Xiao Yu'an didn't like hanging out with five-year-old brats. If it weren't for the fact that he'd found the hospitalized Ming Shu a bit pitiful, there was no way he would have allowed Ming Shu to stick to him like glue.
With Ming Shu so firmly attached to him, Xiao Yu'an was honestly starting to feel like he'd grown a tail. And an undetachable one at that.
Ming Shu wasn't as much of a troublemaker as Xiao Jincheng, but it was still troublesome to have a didi that was this clingy. Xiao Yu'an had things to do; he couldn't take Ming Shu everywhere.
"Play with yourself for a while," he said. "Or go play with Xiao Jincheng."
Outside, a group of boys sprinted back and forth along the neighborhood paths. The scent of sweat began to fill the air. The sun was like a great big ball of fire in the sky. Even filtered through the overhanging tree branches, sunlight spilled down like boiling water.
After running more than ten laps in a row, Xiao Yu'an stopped at the side of the road to take a break.
Cheng Yue followed suit. Stopping next to Xiao Yu'an, he asked, "Did your aunt have a baby?"
Xiao Yu'an nearly choked on a mouthful of water. "No way. Not yet."
"Then who's the little kid following you around?"
Xiao Yu'an swiveled around and looked behind himself. Cheng Yue laughed.
"I don't mean right now," Cheng Yue said. "The little one that's always hanging around your yard these days."
"You don't know?" Xiao Yu'an asked. "He's Uncle Ming's son."
Everyone in the community knew everyone else's surname. "Ohhh," Cheng Yue breathed, instantly understanding. "Then how did he start following you around?"
It was a long story, and Xiao Yu'an was a bit dizzy from running. He couldn't be bothered to explain. Instead, he countered, "Doesn't Xia Zhong still follow you around?"
"I consider Zhong-er my didi."
Xiao Yu'an opened his mouth, but his next words got stuck in his throat. What had he been about to say? Did he consider Ming Shu his didi too?
Once his gege left, Ming Shu didn't feel like making a gun anymore. He slumped over the windowsill and watched as his gege and the other boys from the community ran around outside.
He was a bit upset.
Ever since coming down with heat rash, he'd had to dust himself with heat rash powder after every shower. It smelled nice, and a few days ago, when he arrived at the Xiao family's house, his gege had even hugged him and given him a sniff. His gege had asked what that smell was, and Ming Shu, thinking his gege liked it, had proudly declared, "Heat rash powder!"
That morning, he'd made sure to bring his own heat rash powder over to put some on his gege. But his offer was harshly rejected.
And now his gege had abandoned him to go play with other people.
"Hey, squirt! What are you doing up there!" Xiao Jincheng called out from outside. He had been patrolling the yard with his water gun, and when he looked up he'd found a little sprout growing from a window on the second floor.
Ming Shu came over every day, so Xiao Jincheng had long since gotten used to the sight of him. But he still received a little shock when he saw Ming Shu hanging out the window. Was that a spot where little kids were allowed to sprawl? If he fell out, he would definitely break his arms or legs.
At Xiao Jincheng's shout, Ming Shu was also alarmed. He hurriedly shrank back inside. When his gege was with him, Ming Shu didn't fear anything. But when his gege wasn't there, Ming Shu was plenty afraid of Xiao Jincheng.
After all, Xiao Jincheng's water gun was a lot better than his; Ming Shu couldn't defeat him in a water fight.
Xiao Jincheng sprinted up the stairs like he was wearing Nezha's wind-and-fire wheels. Ming Shu had crouched down under the window, so Xiao Jincheng ran over and crouched down in front of him. The two of them stared at each other with big, wide eyes.
Ming Shu had nowhere to run, so he had no choice but to reluctantly utter a greeting: "Jincheng-gege."
Everyone in their community praised Ming Shu for being a sweet and well-behaved child, but there were ways in which Ming Shu could be quite obstinate. Xiao Yu'an was his gege, and that meant no one else was his gege. If Xiao Jincheng weren't so fierce, Ming Shu might even have plainly called him by his given name.
Xiao Jincheng crouched with Ming Shu for a while longer and laughed. "Why are you such a coward?"
Ming Shu stammered for ages before he managed to clearly ask, "What's a coward?"
Xiao Jincheng's vocabulary wasn't actually that big. He'd only learned the word 'coward' from Xiao Mu'ting a day earlier, and he had wanted to use it as soon as possible. But he didn't know how to explain what it meant, so he quickly changed the subject. "Do you wanna eat some edamame?"
Ming Shu had seen the Xiao family's gege eating edamame in the yard before. He'd always wanted to have some. "I do!"
Downstairs, Xiao Zhengyun had just fished the freshly cooked edamame out of a pot of boiling water. The edamame hadn't cooled yet, but Xiao Jincheng reached right out to grab a handful. Ming Shu was at an age where he copied everything he saw, so naturally he followed suit.
Of course, the edamame was way too hot to touch. Both boys snatched their hands back and started blowing frantically on their scalded fingers.
Training for a track and field event in this weather meant there was no way to avoid being drenched in sweat. Soccer jerseys, the type made of a smooth and slippery fabric, had been popular with the boys in Xiao Yu'an's class since last year. The jerseys and shorts were loose, which meant they were nice and cool on sunny summer days. When the boys ran, the fabric whipped around in the wind.
The only downside was that the fabric didn't wick sweat; after running around for a while, the jerseys became extremely uncomfortable to wear.
Halfway through their training session, Xiao Yu'an couldn't take it anymore. He wasn't tired enough to admit defeat, but he did feel dirty enough to admit defeat.
"Wait for me, I'm going home to change."
Cheng Yue, hearing this, fixed him with an exasperated stare. "Has your mysophobia gotten worse again? How are you gonna not sweat on a day like today? Even if you change, won't you still sweat?"
"I still have to change," Xiao Yu'an answered simply. He picked up his empty water bottle, intending to fill it up with some ice cold water back at the house.
"No, wait, can't you just take off your shirt?" Cheng Yue complained. He really couldn't stand seeing his brother act this finicky.
Having to change clothes just because of some sweat? Come on! In this heat, even if a person just stood outside without moving a muscle, they would sweat through their underpants in a matter of minutes.
Cheng Yue was also uncomfortable with his shirt sticking to his skin, but that was a sign of the effectiveness of their training. So, in a way, it felt good. Wouldn't it be nice to just finish their training and rinse off with a cold shower afterwards?
"I would still feel sweaty," Xiao Yu'an said. He'd already made up his mind, so he didn't dawdle any longer before turning around and heading home. As he approached his house, he was still thinking about whether or not he considered Ming Shu his didi.
That was when he heard the sounds of barking from his front yard.
His family didn't keep any dogs, but sometimes strays would run up to the house to beg for food. This didn't sound like the barking of a stray dog, though. Stray dogs didn't sound this… wimpy.
It sounded more like a person acting like a dog.
Xiao Yu'an glanced in the direction of the noise and saw that it was just as he'd expected. Two boys were sitting under the shade of the tree where Ming Shu had dirtied Xiao Yu'an's dress shirt.
Ming Shu was sitting on a collapsible stool, facing Xiao Jincheng and barking at him like a dog. Xiao Jincheng was holding a little bamboo basket and throwing edamame beans at Ming Shu.
Every time Ming Shu barked, Xiao Jincheng threw a bean. The one throwing beans seemed happy, and the one barking like a dog seemed happy too. Xiao Jincheng threw a bunch of them, but Ming Shu failed to catch any. When Ming Shu went to eat the beans off the ground, Xiao Jincheng shouted at him and told him the ground was dirty.
"Then I won't get to eat any," Ming Shu whined pitifully.
"Stupid!" Xiao Jincheng shelled some more edamame. "You don't even know how to be a puppy!"
Ming Shu whimpered his discontent at being scolded, then argued, "You don't know how to be a puppy either."
"I do!" There was nothing in the world Xiao Jincheng didn't know how to do. Even if there was, there wasn't. Xiao Jincheng proudly slapped his own chest, then moved to switch places with Ming Shu. He thrust the bamboo basket into Ming Shu's arms and said, "You throw."
Ming Shu pouted. "Will you bark?"
"Duh! I'll bark, I'll bark! Jin-ge will teach you how to be a puppy!"
Xiao Yu'an had wanted to go over there and put an end to their weird little game. Xiao Jincheng had clearly started bullying Ming Shu as soon as Xiao Yu'an left the house. He was even treating the kid like a puppy. Ming Shu obviously didn't understand, but he'd still gone along with it. Was that considered fun?
But before Xiao Yu'an could intervene, Xiao Jincheng started barking. Between woofs, he commanded, "Throw it straight! I'll beat you up if you throw it crooked!"
Ming Shu carefully threw the beans one by one. Xiao Jincheng ducked left and right and, somehow, actually managed to catch them all.
Since Xiao Jincheng was the one barking now, Xiao Yu'an couldn't be bothered to put a stop to things.
Ming Shu really wanted to eat some more edamame. When he had been playing the part of the puppy, he had only managed to catch a few beans in his mouth. Now that the bamboo basket was in his hands, he happily stuffed his own mouth full of edamame as he shelled. Although Xiao Jincheng was barking now, Ming Shu was more preoccupied with feeding himself than he was with throwing beans for Xiao Jincheng.
"Hey! That's naughty!" Xiao Jincheng leapt up and tried to steal back the basket. "Don't you get how this works? I'm barking, so you're supposed to feed me!"
Ming Shu shielded the basket and turned with the intention of running away, but he spotted Xiao Yu'an in the process. Instantly, he dashed up to Xiao Yu'an while shouting, "Gege! Gege!"
Xiao Yu'an hadn't planned on stopping to greet the two kids. Training time was precious, and he still had to play badminton with Xiao Mu'ting later that night. But Ming Shu had already seen him, so Xiao Yu'an couldn't exactly ignore him. He stopped in place.
Although there was plenty of shade in the yard, it was still an excruciatingly hot day. Ming Shu's cheeks were flushed and rosy, and his forehead and nose were both shiny with sweat. He looked like a freshly washed apple.
"Gege, do you want some edadada?" Ming Shu asked. "I'll peel them for you."