Ming Shu lay against Xiao Yu'an's back as his gege carried him home.
He was a bit dirty all over. Dust and dirt stained his little face, and some grass and weeds stubbornly clung to his body even after Xiao Yu'an tried to pat him clean. But Xiao Jincheng had protected Ming Shu, so Ming Shu was relatively unscathed besides his scraped and bloodied knees.
Scraped knees were no big deal. Ming Shu had fallen down and scraped his knees plenty of times when he was just playing by himself. It hurt a lot when he fell, and it hurt even more when he had to have medicine applied to the cuts. But during the time between the fall and the medicine, the pain wasn't so bad.
Ming Shu wasn't in much pain now. He could have easily walked on his own, but he still wanted his gege to carry him.
Just a short while ago, his gege had helped him dust off some of the grass and bristles clinging to his clothes. Xiao Yu'an had been so gentle while patting over Ming Shu's arms and chest. Ming Shu had stood patiently, watching his gege without even blinking. His gege was so brave, like a hero. Before his gege arrived, the bad guys had been pelting Ming Shu with stones and foxtail. After his gege arrived, those same bad guys were all instantly beaten into the ground.
His gege had come to save him!
His gege had come to save not only Xiao Jincheng, but Ming Shu as well. Ming Shu and Jincheng-gege were both the Xiao family's didi.
The didi of a family was the youngest, and the youngest was allowed to act a little spoiled. Realizing this, Ming Shu had flung himself into Xiao Yu'an's arms, wanting his gege to hug him for a while. Next to him, even the eight-year-old Jincheng-gege leapt onto Mu'ting-gege's back, insisting on being carried home. Ming Shu was only five, so he weighed even less than Jincheng-gege.
After pitching himself into his gege's arms, Ming Shu didn't move for a long while. His gege reeked of sweat; the familiar scent of mint soap was no longer detectable.
Ming Shu drew a few breaths and started to feel better. He was dirty, but his gege was even dirtier. And Ming Shu didn't smell bad, while his gege totally reeked. That meant he didn't have to be afraid of his gege thinking he was gross.
His gege hugged him for a while, patting him on the back. Then he let go and offered to carry Ming Shu on his back. Ming Shu instantly leapt to take the offer, wrapping his arms around his gege's neck.
Summer was almost gone. The setting sun disappeared behind the clouds, and the wind was no longer scorchingly hot.
The two gege of the Xiao family carried their didi and began to walk home. The path down from the rocky slope was steep and uneven, so their progress was slow.
Despite having taken a beating, Xiao Jincheng seemed to be in high spirits. He sang, "I'm flying, I'm flying!" And he urged Xiao Mu'ting on like a horse, crying out, "Hyah, hyah!"
Finally, Xiao Mu'ting couldn't take it anymore. He dropped Xiao Jincheng like a stone and refused to carry him again no matter how hard the little monkey begged.
Xiao Yu'an and Ming Shu, on the other hand, were much quieter. Xiao Yu'an didn't speak, and Ming Shu only whimpered softly every so often.
After Ming Shu whimpered for the umpteenth time, his gege suddenly stopped.
"What are you whimpering about?" Xiao Yu'an asked.
Xiao Yu'an wasn't irritated or annoyed. Simply curious. Although all kids had their own strange little quirks, Xiao Yu'an couldn't ever remember whimpering so much as a kid. And he was pretty sure Xiao Jincheng hadn't whimpered so much when he was Ming Shu's age either.
Ming Shu whimpered almost like he was having a conversation with himself.
"I wasn't whimpering," Ming Shu said. He hadn't realized he'd been making any noise at all.
"What do you mean you weren't?" Xiao Yu'an smiled, amused. "You were. You whimpered a bunch of times."
Ming Shu put his chin down on his gege's shoulder and thought about it for a while. "I guess I do it for fun."
"For fun? Is whimpering fun?"
"It's not super fun or anything. But I didn't have anyone to play with in the past. If I didn't make any noises, it would be too quiet."
Xiao Yu'an paused again. He hadn't expected an answer like that. He'd once wondered if Ming Shu learned all those pitiful little noises from a kitten or a puppy. But it seemed Ming Shu had been an even lonelier child than Xiao Yu'an had imagined.
"Gege?" Ming Shu whispered. "Are you tired? I can get down."
Xiao Yu'an shook his head and hefted Ming Shu a little higher on his back before continuing down the slope. "I'm fine."
Xiao Jincheng had already flopped onto the ground and rolled down the slope. Xiao Mu'ting chased after him, calling out, "Can't you calm down for one minute?!"
"I've been calm for lots of minutes!" Xiao Jincheng shouted back. To Ming Shu, he urged, "Hey, you little thing! You roll down too!"
Ming Shu looked down the long slope. He did want to roll down, but he was also a little scared. Subconsciously, he grabbed hold of Xiao Yu'an's shirt.
"Not today," Xiao Yu'an said patiently. "Your knees are all cut up. Once your knees get better, you can come back and roll down the slope if you still want to."
"Gege, will you roll with me?" Ming Shu asked.
Xiao Yu'an gave it some thought. "I can come with you and watch you."
Ming Shu was so elated that his legs started to jitter. "Awesome!"
"Stay still," Xiao Yu'an admonished.
Ming Shu instantly obeyed.
Xiao Jincheng only took a short break before starting to roll down the slope again, speeding along far ahead of the other three boys. Before long, the three stragglers heard an anguished scream.
Ming Shu anxiously craned his neck and tried to get a look at the bottom of the slope. "What happened to Jincheng-gege?"
Xiao Jincheng was screaming and sobbing. "Xiao Mu'ting, I rolled in poop! Dog poop!"
It had been an eventful day for the Xiao family. Five kids left the house that morning. Three competed in events at the sports festival, and two cheered the others on. When they returned home that evening, only Xiao Jinlan was clean and unscathed. Ming Shu and Xiao Jincheng both wore battle wounds. Xiao Yu'an and Xiao Mu'ting weren't hurt, but they had still dirtied and mussed up their clothes during the fight.
Xiao Jincheng was in the worst shape of all. As soon as they got back to the Xiao family's courtyard, he was picked up and carried off, whining and squealing, by his grandpa Xiao Zhengyun. None of them needed a bath more urgently than Xiao Jincheng.
Chen Tie and his lackeys had taken a fierce beating, but they'd been the ones to start it all. They'd cornered and bullied a five-year-old child; there was no way for anyone to justify their actions. So their parents could hardly go seek justice for them. They could only usher them back into their respective homes, scolding the ones who needed scolding and treating the wounds of the ones who needed treatment.
Since Xiao Yu'an and Xiao Mu'ting had gotten themselves involved in a fight, they had to be scolded as well.
As he watched his gege being called into the house, Ming Shu felt his chest tighten. Xiao Jinlan brought him a Huoju ice cream cone, but he didn't want it. He kept staring at the door that Xiao Yu'an had gone through.
"Are you worried about those two?" Xiao Jinlan asked. She'd found a first-aid kit and brought it over to apply some medicine to Ming Shu's knees.
It was such a hassle to live with three didi. Every time they got hurt, it was Xiao Jinlan's responsibility, as their jiejie, to disinfect their wounds. This first-aid kit was like her personal jewelry box. She was more familiar with its contents than anyone in the house.
"Will your grandpa scold gege?" Ming Shu asked. He was afraid of being scolded by his own grandfather. Whenever he did something wrong, even when he made small mistakes, his grandfather would berate him.
Now, his gege had gotten into a fight. A real fight. That was way bigger than a small mistake.
"Of course he will," Xiao Jinlan said. "But don't worry. It's not like they went out looking for trouble. They only fought because you and Xiao Jincheng were being bullied."
Ming Shu was still worried. Fortunately, it wasn't long before the door opened again.
"Back so soon?" Xiao Jinlan asked. She waved Xiao Yu'an over. "Didi was worried about you being scolded by Grandpa."
Xiao Yu'an approached and took the bottle of iodine from Xiao Jinlan. "I'll do it."
Ming Shu's cuts had already been disinfected by rubbing alcohol. That was the most painful part. His eyes were red, but he had refused to cry.
Xiao Jinlan had smiled when he bravely withstood the pain. "Didi is so brave."
Ming Shu looked down in embarrassment when he remembered her praise. He wasn't brave at all. He couldn't even fight. His gege was the brave one.
Xiao Yu'an dipped a cotton swab in iodine and prepared to apply it to Ming Shu's wounds. But he suddenly stopped. Ming Shu's arms and legs were so skinny. Xiao Yu'an just didn't know how Chen Tie could hurt a kid like this.
Just thinking about it made his anger rise up again. He felt like he had let Chen Tie off too easy.
Ming Shu saw the frown that came over his gege's face. After thinking about it for a moment, he realized it must have been because of him. "Gege, don't worry. You can put it on. I won't cry."
Xiao Yu'an looked up and blinked. "Cry?"
Ming Shu patiently explained that he was good at withstanding pain. Even if the medicine hurt, he definitely wouldn't cry. Ever.
Xiao Yu'an gave it some thought and remembered that this little kid had already cried in front of him a few times.
And, really, there was nothing wrong with shedding some tears.
"You don't need to withstand it," Xiao Yu'an said as he started applying the iodine. "If it hurts, you can cry."
"But Mom said…"
"Listen to me." Xiao Yu'an looked into his eyes. "Listen to your gege."