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193 Forever 18

 Song Jinning looked uneasy and afraid. Her pretty phoenix eyes shimmered-she looked as though she was about to cry.

She glanced timidly in Huo Guanchen's direction, but he remained as he were: seated beside his father with a heavy frown on his face. It was clear he did not want to look at her. The tears threatened to spill from Song Jinning's eyes.

"Auntie Xing, Auntie You, take Second Aunt upstairs, now." Huo Jialan frantically gave the instructions to send Song Jinning out the room.

Gu Nianzhi jaw dropped when she heard Huo Jialan address the woman as "Second Aunt."

Huo Shaoheng's father, Huo Guanchen, was Huo Jialan's second uncle. "Second aunt" would therefore refer to his wife.

The woman could not possibly be older than 30. Was she Huo Shaoheng's step-mother?

Gu Nianzhi's mind raced. She snuck a look at Huo Shaoheng.

Huo Shaoheng was sitting with his back towards her. He did not turn around. Gu Nianzhi could not see his expression, but she could tell that his back had stiffened.

It was rare for Huo Shaoheng to be so on edge. Gu Nianzhi turned to look at Song Jinning again.

Song Jinning saw that Gu Nianzhi was the only one in the room who was looking attentively at her, and turned to her with a pleading look on her face.

Gu Nianzhi knew that look of desperation, and the feeling of helpless bewilderment that lay beneath it.

When she had first gotten out of that car accident alive, so many years ago, she had often seen the very same expression of horror on her face in the mirror. At the time, she had felt as though she did not belong in this world.

She subconsciously took Song Jinning's hand and squeezed it, before turning to look at Huo Jialan. She asked gently: "Sister Lan, what kind of illness does Mrs. Huo have? She doesn't seem to have a fever."

In Gu Nianzhi's dictionary, "illness" was defined as "having a fever"...

Huo Jialan stared at Gu Nianzhi, speechless. After a moment, she finally shook her head and said, "She doesn't have a fever, but she's sick. No question about it."

"Really?" Gu Nianzhi was even more sympathetic towards Song Jinning now. "What's wrong with her?"

"...I'm not sick." Song Jinning muttered resentfully, just then. "I am not sick." She looked as Gu Nianzhi as she emphasized her words, the tears in her eyes already clinging to her lashes. It was clear that she sincerely believed what she was saying.

"Okay, I believe you," said Gu Nianzhi as she squeezed her hand again. It occurred to Gu Nianzhi that the woman was probably sick, but did not know it; it would explain why everyone else in the dining room had remained silent the entire time. Still, the woman looked healthy enough, and Gu Nianzhi could not think of any disease she could possibly be suffering from.

Song Jinning spoke clearly and articulately. She recognized her surroundings, and was able to carry a conversation. She could not possibly be suffering from a mental disorder.

Gu Nianzhi had been to therapy sessions herself, courtesy of Chen Lie, and had read many books on psychology. She was familiar with the diagnostic criteria for psychiatric disorders.

"You believe me? Really?" Song Jinning had become somewhat agitated. "You really believe me?"

Before Gu Nianzhi could reply, Huo Jialan suddenly asked, "Second Aunt, how old are you this year?"

"18. I'm 18. Why?" Song Jinning looked at Huo Jialan, perplexed. "Why do you keep asking me that?"

Huo Jialan folded her arms as she looked at Gu Nianzhi. She inclined her chin towards Song Jinning as she said, "See that? That's her illness."

"I still don't understand." Gu Nianzhi shook her head calmly. "Can you be more explicit?"

"...My second aunt thinks she's 18. She's been insisting she's 18 for more than a decade now, but she's actually pushing 50." Huo Jialan had not expected Gu Nianzhi to be so stubbornly inquisitive. She frowned as she inwardly chided Gu Nianzhi for being so nosy, but explained Song Jinning's condition to her all the same.

She had been careful to avoid saying the words "mentally ill" here, in front of the other members of the Huo family, to avoid embarrassing Huo Shaoheng. Still, what she had said, coupled with Song Jinning's actions, should be enough to tip Gu Nianzhi off-she couldn't be that obtuse, could she?

Gu Nianzhi was actually thinking of other things: so the woman was almost 50. She had to be Huo Shaoheng's real mother.

Gu Nianzhi smiled lightly as she said to Huo Jialan: "You're joking, right?! If that's supposed to be some kind of disease, then just about every woman alive must be mentally ill, by your definition!"

"...What do you mean?" It was Huo Jialan's turn to be confused. She had practically spelled it out-why was this girl so hopelessly slow on the uptake?

The Huo family had kept Song Jinning carefully hidden away all these years. They had hired personal caretakers just for her, all because they did not want her to go out in public and embarrass the rest of the family...

"Don't you get it?" Gu Nianzhi pulled Song Jinning's hand out of Huo Jialan's grasp. She said cheerfully, "Most women believe they're forever 18. They may not say it out loud, but they all believe it, deep down."

Gu Nianzhi held Song Jinning's hand as she smiled at her. "I'm just like you-I hope I'll always be 18, and not a day older. Don't worry, I'm just as sick as you are."

Song Jinning's uneasy expression vanished, but it was immediately replaced by a look of pained suffering. "Really? You're 18, too? That's great! I've been saying it, over and over, every single day, but nobody ever believes me. They all say I'm sick!" Her eyes reddened.

"Of course I believe you. We live in Forever 18 Land, but they don't, so they'll never understand. But who cares, really? We don't need their approval. We are what we say we are. If you say you're 18, you're 18, period. Anyone who doesn't believe us can go to hell, for all I care!"

Song Jinning listened to Gu Nianzhi, beside herself with joy. She clasped Gu Nianzhi's hand. "Oh, they don't have to go to hell... It doesn't matter if they don't believe me, I don't want to send them to hell... I'm happy as long as I have someone who believes me."

"I believe you, 100%." Gu Nianzhi led Song Jinning to the dining table. "All right, let's have dinner. The next time someone says you're sick, let me know-I'll teach 'em a lesson they won't forget!" As she said that, she smiled pointedly at Huo Jialan.

Huo Jialan shook her head as she smiled wryly in return. She walked over to Huo Guanchen and his father and said, frustrated: "Grandfather, Second Uncle, you all saw what happened-what should we do now? Second Aunt's condition has never showed any signs of improving, after all these years, and now we have someone actively encouraging her in her delusions and acting all crazy with her. What if her condition worsens?"

"I'm not crazy! I'm not insane!" Song Jinning suddenly held her head in her hands and began yelling, as though triggered by the word "crazy" from Huo Jialan.

Gu Nianzhi quickly soothed her. "Shhhh, it's okay, you're not crazy. You're not."

Song Jinning threw herself into Gu Nianzhi's arms, trembling.

"Sister Lan, don't say that. I honestly don't think being forever 18 counts as some kind of mental illness." Gu Nianzhi gave Huo Jialan a disapproving Look, before quickly changing the topic. "Sister Lan, we should start serving dinner, I'm sure everyone's hungry. What are we having tonight?"

Gu Nianzhi seated herself next to Huo Shaoheng. She gave the chair on her other side to Song Jinning.

Zhang Wenna sat next to Song Jinning. She watched Gu Nianzhi humor Song Jinning with great interest, before throwing her own parents a significant look.

The corners of Huo Jialan's mouth twitched-she had not expected this young girl to make herself at home so quickly. But Huo Jialan did not take offense; she immediately walked over to the kitchen to instruct the attendants to start serving dinner. As she passed by Huo Shaoheng, she whispered to him: "Cousin Brother, shouldn't you... tighten the reins on Miss Gu?"

Huo Shaoheng had been watching Gu Nianzhi with a thoughtful expression on his face. He heard Huo Jialan, and raised his hand in objection. "That won't be necessary. Let's eat."

Gu Nianzhi gently patted Song Jinning on the back as she talked to her in a gentle, subdued voice. Song Jinning slowly relaxed. She sat up straight, smiled at Gu Nianzhi, and asked: "What do you like to eat? I know how to cook, I'll cook for you tomorrow, if you like?"

Gu Nianzhi quickly nodded. "I'd love to try your cooking tomorrow, Mrs. Huo."

A faint blush crept over Song Jinning's face. Her eyes darted over to Huo Guanchen, who was sitting opposite her, as she leaned over and whispered in Gu Nianzhi's ear: "...I haven't married, so I'm not Mrs. Huo, not yet." She paused, before saying shyly, "But I'm very happy to hear you call me Mrs. Huo."

Her fair cheeks were flushed, and her eyes shimmered with delight. She looked exactly like a young girl who had just fallen in love for the first time.

Gu Nianzhi stared at Song Jinning's flawless skin. She recalled what Huo Jialan had said: Song Jinning was almost 50. She asked enviously: "Mrs. Huo, your skin is perfect. What's your skin care routine? I'd love to know."

Song Jinning was more than happy to talk about her skin care routine. She launched into a lengthy explanation on the do's and don'ts of skin care. When she was done, she asked Gu Nianzhi what brands she wore, and where she shopped for her clothes.

Gu Nianzhi chatted enthusiastically about clothes, shoes and bags with Song Jinning. She suddenly realized that the two of them had a lot in common =_=.

Gu Nianzhi had never been to the Huo family house before this; she did not know that this was the first time in more than a decade that Song Jinning had been so talkative. Song Jinning sounded and acted like her old, normal self.

Both Huo Guanchen and his father were stunned to see this. They watched the two women with conflicted expressions, before turning to look at Huo Shaoheng.