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    “The House in the Flower Garden” was appropriately named, as it was filled with flowers all around when spring came. To Jin, that place was home. However, he couldn’t attach the name “our home” to it. Instead of his father and mother, there were the director and teachers there, and instead of siblings, there were friends.

    At first glance, the cozy house in the flower garden was bursting with decay inside. When he was young, he was captivated by the hope that the world outside the flower garden would be much cozier, but as he grew older, he was consumed by the pitiful thought that having a house, however humble, was fortunate.

    If he played his cards right, there would be no need to stand out, just patiently wait to become an adult. As many children gathered there, there were cases where they were rejected for no reason or received favoritism for no reason. Jin was the latter. The former were the two boys Jin cherished.

    Jin just wanted to let them know. That the outside was colder than they thought. He was confident he could convince them. He realized how ignorant his confidence was, not knowing where he went wrong, when he dropped the empty medicine packet from his hand.

    The absence of rational behavior, the harm of arrogance, the sin of ignorance. It was the trauma he acquired after that day.

    “Ah, that kid is really hopeless.”

    Chief Sun Wookjae slammed the door of the interrogation room shut. The reason he was holding two paper cups in his hands, just like when he went in, was because the suspect hadn’t said a word.

    Jin pushed the medicine packet rolling around in his head to one side of his memory. His expressions hadn’t been good since morning. The suspect’s parents blamed others for their child not listening to the lesson they were responsible for.

    “If I could just smack him once, I’d have no regrets.”

    Muttered Sun Wookjae as he sipped cocoa from the paper cup.

    “These days, all kids are like that, aren’t they?”

    “What nonsense is that? There are more kids who aren’t like that. It’s just because of those brats that we all get blamed.”

    “So, Chief, is it true that your Suhee is a good kid?”

    Lee Inyeong’s face was one that seemed to wonder if a girl of barely five could ever harm anyone. As they spoke, Jin picked up the documents and took out his phone.

    When they opened the door to the interrogation room, the suspect’s appearance was a sight to behold. The suspect had both legs on the desk, chewing gum vigorously. Moreover, buried deep in an expensive padded jacket, the suspect was absorbed in their phone. Jin pulled out a chair opposite the suspect and sat down.

    Handing over the documents and checking the name, Jin smiled kindly.

    “Can I call you Woo Tae?” 

    The suspect, who was rolling gum on his tongue, nodded as if to say, “Do as you please.” After glancing at Jin, he put his legs down and also placed the phone he had been tapping on the desk.

    “When will this be over? I need to go to school.”

    “As soon as it’s done, I’ll send you. For now, isn’t Jihyung in your class, right?”

    The suspect let out a deep sigh at the somewhat gentle tone.

    “Are you the prosecutor?”

    “Yeah, I’m handling this case. I’ll be counting on you.”

    As the suspect looked at the hand offered for a handshake, he smirked as if he found it amusing.

    “I don’t have a hobby of shaking hands with someone who’s going to screw me over, do I?”

    “Why do you think that?”

    “Are you kidding? Who doesn’t know you’re trying to frame me?”

    “That’s strange. We haven’t even prosecuted you yet, have we?”

    The corner of the suspect’s mouth twitched as he retorted.

    “If I didn’t commit a crime, there wouldn’t be a need for me to be screwed over by you.”

    Unlucky. Jin muttered, but it was clearly a grumble with the intention of being heard. Instead of taking Jin’s offered hand, he grabbed a pen.

    “Evidence of Jihyung being bullied is emerging one after another, and there’s also evidence that you’re at the center of it.”

    “Why are you blaming us for that kid’s suicide? So annoying.”

    “Us?”

    Jin spun the pen around once and asked.

    “I’m asking you, Woo Tae.”

    Erasing the faint smile that remained, Jin turned on his phone. He turned the screen towards the suspect.

    “Take a look at this first.”

    As the video played, the sound of students chatting flowed through the speaker. It was filled with vulgar language.

    “Look at this bastard. He’s so scared. Hey, you scared? Huh? Yoo Jihyung, you bastard. Look properly at the camera.”

    “Isn’t this too much? What if he really dies like this?”

    “This bastard’s family is dirt poor. Who knows, they might prefer getting money for his life over having their son.”

    The victim’s face in the video was covered in blood, eyes rolled back, knocked unconscious, and being shaken around by his hair.

    Jin frowned as he watched the video. No matter how many times he had watched it, his mouth felt bitter each time. The video lasted about 5 minutes, showing scenes of assault and swearing without filtering.

    This wasn’t recorded to report the assault. It was recorded as a bragging record among themselves. Throughout the video, the suspect kept averting his gaze elsewhere, seemingly trying to ignore it.

    “Where do you think this came from?”

    “How would I know? Since someone spread it among the kids, one of those brats must have.”

    Since only the backs of the perpetrators were shown in the video, they could only be identified by their voices.

    “Then are you admitting that you were there?”

    “… “

    The suspect, with dilated pupils, seemed lost in thought. There were probably various situations going through his head.

    “But do you have evidence that I hit Jihyung? Only the back was shown in the video. And that back isn’t mine. It’s someone else’s.”

    Who’s? He chewed his lips as if hoping to be asked. When Jin didn’t say anything, he continued.

    “Also, I only recorded that one day. I was going to use it as a reference since it kept escalating, but I haven’t touched it since then.”

    “What about before?”

    “I said I only recorded one day! Damn, I’m unlucky.”

    Jin knew it was a lie. The victim Yoo Jihyung had suffered from countless acts of violence at academies over a year, with plenty of witnesses and evidence. After glancing at the recording camera placed behind Jin, he stood up from his seat.

    “Good job. You can go now.”

    “Huh?”

    Jin picked up the suspect’s phone from the desk and handed it back to him.

    “Didn’t you say you needed to go to school?”

    “Then, I’m not being prosecuted or anything, right?”

    The suspect, dragging his chair, looked up at Jin with a look of disbelief. Jin simply gestured towards the door with his chin. The suspect scrutinized Jin’s face as he stood up, scratching his head when he saw Jin smiling as if nothing was wrong.

    “Damn, what a waste of time. That crazy bastard is causing trouble even after death.”

    The suspect muttered as he finally followed Jin out.

    “But.”

    Jin, who was holding the door, continued as if he had just remembered something.

    “Did I ever say I wouldn’t prosecute you?”

    With a sudden snap, the suspect’s face contorted as he grabbed Jin’s arm urgently, asking what he meant. Jin looked down at the hand and removed it from his wrist.

    “Our department only handles serious crimes. Why do you think I’m handling a juvenile crime? Because I have free time? Because there are fewer serious crimes than expected?”

    The suspect, unable to grasp Jin’s intention, looked at him with anxious eyes. Jin played the video again and showed it to the suspect. The scene zoomed in on Jihyung’s face, covered in blood, with voices laughing and mocking in the background.

    “Look closely. The blood flowing from Jihyung’s nose and ears is quite different from the red blood you know, isn’t it?”

    The suspect blinked in confusion, his eyes fixed on the screen.

    “That’s cerebrospinal fluid.”

    “So, what’s the point of that?”

    Jin continued speaking to the suspect who stood rigidly.

    “It means the crime you committed is a serious one.”

    The suspect mumbled, not understanding, as Jin called out to Seon Wookjae.

    “Chief, please escort this student out.”

    “He’s not an elementary student. He can find his way out himself.”

    The suspect stood still, preventing the door from closing. It was clear that he wouldn’t come to his senses for a while. He still didn’t seem to understand what the problem was. Seon Wookjae, muttering “Just look at him,” gave the suspect a shove.

    “Let go, I’ll leave on my own.”

    The suspect’s voice echoed as if he had regained his composure. He strode out of the prosecutor’s office but turned his head sharply before leaving.

    “Hey, prosecutor. You do know I’m a minor, right?”

    Seon Wookjae gave a look that said the kid was hopeless.

    “Even if you prosecute, I’ll be at an advantage, right?”

    “Don’t you think we know the law better? So rude, not even a bit of remorse.”

    Lee Inyeong snapped back at the suspect, annoyed by his presumptuousness. Anticipating a scene, Jin stepped in to prevent further conflict.

    “Thanks for your hard work today. We’ll see you again soon.”

    “Damn, alright. Your ‘see you again‘ sounds so fake.”

    It was said that frightened animals bark more. But it seemed almost an insult to compare this kid to an animal. Even the retriever Jin had seen the other day didn’t torment creatures smaller than itself.

    As Jin was lost in thought and showed no reaction, the suspect spat through his teeth. Watching him slam the door on his way out, Lee Inyeong flared up.

    “Wow, it’s been a while since I’ve seen someone so shameless even after committing a crime.”

    “Why, Inyeong? Didn’t you say all kids are like this these days?”

    “I didn’t know they’d be this bad. Ugh, so frustrating.”

    “Oh, seems like you’ve seen a bit. You’re using quite rough language.”

    Seon Wookjae, teasing lightly, was startled by Lee Inyeong’s sharp glare. Jin, not interested in their banter, transferred the video to his laptop.

    “Excuse me, prosecutor.”

    Lee Inyeong called out to Jin subtly. Jin looked up from his laptop. Seeing that Jin looked much the same as he did when he arrived at work, she hesitated about whether to speak up.

    “Go ahead.”

    “Doesn’t it make you angry, Prosecutor?” Jin knew he was referring to the suspect’s attitude. Both Lee Inyeong and Seon Wookjae generally did not let personal feelings interfere with their cases. Still, there were days when emotions took over, like today. Understanding this, Jin replied casually.

    “Yes.”

    This was before Lee Inyeong could say, “You’re too calm.” Jin confirmed calmly.

    “Because we will win.”

    ***

    Unable to find a suitable parking spot, Jin parked in a paid parking lot and hurried on his way. Although he had left the office quickly, organizing the court schedule had taken longer than expected, and now it was well past the animal clinic’s closing time.

    The sign of the animal clinic was already turned off. Nevertheless, Jin didn’t stop walking. A faint light was visible from inside. It wasn’t until he approached the door that he could see inside.

    Han Naeyung’s white coat was touching the floor. He was crouched in front of the desk, shaking a ball in his hand. Soon, the ball, about the size of a fist, flew towards the sofa. There was a sound of claws scratching the floor as Nari chased after the ball.

    The dog wagged its stubby tail and brought the ball back, and Han Naeyung repeated the throw. The dog, panting heavily, had its tongue hanging out, suggesting they had been playing for quite some time.

    Jin didn’t go in immediately but watched for a while. Han Naeyung’s expressionless face and the way he gently patted Nari’s head with his bare hand left a strong impression. Suddenly sensing his gaze, Han Naeyung straightened up. When their eyes met, Jin nodded first, and he returned the gesture.

    “I’m sorry to keep bothering you.”

    Jin entered, his face full of apologies.

    “It’s no trouble.”

    Nari wagged her tail and looked up at Jin, still appearing cautious but more energetic than two days ago. Jin motioned for her to come closer, and Nari carefully approached after dropping the ball from her mouth.

    Han Naeyung took off the gloves he had in his pocket. Jin, lifting Nari, patted her solid hindquarters. The dog, as soon as she was in his arms, froze again and only rolled her eyes around.

    “How much is the additional fee?”

    Han Naeyung handed over the ball he was holding with his gloved hand.

    “Just pay for the toy.”

    Han Naeyung gave Jin his change after taking the money. In the meantime, he shook the ball, which made a rattling sound, indicating something inside. Nari’s ears perked up at the noise.

    As Jin recalled how Han Naeyung played with the dog, a subtle smile seemed to linger in his eyes despite his otherwise expressionless face. When he entered, Han Naeyung had put on gloves, indicating that he perhaps preferred to avoid contact with humans. However, he didn’t seem to be the type to shower excessive affection on animals either.

    Jin watched quietly as Han Naeyung removed his coat. He glanced at Jin before shifting his gaze to the door, indicating he should leave. Jin, having finished his business, was about to leave when he dropped the change. Nari, seeing the ball roll away, jumped out of his arms and chased after it, catching it near Han Naeyung’s feet and waiting for praise.

    “I’m her owner, but it seems she likes you more.”

    Feeling a bit slighted, Jin approached the dog. Meanwhile, he noticed Han Naeyung leaning against the desk, watching him.

    As he picked up the dog to leave, Jin stopped abruptly. He had seen Han Naeyung’s reflection in the glass. He had immediately removed his gloves after Jin walked away.

    “Have you had dinner?”

    Han Naeyung blinked calmly.

    “I don’t eat dinner.”

    “Is that how you always are? Or just today?” 

    Even as Jin said it, he mentally clicked his tongue. If nitpicking over words was an occupational hazard, he had no excuses.

    “……” 

    Han Naeyung’s lips remained firmly shut, showing no intention of moving. Nari, holding the ball in her mouth, wagged her tail lightly and looked around. So that’s why he’s so thin, Jin thought to himself as he put the dog down.

    “Sorry, but could you watch her for a bit?” 

    Jin hurriedly closed the door to prevent the cold from getting in and walked briskly outside. Nari, after dropping the ball, ran to the glass door and began scratching at it with her claws, trying to follow him.

    Han Naeyung picked Nari up. The dog’s whimpering, as if she had been abandoned, was pitiful. He sat on the sofa and gently stroked her short fur. 

    “He’ll be back soon,” Han Naeyung murmured, and Nari looked up at him as if asking, “Do you know where my owner went?” Han Naeyung turned his gaze outside the clinic. 

    Jin had already disappeared from view, and there was no way to know where he had gone. He could only hold the anxious dog tightly. The dog’s body heat, nestled in his arms, was as high as that of a child.

    It reminded him of his younger sibling, who often had a mild fever. Actually… he couldn’t remember well. While the brightness of the morning sunlight today was vivid, he had forgotten what its warmth felt like. Han Naeyung only remembered the chilly wind that wrapped around him instead of his sibling’s warmth.

    Outside the window, the neon signs in the distance shimmered. The moisture in his clear eyes began to expand. As if erasing the spreading moisture, he lowered his eyelids. Nari, resting her legs on Han Naeyung’s chest, began to lick his cheek with her hot tongue.

    Being a newly established veterinarian with little experience, Han Naeyung found it hard to logically explain the intuitive way animals sensed human emotions. Taking a deep breath, Han Naeyung opened his eyes, and Nari tilted her head, looking confused. Her dry, black eyes questioned him. Stopping her comforting licks, she gazed out the window again.

    If left alone, she would wait for her owner indefinitely, just like all the other animals Han Naeyung had seen. Abandoned animals, even when discarded due to the high cost of surgeries, would wait for their owners until death. At the beginning of his practice, he often took care of these animals, but as time passed and more animals were not claimed, he began to refuse them.

    It wasn’t that he could blame the owners entirely. The financial burden was significant, after all. They were just passing the responsibility onto someone else. Believing the animal hospital would somehow save their pets, they left their animals, relying on the veterinarian’s conscience. These abandoned animals were often adopted by Lee Seolhwa or taken to shelters when that wasn’t possible.

    The hospital’s precarious finances only stabilized thanks to Lee Seolhwa. Had she not firmly refused owners who asked to leave their pets, the clinic might have turned into a zoo. Still, he couldn’t ignore cases of abused animals.

    Scratching Nari’s back with neatly trimmed nails, Han Naeyung could smell the faint scent of mist that Lee Seolhwa had sprayed on her after washing her. She had complained about the amount of dirt coming from such short fur, treating Nari like laundry. During that time, the dog had remained calm, never resisting even when forcibly bathed, always watching for human reactions.

    The true extent of the pain Nari had suffered at the dogfighting ring was unknown. What was certain was that she had many scars. The dog suddenly leapt out of Han Naeyung’s arms.

    Jin returned with the sound of the bell, carrying black plastic bags in both hands. Despite having waited, Nari circled around him, not immediately going to him. Jin patted Nari’s head and looked at Han Naeyung.

    “Did you wait long?”

    Han Naeyung shook his head.

    “No.”

    Jin started unpacking the food he had bought onto the table in front of the sofa. Soon, a variety of dishes—sundae, oden in disposable bowls, various fried foods, and stir-fries—filled the table. It all happened while Han Naeyung watched in a daze. Jin crumpled the empty bags and then spoke.

    “Eat.”

    Han Naeyung looked at the food, feeling a bit taken aback. He really didn’t eat dinner, and he had no reason to accept dinner from this man.

    “I’m fine.”

    Jin prevented Nari from sniffing at the table.

    “You’re not fine. You hurt your hand… And honestly, Dr. Han, you’re so thin I feel like I need to force-feed you.”

    Jin extended the chopsticks with a “Here you go,” and Han Naeyung stared at them for a moment before finally taking them. Jin smiled, as if he’d achieved his goal. Holding Nari’s leash, he headed for the door. Han Naeyung looked back and forth between the food spread out on the table and Jin’s back. There was too much food for one person to eat alone.

    “Um…” As soon as Han Naeyung’s small voice was heard, Jin turned around. Nari also looked up at Han Naeyung. Jin’s sharp eyes and Nari’s torn eyes, wagging her tail, both seemed to say, “If you have something to say, say it.”

    “It’s a lot of food. Let’s eat together.”

    “Shall we?” Jin replied cheerfully and walked back with large strides. He pulled over a single chair and sat down across the table from Han Naeyung. Meanwhile, Han Naeyung filled a bowl with kibble from the desk and placed it in front of Nari.

    Once he sat back down, the distance between him and Jin was close but not uncomfortable. Han Naeyung neatly held his chopsticks. Jin, shaking out salt next to the blood sausage, said, “Oops, I only got one packet of salt.”

    Han Naeyung looked at him, puzzled.

    “I don’t need any, so you can use it,” Jin said.

    Still not understanding, Han Naeyung watched as Jin moved fish cake and broth into a bowl. Jin, noticing Han Naeyung’s confusion, offered him a disposable spoon with the fish cake. Han Naeyung’s eyelids flickered as the spoon approached.

    Without showing any reaction, Jin divided the portion and then drank the remaining broth. It seemed to be cool enough since there was no steam.

    “Do you drink alcohol?” Jin asked.

    “I do,” Han Naeyung replied.

    Before he could finish speaking, Jin pulled something from his coat pocket. With a slightly mischievous smile, he placed a bottle of soju on the table.

    Han Naeyung felt a bit awkward. It seemed that Jin had anticipated his invitation from the start and had bought this much food with that in mind. He left the soju bottle on the table and chewed the blood sausage without any seasoning, watching Nari eat her kibble. As he observed Nari eating voraciously, he let out a short laugh.

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