The meeting place is McQueen Park. It isn’t your typical children’s park with rundown pieces of play equipment, but the expansive touristy kind filled with trees and twisting paths.
Beyond an iron archway marking the main entrance is a wide, concrete thoroughfare surrounded by ornate gardens overflowing with chrysanthemums, marigolds and decorative grasses. It is sunny and mild for the end of September; there are plenty of people milling around, but not as many as there would have been a month or two ago. I wander the concrete paths, letting my gaze drift nonchalantly over the faces of passing strangers. Caelen disappeared from my sight long ago, but I trust that he is not far behind.
You should be scared, I remind myself, but instead I feel a strange sense of excitement. It is akin to the anticipation at the height of a roller coaster ride. Like the first time I stood in front of a real microphone. Hell, every time I stood in front of a microphone. There’s a grave awareness that messing up will have enormous consequences, but still… if I succeed… I could change lives.
A harsh caw easily breaks through the din of children’s laughter and barking dogs. I squint my eyes against the sun and spot the source: a large crow perched on a branch at the top of a pine tree to my left. I put my hands in my pockets, walking towards it at a pace brisk enough to appease my nerves, but slow enough to still look leisurely. No one can see that my muscles are tensed, like a compressed spring, ready to react to whatever is waiting for me. That misplaced sense of exhilaration washes over me once again.
Before I reach the tree, the bird flits away to another, further away. I turn onto a narrower concrete path and follow it. Whenever I almost reach the tree where it rests, it retreats to another. This continues for nearly a quarter of an hour and I begin to doubt whether this is the right bird. The idea that I could be wandering around following the wrong crow is so absurd that I actually have to stop myself from laughing out loud. I guess I am a little nervous.
“Sharing in some private joke, Miss Kondo?” a stern and slightly accented voice asks from behind me.
I turn quickly, taking on a defensive stance in case she is unexpectedly hostile. It’s been a long time since I took any self-defence courses, but I still remember the basics.
A small woman, likely in her thirties, stands behind me. Her hair is short and shaved at the sides. She’s wearing a long sleeve black shirt with a silver scarf and a short grey skirt. Her boots are tall and have a decent heel. I can see the hint of a tattoo above her scarf and her ears are heavily pierced. She’s incredibly petite, but the expression from her dark eyes is as sharp as steel.
“Are you the person I’m supposed to meet?” I ask, trying to feel as intense and confident as she looks.
She immediately turns and continues walking past me up the path. I stand and stare after her for a moment before jogging to catch up. It may have seemed rude, but I know that turning your back to someone is a gesture of trust. At least I’m fairly certain it is.
“I’m guessing you know me pretty well,” I begin as I walk beside her, “having watched me for over two weeks. Can I at least have your name?”
She keeps walking on in silence. Okay, so is this some sort of a test or is she always this socially defunct?
“You might as well tell me,” I say as casually as I can; I don’t want it to sound like a threat, “If I wanted to sell you out I already know your family, your appearance, and your power. I’m not going to pretend like I’m experienced at this whole negotiating thing but I do think it would be a lot easier if I could at least call you by your name.”
There is a distinct change in air pressure by right my ear followed by a frantic flapping of wings. I barely manage to duck as a crow soars past my head. It lands on a low branch beside her, staring at me in that animatronic way that birds have. She stops walking for a moment.
“My name is Asuka Akiyama,” she says finally, still looking along the path. Her voice is deep and quiet, almost distant. Her accent and tone are reminiscent of my Ojiisan – my mother’s father. Maybe this is why I refuse to be intimidated – though a reserved man, Ojiisan was one of the kindest and most understanding people I’ve ever met.
“That sounds beautiful,” the words come out of my mouth without a thought. Good job Selene, I’m sure she’s the kind of person you can win over with flattery.
Asuka shrugs before continuing to walk steadily ahead. Apparently I’m going to have to grab this conversation by the reigns if I intend to accomplish anything.
“Hunter said someone thought you might be sympathetic to our goals. Obviously we have no intention of pressuring you into doing anything you don’t want to. To avoid implicating you any more than you feel comfortable with or sharing information you’d rather not be burdened with, would you like to ask anything?” These are Hunter’s talking points, but I think they’re fairly brilliant. This way we don’t corner anyone into joining or outing us, instead granting them control of the conversation. And, of course, the questions they choose can provide a lot of insight into their true intentions.
“Why are you helping him?” she asks, as if it’s the most natural response to what I’ve just said.
This raises multiple red flags – if she’s curious about my relationship with Hunter, she could still be working for Mirena.
“Why does that matter?”
For the first time since we started walking, she turns her piercing gaze towards me. “Do you have feelings for him?”
This time it’s me who stops walking. “I don’t know,” I answer honestly, “I don’t know what I feel about him. I barely know him. He saved my life, but so have others.”
She stops a couple paces ahead of me, looking back and raising an eyebrow, “You don’t even know why you’re risking your privacy, your freedom, and maybe your life for a man you barely know?”
My mind is racing, acknowledging that to a stranger it would seem like a ridiculous decision. But it’s not! I’m not doing this on a whim or for some guy that I can’t stop thinking about. I can feel my face growing red and hot. I can feel the seconds tick silently past. I see her begin to turn away.
“I’m not risking my life for Hunter. I’m doing it for me.”
Her eyebrows both rise now and she walks over to stand in front of me. Though her face falls inches below mine, I feel her staring steadily into my eyes as if she were meeting them.
“I gave up something that meant a lot to me a while ago,” I need to keep it vague for Yagher’s sake, but hopefully I can get my point across to her, “something that I thought was my entire purpose in life. I’ve spent every minute since then feeling empty. Hell, it’s possible I felt empty even before then. I found out that people have been keeping secrets from me for my entire life. This world, this war… and other things. I felt absolutely powerless.’
‘But Hunter… he’s offered me nothing but the truth. The truth and the ability to make my own decisions. And for the first time in a long time, I feel like maybe I can actually do something that has meaning. Maybe I can help other people find their own truths, their own meaning. I’m done pretending I’m okay with the way things are and the choices other people make for me, but I think what Hunter’s offering is a chance to make our own choices. Our own mistakes too maybe, but that’s alright, isn’t it? When we know that we’re the ones that made them.”
“I’ve seen lies breed mistrust and hate, but the truth can cause pain too,” she says, and I know she’s speaking from experience.
I nod, remembering my mother’s face when I told her I had been cutting myself. When I told her I couldn’t call her home mine as long as my father still lived there. “You’re right. But it’s a lot easier to heal when you know which wound to treat.”
A smile creeps up one side of Asuka’s face. “I have celebration preparations to attend to. Go to your truth speaker and tell him I won’t intrude on your privacy any more.”
I fight to keep my own smile tucked away so as to not betray my feelings – those for succeeding in my task. And those for being able to see Hunter again.
“How do I know this isn’t a trap?”
“Honesty is a bridge, Miss Kondo,” she walks away from me down the path, her heeled shoes clicking away on the path, “You won’t know how reliable it is until you step on it.”
I watch her walk away, a crow flying in the clear blue sky directly overhead. When Caelen speaks, I nearly jump out of my skin. “So, she’s in?”
“Seems that way,” I answer, reaching into my back pocket for my phone.
“You think she’s on the level?” he asks suspiciously and sniffs the air as if her lingering scent will reveal her intentions.
“I think we might as well find out.”