Blanketed in silence, Nellie sinks to the floor. The blots of Turpin's blood have begun to drip and run together on her skin: rather than dots of scattered locations and sizes, they now appear a spider web of crimson threads sewn across her face. She holds the razor in cupped palms and stares down at it with the affection and worship Sweeney feels for them. His heart swells.
"You – you did it," he says, because he thinks he must say something since she, for once, is not.
We did it, he thinks. We did it. You could not have done it without me. Please notice. Please care.
Nellie provides no answer, no movement. The swell of his heart contracts. Turpin's death was not supposed to steal what little life still dwelled within her. It was supposed to revive her life, kindle what few sparks remained, animate her into someone who still needed something beyond revenge, still loved what dwelt above ground and was not buried ten feet beneath . . .
You knew this was coming. You knew she would never love you. Don't let yourself be hurt over what you knew could never be.
But it's not over. Turpin's the one who's dead, not her – and not me.
He dares to sit himself beside her, thigh to thigh, her voluminous layers of lace and silk pooling over his trousers. She does not stir.
Sweeney reaches into her lap and lifts the razor from her hand into his own, his fingertips brushing against the inside of her palm. "They deserve to rest now," he murmurs in explanation.
When she continues to be stolid, he achingly turns away, focusing instead on the one friend he has always been able, unfailingly, to depend on: for support, for guidance, for affection. For listening even when he has nothing to say. For being there.
"Rest now, my friend," he says to his blade. "Rest now, forever . . . sleep now the untroubled sleep of the angels . . ."
She gives him a sterling smile accentuated scarlet to show that she understands and appreciates his gesture. A final cradle to his chest, then Sweeney lays the razor, blade unsheathed, upon the upholstery of his barber chair.
"We should go look for Toby."
Sweeney starts and turns his head sideways to Nellie. She smiles at him, eyes clear and focused, dancing with their usual medley of care and cold clarity.
"D'you hear me, love?" she teases, waggling the fingers of her right hand in front of his face. He watches the liquid red lattice on her skin stretch and contract with the movement, hypnotized. "We've got to find Toby before he runs to the law. Not that it really matters, I s'pose. We'd find our way out of prison somehow, you and me. But I'd rather not have the experience; I don't much fancy cramped and dirty spaces. Well, c'mon, let's get a move on."
"Yes," agrees Sweeney, blindly taking her hand when she offers it out to him, unable to understand why she laughs as she pulls him to his feet.
She races down the steps from his barber shop and into her own establishment, nearly pulling Sweeney's arm out of its socket in her haste. It's not that she's worried about Toby running to the law. She's not worried about anything at the moment, truth be known. For once, the world is balanced on its axis, spinning steadily and smoothly just as it is meant to.
You're alive. You're alive again. You've been reborn, or regrown from the trampled seeds of your feeble life before, or maybe you were never really dead but just didn't know you were alive, or . . . or maybe you're just this. Maybe you just are.
She breaks out into another fit of giggles and can't find any words to explain why when Sweeney searches her with a swift, piercing look.
The demon couple wind their way through her shop and living quarters, finally reaching the steps leading into the bakehouse to resume the hunt for Toby.
Despite her lack of worry, she does want to find the boy, if only to confirm that he is alive too. Now that the judge is gone, after all, there is no choice to be made. Now that the judge is gone, Toby can remain with her – if he so chooses, that is. She doubts the boy will want to remain with her after she nearly breaking her promise to never harm him – nearly breaking? don't kid yourself, Lovett, you still broke it even if you didn't follow through with the break: you broke it the instant you made the choice to break it – but neither can this bother her. Let the boy refuse her love, let him go running to the authorities and throw her in jail – what does she care? Whether she is in jail, or Botany Bay, or her shop, or halfway across the world, Alexander Turpin will be dead and Lucy Barker will be avenged –
And Nellie Lovett will be alive.
As they descend the stone steps, Nellie squints vaguely at the pile of bodies positioned beneath the trapdoor within the ceiling above. Having been in this human-pie business for close to a year now, she's become adept at estimating with a sweep of her eyes how many carcasses she'll have to plow through each night. Tonight's stack looks taller than two bodies should look – almost as though there is a third.
But that's ridiculous. Bamford plus Turpin equals two, not three, and they were the only ones who died tonight. Bamford does have a good deal of meat on his bones; likely his extra flesh accounts for the pile's extra height.
Nellie lowers herself down the remaining steps, moaning in the back of her throat as her knees ache, and proceeds towards the conglomeration of dead bodies –
And becomes as paralyzed and unable to control her muscles as the corpses on her floor.
Only for a moment does she allow this to last. Only for a moment does she allow her control to die.
Then she springs forward, heart still stuttering like broken carriage wheels but mind plowing forward, determined to plow forward, determined to keep moving and not let him know and not let her strings unravel, not again, not now. She knows they will unravel, it's only a matter of time before they unravel and abandon her entirely this time without the slightest hope of repair, but not now – not when for the first and last time of her life she is happy. Just this one more happy moment is all she wants for her sixteen desolate years – no, not now – she will keep moving, she will move, she must move, she is moving, she is oh no oh God Lucy I'm so –
"What are you doing?" Sweeney asks as Nellie seizes Lucy's wrists and begins to drag her out from under Bamford's legs and to the oven.
"Just want to keep moving, love, that's all," Nellie trills, wincing at the high sharp notes her voice makes in trying not to crack. She maneuvers herself so that her back is to the barber, blocking the body in her hands from his sight. "We've got lots to dispose of before the authorities come running tonight, since we can safely assume Toby's gone running to the law by now – I suggest we clean up quick as we can so he's got no facts to support his words. Unless you think that maybe we'd be better off to just desert Fleet Street altogether and – "
"Leave the bodies to me," says Sweeney from behind her.
She pretends not to hear him.
If he sees that it's Lucy he killed and not just any woman from off the streets he'll feel horrible and hurt and angry and then –
Then – what, Lovett? The only reason you didn't tell him about Lucy still being alive before was because you needed him to help you reach your goal. And he did. What harm could it cause now to tell him that she lives?
You monster. Precisely for that reason: She no longer lives. She lived.
He lays a hand on her shoulder and she jumps like a lashed horse. Her chin twists over her shoulder and she sees him looking at her, eyebrows drawn in perplexion.
"Leave them to me," he repeats, softer, fingers still on her shoulder, gesturing with his other hand to the bodies. "Open the door."
His gentle touch demolishes what little control she still possessed. Her head joins the stutter of her heart, shaking back and forth, each movement so tiny and quick that her skull practically vibrates upon her neck.
His eyebrows press closer together, a nearly continuous line. "Open the door, Nellie." Lugging these bodies to the oven is the least he can do for her, after all; he knows her back and knees are both in poor condition. Not to mention the fact that tonight she finally slaughtered the man she's been aching to sink her teeth into for nigh on sixteen years. Obtaining momentous goals of that nature would frazzle anyone's nerves.
Cold and numb as her corpses, Nellie's feet stammer to the oven and her hands open the door.
Sweeney bends over to grasp the body of the beggar woman Nellie had been dragging across the floor, not that Nellie had made it all that far, poor thing: but he shall not pity her any longer, he shall not need to – he shall not need to pity her or himself – not when they're about to leave all this behind and start anew. Certainly they cannot be reborn from the ashes like a phoenix, or given salvation like a follower of God: they have descended too far into the charred ruins of sin for either to ever be possible. But it will still be a new life, a new start, and even if they cannot truly possess happiness at least they will be content . . . at least they won't have to don facades of happiness any longer . . . at least they will live together . . .
'Think how snug it'll be underneath our flannel, when it's just you and me and the English Channel . . . by the sea . . . you and me, Mr. T . . . you and me . . .'
Nose already submerged deep in the briny, Sweeney grasps the wrists of the beggar, pulling the carcass out from underneath Bamford and out from the shadows.
As Nellie opens the oven door, a shaft of amber light slashes across the floor and over the beggar.
His hands drop to his sides and his feet reel backwards as a cry cleaves from his throat:
His knees give out from beneath him. They meet the ground with a brutal kiss that sends tremors throughout his whole body. He doesn't feel it. "Oh my God . . ."
His hands lower to the floor. He crawls slowly, achingly, every muscle straining to drag him across the floor like a base animal; it does not occur to him to stand and walk on two legs.
He crawls until he reaches her. His wife. The woman who rose from her grave – or never resided there, apparently . . . until now. Until his hand sent her there.
"Don't I know you – she said . . ."
It shouldn't hurt this much. He doesn't love Lucy – he feels affection for her, certainly, enough to make his heart twinge should something afflict her – but not love. Never love.
And he has thought Lucy dead since he returned to London. So now that she really is – well, shouldn't he be used to the idea? Should it really make a difference if she died sixteen years ago or tonight?
But it did make a difference. It does. He may not love Lucy, and he may have thought her dead all this time, but it doesn't change the facts that make his heart throb and ache worse than hell: that he killed his own wife. That he destroyed a human undeserving of death purely to bring a smile to the lips of the Devil's wife.
And the fact that throbs and aches the deepest, the cruelest: that his baker, his love, his life betrayed him. She told him Lucy was dead. She lied to him to ensure that his loyalty to Lucy did not interfere with his loyalty to her, as it had when he was Benjamin. She fed him falsities and fabrications without a single thought to the consequences, the damage – his damage – stringing him along with lilting promises of a beautiful, shared tomorrow – and of course he knew he should not believe her promises, knew he should not delude himself into believing her, yet had done so regardless – had known this from the beginning, so it should not be a surprise, it should not cause him to smart and shake and double over in agony –
But it did. It does.
Because this has shattered the delusion ruthlessly, irrevocably:
There is no future for them. There never was one. He would have kept one for her – would have stood against sands and storms and time itself to provide that beautiful, shared future for Nellie – but she never would have taken it from him. All she needed him for was her singular purpose. Once that ended, as it has ended now, it didn't matter how many lies she had spun or facades she had worn. It didn't matter how many fragmented pieces she had torn his heart into.
Because she would be victorious. Not happy – never happy – she could not be happy; that had been a lie too. But victorious.
So this is it, then. This is where it ends. With he pulverized, and she triumphant, and neither of them happy but at least she is still whole. She remains alive and able to live as those who are alive do, alive just as he wishes her to be.
No – as I wished.
He lifts his head and his eyes find the baker's. She is stationary, stock-still, hand frozen to the heat of the oven handle.
"You knew she lived," he says.
Nellie removes her hand from the oven door. Throws on a smile that feels more forced than it should. For God's sake, what's she still doing forcing smiles? This happiness flowing through her veins is as real as the blood ebbing right alongside it – and yet it feels diminished. Damn him for daring to take away her long-overdue joy.
Damn her for allowing him to.
"I was only thinking of you," she simpers.
His eyes flash, but not with fire: with grief. "You lied to me," he whispers, desperate to make her understand his pain, the torment of her betrayal, despite knowing she cannot.
Desperate to give her one last chance despite knowing she does not deserve it.
"No no, not lied at all – now I never lied," says Nellie, her propensity to babble returning once more. "Said she took a poison, she did, never said that she died – poor thing – she lived but it left her weak in the head . . ."
She doesn't know what she's saying anymore. Anything – nothing – whatever keeps her mouth moving and her control in place, but her heart is still stuttering like broken wheels over pavement and her mind is beginning to as well. Her eyes remain locked on Sweeney even as he bends his head and begins murmuring to Lucy, softly touching her face and stroking her hair the way Nellie never permits him to do with her.
Her heart gives a particularly high jump that rams into her voice box and forces her words to a halt for a moment in realization: if all this – if her ultimate goal of vengeance – had truly been for Lucy, as Nellie always claimed, then she would not have allowed Lucy to continue wandering the streets once she had made a bit of money off her human-pie enterprise . . . then she would have taken Lucy in, or provided enough money for a hospital . . . then she would have cared for and fretted over and dwelt on Lucy rather than on Turpin . . .
What the hell is this, Lovett – remorse? You did what you had to do – what you could do. Lucy was beyond help. Spending time trying to heal her wouldn't have done anything. You did what you could and what was best. You avenged her. You brought her justice.
Sweeney trails his fingertips along the matted yellow locks of Lucy's scalp, the ruptured sores of her forehead, the cracks of her lips, the warts underneath her jaw – the bloodied slit of her neck.
". . . Lucy . . . I've come home again . . . Lucy . . ."
He whispers to her softly even though she cannot hear, even though he never does anything but whisper softly to women who cannot hear. Even though it does no good, it is all he is good for.
". . . oh my God . . ."
God doesn't do any good either, but so long as he is calling to people who cannot hear, why not add Him to the list?
Red dances in front of his eyes. A want – a need – burns in his veins. The need is familiar, and yet unfamiliar too – familiar because he knows it requires a blood sacrifice – unfamiliar because each rise of this need is typically performed in Nellie's name . . . and yet it's a ritual he's come to depend on as well, for reasons that have nothing to do with her, for his own survival. For his own pretense that he is still alive. A need to hurt. A need to destroy another in order to create himself.
". . . Lucy . . . what have I done . . .?"
He hardly knows what he's done, or what he's doing.
But he knows what he will do. As he rises to his feet, as he hears the sound of her dawning footsteps and her voice swelling in volume as she nears, as his mind shakes and the debris of his heart shakes but his hands remain steady, he knows what he will do.
"Mrs. Lovett," he cries out, and whirls about on his heel to face her.
She draws in a hissing breath through her teeth and takes two steps backwards.
The ache in his fragmented heart increases tenfold – but aloud, Sweeney finds himself laughing: Is Nellie Lovett – master puppeteer who manipulates others with ease; dominator of emotions with never a single real feeling passing over her face; wife of the Devil who has been to the very bowels of hell and is not surprised or scared of any horrors, having seen them all – is Nellie Lovett actually afraid of him, a bleeding little nobody of a runaway convict?
"Mrs. Lovett, you're a bloody wonder," he declares with a grin, striding towards her, "eminently practical and yet appropriate as always . . ."
Nellie stares at him, uncomprehending, feet backpedalling. What is he doing? What is he talking about? One minute he's slumped on the floor cradling his wife to his chest – and the next he's flattering her? Is this an act? But he's not and never has been a good enough actor to pull off such quick costume changes – right? What would be the purpose to an act, anyway? Or –
"Mrs. Lovett," says Sweeney, his smile widening, settling comfortably into the crevices of his face like a well-worn sweater, "how I've lived without you all these years, I'll never know!"
His smile drops suddenly, his eyes observing how she retreats from him. "No, come here, my love," he soothes her, moving closer. "Not a thing to fear, my love . . ."
She continues to draw away from him, step by step by step, thump by thump by thump, trying to find her metronome of safety, of comfort, thump by thump by thump, drown herself in its familiarity, its rote, thump by thump by –
Her back hits the wall.
"What's dead is dead!" he proclaims, the words clanging loud and boisterous against the stones.
He grasps her hands, pulls her body flush against his, and begins to lead her in a waltz about the room. She's too confused to insist on taking the lead herself, as she usually does – and, truth be known, too relieved. Never before has she relinquished control without a fight – but oh, it feels good not to think, not to worry about guiding where her steps will lead, and where she must lead his steps, and what locations she must lead them to, not to worry about pressing a smile onto her face all the while . . .
She's not sure what he's saying as he whirls her about the room, and she's not sure if she's replying or not – but that's a relief too, not having to listen, or even pretend to. She lets her head loll against his shoulder and her feet be guided by his.
His eyes flash at her again, as they did when he knelt beside Lucy after she told him that she was only thinking of him when she lied – but this time, it is not a flash of grief: it is of fire.
Fire, she thinks without being able to think through her haze of unthinking, of unfeeling, of surrender.
Fire, she thinks, his smile hardening.
His teeth gritting beneath the smiling lips.
Amber light flickering and fading and flickering again over his face, illuminating, getting brighter than before as they twirl about.
His hands tightening on her waist.
Heat . . . so much heat, so hot –
– oh God no –
Then she is being hurled through the air and her body is falling and the heat is intensifying and heightening all around her –
When she opens her eyes, she is crumpled against the ground of the bakehouse.
She stays in her huddle for a moment – nose pressed into the grime of the stones, vision obscured by the darkness. She stays huddled, and with limbs awkwardly placed, and with body aching from the slap against the ground, and with heart hammering in her throat – but unadorned by flames. Whole.
Slowly, she presses her hands against the floor and pushes herself into the crouch of a lioness, silently taking in her surroundings, waiting for the opportune moment to pounce upon her prey.
The oven sits less than a foot from where she lies, door still wide open with flames burning high, waiting, beckoning. At the far end of the room, bathed in intermittent lashes of lights and shadows, kneels Sweeney. Lucy is held to his chest, her hair shrouding his face. His body shaking.
Nellie sits and watches him for a long time. At last, she tenses her muscles in preparation to spring from her crouch – but not to pounce upon her prey. She sees no reason to pounce.
She sees no prey.
Shifting herself onto her palms and knees – it does not occur to her to stand – she crawls across the room to him, an arrhythmic metronome of rustling skirts and callused palms sliding against stone. He does not look up as she approaches, nor when she settles herself in front of him almost knee to knee, but she has no doubt that he knows she is there, noisy as the many layers of her dress are.
They stay like that for innumerable minutes, kneeling, mute: Sweeney shaking and crushing Lucy to his chest; Nellie silently still and for once completely comfortable with silent stillness, no longer requiring motion or song to survive, existing to the pulse of no metronome.
Finally, he raises his head from Lucy's hair. His eyes are red but dry. His body racks with the sobs he will not or cannot cry.
"Why didn't you kill me?" asks Nellie simply.
Lucy's corpse jerks closer to his body. Nellie watches the muscles in his arms tighten around her fragile form and wonders if her bones might shatter.
"Because I couldn't," replies Sweeney simply.
Neither barber nor baker can cling to a façade anymore. They're both raw and naked and unclothed tonight, and they cannot pretend differently. Not here, at least, not now. Not with each other.
"I'd deserve death," says Nellie, her voice neutral, matter-of-fact.
His eyes close. "I couldn't," he repeats.
She sighs and shakes her head. "Love makes people do some really stupid things – and prevents them from doing a lot of smart ones."
With effort, he parts his eyelids and looks at her. "So does a lack of it."
Her thoughts are as scattered as poppies in a field, springing up without rhyme or reason, pushing against each other in a futile attempt to create space in the earth for more. She feels torn, ripped apart at the seams again, threads and fabrics all puddled around her with only a few still clinging on. She feels satisfaction, completion, vindication – and perplexion, disquiet, heartache . . . and some other emotion that she does not want to place . . .
She looks at Sweeney, then at Lucy, then back to Sweeney, and she finds her mind echoing the question she dimly heard him asking of his wife as he nestled her against his chest:
What have I done?
She hardly knows what she's done, or what she's doing.
But she knows what she will do. As she unfurls Sweeney's grip from Lucy, as she gently touches the other woman's face for the last time before laying her body to the side, as her mind and her mouth remain quiet and her hands remain steady, she knows what she will do.
Nellie reaches for the holster around Sweeney's waist and draws out the two razors he keeps there.
She places one in his palm, keeping the other in her own. Her gaze remains locked on his all the while.
His eyes flash for the third time this evening, not with fire or grief this time, but a bolt of agonized comprehension.
"What are you doing?" he asks her, even though she knows that he knows what she's doing.
Without thinking, Nellie smiles. "Well, I think we've both learned by now that we're much stronger together than apart, wouldn't you say? Get a lot more done when we partner up, you and me . . . find skills and strength we never knew we had before."
Sweeney shakes his head, eyes sorrowful – but not dissenting. "You don't need to do this, Nellie."
Nellie shakes her head in return. "No, love, actually – I do."
She unsheathes the blade of the razor in her palm, turning it between her fingers to admire the firelight scintillating across its sheen.
"See, like you told me," she continues, looking up from the silver and into his eyes, "life is for the alive. And much as we might like to pretend otherwise, you and me – well, we've never been alive. Not in this world, at least."
She crawls across the short distance between them and settles into his lap. As always, he contours himself to her at once, her shoulder leaning into his chest, his arm wrapping around her back.
"So maybe you and me'll find what we need elsewhere," whispers Nellie, resting one arm across his shoulders, fingers and razor handle kissing the back of his neck.
He looks at her and says nothing.
She does not think this is defeat – and even if it is, she does not care – but she truly does not think it is, by any definition of the word. It is merely accepting what she never could before.
She runs her fingertips over the curve of his forehead, the arch of his nose, the line of his jaw, as though seeing him for the first time. She might have been able to love him, she thinks to herself. In another time, in another place, in another life, she might have loved him. But time is up, and other places are nonexistent, and there is no other life for either of them.
So this is it. This is all they leave with.
Perhaps it is enough.
He rests a kiss upon her lips, soft and intimate. For the first and last time, she lets him. Then he pulls away.
Eyes never wavering, hands never shaking, she wraps her arm around the back of his neck, and he wraps his around hers, and they both rest the sharp edge of silver friends against each other's throats.
A/N: . . . please don't hate me?
But even if you do now hate me, I would like to give a big thank you to everyone who has read this story. To those loyal readers who reviewed every single chapter without fail; to those who dropped a review in my beloved feedback collection once or twice; to those who offered phrases of intense flattery; to those who were not afraid to criticize me (because, seriously, I love being criticized: how else will I ever improve, after all?); even to those of you who never left a review but nonetheless drove up my stats by incredible numbers (this fic received nearly 4000 total hits!). You are all awesome.
I know I say this all the time, but I really do thrive on feedback. I will never know what to change about my writing or what to keep the same if I never hear firsthand what you all like and dislike, after all. So, no matter what you thought of this final installment, or the story as a whole, I would love it if you could drop me a line (or a few lines, or a paragraph, or a novel . . . whatever ;]) to let me know your opinion.
Lastly, if the fact that this story is now over has sent you into the throes of despair, fear not! My career as a Sweeney fan-fiction author is far from complete. I am currently posting updates to my Sweeney Todd novel, Death is for the Alive, in which Sweeney and Nellie attempt to navigate through the afterlife. If we count time spent plotting, this story is a WIP of nearly four years, and is thus affectionately known as both The Little Monster and The Baby. I am also currently wrapping up a series of Toddvett/Sweenett one-shots (Burgundy Velvet) and two drabble series, one Toddvett (Of Rolling Pins and Rubies) and one all-things-Sweeney (Moments).
And I do believe that is all. Thank you again, dear readers, for sticking out this journey with me. I hope you enjoyed the ride.