With his head drooping so low and his voice dropping to a quiet, somewhat nasally whine, Ming Shu gave off the impression that he had been grievously wronged. It was only then that Xiao Yu'an realized what kind of book he had brought with him. Right on the cover, it said:
Suitable for ages 13 to 14.
Even Xiao Yu'an himself struggled a little to understand every word.
He didn't know exactly how old Ming Shu was, but the kid looked around four or five years old. Ming Shu fidgeted like he was getting more and more nervous. His little hands continued to scratch guiltily over the pages of the book.
The book was precious to Xiao Yu'an, so he quickly pulled it away from Ming Shu's hands.
That made Ming Shu's anxiety spike even higher. He kept his head bowed, but he snuck a peek at Xiao Yu'an and let out a panicky little whimper.
It wasn't a strange thing for a child of Ming Shu's age to whimper or whine once in a while, but the Xiao family's children had never made those sorts of noises. If they wanted to cry, they cried. If they wanted to scream, they screamed their heads off. Xiao Yu'an had no experience with this kind of whimper. As soon as he heard it, he thought he was in deep trouble. He thought he had done something to drive the boy to tears.
For a moment, Xiao Yu'an felt helpless. Then he set aside his precious book and picked Ming Shu up again, setting him down to sit on the wooden railing that lined the promenade.
Ming Shu looked at the book that had been set aside, then looked at Xiao Yu'an and whispered, "Gege."
Xiao Yu'an had meant to reassure the kid a bit, but an urgent question flew to the forefront of his mind. "How old are you?"
Ming Shu was short. When he sat up on the railing, his legs didn't reach the ground. He swung them a little as he proudly held up one hand, all five fingers unfurled. "I'm five!"
Xiao Yu'an could detect a boastful note in Ming Shu's declaration, but he couldn't figure out why being five years old was something to boast about. After all, Xiao Yu'an was already eleven.
"Grandfather says, when I grow one more year older, I can start going to school!" Ming Shu explained, just as Xiao Yu'an was wondering what he should say next. "I get to start next fall!"
Xiao Yu'an stared at Ming Shu, baffled. Was going to school something to be so excited about? Xiao Yu'an didn't really mind school, but he could still vividly remember Xiao Jincheng's reaction when he had been sent off to first grade. Xiao Jincheng had bawled like crazy, clinging to their grandpa's legs and refusing to let go. Any passersby who didn't know what was happening may have thought the Xiao family was butchering a pig.
In the end, Xiao Yu'an and Xiao Mu'ting had had to each hold one of Xiao Jincheng's hands and drag the poor thing off to school.
"You're really that excited about going to school?" Xiao Yu'an asked. He sat up on the wooden railing as well, with the book slotted between them. The scent of jasmine was heavy in the air.
Ming Shu nodded vigorously.
Xiao Yu'an thought about the way Ming Shu had scratched and prodded at the book earlier. "You're excited to learn how to read?"
Ming Shu shook his head first, then seemed to think of something and changed his mind. He nodded again instead.
Xiao Yu'an wasn't sure what to make of that. "You don't want to learn how to read?"
"I guess I do," Ming Shu said. He was a clingy, tactile child by nature. He liked to be close to people. With the book between them, he couldn't get too close to Xiao Yu'an. That made him feel restless, and he kept shifting closer and closer, bit by bit, until his arm touched Xiao Yu'an's. It was only then that he could relax.
But Xiao Yu'an was already old enough to have a sense of personal space. Plus, it was summer. Their shirts were short-sleeved or sleeveless, and skin contact was pretty uncomfortable in the heat. He didn't want Ming Shu to stick so close to him, and he instinctively drew away his elbow.
Ming Shu blinked and realized he must have caused Xiao Yu'an to hate him now. He scooted away of his own volition, worrying at his lower lip.
Xiao Yu'an wondered if his questions had hurt the boy's pride. He prompted, "If you only 'guess' you do, does that mean there's another reason you're so excited to go to school?"
Ming Shu stopped shifting and said, "When I go to school, I'll have people to play with. I don't have a big brother, so there's no one for me to play with at home."
Was that why he climbed trees for fun? Xiao Yu'an craned his neck to look at Ming Shu, but Ming Shu had bowed his head again. No matter how hard Xiao Yu'an craned, it was impossible to see the expression in Ming Shu's eyes. But his tone made his feelings obvious enough. That tone was sorrowful, and a little lonely.
"Then you can come to my house to play," Xiao Yu'an offered without even thinking about it. But as soon as the words left his mouth, he started to regret making such an invitation.
Ming Shu was only five years old. Forget about Xiao Yu'an and Xiao Mu'ting; even Xiao Jincheng would have a hard time playing with a five-year-old. At five, Ming Shu couldn't read, and he definitely wouldn't fare well in a fight. One little push from Xiao Jincheng would surely be all it took to make him cry. It would be a hassle.
But as soon as Ming Shu heard those words, his already-round eyes grew even rounder and bigger. His irises flashed with light. "Really?"
He was that happy?
Xiao Yu'an's regret suddenly disappeared, and he nodded earnestly. "Really."
"Wow!" Ming Shu leapt off the wooden railing and turned, placing his hands on Xiao Yu'an's knees and bouncing excitedly in front of him. "Then, gege, I'll be your didi!"
Xiao Yu'an got a headache just from hearing the word 'didi', and his expression became a little strange.
Ming Shu gave Xiao Yu'an's knees a light pat. "I'll treat you to a mint popsicle!"
At that time of year, everyone had plenty of mint popsicles, lemon popsicles, vanilla popsicles, and what have you. Xiao Yu'an knew they had lots back at his own house, so there was no way he would need Ming Shu to treat him. But he did ask, "You want to have a mint popsicle?"
"I'm inviting you to have one, gege," Ming Shu corrected.
"Gege doesn't eat those." Xiao Yu'an felt a bit awkward saying that. He had never called himself 'gege' before, and he nearly bit his tongue while stumbling over the words.
The two of them were still arguing over who would treat whom to a mint popsicle when an auntie passed by and called out, "Yu'an, this is where you've been?"
Xiao Yu'an looked up and recognized her as Auntie Huang, who lived across the street from him.
"Your cousins are fighting again. They're looking for you to settle things for them. Why don't you go back and have a look?" Auntie Huang said, before glancing over at Ming Shu. "Oh? Isn't this Ming Shu-didi? You're playing with Yu'an-gege?
Ming Shu bowed politely and softly greeted, "Hello, auntie."
Everybody loved a courteous and well-behaved child. Auntie Huang instantly brightened at Ming Shu's sweet greeting, and she hurriedly placed a jasmine flower bracelet she'd just made in Ming Shu's hand.
"Here, for you. It smells nice."
Ming Shu gave it a sniff, then smiled brightly at her.
Outwardly, Xiao Yu'an acted like he didn't want to bother with whatever nonsense Xiao Mu'ting and Xiao Jincheng were fighting over now. But, deep down inside, he was pretty invested. Boys his age were often like that; he could act disinterested, but he still felt left out when he didn't get involved.
Auntie Huang had some other business to attend to, so she hurried off after gifting Ming Shu the jasmine bracelet. Ming Shu's wrists and arms were too thin to wear it, so he placed it on top of his head. Then he reached out and tugged on the hem of Xiao Yu'an's shirt, wanting him to take a look.
Xiao Yu'an thought the kid looked pretty silly, but he didn't say that. Instead, he took Ming Shu's hand and said, "Why don't you come to my house and have a mint popsicle?"
Of course, Ming Shu was elated. He answered, loudly, "Okay!"
This excited shout was loud enough to scare away the dragonflies that had landed on the nearby flowers. In his excitement, Ming Shu also shook off the bracelet he'd placed on his head. He didn't notice, but Xiao Yu'an did. And it may have looked silly, but the bracelet was still Ming Shu's possession, so Xiao Yu'an stooped down and picked it up, placing it back on Ming Shu's head.
Ming Shu, wearing his crown of flowers, walked along giddily. He breezed down the promenade, almost like he was walking on air. If it weren't for his short legs, he might have even walked faster than Xiao Yu'an.
Xiao Yu'an thought, This kid must really love mint popsicles.
The Xiao family's front yard had already descended into chaos by the time Xiao Yu'an returned. This time, Xiao Jincheng had really, truly pissed off Xiao Mu'ting. Xiao Jincheng was crouching down, sobbing, while a watermelon rind sat perched atop his head.
Although the three boys of the Xiao family fought every other day, they knew their limits. Xiao Jincheng was the youngest, only eight years old. Though they never explicitly said it, Xiao Yu'an and Xiao Mu'ting both let him get away with a lot of things. Otherwise, there was no way the kid would have come to be so spoiled.
Of course, Xiao Jincheng had no idea. He believed he was innately gifted for sometimes being able to beat two eleven-year-olds in a fight, never realizing they may have been letting him win.
A three-year age difference in children was nothing like a three-year age difference in adults. Between adults, three years was nothing. But when that same gap was applied to children, a pronounced rift in abilities appeared. When Xiao Mu'ting got serious, Xiao Jincheng had no choice but to cower in fear. That was why he now squatted on the ground in punishment while Xiao Mu'ting sat next to him on a little stool, munching on a slice of watermelon.
This kind of scene wasn't unfamiliar to Xiao Yu'an, but it was an incredibly rare sight to Ming Shu. The boy was so shocked that he froze in place, staring unblinkingly at the two brothers.
Xiao Jincheng hadn't imagined Xiao Yu'an would bring an unfamiliar kid back to the house. He was instantly displeased and fiercely demanded, "Who's that!"
Ming Shu was meek and timid, and Xiao Jincheng's shout instantly struck fear into his heart. He jumped and quickly ducked behind Xiao Yu'an to hide. In his haste, he knocked the jasmine bracelet off his head again and trampled it with his own feet.
It was ruined.
"Stay put!" Xiao Mu'ting shouted back at Xiao Jincheng.
Xiao Yu'an glanced at the crushed jasmine flowers on the ground, and he felt it was a bit of a pity. Ming Shu was still hiding behind him and clinging to his white shirt. The boy was obviously scared out of his wits, but he still peeked one eye out from behind Xiao Yu'an. When he saw Xiao Jincheng being scolded and punished so fiercely, Ming Shu couldn't help but feel a little happy.
Paying no mind to Xiao Jincheng, Xiao Yu'an led Ming Shu towards the house. Even when they were almost at the door, ready to head inside, Ming Shu was still craning his neck around to stare at Xiao Jincheng.
Xiao Jincheng tried to look ferocious, even with a piece of watermelon rind perched on top of his head. He silently mouthed to Ming Shu:
What are you looking at? I'll scoop your eyes out!
Ming Shu couldn't hear him, and he couldn't read his lips either. He had no idea what the other boy was saying, so Ming Shu simply flashed him a smile.
That smile was enough to shock Xiao Jincheng into a stupefied silence.
Ming Shu was truly elated. He had dreamt of visiting the Xiao family's house countless times, and now Xiao Yu'an had personally led him through the gates to the courtyard and through the door to the house. Before, Ming Shu could only sit in a tree and imagine such a moment. He was so happy now that he could have smiled even if he'd known Xiao Jincheng was trying to threaten him.
Xiao Yu'an led Ming Shu into the kitchen. He was just about to open the refrigerator when he heard Ming Shu let out an inquisitive hum. Xiao Yu'an glanced over and saw Ming Shu gazing curiously at the colorful stickers stuck haphazardly all over the refrigerator doors.
"Sheriff Blackcat!" Ming Shu called out, pointing at one of the stickers.
That was one of the stickers that Xiao Jincheng had bought in front of his school one day. He'd come home with several big sheets and spent all night snipping them out. Then he'd stuck them all over the place, with the refrigerator door taking the brunt of the damage.
Xiao Yu'an also watched cartoons, but he wasn't as addicted as Xiao Jincheng, and he certainly wouldn't buy anything like stickers. Wouldn't the refrigerator be so much nicer if it stayed neat and clean? Now, with all those stickers slapped on the door, the refrigerator was no different from the filthy utility poles outside.
But their grandparents didn't really mind, so Xiao Jincheng just kept sticking more and more of those things all over the house.
"You like that character?" Xiao Yu'an asked.
Ming Shu carefully reached out and touched the sticker, his eyes filling up with a hint of admiration. "Gege, won't Grandpa Xiao scold you?"
Xiao Yu'an shook his head. "I didn't put them there."
"Won't Grandpa Xiao scold the other boys?" Ming Shu amended.
Xiao Yu'an suddenly understood. Ming Shu must have once put stickers of Sheriff Blackcat on his own refrigerator door, and he must have been scolded by his elders. That was why he looked so impressed by the sight of the Xiao family's refrigerator.
"He won't," Xiao Yu'an answered. He pulled Ming Shu back a step before opening the door to the freezer. When the cold air flooded out, Ming Shu hurriedly squeezed his eyes shut.
"Take a look. Which one do you want?" Xiao Yu'an asked. "Besides mint, we have other popsicles. We have ice cream, too."
Ming Shu's eyes widened like he was gazing upon a treasure trove. He whispered, softly, "Wow."
The most expensive treat in the fridge was a Huoju ice cream cone. Ming Shu eyed it for so long that Xiao Yu'an was sure he would take it, but in the end Ming Shu reached in and chose the cheapest thing: a mint popsicle.
"Gege, I want this one."
It was Xiao Yu'an's first time inviting someone to his house, so it was only natural that he wanted to play the part of a good and generous host. He kept the refrigerator door open and asked, "Don't you want the Huoju?"
Ming Shu thought about it for a moment. Then he reached in to grab the Huoju cone, but he placed it in Xiao Yu'an's hand. "Gege, you take the Huoju. Didi will have the mint popsicle."