Chapter 3: Best Friends Forever…

My code almost went into an infinite loop as my arm phased right through Ralph's shoulder.

Whoa, whoa, whoa… h-hey!

As I panic, I realized that it didn't just stop with my arm, though. My body followed suit, briefly flashing a bright turquoise blue as I was transformed into lines of glitched code. The next thing I know, I had ended up from being behind Ralph to in front of him, completely falling through his bulky body.

And to make matters worse, the ground was rushing up to meet me because I had leaned forward with the gesture, thus losing my balance as I had expected for Ralph to support my weight. Suppressing a yelp, I instinctively brace myself, placing my arms ahead of me as I end up falling onto the ground.

Ouch. Now that hurt. Not physically, but more mentally.

Slowly getting back on my feet as I rub my forehead in pain, I shake my head in confusion until I realize the issue on hand and the reason why I fell through Ralph.

Oh yeah… that's right. I couldn't physically interact with anything or anyone right now. Boo hoo, what do you know… it'd actually slipped my mind, one-hundred percent. I made sure to gingerly faux-clap with my palms as I noted down the astute observation with sarcastic mirth. How amusing.

Ah, blame the poignant moment of seeing Ralph again for messing with my short-term memory!

But before I could use my voice to get Stinkybutt's attention—and I knew for a fact that he could at least be able to hear me after my exploits with trying to get the numerous internet avatars to notice me—Ralph actually caught me off guard by preempting me and talking nostalgically to himself before I could speak up.

"I always knew you were important to me, you little feisty rascal. And the thing was, I always knew that the two of us were special… but it took this whole crummy adventure to really seal the deal."

I feel my words die on the tip of my tongue as he spoke in a heartbroken voice, wistfully looking up to the horizon. His huge, calloused palms were clenched tightly by his side, making him appear like the stiff 8-bit persona that he was on the scanlines of the cabinet screen.

"I mean, if I were to tell my younger self about what his life would be now before old me was sent hurtling like a screaming monkey into your game hunting down that dumb hero medal…" he mumbles, gesticulating his arms about with appropriate hand gestures to match his words, "Let me tell you, old me would never believe current me. Not even a single word. I'd have lost my younger self the instant I tell him that Felix and I have patched things up."

Ralph then let out a genuine laugh, before continuing to speak to the air as though I was physically there — even though, ironically, I actually was. "And yeah, I can bet some dough on it," he added, winking for good measure. "Past me would never be able to visualize a big, ugly loser like himself managing to get one of the best friends that he could ever ask for to support him by his side."

I would be straight up lying if I say that I didn't inhale sharply upon hearing his touching words. He really thought that lowly of himself in the past?

And of me?

Letting out a shaky breath, I glitch up about a meter off the ground and proceed to lay down in midair, stretching my legs and arms out as I made myself comfortable, pretending that I was sleeping in a hammock as I gazed down at the moping Ralph.

"I still remember when I first met you while climbing up that candy-cane tree…" He let out a wistful sigh, sheepishly rubbing his scraggy brown hair. "Mod, I remember hating you so much that day when you stole the medal that I got from Hero's Duty from right under my nose."

Doo-ty, I correct in my head with a mental snigger. Man, that in-joke between us never gets old!

And to be fair, he was totally at fault for not knowing how double-stripes work. Rookie mistake.

"I would just like to be perfectly honest right now — if you weren't designed to be as cute as a button…" he says, squeezing his index finger very close to his thumb and flashing an unintentional peace sign as a result. "…I would have used these bulky hands of mine to squish you into the shape of a gumball and taken my medal right back."

I almost laugh, first at the unexpected turn his sentence took, and then at the analogy itself. The mental picture of me scrunched into a plump gumball shape along the lines of Sour Bill was so ridiculous that it was honestly hard for me not to holler and roll around in uncontrollable laughter.

Still, I couldn't help but to feel bashful that Ralph thought of me in such a way. It was really kinda… sweet.

"So when you twisted my arm behind my back—figuratively, that is—and forced me to make that deal with you to earn the medal back from the Winner's Cup in the junkyard, I'll be blunt and truthful… I couldn't care less if you got what you wanted, so long as I also managed to get what I want in the end."

I had the slightest of reactions to the big lug's admittance, Ralph's statement having enough of an effect to cause me to prop myself up to a sitting position from my horizontal one. Leaning forward and paying full attention, I idly start playing with a lock of my candy-coated jet-black hair, rolling it around with my fingers like it was a stick of wafer roll.

I mean, I did suspect the truth behind his actions way back then, even when I was a glitch. And granted, it was really kinda obvious in retrospect. And loathe as I am to admit it, I had been doing the exact same thing back to Ralph — using him for my own ends as well. All I needed was for him to break me into the Kart Bakery, and in return I'd win the Random Roster Race and earn my racing status and his dumb coin-looking-medal back. Easy-peasy!

In the beginning, the both of us pretended that our friendliness and wish to help the other was genuine, although it was nothing but a false charade. I'd forced a hesitant—and wry—smile to him, skeptical after years of the other racers and on occasion even King Candy giving me false assurances, especially considering that my Likkity-Split had just been thrashed moments prior.

But as they say — nothing ventured, nothing gained. It was a chance that I had to take, and I'm infinitely glad to this day that I hadn't just bolted away from Ralph in anger back then instead of negotiating with him. And thus, we'd shook on the deal with our very differently-sized hands, sealing our impromptu partnership that would eventually grow to that of a genuine friendship.

As much as it pains me, I sometimes wish that we hadn't started on such rocky ground. It was really painful to recall that our bonds together had actually been born for the most selfish of reasons.

To hear Ralph confess it out loud to me—even though he didn't know that I was listening in—what he'd genuinely thought about the rough beginning of our now-strong friendship… was something that I thought I'd never hear. It was a touchy topic and something that we'd both unanimously agreed to leave in the past.

"But as things happened, I really warmed up to you as time went on. You were the first person to see past me for who I was… not even Felix saw me in that light until a few hours later! In fact, until Candy spoke to me—" he cut himself off there, unwilling to continue. To be fair, I was in a similar boat as well, freezing up involuntarily at the mention of his name.

Ralph decisively clenched his palms, changing the topic as fluidly as the way I'd shift gears in my old kart. "Anyway, to cut a long story short… things changed, and yet they were still the same. Though you managed to get yourself promoted to president of Sugar Rush once we beat Turbo, to me you were still the same sassy girl whom I first met while climbing up that candy-cane tree."

Heh, heh! At least he got that part's right! I'll never be a frilly princess! My code might say that, but I'd only worn that dumb dress twice ever since the reset!

"Maybe that's why I really had trouble adapting to you actually changing," he mumbles to himself, bringing his arms close to him as he involuntarily shivers. "I'm sorry, kid… no, Vanellope." He quickly corrects himself, using my given name — a gesture which made me hold back a choked sob as I continue to hover above him in an invisible disarray of binary code. "I should have told you how sorry I was for what I did to Slaughter Race in a bid to get you to see reason when I actually had the chance. Now I guess it's too late to make amends…"

I was just about to tell him that it wasn't too late when he suddenly cut himself off, looking as though he was suffering a migraine.

"Oh my biscuits. I just realized something." Ralph sheepishly rubbed his neck, an embarrassed look prominently featured on his face. "How am I gonna tell Felix about this?" A second pause as his face turns into one of horror. "Oh man, I'm toast. How am I possibly gonna break the news to the rest of your little cavities that my partner adopted? Calhoun's totally going to kick my behind all the way to Tapper's… and that's not an exaggeration! She actually will do that!"

Almost at once, I was forced to cover my mouth with my hands to suppress my growing laughter. Was it really too bad that I could visualize and picture the entire conversation between Ralph and the standoffish Sergeant Lady in my head?

"So, um… I kind of messed up and now the kid's nothing but shredded code after our trip to the internet…" Stinkbrain would probably stumble on his own words by this point… he never was good with words when it came to breaking bad news.

"Excuse me, you did… what?" The blonde-haired armored woman would raise an eyebrow incredulously at Ralph before shooting him an epic glare that would probably scare the socks off of ninety percent of the arcade's inhabitants, Cy-Bugs included. "You managed to lose Vanellope, Wreck-It!? Gah… I have no words to say to this. This is seriously a whole new level of idiocy for you, you flimflam!"

I watch intently as Ralph let out a groan, slumping down to the bluish floor. "But still… wherever you are, if you can still hear me—"

"Aw, shucks. Thanks for everything, ya big Stinkbrain!" I interject to thank Ralph for his kind words before he could repeat his entire apology, making sure to look closely at him as I wait for his reaction.

It was instantaneous. Within a second Ralph had went from moping to stunned, whirling his head around in the general direction where I had call him.

"Kid… Vanellope…? Is that you?" he uttered softly, almost afraid as if he had said it any louder it would be revealed as nothing but a façade, mere playthings and hallucinations of his mind.

After a pause, he picked his jaw off the floor and called out for me again. "President Peanutbrain? I know that you said that you hated me forever…" he trailed off as he said that, his eyes unable to meet anything but the ground. "But please kid, if it's really you, answer me so that I know that you're there and that I'm not hearing things!" There was a light in his eyes that I hadn't seen in a while. They were filled with yearnful hope.

"Ah, Ralphy…" I pause for effect, before finishing with a half-teasing, half-serious tone. "…you never were good at keeping up suspense."

As I finish up my snarky statement, I grin as I saw Ralph perk up, allowing himself to let a smile adorn his face. "It's really you? You're still with me?" he finally brought himself to ask, his eyes wide with disbelief as they dart around in search for where my discombobulated voice had come from. "But… how?"

"Well, I ain't gonna answer until you catch me! Heh heh heh!"

"Not a chance, Miss Voice-in-my-Head!" Despite Ralph's seemingly harsh words, the broken look that I could see displayed on his face showed that they were uttered in desperation. "You aren't gonna leave me until I say so! Come on, now! Please, I need you!"

He began to wave those giant hands of his about, grasping nothing but air as he futilely tried to grab the area where he thought my voice was coming from. I had to resist the urge to snicker when he wound up flailing about in a direction which was very off from my current location.

Now, I know that this might sound like a really mean thing to do, but I couldn't help but to waft out of the way whenever he made a grab from the area where I was, chortling as I did every time.

"Can't catch me, slowpoke!" I mock with a teasing jeer. "Ya can't even see me!"

Ralph growled as he made haste in targeting the area where he last heard my giggling. "Kid, I swear to mod! You better cut this out!"

"Not a chance, Red Baron!"

Now, there were two reasons as to why I was doing this to Ralph. Reason number one — deep down, I am still the same sassy girl that I'd always been. Even in a moment like this, I wanted to at least inject some humor and alleviate the dark atmosphere with a teeny little tinge of gallows humor.

The second reason was more personal. As I laugh while Ralph furiously tried to chase and get ahold of my unseen apparition, I could close my eyes and almost imagine us both back at Litwak's Arcade, doing the exact same thing. Perhaps all I wanted was to believe that even though our lives and relationship have changed irrevocably, in some ways… everything was still the same as they'd always been.

I'm still the sassy and awesome President Fartfeathers, and he's still the doting father figure—my Stinkbrain—who tenderly loved and cared for me, looking past my appearance and personality and befriending me regardless of who I am.

Two misfits from two separate games released in arcades almost fifteen years apart, and yet due to an ironic turn of fate, we ended up as the unlikeliest of allies, but also the best of friends.

Ralph and Vanellope.

We were, and still are, the best of friends. After all, it was an iron bond that was forged through the flames of cold fire… or perhaps, in my personal opinion, a bond which was baked together in the Kart Bakery. I sigh wistfully, remembering and reminiscing about many fond memories shared between us for just a fleeting moment.

I eventually took pity on him and glitch up to his shoulder just like old times, using my newfound paranormal abilities to hover so that I didn't pass through his body. He stopped flailing about as I did so, almost as though he could feel my weight… in spite of the fact that I know that it was impossible for him to be sure of my exact location.

It was probably some inner gut instinct within Ralph that told him that I was close by. Such a sappy reason was so totally Ralph. Still, I couldn't help but to confirm his suspicions.

"Yo. I'm here, Stinkbrain."

The whisper was said directly into his right ear from my vantage point, so if he didn't know where I was after I practically revealed my whereabouts to him, I would have nothing to say.

Thankfully, despite what many in the arcade thought, Ralph wasn't that stupid. He caught on almost immediately. "K-kid…" he whispered hesitantly, looking directly at my direction. "Are you there?"

I nod at him, before wincing and lowering my head when I remember that he couldn't actually see me. "Yeah, short stuff. It's me," I reach out to tousle his brown hair before stopping short when I recall that my hands would just go through it. "I mean, come on… who else would it be, Ralph?"

"K-kid! I-It's you! You're actually here!" he choked, looking just about ready to bawl his eyes out.

I chuckle with unrestrained mirth. "Aw, Ralphy… you lily-livered lollipop, you! Get a grip on yourself, ya crying cracker!" The reprimand was both simultaneously serious and meant in jest.

"B-B-But…" he blubbered, admittedly sounding kinda stupid as he tried to control his emotions. "How can I—"

"And I forgive you, Ralph," I hurriedly add before the conversation could derail. As Ralph began to smile goofily at those four words, I grin and proceed to add an addendum. "I never said that I didn't want you as a friend, ya big dummy. I just said that you were behaving like a bad friend."

Silence filled the area, the soft whirl of the antivirus software being the only thing that could be heard for a while.

He finally managed to stutter a reply. "Th-thanks, kid. I'm so glad that you forgive me…" His lips curled up into a smile when he realized that I had liberated him. The change was very noticeable visibly, as Ralph had straightened up immediately, looking like a weight had been lifted off his shoulders.

"…for being…?" I prompt Ralph to continue on, causing him to sigh as he knew immediately exactly what was coming up. Honestly, that big doofus should have known that I wouldn't let him off for his perverse actions that easily.

Nevertheless, he continued to go through the motions with a roll of his eyes. "…a colossal idiot."

"And?" I beckon him further with a lopsided smirk, causing his smile to widen as he got a confirmation of my intentions from my tone alone.

"A really insecure numbskull."

I flutter my eyelids this time. "And?"

He sighed — although it wasn't out of exasperation, but rather the hilarity of it all. "A selfish diaper baby who peed his pants."

"And…?" I tilt my head, waiting for the best part.

A latent pause before Ralph murmured the words that the both of us knew he was going to say.

"…a stinkbrain?"

I let loose a cackle, glitching off his shoulders to get myself in a position that was just above his head. "You're the stinkiest brain in the whole wide world," I kindly inform Ralph while savagely nodding in concurrence.

"Says the sassiest kid in the whole entire arcade," he shoots back at me.

I furrow my brow, laughing at his comment. "Oh, mods have mercy! You are such a kid, Stinkbrain!" My arms were by my hip as I mumble the exasperated remark.

Ralph went googly-eyed at my accusation. "N-No! What are you talking about!?" he denied, laughing it off with a dismissive gesture.

"Hey, don't try to play dumb with me! You act like such a diaper baby at times, you know?" I proceed to roll my eyes even though I was well aware that Ralph couldn't see it… I just had to hope that he knew me well enough to know that I was rolling my eyes at him from beyond the Recycle Bin. "Honestly, sometimes I think that our relationship should actually work the other way around."

Ralph quirked his head in befuddlement, scratching his head as his mind exhausted all possibilities as to the intended meaning of my words. "I'm sorry… what?"

"Well, since you act like a stinky diaper-baby all the time—" my lips curl up in a rate that was directly proportional to the rise in Ralph's annoyance level, "—I think that would make you the aloof younger brother."

A snap of my fingers then caused Ralph's eyes to fall upon me as I deliver the parting blow. "And I guess that would mean that I play the role of the cool older sister!"

"H-H-Hey!" he finally manages to splutter. "I'm older than you, you know?" he countered, looking more than a little self-conscious.

"Sweet pumpkin pie, that doesn't make a difference! Come on, don't you remember? Our ages are programmed, Ralph!" I say indignantly as I point the fact out to him. "It doesn't actually matter that I physically look like a nine-year-old."

"Hey, my game came out for at least a decade and a half before yours was even programmed, kid."

I inwardly cringe as I saw Ralph's smug smirk. Sweet sourdough, he could be good at arguing if he actually bothered trying, something he usually didn't bother with a good half the time.

Still, I wasn't going to lose to him in a verbal argument just like that. Not without a fight. "Ah-hem!" I clear my throat, closing my eyes and holding my head high in what I personally dubbed as my 'presidential speech' pose. "But you're still more childish than I am!" I cackle with a grin, hitting him where it hurts… all in the name of laughs and jeers, of course.

"I am not!" he fired back, which quickly led to me raising a brow in delight. Now that was a little too quick of a response, if you ask me.

Hence, I proceeded to taunt him in a singsong-like manner, sticking my tongue out directly in his face for good measure… if only he could see it. "Yes, you are~"

"C'mon, I'm not childish!"

"You totally are, ya goofball!"

"Am not!"

"You smell like a kid, and you act just like one too!"

"I am not a… hey, wait a second." Ralph suddenly let his words trail off, a knowing look in his eye. "You're instigating me on purpose just to prove your point, aren't you?"

My hands flew to my mouth, a slight giggle escaping me as I chuckle at Ralph's abrupt realization. "Aw, guess you caught me out there, Smarty McSmartpants!" I confess, my words and my earlier stifled laugh basically all the proof that Ralph needed to confirm his theory.

Ralph smirked when I concurred with his hypothetical guess. "Looks like I beat you at your own game, huh princess?"

Leaning forward, I let out an imprudent snort at him. "Oi… that's president, ya big dolt! Pre-si-dent!" I articulate each syllable slowly, somehow not noticing his lips rising in amusement as he heard me do so. "Geez! How many times must I tell… you… that…?" A grimace rocked through me when I saw his smug face after my outburst, realizing too late that he had deliberately riled me up to prove his point.

Ralph folded his arms with a wink, a cocky smirk on his face as he proceeded to turn the tables on me. "Gotcha there, kid." The 'kid' was emphasized this time, with so much emphasis placed on the inflection of the affectionate term that there might as well be a neon sign next to Stinkbrain that said, "Look at me! I just managed to punk a little girl and beat her in a war of words."

I could hear his unseen question from his tone alone — who's the kid now, huh?

"Oh, alright!" I finally relent to Ralph with a pout, flinging my arms to my sides out of frustration at somehow managing to fall for his reverse psychology trick. Geez, I must really be out of my element for Ralph of all people to beat me in verbal war! "Ya win this round, Stinkbrain. I'll continue to be the cute younger sister and you'll be the super-duper cool big brother. Yer happy now, buster?"

"I sure am, Little Miss President."

I let out a snort at him. Oh, now you refer to me as a president.

"But maybe not anymore, huh?" Ralph then proceeded to ask in a rhetorical way. Finding myself confused as to why he would make that remark, I quirk my head as a gesture for him to elaborate. Thankfully, although he couldn't see me, he still ended up doing so. "I mean, you're not exactly president anymore, are you? Slaughter Race is your new game now," he explained.

Oh, great.

My heart sank. He didn't know, did he?

I scolded myself inwardly, glitching down to the ground. Well, of course he wouldn't know! Ya haven't told him yet, genius!

"Ralph, look at—" I bite down on my tongue, hastily verbally backspacing and backtracking when I realize my careless mistake, "Sorry, listen to me. I-I… I can't go back."

The words tumble out before I could stop them, causing Ralph's eyes to widen exponentially. The outlandish, goofy sight would have been hilarious had I been in any other situation.

But not this one.

Ralph's face was absolutely heart-wrenching to look at. The downcast, horrified expression on the wrecker's face perfectly encapsulated the meaning of the word "despair". It was one befitting a person who was losing all hope.

Before I know it, I found my own inner resolve crumbling at his look. Before I could have any second thoughts, I push back my usual apprehensiveness with regards to opening up to others and started to admit my deepest, darkest concerns to my best friend.

"I just… can't, Ralph," I lament in a voice which was so serious and soft that I almost couldn't believe that it was mine. Gone were all the vitriolic banter and verbal jabs. It was all serious time now. "Look, Stinkbrain… I know you can't see me, so I'm just gonna tell you right now. I'm not even the same Vanellope that you used to know."

I hold my lips steady, turning away from Ralph so that I didn't have to make things harder by facing him as I spoke. "Not anymore at least, not when the virus scan got me good. Heheheh…"

My bitter laugh was so startling that it ended up causing him to step back with a thud. For a slight moment, my body proceeded to betray me by sneaking a glance back at Ralph, instinctively noticing that he had a shocked face before I snap back to reality, tell myself that I couldn't look at him lest I lose my cool, and swiftly whirl back around. "Isn't fate a cruel game programmer?" I ask with a pensive frown on my visage, "Now I'm nothing but a ghostly glitch again, Ralph! I can't venture back to either Slaughter Race or Sugar Rush… at least not the way that I am right now!"

The instant I feel my lips quivering, I knew that I had to cut things off before I lost my composure.

"I guess this is what I deserve…"

"No!" he howled like a beast, running in my direction as he heard me say those self-destructive words. His footsteps were so forceful that they caused miniature tremors as he ran. "That's not true, kid! Not even a single bit! You didn't deserve any of this, so don't bring scorn and guilt upon yourself when you willingly risked your life to save the internet from me!"

"You're wrong, Ralph!" I retorted, my voice cracking slightly. "I am a glitch. Always was, always have been, and always will be…"

Ralph flinched back when he heard my derogatory comment, a stubborn look on his face quickly forming as he defiantly countered back. "You're wrong, kid! People love your glitching! I saw the gamers always pick you because of it!"

"Well now that I'm stuck like this, I hate it!" I fire back without missing a beat, ripping out a piece of candy from my hair and hurling it to the ground in anger.

Confession time — I wasn't the least bit surprised when it ended up passing through the ground instead of landing with a clack against the floor. With a sigh, I flick away a wisp of black hair that got into my eye and proceed to stare my friend right in the face.

"Ralph… I don't have much time…" I said, mustering up the most serious voice that I possibly could. "The virus scan completely deleted me, so all that there's left are a few lines of random access memory. The remnants of my very code is breaking apart even as we speak. Soon, my code will dissolve completely and there'll be nothing left but a memory…"

It was a white lie, but since I never got around to telling Ralph the itty-bitty details about how I got revived after the scan in the first place, he proceeded to buy it like a fresh root beer from Tapper's.

I could feel him seize up from under my feet as his mind slowly pieced together what I was telling him. "No! It can't be… I just got you back, kid! Please!" he cried, holding both of his freakishly big palms together. "C'mon, you can't do this to me a second time! Don't leave me alone again…"

As much as it tore my heart out, I couldn't allow Ralph to know the full entire truth — that I could never return with him to Litwak's Arcade. To yearn and dream is a dangerous thing. I knew that feeling very well, having longed to be a racer for fifteen long years after my throne was seized by Turbo from right under my nose.

I shoot a glimpse towards Ralph, seeing denial clouding his petrified brown eyes as his dark fears once again grasp firmly ahold of him. "Not again… please! I can't lose you after I literally just got you back, kid! Not like this!"

There is nothing more devastating in the entire world than allowing yourself to believe, only to have your goals be crushed when you finally open your heart to the possibility of successfully achieving what you want.

So, no. I wasn't going to be that girl, not to a friend like Ralph. I adamantly stood my ground, refusing to mislead Ralph into thinking that I could remain by his side when the circumstances said otherwise, even though it broke me inside.

"Goodbye, Ralph. You'll always be my friend, Stinkbrain." I slowly wave a final farewell to him, my body briefly pixelating into blocks as I struggle with all my might to remain composed. For a moment, he stared at me in a way that almost made it seem as though he'd seen my body glitching.

"Vanellope… please…" Ralph fell on his knees, all but pleading with me to stay with him. "…please don't go. There's gotta be another way, kid…"

Tearing my teary eyes and body away from him literally took all of my willpower.

"Thanks for everything… I'll never forget you…"

My adieu traveled to Ralph through the wind. As my final farewell reach his ears, I hastily took to the sky and forced myself not to look back at the stricken wrecker, ignoring my own shattering heart as I fled from the vicinity.

It was only after I was very, very, very, very super-duper-positively-absolutely-one-hundred-percent sure that I was far enough away from Ralph (I practically zoomed all the way back to the main hub area just for safety) did I finally break my composure, sniffing and allowing the first tears to trickle down my cheeks.

The teardrops spazzed out as they dribbled down my face, glitching out of existence and vanishing into nothingness before they could hit the polished ground.

The only reason that we'd even gotten away with this whole crazy adventure in the first place was because Litwak's Arcade had wound up closed for a week. A week without work was the only reason that Ralph was able to get away from his game, Fix-It Felix Jr., jumping into "wi-fi" and onto the internet in the first place.

I wipe my two eyes with the sleeves of my hoodie, holding back a sniff.

Stinkbrain was so predictable. If he were to find out that I was alive but unable to return to Litwak's Arcade because of what I'd become, then I would bet my license that he would almost certainly stay on the internet just to be with me.

My fists then clenched with determination as I adjusted my tear-stained hoodie. Not a chance, buster!

Ralph still had a perfectly functional game, and if he didn't return, there was no doubt as to what would happen to his game — Fix-It Felix Jr. would be put out of order. I wasn't going to let Ralph abandon his game on a whim for the foolhardiest of reasons… like I did to mine.

Even if it meant breaking his heart and stomping it into miniscule pieces. It was… for his own good.

"No! You will not follow me, Ralph! A friend would never do what you just did! Never! So just leave me alone!"

Funny, huh. I could almost swear that I appear to have gotten my wish from earlier. It was such an ironic shame, the whole way that this scenario had played out. The bitter irony tasted like salt to me.

Be mean to be nice. Be mean to be nice…

I had to keep telling myself that before my inner guilt tore me inside-out.

As I continue to bawl, a flicker of tiny orange caught my eye, causing them to drift down from the parapet I was sitting on. Blinking away tears to clear up my vision, they soon focused on a flame.

Said flame was alit, although upon closer inspection, it wasn't ablaze because anybody was actually on fire. Rather, the constant flickering was from the miniature fire which was fueled by the wick of a candle.

"Ohhh… everything's so shiny!"

I wipe my eyes with my balled hands, then proceeded to rub them again for good measure until I was absolutely sure that I wasn't hallucinating the cake-capped person carefreely skipping down on the ground below.

"Milk my monkeys… why are you here?" The hissed question was inflected with a trace of curiosity, but mostly grave concern.

Because seriously, why would Candlehead be here, on the internet?

My innate curiosity couldn't take it anymore. Like a moth drawn to a flame, I swooped down and close in on her, ending up just above her head.

"Shiny… so bright…" she murmured with glee. I snort and chortle when I saw Candlehead reach out to touch the glass mirror, the girl grinning in fervent excitement as she caressed the reflection of her lit pink candle, petting it like a owner would pet their pet.

Of course she would be enthralled by her candle's reflection. Of course.

Now that I thought better about it… why was she here, anyway? Sure, Sugar Rush may have gotten itself unplugged, but it wasn't an excuse for any one of the racers to just zoom off onto the internet. Wasn't Surge supposed to be on guard duty? I mean, Ralph and I did manage to get past him… but surely that had to be a fluke, not a regular occurrence!

"Hey, Candlehead!" A somewhat snobby, if concerned, voice cut in from the distance. "Don't get yourself lost. Follow us, this place is huge."

Oh, mod no. I could only shake my head in blatant disbelief. Was this the entire universe's "let's totally mess with Vanellope" day? Well, it sure did look like it.

Because why else would Taffyta be popping her head around the corner and gesturing for a befuddled Candlehead to follow her?

Taffyta and Candlehead… here? Oh, what gives? Why must this happen to me!?

Silently, I follow alongside Taffyta, who had already grabbed Candlehead by the hand and started to drag her along in spite of her protests.

"You too, Rancis?! Get your head out of that mirror!"

I felt my eyebrows twitch when I heard and then saw Taffyta chiding the peanut butter-themed racer, who was vainly straightening up his neatly trimmed blond hair with the help of the shiny surfaces that were littered around the vicinity.

Taffyta, Candlehead, and Rancis? Okay, now this was getting ridiculous! Seriously, all three of them—

I suddenly blink my hazel eyes in horror, jolting back in realization as an epiphany hit me.

Oh, don't tell me…

As I rounded the corner, my suspicions were confirmed. I promptly exhaled a tired breath, admonishing myself for my short-sightedness as my eyes flickered downwards, the faintest trace of a smile trailing across my jawline.

I really should have seen this coming. Of course it wasn't going to be just Taffyta and her usual posse.

Everyone was here.

And when I said everyone, I literally mean everyone, too. From Jubileena to Adorabeezle… why, even the recolors are hanging about here! The fourteen Sugar Rush racers were all huddled around in the main hub area of the internet, curiously wandering around and admiring the vast blue nebula that stretched all around them.

My eyes glimmer with amusement as I observe the sight. It was so oddly… nostalgic. If I close my eyes, it almost felt as though I was hosting a Random Roster Race again.

"On a list of the most stupid, reckless ideas that you've dragged us into, this is darn well near the top, Swizz!"

Opening my eyes, my attention was promptly drawn to a racer who had a large orange pumpkin perched atop his head and was currently glowering at his lollipop-capped friend. But his angered façade didn't last past his prior sentence, as the orange-cheeked racer soon broke into a goofy smile. "And that's awesome! Seriously… good job, man!" he praised, patting the swirly-capped Swizzle on the shoulder. "How did you even convince Mom and Dad to agree to this, anyway?"

A roll of my eyes was pretty much imminent the instant my ears heard Gloyd's exasperated-cum-impressed comment. Of course Swizzle had something to do with this. That daredevil of a racer had guts.

It certainly explained why the whole bunch of them were gathered around in a large group in some sort of clandestine meeting.

Wait a moment… I purse my lips, a hand to my chin. Since when did Gloyd or Swizzle actually have parents? We weren't programmed to have parents in Sugar Rush

Three seconds later, my eyes sparkled mischievously. Being deleted must have totally messed with my short-term memory! Geez, I can't believe that it slipped my mind — Felix and Calhoun chose to adopt all of the remaining Sugar Rush racers like a mix of caramel milk when Litwak unplugged our game.

And sure enough, the moment my mind made the connection…

"Oh my land…"

I smirk unironically. There was only one person in the whole entire arcade who used those words as his catchphrase. I slowly let myself lie horizontally on my belly in mid-air while my hazel eyes focused on Felix (or, as he'd introduce himself, Fix-It Felix Jr.)

He was shifting uncomfortably, the fixer grabbing ahold of his collar as though he was feeling faint. "How did I let our children convince us into doing something as reckless as this?" I hear him ask the tall high-definition soldier woman besides him with disdain.

Ha, that was a good one! I chortled under my breath when I realized that Felix was now feeling what it was like to be in my shoes. See, managing everyone in Sugar Rush was not as easy as it looks!

And now, it looked to me like Felix and Calhoun were both finding that out the hard way.

"It's just… gah!" To my surprise, Felix knocked his hat off with his hands, ruffling his hair in frustration. "It's just so unlike me, Tammy!"

I furrowed my brow as I see the normally mild-mannered mechanic then thrust his hands down in frustration. "I'm so disappointed with myself!" he continued, fiddling with his golden hammer in his hand. "I should be a responsible role model to our children, not a nilly-willy who simply breaks the rules on a whim!"

"Kindly shush, Felix," Calhoun answers him, cutting off the blabbering Felix with a finger to his lip. "Remember, we are doing this for your wrecker friend and his little girl." She leans down to pick up his blue cap, replacing it atop Felix's head.

Apprehensiveness fill up within me as I hear her words. Wait… did she just say that she was looking for…

…oh, come on! I imitate Felix's gesture from earlier, rubbing my own hair with my hands and turning it unkempt. That was why they were here!? Oh… for the love of cookie dough… why!?

"Why, you're absolutely right, Tammy!" Felix declared with a firm expression, raising the hand with the hammer up into the sky as he cleared his throat and directed his voice towards the wandering Sugar Rush racers.

"Alright, kids! Now that your console's all fixed and running, all we have left to do is to find Ralph and Vanellope! I personally don't know why they haven't returned when the steering wheel already arrived, but they probably got lost in some virtual Tapper's or something!" Felix tried to make an excuse for our disappearance by using a humorous example, causing me to laugh sarcastically at him. "And when we do find them, we're getting them both back to Litwak's Arcade as soon as possible… together as one big, cohesive family!"

Calhoun proceeded to back Felix up, using the typical firm authoritative voice that she would use to guide the player in Hero's Duty. "Remember, we are on a strict time limit here. Litwak's might be closed for a week, but if it opens in five days and they're still not back you can kiss your game goodbye." She paused for effect before pumping her fist into the air to mimic Felix's hammer pose. "Alright, everyone! Let's move out! The world's a-waiting! It's time to find your friend!"

"Don't forget about my friend too, honey-kins! Ralph's important too!"

"Shut up… I know that!"

As Felix and Calhoun got into a friendly argument, I focus my attention on the racers who were observing the banter ahead of them. All fourteen of the racers had brightened up at their adoptive parents' words, lighting up just like the pre-race countdown light held up by the marshmallow referee at the starting line of the racetrack.

Quite frankly, I found myself being taken aback by the vigor that was prominently shining in all of their eyes. Determination was probably running through their candy veins… no, coursing through their code.

My glee at seeing my friends and fellow racers united in their resolve to solve 'the mystery of the missing Ralph and Vanellope' as one big cohesive family under the care of Felix and Calhoun was contagious. Even I couldn't help but to find myself cracking a smile despite the grim situation, a wide grin that only faltered and was wiped cleanly from my face when I recall that their goal would ironically only lead to distraught tears should they succeed in their endeavors.

If they were to find out about what happened to me…

Pensively, my body tensed up while looking on at them.

Oh, how I fervently pray for the trail of my untimely demise to run cold. After all, the internet is such a big place! Surely they would never be able to find out about the harsh truth here in this vast wilderness?

"Please excuse me, kind sir! Pardon my interruption, but would you be so kind as to spare a few seconds to help a man in need in these trying times?"

I freeze up, my image stuttering slightly as my incorporeal form heavily glitched upon seeing Felix take a chance by approaching a random stranger to begin his quest.

But it wasn't so random and arbitrary a choice to me. Did he really have to be so lucky as to pick Mr. Knowsmore as the very first person with that specific query on his mind? I nervously bite my lip as he approached the large search bar.

No, no, no… please don't! Gah! I'm such an idiot! Never jinx a situation by asking "what's the worst that can happen?", ever!

That was what I would proceed to tell myself while inhaling a sharp intake of oxygen, a gulp of fresh fear infused within that bated breath.

Author's Note:

Secrets don't last forever, Vanellope. :P

This chapter is the reason I actively chose to use first-person POV—despite it being tricky to execute well in my personal opinion—and even write this fic to begin with. I'm quite pleased with how it turned out, so I hope you liked Ralph's and Vanellope's conversation and its aftermath. It ended up being a bit fluffier than I'd thought.

Yeah, Litwak's Arcade is closed for a week in this fic. If I'm not wrong, there is a not-so-obvious plot hole where there's realistically no way that Ralph and Vanellope can make it back in time if it wasn't closed — it takes inordinately long for them to raise $27,001, and yes… that makes the passage of time at least 24 hours because of the time pressure by the eBay Eboy. And yeah, Felix says he'll cover for Ralph in the movie, but I call hax on that handwave.

Back on topic, it's just… I'm legitimately not used to writing this much angst and tragedy front and center. Sure I've written angst before, but never in first-person and it's starting to get to me a little. Sniff… I probably have to write a fluff piece for this fandom to compensate and restore the balance after this.

Truthfully, I wasn't going to write the Sugar Rush racers in as I wanted this story to focus on Ralph and Vanellope. Then, I realized that there's no way Vanellope would be the only one panicking about Fix It Felix Jr. being unplugged when Felix is his co-partner… and that to write Felix into this story means I have to write in Calhoun and their 14 new adopted children too.

So now this tale has a semi-coherent plot and is soon to feel sixteen times more heartbreaking as a result. You're welcome, I suppose.