Sweeney sighed contently as he pulled his sleeping lover closer, so she was lying on his chest. He'd draped a blanket over their bodies as soon as he noticed Morpheus was claiming the exhausted baker, but other than that, he hadn't moved. Unlike many times in the past, he finally allowed himself to enjoy it instead of listening to his ever-present desire to flee any situation that made him feel good, burdened by guilt and unwanted memories of what used to be. He was now living in that past he so used to idealise, and as his world crumbled around him, as his wife had embarked in a slow but purposeful descent into madness he could undoubtedly blame himself for, and with his enemy, the man he swore to annihilate for ruining his life still roaming free, being with Nellie was the only thing that felt right.
He loved her, so much that her betrayal in the other timeline was now nothing but a distant memory. The once unbearable pain she caused him with her lie and its tragic results paled in comparison to the gratefulness he felt at all she did for him. She lied because he loved him, just like she kept his flat vacant for years as she faithfully awaited his return and let him stay without paying a penny as rent for as long as he needed. She helped him build his business and reputation and crafted a master plan to make both of their business boom, but also bring him closer to his revenge. It was also in the little things, how in both timelines she always had a kind word for him he always met with a snarl, a reassuring touch he swatted away more often than not or the offering of the delights of her body he was quick to devour when he needed an escape but just as quick to mistreat when his demons got the best of him. And her heart, all the while, he had Nellie Lovett's heart and he sadistically enjoyed making it bleed, even if guilt always engulfed him in the aftermath.
But from the small seed she furtively planted in him when she revealed she'd taken care of his most precious possession, his razors, instead of selling them when she very obviously needed the money, and that she'd inconspicuously watered in all the months they were together in both timelines, deep love was now in full bloom in Sweeney's heart, and he understood her unwavering devotion. No matter what she did to him now, no matter if she left him for Turpin or kicked him and his family out in a fit of lucidity, realising she deserved better. Hell, it didn't matter if there was a repeat of what happened in the bakehouse in his original timeline. He would always love Eleanor Lovett.
And he knew now how true that saying was, about everything being fair in love and war. Sweeney was being unfaithful to the woman he married, the one he thought he loved and the mother of his child. An older Eleanor would lie about the fate of said wife and this Eleanor hesitated to run away to the promised land with a man whom both knew would treat her like he deserved, just for a chance to be happy with the person they truly loved. Love is selfish, love doesn't wait nor it holds back. The heart wants what it wants and he only wished he'd came to the realisation sooner.
When he thought about the Nellie he left behind, he couldn't help but grow sad. The last memory she had of him was his hateful unforgiving eyes as he pushed her and their baby into the oven. Where would they be now? He hoped they were happy, thriving without him. But they could have been happy together, with their child, if only he hadn't blinded by rage and hatred. Yes, she had lied, committed the cold-blooded murder of his fragile heart, but now he finally understood her reasons, the deep fear that the carcass of the woman he once thought was his life stopped him from seeing the one who would really give her life for him was not at all irrational to a woman whom all her life had only wanted to be loved, who'd been dreaming about his love for fifteen years. So, she'd lied or perhaps not really, for the Lucy he knew was all but dead.
Even without that "threat" he had to agree Lucy posed to her ambitions–or rather, the threat the ideal of Lucy posed–Sweeney still never let her know that she was more to him than his landlady and her bedfellow. That back then he already saw her as a friend, because he still was in denial about his growing love for her. Because he was afraid of loving again then losing her like he lost Lucy. Because even then he suspected what he felt for Nellie had nothing to do with what he once felt for his wife. But if he'd known then what he knew know… he'd have owned. He'd have eventually forgiven her, he would have married her and taken her to the sea for their child to be born… He would have told her he loved her, and how much he really appreciated her. They could have been happy... perhaps not like she dreamed, not like he remembered, but happy nevertheless.
He sighed, realising he loved that Nellie just as much as he loved the Nellie who was fast asleep in his arms. Because it was Nellie's soul he was in love with. Selfish but selfless at the same time, loving but ruthless when she needed to be, she was full of contradictions, just like he was. The Watcher was right, they were soulmates, she was his match. If only he hadn't been so stubborn, he could have stayed with his original Nellie, the woman who waited fifteen years for him. In his original timeline, he'd be free to love her back and they'd raise a child that could only be his, never Turpin's.
But what's done, was done and there was no use in dwelling in the past, like his original Nellie used to say. He had gone back in time, to another timeline, and returning to his original one was not feasible. When Sweeney finally realised he loved Nellie, the Watcher's words rang in his head and he feared he'd be sent back to meet his destiny, leaving Lucy and Johanna behind, but he hadn't. When he realised Nellie and not Lucy was his true love, his soulmate, the same thought had crossed his mind, although it was no longer fear what he felt at the possibility. Still, nothing happened. Perhaps staying in this timeline, loving a younger Nellie who'd not yet been irreparably hurt by him had been his fate all along. Things weren't perfect between them, he couldn't give her his all, like she deserved. But he could treat her right, he could and would make her happy, to the best of his ability.
A quick glance at the clock told him it was past lunchtime. Although he wasn't yet very hungry, he knew she probably would be. She was, after all, eating for two. Thus, he slowly disentangled himself from her embrace and stood up, careful not to wake her. He planted a soft kiss on her forehead and made a beeline for the kitchen. Aware of his limited cooking skills, he opted for a simple dish, mashed potatoes. After mashing for what felt like hours resulting in a cramping arm, he deemed it ready and returned to the parlour. It hadn't actually been that long, no more than twenty minutes, but Nellie was already awake. She was in the midst of dressing again, but at that point she was still fully naked, working on her stockings.
"Nellie" he called her. She straightened up, startled, and his pulse raced at the image before him. Sweeney couldn't help but admire her body.
Dainty feet and shapely legs that led to her sweet core. Round hips flowing into a flat stomach preceding the most succulent pair of breasts he'd ever seen, hers was a body so divinely perfect it would rival Aphrodite's. It was too early for Nellie to show, but her bosom had visibly grown compared to the last time they were together, and her mounds were wonderfully sensitive. As his eyes feasted on her every curve, he felt the familiar stirrings of impatient arousal. He'd just had her, but he already wanted her again. Yet, he mustered all his self-restraint and averted his gaze. As attractive as she was and as much as she turned him on, she was more than a piece of meat. Part of loving her right meant showing her that sex was not the only thing she had to offer.
"I thought you left" Nellie spoke and couldn't blame her for thinking that. Nevertheless, she smiled playfully as she seductively approached him. She boldly pressed herself against him, her pebbled nipples grazing his chest. He had to be strong, but she wasn't making it easy on him. "I guess I'm a bloody good lay and you want another go, hmn? Well, I wouldn't object."
"You're much more than that" he said truthfully and softly pushed her so they could look into each other's eyes. Caught off guard when she was sure he'd jump her bones as soon as she offered, Nellie's eyes desperately searched in his for something he tried his best to hide. After a while, she sighed, and he could tell she didn't quite believe him. Once again, he couldn't blame her, but he wished she did. He wished she knew how special she was, and how much he loved her not just because of her body. But he couldn't bring himself to tell her.
"I made lunch" he said to break the tension that had taken hold of them. Nellie shook off her rare mood and smiled brightly at that.
"Did you? What did you make?" she asked like an excited child. It always took so little to make her happy, yet rarely made the effort. His other Nellie truly deserved better, but he would enjoy taking care of this one.
"Mashed potatoes" he said as he made his way to the kitchen to retrieve the two bowls. He handed one to her and they sat on the table to eat. As soon as Nellie tasted his dish, she spit it out. Sweeney frowned.
"This is disgusting!" she exclaimed. "Love, you have to use milk or water to soften it, it's not just potatoes! And some salt would have been good too! Oh dear, cooking is not one of your talents" she laughed and Sweeney clenched his fists. If there was something he didn't stand, was being laughed at. He'd made an effort for her! Nellie seemed to realise she was angering him because she stopped laughing. She smiled sympathetically. "But you tried and that's enough. Thank you." She timidly kissed his cheek and Sweeney could tell she meant it, so he nodded as his bubbling anger slowly ebbed away. "Anyway, just stay here and I'll quickly fix this. Be back in two shakes" she blowed him another kiss as she stood up.
"Can I help? I'd like to learn so I don't make you throw up next time I cook" he half-teased and she giggled as she grabbed his arm to pull him along. He shook his head, realising that making her happy made him happy too.
Cooking together took far longer than two shakes, as their as zealous hands and hungry lips kept seeking each other, hampering their task. Both being fully naked save Nellie's stockings did not help either and it was a miracle they didn't cause a fire as they heatedly snogged in the countertop instead of keeping an eye on the pot, resulting in the mash burning and thus, forcing them to start again. Finally, an hour and a half later, with their bellies full after their lunch, they sat comfortably on the settee. Nellie kept talking about everything and nothing, and Sweeney tried his best to engage with her. But pointless chitchat was never his thing. Therefore, he decided to ask her about something that had been on his mind for weeks.
"The judge…" he began awkwardly. Part of him dreaded to ruin the rare oasis of peace between them, but he needed to know.
"What about him? It's over. He doesn't care about me or the baby. He said he will take responsibility for no bastards of his, so we're on our own" she said coolly. It was clear that Turpin's rejection still hurt.
"But if he came back… would you go back to him?" The question seemed to catch Eleanor off guard and even though she promptly shook her head, Sweeney wasn't convinced. "I heard you telling him you'd have to be barking mad to choose me over him. I know he treated you heaps better than I did."
"That he did… but you just don't get it, do you?" She sighed and Sweeney raised an eyebrow. "Although I grew to care for him, it was always about you, Sweeney. The Judge had been pursuing me ever since Arthur's trial but I had no interest in him. It was only when you were arrested that I… accepted his advances. On the condition that he set you free."
He was speechless. She did that for him… when just the night before that fateful day he'd used her then abused her, taking on her all his frustrations and guilt at what they'd done. He'd wrapped his hands around her neck to prevent her from telling truths he did not care to hear, making her fear for her life. He'd broken her heart with his callous words… and she still offered herself to the Judge to save him. Not only did Sweeney not suspect a thing, when he found out about their affair, he let his jealousy get the better of him and accused her of being a whore that proverbially sold herself to the highest bidder. He was ashamed, and humbled and full of hatred at himself for how he treated her. This Nellie loved him more than he thought... and he treated her like rubbish. Yet in the most primal part of Sweeney's psyche, anger rose like lava in a volcano. His hatred at himself swiftly channelled into anger at the Judge.
"I'm going to kill him. That vulture, I bet he was behind my arrest! He arrested me as part of his sick ploy to have you." Nellie tried to appease him by telling him they had no proof of that, but it was to no avail. Sweeney knew the perverted Judge like the back of his hand. "He used you, Nellie. And he deserves to die. I will make him pay!"
"Now, now, love. As much I appreciate your willingness to kill for me, the truth is that Desmond and I used each other. I won't lie to you, I enjoyed being his mistress" she confessed. Jealousy bubbled in Sweeney but he did not say a word. It would only make things worse. "He is a very rich man, with him I did things I'd only dreamed about. Fancy dinners, elegant dresses and jewels, trips to his wonderful sea villa… I was even privileged to attend a mummy unwrapping party! I believe I got the better end of the deal. I mean, I even got a child out of it. If it is half as crafty as its father, it'll make it far in life."
"That baby could be mine and you know it" he said a bit more harshly than he intended. Nellie just nodded, but she didn't really believe that. Because Eleanor and Sweeney had only been together twice on the same night, while her encounters with Turpin were much more frequent. To her, statistic weighed more than a hunch. But something inside Sweeney made him almost positive that the child was his.
"That's my wish, too" she confessed in a low voice before returning to the topic of the Judge's murder. "But Sweeney, dear, you must see I was no damsel in distress. All I did, I did it willingly. And I don't regret it, otherwise you wouldn't be here." She smiled softly but he couldn't return the smile. He was grateful, yes, but that didn't make it alright. "It's really all a game, you only need to know how to play."
"The problem is, Nell, not everyone does. You may have willingly shagged him to get what you wanted, but not all women are like you." She scoffed at that, but he quickly spoke again. He didn't want to start a fight, so he needed to clarify. "I've told you before, you are worldly and clever, a bloody wonder and it's not easy to fool you. But there are women out there… innocent and vulnerable women he won't stop at anything to have. From tricking them with ball invitations just to lure them to his house and rape them, to transporting their husbands, fathers and brothers on false charges so they have no one to stand up for them when he abuses them. That man is scum, vermin, a vulture of the law and he must die!"
His impassioned argument didn't seem to convince Nellie. He couldn't understand it, for she'd agreed wholeheartedly when he told her about his revenge. But then again, the worst affront Turpin committed against her, sending her true love to Australia, had been averted in this timeline. "That's all very noble, dear, but I still don't want you to kill the Judge. Maybe I'm just being selfish, but can you really blame me? Now, you know I have no qualms about killing but he's no Albert or God almighty, me wretched parents. Living the grand life in Boston, they must be. So undeserved! How I wish those two bleeders got some sort of comeuppance, especially him."
Sweeney was a bit taken aback by the bitterness in her voice. Last time he heard, she was still protecting the two monsters that raised her. But it sounded like she'd finally seen how unfair it was that they were living the grand life somewhere after they abandoned her, after they singlehandedly ruined her childhood and forced her to grow up before she had to. It was then that he made a promise. He would avenge little Eleanor Price. Sooner or later, those despicable creatures with no love in their hearts for a small child who deserved the world, would meet his blade.
"He's a powerful man, he has friends everywhere and I don't mean the slimy Beadle. He's friends with some noblemen, I met them too" she kept talking, unaware of the murderous instincts she'd unleashed in her lover. "I just don't want to see you hung; I couldn't bear it. And if you don't do it for me, at least do it for your daughter. You said yourself your wife isn't currently in a position to take care of a babe, and I love her with all my heart but soon I'll be taking care of a newborn and that's a lot of work and I've never been a mum before and I can't take care of two kids on my own. Johanna needs you, you are really all she has."
Her words made Sweeney ponder. It was not only Johanna, but their child together. And Nellie. The life the four of them could have. And Lucy! He should not forget about her, his wife was Johanna's mother and he had a responsibility towards her. In the best case scenario, they'd probably have to move somewhere remote and lay low for a while, for Turpin's powerful friends would not rest until they cleared up what happened to the Judge. And even then, it wasn't guaranteed there would be a happy ending to their plight. Would he really risk it all to kill a man that wasn't really a threat to his happiness in this timeline? For the first time, he realised that having revenge on those who wronged you was not everything. When he had nothing to live for, revenge had become the reason to wake up every morning but now… there were more reasons to keep living.
"Besides, that's not to say he is getting off scot-free. I share your sense of justice, love, and even if I'm not keen on murdering myself, I mete out justice my own way. He was a proper bastard at the end" Sweeney was intrigued, and she flashed him a coy smile, but didn't say a word. She wanted him to ask.
"What did you do?" he quickly conceded, although he never liked her playing him. If she had something to say, couldn't she stop beating round the bush? Sweeney did not like to wait. But for satisfying his burning curiosity was more important now. Because he never thought Nellie herself was a vengeful person, not enough to act on it, anyway. But then again, her eagerness to supply certain victims for him could be due to personal reasons. Perhaps she enjoyed seeing those who wronged pay the price, just like he did.
"Well… his cook and I became quite friendly while he had me stay at his mansion and let's just say I casually let it slip that I had the solution to a man's uncontrolled virility. Turns out the blighter deflowered her daughter a few years back and unsurprisingly refused to marry her, so she was happy to help. I gave her some samples of my secret weapon and if those herbs work like they did on me late Albert, Desi will be a limpcock in no time."
She smiled proudly and he couldn't help but mirror her smile. She was brilliant, hitting the perverted creep where it hurt the most. She didn't need to kill him to ruin his life, saving those innocent families he was did not hesitate to break whenever he fancied. "You're a bloody wonder, my pet" he told her as he captured her lips into a deep searing kiss.
Things went well for the remaining months of the year and Sweeney's future looked brighter than he ever thought possible as they readied for spring. His darling Johanna was now two and was a talkative young lady who could almost hold a conversation. Sweeney delighted in seeing her grow and helping her discover the world around her, like he never got a chance to in his other timeline. His wife Lucy was also doing better, she was still not the woman he though she was when he married her, but a colder and more apathetic version who did nothing but complain about everything under the sun. Still, that was better than the withering flower she was last summer. Besides, Sweeney had the perfect distraction for his failing marriage: he had Eleanor to spend every free second of the day and night with.
They were still seeing each other behind Lucy's back, of course, but that didn't dampen his happiness. Once he got over the initial guilt, he no longer felt bad for spending as much time as he could with a woman who was his light as opposed to another who just sucked all energy out of him. Barber and baker were closer than ever, and he'd grown to love her more than he ever thought it could be possible to love someone. And as time went by and he saw divorce becoming a more common occurrence in London, the idea of divorcing Lucy to marry Eleanor was becoming more appealing. Rationally, he knew he couldn't do that. Because even if he found a sympathetic Judge to grant him a divorce, he'd become strapped paying for lawyers, as well as Lucy's monthly settlement pay, because he had no intention of abandoning a woman whose life he'd helped ruin. Besides, it was likely that if he divorced her, she'd take Johanna just to torture him like the vicious woman she'd reveled herself to be, when most of the time she just complained about the toddler. And let us not forget her recurrent threats that she'd kill herself if he ever left her, reminding him that they weren't yet out of the woods when it came to her mental health.
But a man could dream. Of a life with the woman he loved and his two beautiful children, without the looming shadow of the one he'd realised he shouldn't have married so fast, because the more he got to know her, the more he disliked her. His dream to be free became more urgent as the birth of their baby approached. Yes, their baby, because he decidedly saw it as his even though there was no way to confirm his paternity. She was now around eight months pregnant, and both were excited to meet their little one. One evening after yet another satisfying encounter, they were lying in bed covered in sweat when she suddenly began talking names.
"I've always liked the name Estella, like in Great Expectations, though I wouldn't want my daughter to be anything like her, just a bright star. I know the book you gave me was Wuthering Heights and although I loved it, Catherine is much too plain for my daughter. I'd love to honour my great aunt Nettie somehow, maybe as a middle name. Something Annette Lovett, doesn't sound too bad, does it?" she said as she absentmindedly played with the soft curls on his chest. "But who knows, maybe it's a boy. You know I was convinced it was a girl but yesterday Mrs. Lowe at the market told me I was carrying too low for a girl. Now, I don't believe those old wives' tales but maybe it's time to think about boys' names just in case. I'd like my son to be named after a strong man, but also a good man, a loving man. I want him to have all those qualities. Heathcliff like in Wuthering Heights, sounds quite nice and posh. And I've always liked the sound of Charles, little Charlie."
But Sweeney was no longer listening. In his exhaustion, he had almost fallen asleep. As he struggled to keep his eyes open, in his mind he could only see rosy cheeked babies, with Eleanor's eyes and her wild chestnut curls. He smiled. Yet Nellie, who could not see his expression from her position, mistook his tiredness for lack of interest. "I know you don't really give a damn about this baby who may not be yours, but it wouldn't kill you to humour me every now and then. I feel like I'm talking to the bloody wall!"
She'd become snappier as of late, no doubt due to her pregnancy hormones and he tried his best to be patient with her. But he was so tired and just before he went down to release his frustrations into Nellie's sweet body, he'd had a terrible fight with his wife in which she'd accused of the same thing when in reality his ears hurt from listening to her rantings. Besides, her words hurt him because he thought he'd proved to her that he loved the child. All those catalysts mixed together into an explosive cocktail, prompting Sweeney to snap back at Nellie.
"How dare you, woman? You have no right to say that when all I've done is being a father to that child! Satisfying your silly whims and all your cravings and enduring your foul mood. Will anything be enough for you?"
"As if I didn't know you've only put up with this pregnancy because I still let you fuck me! You can't possibly care about a child that's most likely Desmond Turpin's" she accused him.
"Just because you were a whore it doesn't mean the child is at fault. I'm bloody taking responsibility for it and yourself unlike that bastard so don't make me regret it!" he said, enraged like every time she mentioned her past dalliance with the Judge. But when he saw her eyes brimming with tears, he realised he'd taken it too far. "Come on, you know I don't mean it. I care about you and your baby, and even if I weren't the father, I still think of it as mine. Yes, Pip is a beautiful name, very posh and nice" he said, remembering she'd mentioned Great Expectations.
"But you mean it! I'm nothing but your whore!" she said, the conviction in her voice making Sweeney's breath catch in his throat. Could she still think that after all these months? "You've told me many times! And you don't listen to me, you don't take me out to dinner or the theatre, not even for a bloody walk! I'm just here for you to shag your troubles away whenever things get nasty between you and Miss Prim the prig! Why won't you be honest for once?"
He suddenly realised that this was deeper than just some pesky pregnancy hormones, deeper than their present fight. This was her biggest insecurity which he now saw he hadn't been able to assuage. And he could promise to be more attentive, to find a way to take her out on dates without Lucy realising if that was important to her not to feel like his dirty little secret. Yet, as his heart broke for the woman weeping in front of him, he realised that would not solve the issue at its core. It was time to tell her how he really felt about her, how much he loved her. She deserved to know that she was loved, deeply so. "Nellie, listen to me, I lo…"
"Benjamin! Oh, Benjamin!" Lucy's shrieks from the flat above them cut him off before he could reveal his truth. "You left me! What will I do know? Oh Benjamin! Where are you? And you took my daughter! I'm all alone!" she lamented out loud. Sweeney had just told her she was taking Johanna for a walk to the nearby Lincoln's Inn Fields until she calmed down, but he now realised he'd probably taken too long, having shagged Nellie twice that evening already, plus the time the two lovers spent playing with Johanna.
"Ouch!" Nellie complained, and Sweeney's eyes immediately focused on her. She made a sign with her hand to tell him it was fine. It was probably another kick; their baby was an active one.
"I can't live like this, all alone!" Lucy kept complaining. "I will die!"
"Ouch" repeated Nellie, but Sweeney still wasn't too concerned.
"I will just kill myself. I have no reason to live! Benjamin left me! My love!" At that, Sweeney promptly stood up and got dressed as fast as he could. He wasting no time in going to fetch Johanna who was napping on the settee.
From the parlour, he could still hear Nellie complaining, louder each time, until she was whimpering in pain. With Johanna in his arms, he went to check on her. He stared in horror at the blood on the sheets. His eyes met the baker equally alarmed ones. Something wasn't right.
"I'm going to kill myself! I will" Lucy announced dramatically. "Goodbye, cruel world!"
"Sweeney…" Nellie called him, begged him. She was scared to death, and so was he. But Lucy… she was demented enough to do it, to really kill herself and he knew he was the one to blame if she did. She was Johanna's mother, the woman he married for better or for worse. But Nellie needed him, their child… "Please… Sweeney, stay with me." She began crying, but Sweeney was paralysed by indecision. "My baby… Please…"
A loud bang was followed by the thud of something as heavy as a body falling to the wooden floor and Sweeney panicked. In a split second, Sweeney made his decision. "I'll be back in a minute" he told Nellie as he ran upstairs with Johanna.
At the end, his wife was alright, she'd only knocked over the armchair in a fit of desperation but hadn't yet hurt herself. Sweeney's timely return had prevented a tragedy. Or had he?
Because downstairs, a hurt Eleanor cried inconsolably, her fear for her baby's fate mingling with the ever present feeling of being unwanted. Once again, Sweeney had chosen Lucy when Nellie needed him the most. That told her everything she needed to know, and it was time to act accordingly.