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i.

He first sees it when Vanellope gets second in a race.

She buzzes back and forth, sparking blue, as she paces back and forth, her character shifting side to side. He’s seen her glitch before, sure, but Ralph has never really seen it like this, as though Vanellope can’t even sit still, as though she’s in multiple places at once.

It’s always been a sort of here-to-there type of thing, or her just pixelating for a moment before being more sure of herself. This—this is like she’s breaking apart and trying to piece herself together, and it scares him a bit.

“I can’t believe that I forgot to dodge the gum balls,” she says, “Stupid, stupid, stupid, I can’t believe, next time if I just glitch after I round the bend or if I go upwards so that I—“

“Kid,” Ralph says, quietly, resting his hand on her back and trying not to flinch when she flickers against his hand, solid one second and nothing the next, “It’s going to be okay.”

She stills against his hand, and then mutters, “But what if it’s not? What if something’s wrong with my programming? What if I’m getting slower? What if—“ her voice steadily rises, panicky and rough and she’s jerking in his hand, moving side to side, like she feels trapped, like she can’t bear to stay like that, so he takes his hand away because he never wants her to feel like that.

“You really think that code can change so easily?” he asks her, raising an eyebrow as he bends down so that they’re eye to eye. “You think that one day I’m just going to wake up and my hands are going to be smaller and I won’t be as good at wrecking?”

“Well, no, but,” Vanellope glitches a bit even as her voice turns small, “That’s you, Ralph. Racing—racing isn’t like having big hands, it’s a talent or a skill or—“

“Weren’t you the one that said,” Ralph leans forward a bit, “That racing was part of your code? That racing—that winning a race—was what you were made for? So for you, isn’t racing for you like wrecking things is for me? Isn’t you, racing, the same as me, destroying?”

She’s quiet, thoughtful, chewing on the strings of her hoodie, and then asks, quietly, “You really think that’s true? That racing for me is like the size of your hands?”

“I don’t think it,” he grins at her, “I know it.”

She shifts side to side a little, and a glitches a little as though she were excited, and then, says, “Then, do you think, we could go driving right now?”

“Well, I don’t know if I can,” Ralph gestures towards himself and laughs a bit, “But I can watch you drive. Or maybe just wait at the finish line? You’re too fast for me to keep up with.”

Vanellope bounces in spot a little, laughs at him, and then, bobbing her head, “Come on, then, you old geezer, what are you waiting for? Let’s go!”

He follows, laughing, and Vanellope is solid again.

ii.

When Vanellope glitches, anything that she touches glitches along with her. Shank fully sees it a few weeks after Ralph is gone and she finds Vanellope in her car, glitching in white and blue pixels, shifting all over the place, like she can’t properly control it.

The car goes diagonal, one side on the side of a building and the other set on the ground, and then there’s a glitch and it topples a bit. Another glitch and it’s upright, a few inches, and it glitches as it moves, as though it isn’t quite certain where to go.

Shank follows for a while in her own car, up walls and through tunnels until Vanellope pulls over to the side, still glitching a bit as she climbs out, hands shoved into her pockets, frowning at her feet.

“What’s up, kiddo?” Shank asks as they sit down on the curb, Vanellope glitching before going solid again.

“It’s nothing,” she stands up, paces a bit, kicks at a can, “It’s just, I, I was eating some food, and I wanted a burger, so I called Ralph, but he didn’t answer and he always answers and I just—“ she rubs at her face, “I know that he’s probably just working but what if he’s not and something happened or what if he’s doing something dumb and I’m not there to be with him and I miss him but I don’t want to go back and I don’t know if it’s okay that I miss him even though I love living here, I do, this place is the greatest and it’s so cool even though it doesn’t have Ralph but he’s my best friend and—“

“I get it,” Shank cuts in, smiling a bit as she pats the curb next to her. This, she thinks, she can handle. “Sometimes, no matter how great this place is, it’s just something put together by code. What really matters, what really counts, is your friends, yeah?”

Vanellope nods, somewhat restlessly, bobbing her head like she’s trying to suck in Shank’s words. “Yeah. Yeah, and it’s not that you guys aren’t great, it’s just—it’s Ralph, you know? He’s—he’s special.” She plays with the strings of her hoodie, “And I don’t get it because I love it here. I shouldn’t miss him, this place is great.”

Vanellope spreads her arms as though trying to make her point, and Shank laughs a little.

“No matter how wonderful a place is, it’s natural to want to be with the people you love,” she says, “It isn’t a bad thing, to miss someone?”

Vanellope scrunches up her nose, “But it doesn’t feel that great,” she grumbles.

“No, I suppose it doesn’t,” Shank nods, and stands up, “What do you want to do?”

Vanellope squints at Shank, “What do you mean?”

Shank grins, “You need some time to think about how you feel. What do you want to do with that time?”

Vanellope tilts her head to the side, still squinting at Shank, and then, brightening, “How about a race?”

Shank grins, “You’re on.”

iii.

They’re sitting on the car hood outside of a convenience store when the man with the metal bat stomps by, chasing a terrified looking man with a rail thin figure.

Shank has seen this kind of thing before, but Vanellope hasn’t, which is why Shank leans over and says, “Kiddo, time to scram?”

Vanellope shoots her a confused look, “Why? What’s—“

It’s too late, because the man with the metal bat catches up to the man he’s after, and he’s smashed his skull in, and Vanellope saw it. Shank can tell because of the way the kid’s eyes widen, stunned and—

Shank is such an idiot.

Vanellope glitches, eyes wide as she scrambles back, “What was that—“

“Hey, kid,” Shank puts her hands around Vanellope’s face and switches their positions so that Shank faces the man instead of Vanellope, “Look at me, okay? It’s fine. It’s just a little death. He’ll resurrect by the time that the next player comes by.”

“But—that—“

“It’ll be okay,” Shank repeats, casting a look at the man with the bat, “Come on, get in the car, let’s head to the base, yeah?”

It only takes a few words to get Vanellope to agree, and once they’re at the base, Shank sits in the car for a while, stewing as she tries to figure out how to explain it to Vanellope, when the kid says, quietly, “I’ve never died before.”

Ah. So the problem isn’t the violence. That’s… kind of helpful?

“You won’t,” Shank promises, holding Vanellope’s hand, “You’re in my crew, and everyone knows better than to mess with me.”

Vanellope’s had glitches, and Shank’s fingers close in on air, and then the small hand is back, resting on top of her knuckles. Somehow, Shank understands that this glitch wasn’t on purpose. “I’ve never really been hurt before, either.”

“That’s fine,” Shank says, “You’re young.”

“I’ll always be young,” Vanellope makes a face at Shank, who laughs a bit despite herself.

“That’s true. It’s not a bad thing, to be young.”

“Isn’t it?” Vanellope frowns at her hand, and this time, on purpose, glitches it back into Shank’s hand, “Everyone always tries to protect me, just because I’m younger.”

“Young or old,” Shank glances at Vanellope, “Friends always want to protect each other. Wouldn’t you try and protect me if it seemed like I was going to get hurt?”

“Of course I would,” Vanellope swings her legs.

“Then there you go,” Shank raises an eyebrow, “It’s not just because you’re young. It’s because friends protect each other.”

Vanellope hums thoughtfully, and then asks, “Does dying hurt a lot?”

Shank closes her eyes, thinks about upturned cars and a dying engine. “It depends,” she answers, “I haven’t died that much. Neither will you.”

“But I will, one day,” Vanellope says soberly.

“When you do,” Shank squeezes Vanellope’s hand, “I promise, a friend will be there, waiting for you to revive.”

Vanellope squeezes back, and smiles at Shank. “Thanks,” she says quietly.

Shank smiles back, “No problem, kiddo.”

iv.

“Slow-poke,” Vanellope says, grinning as Ralph climbs the cliff.

“Okay, kid, we can’t all have tiny hands like you,” Ralph huffs as he reaches for the next hold on the cliffside. “Besides, it’s not like you’re at the top or anything?”

“Oh, really?” Vanellope grins at Ralph, “Is that how we’re going to play it?”

“Yeah,” Ralph says, sticking his tongue out at her, “Yeah, that is how we’re going to play it.”

“Okay, then,” Vanellope winks, and in a flicker of neon blue, she’s smirking down at him from the top of the cliff, legs swinging over the edge as she says, “Try to keep up, slow poke.”

Ralph groans and throws a glance at Shank, who’s keeping pace with him, mostly to make sure he doesn’t fall and die. “You teaching her this sass?”

“Oh, please, old man,” Vanellope flickers so that she’s beside Ralph, fingers hanging off a tree root poking between the cracks of the cliff’s face, “I was sassy before your game was plugged in.”

“My game is older than yours,” Ralph protests.

“Like I said,” Vanellope grins at Shank and flickers back onto the cliff’s top, “Old man.”

“It doesn’t make sense, though,” Ralph groans.

“It’s slang,” Shank says, patting Ralph’s shoulder, managing to make hanging one-handedly off the edge of a cliff look effortless. “Don’t worry, you’ll catch on someday.”

“If you say so,” Ralph decides that he’s had enough, and with one great push, pushes himself up into the air and flies. “Heads up!”

Vanellope flickers out of the way as Ralph lands on the cliff.

“That’s one way to do it,” Shank notes when she reaches the top.

“You’re so impatient,” Vanellope giggles as Ralph stands up.

“Like you’re one to talk,” Ralph grumbles.

Vanellope glitches up so that she’s sitting on Ralph’s shoulder and leans in, “C’mon, big guy. We’ve got tons of cool things to show you.”