These Red Strings of Tangled Intent
Juliana learns to meditate. She walks many twisted paths, but throughout them all there is a face that haunts her. Fate is fluid, and she is barely scratching the surface.
A/N: I know nothing of the I Ching except what I've read on Wikipedia. I couldn't handle all that UST between J/J. This is what happened. Also, why isn't there more fic in this fandom?
"An invisible red thread connects those who are destined to meet, regardless of time, place or circumstance. The thread may stretch or tangle, but it will never break." –Ancient Chinese belief
In the dojo, Juliana Crain meditates.
No matter how much she practices, she still struggles with it, this intense process of slowing your heartbeat, deepening your breathing, stilling your mind. Aikido came naturally to her, but this – this is like fighting against a rising tide, against an encroaching, oppressive silence that terrifies her deepest core. Her mind has a tendency to flutter, beating desperate wings against the walls of her head, demanding its freedom.
It's not about caging it, or subduing it, aikido master Nakamura explains to her. It's about learning to control your mind, quiet it. Find the stillness inside your heart, he says.
It had taken her an hour of supplication and convincing before Nakamura relented and agreed to take her back into the embrace of the dojo. She's no longer a wanted woman, for starters. She suspects the Kempeitai still keep a close eye on her and Frank, but for now, they are off the hook. The Kempeitai guard posted in front of their apartment has left, at the very least. She just doesn't know how long that will last for. If there's one thing she's learned in the past few weeks, it's that there is nothing in this world you can take for granted.
She was once Nakamura's best student and now she can only see the pity in his eyes as he looks at her. She doesn't want his pity. She wants an escape.
The dojo had been her home for so long that she thought she would find respite here from the unending nightmare that has become her life. But it's no longer the same – there's a wariness among her classmates, respect tempered by distrust. She was a gaijin woman who used to best them. Now she's a gaijin woman trying to destroy their way of life.
No, that's not what I was trying to do, Juliana wants to yell at them. But she's past wanting to explain herself to anyone, anymore.
Tagomi, gentleness in eyes, turmoil in his heart, suggests she try meditation. He had given her back her job, despite everything. She didn't deserve his kindness, not after the way she had walked out on him. But he asks very few questions, simply looks at her for a long, still moment, and bows courteously.
"You still have much to offer, Juliana. Your path through this world is winding and complex. The oracle has foreseen it," he tells her.
Juliana's answering bow is the deepest she's ever given, bending straight from her waist, face parallel to the ground.
She catches Tagomi meditating more frequently as she tiptoes in to refill his tea. Most days he is so deep in his trance he doesn't sense her. Then there are the days when she enters the room and her mere presence triggers his consciousness and he jolts awake, eyes flying open, and in the seconds before they focus on her she can see in them another world.
"I am sorry to disturb you, Tagomi-san," she apologizes, eyes downcast. She pours slowly from the teapot, arms straight lines, elbow crooked at a right angle, the line of liquid a graceful arc, trying to steady her quavering fingers.
"It is no matter. Sometimes it is good to be pulled back into this present, to remind myself that I am here." He smiles enigmatically at her, and she sees the dark circles underneath his eyes.
She inquires shyly, "May I ask where you were?"
Tagomi sighs, wistful and melancholy. "Somewhere far, far away. A different world, maybe."
Juliana, curiosity piqued, the part of her that never seems to die away, no matter how many times she has been knocked down, plucks up her nerve to ask, "Do you meditate to understand the oracle?"
It is a while before Tagomi responds. "One cannot exist without the other. I ask a question and the I Ching gives me an answer. Meditation gives me the understanding." He inclines his head towards her. "Ms. Crain, perhaps it is something you might like to try. It may ease some of the demons in your heart."
Juliana Crain learns to meditate. She sits on hard bamboo floorboards and tries to keep from slouching, palms upturned upon her knees. It takes her weeks before she can sit still long enough for 10 minutes to pass, then 15, then 20. Every time she attempts to silence her mind, she sees the bodies and blood. She sees the ruins of Trudy's body, what is left of the sister she knew staring up at her through the bones and corpses of thousands of other sisters, and brothers, and fathers and mothers. She sees the darkness in Frank's eyes, the desolation etched eternally now in the lines of his face. She sees the back of his skull explode from the bullet, the cold emptiness of the man who pulls the trigger. She sees his blue eyes, boring into her, pleading with her. She sees his face, engraved forever (in her mind, in her heart), as he stares back at her from the deck of a fishing boat pulling away from the dock. She cannot seem to unsee him.
He is the last thing she sees before her mind stops beating futile wings, before she sinks into and through it and ceases thought. Her eyes slide shut, and she breathes deeply, in and out, one, two, three.
In this life, Juliana Crain meets a man with blue eyes in a diner, and she doesn't say goodbye as she puts him on her fishing boat and watches him sail away. He stands boldly on the deck, tousled hair blowing in the chill Pacific breeze, gazing back at her until she can barely make out his silhouette against the horizon, a tiny speck of black against the roiling sea.
"You said once to me that I might be a different man if I'd met you sooner. You changed me," he says to her.
It's the lucid honesty in his eyes, the unveiling of his soul, that undoes her. In that moment she can see him, beneath the layers of masks and facades they've both thrown up, lies stripped away, and in that instant he is bared to her, the stark yearning in his heart stealing her breath away.
"I believe you," she tells him.
In that moment Juliana makes a resolute decision that changes the course of both their lives, casting overlapping ripples across a deep, still well.
When she returns home, the apartment feels empty and hollow. It is hours before Frank comes stumbling through the door, an open gash on his forehead and a new bump on his head. He stops in front of her, hands dangling helplessly by his side, fists clenching and unclenching.
"They took Ed." He refuses to meet her eyes, and jerks away when she reaches out a hand. It is the only thing he says to her before he crumples onto their bed. He doesn't get up for a long, long time.
When Juliana goes to bed these nights, Frank lies beside her, turned away, a wide swath of bed between them that may as well be a fortress. Something has broken between them, cracked irreparably, and Juliana doesn't know how to make the pieces fit back together again. She listens to Frank's stifled cries in the middle of the night, rage and heartbreak and helplessness bleeding through, and she curls her fingers tight around the sheets and wills herself still. Juliana practices her meditation techniques, attempts to soothe the pounding in her temple, a dull hammering that is growing into a wave. She tries to block out all external noise, find the stillness inside her heart.
Except it's not Frank's voice she hears in her head.
"I'm still glad I met you."
She doesn't understand this ache in her heart, this emptiness in her bones.
Tagomi notes the pallor of her face, the dull luster of her skin.
"Are you feeling alright, Ms. Craine?"
"I haven't been sleeping well," she admits, mindful of not spilling the tea as she pours. "I guess those demons aren't being too quiet." She offers a feeble smile, and Tagomi considers her for a quiet minute before he beckons her closer.
"Perhaps it is time I showed you something, Ms. Craine." He opens a box and hands her a heart pendant, dangling from a metal chain. She knows it immediately and intimately, circles her fingers in old patterns around it. He watches her astutely.
"Why do you have this?" she blurts.
"It came into my possession on a day many fates were aligned, and I suspect, for a reason. I use it as a meditation charm, of sorts. It helps me to focus. Find a semblance of peace." From the same box he delicately lifts out a bundle of sticks, worn smooth and fraying, and hands them to her. "Part of that reason, mayhap, has been made a little clearer to me now. Would you like to learn how?"
In this life, Trade Minister Nobusuke Tagomi teaches Juliana Crain how to ask and cast the I Ching.
"It may take years of practice before understanding may blossom in your mind," he tells her sagely. "Be patient and yielding. Continue your meditation practice." He nods at the sticks in her hands. "Now, cast."
Before she casts her first oracle, Juliana clutches the sticks, the wood rough and stained with age, tightly in her hands. She thinks deeply and carefully.
Juliana casts, a question in her heart.
She reads her hexagram: Bo – Splitting Apart.
In the early morning, weak sunlight splashing across the sheets, Juliana wakes heavy and warm. There is an arm draped across her stomach, her body pulled possessively into the cocoon of a harder, male form. Relief floods her sluggish mind, and she turns her head.
Lazy blue eyes meet hers. "Morning, beautiful."
There is an instantaneous jolt of stillness to her body, limbs freezing up as her mind races to catch up.
He smiles languidly at her, his striking features suffused with sleep. He runs a finger across her face, brushing away a wayward strand of hair, sliding down to her lips, and Juliana feels a bolt of electricity straight to her core. He leans towards her neck, morning stubble rasping against her skin, and presses a chaste kiss to her collarbone. His scent surrounds her. It is one she remembers instantly – woodsy, masculine, a hint of leather and tobacco. A long time ago, she fell asleep wrapped in his jacket and smelled him on her for days.
The tip of his name is on her tongue. She scrambles upright and puts space between them, heart pounding hard, throbbing in her temple.
"Frank," she gasps out loud. "Where's Frank?"
"Who?" he asks, confusion creeping across his face. "Are you feeling okay, babe?"
He reaches out for her and she shakes him off. Juliana presses her face against her knees, squeezes her eyes shut and tries to calm her trembling body. She breathes deeply through her nose, one, two, three.
In this life, it is 1962 and she meets a man with blue eyes at a diner in San Francisco. He's wearing a sharply pressed suit and sitting at the counter reading the morning's paper, headline splashed with Kennedy's announcement of a naval blockade around Cuba. She refills his coffee cup and he looks up and meets her eyes.
"Thank you." He smiles at her, eyes lingering a little too long over her face, moving down to her nametag. "Juliana. That's a pretty name. I'm Joe."
She returns his smile politely, and nods down at the paper. "Crazy what the Soviets are doing, huh?"
He shakes his head. "We shouldn't have gotten into bed with them during the war. Who knows how far this is going to escalate? We sure live in some scary times."
She cocks an eyebrow at him and grins. "Then the world would have been a very different place."
He grins back in surprise. "Then maybe you and I would have never met."
She likes his smile, and his eyes. They are warm and friendly and put her at ease. Even so, Juliana rolls her eyes at his cheesy line and moves onto her next customer. Joe is the last patron to leave that morning, and he comes in every day after that, sitting at the same spot. It takes him five days before he musters up the courage to ask her out.
In this life, she meets a man with blue eyes at a diner in Colorado. She has traveled for hours on the bus to visit her sister, dusty roads and verdant pine forests streaking past the grimy windows, and in her haste to get off at her stop in Canon City she doesn't notice her wallet has been stolen until it's too late. Trudy is supposed to meet her at the bus stop, but after 40 minutes of impatient waiting, parched and cranky, Juliana heads into the diner across the street. The place is worn down but clean, chipped red counter and peeling wallpaper. There's a jukebox in a corner and a wilted United States flag tacked to the back corner wall. Juliana takes a seat at the counter and orders. It's not until the bill comes for her sandwich and coke that she realizes her wallet is missing.
"I'm so sorry, I can't pay you."
"You what?" The diner owner asks incredulously.
"Someone must have stolen my wallet, all my money. I'm really sorry." Her face flushes with mortification.
"This ain't no charity, lady. How you gonna pay me?"
"I told you, I can't."
"Wrong answer. How you gonna pay me?" The owner's face turns an ugly shade of purple as he thrusts a finger into her chest, and Juliana takes an alarmed step back.
"Easy there, buddy. I'll pay for it." A man reaches calmly into his wallet and places a few bills down on the counter. Juliana turns around and sees a young man, brown hair slicked to one side. He's in jeans and a faded denim shirt, and he smiles at her.
She registers his beauty and that only serves to annoy her further. "No, I don't need your money, whoever you are."
"Oh, yes, you do." He nods at the money, and the diner owner snatches it up with a huff.
She scowls at him. "I didn't ask you to do that."
"I know you didn't. You're welcome, by the way." He keeps smiling at her, and she can see the glint of amusement in his eyes.
Juliana rolls her eyes and stomps out of the diner, and he follows her into the hazy afternoon light.
"Where you headed?" He inquires politely.
"No place," Juliana snaps, then relents a little. "I'm visiting my sister and she's supposed to pick me up. She's late."
She leans against the wall of the diner and crosses her arms, inwardly cursing Trudy. The man settles in next to her, casually lighting up a cigarette.
Juliana glances at him out of the corner of her eyes. "I guess I should thank you for what you did back there."
"It's no problem." It's that smile again, simultaneously putting her at ease and striking a chord somewhere deep inside her, a sense of familiarity she can't quite place.
"You always so helpful to strangers?"
"Pretty ones, I am." He says it unabashedly, without reservation.
Juliana snorts. "You're a regular Casanova."
He grins at her and takes a deep drag of his cigarette, exhaling out his nose. "So what's your name?"
"Juliana, pleased to meet you. I'm Joe."
He reaches over to shake her hand, and at the touch of his palm, cool and dry around hers, Juliana starts. There is a crackle of electricity that jumps between them, and she sees her own reflected surprise in his blue eyes. There is a humming under her skin, a burgeoning buzzing in the back of her head.
Joe lets go of her hand and runs his fingers through his hair. "So how long are you staying for?"
Juliana shrugs, pointedly ignoring her body's peculiar reaction. "A week or so."
"Maybe I'll see you around," he smirks at her, arrogant and sure, just as Trudy pulls up to the curb, spewing curses and apologies.
Juliana throws her bag in the trunk, walks over to the passenger side and rummages through her sister's purse.
"Probably not," she says him, as she walks over and stuffs a few bills in his hand. "Thanks for lunch."
In this life, a man with blue eyes approaches her in a dimly lit bar in the Village; dark oak paneling and plush leather booths, a sultry singer crooning in a corner. Juliana is dressed in a form-fitting black dress that is showing more skin than she's used to, and Trudy is in apple red beside her.
She sees him approach them from afar, and the easy, lithe grace of his walk triggers a strange rush of déjà vu through her.
"Good evening, ladies. May I buy you a drink?" His smile is boyishly charming.
Trudy giggles, and Juliana returns his smile. "Sure, why not," she says. "We're celebrating."
"What's the happy occasion?" He signals the bartender.
"Jules just got engaged," Trudy blurts out, giggling again. The man glances down at Juliana's left hand, the sparkle on her ring finger twinkling in the soft light. Juliana can read the disappointment clear in his eyes, but he shoots her a wry grin.
"Can't fault a guy for trying with two lovely ladies like yourselves. How about you, are you engaged too?" The question is directed at Trudy, but his eyes never leave Juliana.
Trudy blushes in surprise, and Juliana answers for her. "Nope, she's single."
He grants Trudy a smile, sending her flushing to match her dress, before bringing his gaze back to Juliana. "So where's this fiancé of yours tonight?"
"He's running late at work. He'll be joining us later." Juliana accepts the cocktail he passes to her, and as their hands brush he furrows his brow at her.
"I'm sorry, miss – do I know you from somewhere?"
"No, I don't think so," Juliana jerks her hands away, her vision blurring for a quick second. "Thank you for the drink. I'm sorry, I feel a headache coming on. It must be the alcohol."
He smiles sympathetically, and murmurs politely. "Well, it was lovely to meet you both. Give my regards to your fiancé. He's a lucky guy."
Later, when Frank joins them at the bar, crushing her into a tight hug, she catches the man's eyes from across the bar. He raises his glass to her and turns away.
"Cast," Tagomi says.
Juliana casts, a question in her heart.
She reads her hexagram: Ming Yi: Darkening of the Light.
When she enters the 18th floor conference room at the Nippon with her dictation machine, Trade Minister Tagomi is already seated with his retinue. She bows in apology for her tardiness and takes her seat in the back corner. They stand as the Nazi delegation files in, uniforms crisply starched, and take their seats. As the meeting begins and Juliana starts her recording duties, she becomes aware of a Nazi officer seated at the far left watching her. She raises her head and meets his gaze, and a hint of faint recognition flares in both their eyes. Blue eyes, light brown hair, handsome boyish features. She has never seen him before, but she knows him somehow.
Juliana tucks her head down and continues typing, ignoring the trembling of her fingers. She doesn't look up the rest of the meeting, but she can feel his eyes linger on her, dark and contemplative, the entire time.
She is tied to a chair, and the burly, blond SS officer lays a series of photographs down on the table in front of her. In one is the face of her sister, lying still in a dark pool of blood, and in the other is a dark haired man in glasses, a gaping hole in the side of his head. She can't take her eyes off of them.
"Your sister and this man were members of the resistance, caught illegally smuggling snuff films. We need the names of their co-conspirators. We know you can give them to us."
"No," she whispers in horror. "That's my sister Trudy. I didn't know she was involved in something like this. The man I don't know."
The SS officer shoves the picture of the man in front of her face. "You're lying. You know this man. His name is Frank Frink. He's a Jew." He spits at the floor, missing her foot by centimeters.
"I've never seen him before."
She doesn't see the slap coming, the force of it snapping her head back. She blinks rapidly to clear away the tears.
"You are still lying. You lie, you get hurt. That is the way this is going to work."
Juliana glares at him and spits full in his face. "Do your worst."
The second slap sets her teeth rattling in her skull. "You little bitch," the officer snarls. "I could kill you right here."
"You'd be real tough, killing a woman half your size who's restrained to a chair. Is this what Nazi officers are known for?"
The man grits his teeth and steps towards her again, but a movement in her peripheral vision stops him short. She can feel the piercing blue gaze of the second officer observing against the back wall, silently appraising her. He moves into the light in front of her, and she sees the insignia of a captain on his jacket.
"Ms. Craine, I'm Captain Blake. Let's just take it easy here. Why don't you help us help you. Just give us the names of the members of the resistance cell that you know. We can help you." His voice is deceptively calm, dangerously coaxing.
"I don't know them. I'm not part of the resistance. I work for the Nippon. Why don't you ask me for some names of the Kempeitai?" she asks insolently.
The punch from the first officer knocks the wind out of her and she sees stars. Juliana cries out, blood dripping into her mouth.
"I swear, I don't know anything, ok? I don't have the answers you're looking for." She can't stop the blood or tears from trickling down her face this time, or the tremor that laces her voice. She hates herself for it. The first officer raises his hand again and Juliana flinches, but Captain Blake lays a restraining hand on his arm.
"Enough. Bring her back to her cell."
She is dragged back to her cell. It is barren and harsh, a tiny barred window beyond her reach blasting wintry air into the cramped space, the cold of the concrete walls seeping into her bones. She curls up in a corner and sobs herself into a fitful sleep.
She is woken up by the jangling of keys as Captain Blake slips into her cell. He wraps a blanket around her shoulders and props her up.
"Drink this," he says, shoving a bowl of thin, oily soup at her. Juliana kicks the bowl out of his hands, splashing it across his face and uniform. She glares defiance at him, expecting swift retaliation, but he remains expressionless, merely wipes his face with the sleeve of his jacket.
"You probably shouldn't have done that. Your body's going to need that for what's ahead."
He turns on his heel and exits, the door clanging shut behind him.
Juliana sleeps in spasmodic bursts, her body stiff and sore, bruises blooming across her skin in patchwork bursts. She gets dragged out intermittently for questioning, with new faces and familiar ones. She gets slapped and punched and choked more times than she can remember. She is surprised to find out how resilient her body is, how high her pain threshold climbs. Sometimes Captain Blake is there, other times he isn't. When he is, he never lays a hand on her, simply watches and steps in to end the session. Juliana seethes with rage for her captors, but her rage for him burns brightest of all.
Captain Blake is the only one that enters her cell. He brings her food and water, blankets and clothing. One day, when her body is a bruised and bloody mess, he brings in a bowl of warm water, a towel and antiseptic, tries to help her wash the cuts. Juliana gets one solid punch in and scores a line of scratch marks across his neck before he locks her in a hold, his heavier weight immobilizing her.
"You're a monster," she snarls. "You expect me to be grateful for this?"
He releases her and she slumps against the wall, the fight leeching out of her for the time being.
"No," he says to her, lifting the towel and pressing it to the gash on her forehead. "I've learned to not expect anything from you, because you are always surprising me."
He is unexpectedly gentle as he works across her injuries, and Juliana feels hatred bubbling to the surface again, this time for herself, for leaning into his touch. She cannot remember the last time she felt another human's caress. I'm the monster, she thinks.
"You've put up quite a fight," he murmurs after several minutes. "Aren't you tired yet? Do you want to stop?"
She sinks her teeth into his wrist, close by her face, and he wrenches his arm away.
"Fuck you." The curse tears out of her, words a nice, soft-spoken girl like her should never use. She looks straight into his eyes and bites out her next ones. "If I ever get out of here, I will kill you."
His return gaze is disquieting, and she can see the shadows rimming the edge of his irises. "I have no doubt you would, Ms. Crain."
He takes the bowl and towel and leaves.
Juliana loses track of days. Night bleeds into day, bleeding into night. Her world narrows to a circumference of pain and a box of concrete. Her mind dulls, her head grows sensitive to light, migraines pounding away at her. The wrath in her heart, once bright and translucent, lighting her up from within, slowly trickles away, leaving a shadow of itself. She thinks she'll be in here forever. She will die in here.
The next time SS Captain Blake of the American Reich enters her cell, Juliana addresses him with composure.
"Please," she says. "Just kill me."
Joe Blake smiles at her sadly. "I would if I could."
Her holding cell is 6 by 8 feet. She knows every foot; she has paced it a thousand times.
SS Lieutenant Blake is the only one that enters her cell. He brings her food and water, blankets and clothing. She mistrusts these gestures. She jumps him with an aikido combo one day, catching him off his guard. Her training doesn't let her down, ingrained in her from years of practice, and she flips him across the room. It takes three SS officers to subdue her. She is beaten the next day, and Juliana takes it stalwartly, leaning into and through the pain, retreating into her mind as she was taught to do. She sees Lieutenant Blake watching from the far corner; he catches her eyes and turns his head away. She reads shame in the lines of his body.
When he comes into her cell the next time, there is new respect in his blue eyes and he raises both hands in supplication. "I brought you something."
He hands her a thin book, flimsy paper cover falling apart at the corners. It is a silly mystery novel about some officers of the American Reich.
"It's probably not your cup of tea. Approved reading material and all that. But it might kill some time in here." He runs his fingers through his hair uncertainly, straightens his jacket awkwardly. Juliana curls her lip in disgust but takes the book from him anyway.
He starts to bring books to her, smuggling them in underneath her food tray or clothing. She knows what a huge risk he's running for such a stupid little thing, and thinks he is an idiot, half hoping he gets caught. But unwittingly, there is a small bloom of gratefulness inside her chest.
She catches him watching her sometimes when he thinks she isn't paying attention. "What do you want from me?" she eventually growls.
He blinks in surprise. "Nothing. It's just – your face. I keep thinking I know you from somewhere."
She can finally see him clearly now, the naïve idealism, the conflicted guilt. The boy who grew up in the only world he knew, blindly seeking the approval of his superiors, having his choices ripped away from him. The boy who accepted his world and its shades of morality without question. She wonders what he might have become, in another time, in another place, what if.
"If I knew you from somewhere, I would have killed you," Juliana states, harshly. She doesn't look back up at him, waits to hear his retreating footsteps. She begins to meditate, slowing her heartbeat, stilling her mind, sinking deep into her soul. She feels weightless; the world is white. Time is liquid silver, and her inner eye shifts through layers upon layers of lifting, diaphanous veils. It is beyond her comprehension, and there is a throbbing in her head, growing insistently louder.
Then one day her door rattles and Lieutenant Blake steps quietly into her cell. He presses a crumpled piece of paper into her hands, and looks urgently into her eyes.
"Listen to me very carefully. I've knocked out the two guards down this hall. Take the hallway straight down, make a left, then a right, and take the stairs behind the elevators down. Get out on the second floor and exit out the visa office, side door stairs. With any luck, I'll have them looking elsewhere for you."
"Wha-" Juliana gapes at him.
"Quickly, now. We don't have a lot of time. There's an address on that paper. Your friends in the resistance will pick you up there."
"Is this some kind of sick test? Some twisted new trap?" She curls her fingers around the slip of paper, her adrenaline spiking, ready to rip, ready to fight.
"Juliana." It's the calmness of his voice, the ring of resignation laced through his tone, that pierces through to her. "This is the last time you will ever have to see me."
"They will kill you. They will tear you limb from limb. You will receive a traitor's death."
He smiles at her sadly, and she sees the crushing weight of sorrow in his eyes. "Some things are worth dying for."
Juliana is momentarily paralyzed with shock and indecision. He gives her a hard shove and she stumbles out the door.
"Come with me." She turns around to face him, holding out her hand.
He shakes his head. "Don't be stupid. Go. Now. Otherwise this will all have been for nothing."
She grasps his hands, squeezing hard. "I don't know how to thank you."
"Thank me in another life," he whispers, squeezing back, his larger hands enveloping hers for a fleeting moment. "Run."
There are drumbeats in her head. Juliana turns and sprints; doesn't look back. There is a colossal wave, building in intensity somewhere deep inside her subconscious, whitecaps sparking across her synapses.
"You were right to bring him in," her commanding officer tells her, observing the man she's holding at gunpoint smugly.
"I caught him trying to smuggle the film out to his contacts on the west coast. He was planning on driving out in an import truck from the city tonight, using coffee makers as a cover." Juliana steadies her hands on her gun, leveled at her hostage. He tries desperately to meet her eyes; she averts her gaze purposely. The man's ice blue eyes are disconcerting to her, and she feels unease creeping up her spine.
"Who is he, exactly?"
"Joe Blake. One of the leaders of the east coast resistance." The smirk on her commanding officer's face is sinuous and calculating. "We've been monitoring him for weeks, but he's a slippery son of a bitch. I'm happy to know the honeypot worked. You're quite the sucker for a pretty face, hmm?" He addresses their hostage disdainfully.
"No," Joe replies evenly. "I'm atoning for my sins. This is my repentance."
Her commanding officer deals a sharp blow to him on the side of his head. "Is that so? You can atone for your sins in front of our firing squad."
"He'll be executed?"
"After we get what we need from him. Cuff him."
Juliana watches them slap handcuffs on her hostage and carefully holsters her gun. For some reason, her fingers are trembling. She can't help herself, and asks, "What sins?"
Her commanding officer curls his lips up in distaste, but Joe's cool gaze never leaves her and the smile he gives her is shadowed with grim resignation.
"I might be a different man if I'd met you sooner."
Juliana freezes. His words sound metallic and hollow somehow, leaving a strange ringing in her ears. Echoes of a distant world, a long forgotten life. Joe is dragged away, the door slamming behind him with resounding finality.
Her commanding officer is watching her with shrewd interest. "You did well, Ms. Crain. Your father would be proud of you."
Juliana inclines her head. "Thank you, Obergruppenführer Smith."
"Sieg Heil," she salutes.
She sits across from Nobusuke Tagomi, legs crossed, palms resting upward on knees.
"I am having trouble," she says, "finding my way."
Tagomi nods perceptively. "When you travel many tangled paths, oftentimes the way back becomes obscured. Your subconscious will drift by like clouds across the sky. You must search for the right spot, and then sink through. Find the stillness inside your heart. It will lead you home."
"I'm not looking for home," Juliana counters. "I'm looking for the truth."
"I see." Tagomi's eyes slide gently closed. "There is no one who can answer that question but yourself."
Juliana thinks about his response, turning the corners over in her mind. "Tagomi-san," she finally asks. "Does the oracle reveal the truth to you?"
It is a long while before he replies. "No. But it lifts a corner of the veil. You will come to realize that fate is fluid, Ms. Crain. There are many answers to the questions you seek, and you have barely scratched the surface."
He opens his eyes and looks at her. "Are you ready to cast?"
"Yes," she says, picking up her sticks.
Juliana casts, a question in her heart.
She reads her hexagram: Fu – Returning.
In this life, she leads him onto the docks and through the door, and the blast from Lem's pistol shrieks past her ears, reverberates in her heart.
In this life, she watches his still form slowly recede from the back window of the bus, and she yells at the driver to stop. She tumbles off the bus. He sees her, heart in his throat, and runs towards her. He has never run faster in his life.
She stays. So does he.
In this life, the bite of steel is cold as he slides it gently into her neck.
"Forgive me," he whispers, before the world fades around her. There are tears in his eyes. "I wish it could have gone a different way."
In this life, she makes a decision. She leads him to the fishing boat. He steps onto it, turns around and offers her his hand. There is an unspoken question in his eyes.
She takes his hand, intertwines their fingers, and lets him pull her onboard.
In this life, he is backed into a corner, the sinking sun casting lengthening shadows across the narrow alleyway.
"Shoot him. This is the man who killed Frank." Karen's voice flanks her back. There is a semicircle of resistance fighters fanned out behind her, guns leveled. Her own gun is pointed, tremulous, into blue eyes, bright with understanding.
"Juliana." He says her name softly, reverently. It is the last thing she expects to hear.
"How do you know my name? I've never met you." Misgiving, creeping up her spine, spreading clammy fingers across the base of her skull. A tingling that gives way to a thrumming. Her heart is loud in her ears, jackhammering its way out of her chest.
His answering smile is small and secretive. "Do you ever think how different life could be if you change just one thing?"
She thinks she's heard those words before, somewhere, somehow. Someone she once knew, far away. This was wrong, all wrong, a discordant note jarring across an off-kilter harmony.
Jackhammering crawling up her head, buzzing in her ears, burning in her veins. The wave, larger and larger, looming ever closer, its silhouette seeping across her mind. From a distance, she can hear Karen's voice, insistent, shrill.
"If you want to prove that you're one of us, shoot this Nazi piece of shit. Do it. Now."
Juliana's aim is unsteady for the first time in her life.
His gaze never leaves her face. "I'm still glad I met you. Always glad to have met you."
Juliana gulps in air, plants her feet and steadies her hands. She thinks of Frank, and Trudy, and steels her heart.
"I'm sorry," she tells him, tears blurring her vision, right before she puts a bullet between his eyes.
She doesn't understand this visceral anguish in her chest.
In this life, she can see the mushroom cloud billowing from miles away. It swallows the Golden Gate Bridge, Twin Peaks, the Nippon building, her mother's house, her apartment – everything she ever knew of her city.
There is a moment of horrendous, agonizing, unbearable silence. Then the ash and dust and flaming orbs begin to fall, like rain. The sky is on fire.
He takes her into his arms, wraps himself tight around her, as they huddle on the ground. She buries her grimy, tear-streaked face into his jacket, and holds on for life. Woodsy, masculine, a hint of leather and tobacco. She remembers. Joe.
"I've got you," he whispers into her ear, arms tightening around her. "It's okay, I've got you."
Another plane streaks past the sky, thunderous roar in its wake.
The world turns white.
There is nothing.
The wave crests.
"Can I ask you something, Tagomi-san?"
He looks at her patiently.
In her practice, she has trodden many paths, twisting and turning. Her mind beats desperate wings across a tortuous landscape, trapped between veils. Hall of mirrors, labyrinth of shadows.
"There is this face I see. This man. I think he knows me." The words sound stupid to her. She's trying to say something, but she's not sure how to convey it.
"Ah." There is a knowing glint in Tagomi's eyes. "The red string. The Chinese, they have a word for it: yuan fen."
She waits for an explanation, but there is none forthcoming.
"Are you ready?" he finally asks. "Why don't you cast, one last time."
She touches the sticks in his hands. Juliana casts, a question in her heart.
She reads her hexagram: Zhong Fu – Inner Truth.
In this life, she doesn't find him until the war is beginning to end.
There is a naval base in San Diego, and a diner in the neighborhood. She gets a job, and waits.
One day, she is in the back kitchen and the bell above the front entrance jangles. Her boss, wiping hands on a greasy apron, pokes her head out.
"Welcome back, soldier," she hears her say. "Nixon finally came to his senses and sent you boys home, eh? What can I get ya? Anything we have here is bound to be better than that slop you were eating over in Nam."
Her reaction is instinctive. She sprints out the kitchen, runs smack into him.
He reaches out a hand to steady her, and stiffens. He's in the full dress uniform of a Lieutenant Commander of the United States Navy, but those bright blue eyes, that jaw, those lips. She knows them better than she knows her own. He is whole, unbroken, unbowed, standing straight and luminous in front of her. He is the most beautiful sight she has ever seen.
"Joe." She says his name, offers it up as a prayer to the universe.
They are meeting for the first (last) time.
"Juliana." There is wonder blossoming in his eyes.
There is no hesitation. She cups his cheek, runs a thumb over his cheekbone. He presses a kiss into her palm.
"I'd know you anywhere," he breathes.
"I've been looking for you for a long, long time," she tells him.
"I'm right here. I'm not going anywhere," he murmurs, right before she pulls his head down and seals her mouth to his.
The kiss is incendiary, igniting a fuse inside her core, burning its way through the tips of her fingers, the curl of her toes. She opens her mouth to him, and the touch of his tongue coils deep in her belly. He kisses her back with scorching urgency, as if he has been waiting lifetimes to do this, and she is dizzy with him, hungry in a way that can never be satiated. She feels the world slowing, mind smoothing, feathered wingbeats hushed and effortless. A calm, unruffled ocean in her head. He tugs her closer, and her world narrows to his skin, his lips.
When he finally pulls away, breathing hard, he grabs her hand and interweaves their fingers. "Come with me," he says.
In the early morning, weak sunlight splashing across the sheets, sweat cooling from their bodies, Juliana burrows deeper into the circle of his arms, the warmth of his body seeping into her soul. She slips a leg between his, winds herself as tightly around him as she can. His scent surrounds her. She remembers.
He runs a finger across her face, brushing away a wayward strand of hair, sliding down to her lips. She takes him into her mouth. He watches her, pupils dilating, so dark she can hardly see the blue.
"I want to stay," she sighs, to him, to her heart, to the world. "Let me stay."
He leans towards her neck, stubble rasping against her skin, and presses open-mouthed kisses across her collarbone.
"Then stay," he says simply. "I've got you."
He presses her onto her back and she cradles him intimately between her thighs. Something flits over the back of her mind, a brush across her synapses. An insistent memory, budding. Flashes of a different world, one with sharper edges, harder choices, greater heartbreak, but one that is calling to her, traveling along peaks and gullies and ravines and snaking paths, growing richer and more insistent. Recognition unfurls in her chest, blooming into tendrils of understanding. She hears the stillness of her heart, a heart filled to the brim with him.
Juliana sits up. He looks up at her, confusion stealing across his face. She bends over to kiss him, slow and languorous, aching and bittersweet.
"I'm sorry, Joe," she begins softly. "There's something I need to do first. But I need you to know, wherever we go –"
"I know." His eyes are tranquil with acceptance, the calm center amidst an encircling storm.
"Will you come find me?" she asks.
"Always." It's a promise he will never break.
Her red string.
"I love you," she whispers, before she takes in a clean lungful of air and exhales, breathing deeply, in and out, one, two, three.
The veil shifts.
In another life, Juliana opens her eyes.
In the dojo, she is alone. She sits upright, spine straight, palms upturned upon her knees. It is daybreak, quiet rays of sunlight slanting across bamboo floorboards.
She can hear the first small thrills of birdsong from outside. From the window, the spires of the Golden Gate Bridge turn a rich, ripe ochre in the clear morning air. By her feet, there is a heart pendant, tied on a red string, strewn haphazardly across the floor.
Silhouetted in the warm, honey golden light of a rising sun, Juliana Crain smiles.