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Xiao Yu'an took off the striped tank top that had just been soaked by a water gun. He tossed it into the laundry basket as he heard Xiao Jincheng shout from outside: "Xiao Yu'an! Where are you hiding? Xiao Mu'ting is looking everywhere for you! Where are you?"
Do you really think I'd tell you?
Xiao Yu'an hurriedly fumbled around until he found a clean undershirt to change into. The tank top he'd just shed had been drenched by none other than Xiao Jincheng. That ruffian had saved up his allowance and bought a top-of-the-line water gun. Now, he ran around squirting people all day and night, and he even tried to frame Xiao Mu'ting for his crimes when people got upset.
Every time he saw Xiao Jincheng's smug little face, Xiao Yu'an felt he was very fortunate to not have any younger brothers. He only had one older sister. He couldn't help but think that Xiao Mu'ting must have been miserable with a rowdy little brother like Xiao Jincheng. The brat went out looking for trouble all day, and when he came home, he constantly messed with Xiao Mu'ting.
Xiao Mu'ting was Xiao Yu'an's older cousin on his father's side, but Xiao Yu'an didn't feel like he was a didi to Xiao Mu'ting. He was only born one day after Xiao Mu'ting. Ever since he was little, he blamed his mother for giving birth to him just a bit too late.
In some of Xiao Yu'an's earliest memories, Xiao Mu'ting was there, prodding his cheek and demanding that Xiao Yu'an call him 'gege'. Of course, Xiao Yu'an didn't want to. They would fight over that, and the adults would happily watch the spectacle without interfering. The children couldn't do much to hurt each other, so why not let them fight? After every tussle, things would cool off for just a short while before Xiao Mu'ting returned, asking to be called 'gege' again.
It was only after Xiao Jincheng was born, giving Xiao Mu'ting a real little brother, that Xiao Mu'ting stopped coming around to harass Xiao Yu'an about calling him 'gege'.
The Xiao family's children all lived together with their grandparents. Their parents were busy, but would visit once in a while when they had time. The Xiao children had plenty of toys between them, but it could be said that where there were people, there would necessarily be discord as well. No matter how many toys they had, the boys would excitedly fight and argue over their favorites.
Although Xiao Jincheng was often at odds with his older brother Xiao Mu'ting, they became a solid team whenever it came to fighting over toys. Xiao Yu'an could take Xiao Mu'ting in a fight alone, but with the chaotic Xiao Jincheng joining their brawls, Xiao Yu'an began to lose more often than not.
Those were the times when Xiao Yu'an thought maybe it would be nice to have a little brother after all. At least a little brother would be able to help him subdue Xiao Jincheng in times of war.
But if he wound up with a little brother like Xiao Jincheng, who would even pick fights with cats and dogs, then it would be more trouble than it was worth.
Was it better to have a little brother? Or was it better not to have one? To the eleven-year-old Xiao Yu'an, this was a difficult question without a straightforward answer.
Just now, Xiao Yu'an had been downstairs playing junqi with Xiao Mu'ting. They were having fun, each winning some battles while losing others. But Xiao Jincheng buzzed around like the most irritating fly. If he wasn't running up to their board to mess with the game pieces, he was dashing back and forth around them, waving his water gun.
It was summer, and the heat alone was already hard to bear. With the distraction of Xiao Jincheng flitting around the room, Xiao Yu'an found it even harder to concentrate. Soon enough, he suffered a devastating loss. Across from him, Xiao Mu'ting started to gloat.
That was when Xiao Yu'an realized their ploy. Xiao Jincheng and Xiao Mu'ting must have agreed in advance that Xiao Jincheng would pester them during their game to distract Xiao Yu'an. Otherwise, why would Xiao Mu'ting remain immune to Xiao Jincheng's interference?
He hadn't gotten into a fight with Xiao Mu'ting all week, but Xiao Yu'an's suspicion of these underhanded tactics got them brawling again. While they wrestled, Xiao Jincheng gleefully leapt onto the couch and sprayed them both with his new water gun.
Xiao Yu'an had always liked to keep himself and his surroundings clean and tidy. He hated the sensation of damp clothes sticking to his skin, so he quickly rushed upstairs to change, leaving Xiao Mu'ting behind.
Summer was the most colorful, vibrant, and stifling of the four seasons. Its existence swallowed people up, never allowing them to forget it was summer. Outside, cicadas buzzed like golden bells. The noise and heat were suffocating.
Xiao Yu'an thought the clamor of these 'golden bells' was too loud. He approached the window, intending to close it, but stopped with his hand hovering near the window frame.
The yards in their neighborhood were lined up neatly, like the slots on a junqi board, and separated by small, narrow paths and tall, thick trees. Xiao Yu'an caught a glimpse of a small figure shooting up one of those trees, climbing with all its might.
The child in the tree was wearing a yellowish, brownish tank top with stripes of uneven thickness. At a glance, it was very similar to the one Xiao Yu'an had just thrown into the laundry basket.
In the summer months, there were only so many things a kid could wear. Girls had their choice of skirts and dresses, but boys more or less had to stick to shorts and tank tops. Even t-shirts felt unbearable when the midsummer sun beat down from directly overhead.
Xiao Yu'an had seen that child before. He was the neighboring Ming family's kid. He was small; he had big, round eyes; and he was always by himself. The adults at the Xiao family talked about the Ming family sometimes, and they had mentioned that the Ming family only had that one grandchild, named Ming Shu.
Ming Shu had been left in his paternal grandparents' care as soon as he was born. His parents were always busy and rarely ever visited.
Xiao Yu'an figured Ming Shu must have liked climbing trees because he had no one to play with. It wasn't the first time Xiao Yu'an had seen him climbing a tree, and Xiao Yu'an still couldn't figure out what was so fun about it.
Cicadas liked to climb trees too, didn't they? Ming Shu, hugging the tree as he climbed, looked almost like a giant cicada.
Xiao Yu'an watched for a while longer and realized he had started to laugh.
"Xiao Yu'an! Get out here!" Xiao Mu'ting hollered from outside the door. "Why are you hiding?!"
Am I hiding? Xiao Yu'an thought. I just went upstairs to change my clothes.
Xiao Jincheng was still patrolling downstairs, skipping around while waving his water gun and shouting, "Xiao Yu'an got scared and ran away! Xiao Yu'an got beat up! He's hiding, he's hiding!"
"You boys calm down a little," Xiao Jinlan, the older sister, chided. She was already in middle school. As the lady of the house, she couldn't take the three boys' loud bickering any longer. She emerged from the study and shooed them towards the yard. "Grandpa cut some watermelon, let's all go eat!"
It was nearly forty degrees outside. No one would turn down an offer of ice-cold watermelon in that heat. Even the aggressively irritating Xiao Jincheng started to behave at the mention of watermelon. He obediently set down his water gun and dashed out to the wooden table in the garden.
Xiao Yu'an pushed his laundry basket under his bed, then hurried downstairs as well.
By the time Ming Shu huffed and puffed and heaved himself up to straddle one of the branches, Xiao Yu'an had left the room.
Ming Shu craned his neck and looked around, spotting the Xiao family's children wolfing down some watermelon in the yard. The Xiao family's grandpa was wearing a white tank top and cooling off in the shade, fanning himself with a palm-leaf fan.
The angle of the Y-shaped split in branches, where Ming Shu had settled, wasn't great. Ming Shu had to twist around to see everyone in the neighboring yard.
Ming Shu didn't usually like to climb this tree. There was another tree with a better view of the Xiao family's yard, but Ming Shu had climbed it so many times that the branches were threatening to snap. Afraid of falling, Ming Shu had had no choice but to try a different tree.
Every time he climbed a tree, he would be fiercely scolded by his own grandfather.
Ming Shu's grandfather hated it when Ming Shu climbed trees. He thought it was a low-brow, uncultured thing for a child to do, and Ming Shu always got his clothes dirty when he climbed.
In truth, Ming Shu didn't really like climbing trees. But the five-year-old Ming Shu was too short. If he didn't climb high up in a tree, he wouldn't be able to see the Xiao family's children playing in their yard.
He had no siblings. His parents never visited. And his grandparents were terrifying people, unlike the kind and good-natured grandpa and grandma of the Xiao family. Ming Shu had never spoken to the children of the Xiao family, but he liked to watch them play. The one called Xiao Jincheng was the loudest and most annoying. The one called Xiao Yu'an and the one called Xiao Mu'ting often fought with each other.
Ming Shu always enjoyed watching them fight. That spectacle was way more entertaining than any of his cartoons. He would gamble with himself on who would win, betting on Xiao Mu'ting one day, then betting on Xiao Yu'an the next.
If he won the bet, he would treat himself to a mint-flavored popsicle.
But Ming Shu gradually realized the boys in the Xiao family didn't fight fair. Xiao Yu'an was just one person, but Xiao Mu'ting had a little brother. Xiao Jincheng always liked to mess around and interfere when they fought, leaving Xiao Yu'an at a disadvantage.
Although young, Ming Shu already had a heart that rooted for the underdog. He felt bad for Xiao Yu'an, who didn't have anyone to back him up in a fight.
He sat in the tree, swinging his legs and picking dirt out from under his fingernails, all while thinking, if he were one of the Xiao family's little brothers, he would be able to help Xiao Yu'an.
But he wasn't. He was a child of the Ming family.
That thought was enough to make him feel so bad that his lips trembled.
He had climbed a tree for the first time earlier that year, when it was still spring, because of the joyful commotion he heard from the Xiao family's yard. He was deeply envious of what they had, and he always thought—
Why wasn't I born as a member of the Xiao family? If I was their little brother, I could play with them every day.
The tall trees he climbed were places where he could dream of a different life. He snuck glances at the Xiao family's kids and secretly imagined himself as their youngest sibling. If only he could be Xiao Yu'an's little brother, the next time Xiao Jincheng caused trouble, Ming Shu would surely leap on him and pin him down.
Because he would be a good didi.
Even after climbing those trees for nearly half a year, Ming Shu wasn't spotted by anyone in the Xiao family. He was a little happy about that, but a little disappointed as well. He wanted to play with them, but wasn't brave enough to invite himself to join them. Just watching was already a test of his courage. What if someone caught him? What if they forbade him from watching them again?
His grandfather always said, after all, that only bad kids climbed trees. Ming Shu didn't want the Xiao family's children to think he was a bad kid.
He was a good, well-behaved child.
Xiao Jincheng was the first to finish his watermelon. As soon as he gobbled down his share, he picked up his water gun again and started squirting people. He hit Xiao Mu'ting square in the face, and Xiao Mu'ting instantly threw his watermelon rind at him.
Xiao Yu'an didn't want to fight anymore, but he was caught in the crossfire between Xiao Jincheng and Xiao Mu'ting, and his freshly changed clothes were tragically dirtied again.
The three boys started to roughhouse once more. Xiao Jinlan was helpless to stop them; she eventually took her watermelon and went back upstairs.
When he saw the boys fighting again, Ming Shu's eyes lit up.
But it was at just that moment that Ming Shu heard his grandfather's voice roar up from the base of the tree: "You're up there again?! Get down here, right now!"
Ming Shu was more scared of his grandfather than anything in the world. He shrank into himself reflexively, then hurriedly started to climb down from his perch. He lost his footing near the bottom of the tree and tumbled onto the ground. The fall hurt badly enough that his eyes instantly reddened with the threat of tears.
His grandfather looked down at him, stone-faced, and barked, "Get inside and change your clothes! Now!"
The wall between the yards blocked the view of the Xiao children, but it didn't block out Xiao Jincheng's ear-splitting cries. Ming Shu listened and felt his chest start to itch. It sounded like Xiao Yu'an and Xiao Mu'ting had joined forces to teach Xiao Jincheng a lesson. Ming Shu badly wanted to see Xiao Jincheng being taught that lesson, but he was herded inside by his own grandfather and in the end saw nothing.
After being punished, Ming Shu settled down and stayed out of trees for a while. But he was quick to forget the lessons he had been taught, and soon enough he snuck back out to climb again when his grandfather was out of the house.
As usual, the Xiao family's boys were playing in the yard, but this time Ming Shu didn't see Xiao Yu'an.
Xiao Mu'ting and Xiao Jincheng had been bickering for days on end. Ever since the older boys teamed up against him a few days ago, Xiao Jincheng had been following Xiao Mu'ting around and nagging him with the same question—
"Am I really your little brother? Your real little brother?"
That meant Xiao Yu'an had had a few peaceful days.
The veterans' retirement community where they lived was a nice and spacious place. Xiao Yu'an didn't feel like staying cooped up all day, listening to Xiao Mu'ting and Xiao Jincheng fight, so he left the house with an adventure book to find a shady spot where he could spend the afternoon reading.
When he passed through the small walkway next to the Ming house, he suddenly heard a faint rustling from above. He looked up and saw the boy from the Ming family clutching one of the branches. The boy had just one foot hooked over the branch, and he was clearly stuck—unable to go up, unable to get back down. Small, fearful whimpers drifted down to Xiao Yu'an.
Ming Shu never thought he would meet Xiao Yu'an like this.
He had never climbed this particular tree before. Once he got settled, he decided he wasn't comfortable and wanted to switch to a different branch. But while he was moving around, he snapped one of the branches and lost a foothold.
One of his feet dangled in the air, unable to reach the ground. He was so scared that he wanted to cry, and he held back those tears so fiercely that his eyes were already turning swollen and red.
And it was then that the gege from the Xiao family, who had always seemed so far away, stretched out his arms to Ming Shu and asked, "Wanna come down?"
Suddenly, Ming Shu wasn't scared anymore. But he wasn't able to answer right away either.
This was the first time he had clearly heard Xiao Yu'an's voice. Xiao Yu'an didn't talk or shout much when he fought, so it was usually only Xiao Jincheng's voice that Ming Shu heard.
Xiao Yu'an's voice was much steadier, much more earnest than Xiao Jincheng's.
"Do you want to come down?" Xiao Yu'an asked once more.