A/N: Just so there is no confusion . . . though the word sloth today generally means extreme laziness, it actually meant deep melancholy or depression during the time when the seven deadly sins were first written. This second, older meaning is the one I've used in this story.
I would also like to give a huge shout out to Phia Nix, whom I've learned is not only an amazing person and writer, but also a wonderfully thorough beta. Thank you so much for all your help, dear.
Taking the fabric between her fingers, she reached up on her toes to pin the shirt to the clothesline; one sleeve, and then the other. It hung there, swaying slightly in the autumn breeze, like a bizarre white flag declaring peace, or perhaps a willingness to surrender. That thought managed to curve her mouth in a bitter smile: peace, never mind surrendering, were the last concepts anyone would expect to find in this house.
Her eyes narrowed as she contemplated the shirt again. Was that . . .? She stepped closer and took the shirttails in her hands. Yes, it was: a faint pink tinge lay against the stark white. Though she had become quite skillful at washing out the blood stains from his shirts, it became harder and harder to wipe them away the more they accumulated.
With a sigh, Nellie unhooked the shirt she had just placed between the clothespins; it would need to be washed again. The pink hue was subtle enough that an unsuspecting observer's eye would easily pass over it, but she knew that he would never approve. He would demand for her to wash it again. So, she might as well go ahead and wash it now. It would, at least, be one less thing for him to be angry about.
She entered the cellar and thumped down onto the stool, the shirt thrown without preamble into the Cataract washer as she did so. Leaning forward, she grasped the crank between her callused hands and began to turn it; the blocks inside the washer clanked and tumbled around fitfully.
Nellie Lovett was growing tired. Not just tired in the sense of lacking sleep. This was a tired that festered deeper within her than that. A weariness that carried through each day no matter how many hours of sleep she managed to catch that night (which wasn't normally many); a fatigue with the everyday motions and doings; an exhaustion with her life.
Every day consisted of the same doings: cooking pies and meals, cleaning dishes, washing clothes, cutting up human corpses, burning the remains of bodies, selling her baked goods, leading potential customers to her tenant upstairs, acting cheerful to all she saw, whirling about the shop, prancing, chattering, smiling. Each night, too, was the same: running up and down from the bakehouse for hours as she stoked the fires to devour the human bodies, eventually crashing upon her cold bed to try and get what little sleep she could, as above her his relentless footsteps creaked upon the floorboards, a never-ending nor -changing rhythm that emphasized the monotony of her life.
Despite the melancholy that had been moldering for many long months, she kept up her merry persona, plowed on just as she always had. Defeat was not in her vocabulary. She had passed through rough patches in her life before, so why should this be any different? Why should this be the one to bring her crumbling to the ground?
Still, she couldn't deny that those feelings became rooted deeper, choked her further, with each rising of the sun. She was teetering on the brink of despair, of suffocation, of insanity – and some days she wondered if she'd already toppled over and just failed to notice.
It wasn't really her daily routines and motions that bothered her. Normally, she enjoyed baking pies and chatting to customers, could even find happiness in doing washing or cleaning by singing to herself or having a suds war with Toby. The redundancy of her days used to not affect her greatly . . . and would have gone on not affecting her if it weren't for him.
She had never known it was possible to love someone so much until he had stepped into her life all those years ago. Her Albert had been a decent and kind man, yes, and she had cared about him, certainly . . . but she had never, could never have loved him the way she did her barber.
She had also never known it was possible to hate someone in equal parts to loving them.
She loved everything about him, embraced every single bit of him – from the sweet, sensitive Benjamin Barker, to the cold, calculating Sweeney Todd – with her entire soul. She lived for him, and thus did everything possible to make him happy, satisfied, comfortable, healthy, content.
She did everything possible to make him love her.
And that was why she hated him. Because no matter what she did, he remained impassive. Indifferent. Entirely uncaring. Some days she began to think that she could drop dead and he wouldn't even notice until a week or two later, when the rotting bodies began to pile up and the stench became unbearable without her around to dispose of them.
Nellie understood that love wasn't something that could be easily produced or duplicated. She didn't demand that he love her (though she would've given the world for it to be so). But she did everything for him, and never received one kindness in return. Not one nice word, not one smile. Not a single thank you.
She spent the majority of her time cutting up and cooking and burning the bodies he slaughtered, and in return she was snapped at and pushed around and treated like a pesky, worthless whore.
What more did he want from her? Lucy had been able to capture his attention by doing almost nothing. That woman couldn't cook or clean or anything useful, and yet somehow she'd had him wrapped around her little finger – still did, for that matter. Maybe that was what she should do from now on to get her love's attention, Nellie mused bitterly: absolutely nothing.
She cranked the washer more viciously. Why Lucy, and not her?
What did he even see in Lucy, anyway? Behind those lovely golden strands, that graceful frame, the dazzling blue eyes, and the soft uncallused skin, she'd had nothing to offer him. Nothing that Nellie couldn't give equally – if not better – than her. Her brain had never had much more than fluff, her soul a lump of soggy cotton . . . the largest proof of this being the cavalier manner she had abandoned her baby girl with. Giving in, attempting suicide, bending under the relentless whip of life just when you needed to bear it most strongly – when there was not only the hope of your husband returning home one day, but the need to nurture your daughter – was despicable, an act that Nellie would never be able to understand nor forgive.
And again the question cycled around in her mind: why Lucy and not her?
It occurred to her then that she still had been grinding Sweeney's shirt through the washer for an awfully long time; it was very likely clean by now.
She stopped the crank and pulled out the shirt, wincing at its new appearance: the pink had been thoroughly removed . . . along with most of the shirt. Her furious cranking had beaten the shirt to a point where it was nearly threadbare. There was no way he could ever wear it again.
Praying her lover would not notice that he was short one shirt, she got up and went into the next room, the bakehouse. She wrenched open the oven door and tossed the clothing article inside, watching as it went up in flames.
He would definitely notice the absence of a shirt, Nellie thought to herself dismally as she slammed shut the oven door. Sweeney never observed any changes in his landlady, but when it came to his own belongings, he could be quite obsessive. One had only to look at how he treated his possessions – that barber chair, his old photos, the rotting crib, those bloody razors – to realize that. He adored his belongings, practically viewed them as friends.
She should probably tell him of what she'd done to that piece of clothing. He would be furious – she gave an inward wince as she imagined the wrath she would have to endure – but he had a right to know: it was his shirt, after all.
Or maybe . . . maybe she could just go out and buy a new shirt right now to replace it. Then he would never even know of his old shirt's demise by her hands.
Satisfied with this plan, she lifted her skirts and began the trek up the stairs leading from the bakehouse to her shop. Once there, she bustled into the parlor to grab her shawl and purse, smiled briefly at Toby (who was sprawled on the floor for an afternoon nap after a hard morning's work), before leaving the house and beginning her journey down the streets of London.
Said journey, however, did not last very long.
"No, don't start – " she muttered to herself as a rumbling sound came from far above.
But her request fell on deaf ears (or perhaps the skies just didn't care), for following this clap of thunder was a streak of lightning. Seconds later, Nellie found herself caught in a downpour, the rain pellets beating against her skin and soaking her almost instantly.
She scowled. "Oh, damn it all."
Only an idiot would walk around outside during this sort of a thunderstorm. She had no choice but to retreat, running back to her residence and flinging herself inside, swinging the door shut just as another thunder boom rattled it on its hinges.
Despairing and fractious, Nellie leaned her forehead against the window, watching with dismayed eyes the cursed rain that had ruined her plans. Now what? Sweeney was still short a shirt, and now she couldn't go out to buy a new one. She would have to tell him . . . he would be angrier if she didn't tell him, after all . . . better to get it over with, anyway . . .
Or perhaps . . . perhaps . . .
Illuminated by her sudden hopes, she dashed to the closet in the parlor, where she still kept some of Albert's old things in boxes. Maybe one of his old shirts was still lying around? Granted, it would be at least five sizes too large, but she could easily mend that. She dug through the boxes with eager hands, sorting through various trifles, a top hat, some loose feathers once belonging to the inside of a pillow, a half-cracked pocket watch, a rusted canteen, several business receipts, endless junk . . . but no shirts . . .
Defeated, she sat back on her heels. There were no other options, then. It was either tell Sweeney that he was down one shirt now and get a mouthful of anger in her direction, or perhaps a few of the usual death threats accompanied with a razor against her throat . . . or wait until he realized it for himself, go about her day peacefully in the meantime, and then get several mouthfuls of anger in her direction along with a razor to her throat.
She knew she should tell him now. It would be worse for her if she didn't. But she couldn't bring herself to move. Her weariness, ever-present, was threatening to drown her. She couldn't bring herself to get up from the floor, go up the stairs to his shop, and bring down even more misery upon herself.
Absently, she began to rummage through the boxes of Albert's stuff again. She knew there were no shirts in there, knew that she was wasting her time, knew that she was prolonging the inevitable. Still, her hands kept digging, turning over and examining the assorted trinkets enclosed within.
She found herself stalling over the longsword within the box, and drawing it out to look closer. She remembered this. It had been one of Albert's most valuable possessions, and yet, even during times of the worst poverty, he had never wanted to sell it. He told her its value was far greater than money. Its value lay in its great history of having been made several hundred years ago, in its boldly tarnished handle, in its blade of sharpest steel. She hadn't agreed with him. She told him that she could think of at least a hundred nicer, more useful things she could buy with the money the sword would fetch. But, regardless, they had agreed to keep it.
Now she found herself contemplating the sword more closely. It was nice, she had to admit. Though the steel had begun to rust with age, the blade still shone beautifully, catching the faint candle light of the room in a million dimensions. And the craftwork . . . the time, the care, the detail that must have gone into making this sword was incredible to ponder. She peered at herself in its reflection as she twisted the blade this way and that; her normally harried appearance was softened by the silver, a little disproportionate, but strangely beautiful.
She could suddenly understand – at least marginally – why her barber loved his razors so.
The longsword still held in her hands, she drifted back into her shop, in case any customers happened to come along (though it was doubtful, what with the current weather). She sat herself down on the stool behind the counter. There was much for her to do – pies to bake, dishes to wash, and probably by now a new body down in the bakehouse – but Nellie got up to do none of these things. She sat, inanimate, fingering the longsword with one hand and leaning her chin against the other.
She had, at last, run out of spirit. She didn't want to do anything. What was the point? He didn't pay attention to her. He wouldn't act any differently towards her whether she worked or not.
He didn't care.
So why should she?
She stared down at the longsword, brushed her fingertips along its delicate workings. Why was this the finest thing she owned? She worked hard, day in and day out, and all she had to show for her perseverance were a few mildly decent dresses and rough, flour-coated hands. And yet all around her were women living in luxury who had never worked a day in their lives. She knew that life wasn't fair, but why couldn't it be at least a little more even? Why couldn't she have what they did?
Her mind swirled with beautiful fantasies: elaborate dresses in rich colors, peacock-feathered fans, three-course meals, servants to attend her every need and whim, silk bed sheets, a man who loved her as much as she loved him. . . .
It was obvious these things weren't impossible – others had them, after all.
She should be entitled to them too, then. It seemed only natural.
She sat there for some time, brooding, lifeless, fingers whispering along the longsword. She was not sure how long she sat there, nor did she care. At some point – perhaps a few minutes later, perhaps several hours – she heard the familiar groans of the stairs leading from the room above her shop: her tenant was coming.
Even this could not budge her from her current position. So it was that when Sweeney Todd entered her shop, she was in the same miserable, slumping posture as before.
He closed the door on the thunderstorm and stepped inside. Though he had been outside for under a minute, he was half-soaked, and tracked in a mixture of water and dirt all over the floor she had just scrubbed clean last night. She couldn't even bring herself to care. All she did was watch him with sulking eyes as he moved in further to the room, looking, as usual, as though his mind was far elsewhere with thoughts of revenge and blood and all his usual fantasies. So, as he didn't seem to need anything from her, Nellie dropped her gaze back to the sword and let her attention wander back to her glum ruminations.
"What are you doing?"
Sweeney's subdued tone drew her back to reality. She looked up at him.
"What?" she said, perplexed. Was he mumbling aloud to himself again? Or was he actually talking to – actually noticing – her? His eyes were fixed on hers, but that didn't necessarily mean anything . . .
"What are you doing?" he asked again, and slowly began to step forward, closer, until he stood in front of the counter.
His dark eyes were still on her, riveted, and she let herself be siphoned up by them. His gaze was intense, thoughtful, and – dare she think it? was she only imagining it? – concerned. Caring.
"Nothing," she said hopelessly.
She only then fully realized how strange her present behavior must seem to him. Nellie Lovett never did nothing. She was always fluttering about, running to and fro, cooking this and talking about that, cleaning this and humming that, washing this and singing that. Always busy, always moving, always animate. Never still. Never apathetic.
Still, that he had noticed . . .
He studied her for another moment, then he cast his stare around the room, lingering on the dirty dishes on the counters, the unbaked pies ready to be put in the oven, the half-eaten breakfasts, the flour on her dress.
Their gazes locked again, and his eyes narrowed. "Why aren't you doing anything?" he demanded.
Something inside of her – that last thread of sanity tethering her to the ground – snapped at that. Not entirely aware of what she was doing in her fit of unrestrained emotional exhaustion and anger, she sprang off the stool and flew at him; the longsword clattered from her grasp as she went, but somehow a rolling pin managed to take its place in her fist instead.
"You selfish bastard!" Nellie shrieked, slamming the rolling pin against his shoulder; eyes wide with shock, he flinched away from her. "How dare you!"
She hit him again with the cooking utensil, and though he winced, he did not attempt to fight her off.
"Day and night you do nothing but pace around upstairs all grumpy and moody, polishing your damn razors a thousand times over while carrying on about Turpin, just waiting for some customer to stumble inside your shop so you can get your daily helping of blood. Meanwhile I run around working nonstop – and most of that work is for you! Suggesting to lads they should go to your shop and insisting that you're the best barber in London, and then later cutting up their bodies and stuffing their meaty parts into pies; scrubbing all that blood out of your clothes; cooking your meals that you hardly ever touch anyway; keeping you healthy!"
She had begun to punctuate every one of her screeched thoughts with another blow of her rolling pin to his chest or shoulders.
"And the moment I sit down to take a rest, you come in here demanding to know what I think I'm doing! God forbid a woman take a well-deserved pause to catch her breath a minute!"
"Mrs. Lovett." He spoke in a low and even timbre, but with a touch of his usual hidden warning.
"No!" she cried, and she hit him again. "No, don't you even try and interrupt me! You treat me like I'm completely useless, always snapping and barking and shoving me around, but you're the useless one! You hardly do anything 'side from indulging in your own blood craving. Me, I'm always left to pick up the pieces! And – you – never – even – say – thank – you!" she added, accompanying each of these jabbing words with another slap of the rolling pin.
Their roles, she mused indistinctly, were usually from the reverse of what they were at present. It was normally he who was the attacker, she the victim. He who would hiss and snap and demand and accuse and harm. She who would take the abuse. She who would willingly place herself at his mercy. Yet now it was just the opposite.
Nellie was, overall, a forceful and commanding woman, never taking any sort of beating from anyone, achieving as she desired through her own means, independently weaving her way through the world. But never around him. Not until today, at least.
"What the bloody hell do you want from me?" she shouted at him. "Short of bringing the judge straight to you – a feat which I doubt anyone could do after that spectacle with the sailor boy – I've done everything possible to make you happy, and I've made you food, given you a room to stay in. . . . The least you could do is show a hint of appreciation every once in a while – "
"Mrs. Lovett," Sweeney growled again, though in a very different tone than before: rougher, commanding . . . yet softer, somehow.
The change in intonation was enough to make her pause for a moment, her rolling pin half-poised to pull back for another whack, her eyes bolting to his.
He did not say anything further. Instead, he put his hands over her own and pried them off the rolling pin.
She hardly dared to think it in case it wasn't true, in case it was her insanity talking again, but his motions as he did this were very . . . gentle. Perhaps it was because of the lingering traces of Benjamin that – however far down they were buried – still resided within him, as he had always been so polite and kind to all women back then; perhaps it was because he loved her in some deep, hidden way. Or – less romantic and fanciful, but more probable – perhaps it was because he was afraid she would strike him again with her pin if given the opportunity (she doubted it – if he wanted to, he could easily outmatch her in any battle of physical strength).
She didn't care what the reason was for his tenderness. All she cared was that it was there. For her.
As fast as her storm of anger had been stirred, she found it dissipating within her, settling and molding into entirely new emotions. The man before her did have faults, it was true, but so did every person to have ever walked the earth. And if given the chance to change something about him – to alter one aspect of his appearance or personality or character – she wouldn't do it. She would take him exactly as he was. She couldn't imagine loving anything other than what was in front of her, faults and strengths alike. His hands, large and callused and strong, continued to unfasten her grip on the rolling pin with careful touches. And from both this renewed surge of her love for him, and his strokes, a hot desire began to sweep over her, a desperate need to have him, to hold him, to take everything she could and embrace it with her entirety.
Her eyes had been fixed to their folding and entwining hands, but now they traversed back upward to his face. She nearly gasped: after the affectionate brushes of his fingers, she had expected his facial expression to reflect some of the same sentiments, or to at least be the usual blank mask. What she saw instead as she stared at him froze her in place and sucked all the air from her lungs: anger, spite, resentment, hunger . . .
She had gone too far. She had stepped over the line. She had gotten angry, furious, lost her control . . . and attacked him. How could she have thought for a moment that he'd let her get away with that? All his death threats that she'd always deemed meaningless suddenly seemed very real, far from falsehoods; her throat really was on the cutting block this time, and it was as though she was being sized up for the guillotine – or being sized up for how many pies her flesh would supply – as his eyes traversed over the length of her, becoming (if possible) hungrier with every second.
"Mrs. Lovett," he said again, quiet, a snarl from far down in his throat. "Upstairs."
She was momentarily surprised by this. Upstairs? But he always carried a razor with him. Why not just slit her throat now?
But then, of course, this was Sweeney Todd. Despite being obsessed with blood, he always planned out everything with meticulous care. Cleaning up the mess in his shop would be much easier than down here, with so many windows and opportunities for people to peek in before he was finished.
She must have been taking too long to follow his instructions, for he grabbed her wrist and began to lead her away. They barged through the door and straight into the still-raging thunderstorm. She considered trying to fight against him, but did not: perhaps it was time to stop fighting. To stop fighting, and to just let him, let life, put her to rest. As he pulled her up the stairs, Nellie thought with vague detachment that this would be the last time she ever heard thunder, the last time she ever felt rain.
He opened the door to his shop and jerked the pair of them inside. His barber chair swam before her eyes as they approached it, larger and more imposing than it had ever been – but then they had stomped past it – did he have another location in mind for her death? – and they arrived in the room adjacent to his shop: his living quarters.
She never got the chance to ask what was going on. Her questions were answered before she had gathered the time – or the air – to ask them.
He stormed further into the room, she still in tow; with a flick of his wrist he released her, and she tumbled onto his bed.
She realized then that it hadn't been the lust of blood she'd seen in his ravenous gaze.
Her attack upon him had made him angry, she didn't doubt that. But perhaps – well, apparently – it had also made him impassioned. Perhaps seeing that someone other than himself had wrathful emotions bottled deep inside them, pent up and normally unseen by the world, had affected him. She couldn't really understand it, but then, there was a lot she couldn't entirely understand about him.
(The part of him that she couldn't entirely understand only added to his appeal, were she to be fully honest with herself.)
She knew she shouldn't let him take her. She knew she should leave the room. She knew this as he strode across the room, as his form descended on the bed next to her, as his rough lips tussled against hers, as his hands roamed along her body, as both of their attires were tossed aside.
She knew that this wasn't what she wanted. Yes, she wanted him more than anything. But she wanted him to love her in return. She wanted him to desire her for the same reasons she desired him. She didn't want him to take her just because she was there. She wanted him to take her because she was her.
She knew all this. But knowing all this didn't stop her. It never had all the times before, and it probably never would.
Because if not like this, then it would never be at all. She couldn't ever be with him in the way – or for the amount of time – that she truly wanted. So this would have to do. He may not have been making love to her because he actually cared, but so long as she was allowed to love him during those moments in a way that he normally didn't allow, it didn't matter.
Rarely was she permitted to be his, but when she was she never knew how long it would last, or if it would even be the last time . . . so she took everything she could, overindulged in him in every way.
Later, as they lay side by side, catching their breath, she realized that some of her previous contemplations had been wrong. She had thought that, between them, it was typically he who was the culprit, and she the victim (save for her assault upon him this afternoon). Yet now she saw that this was wrong: they were both victims. Victims of the world, struggling – in their own ways – to rectify their situations. Life had been hard to them, but they chose to fight back rather than sit on their heels and take it. Too, they were victims of each other, stuck in this strange and twisted relationship, each needing the other in some vital way despite the damage they inflicted; like all concepts of massive strength, the things humans depend on the most can also bring about the worst effects.
She listened as his labored breathing slowly evened out, eventually settling into a soft rhythm. She turned her head to the side to look at him, stretched on his back, naked, half-tangled in the sheets, sound asleep.
Swallowing, she inched closer to him, keeping as quiet as she could so as not to wake him from his slumber. When she had succeeded in this pursuit, she carefully lifted her head off the mattress, and then rested it against his warm chest, wrapping her arms around his torso and closing her eyes, content.
He never let her nestle against him while awake.
These were the moments – the moments after their love-making when he happened to fall asleep, and she could lean against him and simply be – that she cherished the most.
She had to smile to herself as she lay there. Despite life being hard, and despite the (putting it mildly) turbulent relationship she shared with her tenant . . . she hadn't fallen or given up. Though she struggled, she continued to plow on. And Sweeney Todd, whatever he did or did not feel towards her, hadn't left the room above the shop that she had kept waiting for him all those years; he was still with her.
Her smile widened. She had survived troubled times while holding onto her beloved. She had done what not even his precious Lucy had managed to do. And if that wasn't something for a woman to be satisfied about, she didn't know what was.
A/N: The most fun stories to write – in my opinion – are the ones that seem to just come together in a writer's mind without the writer consciously trying to piece a plot together. And so it was with this fic.
The first 'piece' in my getting the idea for this story was finding a beautiful set of photos on Flickr entitled The Seven Deadly Sins (link in my author's profile, for anyone who's curious). I loved the pictures so much that I knew I wanted to eventually write a story with my own interpretation of the seven deadly sins. The second part in the idea for this fic came from one of those websites that generate random plots (I can't for the life of me remember which one). While playing around with this plot generator, I came up with one that intrigued me instantly: the story is set during a thunderstorm; a character does laundry; a character is sad for most of the story; a romantic interlude should appear; a longsword should be mentioned. The final piece for the idea was my reading Stephen King's On Writing (which, by the way, is a fabulous book for readers and writers alike). In it, he challenges readers to write a story about a couple where the woman is victimizing the man. All these different concepts swirled around in my mind for a long time and eventually merged into what you see before you.
Phew, long author's note! Anyway, thank you for reading this story, and I would – as always – love to know your thoughts on it.