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The Princess of Lazytown

Chapter Text

"The princess has been kidnapped by bandits."

Sir Rottenham, who served as Royal Princess Training Master to the young princess of the land of Lazytown, had been taking her highness out to the local town in the royal carriage. He had planned for her to have a quiet day indoors back at the castle today (as she did everyday) but the princess had pleaded so sweetly and earnestly to go outside. The delicious chocolate cake from the town on the other side of the Lazy Woods, she had argued while blinking her innocent brown eyes, would help her relax and sit still for the rest of the day. The Royal Training Master had been unable to resist her appeals. After all, he did care for her happiness even if his training methods often contradicted her bubbly and energetic nature. Her antics could at times be unbecoming of a princess, but he hoped in time to teach her proper royal behavior.

Of course that was before he had lost her to an infamous gang of bandits.

Now he stood cringing before her uncle, Lord Milford, who was acting ruler and highly alarmed at the absence of his niece.

"Bandits!?" Lord Milford gasped "Oh my! However did this happen? How can you be sure?"

Sir Rottenham gestured wildly as he spoke.

"She was inside of the carriage when I last saw her. So, naturally she ought to have stayed there, correct?"

"Well, I believe so."

"That's what I thought! And then we stop for one minute to let a senior citizen cross the road and that's when it happened!"

"What happened?"

"Well I think it must have happened. I ...uh, technically didn't notice she was missing until I had reached the town. But! When I opened the carriage door, there it was!"

"What was it? What was there?" Lord Milford clutched Sir Rottenhams waving arm.

"Nothing!" Shrieked Sir Rottenham, freeing his arm from his much shorter companion. He pulled at his own graying beard in distress. "Not a ribbon, not a hair not even a floor!"

"Well of course there wasn't a- did you say floor? Oh my, she must have fallen right out into the road."

Sir Rottenham squinted at his ruler, who was now rambling distractedly about carriage accidents and his personal experience with them. He clapped his hands onto Milford's shoulders and stared down into his round face.

"No no no no! The floor was cut away! There was a hole big enough that someone had gone through and snatched her away while we had stopped. No, this was definitely, absolutely, unfortunately..."

He straightened to his full height and raised a finger triumphantly.

"A kidnapping!"

"Oh this is terrible!" Milford wailed "Poor Stephanie! What an awful thing to happen to such a lovely girl. We must find her immediately- ah but then we need to know who took her in the first place and we have no clues to go on..."

"Ah." The Royal Training master cleared his throat "I actually have a pretty good idea who is behind this wretched scheme."

He presented an apple core, dangling it by the stem to avoid touching the fruit.

"My niece was kidnapped by... an apple tree?" Lord Milford raised his eyebrows. Rottenham sighed.

"The group who haunts your forest and harasses travelers on an annoyingly regular basis," he began.

"Yes." Milford nodded.

"With the leader who dresses in blue and gives apples away as if it's candy?"

"Oh. Right." Milford was pensive for a moment. "I suppose there is no other possibility."

"Exactly." Sir Rottenham set the apple core delicately on a nearby table and glared sternly at it.

"This was the work of the Blue Bandit."

 

Princess Stephanie couldn't help shouting. Sir Robert Rottenham, or Robbie as she had always called him, had told her that shouting and being noisy was very un-princess like. But Robbie wasn't here.

Stephanie barely felt guilty for tricking him and more pleased that their plan had worked so well. The 'Blue Bandit' had been her playmate since she had tied a note to the leg of a bluebird that sang at the window of her bedchamber high up on the castle wall. In the note she had poured out her boredom, her loneliness, her frustration at cards being the most exciting game she was allowed to play. Stephanie hadn't thought that anyone would actually read her scribbling, but hours after the bird had flown off with the message in tow, he had appeared.

Running up the wall in a superhuman way she hadn't thought possible and waving brightly at her from the ledge was a mustached man with the wild energy of a young boy and a funny blue hat. He had given her an apple and was confused when she said she had never had one before. When he tried to teach her to walk on her hands and she insisted that she couldn't, at least not in her princess gown, he had nodded understandingly. They had played many games that afternoon and before he left he promised to return the following day. The stranger slipped a blue mask down over his eyes before climbing into the ledge.

"Wait!" Stephanie had gasped. "Are you that guy? The- the Blue Bandit?"

The peasants of Lazytown buzzed with stories about the blue-masked man who made mischief for those who ventured into the woods. The details of his existence depended on who you asked, as is usual with local legends, but the princess felt somehow she was meeting the real deal.

The Bandit winked and extended his hand.

"But you can call me Sportacus."

They shared a vigorous handshake and he had jumped off the window ledge, performing a flip before landing soundlessly on the ground below. Then he was gone.
True to his word, he had returned the next day as soon as Stephanie had finished her daily scheduled royal wave. The Royal Princess Training Master had planned for her to read quietly in the library that afternoon, but she had yawned and stretched and excused herself for a much encouraged nap instead. Sportacus arrived at her window with two surprises in hand. One was a tunic and tights as pink as the ringlets on her head. He had called them 'play clothes'.

The other was chubby 6 year old boy with messy blond hair and a dash of freckles on his button nose. He was sucking on some hard candy (which he kindly offered to the princess, though she politely declined) and introduced himself as Ziggy.

"You're his son?" Stephanie asked the boy, gesturing to the blue clad man who was clearing furniture from the center of the room. He lifted a table with one arm and laughed triumphantly.

Ziggy was laughing too.

"Sportacus isn't my father! He's our leader!" The boy adjusted the mask tied around his forehead "I'm a bandit just like the other kids."

"There are children among the bandits?" This didn't seem safe to Stephanie, going off of what Robbie had told her about how children ought to be raised.

"No, all of us are kids! There's me and Stingy and- oh except Sportacus isn't a kid. He can act silly like one though!"

Their attention turned to Sportacus who was stretched out on the floor in a perfect split. He was grinning.

"Ready to learn?"

 

The princess left at sunrise the next morning, long before Sir Robert would wake and begin their day of princess training. She was dressed in her new play clothes and a pink cloak with the hood covering her head. Clutching the crude map Ziggy had drawn for her she darted through the sleepy castle and eased open the gate. A thousand fears accompanied her first step onto the soft grass on the other side. She stopped. The woods were 20 yards away, sheltering a tantalizing new world of reckless freedom. And also unpredictable danger. She ran for the trees.

By the time Stephanie found the bandits camp she was no longer running. She had been following the small river according to the map but it had been hours and the despair that comes with being lost was weighing her down. Tears of frustration and regret began welling in her eyes as she slumped down on a nearby tree stump in defeat.

"I should have stayed inside." She sighed miserably to herself.

Thunk!

Something bounced against the tree behind her. Stephanie whirled around and spotted the object. An apple core. A bush rustled somewhere to her right.

"Who's there?" She called, hoping her voice didn't give away her panic. Another apple core flew at her from the direction of the bush. Thunk! She shrieked and took off running downstream in a frenzy. The faint sound of mocking laughter reached her ears just before a familiar voice.

"Trixie! Trixie don't- that's my friend!"

"Ziggy?!" Stephanie stopped in her tracks and whirled around, panting.

"Oh hi Stephanie!" Ziggy tumbled out of a bush and pulled his colorful mask off his sweet face. He looked over his shoulder. "Trixie it's okay, you don't have to be mean!"

A girl with tan colored skin and wild black pigtails jumped out from behind a tree. She held a slingshot at the ready, as well as another apple core.

"She's on our territory, Ziggy! Wait till Sportacus hears you let some pink intruder dance into our camp!" She did not lower the slingshot.

"Sportacus knows her, Trixie. This is the princess him and me were visiting yesterday." Ziggy explained, taking Stephanie's hand and pulling her closer to Trixie. Trixie scoffed.

"She doesn't look much like a princess to me."

Stephanie was conscious of this. Her hair was undone and in a mess, and her new tights and tunic were covered in rips and dirt. She was a strange pink sight. But Trixie tossed away the apple core and tucked her slingshot into her belt.

"I guess we can't leave her out here to be eaten by the wolves."

"Wolves?" The princess asked, startled. Trixie's face lit up.

"Yeah, wolves! Lots of big bad wolves out here in the woods. They'll eat you and your little pink hood up like birthday cake! Ha ha!"

Ziggy squeezed Stephanie's hand tighter as Trixie prowled away, laughing and making wolf noises.

"Come on Stephanie, you have to come meet everyone and see where we live and and Sportacus will be back soon- boy will he be surprised to see you!"

He was leading her forward when suddenly she froze. Ziggy continued to tug on her arm as she looked down on him in surprise.

"You didn't tell Sportacus I was coming?"

It was Ziggys turn to freeze. His blue eyes went wide.

"Uh Oh."

Chapter Text

Pixel sighed as his eye caught a pale hand sneaking into his toolbox yet again.

"Stingy, I told you. Please leave it alone!"

"But it's mine."

The boys were sitting at their campsite under the tall apple tree in the center of a clearing. Pixel was working on one of his projects, combinations of machinery and magic that he called 'gizmos'.

"It's ours to share and I need it right now."

"Well I need it too."

"For what?"

Stingy tapped the tool against his hand defiantly.

"Things."

"Yeah, right. You're just going to run off and look at it."

"And what is wrong with that?"

"Nothing, as long as you give it back when I need it," Pixel said, then added hopefully "Or you could hold onto it and help me work on this gizmo."

Stingy considered the offer.

"If I work on it does that make it mine?"

"Not really but it would be our...uh...our..." Pixels voice trailed off and his eyes were frozen to something behind Stingy.

"Pixel? Pixel? Is there something behind me?" Stingy turned his head to check and did a double take. Ziggy was bouncing into their clearing, dragging a tall girl in pink by the hand.

"Hi Pixel! Hi Stingy!" The boy bubbled.

"Ziggy," Stingy sniffed "who is this?"

"This is Stephanie! Oh I mean Princess Stephanie, she's a friend of Sportacus and me- oh, Stephanie, this is Stingy and that's Pixel!"

"Hello Stingy!" Stephanie greeted brightly "Hello Pixel, it's very nice to meet you."

Stingy nodded in response and turned to Pixel, who was still gazing at the girl with the same look he had when he discovered a new spell for a gizmo. Stingy nudged him and he jolted.

"Are you okay there friend?"

"Yeah I'm wonderful." was Pixels only response. He noticed Stephanie looking at the jumble of objects scattered on the ground around him. Her mouth opened in question when Stingy spoke up.

"That's a nice cloak. It looks expensive"

"Oh, thank you." She had barely processed the question when-

"Can I have it?"

"Um."

"Guys!" Ziggy butted in "Stephanie hasn't eaten yet today."

"Oh no," Pixel stood up "You didn't eat breakfast? That's the most important meal of the day!"

"That's what Sportacus says." Ziggy assured Stephanie.

"Stay here, I'll get you something to eat." Pixel moved toward the apple tree, then turned back around to Ziggy. "Wait, didn't you go off with Trixie? Where is she?"

"I thought she came back here. Maybe she went to look out for Sportacus?"

"Can you go look for her just to be sure?"

"Okay I'll see if she's at the lookout, I'll be right back Stephanie! Don't go anywhere!"

Ziggy bounded off toward the river and Stephanie giggled at the boys explosive way of speaking. She spotted Pixel standing underneath the apple tree. He pointed upwards.

"Ladder!"

A rope ladder unfurled down the trunk of the tree with a faint glitter that Stephanie recognized as magic. For the first time she noticed the crooked but spacious treehouse nestled high in the branches, nearly concealed by the thick foliage. The dark skinned boy nimbled up the ladder and disappeared among the leaves. Stephanie was so entranced that she forgot she wasn't alone on the ground. A cough snapped her attention to her remaining companion.

"Why did Ziggy call you 'princess Stephanie' " Stingy questioned.

"He called me that because I'm a princess. I live in the castle outside the woods."

Stingy gasped dramatically.

"Well then, my fellow highness, I will let you know that I am a prince myself. You may be wondering what I am doing living in the woods among these bandits instead of- oh, wait-"

Stingys hands searched his head for a moment. He dashed off and reappeared with a circlet of gold around his brown hair.

"Ah, yes that's better. What was I saying?"

Stephanie dropped into her most royal curtesy. The one Robbie had taught her when she was four and Sportacus had imitated endearingly when they had first met.

"It is an honor to meet you, prince Stingy."

Stingy, clearly touched, bent over in a gracious bow.

"Likewise, princess Stephanie."

His crown fell on the grass.

"Oops."

Stephanie giggled, kneeling to scoop up the crown and set it back in Stingy's head. He thanked her as Pixel came running back from the tree holding an apple.

"Thank you, Pixel!" Stephanie exclaimed gratefully as she bit into the fruit with relish. Pixel ran a hand through his fiery hair.

"No problem. Sorry that's all we have right now. Sportacus is coming back with more supplies soon, but in the meantime there's always apples on the tree."

"Pixel, that was magic you were using on the ladder, right?" Stephanie pointed to the treehouse, where the ladder had finished curling itself up neatly at the door. Pixel nodded.

"That's right. And that's not the only gizmo I have around here," he gestured to the assortment of objects on the ground.

"Gizmo?" She repeated the unfamiliar word.

"That's what I call my inventions." He picked up a box shaped object. "But most of them aren't finished. Someday I'm going to make carriages that move without horses, and houses that fly... But for now-"

He turned a small wheel on the side of the box and with a magical glimmer, a nearby falling leaf stopped in midair. He turned the wheel again and the leaf continued fluttering in the breeze.

"That's amazing!" Stephanie blurted. She had never seen magic done by an ordinary kid before. Or at least he seemed ordinary. He wore a mask pushed up on his forehead just like Ziggy and Sportacus, but also strange jewelry-like gear over his ears. Stephanie was deciding whether or not to ask about this when she felt a stiff tap on her back.

"What are you up to today, your highness?" Sportacus's voice appeared over her shoulder and she turned around to meet his bewildered eyes. "I wasn't expecting to see you all the way out here today. Ziggy just let me know."

Ziggy waved bashfully from his perch on the mans shoulders. It was strange to see the Blue Bandit out here in what was obviously his natural habitat, and Stephanie suddenly felt frail and alien.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to intrude, I wasn't thinking." What was she thinking? She didn't belong to this group of incredible marauders. Hers was a very different lifestyle, sedentary and comfortable. She must look pathetic out here. She wasn't strong enough, or brave enough, or tough enough...or enough.
Why wasn't she ever good enough?

A wave of something inside her heart surged and crashed against a dam she didn't know existed. She could feel the pressure building in her mind as the world started to blur in front of her eyes. The dam broke and a strangled sob burst free.

"Stephanie?" She sensed Sportacus crouch in front of her as she covered her face with her hands and cried. He was ushering to the other kids to give her space and waited patiently.

Now she must really look pathetic. She was crying in front of her new hero. Why why why.

"Sorry-" she managed to let out between gasps. She felt a steady hand on her shoulder. Sportacus spoke softly.

"You don't have to say sorry. It's okay. I'm not sure why you are crying but I want you to know that I think you are a very brave girl."
His accent made 'very' sound like 'worry' and she couldn't help a tiny smile among her sniffles.

"Stephanie, listen, you are my friend and you are always welcome wherever I am. You belong anywhere you want."

She took the biggest shaky breath she could manage.

"B-but I'm n-not...not..."

"Not what?"

"Enough."

"Enough what?" He inquired in the gentlest voice imaginable.

"Enough for... this." She swung her arm around in the general direction of everything. The Blue Bandit kneeled lower in the dirt and touched the tearful princess's arm.

"Stephanie, please look at me." And as she raised her head she saw the look on his face was kind but serious and realized how much she liked the funny way he said her name.

"You have had a very strange life I think, so my life is strange to you. But everybody here, me and all these kids? We all come from different lives. And every one of us brings some of that with us. It makes us strong together. By being my friend, you make me stronger. Because you are more than enough, Stephanie. Everything you need," he pointed to her shaking chest "is right inside of your heart. So you have to believe in yourself, okay?"

Stephanie started crying again, but these were different tears. She dropped her arms around Sportacus's neck and buried her face in his shoulder, creating dark wet spots in his blue vest. His hug was strong and solid as an oak tree and his hands gently patted her back.

"I believe in you. We all do."

He must have signaled to the other children because Ziggy appeared beside her, hugging her waist as high as he could reach. She felt Pixel's reassuring hand in her arm and Stingys voice agreeing with Sportacus. She released her hold on his neck and straightened up, swallowing the last of her tears. It was then that she spotted the other girl over the Blue Bandit's shoulder. Trixie had emerged from the woods and was pretending like she hadn't seen the whole scene. When she noticed Stephanie's eyes on her she quickly pulled herself into a casual walk over to the group.

"So is Pinkie in now?" She asked in a loud voice, all heads turning toward her. Her face wore an expression that dared anyone to ask 'where have you been' and her gaze locked with Stephanie's red and swollen eyes.

"Only if she wants in." Sportacus answered for her. He rose to his feet and folded his arms over his broad chest expectantly.

Stephanie fiddled with the hem of her cloak, her gaze flitting from face to eager face. She knew what she wanted, badly, but was she ready? Would she ever be ready?
Believe in yourself, Stephanie.

She nodded her head.

"She's nodding," commented Stingy.

"Does that mean you want to be one of us?" Ziggy asked her eagerly.

"Yes," replied Stephanie firmly. "Yes I do."

"Awesome!" Pixel blurted a little too enthusiastically. Sportacus chuckled and Stephanie's face broke into a happy grin. Her fears were still present but she no longer felt alone to face them. Something caught her eye to her left and she turned to see Trixie's hand offering her a slightly dirty white handkerchief.

"You have some snot on your nose." She explained with a cool smile. Though her face betrayed very little, Stephanie could see the kind meaning behind the gesture and took the handkerchief gratefully. She dried her face and blew her nose in a loud way that would certainly have annoyed her Royal Training Master. If only he could see her now.

"Oh no."

"What's wrong Stephanie?" Sportacus asked, stopping his celebratory high jumps out of concern.

"What time is it?"

"According to my time-of-day gizmo, it's almost noon." Pixel was checking a set of multicolored stones set into his single bracer. Stephanie grabbed her hair.

"Oh no!"

"What's wrong?" Sportacus repeated.

"Rob- the Royal Princess Training Master is awake by now! He'll notice I'm missing, if uncle Milford hasn't already..."

She suddenly remembered her kind uncle. He couldn't be around to raise her much because he was busy working hard for the kingdom, but he loved her and always made a little time at the end of the day to spend with her. Would he think badly of her for associating with bandits? She decided to shelf that thought for later.

"I thought you wanted to spend the day with us?" Sportacus was confused.

"I do but- just not today. I have to... make some arrangements first." She looked around. "I don't know my way back."

"I will take you home." Sportacus assured her. "Just give me a minute."

Opening the large sack Stephanie had just noticed he had brought with him, he gathered the kids around him and began digging out items from within.

"Here you go, Ziggy!" He placed a small bag of sweets into the child's eager hands. He had brought gifts for everyone, bowstrings for Trixie, a clay pig for Stingy, and a few glass jars for Pixel. Stephanie watched them receive their gifts with delight. She wasn't expecting one herself and was caught off guard when Sportacus pointed to her and reached once more into the bag, retrieving a small coil of rope with wooden sticks on either end. As he gave it to her, she thanked him in what must have been a tone of confused gratitude. She clearly did not know what it was.

"It's a jump rope!" He laughed. "I'll show you how to use it on the way back to the castle."

The children showered her with goodbyes, hugs, and well wishes. Sportacus let them know that there was food in the sack and watched them dig in before heading into the woods with Stephanie. He could jump rope as fast as she could walk and soon had her skipping along as if she'd done it all her life. They reached the edge of the forest in less time than it had taken Stephanie to reach the camp and circled around the palace to her bedroom window.

"I have to get up there somehow," the princess pointed to the high ledge. She looked back to Sportacus and saw him crouching on the ground, bending his arm to point at his back.

"Climb on!"

"No way."

"I won't drop you-"

"It's too high!"

"You saw me do it with Ziggy," he pointed out.

"Ziggy is..." She held her hand to the boys height. "Small."

Sportacus laughed (as he often did).

"You are not so big yourself."

With some coaxing, she wrapped her arms and legs around the man's torso and he stood up as if there was nothing on his back at all.

"Hold on tight!"

Stephanie shut her eyes for a moment as he raced toward the wall. When they were a few feet away he jumped high in the air and ran vertically up the rough stone. It was exhilarating to watch from her perch as she clung tightly to his back. In only a few seconds he had pulled himself up on the ledge, carefully vaulting over and crouching on the floor so she could get down. She stumbled away, giggling from the excitement. They both jumped at the sound of a loud knock on the door.

"Stephanie? Are you awake?" Came the muffled voice of her uncle. "I thought I heard you moving about in there-"

"I'm awake, Uncle Milford." Stephanie called, frantically shoving Sportacus as he slid under the bed without a sound. "The door is locked, I'm coming!"

She was about to run to the door when she remembered how she was dressed. She flung off her cloak and searched wildly for her dressing gown, hoping that Milford wouldn't notice her dirty shoes beneath it. He grinned at her as she opened the door with a sleepy smile and her best fake yawn.

"Ah, good morning Stephanie! Although it isn't morning anymore, more like afternoon actually. I didn't see you all morning. Are you doing alright? You look practically glowing!"

"I was just really really tired. I just stayed up really late last night, uh, reading my history books."

"But you must have read through them a thousand times. Oh, I suppose a girl as bright as you can never get too much education. Would you like some hot cocoa?"
"I'll come down in just a minute, uncle. I have to get dressed." She instantly regretted drawing attention to her clothes. Milford didn't seem to notice and instead pulled her into an unexpected hug.

"I'll be in the dining room." He called over his shoulder as he left.

Stephanie closed the door and re-locked it. Sportacus rolled out from under the bed and brushed off his clothes.

"There are a lot of books under there."

"Hey, can I come out tonight?" Stephanie asked, changing the subject. Sportacus shook his head.

"Sorry, bedtime is 8 minutes past sundown every night," he leaned down conspiratorially. "Except when we are on a special mission."

"What does that mean?"

He wiggled a finger at her.

"You'll find out." Sportacus winked and cartwheeled to the window ledge.

"I have to go now," he said.

"Okay." She nodded, although she didn't want him to leave. She was still a little embarrassed about crying earlier- wait, had Milford seen her swollen eyes?

"Just remember, I am never far away if you need me." He jumped up to crouch on the ledge. "Bye bye, Stephanie!"

"Bye!" She waved as he swished his arms and back flipped off the wall. She raced forward to see him land but he was nowhere in sight.

"How does he do that?" She wondered out loud. Her eyes scanned the scenery below before falling on a single red apple left on the ledge. Stephanie grinned, grabbing the fruit before hurrying to change her clothes.

Chapter Text

Milford was absentmindedly stirring the hot kettle of cocoa, so lost in thought that he hardly noticed Sir Robert Rottenham grumble into the dining room. His arms swung side to side from his hunched shoulders and his brow clenched in a ferocious scowl. The Royal Princess Training Master collapsed dramatically into a chair and rested his heels on the table. Milford disapproved but showed no signs of it.

"Ah, good afternoon, Sir Rottenham ." He greeted in his amiable way. "I found Stephanie. She slept so late that she's just coming down for breakfast. Oh, that girl. Always up all night reading."

Sir Robert huffed and folded his arms.

"Yes, well, you can bet she is." He rumbled, clearly bothered.

"Something bothering you, my friend?" Milford stopped stirring the cocoa, tapping the spoon against the rim of the kettle tidily so as not to lose a precious drop. The tall man gave him a side glance before resuming staring at the space between his shoes.

"It's those books again, the- the- the 'Robbing Hood' and the pirate island or whatever, and the fairy tales! Full of nonsense and violence and they encourage bad things you know! She's getting ideas, I can tell. And at such an impressionable age!"

He huffed again, dropping his dramatically gesturing arms. Sir Robert tended to talk in body language, which could be amusing to watch although it did tire him out often. Everything tired him out.

Milford shook his head.

"She is a growing girl. She needs to learn and go explore different things. What's the harm? She can't stay inside these walls forever."

"That's exactly what she's going to do. She's a princess isn't she? Or at least she will be when my job is done. Although at this rate I will be stuck in these Princess Training Master robes forever!"

"For how long did you say?"

"Forever!!"

"Oh my."

"When she comes of age and takes the crown, what then? Will all of my backbreaking hard work training her produce a proper royal leader? Or will she go galavanting away on some pointless quest, leaving us to never see her again?"

His eyes grew distant for a moment before snapping back to his displeased expression.

"Some days, my lord, I just do not know."

Milford was aware that a more delicate subject lay beneath this particular frustration. It was difficult for the both of them and never brought up, only smoothed over again and again, like icing over a bitter and ugly cake. Milford was particularly good at icing cakes, both real and metaphorical.

"It's just a phase, Sir Robert. She really does take your lessons to heart. Just give it time to come to the surface," he lifted the lid of the kettle and peered inside. "You care about her."

Sir Robert was silent for a moment, his face twitching.

"I've always cared for her, just as you have. And no matter what happens I... I always will." He said with solemn resolution, then smirked and closed his eyes lazily. "Though if she keeps shouting indoors and walking on the parapets I'll lock her up in the dungeon for the rest of her life."

"Stephanie!" Milford's voice squeaked and Sir Robert almost tipped over backwards in his chair, only just catching onto the table. He spotted the princess bouncing up to her uncle with an energetic smile on her face.

"That smells good, uncle!"

"Oh it certainly is. Let me pour you a cup." As her uncle busied himself choosing a mug. Stephanie turned to the other man.

"Robbie, you know we don't have a dungeon."

"Not yet." Robbie twirled his mustache between his fingers. "And the line is 'good afternoon, Sir Robert, you look handsome and put-together as always'."

Stephanie put on a sarcastic expression and dropped an equally sarcastic curtsy.

"Good afternoon, Sir Robbie, you have cake frosting in your beard." She poked the grey fuzz covering his large pointy chin and giggled when he pushed away her hand, making blustery noises.

"Sit down and drink your chocolate goo like the princess I am obligated to believe you are."

Stephanie rolled her eyes (earning another reprimand) and sat down on a chair with the mug of cocoa Milford handed her. She blew into the steaming drink to cool it and to further annoy her Training Master.

"It's good to see you. You're usually way way too busy to make cocoa." She addressed her uncle.

"One can never be too busy to make cocoa," the man said with a twinkle in his eye. He found the process of making cocoa soothing, and the result delicious. "But it's so strange, I was supposed to go oversee repairs on some fences in town today. It would have taken all day, but this morning Lady Busybody rode in to tell me that they've all been fixed. Isn't that fortunate?"

Stephanie nodded.

"But if it wasn't you, who did fix the fences?"

"That's the strange part, nobody knows. It just...happened overnight. Ah, well, I suppose one should never question a good thing, especially if it means I get to spend the day with my favorite niece." Milford sipped his own cocoa, which was a little too hot and made his eyes momentarily bulge from pain.

"What did you want to do today?" The niece asked innocently, having a few ideas of her own.

"Why, I don't know. I didn't have any plans...oh! Perhaps we could bake a cake!"

Robbie perked up with sudden interest but Stephanie winced internally. Baking was fun, especially with Milford, but they had cake all the time and she was still buzzing with energy from her adventure-filled morning.

"Or we could-," she shrugged as casually as she could. "play something outside?"

She heard Robbie tip over in his chair beside her. She offered him a hand but he waved her away and clambered agonizingly off the floor reach the tabletop.

"Princesses," he began to take a deep breath.

"...Do not play outside." Stephanie finished for him and rose from her chair quickly and calmly, her expression blank. "May I be excused, my Lord?"

She began to leave without waiting for an answer. Sir Robert was completely still with shock, one reprimanding finger still raised and his mouth stuttering the ghost of his interrupted sentence. Milford started to chase after his niece when the girl stopped in the doorway and began backing into the room. Milford heard the reason why before he saw it.

"Miiiiiilford!" The voice of Lady Bessie Busybody rang sharp and clear against the stone walls. Though Bessie was a stout woman and even the high piles of her fading hair failed to make her remotely tall, she never failed to fill a room with her overwhelming presence. She had at some point taken Stephanie's arm and was patting the girls wrist dotingly as she continued talk at Milford.

"Milford you will not believe it! Those stories of bandits in the Lazy Woods really are true!"

She went on to explain the exciting story of how she was out socializing in town when a wagon had rolled into the square stripped down to the frame and wheels, and its angry driver clad only in his long underwear. She taken it upon herself to answer his enraged yells and learned that he was a servant from the court of the Purple Knight, who ruled the land of Rottington beyond the forest and had tried, in the past, to seize Lazytown and the castle for his own. The servant had been sent by the Knight to deliver a message to Lord Milford, but as he rode through the woods was delayed and robbed by masked bandits not far from the town. They had stolen his supplies, his clothes, and even the wood from his wagon. Then they had fed his horse an apple, gave him another and disappeared into the woods.

"He described them as nearly twenty huge men, all armed to the teeth! It's good that he was not harmed I suppose, but he was rather rude and demanded to know the route to the castle. Mind you, I gave him the longest one and came straight here to warn you, Milford. You should have about a quarter of an hour, if that man took my advice to get some new clothes before he arrives." She smiled smugly.

"Oh thank you, Lady Busybody!" Milford had broken into a sweat and hoped she wouldn't notice.

"Why Milford, you're all sweaty! You must put on your best robes immediately!" Bessie turned to Sir Rottenham. "And you! Into your armor, we must make an impression on our guest."

Robbie groaned but scrambled to his feet and hastened down the hall. Stephanie, left alone as Bessie dragged Milford off to get dressed, lifted her wide skirt and hurried after him.

"Robbie, wait!" She caught up to him with ease. "I can help you with your armor."

"No," he huffed. "I don't need your help."

"But you haven't worn it in so long! What if it doesn't fit? Who will do your buckles? What-"

"I will do it all by myself, and you..." He emphasized by not-so-gently tapping her nose. "...are going to go to your room, close your window, and read those horrible fairy tales you think I don't know about."

Stephanie folded her arms and raised her eyebrows.

"If I close my window how am I supposed to read in the dark?"

"Good point," Robbie reached the armory and swung open the unlocked door. "Take a nap."

Stephanie sighed in frustration as the door slammed shut behind him.

"But I'm not tired."

And she certainly wasn't staying in her room while their unwelcome guest delivered his message. She wanted to know more about the bandits who had robbed him. From the description it couldn't have been Sportacus and the kids, was there another group in the forest? And what did the Purple Knight want from her uncle?
Stephanie knew that the messenger would be received in the throne room, which was fortunately one of her favorite places for occasional one-sided games of hide and seek with Robbie. The walls were covered with drapes heavy enough that if you stood still behind them you could pass for one of the folds. The throne itself was not a bad hiding spot either, under or behind it.

But the best seat in the house was a secret that as far as she knew was hers alone. The entrance to the throne room was flanked by decorative metal grates and the one to the left of the door actually slid sideways along the wall. Behind it was a crevice just big enough for her to wiggle through into a larger hollow inside the wall. Once she slid the grate back into place, the shadows of the hollow made her invisible against the dark stone wall. She crouched there now, peering through the crevice at Milford and Bessie as they dusted off the red cushions of the throne.

"Don't be nervous, Milford. Just tell him what you told him last time." Lady Busybody clicked as Lord Milford fidgeted in the fancy chair.

"I'm not quite sure what I did tell him last time. It was a few years ago, but I do remember how angry he was when we sent him away. It was just terrible, Lady Busybody. But at least we only have to speak to his servant this time. What does he look like, by the way?"

"Well he looks-" her head twisted suddenly toward the door. "He looks like that."

A bow legged man wearing mismatched peasants clothes and a tight sneer on his poorly shaven face stalked down the length of the room with Sir Rottenham in close pursuit. His armor was slowing down his usual long stride. Stephanie could see that it was a little tight in the middle. Milford gave him a bewildered look and Robbie replied with an equally bewildered shrug.

"Lord Milford, I presume?" The messenger snarled raspily.

"Yes, yes." Milford was sitting as straight as he could on the throne. "And who might you be? what is your business here?"

"I serve the Purple Knight, and I have a message for you...wait." He pointed at Bessie, who glanced at him nonchalantly. "Didn't you just- in the town-"

"What about the message, friend?" Milford pressed quickly. The servant shot him a haughty glare.

"The Purple Knight sends you this message," the man reached inside his shirt, apparently did not find what he was looking for, and began frantically searching the rest of his person.

"Looking for this?" Sir Robert waved a scroll of paper at the messenger, purple ribbons dangling off the broken seal. He tossed it back to the man.

"I already read it, though the handwriting is atrocious. Apparently our friend across the woods means to challenge your claim on Lazytown, Lord Milford." Sir Rottenham yawned. "What a waste of time."

"Do not take this so lightly, fool." Said the servant through gritted teeth. "The Purple Knight has proof that he owns this castle and the town and everything in between!"

"Oh, but he doesn't expect us to believe that he is a closer relative of the Blue Knight than I am?" Lord Milford asked more to Robert than to the servant. "Haven't we settled that already? As the Queen's brother, the castle is my responsibility."

"According to the message, he is the older brother of the Blue Knight, blah blah entitlement blah blah." Sir Robert explained with deliberate boredom. "Still means nothing. The Queen ruled Lazytown, not her husband."

"Aha! That is where you are wrong!" The servant accusingly shouted.

"Go on." Said Milford simply.

"Six years ago, in this very month of June, your sister the Queen vanished from the kingdom. The Blue Knight ruled in her absence, however miserably, until Christmas Day that same year when he also disappeared. Thus, he was the most recent ruler of Lazytown, and so his kingdom should fall to his living elder brother. Am I wrong?"

"Of course," snorted Robbie "The Blue Knight was an acting ruler. He was never crowned like the Queen was. He expected her to come back..."

"Has Lord Milford been crowned?" Demanded the servant. "If he were to... disappear, who would rule then?"

"My closest relative." Milford answered quietly.

"Which is who?"

Still hidden in the wall, Stephanie held her breath. Milford hesitated before replying.

"Why, the Purple Knight I suppose."

Stephanie blinked in confusion. Not her? His niece and the actual heir to the throne?

"You see, my lord," the servant smiled insincerely, revealing his gleaming gold tooth. "Just how fragile your grip is."

"I- I suppose..." Milford stuttered. Bessie was shaking her head and Robbie looked livid. Stephanie couldn't take the sight of the Purple Knight's lackey standing proudly in her home as if he was the one living there. She wouldn't stand for that. She slid the grate open silently, and crept unnoticed from her hiding spot.

"The Purple Knight would graciously allow you to remain as the castle staff if you do not wish to leave." The servant drawled smugly.

"You are the one who needs to leave!"

Seeing everyone's eyes suddenly focused behind him, the servant turned to see who was speaking. He straightened in surprise at the sight of the young princess. She stood tall as she was able, hands folded regally in front of her. her face was a picture of cold determination.

"Who are you?" The servant snarled.

"I am Princess Stephanie, daughter of the Queen of Lazytown and the Blue Knight. And I will be inheriting Lazytown and this castle when I come of age." She spoke clearly, her high and girlish voice echoing around the room.

"Which will be very soon." She added.

Stephanie temporarily ignored the faces of her comrades, which ranged from stunned to horrified, instead focusing on staring down the leering servant as he looked her up and down from her pink ringlets to the hem of her long hoop skirt.

"Is that so?"

"Yes. As the actual heir, I have the only claim to the throne."

"Is that right?" He started to move toward her but Robbie grabbed the back of his shirt.

"Time to go, my friend." He dragged the struggling man past Stephanie and out the door without so much as looking at her. They could hear the servants indignant cries as he was pulled down the hallway.

Stephanie stared at the empty doorway. She had seen Robbie's face for a second as he moved past her, and his expression was something she didn't recognize. Her stomach hurt.

She felt Milford's hand touch her shoulder and turn her to face him. His eyes looked tired and his mouth looked worried. Bessie appeared by her side and busied herself fixing Stephanie's rumpled skirts.

"Did you hear all of this?" Her uncle asked. She nodded, and he sighed.

"Well, I suppose you ought to know. Your other uncle, The Purple Knight, is very unpredictable. We decided to keep you a secret from him because he is also very ruthless and determined to take the town for himself. We were afraid that he would try to use you to his advantage. He has as much right to raise you as I do, you know." Milford shook his head. "Oh, Stephanie. I didn't want to frighten you at so young an age."

"Uncle, I'm almost twelve. I'm not a little kid anymore." He chuckled a little as she continued. "You don't have to keep secrets from me."

"I don't want to keep secrets from you, aside from my hot cocoa recipe." Milford told her seriously.

"But it's a family recipe! I should inherit it with the castle." She argued, earning a laugh from both Milford and Bessie. She heard clanking in the doorway and turned her head to see Robbie pause, salute to Milford and and continue down the hall. His expression had returned to normal, but he still hadn't given her a single glance.

"May I go to my room, uncle?" She asked absently.

"Is something wrong, my dear?"

"I'm okay. I just want to be alone for a little."

"Alright," Milford pulled her in for his second hug today. "Let me know if you need anything."

"Okay, Uncle." she started to pull away but her uncle held her tight.

"Anything." He repeated.

 

Stephanie flopped onto her bed, rolled over on her stomach and kicked her legs while she stared out the open window. The dewy morning had become almost a hot summery day. She wanted to put on her play clothes and practice the splits, but something was nagging her. She couldn't stop thinking about the strange expression on Robbie's face, and how he had completely ignored her. Was he angry at her? That usually involved a lot more shouting and wiggly arm gestures. This was just cold, for him.

"Ugh." She sighed, and jumped off the bed to go find him.

Chapter Text

Robbie stomped around the armory. He could use magic to take off his armor in a flash, but he was far too distracted. He pulled off the pieces and flung them around the room.

 


"Such poor hospitality!" The servant had spit as he struggled out of Sir Robert's grip. He straightened his ill fitting clothes and stalked across the courtyard to his horse and the remains of his wagon. "I was just having such a nice chat with her highness, too. Why the rush? Afraid I'll see right through your little trick?"

Robbie growled as the servant hopped confidently into the wagon seat.

"There is no child of the Queen and the Blue Knight, the Purple knight would know about it. So I suggest you take your little brat and vacate this castle as soon as you can. Good day." He clicked the reins and the wagon lurched forward. Robbie grabbed the horse's bridle and stopped him.

"She's real." He said bluntly, his face hardened in a scowl. The servant stared at him. "Everyone in Lazytown knows about Princess Stephanie. Your master doesn't because he's an idiot."

Sir Robert gloated inwardly at the look of baffled offense on his opponent's face.

"Are you suggesting the Purple Knight would be unaware of his own niece?!" The servant demanded.

"Well, he was never much of a family man was he?"

"Preposterous!" The servant blustered, then added, "If she is the daughter of the Blue Knight, she should be raised by the Purple Knight. I'm sure that's what he would want."

"She's thirteen," Robbie lied. Well, more exaggerated, he reasoned. "He can't touch her unless she wishes it."

"We'll see about that." The servant sniffed. Sir Robert gave his horse a slap, causing him to fall backwards as his wagon lurched forward. Sir Robert watched the rickety thing disappear beyond the gate. He drummed his fingers in thought for a moment, then turned and stomped back into the castle.

 

"Robbie?" Stephanie called quietly, pushing the armory door open just a crack. A metal greave crashed against the door and she waited a moment before calling again, louder. There was stillness from within the room and and she entered cautiously. Her Royal Princess Training Master was sitting on an upturned crate, wearing only his pants, tunic, and a frown.

"Hi Robbie," she said, slightly awkward. He didn't reply. She moved around to stand in front of him, folding her arms.

"Good afternoon, Sir Robert. Please stop ignoring me."

He folded his own arms and jerked his head away from her.

"I'm not ignoring you. I- I just don't have anything to say to you."

"Come on," she prompted. "Why are you mad at me?"

Robbie finally looked at her, surprise on his face.

"Mad? At you? No, I'm not mad at you. I'm mad that the- oh when- and then you completely did not listen to me when I said to stay in your room, I suppose I'm mad that you did that. This is not a good start to the day, that's all."

"But it's midday."

"Whatever."

"I'm sorry I didn't listen to you." She didn't really regret it, but she did feel bad somewhat, so the apology felt sincere. "I'm tired of being left out of things."

"Ha! If you were dragged into things, you would be much more tired, as tired as I am." Sir Robert emphasized with a yawn.

"Nobody's as tired as you are, Robbie." Stephanie pointed out.

"Well, that's true. But anyway, none of this is yours to worry about. You need to focus on your princess training. We clearly have ALOT of work to do." He narrowed his eyes at her, sticking out his bearded chin.

"What more do I have to learn? I've read all your books, I've practiced curtsying and waving, I dress and talk as royal as anything, and all I do is stay inside be quiet. I should be out helping people like Uncle, and riding horses and seeing new things!" She said earnestly, aware that her voice was rising.

"No. You should be doing exactly what I say you should be doing." Robbie dismissed.

"Why?!" Stephanie almost shouted. Robbie flinched at the noise and rubbed his temples.

"My highness, listen to me. You are not yet ready to set a single one of your little feet outside these walls without my help. You are a lazy child who can't be bothered to listen to the simplest instructions, so the world isn't exactly holding it's breath waiting for you and the great things you can do for it." He had risen to his feet, and he towered over her. "You don't stand a chance out there, so why not go sit quietly like a good little girl?"

Stephanie was silent, her face scrunched with rage. Then her brown eyes squeezed shut and she dashed out of the armory, leaving the door wide open in her haste. Robbie drooped and slunk over to close it. He felt like smashing his head on the wood.

"She has your scowl, Martha." He sighed.

 

Stephanie did not return to her room. She passed it on her way to the tower stairs, climbing them fast as if racing the tears on her face. Not enough, not enough. The stairway wound on and on, as dark as the clouds inside her mind and she stumbled up them blindly. Her feet missed a step and she fell on her hands. They stung as she collapsed on the stairs, kneeling in the dark.

I should just stay right here, she thought, What else am I good for.

Her thoughts were interrupted by a clear musical sound, a birdsong. It was close by, and she looked up from the surface of the stairs to see a bean of sunlight resting on a step above her. She slowly dusted herself off and shakily climbed the remaining stairs. It was a lookout tower, and you could see almost see all of Lazytown from the top. The birdsong called again, and Stephanie saw a bluebird perched on the surrounding wall. It was the bluebird who had carried her message to Sportacus. The creature hopped onto her finger when she extended her hand, and didn't try to peck or bite.

"I see you've met Skychaser." Stephanie's eyes left the bird and met the blue eyes of Sportacus. He dangled from the tower wall, elbows hooked on the ledge. His smile faded when he saw her tear-streaked face.

"What's wrong, Stephanie?"

Skychaser fluttered to stand on Sportacus's head as Stephanie raised her hands to wipe the tears away. She realized that this was the second time today that she had cried in front of the bandit in the warm outdoor air. Morning seemed like a lifetime ago. She looked up as Sportacus swung his body around to sit on the wall, his face full of concern.

"Did something happen?"

Stephanie nodded.

"Do you want to talk to me about it?"

She nodded again, opened her mouth, then closed it. Sportacus pushed himself off the wall and sat with his back against it on the tower floor. Stephanie dropped down beside him.

"It's okay, take your time." He lifted Skychaser off his head and passed the bird to Stephanie. She stroked its soft feathered head and took a deep breath. Sportacus listened intently as she told him the story through shaky breaths and sniffles. He gently interrupted when she was describing her argument with Sir Rottenham.

"Do you think that's true?" He asked. "That you're not ready for anything?"

"Sometimes I do." She shrugged miserably. "Robbie said I didn't stand a chance."

"You must care about a lot for Robbie, if what he thinks is so important to you." Sportacus pointed out. "I think he must care about you a lot too. Maybe he is trying to shelter you because of how much he cares."

"Well if he cares so much why doesn't he care about how I feel? I'm lonely and I'm bored. I tried to talk to him but he just dismissed me like it didnt even matter." She twisted her fist into her skirt frustratedly.

Sportacus knew this was a delicate situation. He didn't want to damage any relationships, but her pain was achingly familiar to him. Though he wanted to believe that this Robbie character had good reasons for his methods, Stephanie clearly was not flourishing in this environment and he hated to think of her entire youth wasted by such a soul-crushing lifestyle. Kids needed to play with other kids, to have adventures and fun and freedom. The also needed adults who listened to their needs and respected them, who taught them to make good choices rather than make their choices for them. He could provide that. So he was really doing the responsible thing, right?

"Stephanie?" He began cautiously. "Would you like to come live with us in the woods?"

Stephanie looked up. Sportacus's face was earnest, waiting patiently for any answer. She swallowed.

She wanted to say yes. It was such a small word, such a life-changing sound. But how could she leave her uncle? How could she leave even Robbie and all that was familiar to her? What would happen if she left?

"I want to...but...but I...I" she stuttered. Sportacus held up a hand to stop her.

"You don't have to decide right now. You are one of us wherever you live. Just send me a note with Skychaser when you're ready."

"Okay." Stephanie nodded gratefully. "How did you know I was up here, by the way?"

"My crystal told me." He answered, reaching into his shirt and revealing a metal amulet dangling from a leather cord around his neck. He let her hold it for a closer look and she saw that the delicate metalwork encased a shiny white crystal. It was round, the size of a grape, and glittered with unmistakeable magic.

"When I wear the crystal, it shows me when people are in trouble," he explained. "Not just humans, sometimes animals or even bugs. I met Skychaser when he was falling out of a tree as a baby bird. The crystal warned me, just like it did for you when you fell on the stairs a few minutes ago."

"Wow..." Breathed Stephanie. "Where did you get it? Have you always had it?"

Sportacus shook his head with a smile.

"That's a very long story, and the kids are waiting for me."

Stephanie let go of the crystal and he dropped it back down the neck of his shirt, sprang to his feet and and began stretching out his back. His mask was crooked on top of his head and Stephanie remembered something.

"Hey Sportacus," she said. "Is there another group of bandits in Lazy Woods?"

Sportacus stopped stretching abruptly.

"I don't think so, why?"

"The Purple Knight's servant was robbed by a group of bandits last night while he was traveling here. He said that they were over a dozen armed men, and they took everything he had."

Stephanie saw a mischievous look creep over Sportacus's face.

"Really?" He said slowly, unable to keep amusement out of his voice.

"Alright. What's the joke?" Stephanie narrowed her eyes. Sportacus laughed, and his mustache twitched as he smirked.

"Those 'dozen of armed men' were Pixel, Stingy and Trixie and me."

"No," Stephanie gasped.

"Yes," he went on. "We ran into him on our way to the village last night for our mission. I must have scared him pretty badly because he fainted as soon as we surrounded the wagon. He didn't even wake up until we had taken the wood and supplies from the wagon and most of his clothes. But we gave him some apples so I think it was a fair trade." He chuckled again. "We repaired the fences in town with the wood, and I traded everything else for the gifts and food this morning. That's the life of a bandit!"

He winked at her, swished his arms and leapt over the wall with a faint 'bye, bye!'. Stephanie watched him fall to a lower roof, somersault to the edge and drop to the ground. Then, as usual, he was gone.

 

She breathed in the warm breeze. High above the castle with only Skychaser as witness, she raised her arms and undid her hair, letting the long rose-colored curls flutter around her face.

"The life of a bandit." She echoed to herself.

For the first time in her life, she sensed a career for herself other than Princess.

Chapter Text

It was a simple plan, but its simplicity relied one pivotal thing: getting on Robbie Rottenham's good side.

Stephanie had casually given up trying to please Robbie lately, even deliberately annoying him at times, so the transition from obstinate pest to perfect student princess had to be subtle enough to not arouse his suspicion.

"Good morning, Sir Robbie. You look well." She greeted him at mid morning. He fixed her with a grumpy stare. Oops. He did not look well, he looked as if sleep had run out of midnight oil and began burning him instead.

"Good morning, my highness." His voice was thin, unlike his usual low rumble first thing in the day. He cleared his throat and stifled a yawn.

"Won't you come to breakfast? There's chocolate pudding." The princess watched the man's haggard face perk up at the mention of food. He considered her suspiciously.

"You didn't put oatmeal and nasty beans in it like you did with those brownies, did you?" He asked accusingly. They were good brownies, but afterward tasted of betrayal. Stephanie shook her head.

"Nope. But you should have some oatmeal anyway. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day."

"Who told you that?" Robbie scoffed blearily. Stephanie froze.

"No one." She said quickly. But Robbie was paying no attention to her, instead totally focused on dragging himself to the dining room as fast as he could without doing anything physically demanding. Stephanie wondered if his foul mood was related to sleeplessness or or something harder to fix.

His mood improved considerably after his second bowl of pudding. The princess would rather have had oatmeal and fresh apples, but as humoring her Training Master was priority number one, she resigned herself to the chocolate dessert. By the time they started lessons that day, the two were getting along almost better than usual.

Robbie nodded off as they sat quietly embroidering mid afternoon in the castle's small library, sprawling out in one of the comfortable armchairs. Stephanie gently took the needlework from his hand and laid a blanket over his snoring form. She crept from the room and, stealthily as she could, ran down the hallway to the nearest window. It took a few minutes of whistling, but finally Skychaser swooped into view, flapping his little blue wings as he perched on the sill. He held good and still as Stephanie attached her message to the bird's leg, feeding him some crumbs from her pocket as reward. Once the bluebird had fluttered out of sight, she returned to the library to find Robbie still napping.

Normally she would sneak off for some fun, but that would make him unhappy when he woke so she picked up her embroidery and absently wet a strand of black thread in her mouth. Closing one eye and biting her lip in concentration, Stephanie poked the thread through the tiny eye of her needle. The scene in her embroidery hoop was from her fairy tales, a sword-wielding knight facing down a fearsome monster. Pink roses were scattered about the two figures, only because she liked the way they looked. She was about to poke the needle in among the stitches when Robbie mumbled something in his sleep, startling her. She glanced up but he had quieted again. Whatever he just said, it hadn't sounded like his dreams were very pleasant. Stephanie was going to let him sleep anyway. He would get the peace and quiet he wanted once she was out of the castle, living in the woods as a bandit. Probably not what he wanted for her, but he would just have to live with it. She wondered if Skychaser had delivered her letter yet, if Sportacus had read it, if the kids were cheering with excitement, maybe making space for her in the treehouse. Distracted by her wonderings, she had added two stitches to her embroidery: a familiar black mustache across the hero's face.

 

"Can we take a break?"

The Royal Princess Training Master looked up from the scroll he was reading. It had been nearly a week since the Purple Knight incident, and though nothing had yet come of it, he had been drilling Stephanie hard in all of her princess lessons. He needed her to be ready in the event that her legitimacy was... challenged. They had meticulously reviewed all of her Royal accomplishments and even began introducing new subjects. It was taxing work for the both of them, but the princess hadn't complained once. Maybe he was being uncharacteristically optimistic, but Robbie secretly felt that maybe the spat they'd had that fateful afternoon had inspired some princessly fervor in her. Though he couldn't bring himself to feel proud of what he had said to her then. She had ran off angry and in tears, and he had let her go. He hadn't attempted to comfort her or apologize, which he knew he should have, but then again she had never asked him to afterward.

He should have done it anyway. He could apologize now if he wanted to, but she didn't seem angry at him. In fact, she was almost a perfect student.

"Come again?" He asked.

"I asked if we could take a break, Sir Robert." Stephanie repeated, setting down her quill. She held up her paper scroll to show him her neat rows of curly handwriting, which was what they were practicing that morning. "We should go do something fun together."

"Fun?" Robbie echoed. What an ominous word. It already sounded louder than necessary.

"Please, we've been working really hard. It would be so nice to relax."

Relaxation was something he could work with. Stephanie really did deserve a little rest.

"What did you have in mind?"

And that was how they ended up going out in the carriage for some fresh chocolate cake from the LazyTown bakery. And how they had taken a most particular path through the woods to get there. And how, when Sir Robert finally stopped the horse in the town square and opened the carriage door, he found that her highness was long gone.

And how, afterward, he had sworn to rid the Lazy Woods of those dastardly bandits forever.

Chapter Text

Sportacus couldn't have been more proud of his team. Working together was the key to success on all of their missions, and more often than not they excelled at it. Although Stingy could be possessive, Trixie could be rude, Pixel tended to over complicate things, and Ziggy was just clumsy, their unique talents combined with their mutual loyalty saw them through the most complex schemes. Operation: Rescue the Princess had gone perfectly. He wondered what Stephanie would bring to the group. Right now he could see her running around the clearing with the other kids, shouting as they tried to teach her all their favorite sports at once. It looked like ridiculous fun, but Sportacus couldn't join them at the moment. He bent over the piece of red leather in his hand, using his fingers to measure as he marked out cuts. Every mask he made for a new friend was completed with enchantments he carved on the inside where it would touch the child's skin. They were for safety, good luck, and clarity of mind. Sportacus felt better knowing they had some form of protection when he could not be there. Stephanie's mask was turning out beautifully, the soft leather would mold easily once he had finished carving the spells. He quickly hid it as he saw the pink girl approaching.

"Hey, Sportacus, can you come help us out? We're debating whether you can do a handstand on one arm. Stingy thinks you can't but Trixie said she saw you do it..." Stephanie pointed over her shoulder, where Trixie held Stingy easily in a headlock, the boy's skinny legs kicking indignantly.

"I can do a one-arm handstand, but I can't show you right now because I'm working on something." Sportacus answered truthfully

"Oh, what are you working on?"

"It's a surprise for you!"

"Ooh," she squealed. "Can I have a hint?"

Sportacus thought for a moment.

"Hmmm, it's...something you wear that covers your face." He said mysteriously. Stephanie tried to put on a puzzled expression for his benefit. Clearly Sportacus was not a champion of guessing games. She grinned.

"Is it...a mustache?"

Sportacus burst into laughter.

 

Sir Rottenham was having a bad day. Locating the whereabouts of the bandits required gathering information from everyone who had encountered them. This meant, of course, talking to the townspeople. He would have just had Bessie do it, which would have been easier and honestly much more effective, but he didn't trust her not to let it blabber about that the princess was missing. Milford wanted to make posters and use the townspeople to search for the his niece, but Robbie had warned against it. Better to keep this secret away from the wrong ears.

So that left him scurrying around Lazytown, digging in gardens and carrying wood as the peasants told him likely exaggerated stories of how the Blue Bandit had entered the local sports competition, or taught the school bully a lesson, or how he eats raw fish right off the hook. By the time he called it quits and headed back to the castle, Robbie had learned almost nothing useful in exchange for a long day of manual labor. His joints ached and his back wouldn't straighten properly and all he wanted was to fall into his armchair in the library and sleep forever. But he wouldn't sleep. He couldn't if he tried.

Surely this Blue Menace had to leave behind some clue to his hiding hole, which Sir Robert assumed was a hideous bear den or the like. Full of rough and nasty men. God. He would not rest for a second until Stephanie was back in his care. But all he knew now was this apple-loving freak was a charming mystery to those idiots of Lazytown, who clearly didn't know danger from dirt. If only-

Apples.

Sir Robert straightened up suddenly ( and painfully).

"They did leave something behind." He gasped. The apple core from the carriage was on the workbench in his room. A beam of hope sliced through his fatigue as he hurried to find it. It was time for some magic.

 

Lord Milford collided with Sir Robert's legs as the lanky man careened around the corner.

"Oh, terribly sorry Sir Ro-" Milford began as Robbie grabbed the end of his Lordship's sleeve, dragging him along.

"No time to lose!"

"Wh-what is it Sir Robert? Where are we headed?" Cried Milford in alarm, struggling to stay upright as they scurried down the hall.

He fell right to the ground when Robbie came to an abrupt stop in front of the door to his bedchamber. The moment Milford had picked himself up he was yanked inside by his companion. It was a windowless room, but Robbie had lamps burning which cast a soft white glow. Milford couldn't remember the last time he was in Sir Robert's room. There was no bed (he preferred to sleep in the library for god knows why), an enormous wardrobe, and workbenches buried with piles of various objects- literal trash and treasure. It made Milford itch to clean it, but Robbie was preoccupied with a series of levers set in the far wall over a dilapidated piano. He banged on a few piano keys and pulled two of the levers. With a gruesome scraping noise, the entire wall slowly spun around, taking the piano and Robbie out of sight as it revealed what looked like collection of ancient kitchen supplies on the near side. Milford heard Robbie cursing and the wall spun again to bring him back into the room. He then pulled the levers again, taking care to step out of the path of the rotating wall. The musty kitchen wares reappeared.

"Ta da!" He gestured bodily toward the moldy shelves.

"What is all this, Sir Robert? Does this have something to do with Stephanie?"

Sir Robert loudly pushed a pile of trash off one of he benches and set a single brown apple core on the newly vacant space. He flexed his wrists, deep in thought.

"This little beauty," he fluttered his fingers at the apple core. "Will be Stephanie's salvation. It will lead us right to where her stupid kidnappers are hiding. Ha!"

"I'm not following." Interjected a very skeptical Milford.

Robbie clapped him on the back.

"Try to keep up with me, genius- er, my Lord."

Milford did try to keep up with all that his friend was telling him as he rushed to and from the wall of lost kitchen items, which apparently were ingredient for magic spells. Robbie planned to use a sort of time-reversing spell to get the apple core to return to the original tree, which he assumed must be somewhere around where the Bandit was hiding. It seemed a bit unsound to Milford, but they didn't have much to lose at this point so he tried to help where he could. Robbie had him fetch jars of dried frogs, cat hair, unidentifiable powders and plants which he dumped into an empty metal cauldron. Milford was sent running to the window down the hall for the last ingredient, a length of climbing ivy, while he scribbled the appropriate spells in chalk around the outside of the cauldron.

"Aha!" Robbie exclaimed when Milford reappeared, puffing, with the final ingredient. He took the ivy from the shorter man and dropped it unceremoniously with the rest of the magical whatnot.

"Will this really work?" Milford asked as he watched Sir Robert brandish a star-tipped wand and wave it over the cauldron intensely.

"Just watch." Clouds of glitter swirled softly from the depths of the metal cauldron, and Milford watched the sparkles swarm to the tip of the circling wand.

"Perfect! Now, now to test it out," Robbie shook some of the glitter off the wand onto a nearby discarded jar. It glowed green for a second, then the lid snapped back on, screwed itself shut and the whole jar flew through the air back onto the shelf from whence it came.

"It worked! Just like I knew it would." Robbie cackled with satisfaction. His triumphantly waving arm, still holding the wand, accidentally shook some glitter onto his shorter friend.

"Oh dear." Milford said as he began to glow green. He suddenly whipped around, speaking rapid gibberish and running backwards uncontrollably out the door and down the hall. Robbie dropped the wand and chased pell-mell after him.

 

Sir Robert stood at the edge of the woods with the apple core and wand in hand, as well as a wolf pelt he'd conveniently found underneath a mountain of junk in his room. Once the spell was placed on the apple core, it would move very quickly back to its tree. That meant that Robbie required a way to follow it. He couldn't run fast enough over any real distance, and the Royal Carriage Horse was poky and slow. He also needed a way to protect himself from the bandits once he found them. It would do no good for the princess if he himself was taken prisoner. Or eaten by the wolves that roamed the woods at night.

Wolves, it seemed, were the key to the situation.

The sun had nearly set and he prepared under cover of the almost darkness of twilight. He was alone, having assured Milford earlier that they would go together to look for his niece tomorrow. Having the worried uncle come along would only slow him down and compromise the whole operation.

"Well, here goes." Said Robbie out loud as he tapped the wand against the apple core. It began to glow, and he quickly pulled the wolf pelt over his head. He emerged from a shower of purple glitter as the apple core turned from brown to white and flew off among the trees. With a growl, Robbie followed on all four legs.

Chapter Text

Stephanie felt as if a weight had been lifted off her shoulders. It literally had, when she had let Stingy cut her long hair. She had stroked the strange short ends by her chin as he moved the scissors around her head scrupulously. Stingy had talked her into letting him cut bangs, assuring her that it was quite a current fashion trend. She didn't care as she watched her soft pink curls fall to the grass. Stingy wanted to keep the discarded locks, but Sportacus suggested leaving them out for nesting birds to use. Stephanie preferred that birds build nests with her hair than it be added to Stingy's hoard of strange objects. She had given him her two bracelets to show her gratitude. The breeze on her neck felt sensational.

They were gathered around the campfire pit after a dinner of roasted fish and fresh vegetables, munching on strawberries as twilight fell over the forest. Ziggy sucked on a piece of his candy.

"Stephanie should sleep next to me tonight," he piped up suddenly. "I have the best spot, right in the middle!"

Trixie scoffed.

"That's dumb! Everyone knows the best place to sleep is by the window, she should sleep by Pixel."

Pixel concentrated intensely on the gizmos in his bracer, not meeting any eyes that turned on him.

"Actually, the best spot is by hatch, and you can't have that because it's mine." Explained Stingy, leaning over to Stephanie. Ziggy shook his head.

"The middle is the best cause it's the safest." He told Stephanie.

"Safest from what?" She asked.

"Safe from Stingy's farts." Trixie grinned. Stingy shot her a glare, growling.

"Safe from scary things like g- g-ghosts and wolves and stuff." Stammered Ziggy, chewing his candy anxiously.

"How would wolves even get in the treehouse, Ziggy?" Trixie demanded, flicking her strawberry stem at him.

"Knock it off, guys. Just let Stephanie pick where she wants at bedtime." Pixel finally commented. He somewhat hoped she was preferred the window. Trixie leaned closely into Ziggys ear.

"Maybe wolves can walk through walls, or turn invisible! Maybe there's one right...behind you...now..." She reached around and poked him on the shoulder, laughing when he jumped into Stephanie's arms with a shriek. Sportacus came running into the firelight, dropping an armful of wood.

"What's wrong? Why is Ziggy screaming?" He asked, whipping his head around in search of the danger.

"Trixie was just crying wolf," Stephanie explained, and gave Trixie a stern look. "And it wasn't very nice."

"Hey, the only one crying here is Ziggy." Trixie casually leaned back on a log, not returning her glance.

"That explains why my crystal didn't go off." Sportacus fiddled with the amulet. "No real danger. That's good."

He touched Pixels shoulder and gave him a meaningful nod. The boy's face split into a grin and he ran off toward his inventions stashed in the roots of the apple tree. Stingy groaned a little, rolling on his stomach, but Trixie sat up in interest.

"What's that, Pixel?" Stephanie asked when Pixel returned to the fire hauling the largest gizmo she had seen yet. He set it down with care and leaned on it proudly.

"It's my Music Maker!" He explained, beaming. "I invented it so we could all have music to dance to. Do you like to dance?"

"I love to dance!" Cried Stephanie, springing to her feet. Dance lessons with Robbie were the highlight of her life. Well, her old life anyway. Pixel turned a series of switches and the gizmo began to glitter. A faint but energetic dance tune began to play on invisible woodwinds.

"Turn it up, Pixel!" Trixie grabbed Stingy and began pulling the reluctant boy into what seemed to be a rough sort of dance. Pixel made some alterations and the music grew louder. Stephanie threw off her cloak and started skipping through some dance steps, noticing Sportacus attempting to follow along behind her. He smiled and stretched out his arm inviting. Stephanie let him spin her close and dip her, kicking her leg high in the air. Then she was up again, Ziggy taking her place as Sportacus lifted the laughing boy off his feet. Hearing a drumbeat start up, the pink girl danced over to Pixel and pulled him by the hand to where Trixie and Stingy were swinging each other around. Stingy broke away and jumped onto Pixel's back, clinging for his life as the boy ran around the campfire. The two girls joined hands and swung wildly from side to side, stepping in time to the music. The kids whooped and yelled and laughed, and the forest rang with music and joy.

 

Robbie ran on and on, panting with heavy wolf breaths as he chased the tiny white apple core through the dark woods. It was nearly reversed to a whole apple now, so he must be getting close to the tree. Not long now. He lengthened his canine stride when the faint sound of music sent him skidding to a halt. He pricked his ears, catching the sound of rowdy voices among the melodies. His snout swiveled to the source.

 

"Wolf!"

"Trixie, please stop trying to scare-" Sportacus didn't get to finish his sentence before he was thrown to the ground like a rag doll and pinned beneath the huge beast. It was a wolf of incredible size, dark purple fur bristling on its back and heavy paws digging their knife-like nails into his shoulders. His crystal was screaming danger.
The children were screaming as well. Pixel ran toward Sportacus but the wolf snarled deafeningly, turning on the boy with its enormous razor teeth. Pixel stopped in his tracks, unsure of what to do. This was not an ordinary wolf. Sportacus, crushed underneath the creature's unbearable weight, smelled its hot breath on his face. He expected the smell of tooth decay and rotting meat and other animal smells, but instead caught...chocolate?

Lavender perfume, chocolate, a bit of human sweat.

The fangs snapped shut between his neck and shoulder. He gasped in pain, but the teeth did not sink into him or break his skin. What was it doing to him? Sportacus tried to call out to it, but couldn't make a sound. He tilted his head back in time to that see Ziggy had appeared beside him, brandishing a piece of firewood.

"Hey wolf! Get off of Sportacus!" He squeaked as he struck the thing in the face with all of his might. The wolf released the man and turned on the child with a growl. A rock bounced off its gray eye, followed by another. Trixie had her slingshot out, firing rocks with fury as Stingy threw them with his hands. Pixel came dashing forward with a flaming stick. The wolf pawed the ground, warning the four children, when it noticed the fifth. Stephanie had grabbed what she could find, which was only a small knife. Nevertheless, she charged boldly to the rescue.

"Kids, stay back..." Sportacus wheezed from beneath the wolf.

"Don't move, Sportacus, we've got this." Stephanie told him confidently, having no idea what to do. The wolf was staring right at her. Its expression was suddenly cooled, hyper-focused. Its snout twitched.

"No!" Sportacus grabbed the wolf's fur as it sprang at the girl. The pelt came away in his hands and fell on over him like a blanket. Baffled, he threw the skin off of him, noticing the fur had darkened to dull black. He turned his head toward Stephanie, seeing no wolf but a lanky man who had fallen face-down in the dirt.

"Robbie?" Stephanie gasped.

"I meant to do that." Robbie insisted from the ground.

 

Robbie scrambled to his feet, jerking his head left and right in confusion. He took in the sight of the four children, still armed but puzzled and slack-jawed. He saw he Blue Bandit laying where he left him, hopefully unable to move for the time being. He turned back to what he'd came for. Stephanie was a few yards away, holding a knife. That was troubling. And what had happened to her beautiful hair? It looked like a page boy, not a princess. His eyes travelled down, aghast at the sight of her fraying tunic and ripped tights. Her legs had dirt on them, as well as her hands. Looking back up he even noticed a smudge of dirt on her face. Horrible. He rushed forward, grabbing her arm.

"My highness! Oh, thank goodness I've found you. Have you been hurt?" The girl remained where she stood, looking speechless. Robbie patted her arm comfortingly.

"I know this must have been very scary," he continued. "But I'm here now, so you have nothing to fear from these ruffians."

He assumed that the rest of the adults were somewhere nearby, away from their children. He had to get the princess out of here before they returned.

"Come on now, let's go back to the castle where it's safe. Back to your Uncle." He put laid his hands on her shoulders and pushed her forward. She didn't budge. He tried again but the girl still resisted.

"Stephanie," he began in his listen-to-me voice.

"No."

"What was that?" Had he heard her right?

"I said no." She repeated. She shrugged off his hands and stepped away to face him. He saw a flash of anger on her stubborn face and felt something cold run through him.

"I'm not going anywhere with you, Robbie." She put her hands on her hips. His mustache twitched.

"My highness, you have had a long day being kidnapped by bandits doing who knows what. You're not making sense right now, so just come with me." Robbie moved toward her but she stepped back.

"I wasn't kidnapped, I ran away!" Stephanie yelled. Robbie froze, the coldness sharpening to icy needles inside his chest.

"I tricked you! I planned to do this with my friends." She continued, gesturing around to the bandit children. Friends? Since when was she friends with these strangers?

"But...why?" He choked. "You're a princess, you live in a castle. What do you think you are doing out here?"

"Did you think I wanted to stay inside and eat chocolate goop and wave my hand for the rest of my life? I want more than that, Robbie!"

"What! There's nothing out here that's meant for you! You are the Queen's daughter, you must behave like royalty. That means doing things like eating and waving and dressing and speaking like a proper princess!" He was trying not to raise his voice, but failing. Stephanie huffed angrily.

"Why does ANY of that matter?" She demanded. "Why do you care so much how I look or how I talk? Why do you care about your stupid rules more than ME?"

"It's because I care about you that I even waste my time teaching you!" Robbie barked.

"If I'm such a waste of time then just leave me alone!" She stomped her foot.

"Stephanie-"

"No! I'm done trying to be your kind of princess. I just want to be me!"

Robbie crossed his arms over his chest, standing up tall so he could look down his nose at her.

"And just who do you think are, child?" He leaned down slightly for emphasis. "Because all I see is a foolish petulant brat."

Stephanie bit her quivering lip, but held his gaze defiantly until a figure stepped between the two.

"That's enough," said Sportacus firmly, displaying his palms at Robbie in a back-off gesture.

"YOU!" Sir Robert roared, breaking through the personal space barrier as he seethed at the bandit. He was pleased to see the impressions of his wolf teeth on the smaller man's neck. Though his thin mustache was still in perfect shape on his sweaty face, his idiotic blue hat was askew, revealing a few wavy golden locks above his exposed left ear. And what a strange ear it was. A little too long, a bit too pointy. Sportacus noticed Robbie's gaze and quickly tugged his hat down to hide the subject of his fascination. But it was too late, and the realization had struck.

"What...are you?" Sir Robert said in a low voice, peering into the bandit's face. His pupils darted about, searching for clues. Smooth skin, thin lips, short dark lashes. Blue eyes, so blue the color was visible in the firelight. Uncomfortable with the scrutiny, Sportacus stumbled backwards into Stephanie, who moved around him to glare at her teacher.

"Leave Sportacus alone, Robbie." She warned him.

"Spo- Sportacus?" Robbie snorted. "This thing's name is Sportacus?"

It wasn't a a real name, but it wasn't a joke. The Sporta-creature was giving him a hostile look and the other bandit children were closing in, still armed. It was clearly time to go. His discarded wolf pelt was out of reach but he had other means of travel.

"Fine." He growled through gritted teeth. "But whatever you are, 'Sportacus', you won't be soon."

"What?"

"I mean that- oh, whatever." Impulsively, Robbie reached out and snatched the red mask hanging from Stephanie's neck. She cried out as he snapped his fingers, vanishing in a cloud of mist.

Chapter Text

Sportacus stared bleakly at the stars above him. He lay in his bed, a four-sided hammock suspended above the roof of the treehouse. The hammock was wide enough for two, and often hosted Ziggy when he was woken by a nightmare. He was surprised that Ziggy was apparently sleeping well tonight. Everyone seemed to be, except Sportacus.

His mind kept flickering between sharp, massive teeth and piercing gray eyes. Obviously he had misjudged Robbie, going by this first impression. His fingers wandered over his sore chest, pressing into the bruises left by the wolf. How had he made himself so heavy? The whole disguise was some very impressive magic. This was likely going to be a serious problem, especially if Robbie figured out who he was.

He rolled over on his side, curling around his pillow and hugging it to his aching chest. It would do no good to worry all night. Problems were harder to face without sleep.

 

Yet again, Robbie did not sleep. He'd had to repeat his vanishing trick several times to go the distance back to the castle and was completely exhausted from the effort. However, he marched right past the library with his comfortable chair, instead going right to his room. There he dropped Stephanie's mask on the cleared part of the table and examined it under the lamp light.

A scarlet half-mask. Molded leather, made with expert craftsmanship. It had also been made recently. He sniffed it. Very recently. His fingers rubbed against some odd texture on the back and he turned it over. The inside of the mask was covered in tiny carvings that Robbie recognized as spells. But what kind of spells? A shiver ran through him and he rustled around the room for a book on enchantments.

It was hours later that he found a match in a dusty encyclopedia of foreign magic, and discovered the answer to two questions. The spells were elvish. Robbie scanned the pages on elves, mortified. Sporta-crook was one of these pointy-eared, child-snatching hidden folk. He'd left the princess with an elf. Robbie buried his face in his hands. What had he done?

 

She had done it now. Stephanie could remember lots of times that Robbie had gotten angry with her. But this was the first time she had maybe possibly earned it. She had broken his trust, perhaps even burned the bridge between them. And she was still so, so angry at him. Thousands of unsaid words burned in her head and she was wide awake.

She was the only one not asleep in the treehouse, that she knew. She had ended up bedding down in the corner opposite to Trixie, with Ziggy's feet trespassing on the space between them. Trixie slept with her arms over her ears.

Something crossed Stephanie's mind and she slipped from underneath her blanket, creeping to the window. Careful not to rouse Pixel, who lay almost beneath it, she peered out into the night until she thought she knew the direction of the castle.
"Goodnight, Uncle Milford." She whispered, as if she wasn't in a tree miles and miles away. Still, Stephanie felt he would appreciate it. She hoped he still loved her. And Robbie- no. He'd made himself clear. And she didn't care. She crawled back to bed on the padded treehouse floor. Her thoughts buzzed a never ending monologue and she couldn't cover her ears like Trixie to block them out.

It was a long night.

Chapter Text

 

It was a beautiful morning. Trixie was the first kid awake, and she tiptoed out of the treehouse, replacing one of Stingy's fallen blankets as she dropped down through the hatch. She was hearing strange scraping noises when she reached the roots of the tree.

"What's that?"

Sportacus startled as the girl appeared over his shoulder. He was sitting cross-legged in the grass, carving a long piece of wood with his knife. A pile of similar wood objects lay on the ground beside him.

"It's a sword, see?" He held up the pointed wood plank and swished it around, making sword noises with his mouth. Trixie was unconvinced.

"Swords are made of steel, Sportacus. You're not gonna scare anyone with sticks."

"Maybe not," Sportacus fancily twirled the wooden sword in his hands. "But you are."

Trixie caught the weapon by the handle as he tossed it to her. She sliced the air a few times experimentally.

"Hey, not bad." She commented, stabbing invisible foes. "I dunno how to use it in a duel or anything though."

He picked up a wooden sword of his own and crossed blades with her.

"That's why today we're doing sword training. And since you're up first, you get a head start!" He winked and moved his sword to the side, leaving himself wide open. He dodged easily as she lunged at him, and gave her a playful smack with his blade on her turned back. She whirled around, offended.

"Let's start with your stance."

 

The kids were on fire, figuratively. From the moment they'd touched a sword that morning to the current noon there was nothing that could compel them to put down their new weapons of destruction. Sportacus had run back and forth between pairs of young sword fighters, fixing stances, correcting moves, stopping horseplay. He finally managed to convince them to break for a meal and they had decided to cook pancakes over the fire. He was glad they were enjoying using swords. It was going to be a useful skill for them and he loved teaching, even his own sword training had not been much of an affirming experience.

"How big do you want your pancake, Sportacus?" Asked Stephanie, who was crouching over the skillet. Stingy stirred the batter beside her, clumsily as he refused to put down HIS sword. Sportacus shook his head.

"I already have food, Stephanie. But thanks."

"But you're just eating carrots." She pointed out. He shrugged.

"I like carrots." He told her, biting into one with a relish like no one else had ever before experienced eating carrots. Stephanie turned back to the skillet with an okaaaay as he continued eating. Pixel was sitting alone on a log a little ways away, turning his sword thoughtfully in his hands. He jumped when Sportacus dropped down beside him.

"Is something wrong, Pixel?" Sportacus asked. Pixel shook his head, but his face was far away.

"I'm okay. I'm just...I'm thinking."

"Okay," Sportacus stretched his legs out in front of him, hands touching the tips of his toes. "If you wanted to think out loud, I am listening."

Pixel hesitated.

"I don't want to- I think I'm not, I'm not a fighter." He sighed, as if admitting to a bad habit. "I don't really want to break stuff, you know. I want to put them together. I like fixing things!"

Sportacus nodded encouragingly and the boy continued.

"But then if I can't fight, I can't protect the things I care about, the people I mean. It's like I'm meant to just be useless."

"Pixel, Pixel no," Sportacus sat up, concerned. "Why would you say that? You're great at many things! You don't have to be a fighter, it's completely your choice. I'll tell you a secret-"

He scooted closer, a serious look on his face.

"I don't like fighting either."

"Whoah, really?" Pixel couldn't believe it. Sportacus seemed to love everything he did.

"Really. I like playing and fixing things and helping people, sort of like you. But I had to learn how to fight so I could protect myself. I didn't have a choice then, and now I only fight so other people in need do have a choice."

"But last night," Pixel began, and Sportacus felt his heart sink. Last night was the first time his kids had seen him helpless to any threat, the first time they'd had to rescue him instead of the other way around.

"Last night, you couldn't fight that wolf- that man. I thought you were gonna die." Pixel blurted out. "And I couldn't do anything. I thought he was gonna get you and then everyone else and it would be my fault because I'm the oldest and I'm just..."

He trailed off, turning his head away to stare at his sword where it had fallen to the grass. Sportacus was still for a rare moment. He touched Pixel's shoulder gingerly.

"Pixel?" He said with urgency. "Listen...even if we were all eaten up by wolves, it could never be your fault. Unless you were the wolf, I guess, then it would be your fault."

He paused to watch Pixel's face before continuing.

"It's good that you are so responsible and that you want to take care of your friends, but I don't want you to feel like you have to carry the weight of everyone's safety. That's not even my job. We all look after each other."

Pixel was silent for a while. Then he nodded.

"We should have an emergency plan in case something happens to you." He said bluntly. Sportacus agreed, they would talk about it over dinner that night.

"Pixel! Pixel come get your pancake before Stingy takes it!" Ziggy called, waving the floppy pancake at them. Pixel sprang to his feet and hurried over to rescue his lunch. His sword lay abandoned in the grass, and Sportacus ran the wooden blade through his hands, picking a splinter off.

"Hey." He jumped as Trixie startled him for the second time that day.

"How are we doing, Trixie?" He asked, noticing the sword tucked with her slingshot in her belt.

"I'm having a great time! This fighting stuff is awesome." She exclaimed, punching the air. Clearly, he wouldn't need to have the same talk with her as he did with Pixel.

"I'm glad you're having fun, but keep practicing." He told her. She dropped her hands with a sigh.

"Nobody wants to spar with me right now cause I'm 'overly aggressive'. Yeah, right! They're just underly aggressive."

Trixie had passion, but her interpersonal skills often missed the mark. Sportacus had an idea.

"How would you like a challenge? One that you can do by yourself? I think you'll be really good at it."

Trixie crossed her arms, a fiery glint in her eye.

"What kind of challenge?"

Chapter Text

The bow taught patience, and teaching the bow required perhaps more patience. Trixie was frustrated, her arms continuing to draw the string from pure unrelenting stubbornness. Sportacus had watched her arrows fly into every surface except the actual target, offering encouragement and gentle correction. He had set the other kids up with a few sword techniques to practice. They occasionally called him away for a demonstration, but ultimately his attention was on Trixie. Though her aim with a slingshot was deadly accurate, she was finding it difficult to translate to the bow and arrow.

"Remember to relax your elbow," Sportacus told her. "Now raise it higher- no not that high, just a little bit. And...release."

The arrow sank into the grass just ten yards away. Trixie groaned.

"That was good!" Sportacus offered brightly. "It didn't go backwards."

Her face slackened. Are you serious?

"Let's go pick up the arrows and try again." He extracted the nearest one from the dirt. "If you get more than me, I'll shoot the bow with my feet!"

"That's something I'd like to see." Cackled Trixie, rubbing her sore right shoulder. Her whole arm was on fire, and she pulled the arrows out with her left hand. In the end she gathered less than Sportacus, but he agreed to do the trick anyway as a consolation prize.

"I'm ready." He stood on the tree stump on his hands, back curved and head facing up. His shoes were off and he wiggled his bare toes as Trixie loaded his bow and held it up so he could grab it with his feet. With the toes of one foot he held the bow steady, and the other drew back the string. All the watching kids held their breaths as he took aim at the tiny apple 20 yards away. He exhaled and released the arrow.

Whip! It pierced the apple, splitting it into almost perfect halves. The kids outright screamed and applauded wildly.

"No way!" Shrieked Trixie, taking the bow from Sportacus's feet so he could stand up. He performed a theatrical bow before descending from the stump with a flourish.

"Can I try, Sportacus? Can I can I can I?" Ziggy bounced excitedly.

"Just try working on your handstands first. Start small and eventually, you can try doing it." Sportacus assured him. He loved the boy's enthusiasm, but there was no way he was letting Ziggy use a projectile weapon. There were worse things to hit with an arrow than the ground.

"Okay. Can you help me practice, Stephanie? So I don't fall over?" Ziggy turned to the pink girl, who bit her lip.

"Ummm.." She didn't want to disappoint him, but also really wanted to continue practicing with the sword. Pixel came to her rescue.

"I'll help you practice, Ziggy." Stephanie gave him a grateful smile as the younger boy led him away. Pixel was just glad for an excuse to stop training.
Stingy and Stephanie sparred late into the afternoon. It was almost dinner time when they decided they were tired out enough and joined the rest of the group in setting up dinner. Sportacus had gone to check the traps in the river for fish, and the rest were cooking potatoes in the coals of the fire. They fell to talking as they waited.

"Where do you think Sportacus learned to do those moves?" Stingy asked idly.

"He told me he was part of a traveling circus once." Pixel offered.

"If he's from the circus how come he knows how to use a sword?"

"Maybe it was part of an act." Pixel shrugged.

"Does Sportacus not talk about his life to you guys?" Questioned Stephanie. She didn't know much about the man, but she'd assumed that was because she'd only known him for like, a week. The other kids shook their heads.

"No, not really. I never thought about it much."

"He's pretty mysterious actually."

"Yeah, he is good at a lot of weird things. Cool things, but, weird."

"I just thought he was always a bandit." Said Ziggy. "Like since he was a kid."

"No way, there aren't any kid bandits."

"Trixie, that's what all of us are." Reasoned Pixel.

"Yes but we're unique."

"You don't know that."

"He's got scars." Said Stingy abruptly. There was sudden silence as eyes turned to him. "Big ones."

"Where?" Asked Stephanie. She hadn't seen any on the visible parts of Sportacus's skin, which wasn't much to go on. Stingy gestured to his upper body.

"I saw them when we were swimming. His shirt just came up and- he didn't see me see him, but I saw."

"What did they look like?" Ziggy looked mildly afraid. "Like a bear attack? Or like a- like a big swordfish cut him up? Or a wolf..." His voice sank to a whisper as it trailed off. Stingy shook his head.

"No, don't be ridiculous, Ziggy. It wasn't any of those things. They were more like-"

"Stingy! It's not nice to talk about other peoples scars." Pixel interrupted, startling his friend.

"It isn't?"

"Yeah," Stephanie chimed in. "Especially when they're probably trying to hide them. It's none of our business."

"If he hasn't told us about his past, it's cause he doesn't want us to know. We should respect that." Agreed Pixel. "We shouldn't even be talking about this..."

"HI KIDS!" Sportacus bounded up to the group with a net full of wriggling trout over his shoulder. He paused at the sight of their guilty faces.

"What's going on?" He continued with less certainty.

"Stephanie burned the potatoes." Trixie blurted quickly, pointing at the accused.

"What? No!" Stephanie took a look at the skillet full of blackened potatoes she was supposed to be keeping an eye on.

"Oops."

Chapter Text

Milford didn't know why he hadn't checked Sir Robert's room in the first place. Though the grumpy man rarely spent time there due to his duties toward the princess, so it was usually safe to assume he'd be in the library. After running about searching for Robbie all morning, Milford finally knocked on the bedchamber door, not pausing for an answer before barging in.

"Sir Rottenham?" He called, jumping at the sight of a huge iron cage that certainly hadn't been in the room last evening. Sir Robert straddled the table beside it, skimming some old manuscript in one hand and feverishly scribbling notes with the other. He didn't seem to notice Milford's presence, and the shorter man moved around to stand beside him. He tried read Robbie's notes, but failed to decipher the spidery handwriting. Robbie was mumbling to himself, intensely focused. Milford coughed, then, when it had no effect, coughed much louder.

"Wha-?" Robbie pitched sideways off the table, toppling the nearest stack of metal objects. They crashed to the ground.

"Oh dear," Milford hurried to help the fallen man off the floor, digging through the metal scrap to find him. He uncovered the very unamused face of Robbie Rottenham.

"Sir Robert! Thank goodness I found you."

"Thank goodness..." Robbie echoed sarcastically. He took Milford's hand and let him pull him to his feet.

"What can I do for you, my lord?"

"We're supposed to go look for Stephanie this morning, don't you remember?" Milford was confused. How could he forget?

"It's morning?" Robbie had been working so long he had apparently lost track of the time. He squinted beyond the open door. Sure enough, sunlight. Milford was looking at him expectantly. He had asked a question.

"Oh. The princess. The apple- well, you see..." He searched for a way to say 'I went looking for your niece last after lying to you and left her in the hands of a dangerous elf who may be using enchantments on her and also I yelled at her' without invoking the wrath of his lordship. Milford wasn't a violent man by any means, but he could hardly be blamed for delivering a well deserved punch to Robbie's face.

"I came up with a new plan." He said truthfully. He showed his spidery notes to Milford. "We didn't think about how to deal with the bandits when we found her. They are probably armed, and they might have hidden her away somewhere we would never find her. Fortunately, I have concocted this brilliant scheme to tip the scales in our favor."

"What is it?" Milford was intrigued, but still unable to read Robbie's handwriting.

"We're going to catch the leader- the infamous 'Blue Bandit'- and we're going to put him in this cage until Stephanie returns."

Milford waited a moment for him to continue. He didn't.

"That's all?" Milford said skeptically. "You don't have any ideas on how to, say, catch him in the first place?"

"Of course," Robbie sputtered. "I have many many many ideas. I have plans that have backup plans. One of them is bound to work."

Milford hummed thoughtfully. It seemed like an underhanded scheme but he supposed any idea was better than no idea.

"So what's plan A?" He asked. Robbie cracked his knuckles.

 

Truthfully, Robbie's first idea was to put the Sporta-elf in a hole and fill it with dirt. But he realized that was more of an emotionally fueled plan than a practical one, so he had done his reading on the strengths and weaknesses of elves. He discovered that his adversary was, among other things, weakened by the presence of iron. The iron cage was perfect then, but how to get him inside?

Robbie looked at the various pages of scribbles he had produced during the night. Many of them were crumpled, most had words crossed out. He sifted through until he found an untouched page.

"Whatever's on this page is what I'm doing." He promised. He held the paper to his face to read it. 'Cursed Shoes', it read.

"Well, okay then."

And so he set about making a pair of cursed shoes to walk the Sporta-fool right into his trap. Of course he needed a way to get them on the bandit's feet, and that's where the disguise came in. That also presented a problem. Illusion magic was something of a specialty for him, and he could create convincing disguises of all kinds, but he couldn't quite take away. He would have to shave his beard. Oh well. It would be worth losing his beard to see that menace behind bars.
It wasn't until the next morning that Robbie had his plan in motion. He had actually managed to get an hour of sleep during the night, dozing off by accident. Making the shoes had involved not only brushing up on curses (a wonderful subject, highly recommended) but also digging out his crystal ball from a musty cabinet. He meant to use it to spy on Sportacus, to find out what his shoes looked like, and then realized regretfully that he could have been using this particularly useful object from the beginning.

Robbie coaxed the crystal ball to show him the bandits camp. His heart surged when the blue elf appeared, sitting comfortably on the dirty ground while skinning a trout. The bandit put a piece of raw fish in his mouth, and Robbie gagged. Disgusting. He had a pretty good view of the elf's boots, enough to begin sketching on a piece of scrap paper when another figure appeared inside the crystal. A pink blur. She was leaning down to talk to the blue man, and he patted her shoulder before she ran out of sight. Some hungry and jealous part of Robbie wished the crystal ball had let him hear what was said. No distractions, he told himself. He continued his sketching.

So one long night and a good shave later, Sir Robert was Rob the Merchant, a friendly man peddling a very modern kind of shoe cleaning device. He had a difficult time convincing Milford to stay behind while he carried out his mission, but in the end his lordship had agreed to stand in the courtyard and hold the door of the cage open until its future occupant arrived. Having satisfied him, Robbie set off into the woods on foot. On his back he hauled a deceptively large but actually very lightweight pack, which only contained the cursed boots and his crystal ball. The ball would reveal where to find the blue menace wherever he was hiding. Right now it seemed he was in a tree, retrieving an arrow. Not exactly helpful, since all trees looked alike, but it was a start. Robbie started looking up at the branches overhead as he walked deeper into the forest.

 

Chapter Text

Sportacus' mornings began at sunrise, so he'd had plenty of time to prepare an obstacle course of the children to wake up to. It was designed mostly with Stephanie in mind, to teach her the kind of skills she would need in a fun way. He had left them climbing ropes and crawling through hollow logs after strict promises not to try anything too dangerous while he was gone. The 'backup plan' discussion last night had gone well, they had decided to seek out a trusted adult in the event that something happened to Sportacus. A friend in Lazytown, Old Man Jives, was a good candidate. The kids all liked the laid-back old man, who sometimes enlisted them in tending his vegetable garden (which was the best in town proven by many gardening trophies). Sportacus was on his way to Jives' cottage for his approval and also his fresh vegetables and chicken eggs. It was late morning and the air was still cool, perfect for a good run. The blue bandit was enjoying the journey as he bounded over tree roots and ferns. His frolicking was interrupted when he noticed an unusual object in his path. It looked like a heavy pack, the kind that traveling merchants used to carry their wares on their backs, though no merchant was in sight. Sportacus glanced around, scratching his head. A few leaves fluttered past his face, causing him to turn his gaze upwards.

"Hello?" He called, spotting someone hidden in the tree branches above him. The branches rustled and a head poked through the leaves. Sportacus thought he heard a gasp, but it was hard to tell. The head retreated into the foliage.

"What are you doing up there?" He tried again.

"I'm- I'm stuck." Came a voice from the tree above him.

"Do you want my help?" Sportacus offered.

"No..." The voice answered.

"Do you need my help?" He clarified. The crystal around his neck wasn't chirping like it usually did when someone was in trouble, but he could feel it beginning to thrum rhythmically against his skin. There was silence above.

"I might." The voice answered after a pause. Sportacus held out his arms as the face reappeared.

"Jump, I'll catch you!"

"N- no, no no no. It's too high. I'll just-" and then the branch snapped. Sportacus leaped into action, dodging the plummeting branch and catching the tall man that fell into his arms. Something familiar pinged in his mind as he held the stranger in his arms, but when he looked, the man's face was one he didn't recognize. His expression showed exasperation.

"Put me down." The man sighed. "Now."

Impulsively, Sportacus dropped him in the dirt. He cringed. Why had he done that?

The stranger struggled to his feet, straightening his clothes and brushing off leaves and twigs. He wore spectacles, a straw hat, and a humiliated scowl.

"Who are you?" The bandit asked curiously. The man straightened up and adjusted his hat, face suddenly twisting into a friendly smile.

"I'm a merchant, Rob the Merchant!" He extended a large hand, which Sportacus shook with joint-wrenching vigor.

"I'm Sportacus. But you might have heard me called 'the Blue Bandit', because I'm a bandit."

"A bandit?" The merchant looked shocked. "Before you get any ideas, 'Rob the Merchant' is my name- not a suggestion!"

Sportacus laughed, shaking his head.

"I'm not going to steal from you, I'm just passing through. It was nice meeting you!" He swished his arms in preparation for running off. "Try to stay on the ground."

"Wait!" Rob the Merchant lunged, hooking his elbow with the bandit's and whipping him around back to where he started.

"Would you be interested in anything I'm selling?" The merchant asked enthusiastically. Sportacus hated to disappoint, but he wanted to keep moving.

"I'm trying to get somewhere." He explained, but that wasn't the end of it.

"On foot? Wearing shoes?" The merchant pointed to his boots. The answer was obvious. "I happen to have just the thing you need!"

"Is there a problem with my shoes?" Said Sportacus quizzically. Rob the Merchant was unscrewing a jar full of what looked like nasty slime, all of which he dumped gleefully onto the bandit's feet. Sportacus was completely unprepared for this answer.

"They are covered with slimy smelly goop, my friend." The merchant gestured proudly to his work. Sportacus rubbed his slimy boots sullenly in the dirt, but the stuff appeared to be stuck on.

"Fortunately, I have my very modern, very trustworthy shoe-cleaning device that will solve your problem!" The merchant cleared his throat and motioned toward the bandit's feet. Sportacus, reluctant but really having no choice, complied and slipped out of his boots. Rob the Merchant picked them up by the unsoiled tops, pinching his nose. He moved out of sight behind his enormous backpack. The bandit fidgeted anxiously, wiggling his toes as he waited in his just his socks. Finally, after a series of strange noises from the pack had died down, Rob the Merchant emerged holding a pair of clean boots.

"Ta-da!" He waved the shoes in the air. "Much better!"

Sportacus took his boots back and hurriedly wriggled into them. They somehow felt less worn, but he couldn't be bothered to care. He just wanted to get away from this admittedly good looking yet unpredictable stranger. Salesmen were so pushy.

"Bye!" He waved, leaping off as soon as his feet were properly re-shoed. The merchant watched him run into the distance, snickering at the thought of what was going to happen when the blue fool had taken one hundred paces. Despite the shaky beginning, the plan had worked like a charm. Or a curse, if you will.

 

Sportacus was on the move, and his anxiety was fading rapidly. Eager to put the bizarre incident behind him, physically, he bounded through the woods with long strides. He was making good time when suddenly his right foot hit the ground and... stayed. With a cry, he keeled over face-first in the dirt. He was back on his feet in an instant, searching for whatever had tripped him. Nothing. He shrugged and started to continue his run, getting about two steps before his feet suddenly stuck together and he crumpled to the ground.

"What's going on?" He called to nobody. His feet yanked him up, moving of their own accord. He flailed wildly as he was dragged foot over foot through the woods. Any resistance sent him sprawling, and after he crashed into the third tree it was apparent that he was being pulled in a more-or-less straight line. He managed to wrap his arms around a thinner tree, stopping his journey briefly while his feet kicked against the trunk. They were trying to pry him loose, almost as if they were possessed. Or cursed. Sportacus did the math quickly, and let go of the tree. He twisted and grabbed for his right foot. Pulling off the boot was impossible as it wrenched his leg, pulling it out of reach. Sportacus rolled and somersaulted across the forest floor and finally lay defeated with his rebellious feet kicking the ground insistently. On impulse, he swung his hips up, arching his back to stand on his shoulders. Now above his head, his boots were suddenly still. Experimentally, he let them drop to the ground where they resumed their struggles. He sat up and pushed into a handstand. It seemed the trick was to keep his feet in the air. The good news: he was experienced in walking on his hands. The bad news was that he was rather far away from either the camp or the town. He leaned his back against a tree as he tried to decide what was closer, then promptly set off back to camp, heels over head.

Chapter Text

Stephanie spit on her hands, watching saliva mingle with the blood. The skin on her palms was raw and torn from her attempts at climbing rope, but she wasn't ready to give up. There was a bell at the top of the twenty foot high rope, and Trixie had rung it on her first try, Pixel on his third, and Stingy had assumed the bell was his and squirreled up so fast it was scary. Ziggy had gotten stuck a few feet off the ground, claiming it was too high. Stephanie had been at it for the last half hour while the rest moved on to balancing on logs. It looked like they were having fun, but Stephanie refused to move on until she had rung that bell. She rubbed the saliva between her hands, staring up the length of the rope.

"One more time." She breathed, and jumped high as she could, grabbing the rope and hauling herself up hand over hand. Only a third of the way to the top, her arms gave out and her feet began to slip.

"No!" Stephanie gritted her teeth. Not this time! She grunted and focused all her effort to pull her body up one more inch, then she fell. It wasn't a long way down. She landed heels-frst and collapsed on her rear.

"Whoah! You okay?" Pixel was there instantly, offering a hand to pull her off the ground.

"I'm fine." Stephanie said, but she grimaced when she took his hand. Pixel noticed and turned her wrist to check her palm. He cringed.

"This looks like it hurts," he pointed at the red skin and dried blood. Stephanie shrugged. She knew that she had to break her soft skin in order to build calluses. Calluses replaced blisters, like the painful blisters on the backs of her feet.

"It's not bad- OW!" Stephanie cried as Pixel touched a fresh tear on her palm. He dropped her hand apologetically.

"Sorry!" He said quickly. "That's an ugly rope burn. Let me put something on it, or you're not gonna be climbing for a while."

Stephanie relented. Pixel fetched the medical kit, a big wooden box full of herbs, salves, and gauze bandages. They sat in the shade of the apple tree as he picked splinters out of her hands with the tweezers of his multi-tool. He stowed the small but useful gadget back in his arm bracer, popping open a jar of sweet-smelling salve. Stephanie felt cool relief where he applied it to her skin.

"Pixel, how come you can do magic?" She asked the boy, breaking the brief silence.

"Like the kind I use for my gizmos?" He looked up. "Well, my moms are witches."

"Witches?" Stephanie had heard of witches who performed magic privately and lived alone. Her fairy tales often depicted them eating children, though this was apparently false.

"Yeah, Penny is an inventor and Halla's a healer, so I learned a lot about machines and magic. But they got..." He swallowed but continued calmly. "...cursed a few years ago. Someone turned them into stone. I'm on a quest right now, actually. To break the curse."

He busied himself unwinding a length of gauze. Stephanie wanted to ask more, but wasn't sure how.

"Do you...miss them?" If her hands weren't being wrapped in bandages she would have slapped herself. Dumb question. Pixel nodded, not looking up.

"I think of you guys- of us, as a family. I wish my parents could be part of it. They will be, someday."

"My parents are missing too." Stephanie began after a pause. "I don't even know what happened to them, I wasn't even as old as Ziggy then."

"Do you remember them pretty well?"

"Not really," she tried to recall some of the details. "Mama had pink hair like mine, Papa made up songs to sing about everything. I just remember him singing little verses, and Mama would pick me up when she hugged me. That's about it. I wish I knew where they are, or if they're even still out there."

"Hey," offered Pixel. "Maybe this could be the start of your quest to find them. We could be quest buddies!"

"Yeah...maybe."

"Is that not cool?" Pixel asked quickly. "We don't have to be quest buddies, I mean, you can do your own thing. It's fine."

"No, it's just-" she looked away, lost in thought. "I've thought a couple times that maybe...maybe they don't...want me? Maybe they just left me on purpose and the don't want me to find them..."

"No! Why wouldn't they want you?" You're the sweetest nicest coolest girl ever, he didn't say out loud.

"I don't know. It's stupid I guess."

"Hey, look. Even if for any dumb reason they don't wanna see you, you're not gonna know unless you ask them. And if they do, well, you don't need to worry about it anymore."

"I guess so." She brightened a little. "Say, how do you start a quest anyway?"

"Well right now I'm mostly working on the skills I'm gonna need to break the curse. That means working on my gizmos and magic knowledge a lot, and-" Pixel was interrupted by a loud and frantic call from the edge of the trees. The startled kids whipped around to see Sportacus wobbling into the clearing on his hands. He collapsed ten yards away, rolling forward onto his back and kicking his legs wildly on the ground.

"Kids!" He yelled. "I need your help! Especially yours, Pixel!"

"Whoah! What going on?" Pixel asked as they gathered around their prostrate friend. Sportacus told recounted the story of the merchant, and the shoes, and his long upside-down walk back to camp. Fortunately, he knew the woods like the backs of his hands (which is what he stared at the entire journey) and hadn't fallen over. His feet flailed insistently as he told his story.

"So these are trying to take you somewhere? Where?" Grunted Trixie as she and Ziggy tugged at the boots, bobbing up and down with the motion of his legs.

"I don't know, but I don't want to find out!" Sportacus managed as the kids were flung off with a sudden jerk of his feet. The boots remained stubbornly in place.

"Maybe someone's giving you a gift?" Offered Stingy, tentatively touching the boot leather.

"This isn't a very nice gift." Countered Stephanie.

"They're definitely cursed, and it looks nasty." Pixel examined the waving shoes.

"Can you break it?" Sportacus pleaded from the ground. Pixel hesitated.

"I don't think so, but-" he added quickly. "I might be able to deflect it! That merchant guy- what was his name again?"

"Rob the Merchant?"

Pixel repeated the name as he ran off to his gizmo collection. There he found a hand mirror, among other supplies.

"What's that, Pixel?" Asked Stephanie as he returned to the group. He was wielding a pen-like gizmo, drawing symbols on the back of the mirror in a black glue substance that extruded from the tip. It sizzled slightly.

"Black candle wax." He explained. "It gets heated up and melted inside, but the pen stays cool enough to hold. Okay, I need some sage."

Stingy pulled a handful of herbs from his pocket and picked out a single leaf. Pixel gave him a look.

"What? You want all of it?" Stingy acted offended, but handed over (most of) his sage.

"Thank you." Pixel rubbed the herbs on the face of the mirror until it began to glitter. "Now I just need something to represent our friend. Sportacus, do you have anything from Rob the Merchant?"

"Just the boots!"

"It's a long shot, but we have to try. Everybody, hold his boots still!"

The other kids rushed to grab Sportacus' feet. The cursed shoes resisted, but with Stephanie and Ziggy on the left, and Trixie and Stingy on the right, they managed to keep them still long enough for Pixel to mutter a few instructions and aim the mirror to reflect the boots. For a few tense seconds nothing happened, then a ray of light burst from the mirror, showering Sportacus' feet with magical glitter. They went limp in the children's hands.

"Did it work?" Sportacus sat up as the kids released his legs. He kicked off the boots with ease and sprang to his feet. "I can stand still! Thanks guys, I knew I could count on you!" He pulled Pixel into a celebratory hug.

"But what happened to the curse?" Stingy picked up the discarded boots, looking a bit disappointed in their loss of magical properties.

"I deflected it back to the merchant. According to my estimations, he should be having a pretty fun time going wherever that curse was taking Sportacus. Unless he's as good as Sportacus is at walking on his hands."

They all laughed. Sportacus rubbed his shoulders. They were going to be sore for a while, but it was good to have the use of his legs back. He clapped his hands together.

"It's noon, let's go eat something." He suddenly remembered the food that he was supposed to get from Old Man Jives. "Oh, no. I forgot to get lunch."

The kids forgave his blunder due to the circumstances, and they ate what they had. Jives could wait, and Sportacus felt that his band of bandits had proved sufficiently capable without his help. It was shaping up to be a good day after all.

Chapter Text

What a terrible day! The plan was going perfectly up until that gadget boy had deflected his beautiful curse. Robbie had been keenly watching the whole drama in his crystal ball when not only did the blue buffoon temporarily outsmart the shoes, but his magically talented brat had deflected the curse back to the source. Which was Robbie. His feet had dragged him reeling and crashing all the way back to the castle, where a confused but eager Lord Milford had dutifully shut the door of the cage once Robbie unwillingly stepped inside. Unable to leave until the curse wore off, he had tried to take a nap, but there wasn't enough leg room to be comfortable. He ended up passing time by fighting off some birds that swooped in to steal his straw hat. When Sir Robert was finally able to leave the cage, he discovered that Milford had drawn him a hot bath.

That was certainly nice of him, thought Robbie as he slipped into the hot water. He was still wearing most of his clothes and balancing a plate of cake in his hands as he settled into the tub. He knew it was a consolation bath, but he argued himself that it was actually to help him think of the next plan to catch Sporta-flop.
He was asleep as soon as he finished the cake.

 

Milford was worried. He lived in something like a perpetual state of worry, making him feel totally responsible for the happiness of others. In times where it just became too much to handle, he relied on one person to calm his anxiety. She was the epitome of self-assurance, and Milford admired her greatly.

"Would you like some more tea, Lady Busybody?" He offered. They sat in the sunlight on the castle balcony, snacking on tea and biscuits. The woman declined.

"Milford," Bessie Busybody began. "Where is that lovely niece of yours? I haven't seen Stephanie since I arrived."

"She isn't here. That is- she's- oh Lady Busybody," Milford dropped his gaze. He could never get away with a lie. "Something terrible has happened."

Bessie listened with extreme interest as the poor man recounted the events of the last twenty-four hours.

"Why didn't you tell me at once?" She scolded when he had finished.

"I don't want it getting out that the princess is missing. Suppose the Purple Knight finds out? I'm sure that Stephanie is all that's keeping me in Lazytown." He drooped visibly.

"Milford, if you asked me not to tell a soul, not a soul would know. Your secrets are my secrets, my dear man. No one is going to find out about the kidnapping, I promise you."

"Lady Busybody," Milford began slowly. "Suppose it wasn't a kidnapping? I can't help feeling she may have..."

"May have what?"

"Run away." He blurted. "Oh, she did read all those fairy tales and she was acting so strange. I knew she wasn't happy, I can't blame her for leaving. I'm a failure of an uncle."

He buried his head in his hands.

"Milford." Her chiding voice made him look up. "You are the kindest man I have ever known. Your child has no reason to run from you, she loves you! I bet you she's waiting right now for you to rescue her and bring her home where she belongs."

Bessie's confidence was inspiring. Milford felt a little better.

"It's odd, though," he began.

"What's odd?"

"The Blue Bandit is known by most people in town. He's always been mysterious, but in a good and friendly way. This kidnapping doesn't seem to fit his style. Suppose it wasn't him at all? What if someone else took her and set him up? Oh dear. That would make this much harder."

"It seems like you need to ask the Blue Bandit some questions, Milford."

"Believe me, I'm going to."

 

"Sir Robert? Sir Robert!"

Robbie woke with a splash. He was sitting upright in the bathtub, and the water was now cold. Wonderful.

"Sir Robert, I must speak to you immediately. Please get out of the tub."

Robbie tried to stand up, but his legs were cramped and his wet clothes weighed him down. He gave up and snapped his pruny fingers. The water glittered as it began to steam.

"I can't get out now, the water is still hot." He crossed his arms stubbornly.

"Well, then I'm getting in." Milford kicked off his shoes and climbed over the side of the tub, splashing in between Robbie's feet. "Hot! Ow! How do you live this way?"

"What do you need to speak to me about?" Robbie grumbled, slicking back his wet hair.

"It's about the plan. The one to catch the Blue Bandit? Yes, so, what if we catch him-"

"Which we will." Robbie interrupted.

"Right, what if when we do, it wasn't him. What if Stephanie was kidnapped by someone else? We'd be no better off than we are now!"

Robbie quirked an eyebrow.

"No, she's definitely with the bandit." He tried not to give away how he knew. "Who else would want to take the princess? Psh. Makes no sense."

"What about the Purple Knight?" Milford watched Sir Robert's animated features freeze. There was silence except for the soft lapping of the bath water.

"Wh-what do you mean?" Robbie asked, clearing his throat.

"Suppose the Purple Knight meant to take Stephanie as his ward, but of course I would never allow that, so he stole her away and framed the local bandits?" Milford explained anxiously.

"Or maybe he hired the bandits..." Robbie stroked his newly smooth chin, deep in thought.

"Oh no, the Blue Bandit is mischievous, but he's always been good to our people. Why would he help the Purple Knight?" Argued Milford.

"Perhaps our enemy offered something he couldn't refuse. Every man has his price." Or every elf, Robbie added in his head. Pieces were falling together, and he had to give Milford enormous credit for seeing a side of this he'd ignored. Milford sighed.

"Sir Robert, we must talk to the man. We may be able to solve this peacefully."

"We'll talk to him when we have him trapped. Then I can see to it that he won't be able to lie. The plan will still work!" He raised a wet finger in the air to punctuate.

"If you say so." Milford was feeling less assured than before. "Sir Robert, you don't think there's a chance that Stephanie ran away on purpose?"

Robbie's face went blank. He stood up suddenly, flinging water all over the room.

"Absolutely not." He climbed over the edge of the bathtub, slipping and falling on his back. Milford watched with concern as his tall friend rolled over and scrambled to his feet, mumbling angrily. Barefoot and dripping wet, he stalked out the door, leaving puddles in his wake.

The bath water was suddenly cold.

Chapter Text

Stephanie had met Jives in passing, when she was in the village with Robbie and Milford. Her princess duties (which involved standing straight, smiling and waving) hadn't allowed much conversation. She was eager to become friends with this legendary gardener, and Sportacus hadn't objected when she asked to accompany him to Jives's house the day following the boot incident. Given that Robbie had it out for him, the bandit and his young friend friend couldn't walk right into Lazytown, but Jives lived on the edge of town and they crept around the back of his garden unseen. They crouched behind the gate.

"Are you sure he's home?" Stephanie asked. She couldn't see anyone through the back window.

"I sent him a letter, so he knows I'm coming." Sportacus assured her. "Stay here a minute."

He vaulted stealthily over the fence and crept through the garden. Stephanie watched him knock gently on the bright green door before disappearing into the house. She fidgeted as she waited behind the gate, peeking through the slats. What was taking so long? He might have meant for her to follow. She slowly undid the latch and slipped through, shutting the gate quickly behind her.

"Sportacus?" She stage whispered, trying to sneak through the plant beds to the door. Her foot sent a decorative stone rolling down the narrow path. She cringed and scrambled after it, but the rock bounced into something white and fluffy. It raised its feathered head.

"Sorry, sorry!" Stephanie backed away apologetically, but the huge white rooster rose from its nest and strutted toward her menacingly. "I'll just go, you go back to sleep."

The rooster slowly advanced until she backed into the door. It wasn't attacking, but Stephanie didn't trust it not to. Before she could think of a way to escape, the door behind her swung open and she fell backwards into a very startled old man. Jives toppled like a domino into the arms of Sportacus, who luckily was at his back.
"Are you okay?" Sportacus asked, setting Jives back upright and pulling Stephanie off the floor.

"It's cool, man. I wasn't expecting to get ambushed by a princess is all." Jives winked at Stephanie. "Yo, he put you up to this?"

She shook her head and pointed to the rooster, who had lost interest and was waddling back to his spot to nap. Jives laughed.

"Did Hannin scare you? Na, don't worry about him. He's the laziest attack rooster you'll ever run into. If you start moving around he'll just go to sleep!" Jives shut the door. "So, Sportacus says you ran away to live in the woods. That's awesome, yo!"

"Yeah..." Stephanie wasn't sure what she was supposed to say to that.

"Why'd you do it?"

"Pardon?"

"What made you need to leave?" the old man's voice was curious but not demanding. Stephanie took a deep breath and told him, briefly, the story.

"Whoah, that's some heavy stuff." Jives said gravely when she was finished. "Sorry I didn't know what you were going through, man. Wish I could have brought you a fruit basket or something."

"Why would you bring me a fruit basket?" Stephanie asked, appreciating the sentiment but confused all the same.

"Good feelings run on good food," He answered. "If you're not eating good stuff, you won't have the strength to face the bad stuff in your life. Sportacus learned that lesson when I first met him." He nodded in the latter's direction. Sportacus gave him a small smile. He was occupied with the task Jives had set him to, fixing his wobbling table leg in exchange for the groceries.

"Sportacus learned from you?" Stephanie wondered how old their relationship was.

"I taught him my gardening secrets- and my eating habits. You wanna know what he was eating when I first met him? Nothing. He was even way skinnier than you!" He playfully wrapped his fingers around her thin wrist. "But those were some bad times, yo. Sometimes it feels like hurting your body will fix your problems, but that's way off. You gotta be good to yourself, okay? Food is important."

"I do eat well, I really like apples now thanks to Sportacus." Jives was still loosely holding her wrist. His grip communicated concern. Did she really look that weak?

"Stephanie's a healthy girl, Jives." Sportacus spoke up from under the table. He tapped something with a hammer. "She's growing, and she has a good appetite. All the kids are getting really strong, thanks to your garden and your chickens."

"Yo, when are the rest of the kids coming by? I haven't seen Ziggy in forever. You're not taking him on your missions?"

"Sometimes I do, but sometimes..." Sportacus paused in thought. "I want to give him some more time. I don't want him getting into trouble he's not ready for."

Jives nodded in approval and turned back to Stephanie.

"Ready to get your hands dirty?" He smiled, tossing her a wicker basket. They returned to the back garden.

 

"I didn't know there were so many types of vegetables." Stephanie wiped her brow with the part of her forearm that wasn't smeared with dirt. "What's that one again?"

"That's an eggplant, yo. Great for the blood." Jives set the purple vegetable in the already full basket. They had cauliflower, broccoli, bunches of carrots, potatoes, peas and tomatoes, plus the eggplant. The rings of Stephanie's fingernails were black with the rich topsoil. Her knees were in a similar state.

"It's all clean dirt." Jives told her as she tried to clean her hands on her tunic. He led her to the water pump to wash up. When Sportacus came out of the house stretching his limbs, Jives handed him a smaller basket. Sportacus pouted.

"The chickens don't like me. They bite!"

"They bite everyone, man. Better you than me." Jives laughed. He and Stephanie watched the fearless bandit open the henhouse and carefully reach for the eggs. He was rewarded with a sharp peck on the hand.

"Hey," Sportacus scolded. "That's not very nice."

 

They left Jives' house at noon, and the cool shade of the forest was welcoming after the sunny garden. Stephanie carried the eggs carefully in her basket, and Sportacus shouldered the rest. He walked slow enough to match her stride, and they traveled side by side. She was checking beneath the cover of the basket to see that the eggs weren't breaking, when her companion suddenly stopped. Stephanie turned to Sportacus, who stood still with a finger against his lips.

"Look." He whispered, pointing into the trees. At first she saw nothing, then her eyes caught flash of movement in the distance. A black shape darted through the underbrush.

"Wolf?" Stephanie mouthed. Sportacus nodded and crouched down to her height.

"If it gets too close, drop the eggs to distract it. We're going the long way home." He took her hand and lead her further south. The journey took only a few minutes more than usual, but when they made it back to camp they discovered how precious those minutes had been.

"What happened here?" Sportacus asked urgently, looking around at the chaos. Things were scattered all over the campsite: gizmos, ropes, clothes, firewood, all with signs of rough handling. He picked up a piece of wood and his heart missed a beat. His fingers ran over the punctures. Teeth marks?

"We were doing the laundry-" Pixel began hurriedly.

"And we found Robbie's wolf pelt and didn't know what to do with it-" Interrupted Ziggy.

"Right, and then Stingy claimed it and I tried to stop him cause I saw a bit of residual magic energy emanating-"

"Stingy put on the wolf pelt!" Ziggy cried. "Stingy's a wolf!"

Sportacus took in this news and mentally performed quick a head count.

"So where's Trixie?" He was struggling to stay calm. His crystal was silent, they were okay.

"Stingy tore up the campsite, but he was just a little wolf so we tried to stop him. He ran off and Trixie followed him. I stayed here with Ziggy to wait for you."

"That was good thinking, Pixel." Sportacus commended. Trixie may have managed to get the pelt off him already, but it was possible that the wolf they'd seen earlier had been Stingy. There was no immediate danger according to the crystal. "We should split up and find them. Ziggy, you come with me. Stephanie and Pixel, stick together okay?"

"Right. We'll check along the river." Pixel took the basket of vegetables from Sportacus. "Go on ahead, we'll put these away."

Stephanie hurried after Pixel, picking her way over the debris in the grass. He loaded the food into a wooden box they used as an elevator and Stephanie added the eggs, momentarily fascinated by the magic working the pulley as the elevator lifted off the ground.

"Hey, I've got an idea." Pixel darted around the tree, coming back with a few coins in his hands.

"Where did you get those?"

"They're from Stingy's hoard. He might smell them and find his way to us!"

"Good idea." Stephanie took one of the coins from his open hands. She didn't recognize the currency.

"I saw them go off this way." Pixel raced off toward the river. Stephanie picked up her feet and followed.

Chapter Text

Stingy whined. His feet hurt, and he missed having two feet instead of four. It wasn't very royal to be scrambling around on the ground like this, what was he, the prince of wolves? Well, he would have to work with that if he was indeed doomed to be a dog forever. He tried to sigh dramatically but only panted. Drat. Where was Trixie? She should be helping him get rid of this pelt. He thought he had seen her behind him, before...

Before he growled at her. She had her slingshot, she was backing away. He lunged.

Oh no. Had he done something? It was getting hard to remember, to think. His brain was telling him to run, growl, hunt. How awful, that's not who he was. He was Stingy. Prince Stingy, not a wolf. Not a wolf.

Not a wolf.

The cage crashed down around him, causing him to yelp. He spun wildly, pawing at the bars. A figure towered over him and he cringed as a hand reached through the bars. The hand twisted into his black fur and pulled off his skin as easily as if it were a piece of clothing. Stingy felt dazed.

"Well, didn't to see that one coming." A voice said above him. Through slightly blurry vision, he saw a tall woman in a purple dress standing beside the cage, holding the wolf pelt. Her gaze fell to the trapped boy. "But I suppose you didn't either. You shouldn't be playing with such magic, little boy."

"Who are you?" Questioned Stingy. His senses were sharpening again to a human level.

"I am Lady Roberta, and who might you be?"

"I am Prince Stingy." Stingy bowed with as much grace as he could sitting in the dirt. Lady Roberta raised an eyebrow.

"What do you mean 'prince'?"

"Exactly what I said. I'm a prince. A monarch. Rrrroyalty."

"Sure you are." Lady Roberta unlocked the cage and Stingy crawled out, fussily brushing the dirt off his clothes. "Aren't you one of those bandit children that lives in these dirty woods?"

"I happen to be part of that association, yes. Your point?" Stingy replied haughtily.

"My point is you cannot be 'rrrroyalty' when your parents are penniless robbers." Sniffed Lady Roberta.

"Well if you think about it, that's exactly what royalty is," Stingy said as an aside. "And anyway, my parents aren't bandits."

"Then who are they?" She asked blankly. Stingy scoffed.

"They are obviously rrrroyalty." He gestured to himself matter-of-factly. The lady ran a quick glance over the somewhat ornate but patched up tunic on the boys wide middle and the worn out gold thread lacing his shoes. He was scrupulously well-groomed, despite the dirt on his knobby knees and hands.

"Tell me, have you ever had any Prince Training Lessons?" She questioned.

"Well no, I can't remember having any."

"Have you ever lived in a castle and worn Fancy Prince Clothes everyday?"

"No, but I want to..."

"Do you even have an Official Royal Prince Crown?"

"I do actually, but...I can't wear it or it would get all dirty." He sighed dramatically, which was a satisfying noise to make.

"Well you don't have to worry about that anymore, young man!" Lady Roberta clapped Stingy on the shoulder. "I am the Royal Prince Training Master, and you are the new Prince of Lazytown!"

Stingy gasped in disbelief.

 

In hindsight, Robbie realized that his plan didn't technically require a disguise. He had come up with a way to bring the cage to Sportacus, by just dropping it on him as he frolicked stupidly in the forest. At first he thought that the little wolf had ruined his trap, but instead it had become a valuable resource. Surely this deluded child had some useful information regarding the elf's sinister purposes, and Robbie was determined to get it. How fortunate it was then, that he met young Stinky while in disguise. He would have the boy wrapped around his finger in no time at all.

"Where exactly is MY castle?" Stingy pried for the tenth time. 'Lady Roberta' was taking him to his new castle, which was actually an old guard tower outside of town. The townspeople only used it to store extra grain in the wintertime so it was conveniently empty. All he had to do was hide the boy in the tower and occupy him long enough to learn what he needed- before the elf probably would hunt him down to reclaim his property. Robbie wondered where he stole this little gremlin from.

"The castle is right across town." Roberta explained once again. "We're nearly there, your highness."

They had reached the center of town. A few people turned their heads at the sight of the tall strange woman and the short awkward child who strutted proudly at her side.

"Bow to your prince, peasants." Lady Roberta commanded a small group of onlookers. They looked at each other in confusion before cautiously bowing their heads in Stingy's direction. Stingy nodded back in acknowledgement, then stuck his nose in the air and continued walking regally.

This brat might actually be a better princess than Stephanie, Robbie mused. He wondered if Milford would trade his niece for the bandit's kid. He wondered if the Purple Knight would, wouldn't THAT be something. He sobered, remembering the princess's less savory uncle may have had a role in her kidnapping. Young 'Prince Stringy' could be the key to finding the truth.

"Here we are, your highness." Robbie waved at the guard tower, which, while not an impressive structure, was at least in good shape. Stingy's eyes widened slowly. He said nothing.

"Well?" Robbie cleared his throat. "What do you think?"

"It's...mine?"

"Yes of course it's- I mean, indeed my prince. It's yours." Robbie glanced down his companion, double-taking at the sight of a single tear rolling down the boy's face. He took that as a sign of approval.

Chapter Text

"I'm not crying."

Trixie gasped a deep breath and relaxed her tightly squeezed eyes. When she opened them, the edges of her vision were still watery. And she was still stuck up in the tree she had climbed to escape from the wolf. From Stingy.

She had been chasing stupid stupid Stingy to get the wolf pelt off him when he had turned on her. He hadn't responded when she yelled his name, he growled like an animal, he tried to pounce on her. Trixie had loaded her slingshot, but when she aimed it at her feral friend, she couldn't fire. She had dropped the slingshot and scrambled up the nearest tree, and there she stayed while Stingy had run off to who knows where. An infinity seemed to pass as she clung to the branch.

"I'm not crying." She stated again to the empty air, shutting her eyes to hide the truth. Her hands moved to cover her ears. "I'm not crying."

"Trixie?" Her eyes flew open at the sound of the muffled voice beside her. The branch wobbled slightly as Sportacus pulled himself up. "There you are! Are you okay?"

She shook her head, unable to speak. Sportacus perched carefully beside her.

"I'm going to get you down. Can you hold on to me?"

Trixie held out her arms and he leaned in until they were around his neck. Her grip was snug as he carried her down the tree to safety. Ziggy was waiting for them on the ground, watching their descent through the wrong end of Sportacus's spyglass.

"Just a little further, you're almost there!" He called. Sportacus set Trixie on the ground and turned the spyglass around in Ziggy's hands. The boy jumped as his friends suddenly appeared much closer. "Whoah, you made it!"

Sportacus shook his head with a chuckle as Ziggy returned the spyglass. He stowed it in the satchel on his back, turning his attention back to Trixie. She was drying her face on her sleeves and taking deep, controlled breaths.

"Trixie! What happened? Where's Stingy?" Ziggy started to ask, but the bandit cut him off with a hand on his shoulder.

"Just give her a minute." He said quietly. Ziggy glanced at Trixie, who turned away with a scowl. Ziggy approached cautiously and offered her something in his outstretched hand.

"I'm not crying, Ziggy." Trixie huffed, not looking up.

"Here," he urged. "I found your slingshot. It was on the ground."

She took the weapon without a word. Its familiar shape was comforting, but something about it seemed off in her hands. Like it was damaged, no longer as useful despite being fully intact.

"Stingy's gone." Trixie kept her eyes on the slingshot. "He ran away. I don't know where."

"The other kids are look-" Sportacus stopped mid-sentence with sudden concern on his face. A loud chirping could be heard from beneath his shirt.

"Someone's in trouble!" He whipped his head around, grabbing for the amulet that housed his glowing crystal. "It's Stingy! He's stuck in a cage somewhere...that way!"

Sportacus took off running. Trixie shoved her slingshot into her belt, taking Ziggy's hand.

"Come on, Ziggy! We don't want to lose him!"

"I'm going as fast as I can!" Ziggy cried as he was pulled through the underbrush.

"Do you need me to carry you? I can, I'm super strong."

"I know, Trixie."

They scrambled over a log and continued their pursuit. Ahead of them, Sportacus had disappeared out of sight.

 

He was running the way he liked, full out and urgent. There was purpose to it, and purpose lent him power. Adrenaline pushed him past feeling or caring for anything but his target. Sportacus was so focused on freeing Stingy from the cage when he found the trap, it took almost a minute for him to realize that it was empty. The wolf pelt lay on the ground, the cage door was open, but the boy was nowhere to be found.

"Stingy?" He called to the empty air. There was no reply on the second or third call, and no one in the trees or bushes he checked. The crystal was silent. He scratched his head.

"Sportacus! Sportacus!" He turned around to see Trixie and Ziggy approaching, staggering breathlessly. Sportacus felt a pang of guilt as he realized that he'd left them in the dust. Ziggy fell flat on the ground, and Trixie stepped over him, clutching her side and pretending like she wasn't breathing hard.

"Did you find him?" She asked. Sportacus shook his head, gesturing to the pelt and empty cage. Trixie kicked the dirt. "Damn it!"

"No need to get frustrated, Trixie. Pixel and Stephanie may have found him already. I'm going to climb this tree and check for a signal." Sportacus jumped to reach the lowest tree limb and climbed nimbly as a spider up among the branches. When he found a foothold at the highest point of the tree, he withdrew the spyglass, flipped it once in his hand and scanned the forest in various directions.

Down on the ground, Ziggy had picked himself up off the ground, having finally caught his breath from the hard run. He saw Trixie crouching by the cage. She was holding the large padlock, peering into the keyhole and shaking it in her hands.

"What are you doing, Trixie?" He asked, fascinated. She glanced up.

"I'm scavenging." She tapped the padlock."Finders keepers."

"What are you gonna do with it?"

"I'm gonna give it to- well, Stingy will want it, so I'll probably fill it with worms to trick him."

"Stingy's gonna be mad."

"Yeah? Well, he deserves it." Trixie hooked the padlock onto her belt. She really should carry a bag, but that seemed like too much commitment.

"Hey! I found something!" Ziggy crawled across the ground and plucked the object from the dirt. He showed it to Trixie. "Finders keepers."

"What is it?" She squinted at the thin piece of metal.

"I dunno. It's shiny, but I don't know if Stingy would want it."

"Duh, Stingy wants everything."

"I didn't see any signals," Sportacus said, suddenly dropping down from above. He dusted leaves off his pants. "What do you have there, Ziggy?"

Ziggy handed him the object. Sportacus held it close to his face for inspection.

"This is a brooch. Ladies of rank wear them." He explained. "But what is it doing here?"

"Maybe Stingy was freed by a beautiful lady, like in a fairytale!" Ziggy suggested.

"Maybe..." Sportacus rubbed his jaw.

"If someone did let Stingy out, they might have gone to Lazytown. I mean, that's where people live, so..." Trixie finished with a shrug.

"That's a good idea. We should go to town and check if anyone there has seen him. But we have to be sneaky, because we don't want Robbie Rottenham to know where we are."

"Yeah! That guy..." Ziggy shook his head disdainfully.

"Well go around the east side, near the old guard tower. Then we can ask whoever is around there. Ready to go?" Sportacus asked, swishing his arms in preparation. Trixie coughed.

"Okay, can we not run like racehorses the whole way? I think Ziggy is gonna upchuck."

Ziggy denied it, but Sportacus agreed to continue at a more reasonable pace. The town wasn't far away.

 

Stephanie was soaked. She and Pixel had crossed over the small river on a fallen log that Pixel had assured her was safe to walk on. He made it across alright, but she had tripped on a knot only a few feet from the other side. With a cry and a splash, she went sideways down into the water. Pixel had jumped in immediately to pull her to the riverbank, and they were both completely wet. Now they trudged through the woods, wet shoes slung over their shoulders, joking about what a genius idea it was to take a swim on such a hot day. Stephanie felt only marginally embarrassed.

"I'm not picking up any magical activity in this direction." Pixel said, reading the set of stones on his bracer. "Maybe we should try over that way."

"Where would you go, if you were Stingy?" Stephanie asked. "Or if you were a wolf I guess."

"I don't know, I mean, I feel like I know Stingy pretty well. We're close, but the wolf thing? Man, I don't know what he's doing. He might not know what he's doing."

"Wait," Stephanie had a realization. "Sportacus and I saw that wolf on the way back from Jives' house. What if Stingy was trying to get help from Jives, like the emergency plan?"

"You may be on to something." Pixel stopped walking and checked his bracer. "Nuts, we're pretty far from town. At least the we can search the ground we cover on the way there."

"And it'll give our shoes time to dry." Stephanie smirked. Pixel smiled.

"I'm gonna invent something that dries clothes in a minute- no, a second!" He rambled pleasantly about the various magic and mechanics that the dryer would require, Stephanie asking questions when he brought up unfamiliar terms. The route they took brought them to the wrong side of town from Jives' house, so they put on their still damp shoes and squished across the town square.

"Hey, Pixel! Pixel!" A group of teenagers waved at the two. As they approached, Stephanie could see that they were all carrying dishcloths and scrub brushes.

"You guys on dish duty again?" Pixel shook his head disapprovingly. "What did you do this time, paint the other side of Debbie's cow?"

"We were just having fun last night, you know?" Explained a tall, square faced boy. "So maybe we got a little loud and maybe a street lamp caught fire. Sheriff Lolli's a total killjoy. Who's your girlfriend?"

"My friend," corrected Pixel. "Is Stephanie. She's just joined up with Sportacus and us."

"Wait a minute, Stephanie? Aren't you the princess from that castle?" A buck toothed girl scrutinized the princess.

"I used to be. But now I'm not." Stephanie stated simply, daring anyone to question her.

"Keep this on the down low, gang." Pixel put a finger to his lips. "Sir Rottenham has beef with Sportacus. We wanna avoid him if we can."

The teens nodded understandingly.

"Hey, saw your friend go by earlier. The mine kid." The stout blond boy paused in thought. "Stingy. He was with some strange woman. Did she join your group too? They were-"

"Stingy?!" Stephanie interrupted. "You saw Stingy?"

"With who? Where did he go?" Pixel pried urgently. The teens argued for a moment before deciding that it looked like Stingy and the mystery woman were headed for the old guard tower.

"Thanks, guys!" Pixel and Stephanie sped off across the square, leaving the teenagers to go back to their dishes.

"Who do you think is with Stingy?" Stephanie panted as they ran.

"I dunno, but it sounds like he's human again. That's a good sign!" Pixel called. then added, "I hope it is."

Chapter Text

Stingy was in heaven. He sank his hands into the gold coins that filled an enormous wooden chest, feeling the satisfying friction as the coins scraped against each other.

"It's so...shiny." He whispered, mesmerized.

"I knew you would enjoy gold, your highness. I'm sure you really are royalty." Lady Roberta said with a smile. Then she reached in and slowly lowered the lid of the trunk, trapping Stingy's wrists. "But we have to be absolutely sure first. Then you can have all the gold you want!"

Stingy reluctantly slid his hands from the trunk and the latch clicked shut.

"Why must I prove that I'm a prince if you already believe it?" He drummed his fingertips, eyes glued to the latch of the trunk.

"That's just how it is with these matters of royalty. You understand of course, don't you my prince?" Lady Roberta opened a book with an orange cover and flipped through the pages. "Now, the first question in the Royal Prince Training Test Manuel for Simpletons is a very easy one."
She cleared her throat.

"Who are your parents?"

"That really is an easy one. My parents are tailors. Royal blooded tailors. They had so many children that I had to leave their kingdom to seek my fortune abroad. It was getting crowded there." Stingy looked back at the chest of gold. "Next question?"

"Er, um." Roberta flipped through the book. "Next question is: what are you currently doing, and who are you doing it with?"

"I'm trying my hand at being a bandit. I know it seems demeaning for someone of my status, but fortune doesn't come by wishing for it. Sometimes, you must take hold of what you want." He rubbed his fingers together for emphasis. "My friends are nice. I like our leader, though he's more like a friend. It took some convincing, but he agrees that I'm a prince. He says I can be whatever I want, like I'd want to be anything else. Hm! And then there's Trixie, who-"

"Your leader," Roberta interrupted. "Tell me more about him."

"Why? He's not relevant."

"On the contrary, young man. If you've been following the wrong kind of person, you may be unfit to rule!"

Stingy gasped.

"Sportacus is not the wrong kind of anything! He looks after us kids and shows us how to do all kinds of things. He even taught me how to read."

"What about the other adults at your camp? What are they like?"

"There are no other adults, it's just us four kids and Sportacus. Wait," Stingy thought for a second. "Five kids including Stephanie. She didn't want to be a princess so she ran away to join us. Ridiculous, right? But her training master was a real bully so I suppose I can understand."

"What? That's not true!" Lady Roberta sputtered. Stingy looked at her quizzically.

"How would you know?

"I just-, I, ugh. Training Masters always know best, that's all. There was probably a misunderstanding. Tell me, did Sportacus tell Stephanie to run away?" She squinted intensely at the boy.

"I don't know. It doesn't seem like something he would do."

Lady Roberta closed the book and extended a finger toward Stingy's face. He shivered as her fingertip rested against the bridge of his nose.

"Tell me the truth, now. Did Sportacus tell Stephanie to run away?" She repeated, her voice suddenly deep and raspy. Stingy felt something grow inside his head, a slight pressure that felt like the urge to sneeze. He wanted to answer the question but didn't know the truth. The pressure grew.

"I don't know." He stated once again. Lady Roberta did not remove her finger.

"Where is Sportacus from?"

"I don't know."

"How did he meet Stephanie?"

"I don't know."

Stingy wished he could answer and get the sneeze out of his head. Lady Roberta grumbled under her breath.

"Does Sportacus work for the Purple Knight?" She questioned. Stingy squirmed.

"I don't...think so?" He wasn't sure who the Purple Knight was. He really should pay more attention to things.

"What are you good for?" Roberta huffed in exasperation.

"I'm good at math..." Stingy answered. Instantly the pressure in his head erupted and was gone, much like a sneeze. It was the truth, he was adept at quick calculations. Lady Roberta dropped her hand, and Stingy's vision flickered for a moment. He felt disoriented, unable to recall what was happening.

"Are you alright, my boy?" Lady Roberta asked sweetly. Stingy blinked, remembering he was in his castle with his Royal Prince Training master. He straightened up.

"Oh, I must have...lost focus there for a second. Um, what was the question?"

"I asked if you would like to count your gold coins, your highness." She opened the chest full of treasure. With a delighted gasp, Stingy dug his hands into the gold.

Robbie crept from the guard tower, telling Prince Stingy he would be right back. The child had been distracted by the coins, barely noticing 'Lady Roberta' leave.

"Don't go anywhere." He muttered while locking the door. He didn't want the boy wandering about until he figured out a way to use him against Sporta...Sporta-something. Robbie groaned. His head ached and he was tired of wearing a corset. Stringy might be a dead end in terms of information, which would make this afternoon almost a complete waste of time. The most Robbie had learned was that there were no other bandits besides Sporta-loon (aha!) and his collection of adolescents, and he had taught at least one of them to read. The Purple Knight still was not out of the equation.

Robbie stomped toward the bakery near the center of town. He was in need of some muffins, and so was the kid he had locked in the tower. He wondered what kind of muffin the boy would like, and decided he would get one of each, and some chocolate ones for himself. Distracted by anticipation, Robbie didn't see the clothesline until it was too late. Three mischievous teenagers had strung a line across the street and hung dish-ware from it like clothing. Due to his height, Robbie hit it at waist height, doubled over, and fell back into the wheel of a moving cart. He struggled to stand but his skirt was caught in the axle.

"Help! Stop!" He yelped as he was pulled along by the hem. "Stop the cart!"

He twisted to get a look at the driver, only to see that there was none. An oblivious donkey plodded dutifully along, dragging the cart and Robbie toward its destination.

"Are you kidding me?!" He roared.

Chapter Text

Sportacus and company had just made it to the guard tower when the bandit's crystal went off.

"Someone's in trouble!" He whipped around toward the town. "They're in town, I'll be right back!"

He swished his arms and bounded away, leaving Trixie and Ziggy alone outside the tower.

"Great. Now who's gonna fight all the ghosts that live in here?" Trixie slapped at the stone wall.

"Ghosts?" Ziggy whimpered. "You're just trying to scare me, right?"

"Hey, hey ghosts! Anybody home?" Trixie called, knocking on the wooden door.

"Trixie?" Came a muffled voice from the other side. Trixie jumped and Ziggy ducked behind her with a shriek. "Trixie, is that you out there?"

"Hey, it's Stingy!" Ziggy emerged from behind Trixie and pounded on the door. "Stingy! Stingy! What are you doing in there?"

"Open the door!" Trixie shouted.

"You wish to enter my castle?" Stingy's voice inquired.

"What castle? This thing is a ruin." Trixie scoffed, giving the door a kick.

"This is the castle of Prince Stingy, Prince of Lazytown for all time and eternity!"

"Get your royal butt out here, Stingy!" Trixie demanded. "And stop being weird!"

"Hm! Nobody tells a prince what to do." was his reply.

"If he doesn't open the door, we can't give him the presents we scavenged." Ziggy pointed out. There was an inquisitive silence from inside the tower.

"Presents?" Stingy asked warily. Trixie seized the opportunity.

"I guess we'll just throw them away. Who needs shiny things anyway?" She said loudly.

"I have plenty of shiny things inside this castle. I don't need your trinkets." Stingy sniffed. His thoughts felt fuzzy.

"Well, maybe we don't need YOU in our treehouse! Whatever, more room for me." Trixie shouted. Ziggy gasped, glancing around nervously. Stingy was quiet.

"You're right." His voice finally squeaked. "You don't need me... taking up space. Just leave me on my own, okay ?"

"Uh..." Trixie realized she'd touched a nerve with the delicacy of a mountain troll. Annoyed as she was, she really wanted Stingy to come home.

"D-do you mean that, Stingy?" Ziggy asked in a trembling voice. "You really want to live in this tower forever all alone?"

"It's for the best." Stingy replied.

"Oh, knock it off." Trixie had had enough. "We need you at home, Stingy. Everybody cares about you a lot... e-even me! You're not a waste of space, you're freaking important, okay? It's your home and we're your friends. When are you gonna realize that you belong to something?"

Inside the tower, Stingy had stopped fiddling with the coins. He absently began stroking the honey-colored leather of his mask which hung around his neck, staring into the empty eyeholes. On a whim, he put the mask on his face and tied the ribbon. The fuzz in his head soothed almost instantly.

"B-belong...where?" He stuttered. "Where am I?"

"Stingy! Are you okay?" Ziggy's voice pierced the stone walls.

"Yes. Yes, I'm okay."

"Are you gonna open the door now?" Trixie called.

"Yes, hold on." Stingy lifted the latch on his side pushed on the door. It didn't move. "Huh, that's strange. It's stuck."

"Did you unlock it?"

"The lock must be on the other side!"

Trixie poked at the iron lock on her side of the door.

"It's locked all right. That's not good." She managed to say calmly.

"Oh no! He's trapped inside! What are we gonna do what are we-" Ziggy panicked.

"I'm going to go find Sportacus, you stay right here with Stingy and don't. Freak. Out. Alright?" Trixie commanded the trembling boy. He nodded nervously.

"Ziggy, what's going on?" Stingy yelled from inside. "Where's Trixie?"

"She's getting Sportacus for help. But don't worry, I'm right here!"

"How wonderful." Stingy murmured. He surveyed his surroundings. The chest of gold coins, a few benches, a framed painting of a cow, and a spiral staircase were lit by a shaft of sunlight from above. Not much use in opening the door-

"Wait a minute!" Stingy shrieked. "Daylight! There must be an way out up the stairs!"

"You found a way out?" Ziggy cried hopefully.

Instead of replying, Stingy scrambled up the spiral staircase. It was narrow and rickety, but the light grew stronger as he ascended. He burst through the open hatch at the top of the tower and stepped into the open air.

"Freedom at last!" He reveled.

"Where are you?" Came Ziggy's voice from below.

"I'm up- whoah." Stingy jumped back as he saw the distance from the top of the tower to the ground. Ziggy looked minuscule from his vantage point. "Okay, now I'm just stuck way up here."

"Do you have any rope up there? You could use it to climb down." Ziggy offered from the ground.

"There's nothing useful up here, Ziggy. I guess we'll just have to wait for Sportacus to get here."

"Okay." Ziggy picked a dandelion off the grass and chewed on the stem. "Trixie was really worried about you."

Stingy's stomach tightened guiltily. He had dragged everyone on this goose chase and scared his friends, but despite it all they cared enough to find him. Maybe belonging to something like that would be alright. He removed his mask, feeling the warm sun on his face.

Chapter Text

"Is that Ziggy?" Pixel squinted at the small figure by the tower. It was indeed Ziggy. Stephanie waved her arms to get his attention.

"Ziggy! Hey!" She called out, running with Pixel to their friend.

"There you guys are! I thought you were still in the woods." Ziggy gave them a wide hug. "Stingy's stuck in the tower and Trixie went to get Sportacus who went to go save someone-"

"Hello down there!" Came a voice from above. The three on the ground looked up to see Stingy leaning over the tower wall, outlined against the afternoon sun.

"Hey, you're okay!" Pixel cheered. "What happened to you, man?"

"It's a long story. You don't have any rope, do you? Or a ladder?"

"I do have this cord," Pixel fished an excessively thick braid from his pocket and started unpicking the knot.

"Oh great. This is going to take forever, isn't it?" Stingy sighed, slumping against the wall and resting his face in his hands. Stephanie and Ziggy started helping to untangle the cord, tangling up their hands in the process. It was going to take some time.

 

 

For the second time that day, Sportacus was running with intoxicating purpose. This time his mind was in two directions at once: the unfortunate person stuck to a moving cart in town, and Stingy who may or may not be in the guard tower in the company of a stranger.

There was no time to split his attention. The crystal came first, and it was urging him into town. It did to take long to spot who was in trouble. A cart pulled by a donkey rolled by, and with it a severely disgruntled woman being dragged by the skirt of her purple dress. The cart lurched, pulling her off balance. Sportacus saw with alarm that she was about to fall beneath the wheels. He acted quickly. With a few well-timed front handsprings, he reached the cart in time to seize the donkey's harness with one arm and move to catch the woman by the waist with the other. He tugged on the harness with all his weight, and the cart halted.

"Are you okay?" Sportacus asked, letting go of the donkey and turning to the woman. Her face was red, somewhere between terrified and livid. And curiously familiar. Sportacus realized he was staring.

"Sorry, do I know you?" He asked slowly. The woman looked startled, then rolled her eyes with a huff.

"Let go of my waist, you clown." She growled. Sportacus looked down to see his hands wrapped around her corset. He removed them instinctively, causing her to fall to the ground. "Waugh!"

Sportacus slapped his own forehead. He had done it again. She refused the hand he offered to help her to her feet, slapping it rather roughly.

"No, no, you've done enough! What are you doing here, you Sp- spring... chicken..." She finished weakly.

"Chicken?" Sportacus was puzzled as to whether this was offensive.

"Never mind. A-hem, to answer your question: I am Lady Roberta, a total foreigner to these parts whom you have never met before." She drew herself elegantly up to her impressive full height.

"It's great to meet you! I'm Sportacus." Sportacus said brightly, offering a handshake. Roberta eyed the hand suspiciously. She delicately pinched his wrist and raised the back of his hand to her lips to plant a quick kiss, before dropping it quickly and shaking her fingers as though burned. Sportacus blinked.

"So, Sportacus." Roberta struggled out the name. "Where are you from?"

"Uh," The bandit tried find an answer, still off guard from the weird hand-kiss. "I'm from-"

"Sportacus! Hey!" A blur of red shirtsleeves and black ponytails rammed against his side. Trixie was breathing hard, having run the whole way from the tower. She grabbed Sportacus's vest. "Stingy's locked-whew!- locked inside the tower, you have to get him out!"

"Oh no," Sportacus looked in the direction Trixie was pointing. He unsheathed a small ornate knife from inside his vest and flipped it once in his hands before passing it to Trixie.

"Here. Use this to cut Roberta free while I go save Stingy." Sportacus swished his arms and dashed away. Trixie attempted to flip the knife in a similar fashion, just barely catching it by the handle.

"Oh, no you don't," Roberta squeaked, blocking the child's access to her trapped skirt. "Put that knife away, you're a little girl for god's sake!"

"What did you just call me?" Trixie scowled. She did not lower the knife.

"You are not ruining this dress. It's very very very expensive." Roberta crossed her arms. Trixie narrowed her eyes.

"Fine then. Have fun being stuck to this cart forever!" She threw up her hands and strutted away after Sportacus. A rumble in her stomach compelled her to dig an apple out of her pocket and begin skinning it with the knife, dropping the curly peels on the street behind her as she walked.

Robbie sighed and leaned against the cart wheel, ruminating on this disaster of a day when the cart suddenly lurched forward and threw him off balance. He grabbed the slats for balance as the donkey plodded along the street, bending its neck to pick up the crunchy apple skins Trixie left behind. It showed no signs of stopping.

"Whyyyyy why why why..." Robbie moaned as as he stumbled along beside the cart.

 

 

"Okay, get ready!" Pixel closed one eye and swung the rope in a circle. They had untangled the cord and tied one end around a fist-sized stone. The goal was to throw the rope to the top of the tower, where Stingy would fasten it to the top of the wall and climb down. Like with most simple plans, the hardest step was the first.

"Almost!" Stephanie encouraged as the rock bounced against the tower wall once again. Pixel wiped his brow.

"You wanna try?" He offered her the rope.

"Come on, Stephanie!" Ziggy cheered. He was laying on his stomach in the grass, picking dandelions. Stephanie took the rock and licked her lips. She swung her arm back, squinted into the sun, and aimed for the top of the wall.

"Whoah!" Stingy squeaked as the rock sailed toward him. He scrambled to catch the attached rope. "I got it!"

"Good throw!" Sportacus said. Stephanie, Pixel, and Ziggy startled to see him standing beside them, shielding his eyes with one hand. He grinned at them.

"He's going to climb down the rope." Pixel explained, perhaps unnecessarily. They watched Stingy pull up a length of the cord and look around the tower.

"There's nowhere to tie it to!" He called, shrugging for emphasis.

"A ha!" Sportacus raised a finger knowingly and sprinted toward the wall. It was only a matter of seconds before he had scaled the entire height of the tower.

"Are you okay, Stingy?" He asked, pulling himself over the parapet. Stingy nodded.

"Yes, I'm quite fine. Please get me down."

"Okay!" Sportacus took the rope. "I'll hold this while you climb down. I know you're a great climber."

"That's true..." Stingy carefully climbed over the wall, clinging tightly to the rope. Sportacus held his end firmly until the boy was safely on the ground. Below him, the kids cheered. He laughed in relief as he watched them celebrated their reunion by crowning Stingy with Ziggy's dandelion chain. Movement a little ways off caught his eye, and he saw Trixie striding towards the group, munching on an apple. Behind her was the curious sight of Lady Roberta, still attached to the cart who's donkey was devotedly plodding after Trixie. He shook his head.

"Where are you going you stupid as-" Roberta was bellowing when Sportacus dropped down beside her. With one swift tug he removed the cart wheel, freeing her skirt from the axle.

"There you go!" He laughed, popping the wheel back on. Roberta scowled.

"What is so funny? This ugly horse dragged me all across town! What is the point of those huge hairy ears if you can't even listen when I'm talking!" she roared at the donkey. The creature lifted its neck and stretched lazily toward Roberta's head. Huge lips and teeth clamped around the curls of her hair, and before she could react, tore a sizeable chunk of hair right off. Roberta's hand flew to her scalp.

"Oh no," she said. To everyone's surprise, the rest of her hair began falling from her head. The locks disappeared before they touched the ground and her face seemed to change expression in a way that became a completely different person.

"Robbie?" Stephanie gasped. The man whipped around. His dark trimmed hair had returned, but his face was clean shaven. Stephanie couldn't recall ever seeing Robbie without his beard. His chin looked so prominent.

"Robbie Rottenham!" The kids chorused accusingly. Robbie glared at them.

"That's 'Sir Robert Rottenham' to you, little brats." He huffed.

"What about Lady Roberta?" Stingy asked, slightly confused.

"She's retired. And you, dear boy, will never be a prince. There's only one future ruler of this town and I'm not letting her go!" Robbie lunged forward and grabbed Stephanie's arm. She squirmed, struggling to break his grip.

"I'm not going anywhere, leave me alone!" She cried. Sportacus once again stepped between them, a hand on Robbie's wrist. Robbie sneered.

"What are you going to do?" He snorted. "Break my arm? Snap my neck?"

Sportacus narrowed his eyes. His grip tightened and Robbie rolled his eyes.

"I know what you are," Robbie murmured to the small space between them. Sportacus's eyes widened. "I'm not afraid of cowards like you. Your disguise will fail eventually and expose you for what you really are. So save yourself some pain, elf , and release my ward. She deserves better than a betrayer."

Sportacus released his hold on Robbie's wrist, his eyes distant. Robbie smirked and pushed him aside with his free hand. Behind Sportacus was a small defense squadron.

"Forget it, man. She doesn't want to go with you." Pixel said in a low voice.

"Yeah! Let go!" Chimed Ziggy.

"Stephanie belongs to my family now, not to you!" Stingy added. Trixie said nothing, only refusing to break eye contact while ominously carving what was left of her apple. Robbie tugged on the princess's arm, but the other kids grabbed her shoulders, holding her in place. He reached out to push them away when a rope pinned his arm back to his side.

"What?" He gasped as the rope wrapped around his torso once, twice, three times. It tightened, and he was forced to release the girls arm. Sportacus gave his end of the rope a sharp tug, sending Robbie sprawling backwards.

"Here you go," Sportacus said to the donkey, its strong teeth clamping around the rope end. Sportacus dusted his hands and walked over to the children. Robbie kicked and struggled fruitlessly.

"You can't get rid of me so easily! I'll track you down! I'll get you, Sporta-kidnapper!" He spat. Stephanie turned her head to look at him, and her expression made him freeze. Her usually bright and empathetic features were so indifferent, so cold. His chest filled with needles. As he watched her turn and walk away with the bandits, he found his throat useless and empty. The words 'I'm sorry' sprang into his mind. Where had they come from?

Robbie sat in the dandelions; wearing a gown, tied to a donkey. Alone with his thoughts