A/N: Thanks to Mirei, who helped inspire this tuplovett one-shot.
It was the hottest day in Fleet Street since the scorcher that killed twelve people thirty years ago in the summer heat wave.
Just yesterday, Judge Turpin had battled the biting winds to get to court. And now this – the loathsome, sweltering heat that clung to the backs of even the most civilized gentleman in the otherwise slovenly, filth-ridden crowd. Not only did he have to endure the contact of skin against his silk jacket (it was the only thing that would prevail in such weather) – he had to doubly endure the jostling, swearing, sweating and bellowing of the common workers and women lumbering behind and around him.
Judge Turpin was not amused. Yet he did not move. If he did, he would surely lose his place in the line – and then he would have another two hour wait upon him. Not even threats worked against such poor filth. When he reminded the men and women in front of him that he was the eminent Judge Turpin and ought to be allowed to pass ahead, he received only sneers, laughs and stares in return. Nothing, not even the threat of gaol or the threat of hanging could deter such people from their common objective: purchasing their last minute Christmas presents.
Of course, Judge Turpin was there for no such material purpose. He detested Christmas: the vulgar holly, mistletoe and disgusting piggery displayed throughout the feasts of Christmas lunches and dinners. He thought exchanging presents a low and petty thing to do – it was a waste of money that might be better spent on building new gaols and asylums for the new year; Newgate and Bedlam after all, were overflowing. No, he was here only to replace his ward's green, finch and linnet birds. The silly child had the idea put in her head to set them free. Of all the notions! Ordinarily, the Beadle would be undertaken with such a mundane task, yet today Turpin had been suddenly overcome with the oppressiveness of his mansion, the unwelcoming shadows and décor. It only served to remind him of the depth of his loneliness; how much it ached to know the child so adept at indulging in such morose behaviour did not return his affections. His work kept him busy, as did the books in his private library. Yet for reasons unbeknownst to the Judge, he was suddenly put upon by the pathetic state of his life. He had no true friends (the Beadle did not count) and no wife in whom he could share his thoughts…in truth, Turpin had not felt so unwanted since those early days when he had first laid eyes on Lucinda and attempted to court her…
"Sod off, you lousy little weasel! Try it again an' I'll be certain to instruct you properly in 'ow a woman can hurt."
The Judge turned, his lip curled in distaste at the sound of the fish wife.
When he saw the speaker in the line behind him, his brow raised a level. It was a finely dressed woman in a gold and black striped gown, sporting a miniature hat with a black netted veil. Her gloves matched the netting, and she was swatting a fan against her thick curls. Of course, he knew the face instantly when she turned. The sharp, unusual nose, the great black eyes and odd mouth set against drawn skin that was almost too ill to look upon. Such was the extent of her paleness. Turpin preferred women with a slightly warmer, almost rosy glow to their skin, offset by yellow hair, naturally. However, there was no questioning this woman's beauty. Mrs Lovett. Mr Todd's helper, and a famous baker of pies, these days it was heard.
It was not long before the woman caught his intense gaze, and regarded him intently in turn.
He smiled briefly, and turned. He should not have looked. Mrs "Nellie" Lovett, as she was known among more common folk, was a viper that must be avoided lest a man desire her poisonous sting. He was not afraid of the woman herself, but of what he himself might consider doing to her if the circumstances ever arose. And there were many plausible reasons why he should not do that. His ward, for one. He would marry her, eventually, and it wouldn't do to have ill rumours spread about his character before they were wed. Not to mention the sorts of diseases one might catch when dabbling with the sort of class Mrs Lovett belonged to. The other matter happened to be one Mr Sweeney Todd. If the man were ever to discover that he had been cuckolded – well, Turpin did not like to dwell on it, but there were dull fires in that man's eyes that need not be unnecessarily roused…
"Did you want somethin', Judge Turpin?"
The woman's voice came almost right by his ear. He turned, but no, the woman remained a respectful distance behind him, clutching a ridiculously large black iron bird cage in her arms. The difference in size made her seem particularly child-like just then, almost as petite as Johanna – though he could easily guess the baker's age was nearer his own.
"No, dear lady," said the Judge coldly, preparing to turn. He thought better of it. It was, after all, an exceedingly long line, and he had nothing better to do than clasp the silver box containing Johanna's birds. "Though perhaps you might inform me what you are doing with such a heavy item unassisted by your husband?"
There was a flash in her eyes at his mention of the word "husband" – or was it the heat affecting his senses?
"Well, Mr Turpin," she answered easily, as if they had been long acquainted, "for one, Mr Todd is not me 'usband. He's my tenant, is all. And as for this," she said, holding up the bird cage, "well let's just say I've lifted much heavier trays. And we workin' folk can't afford a day off, can we? I expect Mr T is at home, hard at work, an' young Toby is mindin' the shop for me, dear that he is. Boy better 'ave kept his mits off the gin. Can't keep up with his drinkin' habits."
Turpin's head very near spun. He adjusted his cravat so that the sweat could run more freely down his chest. Did this woman ever stop talking?
"I still fail to comprehend why you require a bird cage," he said, deciding to humour her. "It is a pie emporium, you own, not a menagerie, am I correct?"
"Never take a day off from the law, I see Lord Turpin," she winked. "I need a cage for me birds. Toby catches them fat pigeons in the street. Sometimes we get doves. At any rate, they helps to keep things cheery. Don't you thinks so?"
"Undoubtedly," droned the Judge.
There was a pause between them. Turpin would have been content to remain silent, but she – the woman seemed to thrive on conversation.
"Fancy a game o' chinese whispers?" she said.
"If don't think it proper –" she challenged.
"I will play."
He put the bird cage by his feet, and lifted hers out of her arms.
The crowd pressed them in both sides, and they were forced to stand facing each other.
It was absurd, of course. Two people could not play such a game – not without the participation of the rest of the filthy crowd. It was less a game, and more –
She cocked her head, and was studying him. "If you find me presence offensive…"
They were quite close now. The woman's head came only up to his chest, otherwise they would be –
"No, madam," he managed to force a reply through dry lips.
It was not his strangest Christmas experience. The year previous, he had been waylaid on his way home from work by a group of angry young women who proceeded to pelt him with pieces of mouldy Christmas pudding stolen from the scraps of Mr Prattson's famous Pudding and Patisserie emporium. He'd had the ruffians hung on Christmas eve, but that was hardly the point. "Have you not heard?"
Her gaze turned briefly away from him, as if she had heard someone call her name far down the street. "Heard wot?"
"It is dangerous to flirt with the law, dear lady." It felt uncomfortable to call her Mrs Lovett, when really they were perfect strangers.
"Ah sir," she countered in only part jest, "there are things far older than British law." She rolled the "r" in British, as if to prove she could handle his refined accent with ease, and chose to speak her own out of defiance.
"And what is that?" said the Judge curiously. He had an idea what she might say.
"Women's charms." Nellie gave a slight curtsy, and twirled her skirts so that they fanned against the crowd.
The dead yellow dregs of sun stained the curve of her neck, the hollow of her shoulders. It leant her pale face an almost rosy quality.
"Why do you think they burnt all them witches?" she said with a laugh. "Men can't stand the idea of women as Queens."
She began to jig her foot impatiently – the Judge could see sweat beginning to gather around her temples, and the stares from other women in line. It certainly wasn't proper, certainly not a respectable way to address a Judge.
"I find I must disagree. The woman I marry I would treat as Queen – the others, dear madam, you know your history well enough to know there can only be one Queen. The others," he shrugged, "are cast aside."
She cast her eyes briefly downwards. He wondered how his words affected her.
"And I suppose," she continued at last, darting her luminous smile at him, "that Queen would be, if you don't mind my sayin', your lovely young ward?"
"How was it –"
She cast off his suspicion with another smile, heartier still. "Why Lord Turpin, don't you know your soon-to-be weddin' is the talk o' the town?"
No, he supposed it should not have surprised him. He was, after all, the great Judge Turpin. "And yet I wonder if," he trailed off. All this talk of Queens had stirred in him a surprising epiphany. Johanna entranced him – but did not possess the qualities of a Queen. "Lend me your ear…" he said quietly to her.
"Nellie," she said helpfully.
"I am acquainted with your Christian name." He levelled himself to her height, and with much relish whispered his secret into the woman's waiting ear.
When they were finished, she locked her eyes on him. "Wouldn't you like to 'ear me secret, sir?"
"I would." Christmas had never failed to be a dull affair. He would go home and eat silently at the long table. He would take Johanna to their private chapel, and she would ask to leave to pray by the dwindling fire the entire night. The Beadle would ask for the night off, and no doubt spend it somewhere snorting himself senseless in one of the fancier dens. And he…Turpin had to look forward to but the heavy lull of a vintage red wine brought from the cellar, and the much salivated delights of the lifeless women in his books. This time, he had no longing for his usual masquerades and yuletide romps.
"Here it is, then." She had to lean on tip-toe; he was required to bend his knees. Her hands slipped comfortably around his shoulders for support, as if the baker and judge were the most natural thing in the world. "My turn, sir." He felt her curls brush his earlobe. A moment later the air from her lips rushed pleasantly against his skin. Who would have thought this creature, of all London's women, would cheer him the most? Her company, compared to Johanna's, was uplifting, and even dare he say it – droll.
"My Lord," she began in a tone much too low for a stranger's ear.
Scarcely had she spoken the words, when the line jostled mercilessly behind them.
"Next!" called out the shop keeper.
Without even realizing it, they had reached the front of the line.
"After you," the Judge said without a hint of malice or self-importance.
Nellie bobbed her curls at him, picked up her bird cage and vanished inside the shop. "Happy tidin's, sir."
He waited until she came flouncing out again, with the doves in the cage.
"And you," he said with lips barely parted.
She turned several times up the street, presumably to look at him.
It was only when the gold and jet curve of her gown finally turned the corner that Turpin allowed himself to breathe.
* * *
Judge Turpin was not adverse to flattery.
But it pleased him to know, as he walked home that evening carrying the green, finch and linnet birds, that Mrs Lovett thought him the singular most charming man she had met on Christmas eve – and was yet to meet again.
Perhaps the festive season held some cheer, after all.
* ~* ~*