being watched -- of being catalogued, assessed, and criticized by a silent, faceless observer -- had been present in the dream all along. But suddenly it sharpened, changed somehow -- became both more gentle and more insistent. Finally, he could stand the pressure of that silent gaze no longer, and he woke up.
He lay in bed for a moment, panting and disoriented. He hated that dream. Before he managed to free River from the Academy, he'd had it almost every night, and it had wrecked his sleep, leaving him exhausted. He'd thought it would go away after he managed to rescue River, but it hadn't. He still had it aboard Serenity, albeit much less frequently. He supposed he always would.
Something was different this time, though...he'd have it in a moment...something about being watched...?
A small sigh alerted him. "River!" He sat bolt upright.
There she was, crouched at the foot of his bed like a wild thing. Her dark hair was loose and untamed around her face, but her expression was calm, serene even -- and eerily intent. The white cotton of her nightgown glowed in the dim half-light of the room.
"You scared me...what is it, mei-mei?" She didn't respond, just continued to look at him with her burning eyes. "What do you need?" He glanced towards the drawer where he kept his medkit, but didn't make a move towards it. She seemed calm enough, and he hated to give her a sedative if she didn't need one.
"You were dreaming," she said finally, as if she were answering his question.
"Yes," he said.
She smiled, a small, strange smile he didn't recognize. "Serenity dreams too. The stars sing to her, you know."
He wasn't sure how to respond to that. "They do?"
She nodded. "They sing their secrets to her. Their secrets and their fears and all their desires while they burn away in space. They know she'll never tell."
"Yes," Simon said slowly, thinking of all the hidden places on board, both in her hull and in the hearts and minds of her crew. "Serenity keeps her secrets well."
"Yes," she said, delighted with this answer, and beamed a smile at him so bright and happy that it took his breath away. "But the stars...they burn, too. Soon they'll burn up. They sing so someone will remember them when they're gone."
"Oh, mei-mei." Simon pushed the covers aside, slid down to the foot of the bed next to River, and put his arm around her.
"Don't be sad," she said. "It's what they were born to do. And their light will shine long after the source has burned out." She tried to smile again, but couldn't quite manage it. She hugged her knees into her chest instead and hid her face in them. "It's just so lonely." Her voice was muffled, but he could still hear her.
"I know." His fingers combed gently through her hair. "But you've got me, River. I'll always remember you."
"Yes," she murmured. "I know you will. I heard you, you know."
His fingers stopped moving.
"I didn't mean to," she continued. "Don't mean to listen, but I can't help it. And...you were lost."
He wanted to disagree, to protest that she was the one who had been lost, but he found he couldn't say a word.
"So was I. Still am, sometimes. But you find me, Simon. You find me every time."
"And sometimes...tonight...you burn so brightly...and the stars were singing to me...I tried not to listen, but...." She turned to face him. "I just want to know!"
This was the heart of the matter. He listened with fierce concentration, every cell of his being focused on her, determined to understand her. "Know what?"
"I'm seventeen," she said. "Old enough to know, if I want." And she reached out to touch his face.
Suddenly, he couldn't breathe. Her fingers traced the outline of his lips. He closed his eyes, unable to bear the expression on her face. "Know what?" he whispered, afraid of the answer but unable to not ask the question.
She leaned in closer to him. Her breath ghosted over the skin of his cheek; the heat of her body scalded him. He was suddenly acutely conscious of the fact that he had gone to sleep without wearing a nightshirt. He thought about getting out his medkit again; River wasn't making sense. Maybe he should administer a soother...
"Don't hide from me," River said.
...and he was being a coward. "No," he said, and opened his eyes. She was so close that her face filled his entire field of vision. All he could see was her. That was all he could ever see.
Her lips were sweet, like berries. His arms went around her of their own accord, gathered her in and drew her close. She felt good, up against him, felt warm and soft and right. For one brief, dizzying moment, Simon felt like he'd come home.
Then his good sense intervened, and he broke the kiss. "No," he said and drew back, putting space between their bodies.
"Yes," she said, leaning forward.
"River, no! It's not right. I'm your brother."
"Don't you love me?"
"Of course I do," he said firmly. "That's...not the issue."
"I think it is."
"You're my sister. I'm supposed to take care of you, protect you -- not take advantage of you."
"Don't be silly," she said, and kissed his cheek.
"River...if you want," sex, he couldn't bring himself to say, "there are other...what about Inara, I'm sure she'd...or, or..." He couldn't seem to think clearly.
She leaned across him to kiss his other cheek, pressing her breasts into his bare chest in the process. He felt brittle, stretched thin, like he might shatter into a million pieces with one more touch. "Don't trust them," River whispered. "Don't love them. Love you." She rubbed her forehead against his, a simple gesture of affection he remembered from a thousand different moments in their childhood.
And that was it, the touch that undid him. He felt himself breaking under her hands, fracturing, coming apart. But she was not careless with the pieces; he knew she would put him back together again, whole and reborn.
"Please," she said.
She slid her fingers lightly over his cheek -- brushing away tears, he realized. "Yes," he said, in a voice he barely recognized. "Yes."
He could never deny her anything she really wanted.
She smiled through tears of her own, brilliant and dazzling, like an unexpected sunrise. "Found you," she murmured, and kissed him.