"I love you," she says.
And she whispers it fervently, like an urgent secret, and he knows she wants an answer. He knows she wants him to give her an answer - the right one. In his mind, he plays fantasies of saying those words to a soft tabby across the border.
He repeats the words perfunctory, a halfhearted mumble that doesn't quite reach his blue gaze. He glances at her - knowing, knowing she hurts - and averts his eyes again, avoiding her distress.
"No you don't," she responds quietly.
It's the same conversation they've had since the beginning - her green eyes are wide, pleading, and her black fur isn't quite bristling, yet not flat, either. Her tail flicks back and forth nervously. She wants the right answer.
He can't give her that answer.
"You know I don't," he tells her tiredly, not meeting her expression. His head hangs low, studying the earth between his claws, his ears twitching.
She releases a sigh - it's almost inaudible, but he catches the sound with keen ears, and suppresses his own troubled breath of air. He can hear her shift uncomfortably, her paws shuffling the dusty dirt.
"I love you," she repeats at last, as if this is the answer to their problem. He knows she means it.
His blue eyes dart to hers, and he is held prisoner by the tempest of battling affection and sorrow in their mossy green depths. He wishes he could apologize - he does. But there's nothing he can say, nothing that will relieve her pain, and they both know it. Neither will voice it.
"I know." His words are fragments, and she looks away. The crisp morning air shifts into freezing briskness, and he studies the thin sheet of ice filming over the steady stream.
"I wish you meant it," she whispers at last, her words soft and wispy, permeating a cloud of foggy air in front of her.
He watches the mist dissipate before he answers.
"I know," he echoes.
She blinks, hurt traveling rigid up her spine. He blinks steadily at her, no warmth or adoration shining in his eyes - she stares right back, equal amounts of love and pain glowing in her green gaze.
"I love you." She says it like it will save them, but it won't. Sometimes he wonders why she still tries. She knows, and he knows, and their son knows. There is no love in this union. There was never love in their union.
"I love you, Crowfeather," she repeats stronger this time, appearing to swallow the weighty lump in her throat. "But that's not enough?"
It's not a real question, but he feels compelled to shake his head slowly.
He pretends not to see the pain in her eyes as she turns away, whispering promises to him that he wishes she wouldn't keep.