Reassured by the older woman's touch, by the carefully chosen words that bolstered her flagging confidence, Liv felt a tiny smile work its way onto her face as she held her aunt's gaze. "I ... I really don't know what to say," she confessed uncertainly, glancing in the direction Johnny had taken himself. "It's one thing to know you have family, after thinking for long you didn't, but ... actually being here, seeing you ..." She shook her head, a self-conscious little huff of laughter escaping her lips. "Please ... call me Liv. Or Livvie. Or anything you like, really. We ... we're family."
Peggy felt the full force of the girl's nerves hit her head on as the rambling speech came to a close, unable to keep herself from smiling, amused by how very shy of her Liv seemed. She was an elderly woman, barely able to stand upright for more than ten minutes without support, and this little slip of a woman was frightened of putting a foot wrong, when she had a superhero for a husband who would, Peggy had no doubt, have little trouble leaping to his wife's defense if the need called for it. Her grip tightened on her great-niece's hands warmly. "You are right, Liv," she agreed, softening herself further, seeing how delicate this one's feelings were, how poorly protected, in comparison with the decidedly more robust elder twin. "We are family. And I see so much of your mother in you. I saw her in Lucy, too, but it is you, I think, who inherited Beth's gentler nature."
"Really?" It was a wonder to behold the way Liv's entire being seemed to light up with this simple offering. The weight seemed to lift from the younger woman's shoulders, her chin rose, and for a moment, she mirrored her twin's confidence and clarity of motion. But even then, you couldn't mistake the differences. Lucy had been elated when she had been told of her similarities to father and mother, but it was touched with a sense of superiority, a sense that she had known already. Liv, on the other hand, lit up from inside, the frail hope transformed into sweet delight at the sudden realization that she had something inside herself that connected her with the mother she had never known on a level no one could ever take away from her. She glowed, and her hands twisted in Peggy's grasp, folding about the older woman's hand with warm tenderness.
"Really." Peggy nodded, enchanted by the sudden transformation in the quiet woman, feeling the protective tug that no doubt Lucy had always felt toward her younger twin. But unlike Lucy, she knew where that sense of innocence came from, where Liv had gleaned the sweeter nature of the pair, and though she would never admit it to either girl, it endeared Liv to her more quickly than she had come to feel something for Lucy. It was a joy to see and know that something of Beth, something so intangible and impossible to describe, still survived in a world that had outgrown her and tossed her aside. "She was shy and nervous of people, especially in crowds, but there was no one better at the profession she chose for herself. And when she was with Howard ..." She trailed off for a moment, willing herself to swallow the lingering anger with the man for the sake of his little girl who sat with her, her expression forming into a fond smile for her memories of Elizabeth. "He was her world for too short a time. I can see that in you, when you look at your husband. And in Lucy, when she looks at hers."
For a moment, Liv faltered, wavering between pleasure at the comparisons being handed out, wanting to hear more, and sympathetic pain at the understanding of what Peggy had lost in coming to terms with Lucy and Steve's marriage. As always, her own feelings lost the tug of war, and she leaned in closer, stroking her fingers against her great-aunt's delicate skin. "It's all right to be angry, you know," she said softly, hoping to give Peggy the permission she seemed to need to feel her own feelings and work through them in her own time. "They don't expect you to be fine with it. No one could. You ... you don't have to pretend everything is exactly as you want it to be. Not with me."
Not with me. The message was clear enough. Liv was a safe pair of ears, a safe confidante. She would never divulge, even to her beloved twin sister, anything Peggy told her in confidence. Peggy understood the purpose behind the offer. If she could vent a little to the younger, talk out some of the frustration, the hurt and heartache, then she would be more warmly disposed toward the elder. And though she was delighted to have both Beth's girls back in her life, Peggy had to admit that Lucy's association with Steve made it harder to warm to the elder twin. Some part of her old heart still saw the girl as a love rival, one to whom she had lost the war, and associated that sense of towering resentment with Lucy, unfairly. Perhaps if she could do as Liv seemed to wish, she would not love one better than the other.
"It is very difficult to put into words," she tried to explain to Liv, acceding to unspoken plea that she get at least some of her pain and resentment off her chest. "I love Steve. I always have, and I think I will go to my grave loving him. But our chance was taken away from us; there was no other choice he could have made. He would not have remained the man I loved if he had let all those people die, just for the chance to dance with me. I never thought I would ever see him again, and yet suddenly here he is, the same man I knew. The same age as when I knew him, when I'm a crabby old woman who'll be lucky to see next winter in good health. It is too late for me, but somehow I cannot help thinking that if he had been free, he would have kept up the pretense of loving me until I died. And a part of me - the selfish, bitter part - resents that I won't be able to enjoy the illusion."
"He does love you, Peggy," Liv offered, her voice quiet but earnest. She hadn't truly expected her aunt to open up to her so soon, so honestly, but if these words had to be spoken, she was glad they were being spoken to her. Steve would only feel guilt and pain, and Lucy would get angry to cover her own guilt. No, Liv was the only possible choice to hear these words, and she was glad to do it. Anything to bring them closer, rather than let old memories drive a wedge between them. "Not the way he did before, but that doesn't make his love any less powerful or moving. You're his only link with a past that no one can help him reconcile. You are his best friend, Peggy, and friendship runs deeper than romantic love or attraction. Friendship can overcome anything, and be stronger for the struggle."
"Oh, I know," the old woman chuckled, and to her surprise and delight, it was a genuine laugh, something she had not quite been able to give either Lucy or Steve during their visits. "His friendship is the most precious thing I could possibly hope for, from him, at least. But there will always be some part of me that is disappointed that I will never have the romance I hoped and grieved for."
"Is ... is it better or worse that he married Lucy?" Liv dared to ask. She had to know the answer, and both women knew that if Lucy asked her sister about this specific question, she would be given the answer. It would be unfair, unthinkable, to leave such a lingering ignorance in place.
Peggy paused, considering her reply, understanding why she had been asked and knowing she could not lie to this sweet girl who only wanted to bring her family as close together as she could before time inevitably tore it apart again. "In some ways, it is better," she said finally. "In others, worse. It is difficult to describe in full. I feel angry at him that he could forget me so soon - it has only been a year for him, after all - and yet, I am happy for him that he has found a love that fills up the emptiness inside him. I feel resentful on her behalf that he was drawn to her for her likeness to me, but again, I am happy for them both in the same moment. I can see how happy they make each other. If I had been in a position to make the choice for him, for her ... I would have chosen to push them together myself. With him, she is not so alone as she might have been. And with Lucy, Steve can be the man he was born to be, with a woman who adores him just as he is. It is ... complex to work through."
"I can understand that," her great-niece agreed with a faint nod. She was frowning just a little, sympathetic to the ache and upset, but also to the joy and relief. "And I think they do, too. Steve doesn't really talk to me, but ... well, Lucy does. She wants so much to know you, Peggy, for you to love her. I know it seems sometimes as though she couldn't give a toss about what anyone thinks, but your opinion really does matter a great deal to her. It's been just us for so long, and ..." It was her turn to trail off, trying to find the right words to make sense of the longing in her own heart. "We don't want you to be alone any more."
"But I am not alone, not any more," Peggy reassured her, the smile rising on her beautiful, aged face as warm as any Liv could have hoped for. "I have Beth's girls driving their husbands to distraction with pleas to come and visit me, and I have a friend who lived a little of what I lived so very long ago returned to me. And I am sure your Johnny will deliver more than enough diversion the better we get to know one another." She studied the face before hers, seeing Elizabeth in the soft eyes and hopeful smile, seeing Howard in the strong jaw and intelligent gaze. Seeing, for the first time, how beautiful the love that had created the twins truly had been, and feeling sadness for how cruelly it had been taken from them all. Her free hand rose, gentle as she stroked her arthritic fingers against Liv's cheek. "Why do you feel so alone, Olivia?"