~~“Kalis isn't a fortress,” Wolf said, walking back into the house, “It's a labyrinth. It shifts and changes to Chaos's moods. As soon as you step in there, he'll know, Joel,” he shrugged off his ruined coat, “You won't be able to get him the way you normally would. If you want to make it through there, I'd better come with you.”
Joel folded his arms, “I don't need you supervising me.”
Wolf paused, “I'm not trying to ruin your fun,” he said, walking into his room and peeling off his shredded shirt, “I just think that an eight-foot tall wolf might come in handy.”
Joel watched him dig out fresh clothes and redress. He didn't know how he felt about Wolf coming with him. Joel, despite the exceptional blunder, was fairly good at his job and he was already sore that Snow White thought he required the assistance of a girl who was known to eat other people's houses. But Chaos was an exceptional case, which gave Joel different thoughts:
Was there an actual point in going?
The obvious answer: Probably not.
Was he risking too much?
The obvious answer: Yes, of course.
He had wealth to spare for clothes and food - not that he needed money with his incredible teleporting power, he could just nick things and disappear; he had a decent home in the Grey and a fairly reputable (by Grey-standards) room-mate; and his existence before Bloody Mary was wholly irrelevant to him.
Why would anything Snow White offered him even remotely interest him?
Honestly? Joel felt robbed.
He was a killer and everyone feared him. He lived with the man who was responsible for the death of his 'mother'. And his 'mother' wasn't even his real mother and had never told him who he was meant to be, who he was born to be.
Joel didn't feel particularly thrilled by these facts of his life.
He didn't want to be feared, but respected. Wolf was his friend, but only because there was no-one else to befriend. And his origins - ever since Snow White had mentioned it - had been bothering to the point of distraction.
The list could go on and on and on.
“Joel?” Wolf said, fixing his black tie loosely around the collar of his new shirt, “You still here with me?”
“Bigs...” Joel said, “I don't know if I want to do this.”
Wolf raised his brows, “Why? What's turning in your head?”
Joel sat down on the desk by Wolf's bed, “I'm just... so confused,” he said, holding his head in one hand.
“Ah...” said Wolf, rolling up his sleeves and folding his arms, “I knew we'd have a talk like this eventually. You finally getting fuzz in weird places?”
In the awkwardness and the tension of the moment, Joel burst out laughing, “Wolf, I'm being serious!” he said, wiping his eyes, “And, for the record, I'm twenty years old. That talk is long over-due.”
Wolf scoffed, “What is it then?”
Joel explained everything he had been thinking and feeling as best as he could. Money. A home. Lineage. Everything that bothered him. He must have been rambling, because Wolf said,
“Joel... Stop panicking.”
“Panicking? Who's panicking? I'm not panicking. Since when do I panic? I live with you, for God's sake, if anyone has reason to panic, it's-”
“Okay, look, just calm the fuck down,” Wolf said, amused, “Deep breath, come on.”
Joel did as he was told.
“Good,” Wolf said, fishing around his desk-drawer and taking out a packet of cigarettes. He handed one to Joel, “looks like you've piled up a lot of crap and haven't taken the time to shovel it out.”
“Yeah, well, what the hell am I supposed to do about it?” Joel snapped, taking the stick and allowing Wolf to light it for him.
“Shut up and let me finish,” Wolf said slowly, lighting his own cigarette and taking a long pull while he thought. He blew out smoke, “What does it matter where you came from, anyway? Mary raised you.”
“I know, but...” Joel paused, his cigarette streaming from his mouth, “it just bothers me that I could have been something else. Something better than... this.”
Wolf raised a brow questioningly, “And 'this' is?”
“Shunned, Wolf. We're shunned outcasts. And I hate it.”
“That's been the situation for the last twenty years and it hasn't bothered you.”
Joel snapped, “Yeah? How would you know?”
Wolf laughed at his reaction, “Because you're the kind that panics.”
Joel sighed, smoke billowing from his nose and mouth. He took the cigarette between his fingers and tapped it, “Wolf...”
“What do you want me to say, Joel?” Wolf asked, “It doesn't matter if you get Rose back or bring back Chaos's severed head - they'll never accept you. They might give you a place to stay - though I highly doubt that - but you'll always be the Bleeding Joel that has no soul,” Wolf said slowly, stuffing his hands in his trouser pockets, “It's just... the way it is.”
“How have you dealt with this for so many... for hundreds of years?”
“Well, lemons into lemonade, as they say,” Wolf shrugged, “You can either sit there and sulk about a thing that will never change, or you can accept what you've got and just make the best of it.”
“But you're not exactly happy, are you?”
“Happiness is overrated, Joel,” he tapped his cigarette, “That's what drugs are for.”
Joel raised a brow, “Was that a joke?”
Wolf shrugged again, “If you want it to be.”
Joel didn't say anything for a while, “Can you... Can you at least tell me why... Mum,” Joel said the word as if it was the first time he'd ever uttered it, “Can you at least tell me why you killed her?”
“You want to know why Mary had to die? Who wanted her dead?”
Wolf took the cigarette from his mouth, threw it on the floor and stepped on it to put it out. He then went and sat on his bed, so that his face was level with Joel's.
“Mary,” Wolf said slowly, “wanted Mary dead.”
Joel looked surprised, but waited for him to finish.
“You know that every ten decades, she has to go and kidnap some baby girl and use her form? Kill the girl to take her body?” Wolf explained, “Well, things got... complicated for her.”
“What... do you mean?”
“Because she took you in... She couldn't take a girl anymore,” Wolf scratched his head, “A rough situation. If she took a new form, you would... you would disappear, since you weren't really meant to happen in the first place. Because of you, she could keep her old form for ten more years - but she couldn't keep you if she took a new form.”
“Why didn't she just stick to the old one?”
“Because flesh is frail for potent spirits. It melts away and a spirit like Mary would be in constant agony without a flesh form. She felt her existence wasn't worth that, and you didn't deserve to grow up watching that. But she didn't want to lose you. In her eyes, you didn't deserve to die.”
“So she asked you to kill her...” Joel murmured.
Wolf watched Joel's reaction, his face unmoving, like paralysed in some form of shock. For a moment, the only movement came from the small wisps of smoke that burned from Joel's cigarette.
“I don't know if your origin is still important to you,” Wolf said, “But Mary loved you, and you deserved her. She wasn't the best person, fine, but she was one hell of a mum.”
Joel looked up at Wolf, “Why have you never told me this?”
“She told me not to tell you,” Wolf said, “until you asked about it. It took longer than I thought it would.”
“We need to go,” Joel said, standing up and stepping in his cigarette, “We need to find the River Passed the Grey.”
“I need to find my original parents,” he explained, “So I can tell them all about Bloody Mary.”
Wolf laughed, “Really? That's the reason you want to go?”
“Wolf, I just... I just need to know.”
Wolf shook his head, “You have a problem. But I'm glad you feel better,” he said, “Anyway: the River Passed the Grey. It's a shifting river, slithering about like a worm out of damp mud, constantly leeching from different parts of Ever-After. And there's only one man who knows where it lies, only one man who knows how to track it.”
“Uh-oh,” Joel said, understanding from Wolf's tone, “Your old friend?”
Wolf growled, “The Woodsman.”