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x

 

Every morning, the birds welcomed the sun like a long lost friend. They would chirp or sing just outside the window, making the happiest of sounds as the new day started. Some of them would try to get in the house in search of the seeds and even the cat food that was in a bowl on the kitchen floor, as long as the grains were small enough for them to swallow.

That morning, however, the windows were still closed while the birds sang among the trees in the backyard, where there was a garden and a very small fountain that worked more like a bath fountain for birds and other animals than anything else. Inside, the curtains in the only bedroom were shut, the room dark despite the bright sunlight without.

A wildcat entered the house through the back door, the smaller pet door swinging a few times after the animal made its way from the kitchen to the bedroom. His legs were short but strong under the long, dense fur that looked like a lynx’s, but his face was smaller and flat. The yellow eyes with specks of orange glowed in the dark room as the cat jumped on the bed and crawled until he was sitting next to the figure who slept on the bed. If he could, he would click his tongue at the sight. But all he did was keep the scowl that had earned him the name Grumpy from one of Chansung’s friends, though in reality he had no name. He didn’t belong to Chansung, but humans seemed to think that was how it worked.

He placed one paw over Chansung’s nose and waited. If the other didn’t wake from the difficulty in breathing, Grumpy would have to try one of his other methods. Sometimes Chansung slept too deep and dreamed too far, so he had to meow loudly, poke at the other’s face with his paws or scratch his chest while walking over him. He never liked doing any of that, but he also couldn’t let the other sleep for too long. There were mornings when he thought Chansung might not come back from dreamland. The longer he slept the more dangerous it got.

That morning, though, Chansung wrinkled his nose and made a noise while turning to the side. The wildcat watched as the other opened his eyes, their color changing until it settled on a dark brown that would turn to honey under the sunlight. Grumpy stared at him and got ready for their routine talk.

“Do I have a task?” Chansung asked, his voice groggy and weak from sleeping till his soul could leave his body. Whenever he woke up like this, it took him some time to adjust and accept the reality of his life in daylight.

Grumpy blinked once, slowly. That was a yes. He also looked just like his name again because Chansung should know about this; he couldn’t forget what he had to do that night.

Chansung rubbed at his face and sighed against his palms. Some of the warmth from his breathing reached the wildcat’s nose, making it twitch. “Okay.” When he looked at the cat again, he was smiling, warm and awake now. “Did you find a pika or did you kill one of the birds again?”

Grumpy purred in response. He’d had his favorite dinner the night before, so he barely spared the birds a glance that morning. Once he found a pika, he didn’t need or want anything else to eat.

“Good. Good boy,” Chansung joked, knowing the wildcat hated to be called that. Grumpy would scratch at the other’s hands or arms in response if he didn’t know this was one of the days when he shouldn’t harm the other. “Will you stay with me today?” Chansung didn’t wait for an answer as he got out of bed and opened all the windows on his way to the kitchen. He was barefoot and almost as quiet as the wildcat who followed him, that in itself being a response to the question.

 

x

 

The pub seemed empty but for the man on the piano, a soft ballad welcoming Chansung into the room. The pianist was focused on the keys, his beautiful voice slowly coming out to match the tune. Chansung’s presence didn’t go unnoticed; the man nodded at him briefly even as his voice rose with emotion and then dropped as the piano took over the music. It stopped abruptly; Chansung knew there was more but he wouldn’t complain. He didn’t like that song. He didn’t like how Minjun seemed to know when he’d come so that he could play it and kindly accuse him of things beyond his control.

“Look who’s up,” Minjun’s breath of a laugh greeted Chansung before the older one came to hug him. Being shorter had never bothered Minjun when it came to showing affection, and he was almost too good at that. He looked at Chansung as if searching for signs that he hadn’t been taking care of himself, but Chansung never tried to conceal the bags under his eyes or the dullness in them. His smile was warm, yes, but that was just on the surface. The real warmth had been taken from him.

“Alive and kicking,” Chansung deadpanned. He raised a hand before Minjun could follow his sigh with a worried remark. “You said you had something to ask. I’m all ears.”

Minjun opened his mouth, nearly gaping for a second before he closed it again and clicked his tongue. “You sound so businesslike... but that’s probably for the best. I did want to talk business.” He gestured for Chansung to sit at the table closest to the piano. They sat opposite each other, on comfortable wooden chairs of crimson cushions. “You need someone to help you at the flower shop.” Minjun didn’t give him a chance to interrupt; he had certainly rehearsed this conversation before Chansung arrived. Maybe before he even called Chansung there. “You can barely take care of yourself. Don’t even get me started on the mess you call a home. That’s not like you. I know it’s been hard. But it’s not just you, okay? I’ve lost a friend and I don’t want to lose another. If you keep going on like this, you’ll lose the store, then the house... I know you’re too proud to accept any offers I make but I’m going to make you one you can’t refuse. Now, listen.”

Chansung didn’t really want to listen past that, but he did. For Minjun’s sake and for his own, lest he started dwelling on what lay behind all of Minjun’s worries. He sighed and told himself to focus on what Minjun was asking of him. An exchange of favors. Minjun was the owner of that pub; he played the piano nearly every night while someone else sang covers, sometimes new compositions, but they were always good stages that made Minjun proud of his place and his clientele loyal. Minjun always treated his guest singers well and equally, so that the ones who became famous would want to come back and the ones who were not would try to get there. Chansung liked that about him. Regardless of their current disagreement on the way Chansung was (not) handling his life, Minjun’s friendship was a cherished one.

Minjun was having trouble with one of his most promising rookies. At least that was how he described her; a sophomore music student who was about to give up because she had too many bills to pay. She had refused to accept Minjun’s offer to have her as a regular singer at the pub. She said she was not ready, and Minjun admired her humbleness. She was not ready, but at the same time, she was talented and it showed when she sang. She took over the stage, confidence in her every step, voice only wavering if she made it so. She would be great if she pursued her dreams and kept dedicating her time to music. And Minjun wanted to make sure she wouldn’t give up.

“She sometimes wears a flower crown when she performs,” Minjun said, his lips curving up as he probably recalled one of the nights she did that. He looked like he was about to say something else, but then he shook his head. “You’ll see for yourself.” He paused, a slight furrow to his brows as he stared at Chansung. “You’re staying till later, right?”

“If you take this long to get to the point, I don’t think I have any other choice--” Chansung had forgotten how quick Minjun would be to remind him who was the oldest and deserved respect. He heard himself laughing though; the flick on his head had been light and he found himself missing this.

Minjun’s face softened as he gazed at him. He nodded in approval. “Her stage name is Hwasa. That’s how she likes to be called all the time, but--” Minjun shook his head. Chansung bit back a question; he sensed the other wouldn’t be able to respond. “She really likes flowers. She has a garden at home and she’s always talking about it.”

“Minjun--”

“Let me just--”

Hyung.” Minjun’s mouth snapped shut. Chansung allowed himself a smile; he hardly ever used that card exactly because it worked. “Okay. I trust you. I guess I can give her a chance.”

Minjun frowned at him for so long, his eyes so piercing that Chansung teased him for the wrinkles that would leave on his handsome face. “Yah!” Minjun scowled at him, but he tried to smooth his features just as quickly. The mixture of worry for Chansung and worry for his own appearance made him look funny for a second. “You’re accepting this too easily. What’s going on?”

Chansung shrugged. He did need someone to help him run the flower shop, so he told Minjun that. It was not a lie, but it wasn’t the true reason why he agreed to it.

 

x

 

The pub was packed full that night, as it usually happened when a special stage was advertised. Minjun didn’t really have to spend money on that, and he usually wouldn’t. His clients helped him by word of mouth and the pub itself warranted the return of the eventual costumer. He was proud of his work; over the years he had earned himself a reputation for offering good drinks, competent waiters and enjoyable music. However, he had wanted that night to be special. He needed one of his mentors to feel just how much her singing could be appreciated. And he needed one of his friends to realize he was still alive-- that there were things to live for, that he was past the moment of survival and it was time to move on.

Besides the usual moments when Minjun played the piano and sang songs asked by the audience, there would be three special performances that night. The first one was his duet with Hyorin, one of the guests that Minjun invited every four or five months. The second one featured him on the piano as one of his dongsaengs from the time he was still in music school sang; Minjun had helped him with singing and piano lessons back then and they had remained friends since. The last one was divided into two parts: the group of four girls that he had been tutoring for the last year would perform one song, followed by a solo. Minjun was looking forward to all of that and how it would affect the people he was worried about lately.

He was heading backstage-- not that the place was that big-- when he spotted Chansung at the bar, talking to Sunwoo, one of the baristas. They were acquaintances from the time Chansung would come to the pub almost every week, accompanied by his wife. Minjun smiled at the sight and didn’t let the last thought wipe it off; he should keep his spirits up if he wanted to raise his friend’s.

“Minjun-nim,” he heard Yongsun’s voice behind him and turned around. She was part of the quartet and she was already wearing the clothes for that performance, and that had Minjun marveling at her for a second or two. Even though her stage name was Solar, everybody at the pub called her princess because she behaved and looked like one, but she had transformed for that night-- she looked mature, a true femme fatale, just like the one she would have to incorporate later, but her face still retained its delicate femininity. He wondered if Hwasa was getting ready or if he could take her to Chansung now. “Hyorin-sshi is waiting for you. Chanshik is already telling customers the presentation will start soon.”

“Thanks, princess,” he winked at her, and she bowed graciously at him. That made Minjun chuckle. “Do you know if Hwasa’s already dressed?”

Yongsun shook her head in a slow negative. “I don’t know what happened but she got nervous. I think it’s because of the solo?” She sounded a little worried but not too much; the girls had been friends for a long time.

Minjun nodded in understanding. Hwasa still had a lot to learn but she was a perfectionist. She wanted the spotlight as long as it meant she could depend on all her confidence to shine. That confidence might have been shaken by her latest doubts and the fact that Minjun still hadn’t given her an answer about the extra job. He would fix the latter after the stages were done with; for now he needed to focus on what was more urgent. “I’ll talk to her. Please tell Hyorin I’ll be there soon.”

She nodded at him. “What do we do if people get impatient?”

“This won’t take long. But if they do, it only means they’re looking forward to our show, and that’s great!” He winked at her as he made his way to the dressing room. It seemed Yongsun stood there for a second before she went off to find Hyorin.

Minjun stopped thinking about that when he knocked at the door and waited. It was Hwasa who opened it for him. She was still in her pair of dark blue jeans and black v-neck, her usual high heels discarded next to the rack where her outfit for that night’s performance was hung. She looked small, not only because she was barefoot but because she had taken off her makeup-- and Minjun was reminded of how young she was, and how young and unsure he himself had once been. Talent and willpower weren’t always enough.

He put an encouraging smile on his face as he sat on the couch next to the dresser, and gestured for her to sit on the chair in front of him. He would have done the opposite if they had more time; Hwasa didn’t need to get comfortable, she needed to listen to him.

“I know I’ve told you this before but I still get stage fright,” Minjun said, his eyes on hers. “Especially when I perform songs I’m not very familiar with.” He paused to let his words sink. The duet he would sing with Hyorin had been composed by the girls for one of their music subjects. It was so good, he wanted to give it a try and also motivate them to keep making more music. He noticed Hwasa’s face was tinged with both pride and bashfulness for letting her feelings get the best of her. “I know it’s the first time you girls are performing Lady Marmalade. Do you think the others are not nervous too? I bet they are. But they have to support their baby,” he joked, and for once Hwasa didn’t protest. “Hey, you don’t need to worry. It’s okay. But I’m waiting for you to give me one of your bright smiles and tell me you’re not giving up.” He tilted his head to the side and looked at her, trying to be as reassuring as possible. He was not upset at all, but he hoped the worry he felt didn’t show on his face.

Hwasa’s lips slowly curled up and she looked aside, to the mirror that divided the dressing table in two. Minjun let her look at herself, and he nodded as the determination settled on her features. Hwasa smiled at him and he could see the gratefulness in her sparkling eyes; she didn’t need to break that uncanny silence to thank him. She could do that by saving her voice for later.

 

x

 

People had stood up to clap for the first two stages. Chansung clapped the first time because it had been a fun song and Minjun deserved it. His partner had a great voice, too. Sunwoo made some remark about how gorgeous she was; Chansung just smiled politely at him and sipped at his dose of whiskey.

He didn’t clap for the second stage because-- he was holding on tight to the glass, so tight he was afraid he might break it. It happened sometimes, when he thought of Fei-- the memories would take hold of him and they caused accidents. He lost control of his strength unless he had a target that would work on driving the rage out of him.

He hoped Wooyoung wouldn’t notice the fact that he was not looking at the stage while he sang On and on and on. They were not friends but he was a friend of Minjun’s, and that was enough for Chansung to feel bad that he could not appreciate the dramatic piano piece that Minjun played skillfully, nor Wooyoung’s soft voice giving emotion to the lyrics. It was different from the song Minjun had been playing that afternoon. That one reminded Chansung of his current situation; this one was-- this one was about him and his deceased wife, but it was not a happy one. Fei had asked Minjun to play that a number of times before-- before she could not ask for anything else anymore. Chansung shook his head and downed the remaining of his whisky in one go.

“How about another one?” Sunwoo asked him, but it was too soon. Chansung shook his head; he had no intention to drink more than that one glass that night. He shouldn’t. He had just wanted to feel the burning in his throat so that the burning in his eyes would go away.

He breathed in, breathed out. Okay. He had a task to do later. That would help him get back to normal, and after that he could rest. Sleep. Dream.

“What’s the next song?” he asked Sunwoo, who seemed eager to talk. Most people were sitting at the tables that filled the round floor between the bar and the stage, and there were enough waiters to serve them. There was another bartender working with Sunwoo but Chansung didn’t know that one.

Lady Marmalade,” Sunwoo said, his voice suggestive. Chansung ignored that tone and decided to go to the bathroom; Minjun had said Hwasa would sing a specific part of the song so he still had some time before he got to know who she was.

He washed his face and paid attention to his eyes when he looked at the mirror. Dark brown. No specks of other colors that the human eye could see. The scars on his forehead, close to the hairline, were too faint to be noticed in the dim lights of the pub, and his fringe covered most of it anyway.

The rap part of Lady Marmalade had just ended and a strong voice came from behind the curtains at the back of the stage when Chansung took his place at the bar again. He considered ordering a glass of water but he was distracted by the opening of the curtains followed by the purple-clad figure whose voice seemed to be holding the audience still. Her short blond hair was adorned with a small flower crown that contrasted with her outfit-- the tight corset that both covered and revealed the curves of her body, the patterned stockings hugging her generous thighs. She was innocence and wildness combined. The spot on her left cheek was as provocative as her smile was adorable; her voice was as powerful as her youth was fragile. She reminded Chansung of-- a life he had lost. A first meeting. The first time he heard a song other than the wind and fell in love with whom the voice belonged to.

That had been a lifetime ago. But the scars were still recent. The pain was unforgettable. Yet a broken heart was an open one, especially to what could move it. And Chansung, while human, still had to learn about that.

 

x

 

The streets were still crowded when Hwasa walked out of the pub that night. Some would call it early morning and the thought had her laughing; she was still energized and electric. She hadn’t even drunk that much, but the relief brought by the latest news had her smiling like-- the realization made her pause-- she hadn’t felt like this in a while now.

“Oy, bright girl. What’s that look for?” Moonbyul circled her shoulders and pulled her along so that they wouldn’t stay far from the rest of the group. She winked at Yongsun to let her know everything was okay so that the former would just keep walking with Wheein at the front while the other two were at the back. “Thinking about that dude that Minjun-sshi introduced you to earlier?”

Hwasa shoved her friend away and stared at her, but they were both soon laughing and hugging each other again. “He is cute, isn’t he?” she played along, if only to divert her friend. She wouldn’t talk about her future new boss like that in another situation. Probably. But she was happy, elated after performing with her friends and succeeding in doing it on her own. Best For Last, indeed. That meant her guard was down for now.

“Oh? Did I hear that clearly?” Hwasa damned herself as Wheein stopped walking to cling to her from the other side. “Is our lioness finally professing her interest for a male of our species?”

“He’s no lion. He looked more like-- a harmless pup?” Moonbyul looked at Hwasa while she said that, surely to see if Hwasa would argue. The latter decided not to answer, which was unlike her. If she had said anything the others would turn it against her just for humor, but when Hwasa was quiet things became suspicious.

Damn.

“Hate to spoil the mood, girls, but I think we ought to speed up.” Yongsun clung to Moonbyul’s free arm as she said that, the four of them forming a line that took up the whole sidewalk. Her voice had been subdued and Hwasa felt a chill down her spine that sobered her up like no amount of coffee would do.

“What--”

Deer.

They all fell silent as Yongsun whispered that. Hwasa felt Wheein squeezing her hand; one look at her other side and Moonbyul’s face confirmed her fears. The use of their code-word for danger had not been a mishearing, much less a mistake.

They were being followed.

 

x

 

“Wasn’t there a task?”

There is.

“She was able to protect herself.”

You’re not done yet.

 

x

 

Hwasa looked up at the placard to make sure she was at the right place. The Garden Fairy looked empty from her spot on the sidewalk, no light except for the rays of sun filtering in through the curtainless shop window. There were no plants on display there or on the floor next to the door, unlike most flower shops she had been to. There was no bell either, so she knocked at the door and waited.

She thought she heard a meow, but nothing else. A slight frown was cast on her features as she peeked through the window. She saw no one, even though she knocked again in case she hadn't been heard the first time.

She almost screamed when a cat jumped at the shop window to stand on the wooden surface where the flowers should be. It seemed to be staring straight at her, and its gaze was unsettling. The tip of its tail was hooked; the pose was not threatening but the face was. It didn’t look like a domestic cat at all, what with those yellow eyes and that thick, colorful fur that might have suited some big, ferocious feline. As if reading her mind, the cat mewled, the whiskers moving as if it could twist its nose. But the cat turned around and jumped off her sight, disappearing somewhere. Hwasa stood there, chuckling at what had just happened, a late reaction to her own initial fright and that amusing little beast.

She didn’t understand why the store was empty. Chansung had told her she could start work that afternoon, but the store looked as if it had been not only closed but abandoned. She looked down at the paper bag she had carefully prepared that morning, her forehead creasing again. A few days ago, when Minjun first tried talking to her about this job offer, she had tried to contain her excitement. Maybe she wouldn’t get the job. And if she did, maybe she wouldn’t like doing it, in which case she would let it go and try something else. If she was going to spend the time she needed to study music on something else, even though that would allow her to pay for those studies, it should be something she enjoyed. And Hwasa loved flowers.

She heard a noise and looked up to see the door opening to the inside, accompanied by the soft bell of a wind chime that hung just at the entrance. Hwasa found herself staring at the glassy drops of purple and emerald, crafted together in a weave of smaller, transparent beads. Her gaze was diverted by soft footsteps on the wooden floor and the sight of Chansung in what seemed to be the clothes he had slept on. She felt her cheeks warming up but she didn’t look away, she just bowed at him in greeting.

“I’m sorry I look like this,” Chansung said, and he did sound apologetic, his voice sleepy. “I thought you were not coming--” he seemed to regret saying that, but Hwasa couldn’t be sure. He stepped aside to welcome her into the shop and left the door open as he waited for her to take in the sight that puzzled her even more.

The tabletops where flowers, bouquets, seedings and ornaments used to be displayed were empty. The shelves against one of the walls had vases of different shapes and sizes and there were bags of garden soil and other flower supplies on display. The pictures and paintings of flowers behind the counter that was probably for the cashier were beautiful, colorful and lively, but they did not make up for the absence of what was real. The lack of breathing, living plants made her feel almost as empty as the shop looked.

“We-- The shop’s been closed for a while...” Hwasa was still staring at the pictures when Chansung said that, his voice trailing off. When he didn’t say anything else, she took a deep breath and turned around to look at him again.

At least this time she did not blush, or so she hoped. Chansung was wearing a loose grey shirt and black sweats, and an old pair of slippers. She tried to guess what that hinted at about her new boss, but she could not compare this to the man she had met the night before. He had been wearing nice clothes, a black suit that fitted just right and a white shirt that didn’t need a tie to make him look good. His hair had been combed to the side so the fringe wouldn’t fall around his eyes like it was doing now. She liked the way his hair looked now, but the thing was-- it seemed he had been sleeping when she arrived. And that was weird.

A fleeting smile passed over his features as he looked down. The cat had returned; it jumped on one of the tabletops and lay there, its eyes focused on Hwasa.

“This is Grumpy,” Chansung said. The name fit that unfriendly face so well Hwasa had to bite back a chuckle. “He’s a wildcat but he’s not dangerous. Most of the time,” he added as an afterthought, as the cat’s tail thrashed from side to side and then stopped. Chansung’s eyes crinkled at the edges and though he didn’t laugh, Hwasa could picture him doing it. “Again, I’m sorry that I kept you waiting,” he looked at her, eyes and voice more steady than before. “I knew you’d left the pub late and I’d have told you to come tomorrow if I had your number. I can’t believe I forgot to ask for that,” he shook his head at himself, his brown eyes glinting when he looked at her. She noticed they were not as dark as she had thought the night before-- more like ground cocoa than the seeds. He also looked more relaxed despite their current awkward situation.

“I can give it to you now--” she interrupted herself, suddenly aware of her own boldness. It was for work, sure, but she didn’t miss the way he seemed to pause before his mouth eased into a polite smile.

“You must be wondering where all the flowers are.” She was grateful he changed the subject so smoothly, his eyes indicating the back door that stood between the pictures and paintings. “Oh but I’m being such a bad host-- I mean, you’re not exactly a guest, but I didn’t offer to take that bag you’re carrying, and I don’t think it’s working as a purse...?”

Hwasa couldn’t help the quiet chuckle that made her cheeks rise as it lingered at the corners of her mouth. She noted his curious gaze and put the bag on the tabletop where the cat was seemingly asleep. She was not surprised when he peered at her from slitted eyelids, his forepaws moving in a languid stretch as he rolled a little towards Hwasa, nearly touching the paper bag. That surprised her. Chansung tried to stifle a laugh but it came out through his nose. She didn't look at him as she opened the bag to take out the flower crown she had put there. She placed it carefully on the glass-covered surface, choosing to ignore the fine layer of dust there. Given the chance, she would make sure to clean all that later even if Chansung didn't tell her to.

She noticed Chansung’s quiet gasp and glanced at him before looking back at the flower crown. She bit her lower lip because his own lips were parted and-- Hwasa tried to fight the words that hit her but they took hold of her mind first-- his lips were prettier than the rose petals that Hwasa had worked into the crown. She swallowed and told herself that was part of the process in which she buried that inappropriate trail of thought and remained completely professional. However, that had already been hard when her sunbaenim first introduced them, and it only seemed to be getting harder. So she might have a little trouble drawing a line, alright. The challenge should motivate her.

“You were wearing this,” Chansung’s voice was as soft as the way his fingers traced the rose petals and buds, the white daisies and green leaves. This was a simple crown that Hwasa had made with real flowers while sorting her thoughts; she would usually go for fake ones because she could make them faster and wear them again. Though simple, this one was unique. It would wither and die soon, like all things plucked from the earth. But Chansung looked at it as if beauty was all it held.

“When Minjun-nim told me about the shop,” she left out the details; Chansung had already said the shop had been closed for weeks and that was enough. “I thought we could use this. Flower crowns in general, I mean. They’re popular right now, we can buy handmade ones and sometimes make our own.”

Chansung looked at her in silence. Hwasa thought she might have gone overboard; maybe the suggestion was not appropriate, considering it was her first day. “You’ve thought more about this job than I did,” he said. She would keep worrying but his eyes melted at the edges until he was smiling at her, hot chocolate pouring into her gaze.

Hwasa grinned back at him. She knew how to take a compliment.

“Minjun hyung was right. You like flowers so much...” he scratched at the back of Grumpy’s ears absentmindedly. The cat seemed to sigh, but his face was otherwise unable to undo that scrunched up, haughty look. “Okay. You’re hired.” She was already beaming when he added, a spark of interest in his eyes, “I hope you like our garden.”

 

x

 

The next couple of days went by too fast, but there were moments when Hwasa had to stop and take a breath to tell herself it was real. When she first entered the garden, she not only understood why the shop was called The Garden Fairy, but she also had to agree with it. It was magical-- so many flowers everywhere, bushes and trees that went beyond what her eyes could see. The garden was part of a large yard that seemed to start where a forest ended, but there was no fence to separate one from the other. Chansung did tell her not to go past the huge zelkova tree that stood next to the house where he lived because she might get lost, but that only piqued her curiosity.

Still, there was so much to explore on that first day in the garden. She delighted in surprising Chansung with her knowledge about most of the flowers, plants and trees he had growing there; she didn’t recognize all of them but she would learn. The trees surrounding the garden worked like a natural border: there was an evergreen oak and a Korean cherry tree whose blossoming flowers she kept smiling at, because it was just too beautiful. There was an Oyama Magnolia whose downy buds she touched softly, her eyes taking in every detail: the immaculate petals, the reddish stamens, the vivid green leaves. She felt Chansung watching her in silence, but it wasn’t an awkward one. She wouldn’t speak for a while and he seemed to actually expect her to just admire the overwhelming beauty of the place.

She knew she could spend hours there without getting bored, but she didn’t have all that time. She would have to explore a little every day: the lilies, the anemones, the irises and the roses of sharon. The fountain where birds drank, how friendly they were, how they didn’t immediately fly away when Chansung approached them. The white and purple dahlias, the small horned holly, and one tree with colorful leaves whose name Hwasa decided to look up for herself instead of asking Chansung about it. It didn’t make sense that all those species were blooming at the same time in what seemed to be their natural habitat, but maybe special products could bring small miracles to life. Maybe there was a fairy working her magic to make this all happen. For some reason, Hwasa couldn’t laugh at that idea. Not when she was there, surrounded by all that wonder.

Chansung spent the second day teaching her about the products they had in store, and how to make bouquets and arrangements for different occasions. He would frown or chuckle when Hwasa tried something out without his explaining it first, nodding in quiet approval when she created a new cluster of flowers out of her imagination. He seemed to trust her ideas; he didn’t say anything when she wore a handmade flower crown on the third day, but she caught him smiling at her when he thought she wasn’t aware of it. Meanwhile, he got in touch with possible suppliers, but no clients yet. The fourth day was used to organize and clean everything as well as to give new life to the storefront so that they could welcome potential customers, old and new.

Hwasa was excited for the next week, when that fresh start would actually unfold. Her friends had teased her, saying she might leave the pub to work at the store, but that was not true and they knew it. She felt a buzz similar to the one from that night when she first met Chansung, though she didn’t like to think about that for what happened after she and the girls left the pub. She preferred to focus on the lightness that came with knowing she had a second job now, one she enjoyed as much as singing and performing. Despite how busy she would be from now on, she felt like she had even more energy to balance work and studies while enjoying both as much as she could. It would be hard but she would make it worth it.

“You haven’t tried the tulips yet,” Chansung’s voice startled her. He chuckled but apologized when he saw she had dropped the blue gerberas she had been trying to tie together, and he picked them up for her. “Scaredy cat,” he joked, but at first she thought he might be talking about Grumpy. She immediately realized that didn’t fit the wildcat who was more likely to frighten her than the other way around. He was also sleeping among the empty vases and fake flowers Hwasa had put on display at the shop window while they didn’t open for good, so that meant--

“I’m not,” she tried to sound offended but the reaction had come too late. Chansung didn’t press it further though, and that made her look at him instead of turning her attention back to the gerberas in front of her. She finally addressed what he had said when he first approached her. “Tulips?” They didn’t have those in the garden-- for now. Chansung had told her he would work on that, and they had received some dozens of them that morning.

“Yeah. For the flower crowns.”

Hwasa looked briefly at the few crowns she had arranged on one of the shelves against the wall. “If I use natural ones for that, they will wither soon. That’s why I tried the fake ones until we get orders...” She trailed off when she noticed Chansung’s eyes disagreed with what she was saying.

“I meant for the ones you wear.”

She was glad she hadn’t touched the gerberas anymore because she might have either dropped them again or snapped one of the stems in half. Was that a request? She remembered something else she had wanted to ask and kept forgetting. “Should I wear a uniform on Monday? And the tulips flower crown would be a part of it?”

His forehead showed that the inquiring but teasing tone on the second question hadn’t gone unnoticed. Chansung let it go and Hwasa appreciated it, because if he was gonna cross the line then so would she. She was not sure what kind of line that was and if she hadn’t already dismissed it before, but still. “You don’t have to wear a uniform. The clothes you’ve been wearing are fine.”

His brief smile made her recall that first day, how his frumpy state had contrasted with her floral dress and her bright purple lipstick. Today she had chosen a knee-length, high-waisted black skirt with narrow straps that fitted just right over her plain white top. Her red lipstick was a shade darker than the one camellia she had plucked when she arrived. She had used it to decorate the loose bun she had managed to tie her short hair in.

“So... are tulips your favorite?” She asked, deciding she might try to make a flower crown out of them if he didn’t insist too much on it. Tulips were difficult to tie together into a crown that wouldn’t be too big or unravel too soon. She saw Chansung shaking his head and then he was walking away from her, as if the conversation had ended there.

He was weird, sometimes. But she shrugged and went back to the gerberas. They were a bright blue shade that would look great with the white roses she had seen in the garden. She went back there but stopped just out the door when she saw the way Chansung was looking at the fountain amidst all the plants, clearly distracted. He touched the marble and she took a step back; she felt like she was intruding on a personal moment that was not hers to see. Yet she couldn’t stop looking. Something about that had her pinned to the ground.

During the day and under the light of the sun, Chansung’s eyes took on lighter shades of brown. She had noticed that when she first came into the garden four days ago, but she had been too focused on the garden itself to pay attention to that. But every time they were outside and she looked at him, she would notice something different. His eyes would be colored caramel one moment, and then cinnamon or honey the next. Right now she felt like she was looking at the reflection of liquidambar leaves: specks of brown tinged with green and red, faded orange and yellow in between. As if the garden all around her was not enough of a sight, her eyes were drawn to his. And when he looked back at her she felt a little like the birds singing around them, though their sounds felt distant to her for a couple of seconds.

Chansung blinked. The moment was past; his eyes were brown and there was a frown on his face. Hwasa regretted that, but not having caused it. She couldn’t explain what she had just seen but that didn’t matter. It had moved her deeply, and she knew she would want to see it again.

“You have to go,” Chansung said, his voice revealing a sadness he was obviously trying to conceal. Hwasa felt a pang in her chest that seemed foreign; she couldn’t find a reason for that just like she couldn’t reason what she had witnessed, or the change in Chansung’s attitude.

It was almost time for her to leave, but she had a bouquet to finish. She opened her mouth to tell him about the gerberas and the roses and what a waste that would be, but he shook his head slowly, as if anticipating her words.

“Just go. I’ll see you on Monday, alright?” he tried to sound cheerful but it didn’t work very well. Maybe it was not her place to ask him what was going on, but she still felt like she should, that she should stay and talk to him instead of leaving him alone.

He didn’t look like he would accept any option but her absence for now, though. She also had her own place to go that night, and maybe that would help her sort her thoughts and-- feelings, whatever they were. She wished she could take him with her, but that was not possible either.

When Hwasa parted, she left the camellia on one of the tabletops, next to the gerberas. She forgot to take the tulips she would need to make her next flower crown, but that one would have to wait.

 

x

 

The waves pushed him towards the shore as if the sea were spitting him out. He did not belong there; he never had been a creature of water even if his life depended on it. The Ocean, however, had reasons to despise him. It was his fault one of her children had been robbed of life, in more ways than one.

Abada rolled on the sand until his blue skin was covered in it. His green hair and beard were short, but when he touched his forehead the horns were not there. He had lost them a long time ago, along with his whip and his right to be in this place. Being here always made him feel like he used to be. His appearance was nearly the same, except he was permanently in his human form now. No backward shoes or shapeshifting skills.

He knew he was not really present, though. He kept coming back and he would come back as long as he could, no matter how useless it was. To him, this mattered more than the water and the trees, the present and the future. The past was a treasure worth more than all chests lost in the ocean and all gems still buried in the caves.

The early afternoon sun was quick to dry his skin as he looked around for his mermaid. She should not be out of the water, but she was condemned to that. They had both been banned but she had paid the highest price.

His glowing eyes stung when he spotted her. She was lying on a rock where the sea met the shore yet no water reached her. Her long tail of emerald green was still, her arms hanging on her sides as if she wanted to try and touch the salty water. Her long brown hair waved down her shoulders, covering her chest and rising slowly with it. She was breathing.

“My love,” he whispered as he went on his knees and reached an arm to touch her fingers. This was as far as he was allowed to go. The waves would rise and strike him down if he tried anything else.

Her eyelashes fluttered as she opened her eyes slowly, blinking a few times. The sunlight that used to make her skin glow had turned it dry, her lips chapped and her face burned. She tried to hold his hand between hers but she was weak, her grip loose around his fingers. She used to have cold hands; now they were always warm from the sun. When she looked into his eyes, her lips twisted down and her eyelids drooped shut. “You are rotting,” she mumbled, her voice small and raspy. It still carried the sadness she felt.

“I’m sorry, my love,” he whispered, longing to take her in his arms and reassure her. She could see what was happening, she knew what he was doing, but he had to go on. He wouldn’t stop until it was all over. To say he was rotting was an understatement even if it was the truth. He was also dying. He would join her soon.

“Let me go,” she pleaded, staring at him again. She only squeezed his fingers though; the urgency of her request gave her strength. “You have to let me go so I can be with you when the time comes.”

He tried to answer, to tell her he knew she was right even if he wanted to refuse that. He couldn’t let her go. Not yet.

 

x

 

Hwasa stared at the wall through which she knew the police were watching her. She had her arms crossed over her chest, her face twisted into a scowl while she ran the events of the last couple of hours in her mind again and again.

She had gotten home and found a body in her living room. She called the police immediately and became the prime suspect. The prime suspect of a murder.

The cop who had handcuffed her entered the room followed by a woman whose friendly face didn’t fool her for one second. Hwasa knew the other was there to trick her. She sat down in front of Hwasa whereas the male officer remained up, his arms crossed against his chest as his eyes focused on both of them, but especially on Hwasa.

She hated being looked at like that, as if her sentence had already been carried out. They had caught her right after she had gone through the process that would keep her calm for a few days though, which was why she was not demanding answers or proclaiming her innocence. Everything she said might be used against her. If necessary, she would only speak to defend herself.

“Ahn Hyejin,” the woman started, going through her file as if she had not read everything before entering the room. When she looked at Hwasa again, the file was open where it showed a collection of pictures from the murder scene, a sketch she recognized peeking from under it. “You filed a report against Mr. Kwon Ji Yong a few days ago, claiming he attacked you when you were trying to get home. Can you confirm this is the man behind the assault?”

The female officer spread the pictures of the dead guy on the table in front of Hwasa, ones that showed his face but also others where the gunshot wounds in his chest and groin were visible, a pool of blood spread on the ground under and around him. Hwasa tried not to, but she looked away and closed her eyes for a second. She had seen worse than this, but it still made her stomach twist into knots. Her reaction prompted the woman on the other side of the table to get the sketch and place it over a few of the pictures, right in front of Hwasa.

“This is the man that our sketch artist drew based on the description that you gave him. Pretty similar, don’t you think?”

Hwasa thought she heard a tinge of compassion in the woman’s voice, but it didn’t make sense.

“Did you kill him in self-defense?” She asked softly, as if it would be excusable for Hwasa to have done that. “Was he waiting for you when you got home?” She paused, trying to get Hwasa to look into her eyes. However, Hwasa was determined to keep staring at the sketch to remind herself that, even though she hadn’t been the one to kill him, they guy had deserved it. “It must have been terrible when you realized what was about to happen, and that once again nobody was there to protect you. That’s why you had a gun at home, right? So you could protect yourself?”

Hwasa frowned at that last part. She made the mistake of looking up. The female officer caught her eyes and nodded. It was not at Hwasa she was nodding though, but at her partner. He held a transparent plastic bag that Hwasa hadn’t noticed before, and he put it on the table next to the pictures of the “victim.”

“Your prints are all over the murder weapon.” The guy sounded calm; he was merely stating a fact. As incriminating as that was, it was a truth that Hwasa couldn’t deny. The gun was hers. She had checked it was in the right place a few days ago, when that Yong guy had tried to rape her. She had escaped thanks to her self-defense classes, but she had considered carrying the gun around with her after that. She had done that before, and it had helped her feel safe back then. Maybe if she had taken it with her once again she wouldn’t be involved in this mess.

“We ran it through the system,” the woman said, after her partner went back to his position near the door. He wasn’t exactly guarding it but that was what it looked like. Even though she was not handcuffed anymore, Hwasa had no intentions of trying to escape and giving them another “evidence” of her supposed guilt. “You bought this gun legally, and you’ve never fired it before. But these two shots were precise.” She pointed at each bloody wound in the dead guy’s body. “Have you done this before?”

Hwasa didn’t answer. It was obvious they knew more about this than she did.

 

x

 

Taecyeon slipped into the room just as quietly as he had left the other. Chief Mun nodded at him and kept looking at the girl who was now alone with Jomi. That had been a good tactic; the suspect might feel more inclined to talk to another woman, even if Taecyeon had been a mere presence most of the time. But still, it was a male presence. And Taecyeon could look threatening to people who didn’t know him, which was good. Just not at the moment.

“What do you think?” Taecyeon whispered, his eyes also on Ahn Hyejin. They were both paying attention to her body language as much as to her words.

Chief Mun checked a sigh. The initial questioning would still go on for a while. If that didn’t work, they could hold her for a total of seventy-two hours from the moment they arrested her, which left them plenty of time in case she was the murderer. If she was, they would find more evidence than just the murder weapon. Her prints were too obvious; the gun was hers. She did have a motive. . But why would she have called the police? Why deny her fault if she could have claimed self-defense?

“We need to process the murder scene,” he said, instead of voicing those contradicting thoughts. His subordinates might raise similar questions. Questions that they would only be able to answer once there was enough evidence on which to base their assumptions.

 

x

 

“Hyejin was not at home at the time of the murder.”

Jomi had spent the last half hour going through the suspect’s file and every piece of information they had when Taecyeon told her that. He was holding his phone as if to indicate he had just got a call from Sojin, their computer girl.

“You know those self-defense classes she goes to every week? She was with the group. We caught her on the security camera. She arrived at the gym around 9pm, and she was seen leaving the building at 1:27am. Ji Yong was killed at 1:09.” He paused and looked at the open file . “Even if she left the place through another door, she wouldn’t have been able to go to her house and come back to the gym in such a short time.”

“But she couldn’t have been in class that whole time? And if she was there, why didn’t she tell us? It’s the perfect alibi.”

Taecyeon nodded as if he had anticipated that question. “I think I know why.”

Jomi raised her eyebrows at him. She didn’t like it when he tried to be mysterious like that, especially when they were in a hurry. If Hyejin was innocent, that meant there was a murderer out there, and they should be working to find whoever it was.

“That gym is known for offering different PTSD treatments. Some of them are very... unorthodox.” Taecyeon shrugged as if that was nothing. “I thought about questioning her but Eric-- Chief Mun thinks she’ll talk more if you do it,” he corrected himself when Jomi eyed him. Even though Taecyeon was friends with their team leader, none of them were supposed to refer to him by his nickname at work.

Jomi was not so sure she could get that girl to open up. She would think of a way when Taecyeon told her the rest. “Any news from the lab?”

“Chief Mun went back to the crime scene but they’re still processing it. Does Hyejin have a cat?”

She shrugged. There wasn’t anything about that in the file.

“Well, Ji Yong didn’t have one, but there was some cat fur on his body and on the living room floor. They’re trying to find out what kind of cat it is.”

“Cat fur...” That was not completely unfamiliar. “Hey, do you remember that woman who reported an assault against her husband a few months ago, and she said there had been a strange cat around their house but it disappeared after the attack?”

Taecyeon snorted. “You don’t believe the cat had anything to do with it, right?”

Jomi ignored his mocking tone and went on. “What if the cat belongs to the murderer? We did find out that guy was a rapist, right? He was sent to prison. His wife accused us of trying to cover the failure to find one criminal with the arrest of an innocent?”

“Ji Yong did attack our suspect a few days ago...” Taecyeon’s brows furrowed in thought as Jomi tried to process her own line of reasoning. “I’m gonna go back to that case and see if Sojin can find others that have any similarities. You go and talk to Hyejin. See if she’s seen any cat, or if there’s anyone she knows that would try to avenge or protect her. We can’t discard any possibilities yet.”

“Yes, sir,” Jomi raised one eyebrow at him. She was older than Taecyeon but he kept ignoring that. He had just talked as if he were giving her orders even though his tone was mild, which just made him resemble their actual boss. Chief Mun was the one who always spoke calmly to them even through stressful situations. Taecyeon was usually patient, but he did have a temper.

“Sorry, noona,” he retorted, not repentant at all. He sent a charming smile her way before he disappeared down the corridor, towards Sojin’s office.

 

x

 

Fifteen hours had passed since the murder occurred when Chief Mun was called to the lab by Choi Minho. He was still new on the team, but he wanted to work in the field. He seemed determined to get that by processing evidence as quickly and efficiently as he could, no matter how many hours it took him to go through all possibilities.

“What do you have for me, boy?” Junghyuk said by way of greeting, his eyes scanning the lab.

“To start, a print with no match in the system,” Minho said, which didn’t justify the excited smile on his face as he displayed the evidence on the computer screen. “It was on that lotus you found in the suspect’s house.”

The chief nodded. When Hyejin was arrested, nobody had paid attention to the flower because of the small garden in front of her house. However, when he went back to the scene, Junghyuk realized that was the only lotus around, and it had been placed next to a framed picture of Hyejin. At first he thought it might have been brought by Ji Yong, but they did have his print, and they had Hyejin’s too. Somebody else had been to her house.

“The print was not on the murder weapon. But Taecyeon-sshi asked me to compare it to other cases-- with weapons of opportunity. When the criminal uses what’s already in the scene and somebody else takes the blame. He told you about the cat fur, right, sir?”

Chief Mun nodded again. Sojin had discovered six other cases with the very same evidence-- Otocolobus manul, or Pallas’s cat, a small wild cat that had been classified Near Threatened over a decade ago. To the chief, that animal’s presence didn’t make sense in a city like Seoul. Maybe in a zoo, in the jungle, but not in a big urban area, especially not in several different violent cases. A cat like that certainly wouldn’t go unnoticed, and if it did belong to somebody it shouldn’t be hard to find out who it was. But as it happened, that was not the only thing that didn’t make sense out of this murder case.

“If this is all the same person, they’re escalating. The first attack we know about was almost a year ago, and the victim almost died. If you can call him a victim.”

Junghyuk frowned. “I know all cases are against rapists, but please refrain from making such comments, Choi.” Minho closed his mouth and acquiesced; the Chief hadn’t raised his voice but the reprimand was there. “We have someone out there who thinks they can do justice with their own hands. I don’t agree with that.”

“I don’t either, sir,” Minho was quick to say. Junghyuk was not entirely convinced, but the other was still new on the job. He would have plenty of opportunity to comprehend that people were not simply divided into good or bad. And that certain views needed to be weighed and reconsidered again and again instead of simply shaped into words.

“Miss Ahn might know more than she’s willing to admit exactly because she thinks Ji Yong deserved what he got.” As he said that, Junghyuk realized there were two things he could do to help the case. One of them he would have to do in person, but that was probably simpler than what he would have to ask of Taecyeon and Jomi. “Minho, send this timeline back to Sojin and ask her to find out about the rapists’ victims-- when and where they were attacked, and if there’s any pattern to this vigilante’s actions. I’m going back to the precinct, but keep me posted.”

 

x

 

Hwasa did not understand what just happened. Jomi, the cop who had been coming to question her every few hours, had just told her she could go home. At least it felt like long hours, Hwasa was not sure because she hadn’t slept and she was tired of being locked in a room whose bare walls reminded her of why she had first got that gun, why she had started the self-defense classes. Her face pressed against concrete, her weak 18-year-old self silenced with a knife against her throat and a body against her back. She had never been able to forget that, but she had learned to suppress the tactile memories so that she wouldn’t feel like that again. She had gotten stronger and learned to fight so that nobody could overpower her that same way, or at least that was what she kept telling herself every day.

In that cell-- it was a questioning room but it looked very much like a cell-- she was a prisoner of the memories and of the lack of sunlight. The sun made her feel more like Hwasa and less like Ahn Hyejin. Ahn Hyejin had lost hope, she was weak and suffered for it. She had been able to overcome that trauma and ignite the brightness within her again, but that was Hwasa. The singer, the performer, the music student. The young woman who was hopeful and had found reasons to hold on to that hope even if it had just been taken from her again. And then restored one more time.

She looked at Jomi and waited for her to start laughing. The cop didn’t look the type to have such awful sense of humor, but Hwasa could not accept that she was free to go that easily. She wanted to ask if they had found another suspect, if that was related to the seemingly random questions she had either ignored or answered vaguely last time the cop had been there. Did she have any pets? Did any of her friends have a cat? Had she seen anyone besides Ji Yong following her lately? Had she noticed anything strange in her house besides that dead man?

“You might be in danger,” Jomi told her, which was not entirely confusing-- Hwasa knew about her own innocence, which meant there had been a murder in her own house, but why was that cop looking at her as if she was worried? Unless she was trying to manipulate her? “We’re letting you go, but we’ll keep an eye on you. You’re not allowed to leave the city. If anything happens or if you remember anything that might help us, please don’t hesitate to call or even come to us.”

Hwasa stared at the card that the cop was handing her from across the table. She decided to take it, if only for her own protection. She would have to find a place to crash for the next couple of days, since her house was still a crime scene, under investigation. She doubted she would like to go back there even after this was all over anyway. “Can I make that phone call now?” She hadn’t used that yet, and it might have worked against her in the beginning, but now it would be useful. Her purse along with her cell phone and all other important belongings had been left at the house.

Jomi nodded. She seemed to think that would give her a hint, and Hwasa fought the urge to roll her eyes. So they were expecting her to misstep at any given chance now. She was not sorry to disappoint the police by calling her friend Wheein, who Hwasa just asked to come pick her up. They would talk about everything else later.

 

x

 

The prisoner was asleep when Chief Mun entered the room. He lay on the bed to which he had been condemned for the rest of his life, suffering from several puncture wounds all over his body. The weapon-- or what seemed to be the same weapon in different sizes-- had never been found, and to this day the assault remained unsolved. Chief Mun’s sneer disappeared as quickly as it came, for he did not like how this man’s suffering made him feel. He surely deserved it, but the thought was a dangerous one. Justice should not be served like this; humanity would come to its dreaded end as soon as that became acceptable.

Junghyuk sat next to the bed, facing the prisoner as he waited for him to wake up. The doctors still couldn’t explain what chemical reaction caused the wounds to heal over the stretch of painful months that seemed to be an illusionary phase, for that soon became a nightmare in which the wounds reopened again. It was not easy for the chief to see this man as a victim. He was a convicted rapist and murderer, but in a way he had fallen victim to his own crimes. He could not move most of the time, and when he could the ties and chains on the bed would keep his weak form in place. He was still alive, but there was no escape. In his state that might be considered worse than death.

The chief’s mind went through the details of his latest case again. The prints connected this to a series of cases but the person was not in the system, which was as enigmatic as the wildcat fur. The attacks had all been against rapists, either accused and freed or convicted and then murdered as soon as they escaped or were released from prison. The one lying on the bed was the only known survival, and the timeline placed him as the first victim of this supposed vigilante. He might not know about the cat, the prints and the others. But he should know about one important detail, one which might drive Junghyuk mad because it was not possible. He would nevertheless take the chance if it meant he could solve this case.

While Taecyeon and Jomi went through the other cases and interviewed relatives and suspects, they had found a possible eye witness. Kim Doyeon had seen someone leaving the building where her boyfriend lived right as she entered it to find him bleeding to death on their bed. Bleeding to death, but still alive. She had never mentioned it before because she thought it was something her mind had conjured, perhaps the ghost of her loved one trying to hurry her up the stairs. But her boyfriend didn’t have green eyes. Her boyfriend didn’t smell of earth and rain and wilderness, nor did he have a cat.

Her boyfriend was the man Chief Mun had decided to visit that day.

The eyes that opened to stare at the chief denied the situation in which the criminal found himself. Or that was the impression he wanted to give, one Junghyuk disregarded effortlessly. This man was ruthless, alright. The chief could be worse than that if he wanted.

Eric,” his voice came out raspy, low but filled with contempt.

Junghyuk’s face was impassive, unreadable, a look he had perfected over the years. “I’m glad to see you’re alright.”

The rapist let out a sound that might have been a cough-laugh on a good day, but it came out as a pitiful wheeze that drained him of strength. He had probably come up with his own reason for Chief Mun’s presence there. The police rarely came to prisons or their hospitals if not for something good. Something big. And of course this one wouldn’t be willing to cooperate.

“You put yourself here.” The chief spoke calmly, his voice devoid of emotion. By here he meant the hospital bed. The criminal had escaped the prison bars only to have a deadly encounter a few days later. “Or rather, the person who tried to kill you did.”

The big, round eyes that had once been calculating hazelnuts turned to slits. Junghyuk had hit a nerve. Good.

“You know avengers are not my favorite. He’s a murderer just like you.” The chief leaned a bit forward, his head tilting the slightest bit to the side. “But when I catch him, you might get the chance to avenge yourself.”

This time, the sound he made sounded closer to a laugh. A derisive, weak laugh that told Junghyuk he wasn’t buying that. The chief did not expect him to.

“Don’t you think about killing him every day? Your hands around his neck? Life leaving his eyes?”

His face twitched. It was brief, but he could not cover it up. He didn’t have much control over his reactions.

The chief went on, his voice so soft he might be telling a tale to a kid. “And you know that if you ever leave this place, he’ll go after you. In fact, he might be coming up with some way to get to you right now. He’s running out of time, and he’s desperate.”

The prisoner sneered slowly at him, throwing the words back at him. That made Junghyuk nearly smile in return.

“Unlike you, I’m not on the green mile.”

The sneer disappeared so fast, the chief almost laughed. His dark brown eyes just stared at the hazelnut ones in mutual disdain.

“What is it, huh? Something about the word green made you think of unpleasant things?” He paused. “Green eyes, maybe?”

“They’re not green.”

The chief was not expecting that-- a full sentence, the denial that was as forceful as the derision in that disturbing voice. He waited.

“They--” There was a cough, silence of seconds that felt like hours. “They turn green... when he attacks.”

Junghyuk stared at the other. It was not disbelief, it was the realization that he had heard the truth he did not want to accept. And he knew it, he knew this bastard could read it in his face, however quick he allowed this moment of befuddlement to be. He recovered soon. Even though he felt even more puzzled by this case, he had found the answer he needed.

“I know you’re not worth a penny.” He stood up, buttoning up his suit as he did so. “But the fear in your eyes... That’s worth a lot.”

 

x

 

“So, you were almost on the news?”

“For the worst possible reasons.” Hwasa grimaced at the thought of her name being ruined because of a murder. Or because of what almost happened. She appreciated Wheein’s trying to cheer her up, but she was still in shock. Now that she was out of the police headquarters she was finally able to process what she had seen when she got home the night before. What she had been spared of. The earth was a better place without men like that but she didn’t want to have anything to do with it.

Wheein was looking worriedly at her, Hwasa noticed, even though her eyes were on the television. They were sitting on the couch in Wheein’s small but cozy living room, not really watching the movie that was on. Hwasa wanted to get distracted but her mind kept betraying her. “I’m glad you’re okay. I mean...”

Hwasa took her hand in hers and squeezed. “I know.” It was as much to reassure Wheein as to give herself some comfort.

“Moonbyul’s gonna bring some of your stuff later.” Wheein had already told her that, but Hwasa still nodded in acknowledgment. She was lucky to have friends who were willing to help her out without question. A police officer would accompany Moonbyul to Hwasa’s house so that she would be safe, or so that she wouldn’t touch anything. Hwasa was inclined to believe both were true.

“Did you talk to Minjun-nim?” Hwasa had been supposed to go see him at the pub that day and tell him about the flower shop. She smiled faintly when she thought about it, and then froze.

Wheein had been about to answer her when Hwasa’s grip on her hand tightened. “Hwasa? What is it?”

She shook her head the slightest bit; she didn’t think she would be able to put into words what had just occurred to her. That cop had talked about a cat. A cat and strange things. Hwasa had noticed the latter, just not in her house. She remembered the first time Minjun told her about Chansung, why the flower shop had been closed... His wife--

Hwasa!

Wheein pulled at her arm and shook her until Hwasa gasped, remembering to breathe. Her knuckles were white from holding onto Wheein’s hand, and she might have hurt her. She let go of her friend and stood up; she had to-- she couldn’t just stay there, sitting, helpless--

“Where do you think you’re going!” Wheein grabbed at her arm and held her in place by the shoulders. “Hwasa, you’re scaring me. Tell me what’s going on. You know I can handle it.”

Hwasa shook her head repeatedly, but she didn’t try to get away either. Wheein wouldn’t understand. Besides, she couldn’t say anything. Not because she was not sure, but she was afraid she was right. She both hoped for and dreaded it. But voicing her thoughts to Wheein would be dangerous. She took a deep breath and willed herself to calm down. It was late night already. Moonbyul might arrive at any moment and Hwasa would bet a hundred flower crowns that Yongsun was coming with her.

“I just,” she inhaled slowly and deeply, exhaling just as gradually. “I need some air. I was locked in that room all day, and--”

She was interrupted by Wheein’s arms pulling her into a tight hug that loosened into a warm embrace as Hwasa relaxed into her and let herself be held. “I’m sorry,” Wheein whispered. Hwasa heard her sniff but didn’t say anything. “I’m sorry. I promise we can stay outside when the girls arrive, okay? We can even make a barbecue in the veranda.”

Hwasa’s chuckle was a little shaky, but it made Wheein smile at her, so that was good. “I knew our moonstar wouldn’t go far without her princess in tow.”

It was Wheein’s turn to laugh quietly at that. “I guess you’ll be alright after all. Your sense of humor is intact.”

Hwasa made a face at her. But she followed Wheein back to the couch and asked about Minjun again.

“Yongsun talked to him,” Wheein said. “He wanted to see you but she insisted you were okay and that there shouldn’t be too many people fawning over you right now.”

Hwasa smiled. She could hear Yongsun saying that to their sunbaenim, but in a very polite tone, and a warm smile. Wheein’s face was too serious as she stared at Hwasa, because she was still worried. Hwasa entwined her hands again but then thought better of it and linked their arms instead, so that she could lean on Wheein and be the clingy one for once. “Thank you,” she said.

Wheein pulled her closer and touched her hair like a protective sister might do. It was more than enough.

 

x

 

A dreamless sleep might be the equivalent to a peaceful night of rest for some, but not Abada. He turned and turned and turned around in bed until the covers were on the floor and his body was covered with sweat instead. He was not awake, but he was not dreaming, and not dreaming meant he could not live.

It was not a matter of remembering his dreams. He always did. He waited for them, worked for them, slept for them. Killed for them. They were very similar one to the other, but every single one was important. Every dream was the one chance he had to be reunited with his mermaid. Every dream was one last encounter before he rotted completely, before she vanished under the burning light of the sun. He had been prepared for that. He knew they were paying the price for tricking Nature, for pretending to be something they were not. He knew this couldn’t last forever, because he had already lost her. He could still see her, but she was not really there anymore.

But he could not. He could not see her if he could not dream. His mind was spinning as he ran through the endless emptiness of the dark. He wanted to wake up and find the way back into his dreams, but first he had to find the way out of his own subconscious.

Abada. Here, he was still Abada. Not the same he used to be, but he had to rely on what he knew of himself. Instincts. Second nature.

He closed his eyes and listened.

There was his own breathing, loud and rushed, the only sound around him. He concentrated on slowing it down until it was silenced. He listened again. And this time, he heard.

Let me go.”

He wanted to scream, scream so loud the words would be erased together with his own voice. No, his mind echoed, again and again and again. No.

But her voice persisted. “Let me go,” she said. “Let me go so we can both be free again.”

He covered his ears. He was down, curled up into a ball, he did not remember moving but he wanted to run away from the breaking of the one promise that had given him strength. “You said we would be together.”

“We will. In another life. We will meet again. You won’t be Abada and I won’t be your mermaid, but I will always be yours.”

Someone was crying. It was him, he realized. He felt the tears under his hands, and they were salty like the sea. The sea hated him. He had taken her from the sea. And in the end, the sea would take her away from him.

He could almost see her shaking her head at him, but that was just a wish. He was not dreaming.

 

x

 

Hwasa saw a blur of orange, brown and white that turned out to be Grumpy, his yellow eyes staring up at her. His tail was up and quivering, but his pupils were dilated and his ears were drawn back. He seemed both pleased to see her and agitated, but the latter might be because of something else. He turned around so quickly Hwasa would have been lost if she wasn’t already in front of the flower shop.

The front door was open and she followed Grumpy inside. He was waiting for her, or so it seemed, the stem of a yellow tulip in his mouth. Hwasa was speechless, her astonishment increased when the cat carried the flower from the vase where it had been to her feet, dropping it there. Grumpy sat on his hind legs, the tail down but the tip of it still twitching. Hwasa looked around her but the shop was empty, the back door closed. She needed to find Chansung, but she picked up the flower first. She noticed the way Grumpy blinked once, slowly, his sullen face seemingly softening. Hwasa wanted to laugh, but she was afraid of offending the cat. Chansung had said he was not usually dangerous despite his fierce glares, yet she wouldn’t risk it.

Grumpy stopped next to the vase and looked back at her. He mewled once, stared at the tulips and touched one of them with his paw. A red one. Hwasa had no idea what was going on but she went there and took the tulip. It seemed to please the cat, but couldn’t explain why she even had that impression, or why a cat would be happy that she was taking the tulips. Did he like to play with them? Did he eat them? Did Chansung know about this?

The wildcat pawed at a white tulip, and a variegated one after that. Hwasa was now holding four of them. She didn’t know what to do with the flowers, but Grumpy probably did. He guided her through the back door of the shop, past the garden, into the forest Chansung had told her to stay away from.

 

x

 

There was the sound of waves crashing against the shore. How long had they walked? Where were they? Hwasa turned around in a full circle. She could not understand anything anymore.

Grumpy was nowhere in sight. What about the flowers she had been carrying in her hands? She felt something around her head and laughed, though she was nervous. A flower crown? The tulips had been tied into her hair? How?

She looked behind her at the forest she didn’t remember crossing. In front of her there was a vast, endless sea. The water pulled back slowly, the wind helped it curl upon itself and then it was pushing forward, onto the shore, rolling and wetting the sand. It came so close to her feet that Hwasa feared it would keep going on and surround her, overthrow and swallow her. But it stopped a few inches away before it receded again, spitting out a creature in its retreat.

Hwasa gasped. And then she ran. Not back into the forest but forward, over the wet sand, towards the sea.

“Chansung!” she screamed, falling to her knees next to him, pulling him into her arms. He was soaked and pale and shaking, but he was breathing.

“Fei...” His voice was feverish, but his skin was icy cold. Hwasa touched his face and felt a sob rising up her throat. Had he tried to kill himself? He reached out blindly and Hwasa took his hand, leaning in close to listen to his weak voice. “I had to let her go...”

Hwasa shuddered. She felt colder than the water coming back to surround them, colder than the body in her arms. What did that mean?

“Hwasa... Hwasa...” he clung to her, and Hwasa clung to him.

She had made a choice. She would fight the cold, the water, and whatever else keeping Chansung from seeing her.

 

x

 

When Chansung opened his eyes, he was in his bed. The curtains were shut but light still filtered through the windows, as well as the music of the birds. From the sounds they were making, he would guess it was almost noon. He expected Grumpy to show up at any second; the wildcat usually checked on him around this time if Chansung hadn’t left the bedroom yet.

He heard footsteps before the knocks at his bedroom door. Knocks? They hadn’t been an ask for permission to enter but a mere warning that the person on the other side of the door would open it and come in.

It was Hwasa, and she was carrying a tea tray. She smiled at him and put the tray on top of the drawer opposite where Chansung was. She sat at the edge of the bed and poured a cup. Chansung took a deep breath and let the aroma fill up his chest. Green tea with honey. She offered him the cup and he sat up to take it. He thought he felt her gaze seizing him up, maybe to check that he was alright. He vaguely remembered a fever, a dreamless but fitful sleep, Hwasa’s hands on his forehead and the wet, cool cloth she had used to help the fever go away. Hwasa didn’t meet his eyes but Chansung saw a faint blush creeping up her cheeks, and he realized he was wearing the same shirt from that day he had overslept because he had been dreaming.

He was not dreaming now. Even the crown on top of her head didn’t shake that certainty.

Four tulips: yellow, red, white and variegated. Cheerful thoughts and sunshine. True love. Worthiness and forgiveness. Beautiful eyes.

He was definitely not dreaming. He had let go of his mermaid. He had clung to Hwasa and Hwasa had clung to him. Hwasa. Bright. A light in the darkness.

Hwasa poured herself some tea. They drank in companionable silence, until she spoke.

“Tell me your story,” she said.

 

x

 

As a protector of the forest, he was a shapeshifter. He could look human if need be, if keeping the trees and the animals safe asked that of him. As Abada, his senses were heightened, his feet were quick but backwards, his horns and whip gave him a threatening aura that often clashed with the gentleness of his very being. It was not just his duty, he did love the Nature he worked for, Her creations and Her beauty. It all came in many different forms that never ceased to amaze him, thus he always found new reasons to keep doing everything he could so that his forest would remain intact.

The forest was not really his, but Hers. That didn’t change the way he felt about the flowers, the birds, the felines, the rodents and the bugs. It didn’t bother him that he was confined to an invisible border, that he could only leave if he was on duty.

That was until he heard the most beautiful sound he had heard. A voice in a song. His glowing eyes looked for the source every time he heard it. The music reached him like the sound of waves being carried through the wind, but he only discovered that when he allowed himself to listen. He needed to hear first to be able to see. The music would enchant him and take him to its origin.

He was not aware of his feet walking over the sand. Here, there were no fallen leaves, no tiny branches or sticks that would snap under his steps. The only sound was that of the sea, and the voice calling him through notes that stirred his soul.

Abada was not supposed to be in the ocean. He would rot if he did that, for he was made like the trees. The salty water was harmful to his bluish skin. Despite feeling like he was in a dream, he was still careful enough to make his way through the rocks that were spread all over the shore, rocks that resisted the force of the water regardless of the erosion they suffered. The waves rose and crashed against them, hitting and wearing them away through a long period of time, yet there they stood. Abada appreciated their resilience. It inspired him to keep walking even though the water that splashed against the rocks ended up touching the sole of his bare feet. Had he been in human form, he could be wearing shoes. He didn’t like shoes, though. He had always loved to feel the earth and all its peculiarities through his hardened skin.

The music got a little louder. Abada stopped walking when his green eyes fell over the creature whose voice had been lulling him for days and days.

She looked human, but he quickly realized his mistake. Humans did not have tails instead of legs. He doubted any human could sound like that. But she had long brown hair that cascaded down her chest and her back in waves, just like the ocean. Her skin was shiny like a delicate pearl, though not as pale as that. She was a creature of the water yet she was on the rocks, singing. Beautiful. She was as beautiful as her voice, her tail shining under the sunlight. Emerald green. Like the eyes that basked in the sight before him.

“A mermaid,” Abada heard himself say, but he regretted that as soon as the music stopped. There was a splash and she disappeared. He stood there, spellbound.

She appeared again a moment later, her head poking out of the water. He decided to stand still and quiet, though he felt unable to move even if he tried. The mermaid stared at him, through him, into him. Her eyes were the color of the thickest trunks, the strong ones whose trees endured the sun, the rain, the storms and the changes of the earth.

This was not one of the creatures he should protect. She was beyond his limits, but she didn’t look like she needed protection. However, he wanted to protect her. He could not understand that sudden need to take her in his arms, but it was more than just protection. Abada was feeling what humans did when presented with the personification of beauty, the most subjective beauty, the most enthralling one.

He was in love. With a mermaid. What he felt was a dangerous, forbidden pull that would take him to the shore no matter what Nature did to try and stop him. He could shapeshift into a human. He could try to share that power with her. Love was capable of impossible things.

 

x

 

Abada and the mermaid. That was almost inconceivable, but she couldn’t make herself doubt him. His wife had tried to go back to the ocean and found herself unable to swim. A human could no longer do what a mermaid did, nor could Chansung protect her from what other humans could do. She had been robbed of life long before she accidentally took her own. Hwasa understood that too well.

She didn’t know if it was Abada or Chansung who committed the murders. They were one but they were not the same. Yet there he was, telling her that story, his voice breaking and his eyes watering until he could no longer speak. Hwasa felt herself aching as if the pain was hers, but this time it didn’t simply move her. It made her move. She approached him cautiously, and Chansung just stared as her hand touched his face.

"Your eyes," Hwasa mumbled, her voice as light as her fingers on his left cheek. She might be seeing things, but the skin under hers was real. He was surprisingly cold, but she didn't withdraw her hand. She was as fascinated as she was scared, but the thrill that run up her spine tipped the scale. "They're..."

She didn't know how to describe it, but they were sparkling and green. They had been brown and watery until a few seconds ago, but now they looked the color of tree leaves in the rain, the pupils dilating until the white almost disappeared. Chansung nodded at her. He didn't need that to be put into words, since he probably knew what was happening.

Hwasa felt her pulse quickening. Perhaps she should run, but would she be able to escape him? She wasn't his usual target, but he might still try to kill her so nobody else would know. She wasn't going to tell anyone, but--

"You're safe," he whispered. She believed him, she couldn't explain it but she trusted her gut on this. It was just one more of the inexplicable things that had drawn her to him. She had already made her decision anyway, the crown on her hair the proof of what she felt.

Hwasa touched his hair, feeling the scars on his forehead, hidden under the long fringe. The horns that would never be there, for he was human. He was human. She needed that to be true. She touched his eyelids when he closed them, and his cheeks again. His face strained with different emotions, his low sigh carrying too much sadness with it. She realized he was not as cold anymore, but she didn't know if the warmth came from him or her.

"Who are you?" she wondered aloud, though she did not expect an answer. He stared at her through moss-colored eyes that were tinged with brown, like a soaking trunk struck down during a storm.

"I cannot be myself anymore," he said, and it sounded like this was something he still had to accept. It wasn't the answer that Hwasa wanted, but it was the one that he could give her. He held her wrists for a moment in which he seemed about to push her away, but then his grip loosened and his fingers lingered on her skin. They were cold at first, but they also turned warm as they touched. A fleeting look of amazement passed over his features, but then the lightest frown appeared and his eyes were the color of a zelkova tree trunk. "Why are you still here?"

Hwasa smiled briefly at him. "Because I want to."

Chansung's lips parted in a question that didn't get past his lips. Hwasa kissed him first. He tasted of green tea and rain, cool and refreshening. She felt her whole body awakening as if she had been energized. Kissing him was like walking barefoot on wet grass while breathing in pure air.

"Chansung," her voice was barely audible, but his eyes were on her lips and he should know. She wanted-- she wanted to kiss him again and she wanted more than this, like she hadn't wanted ever since-- she believed she wouldn't be able to feel like this anymore. Yet there she was, waiting, looking for some mirrored expectation in his eyes.

His hands were still around her wrists. They slid up her arms slowly, making her shiver, then again when he leaned in-- but he didn’t kiss her. He looked at her lips and into her eyes till she felt slightly nervous. He had kissed her back, but that might have been just--

His lips brushed against hers. It was so soft and gentle, so-- tentative, as if he was not sure about what he was doing. Hwasa might have laughed if she wasn’t so tense. She wanted this. She wanted him. For the first time since what felt like a lifetime ago, she was initiating something. She had thought he wanted the same, but--

“I don’t wanna hurt you,” Chansung said, but he didn’t move away from her. She felt that thrill again-- her mind knew of the risks, but that same mind had made a decision, and her body was backing it up.

Hwasa freed her wrists easily as she put her hands on his shoulders to use them for support. Chansung watched, pupils dilating but colors unchanged as she straddled him. His skin was warm where she touched him, and she could feel his pulse under her fingers. He was as much there as she was. At that moment he was Chansung and he wanted her. She could feel it seeping from his body to hers, just like the air shifting between and around them, their breaths mingled as she leaned in closer and closer.

“I want this.” The words left her lips to touch his mouth. She felt powerful as she said that, as though it was the final push in order to bring them together.

Chansung pulled her flush against him as they kissed again, no hesitance this time. His hands were firm but gentle, enveloping her in heat wherever she touched her. Hwasa wrapped herself around him, fighting for more warmth and finding it again and again. The warmth promised her safety, he couldn’t hurt her and she didn’t think she could hurt herself.

 

x

 

The shore was empty.

He walked and walked and walked but he didn’t find the rocks where his mermaid should be. Even when he decided to approach different groups of rocks and told himself he might at least try and see what was up there, he didn’t find anything. No blood trail, no hair, no patch of skin. No sight of her. No smells. No music to guide him.

The sun shone above his head but there was nothing to see: just his own footsteps, a trail he walked over again and again. He was moving in circles. He got dizzy from the heat and his mind started coming up with visions to compensate for any sounds that jumbled up together-- waves crashing around the rocks, birds flying overhead, trees swaying in the breeze, sticks and leaves crackling under the weight of a paw. Had that forest always been there? Maybe in another life, maybe when he could still be called the protector--

There was laughter, and it came from the forest behind him. He turned around to try and see through the trunks and branches, but his eyes could only take him so far. He took a step forward, and found no resistance. Another step, and the invisible wall between him and the forest didn’t stop him. He had been banned. He should not be able to be among those trees. Yet they seemed to be calling for him-- the branches and leaves moved with the wind until they seemed to be pulling him by the hand, pushing at his back, willing him to enter.

Now it was his feet that made the earth complain through snapping sounds. Now it was his own laugh-- amazed, bewildered, uncertain-- that bubbled in his throat till it escaped his lips and echoed around him.

Abada.

The wind seemed to stop. Just as suddenly, he couldn’t breathe. There was a branch circling around his throat and pulling him against a tree, thicker branches that coiled around his ankles and twisted into knots around his wrists. The forest was turning against him.

Abada.

That voice was not his mermaid, nor was it the forest. It was not really the forest turning against him either, but it being used to hurt him.

You used to be wise. It came as a whisper against his ear, as soft as the air itself. The voice was in the wind, but it was not the wind. When he struggled to try and look around him, the branches tightened around his lips. He coughed and discovered he still breathed, if only because the branch around his throat loosened a little. That had been a warning.

You still smell like us... but there’s the stink of humanity in you. Death. You’re overstepping boundaries. He felt a cold touch on his cheek, the sharpness of what could be nails about to make him bleed. We should kill you now so you won’t cause any more trouble, but your soul is so weak... it won’t be long.

He wanted to protest-- he wanted to ask-- where was his mermaid? why was his soul getting weak?

You were made to protect, not to kill. You don’t get to choose who lives or who dies. That’s for me. That’s for the gods. They’re watching you.

“Where were they when I needed--”

One who plays god doesn’t get to ask for god’s help.

An unbearable pain shot through him. He felt like he was about to break apart. He shouldn’t have spoken, he shouldn’t have questioned the nature of things. Nature.

He coughed and coughed once the branches loosened and recoiled, gone. As he felt the air filling his lungs again, he fell to the ground, strengthless. He could swear he felt a pitiful kick at his side, but he was distracted by the color of his skin. His hands and arms on the ground. Not blue, but-- beige? Pale. Pinkish fingertips that told him he was alive. If he was not awake, he was no longer Abada. His eyes wouldn’t be tinged with the green of the forest anymore.

He had been banned and damned a second time.

 

x

 

Taecyeon stared at the list of names related to the cases, or the one big case that seemed to encompass everything else. There was one name that kept calling his attention, but he didn’t know why. That meant he had to dig it; it was exactly that kind of inquiry that helped him find more clues that might eventually lead him to another suspect.

“Sojin, give me everything you can find on Hwang Fei Fei, please.” He heard her typing the name on the computer keyboard, clicking on things, and more typing. He held the phone to his ear as he waited, but he didn’t have to wait long.

“Sending you the file right now, Taec.”

He thanked her, hung up and opened the file on his phone. Wang Fei Fei was her maiden name before she married a flower shop owner called Hwang Chansung. The names were so similar, but he didn’t marvel on that. The flower shop was more important, as well as the reason why she was in the system.

She was one of Kim Doyeon’s boyfriend’s victims. The last one. She had come to the police against her husband’s will, who had refused to testimony in her favor. He had confirmed the rape in questioning but he was too unstable after that. The evidences had been enough to condemn Mister Kim, but apparently the conviction of the criminal had not been enough for the victim. Fei had killed herself in a suspicious drowning whose only eye witness was her husband. He had been called in for questioning again, and freed of charges.

The flower shop had been closed for a couple of months, but when he called Sojin again to dig it up, they found out it was supposed to reopen that day. Taecyeon asked if they sold the lotus flower, but Sojin couldn’t be sure of that now that The Garden Fairy was just coming back to business. He would go there in person if need be.

He asked Minho to compare Hwang Chansung’s prints to the one on the lotus they had found in Ahn Hyejin’s house. Meanwhile, he asked Jomi to check up on Hyejin’s whereabouts.

Jomi sounded anxious when she called him back a minute later. “She left her friend’s house this morning. Miss Jung doesn’t know where she went, but she thinks she’s at--” Taecyeon heard another voice on the line, probably Jung Wheein’s. “It’s a flower shop, The Garden Fairy. Don’t you think that’s a little--”

“Suspicious, yes. Keep an eye on her friend in case Hyejin comes back.”

He called Chief Mun to let him in on his recent discoveries. Eric told him to have Kim Doyeon come to the police station, since she might be able to recognize Hwang Chansung.

“What about her boyfriend? Wouldn’t he be a more reliable witness?”

“He’s dead,” Junghyuk said after a pause. “The prison warden just called to inform me. He said the wounds festered through the night.”

Taecyeon couldn’t pretend to be sad or sorry for the guy. “Wouldn’t Kim Doyeon be going there right now?”

“I asked the warden not to tell her yet. We need to be completely sure of the C.O.D. first. His body is being taken to the lab as we speak.”

“Sir? Do you think this Hwang Chansung could be the vigilante?”

Chief Mun was silent for a while. “Don’t jump to conclusions before you talk to Miss Kim. I’ll go to the flower shop now and see what we can find there.”

“Yes, sir.”

 

x

 

Chief Mun took off his tie, but kept his gun with him, hidden under his suit. The badge was in his back pocket in case he needed to show it, but he was hoping that wouldn’t be necessary. He hadn’t talked to Hyejin while she was in custody, so she might not know who he was and he had to use that to his advantage. Chansung might recognize him, though he hadn’t been responsible for his wife’s case back then.

He had to trust that being Eric would be enough of a facade as he entered the flower shop. The door was open. A purple and green wind chime hung at the entrance, swaying in the cool morning breeze, making a soft musical sound that was almost magical. He turned his attention to the many different flowers displayed on the tabletops; he could recognize most of them because of his job, but he saw no lotus anywhere. That alone was no proof of innocence, since that flower was so popular in their country. If the shop was not selling it, it didn’t mean Hwang Chansung couldn’t have access to it.

“Good morning.” Eric turned to see Hyejin walking his way, stopping behind the tabletop closest to where he was. “Can I help you?” She smiled politely at him, no signs of recognition in her face.

Eric coughed, reciting the little speech he had rehearsed while he was still in the car. “I’m looking for... I’m sorry, I keep forgetting how to call them. The arrangements we give as condolences to people who have lost a loved one.”

Hyejin’s smile shook slightly, and she seemed unsure of whether to look serious because of what he said or to keep the image of a friendly shop assistant who knew exactly what he needed. “You mean a wreath of flowers?” she asked, her voice mild and her smile still there, though it was a small and tentative one.

“Yes, that’s it,” he smiled back at her, trying his best to look grateful and a little embarrassed. Chief Mun wouldn’t lose his composure easily and he would know exactly what he was looking for. He was not much different as Eric, but with work came the need to act a certain way when the situation asked for it. “Do you sell those?”

Her gaze dropped aside as she shook her head. “I’m sorry, we have just re-opened and... we’re still reorganizing our stock and everything. But I could call one of our partners and see what we can do for you?”

Eric waved his hand in what was supposed to be a polite dismissal. “Thanks, but that won’t be necessary. Do you have any other thing I could use? I mean, any other flowers that fit this-- situation...?”

Hyejin frowned briefly, for a second later her eyes lit up. “If you’ll wait just a moment here, sir, I’ll see what we have in our garden?”

He nodded, and watched her leave through the back door. His phone buzzed just as he tried to look for signs that there was any cat living in that place.

“It’s not him,” Taecyeon’s voice told him through the phone. He sounded like he didn’t want to believe that himself, his tone begrudging, the sigh that followed one of unacceptable defeat.

Chief Mun kept his voice quiet as he asked, “Kim Doyeon?”

“She didn’t recognize him. Said his features were different, the eyes, the forehead, even the height didn’t match...” Taecyeon’s frustration was obvious. “And the prints didn’t match either. It was someone else, sir. Some really smartass who’s not in the system.”

Junghyuk held back his own frustration, his voice calm despite the fact that they had reached another dead end. “Ok. I think we should still watch these two just in case.”

“I could have said the very same, sir. Something about this just doesn’t feel right.”

He hung up after Taecyeon assured him he would keep digging.

Chief Mun left the shop before Hyejin returned, a white lotus flower cradled in her hands.

 

x