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Too Many Times

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Dun, dun, danananana…

His phone was ringing.

Ugh, what time is it? Ace cracked his eyes open and was immediately assailed by bright light peeking from a crack in his curtains. Too early.

Dun, dun, danananana…

He waited a moment for the blurriness to fade before fumbling for his phone. In his hurry, he just managed to knock it to the floor. “Jesus fucking Christ.”

Dun, dun—

“It’s Ace, whaddaya want?”

A voice, one that rang with a vague familiarity while also bringing him an immediate sense of unease, answered his anger with a bright, “Ah, Ace, old pal. It’s Murdoc Niccals, from Gorillaz.”

Murdoc Niccals… Murdoc from Grimway Holding Center, Murdoc? Why was Murdoc calling him? How did he get his number? Ace could only come to the conclusion that if Murdoc Niccals had somehow tracked him down, whatever he was calling about had to be something serious.

Ace reached out and slipped his shades on, tucking his bedhead back into place before answering the phone with his trademark Ace charm. “Aw hey, Murdoc, I thought you were dead! What’s goin’ on, huh?”

“Well, you see, I’m in a bit of a pickle. I’ve ended up in the slammer again. Brings back memories, dunnit, Ace?” There was the sound of Murdoc’s nasally snickering, and it did indeed bring back more memories than Ace happened to care for.

“Sure, sure,” Ace agreed smoothly, before adding, “Why the hell are ya callin’ me about it, Murdy? Getting lonely all by yourself?”

“Ha ha ha,” the other man bit out. “Don’t make me regret calling you. Now, listen closely: my band is about to record a new album. Usual rockstar biz, you know? But since I’m doin’ a bit of bird, they’re gonna need a bassist. And Ace, you’re the second best bassist I know.”

Ace took a moment to think about that, a fanged smile already spreading across his face. “You’re sayin’ you want me to take over the band for you?”

“Bloody hell, no! Don’t put words into my mouth. Of course I’d love to be there myself, but it ain’t in the cards. You’re just gonna play what they tell you to play until I can bust outta here, get it?”

Ace huffed at that. “Assuming you even can ‘bust outta’ there. Because that worked out so well for us last time, didn’t it? I’m out now, and I’m not your dancing monkey, ya hear me, Murdoc?”

“Oh, come off it!” the bassist grumbled. “You know you owe me one, Ace! Don’t you remember all the times I—”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Ace gritted out, “Pretty bold of you to assume that I saw any of that as ‘the kindness of your heart’ or some bullshit like that. Big words, Murdy, for someone who can’t stop himself from moonlightin’ jails.

“Now, I play by my own rules. Always have. If I were to do this for you—and I have absolutely no reason to, by the way—and then let you come in and kick me out at your convenience, you’d be owing me big time, you got it?”

Murdoc scoffed. “Big words for a washed-up has-been! You haven’t led a group since you left that little backwater town of yours, hmm? And like you were any better back then, when you couldn’t manage to stay out of that piddly water closet they called a jail! No, you can’t just expect to step into my cuban-heeled shoes all of a sudden. So, Ace, your payment is gonna be living the glamorous life of a star while I’m stuck here in this stinking hole. Are you in or not?”

Those words stung, Ace had to admit. It was at this moment that he was extremely glad he never told Murdoc that he’d been put in that little jail by literal children; he’d never have heard the end of it.

But Ace was out of jail now. It’s not like he was legit now, no. Busking on the streets didn’t earn him enough money to have both a place to live and food on the table, so of course he put some of his extensive criminal expertise to use. So far so good, so why change things?

Still… taking a look around at his shitty, run-down Montedena apartment, he thought about what it might be like to be living it large, not having to worry about where his next meal would come from, or whether he could pay rent. The kind of life he always dreamed of back when he lived in Townsville.

“Are you bloody listening to me? Are you in or—”

“Shut your trap,” Ace snapped. “I’m getting to it.”

This had to be some kind of devil deal, but now that Ace had glimpsed a future for himself for the first time in years, it seemed like he had no choice after all. “Alright,” he sighed. “Alright, Murdy, you’ve convinced me.”

“Brilliant,” Murdoc crowed. “I knew you’d see things my way. Now, I’ve already let my fellow bandmates know you’re coming.” He’d been that sure I was going to join, huh? “You’ll be getting a call from my right-hand gal, Noodle. She’ll sort out the details with you.”

From over the line, a distant, authoritative voice called, “Time’s up, Prisoner 24602.”

“Aw, hell,” the Satanist grumbled, “Alright, ta-ta for now, Ace. Enjoy living it up, while you can.”

On that ominous note, Murdoc hung up. God, Ace thought, what am I getting myself into?

——

Ace had to glance down briefly at hastily-scrawled address on the scrap of paper in his hands to make sure that he was at the right address. The bus ride to LA had been long and tiring, and he could’ve conceivably wound up at the wrong hotel. But no, he really was going to be staying at a ritzy four-star joint, all on the band’s dime.

If the boys could see me now, Ace thought, just for a moment, before brushing off the old memories like cobwebs. They weren’t relevant anymore.

Deep breath. New group, new Ace.

Then, having taken his moment, Ace waltzed into the lobby. His first impression was that the hotel was pretty ritzy. The second thing he noticed was that his arrival appeared to be entirely unanticipated.

Ace had been hoping for more answers. Perhaps his new ‘friends’ would even be waiting for him in the lobby. But no, there was just a bored-looking receptionist and a few tourists he couldn’t care less about.

Well, with the frequent absence of guidance in his life, Ace had always been one to make his own way. He strutted confidently up to the receptionist, and threw out a bright, "Hey, the name's Ace Copular. Ya got any messages for me?"

The receptionist stared down at him skeptically, and it took Ace a moment to become aware of the fact that, compared to both the receptionist and the rest of the clientele, he was hilariously underdressed. Gone had been the days of making a statement with his attire; now he was consigned to simple hoodies and jeans.

But hey, since when had Ace D. Copular ever given a fuck about what anyone’s opinion of him? He was the Boss, and he did as he goddamn pleased. When the receptionist just continued to look down upon him, Ace slipped a hand into his pocket, casually bringing out his switchblade. “I got places to be, bud. You gonna answer my question or not?” He flipped it open, and began to idly clean his nails with the blade.

Suddenly, the receptionist was quick to answer his question. “Um, one moment, s-sir.” He began typing away at the computer on the desk, occasionally throwing nervous glances at Ace.

As usual, it was ridiculously easy to get what he wanted when force was involved. As though being ‘nice’ ever played out well for him.

Finally, the receptionist looked up again, and with a suddenly wide—and very fake—smile, he announced, “We do in fact have a message for you, Mr. Copular. Your bandmates will meet you in the restaurant for dinner. It’s just down the hall, and your reservation is under the name ‘2D’.”

Ace bared his fangs in his own fake smile. With a quick, “Gee, thanks, Mister,” he skulked off in the direction the receptionist had gestured to. At least talking to the chooch hadn’t been a total waste of time.

The restaurant, just like the lobby, was very fancy-looking. Wood panelling and stonework alternated on the walls, with several expanses of tall, spotlessly-clean windows opening the space to the view of the beaches outside. It was almost too fancy-looking.

Just as the receptionist had said, he was welcomed in under the band’s reservation. He was led through a dining room full of dressed-up socialites, up a flight of stairs, and then outdoors to a balcony overlooking the rolling waves, made golden and pink by the light of the setting sun.

Ace couldn’t help but let out a low whistle at the view. He’d seen pictures of the ocean before, but… Townsville had been inland, and then he’d moved into the more urban, yet still landlocked Montedena. He’d never actually been to the coast before.

When he finally picked his jaw off the floor, he sat down in the seat the waitress had pulled out for him. She smiled at him before saying, “The others will join you shortly. In the meantime, can I offer you a complimentary glass of wine, Mr. Copular?”

Ace shook his head. “No thanks, toots. You got any sodas?”

“Certainly. We have Diet Coke, Sprite, and ginger ale.”

Ace nodded along, before deciding, “I’ll have the ginger ale.” His nerves were starting to act up, so maybe that particular soft drink would settle his stomach.

The waitress vanished back inside, leaving Ace to contemplate his surroundings. Being surrounded by the gentle sound of the sea was eons better than the constant racket of the waste compactors in the Townsville Dump. It wasn’t a noisy city either, like Montedena.

It was a nice change. He could smell the fresh sea air, the breeze coming in that made the Venice heat bearable.

The waitress came by with his soda, served poshly in a wine glass, and he sipped at it thoughtfully. Still, no bandmates.

The sun had crawled low enough in the sky to be touching the horizon by the time he heard some kind of hubbub approaching the door to the terrace. He readied himself to stand out of his seat to greet them—that was a thing fancy people did, right?—and when the door swung open, two of his new bandmates spilled out, laughing… only to stop short when they saw Ace waiting for them.

They had the oddest expressions on their faces. Was it shock? Disappointment? The young lady was easier to read than the bald guy, but still, he could only detect a few hints of emotion. For all he could tell, none of them were positive, anyway.

Ace finally stood up out of his seat. “Heya, I’m Ace. You must be… Noodle and Russel?”

The two bandmates shared a brief, almost calculating look. Finally, Russel broke the tension with a low, “Man, I’m getting some serious deja vu.”

Noodle bubbled up with a laugh at that, and suddenly the mood was bright again. Pointedly ignoring the comment, Ace flashed them something between a sneer and a grin. He went to move closer to greet them, but he hadn’t even taken a single step before there came an, “Oi, quit blockin’ the door! I’m starving!” from behind Russel and Noodle.

The two other band members parted for a tall blue-haired man; process of elimination meant that this had to be the famed 2D. The singer pushed past them, but like his bandmates before him, he quickly stopped upon taking Ace in. This time, however, the reaction he got was much more dramatic.

2D immediately went pale, mouth dropping open slightly with a weak, “Oh.” His eyes were wide open in shock—and hey, speaking of which, what was going on with his eyes? They were pure white, no iris or pupil. As if that wasn’t creepy enough, they slowly began to darken, turning an eerie pitch black. If Ace hadn’t seen the change, he would’ve thought that the singer had empty sockets where his eyes should have been.

As Ace took in the disturbing and disturbed visage before him, 2D took a shaky step back. And then he turned around abruptly and hurried back out the way he’d come in.

Chapter Text

Before Ace could finish processing 2D’s hasty retreat, Russel turned to Noodle with a low, “I’ll handle this,” before following the steps of the lead singer back inside.

As the door swung shut again, Noodle let out a sharp exhale, pressing her hand to her forehead. Then, after a moment passed, she moved her hand to take in the sight of Ace, still standing with his own outstretched.

He smoothly let it swing down to rest against his thigh, and then raised it again to cross his arms. “So…” He began, trying to convey exactly what his thoughts were with that one word, but quickly decided that it was too confusing for even him to decipher anyway. “Nice to meet’cha.”

A small smile appeared on Noodle’s face. “Nice to meet you too.” She walked over to the seat across from where Ace had been sitting and plopped down in it. Following her lead, Ace joined her at the table.

“I guess it’s just the two of us for now, then?” Ace said. When Noodle nodded, he looked down, fidgeting his hands while he weighed the pros and cons of what to say. “Know if the boys will be back?”

Noodle opened her mouth to reply, but the door swung open again. Both of them turned eagerly to see who it was, and slightly sagged upon seeing it was just the waitress from before. “Do you know what you’d like for dinner?”

Despite not even having a menu, Noodle immediately replied, “The usual, please.”

“Of course. And for you, Mr. Copular?”

Ace thought for a moment—it had never occurred to him to read the menu—before shrugging and saying. “I’ll have whatever your biggest steak is.”

The waitress nodded, scribbling down their orders before placing a small bread basket in front of the two musicians and heading back the way she came.

Slowly, Noodle and Ace turned back to each other. Ace grabbed a hunk of bread to fill the awkward silence, and began tearing into it, realizing exactly how hungry he was.

“So,” Ace said, mouth partially full, “What’s ‘the usual’?” Never a wrong time for small talk.

“Oh,” Noodle said, sounding almost surprised, “Fried calamari. It’s really good here.”

Ace swallowed before replying, “Is that so? Maybe I should’ve ordered it too; you seem like a gal with good taste.” He tipped his shades briefly so she could see the wink he gave her.

“You’re a flatterer, huh?” Noodle said, giving him an appraising look.

Ace raised his shades immediately, his smile slipping. “Is that a bad thing?” he returned.

Noodle thought about it for a moment, gazing to the side. “No,” she mused. “It’s better than someone who’s rude.”

“Like our mutual friend?” Ace said, hoping to open the topic up to discussion.

Noodle laughed at that. “I guess, yeah. But ‘friend’ is a strong word, at least from my perspective.”

“Really?” Ace says, raising his eyebrows. “I’m surprised you wouldn’t go for something stronger. He told me he helped raise you, and that you’re his ‘right-hand gal’ now.”

“Murdoc is delusional,” Noodle said dismissively. “He was never really the fatherly sort. Russel and 2D were definitely more of a positive influence than he ever was.”

“I see.” Ace stuffed another piece of bread in his mouth to cover his bemusement. “Yeah, I guess it’s not that surprising,” he mumbled through his mouthful.

“But he’s a friend to you?” Noodle pried, looking at him curiously.

“Eh,” Ace stalled with a swallow, trying to figure out how to express his relation to Murdoc. “I mean, he’s always tellin’ me that I owe him for helping me out back when I, uh,” he paused for a moment, before moving on with, ”when I was goin’ through a rough time. ‘Green bloke solidarity,’ and all that.” He took a pull off his glass of ginger ale.

“So you met in jail, then?”

Ace flinched, spraying some of the soft drink in his surprise. Noodle casually leaned to the side to avoid the soda mist drifting in her direction.

“Um,” Ace paused to cough, “Yeah. Jeez, you’re pretty direct, aint’cha?”

Noodle looked at him skeptically. “Well, duh. It’s important for me—for the band—to know how much you and Murdoc are alike, Ace.”

“I’m my own person,” Ace said indignantly. “I’m not some kinda ‘Murdoc Lite’.”

“Oh yeah?” Noodle said, unimpressed. “You’re similar enough that you sent 2D running in a panic, and that’s going to be a problem.”

Ace pulled a face. “Is that what that was about? Murdoc and I don’t look that similar. What, is 2D racist against green folk, or somethin’?”

“Oh my god,” Noodle sighed, rolling her eyes. She pursed her lips, and she turned away from Ace to think for a moment. Finally, she said, “Look, I’m going to tell you this because it’s important for you to know. The most likely reason 2D ran off is because he thought you were Murdoc, and that’s because his eyesight is shit. His eyesight is shit because of the two different car accidents Murdoc put him through.”

“Oh,” Ace said, rubbing the back of his neck. “Um—”

“Oh, it doesn’t end there,” Noodle interrupted, tone dark. “Ever since then, Murdoc has since gotten his fucked-up kicks out of treating 2D like rubbish. Physical abuse, emotional abuse... you name it, Murdoc has probably done it to 2D.

“Now Murdoc’s in jail, and 2D finally has some room to be himself without getting constantly harassed. And now, just when we’ve started hoping Murdoc might finally be out of the picture, he sends us you.”

The door opened, and the waitress returned, this time with their dinners. As though she could sense the tense atmosphere, she simply stayed silent as she put their plates in front of them and then swiftly made her retreat.

The awkwardness and pity Ace felt wasn’t enough to keep him from salivating at the sight of the thick slab of rare beef before him. He forewent the steak knife in favor of his switchblade, and didn’t miss the unimpressed expression Noodle gave him at the sight of his pride and joy.

He chewed his way through his first few bites of steak, thinking over what he wanted to say. “Look,” he sighed. “I’m not a saint. Let’s get that out of the way. I had a fucked-up childhood. I’ve been a delinquent since I was a teen. Yes, I’ve done a lotta time.” He cut his next piece with enough vigor to make the blade squeak on the plate.

“But,” Ace finally said, putting down his silverware so that he could pull his shades off and tuck them into the neck of his sweatshirt to make eye-contact with Noodle, “At least I’m trying to get better. I haven’t been in the big house for the past three years, and I plan on staying out. I don’t go around messing with people who don’t deserve it, like I did when I was a punk-ass teen.”

He sighed and picked up his fork to stab it into another bite of steak. “Murdoc,” he began, “don’t realize that something’s wrong with him. Or if he does, he don’t give two shits about it. He’s the kinda guy who never changes. A dependable stanna mabaych, if you’re being nice.” He raised the piece of beef to his mouth, chomping down on it greedily. “But me, I’m here because I wanna get my shit together; I’ve got the chance to have the kind of life I’d always wanted to as a kid! I’m not gonna mess that up.

“And besides,” he said, taking another sip of his ginger ale, “I’ve got no grudge against this 2D fella. I literally just met him, if you want to call seeing someone for two seconds ‘meeting’ them. I may notta been keeping up with your band much in the past few years, but I did listen to a few tracks on my way here, and what can I say, 2D’s got a good voice. It’s one of the reasons, if not the main reason you guys are as popular as you are. If I’m gonna work with you guys, I figure he’s the one that deserves the most respect.

“But hey,” Ace finished, “I’m thinking maybe you and Russel deserve some respect too, if you want to help him get better this much. You seem like the good guys, and I hope that maybe someday you’ll trust that I’m tryin’ to be one too.”

He set his fork and knife down to gauge Noodle’s reaction, which was to stare back at him with an unreadable expression on her face.

“You know what?” she finally said, that small smile creeping onto her face again, “I think we’re gonna keep you.”

——

Once the two had finished dinner, and then dessert, Noodle led Ace up to the penthouse suite. Upon entering, he gawked at how fancy the whole place looked. There was a crystal chandelier in the common area, with a fancy circular velvet couch beneath it. The mini-kitchen setup was impressive for any hotel, too, although Ace couldn’t possibly think of eating right now; he couldn’t even remember the last time he’d had so much food in one sitting.

There were two bedrooms per each side of the suite, and each set was connected by a common bathroom. Noodle and 2D were on one side, with Russel and Ace on the other.

“Here’s your keycard, so you don’t get locked out,” Noodle said. “Your room is the one on the left-left side.”

Ace accepted the card and tucked it into his pocket. “Thanks, Noodle. I guess I’ll see you in the morning? When’s wake-up for us rockstars?” Ace had been running on his own schedule for a while, and was hoping he could continue to wake up late. With a suite this luxurious, the beds had to be amazing too.

“10 AM. There’s a great breakfast place nearby,” Noodle replied with a knowing smile at Ace’s distraught expression. “You’ll get used to it. See you in the morning.”

With that, she sauntered her way over to her side of the suite. Ace, left to his own devices, made his way to his own room.

Upon opening the door, however, Ace was suddenly struck with a sharp pain in his stomach. He doubled over, clutching his abdomen. He glanced around, panicked, looking for the door to the adjoining bathroom, and he rushed inside, leaving his luggage and bass behind.

He made it not a moment too soon, and he dropped to his knees in front of the toilet to empty the contents of his stomach into it. His eyes watered as he retched into the bowl, coughing loudly as he hacked up his dinner.

His stomach finally settled around ten minutes later, and he propped his arms on the seat to rest his cheek against them, gasping for breath.

“Um,” said a voice from behind him, causing him to start. “You okay, man?”

Ace whipped his head around to see Russel, peeking at him from the slightly ajar door leading into the adjacent room. “Ugh,” he simply rasped.

“You drunk?” The drummer asked, staring at him with a mixture of concern and wariness.

“What?” Ace asked, wiping his mouth. “No. No, I don’t drink.” He coughed again before shaking his head and slowly standing. “It must’ve been what I had for dinner. I haven’t eaten that much, in… ever.”

Russel stared at him before nodding. “Makes sense. If you’re not used to eating a lot, or eating rich food, you’re gonna get sick.”

“Thanks for the warning,” Ace said dryly, before flushing the toilet and moving over to the sink to rinse his mouth out. “So much for living the high life.”

“Just take it easy,” Russel answered. “You’ve got the time, apparently, since Noodle seems to like you.”

Ace chuckled weakly. “What are you guys, a hivemind?”

“Nah,” Russel said, digging his phone out of his pocket. “Just quick texters, man.”

Chapter Text

Grrrrmmm.

Ace blearily came to, with no clue as to what time it was, or why he wasn’t sleeping peacefully like he ought to be. With a bit of shuffling, Ace pulled his phone from beneath his pillow to check the time. Oh boy, 3 AM. Why the hell was he awake?

GrrrrMMMMMMM, his stomach rumbled. Oh, that’s why. Ace remembered with distaste how he’d lost the best meal he’d ever eaten. Clearly he wasn’t even allowed to enjoy having a high-enough status to eat fancy food.

Oh well. He’d spent this long living off whatever he could get his hands on. Was room service even open this late? Ace picked up the phone from the cradle on the bedside table and dialed the number listed next to it.

“Hotel Rey, this is the front desk. How may I help you?” a pleasant voice answered. Thankfully, it wasn’t the prick from before.

“Yeah, this is Ace. I’m in the penthouse suite, and I’m starving. Can I get an american cheese sandwich and a coke?”

“I’m sorry sir, but room service closes at midnight—”

“The penthouse suite,” Ace interrupted, “Where Gorillaz is staying. You’re telling me you can’t make an exception for us?”

There was a moment of silence from the other end, before the receptionist finally said, “Of course, sir. Your food will be up shortly.”

“Great.” Ace hung up.

It took him a minute to realize that he should probably relocate to the living room so he could answer the door when his paltry meal arrived. Heaving himself off his bed, he grabbed his phone and crept into... the pitch-black darkness of the common area.

Ace quickly tapped the flashlight setting on his phone so he wouldn’t stub his toes as he tried to find his way around. Now able to successfully navigate the room, he made his way over to the center couch and sprawled across the comfortable cushions.

He decided to fiddle with his phone while he waited, and he eventually found his way to a video of an interview Gorillaz had conducted after the release of their last album. 2D and Murdoc sat on a couch while chatting about Humanz, and Ace watched with interest for anything he could learn about the dynamic of his new bandmate and his old ‘friend’.

Immediately he could pick up a pattern. Murdoc easily dominated the conversation, at times shutting 2D down to do so. If Murdoc had treated Ace like that, he wouldn’t have taken it sitting down. Still, the atmosphere in the video remained somewhat friendly?

He was about halfway through the video when there came a sound from behind him. It was a dull thump, like something soft had collided with something hard. It was enough to make Ace drop his phone as he jumped, and immediately he scrambled to pick it up. When he finally managed to grab it, he straightened up and whirled around to aim the light at where the sound had come from.

There was no one in sight.

It took a few more moments of frantically directing the beam in different directions until he finally noticed that one of the armchairs behind him had been knocked slightly askew. Slowly, he crept closer to the chair, trying to keep his footsteps quiet. There was the slightest hint of sound. Was that… was that breathi—

Knock knock knock.

Ace jumped again. On the one hand, he was greatly disturbed by the possibility that there was someone else in the room with him. On the other, he was really, really hungry. With a final concerned look at the chair, he hurried to the main door.

“Here’s your food, sir,” said a very tired-looking server.

From behind Ace, there was the quiet sound of a door opening and shutting. He quickly grabbed the food from the server, gave a hurried, “Thanks,” and then closed the door before all but running back to his room with his haul, locking the door behind him.

——

“It’s way too early to be up,” Ace grumbled as he slumped in the back of the group’s car, hood pulled low over his face and sunglasses in place to protect him from the glaring morning sun.

“It’s only ten o’clock Ace,” Noodle teased, “Not a morning person?”

“No, I’m not.” He paused for a moment to add, “But I’m awake enough to notice that we’re missing someone.”

“2D’s gonna meet us at the studio,” Noodle said casually.

“Not a breakfast guy?” Ace pushed.

“Not today, at any rate,” Russel interjected, with a sense of finality.

Hmph. Try as he might, 2D couldn’t prolong their meeting forever. It would have to happen if they were to work together on the album. Really, he was being kinda childish about it. Speaking of...

“Hey, Noodle… were you up late last night, by any chance?”

“Nope,” Noodle answered. “If I don’t get all my ‘beauty sleep’, my makeup artist spends half a bloody hour on my case.” After a brief pause, she turned to look around at him, a curious expression on her face. “Why?”

Ace weighed the pros and cons of answering truthfully, and decided it wasn’t worth bringing up what had transpired the night before. “Had trouble falling asleep,” he finally said, “Bed was too soft, yanno?”

Russel laughed at that. “That’s a problem you’re only gonna have for a short time, Ace. You’ll get used to it.”

“I’m hopin’ so,” Ace said fervently. Not only would he prefer being able to enjoy his new life, but he wanted to be around long enough for that to even happen. With 2D being so unpredictable, how was he supposed to know what the future would hold?

——

“Ace, take a selfie with me,” Noodle suddenly said, throwing down her fork to sling an arm around Ace and pull him into her phone camera’s view. As it was, this startled Ace enough that he ended up choking on his bland scrambled eggs.

The bassist barely saw the bright light of the flash through his watering eyes, and he pulled away, gasping for air. When he finally was able to breathe again, he glared at Noodle. “What was that about?”

“Relax,” Noodle said, “You needed some good publicity.”

“Publicity?” Ace said, balking. “You’re gonna post that?” He snatched for the phone, but Noodle held it out of his reach before deftly tossing it to Russel.

“Ooh, that’s for keeps, Noodle.” Russel said as he glanced at the photo, barely containing a laugh.

“C’mon,” Ace whined. “Can I at least see the picture that’s gonna ruin my fucking image?”

Noodle scoffed. “So rude.”

“Can I please see it,” Ace amended, gritting his teeth.

With that, Russel handed him the phone. “Being polite can open a lot of doors, Ace,” the drummer said sagely. Ace just thought it was condescending, and he ignored it in favor of staring at the selfie.

“Oof,” Ace said with a wince. “I’ve taken mugshots better than that.”

“Now that’s bad publicity,” Noodle said, before adding, “Even if it wasn’t real, you know?”

Ace looked up at her, thoroughly bewildered. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“Well,” Russel said, disregarding Ace’s confusion to talk to Noodle. “Unless he’s talking about the one from the time he was in the same jail as Murdoc?”

“You have both completely lost me,” Ace said, scratching his head. “What’s a ‘fake’ mugshot?”

“You know, whatever ones got taken when you were on the PPG set?” Noodle clarified.

“The what?

Now both Russel and Noodle were giving him strange looks. “When you were acting for The Powerpuff Girls show?” Russel added, tone sounding as though this wasn’t something that should’ve needed clarification.

“The Powerpuff Girls had a show?” Ace was more lost than ever. “Since when?

Noodle grabbed her phone from Ace’s now slack grasp and tapped away. “Google says 1998. Seriously, Ace, how can you not know when your show started?”

“What do you mean, ‘show’?” Ace said, now getting frustrated. “There was never any ‘show’! Any time I ever saw those kids, there weren’t no camera crews around. I might’ve been busy getting my ass kicked, but I think I would’ve noticed! And what the hell do you know anything about what went on in Townsville, anyway?”

Noodle and Russel stared at him, seemingly stunned by the revelation. “Wait,” Noodle said, amazement in her tone. “You’re telling me that all that was real? You’re not an actor?”

“No, I’m not!” Ace snapped. Then he paused for a moment and felt a sense of dawning horror. “You mean to tell me,” he said, mopping a bead of sweat from his brow, “that anything that went on in my hometown got fucking televised?

“I mean, yeah,” Russel said. “The Powerpuff Girls was a pretty popular kids’ show. Damn, and you said that was all real? You really got a mad-scientist-monkey up in your town?”

“Oh my god,” Ace groaned, burying his head in his hands. “I got my ass kicked on live TV.”

“Multiple times,” Noodle said helpfully, and sadistic glee entered her tone when she added, “by children.”

“Oh my god.”