Alone. Yes, that's the key word, the most awful word in the English tongue. Murder doesn't hold a candle to it and hell is only a poor synonym. – Stephen King

xxx

Smooth sand warmed her feet. Rays of sun kissed her cheeks. A soft breeze blew against her, lifting her corkscrewing hair and wafting the smell of salt water up her nose. She smiled and closed her eyes, laying down on her back.

By the sea at last . . .

As logic caught up to this thought, Nellie Lovett gasped and shot back into a standing position. This wasn't the sea. It couldn't be.

But sand was still between her toes, sun was still shining on her face, winds were still brushing against her, and – for a moment she couldn't breathe – there on the horizon was the water . . .

She shook herself. It wasn't possible. It couldn't be happening. Just calm down and think things through, Nellie. She couldn't remember how she had wound up here, but if she just took a moment's pause, she was sure she could piece things together. As of recently, she had been –

Toby slams himself against the door and both of their whimpers bounce off the walls before he croons, loudly and wildly, "And when the pie was opened the birds began to sing – sing sing sing – what are little boys made of?"

Oh. Right. She was dead.

And she had been spending all of her time as of late drifting between Bedlam and the netherlands. Neither of those places was anywhere near the sea. Even if she had decided to visit the sea, she wouldn't have been able to feel anything there, considering spirits had no substance upon Earth. This must be a dream, then.

But that's no reason not to enjoy it while it's here, is it, now?

Don't be a fool. Demons aren't allowed enjoyment.

She squeezed her eyes shut and gave her forearm a pinch to wake herself. She knew even before she'd opened her eyes that it hadn't worked; the sand under her feet was just as grainy and warm and comforting and real as before.

Real . . . too real to be a dream . . .

For God's sake, Eleanor. You're dead. Bloody dead and gone. Which means you can't feel anything real. And there certainly aren't any beaches on Is.

The sun feels so good . . . I'd forgotten what sun feels like . . .

Stop it. You're aren't feeling the sun. You're just dreaming –

"Nellie."

She gasped and turned around. "Mr. Todd! I – you – what're you doing here?"

Sweeney raised an eyebrow as she raked astonished eyes over him: the man stood in the middle of the beach, clad in nothing but a dressing gown. Well, this is your fantasy, love. "I was going to ask the same of you, pet."

"Wh-what?"

"You weren't there when I woke up. I didn't know where you'd gone off to." He rolled his eyes. "Should have known you'd be by the water."

She couldn't process all of this at once. "I wasn't there . . ."

"When I woke up," he repeated, giving her an odd look. "Are you feeling well?"

He's asking about me, he's concerned about me, he cares –

In your dreams he cares, Nellie.

Trying to ignore the chattering voices in her mind, Nellie attempted a smile. "I'm fine, love, don't you fuss your head about me."

He took a step towards her, placing his hands on her shoulders and squinting into her face. "You're sure?"

"No – no, I'm not sure," Nellie burst out, tangling her fingers in her hair and pulling at the strands. His brow creased. "I don't know what's going on, Mr. Todd – I don't have a clue what's happening or why we're here or how we got here – "

"What do you mean? We came by carriage months ago."

" – no no no, that can't be – you're not supposed to be here – I'm not supposed to be here – and we're supposed to be angry at each other – "

Sweeney seemed genuinely confused at that, though she couldn't fathom why. "Angry? What for?"

" – and just nevermind that we're supposed to be dead – "

"Hush," said Sweeney firmly, taking another step towards her and pulling her into a soft (soft?!) embrace. "Calm down. You must've had a bad dream, that's all." She gave a hysterical laugh into the material of his dressing gown; this was the dream, there was no chance in hell that this was actually happening.

"It's alright," he continued. "We're exactly where we're supposed to be, I'm not angry with you – and we're certainly not dead. You're safe now, by the sea – just like you always wanted, Nellie . . . remember?"

This time she choked on her laughter. He pulled back to look at her, keeping his hands at her shoulders, eyes dark with worry. He trailed his left hand from her shoulder up to cradle her face and wipe away her tears. She hadn't realized she was crying.

"And you aren't s'posed to call me Nellie neither," she muttered feverishly.

He chuckled – that beautiful, low rumble from deep within his chest that she had not heard in so long. "Why not? That's your name, isn't it?" he murmured before bringing his lips to hers in a tender kiss that left her breathless. "Nellie . . ."

The next kiss was longer, deeper, but still with that undeniable tender quality that was completely out of character for Sweeney Todd. He was a passionate man, oh yes, she knew that very well . . . but tender, affectionate, almost – dare she even think it – loving, he was not.

It's a dream, she told herself repeatedly in a mantra, a dream, nothing more than a dream.

". . . and we're certainly not dead . . ."

But what if this wasn't a dream? What if everything else – dying, Is, her entire experience in the afterlife – what if that had been the dream? No. It wasn't possible. Is may not have made much sense, but it made a hell of a lot more sense than she and Sweeney running off to the seaside – than the pair of them living happily ever after – than he never murdering her – than he caring about her –

But the sand is so warm and the sun is so bright and the water, the water, the sea, so blue and vast and open with possibilities, and he is so close and so warm and so caring and oh God –

Unable to hold her own weight under her hurricane of confusion and delight and pain, Nellie sagged in his arms. "I don't understand . . ."

She wasn't able to finish the thought – her lips were numb – but her mind completed the sentence a thousand different ways: I don't understand why you're calling me Nellie. I don't understand how we got here. I don't understand why we're by the sea. I don't understand why you're acting as though you love me. I don't understand how a dream can feel so real.

"What's not to understand?" he said in-between trailing a series of feather-light kisses down her jawbone. "We're here . . . by the sea . . . together . . ."

His lips pressed against her skin, kissing away all worry, all thought. The touch was achingly familiar; his mouth knew just where to brush, nip, caress, and just like always he managed to plow away all reasons against this so thoroughly it were as if they had never been there. So she let herself go, let herself feel, feel his touch and his kisses and his love, feel the way she naturally responded and returned the affections – for what was more real than that?

"Sweeney," she whispered, gripping his back, clutching his hair, fisting the material of his clothes – whatever part of him she could hold. "Sweeney – love – Mister – oh – "

Never ceasing his caresses and kisses, he carefully laid them both on the sand. "Shh, Nellie," he soothed. "I love you."

Her heart burst open and flooded into her mouth; every speck of her skin was on fire, and it wasn't painful but instead wonderful, like a scalding bath warming her from frigidity; the sun blinded her eyes and she couldn't see a thing yet could see everything, for he was silhouetted against the light, hovering slightly above her – and then he leaned closer, their bodies pressing together, wrapping his arms around her as he dropped another kiss on her mouth.

"Nellie . . . Nellie . . ."

But the sand underneath their bodies seemed to be shifting, melting, and at first she blamed it on the way the world was different, so different, now that he loved her too – but then she came to realize that she wasn't just imagining it – the ground beneath her really was dissolving . . .

". . . Nellie . . ."

She gripped Sweeney as the ground and the sky and the surroundings disappeared around her – he was suddenly all that was solid in this place of vanishing everythings –

". . . Nellie . . . Nellie!"

Cold. Confusion. Couldn't see. Couldn't see anything. White fog. No sand, no breeze, no sea. Confusion. Arms still encircled her. Real. Tangible. Real arms. Warm. Cold. Voice. Words. Voice. Voice that wasn't his.

". . . Nellie!. . ."

Words. Voice. Not him. Not him.

". . . come on, Nellie, I know you can get out of this. Nellie. Nellie. Come on . . ."

Her body spasmed and she coughed violently as though just rescued from being drowned. Fingers pushed against her shoulders to keep her lying down. She threw open her eyes, forced to squint immediately from how bright and light everything around her was.

"There you go," said the person squatted beside her. It took a moment for Nellie to determine who it was: Angie Ragg, one of the souls who wandered the Is netherlands to insure that specters did not become ensnared in anything too dangerous.

"I thought I said I never wanted to see you again," Angie teased as she helped Nellie into a sitting position.

Disoriented, Nellie rubbed a hand over her forehead, trying to ignore the way the world was still spinning a little. "What happened . . .?"

"You very nearly walked off into the joining." At Nellie's look of puzzlement, Angie reminded her, "The joining is where the earth and the sky seem to meet. Souls who enter never return to Is. You didn't know what you were doing – part of the joining is right by the mists, and you were caught in there . . ."

Nellie pulled her legs up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. "And . . . and what're the mists?" Asking questions – bringing herself back to the present – was the only way she could keep herself from dwelling on what had just happened – or hadn't happened . . .

Angie pointed over Nellie's right shoulder. Nellie turned her head to see a mass of white fog some distance from where they sat. "Those are. They tangle you in fantasies so vivid that you become convinced they're absolutely real." Nellie's heart clenched; she hoped the internal pain did not cause anything in her demeanor to change. "I only just noticed you drifting towards the joining – you'd very nearly already stepped into it when I pulled you out."

"Thank you," said Nellie quietly.

So it had only been a dream. She hadn't imagined dying, as she'd dared to hope for those beautiful moments. As he always did, Sweeney had been able to make her believe a web of lies – or at least make her forget the truths.

And yet, even now, with she fully knowing the truth – knowing reality – even now his hands were touching her in places they had not in so long, his eyes shining with affection they could not hold, his voice whispering words he would never breathe . . .

"Shh, Nellie. I love you."

"Please, don't thank me," said Angie, waving a cursory hand. "Anyone halfway decent would have done just the same." She studied Nellie for a moment; the baker, discomfited, picked at the grass with her fingers. "You look ill, Nellie."

Nellie reached a hand up to touch her face. Smooth, moist with dew, a bit cold . . . but otherwise, her skin felt perfectly normal.

She had taken to testing herself like this lately. As she was determined not to erode away into nothing, she would occasionally brush her knuckles to her cheek to see if the skin felt at all the way Sweeney's had – like cold leather and stale dough. Whenever she began to detect traces of these feelings, she would drift around the nethers for a few circles until the symptoms left, and then return to Earth.

"Would you like help back to Is?" Angie offered.

"Oh, no – thank you – I've still got some things that I should be – "

"I'm sure these things can wait," Angie countered gently. "Your first priority should be taking care of yourself."

Who appointed this woman a saint? Nellie thought, narrowing her eyes at the other female. Nellie appreciated the concern (it was nice to have someone care about her, even if it was only because of her job), but honestly. Such unending kindness and charity could wear on a person's nerves.

"It's very nice of you to offer, dear," said Nellie with as much patience as she could muster. "But I really do have matters to attend to before I can – go back to Is."

Angie ducked her head, but kept her eyes on Nellie. "Would you mind sharing these – matters with me?"

Nellie stiffened. "Yes, I would mind."

Angie bit her lip. "I don't mean to pry into business that isn't mine. I know we don't know each other very well . . . I just don't like seeing others suffer."

Nellie nearly rolled her eyes, but caught herself just in time; however ridiculously angelic the woman was, she did seem to care, and didn't deserve to be ridiculed.

Nellie's skills at deception were beginning to slip, however – or perhaps Angie Ragg was just extremely perceptive – for the next words to leave her mouth were, "I realize that sounds pathetic. I don't mean it to. But I can . . . it hurts me when others suffer. I certainly don't imagine that I feel their pain to the same degree that they do – but I emphasize, and I want to help."

"'S'quite noble of you," said Nellie. "But – if you don't mind me asking – if you want to help 'suffering' souls so much, why choose to live out here all isolated-like? Why not work as part of the introduction committee – y'know, the people who first greet souls when they arrive on Is? Or as part of the law force?"

"It is isolating out here," Angie agreed. "But the people who need help the most are usually the ones wandering the nethers, not the newly arrived souls."

Nellie wove her fingers into the grass and yanked at the blades.

"As I've said," said Angie, "I know we don't know each other all that well, but I see a bit of me in you. Me when I first came to Is, at least." Nellie's eyes turned from the grass to Angie, whose hands were clasped, twisting in her lap. "I was . . . very upset when I first came here. Not over my death, but because I'd also left behind someone on Earth I cared about."

"How do you know – " Nellie started to demand, then stopped.

"How do I know that you've been on Earth a lot recently?" Angie supplied. Nellie did not nod, but the other woman seemed to find 'yes' hidden somewhere in her expression. "Your skin may not feel rough and worn yet, Nellie, but the gray tint has already taken deep root in your complexion. And those who visit Earth – it's usually because they miss someone they love."

"Just give it up, Henry, the boy isn't ever gonna tell you nothing."

"He will eventually," the second man snarls, leaning close and sticking his face into her boy's, who shudders and twists but – bound by a straitjacket and scrunched into a stiff wood chair – cannot escape.

"Little boy blue come blow your horn," he babbles, and she feels his anxiety riding over him in a wave, "the sheep's in the meadows, the cow's in the grinder, and just how are you doing today, sir – "

"Stop," the man breathes into his face, "stop it," and the boy falls silent, rocking, shaking, fear vibrating in his limbs and pooling in beads of sweat on his forehead. She stands beside him, and now she kneels over, pressing her cheek against his shoulder. Her face, insubstantial, without corporeal form, slides right through his body.

"Face it, Henry," the first man continues. "He's never gonna tell you about the past. He's never gonna tell you why he murdered all those people, he's never gonna tell you if he forced the baker and barber into it before killing 'em or if they was helping to run the show too, he's never gonna tell you if he made all them pies himself – "

The second male straightens and whirls to face the guard. "He's going to tell me all that and more. The information is all there – he knows, I know he knows – beneath the insane rubble and decay, it's in there. Just got to get to it."

"It's been more'n two years since the boy came here," replies the other. "Maybe you should stop holding these questioning sessions and just accept that he isn't ever gonna – "

"Maybe you should shut up."

"For me, it was my child." Angie wet her lips with the tip of her tongue. "My first and last baby. I hardly remember him – I died in childbirth. My last memories are made up of overwhelming pain and a high-pitched wail. And – and then someone said – I don't know who said it, I didn't have money for a midwife, but the voice was definitely female – she said, "You have a baby boy," and placed something small and warm into my arms . . ."

The skin around her eyes crinkled. "Everything after that is fuzzy. Anyway – after I first died, I spent God only knows how many weeks on Earth searching for him. I wanted to know if my baby was okay. I could never find him. . . . To this circle, I don't know his name, or if he's still alive."

"I . . . I'm sorry." Nellie's throat was so devoid of saliva it was amazing she could croak out anything.

Angie smiled and shook her head. "It's okay. Really. This was all a long time ago – it was, let's see – my date of death, as well as my son's birth, is May 31st, 1828."

Nellie blanched.

If you still had a conscience, it would be throbbing with guilt right about now.

But, as she possessed no such thing, she felt no such throb – only a very deep, very hard plummet of her stomach.

So she hadn't been overanalyzing the first time she'd met Angie. She hadn't just been imagining seeing a resemblance to Toby. She hadn't been running too far with the fact that they shared a last name. For once, Nellie Lovett had been right on the mark.

"Well, 'course workhouse boys like me can't never be sure of our real birthdays," he says with just the right amount of mixed emotions in his tone: shame that he can't be sure of even a simple fact such as his date of birth, pride that he has made it this far from such humble origins. "But the lady what brought me to the workhouse told the master I was born spring of 1828, or May 31st to be exact."

"A long time ago, as I said." Angie did some quick calculations on her fingers. "That must've been seventeen or eighteen years ago by now, I would think."

Sixteen.

"But I – eventually I realized that I had to . . ." Her hands fluttered and closed over her knees. "Move on."

Move on to what, though? Nothing came after the fucking afterlife. Death couldn't be altered or changed no matter how much one might have wanted it to.

And suddenly Nellie was overcome with a feeling so foreign it left her winded: she wanted to tell Angie everything. She wanted to tell this woman the entire story of how she got here, of what her love for Sweeney had compelled her to do, of all the mistakes she'd made, of all the things she would do different if she could – of all the things she would do just the same. She wanted to tell Angie that she knew her son, and that because of her, the boy was now insane.

She wanted to tell the truth.

Because she was tired of this – of skirting the edges of sincerity, of not lying but not being honest – and it was true that she couldn't change much about her current situation, but by God, she could change this.

But she could not open her mouth; she could not find her voice. As usual, she could not bring herself to bring that sort of pain upon someone. Sometimes it was easier to not know the truth.

You're really still trying to convince yourself it was better for him to not know the truth?

"Just because you're dead doesn't mean you have to stop living," Angie continued. "Your soul is as alive as it ever was . . . and it's more important than a physical form can ever be."

("death is for the alive, my dear")

Realizing that a lump was gathering in her throat and that moisture was collecting in her eyelids, Nellie ripped her gaze away from Angie and stared at her knees instead, fingers clenching and unclenching amongst blades of grass.

"I don't know if you already know this," Angie continued, "but sometimes we spirits . . . sometimes we can briefly communicate with those who are still alive." Nellie's fingers dug into the ground, amassing dirt under her nails. "Normally, of course, the living cannot sense us in any form, but sometimes they can hear us . . . though only if they are able – and willing – to listen."

Nellie swallowed. Was it possible? Was there a chance that she could speak to Toby again? Apologize for all she had done to him?

It's a little late to apologize, Lovett.

Even despite the bitter voice in the back of her mind, the idea that she might be able to speak to Toby seized a firm hold on her. If he could hear her . . .

Then what? Say that Toby managed to hear her apology – what would she do afterwards? Continue to spend her afterlife in penitence for acts that she could never receive penitence for? What was the point to that?

You've been down this road before, Nellie. Don't do this again. There's isn't anything else for you to do but wander Earth and the nethers. There isn't anything else you deserve.

"Not pulling my leg, are you?" Nellie managed to mutter. "About this being able to communicate with 'em thing?"

Angie shook her head. "No." She reached out a hand as though to touch Nellie on the arm, but then her fingers fell into her lap again and her head tilted to the side. "You can't stay on Earth forever, Nellie. And you can't honestly tell me that there isn't anything – anyone – on Is that you still care about."

"Careful," he murmurs in a play threat, running his fingers across her throat, "or the citizens of London will be enjoying a little baker next."

"And who'd be baking that pie, then?" she demands. "Can't exactly picture you down there chopping me to bits . . ."

His lips descend to her neck to follow the designs his fingers are tracing. She feels him smile against her throat, teeth grazing along her skin the way she imagines a blunt razor would. "Don't be so sure about that, pet."

She smiles too, threading her fingers in his hair and refusing to let go.

Angie took one of Nellie's hands between her own, and it was only then that Nellie noticed how fiercely her own body was trembling.

"One more time," Nellie murmured, only aware of her decision as the words left her mouth. "I've got to go to Earth one more time. Then I'll come back to Is."

xxx

Sweeney Todd had never believed in being trailed by ghosts. Had never believed those people who claimed to be followed by spirits. But now he did. Because there was no word but one for what he was now: haunted.

(" people think it's haunted")

"I don't think you're telling the truth."

Lying naked on her bed, in his arms, she stiffens. "Wh-what d'you mean?"

"About the room upstairs."

The tension leaves her body, but she is still puzzled. "Dunno what you're talking about, love. You mean your room?"

He nods. "You told me when I first came back that you were never able to rent that room out. That people claimed it was haunted and wouldn't come anywhere near it."

"That I did," she agrees.

"I don't believe you."

"Oh, believe it, love. You're the first person to live up there in fifteen years." She maps out lazy streets and avenues along his arms with her fingertips. "What, d'you think I went and sprinkled the place with cobwebs and dust for your arrival just so's I could lie to you about no one ever living there?"

"No. I believe that part. What I don't believe is that no one wanted to rent it out."

"They didn't want to rent it out," she says indignantly.

"People are not that superstitious, my dear. And nor do they have such long memories. I'm sure you received many requests from willing tenants."

"I tell you, I didn't – "

He puts his fingers over her mouth to silence her. She gives them a playful bite, catches sight of his solemn expression, and stops.

Removing his hand from her lips to rest against her jawline, he continues: "I think that it was you who planted the idea about the room being haunted into their heads. I think you were the one who insisted that it was haunted, and refused to allow them to stay here."

"How long've you been working on this grand theory, love?" she teases, but isn't quite meeting his eyes. He takes her chin and forces her to look at him. Her grin fades and she sighs. "Alright, alright, you caught me – I told people the place was haunted and that they couldn't stay here 'cause of that – you happy now?"

The answer was already known to him, but he is still surprised to have it confirmed aloud. "Why?"

She shrugs. "Didn't like the idea of others milling around up there in your room. And I wanted it waiting for you when you came back."

"I wasn't supposed to come back, Mrs. Lovett," he growls, angry licking his body into a sudden fury.

Her eyes narrow. "You think I don't know that? Didn't stop me from believing in you. You said you'd be back, so I believed you'd be back."

But Lucy didn't . . .

She reads his pain even through his mask and places a palm on each of his cheeks. He shakes off her touch and turns away from her. But the bare skin of her chest presses against his back, and she enfolds her arms around him from behind. She is as stubborn as he and will never let him forget it.

He scowls into his pillow. Why does she never leave him alone? Is it physically impossible for her to grant him a moment's peace?

So push her away. You're stronger than she is. It wouldn't be hard. Make her leave.

He stays where he is.

Nails biting into his palms, he vaulted from his cot and hurtled himself towards the wall, as though he could hurtle her away – or perhaps himself – if he moved fast enough.

Lucinda Roselyn Barker, he thought as he stepped through the wall, just has he had done every circle since he had arrived upon Is, Lucinda Roselyn Barker, Lucinda Roselyn Barker, Lucinda Roselyn Barker . . .

And, just like every circle since he had arrived, when he opened his eyes, he was still standing in his room. Lucy was still not here – or, if she was, she still didn't want to find him.

He usually didn't know which thought hurt worse. Today, it didn't hurt at all. As he stared at the cobbled stone wall, he felt nothing. Not regret, not fury, not sorrow – but something more indifferent than apathy and more cruel than pain: nothing. That dry hollow of nothingness that had nearly swallowed him when his afterlife first began – that maddening urge where there were no urges – just a fist around his lungs demanding release, escape . . .

But she believes that there is an escape, that they can be more than what they've made themselves – even as she butchers rather than salvages, and contuses kisses upon his skin, she believes that this is not their end, that there is a future beyond smudged windows and blood and pain, she believes in him –

In numb panic, he fled to Mrs. Lovett's work premises. The Mrs. Lovett who was still around, that was.

Reyna's neck twisted over her shoulder when she heard him enter. She stood by her giant calendar, making even more nonsensical tally marks and abbreviations. Her mouth puckered and her eyebrows pulled low over her eyes as she noted who stood in her doorway, as though in disappointment.

"Good morning, Mr. Barker," she said. He was too rattled to snap his correct name at her, as he always did, and her eyebrows drew tighter together. "It has been quite some time since you came to see me. Not since before the wedding of Ivan Filipov and Suchin Metharom. I have to confess that I'd resumed hoping you no longer care about our bargain . . ."

Sweeney stalked over to the calendar to stand beside her, but didn't meet her eyes as he thrust words through his strangled lungs: "How many days?"

By contrast, Reyna continued watching him, dark brown eyes

mottled brown like muck, like crumbling tree bark, like melting chocolate

puncturing his skin

and seeing far too much, knowing more than any working class woman should, loving more than any Devil's wife could

with their intensity. "You seemed happier then, at the wedding. Maybe happy is the wrong word – it was as though you were free – as though your shackles had been removed long ago, but you'd only just realized how much they had restrained you from – "

"How many days?" he snarled.

He watched from his peripheral vision as her mouth frowned, but her face turned sideways, like his, to examine her calendar. She performed some speedy calculations in her head, murmuring under her breath, before announcing, "Six hundred and twenty-six Earth days since we made our promise. Still shy of your two years, I'm afraid."

He did not thank her or even grant a nod of acknowledgement; he merely whirled around and swept towards the door.

"If I might, Mr. Barker?" she called after him.

Sweeney halted but kept his back to her.

"It isn't a crime to cast off your shackles after you've served your time," said Reyna, quieter. "It isn't immoral to not always be twisting in pain."

He whipped back towards her, blood howling in his ears, thrusting away the numbness in a rush of lava through his veins. "What do you know of immoral acts? You think morality is dictating how others should 'live' after life ends? That you know what they've suffered and how they've served their time?"

"I don't presume to know any such things," said Reyna softly.

He blinked, forcing himself to see that this was not the woman who usually lectured him on these same subjects, that the woman before him now did not deserve to have such ire thrown at her. He bit his tongue and glared at the floor.

"I know only what I see," she continued, her words measured and even; he matched his breathing to her metronomic cadence, calming himself. "I see many souls like you, Mr. Barker – and that isn't to say that they are you – that they've been through what you have, experienced and suffered in precisely the say ways . . . but they are like you nonetheless. They don't know how to exist – they didn't on Earth, and they still don't on Is."

She pursed her lips again, searching his face. When he offered her nothing, she continued:

"But I also see when they figure it out – I see the way their smiles become natural rather than forced, their hands purposeful rather than limp . . . and I could have sworn I saw that in you at the wedding reception, while you were dancing."

Nothing has changed except for he and she, or everything is different save for them – he doesn't know which anymore – but he can't care enough to know either. Not when they're spinning around the room in a place without pain or hatred, not when his body can dance and his mind slide into comfortable ease. Not when nothing but the motion of their two bodies performing this simplest of gestures – of steps, of rituals, of celebrations – matters.

"Mr. Barker?"

"Todd," he growled, normality resuming. "Thanks for your time."

"Please, just – " she swallowed and fidgeted with her sleeves

she always fidgets with his cravat or buttons or lapels, any absent-minded excuse to be just a little closer

" – just think about what I've said."

He left without another word.

xxx

Toby, as usual, was not hard to find among the men in his room at the asylum – there were many of them, but he stood out plain as day to her. She hastened to his side and knelt beside him. Heedless of her presence, he continued to stare, wide-eyed, at one certain brick, fingers of both hands spread apart and pressed against the wall, his body rocking back and forth.

"Toby," she breathed. As usual, he did not seem to hear her. Her hopes fell a little. Was this ever going to work? Angie had said that, in order for spirits to communicate with them, the living had to be able and willing to listen, whatever that meant. How did she know if he was able and willing, anyway?

She tried again. "Toby. Toby, can – can you hear me? Toby . . . Toby, please."

Still no response. Nellie swallowed.

Just say what you have to say. Get it off your back. Even if he doesn't hear you, you did the best you could.

"I'm so sorry, Toby," she murmured. "For everything I ever did to you. I loved you so much – still do love you – you were a son to me . . ." She winced and looked away from him. "But real mothers never abandon their children."

Her eyes moved to him again. "I regret what I did to you every moment of every bloody circle and day. I know that doesn't change anything for you. It doesn't change much for me either. But please know that – "

She broke off and took in a sharp breath:

Toby had moved.

Had not only moved, but had looked around the room.

It had been brief – a solitary twitch of his head up and then to the right – but it had been there. As though looking for her.

Don't get carried away, Nellie. The boy's insane, remember? His movements usually don't have rhyme or reason behind them.

Heart in her throat, Nellie dug up the will to continue. "But please know that it's true." His head twitched again; her heart squeezed tight and then swelled huge and it was a miracle that it didn't break right then and there. "Please know that I'm sorry – " another twitch of his head " – and how much I love you."

Her heart was still in entirely the wrong spot, was still throbbing and shrinking and growing in an agonizing way – but it was time for her to leave. She did not know if Toby's insanity was the reason behind the way he had looked wildly around the room, or if he had actually felt her there . . .

But she had said all that she could. To linger here would solve nothing. It was time to move on. Thoughts of Toby would always plague her – and yet, she already felt a certain peace, a feeling of resolution . . . of finally being able to bury the matter and move on.

She brushed her lips against his forehead – knowing neither of them would feel it – before rising to her feet and departing from Earth.


A/N: Reviews, my darling readers, are love.

Anonymous reviews:

Noodlemantra: Oh, Iris is a song? Whoops! My bad. You'll have to forgive my ignorance; my iPod consists largely of musical soundtracks. xD Now that I actually know what you're talking about, I see what you mean! Anywho, thanks so much for R-&-R-ing (and for helping me become a more musically-cultured person)!

Ghost: Thank you, m'dear. Happy (belated) holidays to you too!