We're going to win this war, and then we'll have all the time in the world.
She was so young and foolish then.
"Peggy. How's my best girl?"
She knows Steve's voice, would know it anywhere, even weighed down with the timbre of swallowed sorrow that marks it now. Is this what war does to men, she thinks. It's not fair that Steve's warmth and light should be stolen away by the world's bitter chill.
(Cold. Ice. There is something .... but it's gone before she can catch it.)
His face is half hidden, a study in lamplight and shadow. She's seen him so before. His blond hair and broad shoulders are reflected dimly in the window behind him. Nighttime. Something is wrong, but it takes her a moment to realize: she shouldn't be able to see out, not like this -- "Steve," she says, "someone forgot about the blackout curtains."
He makes a noise that sounds like pain. "I'll get it," he says, and she watches him rise with that stealthy grace; he's trim and beautiful, but it's not his body she loves. She loved him before he had that body. She loves it now only because it is part of him.
He draws a curtain with one big, sure hand, and the view through the window is gone before she can quite decide why it seems so familiar and yet so wrong.
"Thank you," she says. "I would have done it myself, but ..." She's tired. So tired. It's been a long night. It's been a long war. She wishes he could stay. It's stolen kisses and stolen moments for them -- no, not just the two of them. All three of them.
"Steve," she says, and he bends over her, taking his hand in hers and pressing a kiss to the corner of her mouth. "Steve, is Bucky here tonight?"
She's not sure why he draws back like she slapped him. "No," he says. "No ... not tonight."
"Probably off making eyes at the WAC girls," Peggy says.
"Yeah," Steve says, and his voice is raw as sandpaper. "Probably."
During the space race in the late '50s, Howard went through a phase where he took on a pile of contracts from the newly fledged NASA, and decided to teach himself everything there was to know about astrophysics in the process. Peggy had no specific interest in that sort of thing, but it was hard not to pick up details through osmosis when Howard never shut up about it. He was trying to explain orbital mechanics in the middle of what was supposed to be a private dinner to discuss high-level SHIELD business, when Peggy looked up from the stack of folders in front of her and said, "Explain that again?"
Howard blinked, apparently not expecting that she'd actually been listening. "The sum of the three one-dimensional coordinates oscillating around a gravitational center?"
"You said something about falling and missing the ground."
"Oh, well, that's a fairly basic metaphor -- not completely accurate, but that's what an orbit is, really; two bodies are drawn to each other by gravity, fall towards each other, and miss --" He was now demonstrating with the salt and pepper shakers. "And keep going, swing out, gravity catches them, they fall back together ..."
Peggy wet her dry lips. "What if you add a third, uh -- body?"
"Ah, that's actually the three-body problem; it's astonishingly complicated to solve, compared to a two-body orbital system --"
"They interfere with each other," Peggy said.
"Yes!" Howard looked delighted. She wasn't often this responsive to his theoretical physics noodling. "It's not just a matter of two bodies orbiting a third; technically, they're all orbiting each other, and the perturbations --" and he was off and running. Peggy opened her folder again, nodded in what she hoped were the right places and topped off her glass of wine.
She hadn't expected to find a metaphor for the three of them a decade and a half after the war, when two of the principal parties were long since buried in their lonely, icy tombs.
Someone -- she's forgotten who -- once wrote, or maybe said, that you never forget your first time.
Your first time doing what, exactly, a corner of Peggy's mind whispers to her. It sounds a little like Bucky, teasing and playful with a darker current underneath. She was, after all, no blushing virgin when she went to war. She knew what sex was. She'd been in love before.
She'd never been with two men before, but it wasn't that, not exactly. That was just ...
... bodies ...
-- just physics really, the gravitational pull of sex and attraction. It was all part of being young and reckless, a side effect of sublimating fear beneath too-frantic living, the way she'd realized later that they had all done back in those days: all those young people who went out to spill their hot young blood for freedom and home and family. Some lost themselves to hatred, a dark mirror of their enemy, but there was no malice in either of her lovers; they were bright and beloved, her two boys far from home. Their inner light had always reflected in each other's eyes.
It is no coincidence, she knows, with clarity sharp as an ice crystal, that Steve died within weeks of Bucky's death. You could have lived for me, she wants to say to him (and why does she think he can hear her now, when she spent years and decades never succumbing to that kind of sentimental frippery?). You could have -- but what happens to a three-body system that suddenly loses one of its centers of mass? It would be unstable, wobbling off course. She wonders if it could ever settle into a stable configuration or if it would always have been doomed. She can ask Howard.
-- No, Howard is dead. Howard and Maria. Years ago ...
What happens to a planet that loses its sun and its moon?
It goes on, is the answer. That's always the answer. It goes on, and it learns to love the light of other suns.
It was too cold to be outside. Peggy pulled her coat more tightly around her and picked her way across frosted grass, wishing she'd worn practical combat boots instead of heels.
With all the lights of the base blacked out, it was hard to believe that thousands of men (and some few women) were within shouting distance. The illusion was a bit unsettling; she might have been walking alone on a dark night in the countryside. And the stars -- growing up with the lights of a town all around her, she'd never seen stars like this: millions of them, it seemed, hard and bright and close enough to touch.
For all the things the war had stolen, it had also given back gifts, and one of those gifts was the stars themselves.
And another of the war's gifts would be somewhere nearby. She heard them before she saw them, the quiet voices and even more quiet laughter. They were not being particularly careful, but then, they weren't really doing anything that would raise eyebrows -- just sitting on the open tailgate of a transport truck with their shoulders together, looking at the stars. Bucky whispered something, just a few words, and Steve's whole body contorted with silent laughter before smacking him behind the ear.
Peggy watched them silently. They were not aware of her yet. She could slip away, no one the wiser.
She knew it was irrational but there were times when she was jealous -- stupidly, angrily jealous -- of the depth of their rapport. She knew it had nothing to do with her; knew that there was no way they could help being that much in sync, having been each other's everything for so long. She had no desire to steal it from them. Still, the dark wings of envy spread in her chest sometimes, and she had to look away, not wanting to taint their rare time together with her own bitterness.
(fall together and fall apart
no, that's not right, that's later; that's a thought she won't have until dinner with Howard fifteen years after it's all over)
And Peggy Carter had never been the kind of person to run away.
"Hey boys, do you want
(it's winter 1945 and this is the last time she'll ever see both of them together and alive, but she doesn't know that yet)
a little company?"
They shuffled over obligingly to make room for her, sandwiching her in the middle and each draping a wing of jacket over her, warm with body heat. Peggy would be more inclined to complain about being treated as a fragile girl (she always hated when boys offered her their jackets, even when she was just a schoolgirl) if it hadn't been so very warm and cozy, pressed between them so that she could feel them breathing.
Behind her, she felt two arms -- one right, one left -- slide around her to find each other's backs, joining the three of them in a little circle of warmth.
"And what were you two doing out here?" she asked.
"Stargazing," Steve said, a little too quickly.
"I was just showing Steve some constellations," Bucky said. "That one, for example --"
"Bucky!" Steve sounded scandalized.
Peggy had walked in on enough barracks conversations to recognize the general tenor of what they were avoiding. "Boys, do you really think a few off-colour jokes are going to bother me?"
This made them both laugh -- giggle, rather, like the boys they almost were -- and then they took turns pointing out all the penises they'd found in the infinite scatter of stars above, until Peggy was weak with silent laughter.
They all tried to be as quiet as they could, hoping not to get caught.
And Peggy's chest clenched with a sudden wild, stupid anger that she couldn't do any of the things the office girls could do with their soldier beaus. She'd once promised Steve a dance, but it wasn't fair if it couldn't be a dance for the three of them. She imagined swaying to the music with Steve, while Bucky watched from the wall -- the worst part was, he'd be happy for them; she could see his expression all too easily, the blend of pain and pride and love --
No. It couldn't be a dance if it wasn't a dance for three, and they sure couldn't do that on an army base.
After the war, she thought. We'll get a house somewhere -- we probably won't be home much, because none of us is the domestic type, but we'll have a record player and a room that's big enough to dance in.
After the war.
(She wonders if even then she knew that she was lying to herself.)
Five weeks later Bucky falls off a train in the Alps and there is no reason to dance anymore because they are nothing but two bodies with a raw bleeding gap between them, and then Steve is gone too and Peggy is alone with a promise that will never be redeemed and a cold empty place in her bed.
Three bodies falling together and missing each other and swinging wide into the vastness of space.
But Howard's theories say they have to come back again. Howard was always smart like that.
"I'm sorry," Peggy says. She sips at the glass of water that Steve holds for her. "I forgot the question." She forgets a lot of things these days, it seems.
"You promised me a dance, once." Steve is patient, infinitely patient: this she remembers. "I asked you if I could make that promise good for you, when I first came to visit you here. Do you remember your answer?"
She searches her memory, but it's not there. Maybe it will be, tomorrow. "No. I'm sorry."
The hurt in his eyes is shuttered quickly -- blackout curtains drawn across the windows of his soul. Where did you learn such skill at hiding your pain, who taught you, was it me ...?
"You said you wouldn't dance with me if Bucky couldn't be there."
"It sounds like something I'd say," she agrees, and although she still doesn't remember saying it, she understands how much it must have hurt him, a fresh knife twisting in a wound that had probably never had time to heal. It's daytime, she notices irrelevantly, the window open to let the lace curtains flutter. So much of her life has taken place in the shadows and the dark. It's good to feel the sun every once in a while.
And Steve is smiling too, with sunlight in his eyes. "Do you want that dance now?"
"But," she says, and stops, because it's not Steve who's holding the glass of water to her lips. Steve's on the other side of the bed.
She loses so many things these days. Time slips and stutters and stops. She's not always aware of it, but this time she feels it, a slip and step in time ... as she tips her head back to look up his arms -- rumpled black leather motorcycle jacket; always a little bit of bad boy in him -- to the lips and the face and the eyes ...
"Hi, gorgeous," Bucky says. His voice is scratchy, his smile hesitant and uncertain, like he's trying it on to see if it fits.
"Hello," she whispers. "You've been gone a long time."
"I know," he says softly.
"Lady picks the music," Steve says, and if this is a dream, she never wants to wake up. She answers slowly, with one foot in the past and one in this tenuous, uncertain now.
"You know I never paid attention to what was popular. Put on something you like."
He fumbles with her niece's CD player for a minute or two, and then the sweet strains of a waltz rise slowly, brushing away the hospice smells and the low murmur of voices out in the hall. It's now; it's then; it's a moment suspended out of time, as her two best boys help her out of bed, help her stand up.
"Is it possible to do this with three people?" she asks, laughing.
"We'll find a way," Steve says. "We always do," and the look he gives Bucky is soft and intense at the same time. As always, there's something passing between them she doesn't quite share -- but she can't find it in her to resent it, not when they're here (and young, so young).
And they do find a way, as always: Steve and Bucky each with an arm around the other's waist and one around hers, Peggy with one arm around each of their necks. It surprises her a little to discover that she remembers what they feel like. Steve is just about the same, all solidity and warm presence. Bucky .... Bucky is different: hard coiled tension and muscles like steel springs.
She remembers, now, bits and pieces of what Steve has told her about Bucky, about the cold hard way he's taken from the 1940s to here. She's the only one of the three of them who took the long road, but hers was, she thinks, perhaps the easiest of them all.
"I missed you," she whispers, speaking to both of them, and maybe even to the girl she once was.
Steve has been resting his head on Bucky's shoulder -- slightly rough on his neck, considering their height difference, but neither of them seem too worried about that. Now he lifts his head, but only to bend forward and kiss her gently, so gently.
It's another step back in time, and she tips her head back expectantly to Bucky -- easy as ever -- but he pulls away, a shadow falling across his face.
"Am I so old to you now?" she asks him quietly.
He shakes his head wordlessly.
"Buck," Steve says. He sounds helpless. They've ground to a halt, no longer moving to the music; she can feel Bucky tensed to break out of their circle.
"Don't," she says.
"We can't just ..." Bucky flounders, getting tongue-tied. So different from the silver-tongued boy she knew all those years ago. Steve waits patiently -- he's had practice at this, she can tell, so she takes her cue from him and waits too, until Bucky manages to untangle his thoughts. "We can't pick up where we left off, like it hasn't been ... like the last seventy years never happened."
"Why not?" Peggy asks.
"Because I'm not ..." And he stops again. She finally registers the weight of the gloved hand resting in the small of her back. She knows he has a metal arm. Steve must have told her. No: Bucky has been here before.
Steve, his face frozen in unhappiness, kisses the corner of Bucky's downturned mouth.
Pulling together the scraps and fragments of her scattered self, Peggy finds the most immutable truth she knows: "There was never any harm in you."
Bucky's laugh is dark and choked. "That's never been true."
She unwinds her arm from his neck to free up a hand and touch the harder line of his jaw, the familiar and not-familiar curve of his mouth. "Bucky, you've always needed Steve and me to see the light in you, because you could never see it in yourself. That hasn't changed."
His silence is a startled hush, his expression fragile as a bird cupped gently against her palm. This time when she tilts her head back expectantly, he bends to kiss her: the softest pressure of his lips on hers, like he's afraid he'll hurt her. She opens her mouth, inviting him in.
Steve's lips ghost across her forehead and brush the side of Bucky's face, infinitely tender.
She remembers Bucky more clearly now, remembers recent days when he came to visit her with Steve, and sometimes by himself, though even more silent and hard-edged than he is now. He's growing back into his skin, even as she slips out of hers a little more. Things come and go. She doesn't know what she'll remember tomorrow.
She buries her face against their joined shoulders (falling together, always), and sways to the music, and hopes she remembers this.