It is better to be feared than loved. – Niccolo Machiavelli
It was always interesting to see who would show up for each of his art classes. There were some faces that had been present since the beginning of his teaching career – the pudgy boy, the sneering female, the tart, the boy who'd spilled the paint can during the first class, the pimpled young man – and there were always at least one or two for whom it was their first time. Some spirits would piously arrive for every class, some would come every once in a while, and some would never show up again after their first lesson. Whether this was because they lacked a passion for sculpture or because they detested the teacher, Sweeney didn't know nor care.
What he did know and care about was the fact that today, Judge Turpin was seated at one of the desks in the room.
Upon later reflection, Sweeney had no idea how he managed to give the class instructions for that circle. Somehow, his mind and mouth disengaged from one another, so even as he spoke of creating coil pots, his brain was working furiously to a different tune, dissecting all possible reasons for his being here. Turpin's expression was one of complete nonchalance, as though he attended Sweeney's classes all the time. This only cranked the artist's thoughts faster.
Once done explaining the day's task, he made a beeline for the judge.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Todd," Turpin greeted him, glancing up from his hunk of clay. "How have you been fairing?"
Sweeney was not in the mood for formalities. "What do you want?"
Turpin's forehead wrinkled. "I'm afraid I don't – "
"Why are you here?" Sweeney barked.
"In your class, you mean?" Turpin tried to clarify, to which Sweeney gave a stiff nod. "Isn't it obvious? I want to learn pottery." Sweeney continued to glower. After an extended silence, Turpin sighed. "You are still suspicious of my intentions, I see. Mr. Todd, I again want to assure you again that I have put the past behind me – I promise you."
A snarl ripped its way from Sweeney's throat before he could stop it. "Since when do your promises and assurances mean anything?"
Turpin frowned. "Do all men not deserve second chances?"
"No. They don't."
Turpin's frowned deepened. "I had thought you would be in a better mood today, considering your baker has returned."
The meaning behind those words didn't settle in immediately; Sweeney continued to seethe, fists curled, breathing shallow and rapid. When what the judge had declared finally did snap into place, Sweeney went still as death itself.
Seeming to mistake Sweeney's prolonged silence for pondering whether or not to lunge at him, Turpin went on speaking. "Well, I know that you . . . are on friendly terms with her . . . and how upset you were when it looked as though she had left the afterlife forevermore. I thought her presence might have cheered you."
Sweeney still had not moved, could not move, could not so much as breathe, so flooded over with shock as he was; his vision was beginning to narrow and his hearing beginning to dim and somewhere in the back of his mind amidst the ringing void a voice was screaming, Breathe, dammit, breathe, but he could not heed it, could not process this either –
"Mr. Todd? Are you feeling well?"
He grabbed a lungful of air through his nose, followed quickly by another. "Fine."
Turpin was still watching him with a peculiar look on his face. "Did you not know that Mrs. Lovett had returned to Is?"
Another suck of air. "I knew."
"I thought for sure she would have come to you, of all people – "
"She did," Sweeney cut him off. "I was just not aware she told you of her return."
Turpin shook his head. "She didn't. I was one of the many who flocked to her shop in the circles after the gossip had circulated – "
"Mr. Todd!" The pudgy boy (perhaps you should learn his name) waved an arm in the air.
"Your attention is needed elsewhere," Turpin noted with a slight smile. He kneaded his fingers into his clay slab again. "Well, good day to you, Mr. Todd. Perhaps we shall talk another time."
Sweeney nodded once before marching towards the pudgy boy. Breathe, breathe, breathe, he reiterated to himself throughout the next two chords. Bloody Eleanor Lovett is not going to be the reason you collapse into pieces.
So she was back. She was here. After swearing to himself that he would keep as far away from her as possible, both mentally and physically, it turned out she'd been sleeping across the room from him for . . . for how long? How long had she been back on Is?
"For weeks," said Eloise when he posed her this query at the end of class, completely taken aback by the question. "Well, I mean, Is doesn't have weeks, of course, and I haven't been counting the circles – but it's definitely been a while." The skin of her forehead scrunched together. "I thought you knew, Mr. Todd. I thought she would have come to see you straightaway, since you're such good friends. Maybe that's why she hasn't been happy . . ."
"What do you mean?"
Eloise shook her head. "I don't know. I can't figure it out, Mr. Todd. She goes through her days as though everything is normal – but there's something . . . different. Her smiles and laughter seemed forced, and her eyes never light up like they used to. I can't believe she hasn't come to see you. Maybe I'll ask her why."
"No," said Sweeney, "don't. It's fine. Thank you."
Eloise flounced out of the classroom in her usual manner cheery manner, though there was a definite fold of concern between her eyebrows.
After tidying up the classroom, Sweeney returned to his shop, raking his eyes over every inch of the room. His monetary records had been recorded, his supplies had been inventoried, his tables had been wiped down, his floor had been swept – was there no other menial task for him to occupy his mind with? Now more than ever, his thoughts were on the verge of spilling every which way faster than he could keep up with them. But perhaps now he should not attempt to stop his brain; perhaps this was something that needed to be thought about.
Weeks. Eleanor had been back on Is for weeks . . . many circles . . . however you put it, a damn long time. And all the souls of Is had been aware of it except him. Why had she not come to see him? Surely she would have started bringing him meals and gin again?
Are you mad? It made perfect sense for her to not have anything to do with him, considering the argument they'd had during their last encounter.
But that argument was nothing compared to some of their other altercations. Surely by now she could have licked her wounds and moved on. Well, at least moved on enough to bring things between them back to normal (whatever that word means anymore), and resume bringing him his food, sharing a bottle of gin, sitting together after a circle of –
What was he thinking?! Back to normal? With her? He was not to let her so much as breathe on the perimeter of his life anymore.
But nothing. But absolutely fucking nothing.
What had she come back to Is for, though? He'd not known exactly where Eleanor had run off to, but had figured the most likely place was Bedlam. What had prompted her to return? Clearly it wasn't him. Eloise and Anatoly, perhaps? She did care for them dearly. But she cared for Tobias as well.
Eloise had reported that the baker wasn't happy. That she was merely going through the motions of her life. His blood simmered. That wicked hypocrite. After endlessly lecturing him on not dwelling in the past, on not being so miserable all the time, on moving forward, she wouldn't try and do the same? She had no right to mope about as she was doing – she had undergone not even half of the pain inflicted upon him during his life – she did not get to preach about something one day and then turn her back on her own words the next –
Before he knew what he was doing, Sweeney was on his feet and striding through the wall, straight into Mrs. Lovett's Emporium.
She was still at her shop, as he'd known she would be, yet the sight of her standing there jolted him in a way he could not explain. Her back faced him, body turned towards the oven, but his clomping footsteps alerted her to his presence and she spun around, untidy crimson curls that had liberated themselves from their knot swinging about her face. Their eyes locked and for a moment the narrowed vision, the dimmed hearing, the difficulty in breathing all returned – then the clock ticked on and everything was normal, and he resumed walking towards her until only the counter set into the middle of the floor separated them.
"Hello, Mr. Todd," she said without a hint of emotion, before turning around again to refocus on the oven, which she was filling with trays of pastries.
The simmer in his veins heated to a boil. He had saved her from staying on Earth forever and dissipating into nothing – he had let her use him in every sense of the word while they were alive – he had tolerated her sermons of moving on – and now, for her to be so ungrateful, for her to turn her back on her own words, for her to barely even acknowledge him –
"You have to stop this," he told her.
"Stop what." Her voice was still completely unafflicted – so devoid of everything that her words did not even come out as a question – and she did not turn around.
"You can't brood forever, Eleanor."
"I'm not brooding."
Why would she not look at him? "You are – and it needs to stop."
"Not interacting with you is not the equivalent of brooding, Mr. Todd," she replied with no luster. "I happen to be getting along just fine."
"Then why have you been avoiding me?"
"Don't you want me to avoid you?"
In three strides he was on the other side of the counter next to her, and he grabbed her arm, jerking her around to face him. Her eyes widened – a little gasp of breath fell from her lips – then her gaze darkened.
"Don't dance around the question, woman."
"Let go of me, Mr. Todd." This time – finally – there was emotion in her voice, a soft smolder of anger.
His lips peeled apart in a hideous baring of teeth. "I said not to dance around the question. Why are you avoiding me?"
She yanked her arm from his grip. "Maybe it's 'cause I didn't want to see you."
Sweeney did not relent. "Eloise says you're unhappy."
She laughed at that, the noise loud and harsh in her clearly rising fury. "As if you care whether I'm happy or not. You're probably just here 'cause you want something from me – angry that I won't reply for you anymore when someone poses a question? Angry that I won't bring you any gin?"
He took a step towards her, and she took a matching one back, though the movement seemed to be out of wanting to keep her distance from him rather than fear. "I'm angry because you can't exhort on moving beyond the past one minute and then do the exact opposite of that – "
Her cheeks colored with indignant fury. "Don't talk to me about moving on, you filthy hypocrite. I'm doing what you never could – no, I'm doing what you never tried – I'm trying to move on, I'm trying to get on with things and go forward – "
"If youwere, then you wouldn't have been avoiding me all these circles." She stared at him. He moved forward another pace; she matched it with another step back. "You would have come to see me when you first returned to Is – apologize for what you said – "
"Apologize to you?"
" – because part of moving on, my dear, is first acknowledging the past, as you so often told me – "
"I've acknowledged you bloody enough already," she shouted.
Both of their tempers were spiraling about – rocketing off – vibrating within the walls, climbing higher with each second, ready to burst in an uncontrollable blaze at any moment. He did not understand why he was so furious, nor did he pause to reason it out; hot sticky anger left no room for logical reasoning.
Blood thumped through his skull as he closed in further on her; her back hit the wall but no fear registered in her face. And this made him angrier – he wanted her to fear him – he wanted to see alarm pool in her eyes and seep between her bones – why was she never afraid of him? He would make her feel fear, he would make her know what it was to be frightened –
"What happened to the Eleanor Lovett I used to know?" he snarled. "The one who spoke of moving on from the past and meant every word? The woman who would never let herself be defeated?"
"Why the hell do you care?" she snapped. He was near enough to hear each of her ragged breaths, see the red flush as it spread from her cheeks to her neck to – his eyes drifted further before he snapped them back to her blazing gaze. "Let's not play charades anymore, love – I've tired of lies and I'm sure you have too. You never gave a shit about me 'sides from what I could bring you to eat or how I could warm your bed – " a frisson of anger rocked through his body " – in fact you don't give a shit about anything apart from a dead woman that you'll never even see again – "
"SHUT UP!" he roared.
"Or what?" she yelled. "Or you'll try to strangle me again? Or maybe cut me across the throat with a fettling knife? You go right ahead, love, if it'll make you feel better. I know how much better it made you feel about Lucy each time you slashed open some man's throat – "
Nearly blind with rage, he grabbed both of her shoulders and shook her. "I told you to shut up!"
"Face it, Sweeney," she shouted. "You have nothing left. Nothing left to take away from me or anyone else. Nothing else to try and mask your pain in – but if you'd like to try and kill me and see what happens – see how it makes you feel so much better – then you be my guest – "
Another shudder of rage coursed through his body as he stared at her, wild-eyed, fingers locked around her shoulders. Anger overtook him more and more thoroughly with each passing moment, chewing up and swallowing any hope of rational thought. The world was narrowing – promises of having nothing further to do with her, reasons behind his anger, even reasons behind why he hated her – thoughts about Is, Eloise, Turpin, Johanna, Lucy – he did not, could not recall any of that. Not now.
Eleanor was trembling of fury too beneath his hands. Standing near as she was, she was close enough for him to feel the angry heat of her body. Close enough for her scent of flour and cinnamon and coriander and smoke to assault his nostrils. The red flush of her skin was nearly dark enough to match her maroon rust tresses. Her lips were parted and sucked at the air in short whistling bursts, her brow glistened with a thin film of sweat, her eyes burned. Her breast heaved. Each of his senses were heightened to an unparalleled degree and they eclipsed everything else and then – and then –
Then there was nothing but the desire to feel. To have. To take.
He slammed his mouth down to hers, pushing her tighter against the wall while pulling her to him by the shoulders, crushing her between the both of them, biting and clawing so intensely he might have been trying to climb into her very skin. She gasped into his mouth and he felt her struggle against him, beat him on the arms with her fists, kick out at his shins with her toes . . . but then the fight left her and she wilted against him, letting his lips and teeth and tongue kiss with wanton need at the wonderfully familiar taste of her: of the flour clinging to her skin; of the sweet and tangy spices from her kitchen; of the faint sheen of salty sweat acquired over her long workday . . . letting his hands dance from her shoulders to her hair to her chest to her neck to her waist with fits of indecisiveness, with the longing to be at all of them at the same time, with the desire to claim what he had not in so long.
His head dipped lower to bite along her jawline and under her ear – she moaned softly against his cheek and her fingers fisted into his hair. No longer was she resisting or passive; she was just as desperate and gluttonous as he now. Her hands gripped everywhere they could, mouth felling feverish kisses to his face, helping him earnestly as he tore away their clothes, legs lifting from the floor and wrapping around his waist and eliciting a groan from him.
She was wrong. He did still have something left. He still had a power – this power – this power to manipulate others to his will – this power that had lured men to his barber chair, this power that had turned even the most capable humans to nothing more than gurgling bundles of panic, this power to know exactly where to touch her, exactly how to make her writhe and gasp and growl – this power to be in control . . .
But yet he was not in control – could not be – she would not let him – not when she knew exactly where to kiss and touch and linger as well. They would twist and thrash in this power struggle forever – and he would exalt in every moment of it. Each movement, sound, taste, sensation was so familiar – as though it had not been that long ago since their last time together like this – as though this were the one constant in their ever changing lives – as though it didn't matter how long they were separated because they knew each other so well it would all come flooding back instantly, always . . .
("you and me")
His knees buckled, her weight sagged, and they crumpled to the floor, exhausted and gulping for air, she landing half on top of him. His limbs trembled and his chest heaved violently, every part of him absolutely spent – but none of this prevented him from craving physical feeling, needing further contact. . . . He draped an arm over her and drew circles on her back with his fingertips. She purred and nestled her face against his chest.
Each breath of air hurt – he realized belatedly she'd bruised and scratched him more than he'd thought during their coupling – but the splotches of red he could glimpse on her back that would later darken purple left no doubt in his mind that she'd not given anything she hadn't received. His fingers brushed over one of her deeper scarlet patches and she winced, but did not shift her position.
As the heat faded and the sweat dried, he became aware of the goosebumps on his flesh. He stretched out an arm, attempting to grab his clothes that were puddled on the ground without getting up, but they were too far away. Every tendon and muscle throbbing with delicious pain, he sat up – she slid away from him – and scooted across the floor. He grabbed his robes, intending to lay back down and throw the material over both of them as a blanket. As he fell wearily back to the ground, he caught sight of her. She'd coiled herself into a ball, knees tucked to her chest, arms around her legs – just how Tobias looked when we left – but even more strange were her eyes, wide and dark and fearful as they watched him.
"Scared of me, pet?" he murmured, the first intelligible words between them since their shouted argument that already felt an oddly long time ago. His tone was casual, teasing – so he surprised himself with how much her expression unnerved him. How much he cared what her answer would be.
She rested her head against her knees, keeping her face turned towards his. "No, not of you. Of myself."
Cold without her body against his, he beckoned her to him. Her face didn't change, but she obliged, returning to where she'd been moments before with her torso half on his and her head over his heart. He pulled his robes over both of them before tossing an arm over her back.
"Why?" he asked.
Her breath came out slowly and blew against his chest. "Can't trust myself anymore. Never know what I'm going to do next – my head screams one thing, and my body and heart just spring up and do another . . ."
They were unfortunately alike in that way. He resumed tracing patterns along her back. Yes, very unfortunately alike.
"You tore my bloomers."
He followed her gaze to where said bloomers laid in a heap on the ground perhaps two feet away. They were, indeed, in tatters. He'd simply not had the patience to fight with all her damn laces, buttons, and knots.
"And my corset too," she murmured sulkily. "My nicest one."
He rolled his eyes. "Eleanor, it isn't my fault you insist on wearing such ridiculous contraptions under your clothes. You have every possible undergarment available to you in the Is shops; surely you could purchase something simpler to take off."
"Wasn't shopping for simplicity in removal when I bought them."
"Well, do so in the future, then."
She froze at that. He did too. In the future. That implied that this would happen again. That implied that their relationship would now return to what it used to be.
– oh God –
And that was when what had just happened washed over him – really washed over him – and he could feel from the sudden tension in her body that it had washed over her too – not that he hadn't known what had just happened, but somehow he had only distantly acknowledged it, only vaguely recognized the facts – but now they shone as clear as day and now, now he realized –
He had fucked Eleanor Lovett.
Something that he had sworn never again to do – something that had never crossed his mind of again doing – something he never should have done. Not again. Not now. Not ever.
He'd told her once that she was a bloody wonder, and he'd meant it, too. She could amaze him, baffle him, enrage him, surprise him, soothe him, any and all at any given time. He simply did not understand her.
But in this moment, he didn't understand himself either – didn't understand how he could use her for sex now that he knew that she'd lied to him, deceived him, betrayed his wife – betrayed me – didn't understand how logic could abandon him so completely – didn't understand how he could never keep a promise to himself – didn't understand how he could hate the woman currently lying, prostrate and naked, on his torso, and yet not summon any will to push her away – moreover he had initiated what had just happened between them –
I've missed it.
The thought dropped on him swifter than a falcon and heavier than an anvil, and his innards writhed; he had missed it. Missed having human contact, missed having any sort of relationship. Whatever could be said ill of her, and however much he would have liked to deny it, the two of them had been companions while alive. Confidants. She'd always been there, and a mutual dependency had grown. It had been foolish to ever think death could eradicate that entirely. He felt himself calming as he reasoned it out to himself. Yes, foolish for him to ever try and dissolve their relationship, as he had been doing for so many circles previous. There wasn't much to their relationship anyway beyond bland companionship – which was really just a result of neither of them, for their different reasons, getting along exceptionally well with other people. So what was the harm in continuing it?
What about Lucy?
You've already betrayed her. Doesn't make any difference how many times you do it. The act is done.
Besides . . . she'd want you to be happy.
Before he had time to dissect that bewildering thought, Eleanor's voice infiltrated the silence and his musings: "So – how'd you find out I'd come back to Is?"
He stiffened at the mere memory. "Turpin."
"Bastard," she replied. Her hands slid up his arms and began kneading the muscles in his shoulders. She had once done this gesture unthinkingly, naturally, back when they'd been alive, but now there was a certain caution, a tension in her hands that unconsciously mimicked the one in his shoulders she was trying to ease. "Put on the most pretentious air you've ever seen when he stopped by."
"He mentioned many souls flocking to see you . . ."
"Oh, God – flocking is the word, that's for sure. Word travels fast here, as you know. I'd only been back two full circles when suddenly business was busier than it ever'd been – and you know how busy it was before. People were coming in right, left, and center, bombarding me with questions and concerns – where had I been, was I alright, and oh gosh they thought I'd left Is forever . . . I just repeated over and over about how I'd been taking some time off in my room, and that was all – saying how my death had finally settled in, and I needed some time to collect myself and whatnot."
The tension began to leave her massaging hands, and he felt it start to leave his shoulders too. "But you weren't in your room."
"No," she agreed, "I wasn't. But sometimes you've just got to tell a l – " she swallowed and changed thoughts midsentence (not that it was really needed, since they both knew perfectly well what she'd been about to say) " – but those dunces didn't need to know that. 'S'not as though I even knew most of 'em, and anyway I would've gotten in trouble if they knew the truth . . ."
Sweeney's wandering fingers absently traced his name across her lower back. "So you were – "
"On Earth, yes. With Toby." Her massaging fingers tightened for a moment on his flesh and he hissed as pain erupted in his muscles, which were already sore from the bruises their intimacy had left upon him. "Sorry, love. Anyway, so what I told them wasn't a lie, really. I did need some time to pull myself together. When I finally had, I came back here . . ."
He sensed a 'but' that was half-poised for release, but she fell silent. His hand glided from her lower back up between her shoulder blades. She stayed quiet a moment, then sighed, turning her head so her chin was propped on his chest and she could look into his eyes.
"You were right," she murmured. "I've gotten a hold of myself – but I still can't move on. I don't know what to move on to. That's why your words got me so riled – they were true. Nothing comes after death . . . it's always just going to be more of this. I don't know what to live – " they both flinched " – exist for."
"So what happens now?" she had asked him back when he had first returned from Earth after finding Johanna, and had been trying to find a purpose to his existence – so long ago now, or so it felt like.
"I'm just wondering what your goal is, is all. What you want now."
He didn't know what to exist for either. He didn't know much of anything right now.
All he knew was that when his devil had been gone he had desperately wanted to catch a glimpse of maroon rust curls, had longed to drown his never-ending thoughts in the river of her voice, had desired to hear her decidedly-unladylike guffaw of a laugh. Had wished for her company in the evening. Had missed her smile.
Beyond that, Sweeney Todd was utterly without answers.
Her chin slipped to the side and her cheek pressed against his chest again. "But I'm sure I'll figure it out soon enough. Not like I don't have enough time to do so." She paused, but it was pregnant; he could tell she was not yet done speaking. "What about you, love?"
He did not want to say his thoughts out loud, did not want to admit them to her. But he'd already told her of being at a loss for what came next before, so he supposed there was no point to concealing it now. Besides, it wasn't as though the bloody woman wouldn't deduce his thoughts eventually.
His fingers traced up the back of her neck and buried in her hair to remove each of the pins and let the curls tumble free. "I don't know, Eleanor."
"'S'alright, love," she said, "I'm sure you too'll eventually – " She broke off as though hit with a sudden realization and lifted her head to stare at him. "Since when d'you call me Eleanor?"
He looked back at her steadily. "That's your name, isn't it?"
To be honest, he had not comprehended – until just now when she mentioned it – that, in his mind, she had gone from being Lovett to Eleanor. His insides tightened. When had his subconscious made such a shift? More importantly, why? She had always been Lovett to him – they had always referred to each other by last name – and yes, on occasion he had used her first name, and she his; it simply was not natural for lovers to always address one another by their surnames – this, however – now, however –
She chewed on her lip. "Yes, I know it's my name, but – "
"I've called you Eleanor before," he demurred.
"But not since – "
She stopped, though he knew what the continuation of this sentence was supposed to be: 'But not since we died.'
'Not since you killed me.'
Annoyance began to fester. "If you would prefer for me to not use your given name – "
"No, it's not that – only just . . ." She adjusted herself, settling further into his stiff arms. "Well, no one ever calls me Eleanor – 'cept Barsid, I s'pose, but he's a peculiar fellow – but – if you're going to use my – I mean to say – I usually go by – well – " she swallowed " – you might as well call me Nellie."
But Nellie did not suit her. Nellie was a soft name; Nellie was a name for a lady, supple and frivolous. Weak. Eleanor, however, was a name of power. Of strength.
Besides, Nellie meant light, just as Lucy did. This woman may have stolen much from his wife, but he would never let her steal Lucy's name, Lucy's light. Yes, Eleanor could sometimes mean light too, but that was only when derived from the Greeks – and her family was not Greek – therefore the name was English, so its meaning was the other – far more fitting.
She was watching him with such hope, such terrible longing, that he was forced to look away and focus solely on his hands, which still plucked pins from her mass of hair with a steady and determined rhythm as though his entire future depended on it.
"Old habits die hard," he offered in a mutter.
She released a sigh and nuzzled her head against his chest again. "That they do, love," she murmured into his skin. "That they do."
A/N: Well, here it is. The long-awaited moment. This is both my absolute favorite and my absolute least favorite chapter in this entire novel. I think it should be fairly apparent why.
Now more than ever, dear readers, I would love to hear your thoughts on this chapter, even if you've never reviewed before. Writing love scenes always makes me a total Nervous Nellie (yes, pun intended).
Thank you, as always, for your continued support, love, critiques, ridiculously high number of story hits, etc.
Anonymous review replies:
Dagheh: (I'm just going to go ahead and respond to all of your reviews at once) LOL. I never meant to insult the Netherlands, m'dear! I chose the name "netherlands" not because of any relation to the -real world-, but for two simple reasons: 1) its literal meaning of "below" or "beneath," as in its location relative to Is, and 2) the connotations of something dark, mysterious, and not often spoken about.
I'm sorry for nearly making you cry in the Johanna bit. If it makes you feel any better, that was an emotional chapter for me too. Let's just say that it involved a few-too-many cups of coffee.
Killing your heart in a good way? Is that . . . even possible? Dead is dead is dead, and 'tis usually not a good thing. xD But thank you, I think. ;]
Anyway, thanks so much for R-&-R-ing!
Lily: Thank you so much, love. I apologize for the delay in getting this chapter up, but I do hope that you enjoyed it!