She doesn't understand and it annoys her. Like flies buzzing around her brain and swarming against her forehead, flying and flapping and making chirrup noises.
She frantically brushes them away, before remembering that they aren't real.
Her hands go into her lap and she pouts as she watches.
Sees, watches, understands but doesn't comprehend.
She watches as Kaylee reaches up to Simon for a kiss, sees as their lips rub together and understands by the smile that the sensation is pleasurable.
But she doesn't comprehend why.
Mouths are to speak and to eat. They force sounds through air and the breaths capture the wind, forming them into words that heal or hurt, that soothe or destroy. There is power in the mouth but no reason why it elicits groans when they interlock.
It's flesh and epidermis and there is no logical explanation for their desire to merge as often. Perhaps the sharing of air is what is important; the dividing of the means of life.
She tried it once, planet-side. Grabbed a boy by the hand and tried to breathe his air and interlock flesh, reaching for sensation.
He was startled but quickly understood her intention, even so far as to drag her closer to properly implement the experiment.
But she reached a dissatisfactory conclusion. It was just flesh and the sharing of air was inhibited when he thrust his tongue into her mouth. Wet flesh in her mouth that made her gag.
She had emerged with no more understanding and even less comprehension.
Kaylee giggles as she dives into Simon's hands. Her face lights up at the pressure of his arms around her.
It's skin. Why does touching skin make Kaylee light up, glowing from the inside and radiating with heat?
She's touched Simon before but felt nothing but skin, soft and downy but just skin. There was no corresponding glow.
Inara enjoys her employ, finds the sensations pleasurable, Zoë misses Wash's touch and Jayne thinks of little else.
But she doesn't know why and it makes her head spin.
"It doesn't make sense," she snaps and Simon's head whips up to blanch at her ferocious expression. But she just shakes her head in annoyance and heads to the cockpit where she can be away from the dizzying sensations that she can feel but not understand.
She sits in the cockpit and glares at the Triassic period toys that simply stare back, their voices lost in a sharp harpoon net. Their lives lost a million years ago, and six months ago when their creator was taken.
They cannot feel the loss anymore than she can feel the glow and it makes her sad for them and sad for herself.
"Spark of life, warmth of glow," she explains to a Triceratops who looks confused, "both lost and empty. But not for you; you can remember the voices and the life but she… she never had the glow."
Her hands reach for the toy, only to be pulled back as the ghosts tell her that Zoë would not like them to be moved.
"Why do they glow?" she asked the Stegosaur, as if he could answer. "Did you glow in your carbonised pre-life? Was glowing a prerequisite for procreation. Are you defunct because you didn't? Will she become obsolete?"
She rubs her head, trying to block out the sweeping heights from the kitchen where Kaylee's hands are touching, touching, touching.
Her hands go to her ears as she feels but doesn't understand.
"Did they take her ability to glow or did the fire die a natural death? Why is there no flame when she wants to burn?" she mutters. "Has she the capacity? Are the matches wet? The sticks may be broken but they should smoulder and she doesn't!"
"Hey, hey, hey!"
Someone is touching her hands and she opens the eyes that she didn't realise were closed against the forceful push of sensations that aren't hers, coming from the kitchen.
Only they're gone.
Captain looks down at her and smiles, his face shiny and sincere.
"Hey there, lil albatross, I sent Kaylee and the doc to their bunk. You can come out now."
She pulls her hands away from her ears and places them on her lap, like the sweet smelling woman told her to in ages past.
"They're loud in my head," she explains away her crazy behaviour, not wanting him to think her more broken than she already is.
"And I'd wager it's not something that you'll be wanting to think on. Him being your brother and all."
She watches as the captain slides gingerly into the chair, his side still paining him from the Operative's sword.
He is so full of darkness now, even more so since Inara stayed. The Companion was supposed to be good for him and they were supposed to be together and happy. But the captain avoided her more often than not and they seemed to be further apart.
At least someone else wasn't glowing, she thinks morosely.
He notices her staring. "Problem little one?"
"Nothing end-of-worldy," she tries and he smiles, his light growing inside as he shares her joke.
"Sometimes it don't gotta be end-of-worldy stuff to make your head hurt. I can't pretend to understand all you say but I can listen as good as the next…dinosaur."
His glance shows that he heard her talking to the animals and she feels a slide of embarrassment.
His expression shows he didn't mean to tease. "Our family is somewhat cracked right now," he says, "but iffin we wanna be putting it back together then we gotta start sharing troubles."
Cracked and splintered, like a pot with pieces missing that need too much glue and paint to ever be made right. The Shepard filled it with goodness and Wash decorated over it and made the bad parts pretty. Without them the pot remained cracked and broken and no matter how much they wanted, the water kept pouring out the bottom.
Like the child's rhyme where the egg-man fell and cracked, his insides becoming outsides.
"Like you and Inara? All the king's soldiers and all the king's men."
He laughs derisively, but it's aimed at himself. "Yeah, ain't no putting that back together."
She raises an eyebrow and he finds himself explaining. "There are parts to some folk that are better off hidden. Hidden away from eyes that ain't supposed ta see. What they see…changes stuff. Hell, some parts'a me I ain't comfortable with, so how can I expect a high-fluting lady to accept 'em?"
"You showed her your core and your darkness and she wanted a light," she nodded, understanding.
"Inara ain't never meant to be a part of that darkness."
"Like us," she whispers and he gives her a sharp look.
"Don't reckon you shoulda ever been made ta see it none, either."
"They broke her and darkness was all she saw for so long. Did they break other parts?" She bites her lip and sees his concerned look.
She looks into the sincerity of his bright, star-shiny eyes and the way his warmth crept over to tell her that he would listen and he may not understand but he'd try to see and comprehend.
He's like her guiding north-star, showing her the way and she wants nothing more than to make him see what her brain whispers to her when she's sitting in the black.
"I see and I hear and I watch," she says. "It's just skin. It's just hands on hands and mouth on mouth, tongues touching and epidermis mixing and the exchange of fluids and bacteria. Why craves what amounts to an infestation?" Her wide eyes pin him. "An infection? She missed a lot when she was in the place with the hands of blue. Fraternization prohibited as hormones collide and distract but there was never distraction for her. Did they remove the ability to glow? Experiments suggest correct conclusion since there was no corresponding sensation. River couldn't be a sustainable force of life since the current is altered. She'll never crave what girls do and that makes her not a girl. Can't feel, can't understand. Can't comprehend!" Her eyes fill up as she turns to a shocked captain. "Poured darkness into her vessel and took out the glow. They broke her."
"No, they didn't." He rubs his hands across his forehead and swears softly as he leans towards her. "Ain't nothing wrong with you, dong ma?"
Tears fall. "Where is the glow?"
"Just because you ain't found a man who makes you…glow, don't mean you're broken. Hell, you had a lot of go-se to deal with, probably jus' a late bloomer is all."
If the flower waits too long to bloom then the spring is over and it is too late, it loses its turn to shine in the sun.
"Flowers wilted, spring is over."
"You're not even twenty-one yet, River. Spring ain't over."
He gets off his chair and comes to stand in front of her, his body heat infusing her as he kneels to look her in the eye. "You're precious, River, and when you're done good and ready you'll make some fella so gorram dizzy he won't never let you go."
"Yes," she says with a fake smile. "Hi, I'm River and I can kill you with my brain."
"You might not wanna mention that so early in the relationship,"
He gives a grin and reaches up to wipe away the wet rivers trickling down her face, pushing aside the currents of pain so that they don't drown her with sadness. His hands burn trails of fire instead of oceans and she stares at them intently.
"What?" he asks at her look and she reaches forward to touch the skin.
His fingers curl around hers almost instinctively and her hand is lost in his, warmth seeping into her flesh as he holds on. A glove of fire, branding her like a cattle iron.
"Someday you'll meet a guy who'll knock you off your feet and you'll glow like Serenity."
You love Serenity, she wanted to say. You love her glow.
"She wants to feel," she whispers, "wants to know how to feel what's hers and not someone else's; not Kaylee's or Simon's, or Jayne's."
"Gah!" He reels. "You get Jayne in there?"
She nods with her best disgusted face and he shudders. "Pity the good doc ain't got brain bleach."
That makes her laugh.
"There's my girl," he says delighted at her happy face and she pauses, liking the sounds of those air breaths.
She has an idea, maybe if she likes his breath sounds then maybe sharing them will be pleasurable too. "Can you show me?"
He freezes. "Show you what?"
"Why they like to exchange breath."
His eyes open wide and he drops her hands, the warmth draining from her skin as he moves away. "You want me to kiss you? No, no way. That ain't even—"
"Please," she begs. "She wants to know she's not broken."
His hands start to flutter like butterflies in the air, a gesture of insecurity that she's never seen in the strong man and she wonders if he can make those butterflies appear in other places.
"You need to find you some sweet young boy, not a mean old captain."
"Did, he wasn't satisfactory."
His jaw drops. "When was this?"
She shrugs. "Planet-side. Ineptitude isn't conducive to glowing. She wants to glow."
"Don't mean I can make you," he states firmly. "Takes a special someone ta do that, or in Jayne's case, several someone's."
He gives her an odd look and she looks away like she's been slapped.
"She understands," she says sadly, her voice an echo of when she went to Jubal Early's ship.
Not enough. Not ever enough. Not child enough for mother. Not human enough for the men in blue. Not sane enough for Simon. Not girl enough for boys. Not woman enough for men.
"She's not special."
Not special enough for the captain.
Her hands knot themselves and she decides to leave. She will never know what it's like to glow and she'd best put it out of her head now. Lose the desire to discover and retreat to academia.
Sometimes it's enough to know and not comprehend. She imagines she writes it out to purge her system.
"Mutual affection and attraction accord feelings of pleasure and desire in subjects—" that aren't broken "—this is due to chemical impulses and synapses firing. It is unnecessary to experience it to know that it happens."
She gives the captain a smile and moves past him. "Good night captain. Thank you for listening."
His eyes don't leave her as she edges past him, the curtain of hair drifting to hide her features, like a veil. Not a wedding veil hiding the bride from view until she can be discovered by her beloved.
Something she'll never know.
"River," he says, his breath sounds faint as he reaches for her.
She dances out of his way. "No touching!"
She won't be tempted by something that she can never have. Better to cut off all contact now or have her fate pushed into her face at all times.
"Can't mend the cracks with kindness. Light the paper and step away, it doesn't work like that! Better to stay away from the fireworks than get burned."
He ignores her and reaches for her hands again, stepping close despite her cry.
"It ain't cuz you ain't special. As a point of fact you're too damn special for the likes of me. "
A bitter smile twists her face. "Too gorram special for anyone. Weapon with girl parts. Should feel like metal. Hard and empty. There's a darkness within. Folks shouldn't see the parts that need to remain hidden," she echoes him, "she'll keep her darkness hidden inside. No one needs to see."
She tries to pull away but his hands tighten, his eyes intent. "I already see the darkness, li'l one."
She says nothing and just watches as he battles within, the fight fierce but some part of him winning. She sees him swallow quickly before he curses. "Oh, I'm going to the special hell."
Before she can ask what he means, his mouth is on hers and his skin is on hers and he breathes her breaths. A heat rushes up inside and engulfs her, hotter than any fire and the sweep of flames burns her inside so that she gasps for his breath, the cold wet flesh the only point where she feels cool and she wants more of that coolness in her to dampen the sheer…glow.
The glow fills the darkness within and she understands.
Kaylee's glow is so bright that she needs to share it with others and Simon wants some of it since he lost everything else.
Jayne's darkness fills him so much that he forever craves it and Inara relishes the power that her glow gives others.
Wash's glow filled up the dark parts of Zoë which is why she misses it so much and the captain needs her glow.
And suddenly she comprehends.