He had always known that sooner or later he would be found out. That someone would put a call to the diocese about his alcoholism and he would be summarily dismissed. Deep down he'd longed for the day when that would happen, wanting to be confronted with just punishments for his sins, his many shortcomings. Instead the auxiliary bishop had been understanding and kind and it had brought him even more shame, to be comforted instead of punished. He was called for a meeting, in which he had been told he was being sent on a spiritual retreat, somewhere quiet and new where he could confront his demons, do as much soul-searching as he needed, and seriously think about what he wanted his path to be. There had been no room for objections or refusals.
The town they sent him to was, like they had promised, small. Tiny. It was by the sea, nestled in the midst of the Orkney Islands, and he supposed the fresh sea air was meant to be invigorating and good for him. The Church owned a small cottage a little separated from the rest of the village, near the shore. It was run-down, sea-salt crusted over almost every bit of the structure. But inside it was clean and orderly and cosy enough to make Joseph think he didn't deserve it. The people were friendly but kept him at arms-length, wary of strangers. He probably did little to diminish their distrust by getting immediately acquainted with the local pub and running a tab.
Far from helping the quiet made the voices in his head louder, his failures and shortcomings screaming at him whenever he was awake. Without any specific duties to carry him through the day somewhat he found himself floundering, an emptiness growing in him. It was impossible to focus on prayer, except when he was down on his knees and the pain of the posture grounded him to the moment, kept his mind from wondering. Far from helping his forced spiritual retirement made him face his own spiritual emptiness, the hollowness of his own soul, his complete disconnection with God.
The diocese had gone as far as researching a detox program near enough to the little fishing village to be feasible and Joseph had tried, every day for at least a week, to go. He'd set his alarm clock, prepared his clothes and checked over and over what bus he was supposed to take. But he'd never made it further than the bus stop, and it was sheer bad luck that had placed a liquor store right in front for him to scurry into when the shame of his failures would creep up on him. After that he tried staying home, where the drink was limited, but it took a few hours of shaky hands and a pounding head to drive him to the nearest alcohol source. And once he hit rock bottom, once the idea of somehow getting better, of taking any sort of step towards a resolution to any number of his problems died completely he descended into abject apathy. His only outings were to either the liquor store or the local pub, where he quickly earned himself the dislike of the local barman and three semi-regular patrons. It was why he preferred buying a bottle of cheap whiskey and taking it to the beach at night, when it was cold and wet and nobody was around to notice his collar and shake their head with extra condemnation.
And he had to admit there was another reason why he found himself on the beach, sand on the soles of his shoes and a threadbare quilt around his shoulders to give him some protection from the cold. It was incredibly windy, making the sea particularly restless. He was already unsteady on his feet, half the bottle in his hands empty. For a few years he'd thought that the drink would eventually kill him and put him out of his misery but if that was the case at all it wasn't happening soon enough. He could see, ahead of him, a grim and long journey to the grave. He would be kicked out of the church, first, after the bishop's patience and charity ran out. He'd be given back the money he'd given the church upon his ordination, his parents’ savings and money from the sale of his family home. He's live off it for a while before winding up in the streets where he'd wait for his liver to fail him or the elements to wear him down and die either alone in some gutter or alone in a hospital bed. Surely it would be better to end it himself. To go on his terms, while he was still his own person.
He didn't realize he was walking towards the shore until the water lapped at his shoes and the cuffs of his pants. It was freezing, which perhaps was for the best. He shuffled onwards, trying to keep his balance against the restless, angry water retreating and advancing around him. It reached his calves soon enough, the force of the waves making him pause once or twice. The roar of the wind was almost deafening, making Joseph completely unaware that he was crying, ugly, loud sobs completely drown out by the pounding of the waves against the sand. But over that, strangely, another sound emerged, as if carried over the others, riding over the water and the wind. It was shapeless at first, sweet but unidentifiable. But little by little it grew and gained rhythm and cohesion, forming into slow, comforting lullaby. His mind, even addled as it was, identified it immediately. He'd spent many a night curled up in his bed as a child, his mother running a hand through his hair as she sang to him.
"My bonnie lies over the ocean..."
The tempo of the song was not the traditional, much slower and melancholic, just like his mother used to sing it. The voice was sweet and pure, almost angelical. It seemed to come from somewhere in the ocean, but it was not humanly possible. There weren't any boats and the weather more than explained that.
"Bring back my bonnie to me..."
Joseph's sobs turned into howls, incoherent pleas for his mother to forgive him for what he'd been about to do. He turned back and dragged himself back to the shore, his feet dragging on the sand before stumbling onto a flat, hard rock. He curled up in there, exhausted and wretched and fooled himself into thinking, right before he passed out, that he could feel a gentle hand combing his hair as the last notes of the song lingered in the air.
Waking up the day after had been a gruesome experience, coupled with a hefty dose of shame as he was forced to trudge home in full view of the parents who had thought to spend the sunny morning with their children at the beach. It had taken three showers to rid himself of most of the sand, and the last of the painkillers to minimize the pounding headache. It wasn't until much later that the enormity of what he'd almost done hit him, along with the absolute certainty that it wouldn't be the last time he felt tempted to do so. Even if the shame would be suffocating he forced himself to stagger out of the cottage and find somewhere public, somewhere where he knew he wouldn't dare try anything.
So he spent some time at the local library, doing little in the way of reading but staying warm and safe. The local parish was another usual stop. Though it filled him with shame to see the priest, Father Timothy, because he knew the man was aware of his many failings, the church had lovely grounds and he enjoyed walking them. His mother had been a lover of plants and had kept a small but beautiful garden when he was a boy, teaching him all she knew about herbs and vegetables and coaxing life from the earth.
The pub was the only other place he could go, especially after a certain hour of the day, when everything else was closed. It wasn't exactly the ideal solution but alcohol left him always too muddled and lethargic to even think of attempting another impromptu dip on the ocean at midnight. It was the best he could do, he told himself as he dragged himself home. It was pitch-dark, the way it only happened in small towns, and he was glad he could blame his poor visibility for the many times he stumbled and fell on his way home. A light rain caught him about halfway through, getting him wet enough that the first thing he did when he got to the cottage was strip to his boxers in the dark, the idea of light repellent to his photosensitive drunk self. He tripped his way into the bedroom, sliding into the mass of blankets that he called a bed with a sigh of bliss. It was a cold night and the bed was warm and inviting, smelling faintly of the sea. He moved around, seeking warmth and softness until he was nestled in what felt like a loving embrace and for once the guilty thoughts and bad impulses did not find him before sleeping, as he was used to. Instead he fell asleep almost instantly, dreaming of being somewhere safe, of arms wrapped around him lovingly. No one had touched him affectionately in years, but he'd never paused to notice before.
When morning came the hungover wasn't as bad as he'd expected and, surprisingly, he'd slept through the night. He was used to waking up several times during the night, either because of a rolling stomach or just general restlessness. Happy that he didn't immediately feel the need to jump out of bed and run to the bathroom to retch Joseph snuggled deeper into the bed, hiding himself even more under the covers. Slowly his ears began to pick up the usual sounds of the morning: birds chirping, waves breaking in the distance and even the faint echo of someone singing and the shower going.
The realization had him wide awake and jumping out of bed in seconds, his pounding head protesting and the blankets tangling around his legs.
"Oh it'd be all right if we make it 'round the horn..."
The voice was feminine, perfectly-pitched and lightly accented. It struck a chord in Joseph's memory almost immediately, unwillingly taking him back to that moment on the beach when he'd thought he'd heard his mother's voice singing in the wind. Fearing his time alone with his demons had finally made him snap. Barely registering what he was doing he reached out and slowly opened the bathroom door, finding himself immediately surrounded by a cloud of steam.
"We'll roll the old chariot alo-"
It was a moment that seemed to slow down and last forever, in an almost magical way only deep embarrassment could possibly accomplish. Joseph registered several things at the same time: the almost blinding brightness of the room, the tangy citrusy smell that seemed to cling to the very air and thanks to the fact that there was no shower curtain installed the utter perfection of the naked body right in front of him, its only coverage a curtain of sudsy hair. Bright blue eyes stared at him, more surprised than panicky and the sudden silence was so loud, so unwelcomed Joseph found himself itching to beg the strange naked angel in his bathroom to please keep singing.
In the end what came out of his mouth was a stream of stuttered apologies, followed by the priest closing his eyes, turning around and fumbling in the dark for the doorknob. After he finally managed to slam the bathroom door shut behind him he looked down and realized he was still only in his underwear, which in retrospective seemed completely logical because of course that the one time he accidentally walks in on a nubile young woman showering he's going to be practically naked himself.
Dressing made him feel marginally better, as did two aspirins and preparing some tea. When the bathroom door opened he nervously stood up, forcing his eyes to meet those of the young woman before him. She was dressed in a faded summer dress, her wet hair sticking to her shoulders and upper chest and her feet bare. She looked young, in her twenties perhaps, and her eyes were almost too blue, the colour of the ocean on an overly-sunny day. Joseph had always found comfort in the fact that he did not notice women much. He was a sucker for other many temptations but his vow of chastity had never really been a struggle. But he would’ve had to be blind not to notice just how very beautiful the woman in front of him was. Beautiful, barefoot and smiling warmly.
"You're not the owner of this cottage. An old man owns the cottage."
It wasn't an accusation, but rather an enquiry. Joseph was rather surprised but pleased she didn't look like she wanted to slap him, and hastened to explain before she came to her senses. He told her about the church owning the poverty, told her about him being sent there on a spiritual sabbatical, having been told that the property was not leased or otherwise occupied. They had obviously been mistaken, it seemed.
"Oh, no... I... I don't rent this cottage. The man who owned it used to allow me to come here. I... it's just... sometimes I need to be... by myself. Away from... from everyone, really."
It was her own sudden nervousness that vanished his own, the slight tremble in her voice when she mentioned the need to "be away" that put his embarrassment out of his mind. Joseph was adept at running away, only he did it in the form of drinking. It was easy enough to recognize another runner.
Her smile was a divine thing, wide and contagious. She sat down gracefully, accepting a cup of tea gratefully and proceeding to dump an obscene amount of sugar into it. As she drank he told her a bit about himself. She seemed fascinated with anything he told her, having never travelled much herself. And Joseph found her undivided, awed attention to be absolutely wonderful. After a while she began to tentatively tell him about herself. In the vaguest of terms she told him about her family, and how they did things she knew were bad. And how when she was with them she was pushed to do them to and, what was worse, she wanted to. Desperately. So when the itch became too much, and her family became too pushy, she'd run away.
"The villagers... they know I'm bad. That I have bad inside me. So I stay away, I don't want to bother them. Old Mr Croy didn't mind, he didn't much care for the people of the village. Or... well, for people in general. But he liked me, so he let me use this fishing cottage when I felt the need to... Well, when my family got to be a bit much."
It was a story he could very well understand, even though told in code. As an addict it resonated with him on a very real sense, especially when she talked about the itch, that uncomfortable urge to do something against one's better judgement. When she talked about having "bad" inside her it was almost as if he was talking to himself. He recognized the bitter taste of self-hatred, the unpleasant presence of despair and quiet resignation.
"Surely it cannot be that bad, whatever you do." Joseph was having a hard time trying to picture what vice a creature so angelic-looking could possibly have. The woman's hands tightened around her cup of tea and she lowered her eyes.
"My family... they take things. Things that aren't theirs. They take them by force. It's not... they don't see this as bad. They don't know it's wrong or they don't care, I don't know witch. But I know and I've tried... I've tried so hard not to do it. To show them it's possible to live a different way, to follow a different path. But I do it. Without meaning to, without noticing it... I take things. Things that aren't mine."
She curled up in her seat, hugging her knees to her chest. The loneliness around her was almost a palpable thing, as was her sadness.
"I've tried to return things, but people haven't been very cooperative. I can't blame them. Of course they don't like me. And knowing my family I can't blame them for not trusting me. They're right. I'm bad."
There was a quiet resignation that Father MacAvoy could very well identify with, that of a person who had come to reluctantly embrace and unwanted aspect of themselves. A person who had given up utterly and completely.
"That's not true."
Though he knew little of the stranger, not even her name, Joseph found it incredibly easy to believe in her innate innocence. Whatever she had done, whatever impulse she could not fight off, it was clearly the product of having been raised in a toxic family. Her guilt alone made it clear it was not in her nature to steal, if that was what indeed she'd done. She smiled at him, a tremulous yet radiant thing, and looked at him with gratitude.
"That's the nicest thing anyone's ever said to me."
No one had ever looked at Joseph like that before, like he'd hung the moon and the stars, at least not since his mum had died. It was a heady feeling, one the priest wanted to bottle and keep forever. To provoke as many of those looks and smiles as possible, to bring that sort of hope and happiness to another human being and experience a bit of it by proxy. And in that split second Joseph understood that it was not a coincidence that it had been her singing that had chased the dark thoughts away, not a coincidence that they'd both ended up in the same cottage, slave to similar demons. He was supposed to help her. And in doing so he would find clarity, and purpose, and a spiritual connection to the divine he was lacking. The relief was staggering, words tumbling from his lips in a rush.
"I'll help you. I'll help you return whatever you took. It'll be like a catharsis, like a cleanse. It'll make you see that you're not bad, not naturally, not in your core. You just need help. Everyone does, there's no shame in it."
A moment later he wanted to take it all back, thinking himself too presumptuous, too forward. He doubted she couldn't smell the alcohol in his breath, or notice the myriad of bottles stashed all over the house. Surely she wouldn't want the help of a pathetic drunk. But instead of recoiling, of rejecting his offer she leaned forward, taking one of his hands between both of hers. She was exceedingly cold to the touch, but her skin was soft as cotton.
"You'd do that for me? But you don't even know me."
He hoped his hand wasn't too sweaty as he shook hers, a tentative smile on his lips.
"Well, that's easily fixed. I'm Joseph MacAvoy. Father MacAvoy."
"Nice to meet you. I'm Belle."
"That's... that's a fucking lot of books."
Joseph was trying to keep any negative inflections out of his voice, but some of his inner panic must have bled through because Belle's radiant smile dimmed a little. She sighed, looking around as if just now she realized almost the entire length of the cave she'd just led Joseph to was indeed covered in books. There were other things as well, dollies, dresses, small personal items and an assortment of knick-knacks and trinkets but mostly books. Piles and piles of books.
"I've read them all. Does it somehow make it better?"
Joseph couldn't imagine ever having the time or inclination to read so many books. Upon closer inspection he saw there was no rhyme or reason to them. There were books about landscaping, beekeeping, macroeconomics, smiting, international politics, biology and chemistry, not to mention piles of fiction stories, from children's stories to what Joseph could only conclude was some very descriptive erotica. There were entire piles of biographies and even tourist guides. Belle lovingly caressed the cover of one of them.
"I can't get very far from home, so it was a way to see the world without ever travelling."
Other than the books the other pattern to her stealing was the silver. There was a lot of it around, from mismatched pieces of silver cutlery to some jewellery and even picture frames. Belle set them aside with care, an odd fascination shining in her eyes as she handled each item.
"It runs in the family, the attraction to silver. I don't know why, but... it's just so pretty."
Belle sighed wistfully, seemingly lost for a moment in silver-tinted daydreams, the look on her face somehow making Joseph uncomfortable.
They began with the books, since they were the most predominant items in the cave. A search inside the first few pages or many yielded a name, or a dedication, so they sorted the books based on that. It was lengthy work, since Joseph had to pause ever few minutes to make sure Belle hadn't gotten lost in the middle of some story or the other. Her love of books was genuine, and she treated each one with care and almost reverence. It couldn't be bad, he reasoned. People would surely understand. He made a careful list of all the names they got and looked them up at the library, jotting down every address. After a brief discussion it became clear that Belle was adamant that she could not return the books in person. The people of the village didn't like her and nothing good could ever come out of any sort of confrontation. But when Joseph offered to return them himself she protested too, saying she needed to be the one to make amends. In the end they resolved to deliver the books with a hand-written note of apology. Belle took the task of writing each letter seriously, trying to make her apology seem and feel as sincere as possible. The next day he'd pick up the parcels and walk around town to deliver them, getting distracted by the pub more than a couple of times. It was better to drink there than at the cottage, in any case, but he was careful never to get addled in any way, lest he fail his task of the day.
Father Timothy was a big help too. He knew almost everyone in town and could provide addresses to the people who did not appear in the phone book. Surprisingly enough he didn't seem to find it odd when he spun a tale of "finding some lost things in some cave by the beach", a story that sounded paper-thin to Joseph's own ears. The old man looked at him worriedly, though, but Joseph chalked it up to his alcoholism. The father was nice enough to feel pity for him rather than disgust. He would encourage him to visit as often as possible, seeing his interest in the church's gardens and introducing him to the gardener, Mr Shearer, who was old and grouchy but was grudgingly taken by Joseph’s genuine interest in plants.
Coming back to the cottage was funny, now that he wasn't alone. The living arrangements sorted themselves out without Joseph or Belle ever talking about it. He took the old couch in the living room, with as many blankets as Belle could persuade him to take. She seemed to have a high tolerance for the cold, much better than his in any case, and often put on a cardigan as her only concession to the cold, whereas Joseph sometimes could barely manoeuvre from the amount of sweaters he'd layer onto his body. Belle didn't have much, and what she did have seemed old and the slightest bit ill-fitting. Joseph had an inkling that her clothes were likely stolen, but wisely didn't pry or comment on it. She also had a maddening habit of going everywhere barefoot. The concept of shoes seemed almost foreign to her, which drove him mad with worry. Belle's feet where small and fragile-looking, and often bloody from a scrape or some injury she barely seemed to feel.
She took control of the cottage completely, keeping it neat and tidy with an ease that Joseph found enviable. Most days the idea of cleaning never crossed his mind, and he was ashamed to admit he'd been living in filthy conditions for years. It was a nice change from his cramped apartment, the neat cottage by the sea, smelling of the ocean and of lemons. Belle appeared to like housekeeping but what she seemed to enjoy most of all was bathing. She could spend hours in the bathtub, especially at the end of a long, stressful day thinning her hoard. It obviously caused her pain, parting with what she had unwittingly stolen. It made her uncomfortable and withdrawn and visibly anxious at times but usually a long soak in the tub would eliminate any discomfort. She sang while she bathed, old sea shanties mixed in with mournful folk songs, and it left Joseph absolutely enthralled. God had given Belle the voice an angel might envy, and it was a guilty pleasure to sit down by the bathroom door and just listen. It gave him a feeling of peace unlike anything else he'd ever experienced and Joseph was sure such a voice could be nothing short of a divine gift.
It was also his only respite in the evenings because he could not bring himself to drink in front of Belle, the shame too much to bear. It was bad enough he came home reeking of the pub some days, or that he nipped a couple of sips from a flask whenever she wasn't looking. To expose her to the complete reality of his wretched nature was out of the question. His reduced drinking, however, left him cranky and uncomfortable. His body would ache sometimes, and his head pound. And when it got too intolerable, when he felt himself on the brink of crawling out of his skin Belle would start singing, as if she somehow was attuned to his moods.
He wasn't the only one struggling, and though it made him an awful man to think this, it was nice not to be alone in his misery. Belle was having trouble parting with her hoard, even though she desperately did want to return everything she had stolen, that much he was sure of. Surprisingly, even though her emotional attachment was clearly to the books, it was the silver items the one she had most trouble parting with. Most of the headway there had been thanks to Father Timothy, who knew his parishioners well enough to identify some of their personal jewellery, and to the inventive idea of putting up fliers around town with vague descriptions of each item, to test whoever might appear to reclaim them. At first not many people responded. It was almost as if the townspeople were afraid of him, though that was not really the word for it. Wary, in a way, but not of him as much as for him. It was a mixture of pity, guilt and distrust that he saw in their eyes when he walked around now, as strange as that may be.
But little by little some seemed to overcome it. Young people mostly intercepted him at the library, the pub or the church to describe or shows pictures of whatever silver trinket they might have... misplaced long ago. Surprisingly there were never any accusations or uncomfortable scenes. Not for the first time he felt something bizarre was going on that he was missing. Belle knew, the townspeople knew, even the bloody priest knew, and he was being kept in the dark. But even that certainty could not diminish his genuine pleasure at making such progress with Belle's hoard. He didn't count on her missing any of it. It soon became clear that she did. She grew sullen and silent at times, antsy and shifty, but never made a complaint, never asked him to stop helping her. It was a quiet sort of strength, the one she had, even though she looked so fragile, so breakable. Joseph was forever in awe.
In the end, and in an uncharacteristic act of true selflessness, he fished out his own silver cross out of his luggage. He'd found it in a drawer soon after his mother had passed away, his name on the box. It was supposed to be a graduation present and at the time he'd taken it as proof that his mother wanted him to take holy orders. At seventeen, lost and alone, he'd clung to that dream and the cross. But he hadn't lived up to it and had stopped using the cross, unable to reconcile its special meaning with the wreck that was his life. His mother would approve, he reasoned, of using his cross to alleviate Belle's pain.
He could not give it to her directly, since that wasn't how it worked with Belle. Instead he took to leaving it in prominent places where she couldn't help but stumble upon it, though she dutifully put it back with his things. It took several tries for Belle to understand what he was trying to do and, though neither said a word about it, late one night, before sleep, Belle pressed a firm, lingering kiss on her cheek, called him a "good man" and though the cross was hidden underneath her clothing the glimpse of the chain about her neck told him everything he needed to know. She never parted with it afterwards, and often caught her out of the corner of his eye playing with it, seeming to derive pleasure out of touching the silver. And though it was a minor accomplishment it made Joseph blush with pride all the same.
"There're more books."
Belle's voice was small and drawn, unlike her usual self. Joseph's spirits sunk immediately, an automatic and visceral response to her mood. It had been a good day at the parish. The gardener had allowed him to help with a lot of the heavy lifting that he couldn't do in his old age, and working with plants, on his hands and knees in the dirt, had been wonderful. His mother had been in the forefront of his thoughts all day but without the acute pang of melancholy that often accompanied her memory. The few tips he'd managed to remember from the gardening book no one had claimed still had helped, earning him the grudging respect of old Mr Shearer.
"More books? What do you... oh."
He glanced at the corner of the living room, where they'd stacked the books without any identifying marks on them, and true enough there were at least three he didn't immediately recognize.
"I did it again. I don't even remember when I took them or where I took them from."
Belle's eyes shone with unshed tears and Joseph willed himself not to panic. He was shite at comforting people, had always been, which had been one of the reasons he'd first been driven to the drink once he'd been ordained. He desperately wished he could be the sort of person to offer comfort, to know what to say and do when people were at their most distressed, but he got tongue-tied and paralysed instead and he made things invariably worse.
"I thought I was doing alright, I thought I was getting better. But now I've ruined it all. It's in my nature, it's just the way I am. It's the bad inside me, it won't ever go away."
Belle was pacing around the small living room, one hand firmly clasping the "stolen" silver cross and the other tearing at her hair, clearly agitated. Joseph could sympathize. After all she had been doing splendidly since he'd given her the cross. She'd given herself over completely to making her hoard disappear, which made the relapse all the more puzzling. Or perhaps, taking into account how much Belle loved to read, not so much. Her love of reading, though a good quality to have surely, had become a sort of Achilles heel for her kleptomania to exploit.
"We need to get you a library card."
It was stupid not to have thought about it sooner, really. It was perfect. Belle would love the library and Mrs Pearson would love her, he was sure.
"You want me to go to the town?"
She sounded unsure, which was very un-Belle-like, almost frightened. Again he got the feeling there was more to it all than he knew, more to Belle's family than she said and definitely more to the townspeople dislike of her. But whatever it was he was missing, he didn't care. The idea of introducing Belle to a building full of books was much too good to pass up. Reluctantly she pulled out a pair of old boots a size too big, a cardigan to go over her flimsy dress- Joseph suspected she did it more to stick up less than because she was genuinely cold- took his hand and let him lead the way. The moment they set foot in the town she plastered herself to his side, equal parts curious and uneasy. Looking around it was impossible to deny that people were blatantly staring at them as they passed them by, as if they were seeing something both fascinating and dangerous. Joseph held Belle closer, watching as wariness slowly bled out of her and she stood up straighter. Shamefully he was glad that she never let go of him, even as her confidence grew.
Mrs Pearson had startled upon meeting Belle, drawing back for a moment as if Joseph was introducing her to some savage beast. In the end, however, Belle's genuine love of books and the librarian's professionalism won out and they got to chatting. Belle could not quite comprehend the idea of the library lending her books and the librarian seemed set on clarifying that she expected each and every book back. Though embarrassing it was understandable, given his little book thief's history. Bizarrely there was never talk about documentation or even a request for Belle's last name, as if it didn't matter. Her library card, when it was presented to her, simply read "Belle".
It was a wonderful afternoon. Belle spent hours just walking around the library, and after the first twenty minutes or so Mrs Pearson seemed to convince herself that she wasn't about to rob the place blind. She dragged him all over the library, selecting book after book until he was forced to remind her that there was a limit to how many she could take home at any given time. Later on they sat by a window in the reading room while Belle very seriously decided which three of the thirty-five books she's pre-selected she'd check out. She'd request his input every now and then, and though he could tell her little about the benefits of picking a treaty on international law over a compendium of Spanish romances it was nice that she included him.
It was frightful how easy he'd adapted to having Belle in his life. How easy it became to think about the day ahead as a pair instead of just one. It was part of the reason why he hated it when she went back with her family. She did it sparingly, as it was obvious it wasn't a pleasant experience, but he didn't comment on it, knowing it was a complicated issue he knew little about. And yet it was impossible not to worry about Belle when she wasn't there, specially knowing what he did about her family. Still it felt like a stab to wake up the morning after their library incursion to find her gone, not a note or an explanation to account for it.
Like the other times he tried to pay it no mind and continue attacking the hoard. There were few items on it left, and he'd begun to think they would never be reunited with their owners. That, sadly, left him little to do and for a moment he contemplated going to the pub, drinking after all had always made time past faster. But in the end the idea that Belle might return, unsettled from seeing her family and needing reassurance and find him drunk was too unappealing and at the last minute he decided to head for the church. Mr Shearer was out, the humidity too much for his old joints, so Joseph was happy to take over whatever grunt work there was to be done on the church's grounds. Though the work itself was soothing whatever peace he might have found amongst the green was lost when Father Timothy spoke to him right before leaving.
"You might be old enough to think this is not a conversation that you need to have but I thought it prudent to warn you, Joseph. In many ways your inexperience, your... naiveté, if you'll permit me, makes you vulnerable. And I'm not saying that there's anything inappropriate between you and that young woman living with you." Joseph squeaked in surprise, finally grasping the direction of the conversation and wondering if the Earth could open up and eat him before it continued. "And from what I've seen she seems good and kind. But she still presents quite a... a danger to you, my son. Without meaning to, just by nature of what she is. Beware, Joseph. Your kindness does you credit but never lose sight of the fact that she's a danger to you. It's not a matter of it, but rather when."
Later, at home in the cottage, curled up in the bed taking advantage that he was alone Joseph scoffed at the priest's words. It was not like that. Not like that at all. Father Timothy didn't know Belle, didn't know what they had together. It was pure, it was without sin. Companionship and mutual support and love, yes, but not like he thought. And Belle was good, whatever her supposed "nature" was. She was strong.
"Okay, so, where's the rest of it?"
Joseph looked up from the gardening book he was reading, this one taken from the library and specializing in local plant life, and frowned at Belle.
"What do you mean?"
"The rest of the hoard, where is it?"
He glanced around and pointed to a tiny pile of books and assorted trinkets, most of them silver. Belle shook her head.
"No, that pile's been already sorted, those are the things we cannot trace back to their original owners, remember?"
She was right, of course. He stood up and perused the room, finding nothing that did not belong in the cottage. A moment later an exhilarating thought hit him.
"I... I think it's gone. It's done."
She looked at him, not understanding at first.
"What do you mean it's done?"
Joseph could feel giddiness taking over, his heartbeat accelerating as he realized they'd done it. For the first time in a long time he'd set out to help someone and actually succeeded. He'd had the determination and strength of will to see something through. And it felt wonderful.
"It's done. We did it. We did it, Belle!"
It was beautiful to see the reality of it slowly sink in for her, a smile spreading across her face as she looked around and confirmed what he was saying. A moment later he could no longer see it because she'd flung herself at him, her arms around his neck. It was instinctual to put his arms around her as well and, driven by the sheer joy of the moment, spin her around, both of them laughing and hugging. Belle was soft and smelt like lemons and the ocean and held on tight to him, as if she never wanted to let go and Joseph could not remember ever being happier. She kissed him on the cheeks and forehead, thanking him over and over. And in the moment it seemed the most natural thing in the world when she pressed her lips to his, at first quick and teasing pecks that gradually got longer and deeper till Joseph knew exactly how Belle tasted and how her tongue felt sliding against his. In the confusion he barely noticed they were walking and that somehow he'd lost his black jacket and his collar insert somewhere on the sand. All he knew was that Belle's arms where around his neck, tugging at him and her mouth was swollen from his kisses and everything was right in the world.
And then it wasn't. Belle yelped, looking down to see the water lapping at her feet. They were on the beach somehow and for some reason the realization made Belle panic.
"Is that... singing?"
Now that his senses were not all focused on Belle Joseph realized he could hear several people singing almost in unison, the voices sounding like they were coming from deep within the sea.
"We've got to get back."
The naked fear in her eyes snapped him out of whatever stupor he was in. He followed her as she practically ran all the way back to the cottage, but even inside she would not calm down. Belle was wretched, apologizing nonsensically over and over, tears running down her cheeks as she struggled not to cry openly. Though she escaped his attempts at comfort at first, seemingly not welcoming his touch, eventually he managed to coax her to bed, trying to keep his panic inside as he shushed her gently. It took close to an hour for Belle to calm down and lie down on the bed completely. Eventually exhaustion took its toll on her and she allowed him to tuck her in snug to rest, apologizing to him over and over.
"Shh, Belle, we'll talk in the morning. Good night."
He dared kiss her forehead and was relieved when she didn't pull away. He'd fucked up tonight, clearly, but the damage could perhaps be undone. They would be okay, surely.
"Joseph... there's no alcohol in the house either. I'm so proud of you."
When he was sure she'd fallen asleep he checked the house over and over to find out that she was right. There was no alcohol in the house. And he'd not gone to the pub in ages. Somehow he'd stopped drinking and he hadn't fucking noticed. It was a miracle. And yet, beneath the bubbling joy spreading across his body there was a thread of fear dampening everything, and unease that kept him up for a great part of the night looking in the direction of the bedroom as if waiting for something.
She was gone. Though he'd barely slept last night Belle had managed to slip out of the cottage, taking with her whatever few possessions she had. He ran out to the beach, scaring the few early risers taking morning strolls by the shore, but Belle was nowhere to be seen. Pausing by the cottage only to grab some shoes and a coat Joseph sprinted towards the town, trying to ignore his common sense telling him she wouldn't be there.
At first, when people began to gawp at him as he dashed across town he thought it might be because he'd dressed in a hurry and he was looking very dishevelled. But after a while the stares became more intrusive and the looks more incredulous. Wretched and suddenly self-conscious, feeling as if his pain and fear were written across his forehead for the world to see he ducked into the only store he could think to find a semblance of relief in, as much as it shamed him. But there was no liquor and no Belle to comfort him and though he could not find the later he could certainly buy the former.
"What are you doing here, boy? Hasn't she stolen you yet?"
"What?" Joseph's head was pounding and the priest thought he had never needed a drink with such an intensity before but the shopkeeper was looking at him like he'd seen a ghost. For a moment he fear the old man might have a stroke right then and there but at the last minute he seemed to recover.
"Your lass. We all thought she'd stolen you last night, sang you into the ocean to be with her forever, like her kind does."
"The finfolk, the people of the sea. They steal things, especially anything made of silver, and people, lure them and enthral them and take them with them to the bottom of the ocean. This one was taking her sweet time, but we all heard her singing her siren song last night, and some folks saw her leading you to the sea."
It was madness, surely. Everyone in town was fucking mad and he'd been a fool not to see it before. But to his horror Joseph found himself thinking back on things, tying loose ends together. It certainly explained a lot, from Belle's bizarre fascination with silver and the fact that she had no surname to why the people were so wary of her, a 5'2 woman with absolutely no inclination towards violence. And why they had all been surprised to see him. They all thought Belle had stolen him the night before. They'd heard the singing and they'd seen them going to the beach and they'd assumed that Belle had... And yet she hadn't.
"What's going to happen to her?"
The old man evaded his eyes.
"Finmaidens who fail to steal themselves a human husband must marry a finman. Legend says it's a terrible fate. The finman will force the maiden to work and keep a steady supply of silver and if the lass fails she'll be beaten. Didn't think the girl would have it in her to let you go, knowing what the alternative was."
"You're... you're mad. This is all madness. Belle's coming back. She's..."
"Come on, boy, a girl who sings like that is no ordinary human being. One song and she could make you forget all your troubles, one look and she had your complete devotion. You must know it."
Father Timothy's warning a few days ago suddenly seemed to make more sense than before. And last night Belle had looked... otherworldly. Inhumanly beautiful, certainly. And before, that other night at the beach, when he'd been about to... she'd sung to him, and her voice had come from the middle of the ocean. It all made twisted, fucking sense.
"How do I get her back?"
"Didn't you listen to me? She was going to steal you, drag you into the ocean. Sure, you'd have come willingly at first, but soon enough you'd have regretted it but it would've been too fucking late. You got lucky, boy."
No, he hadn't. He'd lost Belle and that was the opposite of lucky.
"She isn't like that. I want her back. She doesn't like her family, she doesn't want to be like them. She needs to come back. Now tell me."
"There's no right answer to that, son. No one's tried to call a finmaiden but rather to chase one away. But I reckon you'll have to tempt her with whatever it is the girl likes stealing. Amass a pile of it, put yourself in the middle, and see if it works."
It was a crazy idea but Joseph had given up on common sense the moment he'd woken up to find Belle missing. Quick thinking had him running to the church, where Father Timothy also seemed surprised to see him. Thankfully when he requested as much silver objects as the church could spare he didn't question it and soon enough Joseph had communion trays, candlesticks, collection plates, crosses, chalices and a rather cumbersome Corpus Christi reliquary. The next stop was the library but though he feared Mrs Pearson would be more reluctant to part with anything for the sake of Belle she agreed readily, going as far as to offer him use of her car to carry everything in. By the time he exited the library it seemed word had gotten around town of his un-stolen status and his subsequent wild goose chase. A few people whose items he'd returned were there to give them back. Whatever had attracted Belle to them once, they reasoned, would do so again. Consecrated silver, after all, might not work, but their trinkets and pieces of jewellery would surely do the trick. It was a small show of kindness but it brought tears to Joseph's eyes.
Once back in the cottage he grabbed as many blankets and rushed towards Belle's hidden little cave. It took several trips to get everything in there, especially some of the heavy silver objects, and he'd barely finished before the moon appeared. Feeling rather foolish he sat himself in the middle of the new hoard, stripped till he was in a t-shirt and underwear and waited. Seconds turned into minutes and minutes into hours but Joseph barely dared to blink, afraid he'd miss something.
He was starting to feel the first stirrings of doubts when he saw movement in the water at the entrance. Vivid blue eyes shone in the dark and Joseph trembled with relief.
It was Belle, but unlike he'd ever seen her. She was naked, for one, her skin pale as moonlight, and so very slick. Her hair was in contrast very dark, tints of blue and green mixing with the reddish brown. Her ears were pointed, her hands and feet slightly webbed and below her breasts there were... gills. Fucking gills.
Even her voice was different, more than human, more... just more. He head was tilted to the side, her body language betraying her intention to flee at the slightest provocation. At the same time she seemed enthralled by the offering he'd laid out for her, but she wasn't looking at the books of the silver but rather straight at him.
"Belle please... please, don't go back to your family. You don't have to... do what they want. Be unhappy the rest of your life. Stay. Stay with me, please."
"Oh, Joseph..." She lowered herself till they were face to face, till he could see the deep sadness etched around her eyes. "I'm sorry. I thought I could be good. But I can't. If I stay with you sooner or later I'll want to steal you. There's no escaping it. I tried... I tried so hard." She raised a hand to comb his unruly hair back. "I'm sorry I failed."
Something glinted in her throat, and Joseph recalled then the silver cross he'd gifted her, sparking an idea. Afraid she'd flee without hearing him first he reached out for her rather desperately, his hands closing around her slippery shoulders.
"It... it could be like the cross, Belle. A willing steal. I want to be stolen."
"But then it wouldn't be stealing."
"I'm a man of God. You'd be stealing me from the Church, from my vows. You'd be stealing my... my virginity, my chastity, which I pledged to them. It'd be stealing, but not at the same time. Enough to keep the itch away. Enough to make you stay. Please, please stay."
For the longest moment she looked like she would refuse him, gently let him down and go back into the water never to be seen again. Taking a chance and amassing all the courage he possessed he stumbled forward, clumsily pressing his lips against hers. She tasted just like he remembered from last night, spicy and slightly salty and completely wonderful. When she gently took hold of his head and tilted it just so to allow the kiss to deepen he felt his entire body relax and become liquid. Belle’s arms sneaked beneath his cotton t-shirt to splay across his back and though she was cold as ice her touch left him on fire. Boneless as he was it was easy for her to coax him to lean back, to splay him over the pile of blankets and kiss him senseless, fingers sinking into his hair and tugging at it. She was devouring him, every bit the predator she was supposed to be and it was wonderful. He tried to reciprocate, gingerly placing his own hands around her waist and allowing them to explore. Soon he grew fascinated with the texture of her skin, sleek and slippery to his callused fingers. When he managed to cup one of her breast she bit his lip, making him moan.
"Can I make you mine, Joseph?"
He didn't know whether it was the words of the sultry, possessive tone with which she said them, but something about it made him groan and wiggle in the spot, feeling hot and tight all over. His groin was aching and it didn't help when Belle straddled his waist, bending over to press her forehead against his.
"Yes, yes, please..."
It was all the confirmation Belle seemed to need. A moment later she was tugging his t-shirt up his torso and over his arms, taking a moment to trace idle patterns across his chest before replacing her fingers with her mouth. Her teeth were sharp, her love-bites stinging but the pain only enhanced the pleasure of it all. Suddenly some of the racier confessions he'd listened to over the years began to make sense and he thanked God he'd spared him the temptation of lust for so long because otherwise he'd quit being a priest years ago. Belle's mouth and hands seemed to be everywhere, setting him on fire in the most pleasurable way possible and all he could do was grasp the blankets underneath him and try not to hyperventilate. Every now and then her lips would seal over his, her kiss slow and deep and draining. So consumed was he by her mouth and the delights it could bring that he missed Belle tugging his underwear down his legs and off him entirely. But he definitely did not miss her chilled fingers wrapping around his straining cock, robbing him of breath entirely.
"Can I steal you now, Joseph?"
He barely recognized the wail as coming from his own mouth. A moment later Belle was taking him into her inch by maddening inch, so slowly it was almost painful. When he was finally buried balls-deep inside her he tugged her down to claim her mouth, needing to be as connected to her as possible. It was enough for a moment to just lay there and be inside Belle but soon she started to withdraw, rising up only to bear down on him a moment later, the motion tearing a needy whimper out of him. She did it again and again, establishing a ruthlessly exquisite rhythm that was too much and not enough at the same time. Something was missing and though he had no idea as to what it was Belle seemed to know exactly, taking one of his hands and guiding it to where their lower bodies were joined, pressing his middle and index finger against something slippery that made her moan and keen and her inner muscles flutter. Joseph focused whatever was left of his shattered concentration into the movement of those two fingers, seeing what made Belle gasp and moan and repeating it over and over. At last, by the grace of God, he felt her come, her inner muscles clenching around his cock until he followed her over the edge, the pleasure of his orgasm so intense it was almost uncomfortable.
A moment later Belle lowered herself onto the pile of blankets, snuggling close to him, an ear pressed against his chest to listen to his heartbeat. Joseph's muddled mind tried to string a series of words together. There was, after all, much to talk about. The rational part of him told him he ought to consider his future and how he'd go about renouncing his vows and finding a place to settle down and a job to support himself. Something with plants, for sure, out in the open. He found himself sharing those new little dreams with Belle, of gardening and finding a home and in return she told him about Mrs Pearson offering her a position in the library. After a while they lapsed into silence, only broken minutes later by Joseph's tentative voice.
"Belle... can you steal me again?"