(A/N: Thanks so much for all the amazing reviews and encouragement! Sorry about the long delay... usually it's ideas that are hard to come by, and then the writing comes easily, but for some reason with this chapter I knew exactly what I wanted to do and just couldn't get it into words. Ah, well. I'm not entirely satisfied with how this turned out, but I decided it would be mean to keep you guys in suspense any longer )
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"Alright, then, love. We'll each make a pie, you an' me. Next customer'll be the judge."
They were standing in the kitchen. Mr. Todd tapped his fingers impatiently as Mrs. Lovett laid out the terms of the competition. He was beginning to regret committing to her ridiculous wager. All that red, red blood, he reminded himself. It would be worth it.
The barber jerked his head upward to find Mrs. Lovett looking at him expectantly.
"I said, are you ready to begin?"
"Oh. Yes, yes," he grumbled absently. "Let's go."
" 'Ere you go, then," said Mrs. Lovett, unceremoniously dumping a mixing bowl and a sack of flour on the countertop before him. Having done so, she retreated to the other end of the counter, staring at the familiar utensils. She twisted her hands nervously, grasping at her slender wrists, feeling an erratic pulse jump under her touch. This was possibly the most important pie she had ever made. She took a deep breath, struggling to keep it even. There was nothing to worry about. After all, this was what she did best.
Still, the image of the barber's dark eyes clouded with bloodlust wavered before her. She ought to be frightened, she knew. Foolish, foolish, foolish, to challenge a man as dangerous and unpredictable as Sweeney Todd. No wonder she was shaking; the blood had reason to be pounding so furiously in her ears. She grimaced, and a sinking feeling settled in her stomach. Foolish, naive woman, she thought bitterly. Because she knew that even now, with Mr. Todd's hands itching to take his razor to her flesh, it was not the prospect of losing that agitated her so, but the possibility of winning...
She risked a glance at the beautiful, bloodthirsty barber in question. He was coughing and swearing, his head obscured by a cloud of flour.
And Mrs. Lovett smiled.
There was something wrong with the flour Mrs. Lovett had given him. Or was this normal? Mr. Todd wasn't sure. All he knew was that this particular measure of flour was completely encased in a coarse cloth bag, slumped on the counter like an unwieldy pillow. After careful inspection, Todd concluded that it was entirely sewn shut, with no obvious way of getting the flour out.
Exasperated, he lifted his razor and brought it crashing down, slashing a long tear in the flour-sack that sat so smugly before him. Instead of the familiar crimson, however, he was rewarded only with a choking white fog that billowed from the gash and engulfed him.
Only then did it occur to Sweeney Todd that he had, in fact, never baked in his life.
But that was of little consequence, he told himself firmly. He'd seen Mrs. Lovett do it often enough. How difficult could it be? Biting his lip, he surreptitiously peeked at Mrs. Lovett from the corner of his eye and mirrored her actions. Three cups of flour-- an egg--
The baker looked up and smiled sweetly. "Need a recipe, love?" She waved a piece of parchment under his nose.
"Nnn," he grunted, snatching the sheet from her hands. He scanned it quickly and his brow furrowed. A pinch of salt? Season to taste?
He balled up the useless scrap of parchment and tossed it aside in frustration.
A merry tune drifted over to him, jangling his nerves, the melody mocking him in its cheerfulness. He whirled automatically in the direction of the offender, razor at the ready, but it was only Mrs. Lovett humming blithely to herself. She loved it; the familiar, floury smell of the kitchen, the solid weight of the rolling pin in her hands. She was in her element here.
She dipped one elegant finger into the bowl and brought it to her lips, frowning thoughtfully. "More salt," she decided aloud, and swept off to get some, her skirts swishing smartly behind her.
She stood on tiptoe to retrieve a jar from one of the upper shelves, and he found himself transfixed by her extended figure, a smooth, shadowy outline in the dimly lit room. It mystified him that she could move at all in those wildly impractical gowns she was so fond of. Yet she managed. More than that- she was graceful.
Todd continued to observe her slyly, searching for cues that he might imitate in his own pie-making endeavors. How carelessly she seemed to toss the ingredients in! He had always considered baking a precise science, a mindless following of a rigid set of instructions. Not at all like the intuitive craft of barbery. But Mrs. Lovett worked with energy and spontaneity, seeming to improvise as she went along. Her fingers were strong and nimble and the dough moved easily in her hands, swiftly transforming into an exquisitely flawless pie crust. A proper artist, he found himself thinking.
"Wot're you looking at, Mr. Todd?" He realized he had been staring.
"Nothing," he snapped, and shook his head as if he could shed the distracting thoughts like water. He stirred his batter stiffly, trying unsuccessfully to mimic Mrs. Lovett's light whisking motion. He turned to her for reference, but she was already spooning in the meat filling, sprinkling various herbs in capriciously. Her eyes were narrowed and her tongue caught between her front teeth, a nervous habit that Mr. Todd knew meant she was concentrating. With practiced agility, she folded the top of the crust on and pinched the edges shut. Grabbing a nearby fork, she pricked the dome once, twice, and stood back to admire her handiwork.
"Finished!" she announced brightly, and spun on her heel, scurrying down to the bake-house with her creation in hand.
Mr. Todd waited until she was out of earshot before erupting in an irritated groan.
Her Mr. T was always a gloomy thing, but Mrs. Lovett had grown quite adept at distinguishing between his varying shades of unhappiness. Fury was a bright flash of silver, a razor in his hand and his voice harsh and feral, eyes blazing as he shouted streams of obscenities. Those were the only times he generally spoke in more than monosyllables; more often he'd be sunk in taciturn Self Pity. Thoughts of vengeance were usually accompanied by restlessness, fiddling with his blades or relentless pacing, the steady clump clump clump of his footsteps like a melancholy metronome. Other times he would sit for hours, still as stone, his eyes black pools of such infinite sadness that it hurt Mrs. Lovett to look at them. That meant he was thinking about Lucy, unless his eyebrows were subtly drawn, giving his face the slight cast of wistfulness that indicated he was thinking of Johanna. Most of the time, however, he tended to default to Apathy, his mouth a thin, hard line and his gaze flat and unseeing as the eyes of the dead.
She had thought every facet of him was familiar to her. Even so, when she returned from the bake-house, still panting slightly from the long climb up the stairs, she was startled by the barber's demeanor. He still wore his customary grimace of discontent, but his eyes burned with purpose, and for once his dark expression of resolve wasn't edged with bloodlust or insanity. This was an attitude Benjamin Barker had worn often as he shaved his clients, but she had seen it on the face of Sweeney Todd only once before, as he meticulously grafted lethal efficiency onto the shabby comfort of Albert's old chair. It was a narrowing of the eyes, a slight inclination of the head that indicated complete absorption in his work.
Mr. Todd had succeeded in creating a grey, sluggish mixture that vaguely resembled dough. This he had poured onto the cutting-board and was now pushing miserably with a rolling pin, the concoction refusing to lie flat but instead clinging to the wooden cylinder and coating his fingers and hair. She smiled fondly at the sight of him, working feverishly, nimble fingers grown clumsy at the unfamiliarity of his task.
Mr. Todd turned around and misinterpreted her smile. "You think it's funny, do you?" he growled.
It was only then that she noticed the irregular patches of flour clinging to his hair and vest. She bit her cheeks against the grin that threatened to take over her face. He did look comical. "You're a sight, you are," she remarked, as neutrally as she could manage.
He regarded her with wounded eyes. Her amusement pained him; Sweeney Todd never liked to be on the wrong end of a joke. He felt his face growing hot and panicked as anxiety, anger, and humiliation wrestled for place in his chest. He seized on the anger. It was familiar at least.
In a flash his hand was wrapped about the unfortunate baker's throat. It reached almost all the way around. It was strange, she reflected, how the mind reacted to fear. At present she found herself thinking with bizarre calm that it was much nicer to have her life threatened by a human hand than the cold touch of a blade.
Her eyes locked with his, and Sweeney Todd peered curiously into their murky depths. They swam confusingly with jumbled emotions. He tightened his hold, unsettled. "There's something wrong with your flour," he hissed. "It's not working." His grip slackened as he realized how absurd he sounded, gesturing incoherently at the sad, sticky lump of his failed pie crust.
Mrs. Lovett's face softened indulgently, the instinct to ease his unhappiness overcoming the smug satisfaction of watching him struggle.
"Hush, hush, love," she soothed, in the same voice she used when speaking to Toby. "Come 'ere, let's have a look." She surveyed the waxen blob with a critical eye. "Nothing t' worry about. Jus' needs a bit of firming up." She kneaded some more flour into it. "Try rolling it now."
Mr. Todd took the hefty rolling pin and pushed it savagely across the dough. Within moments he had thoroughly flattened it, although it did not so much resemble a disc as it did the English coastline.
"A touch slower, love." She balled up the flour and handed it to him to roll afresh. She only hesitated briefly before snaking two arms around him, her slight form pressing into his back as she maneuvered his hands on the rolling pin. "That's right love," she said encouragingly. "Nice an' even." She was so close that he could feel her breath on his ear. Normally he would never have allowed it, of course. But the crumpled flour-sack still sat there, mocking him, and damn it, he was going to finish this pie, and he was bloody well going to learn how to do it right. Besides, he reflected, it was not so unpleasant; her hands on his, guiding him that way.
Over the next hour she lead him through the process, showing him which herbs to add and how to keep the dough from cracking as it dried. He found he rather enjoyed it, the satisfaction of learning a new skill, the firm, honest weight of the dough in his hands. And Mrs. Lovett, holding him, helping him, her voice gentle and reassuring. It was all refreshingly wholesome, notwithstanding the spiteful thrill he got from seeing the bloody, shredded meat. It was gratifying, like a secondary murder of sorts, less dramatic but more devious.
"There now." Mr. Todd looked down and was startled to find a fully assembled pie before him, symmetrical and perfect. He felt oddly proud, and lifted it with both hands, gently, cradling it like a child. It seemed such a long time since he had created something. He had thought Sweeney Todd knew only how to destroy.
Mrs. Lovett was smiling at him. He moved closer and reached up to dust the flour from her hair. "Mrs. Lovett--" he began.
She surprised him by recoiling with a start, her eyes widening suddenly as she gave a little yelp of recollection. "Mercy! The pie!" And she fairly flew down to the bake-house.
Todd watched her go with something like regret. He didn't have time to analyze the alien warmth of the emotion, however, because at that moment the bell on the door clanged loudly, announcing the arrival of a customer and interrupting his thoughts. He exited the kitchen to greet the newcomer, pie still in hand.
In the door-frame stood a stout, older gentleman. His obviously expensive clothing made Sweeney dislike him immediately. All the same, he acknowledged the man with a stiff nod. "Good day to you, sir."
The man waved his hand impatiently, consulting an ornate pocket-watch that he drew from the breast of an ostentatiously plum-colored jacket. "I haven't the time for, ah, pleasantries. I just want a pie and I'll be on my way, thank you."
"You are in luck, sir, for Mrs. Lovett is just now in the bake-house fetching the first pie of the day." Mr. Todd flashed the man a saccharine smile. "Can I interest you in a shave while you wait?"
"I told you, I haven't the time," snapped the man. Mr. Todd's hand twitched toward his razor and he took a step towards the luckless customer. Again, however, the jingling bell interrupted him, this time heralding the entrance of a harried Mrs. Lovett.
She drooped tragically, her hands shaking as they clutched-- something. Todd didn't feel inclined to call it a pie. The ill-fated pastry could more aptly be labeled a ruined mess. It sagged and crumbled from too much time in the oven, and the scorch marks scattered across the surface contrived to give it a leprous appearance. Sweeney wrinkled his nose at the acrid smell that wafted from it.
The customer, too, was surveying the pie with unconcealed contempt. He cocked a disdainful eyebrow. "Madam, I must say, I have heard the most flattering things about your establishment..." He shook his head and clucked his disapproval. "I shall inform my associates that they have poor taste." His eyes passed over the unblemished, though still unbaked pastry in Sweeney Todd's hands. "Perhaps," he remarked witheringly, "your husband could give you a few, ah, tips." Then he spun on his heel and strode from the shop.
Mr. Todd would have rushed after the man had Mrs. Lovett not grabbed his shoulder and steadied him. He seethed, forced to content himself with gripping his razor tightly. The pompous man had reminded him of the Judge, with his frilly finery and his smug sense of entitlement. Sweeney clenched his fists until the knuckles turned white, longing to lash out at something, to slice, to harm... He turned instinctively to Mrs. Lovett, her hand still on his shoulder. So small- and so vulnerable.
She didn't notice the cruel razor-edged gleam that had sprung into his eyes. Her gaze was still trained on the door through which the surly customer had vanished. " 'E's a right blighter, ain't 'e?" she remarked sourly. Still, her cheeks glowed with a small, secret happiness. He had called Mr. Todd her husband. She turned, beaming and blushing, to see if the barber had also noticed the mistake. But Mr. T was leering at her unpleasantly.
" 'Next customer is the judge,' " he murmured, his features twisting sinisterly. She gasped and dropped the disaster of a pie as Todd advanced on her with a predatory smile. "Looks like I win our little wager, my pet..."
The wager; she had quite forgotten. She backed away until she found herself pressed against the wall. Trapped.
He leaned in and ran his calloused fingers down the smooth skin of her neck, satisfied by the frenzied rhythm of her pulse. She felt the breath catch in her throat. Even now, his proximity intoxicated her.
"'S not fair," she gasped weakly. "I helped you."
He shrugged. "Nothin' in the rules against that."
"You're just twistin' things all around. Not very gen'lemanly. Dishonest, I calls it."
Todd scowled. Deceptive he might be, but he fancied himself an honest man. "I'll polish you right off," he told his customers with a wink, and could he be blamed for how they interpreted it?
"Very well..." he murmured, still eyeing the exposed flesh of her neck. Mrs. Lovett bit her lip in confusion and surprise when there was no sting, no flash of pain. She saw his face soften contemplatively, and he withdrew. Mrs. Lovett felt herself start to breathe again, in small shuddering gasps.
"It's a draw, then?" she asked hesitantly.
He smirked. He could see her pulse jumping at her throat, all that rushing red crying out to be set free. "Yes- a draw..." And he closed the distance between them and pulled her to him roughly. He planted one hand on her curls, using it to maneuver her into a kiss, while the other drew his razor and slashed a long gash down her left shoulder. She gave a gasp of pain, but it was muffled by his lips on hers, his tongue, his teeth. Her head swam, whether from the feel of his body pressed so close or from the blood flowing freely from her arm, she didn't know. She felt dazed; her adrenaline-addled mind buzzed feverishly with sensory overload. She responded the only way she knew how: she pressed nearer him, clutching fiercely at his vest as if to keep herself from collapsing. She very well might collapse, she thought; her legs swayed unreliably and there was a strange humming in her skull... she wrapped a slender arm about his waist to steady herself, and clung fast. Razor be damned, she had him now, and as long as he tolerated her she hardly intended to let go.
He broke the kiss as abruptly as he had initiated it. His eyes dwelled a moment longer on her damaged shoulder; the blood gleamed brightly against her pallid complexion. Beautiful, he thought. He reached out and trailed his finger down the line of the gash, almost tenderly. Then he pulled away.
"You should bandage that up," he said gruffly, and turned around briskly to vanish from view.
Mrs. Lovett stood for a few moments, immobile and shaking. She glanced at her shoulder and grimaced. That was going to leave a scar. All the same, she hugged herself and twirled spontaneously about the room, wincing slightly as she did so. Yes, it hurt. Badly.
So why, then, did she feel so dizzily, buoyantly happy?
She ducked back into the kitchen and rummaged about until she found some gauzy bandages, stored in the cupboard for emergencies. She took them out and used her good hand to wind the fabric around her left arm, leaning against the counter for support. Little Toby chose that moment to burst into the kitchen, staring at her in shock. "Wot 'appened to your arm, mum? Are you alright?"
She smiled and ruffled his hair with her good hand. "Don't you worry about me, love. Everything's fine."
More than fine, she thought, with another bright surge of joy. Even the pain seemed to fade as she relived the moment. The solid immediacy of him, his scent of soap and iron... She closed her eyes and breathed. It wasn't likely to happen again. Still, it would be enough to sustain her until his next kind word, the next time his skin brushed her skin in passing. Curled up at night between the coarse, worn sheets, she depended on bright moments to chase away the ache of loneliness.
This would do nicely.
Upstairs, Sweeney Todd paced his shop furiously, trying to rid himself of that fluttering, unsettled feeling in his stomach. It was the sight of all that blood, he decided, all that bright living redness running warmly down her neck and arms. That must be what had him so excited.
Mr. Todd collapsed into his chair. He was disgusted to find that he was trembling.
Glancing out at the gray panorama of the city below, he wondered if the judge's blood would be as red as Mrs. Lovett's had been. His hand flew to the razor at his belt. The judge... he narrowed his eyes, the kitchen encounter already forgotten. His mind roamed distractedly, hardly aware of what his body was doing. So he didn't notice when his treacherous fingers left the cool metal of the blade.
His hand drifted up to his lips, and lingered there.
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Fin! I hope it was worth the wait... Review, please? This is my first kiss that I've written, ever, in fan- or original fiction, so concrit is especially appreciated