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i'm not in love

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 Ace had been in and out of juvie for about ten years. The first crime he'd ever committed was stealing some cash from his old man's wallet. He'd run away with his friends and they'd hidden out in Snake's tree house. They ate all kinds of junk food and stayed up past their bedtimes. That lasted until the old bastard had reported them to the fuzz. The fuzz had caught them and turned them into Ace's old man, who proclaimed that he was most definitely pressing charges. 
  Ace and the Gangreen Gang spent several months in juvenile hall, with way bigger, scarier kids than them. Most of them were teenagers, whereas the Gangreen Gang were barely old enough to be registered in the school system. That was half the reason Ace had engineered a breakout. That and the sheer thrill of it. 
 From then on Ace and the Gangreen Gang made their home in Townsville Dump, committing petty crimes just to get by. Ace's old man had been a neglectful, abusive jackass and the rest of the Gang's folks hadn't been much better either, so life in the dump, though hard and rather... smelly, had been practically peaceful. After scavenging through the dump for some supplies and using stolen money to buy others, they'd even been able to a build a small, shed-like structure to live in. 
 Though their crimes had at first been about surviving, Ace soon realized he actually enjoyed his life of crime. (Perhaps not the most usual thing to realize at such a young age.) So the Gangreen Gang went from stealing food and clothes to stealing electronics and other valuables and picking fights and causing vandalism and graffiti. Then when the Powerpuff Girls came on the scene, well, how could Ace resist picking fights with a bunch of good-two-shoes superheroes?
 He'd even come up with this scheme once to trick the green Powerpuff, Buttercup, (who'd had a big crush on him) into being distracted enough by the Gang and his "friendship" that they'd be able to take out her two sisters. Buttercup had caught wind of it just in time and Ace got the buttkicking of a lifetime. Initially he'd told himself "Eh, I'm seven. I ain't got any interest in romance anyways", but as he got older, he realized what a rotten thing he had done to Buttercup. 
 It gnawed at him for years. 
 As he got older and started entering his late teens, he began to realize that he didn't want to be a criminal anymore. Ace was getting closer and closer to adulthood; if he kept up like this, in a few years he and the rest of the Gangreen Gang would be charged as adults and do time in prison. He realized he didn't want that for himself or for his friends, for that matter.
 So his plan to make big bucks another (completely legal) way? Starting a band. They even kept "the Gangreen Gang" as their band name. And they were pretty damn good if Ace said so himself. 
 Ace, of course, was the band's singer/bass guitarist, while Snake played electric guitar, Big Billy the drums, with Lil' Arturo on the keyboard, and Grubber was masterful on the synthesizer and occasionally played the harp. While Ace wrote most of the songs, Snake, Arturo, or Grubber would sometimes come up with something good and that would get added to the band's repertoire.
 They had actually competed and placed third in the Battle of the Bands and had cult following amongst Townsville's teenage population. They might even be on their way to a record deal soon. Still, Ace felt something was missing. Another band member, maybe. Ace had talked a lot about possibly adding another singer to the group; someone who could hit the notes he couldn't. 
 And as fate would have it, Ace was about to find his second singer in the most unlikely of people...

 They'd gotten a pretty sweet gig that night. The owners of Townsville Concert Hall were big fans of the Gangreen Gang's music and had eagerly agreed to book them as soon as they had heard the Gang was interested in performing on their stage. 
 "You kids are talented as hell! You remind me a little of Greg and myself back in the day. We used to be in a punk group back in the eighties with some of our buddies. 'Course, we didn't get nearly as big a fan base as you, but we did okay for ourselves. After we got married, we bought the concert hall and renovated it and the rest is history." Wade T. Hudson had beamed. 
 "Thank youse for this opportunity, sirs. We ain't had this big o' a venue since we was still in the Battle o' the Bands. I hope we can look forward ta doin' business with ya in the future." Ace had said.
 "Of course, of course! Your show's nearly sold out already and we just  announced we were holding it here a few hours ago." Greg River had said. 
 He did actually like Hudson and River. For adults, they seemed alright to him. No ulterior motives. They just wanted a good show from a good band. 
 The Gangreen Gang had shook hands with Hudson and River then headed back to their house. It was a lot nicer than the shack they used to live in as little kids, but still small and cozy and close to the dump. (Billy had been disappointed that they weren't going to live in the dump still, but Snake had reminded him that they had real money now and could live anywhere in the city. 
 "Besssidess, who'sss gonna build usss a houssse in the dump?" he'd said.) 
 They didn't need to get ready just yet, but they still had a set list to put together. They were only going to have an hour and a half show, but Snake and Arturo wanted as many of their songs in the show as possible so they were looking at closer to three hours. (Grubber had only requested two of his original songs be performed and as they were some of Ace's favorites to sing, he'd obliged.) As the afternoon wore on, Ace was beginning to grow impatient with his bandmates. 
 "Do we really need to keep Let Me Share My Poison With You in? It's kinda, uh, how do I say this p'litely? Tacky." Ace pointed at the song in question.
 "I'm very passssionate about that sssong. It's my masssterpiece, Accce. It capturesss my esssence asss an artissst." Snake insisted. 
 "Look, if you switch out that and Scaly Days, Scaly Nights, I'll let you keep in About a Hatchling." 
 "Fine. What about Rattler Bluessss and Fangsss?" 
 "You know Rattler Blues wears my voice out too much. Fangs is fine so long as Billy's alright with it. Billy, do ya think you'll be able ta keep with the beat in Fangs? Your wrists doin' good 'nuff?" Ace asked the cyclops.
 "Yeah, sure, Ace." Big Billy nodded vigorously.
 "Okay, Arturo, onto you. I don't think we need that many songs about your lucky comb tonight. Pick one an' only one an' we'll talk about the rest, capiche?" 
 "But how am I supposed to choose between She Makes Me Look Good and Maria Conchita Teresa Rosalita?" Arturo whined.
 "I dunno, dude, figure it out or have someone else help you. I don't have time ta babysit all of youse. I still gotta figure out what I'm gonna wear t'night and do my vocal exercises!" 
 He marched into his room and locked the door behind him. He slumped down the wall, only allowing himself to take a deep breath once his back reached the bottom.
 Ace liked being the leader; he liked the respect and he liked being treated as the smartest and the coolest of the group. But the Gang constantly looked to him to solve all their problems and resolve their conflicts. They were all roughly around the same age, but he was treated as the Parent to them all. He rarely got any time to himself. It could be exhausting as hell to be their leader twenty-four/seven. 
 Ace took a moment to collect himself, then began rummaging through the clothes he reserved for when the Gangreen Gang got a gig. His best pair of shredded jeans, a white and purple shirt, his favorite sweat bands, a new leather jacket (He'd painted a kinda exaggerated, cartoony version of himself on the back that served as the band's logo. He didn't care if that made him seem self-obsessed), a pair of boots that were like cowboy boots but not, and, of course, his signature pair of shades. He got dressed then stood in front of the mirror. 
 Ace peered at his reflection. He had a few zits and five o'clock shadow. His hair was messy and he was conscious the he hadn't showered that day. Other than that, he looked pretty good, if he said so himself. Ace broke out the hair gel and cologne (he was out of deodorant) and for a little added flair, he decided to-- rather messily-- put on some eyeliner...not that anyone would see it with his sunglasses on. 
 Satisfied with his appearance, he decided to do a few vocal warm-ups.
 "Me me me me me! Do re mi fa sol la ti! A E I--" Ace began.
 "--Snake! Snake! Make 'im knock it off!" Ace heard through the door.
 "Ssstop it! You're sssupposssed to be helping Arturo pick between sssongsss in the first place, Big Billy. Grubber, help me out, dude!" 
 Ace knew when he'd heard enough of an argument to intervene. He was as ready as he was going to be anyways. He sighed and headed back out to the main room.
 "Alright! Alright! Enough already!" he exclaimed.

 Things had calmed down by the time they'd piled into the van, but everyone was still at least a little ticked off at each other. 
 "Look," Ace said as he pulled into their designated parking spot, "It shouldn't be that hard to come to decisions like that without arguing, boys. It doesn't matter how long a concert we gots, we ain't gonna be able to fit everything single song in. There's a lotta songs really wanted to sing t'night, but I left  'em cuz I know you boys were real excited 'bout doin' some classic rock covers an' I wanted to make sure youse guys got to perform a bit of your songs, too. We all gots to make sacrifices, ya got me?" 
 "We're sorry, Ace." Big Billy, Arturo, and Snake said. Grubber meerly blew a raspberry in response, but Ace got the gist.
 "Now, we're gonna bring our equipment in and then... we're gonna rock the socks offa the good people of Townsville! Whaddaya say, Gang?"
 The other boys cheered in response. 
 "Then let's get out there and do it!"
 With the help of a few Concert Hall employees, it took them a little under a half hour to unpack their instruments, their amps, and a few wardrobe changes. They were done earlier than they thought, so they decided to do a thorough equipment check. 
 When Ace got up on the stage, he immediately felt confidence and a burst of energy surge through him. He felt like this every time before they performed and it was what made him realize he belonged up there. That there was something out there for him that he was good at other than committing crimes. Ace had never told the rest of the Gangreen Gang that, but he knew they felt it, too. 
 "Ready, Billy, Grubber, Arturo, Snake?" Ace called to his bandmates.
 "Ready, boss!" they called back.
 "One, two, three, four!"
 First the drums, then the guitars, the keyboard, and the harp began to play. Ace tapped his foot to the beat of the rhythm then started to sing.
 "It's easier bein' green than you think/ A few funny looks ain't enough to break my confidence/ Got my boys/ Got my fists/ I'm ready to throw down if you are/ I'll go out with a bang/ Who's stupid enough to mess with the Gangreen Ga--" Ace's voice faltered and died as he saw them in the audience a few rows behind Hudson, Rivers, and the dudes in charge of their sound check. 
 It was a free country; they could attend his concert with paying tickets like everyone else, but why the hell had they been invited to watch the Gang's sound check? Ace didn't want to call attention to the fact that he'd seen the three of them there, so he faked a coughing fit.
 One of the employees handed a bottle of water up to Ace. He took a long swig.
 "Better this happens now and not during the concert, right, boys?" River said.
 "You're absolutely right, sir. Gimme a second an' I'll start where I left off." Ace nodded vigorously.
 River gave him a smile and Hudson gave a thumbs up. Continue whenever you're ready, boys, they seemed to say.
 Ace still felt shaken at the sight of the three of them in the front rows, but he continued singing the song. 
 After they'd confirmed that their equipment was working properly, the Gangreen Gang headed backstage to wait. Big Billy, Arturo, and Grubber wandered off to use the bathroom, get snacks, and take a power nap, respectively. Ace waited until the others were gone then cornered Snake in the other boy's dressing room.
 "Did you see them? Tell me you saw them." Ace whispered.
 "In the third row. Of courssse, how could I misss them? They're ssso... colorful." Snake hissed in response. 
 "What are they doin' here an' why would they even want to come to our concert after all crap we did to them over them over the years?"
 "Beatsss me, Bosss. Maybe they're keeping their eyesss on usss. Making sure we don't "misssbehave" tonight." 
 "If they do anything and I mean anything to screw up our concert t'night, I'll show them goody-two-shoeses some misbehavior. I'll show them-- Who'm I kiddin'? Even if they're the guilty party, they've been good, upstandin' citizens way longer'n we have. Let's keep this on the down low. Only the tell the others if you think you absolutely have to. We can't let them know we know they're here just yet."

 Out in the auditorium, the sounds of voices and footsteps filled the air. Judging by the volume, they were going to have a full house tonight. 
 A combination of nerves and excitement filled Ace with a jittery energy. They weren't even signed with a record label yet, but they were able to draw in crowds that big. It didn't even feel real.
  Hudson peered at them from the other side of the stage curtain."You're on in three, boys." 
 The Gang all gave him a thumbs up. Hudson walked back out and onto the stage.
 "Folks, our show is about to start in a couple o' minutes! For the first time ever at Townsville Concert Hall, local legends and Battle of the Bands finalists... the Gaaanngggreeennn Gaaannnggg!" Hudson shouted into the mic.
 The auditorium erupted into applause. 
 "Everyone 'bout ready?" Ace asked the others.
 They nodded. 
 Ace took a took a deep then let it out. He felt like he could've done more to prepare for that night, but that didn't matter now. It was time and he was as ready as he was going to be in that moment.
 The curtain rose. A sea of faces looked back up at the Gangreen Gang. The audience cheered as soon as the Gang came into full view.
 "What's up, Townsville!" Ace shouted into the microphone.
 The audience shouted back in excitement.
 "We've got a great ssshow for you tonight!" Snake said.
 Grubber blew a wet, slimy raspberry into the air.
 "Uh, hi, I'm Big Billy!" Billy grinned.
 "Ready, mi hermanos?" Arturo asked.
 "Ready!" they said.
 Billy started on the drums, then Ace and Snake joined in with their guitars, then Grubber on the synthesizer, and Arturo on the keyboard. Ace leaned into the microphone, almost touching it. He had been smiling before, but now his face dropped into a more somber expression. He was still, almost stiff; only strumming his guitar and tapping his feet. (He didn't like to dance much during this song.) Then he started to sing. 
 "This place is our home/ It's not much at all/ Some might call it a dump/ And ya know?/ I think they might be right/ Garbage garbage, every where garbage/ Other people's broken dreeeaamss/ Dropped on my laaawnnn/ Wonder how it all got here overnight/ Garbage garbage, everywhere garbage/ Can't step a foot outside without steppin' in someone else's crap/ Broken glass and broken people; they all come here to die/ Lived here since I was a young boy/ Wonder if I'll ever really leave/ Ran here from one dump to another/ All we had was each other/ Hopin' to find an escape/ But instead we lived in this place/ Garbage garbage, every where garbage/ Other people's broken dreeeaamss/ Dropped on my laaawnnn/ Wonder how it all got here overnight/ Garbage garbage, everywhere garbage/ You can never come clean/ Never really give up everything bad about yourself/ Sometimes all you are is trash in a sea of garbage/ No better than all the shattered things on the ground/ You gotta get out before it piles up around you/ Promise me, okay?/ Garbage garbage, every where garbage/ Other people's broken dreeeaamss/ Dropped on my laaawnnn/ Wonder how it all got here overnight/ Garbage garbage, everywhere garbage/ Is what they told me am/ Wonder if this place is a reflection on me/ Are we as bad as they say?/ Don't they know this isn't how I wanna stay?/ Is it time to change/ Clean up this place; clean ourselves up/ Rejoin society (do they even want us anymore?)/ Are we even ready? I want to be/ But I worry I'm not/ I don't want this to be who I am/ I don't want to be... Garbage garbage, every where garbage/ Other people's broken dreeeaamss/ Dropped on my laaawnnn/ Wonder how it all got here overnight/ Garbage garbage, everywhere garbage/ Other people's broken dreams/ Other people's broken dreams/ Wonder how it all got here overnight/  Dropped on my lawn/ Garbage garbage, everywhere garbage." 
 The audience clapped as the song ended. The Gangreen Gang began hurling garbage bags into the audience; some had signed t-shirts and merch, some were empty, a few had actual garbage in them. (Nothing too messy or disgusting, after all people were going to have to clean it up later) The crowd devoured it, seemingly delighted to have even empty trash bags. 
 They sang Fangs next, which was more drums and synthesizer than anything. The drum solo in the middle was intense and Big Billy tended to injure himself whenever they performed it, but that things went off without a hitch.
 "...You don't wanna bite me/ Cuz I'll sure as hell bite back/ And trust me it won't be pretty/ I'm like an animal/ Finally uncaged/ And my fangs are ready to strike..."
 They sang She Makes Me Look Good and one of Grubber's songs, Young Punks-- which had been called "a teen anthem" and "the most beautiful, yet darkly comedic ode to teenage angst I've ever heard" in a passionate review in the Townsville Tribune-- before going backstage to do their first costume change of the night. The Gangreen Gang arrived back onstage wearing spacesuits. They each carried a helmet, which they quickly set down at their feet. They began to play their instruments, except for Ace, who set his guitar down in the middle of the stage and started to moonwalk. They launched into a mash-up between Space Oddity and one of their own songs, I Went to Outerspace and All I Got Was This Lousy T-shirt
 They sang a few more covers, but after that they went back to original songs. Everything was going great. The crowd was loving them. And then they got to the final song of the night. They broke out all their lasers and pyrotechnics. Grubber was doing double time, playing both his synthesizer and his harp. (He always did like to show off by playing the harp with his feet) Just as Ace broke into song, he heard a faint noise. Like the grinding and screeching of metal. He ignored it though and kept singing.
 "...You're in for a wild ride/ Hop in the van/ Let's get moving/ We need to go now/ Hurry up and let's blow this joint/ We're on the run again!/ Run again/ Run again/ Runaways from the law/ Superheroes think they're a match for us/ But they got another think coming/ Cuz we're the boys in green/ And we sure are mean/ No one should mess with us cuz/ We're the Gangreen Gan--"
 The sound of screeching, crunching metal rang throughout the auditorium, louder than anything going on onstage. Ace stopped singing and stared up at the ceiling. The crowd's gaze went from the Gang to the place where the noise was emanating from. With one final crunch, the roof was torn off the concert hall. 
 It was hard to see in the gloom, but whatever had ripped the roof off the place was enormous. A giant scaly creature grinned down at them before aimlessly the roof somewhere into the darkness. It landed hard off into the distance. Ace hoped it hadn't landed on anyone. 
 It leaned in closer and the lights hit it. It looked like an ear, if an ear could be larger than a building, deep blue and scaly, with a mouthful of jagged fangs on its earlobe, and a single, milky white eye on the top of it. It's long, unnaturally muscular arms reached down into the building. Its grime encrusted hands were aimed straight at Ace. 
 Ace dove to side, but the ear creature lunged towards him and caught him in his grasp, knocking down the rest of the Gangreen Gang and their instruments in the process. 
 "Ace!" The Gangreen Gang yelped.
 Ace kicked and squirmed in the ear thing's hand, but it held tight. Then it began to squeeze him. He couldn't breathe and a red haze filled his vision. Ace was going to pass out... and then he was going to be crushed to death. Before he blacked out, he saw a flash of color out of the corner of his eye. Pink, green, and blue. Like a mini rainbow.
 Ace snapped out of it as soon as he was placed on the ground.
 His ribs ached and he was sure at least three of them were cracked or very badly bruised. In fact, he was certain he was more bruise than anything else. And it hurt to breathe. He was alive though. 
 At first, it was hard to sit even sit up. His head pounded and he could hardly see through the sheer pain. Once his vision cleared, he saw chaos all around him.
 People were stampeding over one another to get out. Chairs were knocked over and splintered across the floor. Snake and Big Billy were trying to help the audience get out safely, but even though though they were using their microphones, no one seemed to be paying them any attention. Grubber laid still on the stage. He had a black eye and a bloody knot on his head. He was breathing though and he had a steady pulse. Lil' Arturo was nowhere to be seen. Ace hoped he was just down there with the others and that his height made him hard to see.
 Up above, the Powerpuff Girls were fighting the monster back. Bubbles was unleashing a sonic scream into its enormous ear, while Blossom seemed to speaking calmly and at a normal volume (was she trying to reason with it? Bore it to death?), and Buttercup... Buttercup was singing at it. She actually had a pretty good voice. No, a great voice. Ace stopped and stared at the green Powerpuff for a moment, taking in the sound of her voice. 
 Buttercup turned away from the creature for a moment and locked eyes with Ace. She frowned at him. Not angrily, but like she was concentrating.
 Ace swallowed dryly. Aw, damn, what if she comes after me? 
 Buttercup turned back to her sisters, seemed to say something, (Ace couldn't hear what) then dove down at the stage. Ace winced as she swooped him up in her arms.
 "This isn't-- I didn't do nothing! I swear!" Ace squeaked hoarsely. 
 "Duh, dude we know. We're not here for you, we were staking out your concert--" Buttercup said.
 "So you admit you were spyin' on us!"
 "-- because of big and eerie up there. For the past few weeks, it's been going to rock concerts and wrecking up the place an' you guys were gonna be next. It's attracted to the noise. We don't know if it makes it mad or if it likes it. We need it to leave and I need your help. Blossom is hoping to bore it to death, Bubbles thinks the loud noise pisses it off and'll make it leave, but I think it's here for the music. So let's give it the singer it wants, just not the kinda music it's used to from him."
 Buttercup rolled her eyes. "We're gonna do a duet, doofus. Do you know Love Makes the World Go 'Round? That's about as peppy as it gets." 
 "Uh, yeah, I think I know most o'  the words." 
 "Good, cuz once we get up there, we need to start belting it out." 
 They had flown to the ceiling now. Bubbles was still screaming at the creature and Ace was now close enough to hear that Blossom was reciting the periodic table.
 "Ready?" Buttercup asked him.
 "Nope, but we can pretend I am."
 They flew right up beside the monster. It grinned wickedly when it saw Ace. Ace grinned back and he and Buttercup began to sing.
 "La La Love, La La Love makes the world go round!/ Love, love, love, la la love, la la love makes the world go round!"
 It glared at them in confusion.
 "You. Sssinggg. Wronggg. Sssonggg! Thisss. Isss. Ssso. Cheery! Ssstop!" the ear bellowed at them.
  "...Love, love, love, la la love, la la love makes the world go!" Ace sang. It hurt to sing, but he managed it, maybe because of the adrenaline, maybe because he'd gotten good at ignoring pain over the years. 
 "You can't hurt me with the things that you do/ I'll pick up dandelions and I'll give them to you!" Buttercup sang.
 "Puppy dogs, kitty cats, swimming through love! La la love makes the world go round!" they sang together, almost yelling. That was especially hard on his ribs. It was hard not to start panting or doubling over during that part. 
 The creature snarled, it's milky eye turning bright yellow as it swung at them. Buttercup deftly dodged out of the way and its fists smashed into jagged metal instead. It howled in pain as it clutched its bleeding hand. With its good hand it made a claw and swiped at Blossom and Bubbles. It didn't manage to catch either girl, but one of its filthy, yellow nails had left a deep gash on Bubbles's forehead. Bubbles let out a small whimper before going right up to the creature and punching it in the teeth. A spray of rotting teeth rained down into the auditorium below.
 "That's what you get for for scratching up my face!" Bubbles said. She closed her eyes and blew a raspberry worth of Grubber at it. 
 Unfortunately, that left the blue Powerpuff distracted and open for attack. The creature grabbed her by the pigtail and swung her around in a circle.
 "Bubbles!" Blossom and Buttercup shouted.
 Blossom lunged at its hand, trying to make it let go of her sister. She was too late. The creature hurled Bubbles up and into the night sky.
 "Shi-- you two! Keep singing! I'm going to get Bubbles!" Blossom told them.
 "What do we do? I don't know any other super peppy songs." Buttercup hissed at him.
 "Maybe it'll get annoying if we just keep singin' the same thing over and over. It's worth a try. And, uh, maybe we can get back onstage. You get the boys, tell 'em what we're playin', an' I'll start singin'." Ace replied.
 Buttercup dropped him off on the stage and zoomed away in a streak of green light. She came a few seconds later with Snake and Big Billy. They  were both confused about how they got there and then startled when they saw Buttercup hovering above them.
 "Alright, let's getting cracking!" she said.
 "Wait... where's Lil' Arturo? Did you see him down there?" Ace asked.
 "No... I didn't. Crap. I'll go around the room again. You guys, just starting singing." Buttercup flew off again.
 "Sssinging? At a time like thisss? What'sss that chick planning?" Snake griped.
 "Boys, have you seen Arturo?" Ace asked them. He hoped they heard the urgency in his voice and would answer.
 "Not sssinccce that giant ear guy grabbed you and knocked Grubber out. But I wasssn't... wasssn 't paying attention to him I guesss." Snake looked down at his feet in shame.
 "Billy?" He looked towards the taller boy hopefully.
 "I dunno. Sorry, Ace." Big Billy said.
 Ace's heart sank. Arturo was the youngest member of the Gangreen Gang. Ace had been looking out for the kid for over half his life. He'd screwed up tonight, when Arturo needed him to keep an eye on him the most and now he was missing. Arturo could be dead. 
 "He-- he's probably fine. Might be hidin' out in the bathroom. Y-you know how he gets when he's nervous. Pro'ly just stomach trouble! Yeah, stomach trouble," Ace said half-heartedly."C'mon! We can't just wait fer 'im to get over here. Start playin' those instruments, Gang!" 
 Snake picked his guitar up from the stage and Billy dove behind his drum set. Ace's guitar had been destroyed when the monster had tried to crush him to death so his only instrument left was his voice.
 "Just follow my lead, you've heard this song before." Ace instructed them. 
 "La la love makes the world go round/ La la love makes the world go round! La la love..." 
 The more they played, the more annoyed the monster looked. It tried jamming its fingers in its ear, but still seemed to be able to hear them.
 Powerpuffs pink and blue dove back into the building. Ace didn't get a good look at Bubbles, but judging by the fact she was flying on her own, she was probably okay. They started picking up groups of people and flying them outside to safety. Once they'd gotten everyone out of harm's way they returned to the stage.
 "Where's Buttercup?" Blossom asked them.
 "Ssshe'sss looking for Arturo. No one'sss ssseen him sssinccce that thing attacked." Snake said.
 "Shoot. Maybe we should-- do you guys need anymore help over here?" Blossom said.
 "Yesss, either of you two play the keyboard or the harp or-- and thisss isss a long ssshot-- the sssynthesssizer?" 
 "Bubbles used to take piano lessons, that's probably close enough... I suppose I could give one of the other two a shot." Blossom said uncertainly.
 "Go nutsss." Snake said.
 As Bubbles got into position behind the keyboard, Blossom's eyes darted back and forth between the harp and the synthesizer. She probably had no idea how to play either one. Just as Blossom was about to choose one, a loud whoosh of air and a burst of green light came hurtling down in the front row. Ace stopped singing and jumped off stage. The impact made him wince. He hadn't expected to feel that in his ribs.
 Buttercup was on her knees in the orchestra pit, panting. In her arms she cradled someone very small and very bloody. His clothes were torn and he was covered in scratches and gashes and splinters of wood were stuck in his bare skin.
 Ace took Arturo from her. He looked even worse up close. His breathing was weak and shallow.
 "Arturo," Ace croaked. "Where... where did ya find 'im?"
 Ace was thankful he hadn't lost his lucky shades; he didn't want Buttercup to see him cry.
 "Under a pile of broken chairs. He looks like he was... trampled or something." Buttercup said. 
Ace stood up, still holding Arturo against his chest. "God... if... if, um, the cops an' the ambulances don't get here soon... I'm not sure Arturo's gonna make it."
 "I--I'm sorry. I found him as soon as I could." 
 "I don't blame youse, Buddacup, jus'... help me get  'im up on stage. We'll put  'im with Grubber. We gotta-- we gotta keep singing, okay? We gotta get that thing to leave."
 Buttercup guided Ace back up the stage steps. Ace hadn't realized everyone had stopped playing the song until they were all standing in front of him expectantly.
 "How isss he?" Snake asked.
 "Not good. He needs t' lie down. Put  'im with Grubber," Ace gently handed Arturo off to Snake. "And here, wrap 'im up with this." Ace took off his jacket and gave that to Snake, too. 
 Snake laid Arturo down at the back of the stage. 
 "Ressst easssy, little buddy." he told him. 
 Grubber was still unconscious, but he seemed to be stirring. 
 "Buddacup, youse up fer another duet?" Ace asked the green Powerpuff.
 "Ready, if you are, Ace." Buttercup said. 
 Buttercup and Ace sang their hearts out. They harmonized together beautifully. Ace couldn't tell where his voice ended and hers began. It was a moment of unity Ace had never shared with anyone before. The thought of singing together with Buttercup or even just listening to her sing by herself made Ace's heart race. Snake and Big Billy played harder and better than they ever had before. They didn't miss a single note or flub their timing once. Bubbles was a passable keyboard player, but Blossom had clearly never used a synthesizer before in her life. 
 The ear monster started screaming and wailing. "Ssstop. Make. It. Ssstop. You're. Hurtinggg. Meeee! What. Did. I. Ever. Do. To. You?"
 This disgusting, thick blue ooze poured out of its ears. Ace wasn't sure if it was blood or earwax. It stank something awful whatever it was. 
 "C'mon, Girls! Now's our chance!" Blossom shouted.
 A tiny rainbow of light flew straight into the thing's "face". They were but a streak of color as they fought the ear monster back. Only when the thing moved out of eye sight did Ace allow himself to collapse from the pain. Billy caught him and helped him sit down. 
 The adrenaline had worn off and now Ace was nothing more than an aching, throbbing mess. 
 "Duh, you need anything, boss?" Billy asked.
 "Some water maybe." It hurt to talk, it hurt to breathe. Ace just wanted this day to be over so he could go home and go to sleep. 
 A "pbthpbth" sounded in the background. Grubber was awake. Well that's somethin'. Ace thought.

 Thankfully the cops decided they were too beaten up to mess with right then. That suited Ace just fine. He's wasn't in the mood to have to talk with the fuzz right now. He was more concerned with his friends.
 Grubber and the still unconscious Arturo were immediately hauled off in an ambulance and taken to Townsville General Hospital. Snake and Big Billy had a few cuts and bruises, but nothing major enough to warrant a hospital visit. Ace was determined to stay on-site until everyone else was tended to, much to the disapproval of the paramedics. 
 Although the Powerpuff Girls were injured in the fight, their wounds had healed by the time emergency services had arrived. They were sticking around though. Ace wasn't sure why. Maybe to make sure everyone was alright. 
 Buttercup flew by his stretcher just then and Ace decided he needed to ask her something before she and her sisters left. 
 "Hey, Buddacup, can I ask you somethin'?" Ace got up the courage to say.
 "Ask away."
 "You have a really, really good voice. I ain't just sayin' that ta butter youse up or anythin'-- um, I thought we sounded really good up there t'gether even though we was singin' that really cheesy sing. I've been lookin' fer another lead singer fer awhile now an' I was wondering: would ya be interested in joining our band?" 
 Buttercup looked shocked, like that was the last question she'd expected him to ask. "Oh. I thought we sounded pretty good together, too. Can I think about it though?
 "Yeah, yeah, of course. Take all the time ya need." 

Chapter Text

Only one of Ace's ribs was cracked, the rest were just badly bruised. The doctors prescribed him some painkillers and told him he'd be healed up in about a month. And to take it easy until then. And he probably shouldn't sing. After all the singing he'd already done with a cracked rib, the doc didn't need to tell him twice. It had been agony, only manageable because he knew it had to be done.
 Grubber had a concussion but he was going to be okay otherwise. Lil' Arturo still hadn't woken up yet. From what the doctors had told Ace, Arturo's external injuries were going to heal up just fine, but his right arm was fractured in three places and he had a lot of internal bleeding. He was also going to need surgery. 
 Ace offered to stay with him at Townsville General, but the doctors told him they couldn't be sure when Arturo was going to wake up (Ace heard an "if" in there) and should just go home and rest with the others. Ace couldn't rest though. 
 He didn't sleep at all that night. He sat besides his phone all night, waiting for phone calls that never came. Even if the hospital didn't call, Ace had kind of hoped... Buttercup would. 
 Ace had given her their home phone and his cell number. He'd never given her a timeline (they weren't going to be in any shape to perform any time soon, except for maybe Big Billy and Snake), but he'd hoped she'd call back soon. The thought of hearing her voice again made his cheeks grow hot and his stomach flutter. He decided it must've been a side effect from the painkillers. 
 Ace had this thought-- well, more of a fantasy, really-- of the two of them onstage. The room was dim, lit only by the spotlight hovering above the band. He and Buttercup were sharing a microphone, leaning close together as they sang. Smiling at each other, looking into each other's eyes. The closer they stood, the more the audience cheered. It gave Ace more of that weird feeling in his gut, so he tried to stop thinking about it, about Buttercup. But it was so hard to stop once he started thinking about it. 
 It became easier to stop thinking about Buttercup the longer Ace realized they still hadn't heard back from the hospital about Arturo. Then Ace felt guilty that he'd spent so much time thinking about some girl when his friend's life was in danger. 
 "Any o' youse wanna come with me? I'm gonna head to the hospital. See if they have anything new 'bout Arturo." Ace said finally. 
 "I'll drive." Snake said.

 Buttercup paced in midair across her bedroom. She held the piece of paper with Ace's numbers in one hand and her phone in the other. She glanced back and forth between the two.
 Buttercup wasn't sure that she was ready to answer him. She'd loved being up onstage, singing with Ace (he was right, their voices were good together), but she wasn't sure she wanted to be in a band. What if when they went on tour Townsville was attacked and Blossom and Bubbles couldn't handle it on their own? Buttercup also wasn't sure if she wanted to be in a band with them. It had been ten years since Ace had used her crush against her and Buttercup had gotten over it a little (the deception and the crush, mind you), but did she trust the Gangreen Gang? Could she trust them? Did she want to?
 She didn't know. 
 She hadn't told the Professor that Ace had asked her. Her sisters had seen the note, but as far as Buttercup knew, they didn't know what it said. 
 Buttercup didn't like to ask for advice often-- too stubborn-- but she was considering it now. 
 She stared at the things in her hands once more then slid them into the top drawer of her night stand. She'd think about it again later. 

 Arturo was about to be taken into surgery. He still hadn't woken up, but the Gang had been allowed time to see him off. They took turns, each saying or giving Lil' Arturo something before the docs took him into the operating room. 
 Ace lingered a little longer than the others. He hadn't been sure what he wanted to say or do at first, only that he felt he had to do something special, something grand for Arturo. Ace'd practically raised the kid, looked out for him all those years...then he'd really dropped the ball at the concert. Ace wanted to make it up to him. 
 "Ar--Arturo, I know it's not much, but I got ya this. It was s'posed t' be a birthday present, but I-- I thought it might do youse better t' have it now." 
 Ace pulled out a lumpy, cardboard package from underneath his vest. He tore it open slowly, but still managed to shred the package. Ace held out the gift in front of himself before draping it over Arturo's unconscious form. It was hard to tell without Arturo wearing it, but the small leather jacket seemed like it would fit him.
 "Maybe it'll bring ya good luck, buddy." Ace said with a small, sad smile. 

 Buttercup headed out of her room, closing the door softly behind her. As she turned, she saw something approaching her out of the corner of her eye. Instinctively, Buttercup jumped, nearly hitting her head on the ceiling as she hovered upwards. 
 "I'm sorry, Buttercup. I didn't mean to startle you. I was just on my way back down to my lab." her father said.
 "It's okay, Professor," Buttercup said sheepishly, "There's actually something I wanted to talk with you about. I think I need some advice." 
 "Oh?" The Professor was clearly puzzled. Buttercup rarely (if ever) asked for anyone's advice, usually relying on gut instinct alone to make her decisions. 
 He couldn't help but feel honored.
 Buttercup descended slowly until she was only hovering half a foot off the ground. 
 So Buttercup told him everything that been bothering her, everything that was stopping her from making her decision. When she was done, Professor Utonium took a pause before answering her. 
 "Buttercup, I can't say what's right for you, only you can. If you're worried about how Townsville will fare without you, well, Blossom and Bubbles can always call for back-up from the Kids Next Door or the Saturdays or the Plumbers. The fate of the city shouldn't always have to on your shoulders when you're so young. If this is what you want-- really want -- we can help make it a reality for you. We'll pick up the slack. Maybe I'll even dust off the ol' Power Prof. suit. 
 "If you don't want to, if you don't think you can trust those boys, then you don't have to. Trust your gut. Your instincts aren't infallible, but they are usually right. I know you'll make the right choice for you."
 My instincts were wrong about Ace before though. And look how much trouble that got me in. 
 "But what if I make the wrong choice, Professor? What if I make a huge mistake?" Buttercup asked. 
 "Well as I always say, mistakes are a learning experience. Why without mistakes, I wouldn't have you girls! And accidentally adding Chemical X to that concoction was the best mistake I ever made," Professor Utonium beamed. "Well, I hope that helped. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to get back down to my lab. I'm working on a very exciting-- and top secret-- new project for Providence!"
 Before Buttercup could respond or ask for further advice, the Professor had sprinted downstairs and into his basement laboratory.
  It wasn't that it was bad advice, but Buttercup's track record when it came to Ace... well, it wasn't great. In fact, it had almost gotten Blossom and Bubbles killed. 
 How could she trust herself to choose correctly when it came to Ace? 

 Ace was just started to doze off in the waiting when his phone rang. The noise jolted him back to consciousness. He was too exhausted to hold a proper conversation with anyone, but he didn't want to piss off the other occupants of the waiting room so he answered it. The number looked vaguely familiar, but he couldn't place it in his groggy state. He wondered if it could be--
 "Hullo?" Ace mumbled.
 "Hello, am I speaking to Ace Copular?" the voice asked.
 "Yeah, you got  'im, alright." Ace said.
 "Well, Mr. Copular, my name is Della Blues and I'm a talent scout with Townsville Records. I was at your show the other night and I liked what I saw. (Mr. Hudson and Mr. River were kind enough to give me your contact information.) If you and your band would like to come in in a few months-- I of course understand y'all'll need time for your injuries to heal-- and record a demo down at our recording studio, I may be able to set up a record deal for the Gangreen Gang." 
 Ace was so stunned he nearly dropped his phone, narrowly grabbing it before it landed screen down on the tiled floor.
 "Mr. Copular? Ace? Are ya still there?" Della Blues asked in a concerned voice.
 "Sorry... sorry... you said... you said we might be able ta get a record deal?"
 "I think y'all have a great sound and a lot o' potential. I'm sure if my label were listen to your demo, they'd be very interested in signing your band."
 "I'm not sure what to say, ma'am. That's... that's... incredible."
 "You  take you time to heal and come on down to the recording studio when you're ready. I'll be in touch."
 "Thanks. Thank you. So much. Wow."
 "You're welcome, Ace. I hope to talk to you soon. Good-bye." Della said.
 Ace clutched the phone to his chest. He took a few slow, steady breaths. 
 Wow. Damn. Wow. Is this really happening? Are we gonna finally make it big? 
 He didn't want to wake the others, not unless something came up during Arturo's surgery. He didn't want to worry them unnecessarily. He would tell them after they woke up or after Arturo came out of surgery, whichever came first. Snake, Grubber, and Billy needed the rest in case the procedure didn't go as planned.
 And Ace needed the rest, too. For now all he could do was wait and hope and sleep. Nothing in the near future was certain and everything was in everyone's hands but his own. Ace realized he was going to have to get used to that if he was going to get through the rest of the day. 

 Even after her conversation with Professor Utonium, Buttercup still couldn't help but go back and forth in her mind about joining the band or not.
 On the one hand... but on the other... and.... then... dammit...I just need a break. Clear my head. I'll think about it s'more later. 
 Buttercup went to the garage and pulled out her punching bag and the radio. She flicked on the radio, but it was more static than anything. Annoyed, Buttercup set it to search for a working station and stood facing the punching bag. 
 Jab. Jab. Uppercut. Uppercut. Right cross. Left cross...
 Buttercup could finally make out some words out from the static. It was weird though, it almost sounded like it was trying to make a sentence.
 "--nt a great new way to make money-- joining a band-- provide a great experience-- within a gang-- green-- gang-- experts unsure if that's-- a good idea or a bad idea-- stay tuned for the results--" 
 Buttercup stopped mid-punch. She was about to switch the radio off, when it suddenly went dead silent, not even the static was audible. She shrugged it off...until it blared back to life.
 "This place is our home/ It's not much at all/ Some might call it a dump/ And ya know?/ I think they might be right/ Garbage garbage, every where garbage/ Other people's broken dreeeaamss/ Dropped on my laaawnnn/ Wonder how it all got here overnight/ Garbage garbage, everywhere garbage/ Can't step a foot outside without steppin' in someone else's--"
 Buttercup was so startled to hear Ace's voice on the radio that she let loose a pair of laser eyebeams. They missed the radio, but vaporized a nearby lawn chair. 
 "Crap," she groaned. "What the hell was that." She kicked at the air above the radio. (She didn't want to break that, too.) 
 She flipped the radio off and unplugged it from the wall socket for good measure.
 With renewed ferocity, Buttercup slammed into the punching bag, resolving not to stop until the sand flew out of it. Already she was beginning to feel calmer; her mind unburdened by thought, as though she was entering a near meditative state. The rhythm of fists against nylon was all there was. 
 Though some people might consider the exercise a violent act, it always gave Buttercup a sense of peace. It wasn't something everyone could understand, but to her, there was a serenity in the flow of endorphins the exercise released. A calmness. A oneness with the world. It was her happy place. 
 And in the quiet darkness of the garage, Buttercup realized she had come to a decision. 
 She packed up her punching bag, headed into the house, and made a beeline for her room. She had a phone call to make. 

 In the doctor's words the surgery had gone "beautifully" and without complication. Now all that was to be done was for Arturo to wake up... hopefully. The doctors still weren't certain that he would though. Some of them thought all it would take was for the anesthesia to wear off. And some of them thought that because his injuries were so bad... well...
  What if he never wakes up? What if--
 He could not afford to go into panic mode. For Billy and Grubber's sakes, he had to appear calm, confident, and collected. It wouldn't work on Snake though; he could always see through Ace's bullshit. It was like Snake could see exactly what Ace was thinking. Maybe it was because he and Snake had been friends for so long. 
 Nevertheless, Ace refused to leave Arturo's side unless absolutely necessary.
 "It could be awhile before the anesthesia wears off. You don't have to stay with him the whole time." one of the doctors had said.
 "Yeah, I do. I practically raised this kid. He's like my brother, my son, and my friend all rolled intah one. I been here for  'im all this time, why leave now?" Ace had replied. 
 "No offenssse, doc, but you got really ssshitty bedssside manner." Snake had said.
 "Duh, Arturo's my pal. You gotta stick with your pals." Billy had said.
 Grubber had merely blown a particularly wet raspberry. There had been such a disgust on Arturo's behalf in his eyes that no words would've been able to adequately say more.
 Ace sat quietly in Arturo's room all afternoon with the rest of the Gangreen Gang. Occasionally the boys would talk and whisper amongst themselves, but for the most part the quiet hum of the TV set and the beeping of monitors were the only sounds that broke the silence. 
 Ace was flipping through a notebook filled with unfinished song lyrics, when he saw movement out of the corner of his eye. He peered up at Arturo and smiled. 
 "Look." Ace whispered to Snake.
 Snake nudged the other two boys and pointed at Arturo on the bed. Big Billy took a big breath as though he was about to say something loudly, but Snake stopped him with a pointed look.
 Arturo's eyelids fluttered and slid open. Slowly, he peered around the room, his eyes unfocused. He frowned a little then blinked.
 "Hey, buddy," Ace said softly, "How ya doin'?"
 "Where am I? Shouldn't we be onstage right now, Señor?" Arturo asked. His voice was dry and raspy. Instinctively, Ace passed him the glass of water on the nightstand. Arturo reached for the glass with his left hand, but winced sharply when he saw the cast on his arm. Ace realized his mistake and placed the glass on a tray and stuck a straw in it. Arturo sipped gratefully. 
 "Uh, Arturo, that was a couple daysss ago. I guessss you don't remember what happened, huh?" Snake said.
 "Guess not. What happened?" 
 The boys told him what had happened the night of the concert. Ace was in the middle of describing how they had warded off the monster with the power of song when his phone vibrated in his pocket. He glanced at the caller ID and almost stuck it back in his jacket, but he realized that he recognized the number.
 "Well speak o' the devil! I gotta take this, but I'll be back in a sec."
 He stepped outside of the room and closed the door before answering the phone. He was more nervous than he thought he was going to be. He worried that for once even he'd be speechless. 
 "Well, hey there, Buddacup, how's it hangin'?" Ace said it casually, but internally he was yelling at himself for saying something so dorky.
 "Hey. Hi. Um, I think I've decided." She sounded nervous, too, which was a relief.
 "Oh, yeah? What'cha decide ya wanted ta do?"
 "I think-- I think I want in." 

Chapter Text

 "I told Blossom and Bubbles a little bit ago."
 "Yeah. How'd they take it?"
 "Blossom was pretty pissed about it. She gave me this big lecture about hanging out with you guys again. Whatever. The Professor told her he'd okayed it so that shut her up. I think Bubbles was fine with it. She said she was happy I was following my dreams. She did threaten to disembowel you if anything happened to me so there's that."
 "Ah. Super. Glad to hear the Utoniums have such confidence in me an' the boys." 
 "Welllll...I mean, you used to be criminals."
 "What 'bout youse, Buddacup? You gots confidence in lil' ol' Ace?"
 "...I don't know yet."
  aceofhearts375: theyre  finally letting arturo out of the hospital 2morrow. he already wants to start up practicing again. the docs said he should rest up. normally id side with him but idk how ur sposed 2 play keyboard with a busted up arm. 
 DashofSpice117: i dont blame him. id b bored out of my mind being cooped up 4 so long. 
 aceofheart375: kid just has 2 much energy for his own good some times. b glad 2 have him back home tho 

 DashofSpice117: hey does just 1 of u write the song lyrics?
 aceofhearts375: nah i write most of em but arturo snake & grubber wrote a quite a bit of our songs 2
 DashofSpice117: cool ive working on 1 and I wanted 2 make sure u were down w/ that. i have a tune in mind but i dont know shirt about sheet music tho.
 DashnofSpice117: *shit not shirt
 aceofhearts375: thats fine i dont really myself. grubber can pro'ly help ya w/ that.if u get done with it b4 u come over u can email it 2 me.
 DashofSpice117: (Y)

 "We're gettin' offahs from all ovah to record or send in a demo or sign a record deal with  'em! Where was all this int'rest after the Battle o' the Bands!"
 "You guys didn't get any offers? Didn't you place third or something?"
 "Yeah... we got a few offahs, but they never panned out. They didn't like our "overall sound" or they wanted to get rid o' one of us or we just didn't hear back. And then it got real quiet on that front. We book a lotta gigs, I don't get it." 

 "I gotta a new bass the other day an' I think my ribs are healin' up nicely. Do ya think in a couple o' weeks ya'd be available t' rehearse or just come ovah an' we can all talk 'bout what we might wanna do soon?" 
 "Uh, hang on, Blossom would know our schedule better than I would. Blossom! Bloss! Hey, Blossom!"
 "What, Buttercup?!"
 "Are we gonna be busy the next couple of weeks or nah?!"
 "Well...Bubbles has a dentist appointment next Friday, the Professor is going to attend a science convention the day after that, have a Scouts' meeting two days after that--"
"Okay, okay! What about me?!"
 "Oh... I think you just have some comics to pick up on Wednesday? The calendar just says Spore in all caps!"
 "Alright! Okay, Blossom says I'm good to go. See ya then?"
 "Yup, see ya later!"

 aceofhearts375: sorry bout earlier. snake can b... territorial
 DashofSpice117: he was being an ass is what he was doing. 
 aceofhearts375: im gonna talk with him bout it. he need 2 b more flexible when it comes 2 his song lyrics. u just made a little suggestion and he coulda taken it or no but he decided 2 fly off the handle instead
 DashofSpice117: it wasn't even JUST that. he was being aggro all afternoon. he doesn't have 2 like me but he doesn't have to dismiss me at every turn. it's really lame and unprofessional. how are we going 2 work together if he acts like that every time we practice?
 aceofhearts375: i know and im sure snake does 2. gonna talk some sense into him. im his oldest friend hopefully he will listen 2 me if anyone
 "--Hey call me back when you get this, okay? We need to talk. I know you an' Snake are still pretty pissed at each other, but I want you to know I'm not on anybody's side. I'm real worried 'bout the future of the band. I think the two o' youse jus' need t' sit down t'gether an' hash it out--"

 Ace said he wanted them to agree upon a neutral location so Buttercup had suggested a little diner on the outskirts of Townsville. It was a newer place; Ace had only eaten there twice. The pie was damn good. 
 Ace was smiling broadly, pacing in front of their booth. He refused to speak until their food came. 
 After a big bite of key lime pie, Ace finally said "Look, I don't wanna get in the middle o' yer argument, so I thought I'd send in the best, neutralest mediator I know."
 And from halfway across the room came a "Pbthpbthpbth!" 
 "Grubber!?" Buttercup and Snake exclaimed at once.
 "Seriously? How exactly is he neutral? You guys all grew up together." the green Powerpuff griped.
 "Simple," Ace said, "It's his Mazes an' Monstahs alignment!"
 "Aw, c'mon, bosss, even I know that--"
 "Nope, nope, the three o' youse is gonna sit here an' work things out whilst I go sits outside an' enjoy this very excellent pie. If ya haven't come ta an agreement by the time I'm finished eatin' this big ol' beautiful pie, well... can't say I'll appreciate havin' two less bandmates when we're gettin' so close ta recordin' our demo."
 Buttercup and Snake glared at each other then at Ace. "Fine." they said.
 Ace stood up and headed out the door. Just before he left he pointed at the pie and said loudly "Eh! My compliments ta the chef!" 
 Ace sat at an outdoor table beside a window so he could see into the diner. He could see Buttercup, Snake, and Grubber talking and gesturing, but he couldn't hear what they were saying. Grubber looked on calmly at the other two as they glared daggers at one another. Ace couldn't read lips, but he got the gist.
 It was most definitely going to take longer for Snake and Buttercup to negotiate than it was for Ace to eat seven-eighths of a pie, but that had more to do with Ace's upbringing, the old fear that the his next meal would be days away, (not to mention he was in the middle of a growth spurt) than Buttercup and Snake's combined stubbornness. Of course he had been bluffing, where was he going to find a new singer and a new guitarist on such short notice? Besides, it would be awkward as hell to fire someone who he'd lived with in the same household for ten years. 
 And, said a small voice in his head, how else would you have an excuse to hang around with Buttercup?
 He felt his face warm up at the thought, but why? 
 As Ace ate he could see Buttercup and Snake's expressions soften, their gestures growing less aggressive, their postures loosening up. Eventually they stopped talking, paid for their pie, and exited the building.
 "Well?" Ace asked pointedly as they walked towards him
 "I've agreed to lisssten and be open to sssuggessstionsss ssso long asss they are given to me in a ressspectful and conssstructive manner." Snake muttered reluctantly. 
 "And I've agreed to give only respectful and constructive criticism so long as Snake is respectful and professional towards me." Buttercup said in a similar tone.
 "Excellent. Glad ta see youse could settle yer differences without gettin' all violent like on each other. Guess I'll be seein' the both a ya's at practice on Saturday then," Ace grinned and then turned towards Grubber. "Grubber, truly youse are a miracle worker, my friend."
 Grubber gave him a thumbs up and blew a small raspberry in agreement.

 DashofSpice117: DID U SEE?!
 aceofhearts375: see what
 DashofSpice117: ok so u kno how theyre rebooting spore for like the 9th time? well they cast that dude who used to play val hallen in those made for tv justice friends movies from like 15 years ago.
 aceofhearts375: wtf isnt that guy in comedies usually? thats just a weird fit for spore. if they were gonna get anyone from those old justice friends movies to play spore they shoulda got that guy who played sam r i. dudes a trained shakespearean actor AND he went on to get a whole buncha fancy acting awards after he stopped playing sam r i.
 DashofSpice117: yes totally! that guy rules! that speech he gave in jf 3d was epic and probably the only reason to rewatch it.
 aceofheart375: yeah even the 3d wasnt that good. it looked about the same with the glasses on as without em

 "Hey, Ace, what time was I supposed to come over tomorrow? I can't remember if you said or not?" 
 "I think we all agreed that six thirty was best? Yeah, definitely."
 "Cool. Guess I'll see everyone then."

 Buttercup wasn't exactly sure what had possessed her to dress up that day. Usually she just wore her Powerpuff uniform or an old t-shirt and basketball shorts to practice, but today felt different. She dug through her closet and pulled out this nineteen-forties style top, green and black tights, a Pokey Oaks High letterman jacket, a green skirt/suspenders hybrid, and a green bandana which she tied on in the same style as Rosie the Riveter. She looked in the mirror, gave her reflection a quick nod, then headed out the door. 
 When Buttercup landed outside the Gangreen Gang's front door, she heard loud music thumping from within and what sounded like sizzling. Maybe they were cooking something on the stove top?
 Buttercup knocked then paused to wait for someone to let her in. When no one opened the door, she knocked a little louder. She made to knock a third time, when the door swung open. Ace's hair was wet, he wasn't wearing a shirt, and he had a toothbrush sticking out of the side of his mouth.
 Buttercup could tell she was blushing profusely, but why?
 "Oh, hey, yer here early. I just got outta the shower." he said.
 "No, it's 6:35. I'm a little late."
 "What, no... it', shit... the power went off last night. Snake reset the clocks, but I thought I had twenty minutes," he turned back into the house and yelled, "Snake! Hey, Snake! The clock's twen'y minutes behind!"
 "I ressset that thing myssself, it ssshould be fine!" Snake's voice came from within the house.
 "Well, guess again, dude, cuz Buddacup's here already! An' she ain't early. Her phone says it's 6:37."
 "Dammit. I guesss that meansss the clock in the van isss off, too. I knew I ssshouldn't've used it to ressset the clocksss in the houssse." 
 "Ooo! Ooo! Snake said a swear! Snake said a swear! You know the rules, that means I get to say it, too!" came another voice.
 "Fine, Billy," Snake sighed, "Go ahead."
 "Dammit!" Big Billy said with glee.
 Ace turned back to Buttercup. "Guess we're runnin' a little behind t'day. I gotta finish brushin' my teeth and Arturo and Grubber are cookin' somthin' on the stove. Not sure what it is, but it smells good an' they usually make a lil' bit more'n we need so you can have some if you want."
 The Gangreen Gang's new house was a bit small for five people, but it was cozier and more pleasant smelling than their old shack in the dump. It felt like a place that was actually meant to be lived in. A few worn couches, a recliner, and a small T.V. decorated the front room, along with a handful of pictures of the Gang on the wall. In most of the pictures the Gang were making goofy faces or wearing (what Buttercup assumed were) Halloween costumes, but there was one picture where they were all grinning broadly as they stood outside the house. Buttercup guessed the picture was taken the day they had first moved in. 
 She wondered out into the hallway and peered into the kitchen.
 "Hola, Buttercup!" Arturo greeted her. His arm was still in a cast, but he seemed to be able to use it without discomfort as he stirred something in a pot. He was so short that he needed a stool to reach the stove top. 
 "Pbthpbbbbtttthhh!" Grubber raspberried enthusiastically.
 "Whatcha guys cookin'? It smells awesome." Buttercup said. 
 "We're trying out a new chili recipe. It probably won't be ready until after practice though. Would you like to be the first to try it, señorita?" 
 Buttercup took the spoon Arturo offered her. "Hmm... it's a little sweet. Never had sweet chili before."
 "Normally Grubber and I like to make the chili a bit spicier, but the other three don't like it too much, so we decided to try a new recipe so they might actually eat it." 
 "I'd be down to try the usual recipe if you guys make it when I come over. I love spicy food!" 
 "Will do." 
 After talking a bit more with Grubber and Arturo, Buttercup wandered into the garage. The instruments were set up already and the amps were turned on, but the only other person down there was Big Billy.
 "Duh, hey, Buttercup! I heard youse at the door! I like your outfit! You like real purdy today!" Billy greeted her. 
 "Thank, Billy. I like your jacket. Are we all getting matching ones or something?" she said, eyeing the Gangreen Gang logo on his jacket.
 "Yes! Ace said he wants all of us to have one by the time we goes on tour!"
 "Which hopefully will be very shortly." Buttercup heard Ace say.
 Buttercup turned to see Snake and Ace standing in front of the door.
 "Grubber an' Arturo'll be down in a sec. They're jus' makin' sure the chili'll be okay to leave while we're practicin'," Ace explained, "An', hey, Buddacup? Is it alright with youse if we start off with yer song since we ain't performed it as much?"
 "Oh, yeah, more than alright! I'm stoked!" 
 "Good. Billy, Snake, let's do a sound check while we wait." 
 Everything seemed to be in working order, however, Snake almost immediately broke a guitar string as he was tuning it. After a few choice swears-- all of which Big Billy insisted he be aloud to repeat-- Snake changed the string.
 "Thisss isss my last ssspare ssstring ssso don't expect me to play too agressssively." Snake snapped.
 "Noted." Ace said.
 After a few more minutes, Arturo and Grubber walked into the garage.
 "Glad to sssee you could finally join usss." Snake hissed.
 "You know, we don't have to cook your dinner for you every night. If you'd rather rush perfection or have a quicker meal, you could just snack around the house or order from a fast food joint." Arturo said.
 Snake glared at him, muttered something under his breath, and then picked up his guitar.
 "Alright, we're startin' off with Buddacup's song. You boys know the tune, right?" Ace asked them.
 Grubber gave a thumbs up and a raspberry of confirmation.
 "Si, señor." 
 The drum beat started off long, then short, long, then short (it reminded Buttercup of Morse Code), then came the mellow strumming of guitars, the unearthly sounds of the synthesizer, the funky melody of the keyboard. After a few seconds, Buttercup and Ace reached for the microphone at the same time. Ace's fingers grazed the back of Buttercup's hand and it was as though Buttercup had been struck by lightning.
 The electrifying feeling seemed to course from her hand up and down her body. Her pulse raced, her cheeks felt hot. She almost couldn't open her mouth to sing.
 Did he feel it, too? 
 Buttercup started off on a sour note, but as she sang, she sounded better and better. Ace started off badly, too, but was it for the same reason as she had?
 "Pink, green, and blue streaks across/ The skyyy/ We're a matched set/ Sisters threeee/ Bound by blood and Chemicaaallll XXXXX/ Guess that's our fate/ Our destiiiinnnyyy/ Makes it hard to breakawaaaayyy/ Sometimes, to work on myself/ Find out who I am without yooouuu/ Who I am, who I am, who I am/ Who am I? Sister, fighter, experiment/ Who am I without that? Who am I? Who? Sugar, spice, everything niiice, and Chemical X/ Make up aaalll that I am/ That much I know/ But what am I/ Without the superpooowwwers/ Would I still be me/ Without the hooouuurs/ Of soaring through the clouds/ Who would I be/ If I couldn't lift a water tooowwwer/ Can I find out/ Who I am without them/ Who I am, who I am, who I am/ Who am I? Sister, fighter, experiment/ Who am I without that? Who am I? Who? Born in a laaabbb/ Not exactly a daily occurrence/ In kindergarten/ Not even a week after thaaattt/ I was never going to be normal/ Not when I started off that wwwaaayyy/ But would I even be the same person/ If I had an ordinary upbringing/ But what's ordinary anyway?/ But still I wonder if I could/ Find out who I am without thaaattt/ Who I am, who I am, who I am/ Who am I? Sister, fighter, experiment/ Who am I without that/ Who am I? Who?/ Who, who, who am I/ Without everything that makes me me?" 
 As the beat faded away, Buttercup became aware of just how close she was standing next to Ace. Shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, their hands mere centimeters away even as they both clutched the mic stand.
 "That was... that was great." Ace said softly.
 "Yeah... it was. I..." her voice trailed off.
 They smiled sheepishly at one another for a long moment.
 "Ahem!" Snake coughed, then said, "Hey, you two dweebsss know we ssstill have a full ssset o' sssongsss we gotta rehearssse, right?"
 "Oh, right, yeah. Yeah. Let's keep going." Ace said distractedly.
 And as they went on into the late afternoon, Buttercup realized that all that was going through her head was Ace.

 DashofSpice117: hey I know I've been busy lately with band stuff but did you want 2 see a movie this weekend or something?
 aceofheart375: ?
 DashofSpice117: oh sorry I meant 2 send this 2 my friend Robin. 
 aceofhearts375: oh no worries
 DashofSpice117: she said she has 2 go 2 a family reunion this weekend. :/ but I was wondering do u want 2 come see a movie w/ me instead?
 aceofhearts375: sure it's a date

Chapter Text

Ace had dreams about people who he knew all the time; like the time he had dreamed a 12-foot tall Jack Wednesday had chased him across town because he hadn't accepted his barbecue invitation or something more mundane like walking around the grocery store with the Gang and finding his favorite brand of ice cream. But there was something different about the dreams he'd been having about Buttercup. They felt so real, so vivid, like she was actually there with him. Stargazing in the park, singing together alone in the darkness, a quiet conversation that he'd forgotten as soon as he woke up, and strangest of all, an image of them flying together through the sky towards a giant, green planet. 
    What did these dreams mean though, if anything? Was he just dreaming about Buttercup because he liked her or was there something more?
    It had taken him long enough, but he'd finally realized during that last band practice why he'd felt the way he did around Buttercup. It was just that, there was no way she felt the same way. Sure, maybe she could forgive his past enough to be friends, but to have a crush on him again-- well, he doubted it.
    The last time he'd seen her in person was the night they'd seen that movie. It had been so cheesy, so badly acted, but laughing at it had made her smile and seeing her happy had made me him smile, too. Still though, he'd felt like an idiot for calling it a date over instant message. He hadn't meant it that way; it was just a thing people said. Maybe she hadn't given the phrasing a second thought, but he worried that she had.
    Friends invited each other to see cheesy B-movies all the time, right? It wasn't like--
    Ace would just have to be professional, push away any romantic feelings he might have for Buttercup. It was just a crush; he wasn't going to ruin what they had, risk causing drama with the band over a silly crush. He would get over it soon, he was sure of that.
    It was just a crush. Yeah. It wasn't like he was in love with Buttercup or anything. 
    Yeah, keep telling yourself that, Copular. 

    Stupid, stupid, stupid! I can't believe that you have a crush on him again! This is exactly why you shouldn't have joined his freakin' band.
"Gah!" Buttercup said aloud.
    "What is it, Buttercup?" Bubbles asked.
    "Nothing, Nothing! I just realized-- never mind."
    "Oh, okay! If you need to, you can come talk to me about it." Bubbles said sweetly.
    Don't tell her! She'll just tell Blossom and then Blossom will just say "I told you so" like always.
"Sure, I'll think about it." Buttercup lied.
    I doubt Ace even feels the same way. I just need to forget about it. It's just a stupid little crush. I can't make things weird between us.
"I bet I know why you're so nervous! You guys are recording your demo tomorrow, right? Are you worried your recording session will go bad?"
   "Yeah, sorta," Buttercup admitted, relieved that Bubbles hadn't guessed the main reason for her anxiety, "I know it's dumb, but what if I wake up tomorrow and I can't sing anymore? Or what if we get down there to record and we find out that this was some elaborate prank and they don't want us after all?"
    "Don't worry, sis, you'll be great! I believe in you!" Bubbles said with a smile. 
    "Thanks, Bubbles, I hope you're right." 
    What if things are weird tomorrow? What if make things weird? What if I can't remember any of the lyrics because all I can think about is his stupid face and how stupidly close it is to mine? What if--

    Luckily they weren't scheduled to record at Townsville Records until late afternoon, because Buttercup's smarmy pre-calc teacher had insisted that she stay after class so he could rant to her about the importance of being in his class for the entire lesson. (Not like she'd only missed class those other times to stop Townsville from being completely demolished or anything. That asshole acted like the whole world revolved around his one little class.) The Gangreen Gang had picked her up from school and they'd headed straight there.
    Though they'd known for weeks that they'd only get to record about five songs for the demo, they'd waited until the last minute (until they were driving there, in fact) to discuss what they wanted on the demo. Everything was a little bit last minute with the Gangreen Gang, Buttercup had come to realize. But she certainly wasn't going to be the one to organize them; she wasn't any better. 
    "We're definitely doin' Young Punks and Garbage Palace for sure, but else really shows off our raw talent and skills?" Ace said from the driver's seat.
    "Duh, we could do My World is Green. I like the drums in that one." Big Billy suggested.
    "I don't see why not. Uh, Snake, b'fore youse suggest Let Me Share My Poison With You, I'm gonna have ta p'litely ask that you pick literally any other song you've ever written so we's don't embarrass ourselves in fronna the nice record execs when we're first meetin' with  'em. Please."
    "Even Rattler Bluesss?" Snake perked up.
    "'S'fine so long as we do it last. Arturo, Grubber?"
    "I Went To Outer Space and All I Got Was This Lousy T-shirt is mostly synthesizer and keyboard, so I think that would definitely show off me and Grubber's skills. If that's alright with him." Arturo said.
    Grubber raspberried in approval. 
    "Cool. Buddacup, do ya wanna do yer song or do ya think it's still too early?" Ace asked her.
    "Uh, yeah, yeah, I'm down with that, but are you sure? I'm the new girl. Don't cha wanna record some older stuff of yours first?"
    "Nonsense! This is 'bout showcasin' everyone an' yer parta everyone!" 
    Buttercup smiled to herself. As much as she wanted to shrug the crush off, she still wanted his approval. Still liked when he made her feel like part of the Gangreen Gang. And she really, really liked the way he said her name. 
    And it wasn't a bad thing to want a new friend's approval. She just had to make sure that she didn't want his approval as badly as last time. So badly that she'd forgotten to remember his flaws and think only about his charms.        Yeah, Buttercup decided, she could definitely keep herself in check around him. After all, ten years later and Ace and the others really had changed. And so had she. 
    Della Blue greeted them at the front door. She was a tall, elegant woman with bright, curly blue hair and kind eyes. She smiled at them and there was something in that smile that seemed to radiate warmth and friendship. There was something familiar about her face, but Buttercup couldn't quite place it. 
    "Glad to finally meet y'all in person," she said in her soft southern twang as she shook hands with everyone, "Are ya excited or nervous today?" 
    "Both." Buttercup and Ace said in unison. Buttercup felt herself go red in the face. Maybe Della would think it was nerves and not the other thing, too. 
    Della smiled again. "So, boys, I understand you've recorded a demo with us b'fore after the Battle of the Bands?"
    "Yes, ma'am." Ace replied. 
    "So that must mean y'all've had the grand tour...well, almost all o' ya, anyways. What about you, Miss Utonium? Y'ever taken a tour o' Townsville Records?" Della asked.
    "Nope. There was a field trip in middle school, but I had to stop Princess Morbucks from kidnapping the Mayor... so that didn't happen, obviously." Buttercup said.
    Darn Mayor, if he'd just take some martial arts lessons, maybe shit like that wouldn't happen as often. 
    "Well, would ya like to finally have a look?" 
    "Heck yeah!" Buttercup exclaimed and she floated in the door after Della.
    Buttercup had always been in awe of the building. It was so tall and curvy; it would make for an excellent skateboard ramp. She listened intently as Della told her about the history and the architecture of Townsville Records. She told Buttercup that it was founded in 1923, that for decades it had been the tallest building in all of Townsville, and that the likes of Gorillaz and Puffy AmiYumi had recorded there. As they reached the recording booth, Della paused.
    "Y'know, none o' this would be possible if my uncle hadn't encouraged me to come down to y'all's concert. If it weren't fer him, I might never've seen that magical moment when the Gangreen Gang found their second singer." Della said.
    "Your uncle?" Buttercup asked.
    "All of you've already met him. My uncle is Wade T. Hudson. Speakin' o' which, he wanted me to tell y'all something before you record today..." Della's voice trailed off.
    Buttercup and the Gangreen Gang waited in anticipation.
    "...Good luck." Della said with a smile.
    They piled into the booth, which was big enough for all six of them. (They had been given the option of recording together or separately and Ace had said that it would help keep them on the beat if they stayed together and everyone had agreed.) They tested their equipment and started to play.
    The whir of the synthesizer, the echoing melody of the keyboard, and the eerie strumming of the electric guitar sounded throughout the recording booth. Big Billy waited a few seconds before starting on the cymbals and then came Buttercup and Ace's cue to start singing. Buttercup looked up at Ace for a moment, catching his eye. He bit his lip nervously, grinned at her, then launched into song. 
    "Almost can't believe we're here/ Way above the stratosphere/ Realized that we've come so far/ And now we're among the stars/ The Earth and its problems seem so small/ So petty, blue, and dull/ What a view, what a place/ Man, I love outer space/ And you know we didn't plan it/ But here it comes; a creature from another planet/ Hold on a minute; dammit!/ I think we've been hit/ We've been hit/ Emergency/ Emergency/ We've been hit/ Next thing that I know/ Waking up in the brig/ My crew are nowhere to be seen/ Stitches all over my body/ Naked except for this shirt they left me in and it says/ I Went To Outer Space and All I Got Was This Lousy T-shirt/ Wanted to discover life on other planets/ Foster peace between our species and theirs/ Maybe meet up with some alien babes/ But ain't typical that I'd come back and all I'd have to show is this lousy t-shirt/ I Went To Outer Space and All I Got Was This Lousy T-shirt/ I Went To Outer Space and All I Got Was This Lousy T-shirt/ I Went To Outer Space and All I Got Was This Lousy T-shirt--"
They must have been jamming in there for several hours, but it seemed to go by so quickly. It hadn't felt like things had blurred all together; it was more like time had run faster than it was supposed to. By the time they were done recording and Della had helped them make copies of the demo, Buttercup realized that she was almost late for dinner.
    "Ya sure ya can't hang out a lil' bit longer? We was gonna get some pie down at the diner ta celebrate." Ace said. The disappointment in his voice was genuine and made Buttercup feel a little guilty.
    "Naw, I can't. The Professor's gonna have kittens if I miss dinner tonight... maybe next time, okay?"
     "Yeah, next time..." 
    It would've been faster if she'd flown home, but the Gang had insisted on seeing her off, so they'd driven her home.
    "Duh, see youse later, Buttercup!" Big Billy called as she walked up to the front door.
    "Bye! See you guys at rehearsal!" Buttercup called back as she turned the key in the lock.
    Almost as soon as she walked in the door, Buttercup was assaulted and lifted into the air by her two giggling, grinning sisters.
    "How did it go? How did it go?" Blossom and Bubbles asked.
    "It went great! Yeah... it went really great!"

    Ace had thought he'd be too hyped up to go to sleep (what with the celebration and planning all the labels and people they were going to give their demo to), but as soon as he'd laid down, sleep took him into its loving arms. And he was back in that dream.
    They were drifting ever closer to the planet in the sky and the closer they got, the more detailed it became. Ace's heart sank. What had at first seemed like a small green planet now appeared enormous and... lumpy. It wasn't just one planet (though perhaps it once had been), Ace realized, but planet upon planet, stuck together with green ooze as though welded together. 
    The thought made Ace's skin crawl. 
    He had to look away, look at something else. Ace looked up at Buttercup,  carrying him firmly in her grasp, and saw determination in her eyes. She glared at the mass of planets intently as though waiting for it make a move.
    "What... what is that thing? What does it want?" Ace asked her.
    "To fuse." Buttercup said grimly. 
    "I don't understand."
    "You will..."
    Ace didn't bolt upright in his bed, like they do in the movies, but he was covered in sweat and breathing heavily. He'd also managed to squirm around in his sleep so much that he was lying head to foot-of-the-bed and feet on the pillow.
    Ace shook off his sheets and lurched to the bathroom. A powerful wave of nausea overwhelmed him and he stood hunched over the sink for a long moment. He only stood back up again when he was sure he absolutely was not going to hurl. 
    Splashing water on his face, Ace wondered yet again why he was having those damn dreams. Could they be real or were they just dreams? And the dreams themselves weren't particularly scary, but that green monstrosity...
    What does it want?
    To fuse.
    To fuse... what could that mean?
    I don't understand.
    You will.
Eventually he was able to go back to sleep, but Dream Buttercup's words echoed through his head all night. 
    To fuse, to fuse, to fuse. Fuse. 

    Ace didn't have much time to think about his dream over the next few days or to bring it up with Buttercup (or would that be too weird?); The Gangreen Gang had been so busy trying to send CDs and MP3s to celebrity contacts and record labels that there really hadn't been time for anything else. But when Ace had time to stop and think about it, it scared him just as much as it had that night. So really, it was for the best that he didn't think about it too much, he figured. 
    Sure, they hadn't heard back yet about their demo from anyone yet, but things were going great. (It must just be that it was taking the record execs awhile to sit and really listen and absorb their lyrical contents, that's all) The Gangreen Gang had been booking gigs left and right, which was yet another way to get their demo out there. After all, it had been Buttercup's brilliant idea that they give out free MP3s of their demo with every ticket purchased. Word about the Gangreen Gang's music was getting out to places like Endsville and Orchid Bay and Peach Creek.... and it wasn't long before they were getting asked to perform at those places, too.
    Their show in Endsville, in particular, stuck with Ace. It was the last song of the night and they decided to play My World is Green...
    "I was all in black and white/ Trapped in the dark until you brought in the light/ You offered me a rainbow/ And said green was your favorite color/ I said that it was mine, too/ But I didn't really know what that meant then/ I just wanted to please you/ You told me green was the color of your eyes/ Of  renewal, resilience, envy/ Of me/ The world, the deepest corners of your mind/ These were all green/ And I thought if I could please you/ You'd teach me all about your green world/ But when you left everything went back to black/ And all I had left was the memory of green/ The only color I can dream in/ But it's all just a poor imitation of the real thing/ Why don't you come back to me?/ Come back to mmmeeee/ I was all in black and white/ Trapped in the dark until you took that away from me/ How can I go back now/ Knowing there's so much more out there/ Than what I had/ Green and green and green/ You were my world and my world was greeeennn/ Why don't you come back to me?/ Come back to mmmeeee/ I was all in black and white/ Until I left that behind/ Searching for meaning and color/ In this lonely world/ Maybe I'll find you again along the way/ Looking out for that bright green day/ You changed everything for me/ Let me do the same for you/ Why don't you come back to me?/ Come back to mmmeeee/ Come back to mmmeeee/ Come back to me again/ Maybe this time I can show you my world instead." 
    All throughout the show, Ace had noticed this odd trio: a blonde girl with weird hair and a permanent scowl, this goofy-looking kid with a big nose and a red hat, and this tall, skinny figure in a black cloak. And while he thought they were a weird little group, he probably would've forgotten all about them, if he hadn't noticed them making their way closer and closer to the stage as the night went on. Ace couldn't sworn that they had started off somewhere in the middle seats, but as he finished singing the last note of My Green World, he realized that they were in the very front row.
    And it was then that he finally saw the person in the cloak's face... or rather, therefore lack of one. A skull with empty eyes grinned up at him in delight. Ace couldn't move just stare. Was that the Gri-- no, no way. He was too young, it was too soon he couldn't--
    "Ace, c'mon, it's time to go backstage. The next band's gonna be on any second." Buttercup whispered in his ear.
    "Look." Ace choked out as he pointed to the cloaked figure.
    Buttercup frowned for a second then it dawned on her. "Holy shit, is that--"
    The thing in the cloak yelled up at the stage in a hearty Jamaican accent "Whoo! Dat was incredible! I love you, Gangreen Gang! You kids are goin' places, dat's fer sure!" 
    The girl beside him rolled her eyes and slow clapped sarcastically. She said something, but it was too quiet for Ace to hear. The boy looked delighted, yet a little unfocused. 
    Ace felt relief flow through him. That dude couldn't be the Grim Reaper after all, could he. The Grim Reaper didn't just show up at concert for fun; he came for the souls of the dead.  He was just... some really, super goth Jamaican guy. Yeah. That's all. 
    Ace had freaked out for nothing. He could hear Buttercup howling with laughter beside him. He turned to see her, head thrown back, eyes squinted shut, dimples showing at the corners of her mouth. He grimaced in embarrassment, but he felt something soften inside him. That smile...
    But one day though, he'd think back to this day and laugh about it with their kids, he was sure of it... shit. Shit. Shit.
    Ace hadn't realized until then how badly he wanted to kiss Buttercup and that this little crush of his, well, it wasn't so little after all. These feelings weren't going anywhere any time soon. Maybe he should embrace it after all. 
     Ace wanted to avoid speaking to Buttercup for the rest of the night, big coward that he was. Spare himself some added embarrassment. And yet he couldn't keep his eyes off of her or off of her smile. When she caught his eye, he could feel his heart thundering in his chest and a goofy grin spreading across his face. She grinned back and Ace felt something deep inside of him soften; a barrier he didn't know he'd put up. 
     Ace was so distracted by Buttercup that he didn't realize that Snake was talking to him until his friend nudged him. 
    "Huh, what?" Ace asked him.
    "I sssaid the crowd wasss eating usss up, I wonder if they'd want usss back here for a Halloween ssshow." 
    "Aw, c'mon, ya really think they'd want us back here that soon?" Ace smirked. 
    "Hell yes they would, especially," Buttercup deepened her voice and wiggled her fingers mischievously in front of her face, "The Grim Reaper."
    "Oh, real funny, youse thought he was the real deal there for a sec, too." Ace said in mock-annoyance. 
    Buttercup leaned closer (Funny how Ace hadn't noticed how close she was to him until now) "Oh, yeah, well, I'm not the one that nearly pissed their pants."
    She paused a beat then reached towards him. Unconsciously, Ace leaned forward in his seat, anticipating her warm touch, like a cat basking in the sun. This was it, she was going to make the first move. He was ready and relieved that it was her. That she felt that way, too. That-- Buttercup quickly touched the tip of his nose then drew her hand away.
    "Boop." she said.
    I am never going to wash my nose again. Ace thought dreamily. 

    Buttercup paced her room angrily. Well, maybe not paced so much as zoomed back and forth a few feet above the ground, but the sentiment was the same. 
    "Boop? Boop? What the hell? Why did I do that? That was so dumb." 
    "Well I think you simply experienced a minor maladaptive brain activity change--" Blossom began.
    "In English, leader girl." Buttercup said in exasperation.
    "A, ahem, "brain fart". You probably were already thinking about touching him and in your inability to think of a way for that come up during conversation, you just went for it."
    Buttercup stopped and sighed "I'm in deep, aren't I?" 
    "Aw, Buttercup, I think it's cute you have a crush! To be young and in love..." Bubbles said dreamily.
    "I am not in lo--"
    "I knew this would happen again if you joined up with their band. And that's why I was against it." Blossom crossed her arms and smirked smuggly. 
    "And knew you were going to react like this! Which is why I told you not to tell her, Bubbles." Buttercup glared at Bubbles.
    "I'm sorry... it just slipped out." 
    "Can't you keep any secrets?"
    "I try my best." Bubbles stuck out her lower lip. Pouting like a little kid. Just typical.
"The pair of you-- uh," Buttercup pinched the bridge of her nose between her index finger and thumb, "What do I do now? Do I tell him or don't I? When I'm around him, I'm so damn nervous and I never get nervous, but at the same time, I feel comfortable and accepted when I'm with him and I don't want to screw things up between us. It's so stupidly complicated!"
    "Crushes are weird." Bubbles agreed.
    "Well, I guess if you absolutely must do something, then I think it would make you feel better if you just told Ace. Maybe he likes you back, maybe he doesn't, but at least you'll know where he stands and maybe you'll get some closure." Blossom said.
    "...That's actually not a half-bad idea, but how--" Buttercup admitted. And before Buttercup could finish the thought, her cell phone rang.
    She snatched up her phone from the nightstand and looked at the caller ID.
    "It's him." Buttercup choked out.
    "Tell him! Tell him now." Blossom insisted.
    "No, don't tell him over the phone! Wait until you see him in person!" Bubbles said.
    Ignoring both of her sisters, Buttercup answered the phone. "Oh, hey, Ace, what's up?"
    "Buddacup! Townsville Records just called an' they want us down there ASAP! I think this is it! I think they're gonna ask us ta sign with  'em!"
    "Holy shit! Really? I'll be down there in a sec!"
    "This is-- this is huge! An' we an' the boys never could done this without youse, you know that right?"
"Pfft, I hardly did nothing. We just work together really good-- as a group, I mean. As one big team."
    "Give yourself more credit, ya put us on the map. Without you, Townsville Records might never've decided to give us another chance."
  "Yeah, well-- thanks for asking me to join in the first place. I loved singing up there with you that night, but I don't think I woulda asked on my own."
    "Yeah, well, like I just gonna let youse walk away without at least trying to get ya to join the band. Not after we sounded like that together."
    They talked together for a little longer than they probably should have before they eventually ended the phone call. Buttercup hastily told her sisters why Ace had called then took off for Townsville Records. 
    Buttercup arrived first and made small talk with Della Blue until the boys arrived in their van. They all looked a little messy and disheveled, but presentable. Della motioned for them to follow her into her office and waited for all of them to be seated before she spoke. 
    "Alright, so here's the deal: I was able to pass yer demo down ta a handful of producers who were able ta pass the demo up the ladder and long story short, they were able to make sure that it made its way not only ta the executive vice president but the label president as well. Ms. Adagio and Madame Cadenza were both very impressed with what they heard. Not only do they want to sign y'all, they would like to help you re-record and improve upon the songs on your demo, if you so wish, and in addition to those songs, they would like for y'all to record ten others to be featured on your debut album," Della said. 
    The six of them began to murmur amongst themselves, but Della held up a hand. "Now hold on, y'all, I wasn't done talkin'. Once the album is completed and released to the general public, you're going to go on tour from coast to coast for about three and a half months. Any and all travel expenses will be paid for by Townsville Records, naturally. But before that, you're going to continue playin' at local venues-- such as Townsville Concert Hall -- and we're gonna try and getcha booked to perform on a few talk shows to promote the album. Not to mention marketing and design are dyin' to help ya come up with merch and poster designs for the tour. But if ya need time ta look over the contract or if ya need an adult to help ya with it--"    
   "Where do we sign?" Ace asked eagerly. 
    They spent the next hour and a half combing through the contract. The Gangreen Gang, having had so many run-ins with the law, were something of experts on the subject, but they did agree to Buttercup's suggestion that they contact Professor Utonium to read it over with them. The Professor agreed with the Gangreen Gang that the contract seemed not to contain anything weird or any tricky legal terminology, however...
    "I will, of course, sign on Buttercup's behalf, but could any of you get a parent or guardian to--
    "No," Ace said, firmly. "We can't."
   "I see... hmm, have any of you considered applying to become an emancipated minor?" the Professor asked.
    "Yeah, we have. We had a great lawyer, but they only granted it ta me an' Snake. We did get legal custody o' Grubber, Billy, an' Arturo, though." Ace said.
    "What's an emancipated minor, Professor?" Buttercup frowned. 
   "Well, you see, an emancipated minor is someone under the age of eighteen who is freed from the legal control of their parents or guardian and given all legal control and responsibility of themselves. For all legal intents and purposes, you would be considered an adult."
    "So that does that mean we can get this show on the road?" Buttercup asked eagerly.
    "I can be over there in fifteen minutes." Professor Utonium confirmed. 

    They were supposed to be finished recording in the studio for the day, but Ace couldn't stop obsessing over this one song. 
    "Look, bosss, we can alwaysss messs around with it tomorrow. I'm tired, Arturo'sss hungry, Buttercup'sss got ssschool in the morning, and I'm pretty sssure Big Billy'sss been sssnoonzzzing for a half hour now." Snake pleaded.
    Ace held up a hand. "Lemme listen to it one more time."
    "Take me down to the city where everyone who lives there/ Lives without a care/ Sure some people say they're phoney/ With little more nutrients than baloney/ But who wouldn't want to live here?/ And the water and the sky may have turned green/ But these simple folks just don't care to know what that means/ Alien invasion, typhoid, or tsunami/ They don't notice unless it ruins their salami/ Cartoon City, Cartoon City/ What a pity/ What a mess this place has become/ But I hope it doesn't succumb/ To the ravages of time/ Whose gonna save this place before bedtime?/ Cartoon City, Cartoon City/ This place is almost like hooommme/And maybe it's not as fancy as Rooommme/ But it'll do in a pinch/ Come sit down on the bench/ With me -- we got a bus to catch/ C'mon we oughta dash/ To see these people before they lose their empathy/ And they catch a jar full of apathy/ You ask me how this place can be built to last/ With its rotating cast/ Of people and faces/ and I say they have a few Aces/ Up their sleeves/ And don't you know that nobody really leaves/ Cartoon City, Cartoon City/ What a pity/ What a mess this place has become/ But I hope it doesn't succumb/ To the ravages of time/ Whose gonna save this place before bedtime?/ Cartoon City, Cartoon City/ Gotta love this town/ Yeah, every time I come aroun'/ There's something new to see/ Wonder what this time it'll be/ Giant monsters, buildings made of cake/ Something spooky livin' in the lake/ I've seen all this and more/ But at least it's not a bore/ No one day is ever the same/ No, nooo; who said city life was tame--"
    "Well, Ace, what do ya think?" the sound technician asked. Ace couldn't remember the guy's name for the life of him. John, Ron, Don, maybe Juan? 
    "Drums are too loud, synthesizer and guitars are too quiet. Yeah, that's a little better... An' could we make the harp a tad bit more subtle? Pefec'." Ace clapped. 
    "C'mon, bosss, it'sss not like thisss isss going to be one of our sssinglesss or anything. Can't it wait?" Snake asked.
    "If it was one o' yours, you'd do the same. Besides, we gotta make sure every song turns out just right. If yer bored, you can take the van home. I can walk home." Ace waved his friend off. He turned to the technician, "Let's add a few effects. I want it ta sound more chill and casual in contrast with the vocals."
    Snake scowled, muttered something under his breath, and walked out the door, slamming it behind him. Arturo and Grubber flinched at the sound, but Ace acted as if nothing had happened. 
    Buttercup sighed and turned to Arturo and Grubber "Hey, if you want to go with him, you can. I'll help you get Billy out to the van. I think I'll stay here and make sure Ace gets home okay." 
    Ace heard them head out to the van, but he didn't look up or say goodbye. He wrinkled his nose at his reflection on the recording booth glass. 
    "Start the track over again, will ya?" Ace asked Jon-Ron-Don.
    The sound tech complied and Ace listened until the end. Something still wasn't right. 
    "Play it from there onwards." Ace pointed at the timestamp.
    Just as What's-his-name started the track over again, Ace heard the door slide open behind him. 
    "That you, Buddacup?"
    "Good. These last few lines sound kinda funky. Mind jumpin' back in the booth with me?"
    "I guess." Ace could practically hear her rolling her eyes. He knew he was being difficult, but right now he didn't really care.
    Even though Buttercup was annoyed with him, the energy between them in the recording booth was as electrifying as ever. As she leaned next to him to share the mic, it was though he'd never truly felt charged and energised before in his life. Buttercup was Ace's battery, his spark, his inspiration. How could he feel this way about someone without being in love? 
    "--No, no; who said city life was tame/ Sure most folks don't have to deal with giant monkeys on their daily commute/ Or demons made of fruuuiiittt/ But that's just the way things are in Cartoon City/ Cartoon City, Cartoon City/ What a pity/ What a mess this place has become/ But I hope it doesn't succumb/ To the ravages of time/ Whose gonna save this place before bedtime?/ Cartoon City, Cartoon City/ Oh yeah, Cartoon City/ My kinda place, my kinda tooowwwn/ Yeah, yeah, yeah/ Everybody come down to Cartoon City with me!" 
    Ace looked at Buttercup with a dazed, goofy grin. "Whatcha think? I think we sounded great this time!"
    Buttercup was trying to bite back a smile, but Ace saw it anyways. "We'll listen to it over again one more, then we need to get back home. Both of us." she agreed. 
    Finally satisfied, Ace agreed to let Buttercup take him home.
    "So they really left, huh?" he jerked his head towards the van's now empty parking space.
    "Duh, you were being obnoxious. Everyone else worked really hard today, too, an' you were acting like you were the only one whose opinions or contribution mattered. You need to cool it, man." 
    Ace hung his head. "Yeah, I realize that now an' I'm real sorry I acted like such an ass. I'll tell the boys that, too, when I get back... By the way, we're not walkin' home are we? These boots ain't exactly made fer hikin'."
    Buttercup made a face. "Why would we walk when we can fly? C'mon, Ace, I thought you knew me better than that."
    Buttercup grabbed him about the shoulders and they flew up, up, up, and above Townsville's skyline. Ace was indifferent to heights, but he marveled at how tiny and bright Townsville looked so far below. It didn't even look real, more like a kid's play set than an actual city. Hell, you couldn't even see all the graffiti way up here.
    "Is this really how how you see things up here every day?" Ace asked in awe.
    Buttercup shrugged. "Yeah, I guess."
    "It's pretty cool." he tried to match her nonchalant tone, but he couldn't mask his excitement; it was one of the most amazing sights he'd ever seen. 
    "Way better than walking everywhere." 
    As they drifted up higher towards the moon, Ace felt a tug of familiarity, but he'd never been up this high before in real life, only... only in his dreams. He tried not to freak out, but he could feel his pulse racing as he relived that conversation from his dream. What is it? What does it mean? To fuse? 
    Buttercup seemed completely unaware of anything odd and that was when Ace realized that he and he alone had experienced those recurring dreams. And in that moment, he decided that the whole thing had been a trick of his sleeping brain and that he wouldn't trouble Buttercup with it after all. He let himself forget about it... for a time. But looking back, he would always wonder if things might have turned out differently, if only he had told someone, anyone, about the hideous green planet in the sky. 

    It was hard to believe that they were really on tour now-- granted, they were still in Townsville, but it felt right that they were back where everything had started. The concert hall only had a few dressing rooms, so they had to share, but Ace didn't mind that much. This was finally happening for them. The Gangreen Gang were getting the attention they deserved and it was positive for once. This was what Ace had always wanted for them. 
    After a brief pep talk, the Gang split up into twos and headed for their dressing rooms. Funny, they had drawn straws for who would share each room, and Ace had still ended up with Buttercup. Sure, there were privacy curtains in there, but he felt awkward changing clothes in the same room as her in a way he never did in front of his boys... plus his boys didn't happen to have x-ray vision. Could Buttercup turn off her x-ray vision or was it just always on, leaving her to see every secret, every embarrassing facet of city life Ace wondered to himself as he pulled his shirt on. 
    Thankfully, it didn't take either one of them long to change and that awkwardness was soon over. 
    Ace sat down in front of the mirror and carefully slicked back his hair, mopped sweat and grease from his face, and applied a hint of eyeliner. Meanwhile, as Ace was busy gussying himself up, Buttercup was attempting to do the same... with less successful results. She'd done her hair and lip gloss just fine, but nearly as soon as she picked up her eyeliner pencil, it had snapped in her grip. She must've been holding onto it pretty hard, because little splinters of wood flew across the room, a few landing so close to Ace that he was surprised a few shards hadn't embedded themselves in his hand.
   "Shit!" Buttercup hissed.
   "Yo, careful over there, b'fore ya start start bustin' somethin' a lil' more expensive!" Ace said. He could see Buttercup's reflection flaring her nostrils, but he didn't care.
    "Yeah, well, Bubbles usually does my makeup for me." she griped.
    "I could help ya if ya want. I managed ta put mine on without taking my eyes out, see." he turned towards her, gesturing at his eyelids for emphasis.
    "Funny... fine." 
    He scooted her chair into the light, turned her chin up higher, and instructed her to close her eyes. When he was done, he turned her back towards her mirror. She inspected his handiwork approvingly.
    "How'd you learn ta do makeup?" Buttercup asked him.
    "In'ernet. I just wanted ta learn how ta do Halloween makeup fer me an' the the boys at first, but then I got kinda into it." he admitted.
    Ace took a peek at the time on his phone and winced. "We'd better get goin' or we're not gonna be able to do a final sound check." 
    "Shoot, did we really take that long?"
    "Time flies when yer havin' fun, Buddacup." he winked and then attempted, and failed, to turn the doorknob. 
    Annoyed, he tried again, but it didn't budge.
    "It's stuck." he said lamely. 
    Buttercup rolled her eyes "You're probably turning it the wrong way. Lemme try." The doorknob didn't even so much as rattle. 
    "Maybe it's still locked?" Ace suggested.
    "Nope, I already thought of that. Damn thing's jammed. I think I'll just tear it off its hinges and be done with i--"
    "Wait! Wait! That thing's an antique! It's expensive as hell and a pain in the ass to replace! Do youse have thirty grand just lyin' around ta pay fer it, cuz I sure don't." 
    "Whattaya suggest then?" Buttercup sighed.
    "I don't have a good enough signal in here to call anyone, but I could send the boys a text ta come get us outta here. Snake'll know what ta do. We won't be late fer the concert or nothin'!" 
    "Fine, fine, but if they don't come an' get us soon enough, I'm bustin' down the door. I... I can't be stuck in here!"
    Panic flashed across her face and the worry in her unnaturally green eyes took Ace aback. It occurred to Ace that maybe she wasn't so much afraid of missing their concert as much she was terrified of being trapped in an enclosed space. She was fidgetting nervously, her eyes darting across the room as though looking an escape route might appear in from of her out of thin air. 
    "Hey, Buddacup, Buddacup, look at me a sec. The boys are comin' as soon as they can with th' custodian or whoever t' get us out o' here. We won't be in here fer much longer. Just... try takin' a few deep breaths, that always helps me when I'm stressed out. Good, yeah, jus' like that. In through yer nose, out through your mouth." (He did not want to mention that Snake hadn't even looked at his text yet, let alone responded to it) 
    She seemed to relax a little bit, but the stiffness of her posture told him that she was far from comfortable. Ace had never experienced claustrophobia, but he figured it must suck, and especially for Buttercup; someone who was so used to the freedom of flying across the open, never-ending sky. For someone who was usually able to punch or fly her way out of any situation, escape must always seem possible no matter what.
    A half-thought out idea occurred to Ace and before he could really think it through, it came out of his mouth "If it'll keep yer mind off it, ask me-- ask me anythin'. Don't matter how stupid or personal it seems, go fer it. I'm up fer anythin'," he declared. 
    Buttercup frowned at him, confused at his sudden suggestion. She hesitated then asked "Okay... um... who's your favorite... Galaxy Battles character?"
    "Sean Lonelystarr! He's got the coolest ship, the best hair, an' he marries Countess Lydia in the last movie. We never learn a single thing 'bout his backstory or life b'fore he joined up with the Galactic Union, an' ya know what? I hope I never do, it'd ruin the mystery! Next question! That was too easy!"
    "Uh, what's something everyone else seems to love but you secretly can't stand."
    "Peanut butter! That stuff's nasty, why is it a thing? Too easy, too easy, hit me with something a little harder!"
    "You sure?'
    Buttercup mumbled something inaudibly, blushing furiously as she did. 
    "Huh? you'll have ta speak up."
    Buttercup mumbled a second time, but this time Ace was certain he heard her correctly. If he'd been drinking something, he was certain he would've done a spit-take, but as it was, he just choked on his own spittle instead. He coughed and wheezed, trying not to laugh, as she'd asked her question in earnest and was clearly embarassed by it. 
    "Sorry, sorry," he croaked "I'm not trynin' ta make fun o' youse, I just didn't expect that question outta a goody-goody Powerpuff-- even one as blunt as you. No offense. Yeah, I had sex b'fore. I take it since yer askin', ya haven't b'fore ya haven't an' there's no shame in that. I been with two people like that. The girl I was with my first time, well me an' her was too young ta be foolin' around like that. Like, seriously, if we haven't both been street kids and we'd had adults around-- well, I digress. I think we thought we were gonna die young, so why not? Second person, well, we'd kinda always had a thing fer each other an' I think it was kinda always gonna pan out that way. We dated on an' off fer awhile, but we realized we was better off friends an' it ended good b'tween us. We're still friends now, actually. Think if I could do it all over again, my first time woulda been with him instead o' her." 
    Ace grinned to himself, remembering their relationship. It wasn't as though Ace felt awkward mentioning that they'd dated, but he wasn't sure if that certain friend would be cool with him telling Buttercup that they'd dated. He'd just let her fill in the blanks herself. 
    "Anyway, moral o' the story, maybe wait until yer actually emotionally ready an' mature enough first. Movin' on, next question! Lay it on me, Utonium!"
   Buttercup's face was still so red that it almost clashed with her jacket, but still she asked "What were your parents like?"
    Ace's face fell. "I was hoping ya wouldn't ask 'bout them. I'll try ta keep things brief. I never knew my ma. I don't know if she died when I was little or if she left my old man or if she just dropped me on his doorstep one day, but in any case, she wasn't in my life. I know her name was somethin' like Priscilla or Penelope an' that's 'bout it. He never... talked 'bout her much in front o' me. My old man, though... the things I could tell ya 'bout him... He wasn't a nice guy, not like yer Professor Utonium. He was an abusive, homophobic piece of shit. Even as a kid... I knew the way he treated me wasn't how-- how parents was supposed ta act, ya know? That's why I left home, cuz I knew I was gonna be safer without 'im than with 'im."
    "That's messed up... I'm really sorry, Ace." Normally, Ace didn't like when someone outside of the Gangreen Gang tried to touch him, but he let Buttercup put a hand on his shoulder.
    He put his hand on top of hers. "It's all in the past now. I'm jus' glad I got out when I did... Hey, look, I'm tryin' ta make youse feel better, not the other way 'round, 'kay? You can keep goin' if ya want."
    Buttercup was silent for a long moment, not sure if she wanted to continue. She took a deep breath then said "There's something...I've been wanting to ask you for awhile now, but I dunno if now's a good time-- for either of us, I mean."
    "Ain't no time like the present, Buddacup. Go 'head." Ace encouraged her.
    "The thing is-- uh, I, um, it's about the two of us, I guess. I think I li-- I think I like y--"  Buttercup had started to lean towards him, when she lost her balance and tipped forward. 
    Ace tried to catch her, but instead she landed on top of him. Startled, they stared at each other and began to laugh nervously.
     "Can you imagine," Buttercup grinned, "If they found us like this?"
     "Yeah," Ace agreed, "Wouldn't that be somethin' else?" 
    But then they stopped laughing. Ace looked up at Buttercup, stared deep into her lime green eyes, and started to lean forward. And she leaned forward, too.
    Her lips, though rough and chapped, were inviting and he noted that her breath smelled like watermelon bubblegum. He felt something warm deep within his chest as the distance between them closed. He smiled at her and closed his eyes, anticipating her kiss. Just as their lips were about to meet, the door flew open with a loud creak.
    Buttercup and Ace leapt upright and gawked at their would-be rescuer. 
    "Good grief. I thought I mightsss find you two like thisss." Snake rolled his eyes. 
    "Uh..." Ace tried to explain.
    "Um..." Buttercup added.
    "Look, I don't give a ssshit. We're already late to ssstart. C'mon, Grubber'sss about to perform hisss new sssong and he wantsss you to be there." Snake said curtly. 
    Snake marched them out to the stage then went to stand behind his guitar. The curtain hadn't risen yet and for that Ace was grateful. He could feel Snake glaring at him, but the rest of boys seemed ignorant of the situation and the tension between them. Grubber had cheerfully asked if Ace would still be introducing his new song (which Grubber had shared with no one, merely hinting at how proud he was of it) and that had been it, no other questions asked. 
    Buttercup had remained uncharacteristically quiet, and though her eyes were hidden in shadow, she seemed to staring at anything and anyone but Ace. Ace grimaced. Who had he been kidding, of course a Powerpuff Girl didn't really want him. But he could still feel the touch of her skin, the way their breath had mingled together; the ghost of the kiss that never was, and he longed for it still. 
     Even before the curtain rose, he could hear clapping and cheering. He smirked out into the audience and they cheered even harder.
    "What's up Townsville! We're gonna start things out a lil' diff'rently t'night with a bran' new song by our very own Grubber! It's so new, so top secret that not only have the rest of us never heard it, we weren't even allowed ta know the title! Give it up fer Grubber, everybody!" 
    Grubber began to play a soft eerie beat that slowly began to morph into a more hopeful melody. He nodded to the others to begin playing along with him. Ace had never heard the tune before, but as soon as he plucked along on his bass, he felt like he had known it his whole life. When Grubber opened his mouth to sing, his voice was simultaneously like nothing Ace had ever heard before and like the most familiar sound in the world. It was then that Ace realized he'd never actually heard Grubber sing before.
    "I am the product of my parents/ But all they gave me was melancholy and cowardice/ Guess that's why you shouldn't mix together blue and yellow/ And expect the result to be anythin' but green/ What we are they made us into/ But can that be undone/ Am I my parents' child or something more/ I'm just glad they're not my family/ Not anymore/ Isn't so sad though/ Isn't it a shaaame/ That it took me so long to/ Find that little broken piece of something to hold on to/ And they are my real home/ My familyyy/ Blood isn't everything not when I have them/ What's a nuclear family to a found one/ Didn't someone tell you or did you already know/ Sometimes a family is a handful of broken people coming together/ And deciding that they want to be whole/ This is my home/ This is their home/ They are my home/ Got issues and abandonment's one of them/ Couldn't be anything other than what I am/ Just a babyyy/ But I scared them away anyways/ Couldn't blame them once I saw my face/ But my parents left me without a trace/ Ditched me in this place/ And I can't forget that/ I'm glad they're not my real family/ What's a nuclear family to a found one/ Didn't someone tell you or did you already know/ Sometimes a family is a handful of broken people coming together/ And deciding that they want to be whole/ This is my home/ This is their home/ They are my home/ This is my home/ They are my home/ My only recourse was to move on or drive myself insane/ Not as sweet a reunion as I was taught I could have/ But it's better than when they left me/ A shallow hole, no longer as a giant an ache/ Creeping out of my heart/ Left to its own devices/ What powerful thing is loneliness/ What a powerful thing is abandonment/ What a powerful thing am I/ now that I've left that behind/ When I think what I could've been with them/ It's no better than without/  What's a nuclear family to a found one/ Didn't someone tell you or did you already know/ Sometimes a family is a handful of broken people coming together/ And deciding that they want to be whole/ This is my home/ This is their home/ They are my home/ This is my home/ They are my home/ They are my home like you never were." 
    As soon as Grubber stopped singing, silence fell across the auditorium. No one dared speak or move. All eyes were on Grubber. Then the Gangreen Gang began to clap and cheer and it was like a spell was broken; the auditorium erupted in applause.
    "Grubber," Ace sniffled, "That was beautiful." 
    Grubber bowed and blew a single, explosive raspberry. He waited for the applause to die down then motioned for the others to move on to the next song. 

    The rest of the night was a blur. Ace couldn't remember what he had sang that night or whether or not he had even sounded good. He remembered Buttercup by his side. He thought he'd even seen her smile a few times. He wondered if they still sounded good together, if anything had been off about their vocals, if anyone had noticed.
    It felt awkward to be alone with her again, but they had to share a room at the hotel that night, (after all, they weren't yet making enough cash to afford individual rooms) so Ace was just going to have to deal with the awkwardness of their almost-kiss for now. Except that, of course, Ace couldn't just let it go. 
    "Hey, uh, look, 'bout b'fore... if ya jus' wanna ferget ' bout earlier an' pretend it never happened, it ain't gonna hurt my feelings none. I totally get it." he blurted out.
    Buttercup stared at him in confusion. "Oh... did you not want it ta happen?"
    "No, well, uh... I mean, I did, I jus' thought maybe youse didn't. I mean, why would you wanna... you know... with a guy like me..."
    "No, no, I mean, I did want it to happen. I did want to-- kiss you. I mean." she said, clearly flustered. 
    "Oh. Yeah. Cool." Ace nodded. 
    There was a long pause and then he felt himself moving closer to Buttercup, as if propelled forward. Ace wasn't sure who initiated it, but the next thing he knew they were kissing. Chest to chest, lips to lips, fingers entwined in her hair as her hands traced their way up and down his ribs. Buttercup's hands were so cold he could feel them through the fabric of his t-shirt, but in that moment he didn't care. She leaned into the kiss, leaned into him, and Ace felt himself tilting slowly backwards until he was resting on the edge of his bed. 
    In all the commotion, Ace's shades had gotten crooked and he took them off and somehow actually managed to toss them on the nightstand. Buttercup broke away from him and smiled. 
    "What is it?' Ace asked.
    "Nuthin', nuthin'... It's just been awhile since I've seen you without your shades... you should take 'em off more often. I, uh... think they're pretty cool lookin'." 
    "Yeah, well, I think yer eyes are pretty cool lookin', too, Buddacup." he said and kissed her again. And again and again. 
    They fell asleep together in the same bed that night. As Ace had drifted off, he realized he couldn't remember the last time he'd felt as safe, as happy, or as warm inside as he felt right then, nestled next to Buttercup under a cocoon of blankets.