The war doesn't so much end as it subsides from a blaze to a slow smolder that never quite goes out. Eventually there is a cease fire, and at least on paper the fighting stops, but somehow there is still plenty of active duty for a veteran pilot. It's six months after the cease fire is declared before Mwu sets foot on Earth again.
He never gets personal mail, so it takes him another six weeks or so to get around to going through the backlog. That's when he finds the letter.
He puts in for leave, and gets it, with instructions to report directly to his next deployment when his leave is over. If he stopped to think about it he could probably count on his fingers the number of times he's requested leave before now, so the generous amount of time he's allowed isn't really much of a surprise. If anything, he's overdue.
He packs for a casual trip. Most of what he owns fits into the bag.
Mwu has been to Orb before, but he can't claim to have seen much of it; his view at the time was mostly limited to the Morgenroete Shipbuilding complex, which at least means that there isn't much risk of stirring up old memories. He rents a car and takes a couple of days to wander around with no immediate destination in mind, but he's not used to having this much time on his hands. It leaves him feeling uncomfortably adrift.
Orb is a pretty country, and he thinks that it might have been a nice place to live before war fractured its borders and its economy. Maybe it's still a nice place to live for civilians. Mwu wouldn't really know about that kind of thing.
When he first sees her walking up the sidewalk towards her building, Mwu thinks it's a little strange to see her out of uniform. It takes him another moment or two to realize that it's not just the civvies that are throwing him. She's thinner than he remembers, and her hair is longer.
He waits until she passes by his car where it's idling by the curb, and then he calls to her through the open window: "Hey."
Murrue stops, and suddenly Mwu regrets not calling beforehand. She looks almost as though she's been suckerpunched.
"Mwu," she breathes. "How did you-?"
He puts on his best sheepish smile. "Murdoch wrote me," he says. "Listen, are you headed anywhere special?"
There are places they could go, but in the end he just drives, winding his way along through the cityscape until the buildings fell away into countryside and the road becomes a long stretch of scenic parkway running along the coastline.
"They told us the Archangel went down at JOSH-A," he tells Murrue, sitting quietly in the passenger's seat as he drives. "I had a bad feeling about it for a while, but I was on the front lines most of the time, so I didn't have a lot of chances to think about it much."
In his peripheral vision he can see her face turn towards him as he checks the rear view mirror. "What happened to your posting as an instructor?"
"I don't think it ever really existed," Mwu says darkly. "They just weren't ready to throw me out with the rest of the trash." Watching the road ahead gives him a reason not to meet her eyes. The car is nothing like a mobile armor, but he takes a certain amount of reassurance from the act of driving all the same. "I didn't put the pieces together until the Archangel turned up at Jachin Due. Good work out there, by the way."
Her voice is very quiet. "Not good enough."
"The Earth's still here," he points out. "I'd call that a pretty good day's work."
She doesn't answer, and after checking the rear view again he steals a glance her way. It bothers him to see her so subdued, head bowed and hands resting in her lap. The man he was three years ago would have said something to cheer her up, but the man he is now is beginning to realize that he has no idea what to say to her any more.
"I was happy to see the Archangel made it out of Alaska in one piece," he says. "What happened?"
"Kira," she says, after a moment of hesitation. "He got wind of it somehow, and got there just in time to warn us."
"Really? The kid survived after all?" It's an unexpected and cheering thought. "Good for him. How's he doing?"
Murrue says nothing.
It takes Mwu a little too long to understand the meaning of her silence. When he does, he swears quietly and steps a little harder on the accelerator. "Shit."
He'd planned to ask her if she's kept in touch with anyone from those days aside from Murdoch, but he realizes now he doesn't want to hear who else has died.
The car rushes along, and he watches the road spilling out behind it like a ribbon in the rear view.
A mile passes, and the light over the ocean is turning to gold.
"What have you been doing lately?" Mwu asks her.
"Erica Simmons helped me get a position with Morgenroete," she says. "I've been working as a department head there."
She begins to say more, and then stops herself, shifting uncomfortably in the passenger's seat. After a moment Mwu understands. Whatever Murrue is working on for Morgenroete is not something that she can discuss with an Earth Alliance soldier, even if they've worked together in the past, even if she once trusted him with her life.
He accepts this for what it is and doesn't ask.
Presently she wonders, "What about you?"
He hitches his shoulders in a little shrug. "Same as always," he says. "I got promoted."
"Captain la Fllaga," she murmurs.
If she asked, he would tell her all about it. She doesn't ask. It's better that she doesn't ask; he doubts that she would want to hear the details of the battles he's taken part in and the near-misses he's had and the mobile suits he's trashed. There hasn't been much in the past couple of years that he's proud of.
When he checks the rear view again, she looks back too, and watching from the corner of his eye he can see it on her face when she notices the other car.
"They're following us?" she asks.
"Dunno," Mwu replies, as casually as he can manage; "maybe not."
Privately, though, he does not hold much hope that it's simply a coincidence. He's been seeing the same car since a few blocks after he picked her up, maintaining the same careful distance back whatever speed he goes.
He checks the mirror again and it's still there, hanging back just beyond that last bend. Silently, he curses himself for being enough of a fool to not realize that OMNI would be keeping tabs on him. He has never forgotten about the time that he spent on the Archangel, and it turns out that neither have they.
"You think they're following you or me?" he asks - a rhetorical question - and punches the accelerator hard.
Damn it," he says. "There's nowhere to lose them out here."
Murrue has gone pale and her fingers are digging into the seat, but her voice is steady. "There's a turnoff down towards the beach past the next curve."
"Got it." He steps on the accelerator again until the other car is once more out of sight.
He'd have missed the turnoff if she hadn't told him to look for it; as it is he brakes hard and whips the car around with a screaming of tortured rubber, and is rumbling down the sloping side road before their shadow can come back into view again.
He watches the rear view carefully for the next few minutes, but the other car doesn't reappear.
"Pull over, please," Murrue says in a brittle voice.
"Looks like I might have blown your cover," he says as he comes around the front of the car to where she is standing with her back against the passenger's side door. "Sorry."
She doesn't say anything, and Mwu finds himself at a loss. He never imagined that he might find her like this, with shadows of sorrow and fear haunting her eyes. He almost puts a hand on her shoulder, but it seems like a silly and inadequate gesture, so after an awkward moment he leans against the car next to her.
"I should never have left," he says.
"You didn't know."
"Bullshit," he says. "I knew something funny was going on." He puts his hands in his pockets, watches her sidelong. "I'd halfway talked myself into turning around, but then I thought it wouldn't change anything anyway, so..."
"You did what seemed best at the time," she says softly.
"No I didn't," he scoffs, bitterly. "I followed orders."
And there it is. He followed orders and left her to bear the weight of the Archangel by herself, with no one left to support her but a handful of kids with more idealism than sense, because following orders was all that he knew how to do. And this is what it has brought them: three years down the road and he's a burnout case and she's still bleeding from wounds that don't show, and they can't go back to what they were when the world still made sense.
"I've already made up my mind," he tells her, after a long interval spent listening to the white noise of the ocean and watching the shadows get longer. "I'm not going back."
She looks at him now, her brown eyes startled and full of questions, and he offers her a crooked smile.
"I don't know what I'm fighting for any more," he tells her. "I think maybe I haven't for a long time. And I woke up one morning and realized that if I keep on like this I'm going to end up as one of those guys who goes out there looking for a good way to die."
The light gives her a glow of warmth that almost matches the way he remembers her, touching her hair with gold and collecting in her eyes. She watches him the way she did back then, that last time on the Archangel when she thanked him for everything, as though there are too many things she wants to say that would hurt too much to give voice to.
"Is that why you came here?" Murrue asks softly.
"I've got nowhere else to go," he says.
It is not fair to lay this on her, Mwu knows, but she is the reason he began to question himself - she and Kira, and Kira is dead, and she is his last chance. Everything else he has ever believed in is gone, has turned out to be hollow and empty. She is the only truth that he has left.
"I don't know how to do anything else," he confesses, because all that is left to him now is to lay everything out before her and hope. "I need you to be my captain again."
"Don't." She turns toward him with a face that's tight with pain as though she's holding back tears. "Don't ask that of me, Mwu. I can't do it any more."
It's all wrong, Mwu thinks. Maybe it's been going wrong ever since that day in Alaska, since he left when he should have stayed. She is supposed to be the stronger one, and maybe she still is, but war has broken her heart and war is all he knows, all he has to offer.
"Okay," he says at last, when he can trust himself to speak again. "It's all right."
He pushes away from the car and turns to face her, while the setting sun sets fire to the ocean off to the west.
"Forget about all of that stuff," he tells her. "Make it just this."
He moves closer, and taking her face gently between his hands he does what he should have done all that time ago in Alaska. The kiss lasts a long time. Murrue's hands find his collar and grip tightly, and her mouth is soft against his, and Mwu doesn't pull back until he realizes that she's crying.
"Hey," he says. She doesn't answer, just bows her head, still holding onto his shirt, so he puts his arms around her and holds her until the tears are done.
They spend the drive back in a mutual silence.
It's dark by the time they make it back into the city. Mwu keeps a wary eye out for any cars following them, but doesn't see any; nevertheless, he lets Murrue out at a convenience store around the corner and across the street from her building.
"What do you plan to do now?" she asks him through the open window, after she's gotten out of the car.
He shrugs a little. "I don't know. I guess I'll head towards Kaguya." If he's really being tailed, it'll only cause trouble for her if he sticks around. Going as far as Kaguya should give him a chance to lose any shadows.
"Will you come back?" she asks, as though he has anywhere else to go. OMNI is not his home any more, and Murrue is not the Archangel but she is as much of it as he can get.
He doesn't tell her any of this. What he says instead is, "If you want me to."
She doesn't answer right away, and the look on her face is so much like it was in Alaska that he begins to hope, a little, that she will ask him not to go. She doesn't, but leans in through the open window to kiss him, lightly and hesitantly. "Be careful."
"Don't worry," he tells her with a smile that he hopes doesn't look very strained. "I won't do anything crazy."
When she starts for home, he sits in the parked rental car and watches her until she is out of sight.
He has nothing but time.