In the morning, Sour Bill and the other royal servants ushered in the dawn by drawing aside all of the castle's blackout curtains, and it looked as if today would be another sunny, saccharine day. And if Vanellope was a little more listless at breakfast time, well, who would notice anything strange about that? Children never liked to be woken up early, after all.
But in this case it was a necessity. Felix and Calhoun had work, and Turbo and Vanellope were on the roster; only Ralph had the luxury of sleeping in. Everyone else had somewhere to be before the arcade opened. Turbo and Vanellope changed into their day clothes, helped themselves to breakfast (since Felix, the resident chef, had already headed off to Hero's Duty), and brushed their teeth – quite vigorously, in Turbo's case, not that it helped to improve the color of his teeth at all.
It was only when they were on their way outside that they noticed the changes from yesterday's software patch that were beginning to take effect.
Contrary to the belief of anyone who had only seen the throne room, the entire Sugar Rush castle was not pink. It contained rooms and even entire wings dedicated to various other candy themes, most of which were in colors that could not even be remotely mistaken for salmon. The royal bedchambers were pink, but it had been taken by King Candy during his rule, and no one set foot in it on principle; it was presumably still filled with whatever items he'd accumulated through the years. Vanellope now slept in the second-largest bedroom, which was primarily purple, meaning that the throne room was the most garish-looking interior design she had to face on a regular basis.
Or it had been, anyway. Because on her way out the door, she and Turbo both froze at the realization that the décor had now changed to shades of regal lavender and gold, and that most of the flower decals had vanished without a trace.
For a moment, both young racers were silent, trying to fathom how the throne room had been redecorated overnight like this was one of those custom-life games.
"Oh!" Turbo was the first to speak up, albeit in a rather nervous tone of voice. "I'll bet I know what happened. This is because of that software patch, right? Ms. Calhoun said that it might cause little changes like this..."
"...y-yeah," Vanellope answered quickly. "I'm sure that's it. Nothing to worry about."
They hurried out to the garage, both of them made uncomfortable by the unspoken question still lingering: if the developers of Sugar Rush were going to issue a software patch, why would they make it affect an area that the gamers couldn't get to, even assuming that it was one of several small tweaks? And for Vanellope, there was something else, as well. In her dream last night, which she still remembered so vividly, the throne room had been done up exactly as it now looked. And come to think of it, while the color pink was easily associated with a princess...purple and gold were much more kingly.
That thought was enough to keep her uncharacteristically quiet and wide-eyed on the way to the Royal Raceway, which was the designated rendezvous point each morning for the day's racers.
On this particular morning, the roster consisted of: Vanellope and Turbo (of course), Taffyta, Rancis, Swizzle, Adorabeezle, Torvald, and Snowanna. Vanellope was surprised to find that her seven teammates also seemed to be jumpy and anxious. The shift was slight, but noticeable. Had all of them also awakened to find that an invisible interior decorator had broken into their houses? She couldn't even begin to guess, as everyone was doing their best to hide their restlessness from one another, refusing to acknowledge whatever it was that had spooked them.
The little president decided to pry, starting off with someone who she knew just loved to talk. She ambled over to Taffyta with her hands behind her back.
"Hey, Taffy-brains," Vanellope spoke up in a manner that she hoped sounded casual. "What's goin' on?"
Taffyta started, before quickly plastering a smile across her face at the sight of her friend. "Oh! Vanellope! Um, n-not much. Sorry, I'm a little out of it...I didn't sleep well last night."
"How come? Did a flock of black licorice crows decide to perch on your house?"
"No..." Taffyta's cheeks flushed. She had the kind of skin that would turn red at any provocation, including just feeling awkward. "I just had some funny dreams. That's all."
Vanellope had to try and do her best not to act shaken by this statement. "Oh, really? Were they about Gloyd putting gum in your hair again?"
Taffyta sighed in exasperation. "I don't want to talk about it..."
"Come on," pressed Vanellope. "You know you can tell me! Besides, it's not like I'll execute Gloyd because of your dreams." She giggled; 'execution' had become a running joke in Sugar Rush, and the term was now liberally applied to anything ranging from being tickled to getting squirted with icing.
"My dream wasn't about that, Vanellope!" Taffyta pressed her lips into a thin little line. For someone who was often found either intentionally or unintentionally being cruel to people, she certainly didn't take well to people teasing her at all. But when her gaze darted over for a split second to where Turbo was standing, wiping his goggles with his sleeve, Vanellope couldn't help but wonder if maybe the strawberry racer's testiness was justified.
"...it was about...King Candy," muttered Taffyta.
Vanellope didn't know whether she should feel sympathetic, or creeped out by the sheer amount of coincidences that had occurred that morning.
As previously mentioned, Taffyta could be a bit of a snooty know-it-all, and she hadn't completely given up her bullying ways after "the glitch" was revealed to be the rightful ruler of the game. She could be a little snot even to her closest friends, and lately, she had made Turbo the new target of her hatred. Vanellope knew that she should have hated Taffyta for the way she acted...but she couldn't bring herself to. Taffyta wasn't really a bad person. Just like Ralph was notoriously short-tempered or Turbo could go on about himself without realizing when he was getting excessive, it was just a facet of her personality that she had a difficult time controlling.
So Vanellope and Taffyta had hung out together a few times after King Candy's initial defeat, and eventually, they'd found that they got along surprisingly well. Vanellope liked playing around with Taffyta's generous supply of makeup, even if most of her makeovers came out looking like goths or clowns or goth clowns, and Taffyta liked brushing Vanellope's shiny black hair, which was much longer than her own cropped blonde locks. They talked about racing, or stupid things the other kids had done, or their adventures in other games...anything but the past fifteen years.
For Taffyta had hinted, but never confirmed, that she had once had a bond with King Candy that went beyond subject and king. At points, she almost spoke about him as if he were her role model...or father figure. And then she'd catch herself and quickly change the subject, but since Turbo's reset, Vanellope had begun to understand.
Malware or not, King Candy had still been a person – a person trapped within a corrupted shell, but a person nonetheless. He wasn't just evil, as much as it had seemed that way sometimes. He'd had feelings, and relationships, and dreams...maybe they weren't the same as those of the current Turbo, but that didn't make them any less real.
"Do you...want to go somewhere else and talk about this?" suggested Vanellope after a pause. They still had a few minutes before the arcade was set to open.
Taffyta nodded her consent, and the two girls hurried over to the sidelines of the track.
"Mind telling me exactly what was going on between you and King Candy?" asked Vanellope. She'd always been sort of curious about it, but it seemed especially relevant today, and they didn't have much time to talk besides.
"Nothing was going on," huffed Taffyta. "He didn't see me any differently than he did any of the other racers. I mean, maybe I was a little more challenging to him than some of the others, but..."
"...he just thought of you as another competitor?"
"I guess. I mean, he was a little nicer to me than he was to the rest of us, kind of, and if I ever wanted advice, he'd give it to me...not that it was always good advice, unless it had to do with racing. But I really looked up to him. He was my role model...you have to understand that this was way before I knew about who he was and what he'd done to you," added Taffyta quickly.
Vanellope shrugged, stuffing her hands into her hoodie pouch. "I know. I'm not offended or nothin'." She had snuck into the Royal Raceway enough times during her fifteen years of exile to know that King Candy had been the top racer in the game. It made sense to idolize someone who was not only king, but also clearly had the skills to verify his leadership role. Besides, he'd been the only grown-up in Sugar Rush with even a smidgen of competence, even if it turned out that he wasn't exactly an adult in the end...
"And then you entered that Random Roster Race, and, well, we've all seen the video." Taffyta's expression had darkened considerably. "King Candy was a big fat liar."
"Yeah, but Turbo's not like – " Vanellope started to recite, but she quickly cut herself off. She was always telling the other racers "Turbo's not like that anymore!" and as a result, all but Taffyta had gradually abandoned their inhibitions. Meanwhile, Taffyta still hated Turbo's guts. Was it maybe...maybe because he "wasn't like that anymore?"
"And then that whole virus thing happened a few months ago!" continued Taffyta, with an added shudder for dramatic effect. "That...fake King Candy came up to me and was grinning, calling me 'kiddo' and 'sweetie' and touching my face, right before he turned around and threatened me! It was so creepy!"
"Yeah, that guy was a fat-headed creep," agreed Vanellope, somewhat absently, as she was still puzzling over the whole situation. "So...what does this have to do with your dream?"
Taffyta started. "Hmm?"
"Your dream. Y'know, the thing that you were supposed to be telling me about?"
"Oh, that!" Taffyta's cheeks went as pink as her hat. "It was just about King Candy being nice and kingly and...fatherly. It was ridiculous. He never even acted like that in real life."
Huh, weird...that's what my dream was about, too.
Vanellope wasn't sure if she wanted to come out and say that or not, but the decision was quickly made for her when Turbo shouted in her direction, "Hey, glitter-graphics! Are we gonna set up the roster, or not?!"
"Okay, okay! Keep your hair on, pajama boy!" she hollered back, smirking. "See? It's funny 'cause you don't have any hair!"
Turbo wasn't all that close to her, but she saw him jab his tongue out at her nonetheless. "Hilarious."
She glitched to her feet and brushed off the rear of her skirt, feeling a bit more like her usual self again. "C'mon, Taffy-brains. Let's stop moping and start racing!"
Taffyta still didn't look like she was in much of a racing move, but she reached into her pocket for one of her lollipops, flicked the wrapper aside, and stuffed it into her mouth in order to signal that the conversation was over.
Vanellope flounced her way over to the head of the pack, ready to lead her people into the new day. On her way, though, she stopped to ask Turbo a question. "You didn't have any weird dreams last night, Bo...did you?"
He shook his head. "Nothing but the usual nightmares about King Malware. Why?"
"It wouldn't happen to be because you were having weird dreams about King Candy, would it?"
She may have done a double take. "W-what? Oh, come on, Turbo! Just because it happened the other night doesn't mean it happens all the time. It doesn't. Not for me! So there's nothing to worry about!"
She adorned her face with an everything-is-a-okay expression, which he squinted at suspiciously.
"Whatever you say, Vanellope. I was just asking because Rancis and Adorabeezle were just telling me that they had weird dreams about King Candy last night. Isn't that weird?"
"Yeah. Real weird," she answered softly.
They didn't touch on the subject again that day, but that didn't mean that she wasn't thinking about it throughout the races.
"Happy Birthday, Princess Vanellope!"
Vanellope beamed as she strode into the throne room, now swathed with streamers and balloons and crepe paper in every conceivable crevice, where all of her friends were waiting...just as Papa had said they would be. They all carried presents of varying shapes and sizes. Her very best friend, Taffyta, had wrapped the gift she'd brought in pretty pink paper, with a shiny bow on top. Vanellope decided that she would open that one first.
Later, when she woke up, she would think to herself that the Sugar Rush racers looked rather younger than normal. Not that nine years old was "old," per se, but the kids in the dream couldn't have been much more than six or were all recognizable, though, already dressed up in their theme candy gear.
Her poofy dress bounced around her as she scampered from place to place, greeting everyone and thanking them for coming to her party, playfully bopping her closest friends on their heads with her scepter. Finally, she reached the alcove where the throne was located, and where King Candy stood waiting for her with Sour Bill at his side.
"Papa!" Vanellope rushed forward, and her father was all too happy to take her into his arms.
"Well, what do you think, sugarplum?" he asked, brushing a gentle finger across her nose. "Is it everything you wanted and more?"
"It's perfect!" gushed Vanellope. "Everyone's here! This is the best birthday party ever!"
"I'm so glad you like it! I worked very hard to make sure it was just right for you. I took care of the invitations, the decorations, and..." He winked at her slyly. "Even the cake."
She screeched with excitement. "Cake! Cake! When do we get to eat the cake?!"
One would think that, after living in a land made entirely of confections, cake would begin to lose its appeal after a while. But Vanellope had gotten the idea into her head that birthday cake was different than ordinary cake. It must have had a special, birthday-related ingredient that made it taste better than any other cake in the world.
King Candy chuckled gaily. "It's on the way, my vanilla bean. It'll be here in just a few – ah, speak of the devil!"
She whirled around to find that, sure enough, six of the candy kitchen servants were balancing an enormous tiered cake, slathered in pink frosting and flowers, between them. Her eyes widened in delight. It was so huge – the only cake she'd ever seen that was bigger was part of the Royal Raceway. She couldn't wait to smear her pudgy little fingers around in that icing...
"Caaaaake!" shrieked Candlehead, and all of the children had soon clustered around a table that the servants had set up earlier for the occasion. They were in such a rush to get their sugar fix that poor Sour Bill was nearly trampled.
"All right, all right! Settle down, hoo!" King Candy, a pro at controlling rowdy young racers, effortlessly made his way through the crowd to whisk Vanellope into his arms and place her on top of her chair. "You all know what we have to do before we eat our cake, don't you? We have to sing happy birthday to Princess Vanellope!"
He reached into his jacket (which had a handy infinite storage feature; anything that could fit inside was automatically added to his inventory) and rummaged around until he produced a match, which he used to swiftly light all of the candles on the birthday cake.
Vanellope had never been happier. Even though this wasn't exactly a "birthday" – it was, to be more precise, the one-year anniversary of the day that a sugar-sparkle fairy had given her to her father – it was definitely the best day she'd ever had. Her party was perfect...and, for that matter, her life was perfect. She was a princess, she had tons of friends, she got to race and play every day, and she had a wonderful papa. What more could a little girl ask for?
Eventually, the other kids calmed down enough that they were able to start singing in unison:
"Happy Birthday to you,
Happy Birthday to you!
Happy Birthday, Princess Vanellope...
Happy Birthday to you!"
King Candy nudged her shoulder. "Make a wish and blow out the candles," he told her, smiling.
Vanellope paused. What could she wish for? She had everything she could ever want...
"I wish that my papa and me could be together forever," she whispered, so quietly that no one could hear her.
Then she leaned forward, pursing her lips, and saw the little candle flames flicker and go out one by one...
...but she woke up before she got to taste the cake.
It was the middle of the night. Vanellope had done a reasonably good job of keeping up the facade of normality during the day, despite the fact that her head was practically bursting with questions. But now that she was lying awake in her darkened bedroom, she didn't feel like the competent leader who could run the game despite puzzling over a troubling mystery. She felt small and weak and vulnerable.
I want my papa...
But what did that even mean? Sure, she'd wanted parents during her fifteen years of being bullied and isolated; that was normal. However, ever since she'd gotten her real family, that desire had been extinguished. She didn't need conventional parents when she had Ralph and Felix and Calhoun, and now she even had Turbo, her sort-of brother!
And on top of that, King Candy had never been kind to her. Never. Not once. It made sense that someone like Taffyta would recreate a fatherly version of him in her head, but why was it happening to Vanellope?
After several minutes, the cold, miserable feeling in the pit of her stomach hadn't gone away. So she did the only thing she could think of to make her feel better: she slid her feet into her slippers, shuffled down the hallway, and crept into Ralph's bedroom.
Unlike Turbo, Ralph was an extremely heavy sleeper. His snoring could rattle the windows at its worst, and he didn't even twitch as Vanellope crawled up on the bed beside him. That was just fine with her. His presence alone was comforting enough.
She curled up beside him, a slight smile curling across her lips as she noticed that he was still wearing that cookie medal she'd made for him, so many months ago. He told her once that he never took it off (except to shower or swim; he didn't want it to melt, after all). Just the sight reminded her of everything they'd been through to get to this point, all of the good times, every instance where they'd persevered and pushed through.
She didn't need a fake, dream father. Her clumsy, smelly, stinkbrained guardian was just perfect for her. And eventually, she felt secure enough in that knowledge to drift off to sleep again.
Besides, she didn't even really like the color pink.