Xiao Yu'an didn't have it in him to get angry again. Patiently, he said, "Sit there and wait for me. You got my shirt dirty, so I have to change."
Ming Shu guiltily hung his head and obediently slunk off to sit where Xiao Yu'an told him to sit. He even placed his hands on his knees, not moving a muscle as he waited.
When Xiao Yu'an finished changing his shirt and came back downstairs, Ming Shu was still sitting in that exact same position. He was practically petrified, as though someone had prodded all the right pressure points to paralyze him.
Xiao Yu'an had never met such a well-behaved boy. One time, Xiao Mu'ting had come home with a piece of cake. He'd placed it on the kitchen table and told Xiao Jincheng to sit down and wait while he washed his hands so he could split it for them. Xiao Mu'ting turned his back for less than a minute; by the time he finished washing his hands, Xiao Jincheng had taken a huge bite out of the cake.
Upon seeing Xiao Yu'an reenter the kitchen, Ming Shu perked up like he wanted to leap to his feet. But he only squirmed a little and stayed put, as though he were tied down. For a second, Xiao Yu'an even wondered if Xiao Jincheng had snuck in while he was upstairs and tied Ming Shu up with ropes. But upon closer inspection, there were no ropes, unless they were made of air.
"Do you wanna get up?" Xiao Yu'an asked.
Ming Shu nodded with all his might and stretched out both arms towards Xiao Yu'an. "Gege—"
Xiao Yu'an blinked. He didn't understand what Ming Shu wanted. "Do your legs hurt?"
There was no reason for them to hurt, was there?
Ming Shu shook his head, just as vigorously as he had nodded.
Xiao Yu'an was really lost now. "Then… you don't want to get up?"
"You told me to sit here," Ming Shu said.
Xiao Yu'an moved closer and prodded Ming Shu's forehead a few times. "You sit when I tell you to sit, and you won't get up until I tell you to get up?"
He didn't use much force at all, but when Ming Shu was prodded, he still lolled his head to the side.
"Because I'm obedient," Ming Shu said.
The word 'obedient' practically didn't exist in the Xiao family's vocabulary. The three boys never listened to one another's demands, and the adults didn't pay them much mind.
Xiao Yu'an felt this was truly a rare gem of a moment. He stooped down in front of Ming Shu and asked, "Then, why are you obedient?"
Ming Shu couldn't tell that Xiao Yu'an was teasing him. He gave the question some serious consideration. And he wasn't like the kids who started biting their nails when they fell deep into thought; his hands remained firmly glued to his knees.
Xiao Yu'an waited patiently for a long while until Ming Shu finally guessed, innocently, "Because I'm a good boy?"
At that, Xiao Yu'an couldn't help but laugh. Smiling, he agreed, "You really are a pretty good boy."
Ming Shu ducked his head and smiled shyly as he was praised. When he glanced up, he caught sight of the stained dress shirt that Xiao Yu'an had brought back down from upstairs. The blue-green handprint was still vibrantly visible on the white fabric.
"Gege, do you need to wash your shirt?" Ming Shu asked.
Xiao Yu'an had rushed to change his shirt just so that he could wash out that stain, fearing it would become permanent if he left it in for too long. Since he had already teased Ming Shu to his heart's content, he got up and headed out to the courtyard, where there was a spot just for washing clothes.
Ming Shu quickly chased after him. "Gege, I'll help you wash it."
He had been drowning in guilt over dirtying Xiao-gege's shirt for a long time now. When he was at home, he would always be harshly scolded by his grandmother when he spilled soup on his own clothes. But Xiao Yu'an didn't scold him at all. Ming Shu never felt guilty when his grandmother scolded him, and yet he couldn't stop feeling guilty in the face of Xiao Yu'an's forgiveness.
But how could Xiao Yu'an let a little five-year-old sprout wash his clothes for him? Would the sprout even be able to get his shirt clean? Or did Ming Shu just want to play with water?
"It's fine, I don't need your help," Xiao Yu'an said. He filled a wash basin with water when he got outside, then stooped down and started to scrub at the stain.
Ming Shu watched him for a while before squatting down next to him and sticking both hands into the basin.
It was hot out in the courtyard. Even though Xiao Yu'an had placed the wash basin in the shade, the sun had been hanging high in the sky all day. The heat was everywhere. Only the water in the basin was cool to the touch.
As soon as Ming Shu dipped his hands into the water, before he even touched the shirt, he let out a happy giggle.
It was just too comfortable!
Xiao Yu'an watched Ming Shu swirl the water around with his little hands, and he quickly realized this little rascal did just want to play with water.
Ming Shu stayed with the Xiao family until the sun began to set, but he didn't end up helping with the laundry at all. He spent most of his time playing with water.
After being punished by Xiao Mu'ting, Xiao Jincheng escaped to make trouble for Xiao Yu'an. He grabbed his water gun along the way and started to spray Ming Shu, until Ming Shu was completely soaked from head to toe. Ming Shu never dodged or hid, only flinching and shrinking away each time Xiao Jincheng sprayed him.
Xiao Yu'an came back from hanging out his shirt to dry, only to find that Ming Shu had been drenched. He quickly shooed Xiao Jincheng away and fetched a dry towel for Ming Shu. "Why didn't you run?"
"I was waiting for you," Ming Shu said. His hair was also wet, hanging limply over his forehead, much like the watermelon peel that Xiao Jincheng had been forced to wear a little while ago.
Xiao Yu'an couldn't help but think that this boy was hopelessly naive. He had to be taught the ways of the world, or he would surely be bullied in the future.
"Next time he tries to spray you," Xiao Yu'an said, "you run and hide. Understand?"
Ming Shu hummed in what sounded like acknowledgement, and Xiao Yu'an figured that meant he understood.
Xiao Yu'an was starting to realize that communicating with a much younger child would be hard work. Ming Shu didn't always speak properly. Every once in a while, he would just hum or whimper, making Xiao Yu'an wonder if some cat or dog had taught him how to speak.
But Xiao Yu'an still had more to say, and it was an important enough lesson that he couldn't leave it unsaid. "It's also fine if you don't hide," he continued, "but you can't just let him spray you. See this basin? Isn't it filled with water? If he sprays you, you splash him."
Ming Shu had never heard that kind of logic before. His eyes widened with excitement at the novelty of it. "Gege, are you teaching me how to fight?"
The Ming family was extremely strict, and Ming Shu had been raised by their harsh and unforgiving standards. He wasn't allowed to speak when he ate, and he wasn't allowed to make any noise after he went to bed. Fighting was, of course, forbidden. He was already five years old, but he had never been in a fight before. At kindergarten, when other kids pushed him down, he would simply pick himself up and walk away.
"I'm not teaching you how to fight," Xiao Yu'an said. It was just splashing water. To him, that wasn't anything like a real fight. "I'm just teaching you how not to be bullied."
Ming Shu still thought it sounded like fighting. He lowered his head and fell deep into thought.
Xiao Yu'an had no way of knowing what convoluted thoughts were twisting around in the little sprout's mind. He dragged Ming Shu over to stand in the shade, where he proceeded to dry Ming Shu's hair and face for him. Thankfully, it was still hot enough outside that Ming Shu's clothes dried quickly.
When it grew close to dinnertime, Xiao Yu'an finally sent Ming Shu home. His grandpa Xiao Zhengyun asked why Xiao Yu'an didn't invite his new friend to stay for dinner, at which point Xiao Jincheng complained, "I wouldn't have enough to eat!"
Xiao Zhengyun laughed and gave him a rap on the wrist. "When have we ever let you go hungry?"
Lots of children lived in their community. Over summer and winter break, plenty of those kids would come running to play in the Xiao family's courtyard. It was nothing unusual for Ming Shu to come over and play that afternoon.
Over dinner, Xiao Zhengyun asked Xiao Jinlan, "When will you two be visiting your other grandfather? Can you bring him some tea leaves for me?"
"We'll go the day after tomorrow," Xiao Jinlan said. "Grandpa, you're working me and Yu'an like gofers again."
Xiao Zhengyun laughed. "Delivering a box of tea leaves is hard work, is it? Then you don't have to carry it. Yu'an will carry it for me."
Xiao Yu'an nodded. "Grandpa, don't worry. I'll handle it."
Every year, over summer break, Xiao Yu'an and Xiao Jinlan went to stay with their maternal grandfather for a week or so. They would always be tasked with bringing gifts from one side of the family to the other. Originally, they were supposed to leave a few days ago, but their parents had gotten tied up with some work and couldn't meet them right away, so their trip had been postponed.
Xiao Jincheng's face fell when he heard Xiao Yu'an would be leaving the day after tomorrow. Even though the two of them annoyed each other to no end when they played together, actually saying goodbye for a while was difficult.
"Don't stay away too long," Xiao Jincheng said. "When you're not here, Chen Tie and his brothers always bully me and Xiao Mu'ting."
Chen Tie was one of the other kids who lived in their community, and he was a big troublemaker like Xiao Jincheng. But Xiao Yu'an didn't buy Xiao Jincheng's sob story for one second.
"You and Xiao Mu'ting can be bullied?" he asked, skeptical.
The three boys of the Xiao family fought amongst themselves all the time, but they always presented a united front to outsiders. With Xiao Mu'ting around, who could possibly bully Xiao Jincheng?
Two days later, Xiao Lanyue came to pick up his children. Xiao Jinlan ran off to say a quick goodbye to some of her good friends, and Xiao Yu'an got straight into the car. Xiao Lanyue turned around and asked, "Don't you want to tell your friends you're leaving?"
Xiao Yu'an had already told his friends and classmates that he would be going on a trip. There was no need to go tell them again. Once Xiao Jinlan returned, they got going. When their car passed the Ming family's house, Xiao Yu'an saw Ming Shu sitting out in the yard on a little stool.
He'd forgotten to tell Ming Shu that he was going away for a while, but he figured he didn't have to. They were just neighbors, not friends.