She lies in the hollow of his shoulder tracing random patterns and shapes with her fingers on his chest. He observes her curiously as her fingers stop every once in a while, paused in mid air, pondering. The third time it happens he offers her a penny for her thoughts.
"I was thinking about my little finger," she answers quietly, as though it is a perfectly normal and expected thing to say.
"This one?" he half mutters, and captures it between a finger and thumb. He feels her nod. "What about it?"
"I have no sensation in it."
He makes a noise that indicates that this is new information to him. "How unusual, any reason?" He brings the digit to his lips and kisses it.
"Of course there's a reason, but it's a long story," she utters sleepily.
The long story took place six years previous from her perspective. River was craving being alone and being free. She felt drawn back to her parents' home planet. It had started as an itch but soon her every thought was of earth. Like a bell, it rang for her. She would have liked to think she was above such a primal urges, but this was proving her wrong. It seemed to her like an instinct she could safely obey, however. So she set her coordinates and left a note.
August 1859 Snæfellsnes, Iceland
She sat on the low bed in the tiny room of the turf house. The fire was burning low, and thick smoke filled the room. Her eyes were streaming but it was better than the alternative: outside the land was suspended in the ice of centuries of winter. On the other side of the fire sat Freydís Jónsdóttir, her round face studying the flames. She stoked the embers with a metal rod and sparks flew up highlighting the deep furrows and valleys in her skin. She rested her crinkled hand on her skirt.
"Are you her?" Freydís asked after some time
"Who?" replied River
"There is a story of a woman, mother to the elves, sister to mother of our kind," Freydís said, placing her hand to her breast on the note of 'our'. "She has been gone from these shores for many generations leaving us in constant winter. Her father the moon, and her mother the earth mourn her loss. So many have died." The old woman sighed.
"Maybe the winter will end soon," said River, knowing it would.
"Perhaps," said the woman. "Where are you going to in the morning?"
"To the mountain," River replied. The mountain seemed to be the destination all along but she hadn't known it until she saw it that morning. It loomed massive in the distance and it spoke to her soul, she could only obey its call.
"I must warn you, stay out of the caves after nightfall," Freydís said.
"Is there something lurking?"
The woman shook her head and laughed, "No, but it is a maze, and navigation more difficult when a person cannot see."
River wasn't worried, night or day she was going to enter those caves when she arrived there. Anyway, she had her vortex manipulator if things got hairy. Freydís rose stiffly from her seat and moved to the bed next to the door, as she passed, she took River's chin in her hand and studied her face. River smiled gently up at her.
"I think you are her," said Freydís.
In the morning, River left the house. Freydís had given her extra layers of reindeer pelts and a sweater she had knitted from her Lópi sheep's fleece. She set out from the house at the foot of the mountain towards the path she knew was there. It was more than a mountain, it was an active volcano capped with a glacier. Under the ice lay labyrinths of caves, and in those caves, more than anywhere else in the universe at that moment, was where she wanted to be.
The trek was not easy, the glacial path was filled with crevasses, but thankfully it was not steep. It took her most of the day to ascend to the top. The watery sun lit her way for most of the journey and as night approached the earth turned golden under its glow. River surveyed the land below. The sea was solid for miles, and on the horizon she could just about see the tell-tale jet of water of a blue whale surfacing. The mountain beckoned still, so she continued.
When she arrived at the mouth of the caves night had fallen. She stopped to check her vortex manipulator was set in case of emergency. She used the light of the moon, which was looming impossibly near to her, to see by. She sighed as its draw competed with that of the earth. But the earth won, it always won.
She entered the cave and ventured deep inside. Everything was still here; the only sound was her breathing and the gentle sound of shifting ice beneath her. She lay on the ground and the magnetism of the earth flowed through her. She felt satisfied and home at last.
She stayed for some time immersed in the earth's embrace, but the cold began to invade her. She pulled her body up and turned to make her way out. She took out the torch she had brought and tried to light it, but it would not. Damn. She decided to try to retrace her steps, but she hadn't paid attention to her route and now she wasn't sure which way was out.
She took some time to calm herself; she could survive here easily for the night. But there was a difference between deciding to be here and being held captive. Panic rose in her chest and she began to stumble forward to find a way out. She tripped and fell heavily. She sat against the wall of the cave and her panic grew even thicker. She tore off her glove and began to punch the vortex manipulator on her wrist, but it was no use, it was suffering from the same affliction as her torch.
She resigned herself then, to sitting out the night in the cave. She fumbled blindly for her discarded glove but it wasn't to be found. All she could do was try to hold on until morning. She shoved her bare hand under her other arm and didn't cry.
"So tell me a short version," he says, rolling the digit between his own two.
"I got lost in an ice cave on Snæfellsjökull at night, my vortex manipulator ceased up and I lost my glove. So I had to sit in the cave until daybreak. If I were all human I would have lost my hand…"
"If you were all human, you wouldn't have been there in the first place."
"Iceland, right? When was it?"
"The night of the solar super-storm, not that I actually got to see the Aurora."
"You didn't think that the heightened solar activity might affect your manipulator, no? Sloppy, River."
"Oh shut up," she says, irked by his seeming lack of compassion.
"When you were in the cave, what were you thinking? You know, besides 'My bloody hand is so flipping cold'?"
She grumbles her disapproval, but decides to answer all the same. "I wished I wasn't alone. Loneliness just flooded into me," she says sadly.
"Then what happened, River?"
He is being particularly belligerent tonight, she thinks. Then, like the flow of a thawing steam through her mind, passes a fresh memory. It laces itself in amongst the others, pretending that it has been there all along. She looks up at him and he is smirking and looking very pleased with himself.
"It's going to work then?" he says with closed eyes and a self-satisfied grin. "Go on, tell me what happened next."
She obliges. "Just as the feeling of loneliness struck me, I heard you calling for me from somewhere. At first I thought I was imagining it. But then came a light and you were behind it, dressed like a yeti!" She laughs.
She recalls him lifting her frigid body from the floor of the cave and bringing her outside. He placed her down gently on a reindeer pelt and wrapped his body around hers and spoke soft words of comfort to her. Above them the Aurora frolicked and lit the sky in exaltation. The winter was coming to an end at last.
"You took me outside," she continues, "and you took my bare hand and…"
She pauses because he has taken her hand and put all of her fingers into his mouth, just as he had done atop the glacier.
"…and you kept them there until they were warm again."
He looks a little ridiculous there now with her fingers in his mouth, but on that mountain her hearts could have burst with love at the same sight.
Then he bites her little finger.
"Ow," she says withdrawing her wet hand. He beams smugly eyes still closed. She takes the finger and wiggles it in front of her eyes, feeling the cold of his saliva drying on it.
She turns over and lies on top of him, pressing her naked body to his, and peers down at his face. He still refuses to open his eyes, even with both their faces shrouded inside the veil of her hair. He does, however, bring his hands up and rest them lightly on her hips.
"You really shouldn't do that type of thing," she says.
"Life would be very boring if we only did the things we 'should' do," he retorted. He was right of course. She now had new memories of something that happened long ago. It shouldn't have felt wonderful, but it did, and she was grateful.
"Why were you there in the first place, River?" he asks.
"It felt instinctual, I was drawn to the earth. I may not have been born there, but it's in my blood and my soul and I – I just needed to be there," she tells him and traces the outline of his profile with her, now feeling, little finger.
"I can understand that," he says and swallows heavily. She feels his pain, at least she can satisfy her craving. She places her lips softly onto his, closing her eyes, and when she opens them again he is looking at her at last. In his eyes she sees a curious mix intensity and acceptance. His fingers press into the flesh of her hips and she understands the unsaid: This is home now.