Nellie's heart was hammering in her chest as she walked along the wood-panelled corridors leading to the ship's tonstorial parlour, Hieronymus Russell trailing close behind. What on earth was she thinking? the former baker couldn't help but wonder for the umpteenth time. After her guilt-ridden slip-up the last time she went to his cabin to search for the missing gun—with its potentially fatal consequences she avoided just narrowly—she'd taken the determination to avoid Sweeney for the rest of the trip, to simply pretend he stayed in England with all her many regrets. Yet now she was purposely on the way to him, in order to ask him to commit murder.
She shouldn't have said that, she shouldn't have even thought of asking Sweeney to do that. For one, murdering the Duke of Bedford would only dig a deeper grave for themselves, and in the current climate of rampant crime around the ship that had everyone's nerves on edge, murder in itself was an ill-advised idea. At the same time, even if murder proved to be the only option to get rid of this lustful leech once and for all, committing the type of murder Sweeney was an expert in would be yet another stupid decision in her chain of stupid decisions she was making lately. What would they do with his bloodied body in the absence of a grinder and a big oven? Feed him to the sharks? Not to mention the awful blood stains she'd break her back trying to clean off the beige carpet.
But what else could she do? Immediately after the words slipped out of her mouth, she tried to back track, but that creep's flame of excitement was alight as soon as she mentioned her honeypot and there would be no talking him out of it. It didn't matter that she tried to clarify that it was not her honeypot what needed a shave but his rather prickly stubble, he raved about how much more scrumptious the taste of her would likely be without any hairs hindering its opening, citing something about some concubines in Siam he'd read about in a book a friend of his had lent him. The best she could convince him of, was that both should get a shave, but he still insisted she went first.
Hence, adding to her anguish about the murder, the prospect of embarrassment was colouring her cheeks scarlet. Because awkward would be an understatement to describe her next encounter with the demon barber. She would be entering his parlour as if nothing had ever happened between them, asking him to shave her privates accompanied by a man whom she was sure would not be very discreet about their relationship in the presence of what he surely considered a lowly barber. And all she could do was hope that Sweeney didn't blow up, that he was awake enough in the early morning to pick up her clues so he'd know what she really wanted him to do. And then of course, he had to agree.
Her plan was full of loopholes and uncertainties, to the point that she was considering just asking for the shave of her privates and not to murder the man, but that would solve nobody's problems and since she was already walking to the lion's den with her clueless prey… they may as well finish the job. And thus, all she could do was pray to both God and the Devil that everything worked out.
"Nellie!" Jonathan called her as he cut in, not caring that she was not alone. The haughty Duke merely gave that 'commoner' a dirty look as he busied himself by picking at his nails, visibly miffed. "I've been looking for you everywhere."
"What is the matter?" she replied, as calmly as she could, but the desperation in his voice could only mean a thing: bad news.
"It's Charles" he said and her heart dropped upon hearing the confirmation of her fears. What had he done now? "He wasn't barbering at all yesterday nor did he come out to eat and I get no response when I knock on his door. I'm worried about him."
Despite everything Sweeney had done to her, her anguish matched that of his friend. Her worst fears, those she'd purposely ignored because she thought he didn't deserve her worrying about him, had now taken a new dimension. Because when she left him two nights ago, she'd convinced herself that he wouldn't really care about her cruelty, that the wounds she inflicted with her cut-throat words would be akin to a papercut at the most. Because she was not Lucy, or the Judge, or Johanna so her opinion did not matter. It helped her assuage her guilt when she wondered if she'd taken it too far, if her words were too poisonous. He'll be fine, she'd told herself. Or at least, he'll be Sweeney's version of fine.
Because the man she was trying her best to stop loving lived his life in two realms: the world of his dreams and memories, where his family was alive and well and Nellie was a supporting character at best, and the earthly realm where his empty carcass walked around aimlessly, going through the motions of the day as he passively waited for his ultimate demise. In this one, Nellie player a bigger role, for she'd been his accomplice and his passionate entertainment, his makeshift wife in everything but his heart. Even if he was now adamant in lying to her about his love so she didn't leave him, she was aware that she played no significant role in whether he wanted to keep living or just give up other than being the one who kept the lazy bastard fed.
But what if… What if her cruel words were what had pushed him over the edge? Not because he cared about her, but because she showed him the fecklessness of his life, of this new existence after his proverbial death in Australia. Oh Lord, what if…
"I still have the key" Nellie promptly told Johnathan, and he wordlessly urged her to go by practically sprinting along the corridor, pausing before making a turn to see if she followed. She mumbled an apology to the duke before doing so, promising she'd find him to continue their rendezvous later that day.
"What's with you and this barber?" he asked, quirking a brow. It was odd that she was dropping everything to go check on him, not to mention the fact that she had a key to his cabin…
"He's my brother" she told him the same lie she had Harold before walking towards Johnathan.
As he watched her retreating form, the man couldn't help but smile as incestuous thoughts filled his perverted mind. To have a brother shave a sister so intimately, touching and smelling and maybe even kissing her fountain of pleasure… that would be such a feast for his voyeuristic eyes, and he could not wait for it.
Nellie followed Jonathan in silence, her heart in her throat preventing her from speaking. As uncharacteristic as it was, she knew that the moment she opened her mouth, all her worries would come flooding out. She hated that she still cared and did not want Jonathan to know.
"I know you're separated now" he began much to her dismay. Just like her under normal circumstances, Mr. Denton could not keep quiet for long. "But yours is a beautiful love story, you went from being his landlady to being his everything… It's like the world changed to make a path for you two, as if the fates knew all along… Now I know you have your reasons to break it off and I…"
She tuned him out to focus on something he'd said. Not his claim that she was Sweeney's everything or that fate had anything to do with it, because she was certain he wouldn't think that if he knew the full story. But he must know part of it, he must have told him something, if he knew she was her landlady. Her mind travelled back to roughly two weeks ago, before everything went downhill.
"Why did you tell him I was your neighbour?" Nellie asked, referring to a man he'd let out alive because she came up just in time to warn him about his prominence. He was a banker from a respectable family who would undoubtedly be missed if he disappeared after going for a shave at Todd's tonsorial parlour. They could not afford to be that careless.
"Well, pet, if word of our true relationship spread, I believe our patrons would not take it too kindly. Partner in crime or mistress, neither too flattering a portrayal." He dared to smirk.
How she hated that word, mistress. Long were the days in which he cruelly referred to her as his whore, but mistress was not much better. She was still the other woman, his pastime, and she would be forever in the shadow of bloody Lucy's memory. Sometimes she felt tempted to just tell him the truth, to show him what his wife had become. Was Nellie no better than a lunatic beggar? Would he be able to see? But she couldn't, so that was a battle she could never win.
"I'm your landlady" she pointed out matter-of-factly. He kept his gaze on her for a few seconds before returning to the never-ending polishing of his razors. Even those pieces of metal were above her in the rank of Sweeney Todd's priorities. But she would not let this go. "When you say your neighbour, you make it sound like there is nothing between us. That you can just wake up one day and choose to leave me and this place behind without looking back. But we have a contract, I'm your landlady!"
His mouth opened just slightly, and she had the feeling that the barber understood that this was more than just about her being correctly referred to as his landlady. And the look he gave her dared her to hope that he would soothe her fears, to assure her that theirs was more than a real estate arrangement, more than a crime enterprise, even more than an unspoken deal to spend their otherwise lonely nights in each other's arms. That he wouldn't just leave her when he got the chance, when he killed the Judge and that sailor brought Johanna to him and the happy family could sail away somewhere… When he no longer needed her.
But he just muttered something about her silly whining and then there was a man knocking on the door asking for a shave, leaving their conversation unfinished. Because when he sought her out that night, the last thing in his mind was talking.
She sighed, that memory felt like centuries ago. Her fears had been unfounded, for he hadn't left her not even after her lie was discovered, and it was her who was adamant in leaving him behind now to start a family with someone else. How the tables turned…
When the pair arrived to Sweeney's door, they hesitated before opening. Because once they opened the door and found out how he was faring, there would be no turning back and neither were ready for how awful reality could be. But time was not in their favour…
Nellie took the key out of her bodice and proceeded to unlock the door. What she saw, made her jaw drop.
Sweeney lay on the bed, immobile in the most absolute darkness and not even the sound of the door opening made him react. Much to their horror, when they turned on the light, they realised his eyes were open yet hollow as he stared at the ceiling, transfixed by something only he could see.
If it wasn't for the slight rise and fall of his chest, they would assume he was dead but this quasi catatonic state was not any comfort. Jonathan and Nellie shared a worried look before the baker braved her trepidation to sit by him on the bed, grabbing his cold limp hand.
"Sweeney?" she called him, and it was the sound of her voice that finally made him snap.
"Nellie!" he called back, his eyes almost bugging out as if he couldn't believe what he was seeing.
He lunged forward, peppering kisses all over her face, worshipping, venerating the baker. As if Nellie was an apparition, as if she were his salvation.
While she was uncomfortable at the sudden display, Jonathan was even more so, feeling like his present was disturbing a private moment between the two tragic lovers. He was not above gossiping, but these were people he cherished and this moment belonged only to them. His mission had already been accomplished, and his friend looked like he would be alright as his depression turned into love-fuelled mania. Thus, he quietly slipped out of the room, leaving them alone.
Nellie didn't have to struggle much to get out of his grasp, because he was not forceful, only affectionate. Strangely affectionate as if this was only part of a fever dream. Her heartbeat skyrocketed nonetheless. "I knew you didn't mean it, I know you still love me, you don't want me dead. We can be together now!"
She bit her lip. Of course, she didn't mean it, because the few highs made up for some of the lows in their relationship, and if she was in a better situation now than a year ago, it was partly thanks to him. No matter how much she hated it, she still loved him and didn't want him dead in the actual sense of the word, her earlier worry proved as much. That didn't mean she wanted to resume their romantic relationship. He'd hurt her too much for her to even consider it.
Thus, as hard as it was, she refused his kisses, pulled away from his caresses. From the tender gestures of a man who this morning, in the privacy of their room, seemed more like Benjamin Barker than the man who occupied his handsome body.
She could not let herself be fooled, this man was not sweet Benjamin. He could never go back to him. "I want you to kill a man."
Not beating around the bush, not even waiting for him to calm down to see how he really was, she needed to get out of this situation before her resolve waned and she predictably fell back into his arms full of illusions. Aware of the need to put some distance between them, she stood up before continuing. When she looked back at him, his eyes were once more the hardened ones of the murderer she stupidly loved.
"What?" He blinked in what seemed to be disbelief.
"Yes, he's an old acquaintance on mine. He knows who I was before, and we had some… disagreements, so now he is threatening to get the police involved if I don't pay him some money that I don't have."
"Won't your new rich lover assist with that?" His voice carried the bitter edge of poorly concealed jealousy.
"I can't risk him finding out about my past. Our past. Because dearie, if I go down, you come down with me."
His only response was lay back down on the bed, resuming his staring at the ceiling. Nothing she did, no words or shaking got him of his stupor. She sighed, thinking he was somehow obsessing about Lucy or the Judge, because only when he focused on them was he dead to the world like this.
Nellie suddenly realised how precarious her situation was. He would not lift a finger to help her, her threat to take him down with her could not be more ineffective. Because he was a man whose only will to live had died along those two, and no matter what he claimed, he didn't give a rat's arse about her. He'd shown her many times, she should not be surprised.
She was on her own, and she would need to think of another plan to get rid of that Hieroglyphics man. The sooner the better, but there was something keeping her in the cabin, looking at the barely conscious man. Her love for him, she supposed. Stupid, senseless, ill-advised, but true. He was not doing well, that was plain to see, and according to Jonathan, he had not come out for a whole day. That meant he hadn't drunk or eaten anything, and Nellie could not forgive herself if she stood idle in the face of his withering.
"I'll be right back" she said, as if he could hear her. Nellie exited the cabin and made way for the kitchen to grab some food and water for Sweeney.
Contrary to what she believed, it was not Lucy, nor the Judge what had sent him back into his catatonic state. It was Nellie, it was the helplessness in her tone, her business-like coolness with a hint of sarcasm when she spoke to him didn't diminish the urgency in her words. He realised two things: first, that the flame of her love was truly gone, he'd lost her forever and there was nothing he could do about it. Because she had come to see him not because she cared, not to apologise, but because he could be useful. It hurt, but he had no right to get angry, because didn't he use to do the same? And second, that she must be desperate to ask for the help of a man who did nothing but hurt her, even if he was in his area of expertise: murder.
Nellie was anguished, and he didn't want her to be. At this point, he didn't care if he got caught, if he was imprisoned and later killed for all his sins. But Nellie… God knew she'd made mistakes, and she was far from a virtuous woman, yet he didn't want that end for her. Nor for his child. They deserved better, the happy lives he couldn't give them. He loved them… and he would kill anyone for them.
But he was tired and felt weak. And his mind wandered to that happy valley in which nothing and nobody could hurt him, not even himself. A time and place that did not exist but in the realm of his imagination, a time and place just for him and his family, to exist, to love and to live. It was there where he went when the real world became a nightmare ever since Australia, only that instead of Lucy and Johanna, it was now Nellie and their child running around the meadows.
He didn't know how long it had passed before he sensed Nellie's presence back next to him, and with difficulty he managed to open his eyes. They met her chestnut ones full of concern but neither said a word. She helped him sit and brought a glass of water to his lips. His instinct took over his apathy and he drank like a man who'd been stranded in the desert, to the point that Nellie had to gently take it away from him so he could catch his break.
"Easy now, or you'll choke. Hush, love, hush" she said softly, her voice almost lulling him to sleep.
He could not help it, his tired mind transported him back to the early days of Fleet Street when she said almost those exact words as he obsessed over the Beadle's visit to his establishment. Life was dark back then, and gloom and full of hatred, but at least she did not hate him. She loved him, and did everything to get him love her. A whole year had passed, and now he was the one hopelessly in love with her and she, the one who now dreamed of a life with somebody else. Because of his damn mistakes, because he was a fool who took her for granted and punished her for things she was not remotely guilty of.
How the tables turned… and there was no going back. He was finally reaping what he sowed.
"I'll check on you after lunch, dear" she told him after she finished helping him eat the porridge she'd brough to him. She knew she had so many things to worry about, namely, how to get rid of the man who attempted to blackmail her, but she could not leave Sweeney on his own when he was this vulnerable. She still loved him too much, in spite of everything. "I'm leaving this loaf of bread if you get more hungry and I'll be bringing some food later too. I don't care what you say, you need to eat to get better and I'll make sure you do."
With that, she left and Sweeney shook his head as a pained smile made its way to his lips. Because goddamit, she was a liar who lied about what he thought mattered the most to him, but he understood why, and he had fallen in love with her regardless. And now the balance of hurt was leaning heavily to his side, after his latest foul-up at the loading deck that left her shaken to the core and fearing for her life. But Nellie was still here, tending to him. She may no longer love him, but she was taking care of him for reasons he could not fathom. It was more than he deserved, and didn't she deserve something too? His help to get rid of that man, no conditions attached.
Thus, when Nellie returned with a new tray of steaming food, he barely gave her time to set it on the table before he spoke. "I'll kill him. I'll kill the man who's threatening you."
Her eyes wide open betrayed her shock at his sudden change. "Are you sure? You don't have to, if you're not feeling well" she said, even though the man who stood before her bore little similarity to the feeble corpse she'd practically force fed earlier. It was as if all his strength was back in the blink of an eye. Some food, water and the prospect of murdering had that effect on the man, she guessed.
He nodded, his blood pumping with anticipation for the deed. Old habits die hard, and this man who wanted to hurt nellie was far from an innocent. He would be her knight in shining armour. It was what she deserved.
"Alright, so this is what we're going to do. I'll lure him to your shaving cabin this evening. The lecherous bastard is expecting us both to get a shave. He on his face, of course and I… well, in more private areas of my body" despite their extended intimacy, Nellie couldn't help but blush. "That's when you come in. You must insist on shaving him first, because soon after we get there, I'll make up an excuse to leave for a while. I do not plan to return but he can't know that."
"Where will you be?" Sweeney asked. He rather liked it when she witnessed him murdering a man, it never failed to turn them both on.
"Out and about, letting myself be seen because that will be my alibi. You see… his haughty wife has her eye on me, I think she suspect there's something fishy going on between me and her husband. This way, I'll make sure she sees me around the ship, so she doesn't think I had anything to do with Hieroglyphic's death."
"Hieroglyphics? Is that his name? That can't be…" he pointed out. That simply did not sound like a name, no matter how posh the man was.
"Well, it is. Trust me, dearie, I've known him for quite some time." And before Sweeney could ask her where they knew each other from, she spoke again. "No, actually, I think you might be right. Harold did correct me when I called him Hieroglyphics, was it Hierarchy then? No, Heirloom! Yes, it was something simpler; Heirloom" Nellie concluded. She would never be able to get Hieronymus Russell's name right.
"Anyway, back to the plan. When you're alone with him, you'll kill him. But not by slitting his throat, that's too messy and how would we get rid of the body? Instead, you'd give him one of my special concoctions. A new one, made just for him. His favourite port, with a dash of bleach." Bleach was easy to come by, she'd seen some bottles in the kitchen, and even if their effects were better known than those of the herbs her trusted apothecary provided her with, who would think the man would drink something as common as bleach?
And hence, she smiled. The simplicity of the plan was its strength and the idea she'd mulled over lunch was much more straightforward and less risky with Sweeney's involvement. She'd initially planned to be the one poisoning him, then let the Duke agonise in his room all alone, but now Sweeney could check on him to make sure he didn't escape, that he suffered until his very end.
"He won't say no to that, he's mad for his port. And since he's been ill for quite some time with a serious tropical disease, the plan is for you to pass it as a natural death. The poor dear just started coughing up blood and died, a tragedy! To be honest, it won't be hard to believe, he looks frail as a mummy and I heard him coughing up a storm over lunch… He would die sooner rather than later either way, so I doubt his death will be investigated. And when he's taking his last breath, you'll alert someone and pretend to be shaken and all that… and by tonight we'll be free."
He remained silently reflecting on her words. The plan seemed easy enough, and given that the previous deaths on the ship had been by stabbing and raped and it was Sweeney Todd whom some fools were worried about… This completely different method, although much less thrilling for him, was a bloody good way to end Heirloom's life without having all fingers pointing to them. Besides, no proper copper was on the ship and the sailor's investigation on the previous deaths had been rather poor for they hadn't arrested anything and as far as he knew, they didn't even have suspects. Hence, unless another Sweeney Todd was on board with someone as clever as Nellie Lovett covering up his tracks, one could just assume the sailors and their captain were rather incompetent. And there was a precedent for success, he had poisoned a man to death before…
"Didn't your Albert die this way?" he couldn't help but ask. He hadn't been the one to kill him in this timeline, of course, but he wanted to know whether things had developed similarly without his involvement and if it was Nellie who forced the butcher to swallow the poisoned rum. But she looked at him as if he'd grown a second head. Was she shocked he knew or had he just not been poisoned in this timeline?
"He didn't. It was just gout and some other ailments that had been plaguing him for years" she replied, but Sweeney had a hard time believing she just waited for him to drop naturally, the Nellie he knew would not put up with that bastard for long if she could help it. Nevertheless, there were more pressing issues to worry about.
"Enough about the past. What do you think of the plan?" she asked, biting his lip, and closing the topic of Albert's mysterious demise with a proverbial bang. He let her.
"That you are a bloody wonder, pet. A genius. He won't see it coming" he replied with a small yet evil smile.
She smiled back at him, her eyes dancing with mischief and for a second everything was alright. They were just two partners in crime madly in love with one another, looking forward to their next strike.