Little kids were bad at everything. They were clumsy and slow. It could take them forever and a day just to shell some edamame. Xiao Yu'an was in a rush. He wanted to just grab a fistful of edamame and go, but he saw the bamboo basket tipping away from him as soon as he reached out.
Ming Shu scrunched up his nose. "Gege, you haven't washed your hands yet. Your hands are dirty."
Xiao Yu'an was shocked speechless. He was always the one who complained about this being dirty or that being filthy. Who had ever dared to accuse him of being dirty? And he wasn't really craving edamame, anyway. It wouldn't be a big deal if he didn't have any.
He went upstairs, changed, and washed his face. Finally, he felt a little more at ease. After filling his water bottle with iced water, he got ready to head out again.
But Ming Shu stepped in front of him and blocked the way. "Gege, I peeled them for you."
Xiao Yu'an had already been delayed long enough. Cheng Yue was definitely going to complain when he got back. Since he'd already washed his hands, Xiao Yu'an reached out to help himself. But Ming Shu denied him again.
"Gege," Ming Shu said. "I'll feed you."
Xiao Yu'an sighed and stooped down. He thought Ming Shu would simply place some of the edamame in his mouth, but Ming Shu hurriedly took two big steps back.
"Gege, bark for me."
Ming Shu was a pure and innocent-looking kid. Not at all like the gross little rugrats that constantly elicited ire. But hearing this, Xiao Yu'an still felt somewhat annoyed. Ming Shu had picked up some bad habits from Xiao Jincheng.
Seeing his gege stooping down without making a sound, Ming Shu urged, "Gege, go ahead and bark. If you bark, you'll get edadada. I practiced, so I'm really good at throwing them now!"
Xiao Yu'an stood up, tousled Ming Shu's hair, and took the bowl of shelled edamame away from him.
Ming Shu blinked. "Huh?"
"Only puppies bark," Xiao Yu'an said. He felt he was making a very good, serious point. "If you want to eat something, ask for it directly. If anyone asks you to bark, don't. And don't ask anyone else to bark. Got it?"
Ming Shu looked like he hadn't expected to hear any of that, but he still nodded. "Got it."
As soon as Xiao Yu'an left, Xiao Jincheng started calling for Ming Shu again. "Ming Woof Woof! Ming Woof Woof!"
"My name isn't Ming Woof Woof."
No longer interested in throwing edamame beans around with Xiao Jincheng, Ming Shu took a mint popsicle from the freezer and went back upstairs to start fiddling with the paper gun some more.
Colorful scraps of construction paper covered the bamboo sleeping mat on the bed. Ming Shu swept the pieces aside as he lay down. In truth, he was still pretty upset. His gege was rushing him to finish the gun. But what would happen once he finished?
When Xiao Yu'an rejoined the other guys for training, he was carrying not only his water bottle but a bowl as well. The sight of him made Cheng Yue laugh.
"Ge. Oh, ge. My dear Xiao-ge. Why do you have a bowl? If you put it on the ground, someone might feed you like a stray."
Cheng Yue was always full of bad jokes, and Xiao Yu'an felt it was too troublesome to quibble with him. So he just held out the bowl and offered, "Want some?"
Cheng Yue glanced down. "Edamame? And they're already shelled? Oi, you're so lucky that your grandpa shells them for you. My grandpa would never do that."
Xiao Yu'an froze while reaching for some edamame.
"I'm going to tell my grandpa about this when I get home," Cheng Yue continued. "The next time we get a box of salted peanuts, I'll share with you too."
Xiao Yu'an wanted to explain that Ming Shu had been the one who shelled the edamame in that bowl. But after thinking about it for a while, he couldn't be bothered. It would be too much trouble. Cheng Yue was the type that wanted to know everything about everything. He was a bottomless pit of questions. If someone answered a question for him, he would suddenly have two more. It was endless.
Xiao Yu'an was still mulling over the question from earlier. Did he consider Ming Shu his didi? Xiao Yu'an felt like he had a strong sense of responsibility. If he took a didi, he would have to properly look after the kid. He would always have to be there for him.
But Ming Shu was too little. It would be such a hassle. He didn't even know not to bark at people. If Xiao Yu'an took him as a didi, it would just be asking for trouble.
Xiao Yu'an set the bowl aside after finishing the edamame with Cheng Yue. "Wanna keep running?"
"Let's go," Cheng Yue said. "You're the one who wasted all that time."
Ming Shu slept for a while. When he woke, his gege still hadn't come back. He kind of wanted to go looking for his gege, so he peeked out the window. Xiao Jincheng was no longer there, but Xiao Mu'ting was downstairs.
Their residential community was massive. Ming Shu could go from his house to the jasmine garden by himself, but he was afraid to go any farther alone.
"You're looking for Xiao Yu'an?" Xiao Mu'ting asked as they set out together. "I'm looking for him too. Where'd he go? Does he still want to play badminton or not?"
Ming Shu could tell Xiao Mu'ting was a little worked up, maybe even a little angry. He had a feeling Xiao Mu'ting would make trouble for his gege, and he began to regret asking Xiao Mu'ting to look with him. Xiao Mu'ting and Xiao Yu'an fought all the time; Ming Shu had clearly witnessed it when he'd climbed into the trees between their houses.
Back then, Ming Shu had daydreamed of becoming the Xiao family's didi and staving off Xiao Jincheng in fights in order to help his gege out a bit. But now that seemed impossible. Ming Shu couldn't win against Xiao Jincheng.
He would have to try to stave off Xiao Mu'ting instead.
"Let's keep moving," Xiao Mu'ting said. "We're looking for Xiao Yu'an, right?"
Ming Shu didn't know exactly where Xiao Yu'an was at that moment, but he had seen his gege leave the house with the bowl of edamame and go east. That meant he definitely didn't go west.
"Mu'ting-gege." Ming Shu pointed to the west and said, deadpan, "Gege is over there."
Xiao Mu'ting couldn't have imagined that a little kid would lie about something like that, so he naturally went west. Ming Shu followed. There was a sprawling, forested area to the west of their residential community. Xiao Mu'ting did a lap around those woods before turning back to Ming Shu.
"No one's here," he said.
Ming Shu clasped his hands behind his back and slowly shook his head. "Then I dunno."
Xiao Mu'ting didn't blame him. He led Ming Shu onwards to look elsewhere, but every time he tried to go east, Ming Shu would point somewhere else and make them turn back. After a while, Xiao Mu'ting finally got the sense that something wasn't right.
"Oi, you little thing. Are you leading me on a wild goose chase?"
The sun was setting, and track and field training was coming to an end. After winning their last race around the community, Xiao Yu'an stopped by the side of the road and chugged some water. The ice had already melted and the water was no longer cold, but there was nothing Xiao Yu'an could do about that. He still threw back his head and drank heartily.
Before he finished the bottle, he heard someone shout, "Xiao Yu'an, just look at this little liar you brought home!"
Xiao Mu'ting's voice was instantly recognizable. Xiao Yu'an looked up. When had he brought home a little liar?
He almost choked when he caught sight of Xiao Mu'ting dragging Ming Shu over.
Ming Shu had his shoulders hunched defensively. Guilt was written all over his face. He looked up at Xiao Yu'an with those big eyes of his, clearly knowing he'd done something wrong, and whined, "Gege."
Xiao Mu'ting told Xiao Yu'an all about the long and aimless trip around the community that Ming Shu had led him on. Even Xiao Yu'an was rendered speechless.
He turned to Ming Shu and lightly flicked him on the forehead. "What's going on in here all day?"
Ming Shu stammered unintelligibly, feeling a bit indignant. He had obviously just wanted to stop Xiao Mu'ting and Xiao Yu'an from fighting. As thanks for his efforts, he'd been dragged all over the place by Xiao Mu'ting, and now Xiao Yu'an had even flicked him on the forehead.
"I was afraid Mu'ting-gege would hit you," he mumbled. "I haven't grown up yet. I can't help you in a fight."
As soon as Xiao Yu'an and Xiao Mu'ting heard that, they burst out laughing so hard that tears sprang into their eyes.
"You explain it to him," Xiao Mu'ting said.
Both of the older boys felt it was a hassle to explain things to little kids, but they had to at least tell Ming Shu that all this was just about badminton practice.
A short distance away, Cheng Yue finished up his cooldown stretches and wandered over to pick up his things. Xiao Yu'an also grabbed his own bowl and water bottle, getting ready to leave.
It was then that Cheng Yue said, offhandedly, "Will your grandpa shell some edamame for us next time too?"
Xiao Yu'an's eyes widened a fraction.
"Grandpa shelled edamame for you?" Xiao Mu'ting asked, shocked beyond belief. That was just inconceivable! Their grandpa only boiled edamame for them. He didn't bother shelling them.
Ming Shu looked at the empty bowl and took it into his own hands. In the middle of the other boys, he said, "I'll peel them next time too."
"Oh, what a good didi," Cheng Yue said reflexively. It was only after he finished speaking that he jumped, realizing that wasn't quite right. He jerked his head up, staring at Xiao Yu'an.
Xiao Yu'an was silent.
"This?" Cheng Yue asked. "This is 'grandpa'?"