His presence complicated things. She'd thought long and hard about how to get back home and had finally come to a conclusion that felt right. This world's longest night was approaching quickly, and if Ivana was correct about the ice gate, this was the time that she would be able to go back home. She knew the stories that no one had ever come back, but she was sure this was the way. If longest day brought her to this land, longest night would take her back home, if she willed it.
"Do your people ever speak stories of a gate to my world?" she asked him one day.
He shook his head, apologetic. "We have plenty of legends and stories, but nothing about your world or a gate in the lake."
She shrugged and looked away as if it didn't matter. She still believed she was right. "Not any tales of your longest night?"
"Nothing," he said, but then he stopped, and his brows drew together. "Wait. I think I remember Matias the storyteller telling of a couple who disappeared that night, many years ago." He waggled his eyebrows suggestively. "He says they got lost on the way to . . . spend some time together. Alone. On the longest night of the year." He winked.
She blushed, a reaction that felt very strange on her skin. At the same time, her heart picked up. She was right, the gate did open that night. She could go home.
But every day she felt his smile. Every day he made her laugh. She could not imagine living here, in this overheated world of endless sunshine where even the rainstorms were streaked with rays of light and left her drenched but no less sweltering.
But she could not imagine living in her beautiful, snowy home without him.
And yet, despite the wrenching in her heart, the day grew closer. Each sunrise brought one less day to make her choice.
He saw the wrenching within her. They sat together in the relative cool of the late evening, their feet dangling into the stream, the heat bearable for the moment. "You're planning to go back, aren't you." It wasn't a question.
She leaned against his shoulder. "I do not know."
He was silent for a moment. Then: "I could come with you," he said quietly.
She lifted her head and stared at him. "You would do this?"
There was fear in his eyes, but he nodded firmly and spoke without hesitation. "I would."
She had not even considered that he might be willing. This opened a new world of possibilities. She jumped up from the ground in excitement. Then, just as quickly, she stopped and dropped back, staring down. "But what of your family? Your business? Your life here?"
He took her shoulders and forced her to look into his eyes. "I will leave them behind for you. You will be my family. . . . If you want me."
She took a shuddering breath. "Of course I want you." Then she shook her head. "But I cannot ask this thing of you. I changed in crossing between our worlds. I became like you. But what if you do not become like me? What if my feelings here about the heat--what if those are your feelings about the cold? You will grow to hate it and resent me." She felt hopelessness battle the hope within her. She did not want to examine the possibilities; she just wanted to go.
"I will go with you. We'll work it out together." He smiled, one side of his mouth quirked up in humor. "If I don't change, you will simply have to make me a coat of rabbit skins. If I am always cold, well . . ." He grinned wider still. "I'm sure you can come up with some way to keep me warm." Then he winked.
Ivana laughed and felt the tension leave her. She did not have to choose between the things she loved most after all.
And so they prepared to leave. There was little to do. Tomas would leave his looms behind, and one of his nephews would take over when it became clear he was not coming back. They would not be telling anyone their plan. Together they visited his friends and relatives, and quietly he bade farewell to the world he had known his whole life. She was as busy as she could be, desperate not to think too deeply about what they were attempting.
But she loved him, and so she watched him, waiting to see the taint of regret. Her dreams became filled with both hope and despair, warring inside her--the hope a soft snow constantly melting under the oppressive sun of despair. But he never wavered, and slowly the snow mounted in her soul until it could not easily be burned off. She began to smile, to sing. Her whole world felt white.