El was afraid of heights, but only a little.
He could fly, after all, and that should have made fear illogical. But if anything, his ability to subvert gravity was the very reason for his nerves: he’d never been able to trust himself with anything, much less his own life or the life of others. The few times his telekinetic powers had been called in as a means of escape or rescue, when he’d held an innocent stranger or beloved family member in his arms and floated with them down from the side of a mountain or building or cliff face… well, those were the things he had nightmares about, on the rare occasions when he could remember his dreams. It was that sensation of freefall, of knowing it was magic, something inexplicable, deep in his consciousness, in his soul, even, that was the only thing preventing sharp, painful, deadly impact. He knew himself well enough to know he should never be trusted with something so precious as the life of another.
And between his ability to fly, the existence of portals, and… well… Penny Adiyodi, El hadn’t had any reason to set foot on an airplane until this very day, decades after first hearing stories of man’s earliest flights. Airplanes were mundane now, for so many of the people who used them. Maybe on another day, under different circumstances, El would have been charmed or intrigued by the novelty. Q definitely would have been.
He wanted to pretend his hands weren’t clammy, his heart wasn’t pounding. He refused to let any of these things show, even as he took his seat beside Q and looked around the cramped cabin, the ugly coloring of the carpeted floor, the strange angles and curves of the metal encasing them. It didn’t help that he couldn’t take Q’s hand. Well, he could. He could glamor the air around him for a bit of privacy and then tangle his fingers with Q’s, let the ease of touch carry him to a place beyond fear. But he resented the very concept of hiding the touch from the world, resented the enclosed space around them, the tinny smell of the air, the oppressive slide of the uncomfortable seats against his clothes. He’d hold Q’s hand for the damn world to see, or he wouldn’t hold it at all.
Q, as he did so often, seemed to read El’s mind in the bare twitching of his fingers against his leg. Briefly, the touch intimate but also imminently appropriate for anyone who might care to look, reached up and gripped El’s arm, just above the elbow, giving it a squeeze. I’m here. It’s a short flight. Hold on for me.
Q hated being on this damn airplane as much as El did, though, and he wasn’t very good at hiding it from someone who knew him better than he knew himself.
(The year was 1975, and they were going to Scotland. They were leaving the tattered remains of their family behind and they were going to ground, hiding somewhere they knew they’d be safe, where they could let the enormity of loss subsume them entirely.)
When the plane took off, El closed his eyes, squeezed his own knee in his palm and pretended it was Q’s, head pressed back against the headset, staunchly refusing to acknowledge the reality of the situation, the science behind it, the utter lack of magic fueling the miracle. He entertained himself by playing out scenarios for if the plane malfunctioned, how he’d be able to save himself and his dearest love from the inconvenience, if not the permanence, of death. How they’d fare jumping from the plane at various altitudes, sans parachute. Eventually he got to the part where due to the fuel and impact, there would likely be fire in the event of a total crash, and if he and Q were stuck inside, then—
Well, he stopped thinking about it, and studied the inflight magazine instead.
(Their house in Scotland had a portal installed, but they hadn’t maintained it in years, and Kady was the one who’d established it for them in the first place. Q had said they should just ask her to spruce it up so they could walk right on through, and El had decided he honestly preferred hurtling through the air in a tube of metal surrounded by strangers he couldn’t trust. Anything so he wouldn’t have to look at her right now.)
“What’s for dinner?” Q asked him, when they’d reached their target altitude and the rattling of the plane smoothed out into a low, persistent, rumble. His voice, the soft caress of Gaelic, in honor of where they were going, instead of Dutch, from where they’d just been, gave El something to hold onto, just as Q had known it would.
El answered in the same language. “You’re becoming spoiled.”
“And you have only yourself to blame.”
The patter of inane conversation should not have helped. It should not have done anything to fill the crater in El’s heart, the gaping maw of grief and, frankly, disbelief, that still crowded through him every second of every day. The denial was strong enough that it sometimes made him forget, upon waking, a sensation so disorienting it nearly displaced him in time, making him lose sight of where and when he was. But he could never forget—not for one second could he truly forget—who he was with, and who wasn’t there.
But talking to Q did help. It always did. His existence helped, the fact of him helped. Was essential, in fact. It was important, in moments of soul-rending despair, to remember that El had not yet lost the one thing he could not do without. He’d come close, this time. God, he’d come so close.
(They had said goodbye to their family with numb, shaky embraces. Q had hugged Kady, El had not. He didn’t even know where the others were going, where they were holing themselves up like the wounded animals they had all become. It wasn’t unusual, not knowing exactly where the others were at any given point. The world was large, and time was long. It was somewhat unusual to have no end date in mind, no rendezvous, no planned coming together after voluntary separation. He wondered how long it would be, before he saw M and J again. Tried very hard to care about that, tried to miss them. But there wasn’t room inside his soul, to miss anyone else.)
The airplane jolted on the way down, worse, it seemed to El, than on takeoff. His stomach clenched, nausea rolled through him, his magic instinctively grasping for control of the situation. But this flight was not under his power. His magic was next to useless here. All he could do was trust the humans, the mortals, the magic-less, who had created such a craft, something El had never bothered to notice before. Airplanes were not a part of his world, his reality; he’d never needed to use one and thus he hadn’t cared.
They landed, and everything was fine.
(Nothing was fine.)
The urge, upon exiting the plane, to take Q’s hand in his own, was once again nearly overpowering. He didn’t know how he managed to avoid it, during the trip to their home, but once they were finally alone, away from the eyes of the others, the irrelevant, the people El could summon up the will to care about on a good day but not on a bad, he draped himself around Q, holding him tight. Their bodies became one cumbersome entity as they made their lumbering, graceless way down the slope of the hill, to the cottage waiting for them at the bottom.
El’s feet were on solid ground, now. He was safe in one of the only places he’d ever felt truly comfortable and secure. And yet the swooping feeling of freefall hadn’t left him. The last time he’d been here, in this cottage, the whole family had been together. It had been over a decade ago. El could remember the food he’d made, the silly nonsense they’d watched on television, the books Q had read out loud for them, the things they’d meditated on. A feeling of peace, now lost to him, maybe forever.
Because the truth was simple. El was not all that afraid of flying. His hands were just as clammy, his heart pounding just as hard, here on the firm ground. Alone, just him and Q, in their favorite home. What El was afraid of was something he couldn’t run from, couldn’t escape, couldn’t stop thinking about no matter what he did. What he’d been afraid of the whole time, was being alive, when Penny wasn’t.