Located at the exact opposite end of town from where the incident happened was the police department, which was currently on high alert. The entire compound was on lockdown at that very moment, with entire squads and teams of policemen searching every inch of the premises with the help of K-9 units. Something very important had gone missing hours ago, after all, and their chief had ordered them to comb every nook and cranny nonstop until they found it.

And all the while, a man watched the search unfold from the terminal in the chief’s office.

Help your old man out, Taro, he thought anxiously as he glanced momentarily at his child’s framed photo on the wall right across his desk. Who took you, and where did they take you?

Even now, the longtime lawman was at a loss as to how this could’ve happened. That day had begun like any other, and there was nothing whatsoever that could’ve clued any of them in as to what was in store for them later that afternoon. As his son’s classes ended early that day, he’d instructed his personal aide to fetch him from school and bring him back to the department. And once they’d arrived, his aide was to take him to the unused boardroom further down the hall from his office, and to babysit him there until they clocked out that evening.

Needless to say, the chief feared the worst when he came by the boardroom at exactly 6:00 in the evening to ask his aide and his son what they wanted for dinner, only to find said aide keeled over on the carpet with a tranquilizer dart buried in his neck – and his son not at all.

How could I let this happen!?

In hindsight, the chief knew this scenario wasn’t at all unlikely. Both he and the police department under his leadership had made more than their fair share of enemies, after all. And as difficult as it was to fathom, he knew better than to hope that those enemies wouldn’t sink so low as to harm innocent children. On the contrary, the half-dozen child predators his boys had arrested since the start of the year was sufficient evidence that some people were, in fact, that depraved, however much everyone wanted to pretend otherwise.

They better not hurt you, Taro, the chief said to himself as his thoughts took a correspondingly dark turn. If they do…

Mercifully, he was snapped out of that train of thought by a knock at his door.

“Come on in.”

And when he saw who it was, the expression on his face went from one of fear and anxiety, to an exhausted yet relieved smile.

“I’m glad you’re alright,” said the chief, his face brightening slightly as his aide entered the room. “A welcome development, I hope?”

“Oh, you’ll love this, sir,” the aide replied with a look that told the older man exactly what he needed – and wanted – to know.

“Someone called me up from an unidentified number just a little while ago…”

“Here, you have this,” said Shugo with a reassuring smile as he extended the chocolate shake to the boy he found tied up in the trunk approximately an hour ago. “My treat.”

He then watched as the boy took the frozen drink and began sipping quietly, before going over to the seat right across. He began to sip on the iced coffee he’d ordered for himself, before placing the last remaining iced drink – also an iced coffee – on the table to his right. The boy before him had calmed down somewhat after being repeatedly reassured that he was safe, and that the bad men who had bound and gagged him weren’t going to hurt him again anytime soon. “Nothing like a nice chocolate shake to lift our spirits, is there?”

Though the boy gave no verbal reply, the slight laugh that came from him was as good a sign as any. As easy as it would’ve been to just ask him if he knew how to get home, Shugo considered the boy’s state of terror and distress when he was found and thought better of it. The boy could barely form a complete sentence, much less calm down long enough to call up his parents – or guardians – or whoever else may have been entrusted with looking after him – so they could come get him.

Hopefully, this’ll get him to open up.

Shugo looked up at the sound of the restaurant’s door swinging open.

“Oh, it’s you,” he said when he saw the new arrival – a young man not much older than Shugo himself – who then took the vacant seat beside him. “That iced coffee’s yours, by the way. My treat.”

It was something they’d agreed on. Just after freeing and ungagging the boy, Shugo confronted the straggler who’d been abandoned by his companions. The straggler, who introduced himself as Akizuki Ayato, confessed that the gang paid him to act as their lookout while they retrieved a package of some sort. Apparently, Ayato’s job was to keep watch and verify that they weren’t being pursued as they made their getaway. Once he’d made absolutely sure that no one was in pursuit, the next step was for Ayato to meet them at a prearranged pickup point, after which they’d all escape together.

“I swear, I didn’t know that the ‘package’ was a kid,” Ayato had insisted earlier. “Please, you’ve got to believe me!”

Shugo took him at his word, which was helped by the fact that he, Shugo, knew for certain that Ayato was telling the truth. Neither he nor the spirit attached to him could sense any malice or ill intent emanating from Ayato, which was more than could be said about the rest of the gang he’d dealt with. More importantly, it was Ayato’s idea to accompany him as they waited to return the boy to his family. Whether it stemmed from a sense of pragmatism and self-preservation, or from genuine shame and remorse at what he’d gotten involved in, it was clear to Shugo that Ayato felt compelled to make up for what happened.

“They should be here any minute now,” Ayato informed both of them in between sips from his own frozen drink, before turning his attention to the boy in particular. “Sorry you had to go through all that.”

Still the boy said nothing – in fact, he’d barely said a word since he was freed from the trunk. If nothing else, thought Shugo, the small smile the boy flashed towards the lean, shaggy-haired youth who’d just spoken was encouraging. Judging from his behavior, Shugo surmised that while he keeping the boy company right now was indeed the right call, it was nevertheless likely that only someone from the boy’s family could get him to open up.

It’s not like I can force him to talk if he really doesn’t want to, thought Shugo with a sigh as he watched the boy across him who had finished half his chocolate shake and was now continuing to sip on what was left. Oh, well. At least he’s safe now.

Shugo didn’t really hold it against the boy. On one hand, the fact that the child went with him and Ayato indicated his trust that the two were friends; at the very least, it signified the boy’s certainty that the two of them meant him no harm. Shugo in particular took that as a good sign, not least because his clothes – now concealed under the blue-and-white jacket Ayato lent to him – were covered in blood and riddled with bullet holes all over when the child first laid eyes on him. At the same time, he also realized how unrealistic it was to expect the child to open up so quickly about the ordeal he’d literally just gone through, and even less so to two people he’d just met and barely knew.

Just then, Ayato’s phone rang.

“Hello?” Ayato said tentatively as he picked up the call, only to hand it to the child immediately after. “It’s for you.”

“Hello?” said the boy to the unknown caller. “Yeah, we’re here.”

“Okay, see you soon!” he then added a moment later, just before giving the phone back to its owner. “Bye!”

As it turned out, ‘soon’ wound up being shorthand for ‘five minutes later at most’. Not long after the phone call, all three of them spied a dark red sedan with tinted windows come to a stop right in front of the establishment. Ayato and Shugo followed not too far behind as the boy leapt to his feet and ran outside to meet whoever it was who came to pick him up. Though the two had differing reasons for feeling the way they did, both of them felt a mingled sense of curiousity and apprehension at the idea of meeting the boy’s fetcher.

Fetchers, rather.

And those feelings were only amplified further when two males exited from the driver and passenger sides of the car.

On the right was a spry young man, likely in his twenties, with dark hair cropped close to his scalp. He was clad in an olive-green sweater with matching cargo pants, the right side pocket of which contained something that jutted out just enough to give warning of what he was carrying. As Shugo sized him up carefully and watched the boy run up and hug him around the waist, he wondered just who this kid was to warrant the protection of an armed bodyguard.

And the other one must be…

Meanwhile, the other man was much older, likely in his late thirties or early forties if Ayato were to guess. He was clad in the navy blue uniform of a high-ranking police officer, which said something about his position within the police department. This impression was further reinforced by the man’s graying hair and imposing demeanor, which further suggested that he earned his current rank – whatever it was – through years’ worth of service, and that he wasn’t one to be messed with.

“They’re nice guys, dad!” exclaimed the boy as the policeman – his father – got down on one knee to embrace his son. “They saved me! And they even got me a chocolate shake while we waited for you!”

“Hush now, Taro,” the policeman said gently but firmly to his son, before he opened the door just behind the driver’s seat and gestured for his son to get inside. “Here, get in. I’m sure you’re exhausted after everything you’ve been through today.”

The man watched for a moment as his aide took his son and ushered him into the car.

And when that moment passed, he then he turned towards Ayato and Shugo, who had been watching the reunion, with an unreadable look in his face as his eyes darted between the two. “I’ll have to thank you for helping out my boy,” he began with a slight smile.

“My name is Hikawa Ryoma,” the longtime lawman said as he introduced himself, while at the same time extending his hand to the two youths in in invitation to a handshake. “I’m pleased to meet you both.”

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