Leaving the mayor's office, Sportacus stepped outside into the crisp afternoon air and began to walk aimlessly across the courtyard. His ears registered the faint click as Stephanie closed the door behind them, hearing her soft footfalls on the asphalt as she struggled to catch up with him. He forced himself to slow down. Moving helped him think, but more so did a Stephanie who wasn't gasping for breath while trying to keep his pace. With the pink-clad woman now in step beside him, he continued walking along the streets of the town, letting his feet decide their path while he thought of what to say. And the decision that he had to make.
After a few minutes of silent contemplation, Sportacus looked up to see where his route had taken them. He was surprised to find himself under the shadow of the billboard. Well, slightly surprised. He chuckled sardonically, and Stephanie glanced sideways at him curiously. She hadn't uttered a word since they had left the office, and Sportacus was grateful to her for understanding. Not for the first time, he wondered what he had done to deserve her, or what she saw in him. Loving and supporting her from afar was one thing, but having that hidden love returned was something else entirely. The words "inferiority complex" flickered briefly through his mind, but he paid them no heed. He didn't deserve her; it was the truth. But she had decided that he was what she wanted, and so Sportacus would do everything in his power to hold onto her and keep her happy.
With that realisation, Sportacus turned to her, motioning for her to join him as he sat down. Twisting around so that his back was pressed against the cool wood of the billboard, he reached across and drew Stephanie into his side. She snuggled into him, murmuring contentedly as she made herself comfortable. Once she was settled, Sportacus took a few moments to gather his thoughts. Then a dilemma struck him.
"Stephanie," he ventured.
"Where do I start?"
She straightened up to look at him incredulously.
"You're asking me this?
Sportacus looked back at her, keeping his expression open. Stephanie considered him closely before dropping her head back onto his shoulder, a small smile playing across her lips.
"I don't know. Start at the beginning."
"Hm. Alright then."
He stretched out his long legs in preparation.
"Strictly speaking, I am a 'light elf' of the huldufólk: it translates roughly into "hidden people" in English. I was born into what you would call a farming family. My mother and father were good, loving parents, and I was their only child. We were happy. Early every morning, my mother would take me out to the fields to play, while my father tended to the animals. But it was not just my father who did the work; huldufólk boys are strong and hardy at a young age. I was happy to do it, and never complained."
"Shortly after my twelfth birthday, I called to the assembly that took place every two centuries with the other twelve-year-old boys of the clan; we numbered over three hundred. Over the next forty days, the clan elders pushed us to our physical limits. I would liken the experience to what you call 'boot camp', but I think that is a gross understatement."
Stephanie had been listening silently, but her head snapped up at the last part. "Boot camp? You mean you became…?"
Sportacus shook his head.
"No, not yet. But after the forty days, we were given a day of rest. And the next morning, the elders declared me as the clan's representative."
She nodded, understanding.
"For the Academy."
"Yes. For the Academy. Eleven others would join me there, in the centre of Iceland."
"We were there for the next forty years. Learning. Forgetting. We became known as the Twelve, just like all the others before us. Zero became our mentor. And when our training was complete, we were given our crystals and airships and were sent across the country to towns like this one. Number Nine was stationed here."
"Number Nine!" Stephanie gasped. "My uncle knew him years ago, didn't he?"
Sportacus appraised her, surprised that she could remember that far back.
"Yes, he did. But your uncle never knew what became of him, and neither did I. I could not detect the presence of his crystal anymore. But that's another story altogether."
Settling back against the billboard, Sportacus continued.
"The mission of the Twelve is simple. Help the humans, and be a blessing to them. I was assigned to healthy living. The others were given other roles, such as medicinal aid. How we carried out our roles were up to us."
"You went with sports, obviously."
"I did. It was the best way to promote health in Heimaey, the town I was sent to. But a year later, in 1973, I had to leave."
He saw Stephanie looking at him with concern, and realised that his voice had become almost a whisper. He stroked her cheek tenderly, and managed a sad smile.
"A mountain you would know as Eldfell erupted, and destroyed much of the town. Only," Sportacus said sombrely, using his fingers as quotation marks for the word, "one person died from the eruption: a looter who stayed behind and became trapped in a pharmacy. I was far away with the evacuees when my crystal alerted me, but by then, it was too late. I tried, but…"
Sportacus felt Stephanie place her hand gently over his heart, and drew comfort from its warmth.
"I left Heimaey, and spent the next year up in my airship, going down occasionally to help other small towns. I took the crystal out of my vest, and started to introduce myself as Sportacus. I tried to leave Number Ten behind."
"Oh, Sportacus," Stephanie whispered, her voice cracking slightly. "It wasn't your fault. You did your best. You've always done your best."
He squeezed her gently in silent thanks, and continued on.
"But without the crystal, many times I found myself arriving too late to save someone. Not from volcanic eruptions, but from simpler things. Slippery floors, step ladders, even banana peels. I put the crystal back in my vest. I came to realise that the crystal was part of who I was as a slightly-above-average hero. It gave me power. It gave me strength."
Sportacus put his hand on Stephanie's cheek again, gently tilting her face upwards towards his.
"Zero said that I would have to choose between duty and love. Between a life as a Number and a life with you. But I cannot see a life worth living without you by my side."
He saw the comprehension dawn on her face as she realised the underlying implications of that choice.
"But if you choose me, your crystal will turn off. And one of your friends will have to face Robbie."
"Yes. And I do not know what will happen."
Bright brown eyes suddenly arrested his vision, and he almost backed away from the intensity of her gaze.
"But Robbie's not a bad guy! I know it; you know it! We have to talk to him, and figure something out."
In a matter of seconds, Sportacus found himself being pulled towards Robbie's lair entrance after being hauled to his feet by his surprisingly strong lover. She was surprisingly loud, too, for someone of her small stature.
"Robbie!" she yelled down the chute, her voice thundering off the metal walls. "We need to talk!"
Snoring happily in his trademark rocking chair, Robbie swore he could feel his hair being ripped off as the soundwaves tore across the room. Picking himself off the floor and clutching his ringing head, Robbie had one coherent thought.
What in the blazes is up her chimney?