It wasn’t that deep down they hadn’t all known that the arcade couldn’t stay open forever. Some of the older games had seen 50, 60 years worth of play by the end. That was incredible, considering how many games had come and gone in the years the arcade had been open. Some had been in and out within months, others had been around for 10 or 15 years before an upgrade came around. Fix it Felix, Jr. was one of the lucky ones. Considered top game, and even during the ‘dry spell’ that all games had it had been played enough to warrant keeping it running. Then it became retro. 40 years old and Vanellope swore they didn’t look a day over ten. Felix had laughed, snuggled up into Calhoun’s side on the plush couch. Ralph had patted the racer on the head with a “Thanks, kid.”
But eventually Sugar Rush was replaced with a new racing game. As far as racing games went they’d been popular, but with each new cabinet brought in the least played left. There simply wasn’t enough space in the arcade for them all, and when Litwak finally pulled the plug Ralph welcomed Vanellope with open arms. He built her a little hut, she’d refused Felix’s offer to help with a crooked smile, next to his and they’d made a small track where she and the other remaining racers could drive after hours.
Sargent Tamora Jean Calhoun had long moved in with Felix. Consoles as large as hers took up the space of three uprights, and when paying two dollars per game left it collecting dust, Litwak swapped it out for newer, smaller, single space shooters that cost less. Most of the soldiers had chosen to stay with the game. Ralph thought that they were the smart ones, and that if he had a choice he’d stay with his game as well. Kohut followed Calhoun, finding a strangely close relationship with Zangeif that no one particularly wanted to explore. The two were both large, heavily muscled fighters. Always together and doing something, though whether or not the appropriate level for public was kept to no one looked at very closely. Tamora gave a slight smile at the pair, murmuring the first time that Kohut always had gone for the big ones and turning her attention back to Felix. She never mentioned it again, and Felix was polite enough to keep it in silence.
Memory was finite. Eventually there just wasn’t room for all of the character data that streamed through Game Central Station. Toward the end every nook and cranny available was filled with characters that had lost their games. The DDR dancers had claimed one of the benches at the far end of the station and kept to themselves, viciously defending their territory against anyone that came near. With each new game that was unplugged it became even more apparent how little space there was. Characters walking from one game to the next had to push their way through the mass of sprites crowded in the surge protector. More than one had been killed in an accident, simply from the literal crush of data. Felix and the Nicelanders no longer even left the game. With the buildings they’d made for Q*bert and his friends and Vanellope, they had already hit max memory. Especially since as an older game they didn’t have much to begin with.
Pacman had closed down their train. The only ones allowed through by the Protector were Pacman and the Ghosts because of cherry theft and vandalism. It had made them sad, morose. What had once been the meeting place for so many was now forbidden land. Ralph ran into Clyde at Tappers once, the ghost gorging himself on something much stronger than the usual Root Beer. He’d given Ralph a heavy look, sucked down another mouthful of whatever he was drinking and floated away. Not even bothering to talk to anyone as he made his way back to the entrance to Pacman.
Tapper himself was more than worn down. There were so many characters now that he rarely ever had a respite. Not only paying customers, but also beggars, offering to clean for a mug of root beer.
It was disheartening for everyone.
Inter-cabinet friendships dwindled between good guys and neutral characters. No longer did non combatant sprites move through Game Central Station. If you weren’t capable of some sort of hefty attack, you were eaten alive within the mass.
And then suddenly, it was over.
The arcade had been closed for a while. Long enough that even the most unsocial of characters was starting to go a little stir-crazy, cooped up and unable to leave for fear. Not fear of death, but rather the unknown.
When the call came in that Litwak was coming the characters scrambled for the best vantage points they had. Watching as he opened the door for men with dollies. Ten, fifteen of them? More maybe?
Ralph, Vanellope, Felix and no-longer-Sergeant Calhoun had stayed in Felix’s apartment. Silent. Just holding on to each other in the kind of tight embrace that knows it is the last and seeks to preserve the other person with physical feeling. They huddled within Ralph’s large hold, heads bowed together as a face peered into the game and nodded.
A second of nothing, then the alarm started.
Ringing out, warning the inhabitants.
“Warning. Warning. Game is being unplugged.”
There were no screams. Expectation had prepared them for this, knowledge had tempered it. Seeing the homeless in the Station solidified something that could be called loyalty. They would go down with their ship. They would die with each other.
Tears wet everyone’s faces and hair. Kisses were pressed from lip to lip. From lip to cheek. From lip to hair. Whatever was in reach was bathed in sloppy and sincere love. They had become a family. They were a family. Ralph held them tight. Vanellope pressed to the side of his face, their foreheads touching. Felix and Tamora clutched to his chest, pressed to each other, to him.
There were so many memories. So many things they had done with each other. Not just the first, the beginning, either. Ralph had lost count of how many games they had hopped into. Playing with the characters after hours, skimming a game over once or twice in the process. It had been exhilarating for the Wrecker to not only see other games, but to do it with people who cared about him.
“Final Warning. Game is being unplugged.”
The words started. Three words repeated over and over between the four of them as black raced across the screen and they clutched each other hard enough to hurt.
“I love you.”
Fix it Felix, Jr. onlined slowly.
The console recognized the power source and initiated it’s boot sequence to trigger. Running quickly through the very basic start programs it possessed and booting the game data directly once completed. It queried the high score board and found the memory running at minimal power. A quick redirect and overwrite cleared the data and reset the board to factory specifications, the display flashing with made up names and scores for a second.
The game initialized.
Ralph gave a yawn, curling up against his stump. He was asleep in a wink, not stirring when a tractor scooped up his home and carried it off. Only waking when instead of grass he rolled onto hard brick. Looking around to find that he was surrounded by them, that his trees were gone.
“HEY, YOU MOVED MY STUMP!”
He growled and thumped his fists down on the loose bricks, making them crack and jump with every hit. Watching, incredulous, as the tractors paid no mind. Clearing the area, cranes moving in and building a building at super speed, egg-shaped people walking through the door to the new apartments and setting up shop in a very clear and quick manner.
Ralph ran to the side of the building and looked up. Mouth open at the gall they’d shown without so much as a by your leave. They’d not even just asked him to move, they’d MOVED him. His anger bubbled up to the surface. They were going to pay. For moving him, and for wrecking his forest.
Oh they were so going to pay.
“I’’M GONNA WRECK IT!”
With a roar he rushed forward, punching windows out as he passed them. The door crumpled after one solid hit and Ralph jumped onto the side of the building, catching a fire escape and pulling himself up.
Another window gone and one of the egg people yelled. He grabbed the man and threw him, hauling his body up and smashing a huge hole in the front. Stomping and punching as more of the egg people cried out, “FIX IT, FELIX!”
Ralph saw a short man in work pants and a button up shirt jump in, grabbing a golden hammer from his tool belt and holding it high.
“I CAN FIX IT!”
He watched, incredulous, as the man tapped a broken window with his hammer. It shimmered for a second and suddenly gleamed whole and unbroken. Shining in the light created by the hammer itself!
A punch to the floor he was on yielded a cascade of bricks falling down. Felix dodged, jumping from window sill to window sill and fixing as he went. Leaving behind a trail of shiny new building as he went, his hammer tapping against jagged and coming away from smooth.
One of the Nicelanders opened a window and dropped a pie on the sill. Felix hopped over and picked it up, spinning the plate and eating the confection in three bites, his hat glowing gold. Ralph watched as he turned into a tornado of activity, whirling and striking with his hammer in a super fast succession; fixing the damage in literally the blink of an eye, pushing Ralph to the roof as he worked.
And then it was over.
The building was completely fixed. Ralph was on the edge of the roof, a sad expression on his face. This had been his home, and these people had just come in and ripped away everything it used to be. The Nicelanders filed out of the door and applauded Felix, a medal coming down from the sky to slip around his neck. Then they turned to Ralph and the looks on their faces... almost hurt him more than the loss of his home. As one they hefted him up and tossed him over the side of the building, Ralph tumbling over and over until he hit the ground with a muddy splat. A heavy feeling of sadness and despair flooding the large man as he hefted himself up and shook off the mud. He looked over at the dump, where his stump sat on a pile of bricks. Giving a sigh and shuffling forward to the-
::Reset. Game working under acceptable parameters::
There was a flash of light that passed through everything. It rolled through the building, Ralph, the Nicelanders, Felix and over to the dump, each of them pausing as information assimilated within their code.
“Character data compiled correctly. Memory input incoming...”
The characters on the building gave small noises of shock as they looked at each other. Felix dropped the pie he’d been holding to press a hand to the side of his head, eyebrows knitting together in confusion.
“We’re... we’re a game?”
Below them Ralph’s foot came down with a thump. A game?
Their eyes all flashed blue as the data integrated. A game. Fix it Felix, Jr. Where the point was for Ralph to continuously wreck the building so that a ‘player’ controlled Felix could fix it.
There was a split second when a terror so absolute came over Ralph it brought him to his knees. He was destined to lose his home, his life, and to be hated for his entire existence for the pleasure of a ‘player’. A noise ripped itself from his chest that echoed around the enclosed space, what they all now saw as an enclosed space.
Felix squeezed his eyes shut at the sound. That he knew the truth of existence did nothing to mitigate the feelings that still coursed through him as if they were reality. They were all created with backstory, such was the nature of a game, but to both know the backstory and realize it was lies while still living in the emotion was a twisted understanding. The Nicelanders didn’t seem to know what to do. They were shifting nervously on their feet, murmuring to each other and glancing at Felix. Worried looks on each face that watched the golden hammer drop to the rooftop as gloved hands pulled outward on brown hair.
And in an instant, again, it was gone. The emotions fading in a split second and settling into some sort of sense of duty and responsibility that was just... there.
Mary stepped forward and touched Felix’s arm. “Are you alright, dear?
He wasn’t sure. He had no idea if he should feel emotion toward a scripted existence they way he had, and no longer did. Both were confusing on a level that stretched his thoughts into uncomfortable shapes, manipulating the data there to serve whatever purpose was required of it.
“Demo correctly executed. To be repeated at intervals of 01010001101011 pending player input.”
They settled into routine fairly quickly. Learning when the man who owned the cabinet was up and when he was asleep. In his fifties, the man had purchased Fix it Felix, Jr, out of a bit of nostalgia. He kept the game in a room that was full of collectables. Figurines, souvenirs and the like. Fix it Felix, Jr. was the only game and the only time he came in was to show off his collection to others.
For a time, the programming made the demo compulsory. Repeated at precise intervals. Undeviated from, unchanged. Much like player control, it was absolute. Taking over the movements of the characters and playing them like marionettes on a stage. Then, gradually it ceased as the game cabinet understood the movements of the ‘player’. Relaxing into periodic demos, and then finally only initiating them when movement was sensed within range of the external framework.
A professional had come in and looked over the game. Fixing and restoring parts of the frame that had been damaged or chipped. Replacing the battery in the high score board and resoldering a connection that had come loose. Polishing and shining until no one would have been able to tell that Fix it Felix, Jr. was nearly fifty.
It was a point of pride to have a vintage game, especially one that was in such excellent condition. For a while there were parties, showings and multiple players. None of them were very good and Ralph got to experience several wins.
That alone should have made him feel better, but there was no recognition from the Nicelanders and the players would always laugh and make disparaging comments about each other’s playing.
Ralph found it hard to be happy about a win that was based on the poor skills of a player.
When Ralph first caught a vision of a little girl dressed in candy wrappers, he thought he was going crazy. She was having a conversation with him, though he could only hear her end.
His large hand reached out and clasped at nothing, phasing through her and distorting her image. Jolts of joy spiking through him until his hand was no longer touching... her. The image laughing and talking even as it faded out, leaving Ralph again alone in his shack.
Ralph felt nothing as she faded. He felt nothing when she was gone. It was only when he realized that he’d been staring at the same spot for an hour that he started shaking. Pain and despair welling up inside of him like it had after that first demo, only this time he had no idea why.
It didn’t last long, barely enough time for tears to wet his cheeks, and once again Ralph was left unfeeling with the ghost memory of emotions to remind him that nothing around him was real.
The dynamics of the game, the fact that it WAS a game even, seemed to do nothing to enamour Ralph to the Nicelanders. For reasons that were only delegated as ‘game dynamics’, they seemed to dislike him simply based on the fact that he was the ‘Bad Guy’. Ralph found their thinking obtuse, or rather, being Ralph, he found their thinking stupid. He wasn’t trying to destroy their homes during off time. Nor was he trying to rampage around and throw them from windows. No, the only thing Ralph wanted, aside from being invited to one of the many parties that seemed to happen in the Penthouse, was a friendly recognition now and then. Confirmation that he was acknowledged.
Heck, he’d settle for a “Hey,” shouted from a window. Their box, as he not-quite-lovingly referred to their cabinet as, was absolute and limited. There was no where to go. The train station, small and rustic that it was, wasn’t connected TO anything. Ralph knew, he’d followed the track to where it led to Socket Station and explored the small platform that led to nowhere. Tracks went straight into a wall of flickering light and going through it just turned you back around. It could have been comical had Ralph not been ready to deny his coding and take off. Pacing around the end of the track, pulling at his hair until it stuck out even more than usual.
Once he’d caught Felix sneaking down through the tunnel. Had followed him until he was just hidden in the shadows of the tunnel. Watching as the handyman stared at the glow of the portal, hands clenching and unclenching around nothing.
Felix hadn’t said anything, hadn’t done more than stare at the portal, but in that moment Ralph felt more connected with him than he’d felt to anyone since the game had onlined.
He’d nearly reached out, had nearly offered his hand to the handyman, only to turn and run back to the dump. A giant chicken in overalls.
Ralph broke anything and everything he could reach that night. Roaring out his anger and frustration while a tiny voice chattered away undeterred and unconcerned beside him.
There was no party in the penthouse that night.
Felix lay in his room, staring blankly up at the ceiling. Flickers of blond hair and blue eyes bursting out of a seemingly endless memory pool, one he couldn’t access on purpose. Every time he tried to reach out and connect the free-flying threads, they splintered and fled, leaving the handyman with nothing but the dark corners of his room to look at. He couldn’t stop reaching out though. With each pass of those blue eyes, his whole body burned. His hands clutched the sheets to keep them from moving. Each glimpse of blond hair made him tremble, until his body was coated with sweat. Until his clothing was soaked and he was sticky.
When blond hair and blue eyes finally stopped flashing in front of his face, Felix lay there. Listening to the echoes of Ralph’s rage outside of his window and wondering why he had tears in his eyes.
There was a certain monotony to existing without a purpose.
The parties that happened every night became a way to escape from their sub-reality. Fake cheerfulness and forced smiles gave way to lackluster waves when anyone passed by. There was no physical need for them to eat, really, and even rum and red velvet lost their allure after a while.
Gene sighed. He sipped on a martini and looked out through the penthouse. There was music playing in the background, a cursory glance at effort, but no one was even standing. Drinks sat barely touched on coffee tables, planters, wherever they’d been placed. It was a slow stagnation that they all were trapped in. With nothing to do, nowhere to go and no one new to meet.
He looked over at Felix. The handyman was standing at the window, arm braced against it, and looking out through the glass. Gene tipped back his drink and walked over. Peering out the window to see that Ralph was pacing back and forth in front of the dump. Large hands pulling at his messier than normal hair. Mouth moving in words neither of them could hear.
They stood there, watching as Ralph grew more and more incensed. The hair pulling becoming so violent that Gene was sure that he was going to rip it from his head with each pull. They could just barely hear his voice now, though not the words.
“He’s gone crazy,” Gene said, shaking his head.
Felix gave a sort of weak chuckle. “Can’t blame him. Jimminy, this place makes me a little crazy.”
With that Felix tipped the brim of his hat to Gene and walked away, quietly letting himself out of the penthouse. Gene sighed and turned back to the window. Watching as Ralph finally collapsed into a crouch and folded his hands over the back of his neck.
The little girl in front of him giggled and spun in a circle, her green eyes twinkling with mischief.
“Come on Captain Catastrophe! We have bricks and blocks to smash and a hedgehog to race! Oh, and don’t even THINK about taking Tails’ plane this time. Total cheating!”
He didn’t respond, but it didn’t matter. Every time the little girl had shown up, she had a conversation with someone who didn’t respond. It didn’t matter where Ralph was either. The image seemed to be tethered to him somehow, the tiny body skidding across the terrain behind him. Code flashing as the stream was disrupted and pulled from wherever it stemmed from.
It was strange, the way he felt whenever she talked to her partner. Captain Catastrophe, Admiral Underpants, Stinkbrain... the monikers presented him with a clutch of warmth that effused his chest. It was a tight ball that nearly hurt, and Ralph had no idea why. There were moments when something , a hint of recognition, passed through him. When he knew that he KNEW this girl. Then they passed and he was again left confused, growing more and more desperate to find out why.
For a while, he just sat and watched her as she talked. Taking in her enthusiasm and vivacity, ignoring the party that brightened the penthouse windows. For once not interested in what the Nicelanders did, or upset that he was excluded again.
She rarely stood still. Her body was tiny compared to his own, not even half his height. Dressed in candy wrappers, broken pieces of candy littered her ponytailed hair and Ralph’s hand kept wanting to pat the top of her head. She darted back and forth, arms swinging wide as she talked. Everything that came out of her mouth was excited, upbeat.
“I totally think you should come over tomorrow! Sour Bill is taking a vacation, forced of course, and I am so going to have a party!”
Without realizing it, his hands had gone to his hair and were pulling. The sharp pain distracted him, kept him from looking too long. Kept him from reaching out to see if she was real.
“I already invited Taffyta and the gang, who’re totally still blubbering over me being a princess by the way. Can you say lame? I can! L-aaaaaaaaa-me!”
Ralph was pacing. Walking back and forth in front of the dump, his bare feet slapping against the concrete. He couldn’t look at her, because every time he did that stupid fire came back into his chest.
“Not that I mind being a princess, who would, uh-doy! But still! They were all way too nice! It was just a little creepy, Ralph, I’m tellin’ ya!”
She used his name and the feeling that had been pooling in him exploded outward. He knew her. He knew her.
He just couldn’t remember her.
With each tug of his hair and slap of his feet he said it.
“Stop it. Stop it. Stop it!”
The girl didn’t listen, didn’t even seem to hear him speaking. She just chattered on, heedless of his voice pleading with her, ordering her, to stop.
“I figured you and I could sneak out for some quality time! You know, just you and me on a kart. Racing over the Powdered Sugar hills and through the Cotton Candy Caverns, I so have to show you the new upgrades I made to my kart. We’ll be going a hundred miles an hour!”
Ralph couldn’t stop her, couldn’t escape her. Every time he paced outside of her range she would flicker forward, the break causing a slight catch in her voice. It distorted it for a fraction of a second, the tinny sound echoing alongside whatever she was talking about.
The glitch made him more upset each time he heard it.
“Citrusella and Torvald already told me that they’d cover, so we’re gold! They only thing we’re gonna have to worry about is the wind in our hair!”
He wasn’t sure why he was yelling, why he was pacing. Only that the pressure that kept building inside of him had nowhere to go and he was trying desperately not to explode.
“Sticky told Adorabeezle that her hair looked terrible and OH MAN you shoulda seen the fight!”
Tears stung his eyes and his hair was tugged into a mess. He turned and scrunched his huge hands into fists, slamming them against the pavement with enough force to crack it.
“WHY CAN’T I REMEMBER YOU!”
“Y’know, I’m really glad you’re my friend, Ralph. You aren’t so bad for a Stinkbrain.”
Tears coursed down his cheeks as he looked at the little girl. She had an earnest expression adorning her face, hands stuffed into the pockets of her hoodie and a light pink dusting of a blush just under her eyes.
“I never would’ve done any of this without you.”
Felix wondered if he was going crazy some days.
A voice followed him around. Talking to him. Sometimes the one sided conversations were normal, or relatively so, and others were hot enough to scorch his cheeks permanently red. Most of his time was spent alone, it was easier to hide certain problems when no one was around to see it
It was a female, definitely a female. She would talk about mundane things like dinner, things he didn’t understand about her duty and things that made every part of him stand at attention
She talked. To him, at him. His responses didn’t seem to make much of a difference to her, and after a while he stopped responding at all. The voice just continued on.
The voice was an easy one to listen to. Felix didn’t even much care what she said. Everything sounded wonderful to his ears, beautiful. The cadence and tone varied with the topics and never failed to push his heart to pounding.
Felix wondered if being crazy was a bad thing.
Ralph startled awake, standing up so quickly that his shack shook. He could hear voices from outside, all the more startling because no one really came outside anymore.
He carefully opened his door, peering out into the simulated night. Felix and... Ralph wasn’t sure exactly what was next to the handyman, were moving away from the apartment building and closer to the forest. Felix laughed and reached out, grasping something. As his hand closed around it, Ralph watched as it went from free floating pixels to a--
“Holy Moly! That’s a hand!”
The hand held Felix’s, perfectly formed and automated. Ralph could see each finger articulated, interlocked between Felix’s.
Bits of the conversation wafted over to him.
“Cy-bug... so glad he... lope, good girl...”
The voice wasn’t Felix’s either. It wasn’t even male.
Ralph slipped out of his home and walked carefully behind Felix. He was too big to even try being stealthy, but there was no way he was getting close to that free floating hand anyway if he could help it.
It didn’t seem like Felix shared his feelings though. He kept a hold of the hand as he walked, talking back and forth with the disembodied female voice. Mentioning things that Ralph was darn sure had never happened.
“Jim-i-ney am I glad we met. Ralph may be a little clumsy now and then, but I know he’s a good guy at heart. Even if he is a bad guy, I’m glad he’s my bad guy.”
“Sure... eck-it... completely... is he.”
“Nah. Besides, if he hadn’t I would never have met you.”
The large man wasn’t sure if he wanted to gag or be more than slightly grossed out at the level of sap in Felix’s voice. Not to mention that he was really really freaking really sure that he hadn’t had an extra large hand in helping Felix meet his... whatever she was.
But Felix had stopped walking and had turned to where someone should have been attached to that hand. Lifting his free one up and cupping it around nothing, leaning in and kissing nothing.
Kissing nothing just a bit longer than Ralph thought one should kiss nothing.
Ralph shuddered and stuck his tongue out. “Blech.”
He turned and walked back to his shack, missing Felix’s first hand letting go of the hand and connecting with nothing. Pixels coalescing until a face came into view for a brief second, then winking out.
Felix blinked, lowering his hands and looking around to see the back of Ralph’s body in the distance.
“See you, Fix-it.”
Ralph no longer startled when he heard a tiny voice talk to him from behind.
The little girl never seemed to deviate from her pattern of talking to him and Ralph was amazed that she hadn’t run out of topics to talk about by now.
She knew him, or someone named Ralph anyway, and clearly there had been an Adventure involved somewhere in her meeting ‘Ralph’. Stranger still, he felt like he understood, somehow, what she was talking about.
He still didn’t remember her name though.
And really, it wasn’t that bad having her around anyway. She talked to him, something that the Nicelanders didn’t do. She didn’t seem to care that he was the coded bad guy, or really anything about his game. Most of the time when she talked it was about those vaguely familiar things she’d done with ‘Ralph’. None of which seemed to actually be in the game.
“Remember the time we snuck out to Tappers and got totally sloshed on Root Beer Floats? Oh man was Sour Bill skeeved!”
There was a tickle associated with each name.
“I snuck one of Sonic’s rings out, just for a memento, ya know?”
A small pit of warmth that pulsed in his chest, disrupting his code. The first few times had sent him into a panic, his own strands of code pulsing and visible.
Now it seemed to him that every time he felt that warmth, every time his code disassembled and reassembled, he changed.
“Those Zombies were total creepers! Not, like, that I was scared or anything...”
It wasn’t a huge change. Heck, most of the time Ralph couldn’t even feel a difference.
But he recognized things now that he KNEW he hadn’t recognized before. He had no idea who Tapper was, but he knew him. It drove him to distraction some of the time, trying to figure out who they were.
“Peach is nice and all, but she always wants to talk about how awesome Mario is. Blech-o!”
He sat on his stump with one knee pulled up, his arms folded on top of it; chin resting on his arms. With every word she spoke, the girl next to him gestured. Using her hands and arms and even her whole body as she spoke.
“I’m real glad Felix and Tammy got married, even if I did have to stand in that stuffy dress for a million years.”
These days it was a blessing to have her to listen to. It broke the stagnation that had nearly overcome Ralph. He didn’t get to go to the parties in the penthouse, not the least because he would probably have wrecked the place by accident. They didn’t want him there. The good and the bad didn’t intermingle.
And rightfully to everyone who experienced it. It was hard coded into the software. It made everything more believable for the player.
Or it was supposed to, anyway.
Ralph looked over, just watching as she chatted on. The glow of his chest never ceasing as long as she talked.
It came as almost a start when Ralph finally remembered who Tapper actually was.
He’d been walking, alone for once, when his code began to disassemble. Threads of it disconnected from each other violently, whipping back and forth inside of him. His hands became nearly translucent and he thunked to the ground, no strength left in his knees at all. It couldn’t have lasted more than a few seconds, but it seemed like an eternity to Ralph as he knelt there motionless. With incomplete code in that magnitude, motor functions were all but impossible. His core self was being severed, re-braided. He could feel the changes as each piece of code slotted back into his body, even if he wasn’t completely sure what they did. They were heavy, each a weight of stone that pressed down and wouldn’t let up.
The motherboard’s voice echoed through Ralph as he struggled to his feet.
The glitc- no, the girl. The word glitch left a horrible taste in his mouth. The girl reappeared, chatting on again.
Except this time, Ralph could follow most of what she was saying.
He knew who Tapper and Mario and Sonic and Pac Man were. The how was still fuzzy, but he knew who they were.
“Sweet Mother Hubbard.”
He was sitting at Tapper’s, a mug of root beer in one hand. The girl sat next to him on the counter, swinging her legs as she chugged down the drink.
“You comin’ back to Sugar Rush tonight? Gonna be a wicked cool party at the palace! Kinda like a clean-out-Candy party!”
“You know I’m always up for smashing stuff, kiddo.”
“Sweet! Just one more drink for me and I’m outta here. Gotta make sure all the real valuable stuff is put away, eh Ralph?”
She giggled and waved to Tapper.
“Another please, Jeeves!”
Tapper gave a laugh and snagged the empty mug, pulling the lever on one of his many kegs and refilling it perfectly. Foam spilling just a bit from the top.
“Here you go.”
The girl swiped it and buried her face in the foam.
“Best in the business, thanks Tapper!”
Tapper waved as he walked to another customer.
“No problem V------skkkssssssssssssssssssssssssshhhhhhhhhhhhh---
With a yell, Ralph came out of the memory. Sprawled across the ground with no remembrance of how he’d gotten down there.
Shakily he got, again, to his feet. Running back to his stump clumsily, bouncing off the trees that seemed to get in his way. Ignoring the skipping and cracking of the little girl’s image that followed him.
Felix lay breathing heavily on the bed. He’d been taking a nap, something he was doing more and more frequently, when the update had accessed his core data and gone through it with all the subtlety of Ralph at a fancy dinner.
Not that the motherboard was any kind of subtle itself. The cabinet’s arbitrary decisions on when to do code updates always left Felix feeling out of sorts. He was sure he was glitched. Between the blond hair and blue eyes that seemed to be present whenever he slept to waking up and finding himself in strange places alone, Felix was just about done with whatever motherboard was doing.
As his code settled, he relaxed. Letting his eyes shut again and sighing, not interested in even getting out of the bed.
“Already in bed, Fix-it? Is that a hint?”
Felix opened his eyes to look at his wife. She stood at the edge of the bed with a towel around her waist, smiling at him. He gave a goofy one back and patted the bed next to him.
“Come here you.”
She laughed and sat down, swinging her legs onto the bed and nestling into the crook of his arm. They lay like that, quiet, for a long enough time that her eyes began to close. It was a dozy kind of afternoon. They didn’t have anything to do but be here with each other for another few days.
He gave a great sigh of contentment, turning to his side to curl up beside his new wife’s lean frame. The smell of her shampoo was subtle, not at all like the strong perfumed ones that some of the Nicelanders used. It encircled him, wafting into his nose and sticking there. Felix was sure that he would remember this smell forever.
The smell seemed permanently infused into his pillows. No matter how many times he washed them or traded them, the smell remained.
Felix ground his teeth. This woman, his ‘wife’... he saw her everywhere. Felt her everywhere. It seemed to him like there was no place that he could hide. She followed him, those radiant blue eyes a world of emotion all their own. He didn’t even remember when it had gone from only eyes to a person.
He wasn’t sure he hadn’t imagined it all anyway.
The woman was all curves and long limbs. Graceful, powerful and beautiful. Her face captured Felix in a way nothing else ever had. It called out to him to touch it, stroke it. When she called him ‘Fix-it’, it sounded more like a pet name than anything.
His hands tightened around the pillows. The smell was almost overpowering. It was like it had seeped into everything in his room. Drowning out any other smell that might be there, flooding him with images of that face.
Of that body.
Felix flipped over on the bed and buried his face into his arms. Trying and failing to quell the rising lust that built inside of him with each intake of scented air.
There was only one conclusion. There could be only one conclusion. Felix shifted on the bed, rock hard, spreading his legs just enough to rut against the covers.
Around him her voice swirled, tangling and weaving in and out of the scent until he was sobbing. thrusting hard into the bed, hands flying out to tangle with the blanket for a second before they clenched into fists.
Her voice cried out in completion even as he still moved, finally choking out a curse and curling up into a ball. Shielding himself against the world.
When Ralph saw Felix next, he knew that something was off.
The handyman was sluggish, not as responsive as he normally was. His eyes were clouded, hazy.
“Hey Felix, whatcha up to?”
Felix shook himself, looking over to Ralph. He didn’t answer, just stared for a moment before turning back and walking off again.
Ralph trotted after him, catching the smaller shoulder with enough force to stop him.
“Seriously Felix, you okay?”
The high pitched giggle that came out said no. “I’m just dandy, Ralph.”
“You sure?” Ralph scrubbed the back of his neck with his free hand. “Cuz, I’ve been watching you and I’m pretty sure that you’re not okay.”
It wasn’t exactly true, but lately the only times Ralph had seen Felix it had been during ‘not okay’ moments. Like making out with air, or holding severed hands.
There was silence for a moment.
“You ever wonder if game characters can go crazy?”
Ralph had more than wondered.
“‘Course. We’ve been in here long enough for anyone to go crazy.”
Felix shook his head.
“No, I mean like corrupted data crazy. Glitch crazy.”
“I’m pretty sure that the player out there has us well enough maintained for that not to happen.”
There was silence again. Ralph shifted uneasily beside Felix. This was definitely not his forte.
“I don’t know what to do Ralph. I can’t get her out of my head. I see her everywhere, smell her in my room. I don’t understand what’s going on. I know this woman, she calls me husband and for the life of me I can’t remember her name.”
He broke from Ralph’s hand to pace back and forth. His hammer was pulled out of its slot, spun, then put back in repeatedly.
“She was just eyes, I’m sure she was just eyes, you know? Then suddenly, I can’t remember when she was just eyes. Now she’s a real person, Ralph, I swear to you she is!”
“Hey, yeah. I understand what you’re going through Felix... I do.”
Felix whirled on him. “She calls to me each night. Each night she lays with me on my bed. Each night I have sex with someone who I can’t remember the name of!”
Ralph put his hands out in front of him.
“Whoa whoa buddy! That’s just a little more info than I wanted.”
“And I want to. Have sex with her, I mean. I want to hold her and stroke her and every time I reach out all I touch is my bed. It’s like she’s real, but she isn’t real! What is going on with me Ralph?”
He cleared his throat embarrassedly. “Look. I dunno about the sex bit, but I have the same thing going on, okay? This little girl just... shows up and talks. For hours. About her game, all the racing she does... And I don’t even know what she’s talking about half the time.” His hands ran through his hair, tugging. “Or at least I didn’t. Now, I... I don’t know, I know. Somehow, I know what she’s talking about.”
He shifted nervously.
“I don’t know, Felix. I don’t know why it’s happening.”
Suddenly Felix looked up at him.
“Say, did you mention a little girl? A racer?”
Ralph nodded. “Yeah.”
“She talks about a girl some of the time... Sweets... Vanilla Sweets?”
That glowing knot began to grow again in Ralph’s chest.
“Yeah, yeah! Something like that. Not Vanilla...”
Felix wasn’t listening. His hammer swung faster than ever.
“She’s short, wears a green hoodie and striped leggings. A brat with dirty hair.” Ralph’s excitement bubbled over.
“Vanellope! She said her name was Vanellope!” Felix nearly shouted, his hands vibrating with energy.
Ralph felt his code slip and slide and crash together. Vanellope. The brat’s name was Vanellope!
There was a flash of light that knocked both Felix and Ralph off their feet. Ralph shook on the ground as the coding finally reassembled and he knew. The glow encompassing him and Felix both before dissipating.
Everything came pouring back to him in a flood and there wasn’t anything that could have kept him from breaking down. Giant sobs wracked his body.
Pain crested over him in waves. She was gone. She’d stayed with him to the very end and now she was gone and he wasn’t. She and Sergeant Calhoun were gone.
Felix was locked into place. His eyes saw Ralph but he couldn’t muster the strength to move over to him. His Tammy. Sergeant Tamora Calhoun. She wouldn’t ever knock him over the head for being too sappy again. He’d never see her joke with Ralph or tease Vanellope for being a Princess again.
There was a back door.
There was always a back door.
Felix started his search with every single nook and cranny of the apartment building. Every inch was scoured and searched for an entrance or door that he hadn’t seen yet. The Nicelanders no longer even paid attention to him, they just ignored him as he did them. They didn’t even seem to question why he was in their apartments, just glanced over him and went about their lives.
But it wasn’t in the apartment.
So Felix took his search outside.
Each and every bush. Every single extra brick. Nothing was left overturned. He combed through the whole level with a level of intensity that would have scared him before, now it was simply a means to an end.
The trees were tested, the ground was thumped. The dump was dug through, the train portal was carefully gone over.
Each and every inch of the platform was searched.
Still there was no door.
Felix tapped his toes against the floor, jiggling his leg up and down. It had to be there somewhere, it had to. Every game had a door. It was how repairs could be done, changes made to cater to players. Every game had a door.
If there was a copy of his Tammy somewhere in this game, Felix vowed to find it.
It was disconcerting to watch Felix search through the game.
Whatever he was looking for, it wasn’t easily found. This had to have been his third pass through the courtyard and he showed no signs of stopping.
The look that Felix shot him was dark.
“Go away, Ralph.”
Direct orders had never sat well with Ralph.
“Come on, man.”
He walked over to where Felix was carefully checking a bush for the upteenth time. “I’m pretty sure that whatever you’re looking for isn’t here.”
Felix’s hands clenched into fists.
“It has to be somewhere. I’ll look till I find it, by golly.”
“The door. I have to find the door. Tammy could still be in there.”
Ralph wasn’t the smartest cookie in the jar, but things finally clicked home. He was looking for the door to Motherboard’s code.
“Whoa! Really, Felix? Look, I miss em just as much as you do, but we can’t start messing with the code.”
The handyman whirled on him, finger jabbing into Ralph’s gut.
“No! You listen to me, Ralph! That woman was my wife. I loved her something fierce from the moment I laid eyes on her and those same dagblamed eyes have been haunting me for weeks now.” His hammer spun. Grab, spin, holster. Grab, spin, holster. “I don’t understand why we’re still here, I don’t understand why we suddenly remember everything and I can’t understand why it would do this to us!”
The Wrecker had been wondering the same thing. Why they even remembered the people from that other life. It didn’t make sense.
But then, he’d never been unplugged before. He knew some things, things that came with being code, but others were just...
It made no sense for the cabinet to give them back memories that didn’t pertain to the game. It wasn’t programmed that way. It didn’t have the complex emotional code that was standard for the characters, because that would impede its function. There was no logic in giving them something that didn’t benefit the game directly.
Ralph may not have been programmed as a rocket scientist but he knew when two plus two didn’t add up.
“Look buddy, I don’t know either. I don’t know why any of this even happened! All I know is that right now you’re going Turbo.”
Felix refused to look at him.
“And I know what you’re thinking, because I’ve thought it. I know that right now you want nothing more than to have something you can’t have. I promise you that this ain’t the way to do it.”
Felix just stared in front of him. Hands clenched, unmoving. “Give me a reason, Ralph.”
He glanced up, devastation written in every inch of his face.
“Give me a reason not to.”
A sense of solidarity
It was an imperfect solution. Both of them knew that, both of them understood the repercussions that might follow.
It didn’t matter.
They had gone through something that had changed their very code and that wasn’t easily let go of or forgotten. There were times when Ralph’s hands shook so badly that he couldn’t do anything. Times when Felix would curl up against his front, tucking Ralph’s massive hands between them and becoming a rock.
There were times when Felix was caught in a repetitious cycle of his own making. Tamora’s voice crying out while the handyman used Ralph’s mouth to fulfill his needs.
But it gave them a little solstice from the world. It created a pocket of calm and understanding that they both needed.
Ralph took care of Felix because he needed someone to look after, who would talk to him like he mattered.
Felix used Ralph because the physical sensations were the only things that kept him grounded in their stagnant reality.
It was mutually beneficial in the way that only truly desperate deals can be.
Felix had built a decent size cottage just past the edge of the forest, close enough to the Nicelanders that he could go back and mingle and far enough away that prying eyes would see nothing but trees.
Often times they would spend the whole day lounging. Moving from the bed to the sofa and back.
Some days there was silence, where they spent their time in quiet. Some days it was boisterous enough that they could hear Gene yelling for them to BE quiet. Once Felix had accidentally tripped and fallen smack into his food and Ralph had roared with laughter. Tears running down his face as he doubled over.
The memory ghosts still came and went, talking to and over each other. Never directly interacting with Ralph or Felix, thought they sometimes interacted with each other.
Imperfect, but with each day growing easier to bear.
It had been a full two years since Fix it, Felix had been plugged in inside of the collector’s home.
To say that it was boring was an understatement, at least in Ralph’s eyes. The older man had very little interest in playing the games he owned, but rather he just divined pleasure from owning them.
Vanellope and Sergeant Calhoun’s memory ghosts still popped up here and there, but as the High Score board slowly filled up they showed up less and less. Now it wasn’t anything for a week to go by between glitches.
Ralph gave a sigh, tucking his arm just that much tighter around Felix’s form. The warmth between them kept him sleepy, half awake and less so with each minute.
His cracked eye blearily looked around the room, seeing nothing out of the ordinary. With a yawn he closed it and settled back down to nap.
“Hey, Diaper Baby.”
He didn’t move, brow furrowing for a second.
“I just wanted to let you know that you’ll always be my hero.”
Felix murmured something in his sleep, hand reaching up and stroking once along Ralph’s jaw.
The silence stayed. Not a sound even with tears running down Ralph’s face to wet Felix’s hair. It was a goodbye to a goodbye. One that had been long in coming and was doubly painful because of it.
“I love you too, brat.”