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233 Comparing People 4

 Huo Shaoheng stood alone in his backyard, under a big tree. He took a drag on his cigarette, his expression inscrutable. His tall, strapping silhouette, usually majestic and imposing, now appeared to be shrouded in loneliness.

The tree behind him had already shed all its leaves. Its sturdy branches seemed to claw desperately at the sky.

He had never been one to engage in what he considered to be "pointless gossip." He had made an exception this time and told his mother what his father had been up to, but only because he wanted to get her up to speed and have her back in control of her life as soon as possible.

Song Jinning was missing 16 years' worth of memories. He did not have time to sit around and hope that Song Jinning would be able to regain her memories overnight through some kind of miracle.

He had to inform her of the important issues. The smaller details would have to wait.

He had finished his cigarette and was about to go back in when he heard Zhao Liangze's voice over his earpiece. "Sir, Huo Jialan has been calling repeatedly. Do you want to take her call?"

Huo Shaoheng was about to tell Zhao Liangze to ignore Huo Jialan's calls, but changed his mind at the last second. Now that Song Jinning had recovered from her illness, it was time for Huo Shaoheng to sniff out what Huo Jialan and Bai Jinyi were up to. He said to Zhao Liangze, "I'll take the call."

A few seconds later, Huo Jialan's call was routed to Huo Shaoheng's headset.

"Is that you, Cousin Brother? It's me, Jialan." Huo Jialan sounded nervous. "...How is Mrs. Song? You haven't been taking my calls. Are you still angry with me?"

Huo Shaoheng ignored her questions. He asked coolly, "What do you want? If you called just for idle chit-chat, I'm hanging up."

"No, wait, I have something to ask you!" Huo Jialan said hastily. She sounded meek and respectful now. "Grandfather asked me to ask you whether you'll be home for the New Year party. We've sent out the invitations, and everyone knows you're back for the holidays. If you don't show... well, there will be a lot of gossip."

Huo Shaoheng gave a non-committal grunt in reply, before adding: "...I'll think about it."

Huo Shaoheng's acerbic tone annoyed Huo Jialan; it was a complete 180 from the gentle tone he used with Gu Nianzhi. She resented his attitude towards her, but was too afraid of Huo Shaoheng to yell at him over the phone. On the other hand, she was still angry with Song Jinning, and wanted to get back at her. She thought about it for a moment, and decided it was time to drop the bomb. She said frostily, "Okay. By the way, Aunt Bai and her brother came to our house today to talk to Grandfather and Second Uncle. They've decided to officially announce Aunt Bai and Second Uncle's engagement at the New Year party."

He thought he had mentally prepared himself for it, but Huo Shaoheng was still blindsided by the news. He was silent for a moment, before saying impassively, "Understood." He hung up after that.

He turned, walked up the steps leading to the back door, and went inside.

He made his way to Operating Room B, and saw Gu Nianzhi sitting idly on the sofa beside the door. Huo Shaoheng paused before the door, but did not turn to look at her. He said in a low voice: "Go check on Chen Lie, see what he's doing. You don't have to stay here."

Gu Nianzhi slowly looked up. Her eyes were fixed upon Huo Shaoheng's back as she said softly: "Mrs. Song is sleeping. Do you still want to go in?"

Huo Shaoheng did not reply. He opened the door to Operating Room B, walked in, and closed the door behind him.

Gu Nianzhi sighed softly. She got up and went to look for Chen Lie.

As soon as Huo Shaoheng entered Operating Room B, he flicked the light switch next to the door. The shadowless lamp flickered to life.

Song Jinning reflexively lifted an arm and draped it over her eyes, unaccustomed to the sudden light.

"...You're awake?" Huo Shaoheng sat beside her, smelling faintly of cigarette smoke. His expression had grown even more solemn.

Song Jinning closed her eyes. She waited for her eyes to adjust to the light, before slowly opening them again. She sat up on the operating chair. "I wasn't asleep."

She sighed. "I couldn't sleep. But I didn't feel like talking, either."

"What about now? Do you feel like talking?" Huo Shaoheng considered her for a moment. He said in a gentle voice, "We can talk later, if you're not feeling well."

He did not want to push her too hard.

Song Jinning was moved by his thoughtful gesture. Huo Shaoheng had always taken a no-nonsense approach to most things in life, ever since he was old enough to form his own opinions. It was rare for him to compromise.

"...I'm fine." Song Jinning smiled. "I was just a little surprised."

She had been deeply hurt by the news, but she wasn't about to let her son know that.

"Why are you surprised?" Huo Shaoheng did not understand. "Marriages almost always break apart under the weight of hardship and stress. Father actually waited for six years before divorcing you, I think that's fair enough."

"Is that what you think?" Song Jinning was a little disappointed. "Shaoheng, you're 28 years old, right?"

"Yeah."

"Are you married? Is Gu Nianzhi your wife?" Song Jinning asked hesitantly. Huo Shaoheng was, in her opinion, old enough to be married with children. But Gu Nianzhi was so very young, and did not look like she had children.

Huo Shaoheng's heart skipped a beat. He suddenly felt warm under the collar. He suppressed the urge to take off his jacket.

"Why do you ask?" Huo Shaoheng shot a glance at Song Jinning. "No, I'm not married. Gu Nianzhi is my mission, assigned to me by the military. I used to be her legal guardian."

Song Jinning was now more than just a little disappointed. "Oh. Well, that explains it. You don't understand what it means when two people who love each other decide to tie the knot."

"Divorce is common, nowadays. Two people may be in love today, and then fall out of love tomorrow. It happens." Huo Shaoheng was trying his best to weigh in on the issue in an objective and disinterested manner.

"Why did your father divorce me? I want to know." Song Jinning watched Huo Shaoheng attentively. She took in his every expression and carefully listened to his every word as she tried to gauge his true feelings.

They were mother and son, but a gulf that spanned 16 years lay between them. They had to get to know each other again.

Huo Shaoheng hesitated. He did not know which reason to give: Huo Guanchen's "official" reason for divorce, which was the fact that Song Jinning could no longer carry out her duties as his wife, because of her illness?

Or should he tell her that it was actually because of the love letters Huo Jialan had found and exposed, after her mother committed suicide?

Huo Shaoheng did not know whether his mother, Song Jinning, and his first uncle, Huo Guanyuan, had been in an affair. He preferred not to know. All he wanted was a proper explanation.

Huo Shaoheng fidgeted awkwardly. He should have asked Gu Nianzhi to help him with these embarrassing questions...

Huo Shaoheng thought of Gu Nianzhi, and how she always had a way with words: the girl could put a positive spin on just about anything. The corners of his mouth curved upwards.

Song Jinning knew at once, from the subtle change in his expression, that her son was in love. She was his mother, after all.

But she decided this wasn't the time to interrogate her son. She asked about Huo Guanchen instead: "...Why did Bai Jinyi get together with your father? She's always been in love with your first uncle. Even when your first uncle married and started a family, she refused to give up. Why is she with your father now? What happened to your first uncle?"

Huo Shaoheng was surprised. Then it suddenly dawned on him: Song Jinning probably didn't know what had happened to his first uncle.

"Mother, don't you remember? When the accident happened, First Uncle... lost his life." Huo Shaoheng had been about to say "went missing," but changed his mind and used "lost his life" instead. He did not want to confuse his mother further.

Song Jinning was shocked. "Is that true? He died during the accident?!"

"We think so. We weren't able to find his remains, but I've seen the military report, and the entire laboratory was blown to smithereens. There's no way he could have survived that." Huo Shaoheng suddenly realized what Song Jinning had said. "...Wait, you mean Bai Jinyi was in love with First Uncle?!"