When Peggy Burnett came knocking on the office door that evening, Rosalie Dene had a shrewd suspicion she knew exactly what her young cousin wanted.
“Rosalie! You’re not still working, are you?” Peggy exclaimed.
“Just winding up. I was over at Joey’s for English tea, and that put me behind, but I think I’ll call it a day.”
“Not before time,” Peggy lectured with mock severity.
“Did you want anything?”
“I’ve had a lovely long letter from Mary, and I thought you’d like to see it,” Peggy answered. “You can come up to my room and read it there, it’ll be quieter than the staffroom - and I have a packet of chocolate biscuits I’ll split with you!”
It was an innocuous enough offer on the surface, but Rosalie’s suspicions were not allayed. It was unusual for Peggy simply to offer her elder sister’s letters to her; usually, Rosalie had to go chasing after her for a glimpse at them - not that Peggy disliked sharing, it was simply that she rarely remembered. Still, Rosalie had been working hard ever since she returned from Freudesheim, and she could do with a break. It was too good an offer to refuse.
True to her word, Peggy provided both letter and biscuits, settling Rosalie in the only armchair while she herself perched on the bed. Once they had finished discussing Mary’s letter and devoured more than half the packet, though, Peggy revealed her real reason for inviting her.
“What did Joey want with you so specially today?” she asked, with an attempt at nonchalance that didn’t fool the older woman for a second.
“I knew it! Peggy Burnett, curiosity will be the death of you!” she exclaimed, laughing.
“Can you blame me, when you’re suddenly summoned to Freudesheim?” Peggy defended herself.
“Wonder all you want, but I’m not telling you anything.”
“Oh, please! You wouldn’t deny your darling favourite baby cousin, would you?” Peggy said, attempting to look pathetic.
“I don’t see Kitty here,” Rosalie replied wickedly.
“Mean!” Peggy snatched up a cushion and threw it at her. “Anyway, I said baby cousin, and I’m younger than Kitty; are you forgetting things in your old age?”
“Peace, peace!” Rosalie exclaimed, fending off the cushion. “I take it back, you’re my favourite baby cousin.”
“Does that mean you’ll tell me what Joey wanted?”
Rosalie hastily searched her memory of the afternoon’s conversation. Joey would never forgive her if she spilt the beans about her planned reunion; equally, Peggy would never shut up unless she told her something. Only one thing really sprang to mind…
“Among other things, to know why I’d never married,” she finally replied, feeling again the slight irritation of that afternoon at Joey’s questioning, and bracing herself for her cousin’s.
Peggy chuckled. “That must have annoyed you, I’ve seen how you get cross with Mother whenever she pesters you about it.”
“Is it that obvious?” Rosalie asked, feeling guilty. Her aunt could be annoying, but she still loved her, and wouldn’t have hurt her feelings for the world.
“Not really,” Peggy replied, shaking her head. "You just get the same look on your face that you get here when you’re already up to your eyeballs in work and something happens to make even more, like daft Middles spilling ink over their books - suppressed exasperation.” She paused a second, then continued. “You know, I always wondered - well, I was just a child during the war, but you were grown-up… and a lot of women lost men at the front…”
Rosalie stared at her in astonishment. “Do you mean to say you’ve been imagining me pining after a lost sweetheart all these years? What on earth put that idea into your head?”
Peggy shrugged. “I’ve no idea, it just stuck with me somehow. It’s not the case, then?”
“Not at all… which means I was luckier than a lot of people,” Rosalie answered gravely.
Peggy nodded thoughtfully, then looked at her with such an expression of barely suppressed curiosity that Rosalie couldn’t help but laugh.
“You’re dying to ask, aren’t you?”
“Are you implying I pry?” Peggy asked in mock indignation, then gave in. “If it wasn’t that, why haven’t you ever married?”
“I was just never interested,” Rosalie replied slowly, searching for a way to make at least one person understand. “To be honest, I don’t see the appeal at all. Having to give up my job and keep house for some man, and put up with him for the rest of my life? It isn’t as if I want children, either.”
“It doesn’t sound very attractive when you put it like that,” Peggy conceded. “But what about love?”
“Romance isn’t the only type of love,” Rosalie pointed out. “I have my friends, and my family - Dad, and my stepmother, and the boys, and all you Burnetts. Romance just seems... messy, and overcomplicated.”
“And, ah, shall I say marital relations - all right, you don’t need to answer, I can see your opinion in your face,” Peggy said with a grin as Rosalie grimaced violently. “But…”
She trailed off, and Rosalie watched her curiously, wondering what could be making her insouciant cousin hesitate now, when even the physical side of relationships had warranted no more than a second’s search for a polite way to refer to them.
“You don’t want a man,” Peggy finally continued. “But some women find love with each other…” She trailed off again, holding her breath.
Rosalie shook her head, smiling. “I’m aware of that, but it doesn’t appeal either.”
Peggy exhaled. “I was half afraid you’d either have no idea what I meant, or be horrified and storm out.”
“I may be set on being an old maid, but I’m not a complete innocent, thank you very much! As for storming out, I’m not planning on it… though you could pass what’s left of those biscuits, if you want to make absolutely sure I stay.”
Peggy laughed and handed the packet over, after extracting a biscuit for herself.
“Do you understand now?” Rosalie asked as she took it.
“I’m not sure,” Peggy replied, tilting her head on one side as she considered it, “but if it’s what you want and you’re happy, that’s what matters.”
That would do, Rosalie thought. And now, it was time to turn the questioning around.
“Now we’ve covered why I’m not married, what about you?” she asked, then paused as a thought struck her. “Or… was that last question meant to be a hint?”
Peggy didn’t answer immediately; and while it was true she had a full mouth, Rosalie suspected she was chewing more slowly than usual.
“I wouldn’t judge you if that’s it, I promise,” she said gently, and Peggy smiled.
“I just haven’t met the right person,” she finally said. “And on the whole I prefer men, which is probably a disadvantage living here! Especially since most of the San doctors are already married… though I don’t know that I’d particularly want to marry a doctor, Biddy’s always complaining that Eugen gets called out at all hours.”
Rosalie snorted at that, remembering not only Biddy’s complaints but also Hilary’s and Joey’s. Peggy chuckled and continued. “I’d like to fall in love - with a man, or a woman if that’s the way it happens -” she flashed Rosalie an almost defiant look, and the other woman smiled back encouragingly “ - but I’m not going to waste my life weeping and wailing about it if I don’t.”
“Well, I hope you find someone,” Rosalie replied, reaching out and squeezing her cousin’s hands.
“Thanks. And if I don’t, like you said, I’ll still have my friends and family.”
“And family who’re also friends,” Rosalie said with a smile, and Peggy grinned back.
“True.” She paused for a few seconds, and her expression became one of pure mischief. “Though a friend would tell me what Joey really wanted today…”
The only response she received was Rosalie’s peal of laughter, and her own cushion flung back at her.
Written for the "family" challenge at fan_flashworks. Set right after chapter 1 of "The Chalet School Reunion".
The title comes from the Frank Sinatra song, "Love and Marriage". Though they don't use the terms themselves (I don't think they'd actually have known them!), I'm picturing Rosalie as asexual and aromantic, and Peggy as bisexual.