Disclaimer: The characters and established facts of the ST universe belong to all persons involved in the franchise that is Sondheim's Sweeney Todd musical, of which I (tragically) do not officially belong. The title is borrowed from the lyrics to Falling Slowly, from the musical Once, which I also am not affiliated with in any official capacity. All I own is a computer and a little bit of an imagination.
"If you didn't even know him, then how could you love him?"
It's an astute question and it puts Johanna mute for a moment – not only for its astuteness, but for the fact that its speaker is normally too trapped within his own world to remark sensibly on anything outside his sphere of insanity.
"Do you need to know something to love it?" she asks in return.
But Tobias Ragg has returned to contemplating an etching within the cement of the floor: a lopsided heart with two pairs of initials scrawled inside. One of the sets of initials, 'H.J.,' sits half outside the heart's perimeter. Toby rubs his shoulder against these initials as though trying to either erase them or nudge them within love's crude boundaries; his arm, bound in its straitjacket, moves awkwardly in its socket.
"Sometimes I think we love the things most that we don't know, frankly," Johanna Hope goes on. "When you know something, it's too intimate, too real. It can never excite you. The unknown can be dangerous sometimes – but it is always a thrilling escape."
"How many bells do you like in the Tower of Bray?" Toby asks the initials that refuse to grant themselves access inside the crooked heart. "If three bells ring in the Tower of Bray, ding dong – ding dong . . . money I want, and money I crave, but – spick 'n' span, that's my motto!"
Johanna cups her chin inside her hand. "But I did love Anthony then, despite not knowing him. Because, you see, I believed I knew him. It was like – imagine how you feel in a dream, thrust into foreign circumstances and yet – you immediately know just what to do, how to behave, who everyone is . . . so I didn't question the fact that I didn't know him, you see, because I already did know him."
" – and that good boys know the secret. The secret of three times, y'see – like the three bells in the tower – but just how many bells are there, really?"
"But more importantly . . ." Her eyes crinkle at the corners as she watches Toby scrub the floor with his shoulder. "More importantly, it doesn't matter if it was 'real' love or not, because in that moment – because then . . . my emotions were real. And if that isn't real love – even if it's a love based on reasons you might find faulty – well, then what is real, if not what I know that I feel?"
His scrubbings of the floor morph into a banging; his focused eyes fly into the back of his skull; his tongue lolls, dripping spittle. Johanna springs to her feet, shouting for help, but just before the guards come in, just before she is herded outside of his solitary cell, Toby articulates a single word through his slack jaw:
"Why do you continue to visit him?"
Johanna represses a sigh and glances up from her copy of William Shakespeare's completed works. Having once belonged to the esteemed Judge Turpin, the volume looked new when she first stole it – no, not stole, took what was rightly hers, she corrects herself – from his mansion. Her adoptive father enjoyed books as much as Johanna does, but he enjoyed appearances more, and thus kept two copies of his favorite works so that one might be hidden, endlessly reread and creased in wordless adoration, and the other displayed publically in all its pristine, unread glory.
In the past year, however, she has pored over his once untouched tomes so often that they bear all manners of human-wrought decay: smudgy fingerprints, dog-eared corners, creases upon the spines. She was determined to sully everything related to his memory, everything that she ever wanted to defy and could not until now. Now, however, she misses the crisp pages, the uncreased spines. She misses the reassurance, however false, that some things remain faultless for all time and never decay.
"You know why I visit him, Anthony," says Johanna, folding down the corner of the page she is on – the middle of act three of a perennial favorite, Romeo and Juliet – and crossing her ankles. "Why ask what you already know?"
He isn't looking at her, but instead at her traveling cloak, sniffing with a failed pretense of indifference at the mingled scents of foreign sweat and mold. The mingled scents that reveal her weekly trips to Bedlam.
"Because I don't know, Johanna," he says.
"He's suffering. Isn't it the duty of a good Christian to help those in need?"
Anthony tosses her cloak back onto the coat rack with a bit more force than needed, but his words remain calm, his gestures smooth, as he settles beside her on their studded leather settee. "True enough, but I was never under the impression that you were terribly fussed about being a good Christian. You never even accompany me to church."
Church. It was one of the few reprieves from the indoors she received while in Judge Turpin's captivity – and, as she got older, one of the most dreaded. Those high ceilings crisscrossed with mosaic windows and cruel-eyed statues. His hand on her knee during the sermon, his arm near her breast as all knelt for prayers, his eye injecting venom into her veins should her glance stray towards a male close to her own age. The endless drone of the meaningless words, a mere continuation of the empty phrases about piety and sin and hypocrisy her father recited to her day in and day out. No, church holds nothing of value for Johanna Hope, nothing that could offer her a reason to return.
"Besides," Anthony continues, curling his fingers around hers as they rest atop the Shakespeare collection, "even the best Christians cannot help everyone in need. They can, at best, choose one or two causes. The whole world cannot be saved by one or two pious individuals alone."
Johanna wraps her hand around his in return. His statement is logical enough, but she will not relent. "Well, then Tobias Ragg is my chosen cause."
"But why him?"
Johanna chews the inside of her lip, examines their entwined hands: her pale, unblemished skin against his tan, callused hide; their matching wedding bands, gold with delicate etchings of flourishing vines and an inlaid pearl. "It's my obligation. Beyond any Christian duty, or sense of higher morality, or personal attachment – I have an obligation to that boy."
"But why him?" Anthony asks again. "You are not the reason he is locked inside Bedlam, my darling. Tragic as his circumstances are, you owe him nothing."
"Then who does, if not I?" she whispers.
He grips her hand tighter, secures a stray yellow lock behind her ear. "I know this is not what you want to hear, Jo, but he is beyond your help."
She does not remove her hand from his, but she does reopen her book, pressing out the crease from the corner of Romeo & Juliet's third act. Anthony places his free arm over her shoulders and settles against her to read the newspaper, and thus their discussion is finished, ceased without conclusion. As all of their discussions are thus ceased.
"Don't you want to read with me?" she questions, gesturing to her Shakespeare tome.
He chuckles and pets her hair. "You know his language is not my style."
She nods. She knows. But she nonetheless feels compelled to ask.
She rests her head against his shoulder and reads on. However woeful it may be that both Juliet and her Romeo perish in the tale's end, she can't help but think that the true woe would have been for them to live beyond the play's conclusion. Death is a reprieve from the tragedy of life's monotonous, unspoken pains.
Even more than a year later, she relives that night again and again. Even more than a year later, she cannot erase what is seared into her mind. The unending, clawing shrieks of the mad; her terrified yet unhesitating bullet penetrating into Fogg's heart (how unworthy it was of such a name, his heart; how long had she loathed him; and though she had never planned to morph into a murderer due to this loathing, neither does she regret it; she sees herself not as a killer but as a deliverer of justice, a righter of wrongs); the wild race across London, her sweaty hand continually slipping from Anthony's no matter how hard she gripped him; the consuming darkness of Mr. Todd's trunk and the words she heard exchanged between he and that mad woman, and then between he and her adoptive father; the limp terror of being discovered by him and nearly sent to his slaughterhouse; and then those bodies, and all that blood, and however just the crimson flowers upon Turpin's form may have been, surely her heart was still allowed to sting at the sight of the only family she's ever had lying flaccid upon the ground, and surely all those others in that pile could not have deserved it, or all those half-butchered human fragments hanging from the racks, or that boy singing nursery rhymes at the top of his lungs with the meat grinder handle in one hand and the razor in another . . .
Even more than a year later, she cannot escape from herself.
A drop of blood lands upon the first act of Hamlet.
"Yes, you would choose now to show up," Johanna sighs as she wipes clean the page with her fingertip, rubbing the foreign blood into her skin. It's a silly gesture, really – Turpin's once-pristine pages are already stained by her greasy fingertips, and her once-clean hands are already mottled with blood that is not her own – but the habit of cleanliness, once learned, cannot be undone.
"Hamlet is a favorite of yours, I'm sure," she continues to the figure standing behind her. "Or, well, was a favorite. More people are dead than alive by the play's close – your favorite fairy tale ending."
He does not answer her, but this does not surprise her. He does not often speak.
"Well, don't just hover around where I can't even see you. Have a seat. I'm hospitable to even my unwanted guests."
Her unwanted guest does as bid, footfalls pressing noiselessly against the ground as he prowls through her sitting room, and then Sweeney Todd takes a seat upon the velvet armchair directly across from the settee she reposes upon.
"And clean off that razor, won't you?" she barks. "You're getting blood all over my floor again."
He scowls but does as bid, wiping the bloodied razor across his shirt, staining its whiteness. The blood looks more pink than red as the cotton absorbs it, and this makes her laugh, which only makes him scowl all the more.
"Wouldn't you lighten up for once?" she queries, then resumes her reading.
Oh, Johanna Hope is not entirely mad. She is sane enough to know that Sweeney Todd is long dead and not physically in her sitting room; she saw his corpse with her own eyes over a year go. But she is insane enough to still see him everywhere. She never knows when he will next appear – when she's innocuously reading, or diligently at work upon her writing, or in bed with her husband – but she is no longer surprised by his appearances, and she no longer tries to ignore or fight against these visitations, either. It is useless to pretend that she does not have hallucinations, and if she were to attempt to fight them off, well, that would only draw attention to her instability, and there is no chance that she will ever allow herself to be put back in an asylum – so why not go along with her mind's trickery? At worst, she must entertain a guest when she might prefer solitude.
"I have not seen you in over three days, Mr. Todd. That's quite a long period of time, for you." Johanna turns the page and flicks her eyes to his. "What have you been doing during this interim?"
Sweeney Todd is not an hallucination that speaks frequently, but she usually manages to get a few syllables out of him with each visit. Today, for a reply, she receives: "The years, no doubt, have changed us."
Now, granted, his syllables very infrequently have to do with what she's actually saying to him, and are usually just variations of what she heard him say during his last living moments. But goodness knows that Johanna is more than used to having seemingly parallel conversations; her every exchange with Toby is conducted in the same manner.
"I have been occupying myself with my usual activities," she answers her own question. "Reading, writing, visiting Bedlam. . . . I do wish that Anthony would permit me to find a job. Oh, I realize that it is not socially acceptable for a woman of my standing to work, and I have no interest in rebelling against societal standards . . . I only wish for something greater to occupy my time with." She grimaces, watching Todd disinterestedly slice off tiny slivers of her bookshelf with his razor. "To occupy my mind with."
Johanna finds it funny that, during her year in Fogg's Asylum, she was perfectly sane, and yet immediately upon her release, her mental health deteriorated. She wishes she could laugh about this. She wishes she could still remember how to laugh about things that are funny.
"But my novel is going well, I suppose," she remarks. "I do not understand why being an author is one of the few upper-class jobs a woman can have – but such is the world we live in, and there are far worse ways to spend my time."
Todd piles her bookshelf's shavings in his lap, layering each minute sliver in a crosshatch pattern.
"Originally, it was to be a novel based on my own experiences – but then I realized that my life is too fantastical for even a novel. Still, it contains splinters of truth, as all novels do: a glimpse inside a mental asylum, intimate knowledge of the blood of justice, the intertwined threads of love and betrayal . . ."
Without warning Todd springs to his feet and launches at her, bending over to reach her eye-level, brandishing his razor at her throat. "Johanna Barker!"
She does not flinch. She just looks up into his crazed eyes – into the mirror image of what, no doubt, her eyes look too in this moment, as she converses with and is threatened by an hallucination.
"Yes," she murmurs, "I suppose that, too, is something that I must accept that I have no control over. I cannot stop these mirages, and neither can I ever know if the connection between those surnames – between my surname and this Benjamin's surname – is mere chance or . . ."
"Whatever you may have seen," Todd murmurs back, but he does not finish his sentence, either. The razor remains at her throat, but the hand holding it is no longer tense with rage. Johanna reaches up and removes the razor from his grasp. Todd does not protest. Her eyes squint against the sharp glare of the sun upon the metal as she turns the razor this way and that in her palm, but her hand cups around empty air.
A/N: Sometimes, story ideas simply will not leave you alone until you give in and write them down, and so it was with this fic. I had intended my ST novel, Death Is For The Alive, to be my last-hurrah for the ST fandom, or at least to take a break from ST after finishing it. This little plot bunny, however, had other plans.
Anyway, for those of you traveling over here from DIFTA, welcome to my new project! I know that this story is quite a different animal from my novel, but I hope you did and will continue to enjoy the read. And to those of you who are new readers, welcome to the crazy territory of my brain, and I also hope that you too did and will continue to enjoy this fic.
I'm predicting that this will be a novella of around eight or nine chapters, but who really knows how long it shall wind up?
Anywho. I welcome all sorts and shapes of feedback, whether good or ill (no flames, please, but con-crit is lovely). Because reviews are, and shall always be, love.