Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are 'It might have been'

~ Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle

She lied.

She did have regrets.

She regretted not letting him convince her to stay in bed with him that morning, not spending one final hour lost in the feel of his body, the warmth of his embrace. It flickered across her mind as she stood there, the last time they'd never have. The way he would have held her, kissed her, made her feel loved and wanted. How he would have laughed when she chased his mouth with her hips, the deep moan that would've rumbled in his chest as she'd rolled her body under his, their fingers laced together over her head, skin burnished bronze in the early morning light.

So many regrets. Never meeting that hundred coffee mark. Not knowing what it would feel like to come home to him every night, how her heart would flip at the sight of her possessions mingled with his. What it would be like to wear his ring, to carry the weight of it on her finger. That they wouldn't stand together, shoulders touching and hands linked, while they watched the man responsible for ending her mother's life finally be held accountable for his crimes. Not telling him what his books meant to her, how he'd been saving her life long before he started keeping score. Never knowing what became of her alter ego, the character she'd come to love so deeply in spite of herself. That she would never again lay in his bed with her head pillowed on his thigh as he read to her, the low alto of his voice inevitably lulling her to sleep.

The dances they'd never share in the middle of his kitchen while their dinner went cold, the terrible jokes she'd never have the chance to roll her eyes at. The trips they'd planned but would never take, the children she wanted but would never have. The life that was being so cruelly ripped from their grasp before they ever got the chance to start.

She'd watched him walk away, shoulders slumped but head held high, trying so hard to hold himself together. A small, selfish part of her wanted him to stay. She hated herself for it, for wanting him to be there with her at the end. Wanting to look into his eyes when the final second ticked over, comforted by his presence and his love. Heart in her throat, she'd called out to him, desperate to erase the one regret she could.

It wasn't the first time she'd said it.

She'd whispered it into his skin on that first night, her lips brushing softly against the swell of his bicep while he held her, their legs tangled and his breath washing steadily over the nape of her neck as he slept. It had fluttered in her throat from the moment he'd opened the door, a nervous tickle that she soothed with the hot slide of her tongue and the cool rush of his name. She'd wanted so badly to say it but couldn't. Didn't want to speak her love for the first time while in his bed, the looks and touches passing between them still tainted by the pain they had inflicted upon one another. She'd made amends with her body, with the scrape of her nails and the passion in her kiss; with the twist of her hips and the way she'd opened herself to him completely, letting him see her, truly see, for the first time.

Days turned to weeks and weeks bled into months and still she couldn't say it. The words put down roots in her chest, twining through her ribs and twisting around her lungs, curving her spine and choking her heart. Every day she tried. Every day she failed.

She showed him in the ways she could. Hoped he felt it when they moved together in his bed or hers, saw it in the way she smiled, heard it in the way she said his name. She traced the words onto his skin while he slept, let them hum in her throat when they kissed. It wasn't enough but it was all she had.

The first time he'd heard her had been on a Thursday morning.

He'd come out of her bathroom, hair hanging limply over his forehead and his chest still pink from the heat of the shower. She'd sat in the middle of the bed with her chin resting on her bent knees and watched him stride across the room, hand clutching at the maroon towel slung low around his hips. He'd smiled at her when he passed, the wide one that crinkled the corners of his eyes and made her knees go weak, and she felt the break in her chest, the rigid roots snapping as she pulled in a deep breath. The words spilled out easily, crystal clear in the early morning quiet.

The seconds felt like hours as he stood stock still at the foot of her bed, eyes filled with joyous wonder and the towel slipping slowly from his slack fingers. She said it again, smiling when he lunged forward and took her face in the cradle of his palms, kissing the words from her lips. He breathed it back to her as he pressed her down into the mattress, his wet hair dripping steadily onto her cheeks while his hands tugged at her clothes.

They didn't say it often, continuing instead to express themselves through actions rather than words. He told her with hearts drawn into the foam on her morning coffee or a foot massage after a long day. She returned the sentiment with silly faces drawn onto steamy bathroom mirrors and an elaborate murder mystery. It was how they had operated for four years and she thought it was enough.

But when he'd looked back at her with sad eyes and a soft smile, she wished like hell they had done things differently. Wished she'd said it more, that she'd made it a part of their everyday so that after this was over - after the dust had settled and his life moved forward without her - he wouldn't forget. Couldn't forget. That he would know she loved him with every beat of her heart, until the very last one.

When it was done, when they'd proven yet again the beauty of their partnership, she'd thrown herself at him, hands fisted into his shirt as her body shuddered in his arms. She'd pressed her cheek to his shoulder and breathed deeply, filling herself up with the scent of him, her voice lost to the wet knot of tears clogging her chest.

Later that night when they were in his bed, naked and sweaty, she'd whispered it to him over and over, chanting her love like a prayer into the crook of his neck until her throat was raw and her body sated.

He held her close through the night and when they woke together in the morning, bodies still twined from head to toe, she'd looked into his eyes and smiled, the words bubbling up in her chest, light and free in the dawn of the new day.

I love you.


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