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225 Ultimatum

 Huo Shaoheng walked over nonchalantly. It was impossible to tell what was going through his mind.

Huo Guanchen narrowed his eyes as he silently appraised his son. He grudgingly conceded that Huo Shaoheng had mastered the perfect poker face at the young age of 28; even his own father could not tell what he was thinking.

"General Huo." Huo Shaoheng was still in his military uniform. He walked over to Huo Guanchen, snapped his heels together, and raised his hand in a proper military salute.

Huo Guanchen nodded. He sat on a sofa, before pointing to the sofa opposite him. "Have a seat." He behaved as though he owned the place.

Huo Shaoheng sat down without saying anything. His sat like a true soldier, upright and alert, but his face was as placid as a calm lake.

"What brings you here at this hour, General Huo?" Huo Shaoheng gestured to his men. "Bring us some tea."

One of the orderlies appeared with cups of tea for both Huo Guanchen and Huo Shaoheng. He placed them on the coffee table between them.

Huo Guanchen wasn't in the mood for tea, but he lifted his teacup and drank out of courtesy anyway.

He gave Huo Shaoheng a sharp look as he gestured for the orderlies to leave them alone.

Father and son sat in the large living room, sipping their tea.

"I heard that you refused your Aunt Bai's request to take your mother home." Huo Guanchen's expression and voice were solemn. "Are you done with your childish tantrum? Your mother is sick. Why are you doing this to her? You're a grown man, you should know better."

"My mother can handle the stress. She lived for 16 years under your care, after all," Huo Shaoheng said sardonically. He had inherited his handsome features from Song Jinning, while his strong cheekbones and jawline had come from Huo Guanchen.

"Watch your tongue!" Huo Guanchen slammed his teacup onto the coffee table. "Are you aware that you've violated both the civil and military law?! Do you really want to go up against the Bai family?!"

Huo Shaoheng gave a non-committal grunt in reply. His face remained impassive as he said leisurely, "The Bai family? What about them? They're way beneath me. You may be afraid of them, Father, but I'm not."

"You-!" Huo Guanchen jumped to his feet, trembling all over with rage. He jabbed a finger at Huo Shaoheng and shouted, "Of course you're not afraid-you don't know the extent of the Bai family's influence! There's a Bai in every department! If they decide to get rid of you, you'll be celebrating the next New Year in prison!"

Huo Shaoheng slowly set his teacup down. He did not stand up. He placed his hands on his knees, his back ramrod straight, and looked up into Huo Guanchen's face. "Father, you've been groveling on your knees for too long. Do you even remember what it's like to stand on your feet and be a man? Why are you afraid of the Bai family? They should be the ones trembling in their boots right now, not us."

This was why the Bai family were falling over themselves in their bid to keep Song Jinning within their clutches-she was their final hope.

Huo Guanchen was usually a gentleman who knew how to keep his composure, but Huo Shaoheng's provocation was too much for him. He snarled, "How dare you talk to me that way?! I'll have you court-martialed!"

"...If you're court-martialing me just because I was talking to you as your son, then so be it. From now on, I won't call you 'Father' anymore, only 'General Huo.'" Huo Shaoheng had deftly lured Huo Guanchen into his trap.

Huo Guanchen stared. It took him a moment to realize that Huo Shaoheng had called him "Father," and not "General Huo" when he had been talking about groveling on his knees.

When Huo Shaoheng addressed him as "Father," he was talking to him as his son.

When Huo Shaoheng addressed him as "General Huo," he was talking to him as his subordinate.

There was a fundamental difference between the two.

Huo Guanchen flushed slightly. Luckily for him, his skin was a dark beige; no one could tell the blood had rushed to his cheeks.

"Well, since we're father and son, I won't hold it against you, of course." Huo Guanchen waved his hand magnanimously. "But you should hand over your mother. I'll take her home, myself. That should be good enough for you. Your Aunt Bai means well. Your mother is getting better-why delay her treatment just to spite your Aunt Bai?"

"I didn't do it to spite anyone," Huo Shaoheng said calmly. He took a sip of his tea. "I haven't been home in six years. I had to get special permission from General Ji just to go home for the New Year holidays and spend time with my mother. Father, are you telling me I'm not allowed to spend time with my own mother? Is my mother not my family, but a prisoner?"

Huo Guanchen was left speechless by his son's questions.

He stared at Huo Shaoheng, confounded. His son had grown from a taciturn young man to a stoic, no-nonsense major general in the last six years.

He had achieved the rank of major general at 28, breaking his uncle's-Huo Guanyuan's-record.

Huo Guanchen was proud of his son. At the same time, he did not like his son telling him what to do. He was silent for a moment, before saying in a conciliatory tone, "How about this, then: both you and your mother will return to the family home and stay there. That way, your Aunt Bai will have nothing to complain about."

"My mother has no sisters," Huo Shaoheng said with a smile, "and Director Bai hasn't tied the knot with you yet, Father. Stop calling her 'Aunt Bai,' it's ridiculous. Everyone must be laughing behind our backs."

"Okay, that's enough." Huo Guanchen did not want to talk about it. "So are you saying you won't hand over your mother, no matter what? Are you aware of the consequences?"

"What consequences?"

"Tomorrow, the military and the Ministry of Science and Technology will probably send someone to take her from you." Huo Guanchen's finger tapped on the coffee table. "What are you going to say to them? You can't just turn them away."

"Like I said, my mother isn't a prisoner. She's my mother, which makes her the mother of a military man. They have no right to take her from me. When my break is over, I'll take her home myself. Father, did you come here at this hour just to tear my mother away from me?" Huo Shaoheng was a lot less confrontational now. He knew he had won the argument.

He needed a week. The following week was crucial for Song Jinning's recovery; he wasn't about to let anyone take her away, not even his own father.

"Really? Once your break is over you'll return your mother to the family home?" Huo Guanchen was skeptical. "This isn't another trick, is it? Shaoheng, I'm warning you, your future is at stake here. Don't ruin it."

"Why would I trick you?" Huo Shaoheng crossed his arms and leaned backwards into the sofa. He stretched his long legs, no longer as tense and uptight as he had been a moment ago. "I always mean what I say."

"Okay." Huo Guanchen looked at him thoughtfully. Suddenly, he said, "They said you'd do this. If that's how you want to play, well, you leave me no choice."

The sudden change in his tone of voice was disconcerting.

Huo Shaoheng immediately tensed. "What do you mean, Father?"

"Oh, nothing. It's entirely understandable for you to want to spend time with your mother. Even if the Bais throw a tantrum with the military bigwigs, I doubt anyone would take them seriously." Huo Guanchen let out a sigh. He eyed Huo Shaoheng. "But..." He abruptly changed the subject, and shot a glance towards the stairs. "What about the young lady you brought home with you?"

"Young lady?" Alarm bells went off in Huo Shaoheng's head. A vague feeling of uneasiness crept into his heart.

"I'm talking about Gu Nianzhi, of course." Huo Guanchen smiled at Huo Shaoheng, but was surprised to see that his son appeared to be entirely unaffected. Huo Guanchen wondered whether Huo Jialan had jumped to conclusions: was Gu Nianzhi perhaps not all that important to Huo Shaoheng?

"What's wrong with Nianzhi? She's asleep." Huo Shaoheng rose and adjusted his uniform. "If you have nothing else to discuss, please go home. We'll talk tomorrow."

"Shaoheng, don't try to give me the runaround, it won't work." Huo Guanchen took two steps towards the door. "Gu Nianzhi hasn't gone through the necessary background checks. She needs the highest level of security clearance to stay here, in the Special Ops HQ, and she doesn't have that. She is a security risk, she may accidentally leak confidential information. Deputy Director Liao from the police HQ is waiting outside, beyond the warning line, to take Gu Nianzhi away and put her in solitary confinement.

Huo Shaoheng felt his blood run cold. He suddenly realized what was going on.

They knew they could not take Song Jinning from him, and had therefore come up with an ultimatum to force his hand.

Hand over Song Jinning, or give up Gu Nianzhi.

Huo Shaoheng wondered who had put this idea into Huo Guanchen's and Bai Jinyi's heads; whoever it was evidently understood him. It was a simple tactic, yet frighteningly effective: in one swift stroke, it had exposed the chinks in his armor.

This was now a game of chicken between father and son, a test of composure.

Huo Shaoheng's expression did not change, but the aura around him had turned icy. "...The police HQ? They don't have the authority to take Nianzhi away." Huo Shaoheng nonchalantly brushed his sleeves. "If they want her, they'll have to get a letter of authorization from the Supreme Council of Military Affairs, through General Ji, and also from the Senate, through Chairman Long. I believe our discussion is over. Please leave."