She still rose at the same hour every morning, still rolled the dough and made the pies fresh each day. Never mind that it had been weeks since she last had a customer. Grind the meat (what little there was), roll the crust, bake the pies. Repeat. This was her routine, and routine was a comfort to a woman living alone.

Well, not entirely alone. There were always the ghosts.

Mrs. Lovett had heard the talk, the tales whispered in hushed tones along Fleet Street and throughout London. People gave earnest accounts of screams heard in the dead of night, of bloodied razor-blades and weeping banshee women with yellow hair. The sad story of the barber's wife and the judge who desired her had been distorted over the years, romanticized and embellished to the point where it was nearly unrecognizable. But the one detail everyone agreed on was that the spare room above the meat pie emporium on Fleet Street was undoubtedly haunted. What Mrs. Lovett had never told anyone was that the rumors were absolutely true. The room was haunted.

Haunted, specifically, by the specters of Benjamin and Lucy Barker. Mrs. Lovett supposed that they couldn't be ghosts, technically, because as far as she knew both of those poor souls were still alive. But Mrs. Lovett was never one to trouble herself with technicalities. Ghosts, shadows, memories- whatever they were, the fact was that they were there, plain as anything, exactly as they had been on that long-ago day when everything had gone so wrong. He, beautiful as always, in a brown suit and a newly pressed shirt; she in a blue crinoline frock, a summery bonnet in her hair.

Sometimes she spoke to them, when she was feeling especially bored or lonely. She would tell them whatever was on her mind, ask their opinions on the price of meat these days or whether they thought she could put off the washing for another week. They never replied, of course, only stared at her in a mournful sort of way. They were sad, silent things, her ghosts.

She didn't mind them terribly. They were some company, at least. And with dear Albert dead, and business bad as it was, and all the neighbors thinking her quite mad, Mrs. Lovett figured she could use a little company.

-/-/-/-

When Benjamin Barker first opened the door, he thought the woman standing there was a ghost herself. She was pale, pale as the flour on her dress, as if she hadn't seen sunlight in fifteen years. She was quite pretty, he conceded; Nellie Lovett had always been pretty. Still, her eyes were sunken and shadowed and her slender form bordered on the skeletal. It was obvious the woman hadn't eaten enough in ages, nor slept, for that matter. He peered at her more closely, searching for the plump, jovial young woman he had known in those days. She was there, but only a shadow of her. Her coppery hair seemed to be the only thing about her that hadn't faded.

Sweeney Todd, for his part, was not particularly interested in this woman or her troubles. If anything, he was wary of her. He sensed that this tangible connection to the past might distract them from their ultimate goal. Ben felt hostility and suspicion that were not his own rising in his chest like a clenched fist. Vengeance was paramount; why else had they escaped one hellish prison only to sail into the arms of another, if not for revenge? It wouldn't do for their mind to stray from that. Not at all.

Nevertheless, Benjamin surveyed her with concern in his eyes. "Ah, Eleanor," he sighed inwardly. "What has this world done to you?"

That's what a lifetime in London will do. I doubt if there ever were a town more poisonous to its inhabitants.

For once, they were in perfect agreement.

-/-/-/-

She knew who he was almost as soon as he entered her shop. True, his face was gaunt, his complexion wan and unhealthy. The years had taken their toll on him, sure enough, and she supposed that to a less practiced eye he would appear a very different man. But to she who had memorized its every feature, who had traced its contours with her eyes heaven only knew how often, the face was instantly recognizable.

Benjamin Barker. The barber who had rented the upstairs room all those years ago, whose imprint lingered there even now. She remembered he had been sweet and soft-spoken, a courteous neighbor who was always quick with a smile. He doted on that bride of his and their blond-haired brat, and Mrs. Lovett only admired him all the more for his indulgence. It was further proof of his mild, generous nature. But they had sent him away years ago, on some ludicrous charge concocted by that judge who had so coveted his wife.

Yet here he stood. After the initial shock at seeing this newest ghost, this one flesh and blood, the corners of Mrs. Lovett's mouth twitched upward in a small smile. She knew it. She knew it. While that silly, histrionic Lucy had wailed and poisoned herself in despair, she, Nellie Lovett, had waited. She had known all along that that foppish lout in a powdered wig could not have got rid of Benjamin- her Benjamin- so easily. And now, now her patience had paid off, he had finally returned, and she would be the one to welcome him.

You've come home! She could have rushed the man and embraced him on the spot. But something about the way his soft brown eyes had grown cold, about how very tightly he knit that dark, inscrutable brow, warned her that Mr. Barker was not in the mood for friendly reminiscing. Better to wait for him to introduce himself, to reveal his purpose in coming here on his own. In the meantime, though, the poor man looked like famine itself. Bloke probably hadn't seen a decent meal in years.

"Have you come in for a pie, sir?" she inquired brightly, dusting one of the unpleasant-looking pastries off and presenting it to him with a flourish. Her mouth twisted wryly. "These, sir," she declared with mock solemnity, "Are the worst pies in London!"

-/-/-/-

(A/N: Yay for lengthy, action-free character development... so apparently Mrs. Lovett sees things that aren't there. As you can see, in this fic ALL the main characters get to enjoy the fun of insanity. Whee!

Sorry this story is moving so slowly... once the plot diverges from the play/movie things should pick up, but there's some ground to cover before then :-/

I'll try to make it up to you guys with lots of introspective angst and fluffy morsels, mkay? Oh, and don't forget to leave a review! Thanks to everyone who's done so thusfar; you have no idea how much it means to me. You guys are the reason I'm up writing right now instead of working on my history paper... don't worry, that's a good thing )