Ming Shu was a little scared, but he wasn't sure if he should accept Xiao Yu'an's help. It wasn't the first time he had gotten stuck in a tree. Previously, when it happened, his grandfather would find him and fiercely berate him. But even after swearing up at him, his grandfather would never help Ming Shu out of the tree. In the end, Ming Shu had to scoot down inch by inch on his own, eventually tumbling to the ground.
So this time, even without Xiao Yu'an's help, Ming Shu knew he would have been able to get down in the end.
It would just take longer.
He scrunched up his face and looked down at Xiao Yu'an. In a small, trembling voice, he said, "I can do it by myself."
The buzzing of the cicadas in the surrounding trees was just too loud. Xiao Yu'an couldn't make out what the child had mumbled at all, so he could only guess the kid was asking for help. He moved closer to the tree and reached out to take hold of Ming Shu's leg.
Ming Shu was a bit high up in the tree. There was no way for Xiao Yu'an to scoop him up by the waist and help him down. He could only grab his leg.
At that first touch, Ming Shu jumped, startled and scared. He instinctively flailed his leg, kicking Xiao Yu'an's hand away.
Xiao Yu'an loved cleanliness. He couldn't stand a spray of water from a water gun, never mind the filthy imprint from a pair of dirty shoes. He looked at the footprint that had been left on his palm and his wrist, furrowing his brows with a frown.
Ming Shu's kick had been pure instinct; his body had moved unthinkingly. Ever since he was born, he had never seen much of his mother. She never held him the way other mothers held their children. She never tucked him into bed with a kiss to the forehead. And Ming Shu's grandparents never held him either.
Once, when his father had come home to visit for Chinese New Year, Ming Shu had run up to him with his arms stretched out, hoping for a hug. But his father's eyes had been so cold and devoid of emotion that Ming Shu stopped short and hid his arms behind his back.
And so, Ming Shu had grown up without ever having had much physical contact with anyone. When Xiao Yu'an touched his leg, his instincts perceived the foreign sensation as a threat. Before he could truly process what had happened, his leg had already lashed out.
Ming Shu quickly uttered an apology, but when he looked down, Xiao Yu'an was dusting away the dirt on his hand and scowling.
He was angry.
"Gege," Ming Shu called out. He was even more nervous and scared now, but he finally managed to raise his voice. "Gege, I'm sorry. Gege…"
Xiao Yu'an was truly quite unhappy. He had put on a white dress shirt that day, crisply ironed and very clean. He had gone out of his way to help this little kid down from a tree, only to be kicked and stained. The dirt and dust that marked his hand even drifted down and got onto his shirt, dirtying it as well.
But the child in front of him, with reddened eyes that threatened to fill up with tears, looked so panicked and anxious that Xiao Yu'an couldn't help but feel a little sorry for him. Those thin arms were trembling, like the boy wouldn't be able to hold himself up for much longer. He babbled almost incoherently, unable to form full sentences in his fearful state. He could only repeat, again and again, Gege, I'm sorry, gege, I'm sorry, gege…
Who could stay mad at a child like that?
Xiao Yu'an thought of the young cousin he had at home. That boy was the naughtiest, most intolerable rascal under the sun. He had never once called Xiao Yu'an 'gege', and he had never once apologized for anything.
Although Xiao Yu'an had always been grateful to his mother for not giving him an annoying little brother, he felt differently when he looked at Ming Shu now. The boy was still clinging to a tree like a cicada, and Xiao Yu'an found himself thinking that if he had a little brother like Ming Shu—one who was so well-behaved, one who chased after him calling him 'gege' all day—then having a little brother just might be a wonderful thing.
He suddenly didn't feel like being upset about Ming Shu dirtying his hand with a kick anymore. Instead, he stretched out his arms again and said, "I'll help you."
Ming Shu, who had never been praised before, who had only ever known the cold authority of his grandparents at home, had long since learned to read people's expressions and stay on their good sides whenever possible. When he saw that Xiao Yu'an was no longer angry with him, he couldn't think about anything else or feel anything but relief.
He hurriedly released the tree and fell towards Xiao Yu'an.
Xiao Yu'an wanted to help him. Ming Shu couldn't afford to doubt his intentions any longer. He couldn't be ungrateful.
In truth, Ming Shu didn't fully understand what it meant to be ungrateful. His grandmother was always telling him that he was ungrateful, and when Ming Shu thought about it, he came to the conclusion that kicking Xiao Yu'an when Xiao Yu'an grabbed his leg to help him must have been an ungrateful act.
He had been ungrateful to not accept Xiao Yu'an's help right away.
When Ming Shu leapt down so suddenly, Xiao Yu'an's eyes widened with shock and his heart skipped a beat with a feeling of impending doom.
He was a few years older than Ming Shu, but he wasn't big enough to catch Ming Shu so easily. Xiao Yu'an suddenly thought of the games of junqi he played with Xiao Mu'ting. In junqi, there were game pieces that represented missiles. And in that moment, Ming Shu was just like a missile hurtling into Xiao Yu'an's arms.
Ming Shu didn't know anything about how much he weighed or how much weight Xiao Yu'an could bear. All he knew was that the gege from the Xiao family had extended his arms to him. All he knew was that he wanted to show he was grateful.
So there was no choice but to trust Xiao Yu'an and leap!
Fortunately, Xiao Yu'an had been working out with his grandpa over the past two years. He had started following along with the martial arts exercises that his grandpa learned in the military, and his reflexes were sharp. He reacted quickly, leaning back to soften the impact.
But when Ming Shu actually landed in his arms, crashing into his chest, Xiao Yu'an realized the boy was extremely light. He wasn't as terrifying as a missile at all.
He held Ming Shu securely and reeled back a few steps until the momentum from their collision dissipated, allowing him to finally stand firm.
Ming Shu had no idea he'd appeared as threatening as a missile in Xiao Yu'an's mind just now, and he had no idea how dangerous his leap had been. With his arms wrapped around Xiao Yu'an's shoulders, he could only stare at Xiao Yu'an with big, unblinking eyes for a long, long moment before finally drawing a gasp of air.
Xiao Yu'an had planned on setting Ming Shu down right away; his arms were somewhat sore from the impact. But with that shuddering breath, it became obvious that Ming Shu was still terrified. His eyes were bright, but a little vacant and unfocused.
He had yet to recover from his fright.
The adults in the Xiao family were all very calm and rational people. They rarely got involved in disputes between the children. When the three boys fought and argued, they were left to resolve their differences on their own. At most, their grandpa and grandma would listen to their woes and offer a few words of wisdom. Even the rambunctious Xiao Jincheng knew how to tell when enough was enough and how to put himself in someone else's shoes.
Xiao Yu'an was even more perceptive and understanding. He could tell that Ming Shu was still frightened, and he knew not to put the boy down just yet. This boy, in such a delicate state, needed to be pampered.
However, Ming Shu wasn't actually scared at all. He was simply stunned. He didn't have a big brother, and he could never remember being hugged or held before. His grandparents' faces were rough with wrinkles, and though his mother was beautiful, it had been such a long time since he last saw her that he was starting to forget what she looked like.
The heart of a child was pure, and their likes and dislikes were extremely simple. If something looked good, they liked it. They smiled at it. And Ming Shu thought the Xiao family's gege was very good-looking. Xiao Yu'an didn't have any wrinkles on his face, and he smelled like the mint that Ming Shu loved so much. The arms of the gege of the Xiao family were a safe and comfortable place to be.
Ming Shu wasn't yet at an age where he knew how to hide his true emotions. He first smiled at Xiao Yu'an with his lips pursed, but soon he couldn't contain a bigger, brighter smile any longer. He beamed at Xiao Yu'an, his lips parting to show all his teeth.
Xiao Yu'an didn't know why the boy was smiling so wide. With some concern, he asked, "Are you okay?"
Ming Shu nodded and did his best to appear polite and well-behaved. "Thank you, gege."
Xiao Yu'an's arms were now so sore that they felt like they might fall off at any second. So he continued, "Then, I'll set you down?"
Ming Shu didn't want to be set down, and he couldn't hide his reaction. He subconsciously pursed his lips with discontent. His eyelids drooped, and his long lashes cast a shadow over his eyes. His expression grew darker, gloomier.
Ming Shu was actually quite a clingy child, but there was no one in his life who had ever allowed him to cling to them before. He knew perfectly well that his grandparents didn't like it when he stuck close to them, but sometimes he couldn't help it. Sometimes he followed his grandfather around while the man watered flowers, and sometimes he loitered around his grandmother while she hung out the laundry to dry. But they were never pleased by his presence, often snapping at him and telling him not to stand around, blocking their way.
Now he had finally been held, but it wasn't going to last very long at all. He couldn't keep his mood from plummeting.
But he knew he was supposed to get down before the Xiao family's gege got impatient with him. He didn't realize he had pouted subconsciously before he nodded obediently and said, "Gege, I can walk by myself."
That flash of obvious discontentment, however, had put Xiao Yu'an in a difficult position. He didn't feel right putting the boy down anymore.
It was so obvious that the child didn't want to be set down. When Xiao Yu'an mentioned it, all the light had instantly gone out of the boy's eyes. He obviously didn't want to walk by himself, and yet he still said he would. He was so well-behaved that it made Xiao Yu'an's heart ache.
Xiao Yu'an had never met such a good kid. Take Xiao Jincheng for example. Xiao Jincheng wasn't well-behaved at all; he couldn't go a day without creating trouble for others. Although the comparison was harsh, Xiao Yu'an finally felt a sense of responsibility rising up inside of him. The sort of responsibility an older brother felt towards his younger siblings.
So what if his arms were sore? It wasn't like he couldn't carry Ming Shu for a while longer.
"Do you want to go home?" Xiao Yu'an asked. "I can take you."
Ming Shu absolutely did not want to go home. He wanted to play with Xiao Yu'an.
When the boy shook his head, Xiao Yu'an continued, "Then, where do you want to go? Do you want to keep climbing trees?"
Ming Shu absolutely did not want to keep climbing trees, either. But he wasn't bold enough to say he wanted to play with Xiao Yu'an. In the end, he only managed to ask, "Gege, where do you want to go?"
Xiao Yu'an glanced at the book he had dropped on the ground earlier. "I'm going somewhere to read a book."
As he spoke, he stooped down and picked up the book with one hand while still holding Ming Shu in his other arm. It took some effort, but he managed it in the end. He offered the book to Ming Shu once he straightened up, letting the boy hold it for him.
The cover of the book was quite eye-catching. Ming Shu was instantly enthralled. He looked up at Xiao Yu'an, blinking his big eyes, and asked, "Gege, can I read it with you?"
Xiao Yu'an had left the chaos of his house with every intention of seeking a quiet place to read. To him, reading was a solitary activity. He had never thought about doing it with someone else. If he imagined sharing a book with Xiao Mu'ting or Xiao Jincheng… he could almost shudder at the mere thought of it.
But this boy looked up at him with so much hope in his eyes that Xiao Yu'an just couldn't bring himself to say no.
In the retirement community where they lived, there was a jasmine garden with a winding path cutting through it. There were two pavilions along the path, but the pavilions were always occupied. Sometimes by grandmas practicing their sword dances, sometimes by grandpas practicing their tai chi. But there were plenty of places to sit along the path, away from the crowded pavilions.
Xiao Yu'an found a quiet corner and finally set Ming Shu down. As soon as his arms were freed of their burden, they began to ache even more fiercely. Xiao Yu'an couldn't suppress a hiss of pain.
Ming Shu looked up at him and observed him for a while before he asked, "Gege, was I too heavy?"
Xiao Yu'an hadn't meant for Ming Shu to see his discomfort. He smiled reassuringly and said, "I'm fine. Let's read."
The promenade was quiet, but it wasn't actually a perfect place for two people to read a book. There was no good place to put the book if they both sat, and if they crouched down over the book, their legs would quickly get numb. Xiao Yu'an could only read a page before he got too distracted to continue. Even though Ming Shu had asked to read with him, Ming Shu wasn't looking at the book at all.
He was looking at Xiao Yu'an.
When Xiao Yu'an looked over at him, Ming Shu quickly averted his gaze and looked down at the book. But he only looked for a few seconds before he snuck another glance at Xiao Yu'an.
To Xiao Yu'an, a little brother was synonymous with a little menace. They were nothing but irritating, nothing but trouble. But the beautiful little Ming Shu was making Xiao Yu'an realize a little brother could be pretty interesting, too.
"Didn't you want to read?" he asked, turning to Ming Shu again. "Why are you looking at me?"
"Ah!" Ming Shu's eyes suddenly looked a little watery. Timidly, he asked, "Gege, you found out?"
Xiao Yu'an privately thought, You moved around so much. How could I not find out? I'm not blind.
Like most eleven-year-old boys, Xiao Yu'an believed himself to be invincible. In his mind, there was nothing he wasn't capable of. He wasn't as outwardly arrogant as his cousins, but inwardly… he thought he was pretty awesome. And he took every opportunity to act like a cool big brother.
Xiao Yu'an gave Ming Shu a pat on the head and put on a serious look even though he was half-teasing as he said, "You followed me, saying you wanted to read a book, but now that we're reading, you aren't looking at the book at all. Then why did you follow me?"
Ming Shu was getting anxious again. His eyes grew even more watery.
It was true that he didn't want to read. He didn't even know many written words yet. All he had really wanted was to play with the gege from the Xiao family, and that was why he had lied.
To a child, lying felt like a grave sin. To a child, liars were people who were destined to be eaten by wolves.
Ming Shu looked down and guiltily prodded the book a few times. Pouting, he insisted, "Gege, I do want to read, but… but…"
Xiao Yu'an never thought that teasing the boy a little would bring him to the verge of tears. But, now, he couldn't suddenly shift gears and start pampering the kid either. He did soften his tone, though, when he asked, "But what?"
Ming Shu glued his eyes to the book, head bowed, and mumbled, "But I don't know how to read."