Actions

Work Header

The Hero of Lazytown

Chapter Text

 

The princess stepped through the door that opened before her, shrill hinges whining a dismal fanfare. Darkness veiled the space beyond the threshold, thick enough to weigh like water on her skin. Like perspiration in the heat. Smothering, choking heat. A pale hand emerged and beckoned with long fingers, shiny claw-like nails that were just so slightly beyond human. The princess flinched away from a magenta laugh. There were stairs to climb in the dark and she fled upwards. Light blossomed ahead, revealing a dim arrangement of nondistinct shapes. A polished tomb, a sanctuary, and yet no resting place. It was hungry, waiting space. The hot air stirred violently. She shook on the ground as above her opened the white slit of a monstrous eyelid.

 

Stephanie jolted awake in her four-poster bed. Her hair was damp with sweat, as it often was on these late summer nights. The heat had been winding down as the season began to change but regardless the castle was not quite cool. She would have been more comfortable in her treehouse bed in the woods, but she slept there only every other night- a balance she had struck between the life she lived with the Blue Bandit's family and her own small family at the castle. Her uncle Milford, Robbie, and even Bessie were thrilled whenever she spent time at her original home. Robbie no longer tried conforming her to the same royal expectations as before, though they still argued heartily about this and that. But their various spats were constructive and never ended in hurt feelings, something that Stephanie found refreshing. They shared laughter as well, and heart-to-heart conversations that previously would have been unthinkable between them. Robbie seemed to have more feelings than he knew how to share. Slowly but surely they were coming to trust each other, and it was thrilling to no longer be alone.

The previous day, Robbie had gotten on her nerves. He'd been criticizing the state of her play clothes. Her tunic was ripped and dirty, but that was expected when living in the woods. There was no need for him to suggest throwing them away! Sportacus had given those clothes to her only months ago and she refused to part with them. In the end, an agreement was reached that she would wear nicer dresses in the castle, and wash her forest clothes at least once a week. Stephanie smirked, rolling on her side to see her freshly laundered tunic and tights folded on a chair beside her bed. She would be wearing them soon enough. Today would be spent with the bandits, and she was likely to see Sportacus before Robbie was even awake. The Blue Bandit liked to accompany her from the castle to their campsite in the mornings, which Stephanie felt was unnecessary but also understandable. Sportacus had seemed less carefree since they had narrowly escaped from Rottington. He went to bed later, rose earlier, and ate less than before. Jives had been visiting from town more often, which was always fun. But the kids noticed the way his smile faded when he inevitably wandered away to talk with Sportacus. Stingy and Ziggy admitted that Jives had gotten upset when they went to rescue Robbie from the Purple Knight, that he'd been afraid of some huge disaster.

Whatever it was, Sportacus obviously had something heavy on his mind.

A beam of sunlight spilled over her windowsill as Stephanie sat up with a yawn. She rested her chin on her knees, gazing blearily at the pale dawn sky behind the distant mountains. There were heavy matters on her mind as well. Her shoulder bag was now the permanent residence of her mother's diary, being the only place that was truly secure with all the moving around she did. Despite researching in secret, the foreign text remained foreign, and the note tucked away in the back cover remained an ominous mystery. Robbie's supposed destiny was something that Stephanie had no means of learning, but she was determined nonetheless. One thing was for sure, Robbie would never see the note if she could help it. Her feet met the not-quite-cool stone floor and moved quickly to her waiting clothes. There was still some precious time for herself before Sportacus arrived to pick her up. She carried her boots in hand as she tiptoed down the hall to the watchtower stairs. The sunrise always looked lovely from the highest point in the castle, illuminating the tops of green trees in the Lazy Woods and the red roofs of Lazytown.

Ascending the dark stairwell faintly reminded her of something, maybe a dream she couldn't quite remember. Lately she had been dreaming slippery dreams. Strange omens that washed away with the sleep sand in her eyes. Too much reading before bed, Robbie had said when she had brought it up.

From the top of the tower, Stephanie surveyed another spectacular sunrise and wished summer didn't have to end. Although... the close of summer meant that it was time for her birthday. In fact, she would be turning twelve tomorrow morning. This was the last sunrise she'd see at age eleven. She giggled out loud with excitement and moved to look down at the castle. Lately, some cosmetic work had been done around the place, mostly by Milford but Robbie also grumbled about doing various renovations. The courtyard was tidier than anyone could remember. Looking down on it from the tower, Stephanie was surprised to see Robbie stalking across the clean-swept flagstones, apparently absorbed in a book of some kind. Unusual. Stephanie could normally count on him to be slumbering in the library armchair until nearly noon.

A figure clad in blue flip-flopped over the wall and dropped discreetly into the courtyard. Stephanie gaped as Sportacus somersaulted across the ground and crept mischievously up behind an oblivious Robbie. She saw Robbie jump violently as the bandit startled him with a friendly greeting. He whirled on Sportacus with a irritated roar that echoed off the castle walls, but didn't seem to bother Sportacus at all. He put a hand on Robbie's shoulder and began talking eagerly to him, though Robbie continued to fume loudly. Stephanie wondered what they were discussing. The two spent little time together when it didn't involve Stephanie, but they would often ask her deliberately casual questions about each other. Sportacus always seemed to brighten up around Robbie. Robbie appeared to tolerate him. It seemed they had put the past behind them, and she hoped they were on their way to forming some sort of friendship.

At the moment, the two men were having very engaged discussion that led them out of the courtyard and into the castle halls. Stephanie noted their conference with interest. Spurred by curiosity, she bounded down the tower steps to investigate.

Chapter Text

"You don't have to keep secrets from me, right?"

"I don't have to keep secrets from anyone. I choose to. Wisely." Robbie huffed. The annoying blue elf was prying into importance matters of utmost privacy. Namely, Stephanie's birthday gift.

"I just want to gather some ideas," Sportacus pleaded, "you know I would never tell anyone."

"No, Sporta-snoop, I do not know that."

"I guess that's true. What if... I tell you a secret of my own? In trade?" Sportacus said with a tempting smile. Robbie quirked an eyebrow, intrigued.

"What secret?" He asked slowly. The elf beckoned him closer. Robbie leaned in, and felt a soft breath against his listening ear.

"If you eat limes, you'll be safe from scurvy." Sportacus whispered smugly. Robbie gave him a shove.

"That's not a good secret! Why would I want to know that- that nonsense! Limes?" He scoffed, "Where do you get these ideas from?"

"Well, that one I learned from... sailors. From a ship I was on."

"So sailors eat limes?" Robbie could tell that Sportacus had let out more than he'd wanted to. His answer promised a much more interesting secret, but Robbie wasn't quick enough to corner it.

"Yes, they do. And so should you," The bandit continued hastily. "Stephanie tells me you live off eating cake and chocolate pudding and that can't be good for your health! Although, I think you look in kind of amazing shape for eating so badly."

"Badly? Im insulted, cake is the food of royalty!" Robbie brushed something off his shirt. "But thank you for the compliment, you're not in too bad of shape yourself. You're good. I mean, er, you look good. N-no! No no that's not what I meant!"

"Really?" It was Sportacus's turn to raise an eyebrow. Robbie let out a frustrated sigh.

"Well, people of your age often have such a physique. Better enjoy your youthful vigor while you still have it."

Sportacus let out a short, surprised laugh.

"Aha ha, what? How old do you think I am?" He answered his own question with a smirk. "I'm just about fifty now!"

"Fifty?" Robbie had underestimated be over a decade. Were elves just eternally young? "M-me too. I'm fifty one."

He'd turned thirty nine earlier that year, but Sportacus needn't know that. Robbie wasn't too thrilled about this... robust scamp being his senior. The only giveaway to Sportacus's age were the crinkles that wreathed his smiling blue eyes, and Robbie was keenly aware of the gray hairs that often appeared on his own temples and beard.

"Wow! You look so young! I guess maybe there is good in eating cake every day." Sportacus winked. "But at your age, you should really think about having more fruit. I can bring you some!"

"Oh, er, um, well thanks but-" Robbie grimaced. How to turn down such an eagerly offered gift, especially from a man who had saved his life? Sportacus was always all blinding smiles toward him but Robbie couldn't imagine why. They hadn't ever agreed to be friends. Or had they?

"Alright, fine. Here's what I'm making for Stephanie's birthday, but you better keep it to yourself." Robbie flipped through the book he held and tilted the page so Sportacus could see the charcoal drawing. The bandit's eyes lit up.

"That looks fantastic! She's going to love it, Robbie."

"It's just a sketch." Robbie hadn't found the words explain that most people called him 'Sir Robert', and 'Robbie' was used by approved family. None of the bandit clan seemed to realize this, so Robbie he was. Oh, the indignity.

"Well, you did a great job." Said Sportacus, apparently not finished showering him with flattery. "I think I know what to give her now! Does Stephanie-"

"Stephanie!" Robbie gasped. The princess had just entered the dining room where the two men were conversing. She glanced between them suspiciously.

"Good morning Robbie, and Sportacus." Her eyes fell on the book in Robbie's hands. He quickly snapped it shut.

"Good morning, my highness. Are you here to take this ruffian off my hands now?" Robbie poked Sportacus in the shoulder a bit harder than he meant. Sportacus looked exaggeratedly hurt.

"Ruffian?"

"I guess I'm at your rescue again." Stephanie grinned.

 

Robbie stared at the empty doorway for a while when Stephanie and Sportacus had left. It wasn't easy letting Stephanie go spend the day leading to her birthday without him, but on the other hand he had plenty of time to prepare surprises for the occasion. Anyway, he had other arrangements to take care of as well.

"Sir Robert! The Knights have replied!" Milford's excited call entered the dining room and Robbie snapped to attention as his lordship came bustling in, waving a scroll of paper in one hand. A very large, fierce-looking bird clung to his other arm.

"The northerners? What did they say? Did they get the- hang on." Robbie moved the bird's glaring head aside to take the scroll. It flapped a wing in Milford's face as he hastily unrolled the paper. "Ugh, why couldn't they write in english? I can't read any of this!"

"But it is in english- oh, try turning it the other way around." Milford suggested, trying to keep the feathered messenger at a distance. Robbie turned the scroll upside down.

"Ah, I meant to do that." He cleared his throat and skimmed the inky contents, eyes growing wide. "They're coming! Hah! 'The Knights of the North have decided to aid you in your worthy cause of protecting Lazytown', they spelled it a bit wrong. Whatever. 'We ride immediately... expect help by-' let me see, that's... that's tomorrow. Lord Milford, by tomorrow night we'll have knights in this castle other than myself!"

"That's a relief- not to say you don't do a wonderful job on your own, Sir Robert. I'm just glad we're going to have more help."

"Of course, wouldn't want me to keep doing all the work around here. We could have done this ages ago if I'd known it was so easy to hire a bunch of strangers to defend your kingdom."

"I would say that we are requesting help from an honorable organization of chivalrous knights. Oh, but that application process was quite tedious, and we didn't need more defenses until the Purple Knight became such a great threat anyway." Milford sighed. The last few months had been abnormally stressful for him. Being a ruler in a time of peace was demanding enough without old foes looming over your head. Now at least it seemed they were getting a break. Planning for Stephanie's birthday was the only distraction from his anxiety, and at the moment things were looking bright.

"Well now that we know the Northerners are coming, we just have to worry about what to do with them during the party tomorrow. I want to show them around the castle, give them the run down of defenses and whatnot." Robbie glanced down at the scroll. "You may want to bake an extra cake. Or two."

"I suppose I should." Milford said, delighted.

"But I won't be able to help with the party much if my hands are full with the new knights."

"Oh, lady Busybody will help me set up, or she'll supervise at least. Hmm. I may need some extra hands."

Robbie tapped his chin thoughtfully.

"How big of hands?"

Chapter Text

"Finish him off, Stephanie! Show no mercy!"

Stephanie turned her head, her stance breaking.

"Trixie, we haven't started fighting yet."

"And you're already distracted!" Trixie smirked. Stephanie shook her head and refocused on Sportacus, who raised his sword. He lunged forward and scored a light hit to her shoulder before she could block.

"Aw, I wasn't ready." Stephanie lamented as she deflected another blow.

"You really can't be ready," Sportacus easily parried her counter attack. "The best you can do in a fight is stay right in the moment. Be alert, Stephanie!"

"How's this?" She jabbed the blunt tip of her sword beneath his arm. Sportacus jerked back, dodging just out of reach. Their blades clacked together and they circled each other before breaking apart. The bandit moved forward and assumed the offensive, Stephanie focused on countering every thrust. She was driven back until she found her opportunity: Sportacus's arm knocked back a little too far, his swing just a bit too slow. She went for the leg.

"Ow!"

"Yay! One point for Pinkie!" Trixie whooped from the sidelines. Sportacus rubbed his thigh and braced for Stephanie's onslaught. Her attack was invigorated by success, and soon she'd scored another hit above his elbow.

"Got you this time!" Stephanie was breathing hard. Her persistence in training had given her strength and stamina, but dueling was intense and her opponent was a tough match. So far she had never defeated him.

"You think so?" Sportacus's mustache twitched in a telltale smirk. He ducked to the side and the girl's sword swung through the empty space. Quickly regaining control, she managed to stop his attack as he came at her from behind. Their swords locked once again.

"You can't trick me, Sportacus. I'm onto you!" Stephanie grunted. Sportacus pulled away and stepped back, planting one foot behind him. It was easy enough for Stephanie to anticipate his next move. She readied her sword to block the quick thrust that her opponent was prepared to execute. Sportacus moved. His sword fell short of its mark, as his back knee buckled and caused him to stumble sideways. Stephanie deflected the blow and took advantage before he could regain balance, landing her third hit squarely on his stomach.

"Three points foooor Stephanie! She wins!" Ziggy cheered from the sideline. He and Trixie lounged in the grass under the apple tree, chewing on the last of Ziggy's taffy. The boy's blue eyes grew wide with realization. "That means- Sportacus lost?"

Sportacus straightened his back and rested a hand on Stephanie's shoulder. His face showed only admiration for the girl who had defeated him. But hers was tinged with concern.

"Sportacus, what... happened?" She glanced at his leg.

"Yeah, how could you lose to someone half your height?" Trixie said, mostly to Stephanie.

"She beat me!" With a small laugh, Sportacus slipped his sword through his belt and began stretching his arms over his head. Stephanie crossed her arms, discontent with the way he'd shrugged off her question. It was obvious that something more was going on.

"You're acting kind of weird." She accused him bluntly.

"My arms are stiff, I'm just stretching them out." Sportacus pulled his elbow back at a deliberately amusing angle, but Stephanie wasn't impressed.

"I don't mean just right now, I mean lately." She moved closer and lowered her voice to just above a whisper. "Are you okay? All the kids have noticed how jumpy you are- and I don't mean jumping around because that's how you are normally."

Sportacus stopped stretching. An anxious grimace flashed across his face and then vanished behind a soothing expression.

"You're right. I am jumpy lately. Not very smart of me to try and hide it, I'm sorry." He apologized.

"But what's the matter? What has got you so worried?"

"I..." Sportacus trailed off into a sigh, sliding a hand over his face as his expression became less careful. "Sometimes I get... these feelings. Just feelings. Thoughts. I try to ignore them, but-"

"Is it because of what happened to Robbie?" Stephanie interrupted.

"Sort of. Yes. Also other things."

"I don't expect that you're gonna tell me everything." Though her curiosity and concern wished he would open up, Stephanie had to respect whatever sensitive situation her friend was in. Besides, there were other people she could think of who may be able to help.

"Thanks for understanding." The bandit's warm smile crept back over his features. "And I think it's very nice of you to check up on me. You're a great friend, Stephanie. I see it in you all the time."

"Really?" Stephanie hadn't really had any friends before she met Sportacus and the kids. Sometimes, she felt inwardly embarrassed of her lack of experience- flying blind through every new aspect of human friendship was a challenge that the princess never felt fully ready to accept. But on hearing Sportacus's affirmation, she felt assured that at least for the moment, she was doing an adequate job.

"Really." Sportacus echoed. "And you're not bad with a sword, either."

"Hah! You better believe it!" Stephanie playfully mimed her finishing blow again.

"So are you ready to try fighting me now?" Said Trixie eagerly. Stephanie looked hesitant.

"I don't know, are you ready to actually follow the rules and not get all carried away?"

"Um, follow the what now? This is combat, Pinkie! Rules don't matter in a real fight, just ask Sportacus."

"That depends on who you're fighting," Sportacus was prompted to say, "knights and nobility follow a code of chivalry when they duel. That means playing fair and winning by your own strength and skill, otherwise your honor will be lost."

"Can't lose your honor if you don't have any." Trixie smirked.

"You do have honor, Trixie. Trust me. I've seen people who don't."

"Yeah? So have I." She shrugged.

"Then you know you're not like that. You're a good friend too."

"Okay, you can just stop. I- nobody was asking!" With a huff, Trixie slouched away, leaving her sword embedded in the grass.

Stephanie glanced at Sportacus. He was was distractedly watching Trixie's retreating back, the corners of his mouth falling into a frown. His eyes moved to meet hers.

"Trixie! Hey- wait up!" Stephanie wrenched the other girl's sword from the ground and dashed after her.

Ziggy sat with his chin in his hand as Sportacus dropped to the grass beside him.

"Are you thinking about something, Ziggy?" Sportacus asked the boy, who nodded.

"Why are some people so bad? Why don't they just be nice a-and normal like everyone else?" He gave a little huff. "I just don't get how you could think being mean and hurting people is alright."

Sportacus blinked.

"I... don't get it either. But that's a good thing of course, because I don't want to be mean." He said with a shrug.

"Me neither! I'm just not like that."

"Well, people do things for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes it can seem like a good thing to be hurtful. We have to all be careful not to act just like the people we think are bad, because it's much harder to judge yourself- and very easy to get carried away."

Sportacus was afraid he might have confused Ziggy, watching his pensive blue eyes drift to the trees.

"So, what has you thinking about this?" Asked Sportacus hesitantly. Ziggy's gaze snapped back to him.

"Nothing, just stuff I guess." He bounced to his feet and pulled on Sportacus's arm. "But now I'm thinking about Stephanie's birthday! Do you wanna see what I'm gonna give her? Huh?"

"Sure, if it's alright." Sportacus let Ziggy lead him away by the hand.

"You just can't tell Stephanie, okay?"

"Of course," Sportacus put a finger against his lips. "I can keep a secret."

Chapter Text

Jives was nearly at the castle gates when he was ambushed. His green and yellow vegetable cart was sporting a cheerful new coat of paint, thanks to all the time he'd spent with Sportacus lately. The bandit restlessly insisted on completing even the most unnecessary chores. There was no stopping him. Even Porridge, Jives's pony, was handsomely groomed thanks to Sportacus's overachievements early that morning. Jives had had to shoo his friend away so he could be free to deliver a load of fresh groceries to the castle in what was surely now the nicest cart in lazytown. But alas, not fast enough to escape.

 

"Whoah!" Jives ducked in alarm as a figure emerged from the woods, vaulted over Porridge's back and landed in the seat beside him. Sportacus turned to him nonchalantly, grinning.

 

"Hi, Jives."

 

"Sweet- ...corn cob! Yo, had scared me halfway to hell there!" The gardener gulped a few deep breaths.

 

"Sorry," Said Sportacus sheepishly, patting him on the shoulder. "I just wanted to catch up to you, because I'm going to the castle too- look."

 

He opened his satchel to reveal a bevy of red apples. Jives raised an eyebrow at him.

 

"For Robbie?"

 

"Yes, he-"

 

"You don't think you're being a bit heavy-handed?" Jives watched Sportacus's face freeze.

 

"It's not like that." He said after some hesitation. Jives belted out a laugh, elbowing his friend in the chest playfully.

 

"Teasing! Although, you know, I totally support any courtship you might want to-"

 

"Jives!" Sportacus rolled his eyes. "You know I'm not really in a position to 'settle down' right now, and Robbie? I don't think about Robbie like that. I don't think he even likes me as a friend, definitely not a- anything else. So that's it."

"Yo, I know how it is. Just saw how you act around him is all."

 

"How is that?"

 

"It's like 'oh, hallo Robbie! Im all smiles today, how're you? Eating well? Sleeping well? Your hair looks a-mazing!'"

 

"Oh, I am not like that." Sportacus scoffed. "What's wrong with wanting him to like me? Or tolerate me, at least."

 

"Nothing. But you may want to tone it down a bit before you crack from the effort, Sporta-fake." Jives growled the last word in a convincing Robbie-like manner. "Do you really not mind those little nicknames he gives you?"

"Nicknames? Oh, yes...I guess not?"

 

"Cute." Jives nodded as Sportacus buried his attention in his bag of apples, as if for reassurance from something redder than his own freckled cheeks. The other elf contentedly watched Porridge plod along before them, keeping a lax grip on the pony's reigns until eventually he spoke again.

 

"I know you don't want to tell these people the whole story, but I still think it'd help to explain just a few things. What if they're able to help? You might be surprised."

 

Sportacus was silent, absorbed with the peculiar stripes of one apple. Jives cast him a side glance before shrugging.

 

"Something to think about, then. Yo look, there's the castle." The cart rumbled out of the trees and up the path leading to the castle gate. Sportacus tied the satchel shut and slung it over his shoulder.

 

"I'll race you there!" He leapt off the seat, rocking the cart off balance while he dashed away. Jives let Porridge continue to plod at his own pace. His hyperactive friend was already halfway to the gate, a blur of blue motion. Sportacus could run to his heart's content. He could run forever, it seemed.

 

"Man," Jives sighed out loud, "how long do you think you can hide?"

 

Sportacus was fully intending to scale the castle wall as usual, so as usual he hardly glanced at the gate. Recently Robbie had become more diligent in his duties regarding castle security (in the sense that he now took them seriously) and the gate was more often properly chained shut. So the trespassing elf doubled back for a second look when he noticed it standing wide open.

Sportacus tilted his head at the open entrance, hands on his hips. A noise drew his gaze upward and he was greeted by the sight of Lord Milford leaning over the parapet, a mouthful of nails and a hammer in hand to match. It was a sight that invoked a similar awe to watching an acrobat step out onto a high wire- though lacking in reassurance that the acrobat was experienced in such daredevilry. Sportacus grimaced in anticipation as Stephanie's uncle unfurled a colorful banner and reached precariously low while positioning a nail to attach it to the wall.

 

"Oh, hello Sportacus!" He called through a mouthful of nails, finally noticing the bandit who observed anxiously from down below.

 

"Be careful, Lordship!" Sportacus shouted back.

 

"What?" Replied Milford, losing his balance and tumbling over the wall. Sportacus's crystal barely had time to sing its warning as he sprang to action. Into the bandit's waiting arms Milford and the banner dropped heavily, but safely. Sportacus rocked on his feet for balance as the banner slid off of his head.

 

"Are you okay?" He stuttered, setting a shaking Milford on the ground. Milford clutched an armful of banner and raised it to wipe his brow.

 

"Oh, thank you Sportacus! Goodness, if you hadn't been here, well, I certainly wouldn't have been okay... but I am now!"

 

"That's good, but try to be more careful when you- what are you doing?" Sportacus squinted curiously at the castle walls, just noticing a few decorative flags planted here and there.

 

"Hanging this banner." Milford answered plainly.

 

"For Stephanie's birthday? Are we having a surprise party? Fantastic!"

 

"How did you guess?"

 

"That banner. It says 'Happy Birthday Stephanie'."

 

"Oh, right. Of course." Milford fumbled with the expanse of pink cloth and Sportacus moved to help him fold it. "I was actually meaning to talk to you about the party, I may need some help as you can see."

 

"I'd love to help! What can I do, hang this up? Hang something else up?" Sportacus bounced on his toes enthusiastically.

 

"No, no. I need you to keep Stephanie distracted until tomorrow afternoon. I was hoping a few of your young friends would offer to help with some baking and setting things up..."

 

"Oh." Sportacus settled himself back on the ground. "I can distract Stephanie if you want, the kids will probably be happy to help you."

 

"Perfect! Oh, thank you Sportacus!" Gasped Milford gratefully.

 

"MIIIILFOOORD!" The unmistakable crescendo of Lady Bessie Busybody startled his attention back to the castle. He hastily made an attempt to fold the crumpled banner as the brash woman appeared inside the gate.

 

"Milford, there you are- oh! Why hello Sportacus! What a surprise to see you, I mean a nice surprise but I wasn't prepared as you would normally be in the woods or in town after taking Stephanie in the morning- what brings you here now, may I ask? Did she forget something?" Bessie waited patiently as Sportacus struggled to catch up to the question. Before he could formulate an answer, her eyes caught hold of the apples lying in the grass. The bag had spilled open when it was dropped in the sudden rescue and a few fruits were scattered on the ground. Sportacus regarded them with some dismay.

 

"I was actually here to deliver those. They're,uh, it's a gift for... well earlier I was-"

 

"Fruit for the party!" Bessie exclaimed. "How thoughtful of you. And no need to explain how you found out the surprise, I know Milford well enough." Judging from Milford's face, he didn't disagree. "But we have Jives bringing plenty of food already..."

 

"Oh! We could use them for a party game- I know that Stephanie makes impressive apple castles, that could be fun." Milford suggested.

 

"That is a terrific idea, Milford!" Bessie produced a quill from seemingly nowhere, whetting it between her berry colored lips while unfurling a long roll of paper. "I'm adding it the list for tomorrow. And I just remembered that Sir Robert told me earlier to tell you to let Sportacus know that he wants to ask him something. Now, Sportacus is here so go ahead and tell him, Milford."

 

"Oh! Of course, uh, I think Robbie wants to see you, Sportacus. I wish I could tell you why-"

 

"It's okay, my lord. I will go...go and...find him." The bandit cast another look to his bag of apples scattered in the grass. He hesitated. A tight, pensive look passed over his face as he hurried away through the gate, leaving his gift behind.

 

"Ah, here he comes." Bessie nodded to the woods. Porridge was plodding up the road with the associated vegetable cart rumbling in tow, Jives waving a greeting from the seat. As he reigned his pony to a slow halt, the others could see a question surfacing on his face.

 

"Yo my lord, my lady," The gardener climbed nimbly from the cart. "I've got a load of good food for you- the best picks from my garden."

 

"You've just missed him, I'm afraid." Bessie replied to the unspoken question.

 

"Sportacus came by, then."

 

"Oh yes, but he's with Robbie at the moment."

 

"Is he?" Jives scrutinized the fallen bag of apples as though deciphering a secret riddle. At the back of the cart, Milford was taking a hasty inventory.

 

"Aha! No need to worry, lady Busybody, there should be enough for all of our guests tomorrow. Including the knights of course."

 

"Knights? Yo, word from the Northerners already?" Jives interjected, snapping out of his fruitful puzzling.

 

"And good news too." Said Milford.

 

"We'll have defenses in place by tomorrow night, as long as everything stays to the plan." Lady Busybody tapped her long scroll of paper contentedly. Clearly, she had a precise list of events.

 

"Well that's a relief. Sportacus might even relax a bit."

 

"What was that, Mr. Jives?"

 

"Uh, just that Sportacus- you know. He needs a break." Jives shrugged, declining to say more.

 

"We all could use a break." Milford mumbled mostly to himself. The brief silence that followed hummed with unsaid agreement. With a cheerful huff, Bessie took her opportunity to brighten the atmosphere.

 

"We could use a celebration at the very least," She gestured to the bounty of colorful produce that filled the cart. "Let's stay on track and enjoy this party. While we can?"

 

"Totally." Jives agreed. He moved to hoist a basket of carrots into lord Milford's hands. Wobbling a little from the weight, Milford swerved close enough to Porridge that that the pony was able to nip one of the bright orange stalks.

 

"Oh my. At least there's plenty to go around." Sighed the man, immediately stumbling over a stray apple as if on cue. Down he went beneath an avalanche of carrots to the delight of Porridge and the dismay of lady Busybody. She vainly tried to stop the pony, who began feasting happily as Milford floundered, still buried.

 

"No, Pesto! Bad horse! Don't eat Milford!" Bessie shrieked, frantically waving her hands at the unresponsive animal. Carrots continued to disappear as her efforts were no match for Porridge's speedy jaws. At the sight of their struggling, Jives couldn't resist a smile. Finally there was a crisis he could manage.

 

Sir Rottenham's boisterous humming echoed from his bedchamber door. Because he spent his nights (and his naps) in the library armchair, it had been ages since the room had been used as anything other than a workshop. Sportacus had followed the sound of Robbie's voice accompanied by the occasional metallic clang and other unordinary noises which gave him the impression that the wizard was deeply lost in his work. Hesitant to intrude, Sportacus pushed the door with his fingertips and peeked through the crack. He caught a glimpse of Robbie's back where he stood hammering away at a far workbench. His handiwork was blocked from view, but there was enough glitter swirling through the air to suggest that this project was of the magical kind.

 

Though knocking on the door was the obvious course of action, Sportacus still hesitated. Suddenly the thought of talking to Robbie seized him with a clammy feeling of dread. He reminded himself that Robbie was expecting him, wanted to ask him something. But what? Probably something about the party, an errand, a favor? A restraining order wouldn't be out of the question. Sportacus somewhat suspected that his offer of fruit may have crossed a boundary, and he was somewhat comforted at the loss of his gift.

 

But he had promised. Was it rude to now turn up empty handed? Sportacus tapped his fingers anxiously on the door, his hand falling against thin air as it swung inward and left him face to face with Robbie Rottenhham.

 

"Sportacus?" Robbie's startled expression mirrored Sportacus's own as he scrambled to respond.

 

"Sportacus." He said regrettably, pointing at himself for added clarification.

 

"So I see...why are you standing out here?"

 

"I was, well, before I was-"

 

"Don't they teach you to knock at elf school, elf practice- whatever?" Robbie asked in a way that sounded more curious than sarcastic. "Nevermind. I have a more important question for you. Maybe more of a confession, I don't know."

 

"What is it?" Stammered the elf breathlessly as he was whisked into the chamber. The door closed behind him and Robbie leaned his back to it, inhaling deeply in preparation.

 

"What are you wearing?"

 

"What am I- sorry?"

 

"For the party, what clothes do you have wear?" Robbie gestured skeptically at Sportacus's usual blue ensemble, "This makes you look like some tree-dwelling outlaw."

 

"How else would I look..." the bandit asked in genuine confusion.

 

"What I'm asking is: do you have the clothes of an actual normal human man- and yes I know!- Elf man, in disguise. Whatever."

 

"I have another hat."

 

"Does it look the same as that one?"

 

"Mostly, except... yes it's the same hat actually." Sportacus admitted. Robbie was stirring a bizarre need to apologize for his limited wardrobe, and he was beginning to feel self-conscious in a way that he thought had been long dormant. Sportacus was preparing a defensive argument when his opponent pushed away from the door began circling him in a slow, searching manner.

 

"That settles it then." Robbie said abruptly. "I'm fairly certain about your measurements and it's clear what your preferred colors are, so just leave it to the master. Me, leave it to me."

 

"Leave- what, sorry?"

 

"Your new outfit!" Though he had turned away to rummage through a basket of scraps, Sportacus could hear the excitement in Robbie's tone. "This is quite an occasion after all, I thought you would like to make an impression."

 

"It is a special day, but I really like what I'm wearing now." Sportacus smoothed his hand down the soft fabric of his vest, appreciating the cut of the garment. It had taken ages settling on something so completely comfortable to him.

 

"I know you like those clothes because you wear them every single day," Robbie gestured in a way that betrayed his frustration. "Just this once, will you please put some faith in me and allow me make you something nice?"

 

Sportacus chewed on his lip as it dawned on him what the offer meant to Robbie. The man hadn't been given an abundance of opportunities to do any favors for Sportacus, although it constantly was on the reverse. It was easy to imagine Robbie feeling that their newborn relationship was a little unbalanced. Sportacus should at least let him to return a favor.

 

"Thank you very much. I can't wait to see what you make!" Seeing the elf's eager smile caused Robbie's frame to relax, miles of further arguments dissolving from his pleased face.

 

"Yes, well, be assured that you'll get the finest of quality from Robbie Rottenham. I happen to a master tailor among other things."

 

"Oh I know. Those cursed boots you made for me in spring are very comfortable." Sportacus said. Robbie's face slightly faltered, and Sportacus cringed inwardly. He hadn't meant to bring up the past.

 

"Well. I'm glad... you enjoy them." Robbie glanced around vacantly. The conversation was dead.

 

"I do. And I will, uh, come by before the party tomorrow."

 

"Yes. I'll see you tomorrow."

 

"See you," Sportacus found the doorknob behind him and stepped halfway across the threshold, "Bye, Robbie."

 

"Bye."

 

With soft stride, Sportacus retreated down the hall.

Chapter Text

"Sven! Get the map!" The leader of the Northerners shouted. One of his bearded companions marched to where he stood on the slope of the Rocky Mountains, surveying distant woods below. According to the map, they would reach the castle tomorrow with time to camp over the night. The fur clad group of knights picked up their shields and and moved down the mountain. They were eager to end their long journey. Scarcely had the last warrior dropped from sight when a flash of faint pink light briefly illuminated the mountaintop and a sleek black cat stepped across the stony dirt. Its gaze darted about the landscape, surveying the surrounding boulders with sly magenta eyes.

 

"Me-oww!" It called to the empty air. Wind whistled by, stirring eddies of dust. The cat meowed again.

 

"WOOF!" Came the sudden reply, causing the feline to shriek and leap into the air. It perched on a rock, arching it's back and hissing in annoyance at the three mangy dogs who lumbered from the shadows. Their long snouts whipped this way and that in bewilderment searching for the angry noises.

 

"Up here, you stupid mutts!" Spat the black cat. "Can't you even find something right in front of your ugly noses?"

 

"Is that you, Glanni?" The foremost hound grunted, prompting a rolling of pink eyes.

 

"Who else would be out here on this forsaken mountain addressing you, idiot?" Rising to it's back paws with indignation, the feline stepped off of the boulder and planted his gleaming black boots into the dust. The dog's gaze traveled up glossy leather and long legs until arriving at the face of Glanni Glaepur.

 

"And you SHOULD refer to me as your KING!" He added with a sharp kick to the nearest dog. It whimpered and likewise drew itself up to a humanlike form.

 

"We've come to hear your instructions just as you asked, my king!" Protested the hunched over man. His fellows transformed and cowered in agreement. Glaepur narrowed his eyes unforgivingly, but stepped closer to his henchmen.

 

"You lot are beyond doubt lazy, vulgar, filthy and pitifully stupid- but I have a task that requires your, well, let's not say 'skills'. Rather your lack of decency."

 

"You need us to burn laundry? Scare farm animals? Ooh, or give out poison candy to humans? I like when we do that."

 

"Nae!" Glaepur waved away the thug's suggestions. "This calls for something much worse than the usual party games, gentlemen. Let me show you."

 

From thin air, he unfurled a scroll upon which a glowing illustration appeared. A circle-shaped map of a town surrounded by woods.

 

"Tomorrow, we will take over this little town," The illustration shifted to display the image of Lazy Castle. It burned unnaturally in the dying daylight. "Tomorrow is the day I get what's mine."

 

"Sounds good to me, boss- king! So what's our job, huh? Something sneaky right?" One of the henchmen asked eagerly.

 

The glowing scroll illuminated the wicked curve of Glaepur's smile, his features morphing from wrath to ominous cunning. He beckoned the three thugs closer.

 

"Sneaky?" Glanni said, lowering his voice conspiratorially. "Oh, you can't possibly imagine..."

 

Lazytown had nearly settled down for the night before, far away and above, the newly arrived menace finished growling the wretched scheme to his lackeys. With a flash in the darkness the villains disappeared, but the wind carried from the mountaintop that night was hot. It rattled through the foliage of the Lazy Woods but went unnoticed by the slumbering Northern Warriors, exhausted from their journey. Even the young bandits slept peacefully despite their excitement for the birthday celebrations to come.

 

But one man was not resting on that hot night. The wind met Sportacus as he too swept through the trees, running tirelessly in the dark. Running nowhere.

 

But though he may not have known it, he certainly didn't run from nothing.

Chapter Text

Preparations for the party had been thorough to make the day as easy as possible, but although everything had been finished according to plan there was still an overwhelming laundry list for lord Milford to complete before the celebrations began. Fortunately, he had a secret weapon to help lighten the load.

 

"Good morning children," Milford greeted the young recruits. Stingy, Pixel and Ziggy crowded around him to get a look at the long scroll listing the day's tasks.

 

"The important jobs are all mine." Claimed Stingy before they even read a word.

 

"If you really want to do chores all by yourself, be my guest." Pixel laughed.

 

"Well obviously we must all work together equally."

 

"So you can share- as long as it's work!"

 

"But this looks like fun," Ziggy tapped his finger excitedly on the to-do list. "We get to bake a huge cake!"

 

The other boys looked where he was pointing to a line that read 'BAKE A HUGE CAKE'.

 

"Alright, I'll do that one." Stingy agreed.

 

"So will I!" Ziggy and Pixel chimed in unison.

 

"Wait!" Milford halted the boys as they began to dash toward the kitchen. "Before you get started on the cake, there's something important I need you to watch for. Sometime today we'll be getting some visitors from far away. If you see them arrive I need you to let them in and take them to Robbie."

 

"What's so important about these visitors?" Stingy inquired.

 

"Yeah, who are they?" Added Pixel.

 

"They're- professionals. Professional castle staff. Anyway, please keep an eye out for them in case im busy when they come."

 

"Will do, Lord Milford." Pixel gave him a thumbs up gesture before chasing Stingy to the kitchen. Milford raised his feather quill to scratch off the first task on the list as his eyes dropped to the second: 'SET UP STAGE FOR THE BAND'. He recalled that lady Busybody had arranged musicians to perform for the event. Apparently she wasn't a fan of the local Lazy Players, who truthfully were a bit outdated, never tuned their instruments, and had more cider than songs during their performances. Bessie had heard some buzz about some new group that was, by word of her berry-red lips, 'all the rage'.

 

"Rage or no rage, they must have a good stage to play on." Milford said to himself as he got to work with some streamers. He went on rhyming 'rage' with 'stage' with 'cage' (like the one that had been removed from the courtyard months earlier, due to be useless and frankly insensitive) and getting stuck after 'page'.

 

"Sage!" He declared with a triumphant swing of his hammer, narrowly missing a quietly approaching Sir Robert.

 

"Ya- sage!?" Robbie yelped, startled.

 

"What? Oh! Good morning, I was just... oh well. What do you need?"

 

"Well," Sir Robert rubbed his palm against his smooth chin. Indecision had prevented much hair from growing back in since he'd shaved his beard earlier in the year. He would let it run it's course for maybe a few weeks, then feel compelled to return to the razor. Somewhat odd behavior in a man who usually did the bare minimum of self maintenance. Perhaps Robbie had just been finding too many gray hairs for his liking.

 

Among the traits that aged the former Princess Training Master's appearance were the eternally swollen, dark crescents beneath his eyes. Evidence of his poor relationship with sleep. Sir Robert squandered his nighttime hours with restlessness and paid for it with insufficient afternoon naps.

 

"-something on my face?" Milford became aware of his scrutinizing and averted his eyes in embarrassment. This made Robbie act even more self conscious, running his hand over the rest of his jaw while glancing around for a reflection.

 

"No! I was just noticing that you shaved again, looks very nice." Milford explained quickly, "not that your beard was not nice. It just made you look different, of course. But I think this look really says something."

 

"What does it say?" Robbie asked warily.

 

"Ah," his lordship dug quickly in his brain for an answer. "I think it says: I've shaved."

 

"Hm." Robbie let his hands fall and fold against his stomach. Fortunately, he was distracted by some priority other than Milford's faux pas.

 

"I've prepared a tour of the castle defenses for the Northerners, once they arrive we can get them up to speed on the situation with the Purple Knight. Just because we're celebrating today doesn't mean we can let down our guard."

 

"And I'm sure our new guard won't let us down, either!" Milford chuckled, provoking an exasperated huff from the knight.

 

"Hm. Sure."

 

"What's wrong, Sir Robert?"

 

"Wrong? What do you mean wro- how could anything be less than completely fine. It's fine." Robbie grumbled contrarily, scowling.

 

"You're on edge lately. Don't deny it, over the last weeks I thought you were close to breaking down more than a few times," Milford explained. "Do you- are you struggling because of what happened with the Purple Knight? Your wound? That was terrible and theres no need to feel-"

 

"I know, but it's not THAT... I'm getting through it but..." Robbie bent down slightly towards Milford before continuing. "It's this that's wearing me down. Calling foreigners for help, TALKING to those foreigners, planning parties, making friends with bandits. Watching the princess leave day after day. I miss when things weren't... so much. Feel I'm falling behind."

 

"I'm sorry. there has been quite a shaking up around here. Given the circumstances though, I would say you're doing an excellent job staying on top."

 

"It would seem so."

 

"That's the spirit!" Milford raised his hammer to resume hanging the streamers. Robbie cringed and began to step away as the monarch sloppily beat at a bent nail. "Try to relax and enjoy the party won't you, Sir Robert? Let's all just have a break today."

 

A loud clatter echoed off the stone walls, peals of laughter and and dismayed yelling following from the direction of the castle kitchen. Robbie's teeth scraped together in his jaw.

 

"I'll do my best. Going to finish up a few things." He grunted and spun on his heel, stomping away into the castle halls. Milford hastily hooked a decoration onto the remains of the nail and abandoned the courtyard as well. The alarming noises had quieted by the time he reached the kitchen, but the evidence remained. Bowls and spoons were littered around the room- sticky with the yellow batter that splattered every surface. The three startled boys at the center of the chaos were dusted with flour and hesitant to explain the mess.

 

"Oh my! What- how did this happen?" Milford choked.

 

"We're sorry!" Squeaked Ziggy.

 

"Didn't mean to get so out of hand, we were just trying to-" Pixel began to say before Stingy cut in.

 

"Follow the recipe!"

 

"Well we were, Stingy, before you tried to keep it to yourself!"

 

"SOMEONE needed to be in charge. Or do you want everything to become a huge mess?"

 

"Everything IS a huge mess now, so thanks." Pixel brushed an avalanche of flour from his orange locks onto Stingy's shoulder. Stingy looked aghast.

 

"Oh, children," sighed Lord Milford. "There's no need to fight. We must clean up all this batter and start another cake while there's still time."

 

"Very well. I'll be in charge of cleaning."

 

"Stingy!"

 

"No, uh, Stingy, please will you go get my checklist? I left it in the courtyard," Milford decided to intervene. "By the toolbox, I'm sure you can find it."

 

"Hm, is it important?" Huffed Stingy.

 

"Very important." Milford assured the boy as he ventured out the door, leaving behind a trail of flour-white footprints. "Now- Ziggy! You mustn't eat out of the sugar bag! Oh dear!"

 

Naturally, Stingy took a detour on his way to the courtyard to wash his hands and face. It would have to do until he had time to get cleaner.

 

"Harrumph." He harrumphed quietly while crossing the sun drenched yard in search of the to-do list. The scroll lay partially trapped under Milford's toolbox, fluttering in the slight breeze. Stingy tugged it free and began to carefully smooth the paper flat when a glimpse of motion caught his attention outside the gate. Sounds of trudging and clanking mingled with buzzing voices reached the castle, and Stingy could make out the shape of a large group of equally large people approaching the courtyard.

He froze- who were these strangers? Wait, hadn't Lord Milford mentioned something about visitors? Supposedly 'professional castle help'...

The nearer these visitors got the less professional they appeared. Decked with wool and woven leather, bearing spears and shields made of dark wood and metal, their style of dress was foreign in a way that Stingy deemed far too drab. Possibly this was some kind of wandering hunting club in need of directions. He should ask before alerting Milford, Stingy decided.

 

"Hello," He greeted the visitors, arms folded coolly. "what brings you to my castle?"

 

As the party came to a halt and gathered outside the gate, the foremost man slid his spear off his broad shoulder and rested it on the ground with a grunt.

 

"Hallo. We are protectors from the north. We look for Latabae- where is the knight of Queen Marta, chico?" The apparent leader boomed. Stingy quirked an eyebrow.

 

"Um, no offense Mister North Man, but I think- no, you're definitely lost." He shook his head gravely.

 

"Lost?" The leader gaped at the child behind the gate. "This is not Latabae? Sven! where is the map?"

 

"Sorry to disappoint you," Stingy shrugged. "I would give you directions but..."

 

Sven unfolded the map and the northerners converged upon it, talking amongst themselves in a rapid foreign tongue.

 

"...I'm not exactly an expert. Oh well." Finding himself suddenly ignored, Stingy rolled up his scroll neatly and headed back to the kitchen. Behind him the group of strangers began a slow retreat to the woods, a picture of confusion.

 

"See how reliable I am? Ta-da!" Stingy waved the list with a flourish.

 

"Thank you, Stingy. We've got the worst cleaned up so far." Milford took the scroll and checked the contents.

 

"Those visitors you mentioned, by the way-" Said Stingy.

 

"Oh! Have they arrived?"

 

"Not yet, but don't you think someone should be watching the gate for when they do?" Stingy followed this suggestion by throwing a furtive shake of his head at Ziggy, who had discovered a jar of candies and appeared to be restraining some powerful temptation.

 

"That might be a good idea," Milford concurred. "After traveling such a long way they won't know if they've come to the right place. Ah, Ziggy?"

 

"I only ate one!" The boy squeaked, displaying his empty hands as evidence.

 

"It's alright, Ziggy. But I have an important job for you, if you'd like."

 

"Doing what?" Ziggy asked, his attention stolen away from the candy jar.

 

 

Lookout.

 

Sportacus assured him time after time the importance of the lookout job, which seemed to the only way Ziggy was allowed to be useful during the bandits missions. But although he believed everything that Sportacus said Ziggy harbored a seed of doubt. It had taken root after Stingy had explained that lookout was a made-up job 'to keep little kids from messing things up'. Ziggy thought that was a mean thing to say. Sportacus wouldn't do something mean like that, and neither would Lord Milford, who had made him an honorary knight of his castle. They weren't playing a trick on him.

 

Still the thought nagged him.

 

Ziggy perched himself on the platform in the shade of the courtyard wall, fixing his eyes on the gate. Nothing stirred the peaceful woods in the distance. Perhaps no one was coming at all.

 

Anxious tears welled in the boy's eyes before he could control them. He really did try his best- why didn't anyone trust him to help the way the other kids could? All he wanted was to bake the cake...

 

"Hello? Helloooo!" Startled, Ziggy blinked away tears to see someone had appeared across the courtyard. A tall man was rattling the gate, and two others were visible crowding behind him. The young bandit leapt to his feet.

 

"Hey! Are you here for the party? I'm Ziggy!" He babbled, trotting excitedly to the entrance.

 

"Hi there," the tall man waved through the bars. "Wait- this is Lazy Castle, right?"

 

"It sure is!"

 

"Well then, we're here for Lord Milford's party. You know where he is?"

 

"Sure I do, just come in and I-I'll go get him!" Ziggy opened the unlocked gate and ushered the three guests into the courtyard. They were dressed to match in colorful, striped costumes so that it would be difficult to tell them apart if it weren't for a very distinct height difference between the trio. Ziggy curiously studied the way the men entered the courtyard; perfectly synchronized as they stumbled into each other for no apparent reason. He bit back a laugh, struggling to stag professional.

 

"Wait here, uh, gentlemen. I'll go tell the Lord that you've arrived." Quickly bobbing a dignified bow, Ziggy scurried away to the kitchen.

 

"Lord Milford, they're here! I let them- whoooah..." he winded to a halt as the scene unfolded before him. The mess of cake batter had returned, and this time looked double the mess.

 

"Oh my, what poor timing." Lord Milford cringed while attempting to shake the batter off his sticky fingers.

 

"What h-happened here?"

 

"My bad," groaned Pixel sheepishly, "I thought that testing my new cake-mixing gizmo would make things easier."

 

"But it just went crazy instead." Said Stingy.

 

"Yeah, but maybe I can try again, see if I can't find what went wrong and-"

 

"No, maybe not this time!" Milford interrupted frantically. "We don't have to risk another mess while we still have no cake. Oh dear, please escort the knights to Sir Robert, won't you Ziggy?"

 

"Sure! Wait- those guys are knights? They sure look funny." Ziggy said candidly.

 

"They're just from far away," Milford reasoned, preoccupied by mopping the dirty tabletop. "When you're done, please come back and help won't you? I need your expertise in sugar."

 

"Okay, I'll be quick!" Ziggy's face broke into a grin and he raced back to the courtyard.

 

"Follow me, noble sirs!" He announced with a salute. "Lord Milford is busy with important business. We're going to find Rob- Sir Rottingham. He's a knight too."

 

"Wow, a knight!" The tallest man whispered incredulously to the others. They followed the small boy's eager pace, only occasionally stepping on each other's feet as they went along.

 

"I think he was up here earlier, I'll check." Ziggy was about go through the wooden door to the outer wall when he paused.

 

"Who should I say is here? What are your names?" He asked.

 

"Oh right, I'm Bobby." The tallest man jerked a thumb to his chest and then pointed to his companions. "And that's Tobby, and Flobby. We're all-"

 

"Sir Bobby, Sir Tobby and Sir Flobby have arrived!" Ziggy announced loudly, pushing open the door suddenly in time for the whole party to witness a very startled Sir Robert shoot himself with a cannon.

Chapter Text

A pale colored lizard scurried away from Stephanie as she crept onto the rocks. She watched it disappear into a crevice above the water of the river, leaving her alone on the bank.

 

Alone at last.

 

The princess untied the satchel she always carried, withdrawing a book covered in faded pink stripes and kneeling on the stony ground to read the contents. Her mother's diary: a long hidden memento she had raided months earlier and had studied hungrily ever since. Pages sowed with rows of curly writing, pictures of unidentified subjects scribbled in the margins, wreathing paragraphs in butterfly wings. Inky scales.

 

A feather from Skychaser marked the last entry she'd been reading, the bluebird's contribution to her birthday treasures. Stephanie tucked the silky feather into her boot and searched the page with her fingertips. She lingered over each entry, savoring it word by precious word.

 

Today I fail again,

 

The Queen's handwriting began.

 

I fail to please myself, but what really matters is failing my duty to Lazytown, its people. To my own family. I must stay here and do the necessary work. Truly I love serving this kingdom but

My heart is

unsatiated...

 

The words lay across the page in a frustrated slant, trailing into silence. Stephanie flipped to the next entry.

 

I had the dream again. This time I need to write it down, the details were clearer but still no obvious meaning, it must have meaning

Now sure it was not a star, but a bright light of many colors. A diamond? that split into three. One part was swallowed by a snake and another sank into a black ocean but the third piece... Jacque held it. He took it and ran when I followed he disappeared in that cave, on that island.

What am I meant to do?

 

Accompanying the story were illustrations in loose charcoal. More of the same that Stephanie had seen throughout the diary, scales and wings. But a new image was drawn on the bottom of the page- a stony beach at the foot of a cliff. The dark mouth of a cave gaped in charcoal black and she felt a shiver run down her back.

 

"There you are!" Stephanie's heart missed a beat as Trixie emerged from the brush. She snapped the diary shut, but not fast enough to escape notice from Trixie, who approached with eager suspicion.

 

"Hey Trixie."

 

"Nice try, but you can't spend your birthday alone reading like a nerd," Trixie scrutinized the book in the princess's lap. "Is that the one we stole from the castle? You've been spending a lot of time with it lately."

 

"What? Not a lot of time!"

 

"Yes you have, I notice things. What's in it that's so interesting?" Stephanie flinched away as Trixie casually made a grab for the diary. Trixie raised her eyebrows and Stephanie sighed.

 

"Alright," she relented, "I'm trying to figure it out... there's a lot of confusing stuff my mom wrote and I think..."

 

"You think what?"

 

"I don't know, but I think it might explain why she disappeared years ago." said Stephanie hesitantly.

 

"Whoah, like," Trixie gestured to the diary, "maybe you could find her then? That's a big deal!"

 

"I don't think so, I mean, just hoping to get some answers. That's all." Stephanie slipped the book back into her bag and rose to her feet, stretching nonchalantly. Trixie wasn't so easily convinced.

 

"Have you asked Robbie about it?" She pried. "He was around when it all happened-"

 

"No, he doesn't know anything." Stephanie snapped. She slung the bag over her shoulder and began to pick her way over the rocks.

 

"Okay! God, It was just a suggestion!" Trixie called defensively, trotting after her friend. Stephanie halted and waited until she was by her side again.

 

"Sorry Trixie I... I'm just not sure I want Robbie to be involved right now. There's things I want to have to myself, you know?"

 

"You mean between you and me, right?" Said Trixie, hooking her fingertips with the princess's own. Stephanie relaxed into a small grin and turned her face to the foliage overhead as they reached the shade of the forest. It was nearly noon according to the blades of sunlight that dripped through the leaves, nearly time for the celebrations to begin. A deep, sudden ache rose from Stephanie's stomach to her throat and a somber feeling traveled with it. As they walked along the familiar path, she was struck with foreboding, as though it was the last time she would see the forest this way. And she wasn't ready to say goodbye.

 

"Uh, Pinkie? We are going back to the camp, right?" Stephanie's mind jolted to refocus on Trixie, who was looking over her shoulder from nearly a dozen paces ahead.

 

"Didn't forget- oh hey, what's wrong?" Trixie's brow crinkled with concern as she waited for her friend to catch up.

 

"Nothing? Why..." Stephanie became aware of the blur in her right eye, the tear that fell free. "Oh. That's strange. I don't-"

 

Trixie looked unsure what to do. The princess wiped her face with one hand and slipped her other into Trixie's.

 

"I'm really happy to have you- and everyone with me this year." She said with a smile. The corners of Trixie's mouth twitched.

 

"Yeah? Well- cool." Trixie bumped her shoulder into Stephanie's, her own interpretive 'back at you'. Silence drifted over the girls as naturally as the falling leaves. The foreboding heartache still throbbed inside Stephanie's chest, but no tears returned.

 

In the clearing around the apple tree where the bandits treehouse nested, Sportacus was practicing a few of his unusual skills.

 

Ten colorful wooden balls were stacked neatly in the grass. The elf had gotten bored of juggling and flipped to standing on his hands, twirling a hoop around his leg. He lifted one hand off the ground while switching the hoop to spin around his other foot. Not a terribly difficult move for someone experienced as Sportacus, but the concentration was meditative and he found peace in the physical strain. Every four spins he moved the hoop to his other foot and changed the hand he stood on. Minutes went by. His core muscles trembled, tight as a harp string. Abruptly, his elbow buckled and the rhythm flew astray with the hoop as he tumbled over backwards. It was a smooth landing, head tucked to chest as he rolled across the grass and neatly onto his feet.

 

As Sportacus stood upright, great black spots pooled into his vision. He blindly stumbled forward as the sudden weight in his head dragged him to the ground.

 

"Here she comes! The prin- hey Sportacus!" The Bandit's eyes pried open, struggling to make out his young friends emerging from the surrounding woods. The girls were laughing loudly as Trixie staggered into the clearing with Stephanie hoisted upon her shoulders. Their laughter faded to confusion at the sight of Sportacus sprawled strangely under the tree.

 

"Uh, what are you doing over there?" Trixie tilted her shoulder and Stephanie slid off onto her feet.

 

"I'm just stretching my muscles." Sportacus's lied simply. He meant to sit up and reach for his toes, but something pinned him in place. Even lifting his head felt like a tremendous feat of strength. Aware that he was under scrutiny though, the bandit managed to pull one of his knees to his chest in a gentle stretch.

 

Stephanie flopped down beside him, "Are you getting ready to show me that new trick you were talking about?"

 

"Ah, you remembered that? Now I'm in trouble!" He teased.

 

"Come on Sportacus! We don't have a lot of time before Robbie and Bessie and Uncle Milford get here for the picnic."

 

"Right..." Sportacus pressed his lips shut and rubbed a hand down his face to conceal the smug grin. "Then let's go!"

 

Struggling to ignore the heavy wave of dizziness that nearly blinded him again, the bandit stretched his legs and sprung to his feet. The forest swayed gently as he planted himself upright. No problem at all.

 

Now to keep the princess busy until the party, less than a few hours.

 

"Have you ever seen me juggle?"