Days had no real meaning once you got off planetside – it didn't matter what time anyone woke or slept, because the black and the stars were no different anyhow. Nevertheless, the crew generally agreed upon when "day" and "night" were, just for the sake of everyone's sanity, and Serenity kept time, dimming the lights and dropping the temperature come nighttime, and the crew retreated to their bunks and everything got quiet so you couldn't hear anything but the soft purr of Serenity's engines, and even then only if you were really listening.
For that reason, Wash liked the night time sometimes more than day, liked sitting up on the bridge, idly tapping at the controls and staring out at the stars. The quiet was calming, nothing but the sound of Serenity around him. Funny, what the ship was to everyone on it. For Mal, Wash knew, it was freedom, and his only love. For Wash she was a partner, almost a friend, if a collection of metal and glass and ceramic could be called a friend.
"She likes you," a soft voice said from behind him, and Wash jumped, spinning around to see River standing in the doorway, figure silhouetted by the dim lights of the hallway. She smiled, stepped inside carefully, bare feet soundless on the metal floor, and in a moment or two stood beside Wash's chair, looking down at him with a peculiar, almost playful smile that was rare from her, though becoming less so lately. "Thinks you're a friend."
After a pause, she added, her lips quirking into a more definite smile, "If a thing with blood and bones and a pulse can be a friend."
Wash didn't need to ask who "she" was, and he frowned a little at her words, somehow mirroring his thoughts a moment before. He decided to shrug it off as coincidence, River being River, and smiled up at her. "Isn't it a little late for you to be up?"
She shrugged absently, her eyes now on the stars out the window. "It's always dark out anyway," she said, her voice that odd dreamy tone that always made him uncertain how much she really understood of the world around her and how much she just lived in a dreamland of her own creation.
Well. Maybe not of her creation, but...
River reached out to run a hand along the edge of the console, just barely touching it with her fingertips, and Wash tensed automatically, somewhat concerned that she'd push a button, flip a switch, and somehow kill them all – no matter how illogical it was that one flip of a switch could lead to disaster, River herself was an illogicality, so Wash figured he could be forgiven for being a little nervous. But she didn't, just ran her fingers over the console lightly before pulling her hand away with a sigh.
"She likes you," she repeated softly, and somehow there was a weight of significance to her words that Wash couldn't quite figure out. "You understand her. Not the same way as Kaylee or Mal, but it doesn't have to be the same."
Her fingers glided over the control yoke, and this time Wash didn't tense, just watched her, and after a moment suggested softly, "I could show you how to fly her. As long as you don't tell Mal." The sane, rational voice in his head commented that Mal would kill him if he found out he'd even considered showing the crazy girl how to fly the ship, but she looked so wistful standing there with her hand on the controls that the offer just slipped out somehow. And she smiled at him, so much brighter than any smile he'd ever seen from her before, and he couldn't take the offer back.
So Wash got up out of his chair, and motioned for her to sit down, moving around to stand at the back of the chair where he could intervene if she did something wrong. "Put your hands here," he said, leaning toward to tap the appropriate places, "and you're going to want to–"
Before he even finished the sentence, River was reaching up to flip the switches over her head, and Wash frowned at her, trying to remember if she'd ever seen him do that so he would have some excuse for her knowing that. In the end he just ended up shaking his head and muttering softly, "Well, I'll be a son of a stepmother. You're a natural at this."
She turned to him with a serene smile, and he realized that maybe he did actually understand, a little.