(A/N and Disclaimer: I own nothing. It all belongs to Stephen Sondheim... including the small part of the lyrics 'Alms! Alms!' (or 'No Place Like London', since the Beggar Woman's lines seem to appear in both).
This story contains femmeslash, and is rated for the mention of sex, both het and otherwise. If that troubles you, go and read another story.
I would dedicate this to somebody, but I don't know who... so I won't. I just hope I haven't mangled the characters too badly...)

Losing Lucy

The first few days are hellish.

Eleanor Lovett is far from delicate - for pity's sake, she goes on to bake people into pies for a living without turning a hair - but the image she was confronted with when she knocked on the door to the Barker's upstairs room, having been driven to distraction by little Johanna's wailing, haunts her until her dying day. Lucy Barker, the ever-lovely Mrs. Lucy Barker, lying flat on the floor with a pool of vomit around her and a near-empty bottle of arsenic a foot from her limp hand.

Dead, she thinks immediately - but a frantic hand pressed to Lucy's pale neck finds a pulse, weak and thready; and the realisation that Lucy lives is enough to make the baker light-headed with relief. But she pulls herself together - has to. What choice is there? There are things to be done. Somebody has to keep their wits about them. She's certainly not the kind of woman to fall apart at the first sign of trouble.

Eminently practical as always, Nellie does what she can - turns the other woman over, wiping the vomit from her face and dress (the floor can be tackled later, she decides); tries to rouse her, running back and forth with smelling salts, cool damp washcloths and endless cups of sweet tea in the faint hope that she'll come to; fetching Albert, and telling - not asking him - to send for a doctor. Then, she runs back upstairs and sits with Lucy, not leaving her side even when the summoned doctor arrives, watching the inert form of her closest friend as if the woman might miraculously sit up, somehow unharmed by the arsenic. Johanna shrieks, obviously frightened by the sight of her mother so sick, and Nellie picks her up from her cradle, soothing her, stroking the wisps of blonde hair on the baby's head that reminds her so much of Lucy as a child.

Lucy. The name echoes with Nellie's every breath, her every heartbeat, every thought running through her mind - that, and prayer for her to be well.

Only that night, with the doctor gone, Lucy in bed, Johanna in her cradle and Albert snoring in his bedroom downstairs; does Nellie let shock, relief, fear and anger slam into her with the force of a runaway carriage. In the darkness, with no need to worry about being overheard, she rests her head on her shaking hands and lets her tears fall.

Just a few tears, mind. She's still Nellie Lovett, and she wouldn't want anybody thinking she couldn't cope.

She's thrilled when Lucy begins to stir, and more so when she eventually wakes up. Even though her eyes are sightless, and her words are slurred, incoherent and babbling, she's overjoyed that her friend is awake and alive, and seems to be improving.

Albert gives his permission for her to take care of Lucy and Johanna - business has been slow lately, and with Mister Benjamin gone both of them would starve if somebody else didn't intervene - and she's grateful for it. She is glad to be able to watch for the small improvements and see for herself that she's being well cared for. She relishes the hours spent with Lucy - even a Lucy that doesn't seem to know who she is any more.

The fact that she doesn't recognise Nellie stings a little, but she brushes it off. The poor thing doesn't know her own name at present, she thinks, why on God's green earth would she know mine? And she doesn't recognise Johanna, either; the daughter that she so adored... adores... adored. She tries her best not to take it to heart.

She remembers Benjamin, though - and the Judge, apparently. The few times Nellie tries to ask her questions, see what she remembers - to see how much of the real Lucy was left - those two names trigger hours of ceaseless, tortured screaming; punctuated by fits of tears and uncontrollable vomiting. Dutifully, Nellie tries to quiet her, mops up the vomit and - once Lucy falls into a jerking, mumbling, dreamless sleep - she strokes her unkempt hair, willing her to be well again. And hating the Judge, Benjamin, even herself for letting this happen.

The weeks slip by.

Nellie fights tooth and nail to keep the Judge's filthy hands off little Johanna - she might be Benjamin's child, but she's Lucy's too; and the baby is all Lucy has now, even if she doesn't show any sign of remembering that. But she can't really stop them, and eventually the reminders from both the Judge, that creep Beadle and Albert (whose patience with Lucy occupying so much of Nellie's time and energy has long since worn thin by ) now) that the Judge has power over them and can so easily have them arrested or worse make her resolve crumble. She tries to convince herself that the child will have a better life with the Judge - she might as well be orphaned now, with her father transported and her mother out of her head - but she feels guilty and supremely ill at ease as the men come to collect the little girl. The thought of what that Judge did to Lucy makes her sick, and she can't shake off the though that one day, he might desire Johanna in the same way. With a shudder, she goes back to her work; now juggling her duties in the shop with tending to Lucy.

After a month or so, Lucy can sit up without help, and her sight seems to be returning. Her moods, though, are unpredictable - sometimes she meekly eats the porridge and broth Nellie brings up to her, lets the other woman wash and dress her, and stares blankly out of the window for hours on end: pitiful, but calm. On her bad days, she shrieks like a banshee, throwing the food down onto the floor - along with any other loose objects she can get her hands on - and scrabbling feebly at Nellie's hands and arms as she tries to push her down in bed, trying to subdue the irate woman, or at least restrain her.

Its taxing work, but nobody else will do it. And after seventeen years of close friendship, Nellie has a duty to Lucy - bound by her love for her.

Love. Whenever she considers this, a bitter smile flits over Nellie's pale face. The love Lucy had rejected - so repulsed by the idea that she'd convinced herself it didn't exist, determined to believe that the kiss Nellie had once given her was borne of a temporarily unsound mind - was now the thing that kept her fed, housed and cared for; now she plainly couldn't care for herself. The devotion to Lucy that Nellie can't quite escape from, even when she wants nothing more than to do just that, is what protects the woman from a life of misery; in bedlam or on the streets.

The auburn-haired woman has lost weight, and dark circles ring her eyes nowadays - her workload has doubled, and she is constantly exhausted. But though her work looking after Lucy is utterly thankless, Nellie is content to shoulder the burden - just to feel close to the other woman, whatever she might tell herself and others to the contrary.

It's been half a year since Lucy's suicide attempt.

The once-beautiful woman has now regained the ability to walk, albeit in shuffling steps like an old woman - and, with Nellie's assistance, can make it down the steps to the pie shop on her calm days. There, Nellie can keep an eye on her as she cooks, cleans and serves customers with a smile; while Lucy sits behind the counter, staring fixedly at a thimble or spoon that Nellie gives her to keep her occupied.

Sometimes, she mutters to herself; her eyes darting around the room as if she were being hunted. Other times, she just sits. A shell of a person, Nellie thinks whenever she looks at her. The wasted body, the haunted eyes, the lank hair that fell out in patches after the poisoning... her body has suffered as much as her poor mind. But she's still Lucy - her Lucy - and her responsibility.

Nellie still clings to the hope that her friend will recover, although even she knows there's no point. If she hasn't recovered after six months, chances are she never will.

She's caught glimpses of Johanna, being pushed in a perambulator by one of the nurses the Judge apparently pays to care for her. Nellie notes that she's growing up to look more like Lucy every day - no trace of Benjamin in her features, at least none that she can see - and her heart sinks, wondering how long the Judge will be able to keep his lecherous hands off her as she grows up to be as stunning as her mother once was.

Sometimes, when Lucy sleeps, Nellie creeps out of bed and slips upstairs to look at her, stare at her sleeping face illuminated by the candlelight - sometimes peaceful, sometimes twitching and frowning in what Nellie assumes is a dream (what do the feeble-minded dream? she wonders, before mentally chastising herself for considering Lucy among those unfortunate masses, no matter how insurmountable the evidence for this is). Even in the state that she's in, Nellie still thinks her a captivating sight.

Sometimes, she tiptoes over to the bed and gets onto it, taking utmost care not to wake Lucy; lying beside her on top of the bedclothes for a few moments - or a good half-hour - just as she might have done when they were girls, happy carefree girls. And she can let herself slip into recollections of those days, before marriage, before Benjamin and Albert, before Johanna, before the wretched Judge and this whole sorry situation. She can put it out of her mind, just for a while, and stop wondering 'why?' and 'what-if?...' - stop feeling furious at Lucy for trying to take the coward's way out, and not even managing to get that right.

And then she slithers out of bed and back downstairs to her own room, to her loveless marital bed and another sleepless night. And then a few hours later, a new day will begin; and the sun rises on more of the same unanswered questions and aching muscles and tedious, thankless work.

And Nellie Lovett swallows her frustration, and carries on.

Three-quarters of a year have gone by.

It's becoming well nigh impossible to control Lucy. She's no longer content to sit in bed, or at a chair by the window or behind the counter. She's steadier on her feet, and much more vocal - shouting and swearing like a sailor at the customers in the pie shop, and screaming if Nellie's made to lock her in her room; a course of action that's been taken with increasing regularity due to Albert's snarling claims that he won't let his business fall by the wayside for some crazed old crone. Nellie stands up to him, protests that Lucy isn't a crone, nor is she crazed - just ill, that's all, not quite herself. She should be pitied, she tells him, not insulted or locked away. But her words have little conviction, and her efforts only earn her a sound smack from Albert and the glares and sulks from Lucy the next time she takes her a meal or goes upstairs to check up on her.

She hasn't glimpsed Johanna for months now. Nellie can only hope the child is safe.

Locking Lucy away doesn't really work, since her screams keep the customers away even more effectively than her spitting and cursing. Anybody would think somebody was being murdered upstairs (ironic, really, considering nobody would suspect a thing years later when such suspicions might be justified). And being shut away only turns Lucy's mood sour, leaving Nellie to bear the brunt of her temper when she enters the room.

One day, Nellie decides to comb Lucy's thin hair. Lucy's response to this act of kindness is to take up the dusty hand-mirror and whirl round with surprising agility to smack it against the side of Nellie's head. Glass shatters. Nellie lifts a hand instinctively to her stinging cheek, feeling the warm dampness of blood there against her fingertips from the cut across her cheek.

"Lucy-!" she begins, shocked. She's used to Lucy being moody, volatile and unpredictable (really, it's more like caring for a toddler than looking after Johanna was) - but besides slapping at Nellie with her hands, and not even doing that with force enough to damage, she's never been violent before. Now, she stands opposite her; as Lucy points a shaking hand at her and screeches "Devil's bitch! Witch! Witch, she is!", a lopsided, crazed grin twisting her features.

The contrast between this woman and the sweet, mild-mannered Lucy she once knew both repulses and frightens her.

After sweeping up the shards of glass, Nellie leaves the room; turning the key in the lock from the other side of the door. She feels no guilt for doing so, even when she hears Lucy's fingernails scraping at the wood from within; ignoring it completely as she goes in search of a cloth to clean her cheek.

She's too tired for guilt anymore. Or so she thinks.

A year has passed.

After it became too hard to keep Lucy locked in her room, Albert had to concede defeat and let her out. There are no longer any 'quiet days', nor does Benjamin's name prompt the floods of tears it did in the months after her poisoning - indeed, the name has no impact on her. She has forgotten, as she seems to have forgotten everything that ever mattered to her. Including Nellie, and the friendship they once had - but this hurt is old now, little more than a scar where a raw wound might have been. Nellie doesn't really recognise the woman as Lucy anymore - only the name connects this woman to the Lucy she once knew. The Lucy she knew wouldn't have wandered the streets, begging for money and offering herself to passers-by. (Contrary to popular belief, becoming a whore is one of the few things Nellie wouldn't do - she keeps herself to herself, or at least to Albert; one of the few points she can use to insist that she's respectable. Business hasn't been that slow, after all.) Nellie knows there have been men to accept her offer, too - bastards, she thinks, as she sees Lucy's drawers worn nearly threadbare by the rocking pelvises of the men who've taken her; can they not see that her mind is addled? Or do they just not care, too keen to get their leg over? Bloody uncaring bastards is what they are.

However, on one of the rare days Lucy remains in the house for more than the time it takes to snatch a pie or hiss at Nellie, she herself stoops just as low.

With the shop closed, and Albert out drinking himself stupid at the nearest public house, Nellie uses the quiet, uninterrupted hours to clean the shop and her and Albert's room - and Lucy's, too; for the rare times she slinks into the house to find a bed for the night rather than a doorway. But today her hours are anything but quiet; as Lucy has taken, inexplicably, to following her around the house, muttering and singing snatches of obscene songs - whether for her own benefit or Nellie's, the baker can't fathom.

As Nellie sweeps the floor in Lucy's room, the other woman is deliberately in her way, darting in front of her with her wild eyes and ragged clothes and constant stream of meaningless words. Nellie is more than exasperated.

"Look, just shut it, will you?" she snaps eventually.

Lucy is undeterred. With a wicked grin, she begins to slowly lift the hem of her ripped, stained (God only knows what with) dress as she sings softly, "How would you like a little muff, dear; a little jig-jig, a little bounce around the bush..."

At first, Nellie is torn between pity and disgust. But something in the woman's eyes - the demonic gleam as she sways her body in a parody of seduction, perhaps - reminds her suddenly and overwhelmingly of Lucy. The real Lucy. A year since the poisoning, Lucy Barker has changed almost beyond all recognition. But for a moment, with a sparkle - however wicked - back in those blue eyes, usually so full of fury or simply blank and staring, Nellie thinks of her as Lucy again. The Lucy she had grown up with, known and loved.

And as Lucy continued her song, all the lust and adoration she'd had for the Lucy of little more than a year ago rushes back - too quickly for Nellie to resist it.

"...Then how would you like to split me muff, dear? ...We'll go jig-jig!" she cackled.

"Why not?" mutters Nellie, as she dropped the broom and stepped forwards, wrapping her arms around Lucy tightly - too tightly - and crashing her lips against hers. She wants to - no, needs to make the most of this moment, to have this last trace of the real Lucy Barker for herself. With her eyes closed, she could imagine the Lucy of old - the laughing, smiling, pure, stunning Lucy whose image was as clear as day in her mind. The image of this Lucy was the one filling Nellie's mind as her clothes and Lucy's were torn off, discarded, and she finally got the chance to feel Lucy's bare flesh against hers; as her hands roam Lucy's body, all over her, inside her.

Afterwards, she throws Lucy out of the door ("-Not even alms for my services, Mister?"), locks it twice, and collapses against it, shaking. Was she just as bad as Judge Turpin, now? The thought sickens her, and the gin she swallows in the hopes of calming herself only burns her throat and makes her feel more nauseous. The knowledge of the sins she'd just committed, as well as terror that Albert might somehow find out, leave her trembling for days.

But she still savours the memory. Finally, the hopes of her life before marriage, those that she'd cast aside and given up on, have been realised. And although Nellie knows she'll spend eternity roasting in the scorching fires of hell, skewered at the end of Lucifer's pitchfork like a bloody crumpet... she still thinks it's worth it.

After that incident, she severs her ties with the empty shell that Lucy once inhabited. She shoos her out of the pie shop whenever she wanders in, and locks the door to the Barkers' upstairs rooms (keeping Mr. Barker's razors for him - if, by some miracle, he ever gets away from Devil's Island, he'll need to earn a living somehow). She wants this... woman out of her home, out of her business and out of her life.

As she watches her begging a few measly coins of passers-by outside the shop, she tells herself firmly that that woman is not Lucy. She brought it all on herself, the state she's in, and she's nothing to do with Nellie anyway. She ignores the occasional pangs of guilt, and - eventually - she begins to believe herself. She can look at the beggar woman and feel nothing, beside pity and resentment (really, of all the places she could choose to put herself, she just has to favour the street right outside their shop!).

However, in her accidental moments of guilt - the moments when she finds herself looking at the beggar woman as she dwells on Lucy and confusing the two all over again - she recalls a game she and Lucy played as little girls; where Lucy would be Nellie, and vice versa. She remembers loving that game, because for once she got the chance to bask in the praise and adoration heaped upon Lucy, while her angelic friend was the bad girl, the chastised child.

Now, Nellie has a home, husband, and a business. Lucy has lost her family, her mind, her status, her dignity... everything. And now that Nellie's the one with the advantage, she finds herself wishing that it was still a game, and that they could stop playing.

Try as she might, she still finds it hard sometimes to leave it all behind - but only sometimes, and only ever for a moment. And then she blinks, and she can't see Lucy any more - just the mad old beggar woman - so she shrugs it off, and goes back to her pies.

When Benjamin Barker arrives in Fleet Street fourteen years later, Nellie doesn't even realise her mistake in telling him that his wife is dead - at least, not until it's too late to rectify it. To her, the real Lucy Barker died when she herself meant to, when she tipped the arsenic down her throat. Her guilt, her feelings of responsibility, her love for the Lucy whose memory she still holds onto, are all buried somewhere in the back of Nellie Lovett's mind.

After all, what's dead is dead. And there's always work to get on with.