“Oh gosh,” Usopp muttered upon seeing who it was parked in front of her house.
“Hm?” Kaya followed her gaze. “Is that your neighbor’s son?”
“Uh, well…” Usopp trailed off when Ace lifted his head from his phone, his eyes meeting directly with hers. As usual, his eyebrows knitted together, his eyes narrowed, and his lips twisted into that of a frown; that was his default expression—at least, it was whenever she was around. Usopp released a small exhale before turning to face Kaya.
Kaya smiled curiously.
“That’s Ace. He’s this weirdly intense kid who keep following me around, and I can’t make heads or tails on whether he hates me or not,” Usopp whispered.
“If he hates you, then why would he follow you?”
“That’s the thing—I have no idea.” She shook her head in exasperation. “When I asked, he told me that it was none of my business and that I didn’t need to know. Ugh. I’m willing to bet that he’s doing this on some dumb dare that his friends put him through. Must be why he looks irritable twenty-four-seven.”
Kaya tilted her head to the side. “Have you met his friends?”
“Yeah, and they’re seriously a bunch of snot-nosed—”
“Oi. What are you doing loitering?” Usopp and Kaya jumped at the interruption. In unison, they looked down, finding Ace peering up at them while giving them his trademark disgruntled glare. His hands were stuffed in his pockets and he was slouching, appearing every bit like the delinquent that he was undoubtedly going to grow up being.
“T-talking,” Usopp blurted, and then cleared her throat to insert with authority that she wasn’t feeling, “which is what we’re allowed to do, aren’t we? And if we’re loitering, then what are you doing?”
“Waiting for you,” Ace replied promptly. “Duh.”
Usopp turned towards Kaya with a pained expression, as if relaying to her, “You see what I gotta go through?”
Kaya, however, didn’t quite understand the dilemma that her friend was going through.
“It’s always nice to be welcomed by someone when you’re back home,” the blonde tried.
“Kaya, no,” Usopp said.
“Who the hell is she?” Ace asked, thrusting a finger at Kaya.
Usopp gasped, scandalized, and delivered a swift smack to the head. “Don’t be rude! If you want to know a person, you gotta ask her directly.”
Ace huffed, rubbing the spot where Usopp had hit him, before shifting so that he was facing Kaya. Kaya smiled down at him bewilderedly. Then, he asked, “Who the hell are you?”
“Politely! You gotta ask her politely!” Usopp cried.
“It’s fine, Usopp-chan,” Kaya assured. To Ace, she bowed and said, “My name is Kaya. I’m Usopp-chan’s friend from school. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Ace visibly stiffened, and then mumbled out, “I’m Ace. Likewise.” Belatedly, he bowed back.
“Right, well, now that’s over with, Kaya and I are going to study in my room,” Usopp said. “Ace, I won’t have time to entertain you, so go play with your friends.”
“Can’t I just hang out in your room? I won’t make any noise,” Ace said.
“Why would you do that instead of playing? Don’t be ridiculous. And besides, you’ll end up getting bored and start pestering me.”
“I won’t,” the boy insisted, his scowl deepening.
“Yes, you will!” she huffed. “Why do you want to stay in my room so badly?”
“None of your business.”
A vein throbbed on her temple. “Just get out of here! And don’t think about trying to sneak in. I will use my slingshot on you.”
Ace scuffed the ground with his shoe. “Fine,” he groused. “You’re lucky that your parents aren’t here.”
“Don’t use my parents against me!” she snapped. That was one of the most frustrating things about Ace. For reasons beyond Usopp’s understanding, her mother and father found Ace to be an adorable little boy and loved to cater him. Hence why she often found him inside her house with an infinite supply of cookies and candies.
Why he would continuously try to get inside her house, Usopp didn’t quite know, but she knew that it wasn’t for the treats (probably). What she did know for certain was that he knew that he could use her parents for his own benefit, and that deeply aggravated her. It pissed her off even more that Ace didn’t have to try; her parents were somehow already charmed by Ace’s unruly demeanor. Was it because her father used to be a delinquent and her mother had eloped to marry his delinquent self? If that was the case, then why did they get mad at her for staying out too late at Kaya’s place?
When Ace finally left, Usopp marched inside her house with Kaya in tow.
“Is it always like this?” Kaya asked, and Usopp knew that she wasn’t referring to the interior of her new house.
“Ever since we moved here,” Usopp sighed. “At first, I thought nothing more of it. Like, I thought he was just curious as to who his new neighbors were. But then… Well, you get the idea.”
“It seems like an exciting day every day for you,” Kaya noted with humor, following Usopp up the stairs.
“Don’t even start with me,” she snorted. “Is this what it feels like having a kid brother? If so, then I’m glad to be an only child.”
After putting their belongings down in Usopp’s room, the two girls went back down to head for the kitchen. As Usopp pulled out two glasses, Kaya looked around curiously. “It’s really different here compared to your last place.”
“It’s definitely a one-up to our old apartment, huh?” Usopp opened the fridge and pulled out the juice container. “It’s kind of a pain having to cross longer distances to get from one place to another, but, hey, at least I’m burning calories.”
“A viable excuse to eat cake without any worries,” Kaya said with a serious nod.
“A toast to our shrinking waistlines!” Usopp declared, holding up her glass.
After clinking their glasses together and glugging down their drinks, Usopp and Kaya proceeded to rummage through the cabinet to find any snacks. A few years ago, it had taken Usopp months to break down Kaya. Before, the young heiress would have sat primly at the dining table with her hands folded on her lap and her back ramrod straight, waiting patiently for Usopp to present her snacks to dine on. And now, here she was, feeling quite comfortable enough to pull out a bag of chips and open it without asking for permission.
"Don't forget the cookies," Kaya said, dumping handfuls of chips into a bowl.
"Sure thing—oh, come on!" Usopp groaned. "Not again!"
"What is it?"
"We ran out of cookies. No doubt Ace ate them all again." Frustrated, Usopp slammed the cabinet door shut, but then opened it because, well, if they weren't going to have cookies, then they might as well have something else to munch on, right? She gave a cursory glance of the contents before randomly seizing one of the boxes. Crackers? Whatever.
"You seriously don't know why he keeps hanging out in your house?"
"No. You heard him earlier. It's apparently none of my business," she said, pitching her voice obnoxiously on the last part to do an impression of Ace. She slid the other bowl that Kaya had pulled out towards her to fill it with crackers. "But I really do think it's because his friends dared him to do it."
"Like, what, stalking you?"
"Can it be called that? Can kids stalk anyone? Especially when your parents just happily allow them inside?"
Kaya pursed her lips in thought. "I would say that stalking is stalking regardless of intention or lack of obstacles barring the activity."
"You don't have to get fanciful with your words. We are talking about stalking, after all.”
"I'm not! Anyways, if his friends truly did set him out on a dare, then the reward must be worth it to him."
"Sometimes, dares aren't about winning prizes. Among boys, it could just be a test of will, or that's what I remember hearing the boys from my elementary school say." Usopp shrugged. "That doesn't seem too far off for someone like Ace, honestly."
"I wonder if there's something else at hand," Kaya mused.
This piqued Usopp’s interest. "What do you mean by that?"
“Well, maybe he has home troubles? Could be why he always insists on staying with you.”
Reflexively, she snorted and opened her mouth to refute that, but then a thought occurred to her. She didn’t really know her neighbors that well. She knew the basics, like how Ace’s guardian was a heavy-step woman with a vicious temper, how there were shady men who would occasionally visit, and how he had a younger brother named Luffy. There had been times at night where she would hear Dadan, the guardian, yell at Ace and Luffy for one thing or another. Usopp had always believed that it had been because the boys’ unruly and mischievous personalities being put at work, but she was starting to wonder if perhaps that hadn’t been the case.
Her mind was then flooded with images of Ace with cuts and bruises littered on his arms and legs. Usopp had always dismissed it as him being reckless and adventurous, but what if that wasn’t it? With the possibility of what his home life might be planted in her mind… Was Ace and Luffy really being abused by Dadan?
Suddenly, feelings of guilt came crashing down on her. For all the times when she had rebuffed his attempts on coming over to stay, had she been turning him away from the only sanctuary that he knew?
Usopp shook her head. No, no, no. It wasn’t good to jump to conclusions. As though to reinforce this thought, she pointed out, "That doesn't explain why he always follows me around."
"Your parents are busy with work, so they can't be around often,” Kaya replied with a shrug. “Therefore, he latches onto you."
Usopp’s stomach sank. That was true…
Kaya, oblivious to her attacked conscience and mounting despair, continued on airily. “But I could be wrong, of course. It’s not like I know anything about him. Not like you, Usopp-chan. Hm? Usopp-chan? Is something the matter?”
Ace didn’t know what happened, but he certainly wasn’t going to complain. After that day when Usopp had brought her friend from school, Usopp had been nicer to him. She had even gone as far as allowing him to hang out in her room. She had never done that before. He wondered if that blonde girl had somehow talked her into being more tolerant of him; if so, he had to remember properly thanking her for it. He might have to visit Makino on lessons on manners, now that he thought about it.
Ace knew that he was skipping his way back to his neighborhood, but he couldn’t care less. He knew what waited for him back there, and he was all the more eager to receive it. A smile spread across his face as he tightened his grip on his backpack straps.
“Oi! Ace!” Ace paused and turned around. Sabo hurried next to him with a frown. “What are you rushing out for? Don’t you remember that we were going over to Marco’s?”
Ace mirrored his friend’s frown. “Oh. Right.” He did make that promise, didn’t he? He sighed and kicked a stray pebble. Looked like he would have to visit Usopp on another day. Or perhaps tonight? Did he dare test the boundaries?
“What’s up with you lately?” Sabo asked. “You’ve been—I don’t know—cheerier. It’s kinda weird.”
Ace shoved him on the shoulder. “Shut up. I’ve just…been progressing, is all.”
Sabo had an understanding look on his face. “You mean with your neighbor? What was her name again? Yasopp?”
“Usopp. Yasopp is her dad. You met her a lotta times. How can you forget already?” he snorted. “And, if you gotta know, yeah. Me and she are getting closer.” He then dropped his voice into a conspiratorial whisper. “I’ve also been in her bedroom.”
“So? You’ve been in there before, haven’t you?”
“Yeah, but, this time, she invited me in.”
Sabo’s eyes widened a bit. “Dude, you said that you never been there unless her parents let you in,” he said. “That seriously is progress. What happened?”
“Don’t know, man. Well, I mean, I don’t know exactly what happened, but it’s all good,” he said with a smirk. “With the way things are looking up, I think I got a chance.”
“Uh, hate to break it to you, but I’m pretty sure that a seventeen-year-old wouldn’t be interested in a ten-year-old, no matter how nice she’s treating you.”
Ace shrugged. “As long as I stay on her good side, I think I’ll be able to get her to fall for me by the time I’m eighteen.”