Shortly after the man in the Mao suit left the room, the woman in the skirt suit stood up as well. Zhou Qin watched her movements: closed laptop lid; gathered sheets of paper; slid her notepad into the folder on the desk; picked up the laptop and the folder.
The clicking of heels sounded for a few seconds before it stopped.
The woman was standing at the door, and she was looking right at Zhou Qin.
The two women stared at each other across the ill-lit room. Through the gloom, Zhou Qin could detect the confusion clouding the woman's eyes.
The woman was baffled, and Zhou Qin wouldn't blame her.
Indeed, Zhou Qin's refusal to cooperate with the He family would seem outright nonsensical to that woman—or to anyone looking in from the outside for that matter. Why endure this torturous ordeal when she could just take the easy way out and agree to testify against Li Yundong? What did she stand to gain by going up against the entire He family on her own?
Why was she putting herself through all of this?
Well. Not for justice, that's for sure. Zhou Qin had been around the system long enough to know that justice doesn't exist in this world.
Beauty? Goodness? Righteousness? Evil? Justice? None of those things are real. The only two real things in this world are: profit and self-interest.
The world is driven by profit and self-interest. Zhou Qin had understood that cold and harsh reality from a young age.
Then again, she might not truly believe it that after all. Otherwise, she wouldn't be putting herself through this.
My friends... I'm doing this for my friends...
Lies. She was doing this for something that she yearned for, something that she'd been denied since the day she was born: love.
She was doing this for Li Yundong. And Su Chan. Her friends. Stop lying to yourself, Zhou Qin…
No. She wasn't lying. Li Yundong was technically her friend too. It wasn't all about love. Or was it?
She didn't even know anymore.
She was so confused.
The door creaked open. She heard the clicking of the woman's heels again. CLICK! CLICK! CLICK! She focused on that rhythmic sound until the door closed with a sharp click.
Zhou Qin leaned back against her chair but kept her expression neutral and her back ramrod straight. This room was monitored, and she didn't want to give the impression of being relieved that the interview was over. She didn't want to show any signs of weakness.
She wouldn't give those bastards the satisfaction.
Don't let them win, Zhou Qin. Don't let them win... You're strong... You're strong...
Admittedly, the He family had played their cards well. They had brought her here to threaten her, hoping that she would break after enough coercion, that she would finally agree to testify in court against Li Yundong after she was subjected to enough torture. When she had blatantly refused to cooperate during the first day of her confinement, they immediately took things to the next level: they started digging up dirt on the Zhou family; and all of a sudden, both her father and uncle were removed from their positions of power due to "corruption charges."
It was the end of the Zhou family as she knew it.
The Zhou family was burnt to ashes, and she was the one who lit the match.
Not that she hadn't foreseen such an eventuality ages ago. Anyone who had been around the system long enough would have some dirt on them. It was just a matter of time before certain parties found the reason to dig them all up. For her family, that time was two days ago, when she had told the He family to shove their threats to a place where the sun doesn't shine.
In a blink of an eye, Zhou Qin was stripped of everything. Gone was Zhou Qin, the glorious and proud phoenix; now she was just some nameless chicken on the way to an abattoir.
She was now a criminal.
As horrible as all this was, Zhou Qin knew that the worst had yet to come. The He family would soon use her family's downfall as extra ammunition against her. They would no doubt approach her with a deal: "agree to testify, and you'll have your old life back again."
It was the oldest tactic in the book.
Right now, they were just waiting for her to crack and then approach her with the deal when she did. Which was why she couldn't afford to show any signs of weakness; those bastards would swoop in like vultures the moment they saw an opportunity to break her.
She had to be cool and composed. She had to be Zhou Qin, the Ice Queen.
Fool. How long do you think you're gonna last? You're gonna break eventually. Who's going to come save you then?
Li Yundong? Would Li Yundong come for her?
Fool. He won't come for you. He doesn't love you...
"Is all this worth it, Zhou Qin?" Zhou Qin whispered into the darkness. "Is it worth it?"
She remembered that day when she had called Yin Mengfan to recommend Li Yundong to Dongsheng Realtors. He had needed a job back then, so she had taken it upon herself to help him out. She remembered staring at her own reflection in the mirror after her call with Yin Mengfan ended. She remembered telling herself these exact words: "Oh, Zhou Qin. You're in for a world of trouble if you fall for him, a man who is clearly in love with someone else."
What she failed to realize then was that her own warning had come too late: she had already fallen for him even back then.
A world of trouble was definitely apt considering her current situation. Now she had nothing left. Her family was destroyed, and she was being incarcerated like some lowly criminal.
Yet her feelings remained unrequited.
Was everything worth it?
No, it isn't, Zhou Qin. None of this is worth it. Just agree to testify. Save yourself…
Indeed. She should just save herself. That would be the most logical thing to do. Li Yundong could take care of himself. He had superhuman powers. Plus, he still had Zi Yuan or that other girl (whoever she was) to protect him. She should end this fruitless crusade.
What would be the point?
Li Yundong would never notice her anyway...
Stop it, Zhou Qin! You're not just doing this for him. You're doing this for your friends! The first two real friends you have in your whole life!
Really Zhou Qin? Was she really willing to besmirch her character by bending to the He family's will? Would she really stoop that low? And all for what? So that she could go back to live the life of a queen?
That would be so cowardly and despicable. Just like He Shao. She would be no different from He Shao if she went through with this deal.
Li Yundong's face appeared before her eyes once again. Was she hallucinating? She wouldn't be surprised if she was. She hadn't eaten anything in three days. The low blood sugar must be messing with her head.
Stop thinking about him, you fool. He doesn't love you. He'll never love you.
CLICK! The door creaked open once again.
Zhou Qin raised her gaze slowly. Someone was walking in. She squinted for a moment and allowed her eyes to adjust to the lamp.
Seconds later, she laughed derisively. "What are you doing here? I thought you were indefinitely suspended and put under investigation. In fact, I was pretty confident that you'd be given a nice little cell of your own, just like this one."
Zhou Qin didn't really need to ask why her father was here; she already knew why he was here. She just wanted to taunt and mock the high-and-mighty Zhou Keqiang a little.
Her taunt seemed to have found its mark as it made her father pause a few feet away from the desk. It gave Zhou Qin the opportunity to study her father's appearance. Like usual, he was immaculately dressed in a black suit. Other than the exhaustion in his eyes, he didn't look like someone who'd been fending off a barrage of corruption charges.
Her father was staring right back at her.
The staring match ended seconds later with a resigned chuckle from her father. He approached the desk and sat down in the chair opposite hers.
"They sent me here to redeem myself." Her father chuckled again. "I'm sure you understand what that means."
Of course Zhou Qin understood. She was used to these political games by now. Somehow, being reminded of those things angered her even further. The anger fueled her resolve, giving her a surge of strength, chasing away some of the hunger and exhaustion that she'd been feeling for days.
She was sick of tired of these games. She didn't want that kind of life anymore. She wanted out.
She wanted to break free.
And if the price of her freedom was death, then so be it.
"I can understand it if it's them," Zhou Qin sneered, jerking her chin at the door. "They don't know anything about me after all." Zhou Qin laughed darkly. "But you? I'm surprise to even see you trying. I'm sure you know me well enough to know how futile it is to try to change my mind."
Zhou Keqiang sighed heavily. "Qinqin... Do you really have to use that tone with me every time? Whether you like it or not, I'm still your father."
A father who was willing to sell his own daughter to a lowlife for his own personal gains. Perhaps she should start poking voodoo dolls on Father's Day.
Zhou Qin snorted and averted her gaze.
There was a noise, a rustling sound, like Zhou Keqiang was shifting in his seat. Seconds later, she heard something else: like a packet being opened.
When she stole a glance, she noticed the cigarette clamped between her father's lips.
"Do you mind if I have a smoke?" he asked.
Zhou Qin froze and stared at Zhou Keqiang for a moment. All of a sudden, she burst into laughter.
Zhou Keqiang frowned.
"Oh, dear me! My, my, my!" Zhou Qin said, then feigned a look of surprise. She honestly hadn't felt so energetic since she was brought here. "Since when do you give a damn about my opinions, Zhou Keqiang?" Zhou Qin laughed again, making no attempts at all to hide the derision in her voice this time. "Never thought I'd live to see the day where Zhou Keqiang starts taking other people's opinions into consideration." Zhou Qin gave her father a mocking look. "Well, well, well. Looks like you're already mentally prepared to lead a normal civilian life. Good for you then."
Zhou Keqiang's face twitched. Zhou Qin could tell that she had managed to get under his skin, which brought her a small amount of satisfaction.
A moment later, Zhou Keqiang sighed. "Qinqin... Don't you think you should rein in yourself a little? Don't you think you've gone too far this time?"
Zhou Qin met his stare defiantly.
"Forget that I was dragged into your mess," Zhou Keqiang said. He sighed and shook his head. "But your uncle? You plan to bring him down as well? Is that your intention? To see our family fall apart?"
"Oh, my fellow Zhou Keqiang," Zhou Qin sneered. "Isn't this what you signed up for, hmm? You chose this life the moment you took office." She laughed darkly. "We both know it's just a matter of time before something like this happens." She paused and arched a brow at her father. "Besides... Would you have fallen this hard if you did everything right and had a clean record?"
"You!" Zhou Keqiang stood up angrily.
"Me? What about me?" Zhou Qin met her father's gaze unwaveringly. "You're not going to deny the truth of what I just said, are you?"
Zhou Keqiang took a deep breath, then exhaled. "Qinqin, you're a grown woman now. You need to think carefully before you speak and act! This obsession of yours will lead to your downfall!" Zhou Keqiang wagged his finger in front of her face. "Don't you understand what's at stake here, Qinqin? Your days of living a luxurious life will be over! Don't you know that?" Zhou Keqiang paused to take another deep breath. "You're going to fall, Qinqin. And you're going to fall hard. You'll go from being a prominent princess to being an insignificant nobody! A nobody. Do you understand that? A nobody who's buried under a pile of mud! Your life and future will be over!"
Zhou Qin smirked.
My future has been over ever since you sold me to He Shao.
"Oh, you don't have to worry about that," Zhou Qin sneered. "I couldn't care less about living a life of luxury." She raised her chin defiantly. "I have my own hands and feet. I can make a living for myself!"
SMACK! The lamp shook when Zhou Keqiang slammed his fist onto the tabletop.
"Are you out of your damn mind, Zhou Qin?!" he yelled. "Do you even know what you're saying?! What on earth possessed you to act like this? Is it because of that boy, Li Yundong?"
"Don't call him a boy!" Zhou Qin snapped. "I assure you that he's more of a man than most men out there in the world!"
"But is he worth it, Qinqin?" Zhou Keqiang said tiredly. "Is that man worth tearing your family apart for?"
Zhou Qin sneered. Family? What family? What they had didn't count as family at all. A bunch of pawns and tools, maybe. But definitely not family.
"Open your eyes, Qinqin... I did some digging, okay? Had a PI follow him around. He doesn't have feelings for you. He really doesn't. Do you still think that all of this is worth it?"
Zhou Qin raised her chin. "Yes."
"Oh, come on!" Her father's face twisted in anger. "Can't you see how pointless this is?" he snapped. "Here you are, throwing your life and future away for him! And where is he, huh? Where the hell is he? Does he even know what you're going through right now? Does he even care?" There was a pause. "And even if he knew, would he be touched? Wait… Is that your grand plan? To make him feel indebted to you?" Her father was heaving and panting now. "Do you actually think he'll start developing feelings for you after seeing you risk everything for him? Don't be a fool, Qinqin. He's in love with someone else! You know how that works! He'll never look your way! Never!"
Those words were like a spear piercing right through her heart. And it hurt. It hurt so damn much that she had to bite her lip to stifle a gasp.
All of a sudden, Su Chan's words from the night He Shao died came flooding into her mind.
I'm not going anywhere!!!
No, no, no!!! I'm staying! I'm staying! I'm not going anywhere!
Yundong... Please don't make me leave... I can't live without you... I can't!
Tears stung Zhou Qin's eyes, and she struggled to hold them back.
...I don't want anyone else dammit! I want my Yundong!!!
Just let me die with you... Let's die together, Yundong...
...life would be meaningless without you!
Can't you see? If you die, I'd just kill myself anyway... Since we're both going to die anyway, why not spend our final moments together?
Please Yundong... Please don't let me die alone...
Life without you is even more painful than death...
Then, her traitorous mind reminded her of Li Yundong's response to Su Chan's poignant declarations: "I want you to always, always remember something....... To me, in my eyes, you are the kindest, the cutest, the prettiest, and the most adorable girl to ever live..."
Zhou Qin had nearly been moved to tears then, and she was on the verge of tears now. Her heart felt as though it had been ripped asunder.
Zhou Qin lowered her gaze to the desk to avoid the cameras.
Don't let them see. Don't let them see…
Ambivalent thoughts filled her mind, like the proverbial shoulder-angel scenario.
Don't be a fool, Zhou Qin... Stop this madness now. Li Yundong will never choose you!
Zhou Qin... Aren't you dying to find out whether he truly cares about you? This is the ultimate test, isn't it? Will he still be your friend once you're stripped of your wealth and status?
She couldn't even tell which one of them was the voice of the Angel and which was the Devil.
Then, another thought hit her.
Why does it have to be about him? Why not make it about me? Why not fight for myself? Fight for my own freedom?
Wasn't this what she wanted all along? The freedom to make her own choices and dictate the direction of her own life?
At that moment, she felt as though she was seeing a sliver of light from the heavens, one that pierced through the sea of hopelessness she'd been feeling ever since she was dragged here three days ago.
Zhou Qin took a deep breath as though she was about to take a plunge.
She was about to take a plunge; what she was about to say would change everything.
"Father," Zhou Qin said, then paused to look at Zhou Keqiang. It still felt weird and awkward to call him that even after all these years. But she figured why not, since this might be the last time she would ever call him that.
Zhou Keqiang was looking at her questioningly.
Zhou Qin sighed. "Do you remember that painting I drew that night after my birthday party?"
Zhou Keqiang froze for a moment. Then, something flickered inside his eyes. "Of course I remember," he said. "It was a butterfly."
Zhou Qin smiled wanly. "And do you remember what I told you about the butterfly that night, father?"
Zhou Keqiang frowned. "You ripped it apart, and then you said—"
"I said no matter how vivid or lifelike the butterfly is, it'll never be able to fly off the surface of the canvas."
Zhou Qin didn't want to be that butterfly anymore.
She wanted to achieve the impossible.
She wanted to break free.
Zhou Keqiang's frown deepened. "So?"
Zhou Qin chuckled sadly. Seriously, Zhou Qin? Why did you even bother?
The lack of food must've really done a number on her brain if she expected him to understand.
"It's nothing," Zhou Qin said. "I don't expect you to understand anyway."
Zhou Qin chuckled wryly. "Besides, I don't think you've ever understood it."
He'd never understood it because he never had someone in his life that he truly cared for.
"What are you even talking about, Qinqin?"
Zhou Qin shook her head. "Like I said, it's nothing." She paused and shot Zhou Keqiang a look of determination. "My mind's already made up. I won't testify no matter what anyone says."
"You can think of it as me being stubborn or obstinate or whatever," Zhou Qin said dismissively. "Like I said, I don't expect you to understand."
"Qinqin..." Zhou Keqiang said warningly. "I suggest you think twice—"
"From now on, I'm no longer your daughter," Zhou Qin said coldly. "I'm sick and tired of being trapped inside a cage. I want to make my own choices for once."
Zhou Keqiang stared at her in shock.
"Are you out of your mind?!" Zhou Keqiang screamed. "You're making a huge mistake!"
"Am I?" Zhou Qin smiled wryly. "Am I really?"
"You'll regret this!"
No she wouldn't. If death was the only way towards freedom, then she would rather choose death.
Zhou Qin smiled. "Whether I regret it or not is my own business, not yours. Like I said, I'm no longer your daughter." Zhou Qin glanced at Zhou Keqiang. "Everyone has only one life. And everyone has to choose their own path in life. This is my choice. I won't regret it." She pointed at the door. "See yourself out."