Felix sat atop Niceland Apartments and looked out over the arcade from his game's screen. Mr. Litwak had draped some colorful strands of lights over a few game cabinets and around the building's front windows, and they cast a cozy glow over his neighbors' homes. The sights and sounds of their celebrations filled the arcade with mirth, and below him his own game's annual party was well underway. Through the open windows he could hear Ralph belting out "Deck the Halls" with Tamora, her men, and Zangief joining in, the Nicelanders and racers barely audible over the festive bellowing. Their New Year's Eve celebration retained some Christmas cheer for the sake of friends who couldn't make it the previous week.
Originally Felix had come up to the roof for some fresh air, but as he sat there alone with his thoughts, he found it far too easy to venture into bittersweet mental territory. His gaze drifted to the one remaining Sugar Rush cabinet and its new steering wheel; its border lights blended seamlessly with the other blinking bulbs around the room.
Its twin has been unplugged quite a while ago now. Most gamers tended to play Sugar Rush by themselves for the glory of setting a new best time without distractions. Litwak decided to sell the second cabinet to a collector who was well-off enough to give him several times what he'd always thought it was worth. It was the last piece she needed for her TobiKomi collection – ever since the company announced its impending closure, she'd explained, the value of their games had started climbing, and she was willing to pay extra then to avoid ridiculous levels of price-gouging later.
As beneficial as it had been to the arcade, all of this did little to reassure Felix. If it wasn't for Ralph getting the steering wheel on time, the remaining cabinet – the racers’ home – would've gone the way of Centipede. Naturally they all knew how precarious their way of life happened to be, but with so many games in the arcade, it wasn't often that such an event would hit so close to home. And right at this time of the year, as well.
"Hey babe, you okay?"
"Oh my land!" He startled a bit before turning around with a hand on his chest. "Ah...'m sorry for leaving the party like that, darlin'. I shouldn't'a had that cheesecake...but I'll be fine."
"I know damn well something's bothering you. C'mon, tell me. You never take leave of a holiday party this long." Tamora's eyes narrowed but her tone was soft, almost as if she was afraid of scaring him away. She took a seat next to him on the ledge.
"I was just...thinkin'. 'Bout the arcade back in the day, and– and all of us."
She wrapped an arm around her little husband. They both wore the sweaters she knitted for them years ago: classic oversized, ugly Christmas sweaters adorned with trees, snowflakes, and gaudy argyle patterns. She'd deliberately made them as ridiculous-looking as possible, but of course he loved them anyway. So much that he wore them for Christmas and New Year's – Why pass up the chance if you took the time to make ‘em? he’d said. Felix leaned into her side and took her free hand in both of his.
"I wish you could've been here back then, Tamora. Everyone was so close-knit because there weren't that many sprites in each game in those days. It was a real special time." He smiled warmly at the memory.
"The fellas over in Berzerk, they had the best laser tag maze you've ever laid eyes on. Whenever we had a day off they'd get everything set up and let folks come in to play." Felix laughed and shook his head. That game afforded him a welcome break from the Nicelanders as they never ventured inside; its disembodied, mechanistic droning of “DESTROY THE HUMANOID KILL THE INTRUDER” terrified them. "That Otto, he was always so happy to have company..."
Tamora's gaze softened; she could sense that her husband was going to take her for a long stroll down memory lane.
"On Saturday nights, Pauline would come down to Tapper's and take song requests. There'd be jazz playin', people dancin'...around the holidays she'd even put up a stage in Game Central Station. She sang carols and we'd all count down to the new year together."
"Imagine Surge Protector getting in on that, huh?" She grinned. "Surprised when I found out that he's the one who decorates the place."
"Oh he loved it! It was really busy every day back then, so he appreciated havin' a break. Some days we had so many visitors that Mr. Litwak set up a TV over by the change machine. That way, all the little siblings who got dragged along and crowded away from the games had something to do when it was rainin' out and they couldn't go mini-golfing. He always said he'd rather have them safe in here than wanderin' around in the streets, even if they weren't customers. Then when they got bigger, they'd come runnin' in, just so excited to finally be able to play with us."
He sighed happily.
"It was just wonderful, gettin' to watch children grow up and knowing that you brighten their day. Some of 'em even told us stories while they were playing."
His smile faltered as he recalled some of what he'd heard from the less fortunate ones – how they'd startle at the slightest noise, the marks on their faces; things that had been lost in the rosy haze of nostalgia until that moment.
"And a few of them...oh, Tammy, I think this arcade might've been the only real home they had. Ralph always did go a bit easier on them, bless his heart."
Tamora squeezed her husband's hand a little tighter. She'd seen a couple of children like that in her six years at Litwak's.
Excited, but quiet and timid. Always looking over their shoulders with their hands in their pockets, clenched around a fistful of precious quarters. They usually entered alone or with a group of similarly-nervous friends. Some days they left the same way. Other days they would be yanked out by the elbow mid-game, heads down, by a seething, red-faced adult who kept up a strained illusion of courtesy with the arcade owner – their facade betrayed only by their visibly-tightening grip on the child's arm – until stepping out the door.
The size of the Hero's Duty console usually resulted in these children ducking behind it to hide if they spotted a parent's car outside while playing. The best the sergeant could do to help was point the FPS bot towards something uninteresting in the hopes that her game wouldn't attract attention.
She glanced down at the worried handyman and he met her gaze with a concerned one of his own. He shuffled closer to her before continuing.
"A few months after we got plugged in, Berzerk was taken away for a couple weeks and came back as Frenzy.” He shuddered at the memory of seeing what looked like a new cabinet rolling through the doors, until he realized what it really was, underneath the blinding orange paint job.
“I thought we’d pick up right where we left off. Everyone looked the same and they were friendly enough but...it wasn't them. We heard later that the joystick kept getting jammed and the game wasn't bringin’ in enough quarters, so Mr. Litwak decided to have his repair people do a conversion kit while they were at it, since he was able to get a discount anyway. They lasted a few more years, but eventually they got swapped for RoadBlasters..." He pointed towards a spot on the floor currently occupied by nothing more than a few singed stains on the patterned carpet.
She let out a low whistle. "Hell of a way to go."
Felix nodded sadly.
"What about Pauline, isn't she still around?" The sergeant pulled up one leg and crossed it under her knee. She knew that woman was lucky enough to hail from a classic game that no arcade owner unplugged nowadays unless there were dire circumstances. Pac-Man and Donkey Kong were among the proverbial canaries in the coal mine, along with Fix-It Felix Jr. – if it ever came to the point where one of them got sold for parts instead of repaired, the arcade was in dire straits.
"Oh she's still here...but a lot of her old hangouts aren't. Her game's a bit lonely, so she went around with Mario and DK and they got to know most everyone who was plugged in back then. Most of those folks' games didn't stay here past 1999 or so – insides burned out, drinks spilled, quarters stopped comin' in. A few didn't make it out in time.”
Tamora winced at the blank expression that briefly crossed his face.
“The arcade really changed quickly in just a couple months. We got a whole bunch of new games to replace the unplugged ones, and the neighborhood that Pauline loved just wasn't the same. She had a tough time with it and didn't feel like singing as much anymore. Not in public, at least."
His voice hitched and he swallowed a lump in his throat.
"This– This time of year just gets me thinkin' sometimes...there's just so much that goes on out there and we can't do a thing about it. I hope those little ones turned out okay. We invited Pauline to the party tonight but she's over havin' a quiet night at Ms. Pac-Man's...I think she's doing a little better now, tryin' to make some new friends. And I hope Mr. Litwak is doin’ all right, too. He's been at this even longer than we have, and...well..."
"I know." She noticed the worry in his features and pulled him closer, planting a kiss on his forehead. The owner wasn't exactly getting any younger, and no sprite in the arcade knew if he had plans to retire or pass down the establishment. He'd never mentioned having any next-of-kin – blood-related or otherwise – either way, and it seemed he planned to run the business he loved for as long as he was physically able.
After that...they had the Wi-Fi router as a last resort if evacuation was inevitable, but from there, nobody really mapped it out any further. Sure, they had plans for who they'd turn to if their own games got unplugged, but the idea of all the games in the arcade suddenly being scattered to the four winds, futures uncertain...it was too much to think about.
"It just feels...wrong for me to even be gettin' so misty over it anyway. I have a home, and a wonderful wife," – he kissed her hand and ran his thumb over her fingers – "and a real swell brother and little Vanny, and so many healthy, happy children who got their home game back, and the last six years have been the best of my life...I'm doing better than ever but I just can't shake this feeling. All those years in the arcade's heyday weren't fun for Ralph. And half that time Turbo was keepin' Vanellope miserable. Q*bert was homeless..."
Felix's voice strained, and his speaking tempo turned frantic. "I-I know that's all in the past, and we worked everything out with Ralph, and the family's all doing great now, but...but what if this is someone's last year? What if I didn't do enough? Even if the motherboard’s good to run another thirty years their screen could still burn out, or gamers could lose interest in them, or someone could get into a fight near the cabinet and damage something, or...or…"
He shook his head, choking back a sob. "I don't know how you do this every day in the military, honeybadger. Keeping it together even if everyone you love could be gone tomorrow and–"
She leaned down and hushed him with a fierce kiss that nearly pinned him to the concrete ledge. He needed to be needed; to worry and help and fix. Tamora knew this well. She'd come down with the occasional virus or two and observed him doting on her in his every spare minute until she recovered. He'd checked in with Ralph each day for the past month in case he was missing Vanellope even more than usual and needed to vent. He made sure to give a hug and word of praise to every single one of the Sugar Rush racers whenever the two of them departed the game after the Random Roster Race to retire for the night. She loved him for it, how much he cared and wanted everyone to be happy – sprite and gamer alike – but at times like these it wore his physical and emotional faculties to the bone.
"Alright, you'd better listen here, shortstack." Pulling away, she held his cherry-red face in her hands, his expression still dazed and eyes wide. He clung to her arms to keep from swaying off the building. Her tone was gentle but firm as she blotted away a tear from his cheek.
"I get it. You know how I feel about regrets and– and being helpless. Hurts like the ugliest slap in the face, the...biggest shot in the chest. It's a self-inflicted wound like nothing else." She inhaled a sharp breath before continuing.
"But take it from me – you do more than enough. You did enough to help the most stubborn ass in this arcade start healing and living outside her backstory." The corner of her mouth twitched into a lopsided smile.
"–You showed me that there's always gonna be something to look forward to, even if you have to make it with your own hands. Every year you run yourself into the ground setting up these shindigs. You built a town for the gameless sprites. You've been trying to keep everyone's spirits up whenever anything bad's happened these past six years. You even convinced that miserable carouser to start treating Wreck-It with some respect. But you can't fix everything. Nobody's gonna pull that off. Said it yourself – at the end of the day, what goes on outside here is beyond our control."
She sighed in frustration, and he placed his hands over hers.
"Look, I know I'm not the best at being the optimist in the room. But all we can do is suit up and keep taking our best shot at a moving target. And you can do a lot better at that if you're down in there at the party. If it is someone's last year, make it a good one."
From downstairs, a familiar, sprightly voice suddenly cut through a wave of static.
"SHOULD OLD ACQUAINTANCE BE FORGOT AND NEVER BROUGHT TO MIND! SHOULD…wait, Ralph, how does it go again?"
"It– huh. Good question, kid. I usually just hum that part. Hey! Does anyone here actually know this song?"
Felix hesitated, then nodded, and that familiar, cheesy look of pure adoration spread across his face. "Thank you, love."
Tamora pulled him into a hug, running her fingers through his hair, and the last traces of abrasion dropped out of her voice.
"And take care of yourself first, Felix. Never thought I’d say this, but take a cue from Wreck-It and the prez. Just enjoy tonight. Still got the singing, the countdown and the fireworks comin’ up. And you know I’m looking forward to what we’re gonna do at midnight." She pulled back to look him in the eyes with that unique tenderness that was reserved only for the little handyman. "Everyone's safe and we're not goin’ anywhere."
Felix beamed as he recognized those soothing words that had passed between them on so many nights. It made him start to tear up again, realizing how much his words of comfort meant to his wife that she'd reciprocate with them at a moment like this.
"Can do," he replied with a gentle peck on her lips, eliciting a light blush from the sergeant. She laughed softly and smiled.
"Good. Let's go teach those two how it's done."
Hand-in-hand, the couple returned to the penthouse to rejoin the merriment. For that night's celebration, as long as they were all together, all was calm and bright.