Taffyta roared up the track, with thirteen other cars and the entire Sugar Rush police force hot on her trail. Ralph was perched on the back of Vanellope’s kart; Rancis was squeezed in next to Candlehead, just as eager to get his car back as he was to bring justice to the girl who stole it. High above the convoy of candied vehicles, Calhoun and Felix flew in on their hoverboard, with Sour Bill clinging to the back.
The chase rounded a corner, and Taffyta snagged an A La Mode power-up without even meaning to. She glanced behind her and gasped; the gap between her and her pursuers was closing.
Calhoun drew her plasma cannon and took aim at the peanut butter cup kart below. “It’s a tough shot, but I’ve definitely scored tougher…”
“Jiminy jaminy, Tamora!” Felix yelped, clutching his wife’s waist in shock. “She’s just a kid!”
“Calm down, baby, I’ve got this thing set on stun,” Calhoun assured him. “All it’ll do is knock her out for a minute or – ”
“INCOMING!” Sour Bill shouted.
A giant scoop of ice cream had just shot out of Taffyta’s stolen ride and was soaring straight for the hoverboard. Calhoun screamed and tried to swerve, but she was too late – the frozen scoop splattered in her face, temporarily blinding her and covering Felix and Bill from head to toe. The hoverboard wobbled dangerously as she struggled to regain her vision. In the confusion, she accidentally pulled the trigger.
A plasma beam shot out and blasted a massive hole in the candy cane guardrail, and Taffyta drove through it into the chocolate-coated countryside. Vanellope followed her, as did everyone else. Calhoun was forced to bring the hoverboard down for a landing, carving a deep gouge in the track. Sour Bill lost his grip and rolled away, coming to rest against the guardrail.
“Bleah!” Calhoun spit, wiping ice cream off her face. “Still, beats the holy heck out of a Cy-Bug attack.”
“More delicious, too,” Felix said as he licked his lips.
Racing along the plains of Sugar Rush at over 90 miles an hour, Taffyta dodged the massive gumdrops and jawbreakers that littered the landscape like boulders. She had no idea where she was going, but she was still no closer to losing the racers who were howling for justice.
Vanellope pounded the gas, but found that the other racers were outstripping her anyway. “What’s wrong?” she shouted above the roar of the engine. “How come I can’t hit my top speed?”
Ralph looked around, then realized what the problem was. “I’m too heavy!” he called. “You’re carrying 643 extra pounds with me on this thing! I’m gonna have to jump!”
“Are you crazy?” Vanellope squeaked. “We’re doin’ almost a hundred here!”
“I’ll tuck and roll!” Ralph shouted back. “I get thrown off an eleven-story building fifty times a day, I can take it! Besides, after four nights in a row, I think you deserve to beat Taffyta in a race again!”
Vanellope smirked, then gave a quick thumbs-up. “Catch you later, chumbo!”
Ralph returned the smile, then pitched sideways and tumbled off the edge of the car, rolling to a rather ungainly stop in the dust as Vanellope’s car peeled off into the distance. He clambered to his feet and brushed himself off.
“Go get ‘em, Vanellope,” he wheezed.
Taffyta jerked the wheel violently as she made a break for Candy Cane Forest. Maybe I can lose them there, she thought. But the deafening rumble of engines behind her reminded her that she hadn’t shaken them yet.
As the expansive grove of peppermint-striped trees grew closer on the horizon, Taffyta looked to her left and gasped. Vanellope was right next to her.
“So what was that you were saying about how I could never have beat you if I couldn’t glitch?” Vanellope shouted, sideswiping the peanut butter cup kart with a grin. Taffyta swerved uncontrollably to the right, caromed off a boulder-sized bonbon, and got thrown clear as the kart flipped end over end, spraying chocolate crumbs everywhere. Taffyta skidded to a stop at the outer edge of a ring-shaped moat of liquid green taffy surrounding a humongous candy cane tree.
Vanellope’s car screeched to a halt as the rest of the racers pulled up behind her. Breathing heavily, Taffyta scrambled to her feet and leapt desperately across the gumdrop stepping stones that led to the tree in the center. The angry shouts of the racers behind her let her know that they were in no mood to negotiate with her. If she could only climb to the top, maybe she could be spared…
But as she jumped to the first branch, she heard an all-too-familiar VOOP. She looked up to see Vanellope standing on the branch, her hands on her hips in a cocky sort of way.
“Now, this is just silly,” Vanellope said smugly. “Don’t you know skunks can’t climb trees?”
Frantically, Taffyta jumped for a higher branch, but with another VOOP, Vanellope glitched onto that one too. “Bet you wish you could do this now, huh?”
VOOP. VOOP. VOOP. Every time Taffyta moved higher up the tree, Vanellope was there to meet her. The crowd of racers below stood rapt with attention. Ralph soon came thudding up behind them, followed closely by Calhoun, Felix, and Bill on the hoverboard.
Finally, when they were almost near the top, Taffyta made one final frantic bid for safety. She leapt wildly out onto one of the frailest branches, grabbing it with both hands and dangling from it like a helpless kitten. Down below, the other racers couldn’t help gasping in surprise.
“Ha!” Taffyta jeered. “Let’s see you follow me out here, big shot!”
Vanellope crossed her arms and leaned against the trunk of the tree. “Well, given the situation, I think I’d rather not.”
Taffyta gulped. All her insides seemed to vanish as she looked up at the branch she was clinging so precariously to.
It was double-striped.
Before Taffyta could react, the branch vanished in a puff of pixels. She screamed and flailed as she fell, plunging unceremoniously into the taffy moat with a loud PLOP.
“Ooh,” Ralph hissed, flinching. “And that stuff’s really hard to get off, too.”
Vanellope glitched back down to the ground, reappearing directly in front of the crowd. “Well, she’s always talking about staying sweet, isn’t she?”
“Vanellope, we’re so sorry!” Candlehead sputtered. “We let Taffyta talk us into making a terrible mistake! I know we’re a bunch of weasels and we don’t deserve it, but can you ever forgive us?”
Vanellope looked as if she were thinking hard. “What did you say you all were?”
“Weasels!” Candlehead repeated, wringing her hands. “Horrible, wretched weasels!”
“And?” Vanellope motioned.
“And…uh, inconsiderate crumb-bums!” Jubileena threw in.
“A swarm of stupid, spineless stinkbrains!” Swizzle concluded.
“Ooh, nice use of alliteration,” Vanellope giggled. “All right, fine, I forgive you.”
Taffyta splashed onto the bank of the moat, gasping and covered in taffy. Wynchell and Duncan stepped out of the crowd, backed by several of the bear claw SWAT team.
“Taffyta Muttonfudge, you’re under arrest for tampering with a fellow racer’s vehicle,” Duncan muttered, slapping the handcuffs on her taffy-coated wrists.
“And also for being a general pain in the tush,” Wynchell added.
Tears began to well in Taffyta’s eyes. “That’s not an arrestable offense!” she choked.
“It will be if Proposition 64 passes,” Sour Bill mumbled.
Vanellope turned to face Rancis. “So, the other night, when you gave me all that weird ‘slow and steady’ jazz…”
Rancis blushed slightly. “Yeah…well, I was trying to warn you about your brakes. I would have told you outright, but Taffyta was right there…” He gulped nervously. “I-I-I’m sorry, Vanellope, I really am, and I can totally understand if you never want to talk to me again…”
“Well, that would make me the jerk, then, wouldn’t it?” Vanellope laughed, tousling Rancis’ hair playfully. Rancis smiled and blushed even deeper.
“Hey,” Adorabeezle said, “if Taffyta’s been arrested, doesn’t that mean we need a new president?”
“Y’know, I do believe you’re right!” Ralph beamed. “I guess you’re gonna have to have another election. Who here votes for Vanellope?”
“ME! Me me me!” came the chorus of voices as every racer put their hand in the air.
Calhoun shook her hair out of her face and smiled. “The ‘me’s’ have it! Looks like you’re back in business, short-stuff!”
“Aw, golly! I just love a happy ending!” Felix squealed, cuddling up to Calhoun.
Vanellope jumped up onto Ralph’s shoulders. “Very well then, allow me to make my first official decree of my second term in office. Wynchell, Duncan – release the prisoner!”
The racers all exchanged confused looks. Wynchell and Duncan shrugged, but did what they were ordered. Taffyta rubbed her wrists gingerly. Her eyes, the only part of her not obscured by taffy, were still red with tears.
“Taffyta, what you did was shameful, rotten, despicable, and overall not very nice,” Vanellope proclaimed with a smile. “And frankly, I don’t think sending you to jail is going to be enough of a punishment. Instead, I’ve got an even better idea…”
* * Epilogue * *
Litwak’s Arcade buzzed with activity. Kids ran every which way among the din of over two dozen video games. The bone-cracking punches of Street Fighter II mixed with the whomping techno beats of Dance Dance Revolution and the death throes of screeching Cy-Bugs from Hero’s Duty. At the back wall, a line had already formed at Fix-It Felix Jr., full of gamers eager to unlock that cool new Q-bert bonus level everybody was talking about.
And another line had begun over at Sugar Rush, where word had spread quickly among the arcade regulars that Vanellope Von Schweetz was a playable character again. The young girl in the driver’s seat cheered as she drove Vanellope’s candy kart over the finish line, placing first for the third time in a row. Her friend shoved her playfully and said “All right, c’mon, I get to play as Vanellope this time!”
That night, Vanellope won the qualifying race handily. But she was proud of herself not for the victory, but because of how she’d earned it. She had run the entire race without glitching once, and had sworn to her fellow racers that from now on, she would save her glitchy powers only for when there was a player controlling her. “After all,” she said from the winner’s circle, “never let it be said that I’m not an advocate of fair play!”
The crowd cheered, with Ralph, Felix, and Calhoun shouting their support from the top box as usual. Vanellope smiled and waved back at them.
Rancis had come in second place, and he shuffled over to Vanellope, his hands behind his back. “Um, Vanellope?” he began. “I, uh, wanted to congratulate you on your victory. You really did great out there!”
“Thanks, Fluggerbutter,” Vanellope grinned. “You didn’t do so bad yourself!”
“And, uh, I know this is kind of a moot point since the election’s already over,” he continued, color rising in his cheeks again, “but, uh, I just wanted to let you know that…um, if I hadn’t been in jail at the time…well, um, I was gonna vote for you.”
Vanellope smiled even more broadly. “Aw, that’s sweet, Rancis. And let me just say that I really, really appreciate – Holy Skittles, what the heck is that?” she yelped, pointing over Rancis’ shoulder.
Rancis turned, not knowing what to expect. And as he looked around, Vanellope leaned over and kissed him on the cheek.
His heart soaring, Rancis giggled incoherently and fainted, his face redder than a Hot Tamale. Vanellope smirked and rolled her eyes. “Boys…” she muttered.
“Smooth move, Vanellope!” Candlehead laughed. “So where’s Taffyta, anyway?”
Vanellope put her hands in the pockets of her hoodie. “Oh, probably getting ready for her first mandatory meeting, I suppose. Ralph’s gonna bring her over there later.”
“That was a very nice thing you did for Taffyta, you know,” Candlehead said. “A lesser person would have just thrown her in prison and forgot about it.”
“Yeah, well,” Vanellope replied, nudging Rancis’ unconscious body with her foot, “I try to stay sweet.”
“…Strictly speaking, I’m not really a bad guy. I’m more like a rival. But you know, there’s a line between rivalry and villainy, and I’m ashamed to admit it, but I crossed that line and left it in the dust. I wanted the glory that Vanellope had, but when I crawled out of that taffy and saw the looks on the other kids’ faces…well, I realized I’d gone way too far. I lied, I cheated, I betrayed my friends…I guess I should consider myself lucky that I didn’t get anything worse than just a one-month ban from the nightly qualifying races. I want to get myself back on track…no pun intended. And if going to these meetings will help me work out what I’m feeling, then heck, I’m all for it.”
Polite applause rang through the break room as Taffyta sat back down. “Very good share, Taffyta,” Clyde said softly. “Recognizing these issues is the first step towards acceptance, and that’s what we’re here to help you with.”
Ralph put a supportive hand on Taffyta’s shoulder. “Hey, all us antagonists go through this sort of thing. I mean, jeez, I know I did. But I’ve come to terms with who I am, and with a little bit of support, I know you will too.”
“Just remember Bad-Anon mantra, little strawberry girl,” Zangief purred through his heavy accent. “One game at a time.”
“Rrrrnghh!” Zombie agreed.
Clyde rose from his seat. “All right, now it’s getting late, so let’s wrap it up as we always do with the Bad Guy Affirmation.”
With the sound of a dozen scraping chairs, the room full of video game villains stood up and linked hands (or claws or tentacles or whatever they had). Taffyta joined them in their low, rumbling chant:
“I am bad, and that’s good. I’ll never be good, and that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather be…than me.”