“Not like we have much of a choice, right?”
They had to get across, without him if need be.
He could read it on her face. The denial, the comprehension. The boundlessly optimistic “There has to be another way,” that didn’t quite make it out of her throat.
Eli shot her a reassuring smile.
He shed his coat, tossing it on the cave floor behind him. He dropped his hat on top of it, and turned to face the challenge in front of them. Rolling up his sleeves, his gaze skimmed the flow of molten rock as he sought the most practicable part of it with which to work.
What he found was a small eddy in the current, where the magma, catching on the shore, rolled and flowed back on itself before continuing its drift further down the cavern. The friction arrested its progress, bleeding away some of its convection naturally.
It was as good a place to try as any, if not more promising than most.
Closing his eyes, Eli extended a hand towards the river of boiling rock. Grounding himself physically as he tapped into the conduit of energy flowing all around them.
Reaching out from within, focus narrowing to his magic and the sheer infernal force contained within the broiling earth, he pulled. Heat poured off the surface of the river, and he sought to displace it quickly as he humanly could so as to draw out even more.
He then realized, dimly, that estimations might have been off, be it the strength of his ability or the task itself. The magma cut deeper into the rockbed than it looked.
...it wasn’t much of a choice.
Agonizingly slowly, the rock darkened and cooled, at first breaking up the flow before impeding it altogether. He gave it one last drag, for stability sake.
Which might have been the tipping point into too much.
It didn’t hurt, not exactly, it was simply... draining. A little like running a marathon, and a lot like staying awake for days on end – if those days were all crunched into a span of five minutes. The exertion of it kicked him straight into a euphoria. For a moment, his vision dimmed dangerously and he lost track of which way was up.
Melkhiresa caught him before he could hit the floor cold. His hand found her shoulder, and he grunted his surprise as she slipped one of her arms around his chest to help him to the ground and dropped into a crouch by his side.
“I’ll be okay,” he assured her. “I just... need a few minutes.”
...or a few hours. Days, maybe.
“You can’t,” he reminded her softly. “I told you, I-...”
“I can’t do this without you.”
Something twisted in Eli’s chest. To say she been through a lot would have been an understatement. And needless to say, they all had.
Worst of all, it was down to the three of them.
...two of them.
“Bad news, but you’re gonna have to.”
Melkhiresa ran her fingers through his hair, dusting free sparks that crackled into ash. The touch felt nice. Soft. ...human.
His eyes drifted closed.
The sound of Vicki’s scuffed, pacing footfalls a few feet away came to an abrupt stop.
“Are you fucking kidding me? We ain’t got time for this shit!”
It was all the warning Eli got. Melkhiresa gave a sharp little gasp of surprise, which surprised Eli less than the kiss itself. He was still running hot, and doubted she would have known that beforehand... but she didn’t flinch away, either, when he tilted his face towards hers.
She held her breath.
Then rasped, quietly, “I love you.”
“Oh.” Eli managed a breathless chuckle. “Is that all?”
She tried to laugh, but it was a strangled sound, choked with tears that she was barely holding back. A few slipped free. He felt one, just barely, as it evaporated before it could splash his skin.
“Look,” he said. “That bridge isn’t going to last long... and I’m still going to have to bring you back across when you get back, right? Go.”
Melkhiresa swallowed. She didn’t move, nor did she answer. Fresh tears cut new paths down her cheeks.
Eli sighed, and tried his damnedest to scrub them away.
For all that he hated to see her hurt, that she could cry at all wasn’t a bad sign.
“You’re more human than she ever was. Whatever it takes in the end, remember that. Don’t let her twist it.”
That seemed to do it. Sitting up a touch straighter, Melkhiresa visibly steeled herself... although the effect was lessened by a soft pout. Eli closed his eyes again as she leaned in once more, and she brushed her lips against his mouth in another, more fleeting touch.
Smiling, he gave her shoulder a reassuring squeeze, and his fingers drifted down her arm.
“We can talk about this later.”
“C’mon, partner; we still got work to do.” Vicki hauled her up by the elbow, away from him. Almost gently. Eli’s gaze flicked towards her.
“Take care of each other.”
Vicki nodded, raising her chin in that absolute defiant – regardless of whether it ever made any sense – manner she held perfected. “Yeah, no sweat; I got it.”
Still, there was a hint of concern the way she looked back, following behind Melkhiresa across the bridge. Melkhiresa looked back only once, once she’d made it to the other side, but Vicki was there to keep her moving forward. Onward, into the dark. Out of sight.
It was only when he could no longer see them in the gloom beyond that Eli let himself fully collapse, falling listlessly back onto cave floor. It wasn’t exactly comfort, but neither was he determined enough about it in the moment to flop completely over into the bed of liquid rock that would have been his alternative option.
Whether he was in any danger or not was a moot point – he couldn’t have done anything about it if he were.
If nothing less, Melkhiresa had given him something bigger to wonder about, rather than worrying himself worthlessly over the fate of the city and the end of the world.