It was just another Saturday at Litwak's Arcade, about a half-hour after opening, when a pair of grown-ups approached the Fix-It Felix, Jr. cabinet. These days, this wasn't all that unusual. In years past, there had hardly ever been any adult players, but ever since the Q*bert gang had moved in, they had become more and more common. Sometimes, parents would use Fix-It Felix, Jr. to show their children what "the good old days" of arcade gaming had been like. That was always a special treat, because most of those parents had frequented the arcade themselves back when they were kids, and it was always wonderful to see them again.

These two, however, didn't have any children with them, although they appeared to be a couple. At first, Felix assumed they were just longtime arcade-game fans here to see Q*bert, but then the woman said to the man, "This looks like it's probably the easiest one to learn on."

Learn? Felix thought. This guy's never played an arcade game before? Great. It's going to be a long day.

The man examined the cabinet thoughtfully, while the woman smiled and crouched down. "QUARTER ALERT! QUARTER ALERT!" blared the game.

Felix shrugged and darted out of sight of the players. Whoever these people were, they were paying customers of the arcade, and he had a job to do.

"Why is that man destroying the building?!" That had to be the man speaking. He sounded genuinely shocked.

"'Cause it's a video game," said the woman. "Most video games start with a villain causing trouble. You get to control the hero and save the day. That's part of the fun."

"Fix it, Felix!" the residents called.

Felix strode back into view of the screen. "I can fix it!" he announced, using his moment in the spotlight to look out through the screen.

The pretty, brunette woman stood at the controls, with her tall, blond boyfriend watching the game intently from over her shoulder. "Is that a hammer?" he asked.

"Yeah," said the woman. "Watch this."

The game started. For a grownup, the woman was surprisingly skilled. Maybe she played video games at home.

"See," she said, "you have to fix all the windows on this level to go on to the next level, but you have to do it without letting any of the bricks fall on your head."

"How does one fix broken windows with a hammer?" asked the man.

"It's a magic hammer," said the woman. "Lots of video game characters have either magical powers or some kind of magical tool or gizmo. It's not actually magic, though. It's just part of the way they program the games."

The blond man turned away from the screen. "Dr. Banner, you must come and see this!" he boomed.

Another man joined them at the cabinet. "I keep telling you, you can call me Bruce when we're not working," he said. "Now what's so great about this old thing?"

"It has a magical hammer in it!" said the blond man.

"Oh? Really?"

"Yes! Look at the little man in the blue hat."

"That's Felix," said the woman.

Felix now had an audience of two people besides the woman who was playing. Bruce looked at the screen more closely. "Yep, that sure is a magical hammer," he said.

"Jane's skill at wielding it is impressive," said the blond man. Bruce chuckled a little at this, for some reason Felix couldn't guess at.

"Thanks," said Jane. "I used to play things like this a lot when I was a kid. I didn't know if I still had it in me."

Jane finished the first level, and Bruce stepped away. During the level-end animation, Felix glanced up toward Sugar Rush, and was surprised to see another grown-up couple there. A woman, who had long, light-reddish hair, appeared to be trying to convince her boyfriend to race with her, but he didn't look very enthusiastic about the game.

What is going on here? Felix wondered. Do all these people know each other?

(Scene Break)

"Do we have to do this, Pepper?" asked the man with the goatee. "It's so... pink."

"I like this guy!" Vanellope muttered under her breath.

"Come on, Tony, it's my favorite game," said Pepper. "It'll only take five minutes, and then you can go back to shooting alien bugs with Clint or playing Street Fighter with Steve or whatever. Please?"

Tony sighed and sat down in one of the racing seats. "Oh, all right."

A pink-hating manly-man being dragged into a game of Sugar Rush by a girl? Vanellope couldn't wait to show him that Sugar Rush was for everyone, and that she wasn't really the pink, poofy princess she appeared to be in the Attract Mode animation and on the race reviewing stand.

Even though it could be dangerous to try to influence the players directly, she tried to catch Tony's eye when he got to the character selection screen. She waved to him and squealed, "Pick me! Pick me! Pick me!"

Tony ended up picking Rancis Fluggerbutter. Pepper, however, picked Vanellope.

"Yay!" Vanellope cheered as she slid down from the reviewing stand and landed in her kart in her white racing suit, once again free of the poofy pink dress. She was in the frosting-laden kart that she and Ralph had made together; she liked it better than that kart-throne thing, which was parked back in the little-used throne room.

"Wow!" said Tony. "I wasn't expecting that. Cool suit. Maybe this won't be so bad."

Vanellope grinned. See? See? I told you!

The starting countdown ended, and the racers took off. Vanellope and Rancis advanced to the front almost immediately.

"You got the coolest go-kart, too," said Tony to Pepper. "It almost looks like your character made it out of whatever scraps were lying around. She reminds me of, well, me."

"Wanna be her, next game?" Pepper said.

"Maybe," said Tony.

He likes my kart! HE LIKES MY KART!

Vanellope couldn't contain her excitement. She glitched halfway across the width of the track and several hundred yards ahead of where she had been, accidentally cutting off Jubileena's kart and sending it flying sideways into a wall. "Sorry!" she yelled over her shoulder before refocusing on the race.

"Hey!" exclaimed Tony. He sounded indignant and surprised. "Is she supposed to be able to do that?"

"I think so..." said Pepper. Tentatively, she pressed the "Special" button. Vanellope and her kart glitched to a different position again, ending up right next to Rancis this time.

"Yeah, I guess she is," said Pepper.

"What did you do?"

"I pushed the 'Special' button, silly!"

Tony pushed his own "Special" button, causing a cluster of mini-peanut-butter-cup bombs to spread out across the track and explode in sequence. Vanellope glitched again to avoid them, without being prompted by Pepper.

"Hey, no fair!" said Tony. "Now I have to be her next game!"

Sweet! thought Vanellope.

Pepper laughed. "See, I knew I could get you to like this game."

(Scene Break)

Ralph felt sorrier than usual for his friend Felix. If you were the player character, being stuck with an inexperienced player was the worst.

Jane had been an extremely patient teacher, letting her boyfriend (who, it turned out, had the unusual-for-a-human name of Thor) place his hands over hers while she played a few games. "You feel that?" she had said. "It doesn't take very much force to get the joystick to move. When you try it by yourself, be careful not to push too hard on it. I know you don't always know your own strength, and you don't want to break it." Ralph had been surprised to hear this. This guy must be a little like me, he had thought.

When Thor had tried playing by himself, though, it had been a total disaster. He had managed not to break the controls, but even if Jane hadn't mentioned it in conversation, it would have been obvious from how bad he was that this really was his first video game ever. Jane had stayed with him the whole time, though, encouraging him and feeding in more quarters. She had seemed to have an unlimited supply of them. Ralph had had to watch Felix's "death" animation fifty-three times so far today, of which forty-two had been at the inept hands of Thor. He had gotten better at the game, but very slowly, and by the end, both he and Jane had been smiling.

It had been a relief to Ralph (and Felix, presumably) when Thor had finally asked, "What other games could we play?" and Jane had answered, "I think you're ready to try Pac-Man now." They had walked away from the game cabinet, allowing Ralph and Felix to retreat hastily to the penthouse for whatever rest they could grab.

Mary was waiting for them with two cherry pies, which they accepted gratefully before collapsing into chairs at the dining table. "That was some game!" said Ralph.

"I'll say," said Felix. "Newcomers to games don't always have that kind of tenacity. That guy just wouldn't quit!"

"He got the hang of it in the end, though."

"Yeah, he did." Felix's hat flashed as he ate his pie.

Ralph looked out the windows. "They're still there?"

"Who?"

"That guy with the goatee and that redheaded girl. They haven't left Sugar Rush since Thor started playing our game."

"Really?" Felix turned around and looked out the windows at the other cabinet. "You're right! That guy didn't look too happy about playing that game when I first noticed him, but now he's having a great time! That's nice."

"Yeah, but isn't it weird that there are two different grown-up couples here on the same day, and it doesn't look like they have any kids with them? I wonder if they know each other."

"They could have kids who just ran off before we noticed them."

Suddenly, their view of the arcade was overshadowed by the man Thor had called out to earlier. "Hey, it's Bruce," said Felix.

"We should go," said Ralph.

"Yeah, back to work," said Felix. "Thanks, Mary!"

"Any time, boys!" said Mary as Ralph and Felix hurried out of the room.

Bruce dropped in a quarter of his own. Funny; he hadn't seemed very interested in their game before.

"Hey, you," he said quietly, once he had started playing. "Up there on the fourth floor. What are you doing up there?"

Ralph looked up at him, completely forgetting about wrecking for a moment. Was Bruce actually talking to him?

Players talked to Felix all the time. Usually, they just unnecessarily repeated the commands they were already giving him through the game's controls. ("Jump! Go up! No, don't go right!") Sometimes, though, they said things like "Awesome!" or "Good job!" Very few players had ever said anything at all to Ralph, and when they had, it had always been an insult, or a gloat while he was being thrown off the building. Ralph couldn't remember any player ever asking him a civil, polite question like that before.

Below him, Felix jumped up a floor. "Ralph? You still there?"

"Yeah!" answered Ralph, hurriedly getting back to wrecking. Bruce was still playing, after all.

"I wonder what you're so angry about," said Bruce.

Didn't you watch the intro animation? thought Ralph. Well, that's not really important anymore. Now, this is just my job. I'm not angry about anything. He didn't try to talk to Bruce, though, because it wasn't part of the script and Bruce didn't think Ralph could hear him.

"Me, I'm always angry," Bruce went on. "I know how you must feel."

Really? You do?

"Hey, if I score high enough on this thing, can I switch to being you for a few levels? I think I'd like doing what you're doing, if it was just in a video game."

Ralph stopped dead in his tracks. What? You want me to be the player character? You actually think it would be fun... to play as me?

"Hey, why'd you stop?"

Oops! The game! Ralph hammered on the bricks, trying to make up for slacking off and hoping Bruce wouldn't think the game was broken. He was the first player who had ever said anything nice to Ralph, or about him, and what he'd said had been unbelievable.

(Scene Break)

Most of the time, the FPS robots didn't talk much. They either shrieked in terror or shouted battle cries that weren't much different from anyone else's. This game, though, Sergeant Calhoun overheard some interesting comm chatter coming from the speakers below the two robots' monitors.

"Taking a working vacation, Clint?" asked a voice.

"I prefer to think of it as keeping my skills up," said Clint, one of the two players. "Maybe you should try it sometime, playboy."

"I like to relax and have fun on my days off. Anyway, I keep my skills up plenty. Want me to show you?"

"You wouldn't even know how to use a rifle, Mr. Plasma-Beam Hands!"

"Oh, yeah? Challenge accepted. I got next game."

"Fine."

"That's fine with me, too," added the other player, whom Clint had called Steve earlier. "I think one round of this is enough for me."

The guy whom Calhoun had now dubbed "Playboy" did play the next game. He proved to know very, very well how to use a rifle. In fact, he beat Clint to the medal to win the game, although only by a few seconds.

"Have you made your point?" said Clint.

"Yeah," said Playboy. "Good game, though."

"Good game."

"I'll play with you, Clint," said another voice. This one belonged to a woman who sounded a little like Zangief.

Calhoun and her squadron jogged back to their starting positions. This time, while she gave her usual mission instructions, Calhoun took a closer look at the monitor of the FPS robot representing the female player. She was an adult woman with short, flaming red hair and a look in her eyes. That was what really got Calhoun's attention. It was the exact same look that was always in the eyes of all her squad-mates when the mission started. In fact, it was in her own eyes at those times, too. It was the look of someone who was mentally gearing up for a genuine battle, not just getting ready to play a game. Seeing that look in a player's eyes gave Calhoun a shock of intuition.

This woman has fought in wars. Not just in video games. In real life.

The world of Hero's Duty was so far removed from the everyday experiences of the people who usually played it that Calhoun had never expected to see a player who had seen real combat tours in a million years. She felt that, in some way, this woman was a kindred spirit.

The woman turned out to be every bit as skilled in combat as Clint and Playboy had been. She reacted, aimed, and strategized like a trained warrior, prioritizing her targets as if it came naturally to her - a skill that most other players only developed through long experience and practice. When the woman's FPS robot received a medal at the end of the game, Calhoun looked on with genuine pride. It would be against the game's rules, of course, but Calhoun couldn't help imagining that she was receiving it herself. She'd never seen so much of herself in any other player.

"Having fun, you two?" asked another woman's voice from somewhere outside the game, as the finale animation was ending.

"I like this game," said the woman who had been playing. "There should be more fighting games with women as the heroes."

"Oh, good. Tony and I are starting a DDR tournament. Wanna come play with us?"

"No, thanks," said Clint. "I just got beat at this game by Tony and Natasha. I'm not leaving until I win at least once more."

"You can beat me at it," said the other, unknown woman. "I don't do fighting games."

"The brilliant Pepper Potts doesn't do fighting games? Come on, let's go."

"I just like racing better."

A moment later, Clint started a new game, this time with Pepper wielding the other gun.

(Scene Break)

Vanellope raced across the floor of Game Central Station, in her civilian clothes and on foot, but still deftly avoiding running into anyone. She was headed for Fix-It Felix, Jr.'s train platform, positively bubbling over with the good news for Ralph. When she got there, though, the train was just pulling into the station, with Ralph and Felix on it.

"Ralph!" she exclaimed, leaping up onto his enormous shoulders.

"Vanellope!" he said, pulling her back down so that he could hug her.

"The craziest thing happened to me today! Wait - you, too?" they both said in perfect unison.

"We were watching, when we could," said Ralph. "We saw. You're talking about that guy who didn't want to play your game at first, but ended up playing it for, like, an hour, right?"

"Yeah, him. Tony. He raced as me every game after he saw me glitch."

"Everyone does that."

"Yeah, but what I wanted to tell you so bad was, you know what he said? He said he liked our kart! The one we made together! He said it was the coolest kart!" Vanellope shimmered and pixilated with excitement all over again, so that Ralph lost his grip on her. She landed on her feet.

"Aww, that's great!" said Ralph, smiling. Felix was smiling, too; he had fixed the kart once, after all, and he knew how much it meant to his friends.

"The crazy thing that happened to me today was something someone said, too," said Ralph. "There was this guy, Bruce, who came over and played one game, and you will never believe what he said while he was playing."

"What?"

"He said he wished he could play as me, instead of as Felix! Can you believe it?"

"No way!"

"Yes, way!"

"This is incredible!"

"Hey, honey," said a voice nearby. "You all seem to be in a good mood tonight."

"Hey, babe," said Felix. He got off the train car and went over to his wife, Tamora Calhoun, who greeted him with a kiss.

"How was your day?" Tamora said.

"Exhausting," said Felix, "but interesting. Both Ralph and Vanellope got special compliments from players today. That's what they're so excited about."

"Oh, really? I had a strange encounter with a player today, too. What did they say?"

Tamora, Felix, Ralph, and Vanellope briefly compared experiences and learned that all four of them had heard grown-up players make unusual comments about their games. Two of those players, Pepper and Tony (a.k.a. Playboy) had played both Sugar Rush and Hero's Duty.

"Maybe all these people know each other," said Felix.

"But where do Jane, Thor, and Bruce fit into the picture?" Ralph said. "None of your players ever mentioned them, did they?"

"No," said Vanellope.

"No," said Tamora, "but Pepper did mention that she and Tony were going to start a DDR tournament, and asked if my players wanted to join. Clint said no, not until he won one more game of Hero's Duty, so Pepper played with him, he won, and then they left. If these people do all know each other, they probably all ended up playing in the tournament."

They all looked at each other, each knowing exactly what they needed to do without saying it. Tamora led the way to the train platform whose sign read Dance Dance Revolution.

(Scene Break)

The thumping techno music was audible even from the train station. The station lay a short distance from a gigantic, cube-shaped building. Every surface of the cube was painted in insane, random patterns of brilliant, neon colors, except for the front surface, which was transparent and faced toward the screen. The screen hung in the sky like a giant window, much like in Fix-It Felix, Jr., except that it was larger, square, and a lot closer to the building. There was a round, neon-ringed entrance on the side of the building facing the train station, and the music was coming from the open doors within the circle of colorful lights. Even after arcade hours, Dance Dance Revolution was one giant dance club where the party never stopped.

The small group of visitors approached the building and entered. Just inside the doors stood the woman they had come here to see - Yuni, the arcade lookout.

As one of the most popular games of the present era, the DDR machines were just inside the doors of the arcade, allowing the characters here to get a good look at everyone who came in or went out. Yuni was the one who gave the verbal "All clear" signal to the arcade at the end of each operating day. She kept a closer eye on the players' comings and goings than anyone else, so she would have seen whether or not the strange group of players they had encountered today had all arrived and left together.

After all the players and Mr. Litwak had gone home, Yuni assumed responsibility for greeting guests who came to visit her club. "Hi, Ralph! Hi, Felix! Hello, Sergeant! Good evening, Vanellope-hime!" she said.

Vanellope rolled her eyes. She didn't randomly pepper her sentences with Japanese terms anymore, and she wished these people would grow out of it already. And furthermore, she'd thought the word would have gotten around about that by now...

"That's daitouryou to you!" Vanellope corrected her.

"What?" said Yuni. "Why?"

"I'll explain later. Could we please go somewhere where we can actually talk? We need to ask you about some players we saw today!"

The music coming from the dance floor was so loud that both Yuni and Vanellope had to shout to make themselves heard. "Okay!" answered Yuni. "Just a moment! I have to find a backup greeter!"

Yuni disappeared down the corridor to the dance floor, and returned shortly with another character, who took Yuni's place behind the greeter's podium. "Okay, let's go!" she said to the visitors, and went with them back to the train station.

"You wanted to talk about something?" said Yuni, when they were in the station.

"We do, but it's kinda... secret," said Vanellope. "There's not enough privacy here. Would you mind if we go to my place? It's safe, I promise."

"Okay, I'll come with you."

(Scene Break)

The five of them were at a round conference table made from a giant vanilla wafer, in a circular room, in a turret high in the Candy Palace. Ralph, Felix, Tamora, and Vanellope had all finished telling Yuni about the strange encounters they'd had that day, and the dots they'd already connected. Vanellope had ended with the burning question: "How many players were in Tony and Pepper's tournament, and who were they?"

"Eight," Yuni answered. "Tony and Pepper were in it. So were the Clint and Natasha you mentioned, Sergeant. So were Thor, Jane, and Bruce. And they also had another friend named Steve."

"Steve?" said Felix. "Where was he the rest of the day?"

"There are only a few dozen other games he might have been playing, silly," Vanellope pointed out. "Actually, I think Pepper said something about how Tony could have gone off and played Street Fighter with Steve instead of racing."

"Steve played one game of Hero's Duty with Clint, but he said one was enough," said Tamora. "So all eight of them came in and left together?"

"Yes, they did," said Yuni. "They're definitely all friends. It looked like Pepper was leading the group when they came in. I heard her say something like, 'We're all here because we need a break, so let's try to relax, have a good time, and not think about work, okay?'"

"That makes sense."

"But most grownups don't come here to relax and have fun," said Felix. "Most grownups go to bars and things. Especially when they don't have kids. They didn't come in with any kids, right, Yuni?"

"No, they did not," said Yuni.

"Then all this is still weird," said Ralph.

"It would make sense if they were just here for Q*bert, like most people their age are," said Felix, "but none of them even mentioned him. So what would make them decide to come here?"

"They sure weren't acting like normal grownups," said Vanellope. "What a bunch of weirdos."

"Oh, listen to yourselves!" snapped Tamora. She slammed her fist down onto the table, hard enough to break off a section of the cookie.

"My apologies, Miss President," she said. "I was out of order."

"That's okay," said Vanellope.

"Did somebody say 'out of order?'" said Felix, unhooking his hammer from his belt.

"You know what I meant..." said Tamora, affectionately. She stepped aside so that Felix could fix the table.

"As I was saying," said Tamora after sitting down again, "think about what you're doing to these people. You're making judgments about them based on nothing but the fact that they're grownups. You don't know much of anything else about them. Don't certain people in this room hate it when other people do that to them?"

"Good point," said Ralph.

Vanellope nodded, looking embarrassed. "You're right," she said. "You know what? The very first thing I wanted to say to Tony when he started his first game, except I didn't, was, 'You don't like pink? Me neither!' All he saw at first was a stupid princess-y game for girls, but I showed him how awesome this place really is, and then he loved it."

"You're right, babe," said Felix. "It wasn't very nice of us to talk about them like they weren't really welcome here. They paid their quarters, just like everyone else."

"That's right," said Yuni. "Who cares whether or not they have kids, or why they decided to come here? They were having a good time, and that's all we need to worry about."

"You know, all of us in this room are weird somehow, except maybe you, Yuni," said Ralph.

"Yeah, so what's the big deal?" said Vanellope. "For all we know, maybe they're just a bunch of weirdos who are best friends, just like we are."

"Maybe they are," said Tamora.

"I hope they come back. I want to know more about them."

"So do I. Especially Natasha. In a strange way, I felt really close to her. We all felt a sort of connection to one of those people who came in today, didn't we? For me, it was Natasha; for you, it was Tony; for Ralph, it was Bruce; and for Felix, I guess it was Thor?"

"I guess," said Felix. "I still don't really get it, though. The guy got me killed forty-two times in a row, all because he was so excited about playing as a character with a magical hammer. I have no idea why he thinks that's so great."

"Yuni?" asked Tamora. "Did you feel that same kind of connection, too?"

"No, not really," said Yuni. "I liked Pepper. She was the one with the most enthusiasm for my game, and for the whole trip to the arcade, I think. I didn't feel anything like what you said you did, though."

"I would like to see them again," said Felix, "even though Thor was a lousy player."

"I wonder if he did any better on Pac-Man," said Ralph. "Wanna go find out?"

"Sure!" said Felix.

The five characters headed down from the tower and back toward the train station, on a mission to find out as much as they could about the mysterious new players.

(Scene Break)

Author's Note: To translate the Japanese terms in that first exchange between Yuni and Vanellope: Yuni initially addresses her as "Princess Vanellope." Yuni knows Vanellope only by reputation (I'm imagining that Vanellope and the other racers must have socialized outside their game at some point prior to the arrival of Turbo in Sugar Rush), but this is the first time they've met, and Yuni hasn't heard about Vanellope's decision to be President yet. Therefore, Vanellope corrects her: "That's president to you!"

Disclaimer: I do not own any of the characters, games, or settings mentioned in this story. All of them are copyright (©) The Walt Disney Company (now that it owns Marvel), with the exceptions of Yuni and Dance Dance Revolution (copyright © Konami), Pac-Man (copyright © Namco Bandai), and Q*bert (copyright © Mylstar). Absolutely no money was made off of this work, nor do I intend to make any money off of it, and it was written purely for entertainment purposes.