Chapter Four: Don't Get Me Wrong; Don't Think You've Got It Made

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 I 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 I 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.