Monday, 29 March 2010, 11:53pm

Descent is usually Mac's favourite part of flying, but there's an uneasiness deep in her gut that isn't helped by the spiralling turbulence of her return to the States. She'd wanted to come home, and Atlanta isn't it; but then, where is? She sits slouched against the streaky rain-peppered window while the plane trundles up the midnight tarmac, and when it reaches the gate she waits for everyone else to disembark.

There's nowhere for her to be in the foreseeable future, much less with any immediacy, and Mac's carryon is stowed a few rows down. It seems pathetic of her, after being embedded for so long, but she just doesn't have the fortitude to endure the courting ritual involved in getting to far away bags while the rest of the passengers are crawling towards the exit in a gridlocked shuffle. (Get up, sidle to the aisle, move one row down, sidle into it, stop, hesitate, sidle back into the aisle, move one row down...)

Mac's only been in the States in any tangible sort of way for about four minutes, but she senses that the time she'll spend second-guessing herself, when she finds a dingy motel room to collapse in, and the amount of time she'll spend immersed in the sleep she's waited two years for are going to be inversely proportional tonight.

She covers her forehead with a slender hand, sighs, and gazes absently at the moonlit puddles on the landing strip.

Her blackberry starts buzzing madly almost as soon as she turns it on when she enters the terminal. She stops walking to look at it, letting her bags, like her shoulders, slump heavily toward the ground. It's a number she doesn't recognise - but then, that describes most US numbers these days. She tenses a little against her better judgment.

"Mackenzie McHale."

"How soon can you get on a flight to Illinois?" Her gut lurches. The line is bad, and the voice is deep, a little gravelly. Mac glances up at the flight board.

"About four hour– hang on." She pauses, finally remembering to think, and frowns, pushing rippling hair out of her face with her spare hand as her head drops. "Hang on. Who's this?"

"Mac," the voice says clumsily, almost as if he's catching up with himself before he speaks again. "Mac. There's a panel on at Northwestern at 7:30 tomorrow night–"

"How do you have my phone number?"

"–and I need – I need you to be there."

The strangeness is overwhelming, and Mac's weary and stretched so, so thin; she is perhaps just too close to worn out to cope properly with this peculiarity. "Excuse me, and I swear I don't mean to be rude–"

"And, I mean, I really don't know what the fuck you're doing in Atlanta anyway, Mac, you've got nothing to do there–"

"Who the fuck is this?" Her voice breaks a little as her chest contracts. The airport is silent and clinically empty. There's no one to reproach or pity her.

"–but you need to be in Chicago by tomorrow evening, or I swear the fuck to God..." The inelegant voice trails off. Then, a little more softly, almost in a murmur: "Have some faith, will you? Go to Northwestern, and then come the goddamn hell home, Mackenzie."

She pauses, holding herself back from the shuddering that comes before sobbing. "Charlie?"

The line's already dead.

Mac spends the next two hours with her head in her knees, crumpled into a corner of the first disabled bathroom she can throw herself into. Her chest heaves and tremors with stabbing, palpable pain, and to say her stockings are dampened would be to seriously miscalculate the magnitude of the situation.

No one is ever comfortable with crying in public places, she knows, but to do so instills in her a unique and singular sense of unease. It seems to Mac just inappropriate; to cry is to forsake words, to bring into existence an expression of being that language has never – ever, in a hundred thousand millennia – been able to satisfy.

To cry is to acknowledge, on some primal and instinctive level, recognisable inherently to all humans, the failure of that very humanity to keep itself from breaking; it is to reveal boundlessly personal and sacred things to everyone who has ever lived, for everyone is a little too familiar with that crude and ancient tongue – the one language which fills the void left by age-old attempts to forge into the limited confines of words the ethos of an infinite people.

Mac wants to hide herself away in places that are only hers when she falls to jagged shards like this; there is something too invasive about being stripped so bare in places which are frequented by other beings. To know that other consciousnesses have existed here just hours or maybe mere minutes earlier, even if only fleetingly, is too much when she is so fatigued and far from wholeness. But in her throes of long-quelled anguish she finds sanctuary in the relief of being able to experience it at last; the Middle East afforded no mercy to the cracking or broken. Thrusting herself into a war zone in something that was neither misguided heroism nor escapism, but a twisted mix of the two had left her gaunt and fractured in a way that she hadn't been at all prepared for...

The shuddering of her chest fades to a still, dull ache after too long, and she sits for longer still, chin now resting on smudged and charcoalish knees. Finally she lifts her head, and finds herself drained of everything, leaving her feeling weird and light in a way she hadn't thought she could be. In the place of everything that's now absent, there's a small but tenacious tendril of stoicism lurking. She doesn't cling to it, because she doesn't have it in her to exert that much energy at the moment, but she manages to let the corner of her mouth twitch upwards without resenting or reproaching herself for it.

That's good enough for now.

A/N: You're tearing me apart, Mackenzie. (I didn't want her to melt down in a bathroom. I meant for her to get on a plane.) Also, gold sticker for anyone who picks up the two understated implications in the second scene! Next up, Northwestern...