A cardboard box is just a place for putting things... right? After the war is over, Murrue picks up the pieces.
By chance rather than intention, they reached her quarters first. She pulled away from him to slide open the door, and on the other side of the open doorway turned back with her mouth opening to say goodnight, except the word got caught reluctantly somewhere in her throat.
The quality of the silence suddenly became a little more awkward as she realized that, for all that their next shifts would come far too soon if the next battle didn't come even sooner and they would both need all the rest they could get, she wasn't ready yet to say goodnight. Wasn't ready yet to slide the door closed and lie down in the emptiness of her quarters and wait, with minutes and worries stretching out of proportion in the stillness, for sleep to find her.
"What," he said with an easy smile, brows lifting, "no kiss goodnight?"
Now isn't the time, she thought, and then, now is exactly the time.
She held out a hand to him and he took it, fingers curling warmly around hers. He would pull her to him, she knew, so she pulled first, a little tug to bring him through the door; the look of happy surprise on his face in the moments before he began to tuck his head down toward her and she closed her eyes for the kiss almost made her laugh.
Later, she couldn't recall which of them had reached back to close the door behind him. By that point, it hardly mattered.)
"Captain," Murdoch had said, when he'd seen the cardboard box in her hands, "if you want someone else to take care of that--" and Murrue had smiled, grateful for his rough, awkward sympathy even if it stung.
"It's all right," she'd told him. "I'd rather do it myself."
That was a lie, of course. Standing in what had been Mwu la Fllaga's quarters, Murrue felt very conscious of how little she wanted to do what she was doing. But it should have been done already. Natarle might have ordered it, if Natarle had still been the Archangel's XO - but Natarle would not be giving any more orders, on the Archangel or anywhere else, and Murrue, too soft as always, hadn't had the heart to ask someone else to do what she hadn't been willing to do herself.
Needed to do herself, in a way that had nothing to do with what she wanted. She couldn't bring Mwu safely home; she would bring his belongings home instead, a poor substitute packed into a cardboard box.
In any case, she couldn't put it off any longer. She'd stopped reaching for him in the middle of the night; she'd stopped looking over her shoulder and half expecting to find him standing alongside her seat on the bridge because it made no sense that he should not be there. It had been weeks since she'd dreamed of sitting in the Strike's cockpit as the positron beam overwhelmed it and it came apart in sparks and rending metal and blinding light - longer since she'd dreamed of sending someone out to search the wreckage and bring back the cockpit miraculously intact, the pilot inside injured but somehow still alive, and awakened unable to tell, for a few disoriented moments, what was a dream and what had actually happened.
Time made it easier. In time, she was sure, she'd remember the trick to falling asleep alone.
Murrue hadn't realized she'd been expecting to find some lingering sense of Mwu's presence in his erstwhile quarters until she was confronted by the lack of it. The room was just an empty room, with hardly anything to prove he'd ever been there at all... just the hat from his uniform, upended atop the cabinet where he'd tossed it last and probably forgotten it as soon as it had left his hand.
Which only made sense; he hadn't used his quarters all that much in the last few months or so before Jachin Due. There was no reason that the cabin's emptiness should leave Murrue feeling bereft, just as there was no sensible reason to feel so knotted up inside about a cardboard box that was, after all, only a matter of convenience - just a place to put things, nothing more.
She told herself that, as she set the box down on the top of the cabinet and reached to slide open the first drawer.
The clothing within, she found, was carelessly folded, disturbed by the the trembling of the ship under enemy fire and the Archangel's re-entry into normal gravity. Sighing a little, she lifted out the topmost shirt - the blue and white t-shirt that came standard issue with OMNI uniforms, soft with months of wear and washings - and shook it out. And, on a sudden impulse, gathered the fabric in both hands and buried her nose and mouth in it, breathing deep.
Standing there, with Mwu's shirt in her hands, trying to find some trace of his scent in the scent of detergent and clean fabric, Murrue realized that she'd been wrong. I'm not ready for this.
But then, she hadn't been ready for any of it. War moved on its own timing, and she, and Mwu, and the rhythm of everything between them, had been ruled by that timing - by necessity, by their responsibilities as officers on a warship. Why should this be any different?
She folded the shirt carefully and laid it inside the box.
The other clothing followed it, one article at a time. There wasn't much. He'd brought little aboard with him besides the Zero; like her, like most of them, he'd had to rely on the supplies stocked aboard the Archangel. A few things picked up in Banadiya, in Orb, perhaps... but of course, whatever he'd taken with him when he'd left the ship in Alaska had been lost, his bag abandoned somewhere in the base during the confusion of the attack, destroyed with the rest of JOSH-A.
Murrue had already packed up the things of his that had been left behind in her quarters. A few uniforms, assorted other basic daily necessities. She should have put it all in the cardboard box, but it had been easier to pack everything into her bag with her own belongings. It didn't much matter. She would be taking all of it with her.
The Moebius Zero, too, had already been unloaded, to be maintenanced and kept by Morgenroete until some decision could be made about what to do with it, the last of its kind. Someone - it might have been Erica - had made some comment about a flight museum. Murrue, feeling her throat constricting, had changed the subject.
When she'd laid the last shirt in the box, she opened the drawers again, one by one, just in case there was anything she'd missed. There was nothing. This was all that was left, just some uniforms and other little odds and ends, not enough even to fill the box more than halfway. Nothing of him, really, any more than the room had held any sense of his presence - nothing to speak for the character of the man who'd left the things behind.
The wrongness of it surged up in Murrue's throat like bile.
It wasn't /right/. He deserved better - after everything he'd done, everything they'd come through, everything he'd sacrificed, he deserved more than a half-empty cardboard box and a monument someplace without even a name on it because too many had died to name them all. It wasn't right that there was nothing more of him to bring home, and no home to bring him back to even if there had been.
More than anything else, suddenly Murrue felt angry - at the military, at the Coordinators, at Raww le Klueze, at Natarle, at Mwu, at herself, at anyone who'd ever had anything to do with such a pointless, wasteful, stupid war. In a burst of indignant fury she swung out a hand that struck the box and sent it flying across the room to bounce off the closed door, the neatly-folded clothing scattering along its trajectory and flopping to the floor in disordered heaps.
The sudden violence of the anger she hadn't let herself feel since she'd watched the Dominion explode shocked Murrue back into stillness. She stood and looked at what she'd wrought with vague, foolish surprise and a faint sense of shame.
I think I'm not as all right as I thought I was.
When she thought she could trust her hands not to waver, she stepped over the scattered clothes to retrieve the box, not too much worse for the ill treatment. She set it upright on the floor, and sank down onto her knees beside it, to begin picking up each article, carefully re-folding them and replacing them into the box one by one.
She had to reach underneath the bunk to find the last stray pair of socks. After she'd dropped that, too, into the box, she swept a hand blindly through the space underneath the bunk in search of anything else that might have fallen out of sight. Her fingers surprised her by encountering paper instead of dust or fabric; drawing it out, she found herself looking at a somewhat bent-out-of-shape magazine with the picture of a blonde girl in scanty lingerie on the cover. It took Murrue a moment to realize what she was holding in her hands, and when she did she felt her face growing warm.
"Where did you even get this?" she asked before it could occur to her that she was speaking to an empty room.
Or maybe there was something of Mwu's presence lingering after all. For a moment, Murrue thought she could almost hear his sheepish laughter.
She thought the noise that rose up in her throat would be a sob, but it came out as a laugh - strangled and maybe a little bit on the hysterical side, but a laugh all the same.
It's a good thing nobody can see me right now, she thought, and laughed again, helplessly. Shaking the magazine at empty air and rubbing at her stinging eyes, she said, "I ought to just throw this out, you know."
She could imagine his bright, rueful smile almost as clearly as if he'd been in the room with her. Dropping the magazine into the box with a flutter of paper, she put her face in her hands and took a long, deep breath, in and then out. And then another one.
Only when she was sure she'd recovered her composure did Murrue lower her hands and lift her head again, and pick herself up off the floor to get back to her feet. She straightened out her skirt and smoothed hair that didn't need smoothing, then bent to curl her fingers into the handholds in the sides of the cardboard box. By the time she straightened, lifting the box off the floor to set it back on the top of the desk, the room was just an empty room again.
All the same, when she picked up the uniform cap that had been left there, she found herself hesitating, reluctant. The cardboard box wasn't just a place to put things after all. It was about acceptance.
She stood for a long while, and when she finally gathered up the box again - it ought to be heavier, she thought, feeling the light weight of it in her hands - it was with the hat tucked carefully into the crook of her arm.
At the door of the cabin she paused, and looked back, but the room was still just an empty room. "I'm sorry," she said, with no way to put into words all the things, great and small, that she was sorry for.
When she left, she closed the door behind her.
(It wasn't much past four in the morning when Murrue woke, the day of what no one would say but everyone was hoping would be the final battle. She took pains as she eased herself out of bed not to disturb Mwu... but he stirred anyhow, with a sleepy, wordless murmur of inquiry, and she paused sitting on the edge of the mattress to bend and touch her lips to his forehead.
"Go back to sleep," she told him in a murmur. "It's not time yet."
He opened his eyes as she straightened, propping himself up halfway on an elbow, and when she began to step away from the bunk he reached out and closed a hand on her wrist. "Stay."
There were a dozen reasons on Murrue's lips as she looked back - battle was coming, perhaps the battle, and the ship would need all the preparation and he all the rest that they could get. Now isn't the time, she almost told him.
Meeting his eyes in the dim half-light of her quarters, seeing the trace of an uncharacteristic vulnerability there, she faltered.
There might not be another.
She let him draw her back down to him, leaning over him to kiss him, and did her best to put that thought out of her mind.)