margotttenenbaum: (Jean Ross; life is a cabaret)
[personal profile] margotttenenbaum
the house of mirth. lily/selden. ao3 link.
lily lives au. 1k.

summary: Sitting across from Selden at the small café table, Lily Bart remained, in his estimation, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.

note: This is for lilybarthes, appropriately. I hope you enjoy reading this little bit of wish fulfillment as much as I enjoyed writing it. :)

Sitting across from Selden at the small café table, Lily Bart remained, in his estimation, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.

This was no longer a fashionable opinion to hold. Selden had bitten his tongue through more than one conversation in which he'd heard Lily's past trotted out for entertainment over cards and cigars. Her beauty, once her most prized possession, had already been demoted in the eyes of her former friends to not only not much, but something that had been greatly exaggerated in the first place. "Never thought she was much to look at," George Dorset remarked once. "But I suppose that sort of thing was the style then."

Lily now certainly lacked the girlish freshness that she had once cultivated, but the appearance of age had not robbed her face of its inimitable fineness. Her porcelain skin was thinner and bluer underneath her eyes, but the planes of her face retained their highborn elegance. Her hands shook, and the skin felt dry and cracked under Selden's touch. Her hair was not so elaborately styled. In her every detail she was less pampered than the woman Selden had known, but he found that made her person no less compelling.

She flicked cigarette ash onto a little saucer. She was still taking his cigarettes at every opportunity. "What made you come to my cold little corner of New York?"

"You," Selden said. "The candle that lights it all up."

The corner of her mouth almost lifted but instead her lips arranged themselves into a distasteful pout. She had not looked at him directly since they sat down, but Selden found he could not look away.

"You're in high spirits this morning. You'll forgive me for my exhaustion; your own mood rather sets mine at a disadvantage for the comparison." When Lily did look at him, her eyes were as startling and clear a green as he recalled, like glass.

"I came calling too early," Selden admitted, a little embarrassed now for his own boyish eagerness. "I felt it was a matter that could not wait."

Again the tip of her cigarette shed a cascade of ash. Again she brought it to her lips, waiting, and the silence stretched on for a long moment. He could not discern if she was cross with him or merely nervous; the dreaminess of their last evening had been replaced by a hard, almost brittle weariness.

"You can never go out of my life," he added with an abrupt rush of agitation, a jerkiness to his speech that made her eyebrows lift in a very familiar Lily Bart gesture. "I want to prevent such a thing from ever coming to pass by saying – by offering – by asking you to be my wife."

The only response in Lily was a sharp intake of breath, but even that was barely visible; Selden surely would not have notice had he been observing Lily with less intensity. Her buttoned jacket merely expanded and contracted in the space of a blink. It was little more than a flinch.

"What are your terms?"

"Terms?" He blinked, taken aback by the businesslike nature of the inquiry. Unease rose in him at first, but if he set himself aside for a moment then he understood; Lily had been tumbled and tripped up much too much in the past year. "None. I can only make you a modest offer of a modest marriage."

"To live in your little apartment?" she asked, but there was a spark of amusement in it. "To keep your little hearth?"

"Something like that." Selden smiled at her slightly, in on the joke. "To keep me entertained when we must associate with unentertaining people, and to allow me to do the same."

"I think if I were your wife I wouldn't want to associate with anyone else," she said.

A great amount of feeling swept over Selden.

"But," Lily continued, "if you are forced to face the truth, will you once again escape on a boat to Havana? Will I find myself husbandless should the wrong detail offend you at the wrong moment? My virtue has been so dragged through the dirt that it can never be made spotless again in the eyes of the people who care about those things."

It was as blunt an inquiry as he had ever had from Lily. It appealed to the part of him that liked such cutting honesty, so long as he was the one striking from the safest of distances. But he could not escape his shame if she could not escape hers, and he knew that she had every right to demand answers from the person who had long denied them.

Penitent, Selden said, "I think both you and I have seen enough of the truth to not be startled by it anymore."

"Is that so?"

"And I think the only thing that allows for it all to be bearable is that we can both look at one another and be honest."

"That's not quite what I asked," Lily reminded him.

"No," Selden said. "You will not find yourself husbandless. Until you deem my suit unworthy and decide to seek out another, which is your decision alone to make. I have heard Lily Bart can be very shrewd with her suitors."

Lily gave a derisive little laugh like she used to do over dinners when the person seated beside her said something particularly dull. "Foolish is another word I've heard," she said. "One that is less kind but more accurate."

They passed another moment in silence, each drawn to their own contemplation as coffee cooled in front of them and cigarettes burned down to the quick.

"If you refuse me, I will never think of you as anything less than a friend," Selden said finally. "And you may make yourself free to call me foolish for asking any time you like."

When she didn't answer, Selden nodded and rose, preparing to make as graceful an exit as a spurned man could, but once again Lily lifted her glass green eyes to him.

"I didn't hear myself refuse," she said. "Did you?"

Selden laughed and sat again, reaching over to boldly take her thin, cold hand in his. He had no intention of letting it go.
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