The finals were about to start, but Ming Shu hadn't returned.
Xiao Jinlan felt that was strange. Ming Shu had already started craving a mint popsicle while watching the semifinals, but he didn't want to miss a single second of his gege's game. He dithered over it for ages, but ultimately couldn't bring himself to leave. He only ran home to get a popsicle after Xiao Jinlan reassured him, over and over again, that he would have plenty of time to go, eat, and get back during the thirty-minute break.
The thirty minutes were almost up. Ming Shu should have been back by now.
Xiao Jinlan was suddenly starting to worry. What if something had happened to Ming Shu along the way?
When she really thought about it, she realized it was unlikely. They weren't out in a public place. Everyone in the community was a neighbor. What could happen? If the sports festival hadn't been going on, Ming Shu surely would have spent all day wandering around the community anyway.
The sports festival lasted only one day, and the final events of the day weren't really about technical skill or strength. It basically came down to endurance. Xiao Yu'an couldn't be bothered to practice more during the break before the finals; it would just be wasting energy at that point.
When Xiao Mu'ting tossed him an orange soda, Xiao Yu'an absently asked if they'd run out of mint-flavored drinks. That gave Xiao Mu'ting a shock, and he shot back that he thought Xiao Yu'an preferred orange sodas.
Xiao Yu'an thought about it for a while, then decided orange soda was fine.
"How many events did you win this year?" Xiao Mu'ting asked.
"Three," Xiao Yu'an said.
"Same as last year, then."
"Not the same," Xiao Yu'an corrected. "Last year I won three, total. This year, after the badminton tournament, I'll have four wins."
Xiao Mu'ting laughed. "We haven't played the finals yet."
"Doesn't matter," Xiao Yu'an said. "We're solid."
The two of them had competed over everything ever since they were little. They could only play around with Xiao Jincheng, because it would be shameful for big kids to go all out against smaller ones. Big kids could only really compete with other big kids, so Xiao Yu'an and Xiao Mu'ting naturally had to comete with each other. Every year, after the sports festival, they would compare their results.
The referee signaled the start of the final match, but Xiao Yu'an felt like a little something was missing. Ming Shu had been screaming all day. Why couldn't Xiao Yu'an hear him now? He looked into the crowd and couldn't find Ming Shu among the spectators. Xiao Jinlan wasn't there either.
"Do you see the little sprout?" he asked, turning back to Xiao Mu'ting.
Xiao Mu'ting scanned the crowd and just so happened to catch sight of Xiao Jincheng, who was crouching in front of all the other spectators. "Nope. I only see a monkey."
Their grandpa was the one who'd first started calling Xiao Jincheng a monkey. The eight-year-old boy was just too annoying; he was even harder to deal with than an actual monkey.
The Xiao cousins' opponents in the finals were their old rivals. The two pairs had played many games before; Xiao Yu'an and Xiao Mu'ting were usually the victors, but their rivals had won a few matches as well. Before the match even started, their rivals started jeering and trying to rile them up.
At their age, all boys were susceptible to being provoked. But Xiao Yu'an didn't like to waste time on trash talk. He smashed a birdie over the net, effectively making their opponents shut up and get serious.
Xiao Yu'an hadn't heard Xiao Jincheng's cheers all day, but that wasn't because Xiao Jincheng couldn't cheer louder than Ming Shu. It was just because Xiao Jincheng had been busy with plenty of his own events in the morning. Now, Xiao Jincheng was all done and fully prepared to cheer on his two stinky gege.
As soon as the match started, Xiao Yu'an's focus zeroed in on the game. Their opponents weren't bad, and they were perfectly capable of defeating Xiao Yu'an and Xiao Mu'ting. Xiao Yu'an knew better than to underestimate their rivals; that was how they'd lost in the past.
None of the boys on the court took this game lightly. Both pairs fought fiercely for the championship title. They were equally matched as their scores climbed, ultimately leading them to a deuce.
Finally, at a critical moment, Xiao Yu'an scored two smash hits in a row, netting them the two consecutive points they needed to win the match. He didn't notice that, by then, Xiao Jincheng had stopped cheering.
Xiao Jincheng had been called away in the middle of the finals match. He'd gotten so engrossed in the game that he was about ready to run out onto the court and start waving around a racket himself. But then he heard Xiao Jinlan say something to him about Ming Shu, disappearing.
"How could he disappear?" Xiao Jincheng had never heard of anyone going missing inside their community before.
"I'm afraid he went outside," Xiao Jinlan said. "He was going back to the house to get a popsicle, but Grandma said he never showed up. What should we do? He's only five years old."
Xiao Jincheng was a little rascal, but he could get serious when it mattered. All the boys in the Xiao family were the same way. They could act a little listless or rambunctious on the outside, but their hearts were strong.
"That little wimp? Leave the community, alone?" Xiao Jincheng snorted. "No way. He was super looking forward to watching Xiao Yu'an's match, anyway. Even if someone tried to get him to leave with them, he wouldn't have gone."
"But Grandma and I have already looked everywhere," Xiao Jinlan said. "We didn't find him anywhere. He couldn't have run into a bad person inside the community, right?"
A specific person instantly popped into Xiao Jincheng's mind. He grit his teeth hard enough to make a grinding sound. "Maybe he did. Jie, I know who took him. Go back and tell Xiao Yu'an and Xiao Mu'ting to find us at the rocky slope after they finish their game."
The rocky slope was a rather desolate place in the community. Not many people went out there, and even Xiao Jincheng hadn't known it existed until Chen Tie and a bunch of hooligans pushed and shoved him out there one day.
Xiao Jincheng still remembered taking a beating at the bottom of that slope. He had an extremely deep impression of Chen Tie, and he knew exactly what Chen Tie was like. Earlier that day, he'd seen Chen Tie trying to pick a fight with Xiao Yu'an. At that time, Xiao Yu'an had been carrying Ming Shu. Chen Tie obviously couldn't take on Xiao Yu'an in a direct confrontation; he must have decided to take out his frustrations on Ming Shu.
But there was no way the Xiao family would tolerate that.
Xiao Jincheng charged out to the rocky slope in a rage. Ming Shu was there after all, surrounded by Chen Tie and three of Chen Tie's lackeys. Four eleven-year-old boys were surrounding a five-year-old. Although they weren't hitting Ming Shu, they were pelting him with spikes of foxtail plucked from nearby.
Ming Shu was such a little thing. There was nowhere for him to run. He was blocked at every turn, and ultimately he could do nothing but shrink into himself and cower.
Chen Tie was the most brutal one. He grabbed a bunch of foxtail spikes and fanned them over Ming Shu's face. He didn't actually hit Ming Shu too hard, but it still looked like a slap.
Xiao Jincheng flew off the handle. He didn't care that Chen Tie had beaten him up before. Without hesitation, he charged into the fray.
Ming Shu was scared stiff. Chen Tie had flung him over his shoulder and carried him out to this place, with Ming Shu screaming all the while. But there was no one to hear. Chen Tie had chosen an infrequently used road, and almost everyone in the community was watching the badminton tournament anyway.
When he was thrown onto a field at the top of the rocky slope, Ming Shu was so terrified that he couldn't even cry. He wanted to cry, but he didn't dare. He could only call out for his gege over and over again.
Chen Tie hated that, because this 'gege' was obviously Xiao Yu'an. Xiao Yu'an and Cheng Yue were both so proud of themselves, and this whiny little baby was proud of himself for knowing them. So what if Xiao Yu'an had taken first place in a race? Chen Tie wouldn't let them gloat over something like that!
He didn't actually intend to do anything to Ming Shu. The kid was like a little doll, and Chen Tie couldn't possibly lift a hand against him. He'd only wailed on Xiao Jincheng that one time because Xiao Jincheng attacked first; there was no way Chen Tie could take that without retaliating.
Chen Tie just wanted to give Ming Shu a scare. He wanted to teach Ming Shu a lesson. Ming Shu had to learn that he couldn't strut around the community, glowing with pride, just because he had Xiao Yu'an protecting him.
He thought he would have been able to make Ming Shu cry within seconds. But Ming Shu just whimpered. Even though his eyes filled with tears, he refused to let them fall.
"Your big bros finished their match?" Chen Tie was completely unaffected when Xiao Jincheng charged up, roaring. He just swept out a hand and pushed Ming Shu behind himself. "Then where are they? Why did you come alone? Did they send you as an attack dog?"
Xiao Jincheng knew he couldn't beat these boys, but Ming Shu was fearfully calling him 'Jincheng-gege' from behind Chen Tie. Just hearing that was enough to stoke Xiao Jincheng's fighting spirit. He barreled forward and gave Chen Tie a fierce push, but Chen Tie was just too sturdy. There was no way Xiao Jincheng could knock him down.
Chen Tie smirked and raised a hand. He grabbed Xiao Jincheng by the head without holding back his strength at all. Xiao Jincheng yelped and struggled fiercely, but he couldn't break free until Chen Tie tossed him onto the ground.
"It's the same as last time," Chen Tie said, cracking his knuckles and balling his hands into fists. "You started it."
The four older boys all turned on Xiao Jincheng, surrounding him. Xiao Jincheng knew there was no way to escape a beating. He leapt and grabbed one of the older boys by the legs, shouting to Ming Shu, "Run! Go find Xiao Yu'an!"
But Ming Shu didn't run. He grabbed at Chen Tie's shirt and cried out, "Don't hit him!"
Ming Shu's voice was already watery, but still he refused to shed tears.
"You're pretty good pals, huh?" Chen Tie sneered. It was entirely too easy for him to push Ming Shu down. With just a wave of his hand, he sent Ming Shu to the ground.
Xiao Jincheng had already been kicked a few times. He couldn't win against these bullies, but he only lacked height and physical strength. When it came to technique, Xiao Jincheng could hold his own. He was fast and nimble, too. After a few punches were thrown, one of Chen Tie's lackeys reeled back with a bruise blooming over the corner of one eye.
If people wanted to bully Xiao Jincheng and the Xiao family's didi, then Xiao Jincheng wouldn't let them escape unscathed. When he threw a punch, he aimed at the most vital and vulnerable spots. Whether or not he could land a hit was one thing, but when his hits did make contact, they were guaranteed to hurt.
Ming Shu had never even gotten into a minor dispute with anyone before now. He was truly scared out of his wits. When Chen Tie flung him down on the ground, he let out a loud whimper. That was a bad habit of his; whenever he was scared, whenever he didn't know what to say, he whimpered.
But the more he whimpered, the more the older boys laughed and jeered at him while pelting him with foxtail and little stones. Ming Shu had wanted to run, but he had been trapped by the older boys' legs.
He'd remembered what Xiao Yu'an once told him about water fights. Xiao Yu'an had said that if Xiao Jincheng sprayed him with a water gun, and Ming Shu didn't have a water gun to spray back, then Ming Shu should at least splash Xiao Jincheng with water from a bucket.
In this situation, Ming Shu knew he was supposed to start picking up rocks and throwing them. But he was too afraid. Xiao Jincheng was only ever playing with him, but these were real bullies.
Ming Shu had been paralyzed by fear.
But when Xiao Jincheng rushed over, Ming Shu's fear disappeared. When Xiao Jincheng told him to run, he didn't. He couldn't. Jincheng-gege had come to protect him, and that meant he had to protect Jincheng-gege too.
After a tough match, Xiao Yu'an and Xiao Mu'ting had claimed victory in the finals of the badminton tournament. The referee was still in the middle of announcing the runner-ups when Xiao Jinlan ran over to relay Xiao Jincheng's message.
When Xiao Yu'an and Xiao Mu'ting sprinted out to the rocky slope, they were just in time to see Ming Shu flung to the ground by Chen Tie. There was a dirty footprint on Chen Tie's face, and he seemed a little taken aback, like he couldn't figure out how Ming Shu had managed to kick him.
Ming Shu had held back his tears the whole time. Xiao Jincheng wasn't crying either, but as soon as Ming Shu saw his gege, he couldn't hold back the tears in his eyes anymore. They spilled out in torrents, and he started to bawl.