Piteous Strange

"They're at it again," Mrs. Lovett announced, glancing over her shoulder at her deathly still companion. So deeply entrenched was he in his thoughts that she might have had more luck in initiating conversation by addressing her observation to the ratty, green sofa on which he was seated.

"Who?" his distant tone was merely disinterested and not forthrightly hostile. A good mood, then. She might make an evening of it, yet.

"Those respectable," she made the word a curse, "neighbours of ours, the butcher and his wife. They schmooze with my customers. 'Oooh, don't you know how good they taste when they're fresh, sir! Some use meat what's brought in from Lord knows where, but mine's wholesome and makes a better pie than you ever did see, eh Helen?' I hear him at it! He turns the stomach of an honest businessman, he does."

"Know you any honest businessmen, Mrs. Lovett?" Sweeney Todd's voice was light, the faint hint of a coming smile on his lips.

Her eyes twinkled, " 'undreds, I'm sure."

He did smile then.

"Mostly barbers."

He stood and joined her at the window, dispassionately watching the waves of humanity in the street push past each other in a never-ending confusion of errands and outings and work. Everyone was slightly filthy in this part of town, but folks had their pride and they mostly walked tall- they weren't for Mr T., he watched for bowed heads and unmended cuffs. She looked up at him, straining her eyes so as not to turn her head. He very nearly towered over her, but he wasn't a large man- he didn't need to be with his victims laid bare before him, helpless and unsuspecting as sacrificial lambs. Besides, he was immense just sitting motionless in her little parlour, all tragedy and rage, his lithe form wound tight as an industrial spring, his lean arms like ropes of plaited steel. The way he seemed to explode from his seat when she would say the wrong thing, an enormous, furious animal rage bursting from beneath the rigidly chilly fa├žade of civility.

She imagined it came with hard labour and little food, his looking summat sickly but being so murderously strong. And came in right handy, it did.

That's what befell the Italian, she'd wager her best hat on it. A big man, that, who couldn't have imagined his death before its coming.

"Do you know, Mrs. Lovett, I think that butcher's wife may have purloined your fine new petticoats." He walked away, throwing himself down on the sofa again in a fit of detached gloom. He stared moodily at the wall, apparently annoyed with her peeling cornflower wallpaper.

She looked at the butcher's wife, at the familiar ruffles floating above her fat feet. Saints alive! For a man who had a particular talent for ignoring the world at large, he was devilish observant.

"Mr. T..."

"No."

"But-"

"No."

"Mr. T, don't you have a care for me at'all! That wretched cow nicked my best bloomers and you're just going to giggle to yourself over my misfortune." She pouted, poking petulantly at the disorder of her hair, "And after all the care I take of you without so much as expecting a word of thanks."

Todd lifted his chin slightly, but didn't answer or even look her way. She accepted it as a sign he was still listening, at least.

"Mr. T don't you want me to 'ave nice things?"

He grunted- and it sounded vaguely affirmative- but glared at her, dark brows forming a V of irritation. "You're being foolish and I grow weary of it. You can bake pies in old petticoats, customers don't mind."

She weighed his former good mood and its possibilities against the price of a new petticoat. "Right enough, Mr. T. I suppose I'll just pop out to the market and see what's what thereabouts. Did you want anything special tonight, love?"

His face relaxed into a frown so slight it was almost peaceful, his big black eyes fixed vacantly on the harpsichord in the corner. It was a very rare expression for him. "Yes, Turkish Delight. I would like very much... have you ever had any, Mrs. Lovett?"

"Not me, dear, never the money for such things of that sort when Nellie was a girl."

He smiled, almost sweetly, and her heart constricted. He looked suddenly like the man she remembered from all those years ago, the one so impossibly lovely and kind that she had hardly believed he could live and breathe. Her fingers clenched in her skirts as she thought of what he was then- a youth and beauty and warmth she would never touch- and she held her breath, waiting for him to speak again and break the spell.

"You must share with me, then. The sweetness is so perfectly balanced with the bitter..." he trailed off and a shadow passed in his eyes, "Yes, my pet, you will find it most palatable." His voice had dropped a full octave, gravelly again, hoarse as if with disuse. As it had been when he first arrived.

She shivered. "I daresay you're right, Mr. T." He usually was.

"Off with you now," he grinned, wicked and frightening, his hand hot against her lower back as he pushed her past him. "There's much to be done."

The promise in that sentence had her heart aflutter and her mouth dry. He would do more than the usual today and tonight, and when she was cleaning the blood from her body, he would come to her. It was a good thing Toby drank himself into a dead sleep most days or he'd never get any rest.

"Yes, I'll just... I'll be home later then, love." She went to collect her basket and hat in more than a bit of a daze. It had been over two weeks since the last time, but they were getting to be more regular nevertheless and that was an excellent sign. She grinned to herself as she put on her hat and examined her face in the dingy mirror fragment she kept just inside the parlour door. She'd come through all right in the end, not at all bad; she didn't even look all her years.

No, Mr. T. had it quite well with her, the way she saw it, though he had been a very rarely handsome gentleman in his day. There was a change in him now, a look what kept people away. To say nothing of how the hardship had gnawed at his delicate features, hollowed his cheeks, roughened his once fine countenance, and extinguished the light behind his dark eyes. She saw through all that, a 'course, it was only all that time wanting for a scrap of human kindness down in Botany Bay. He'd be right enough when she was through. His colour would come back at the seaside.

She didn't buy new petticoats. There would be laundry days on the butcher's side of the street sure as there had been on theirs. She'd do hers in the bakehouse from now on. Bleeding thieves, there were the trouble with modern times, t'weren't no trusting folk anywhere; what was the world coming to when a body couldn't even hang her unmentionables in her own garden without setting a watch.

She did buy Turkish Delight. Mr. Todd obviously remembered something fondly involving the sweet and she'd take the scarce wistful moments with her more-often grim companion as they came along. The great lump.

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There was a sound to her left, but she ignored it. She was used to the many scuttles and nibblings of the sewer rats. Near as big as cats they were, sometimes in a pinch they could do about as well... but that was all over now. The butcher knife came down with a dull, heavy thunk and a slightly wet ripping sound. Mrs. Lovett started humming as she chopped, collecting the chunks to throw into the grinder.

Even she- who worked it every day- was discomfited by the enormous red-stained gears of the monstrosity. Not in any rational way, but the machinery of it was intimidating to the imagination. Whistling to shoo away her nerves and mask the unpleasant sucking noises, she turned the handle.

"Nell?"

She screeched and clutched her hand to her bosom, panting, "Mr. T! You gave me such a fright, love. What is it, dear?"

His face was so shadowed she could barely make out the familiar features, but the slope of his brow gave away the stark sadness in his expression. It was to be one of his difficult nights.

She wiped her hands on her apron and draped it against the grinder, then bustling over to snake an arm around his back and grab his hand, "Now there, love, what would you like? How about a nice pot of tea, eh?"

He nodded slowly and his eyes glistened wetly in the orange light of the oven, their blackness unfathomable. "Tea."

Nellie swallowed nervously. His voice had gone all high and soft; such change in him on these nights, such weakness and sadness where always there had been nothing but coldness and fury. He accepted her comfort when he was like this and that made her very happy indeed, but there was no telling when he might come out of it in a sudden murderous rage. The bruise on her rump was still healing from the last time, when he'd shoved her away from him with such violence that she'd landed clear across the room.

She focused on helping him up the stairs for now, cooing encouragement and advice in a non-stop ramble. "There you are, dear, one foot in front of the other and watch your head now and don't lean back so, my love, me arm's getting tired. You're heavier than you look, you know, Mr. T."

He halted suddenly, staring up at the remaining stairs for a long moment before turning to her and silencing all her chatter with a look. "Nell, you mustn't leave. Even if I tell you to... you mustn't leave." He looked hopeless.

"I never would, Mr. T.," she barely whispered, "you know I never would."

"I know," the words were savage, ripped from his throat. He kissed her then, more gently than he ever had before, his free hand cupping her jaw and pulling her closer. "I know that."

He stepped away from her tangled embrace and marched up the remaining stairs, only to turn at the top and address her from on high like a judge. "Come into my parlour, said the spider to the fly. There are few things so foolish as loyalty in this world, wouldn't you agree, Mrs. Lovett?"

"I'm sure I don't know, Mr. T. You're ever so much cleverer than me." That was how you handled a man, she knew, you made him think he had the brains. They loved that, especially the slow ones. Mr. Todd was not slow, he had few appetites but revenge, and nothing much remained of his emotions for her to play on. His difficult nights were rare and getting rarer. That's what made him dangerous. That's why she had to stay quite on top of him.

He very nearly pouted at her from the landing, disappointed in her diplomatic answer and failure to fear him. He disappeared from view, muttering to himself.

But sometimes something remained of that man that was dead, and it thrilled and terrified her at once to think he could still be Benjamin Barker for even the slightest moment.

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He wouldn't look her in the face as his body heaved against hers, only if he had something sharp at her throat would he meet her eyes. And then he was all emptiness. She had to content herself with the sideways glances she could sneak of his passion, his black eyes turned down and his pert lips agape in pleasure. He hated and loved their time together like this, naked and true and undeniable. It was only now and when he was at his work that he was still alive, still a man.

She was not a stupid woman. Though she received him, she knew he despised her and himself afterwards, and wouldn't give in at all were he in his right head.

But he wasn't and he took her as a man possessed and, briefly, it was the most desired she had ever felt. It was not enough, of course, but she could be a very patient woman when she saw what she wanted within her grasp. The time would come for the rest of it, she had no doubts. She could wear away the monster of his vengeance, his righteousness, she could remind him that blood still ran red in his veins. She could tame him to a life together. He was docile so long as he knew his goal was nearing and he would be hers completely when that goal was reached. His will would be extinguished at seeing it accomplished.

Moaning, she clutched his shoulders. She was a loud person by nature and Toby knew where Mr. T. slept more often than not. No sense hiding it from a lad what knew better anyhow. She wondered if she could still be got with child; she'd never had any brought up on her, but she was certain Albert could be blamed for that. Mr. T. was a much younger man and proven fruitful.

That might be nice, indeed, though she was getting to be an age.

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His head ached. He was lying on his side, lumpy mattress digging in to his shoulder, the softness of Mrs. Lovett's plump body hot against his back. She and her disgusting excesses had led him again to this special hell of waking, hours before she would, unable to escape lest she paw at him anew. She slept heavily so long as his weight was on the bed, but she always felt him rise.

Foul woman. He'd had her too many times now to separate himself completely from the proceedings, but he still looked back at himself with loathing in these wee hours of forced reflection. He could only sleep beside her- sleep much at all- when he was freshly spent, not now with a clear head and nothing to distract him from the ugliness of the truth.

She wasn't Lucy, no, and he wasn't Benjamin. What they'd done was not the beautiful and touching and holy thing it had been to make love to his wife, it was lewd and low and hideous. All the same, his darkness was attracted to her, her diabolical, scheming mind and her ruthless pragmatism. The man he had once been would be horrified to discover what she really was beneath the 'old card' he'd shaken his head over fondly the few times he'd spoken to her.

But he hadn't been that man for years. Lucy wouldn't know him now. She wouldn't have him even if she did. The most he could have asked of her was Christian charity.

He thanked God she'd never see what he'd become, never see that anything like a remnant of her husband could be aroused and entertained- delighted!- by the unscrupulous cunning of this fallen woman. This vile and wondrous deceiver!

If any such tender feeling had remained to him, he imagined he would pity she and himself both.

Pity was all they deserved, rutting in their pit. Compassion was too divine to offer.

"That's nice, Mr. T." she sighed, burrowing into her pillow.

He stared at the hand which had stroked her hair as if it had been burned.

Perhaps it had.