Author's Note: This fic is set post-Serenity, so there are some pretty major spoilers for the film. If you don't want to be spoiled, leave now! (And come back later, please.)
River likes her piloting lessons best when she has Serenity's bridge all to herself. That means they're either grounded or in port, because Mal says she was still has a lot to learn, but River doesn't mind.
She can only see her real teacher when the others aren't there.
"The first rule of piloting is...?" His voice is to her right. Technically, River's still co-pilot.
The first rule of piloting is love, River thinks, but Wash and Mal never did agree on which words to use, even when they were talking about the exact same thing. "Trust," she replies dutifully. She turns her head a fraction, looking through the veil of her hair. If she blinks too hard, all she'll see is the empty chair and plastic dinosaurs frozen in their march across the console.
Right now, Wash is there. The gentle pat he gives his instrument panel makes no sound. "Trust," he echoes fondly. "Trust a boat like Serenity, and she'll trust you back. Do what you ask, no hesitation, no mind games. Just the pleasure of pure, unadulterated teamwork."
"Does Zoe know you talk about your ship that way?" River asks, risking another sidelong glance.
Wash draws himself up, as if deeply affronted. "Of course she does. We have a very open relationship, I mean, a very honest relationship..." River thinks that his fluster is an amusing but not terribly convincing act, and smiles when he changes the subject. "What about the second rule? Forgotten it already?"
River squints around the cockpit, frowning, pretending she has. "Imagination?" she hazards.
He chuckles. "Good girl. Know what your ship can do, and you'll figure out ways to talk her into the impossible." Wash's voice is hushed, full of private delight.
River sneaks yet another look. His chin is resting on one hand as he gazes dreamily out the cockpit window. She slides from her chair and reaches for the nearest dinosaur. Simon had a set of these, once; she's holding Tyrannosaurus Rex. "Grrrrr." River makes it stalk up and growl into Wash's face.
He grins, flickers, and is still there. "And there are all kinds of imagination. Use all of them; it helps when you have to think fast, if you don't have to think very far." His hand finds the counterpart dinosaur–Apatosaurus– and it trundles up to rub noses with its mortal enemy.
When River takes her hand away, Tyrannosaurus stays put. Apatosaurus is sitting across the console as if it had never moved.
Enough playing. She should study the manual again, though she knows it nearly by heart. River steps back towards her own console. Wash's voice follows her. "You know nobody ever guessed the third rule of piloting?"
"Somebody must have," she replies, matching his serious tone. Her fingers don't answer, as they are busy calling up the incredibly dry "Guide to Firefly-class Ships" that Kaylee loaned her.
"Nope." Wash can (is that the right tense, River wonders) be insufferably smug when the occasion demands it.
River stills her hands and glances slantways at him. "Why?"
"Because it's my own secret ingredient." That delight is back, dancing beneath the mock-solemn words.
It's contagious. River finds herself grinning back at him. "Tell me. Please?"
Wash looks her up and down, as if gauging her worthiness. River endures the scrutiny, and then answers the prompt of instinct by crossing her eyes and sticking out her tongue at him, instead.
"How did you figure it out?" Wash asks immediately. "You shouldn't have done it so fast."
"What?" River looks him full in the face, truly perplexed. There is never enough for her to 'read' Wash the way she does the others, though she doesn't enjoy thinking about why. "I don't understand."
Wash scratches his head theatrically, then shrugs. "Ah, well, you've got the sense of it already, I might as well tell you the rest." He leans forward, glances around, then when she moves to match him, whispers to River behind his hand. Just one word. "Levity."
Then Wash sits back, gazing expectantly at her, as if that should explain everything.
Perhaps it does. River turns the word over in her mind and on her tongue. "Levity: lightness of mind, character, or behavior; lightness in weight."
Wash's smile becomes a positive smirk.
River tastes the word again, not quite sure she believes what she's hearing. So she pushes her hair out of her face and asks. "You make jokes to keep Serenity flying?"
Wash beams at her.
"But–" River raps her knuckles against the solid metal of her console. "That's not possible. No one has ever proved telekenesis, and the laws of physics really don't allow–"
Wash puts a warning finger against his lips. "Shhh. We're not gonna tell anyone. Kaylee keeps this boat together, and it wouldn't be nice to hurt her feelings just because we've discovered one of the secrets of the universe."
River feels a laugh rising, but holds it in for a moment, spreading both palms out flat on her console. It's as if she can feel Serenity shiver with the same unreleased laughter, can feel the ship strain skywards, rising on Wash's secret ingredient. River looks up, and there are stars spinning past the window, the curve of a planet, the flash of the distant central sun.
The laugh bursts from her, high-pitched and light, and Wash's low chuckle counterpoints it perfectly.
River turns to share the moment more fully, to ask where they're heading, but she turns too quickly. The pilot's chair is empty, and she can't hear his laughter anymore.
The light spilling in across the consoles is early morning, planetside.
"River, we're heading back. Everything shiny there?" The captain's voice isn't unwelcome, exactly, but River has to blink hard and swallow before she can reach for the intercom and reply.
"Shiny, Mal." River reaches over and puts Tyrannosaurus Rex back where it belongs. "I'm just...learning my lessons."