A/N: Surprise! I needed a bit of a break from my other WIR story, so I decided to fire off this little Valentine's Day-inspired one-shot . . . . not that it's actually that little, per se . . . . because this is me we're talking about, and I am literally unable to keep anything short. Hope you like it!
Disclaimer: I own none of the copyrighted concepts or characters mentioned herein.
February 14th, 1988, had been a bitter cold and wintry day, with biting winds that lashed noisily and blew large drifts of dry snow against the glass front doors of Litwak's Arcade. With the weather as unpleasant as it was, not to mention the fact that it was Valentine's Day . . . . although that particular holiday in itself held little importance for the usual age demographic of the gamers . . . . it was no surprise to anyone that the arcade had been veritably deserted for the duration of the day. Business was so slow, in fact, that Litwak had decided to close up two hours early, making his last rounds briefly throughout the empty room at five o'clock, then flipping the lights off and stepping outside in his parka to brave the freezing temperatures, locking the doors safely behind him.
A few moments of cautious, eager silence passed in the arcade, and then . . . . fulfilling the perfunctory obligation of being a character in whatever game currently had the best view of the front door . . . . Michelle, the scantily-clad, angelic warrior from Legendary Wings, paused in her cut scene to give one last confirming glance toward the door, then stopped and put down her weapon, breathing a short sigh of relief. She gave her long brown hair a satisfying flip over her shoulder before calling out in a playful, sing-song voice,
"It's official, everybody! Arcade's closed early for V-day . . . time to grab your honey and get your groove on!"
There was a collective snicker of appreciation from several various consoles scattered around the arcade.
One of the good-natured chuckles emanated from the small, primary-colored console sitting near the back wall of the room between Pac-Man and Centipede. Shaking his head with a small smile as he deposited his trusty magic hammer back into the holster on his utility belt, the namesake hero of Fix-It Felix Jr. calmly strode over to the front patio of the Niceland apartment building and looked up toward the upper floors.
"Quittin' time, everyone!" he leaned back and cupped his gloved hands around his mouth, calling up at the gleaming building face where a few round, smiling faces were looking back at him through open windows.
A small cheer went up from the passel of Nicelanders who happened to be near their windows at the time. One of them, a brown-haired woman with a neat purple dress, leaned out of hers and waved at him, shooting him a gleeful wink.
"Looks like we get to start our little shindig early, Felix!" she called out playfully, with just a hint of sauce to her tone. "You just wait right there . . . I'll get the girls and be down in a jiff!"
He gave a small, nervous laugh and waved back at her, his cheeks warming just slightly with embarrassment. Mary disappeared back into her apartment, and he breathed a long exhale as he made his way to the front stoop of the building to wait, wondering for the umpteenth time that day exactly how it was he'd gotten talked into that night's planned festivities.
Although . . . he already knew the answer, of course. It was because he could just never quite bring himself to say no to anything the Nicelanders asked of him. He couldn't help it . . . they were always just so impressed and enamored with him, so happy just to be near him . . . each one of them wanted to be his best friend, wanted to invite him to their unit after work for dinner or drinks or a friendly board game. Between the full workday and the daily pileup of evening social obligations, it seemed that Felix hardly ever had a night of peace and quiet to himself anymore . . .
Not that he really had any right to complain, though. Overbearing though they could sometimes be, the Nicelanders were his best friends, after all . . . almost more like family, in fact, especially now that they were approaching their fifth year together in the arcade . . . . and at the end of the day, he had to admit to himself that all of the praise and hero-attention they lavished on him was, if nothing else, sincerely flattering.
The little outing that they had planned for him tonight, however . . .
As he stood there on the front stoop waiting for his party to arrive and mulling quietly over his inward thoughts, Felix suddenly noticed a faint blur of movement at the edge of his peripheral vision and looked up. He felt only a passing stir of discomfort when he saw the distant, orange and burgundy-clad bulk of his antagonist standing up from the spot at the edge of the dump where he'd been lounging idly since their last game of the day several hours ago. His mouth opening in a wide yawn as he stretched his gargantuan arms over his head to their full, intimidating height, Wreck-It Ralph shook himself and pointed one brief, disinterested glance in the direction of the building before turning around and lumbering away toward the other end of the enormous brick pile, where his stump sat perched atop a mid-sized heap of debris.
Felix's brow puckered in a thoughtful frown as he watched the large, heavy-set man trudge away. He wasn't sure why, but for some reason, seeing Ralph retreat alone into the dump that night - the same way he did virtually every night - gave him an unusual pause, and he found himself momentarily letting his thoughts linger on his game's introverted bad-guy. He wondered fleetingly if Ralph had any Valentine's plans for that evening . . . . but he quickly dismissed the notion as foolish, reminding himself that Ralph never really seemed to have plans for anything. It was a seldom occasion that he even left their game at all, and when he did, the only places he went of which Felix was aware were Tapper's and Pac-man ( judging by the handful of times he'd noticed him returning on the train clutching various, comically oversized fruits in his arms ). The more Felix thought about it, the more unlikely it seemed that Ralph even knew that today was Valentine's Day.
The moment that thought crossed his mind, Felix was abruptly startled to discover that he actually felt a brief, fleeting twinge of envy for his antagonist. All that time to himself . . . .with no one constantly knocking on his door, expecting him to entertain them after a long day's work . . . just doing whatever he wanted, whenever he felt like it, without all the boisterous adoration and constant pressures from friends who sometimes acted more like fans than real companions. Just once, it might be nice to know what that kind of freedom was like . . . the freedom of not having to care what anyone thought of him . . . .
"Oh, Feeeelix!" a lilting voice sounded from behind him, accompanied by a chorus of giggles. "Your dates are ready!"
Felix quickly forced all brooding thoughts from his mind and turned around to smile at the cluster of short figures who had all appeared together at the front door of the building. The entire female cast of Fix-It Felix Jr. smiled back at him in unison, each of them dolled up in their best clothes in preparation for the evening.
It had started off as something of a joke, about a week earlier . . . . a number of them had been gathered in Gene's penthouse for a game of cribbage when the subject of Valentine's Day had come up, and one of the ladies - which one was it . . . Lucy, maybe? - had made some teasing remark about how it was her turn to take Felix out on a date that year. He had laughed at it along with everyone else, never thinking that she was at all serious . . . . but then, a few days ago, in the evening after work, he had answered a knock on his door to find the hallway outside his apartment packed with every woman in the building, and they were all giggling excitedly about something. Deanna was the one who explained to him that they had been talking it over, and they'd all come to the agreement that it would be "a barrel of laughs" if, that coming February 14th, he would take all of them out on one Valentine's Day date, together. Just for fun, of course.
And of course, like always . . . . he just hadn't been able to say no.
Without waiting for him to speak as they spilled out of the front doors onto the patio, two of the Nicelander ladies latched onto his arms, and the others clustered around him in a tight, hilariously chattering pack as they began propelling him toward the Fix-It Felix Jr. train station.
"So, Felix, where are you taking us first?" one of them asked coyly, and the others laughed responsively.
Trying his hardest to play along, Felix gave a broad smile and blushed ever so lightly, disentangling one arm from the clutching grasp of one of his "dates" to nervously scratch the back of his neck.
"Well, I, uh . . . I guess I hadn't really thought about it, yet . . . . "
"Ooooh, what about that new racing game that was just plugged in . . . . RoadBlasters, right? That might be exciting!"
"Ppssh!" one of the other girls blew a disgusted puff of air through her lips. "A racetrack? That hardly sounds romantic, does it?"
"Ladies, ladies!" Mary shushed them with a short giggle as they all clambered onto the station platform and began filing into the train. "Please, no bickering! The night is young . . . and we've got plenty of Felix to go around!"
The women all laughed, and Felix did his best to smile and chuckle feebly along with them as they crammed into the seat on either side of them. The train whistle sounded, and the blue cars began to rattle slowly backwards down the tracks and through the brick archway which would lead them to Game Central Station.
Just before they were about to disappear into the tunnel, Felix happened to cast an anxious glance in the direction of the dump and caught one last passing glimpse of Ralph. The wrecker was reclining against a heap of bricks with his hands propped behind his head, slouching and staring off into space with half-lidded eyes and a blank, bored expression. Felix heaved a small sigh and dropped his chin to rest in his hand as he gazed longingly for one more fleeting second at the solitary figure of his antagonist . . . then the train clamored into the tunnel, and he saw nothing but darkness.
"Ooh, I'm scared! Hold me, Felix!" one of the ladies joked, and the rest of them laughed uproariously, the combined din of their voices echoing off the walls of the tunnel. Felix took advantage of the momentarily concealing dimness to droop his shoulders and rub one hand over his eyes. He was already beginning to feel exhausted.
This was going to be a long, long Valentine's Day.
- 0 - 0 - 0 - 0 -
Ralph watched, only half-heartedly from the corner of his eye, as the train loaded to the brim with his protagonist and the entire cast of female Nicelanders rattled out of the station and vanished into the tunnel, carrying the sound of their elated laughter and conversation along with it. The faint echo of their voices lingered a brief moment longer, then faded completely, and the atmosphere of Fix-It Felix Jr. was still and silent again.
Ralph lowered his brow in a dull, brooding half-glare, resettling himself against the towering mound of bricks and reminding himself that he didn't care.
So Felix had more than a half dozen dates for Valentine's Day . . . so the Nicelanders were fawning all over him, just like they always did, and they were all headed out for a night of fun together. So what? He didn't care. It didn't bother him that nobody had come to wish him a happy Valentine's Day . . . it wasn't like it had been any different the last four years. He didn't even care that it was Valentine's Day. For him, it was just another day like any other . . . get up, go to work, wreck the building, get tossed in the mud, go home, go to bed. Same routine as always.
Just another regular day, with nobody paying him any attention . . . . nobody talking to him . . . . nobody even looking at him, as soon as the arcade was closed . . . .
An unpleasant twinge of feeling started to ache somewhere inside of him - Ralph quickly forced it down numbly into his stomach and let out a low growl of irritation, rising to his feet and shaking his shoulders loosely. For some reason, he couldn't seem to get comfortable that evening . . . . not that "comfortable" was ever really the right word to describe his home in the dump, even at the best of times . . . . there was a sort of restless energy twitching in his arms and legs, compelling him to get up and move, even though he had nowhere to go.
Must have been because he hadn't done enough wrecking that day, what with the arcade being so deserted and all . . . . yeah, that had to be it.
Ralph breathed a heavy sigh of boredom and began wandering aimlessly around the dump, absently kicking stray bricks with his bare feet and letting his hands drag at his sides. Even though they'd had hardly any gamers at all that day, he was still a little disappointed that Litwak had closed up early . . . two extra hours of free time in the evening just meant two extra hours of trying to figure out what to do with himself until he was tired enough to go to sleep.
Maybe he should just buck up and go out to Tapper's tonight . . . . he hadn't done that in a while. Even if he didn't particularly relish the idea of having to sit there alone, surrounded by romantic couples all celebrating the stupid holiday, it was better than just loafing around the dump by himself all night . . . . and besides, Tapper was always good for some conversation, as long as he wasn't too busy. In fact, he was one of the few characters in the entire arcade who was nice enough to so much as give Ralph the time of day . . . even if it was probably just due to the friendly disposition of neighborhood bartender that was programmed into his code.
Flattening his mouth into a thoughtful line as he climbed up a small hill of bricks and plunked down on his stump to internally debate the idea for a moment, Ralph gave a small start when the quiet of his solitude was suddenly interrupted by the short, sharp blast of a steam whistle. He looked up, only to roll his eyes when he saw that it was nothing more than the self-propelled yellow bulldozer from the cut scenes, chugging its way across the grass with another load of garbage for the dump. The cute, bouncing jalopy of a construction vehicle shoved a heap of several full trash bags at the base of the brick mountain nearby, then turned around and puffed happily away with another short whistle.
Normally, Ralph wouldn't have given this routine occurrence so much as a second glance . . . but that night, something in the fresh deposit of trash from the apartment building happened to catch his eye, and he did a short double take, turning on his stump to squint down at the pile of bags. One of them had split open when the bulldozer dropped it, and inside, instead of the usual assortment of household garbage, its contents appeared to be entirely bright pink.
Slightly intrigued, Ralph stood up and slid clumsily down the hill on a miniature brick avalanche, lumbering over to the mound of bags and gingerly pulling apart the already torn one with his fingertips. The black plastic stretched and ripped down the seam, and out fell a torrent of pink and red objects . . . more than a dozen flat, heart-shaped boxes that clattered in a cardboard heap at his feet.
Ralph dropped the trash bag and let his shoulders go slack with an exasperated groan.
Of course . . . . how could he forget?
Every Valentine's Day for the past four years, Felix and the other Nicelanders had begun exchanging gifts sometime about a week before the 14th. There were so many of them, it was apparently necessary to get several days' jump on the holiday . . . or, more likely, they simply enjoyed dragging out the gift-giving celebration as long as possible. Either way . . . every year, it inevitably occurred that Felix ( naturally ) ended up with more cards and balloons and boxes of chocolate than he knew what to do with by the time the 14th actually rolled around. In most recent years, he had even started receiving Valentine's gifts from other games around the arcade, presents from neighboring main characters or anonymous secret admirers. He kept the balloons and cards for at least a month, but he usually began giving away the chocolates almost immediately, under the pretense that he couldn't possibly eat them all himself . . . . however, the only people he had to give them away to were the other Nicelanders, who by that time were all already well-stocked with their own candy.
Long story short, every year around Valentine's Day, at least a couple bags stuffed full of heart-shaped boxes of chocolate would eventually end up in the dump . . . . and every year, that was where Ralph found them.
It was the closest thing to a Valentine's gift he ever received.
Suppressing another long, dejected sigh, Ralph stared down at the annual heap of discarded candy at his feet, nudging one of the boxes with his toe. Despite the fact that - apart from Tapper's fare and whatever food he could pilfer from Pac-man or other nearby games - Ralph had spent years living primarily off of the Nicelanders' thrown-out leftovers without much shame or complaint, he had never really made off with much of their surplus Valentine's candy before. Something about opening heart-shaped boxes addressed to Felix or Mary or Norwood left a bad taste in his mouth . . . made him feel like even more of an outcast than usual.
But for some reason, that year . . . at that moment . . . as he narrowed his eyes down at the overflow of pink and red gifts, with the loneliness of the night closing in around him and the image of Felix, surrounding by his adoring friends, stamped vividly in his mind . . . . that year, something felt different.
That year . . . for some internal reason he didn't fully want to admit to himself . . . feeling like any more of an outcast than he already did just didn't seem possible.
Setting his jaw in a dark, almost privately defiant glare, Ralph let himself flop down backwards against the brick mound and seized one of the boxes, holding it easily in the confine of his palm. He fumbled in frustration with it for a moment before finally managing to pop off the heart-shaped, cardboard lid with his fingertip. A few seconds after he did, he flinched slightly and made a face as his nose was assaulted by the uncharacteristically sweet aroma, standing out from the stale rankness of the dump as starkly as white on black. Inside the box was a small assortment of chocolates in varying shades of brown, each nestled in an individual paper cup.
Ralph scrunched his face further as he studied the box's contents, momentarily reconsidering his decision. He had eaten chocolate before, of course, and while it wasn't exactly his favorite thing in the world, it was certainly a fair sight better than most things he ended up eating out of the trash . . . . but just then, the overpoweringly saccharine smell of the candies in his hand was almost enough to change his mind . . . .
And then, suddenly, he heard another small noise stirring in the otherwise quiet night, and when he looked up to find out what had caused it, what he saw turned his melancholy mood almost downright angry.
High above him on the roof of the apartment building, Gene, Don, Norwood, and all of the other Niceland men were filing out of the door to the utility staircase and gathering together in the rooftop garden. Jazz music began to play softly beneath the rising chatter of their voices as they talked and laughed and elbowed one another, the whole group roaring hilariously when one of them muttered something that was just indiscernible, but obviously some kind of joke about them getting to enjoy a "stag" Valentine's day party, since Felix had taken all the ladies off their hands. Ralph squinted his eyes and spotted Gene - perhaps his biggest detractor in a game full of people who weren't exactly his fans to begin with - leaning against the railing on the edge of the roof with a martini glass in his hand. The squat, mustachioed, sweater-clad little man happened to meet Ralph's gaze for a split second - shot him what was undeniably, even at that distance, a smug, condescending nod, raising his glass briefly in a mock toast - and then turned back to the party on the rooftop.
That single instant of eye contact with Gene pushed him over the edge. Something inside Ralph snapped, and before he knew what he was doing he had tossed half of the box of candy into his mouth, his eyes drilling a seething glare down at the pile of other hearts and hardly noticing as he accidentally chewed one of the paper wrappers along with the chocolate. After a few seconds, he gulped down the swallow with a light smack, pausing and squinting one eye critically as he tasted his mouth a few times.
It wasn't . . . bad, exactly, just . . . sweet. Very, very, sweet.
But the noise of the Nicelander's rooftop party was only growing rowdier, and with every second that he was forced to listen to it, Ralph found himself noticing the taste of the chocolate less and less, even as he proceeded to down the rest of the first box and, without pausing, wrenched open another. His temper was slowly but steadily building up hotter and hotter inside of him, practically numbing him to everything else apart from the constant, twisting reminder of his own loneliness that sat at the bottom of his gut like a rock . . . . a rock that was quickly being buried under pounds of chocolate. He tore continually through box after heart-shaped box, tossing the empties over his shoulder and breaking gradually into a stream of dark, indiscernible muttering under his breath, which was punctuated only by thick, sugary swallows every thirty seconds or so.
By the time he had crumpled the last empty pink box in his fist and thrown it towards the apartment building with an impotent grunt, Ralph was so blindly angry that he had almost forgotten what it was he was angry about. The inside of his mouth was dried out and sticky with a sweetness so strong it had almost become salty . . . . he was beginning to feel light-headed, the pent up energy buzzing in his limbs twice as intensely as before. Feeling abruptly like he might burst if he had to sit still a minute longer, Ralph staggered to his feet, ignoring the brief wave of dizziness that washed over him. He clenched his fists, let out a furious growl at someone who wasn't there, and set off stomping at an enraged pace toward the empty train station.
- 0 - 0 - 0 - 0 -
It was only their second stop of the night, and already Felix's brain was working furiously to try and come up with some excuse to escape from his pack of dates and beat a hasty retreat back home.
The first game his captors had agreed on visiting was Ms. Pac-man, since word had gotten out that the Pac's were hosting a Valentine's Day party that evening. Once there, they had run into a veritable slew of female characters from other games who had all sent Felix cards and other gifts that year, and every last one of them had made at least one attempt to corner him in the maze and offer to bring him a drink. By the time he finally convinced the Nicelander ladies to leave, he had actually broken a sweat trying to frantically elude his array of romantic predators.
Upon his pleading insistence, Felix's dates had reluctantly agreed to make Tapper's their second destination of the evening. The girls had wanted to save Tapper's for the last stop of the night, but after the frenzy of the Pac-party Felix was desperate to go someplace more quiet and low-key, someplace where he could sit in a corner and hide himself behind a mug of root-beer.
"Jiminy, jaminy," he muttered exhaustedly to himself, slumping over the dark wood of the bar and heaving a combined sigh of weariness and relief when his contingent of ladies all went off to visit the powder room together. He'd had no idea that eligible men were at such a premium in the arcade . . . . if his Valentine's Day thus far was any evidence, then it seemed that women from every corner of Litwak's were apparently desperate for any available, unattached good guy who wasn't programmed with either a violent back-story, or a fur loincloth with a human skull belt buckle.
Felix took his cap off and sighed again, running one hand tiredly through his hair and wondering how bad the repercussions might be if were to just sneak quietly back to Fix-It Felix Jr. while the girls weren't looking . . . . when suddenly, breaking him from his train of thought and jerking his attention toward the far end of the bar, there was a loud, reverberating BANG as the front doors of Tapper's were suddenly thrown open. Felix jumped, raising one eyebrow curiously at the bar entrance . . . . and then, his eyes bugged wide and his entire body tensed up with a quick seize of alarm when he saw none other than the giant, hulking form of his antagonist come barging unceremoniously into the game. Numerous other characters jumped and looked around in surprise at the sound of his abrupt entry, then quickly averted their eyes from him and became intensely concentrated on their conversations.
The sight of Ralph charging into the relatively small, crowded space of Tapper's somehow gripped Felix with a feeling that was almost like panic. Ducking down as low over the bar as possible, he quickly slid his large mug of root-beer in front of his face and covered his eyes with the other hand, hoping desperately that Ralph wouldn't spot him there. He was small enough, and the bar was packed densely enough with other characters, that he had a good chance of remaining unnoticed . . . but that still didn't stop Felix's heart from pounding anxiously as Ralph began moving through the crowded room.
Felix forced himself to keep his head down and not look up as he both heard and felt the unmistakable, thudding tremor of Ralph's six hundred and forty-nine pound footsteps lumbering closer and closer to the bar where he was seated. The footfalls stopped abruptly somewhere directly in front of him, and then there was the dull scraping of a barstool on the floor and the sharp, protesting creak as Ralph lowered his bulk onto it. Felix split a tiny crack in his fingers and peeped cautiously out. Ralph had sat down at the next bar directly in front of his with his back turned to him, his face hidden and his head hanging even lower than usual beneath his shoulders, which loomed up before Felix like the side of a small, orange-shirted hill. The characters seated on either side of the spot where Ralph had plunked down grabbed their drinks and slid distastefully away from him.
After a brief moment, during which Ralph made no sound or movements, the jerky, low-resolution figure of Tapper's namesake bartender came striding over, one white rag draped from his forearm and another hanging over his vested shoulder.
"Well, whaddaya know! It's Wreck-It Ralph!" Tapper greeted him jovially over the noisy hubbub of the bar. Felix lowered his hand and peered cautiously at them around the side of his mug.
"Didn't think I'd be seein' you here tonight," Tapper continued. " . . . but it's good to have you back! Been a while, ain't it?"
Ralph answered him with an indistinguishable grunt.
Tapper only chortled and shook his head. "Ah, same old Wreck-It. Well . . . what can I getchya this fine evening, big man?"
Ralph mumbled something lowly in reply, and Felix leaned forward slightly, straining his ears to listen. Tapper blinked in surprise and stood up a bit straighter.
"Really! You sure, pal?"
Ralph nodded, and Tapper raised his brow and shook his head in amusement as he bent over to reach under the bar.
"Just makin' sure I heard you right . . . I can't remember the last time you ordered anything besides a root-beer. Figured it was sorta the beverage of choice for all you Fix-It Felix Jr. folks."
Felix flinched and ducked back further behind his drink, afraid that Tapper was about to point out his location to Ralph . . . but the bartender merely dredged up an enormous glass stein twice the size of those in the hands of the other patrons and heaved it onto the bar, then filled it with a frosty, amber liquid from the tap. He nudged the glass forward and Ralph took it with one hand, almost obscuring it from view despite its size.
"There y'are, buddy," Tapper said warmly, almost comfortingly, obviously responding to a hint of emotion in the bad guy's face that was hidden from Felix's view. "You need anything else, you just give a holler."
Ralph only nodded again glumly in reply, and Tapper gave him one last faintly concerned glance before hurrying away to answer another drink call.
For a few awkward, tense minutes, Felix sat silently behind Ralph, watching him without his knowledge as the chattering din of the crowded bar continued around them. Ralph began to throw back heavy swigs of his drink every few seconds, but he never turned around or looked at anyone else . . . in fact, after a couple moments, it almost seemed as if he forgotten that there was anyone else around him at all.
In spite of the uncomfortable feeling still tightening his shoulders around his neck, Felix couldn't help pausing for a moment and softening his eyes at the enormous, hunched back in front of him with a touch of dawning sympathy.
Was this . . . . was this really what Ralph did every time he came to Tapper's?
He just sat there, all by himself . . . ?
"Oh Felix, your blushing, beautiful dates are ba . . . . ahh . . . AAHHCK!"
Felix jumped a foot off his barstool and spun around to see the group of Niceland girls frozen in a dense huddle behind him, each of them gaping in open-mouthed horror at the instantly recognizable bulge of their bad guy's arms and shoulders. Felix darted a frantic, fearful glance back at Ralph . . . but he just tossed back another huge swallow of his drink and slumped forward onto the bar again. He hadn't even flinched at the sound of their voices.
Felix immediately jumped down from his stool, holding his hands out in a calming gesture to shush the fearfully gasping group of ladies and herd them gently to a farther part of the room.
"What is HE doing here?" Deanna hissed venomously, shooting an almost terrified look at Ralph over Felix's shoulder.
"He followed us! He wants to wreck our Valentine's Day!" one of the others wailed from the back of the group.
"Please, ladies, just keep your voices down!" Felix begged. "He didn't follow us, he's just here having a drink by himself. He isn't hurting anybody."
"Yeah, yet!" Lucy scoffed, folding her arms and glaring. "Felix, you know that big bully's just going to start trouble if he sees us here!"
"What? Oh, Luc . . . girls, please! You know as well as I do that after work, Ralph's perfectly harmless. Please, let's just leave him be and try to enjoy ourselves, alright?"
The Niceland women exchanged unconvinced glances amongst themselves, but then breathed communal huffs of resignation, rolling their eyes and shaking their heads as they all waddled away to the farthest possible corner of the bar from Ralph. Felix followed them with a short sigh of relief, glancing once more over his shoulder to the spot where his antagonist was sitting. Ralph had already emptied his first glass and was watching Tapper fill him up a second. As he looked at him, Felix was suddenly struck by the intense look of sadness on Ralph's face . . . his brow was sunk low over his listless, half-lidded eyes, almost shadowing them from view as he stared dismally down at the large glass mug in his hand.
Maybe it was just a trick of the dim light . . . or maybe it was because in all the years they'd worked together, Felix had never really taken the time to stop and look closely at him in one of his solitary moments before . . . . but whatever the reason . . . . Felix was genuinely startled that a look of such powerful emotion could even appear on Ralph's face at all. If he wasn't snarling and sneering with his trademark anger while throwing a brick or pounding a penthouse floor, Ralph's face, more often than not, was simply blank, devoid of any feeling or cognizance. Whenever Felix saw him outside of work, he was just staring off into space as if nothing he saw held any interest or significance for him whatsoever . . . .
"Felix! Are you sitting down, or not?"
Jerking out of his reverie, Felix obediently climbed into the booth along with his dates, resting his elbows thoughtfully on the table as the girls signaled for Tapper to come over and take their drink orders.
- 0 - 0 - 0 - 0 -
After a short spell of black nothingness . . . . in which he wasn't sure how many minutes had passed, or whether he had actually fallen briefly asleep or not . . . . Ralph jolted sharply awake as he became suddenly aware that his barstool was beginning to slide out from under him. Peeling the side of his face quickly off the bar and reeling upright to steady himself, Ralph blinked and looked down at the glass still clutched limply in his hand. It was empty.
The noise of the bar seemed to have grown intensely louder, so loud that it was beginning to made his head ache. He looked up and squinted blearily towards the neon-ringed clock mounted on the far wall of the room, but for some reason he couldn't make out the numbers. His vision was blurry, and two or three clocks kept whirling and circling each other as the whole room began to swim in front of him.
Ralph shook himself fiercely, reaching out and grabbing Tapper by the shoulder with two fingers as he passed by.
"Heeeyyy, Tap-man . . . . how . . . howsa 'bout a top-off?" he slurred just slightly under his breath, pointing to the empty mug in front of him.
Tapper looked down at his glass, then back up at him, his mustached face crinkling in a concerned frown.
"Sorry, Ralph, but I think I'm gonna have to cut you off for the night."
His voice sounded distant and garbled, just barely piercing through the dull roar of the room to find its way to Ralph's ears. Ralph blinked and shook himself again, letting his arms drop limply onto the bar. He felt too disoriented to even be annoyed with the response.
"Ahhh . . . sh . . . sure thing . . . Tap-man," he muttered, rubbing one hand blearily over his face.
Tapper gave him another worried look and leaned closer.
"Hey, Ralph . . . you gonna be able to make it home alright by yourself, tonight?"
Ralph didn't respond. He was going slightly cross-eyed at the pair of identical bartenders who kept separating and rejoining in blurry shapes in front of him. Tapper took him by the arm and snapped his fingers gently in front of his face to get his attention.
"Listen. Your pal Fix-It Felix is sitting over there," he pointed with his thumb to the other side of the bar. "How about I call him on over and have him take ya home, huh?"
The name of his protagonist registering only faintly in his substance-addled brain, Ralph squinted in disbelief and leaned around Tapper to peer in the direction he was pointing. He could barely make out anything at that far of the room, but after a few seconds his eyes narrowed in on an unmistakably familiar shade of blue and a gaggle of short, round little figures all seated together in a wrap-around booth.
Memory and emotion suddenly lurching up together inside of him like a wave of nausea, Ralph made a disgusted grunting noise in his throat and slumped back on the bar.
"Fix-It Felix . . . is not . . . my pal," he muttered, his slur lessening slightly with effort.
Tapper shook his head and patted Ralph sympathetically on the arm.
"Just . . . do me a favor and don't leave alone, okay, Ralph? . . . or if you do, at least wait and stick around for a while until you feel better."
Ralph grumbled incoherently in reply, and the bartender moved away, shaking his head again as he went. The general racket in the bar continued to grow as more characters pushed in the front doors . . . every seat in the place was filled, and a thick crowd of people were congregating on the floor between tables. Ralph sat staring blankly at nothing for a few minutes, but his gaze inevitably trolled back to the place where Felix and all the Niceland women were sitting, laughing with each other as they intermittently sipped their drinks.
As he watched them, a sudden volatile mixture of anger and intoxication roiled up deep inside of him, and before he knew what he was doing Ralph had risen woozily to his feet and was pushing his way through the crowded room.
- 0 - 0 - 0 - 0 -
"WWEELL, isn't this . . . isn't this HC one heck of a HC coincidence!"
Felix and every one of his dates each abruptly stopped talking and sat up rigid in their seats as a deep, bellowing voice suddenly boomed at them from somewhere immediately nearby. They all jerked around and gave a sharp gasp in unison as Ralph stumbled over bluntly to the edge of their booth, knocking down two characters as he came and leaning over to rest one arm on their table, dropping it down so hard the ice rattled in their drinks.
Shock seizing him and then quickly giving way to dread, Felix shot a frantic look at his dates and saw that they were, predictably, frozen in their seats with matching expressions of abject horror and disdain, staring at the small mountain of muscle, dirty hair, and sardonically grinning face that had seemingly dropped out of the sky onto their table. Felix's jaw hovered soundlessly for a few seconds as he struggled to find his voice.
"Uh . . . oh . . . . wha, why, l-look who it is!" he stammered feebly, trying to smile and ease the girls out of their paralyzed revulsion. "It's . . .it's Ralph! We didn't know you'd be coming to Tapper's tonight, Ralph! How, ah . . . h-how is your Valentine's Day going so far, friend?"
Ralph turned his huge head to pin Felix for a brief instant with a wide-eyed, deadpan stare . . . then scrunched his face up and burst out laughing.
The Niceland girls shuddered collectively as an unavoidable whiff of Ralph's breath circulated in the air around their table, and they all leaned back as far away from him as the back of the booth would allow. They all stared silently as Ralph continued to laugh, banging his fist lightly on the table and running his other hand over his eyes. The bar had suddenly gone quiet, and all around them other characters were beginning to stare.
His shoulders still shaking, Ralph straightened up, swaying lightly off-balance, and looked back down at them from his full menacing height, wiping an imaginary tear out of one eye.
"My Valentine's Day? MY Valentine's Day!" he sputtered, the edges of his voices slurring audibly. "Hear that, everybody? My friend, Fix-It Felix Jr., wants to know how MY Valentine's Day is going!"
Felix's quickly plummeting spirits sank even further when he detected the pungent smell of something that was definitely not root-beer mingled with Ralph's usual . . . . musky fragrance. He mustered an awkward, painfully grimacing smile and tried desperately to diffuse the situation with a calm, settling tone.
"Ah, Ralph . . . . why . . . . why don't you and I step outside for some fresh air?" he pleaded quietly.
Ralph only laughed again, his eyelids lilting unevenly as he staggered again and almost fell onto the table beside theirs, the characters seated there letting out terrified cries of alarm and jerking their chairs out of the way.
"Fresh HC fresh air?" he parroted back incredulously, his words punctuated by a sharp hiccup. "Ha . . . but . . . Felix, don't you HC remember? I live outside, in a dump! I get all the fresh HC air I need. I get fresh air all night, every night, while all of YOU people . . . " he paused briefly, swinging his arm dangerously and pointing toward the Niceland girls, who all shrieked and clung to each other flinchingly, " . . . are up, sleeping in your . . . in your nice, fixed apartments, eating PIE and playing JENGA and . . . and giving each other boxes of chocolate!"
Ralph's face twisted into a dazed, only half-conscious snarl, his eyes glazing over as he swayed once more on his feet and withdrew his hand. He turned around and paused for a moment, shooting a particularly scathing look - or at least it would have been, if he hadn't looked about to pass out on his feet at any second - over his shoulder at Felix.
"My Vah HC Valentine's Day!?" he slurred darkly. "Don't you HC worry about MY Valentine's Day, 'friend!' It's going . . . it's going great, for me . . . . just like every other HC day."
With that, he let go of his bracing grip on the panel dividing their booth from the next and stumbled away, his heavy footfalls creaking the floorboards and speechless characters darting out of his way as he lumbered across the room. He disappeared down the hallway leading to the restrooms, and everyone in the bar flinched simultaneously as they heard the swinging door of the mens' room being punched open with a shuddering, wooden BANG.
Then, there was silence.
For a few long, still seconds, the bar was quiet . . . . then everyone turned bluntly back to their drinks and their conversations, and the cheerful hubbub picked right back up to its previous volume as if nothing had happened.
The Niceland ladies sat stunned in the wrap-around booth, blinking with mortified faces as if they had each just witnessed the most repugnant thing they could imagine. One of them finally found her voice again and turned to the others with a sneer of disgust.
"Did you smell his BREATH?" she cried incredulously.
The other women all shuddered.
"I thought he was going to smash the table in for sure!"
"What a . . . . vulgar, uncivilized brute!"
"Let's get out of here, Felix, before he comes back!"
They all gave a communal murmur of agreement, but Felix was scarcely listening to them. He was craning his neck around the edge of the booth and staring at the place where Ralph had gone with a stunned, slowly softening expression.
"Um . . . . just . . . . just a minute, ladies," he answered distractedly, climbing out of the booth and never once breaking his gaze from the doorway across the bar. "I think I better . . . . go in and check to see if he's okay."
"Check to see if Wreck-It Ralph, is okay?" one of them echoed disbelievingly. "Felix, NO! We're outside of our game! What if he tries to . . . ?"
"I'll be fine," Felix insisted, shooting them a firm look and silencing their fearful whispers of protest. "Ralph's not going to do anything. I just want to make sure he's going to be able to make it home tonight."
Ignoring their petrified looks, Felix set his brow determinedly and walked briskly through the mingling crowd, slipping quietly into the side hallway and making his way down to the mens' restroom door. He hesitated outside it for a few seconds, his brow puckering and his resolution momentarily wavering . . . . then, he remembered the look he had seen on his antagonist's face as he was sitting alone earlier at the bar, and with a stern nod to himself, he pushed open the swinging door and marched inside.
Felix blinked once and scrolled his eyes quickly around the small room. The white-tiled, brightly-lit washroom appeared to be empty, each of the stall doors hanging open and revealing the vacant cubicles . . . except for the last one, the oversized, triple-wide stall that was reserved for Tapper's larger patrons. The door of the last stall was pushed shut, but not locked, hanging just slightly ajar and revealing a narrow strip of the booth's interior . . . . and in the short gap of space between the bottom of the partition and the floor, Felix could see Ralph's scruffy, immediately identifiable feet and legs, apparently sitting down on the washroom floor and almost filling the square footage of the stall.
An anxious knot suddenly forming at the back of his throat, Felix swallowed thickly and took a few timid steps toward the last stall, wondering briefly if this hadn't been a bad idea after all.
". . . Ralph? Ah, R-Ralph, partner . . . are . . . are you okay in there?"
There was no response. The knot growing tighter, Felix inched forward until he was standing just outside the stall door, staring nervously down at his shoes.
"Ralph?" he tried again.
This time, there was a response . . . but not exactly the one Felix had been hoping for.
Instead of answering him with words, the sound that emanated from within the bathroom stall and echoed almost deafeningly in the small, sharply acoustic room was a loud, deep-throated snore.
Felix's eyes popped open in surprise at the reverberating volume of the sound.
He pushed open the stall door and stuck his head inside . . . and his chest deflated with a long, exasperated sigh.
All nine feet and six hundred pounds of his antagonist were sprawled out on the bathroom floor, his shoulders pressing on the tiled wall and the rest of him crammed up against the stall partition. His right arm was wound up awkwardly around and above him, his left draped over the seat of the toilet, and his head was hanging down and resting limply on chest, his mouth open and the rounded bulge of his big stomach rising and falling gently as he snored like a cement mixer.
"Oh, Ralph," Felix breathed another small sigh and massaged his eyelids with his fingers for a second, then looked back up and frowned perplexedly at the conked-out giant in the bathroom stall. He was at least relieved to see that Ralph was okay . . . . but now, however, there arose the problem of what to do with him. He knew he had to get Ralph home before the arcade opened tomorrow . . . but how on earth was he supposed to move a person more than six times his size who was passed out cold on a washroom floor?
Pursing his lips resignedly, Felix decided that at any rate, the first thing he had to do was go and break the news to his lady friends that their little Valentine's celebration was over. As he turned to shuffle quietly out of the mens' room, Felix paused for a moment and . . . in spite of the situation . . . had to stifle an abrupt snort of laughter at the, ironically, somewhat fortuitous turn of events.
What do you know, he thought to himself with a passing stir of amusement as he pushed open the washroom door and made his way back down the hall toward the bar. Looks like you ended up giving me that excuse I was looking for, Ralph.
- 0 - 0 - 0 - 0 -
It was almost two full hours later that Felix, wiping faint beads of perspiration from his brow with the back of his hand and stepping back to observe the results of their grueling work, turned to his two companions and gave them a satisfactory nod.
"Alright, fellas! I think I can handle it from here."
The two men standing beside him in the anteroom between Game Central Station and the train tunnel entrance to Fix-It Felix Jr. were the tall, heavily-muscled, blue and red-clad warriors from the arcade's newest fighting game, Altered Beast . . . . and they were the only characters present in Tapper's earlier that evening who had been both willing and able to help him with his predicament. Working together, they had somehow managed to accomplish the seemingly insurmountable task of prying Ralph out of the bathroom stall, dragging him out of the washroom - encountering a fair amount of difficulty trying to fit him through the somewhat narrow doorway into the hall - heaving him up to his feet, draping one of his hundred-pound arms over each of their shoulders, and in that manner carrying him all the way out of Tapper's, through Game Central Station - where they elicited no small number of amused looks from other characters and couples still out celebrating the holiday - and up to the Fix-It Felix Jr. entrance. Once there, the three of them ( although Felix, admittedly, could only do the smallest portion of the work ) had hoisted Ralph up off the ground the few inches necessary to dump him in the last car of the train, sucking in huge gasps of air as they were finally relieved of the more than six hundred pound burden.
Ralph sank into the small blue car as if it were a wheelbarrow, his arms and legs draping over the sides with his hands dragging on the ground. He was still snoring as peacefully as ever . . . he hadn't woken up even once during their two hour struggle to transport him there.
Still breathing heavily and stretching their taut back muscles, the two Good Samaritan warriors exchanged dubious glances, then looked back down at Felix.
"You sure, little dude? How you gonna get him outta there by yourself?" asked the man wearing red trunks.
"Yeah, man . . . dude's got some serious poundage on you," added the identical man wearing blue trunks, wincing and massaging his rotator cuff. "You sure you don't want us to come with and help you pry him back out again?"
Felix smiled appreciatively, but shook his head.
"No, no, you gentleman have really done far too much already. Right now, I'm just happy we were able to get him here at all. I won't worry about getting him out of that train until we're back home, safe and sound."
The tan, muscle-bound warriors chuckled good-naturedly in response, and Red-trunks dropped down to one knee to shake Felix's hand.
"Well, good luck, Fix-It! You're one heck of a good guy, I'll tell you that."
"Yeah," Blue-trunks agreed. "When your buddy here wakes up, tell him I said he's pretty darn lucky to have a friend like you."
Felix's smile flickered.
"Oh . . . ah . . . y-yes . . . yes, I'll tell him."
Red-trunks rose to his feet, and he and his blue-clad doppelganger turned and made their way back toward the station, waving once more over their shoulders as they went.
"Thanks again, you two!" Felix called gratefully, waving back to them as they passed into the plug gate. "I really can't tell you how much I owe you for this!"
"No problem, little dude!" Red-trunks called back, his voice fading quickly. "Happy Valentine's Day!"
Felix slowly lowered his hand, his smile drooping into a frown as he turned back to look at the huge, snoring man squeezed into the Fix-It Felix train.
"Right . . . happy Valentine's Day," he muttered sullenly under his breath, suddenly trying not to look at Ralph as he was struck by an unexpected pang of guilt. Shaking his head ponderously at himself, Felix climbed quietly into the first car and shut the door beside him, slouching wearily as the train gave a cheerful, rattling lurch and took off down the tunnel.
- 0 - 0 - 0 - 0 -
The last thing Ralph could remember before everything in his head went dark was the feeling of cold . . . the cold touch of the tile floor in the Tapper's mens' room, chilling the bottoms of his bare feet as he stumbled inside . . . after that, everything became a fuzzy blur, and the next thing he knew, he was being woken up by a sharp, halting jolt and a mechanical clanking sound.
As soon as he blinked his eyes open and peered straight above him at what he gradually realized was the starry night sky of his own game, Ralph wished he hadn't . . . because the instant he was awake enough to know where he was, he became abruptly aware of a dozen different, miserable sensations aching and throbbing all over at different parts of his body. The foremost unpleasantness was a churning, lurching pain filling his stomach like a pot of boiling water . . . after that, the second worst was the intense dizziness pounding in his head. The nerves in his arms and legs felt pinched, and all of him was cramped uncomfortably in an awkward position that for some reason he couldn't move himself out of . . . .
"Ralph?" a small, familiar voice floated timidly to his ears, bringing him further out of the haze. "You're awake?"
There was another faint, metallic creaking noise and the quick patter of little footsteps. His vision still swimming a bit, Ralph peered blearily out of his periphery toward the sound, then shot his eyes open with a startled, watery blink when he saw Felix standing beside him on the platform of the Fix-It Felix Jr. train station, a strange mixture of relief, curiosity, and wariness writ together on his face.
An uncomfortable, confused flush of heat instantly rippling through him, Ralph hastily tried to extricate himself from whatever it was he was stuck in - realizing quickly that it was the last car of the train - only to discover that he was wedged in so tightly that he could hardly budge himself. There was a moment of awkward silence as he struggled vainly to free himself, his efforts made all the more fruitless by the fuzzy, lingering disorientation in his head and body.
Felix cleared his throat shyly.
"Do you . . . . need some help?"
He absolutely did, but somehow Ralph just couldn't muster up the words to say so. Instead, he let his arms and legs go limp in a defeated collapse and dropped his chin to his chest, too embarrassed to look up as he grunted softly in the affirmative. Fortunately, Felix seemed to understand, and didn't belabor the moment.
The diminutive handyman nodded back at him, his discomfited demeanor improving visibly as soon as he had a task with which to occupy himself. He tilted his head and held his chin, scrutinizing the challenging predicament for a moment. Ralph's head - to his own simultaneous relief and dismay - was growing incrementally clearer by the second, so that with each passing instant the veracity of his humiliating situation was becoming more and more patent.
"Hmmm . . . " Felix hummed, straightening his tool belt and stepping up to the train. ". . . how about if I just . . . ?"
He trailed off pensively, demonstrating his train of thought by jumping onto the back edge of the car with a light sproing andbalancing himself with his hands on Ralph's shoulders.
"Alright . . . on three, ready?"
Ralph nodded sheepishly, deliberately keeping his gaze pointed anywhere but back at Felix as he crouched down lower on the rear lip of the train car and, with no small effort, worked his hands down between Ralph's shoulder blades. The superintendent took a few deep breaths of preparation.
"Okay . . . one . . . two . . . THREE!"
On the last count, Felix tensed up and pushed with all his might to separate Ralph's back from the rear seat, while at the same time Ralph pulled himself on his elbows, the top edges of the car digging into the meat of his arms. For a split second, they were both clenched silently with the taxing strain . . . then, they let out simultaneous growls of effort as the pressure suddenly gave way and Ralph popped out of the train car like an oversized potato bursting from a tailpipe. His feet found the back edge of the car in front of him, and he waved his arms manically for a split second before falling sideways and landing with a tumbling thud on the station platform. Felix gave a short yelp of alarm and fell forward into the now-empty last car of the train.
Dazed and blinking, they both sat up from their awkward positions and looked at each other silently for a moment.
The uncomfortable heat coursing even warmer through his chest and mingling with the roiling ache in his gut, Ralph quickly averted his eyes from the face of his protagonist.
" . . . . ah . . . . thanks, Felix," he muttered gruffly under his breath.
Felix climbed out of the train car and hopped back onto the platfrom, stretching his shoulders and wincing slightly.
"Don't mention it," he replied in a matching tone of self-consciousness.
As he rose blearily to his knees, and then his feet, Ralph squinted his eyes and tried to piece together the most recent fragments of his memory to determine how he had ended up in this mortifying situation in the first place . . . . but he hadn't managed to get further than a blurry recollection of yelling something at Felix and the Niceland women in Tapper's before he made the mistake of trying to stand up straight too quickly, and an instant swoon of dizziness rushed to his head and made him stagger.
Felix flinched and quickly held his arms out, as if imagining foolishly for a moment that he would have even the slightest hope of catching Ralph if he were to fall.
"Careful, careful!" he begged, grimacing slightly as Ralph thankfully managed to regain his footing before he timbered straight over and crushed his pint-sized colleague like a grape. "Just take it slow!"
The world spinning around him, Ralph groaned and narrowed his brow in a deep furrow, holding his head with one hand and hovering the other at his side to balance himself.
"What happened tonight?"he muttered wearily, not really expecting an answer.
Felix made a face. "I . . . . well, I was sort of hoping you could tell me."
Ralph focused his vision long enough to shoot him a confused stare.
Felix sighed, scrolled his eyes once quickly up and down Ralph's full height, and pursed his lips dubiously for a few seconds as if internally debating whether or not whatever he was considering was even possible . . . then, pulling his gloves up tighter over his wrists, he took a cautious step closer to Ralph and awkwardly offered him his hand.
"Ah . . . never mind. Here . . . let me, ah . . . let me help you over to the du . . . er . . . over to your home."
Ralph blinked dumbly at him, then lowered his gaze to the tiny, outstretched hand.
"And . . . . how are you going to do that?" he posited blankly.
Felix shrugged, and then . . . to Ralph's surprise . . . took another step closer to him and picked up his limp right hand, heaving it up above him with no small amount of difficulty and balancing it there, supporting it with the top of his head and both arms like a huge, forty pound catcher's mitt.
"Just lean on me," he explained, his voice staggering slightly under the weight.
Ralph blinked again, genuinely not sure what to say in response to the proposition.
"Oh. Aaaah . . . oh . . . okay then . . . I guess."
With that, the two of them simply turned and set off together down the steps of the station platform and onto the grass, progressing cautiously in the direction of the dump at an almost painfully slow pace . . . . and accompanied by what was, without a doubt, the single most awkward silence - amidst a short lifetime of awkward silences - that Ralph had ever endured. Even though his clarity of consciousness had almost returned to normal, the rest of him still felt very much inebriated . . . his feet didn't want to cooperate with his brain, and every few steps they would stumble or waver numbly beneath him, making him pause to regain his balance and try futilely to ignore the rhythmic waves of nausea coursing through him. And, on top of everything else, he was beginning to feel a slightly dry, scratchy sensation in his throat, and his skin was starting to twitch and itch uncomfortably in various places.
In spite of the unbelievably awkward tension of the moment, Ralph was secretly grateful that his protagonist was there to help him walk . . . . even if he could barely remain on his own small feet under the weight of Ralph's arm, the tiny ounce of extra stability that Felix afforded him was the only thing that kept him from falling down sideways on the grass like a new sailor still finding his sea-legs. As they continued their slow, silent progression toward the dump, Ralph marveled inwardly at the bizarre, unexpected turn the evening had taken, wondering to himself how in the world he had gone from sitting alone on his stump - the exact same way he did every night - to being walked groggily home by the last person in the world he would ever have expected to willingly help him with anything.
If the circumstances had been different . . . if he'd been in his right mind, and not distracted miserably by the numerous sick feelings twisting around inside of him . . . . this might have almost made him feel good - like maybe he wasn't quite as much of an outcast as he thought he was.
- 0 - 0 - 0 - 0 -
By the time he and Ralph finally made it to the edge of the dump, Felix felt as if the muscles in his arms and back were about to give out on him at any second. His forehead was shining with perspiration again and his knees were beginning to tremble . . . they came to a halt at the bottom of the brick pile, near the spot where Ralph's stump was perched, and with an exhausted, gasping groan, Felix heaved the enormous hand out of his grasp and stumbled backward, sucking in deep breaths and leaning over to rest his hands on his knees. It wasn't the isolated weight of Ralph's hand that had made the journey so difficult, as much as the staggering weight of the rest of him that pressed down on top of him in brief intervals every time he momentarily lost his balanced and had to lean over. Several times, Felix had been almost certain that he was about to buckle under the strain . . . his heart pounded and his chest heaved with relief when they finally reached their destination.
Some of the glassiness had faded from Ralph's eyes, and he was swaying significantly less on his feet than when he'd first stood up on the station platform, but it was obvious that the towering bad guy still wasn't feeling like himself. As soon as they came to a stable rest at the edge of the dump, he had dropped down woozily against the side of the brick hill and begun to scratch himself intermittently, grating his stubby fingertips rapidly over his arms, his sides, his neck, his face, his stomach.
Looking up from his gradually ceasing panting, Felix narrowed one eye perplexedly at him.
"What's the matter now?" he asked wearily, but with an unfeigned touch of concern.
Ralph sat up straighter and shrugged, his face contorting as he began to scratch more vigorously, stretching his arms over his shoulders to reach the middle of his back.
"I don't know!" he muttered helplessly, his eyes taking on a crazed look of frustration as he tried to itch himself in multiple places at once. "All of a sudden it's like . . . like I've got . . . . "
"Hives!" Felix stuttered the word for him with a jump of surprise when he suddenly noticed bright pink patches appearing over the exposed parts of Ralph's skin. He leaned in closer to peer at the slowly inflaming welts, scrunching half of his face in a mixture of empathetic discomfort and confusion.
"What? Hives?" Ralph parroted incredulously, narrowing his eyes down at the blotches on his own forearm. "What the . . . . how did I get hives?"
Felix straightened up, pushing up the brim of his cap and scratching his head. Just looking at Ralph was almost enough to make him start to feel itchy.
"I don't know," he mumbled perplexedly. "I don't suppose it was all that . . . er . . . refreshment, you had at Tapper's tonight . . . "
Ralph paused at the suggestion, ceasing his frenzied scratching for a moment and glancing up with a somewhat embarrassed look of recollection.
"Did . . . I really have that much?" he mumbled under his breath, seemingly to himself as much as to Felix.
"Well, I . . . I mean, not that I was keeping track, or anything," Felix answered, slipping a bit of a white lie through his teeth. "But . . . ah . . . but even so, I've never heard of anyone getting hives from that before . . . "
They both looked down thoughtfully at the ground for a few seconds . . . and then, his eyes lighting up suddenly with understanding, Ralph lifted his head and shot a furtive, wincing glance over to a nearby mound of garbage just a few yards off. He didn't say anything, but he didn't need to . . . the look on his face revealed plenty. Following the direction of his gaze, Felix spotted the heap of trash bags and hopped curiously over to them, looking down at the odd collection of pink refuse that had been strewn around on the grass. He bent over and picked up one of the discarded items, squinting uncertainly at it . . . then, his eyes popped wide when he abruptly realized that the piece of bright pink cardboard in his hand was the crinkled remnant of a once heart-shaped box of Valentine's Day chocolate.
Felix looked back down at his feet and immediately saw that the brightly colored assortment trash was, in fact, the rifled remains of what must have been well over a dozen similar such boxes, each one of them emptied of their contents.
Felix turned another timid glance back at Ralph, and the mortified expression on his face instantly confirmed everything. Felix dropped the piece of cardboard and slowly, awkwardly traipsed back over to his bad guy, rubbing the back of his neck and trying to think of the most tactful thing to say in response to this new bit of information.
"Well, ah . . . . that . . . . that would do it, I suppose," he offered feebly.
Evidently too embarrassed to even look back at him, Ralph slumped his shoulders forward and hunched over at the foot of the brick pile, covering his eyes with one hand and heaving a huge, miserable sigh.
"I feel like such an idiot," he mumbled . . . and the way he said it made Felix stop and turn to look closer at him, the unexpected touch of warmth and sympathy, tinged with guilt, taking hold of his heart again. He furrowed his brow at the dejected figure in front of him, realizing suddenly that this was not only the longest period of time he'd ever spent talking to Ralph, but it was also the only time he had ever witnessed him revealing such an unguarded display of emotion. For one brief moment, Felix almost forgot that he was talking to his programmed nemesis, and not an old friend who had finally chosen to confide in him.
Not knowing exactly what to do . . . but feeling powerfully that he had to do something . . . Felix softened his gaze, took a small step forward, and - holding his breath just for an instant in apprehension - reached out and put his hand on Ralph's arm.
Ralph jumped in surprise and went rigid at the unexpected contact, jerking his head up and blinking disbelievingly down at Felix's small, gloved hand. Felix found his voice after another second, and when he spoke, the gentleness of his tone caught even himself off guard.
"Ralph . . . . why did you do all this?" he asked quietly. "Why did you go off like that in Tapper's tonight . . . . why did you eat so much chocolate you made yourself ill? What is it that's bothering you so much?"
For a brief moment of silence, Ralph simply stared back at him with a blank, wide-eyed expression, as if he were having trouble even believing that Felix had actually spoken those words to him. Then, when he finally answered in a low, croaking voice, he quickly turned his face away again.
"I . . . I just . . . . nothing," he dismissed abruptly, cutting off his own train of thought. "It's nothing."
Felix made a face. "No, it's not. It's something."
Ralph hesitated again, absently lifting his hand and scratching the welted hive swelling on his right temple.
" . . . . well . . . . I guess . . . . I don't know, I just . . . something about Valentine's Day just . . . just got to me this year. I saw . . . y-you, and . . . all the others together, having such a good time, and . . . I found all the, you know, that had just gotteb thrown away, and I . . . . I guess I just felt . . . I don't know . . . jealous. I . . . I don't know what came over me."
Felix listened to the low, defeated mumbling of his antagonist with the twinge of guilt inside him growing steadily sharper. He had never stopped to think about it before . . . . but now, as he stood there in the dark, stale silence of the dump . . . Felix realized all at once that maybe, just maybe, the emotionless disinterest that he had seen on Ralph's face earlier that night - and to a certain degree, every night - as he sat out alone in his brick pile, was actually just a cover for how he was really feeling. Maybe the cold, detached antagonist he had grown accustomed to over the years, who never spoke unless spoken to and certainly never showed any sign that he had ever wanted anything from Felix in the way of friendship . . . was, in reality, nothing but a big front.
Maybe, in spite of everything he daily demonstrated to the contrary, Wreck-It Ralph had actually started to feel . . . . lonely.
Felix lifted his hand lightly from Ralph's arm, hovering it there uncertainly for a moment.
"You know . . . " he said quietly, looking briefly down at his feet. " . . . it . . . it might not mean much, coming from me, but . . . if you want the truth . . . I was a little jealous of you tonight, Ralph."
Ralph looked up at him, staring as if this were the most preposterous thing he had ever heard in his life.
"What?" he said blankly. "You . . . you, were jealous? Of me?"
Felix gave him a small, helpless smile, and shrugged.
Ralph simply blinked again. In spite of himself, Felix couldn't help but chuckle lightly at the rather comical look of his antagonist's blotchy-skinned, utterly baffled expression.
"You see, Ralph . . . the truth is . . . . I'm not really too overly fond of Valentine's Day, myself."
Ralph squinted disbelievingly.
"But . . . . but every year, everybody practically showers you with gifts . . . and tonight! Every girl in the building wanted to take you out on a date!"
"Right . . . . they wanted to take me out," Felix clarified, hugging himself wearily. "I never really wanted to go out with them."
Ralph's confused look only deepened further.
"Because . . . " Felix began, then paused with a discomfited sigh of difficult. " . . . because . . . . listen . . . . the other Nicelanders, they . . . they're wonderful, really they are . . . they're all very nice people, and it's so kind of them to want to spend time with me, but . . . but . . . . sometimes, I just can't take it anymore! Every night, if it's not one of them wanting this, it's another wanting that . . . . they just don't know when to back off and give me a little space! I'm grateful for their company and all, but . . . lands' sakes, I don't remember the last time I just had a quiet night to myself!"
Ralph listened patiently to the duration of his increasingly frustrated speech, then narrowed his eyes and looked away with a dim expression that Felix couldn't entirely read.
"I guess I wouldn't know what that's like," he answered calmly.
Felix froze, instantly cringing with shame as he realized the insensitivity of what he'd just said. He quickly opened his mouth to try and say something to take it back, but remained deflated and speechless as he found that no words came to mind. Ralph smirked lightly at his stunned silence.
"It's okay," the slumping giant muttered. "You don't have to waste time feeling sorry for me. I've known for a long time already that everybody in this game hates me."
His words hit Felix unexpectedly with a stiff, heartrending pang, and without thinking, he took another step even closer and reached to put his hand on Ralph's shoulder, deliberately looking him square in the eye.
"Ralph," he said in a firm, serious voice that was so direct it actually softened the bitter stare of the face looking back at him, " . . . . I don't hate you."
There was long, still moment of silence.
When Ralph spoke again, his words were strangely choked, and so quiet Felix almost had to strain to hear him clearly.
Felix shook his head adamantly.
"Of course I don't."
There was another short silence.
Then . . . . without saying another word, his blank, unreadable expression not even flickering with the slightest hint of a warning . . . . Ralph opened his arms and bluntly pulled Felix straight up against him in an actual, undeniable, unabashed hug, flattening his entire small body against his chest and squeezing him so firmly that he almost lost his breath for a moment.
Felix went rigid as a post, his arms pinned helplessly to his sides and his eyes and mouth opening wide with silent shock as Ralph . . . . theWreck-It Ralph - the tough, gargantuan, hot-tempered bad guy of Fix-It Felix Jr. himself . . . . held him locked in a wordless embrace for almost a full half-minute of reeling disbelief. Felix simply stared blankly over Ralph's shoulder at the starry night sky. Even if he could have thought of anything to say in response to the unprecedented action . . . which he couldn't . . . it wouldn't have mattered anyway, because at that moment, he would have been totally incapable of speech.
Time seemed to stop around them for one surreal instant, Felix held helpless and thunderstruck in the warm, just faintly rank-smelling arms of his antagonist, with Ralph's large heart beating palpably inside the broad chest against which he was flattened.
Then, still not breaking the silence with as much as a single word, Ralph loosened his giant's grip on Felix and set him back down on his feet as quickly and quietly as he'd taken him up. Rising calmly to his feet, Ralph turned his back to Felix and hung his head beneath his shoulders, hiding his face entirely from view.
"Thanks . . . . for helping me get home," he said in a blank, murmuring voice . . . . then lumbered away towards the far opposite end of the dump without so much as glancing back, disappearing around the sloping hill of bricks and leaving Felix standing there alone in the quiet of the night.
- 0 - 0 - 0 - 0 -
The Niceland apartment building was still and quiet, most of the windows dark and the shades drawn shut, when Felix finally unlocked the door to his unit and stepped inside. He shut the door slowly behind him, then turned around and let himself fall back to lean against it for a moment, staring unseeingly ahead of him into the dim room.
After a short pause, he flipped on the light-switch near the door and walked calmly through his living-room toward the doorway that opened into the small, one-person bathroom. He turned on the light in that room, opened his medicine cabinet, and rummaged calmly for a few seconds before he found the two items he was looking for.
He turned off the bathroom light and went back to the living room again, setting down the two plastic containers on the coffee table in front of the couch and then moving over to the desk in the corner. He opened the top left drawer, tore a single blank sheet of lined paper off the top of a notepad, grabbed a pen from the pencil-cup on the desk, and carried them back to the couch. He sat down, laid the sheet of paper out flat on the coffee table . . . thought quietly for a moment . . . and wrote down a couple short sentences in his neat, careful handwriting. Then he gathered up the small collection of objects in one arm, walked back to his front door, shut off the lights, and stepped back outside into the hallway, closing the door behind him again.
- 0 - 0 - 0 - 0 -
Ralph was lying on the shallow slope trailing down to the grass at the far end of the dump, curled up on his side and half buried in a loose covering of bricks. He was squeezing his eyes and shut and struggling vainly to get his mind off the sick feeling in his stomach -and the maddening, sweltering welts that seemed to itch every inch of skin at once - long enough to fall into a restless, troubled sleep. His insides gave a faint, protesting groan, and Ralph grimaced, trying to curl himself into an even tighter ball.
He was never, EVER, for as long he lived, going to eat chocolate again.
Then, just as he was finally on the verge of drifting off, he heard a small sound nearby that prodded him back into consciousness. It was the light, clinking sound of a few bricks being disturbed at the bottom of the small pile he was lying on, followed by the almost inaudible whisper of footsteps retreating swiftly through the grass.
Ralph opened his eyes and sat up, his brick blanket tumbling partially off of him with a stony clatter. He looked around, but there was no one in sight . . . . then, his gaze landed on a small patch of white standing out against the dim color of the bricks, a little bright shape nestled beneath him at the foot of the hill. His eyes narrowing with intrigue, Ralph got up and slid down to the grass, being careful not to send a landslide of bricks rolling over the foreign object.
He knelt down, peered closely at the white shape, and saw that it was a single piece of paper folded in half and resting atop two other small items. Slowly, so as not to crumple it between his fingers, Ralph delicately picked up the paper in his right hand and scooped up the other two objects in his left, rolling them into his palm and lifting them close to his face to see what they were.
They were plastic medicine containers. One of them was a tall pink bottle with a label that read "Aloe Vera Lotion," and the other was a bottle of aspirin. Ralph stared down at them confusedly for a moment, then put them down and slowly, carefully unfolded the piece of paper. On it were a few words written neatly in black cursive.
I know these don't exactly count as a gift, but I hope they help you feel better.
Happy Valentine's Day, Ralph.
- from Felix.
Ralph sat at the bottom of the hill and looked down at the small sheet of paper in his hand for a long, long time.
Then, he folded it carefully back up, tucked it into the front pocket of his overalls, stood up, and climbed up to the highest point of the dump, the crest of towering bricks from which he had the clearest, most complete view of the Niceland apartment building. Once there, he sat down, leaned forward to rest his head in his hand, and gazed out at the tall, quietly looming shape of the building. All of the windows were black except for one . . . . the window that looked into Felix's living room . . . . and less than a minute later, it went dark as well.
Ralph's face softened, and for just a moment, each of his various aches and pains . . . in his heart, as well as his body . . . seemed to ease up, and didn't sting him quite as badly.
All things considered . . . . it wasn't the worst Valentine's Day he'd ever had.