This is not a parody, and nobody dies. All I wanted to do was reconcile Blue's First Holiday and Joe's intro arc... I got carried away.

Believing In Magic - Joe's Story

Joe is seven.

Going to the magical house is always a treat, because outside of here he doesn't make friends easily. Teachers don't understand it, they tell his parents. He is a bright, cheerful, pleasant child, yet he always seems to be alone. He ought to have lots of friends. But he doesn't, and the adults around him are confused.

He doesn't feel like telling them why.

Other children don't understand him, either. They never have. Not since his first day of kindergarten, when the teacher told them to draw pictures of their best friends. Nobody had ever told Joe that it is unusual to have a mailbox and an alarm clock for friends. He knows now.

It is not worth trying to explain to parents or teachers; the teachers do not believe him anyway, they say he has an "overactive imagination." His peers think he's weird, or dumb, or whatever the day's most popular playground insult may be. Nobody wants to play with a freak who thinks that clocks should be able to talk.

Really, he doesn't care. He has friends here, and that is enough. Though he is slowly realizing that something about those friends is a little bit off...

"Mailbox?" He is sitting next to the mailbox in question, leaning back against his post. "We've always been growing up together, right?"

That's right!" his companion agrees cheerfully.

"Us and Tickety, and Sidetable, and Slippery, and Shovel and Pail?"

"Yep," Mailbox agrees again, but sounds just slightly confused. "Joe, something wrong?"

He shifts uncomfortably, not sure how to ask it. He likes the others very much, it's just... "Why're they still acting like babies? We're not still babies."

Mailbox considers his question, but seems to have no answer. Joe doesn't expect one. But he wants to ask, to get the thought out, to be certain he isn't the only one who's noticed... to reassure himself, maybe. Being called dumb and crazy by his classmates has made him insecure. Just a little.

No... he's not stupid. But it doesn't make sense, certainly not to his young mind. All his life, he's spent so much time at this place, yet it seems as if time is slowing. It bothers him, because these are his friends, and he finds himself unable to talk to them about his life. They are too young to understand.

So he sits at the end of the path with Mailbox, the only one who still seems to be his age. He wonders why, but writes it off to magic. After all, everything here is about the magic. The explanation is good enough for a seven-year-old. But still. For the first time...

Joe feels lonely.

Joe is eight.

Second grade is exciting, because the students' cubbies have been replaced with lockers. From observing his classmates he knows that he is not alone in enjoying this; his peers think that having lockers makes them seem grown up. For his part, he likes having a lock. His things go missing much less often these days.

This is the only good point of being in second grade, but he takes what he can get. And it isn't fair to claim he dislikes the new year in school. It would be okay if only he could go to the magic house afterward, the same as it has always been okay before.

But he can't.

He has nothing against staying home with Steve, not really. His brother is very nice, if a little distracted with his puppy. But that is normal, and Joe is used to it. The problem is that he is used to having his own friends to play with. Even if Mailbox is the only one he could really talk to, the others were all fun to hang out with. Life was good.

Not anymore. Though there is no shortage of classmates wanting to talk to him—classmates who do not know, or care, that their teasing is outdated. As he retrieves his backpack from his locker, he hears two of them approaching and grimaces. It is time to leave. Preferably quickly.

"Hey Joe, don't run away, we wanna talk to you!"

"Yeah, tell us again about your bestest friends in the whole world! Like the talking table!"

"Don't lie, she's your girlfriend isn't she?"

"Or does she not like you anymore?"

"Ooh, is that why you haven't talked about her?"

"Even the table knows how dumb you are!"

They burst into giggles. Joe keeps his eyes on the floor, because he knows that answering will only make it worse. He has tried answering. He has also tried telling them to go away, threatening to tell the teacher they're bothering him, hitting one of them, and expressing his sympathy that they don't know any talking mailboxes.

All these efforts have backfired in various ways, leaving him with avoidance as his best option. So he takes it. They can only follow him so far; they have to catch the bus. For not unrelated reasons, he is not riding the bus anymore. Home is not that far, and he has nothing better to do than walk anyway. And he enjoys the time outside.

Joe gets by.

Joe is ten.

He is hunched over beside his bed, all his attention focused on pieces of yellow and orange cloth spread out in front of him. Still, despite his concentration, he listens. And he never fails to hear approaching footsteps.

Though the door is closed, whenever he hears someone he quickly shoves the material under his bed until the coast is clear again. This is his secret. His special, very important project. He jealously guards it from everyone—but especially his brother. It's only fair.

After all, his brother has Blue. But Joe has no one, not really, not anymore. Until now.

His hands ache, and there are a few small streaks of blood across his right. His hand-eye coordination is not great, and he isn't good with needles. But he forges ahead. Lessons learned from his gym teacher, who constantly reminds his class: no pain, no gain. Maybe there are easier ways to achieve this goal. But doing the work by hand seems better, more fitting.

It will all be worth it. He has no doubt of that.

Finally he sets the needle aside and picks up the floppy mess of yellow. The instructions say to turn it inside-out; getting the whole thing turned is tricky, but still a nice reprieve from stabbing himself.

Already the shape is familiar, and his eyes light up with excitement. The hard part is finished now.

Impatience surges through him, but he forces it back. Nearly done. Now isn't the time to get careless and mess everything up. So, if anything, Joe goes slower. He follows the instructions with supreme focus, refusing to make any mistakes. Keeping the stuffing even is a trick; sewing the last hole closed is not so bad. Almost anticlimactic, really.

Finished. Grinning wildly, he examines the stuffed duck from every angle. It is beautiful. It's perfect. It's... his, and his alone.

His secret new friend.

"Quack," he giggles at the duck. "Quack quack." It doesn't answer, but he doesn't care. It's perfect anyway.

Joe names it Boris.

Joe is twelve.

The cold wind stings his face, but he is too angry to notice. It is impulse that has brought him outside, impulse that didn't even give him time to get a coat. His duck yes, a coat, not so much. So he runs, partly to warm himself, but not entirely.

He runs because it burns his energy, and he needs that badly. Nothing else seems to dispel the blistering fire of hurt and denial building inside him.

No no no no no no NO! Coherent thoughts are beyond him for the moment. Only the one word. No.

He runs as if he is being followed, though he isn't. Dusk is falling and he is alone—except for Boris, of course. His parents work late; he will be long gone by the time they know to look for him. As for Steve, he was shut up in his room doing homework.

Not, Joe thinks darkly, that Steve will care anyway. All Steve cares about is Blue. That much is obvious, and far more obvious now than ever before.

It feels he's been gone forever, though his watch claims it has only been ten minutes. Either way he is beginning to realize he has a problem. Slowly but surely, the fact forces its way through his blind charge—he has not been watching where he's going, and he is quite lost.

Once he accepts this, the only answer seems to be to keep going. All he really wants is to get away; if even he doesn't know where he is, nobody else can be expected to find him.

Finally his legs give out; he has been running too long. He finds himself in a park, naturally deserted at this time of evening and in this frigid weather. More than just tired, he is drained, and in his exhaustion doesn't care that the ground is damp and cold. Clutching Boris tight, he sits back against a tree and shivers.

The sun is setting, and for the first time he is frightened. Just a little. The chill is getting worse and he hugs his duck closer, telling himself it's for warmth, not from fear.

He watches the sunset. Were he a little more mature, more prone to introspection, it would seem like an apt metaphor. As it is, his thoughts are not on metaphors. They are on Steve.

His brother is moving out. Leaving... leaving him. He takes it personally because he knows no other way to take it. Steve has always been there; he can't leave now, can't abandon his little brother. He promised. But he is. And Joe hates him for it, hates him with an intensity only betrayal can spark.

But hate is tiring to maintain, and it's so cold... he wonders if anyone is looking for him yet. Briefly he even wonders if this was a bad idea, wonders what might happen if they don't find him... he shakes it off with a new surge of anger. No. He hopes they don't find him. He hopes he dies out here. That'll show Steve. That'll teach him a lesson.

Joe falls asleep shivering.

Joe is fifteen.

The sun is beginning to set as he jogs around the field, somewhere near the front of the pack. He prefers the twilight to the beginning of practice, where the sun is at full force and pounds the field without mercy. That's his opinion; he knows most of his teammates disagree. It's late, after all. They have social lives to attend to.

Good for them—he thinks that without bitterness. It is good for them, but he does not share their concerns, because practice pretty much is his social life.

This is an improvement, anyway. Since discovering a talent for soccer he is no longer an outcast, though he remains a bit distant. Not that it's immediately clear at first. He is naturally cheerful and outgoing, a trait which served him quite poorly when his classmates were intent on abusing him. It serves him better now; he can get along with anyone not predisposed to hating him.

It seems, to him, more natural. He can act more like himself. The lack of close friends doesn't bother him; actually, it's probably for the best. He really has not changed so much from the awkward dreamer who was so roundly mocked. Now he's simply an awkward dreamer who's learned to kick a ball around.

For that matter, his teammates are the same people who have, up until now, made his life miserable. But Joe doesn't dwell on that. He doesn't hold grudges.

Well... except the one grudge.

He files in with the others, gulping some water and exchanging cheerful "See you tomorrow"s with his teammates. Slowly they all leave, but he doesn't. He climbs onto the bleachers and watches what's left of the sunset.

This is an unfortunate ritual. He watches because it is beautiful, and Joe has a keen sense of beauty; he is always open to wonder, wonder others might overlook. But no matter how brilliantly the colors stream across the sky, he cannot quite shake off the shadow. A memory of a night not so very long ago, where he clutched Boris like a lifeline and watched the sun descend.

He refuses to cry; he is mature now, and far too old for tears. It builds character, he decided some time ago. Memories will not drive him away from the sunset. So he lets himself think, just for a few minutes, about how he has reached this point.

As always, he wonders how Steve is doing. It wouldn't be difficult to call and ask, of course... in theory. He will not do that.

With his brother gone, pride is all he has left. He doubts he will ever work up the courage to visit Steve... to reconcile, perhaps. Youthful spite still rules him too strongly. Recognizing the fact does not change it. He isn't quite that mature. So he plays soccer, watches the sunset, and tells himself that life is just fine.

Joe is good at lying.

Joe is eighteen.

As always, he hangs back after soccer practice, packing up his gear slowly so nobody will ask why he isn't leaving. After four years on the team, he doubts anyone will, but it is habit by now. But today is unusual; today his coach's voice breaks his concentration.

"Hey! Burns! Hold off a minute, I want to talk to you."

His first reaction is resentment; he does not like being called by his last name, though he has gotten used to it. His second reaction is worry; an old reflex, wondering what he's done wrong this time. But he cannot really be in trouble, because Coach Kelly prefers to handle discipline in front of the team. So he retreats to the bleachers and gives the coach a questioning look. "Okay?"

"We've got some scouts in looking at Snyder." Joe nods, unsurprised by this—Snyder is the team's star goalkeeper. But what this has to do with him he cannot guess, so he puts on his best get on with it expression. To his credit, the coach catches on. "One of 'em was asking about you. Said you could get an offer if you'd develop a little more finesse."

The news blindsides him. Admittedly, that is not difficult, but still. He blinks, taking a moment to go over those words in his mind and make sure they still mean what he thinks they mean. "Uhh..." But there is a problem. His initial shock is giving way to indifference, not excitement. So he hedges. "That, um... that's good to know, Coach. And...?"

His coach looks exasperated. He does have that effect on people. "Burns, would you drop the space cadet act for a minute? Just once? This is sort of a big deal."

If he is easily blindsided, he is even more easily amused, and 'space cadet act' is a new one. He suppresses a grin which would not be well-received, and nods. "Sorry."

"Eh." Coach Kelly waves off his apology. "So look, if you wanna go for it, it'll take some work. If you want any help, some extra practice or whatnot, you feel free to come talk to me. I'll give you whatever help I can."

"Sure, I'll do that... thanks, Coach." Though his tone barely changes, he makes it clear the conversation is finished. He knows already that he will not take the offer. So he watches his coach leave, then leans back on the bleachers and shakes his head.

Finesse. That amuses him very much.

No, he is not overly interested in developing more finesse. He is not interested in getting an offer from any scout who may have noticed him. Truth be told, he is not interested in college at all, but that probably isn't relevant.

To him, soccer is a hobby which makes high school bearable. Pursuing it further means more effort than he cares to expend; he can't be that excited about the game. Or much of anything else, really. His disinterest in the world is getting worse, not better, as he comes closer to moving out into it.

Perhaps it's foolish to shrug off the opportunity so quickly, but he can't help it. All he can do is follow his dreams. And there is a problem with that.

Joe has no dreams.

Joe is nineteen.

His apartment is small and quiet. And empty. If he were still in school he might like the quiet, something always in short supply in his classes. But he is not, and the months of constant silence are grating on him. There seems to be no easy answer. No matter how much noise he makes, the quiet only seems to get worse, and he has given up on that approach—he doesn't particularly want to be kicked out for bothering his neighbors.

The apartment is his parents' idea, one he still isn't sure he cares for. Fresh out of high school, he finds himself lost. Just... lost. He closes his eyes and flops back on his bed, thinking. That is why he's here, after all. To think. To try to find some dream, some ambition, some path he wants to follow.

It isn't that he is unappreciative. Not so many parents would be willing to send a child off to do nothing but 'find himself'. He has not told them—and does not plan to—that he isn't finding much of anything but silence. Besides, he can still hope. Maybe things will change.

Maybe not.

Without being fully aware of the action, he reaches up and pulls Boris off the table beside the bed. He thinks of the duck as his roommate, though he feels silly for doing so. He is much too old to be playing with stuffed animals.

Yet he knows, as he holds the duck close, it is not that simple. He has poured so much of his soul into the toy that he wonders if maybe, keeping Boris nearby will eventually give him his soul back.

These thoughts startle him. Deep thinking makes him uncomfortable; he wants to be cheerful. It just isn't so easy under these circumstances. His best attempts to imagine the future have come up empty. And while his parents have offered advice, he's mostly ignored it, because they don't understand... though it isn't their fault.

After all, they didn't grow up with magic. To them, life is simply life. To Joe, life is... boring.

On this whole journey of potential self-discovery, he has danced around that fact, and is beginning to realize he can't avoid it anymore. He is drawn back to that magical place where he left so many memories. And for the first time, he thinks he understands...

He knows why Steve left, as soon as he was able. Even with Blue around his brother must have felt it. The dull, quiet ache of normality after growing up in a world of imagination. Imagination, but not imagined. The magic is still there. Calling him.

Or is it his brother calling? He tries to find the resentment he's held for the last seven years, but it is surprisingly elusive. It could be a sign of maturity, but he doubts it. Not exactly. More that it's hard to be angry anymore, when he now knows he'd have done the same thing.

Of course, that isn't an option now. But then he reconsiders.

Maybe... maybe he can do this. It isn't time. It is long past time. He sits up, squeezes Boris tight to steady his nerves. Without resolving the past, he can't expect to have much of a future.

Joe picks up the phone.