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something in the air you can’t deny

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1. Seat-Belts

After the entire fiasco with the internet-breaking virus was over, Yesss's life had changed. Not in a mind-shattering way, at least not to her. It was more like...something else to add to her routine.

More frequently than ever, she'd leave her office.

That was different enough, but it wasn't the entire scenario.

She'd leave her office, get into her vehicle (driving herself, while leaving Maybe to handle BuzzzTube for the time-being), and drive to Slaughter Race.

That wasn't entirely different either - she'd done that before, to meet up with Shank and her crew. They couldn't meet often, due to their busy schedules and with Shank being such a crucial NPC, but it happened enough so that Yesss was accustomed to it.

No, the truly different part was that instead of heading inside to hang out with Shank for a few minutes, she waited in the car.

The truly different part was that after a minute or two, a pint-sized racer would run down the steps and jump into her car when the door opened.

The truly different part was that she was picking up Vanellope von Schweetz ("Tiny," as the Slaughter Race players called her) for a visit with Ralph.

(Oh, the kid had tried to say she could just walk over there. She'd put up a good fight about it. But Yesss knew the internet far better than the kid did, and insisted on her getting a safe ride instead of risking the more unsavory paths and characters. Ralph had backed her up - barely able to hide his panic at the mere idea of someone shady finding Vanellope - and that had settled it.)

"Bye-Shank-bye-Pyro-bye-Felony-bye-Butcher-Boy-bye-Little-Debbiiieee!" Vanellope shouted in one breath, waving as the door slowly closed.

(Yesss wondered, not for the first time, if the kid ever needed to breathe while talking.)

"Okay, let's go!" Vanellope said from the backseat.

They didn't move.

"Uh, Yesss?" Vanellope leaned forward, poking Yesss's near earring so it jangled. "Let's go?"

"Seat-belt, kid."

"What?"

"You heard me." Yesss turned to look pointedly at Vanellope. "Seat-belt."

"Yesssssss..." Vanellope dragged out her name, rolling her eyes. "This isn't Slaughter Race, we're not gonna get in a wreck or anything! I don't need a seat-belt!"

Yesss narrowed her eyes ever so slightly.

"Yesss, c'moooon-"

"Seat. Belt. Now."

Vanellope flung herself back into her seat, quickly clicking on her seat-belt.

Yesss hummed once in approval, then started the engine, ignoring Vanellope's grumbling.


2. Comments

It was time for another visit with Ralph, and once again Yesss was parked outside Slaughter Race. Only this time, Vanellope wasn't the only one to come out.

She slowly walked down the stairs, her steps heavy, Shank walking beside her with a hand on her back.

"Heeeeey, kid- Vanellope?" Yesss's smile dropped as she saw Vanellope's posture: hands in her hoodie pocket, occasionally glitching. "Van, honey, what happened?"

"Nothin'..." Vanellope mumbled, avoiding eye contact.

Shank put a hand on top of Vanellope's head, looking apologetically at Yesss. "We heard some players talking about the new NPC," she explained. She briefly inclined her head downward, towards Vanellope who was putting her hood up. "They were...less than open to having her in the game."

"It's no big deal," Vanellope said, even as her posture said otherwise. "They were just dumb sore losers who couldn't take losing to a kid! I mean, hey!" she added, voice too loud and too cheery. "So what if they said I'm 'a cheap gimmick to kiddify the game' or 'a little sister whose presence butchers Shank's character!' It's not true or anything! So who cares what they think? They only said it 'cause I totaled their cars!" She spoke too fast, blinking hard, and Yesss felt her heart go out to her.

"Aw, baby..." Yesss sighed, reaching for Vanellope's shoulders. "Honey, look at me...c'mon, look at me." When she did, Yesss continued in a quiet, gentle voice. "I'm gonna tell you the same thing I told your dad, okay? The internet is fun, and awesome, but it can bring out the worst in people. And a lot of people are going to say mean things like this, and worse - I won't sugarcoat it. But you have to try not to listen. You have to remember that your worth is not defined by them and their comments - just because you get a mean comment doesn't make it true. Okay?"

Vanellope sniffled, nodding as she continued to blink back tears. "Pyro torched them anyway..." she whispered, voice cracking. "But-"

"It still hurts, I know. I get mean comments on my website a lot too. But you have to try ignoring them, honey. Big rule of the internet: don't feed the trolls. Okay?"

Vanellope nodded again.

"Okay... Now," Yesss's eyes narrowed slightly, lips quirking into a tiny smile. "What were the players' names?"

"Uh, jean-yus54 and rainarr0w."

"They've got BuzzzTube accounts. You wanna come to the office with me and turn off their ad-block for a few minutes?" Yesss grinned wickedly, moreso when Vanellope perked up.

"Yeah!"

"Alriiiight! Come on, let's show them unskippable ads for tween movies that aren't even aimed at them but they hate and complain about anyway!"

"YEEAAAAH!"

As they got into the car, Yesss wondered if they should even stop there. Maybe she'd suggest nothing but kitten videos for them for a week. They hated kitten videos.

It was the least she could do to them for insulting the kid.

(Vanellope never told Yesss "Ralph's not my dad." There was no need to, and besides... he really was.)


3. Family-Unfriendly

eBay was more crowded than usual during the winter holidays. Even the sections with items meant specifically for internet denizens.

Luckily for Ralph and Vanellope, Yesss's presence ensured they had breathing room, as even the little avatars parted to give them way much like bees allowing their queen to pass.

That didn't stop Yesss from picking Vanellope up under the arms and lifting her towards one of Ralph's huge shoulders, of course.

"So! What looks cool?" she asked, clapping her hands together.

"Ummmm..." Vanellope looked around one direction, while Ralph looked the other. With Ralph's videos still making money, the three of them had decided to surprise Felix and Tamara's family. Winter holidays and birthdays were coming up, and with fifteen kids to look after... That meant fifteen more bowls, plates, and eating utensils at least. And Taffyta had been asking for a TV, which had gotten everyone else started...

And so here they were.

"Oh, there's toys over there!" Ralph announced, pointing.

"Electronics has a bid on a flatscreen TV! It's going kinda high, though..."

"Felix said the kids were getting into reading, yeah?" Yesss asked, craning her head to see past Ralph. Her gaze settled on a sign in the distance that read 'Books.' "You said they needed some books for the kids?"

"Nah, a buncha Nicelanders gave them some," Ralph said, distractedly as he kept looking around. "Oh, hey!" He suddenly pointed. "There's stuff for Calhoun and Felix!"

Vanellope and Yesss followed his gaze. Vanellope cheered. "Hey, yeah, they need stuff too!"

But Yesss instantly blanched, heart skipping a few beats in panic.

The sign Ralph had pointed out said 'Adult Products' and had a symbol of a red lock on it, open.

"No no no no!" Yesss shouted, grabbing Ralph by the upper arm before he even took two steps. "You are not taking Vanellope over there!"

"Why not?" Ralph asked with a frown. "It's just adult stuff - probably things like tax stuff, coffee makers, those thick books with tiny text and it doesn't make any sense..."

"Yeah, grown-ups need gifts too," Vanellope chimed in.

"That's not-!" Yesss began, a little too loud. She quickly lowered her voice to a whisper, tugging Ralph's face close to hers. "That's not what 'Adult Products' means," she hissed.

Ralph frowned even deeper. "What's it mean, then?" he whispered back.

Vanellope stared at the two of them, tilting her head to try and hear what they were saying. Their whispering made it difficult, though, especially when their voices lowered even more once they realized she was trying to listen. Yesss did most of the talking, gesturing vaguely, and suddenly Ralph shot upright again. Vanellope grabbed the side of his head so she wouldn't fall, and Ralph suddenly turned around. "Okay so we're not going there!"

"What? Why?"

"Because I said so!" both Ralph and Yesss blurted at the same time.

"You wouldn't like it there," Ralph added quickly. "Boring stuff, waaay too boring."

"Oh." Vanellope shrugged. "That's it? So what's with the faces?"

"Nothing. We just - we wanna get you as far away from the boring stuff as possible!" Ralph began speed-walking away.

"C'mon, baby, let's look at the Video Game section," Yesss said, reaching up to pat Vanellope's back.


4. Visiting

"So. This is where you live."

"Well, not here-here." Ralph and Yesss sat side-by-side on a bench in the Game Central Station. It was after arcade hours, of course, so dozens of game characters were milling about. Plenty of them gave Yesss odd looks, unsure if she was a game character or not. She didn't notice, taking in the decor of the station instead. "But yeah, this is it."

"It's uh... a lot simpler than the internet." Yesss's tone made it hard to tell if this was a good or bad thing. "Real retro, honestly," she added, glancing at the Wi-Fi door.

Ralph nodded to himself. Retro was good, he reminded himself.

"So what do you all do here?" she went on.

"Eh, a lot of things. Mostly we'd hang out in each other's games, go to Tapper's... I got my Bad-Anon meetings and Zangief's book club, Sonic's thinking of a track team but I'm passing on that one."

"Hmm..." It didn't sound like a lot to Yesss. There was no shopping, videos, no kindle... But it had its own charm and Ralph liked it fine. She didn't think she could ever live there, live like he did, but she guessed it'd be nice for a visit. "Tapper's, that was a video game, right?"

"Yeah, me and the kid would hang out there and have belching contests. We still do when she can get away from Slaughter Race. Hey!" Ralph's face lit up. "You ever have a root beer?"

"Uh-"

"Oh, man, you're comin' with me!" Ralph suddenly stood, heading for one of the tunnels. "Let's get you your first Tapper's! It's on me!"

As Yesss stood to follow him, she thought to herself that Maybe could handle BuzzzTube for a little bit longer.

(Tapper's is delicious, it turns out. And she lets Ralph talk her into one of his belching contests.

The look on his face when she wins on the first try is worth the slight embarrassment.)


1. The Virus

After everything that'd happened, Yesss was a permanent fixture in both their lives. They couldn't always see each other, of course, not in person. Ralph had his game and Vanellope had hers and Yesss had her website, but her number had been added to both their phones and vice-versa. And it was unusual for a Ralph-and-Vanellope visit to not include her.

She wasn't like Shank, in more ways than one. Even Yesss herself knew that. She knew it from how she and Ralph sometimes said the same thing at the same time to the young racer. She knew it from how often she had to assure Ralph that yes, the kid was fine with Shank and yes she was making sure she ate something other than burgers and junk food.

(It was between laughs that she told him about how she'd suddenly popped up in Slaughter Race with the lunch Ralph had packed her, taking the bacon burger from her hands and passing her the PB-J and veggie sticks instead. How Vanellope had whined that they were so embarrassing, but Shank just grinned like she thought it was cute.)

But she couldn't put her finger on what this all was. The change in routine, the change in her life, the way the other two interacted with her... She couldn't describe it.

...And then.

BuzzzTube got Infected.

And it'd spread to her.

...

Maybe had told Ralph and Vanellope the news, a little after midnight, when the arcade was long closed. Someone had put a virus on BuzzzTube, and the infection had hit Yesss too. It wasn't serious, he'd been quick to say to them, and it would be dealt with quickly, probably within the next two hours.

But Ralph and Vanellope insisted on seeing her.

...

The two of them ran through the door to her office, where she'd holed herself away. Vanellope was glitching near-constantly, images of red swarms and creepy groaning Ralphs filling her mind while Ralph himself imagined terrifying worm-monsters.

It wasn't as bad as that, luckily, but

still, the sight was shocking to them.

Ralph swallowed back a gasp as Yesss lifted her head from her palm, heard Vanellope cry out.

She looked...fuzzy. Not in a hairy way, no, but her form, her edges, looked... soft. Blurred. Pixelated but soft and fuzzy. He could see her glitching faintly, flickering with a static-y sound like a TV with bad reception. Even the one movement he saw was way too slow and stuttered.

And then there were her eyes.

At first glance, they looked normal. Then they flickered, and everything within them turned to static, colorful bars, a blue screen with strange white text. All accompanied by a series of hissing static and stuttering beeps.

Despite that, Yesss smiled. "He-e-e-e- ey, my babies," she said, voice oddly stilted and glitched.

Before Ralph could speak, Vanellope had glitched across the room to the top of Yesss's desk, throwing herself onto the woman. While Maybe quickly assured Ralph the virus was not contagious, Vanellope cried out, her own voice glitching in her panic but still loud and clear.

"Mo-o-om! Mom!" she shouted, voice hoarse as she grabbed Yesss's coat. "Mooom!"

"Who-oa, hey, hey, Van-nellope..." Yesss managed, setting gentle hands on her shoulders. "It's o-okay, it's gon-na be fine."

"D-Does it hurt?" Vanellope asked, blinking hard. "Are you okay?!"

"I'm f-f-fine," Yesss reassured her. "It prob-bably doesn't fee-eel much diffe-rent from when you glitch."

This seemed to help a little bit, as Vanellope relaxed slightly, managing a tiny nod. She allowed Ralph to pick her up when he approached the desk, cradling her to his chest.

"They said it'd be gone in two hours?" he asked, unable to hide his own concern.

"At mos-st," Yesss said. "It'll pr-probably only take on-ne. Won't s-stop people from going nu-uts til then, b-but hey!" Yesss smiled, shrugging too slowly and stiltedly.

"We're staying til then," Ralph said, in a tone that held no room for argument.

...

Yesss turned out to be right. At the forty-six minute mark, she suddenly slumped in her desk chair, completely relaxed as she let out a whoosh of air. Ralph startled, barely keeping himself from waking up Vanellope (who sat on his hand, leaning against his chest, having worried and glitched herself to sleep). He quickly rose to look at her, to call out for Maybe, but Yesss held up a hand.

He stopped. And noticed how smooth her movement was.

Yesss sat up again, breathing deeply. Normal again. "Okay," she said. "Okay, show's over. Virus is gone."

"Are you sure?" Ralph couldn't help asking.

"Yep." Yesss grinned, and she looked like nothing had even happened. "We're cool now." Her eyes traveled to Vanellope, and she frowned softly. One hand lifted to the girl's head, stroking her bangs away from her forehead. Her frown deepened, as if she were lost in thought.

She looked up at Ralph, and spoke slowly. "Did...you hear what she called me?"

He nodded. "Yeah."

"She...called me 'mom.' Three times."

"I know." He smiled faintly.

"Why would-"

"You are her mom..."

'Mom.' ...yeah. That was...weird. But it sounded right.

She'd never be the ultra-maternal type, never had been. But...that did sound right.

In half an hour, Vanellope would wake up and see Yesss grinning at her. Vanellope would launch herself out of Ralph's hands and into Yesss's arms, shouting another 'Mom' into her thick fiber-optics coat.

And it would sound right then, too.