Disclaimer: Not my property, not doing this for property.

Notes: This story has references to m/f and f/f relationships. Nothing graphic, but steer clear if that's not your thing.

River often wonders about her first kiss.

She wonders about who, and when, and where, and--obviously--what it will be like.

She's been kissed before, of course. There were kisses to the forehead and cheek when she was younger, but her parents and brother don't count. Those were more like hugs, in her mind. Gestures of comfort and familiarity. Gestures that stopped once she reached a certain age. Her parents didn't want to coddle her, and her brother...

Well, he still gives her a peck on the cheek now and then, but there is something guilty and furtive about it, as if he is afraid of letting his lips linger too long so that it turns from an almost-hug into something else. Something like a real kiss, maybe.

Intellectually, she knows that a kiss is nothing more than a modified nursing instinct that has become part of human mating protocol. The fact that her lips tingle when she thinks about kisses is an autonomic response driven by hormones and neural pathways in the few parts of her brain that she can't control.

It has nothing to do with romance.

Romance is nothing but a pretty fiction, designed to add a veneer of civility and mystery to a basic human function. Romance is not necessary, and neither are kisses. The fact that she can't stop thinking about them is an irritant, both because it is horribly distracting and because it reminds her that kisses should have happened years ago. But, the Academy got in the way of kisses, just like it got in the way of so many other things, like dances, and sunshine, and being able to have her mind to herself.

But now she's here on Serenity, free in ways she had never imagined; yet at the same time almost as trapped as she was at the Academy, except for those rare times she can suit up and go out into the black. Then, she's free, or something close to it. Most of the time, though, it's nothing but the same eight people, all the gorram time, leaning up against her mind so much that she feels like they're pressing up against her flesh. When it's like that, she can't feel Serenity. She can't feel herself.

It's almost certain that her first kiss will be with someone on Serenity. Logic dictates this, and fantasy encourages it.

One thing she's sure of is that it won't be Book.

She's long since figured out that she isn't really scared of his hair, let down and sticking out like thousands of microwire probes going into his brain. What really scares her is what she sees hiding beneath that hair, and what it will be like if it is let loose.

No, she doesn't kiss Book. Just the thought of it makes her stomach feel squiggly, and not in a good way.

Sometimes, especially those times when everyone is so busy that they pretend she doesn't exist, she thinks she might just up and kiss Simon one of these days, just to see what happens. The thought of it makes her giggle--he'd be so upset with her, and at himself, too. It might be worth the inevitable lecture on proper behavior just to see the expression on his face.

To be honest, she is also curious to know if he'd kiss her back. He wants to and he doesn't want to, all at the same time, and that intrigues her. One either wants something or doesn't want something. The two should not coexist in one brain.

Well, not in the brains of sane people, anyway.

Then there is Mal.

She knows how it starts. He stands there for a few minutes with his hands on her shoulders, staring down at her almost angrily, jaw working as he tells himself not to do this because she's too gorram young, not to mention crazy in the bargain. Even in her imaginings, River hears his thoughts as if he's standing right there in front of her. He's imagined this, too, and she's not sure if it's her imaginings or his that she sees.

Once he's done thinking, he leans down and kisses her, mouth closed but still rough, like he's trying to tell her that she doesn't want this, not really, not with someone as damaged as him. She's already been hurt enough, he thinks, and there's nothing he can give her that won't hurt her more.

What happens after that, she can't tell. Sometimes, he just lets go of her shoulders and all but pushes her away as he turns and stalks off. Other times, his mouth eventually softens against hers, and his hands drift down from her shoulders to her back as he pulls her against him.

It bothers her that she doesn't know which imagining is the true one. It bothers her even more that she'll probably never find out for sure.

As for Zoe and Wash, she doesn't think it will be either of them. The idea of one of them without the other just doesn't feel right in her mind. They can't be separated. Just thinking about it is a wire sparking and smoking in her brain. If one of them kissed her, it would be the way her parents kissed her, back when they believed they loved her.

They are good parents, she thinks. Zoe might be too strict, and Wash not strict enough, but they'll never sell their children in order to cement their own social status. Sometimes, she thinks that it is Zoe who rescues her from the Academy, guns blazing and bodies falling as she swoops down to River like a mother-angel of vengeance. And then Zoe spreads her beautiful, blood-spattered wings and takes River to Serenity so that Wash can fly them to somewhere far, far away into the black where no one will ever be hurt again.

To be honest, she wouldn't mind if Zoe one day leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. Wash would be more likely to throw an arm around her shoulders and give her a sideways hug, and say something that would make her laugh. She wouldn't mind that, either. And these are things that might happen, so there is no point wondering about them.

Inara will kiss her, if she asks in just the right way. Inara always smiles softly when River admits that it's her first kiss, and she is always careful to ask if River is absolutely sure she wants to do this. Inara rests one lotion-soft hand on River's cheek, steadying her, calming her, and then she leans in (they are always kneeling face-to-face when River imagines this), and her lips touch River's, feather-light, pressing just hard enough to leave memories, but not so much that she'll leave regrets. She then leans back, still smiling, with her hand lingering for a moment on River's cheek. And that is all, and it never happens, because River never asks.

But maybe she will. Maybe she already has.

With Jayne, it's all very, very different. He hesitates, like Mal does, but only because he wonders if it's worth all the trouble, kissing this crazy girl, because no one will believe she'd started it.

Jayne's thoughts are not subtle, and they hit her like hammers.

He thinks it's a trick, a trap, a test. He thinks it's nothing but craziness, that she'll start screaming the second he so much as touches her. He thinks about airlocks and the coldness of the black. He thinks about knives. He thinks about the noises she'll make when he slides his hands up the front of her shirt. He thinks he is dreaming.

If he doesn't run away before he lets himself catch her, his kisses are rough without meaning to be, and she is just as rough in return. It's messy, it certainly isn't romantic, and once they start, there isn't much in the way of thought, not from him, and not from her.

She's pretty sure they don't stop at kissing, and that notion is at once exciting and problematic. Probably not worth the consequences, she thinks wistfully. Still, it's a nice thing to ponder when she's in the mood.

She often thinks that Kaylee will the first one who kisses her. Or the first one she kisses. It goes either way. It happens naturally, like part of a game. They'll be talking, then laughing, then kissing. Even when they start kissing, they can't tell who started it. What River does know is that Kaylee tastes sweet, like gum or strawberries, and there isn't any worry about consequences, or regrets, or shame, or misunderstandings hiding in her kisses. If such a thing is possible, they are laughing, even as they kiss.

There might be more kisses, or more than just kisses. Or there might only be the one kiss, like a joke shared just between the two of them. The best part about it is, any one of these endings is just as good as the others. Most of the time, thoughts of kissing Kaylee fills River with a warmth and contentment she thought she'd lost long before the Academy.

But sometimes, especially late at night when Serenity is the only other one awake, River suspects that the Kaylee she's kissing is the Kaylee from before the gunfire and before the fear. She's not sure that Kaylee tastes like strawberries anymore.

These are the things that River thinks, when she thinks about kissing.

And every time she thinks about kissing, she also thinks about the black. Sooner or later, the longing that these kisses wake in her body always becomes a longing to be outside.

On a few rare, precious occasions, when they're not on a job and no one is after them, she is able to wheedle Mal and her brother into allowing her to put on the suit and go outside to nestle against Serenity's hull. Most of the time, though, she has to go outside in thought only, cheek leaning into Serenity's bulkhead, the hull cupping her face like it's making her a promise. It's not enough, just like going outside confined in the suit is not enough. She wants to wear Serenity like she wears her own skin.

And even though she knows all the reasons why it's impossible, when she goes outside she feels the starlight warm and soft on her lips, her throat, her belly. It's the only kiss she has ever known, and maybe, the only one she truly craves.