A/N: For fanfic50, prompt forty-five, morph.
My candle burns at both its ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends –
It gives a lovely light. – Edna Saint Vincent Millay
"And how does today find you, sir?" Sweeney Todd questions in his perfected tone of amiability as he slips the barber bib around his customer's neck.
"Quite well, thanks," says the man – Sweeney's already forgotten his name – as he relaxes into the chair. "Secured the managerial deal I wanted today. Now I can return to Plymouth within the night."
"You don't reside in London?"
"Nope. Just here for business."
Sweeney slides open his razor and bestows a smile upon the blade. She returns the smile and throws him an intimate wink of silver.
"I'm quite looking forward to returning to my wife," the customer continues, closing his eyes and tipping his head back, settling further into the contours of the barber chair, already perfectly at ease within the mouth of death. "Haven't seen her in well over two weeks. My line of work keeps me away from home a lot, see . . ."
The man's words continue to pour forth from his lips, but Sweeney does not continue to listen. He's heard all that he needs to know. Watching the distorted reflection of his face within the blade's surface – two smears for lips, a smudge for a nose, black hollows for eyes – he nears the customer in two steps.
"This is for you, my love," he whispers.
". . . and Betty is terribly fond of – what?" says the man, opening one eye to peer drowsily at Sweeney. "What's this for – and who are you – "
The razor descends and rips into the man's throat, separating layers of skin and sinew. Liberated from the confines of the body at last, the precious rubies spill over the blade and across the torn tendons and down his hand, his chair, his floor in a glorious rain storm.
"It's for her," explains Sweeney in a voice no more than a breath as he comes around to the other side of the chair. "Each sacrifice is for her – the only thing worth living for."
The customer gurgles and gasps, body spasming, crimson liquid dripping, eyelids twitching. The tattered second mouth now gaping at his neck shifts, its bloodied lips trembling, as it drawls a reply:
"She doesn't notice. She doesn't care."
Sweeney winces and presses his own lips together in a merciless line, as though this will prevent the gaping mouth of sinews from speaking further the thoughts that he always firmly drives away.
But the torn and bloodied strips of the neck release a laugh that bounces and echoes against the walls a million times over, making his ears ring and his chest vibrate.
"Why don't you just admit it?"
He shakes his head, wildly, loose movements sweeping his skull side to side with such violence he fears he might forge a second mouth for himself as well.
The laughs mount in volume and frequency, the mouth widening, grin broadening, and the lips snarl with savage delight:
"Admit it, Todd. Admit it. Admitit."
Sweeney stomps on the foot petal and the grotesque mouth, along with its owner, drop away into the bakehouse. He lifts his foot and the chair snaps back into place, the trapdoor returning and obscuring the body from view.
The laughs still reverberate in his walls; the smile still sears against his eyelids.
Swallowing rising bile, Sweeney prowls over to the window; the floor at this spot is so well tread on that some days he fears it'll wear right through and he'll topple into her shop. The familiar location soothes him: his breathing normalizes, his head clears. His purpose returns.
He scours the scene below with narrowed eyes: disgusting humans strolling the streets, selling their wares, extolling her pies.
Will he be lucky enough to receive another cretin for the altar tonight? Will he be able to offer her two sacrificial lambs this evening? The mere thought sets his skin tingling. She would appreciate it so . . .
His breath snags in his throat as he catches sight of her below. She shines as clear and distinct as his razor beneath the moonlight.
And infinitely more beautiful.
Her crimson tresses bob amidst the masses as she moves about, serving pies, collecting coins, chatting up customers.
Anger bubbles within him that she has to associate with these hordes. They are not worthy of her attention, her time, her devotion . . . but of course, it is necessary . . . yes, unfortunately necessary . . . how else is she to sell these pies, after all? How else is she to earn a living? How else are the both of them – and a cold but pleasant shiver runs down his spine, for that is what she whispers to him in the dark as she trails hot fingers along his spine, both, us, we, together, you and me – to achieve their goal?
He stares at her, tracking her sweeping movements with his eyes, trusting that she will look up and meet his gaze. Trusting that she will know he is, as always, looking. Trusting that she will know he needs her to look in return.
It seems to last an eternity, his waiting for her to look – but she has taught him how to wait, and oh, she has taught him well – and at long last, she does.
His heart leaps to his throat and pounds like a young drummer boy fascinated by his new responsibility, quick and eager and arrhythmic, his announcement of war. His prelude to an execution.
She extends him a crooked, cursory smile. It disappears from her face within the next second as she spins to greet a new customer, the barber above her shop already further from her mind than the moon.
He presses his face against the window pane, crushing his nose against the glass and fogging it with his breath, eyes pursuing her long into the night. She may have turned away from him, but he will never be able to drink his fill of her.
Each sacrifice is made in her name.
And Sweeney Todd can pretend as long as he likes, but she is indifferent to every single one.
Scuff, scuff, scuff, thud, thud, thud, thud, thud, snick, thud, thud, thud . . .
Pacing. It's a ritual. Hearing her footsteps against the ground, the way the cadence changes as her boots come in contact with smooth pavement or wooden boards or cobbled stones or bakehouse stairs or matted carpet; feeling the muscles in her thighs and calves strain then untense, the joint of her knee swinging out then in; letting the rhythmic vibrations in her feet travel up her spine and attempt to numb her aching, spinning, twisting mind.
Pacing is a metronome of comfort, one that she has no plans of relinquishing anytime soon.
Thud, thud, thud, the tattoo of boots striking stone stairs as she climbs back up the steps ascending from the bakehouse, a freshly-heated tray of pies in hand.
Snnnnick thud-thud, the lyric created as shoes slip on a small puddle of blood and stumble to catch the rest of her body.
Scuff, scuff, scuff, scuff, scuff, the ditty of feet grazing the floor of the pie shop as she makes her way back outside.
Crunch, crunch, crack, the tune of thick heels marching and turning upon gravel as she greets her customers, serves her pies, babbles about everything she's not thinking about, laughs at their jokes, shoves smiles upon her face.
Crunch, crunch, crunch, scrape . . . crunch, whack, scuff . . . scuff, scuff, scuff, scuff . . . thud, thud, thud.
The strange notes of her feet somehow soothe her; the discordant minuets somehow become concordant when joined together in song.
But soon, as always, the drumbeat of her feet fails to drown out all else. Soon, as always, it becomes the undulation of her thoughts, giving them a meter to pound against in her head, underscoring them, accenting them, crescendoing them.
Another day gone by.
She pauses on each step to the bakehouse this time, lets each pulsation rumble in the ground and her limbs before taking the next one.
Another day gone by without him.
Thud. Thud. Thud.
Again. Again. Again.
Thud, boom, scrape, scrape, scrape, her feet chorus as she takes the last step then ventures towards the oven to heat another tray of pies.
He is never going to come. He is never going to come and he is never going to look into her eyes to see her for who she truly is rather than who he believes her to be and she is never going to get what she needs.
Scrape, scrape, scrape.
She needs to learn to stop dreaming for what cannot be.
But without dreams, what is she? What else does she have to cling to? The pies? The boy? The faded memories that she still remembers but can no longer see?
The tray slips sideways in her grasp. A scalding hot pie tumbles off and presses against her fingertips before falling to the floor. Swearing, she kneels to pick up the pie, then tosses it in the furnace and watches it crumble to ashes.
She supposes she could have fed that pie to her customers and not have had trouble, but does not want to risk it. Londoners are very observant when it comes to dirt. Likely they would call her out on why there was grime upon their food. Yes, soot upon the surface of their pie would draw their eye; human flesh stuffed within the pie, however, would slip by without a second glance.
Her upper lip curls.
Thud, thud, thud, as she returns up the steps of the bakehouse. Scuff, scuff, scuff, across the wooden floor of her shop. Crunch, crunch, crunch, along the gravel in the eatery arena.
She dons the well-worn mask of amiable hostess as she slips again into the familiar routine of greeting, serving, babbling, laughing, shoving smiles upon her face –
Her heart valves close.
No. Not her. Not tonight. Not now.
Her heart valves are sealed. Her blood glaciates in her veins.
Please, she prays to the God she doesn't believe in, please don't let her come.
But even if He did exist, He could not answer Nellie's prayers: Lucy Barker is already here.
"Witch! Witch! Witch!"
With one gasping breath, Nellie commands her body to yield to her orders: her heart valves burst open and blood gushes forth through her entire being, the force of it nearly knocking her off her feet.
Face crumpling into a ferocious scowl, she shrieks, "Toby! Throw the old woman out!"
But Toby, for whatever reason, isn't around. Nellie must deal with the mad woman herself.
She follows her ears towards the entrance of her shop, where the shrill endless cry of "witch! witch! witch!" seems to be coming from, seizing a dish towel on her way. Lucy stands in the doorway, hanging onto the frame, clawing at it with jagged nails, slowly sliding down to the floor all the while. It reminds Nellie of a baby monkey she saw once as a young girl during a rare visit to the zoo, a feeble little creature unable to climb a tree on its own.
"You old hag," cries Nellie, flicking the dish towel at Lucy, who crows and cowers even though the fabric barely touches her. "Get out."
"Witch! No heart, not a bit of a heart!" screams Lucy, continuing to slump to the ground. Her eyes roll in her skull, never lighting on one subject for long, but when they fleeting latch onto Nellie's gaze, the baker's heart threatens to close up again.
Nellie's lips tremble as she hammers through a constricted throat, "Get out of my shop."
Lucy's knees hit the ground. She throws the rest of herself down upon the dusty floor in a position reminiscent of prayer and grasps Nellie's skirts. "Have a heart, dear," she brays, "try for a bit of a heart!"
Nellie knows she should rip herself away from Lucy, slap the dish towel in her face, throw her out before someone sees. But what she knows can't stop her from denying what she feels. It's something she's normally very good at, rebuffing the truth, and it's something she's still very good at – but there is no one watching, not in the shop and not in the streets, and she can't see any reason to hide just now.
So she sinks to the floor beside Lucy, skirts pooling around her, not trying to conceal the trembling in her lips this time.
"Oh, Lucy, don't you see?" she whispers. "I know you don't see, I know you can't see – but just once, can't you try to believe that this is all for you? That everything I do is for you?"
Nellie reaches for Lucy's hands, but Lucy pulls back before their fingers can brush.
"No pity in the witch's heart," Lucy yelps, scrabbling to her feet and retreating slowly into the night, eyes no longer roving but fixed directly upon Nellie. "No pity, never any pity – Devil's wife, she is – a house of pure evil if there ever was one!"
Each word from her deranged mouth is a dagger of ignorance, a stab to the chest that understands nothing and means nothing.
A wound that hurts more than logic should allow.
Nellie screams, "Get out of here."
But Lucy is already gone.
Nellie's pie tray is empty and she still has an hour to go until closing. She'll have to go fetch more.
She rises to her feet and begins to recreate her metronome.
Scuff, scuff, scuff, thud, thud, thud, thud, thud, snick, thud, thud, thud . . .
Pacing. It's the only thing that can quell her thoughts, her vulturine ruminations that circle round and round. Even the drums of her feet against the ground, however, can only slightly soften rather than stop the drums of her vengeance against brain.
But this drumbeat all she has.
Bloodied dreams and pacing footsteps. This is what her life comes down to.
And vengeance. Pure, sweet vengeance.
So she keeps pacing.
A/N: Reviews are love.