Chapter 9: In Which Sorceress Gets Too Much Sun

It was always a bright, sunny day in Sugar Rush. Brighter and sunnier than Sorceress was used to.

Of course she already had some idea of that and came fully clothed in a hooded cloak that reached past her feet. After the mishap with Ralph in Street Fighter a few days ago, she wasn't taking any chances. Before they even left the tunnel the cheery rays of light were scorching her eyes. And then she saw the sugary pastel landscape outside.

With a screeching inhuman hiss her face contorted into a grotesque grimace of revulsion. Then she ducked to hide behind Ralph's broad back, temporarily shielded from the light in his massive shadow.

Ralph cast a confused look at her over his shoulder. He was kind of impressed that she could do that with her face, but this wasn't the time to tell her that. "What's the matter?"

Sorceress scowled up at him. Red eyes ablaze with loathing in the shadow of her hood she looked more like a professional assassin than a woman going to watch children race in candy go-karts. "The bridge is a giant rainbow, Ralph. The clouds are made of cotton candy, for belladonna's sake! And…" She paused, tilting her head slightly as a new sound reached her ears. "Great goblins. Is that a Japanese pop song playing in the distance?"

Ralph rolled his eyes and sighed. She was being so dramatic about this. "Look, I know that rainbows and cotton candy aren't your style, but believe me, this place is harmless. It's not like any of this stuff can kill you, right?"

"It might," Sorceress grumbled. "Isn't this the game where Turbo and the Cybugs got the big Game Over?"

He hesitated a moment before nodding. "Well, yeah, that's true. But that happened at Diet Cola Mountain, and that's nowhere near where we're going. We're gonna watch Vanellope in the Random Roster Race over there." He pointed toward the speedway, showing how far it was from the distinctively bottle-shaped mountain standing at the center of the game.

Still hiding in his shadow, Sorceress peered around him at the disturbingly sunny world beyond the tunnel and followed his pointing finger with her eyes. The speedway looked harmless enough from up here. Then again, so did the mountain. "You're sure there's nothing out there that could hurt us?"

He smiled down at her and took her hand between his thumb and forefinger, giving her a light, comforting squeeze. "I'm more than sure. And don't forget, I promised to keep you safe. As long as I'm around nothing bad's gonna happen to you."

Sorceress stared down at their hands and tightened her grip around Ralph's thick forefinger. As much as she hated to admit it, she was scared. She'd never spent more than a few minutes in a game where the environment was constantly sunny. There was no telling what it would do to her powers, but it was too late to turn back now. She had no choice but to trust him and hope things would turn out for the best.

Straightening up bravely, she focused her gaze on the sparkly rainbow bridge at their feet. "Well, then, we'd better get moving. President Von Schweetz is expecting us."

Ralph kept her hand in his grip as he led her out of the tunnel and onto the bridge, taking his promise to protect her seriously. "Just follow my lead and stay in the middle of the path. It's a long drop from here to the bay."

Floating along beside him, Sorceress peered over the edge of the bridge and noticed that there was indeed a sparkling bay under them with boulder-sized chocolate truffles and ice cream cones jutting up from the turquoise Kool-Aid waters. As she glanced back at the tunnel behind them she saw it was built into the tip of a mountainous upside-down waffle cone coated with chocolate and sprinkles.

As they neared the ground the bridge sloped into a road running straight through a village of whimsical gingerbread cottages. A gilded sign supported by lollipops arched overhead, welcoming the two Bad Guys to Sugar Rush. From there the road flattened out and led straight to the starting area at the raceway. The closer they got to their goal, the more brightly colored candy people they saw along the way. They were even tinier than the Nicelanders and they all seemed happy to see Ralph, who had become something of a celebrity in this world.

None of them were brave enough to ask about the spooky hooded stranger who was floating alongside him. People like that never came to this cheery world so most of them assumed it must be some type of ghost. Sorceress' grumpy mood did little to dissuade this assumption. She paid no attention to the way the locals were watching and whispering about her. It was hard enough trying to ignore the omnipresent pop tune grinding on her nerves and worming its way deep into her brain.

"Ralph, how can you stand it here?" she said at last. "Everything about this place is just so… so wrong and unnatural."

He gave her a sidelong glance and smirked dryly. "Says the vampire elf woman from the game with giant spiders and possessed armors."

Her already squinted eyes narrowed into thin red slits. "That's completely different and you know it."

Seeing that humor wasn't helping her mood, Ralph tried a different approach. "To be honest, Sugar Rush isn't exactly my style, either. It's kinda grown on me, though, and it's great to see Vanellope race in the kart we made together." He smiled hopefully at her, eyes twinkling with excitement. "I can't wait for you to see it!"

It was nigh impossible for Sorceress to stay grumpy with him smiling at her like that. Her expression softened considerably and she gave his thick forefinger a light squeeze. "I'm looking forward to it. If it's something you made then I'm sure it's wonderful."

Ralph chuckled and rubbed the back of his neck with his other hand. He was still getting used to her praising him and he never got tired of it. "Heh… Thanks. You'll probably get to take a look at it when the race is over. I know Vanellope would love to show it off."

"I'm sure she would." She leaned in a bit closer, as if she wanted to tell him something private. "Just promise me one little thing. The next time we go on a date, let me decide the where we go, okay?"

He flashed his most charming, gap-toothed smile at her. "As you wish, milady."

Meanwhile at the raceway the stands were packed with excited candy people and the karts were pulled up at the starting line. All the racers were gathered in front of the tallest booth in the starting area, a big popcorn box with red and white stripes. Vanellope was standing at the top and speaking into a microphone.

"Okay, avatars, you all did great today," she was saying to the racers. "Now you know what happens next so I'm not gonna waste time explaining it. Get your coins out so we can get this Pay-to-Play business done with!"

She yanked a red cord dangling from the booth's awning and an arm flipped down from the side of the elaborate arch above the starting line. Then she produced a gold coin and tossed it. It landed on the arm and was flipped into the large trophy at the center of the arch.

"Vanellope Von Schweetz!" the announcer's voice said as her name appeared on the screen.

The candy people in the audience cheered and chanted her name. Vanellope beamed brightly and waved, basking in the spotlight as she took her pink goggles from her pocket. It was weird to think that there was a time when she couldn't even show her face here without people screaming in terror. Now that all of their memories were restored the citizens accepted her as their leader without question. She did her best to be a responsible president and was grateful for the respect and admiration it afforded her, but her first love was and always would be racing.

Now all that was missing was the man who helped her to realize her dream of being a racer. Usually Ralph would already be here, but he promised to bring Sorceress with him today so he was running late. As she strapped her goggles over her candy studded hair, Vanellope kept her eyes on the path under the Jumbotron. Ralph might show up a bit later than usual, but for as long as she'd known him he had never once missed a Random Roster Race, not even after he started dating Sorceress a few days ago. After tagging along to see her in Blood and Thunder, Vanellope was more convinced that the spooky woman was a good match for her best friend. Having both of them here together would be twice the fun.

She turned to address the little ball of green candy in the booth with her. "Hey, Sour Bill, are those snacks all set?"

Sour Bill nodded, gesturing to the table and two folding chairs placed in the booth. There was a pitcher of pink lemonade and two glasses, as well as a dish filled with a mixture of pretzels, peanuts and caramel corn. "All set," he replied in his typical apathetic monotone.

"Perfect. Now we just need our guests to show up."

Vanellope propped her hands on her hips and looked out at Jumbotron. There were six names on the board now and eight racers still waiting to enter their coins. And there was still no sign of Ralph or Sorceress yet. Vanellope bit her lip, feeling the first twinge of worry. What if they weren't coming? What if Ralph forgot? He wouldn't forget, would he?

Suddenly there were shouting voices coming from the path by the Jumbotron. Curious, Vanellope leaned over the edge to see what was going on. To her surprise it was Ralph arguing with the two donut cops, Duncan and Wynchell. A person in a black cloak was floating next to him, face shaded by a hood. It was impossible to see who it was from this distance, but it was most likely Sorceress playing dress-up again.

"They're here!" Vanellope squealed happily.

Then Ralph snatched both cops by their belts and lifted them off the ground like pieces of luggage. As they screamed and flailed their arms and legs helplessly in the air, Sorceress latched on to Ralph's arm in a vain attempt to calm him down.

Vanellope cringed. Whatever Ralph was mad about, she had to put a stop to this before it got out of hand. She abandoned her post in the popcorn box, dashed down the steps and ran across the track to meet them, glitching along the way to cover the distance more quickly.

Sorceress was on the verge of panic when she saw the girl materialize in a flash of blue and white code. "Miss President!" she gasped. "Thank goodness you're here! You have to talk some sense into him! He won't listen to me."

"Help! Help!" Duncan shrieked, dangling upside down from Ralph's hand. "He's attacking us!"

"Assaulting an officer is against the law!" Wynchell yelled, also hanging upside down. "Put us down right now!"

"No way, creampuffs," Ralph growled. "Not until you apologize to my lady friend here!"

At any other time Vanellope would have laughed at how immature all these adults were acting, but she was in charge here and they were making fools of themselves. As a responsible leader she had to put a stop to it. Planting her fists firmly on her hips, she fixed Ralph with the sternest glare she could manage.

"Ralph!" she barked. "What the heck do you think you're doing?!"

The wrecker looked surprised to see her, as if he'd forgotten whose game he was in. "We were just on our way to the race when these two bozos started hassling Sorceress for looking suspicious. And then they wanted to pat her down!"

"Because she's a Bad Guy dressed in a floor-length bed sheet!" Wynchell added indignantly. "There could be concealed weapons in there!"

"Bed sheet?" Sorceress echoed, bristling with anger. "I'll have you know, good sir, I wove this protective cloak from smoke and shadows with my own two hands. And furthermore, I never carry weapons. A true sorceress has no need such things."

Again Vanellope wanted to laugh but she managed to hold it back and continue looking stern. "Okay, that's enough! Put 'em down, Ralph!"

Ralph hesitated, unwilling to surrender just yet. "But-"

Vanellope jabbed a commanding finger up at him. "Do it! President's orders!"

With a petulant snort, Ralph let the two large donuts drop from his hands. As soon as they hit the ground they snatched up their hats and scrambled behind the tiny girl as if she could shield them from the huge wrecker's wrath. Unfortunately she wasn't letting them off the hook, either.

She fixed the two donuts with the same hard stare. "Wynchell, Duncan, apologize to Sorceress."

They exchanged uncomfortable glances with each other and squirmed in place, neither one quite brave enough to disobey their president or make eye contact with a potentially dangerous woman. In the end they resorted to holding their hats and meekly staring at the ground.

"Sorry to bother you, ma'am," Wynchell muttered.

"We'll leave you alone now," Duncan added.

Sorceress nodded her hooded head stiffly. She hadn't forgiven them entirely but she had no desire to pick a fight with them. They wouldn't be much of a challenge, anyway. "Apology accepted," she said coolly.

Content with the apology, Vanellope's frown turn from disapproving to confused. "What are you guys even doing way over here, anyway?" she asked the donuts. "You're supposed to be guarding my booth, not bothering my visitors."

Duncan shuffled awkwardly, still holding his hat and staring at his boots. "We, uh… got hungry for gummy bears so we went to buy some."

Wynchell nodded, also holding his hat and staring at his boots. "We were on our way back when these two came along."

Vanellope groaned and rubbed her temples with her fingers. Sometimes she thought these two were the least competent police officers ever programmed. "Well, get back to your posts now. And no more snack trips!"

Both donuts stood at attention, saluted, and muttered 'Yes, ma'am', then obediently turned around and hurried off to follow her orders.

"I gotta hand it to ya, Ralph," Vanellope said, turning back to her giant friend. "You're really an expert at causing trouble."

Ralph frowned and folded his massive arms over his chest. "They started it," he grumbled bitterly. "Stupid cops, tryin' to pull the Surge Protector treatment on us."

Sorceress patted lightly him on the shoulder. "He's being a bit overprotective today," she said to Vanellope. "I'm sure you know about that all too well."

The young racer nodded her head knowingly. "Do I ever." She came up to Ralph and nudged his leg with her elbow, flashing her cheeky grin up at him. "Cheer up, grumpy guts! You're not gonna let a little snag like this spoil your night with your special lady, are ya? Especially when you get to watch me do what I do best!"

Ralph took one look at her smiling face and felt his bad mood melt away. She had a point, and being around his best friend always made him feel better. "Well, when you put it like that, there's no way I can stay grumpy." He smiled back. "By the way, I saw you pulling some pretty crazy stunts at work today. Looks like you won a few more trophies to add to your collection, huh?"

Grinning wider, Vanellope put her hands on her hips and puffed her small chest out with pride. "Five trophies, to be exact, I'm running out of shelf space to fit 'em all. But we can talk about that later." She turned to the cloaked woman and stuffed her hands inside the front pocket of her sweatshirt, rocking back and forth on her heels. "Good to see ya, Sorceress! I gotta say, after Ralph here told me you were allergic to the sun, I thought you'd be a no-show. But here you are!"

"It's good to see you, too, Miss President," Sorceress said, smiling back politely. "I'm still surprised you wanted me here so badly. Ralph said you were rather… insistent about it."

The girl chuckled, still rocking back and forth. "Well, it's kinda my way of making things up to you after I messed up your living room the other day. And more importantly, I wanna show you off to everyone!" She gestured toward the jam-packed row of stands behind her. By now the audience and the other fourteen racers of Sugar Rush had all noticed their president standing in the middle of the track with Ralph and the mysterious cloaked visitor.

Puffing herself up grandly, Vanellope spoke in a very dignified, presidential voice. "Citizens of Sugar Rush, allow me to introduce Sorceress, the great and powerful Bad Guy of Blood and Thunder. She's my special guest today, so let's all make her feel welcome." Then she added in her normal voice. "Oh, and she's dating Ralph, too."

This news caused quite a stir among the crowd, who began whispering and giggling to each other.

Embarrassed, Sorceress tugged her hood down a bit lower.

Ralph sputtered and turned red. "V-Va-Vanellope!"

She smiled up at him innocently. "What? It's true, isn't it?"

"Yeah," he groaned. "But you didn't need make a public announcementabout it."

He tried to hide his face behind one giant hand. Just as he predicted, Vanellope wasn't wasting any time with the teasing. Seriously, would it kill the kid to not embarrass him in front of the woman who was almost-but-not-quite his girlfriend? It wouldn't surprise him if Vanellope had bothered him to bring Sorceress over just so she could make him look stupid in front of the entire population of her game.

With an impish giggle, the young racer latched onto Ralph's hand and started pulling him across the track with her. "C'mon, pal, let's get you and your lady friend some seats!"

Ralph plodded along after her, sending worried glances to Sorceress as if to say 'I swear I didn't know this was gonna happen please don't hate me.' Sorceress, still hiding her face under her hood from embarrassment, didn't seem to notice.

As the trio approached the popcorn box, the other racers gawked at the hooded newcomer and whispered amongst themselves. Sorceress noticed that unlike Vanellope all the racers seemed to have a specific food theme about them. They were also noticeably well-groomed, unlike their scruffy leader with her mismatched stockings and dirty hair.

Taffyta was the only one who didn't seem to be unnerved by the female Bad Guy's presence. She took a lick from her pink lollipop and scanned her up and down with a critical eye, clearly unimpressed with the plain, loose-fitting cloak that obscured her entire body from view. "So this is the super cool vampire witch you were talking about, huh?" she said to Vanellope. "She doesn't look super cool to me."

Ralph scowled at the little blonde racer. He still hadn't quite forgiven her for her horrible past of bullying Vanellope. If she started picking on Sorceress now he just might smack the mascara off her spray-tanned little face.

"Trust me, Taff," Vanellope replied, looking very smug with her hands stuffed in her front pocket. "Sorceress is mega cool. You all remember her back at Felix and Calhoun's wedding, right? How she swooped in and snatched the bouquet away from Chun Li?"

Rancis, standing near Taffyta, chuckled awkwardly. "Yeeeah… That was kinda scary…"

Candlehead tapped her chin in thought, remembering back to that moment. "She wasreallyhappy about catching those flowers."

Taffyta snorted and took another lick from her lollipop. "If by 'happy'you mean wacko."

Vanellope frowned, annoyed that her peers weren't as impressed with her new friend as she'd hoped they would be. Then she had an idea. "Hey, Sorceress! Light Candlehead's candle on fire!"

Horrified, Candlehead's face went pale and she ducked behind her kart to hide. "No, please! Not my candle!"

Sorceress looked between the two girls in bewilderment. "Pardon me, Miss President, but…why?"

"These chumps aren't gonna take you seriously unless you show 'em what you can do," Vanellope replied. "You know, like shooting fireballs and lightning bolts."

Sorceress' eyebrows drew together in a frown. "I'm sorry, Miss President, but that's a terrible idea. Fireballs and lightning bolts kill people. It's too dangerous."

Vanellope pouted, unable to argue with her logic. There had to be something else she could get Sorceress to do to prove she was awesome. "Okay, then, do your evil laugh instead. The one that goes like this."

She struck a pose, one hand on her hip and the other by her mouth, and gave her best imitation of Sorceress' gloating, theatrical laugh. It didn't have quite the same effect coming from a nine-year-old girl, especially when she inhaled wrong and lapsed into a noisy coughing fit. The other racers found this amusing and broke out in giggling fits of their own.

Sorceress sighed and shook her head. "No, no, no, that is not how you do an evil laugh."

Vanellope managed to recover from the coughing enough to stare up at her in annoyance. "Okay, smarty pants, how do you do an evil laugh?"

"Well, for one thing, you need to breathe properly. That way you don't accidentally choke yourself."

Just then, a deadpan voice came through the speakers around the starting area. "Eh-he-hem. Attention, President Vanellope Von Schweetz, rightful ruler of Sugar Rush. If you're done, it's time to start the race."

Vanellope rolled her eyes and called back over her shoulder. "Yeah, yeah, don't get yer knickers in a twist, Billy Boy!" She straightened up and turned to her fellows, all business. "Okay, people, start your engines! Let's get this show on the road!" Then she pointed to the popcorn box. "You guys can watch up there with Sour Bill."

"Who's Sour Bill?" Sorceress asked.

"That guy." Ralph pointed up to the top of the popcorn box. Peering over the edge at them was a tiny ball of green candy. His sullen, droopy eyes narrowed at the sight of Ralph. "I put him in my mouth once," the wrecker added. "He's still not over it."

To his relief Sorceress actually chuckled. He was starting to worry that she'd be in a bad mood all night. Maybe seeing the race would cheer her up.

Vanellope pulled her goggles down over her eyes. "Well, folks, I hate to say goodbye, but I gotta go kick Taffyta's butt now."

Ralph smiled and raised his huge fist in front of her. "Break a leg, kid. Show her and these other wimps what you're made of."

She grinned up at him and bumped her tiny fist against his. "Don't I always? Oh, and Sorceress, you owe me some evil laughter later!"

The woman managed to smirk down at her. "Then you'd better hurry up and win, Miss President."

As Vanellope scampered off to her kart, Ralph and Sorceress went to take their seats in the popcorn box. It was the tallest point in the starting area with a perfect view of the starting line and the twin Jumbotrons. They were both impressed by the snack table waiting for them.

Ralph spotted Sour Bill already dutifully seated in the corner on his own little stool. He was still giving him the same bitter, squint-eyed frown. "Nice to see you, too, cough drop," Ralph said. "This is Sorceress, by the way. She's gonna be watching the race with us today."

Sorceress picked up a glass of pink lemonade from the snack table nodded her hooded head stiffly at Sour Bill. "Hello."

Sour Bill turned his droopy gaze on her with a bit less squinting. He gave a low "Mm-hmm" in reply, obviously not caring who Sorceress was or why she was there. As long she didn't try to eat him they would get along just fine.

Vanellope watched them from her kart, engine humming impatiently. She never started a Random Roster Race until Ralph showed up and was sitting in a spot where he could see her. At the exact moment he took his seat up in the popcorn box, he flashed a thumb's up at her. Seeing this she flashed the same signal to the floating marshmallow holding the traffic light. It hovered into place and the lights flashed from red to yellow to green.

All fifteen go-karts revved their engines and zoomed across the starting line, kicking up clouds of sugary yellow dust. The audience burst into applause, Ralph's explosive shouts drowning them out.

"Go, Vanellope!" he bellowed, waving his arms over his head. "Yeah! Woohoo!"

Sorceress cringed away from him, nearly splashing herself with lemonade and stunned by his sheer volume. Sour Bill had expected this and was already prepared. He had a pair of noise-canceling earphones on, just like the kind the marshmallow pit crew used.

"Could you not shout like that, please?" Sorceress complained, rubbing one sore ear. "I think they heard you all the way in Game Central."

Ralph had his eyes glued to the Jumbotron, bouncing in his seat eagerly and oblivious to her grumbles. "Look, look! They're headed for Gumball Gorge!"

Sorceress would have complained more but he was so happy and excited that she just couldn't. How could she be upset with Ralph when he was cheering for his best friend? With a resigned sigh she squinted against the bright sunlight to watch the race on the giant screen.

Vanellope was at the front of the pack, leading the way through a gingerbread village. Taffyta, Rancis and Candlehead were right on her tail. The camera followed the racers as they drove up a huge ramp made from an enormous slice of cake and went flying over the edge, straight into a red chasm of colossal gumball machines. Boulder-sized gumballs came rolling out of the machines and down spiral ramps. They quickly knocked four karts off the track, but Vanellope was able to speed past and steer skillfully around most of them.

Just when she was almost clear of the gorge a giant yellow gumball crashed down in her path, threatening to roll right into her. She managed to veer out of the way just in time but Taffyta used this opportunity to cut ahead. Taking the lead, she sped across the strip of acceleration arrows and went flying off the cliff and onto the ramp leading to the Cakeway, leaving Vanellope in her dust.

"Dang it!" Ralph growled. He thumped a fist on the table, rattling everything on the surface.

Eyes fixed on the Jumbotron, Sorceress managed to catch the pitcher of lemonade without even looking. "Why doesn't she use her glitch?"

"Maybe she's waiting for the right moment. Wait! Look!"

Vanellope was following Taffyta's lead and using the strip of arrows to boost her flying leap. The instant her kart hit the ground it zapped forward in a flash of ones and zeroes, bringing her right up beside the hot pink racer. She blew a raspberry at her opponent before hitting the accelerator and claiming the lead once more.

"Yes!" Ralph cheered. "That's my girl!"

Beside him Sorceress beamed and clapped her hands. "Go, President Von Schweetz!"

Ralph grinned at her. She was finally starting to enjoy this.

The rest of the race went on with Vanellope and Taffyta holding the lead. They were so evenly matched that they were virtually tied. Whenever Vanellope managed to get ahead Ralph and Sorceress both cheered and clapped noisily, and whenever Taffyta got past her they booed together.

Finally Vanellope and Taffyta were in the home stretch. They had just come out of the Nougat Mines and were heading straight for the finish line. They were neck and neck, matching each other's speed and waiting for the other to make a move. Biting her lip, hair flying in the wind and eyes squinting behind her goggles, Vanellope waited for the timing to be just right. She had to glitch herself ahead at exactly the right moment to cross the finish line in first place. Ralph was watching her just like always, cheering her on from the stands. This time Sorceress was watching, too, and she'd promised to give her an evil laugh when she won. That was all the incentive she needed.

When she was within range, Vanellope put on a burst of speed and glitched her kart six feet forward. She was across the finish line before Taffyta could even react.

The crowd went wild, but not quite as wild as Ralph. He jumped from his chair, knocking it over behind him, and pumped his mighty fists in the air. "Yeeeaaaah!" he bellowed. "She won! She won! Yes, yes, yes!"

Sorceress' cheering was much more subdued but no less excited. Her palms stung from all the clapping and her throat was hoarse. Then, all of a sudden, Ralph's huge hands snatched her up from her chair and pulled her into a bear hug.

It happened so fast that her hood flew off her head and she found herself squeezed face-first against his chest. Her mouth fell open in surprise but nothing came out. Then she felt herself relax into the hug. He was so strong that she could never break free even if she tried. Somehow that didn't bother her at all. She could feel his heartbeat and his breathing through his flannel shirt, and he smelled like sweat and damp earth. It was so calming, the calmest she'd felt all day.

It took a few seconds for Ralph to realize what was happening. His heart stopped and jumped into his throat, blocking any embarrassed apologies he might have made. Sorceress was in his arms. She was letting him hold her. And he liked it. She was so soft and curvy under her shapeless cloak, and with her uncovered head just under his chin he could smell her hair. It had a sweet, spicy scent, like cherries and cinnamon. He was so tempted to rub his nose in it and breathe it in.


From his stool in the corner Sour Bill cleared his throat as loudly as possible, scowling hard at the couple in disapproval of their public display of affection.

And just like that their moment was over. Turning beet red, Ralph released Sorceress and started babbling in panic. "Sorry! I-I-I shouldn't have done that! I don't know what came over me, I swear!"

Flustered, she waved her hands up and down in front of her. "N-No, no, no, it's fine! You don't have to be sorry! I enjoyed it! Really!"

He paused, blinking at her in astonishment. "You… You did?"

She pulled her hood back on her head and tugged it down over her face as low as it would go to hide the embarrassing blush on her face. "Yes…"

That made Ralph's face even redder.

With a roll of his eyes Sour Bill decided to interrupt again. "Ralph, Vanellope just won first place. Maybe you should go congratulate her."

Ralph shot him a dirty look. "Yes, we know that, thank you." He cleared his throat and stood up, offering his hand to his date. "Come on, let's get away from ol' sourpuss here."

Sorceress nodded and took his hand, still keeping her hood down low over her face. As she stood she noticed her knees were strangely shaky and her head felt like it was spinning. Was that due to the hug? Or was something else happening to her? She didn't have time to give it much thought as Ralph lead her down the steps to the ground and out to the track. Soon the odd sensations were gone and she almost forgot they happened.

By now nine racers had crossed the finish line, filling all nine spots in the new roster. Besides Vanellope and Taffyta, the avatars that won a spot on the next day's lineup were Candlehead, Rancis Fluggerbutter, Swizzle Malarkey, Snowanna Rainbeau, Sticky Wipplesnit, Crumbelina di Caramello, and Citrusella Flugpucker. All of them had pulled their karts over to the sides of the track to allow the remaining six racers to pass.

Vanellope was standing on the seat of her parked kart, waving to her screaming fans and shouting thanks to them all. Then she saw Ralph and Sorceress coming and jumped down to go meet them. Her face and goggles were all dusty, her hair was a windblown mess, and she was grinning an almost blindingly bright grin.

"Guys! Guys! Guys! I won! I won! I won!" She was bouncing up and down so much that her ponytail was flipping over her head. "Didja see me, Ralph? Didja see how I glitched across the finish line at the last second?"

Ralph chuckled warmly and scooped her up in his hands, tossing her up in the air and catching her. "You were great out there, champ! And you totally trounced Taffyta! She's gonna need a diaper for her head to soak up the tears!"

Vanellope giggled at his joke, kicking her feet up and down giddily. "Heh heh heh, a diaper for her head! That's a good one! I'm totally gonna use that later!"

Sorceress moved her hood back to show that she was smiling. Seeing how proud Ralph was of Vanellope and how thrilled she was to have him see her victory warmed her heart. "Congratulations, Miss President. You really are an excellent racer!"

Still seated comfortably in Ralph's hands, Vanellope pushed her goggles up to the top of her head, revealing that the area around her eyes was much cleaner than the rest of her face. "Hey, don't be so formal, toots! We're all friends here, so call me Vanellope!"

The woman arched her eyebrows in surprise. "Really? It's alright for me to call you by your first name?"

"It's alright if I say it's alright."

"Well, then. Congratulations, Miss Vanellope."

Vanellope rolled her eyes but she was still smiling. At least they were on a first name basis now. "Thanks, toots, I appreciate that." She hopped onto Ralph's shoulder and was back to bouncing excitedly again. "So when can you do the evil laugh yet? How about now? Now's a good time, right?"

Sorceress blinked a few times in surprise. "Now? Here? In front of all these people?"

Vanellope nodded vigorously, messy ponytail bobbing up and down wildly. "Yeah! Do it to celebrate my big win! C'mon, don't hold back!"

Ralph sighed and shook his head. "Just humor her. She won't stop bugging you until you do it."

Sorceress still wasn't sure this was a good idea, but the president was insisting and she couldn't exactly tell her 'no'. So she took a deep breath into her stomach, planted her feet firmly on the ground and put her hands in position, one on her hip and the other by her face. Then she opened her mouth, threw her head back, and unleashed a long, loud stream of triumphantly wicked cackling.

Ralph recoiled in shock at the sheer intensity of it, Vanellope's eyes bulged, and several candy people in the audience and a few of the racers screamed in terror. When she was finished, Sorceress looked around at all the wide-eyed faces staring at her. She cringed slightly, worried that maybe she overdid it.

But then she saw the huge grin on Vanellope's face. "That… was… awesome! You gotta teach me how to do that!"

It was her positive response that made all the difference. Seeing that their president wasn't afraid of the woman's scary laughter, the audience collectively realized it was all just a performance. One by one they clapped politely, with a few members of the Assorted Fans with Nuts section whistling and whooping out loud.

Sorceress started to relax and even feel a little bit proud. The usual reaction to this specific laugh of hers was fear and screaming, or worse, people found it annoying. It wasn't often someone expressed admiration for it. Vanellope practically had stars in her eyes, and even Ralph seemed impressed.

"Nice job," he said to her. "Next time, though, can you warn me when you do that? I was standing right next you and everything."

Sorceress smirked and brushed a strand of hair away from her eyes. "I could, but I probably won't."

Then, out of nowhere, her knees turned shaky and her head was spinning again. This time there were dark spots flashing before her eyes. Before she could stop herself she sank to her knees, dizzy and confused.

Surprised and worried, Ralph crouched next to her and placed one big hand on her back. "Sorceress? What's wrong?"

She squeezed her eyes shut and blinked, but the dark spots were still swimming before her eyes. It felt like there was a whirlwind inside her head and her face was turning pale. "I… I think I feel faint…" she replied blearily.

Still perched on Ralph's shoulder, Vanellope leaned down to get a better look at Sorceress. "What's happening? Is she okay?"

Ralph frowned seriously. "It's gotta be the sun. She's been exposed to it for too long and it's draining her energy. We gotta get her somewhere dark."

Vanellope frowned in thought. Then her eyes lit up as an idea came to her. She hopped down from Ralph's shoulder to the ground. "Bring her over to the Likkity Split 2. I know exactly where we need to go."

Ralph nodded and put both hands on Sorceress' shoulders. He wasn't entirely sure that the sun was the reason for her sudden weakness, but there wasn't much else it could be. Hopefully she would feel better once she was out of the light. "Can you stand?" he asked, trying his best to keep calm.

Sorceress tried to shakily lift herself off the ground. Her knees immediately turned to jelly and brought her back down. Vanellope pulled up in her kart and stopped, waiting for them to get on. There was only one thing Ralph could do. He scooped Sorceress up in his arms and lifted her off the ground as if she weighed nothing at all.

"Wha-Hey!" Sorceress protested, fussing and squirming. "P-Put me down! This is embarrassing! I can still fly, you know!"

"No," Ralph said firmly. "If you can't stand up, then you shouldn't be flying."

Sorceress tried to struggle and kick some more but she just didn't have the energy for it. She hated to admit it, but Ralph was right; she couldn't fly in this condition. All she could do was hope he didn't drop her.

Still holding her in one arm, Ralph sat on the kart's spoiler and held on with his free hand. "We're ready. Let's go, kid."

"Wait…" Sorceress said, now seated in Ralph's lap. "Where are we going?"

Vanellope tugged her goggles down over her eyes. "To the darkest place in Sugar Rush; Diet Cola Mountain!"

With that, she hit the gas pedal and they took off in a cloud of colorful sugary dust.

Author's Note: Good grief, I thought I'd never get this chapter done. Life has been really busy for me between now and the last time I updated. I got a job, I moved, and I had a good old-fashioned case of writer's block. The writer's block isn't so bad anymore, but the job is pretty time consuming so I won't be as quick about updates as before. That said, I'm not giving up on this story! There's still a lot of ground to cover and I have something especially interesting planned for the next chapter. So hang in there, my beloved readers, and thanks for your support!