A/N: I always meant to update this story, but I just didn't think it would be nearly a year later. So if there's anyone still out there reading this, I can't explain how sorry I am, I really have no idea what took me so long. Perhaps a combination of procrastination/summer/schoolwork.
Any-who, I would like to give credit to the anonymous reviewer 'Oops' for the first four theme ideas, and Avatarcatz2323 for the final one. You two got me back on track, and I can't thank you enough!
And to anyone still reading, I hope you enjoy this chapter and please leave a review! They fill me with confidence and (possibly) faster updates.
26. Tough Decisions
Sometimes Ralph wished he was as bad as everyone made him out to be.
Perhaps then the fearful looks in the Station wouldn't bother him. Maybe the glares the Good Guys shot his way would be bothersome as air. Maybe he wouldn't feel as lonely if he were well and truly Bad.
But he wasn't.
Ralph knew that whatever anyone thought of him, never mind the stereotypes or close-minded assumptions they came to, he could never be bad. Not like King Candy. Not like Turbo.
Nonetheless he was still a Bad Guy. He cheated and conned his way through life, hurting people, sometimes unintentionally, other times not. A Good Guy like Felix would be brave and true, and get a medal by honest means. Ralph would always choose the easy way.
But now there was no easy way out.
Sugar Rush is on the brink of being consumed by Cybugs. The game will be decimated and unplugged in the morning when the arcade opens. The exit is right behind him. Sugar Rush is done for but he can still get to safety in time. She can't.
The little crumb snatcher who stole his medal, made a fool out of him more times than he could count, and who praised the sloppy kart he made for her understood what he went through every day for the past thirty years, and called him her hero cannot leave the game with him.
It has to work. It has to work!
The mantra in his mind is steady as it is useless as he struggles against an invisible force field. For all his strength, Ralph cannot pull her through. She tells him to stop but he doesn't listen. He can't imagine his life without her anymore—her laugh when she teases him , her bucktoothed smile when she learned to drive her kart. She makes him feel important and cared for, and so very not alone. She's like the daughter and little sister he never knew he wanted rolled into one.
And right now she's telling him to leave her behind and save himself.
"Its okay, Ralph," Vanellope says softly, her hand so very small on his.
The sergeant is talking about blowing up the entrance, trapping her and cybugs inside.
What is he supposed to do? He can't leave her. Any other Bad Guy would, right? Save their own skin first, that's priority number one. And maybe a few hours ago that's what he would've done. He was the Bad Guy; he shouldn't be making these kinds of decisions. But Vanellope's looking up at him with big, soulful eyes and she's so scared but fully prepared to die, trapped within her own game, so ready to let them live, that Ralph knows there is only one thing he can do.
As he takes Calhoun's cruiser, he acknowledges that in reality, it was the easiest decision he ever made.
"I thought I saw him again."
The mug of root beer was halfway to Calhoun's mouth when she froze, her limbs locking in place for all of two seconds. In the next moment she'd lowered her arm and gently set the mug down on the counter, belying the shaking of her hands.
"Oh?" she asked, feigning calm, and examined the fists her hands had formed without her notice. A sideways glance to gauge her companion's reaction provided no additional information. The stool she was perched upon was too high for someone her size, but instead of swinging her legs over the edge like usual she sat limply, reminding Calhoun of a rag doll, staring listlessly into the drink she had yet to take a sip from.
The brunette nodded shortly. "I was leaving Sugar Rush yesterday. I thought I saw him hurrying towards the gate like he did whenever he was running late." She absently stirred her root beer with a finger. "It was only Zangief."
Calhoun looked back down at her own mug, the soda long having gone flat. Her soldiers drank real beer, which she could have ordered as well, but Calhoun felt she should be considerate of her drinking partner.
Speaking of her men, they were speaking in lower volumes than usual in a corner of the bar, and the sergeant hoped it meant there wouldn't be any bar fights breaking out that evening. Last thing she wanted was the kid caught in the crossfire. Luckily, the bar was one within the base in Hero's Duty, so any damage would be instantly repaired. Tappers hadn't felt right in years.
"Have you seen him?"
Calhoun blinked, stepping out of her reverie. She took a long swing of her flat root beer before answering. "Yeah. Every time I fall asleep."
Vanellope hummed into her mug, drying her finger off on her sweatshirt. "Do you think they'll ever go away? Permanently?"
The sergeant downed the remainder of her root beer just as Kohut called them over to join in a game of poker. "They won't go away until the day we're unplugged, kiddo."
It was nearing dawn by the time Calhoun left Hero's Duty, Vanellope sound asleep against her shoulder. It couldn't be a comfortable perch, what with the armor that she scarcely removed anymore, but the kid slept deeper than she had in years. She attributed it to Vanellope's massive sugar intake at the bar. The kid rarely ate candy anymore, despite living in a game made of it.
It was with a straight face and a steely gaze that Calhoun stomped across the Station, keeping any gawkers at bay. She was on odd sight to be sure—she never left her game anymore, and it was usually Kohut or another soldier who dropped Vanellope off at Sugar Rush after another busy evening.
The girl in her arms was pale and drawn, curled over her shoulder and clutching at the armor like it was the only thing between her and a cybug. Vanellope no longer bubbled with energy and wit, even going so far as to neglect participating in the roster races every night. Calhoun in turn, though she never liked to admit it, became sterner, stricter, and hardly smiled, even out of the game. The gamers didn't notice the change, the few that still came, and her soldiers knew better than to bring it up.
Before she knew it she was walking away from Sugar Rush after leaving Vanellope in the capable hands of her palace guard; the donuts and Bill. They would make sure she got the sleep she required. She marched out of the pastel and cake game with her head held high, nodding briefly to Q*Bert and his gang on the way back to Hero's Duty. She stubbornly refused to look to the left, where she knew a racing game had been added not too long ago, replacing two others before it.
Calhoun kept looking straight until she reentered her dark and grimy game. There was no use looking back on the past. After all, Fix-It Felix Jr. had been unplugged for ten years and she'd yet to shed a tear.
"What are you doing up here, Ralph?" Felix asked, looking out across the Niceland rooftop to where the overall-clad behemoth sat hunched on the ledge. The handyman stood only halfway out the door leading back down into the apartments, his date with Calhoun in less than half an hour and he only wanted to check in with his friend before he finished getting ready.
Ralph barely lifted his head from where he had it cushioned in his massive hands. "Thinking," he replied absently.
The answer was innocent enough, and Felix made to leave. But something like uneasiness niggled at the back of his mind, giving him pause.
"All by your lonesome?" he questioned, and when Ralph didn't answer the vague uneasiness settled as a dead weight in the pit of his stomach. Closing the door behind him, Felix made his way over to his partner's side. He cleared his throat louder than necessary to fill the silence. "W-where's Vanellope? The two of you are usually glued at the hip."
"She's hanging out with some friends from her game. Kid was invited to a party, or something."
His concern growing at Ralph's careless and uncharacteristic demeanor, Felix rested a hand against his colossal shoulder.
"Brother," Felix said, firmness trumping his usual chipper attitude. "What's eating you?"
The deep sigh that Ralph released through his nose seemed to make his entire body deflate.
"Turbo," was all Ralph said. It was all that was necessary.
"O-oh," Felix said breathlessly, and he plopped down next to Ralph. Certainly Tamora wouldn't mind if he was a few minutes late.
Ralph scrubbed his hands up his face and through his hair, frustration coloring his actions. "I mean, sheesh, the guy was our friend, wasn't he?" Felix found he could offer no answer, but Ralph plowed on all the same. "Sure you knew him better, and he and I had a bit of a rocky start, but…man!"
He threw his hands up in the air, Felix expertly avoiding being whacked off the building, before latching onto the edge of the roof. Felix followed Ralph's line of sight to the Sugar Rush console just visible beyond the screen of their game.
"He wanted to kill her," Ralph said quietly. "He wanted to make me watch. Turbo. The most popular guy in the arcade. I'm…well, I'm almost ashamed to have known him."
Felix interlocked his fingers silently, looking down at the land surrounding the apartment complex. "I think…after all the craziness Turbo went through to stay the most popular, he lost his marbles. Racing in Sugar Rush must have been the closest he could get to Turbo-Time." He removed his hat, studying it in his hands.
"It don't excuse everything he tried to do, mind you, not even I could fix that, but…I reckon we should remember Turbo as he once was." Felix met Ralph's gaze with a shadow of his usual smile. "Our friend."
Ralph rubbed his jaw with a thoughtful look. "Huh. I guess I never thought of it that way."
Felix tugged his hat back into place and stood. "You shouldn't dwell on the past, brother. Think of the present—you've got yourself a swell gaggle of friends, a good home, and a job you enjoy." The handyman grinned with a comforting familiarity. "Now, I got a date to attend, and I believe you have a party to crash."
"Yoo-hoo! Princess, where are you?"
"She's president, stupid!"
"Oh…President?! Where are you?!"
She remained very quiet, her limbs tightening as the sound of voices drew closer.
"You won't find her here."
The child startled at the familiar but surprising drone that stood out among the higher pitched voices of the other racers.
"How would you know?"
"I know most of the president's hiding places. There aren't any in this wing."
"Fine. Can you show us where she might be, then?"
She heard a long, drawn-out sigh. "Very well. Follow me."
As the sound of footsteps faded, taking the owners of the voices with them, Vanellope sent a silent thank you to her assistant. Although, contrary to what Bill believed, she wasn't hiding. Presidents did not hide. She merely sought a small, quiet, secluded place in which to collect herself. Not hiding. Even though she hadn't moved in the last seven minutes. She wasn't sure if she wanted to move ever again.
Time passed. Vanellope lost track around the twelve minute mark, but the voices of the racers had disappeared completely not too long ago. She didn't think they were even in the palace anymore.
She counted off the seconds silently in her head, curled into a ball. It wasn't long before the sound of heavy footfalls approached her, betraying the massive girth of their owner. Bare feet, roughly as large as her head, stopped outside the opening of the space she huddled within.
A moment passed before a knee passed quickly into view, following by a red-clothed abdomen and forearms as the enormous figure lay down on his stomach before her little nook.
"Hey, Ralph," she said softly as the huge man peered at her. No matter where she concealed herself in the castle, he somehow always found her.
"Hey yourself," he responded with a smile. Vanellope loved his smiles, especially when directed at her. They reminded her of the time when all he did was frown, before he became her best friend.
A beat of silence passed.
"Are the other racers gone?" Vanellope asked softly.
The corners of Ralph's mouth curled down in an equally familiar fashion. "Yeah. They left a little while ago." He positioned one gigantic hand beneath his chin. "Bill told me you've been hiding for almost an hour."
An hour? She hadn't realized it had been so long.
"Not hiding," she mumbled in response. Ralph's brow furrowed.
"What do you call this then?" he asked, gesturing around them with a free hand.
Vanellope shrugged, further curling in on herself in the darkness. Ralph sighed softly.
"What's wrong, kiddo?" he said, his voice taking on the comforting warmth he often sported when dealing with one of her nightmares.
Vanellope was quiet a moment longer. "The racers…" she began in a whisper.
"What about them?" Ralph responded, confusion evident in his face and tone. His expression went dark in the next instant. "They haven't been bothering you, have they?"
She shook her head, glancing at her boots. "It's just…I still need to get used to knowing them as my friends," Vanellope finally said.
Through the small opening in her hiding place she caught Ralph's softening expression. "It's only been a couple weeks, kid. It takes more than that to fix fifteen years of bullying, unintentional or not."
Vanellope nodded but didn't speak. Ralph held a hand to his mouth in thought and brightened significantly.
"How about this, Vanellope? You, me, Calhoun, and Felix go out for a night on the Station. We can go to Tappers, Pac-Man, whatever you want!"
She smiled at the suggestions, but didn't make a move to leave the space. "What about the racers?"
"What exactly are the kids doing that has you so worried?" Ralph demanded, his protective nature resurfacing all over again.
"They feel bad for the way they used to treat me. So now they're acting really nice—too nice, like everything they're doing is an apology."
Ralph exhaled heavily, mumbling something about how under-prepared he was for situations like these.
"Look, kiddo, you can't avoid them forever. You just need to come clean—tell them how you feel, and I'm sure they'll back down. Treat you normally."
Vanellope chewed on the licorice string of her sweatshirt. "You think?"
Ralph smiled. "Pretty sure."
She huddled pensively for a few seconds longer before coming to a decision and crawling out of her hiding place. Ralph backed up obligingly as Vanellope stood before him with a smile.
"Well then let's get moving, ham hands! We better pick up the lovebirds quick before Tapper's gets too crowded."
30. Home Sweet Home
"Good afternoon, ladies! Welcome to Fix-it Felix Jr.!" Felix greeted cheerily as the train rolled into the station.
Vanellope waved to the handyman from her position on Ralph's shoulder. Calhoun smiled and returned Felix's sentiment, rising to her feet as the train slowed.
"I am just plum thrilled that you're here, ma'am," Felix chirped, unnecessarily helping the sergeant get off the train. Ralph waited until she was clear before he struggled out with Vanellope clinging to his sleeve. "That you're both here!" Felix corrected himself. "Thank you for taking the time to visit our humble game!"
"Don't sell yourself short, Fix-It," Calhoun whistled, taking in the immaculate grounds. "This is one prime piece of code you've got."
Felix beamed like the sun. "Why, thank ya, ma'am!"
As Felix and Calhoun walked ahead, Vanellope made herself more comfortable on Ralph's shoulder.
"Calhoun's right, Ralph," she said, taking in her surroundings, "you've got yourself some nice digs here."
Ralph snorted. "Thanks, kid. Remind me to show you where we remodeled. C'mon, we better catch up to them."
He and Vanellope reached the pair just in time to catch the end of Felix's sentence.
"-so sorry I couldn't accompany you here, ma'am, but I needed to prepare the Nicelanders for your arrival!" Felix smiled shyly at Calhoun before glancing back Ralph and Vanellope's way. "We've never quite had visitors like yourselves."
"What does that mean?" Vanellope whispered to Ralph as Felix watched Calhoun with a lovesick smile when he thought she wasn't looking.
"It means that you and the sergeant are stranger than anyone who's ever come here and the Nicelanders are sort of terrified of the both of you," Ralph responded just as quietly.
Vanellope grinned puckishly. "Cool."
"And this here is the Niceland apartment building!" Felix announced, stopping in front of the tall complex.
As Vanellope gaped at the sheer size of it, Calhoun asked, "So this is where you and Wreck-It go to work?"
Felix nodded brightly. "Indeed it is, ma'am! Thirty years and counting."
An odd look passed over Calhoun's face.
"Tamora," she said.
Felix blinked, glanced up at the sergeant and blinked again. "I beg your pardon?"
"Tamora," she repeated, a light blush dusting her cheeks as she glanced away from the handyman and back. "It's my name. Might as well use it."
"Tamora," Felix said accordingly, familiarizing himself with the name. He smiled suddenly. "Alrighty, Tamora is it! Shall we continue our tour?"
"Ah, actually, Felix," Ralph piped up as Vanellope pretended to gag at the blatant display of affection. "I was gonna show Vanellope around East Niceland, introduce her to the new guys and all that. You two can go on ahead."
"Very well," Felix said, glancing up at Calhoun. "Is that alright with you, ma-Tamora?"
Calhoun nodded and Ralph took that as his cue to leave.
"Have fun you two!" he threw over his shoulder.
"But not too much fun!" Vanellope added, and the pair chortled until they disappeared around the other side of the building.
Felix chuckled weakly, never mind the blush that claimed his own features. "Don't pay them any mind, Tamora," he advised, quickly getting used to the name, "Jokesters, the pair a' them." He paused on the steps of the apartment, offering his hand. "Now, would my lady like to take a peek inside the building?"
"'Your lady', huh?" Calhoun smirked, but took the offered hand nonetheless.