Spoilers: Through first seasons of both Firefly and Torchwood. A follow-up to Cover Stories, (in the Firefly category) but you don't have to read that one first.

Warnings: Violence (Reavers), temporal and cognitive dissonance (River), implied sex (Jack/River). Rated PG-13.

Thanks to: HonorH, the Horsechicks, Em and Grimorie for reading and liking, and Honor for the discussion in her LJ which finally kicked this loose for me.

Summary: The third time River meets Jack is not unlike the first two times.

Second Dance. Third Glance.
by Christina K
copyright 2008

When Jack came back it was to snarls and pain. He lay silent a moment, eyes remaining shut with an effort, and cataloged the damage. Knee blown. Wrist broken, but nearly mended. Pain in his side and neck and legs and hand that was heated and insistent, wrong wrong wrong. Bits missing. That was never fun. Not important bits, if he was conscious again, but still inconvenient.

The screaming he'd been trying to block out was rising in pitch, the choked shrieks falling away to bubbling gasps. A symphony slowing down to a close. He risked raising his head an inch or two, opened his eyes.

Beyond the length of his body (red-hot pain and the twist in his neck that said, yes, it had been broken again) a tornado raged. Blinking blood out of his eyes, his sight focused on five figures, twirling madly, rising and falling and shrieking. Sharp and high, human voices howling in rage, limbs whipping through the air. Thud thud thud, slam slam--

A ballerina danced with four zombies, a swan tore through wolves, a girl slammed a fist and then a knife into the neck of a Reaver. Kick backwards, kick forwards, spin-duck-rise to slam her skull into one diving toward her, and the swan swept out a wing to send the beast sprawling, neck broken. All the time, her doll's face remained blank with concentration, thoughts removed or turned inward, fearless in the center of a frenzy of violence.

The sheer beauty of it held him for four seconds before he was scrabbling with scabbed fingers for a gun, a weapon, and then he plucked a knife (got you) from the eye of the body lying next to his, awareness of the corpse registering just before he removed the dagger. Every muscle shrieked a protest, counterpoint to the Reavers howling and swirling just out of reach, and he propped himself up on one elbow, looking for an opening.

A Reaver that had been knocked to the floor was scrambling up, growling; Jack pulled back his arm and let the knife fly. It landed in the Reaver's leg, startling a scream from him, and a quick dart of a glance from the girl. Still spinning, she dropped to kick the legs out from under another attacker, grabbed the knife and wrenched it out of the Reaver's body, unfolded to stab it back into the heart of a third, twist-turn-slide-and-kick to the throat; two more dead and down. One of the remaining Reavers wrenched her arm around to face him and she followed his lead, keeping the rhythm as she slammed a knee into his solar plexus, thrusting the machete in his hand back up and into his gut. He fell, choking, hands still trying to clutch at her.

Jack had reached his feet, staggering, unbalanced and still terrified as the last Reaver picked her up in a bear hug, cackling and pulling her hair as it bit deep into her shoulder. "No!"

Snake-quick, her head darted forward as the Reaver's arms tightened around her, and Jack couldn't see what was happening, only hear the thick choking, and he was going to be too late--

They fell into a pile of limbs and blood, the Reaver's head lolling to the side, the girl landing on all fours like a cat. She looked up at Jack, blood ringing her mouth from where she'd torn out the Reaver's throat with her teeth. For a second they both froze; Jack reaching for her, panting for breath, caught by the wild look in her eyes, the whites showing around dilated pupils, fingertips balanced on the floor, ready to fly.

"You were dead," she whispered. Her limbs were trembling, and it took Jack a second to recognize the reaction as fear, not shock. "You went away and your body cooled and..." Her delicate jaw clenched, and Jack held his breath, waiting for what she'd do. Maybe he was about to die again for the second time in ten minutes.

"River? River!" The commlink on her shirt cut in, the harsh buzz of static making both of them flinch. "Gorram it girl, where the hell are you? Answer me!"

Slowly she uncoiled to her feet, eyes never wavering from Jack's, and lifted a finger to touch the link. "Here. I'm here, Mal." Her mouth worked a moment, then, stiltedly: "I'm okay. The Reavers are dead."

A long pause, and Jack drew in a much-needed breath, aches making themselves known absolutely everywhere, while whoever was on the other end of the link thought about that. "Good," finally came the response, quiet and resigned. "We can't pick you up 'til the morning. Can you fly yourself back?"

"No. The compressor coil on the shuttle is blown. Needs to be repaired. Could take a while. Kaylee would fix it better." Terse and tense, still waiting for something from him. The wrong move, the right move, and damned if he knew what either would be. "Will be fine." She paused, watching him, weighing her words. "One other... person. We'll be waiting."

"We'll be there quick as we can."

Another pause, then a younger, higher male voice chimed in. "River? It's Simon. How are you?"

"I said I was okay." Her voice sharpened. "And will be fine." She looked down at the dead bodies sprawled at her feet, finally breaking Jack's gaze. "Always fine."

They'd boxed up two people, associates of his, to be transported. Left the Reavers to rot. His mouth had been set, eyes dry as they'd carefully laid their bodies to rest in the pods. He should be in there with them. Her thought. She thought it was her thought. Or maybe it had been his expression that made her think it. She couldn't hear him. It was... deeply unsettling. He was there; she could feel his presence. But the absence of noise was like going deaf, when you could still see someone's lips moving.

They'd set charges on the Reaver ship, to blow after they'd left the evacuated city tomorrow, then retired to an empty townhouse for the night.

She'd taken off her boots somewhere.

The hot water was running down her face, over and around her fingers where they were pressed into the marble of the deluxe shower stall. Trickles of red flowing from under her broken fingernails, blood nearly imperceptible against the scarlet-veined black stone. She'd left her clothes on, still caked with gore, torn in places; one sleeve gone, neckline raggedly hanging halfway down her chest, leggings in tatters from Reaver weapons. Irrelevant; she could still move in them, counter any threat.

"Good night, princess. See you in your next life." And then he'd smiled, and the lid slid closed, and she'd curled up, a baby again in a small dark place. Safe. For now.

Slice of past cutting into the present, severing her from the events of the day. No connection to emotions, no thread to hold her to causality, casualties, conscious recollection. Reavers did that. They couldn't kill her, but they disoriented her, every time. No-thought, no-future, no-plan, no-mind, pushing her into her no-place where there was only action-deed-reaction, and leaving her there alone when they were all dead.

There had been water, before. When she'd met him before.

"My name's Jack, and we have to get the hell out of here now." He'd fired his gun over his shoulder as his friend locked the door against the Reavers. "Can you fly this thing out of here?"

"It's broken, there's no time--"

No. Before. Water. Music. Alarms going off. Another jump of perception. She'd recognized him when they'd broken through the door. Recognized but not remembered, known him but not why. And he was wrong, something solid in him like a steel thread that was pliable silk in everyone else, thin but implacable and she could cut off her fingers if she tried to touch it. Jack-of-Knives, shine and sharpness in the eyes, no twinkle though she expected one, and then the Reavers came and it all exploded into the dance. Monster waltzing with monsters.

(She never wanted to be dead but sometimes she wanted to be different. But different how, she didn't know, and in a universe of infinite choices and futures all of hers lead to killing and she couldn't be sorry. But she could be sorry she wasn't sorry.)

River leaned her forehead against the warming marble, eyes still open, focusing, unfocusing, seeing the grain of the stone and perceiving the molecules, the spaces between, and felt herself (her self, River-that-was, rivers of blood) fade and diffuse into the well of time.

"River. River?"

She swiveled her head to look toward the voice, and the conundrum was standing there in the shower stall with her. He'd shed his shirt, braces of his trousers down, feet unshod like hers. He'd turned on the light, too, golden glow bathing the room now. Voice gentle and warm, a line to catch herself on as the stars in her memory floated up to drown her. There had been violence and fragments of thought, disconnection from her own skin, and now a direction. Awareness achieved like the hand-over-hand action of climbing a rope.

Blink. Blink. "Yes."

He leaned one shoulder against the shower wall, crossed his arms over his bare chest, studying her. She returned the favor.

The water was misting over his dark hair now, the spray bouncing off her body and the wall to pelt his bruises. Places where the Reavers had bitten him, raw and scabbing over. (Too soon. Healing faster than anything normal would or could, and who experimented on him?). Purpling areas where they'd held him down. One of her hands floated up to trace his collarbone before she was aware of it (she'd heard the snap, seen the light go out of his eyes, and then there'd been nothing more to worry about, no one left to protect or fail, just the ballet of blows). Caught in the moment of impulse before thought or consideration, and he inhaled sharply, eyes locked on hers.

River froze, her fingers against the speeding thud of his pulse, and swallowed. "I know you," she offered. An olive branch out to the unkillable. Undead. Undying. Was that why he wasn't acting afraid of her? "Jack Harkness. Captain."

"Haven't heard that name in a long time." Blue eyes with shadows in the corners, secrets down deep. Not angry. Not disbelieving. Just steady and terrifying. "Remind me when and where."

She should have been able to pluck the answers from his memory, from the depths right below the blanket of the present, but it was like trying to feel for something with fingers that had gone to sleep, eyes closed, bumping into hints but not knowing them by touch. Her own mind was refusing to organize along a linear framework, insisting on showing her (an older Jack, silver in his hair, reaching out to clasp someone's hand; a younger Jack, leaning back in a pilot's seat, unleashing a lethal smile) distracting tangents of maybes and might-have-happened. "Don't know." Her hand dropped away from his throat, and she heard the sullenness in her own voice. "I'm not lying."

"Didn't think you were." He reached out and ran his thumb around the edge of her lips, and River tasted the blood on his fingers before he finished rubbing it away from her mouth. His hand lingered, running along her jawline, up to her ear as he pushed her hair out of her face. Warm and alive, sending a shiver across her skin, and if she closed her eyes she could ignore her other senses, believe that gravity worked and human bodies didn't stop and start and that effect followed cause. She tilted her head into his hand, and the universe stopped turning in jittering circles for a moment.

"Vertigo," she said as his fingers curled reassuringly at the base of her skull. "The sensation of disparate inputs contradicting internal processing. Sometimes chemical. Sometimes subjective."

"I know the feeling." River could sense the curve of his smile through the fingers on her neck, the amusement and concern, and it clicked a key into the lock of shifting tectonic plates of the past.

He lifted her hand to kiss her knuckles very gently. "Captain Jack Harkness. At your service."

"Wu Jane Smith." Because River Tam was a fugitive, and he'd recognize the obvious alias for what it was without asking for anything more. Anyone gentleman enough to kiss her fingers while he was stark naked wouldn't trespass beyond the boundaries she set.

"Marilyn. Frozen forever. You let me have her instead of taking her for yourself." Her eyes opened to meet his, her memory matching reality with only a few changes to his physical shell. The internal reality was now conforming to an entirely new shape, one that slipped through her fingers, glacier-slick. "The sprinklers went off." River let a frown form, felt buried confusion finally making an impression on the usually placid surface of her face. "You were naked."

"Was I?" The smile wasn't the same, although there might have been a twinkle off ultra-white teeth. But the effect was almost identical, warmth and arousal only a step removed from the previous dance, and now she was smiling. "That happens a lot."

And just like that, she was here again, the last rung on the ladder of awareness reached and back in her own skin, standing in a shower stall with the blood of Reavers running down her body while Captain Jack Harkness smiled at her.

Some shift in her eyes, and the woman who'd killed four men in four minutes was no longer standing on some cliff he couldn't see. Maybe not all the way back from the edge, but much closer to human-normal than she'd been only moments before. He still didn't know where she recognized him from, but Jack was willing to believe it would come to him eventually.

"You changed," River told him, face grave and assessing. "You weren't like this, before."

"Like what?" Small movements, telegraphing them in advance, working the gore out of her hair, wiping freckles of blood away from her shoulders. "Dashingly handsome and brave?"

"You weren't dead before." Her voice had sharpened again, and Jack's fingers stilled a moment before he reached for the soap. The sharp mint smell cut through the blood tang in the air; her clothes were probably a loss, but he wasn't about to suggest she shed them. Small steps and slow progress were probably the best course of action with her.

"Are you talking about the time we met that I don't remember, or earlier today?"

She made an impatient noise, still watching him, hawk-like and poised, then began to unwind incrementally as he ran the soap up her arm, to the purpling wound where the Reaver had bitten her; the only injury he could see on her, so far. "Before. On the job. You were human. Normal. Warm and present and... you kissed me." River leaned into his touch, eyes skittering back to that horizon of memory, voice going softer. "Three times."

Jack slid the soap to the hollow of her throat, and tipped her chin up with his fingertips. Maybe. Possibly. Before the Game Station, before six hundred years of intervening experience. Some hint was surfacing from the depths, long forgotten. A nudge of recollection, part of why he'd been avoiding this portion of Alliance space, not wanting to meet himself out here on Time Agency business. "I suspect that was a long time ago for me." He trailed his fingers over her lips, the feral quality of her face wiped clean under the spray, trying to recall what they might have tasted like.

Her eyes snapped back to his again, widening in disbelief, with that unnerving attention that should not be such a thrill. But the attraction of dangerous women and men had never completely worn off for him. "Three years here. Before Earth-That-Was for you. How...?"

And it wasn't like she hadn't seen him resurrect, but she hadn't even asked about that, just seemed to accept it and move on. So why her knowing about that was more of a kick in the gut than watching her kill Reavers like Kali on a bender, he couldn't say.

"I'm scaring you now," she said, her voice trembling. "Didn't before."

"I've had a helluva day." Jack kept his voice light, even as he had to force his fingers to uncurl from around the soap, resume making small circles with it across her throat. "It's just sinking in." Keep breathing. Keep going. Forgetting fear was easy, once you had the trick of it, in the immediate aftermath: don't think of teeth sinking into the men he'd hired to get him here, don't remember hands closing on his wrists. Rub the blood off her teeth, wash the evidence away. There were fates worse than death, especially for someone who couldn't die. Escaping yet again was cause for rejoicing.

Grief was harder, and always was. Don't think didn't work for an Earth long gone to smoke and poison, or the hope of going back someday. How much of this was she reading from his mind? None of it, he hoped, but didn't quite believe. He hadn't thought about Earth in decades, and she pulled that out of the ether as easily as she did everything else.

Which fired off associations, almost-memories, and (Mal? Theft? Sprinklers...) he almost had it now, when exactly he'd met her before. "Did we dance?" he asked, lifting her hair up to let it rinse clean. "Back before I was... different."

"Yes." A tiny smile, then a delicate hand lifted to rest on his shoulder, light as silk. "Very brief. Simon interfered." A scowl. "And Mal. Knew you from the war. Called you corporal. Zoe knew you too."

"Serenity." Long, long ago, but also just ten years ago. He'd had to be especially careful, working behind the scenes in another arena in order to avoid that last bloodbath, and then stayed out of sight until after the news about Miranda broke. Too many chances to inspire too many questions. Sergeant Mal Reynolds, Zoƫ Alleyne, Tracy, others, all left to die a second time around. Or survive, bitter and hardened. River was too young to have been there, but--

A party. There had been a defabricator party. He'd been there with the Doctor and Rose, and...

"You wore pink chiffon." That was almost all he could remember. Kissing her, kissing someone else, leaving with the Doctor, and back then, when the mystery of those missing two years had mattered so terribly, she'd sparked an instant's recall of what he'd lost. "Good night, Princess."

"See you in your next life," she repeated back to him.

River could feel when the memory surfaced for him, amusement and wonder and the echo of the need to know the past, and then she was caught in another misplaced slice of time.

"Climb in, sweetheart." One hand in hers, the other holding open the lid of the box. "Trust us, we'll get you and your brother past customs without any fuss at all."

She'd balanced, naked and shivering, on the edge of the containment unit. Modesty was for real girls, not her; and he was watching her face, not her body. Diverted attention as good as clothing. "Will I dream?"

Clear blue eyes studied her, and he pursed his lips. "If you do? Dream of me." He flashed her a smile. "And what's to come."

She nodded, and carefully slid down into the box, closing her eyes as the drugs took effect.

"Hey. River?" Attention again, as dizzying as honey wine, seeing her again. Mind as mute as ever, but the emotions (curiosity/ excitement/ fascination) were reaching her despite the continued silence of his thoughts. "Where did you go?"

"When," she corrected him, absently. "The very first time. At the Academy. A year before the party."

Jack slowly shook his head, fingers lost in her matted hair, untangling snarls, and for a second the physical drowned out the mental and River drowned in it, happy to do so.

"You helped Simon get me away from Osiris." River felt her lips tip up in a smile again, softening. "Told me to dream of you." The curiosity was as sharp as ever, but puzzlement twined through it. "You didn't remember it at the party, either. I don't remember it now. Just see it now. Then." She closed her eyes, sighing. "Makes my head hurt."

His fingers stilled, then stroked down her neck, and River's muscles melted, her mind trying to float free. "Mine too," he said softly, a smile in his voice. "But I think I finally understand the sequence of events."

"Mmmm?" She licked her lips, some of his certainty seeping into her. Memory of those kisses pried her eyes open to watch him again. Symmetry in body and face; asymmetrical soul, silence, with echoes reaching events lost in time. The cord (chord, thread of music, old, old Glenn Miller playing somewhere back at the other end of the line) of steel inside of him: the difference from being on the other side of death. Recognizing the shape of what she couldn't touch in his mind was like regaining her balance, putting a foot down on the ground after standing on only one, and she involuntarily wiggled her toes in the water splashing on the floor. More fear fading, awareness rising. "What do you understand?"

The shadows in his eyes had more defined edges now, but more shine to them too. "Doesn't matter." His hands had come to rest on her shoulders, thumbs stroking across the line of her neck. He smiled, and River shivered, breath catching, feeling the look like hands gliding down her spine. Jack of Smiles, as well as Knives. "It all comes out in the tide of the timestream."

She could have moved, and all the possibilities flashed through her mind as he leaned closer (punch kick push grab pull bite touch), mouth hovering over hers a long moment. Blue in her vision, eye to eye, and then a deliberate touch of lips to lips.

Impulse to lift her hands again, push her body against his, throw him away, away-closer-more-less--

a dervish spun through a nest of ghouls
a hawk alighted on his hand
a girl pressed her lips back to his

--pressure becoming more insistent, shivering moving from his lips to hers, touch of tongue, invitation and question. More. What do you want? More. Like this. Yes, exactly this soft this fierce this much

Shimmer of heat from within as well as without, slick of fingers over wet skin mimicking liquid muscles, spiral of fingers ghosting down, mirrored, her/him/them and panic hit her for a moment, losing herself, dissolving-- then landing back inside herself, energy running up her spine. Then she was hooking her fingers through his, pulling close with her hands and an ankle sliding up his leg, pulling lips away to gasp in air.

"Enough?" he whispered, breathless, eyes narrowed behind lashes. Flirting. Laughing. Lying. So funny. She stared at him, then leaned close to lick one lovely cheekbone, trail lips to his mouth, then rubbed her nose against his, shaking her head. He grinned, one hand reaching down to grab her ankle, wrap fingers around it, pull her closer. Body to body, wounds to wounds, ache to ache of pleasure/pain/pleasure.

"Haven't danced this dance with a partner." Courtesy to admit it. Less surprises, mis-steps that way. "Time and timing."

A very small nod, and the smile tilted back to danger. He was afraid of her. But he liked it. River couldn't stop smiling.

"You're a natural," he murmured. "You'll pick it up."

River the Reaver ravager, River the knife dancer, River the swan. Some people only look broken while at rest, some grace is only in the motion of their actions, not the sum of their parts. He'd never been good at hiding from fear, even if the fear of being truly known had persisted past the death of so many others. Time to dance with it, with her. Slick, and slide, one-two-three, one-two-three, pause, and wonder, feel the knee want to buckle (but hold), feel the bruises protest (and be ignored).

Lips saying things about time and quantum movement without using words, arms rising in swan's longing and falling in hawk's grasping, and knives of thought (you saved me, I want to save you, I saved you before I knew you) spearing through moments between gasps and moans and a rush through every limb, defiance and survival and a tiny, fearsome joy.

The water stayed warm, after, when they slid to the floor, her in his lap, his back to the marble stone. She used the soap on his hurts, stinging but necessary, face screwed up in concentration.

Memory came back, of saluting her from a trellis, and her curtsy from the ground. For how long he'd keep it, he didn't know.

"Will remember you." River met his eyes, solemn at rest. "You'll remember me. Forever."

He raised his eyebrows, just a tiny quirk. Will I? unsaid. So much time behind, and still so much ahead...

She nodded, fingers rising to cradle his jaw. "The body remembers. Even when it heals." Forehead to forehead. "I'll be a scar on your smile now. It's enough."