Part 2, Secrets: Chapter 21.1

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*** Author's Note: Welcome to Part 2. If this is your first visit to No Life to Lose, I recommending reading from the start of Part 1.

If you've been with me since the beginning: I'm so glad you made it this far, and I hope we can continue on together. If you've been enjoying my work, please click the "vote" button for each chapter you felt was worthy. It's a great help to me in reaching more readers.

With my highest regards: Thank you.  ***

Chapter 21.1

August laid on her couch, one arm over her eyes. The usual relaxation exercises were useless. She was coiled tighter than a snake inside a spring.

The final arrow had been a wake-up call of epic proportions. Stupid, it said, whispering into her ear. Stupid, stupid, stupid, what are you doing?

It was obvious, wasn't it? She was helping her team win the battle. Except that went against her purpose in joining the battle. If James Kirkpatrick became the hero of Laurentia, the headline of every internet gaming website would read JFK is back! and The President kills the baron! with his picture splashed all over the page. Then there would be interviews, offers to join elite units, hordes of fangirls at every turn ... and August had been one second away from enabling it through her very own hands.

The ranger attack was another example. When James pushed August down to protect her, her heart pounded so hard it felt like it was going to pop right out her mouth. Then when he was dying on the ground, she crawled back and cradled him there, ready to die together, like he was the most important thing in the world. Brilliant, as far as her mission went.

Only she hadn't been thinking about the mission.

The kiss, though ... that was proof that August had lost every last marble. That was not part of a plan; there had been no plan. She sat in the forest with James in her lap, and in that moment the only thing to do was kiss him. A thank-you peck on the cheek, because he was on his side with an arrow in his chest.

What if he had been face up? What would she have done then?

This isn't me. This is just ... my own plan working against me.

The plan hinged on two psychological principles.

First, the mere-exposure effect: being frequently exposed to something made it more pleasing and comfortable. It was the effect that formed the foundation of advertising and political campaigning, but it applied equally well to relationships. August just had to throw herself into the mix with James as often as possible. What could be simpler?

Second, the suspension bridge effect: being in a dangerous situation was more likely to spark a connection than being in an ordinary, everyday situation—whether because danger was arousing, or just because it could activate similar physical cues to being aroused, creating a false sense of attraction. Either way was fine.

Time for a pat on the back. August had confirmed beyond any doubt that both principles worked like a charm. The only problem was, she had charmed herself instead of James.

What an unbelievable bungle.

Crashing the broom on purpose was the ironic representation of her entire two-faced existence.

Who was August Evans?

Was she the Australian patriot who loved her country and her boyfriend enough to take a job halfway around the world because something needed investigating? Or was she the UCC moderator who had come to truly value the things that she did in the job that was supposedly a cover?

Was she the August Evans who had no friends because friends were unnecessary weaknesses that could be exploited? Or was she the August Evans with a dozen different relaxation techniques because the stress of having no one to rely on had nearly driven her to a nervous breakdown?

I'm losing my mind.

August's phone buzzed. She took her arm off her eyes. The lights and phone were painfully bright.

A text message from John. Anything to report?

"Yes, turns out I've gone native," August said, but restrained herself enough to take a few deep breaths and think.

Eventually, she typed: Nothing yet.

Her phone buzzed again. If you feel this investigation is at an impassable end, I will authorize you to terminate operations.

August stared at the screen until the letters hovered in her visual field, scorched black against the brightness of the display.

I will authorize you to terminate operations.

At least August wasn't the only one experiencing a mission-related crisis. No wonder John had been so hostile lately. He was at the end of his rope, ready to tell the director that the UCC angle had come to nothing—which would mean the three years John had supported this investigation had also come to nothing. He couldn't survive the backlash, not with his ambition to be the next section chief. It might count for something that August had never been on the payroll, but that was more a function of limited resources than budgetary prudence.

That was why John had sent a text. If they spoke directly, he would probably end up shouting and cursing and belittling August into trying harder. And she would acquiesce as always, to keep the peace, and because truth be told, it wasn't such a bad life here.

Whatever had existed between her and John was dead in all but name. Paradoxically, August could admit that now that the chance had finally come to go home.

There was no home to go back to.

She was not August Evans, unofficial ASIS agent. Nor was she August Evans, UCC moderator and member of team James. She was both, but mostly, she was neither, with nothing to hold on to either here or there.

August punched in a reply and sent it along, one that would let her live just a little bit more of the life she wished was truly hers.

I feel there may still be something to be gained from this line of inquiry.

The reply came back instantly: Do as you see fit.

Maybe John knew there was no going back and no moving forward. Maybe he was also willing to fool himself a month or week or day longer, hoping against hope that it would turn out to be just a nightmare, and in the morning everything would be alright.

But this is no fairy tale, and I'm not some bloody princess. August put her arm back over her eyes, letting her phone fall to the floor. I'm August Evans, and my kingdom is hell, and my subjects are all August Evans. With so many of me, at least I'll not be lonely.

If she laughed, she was done for. Instead she slept, and prayed not to dream.

***

Awakening, August felt no better. She fumbled around for her phone and couldn't find it. Hopefully it had disappeared and no one would ever contact her again. Then she remembered dropping it on the floor and picked it up to check the time.

There was a message from an unknown number. The subject line was blank. Probably spam for breast enhancing cups or some stupid pyramid scam.

After hovering over delete for a while, she clicked view message instead. Not like bigger breasts could make life any more complicated.

But the message said: I know who you are.

August frowned. There was an attachment, which she opened. Inside was a further message and a picture.

I wish to meet. Come to the Capital 24 Cinema and sit in the third row from the back, second seat from the right, at the 9 PM showing of "Inside Out, Upside Down." Come alone. Be discreet.

August read the message twice, then looked at the attached picture: an inscribed shield guarded by kangaroo and emu under a shining sun, set against eucalyptus. The logo of the Australian government. But beneath it were four capital letters that changed everything.

ASIS.

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