Torino was frigid and her lips were probably turning blue, but warmth welled up inside her heart and unraveled through her fingers and toes.
I mustn't cry, she thought sternly at herself, still smiling. Angels watch over you. I mustn't let him see me cry.
Oh, she thought, blinking hard and looking up at the sky, good-bye.
It was almost another nine months before she got on a plane to Canada. Coach protested – there was a competition coming up; she had no time to be flitting off to other countries.
In the end she had promised to be back on time and had gone anyway.
Youko had said it best when they'd first moved in with Coach: "Once Tazu-nee sets her heart on something all the powers of heaven and earth won't change her mind."
The place hadn't been too difficult to find. A quick internet search on the library computer and there he was, smiling easily as he stood in front of his plane, his flying cap tucked under one arm. The caption was in English and she translated it slowly, her tongue stumbling over the words: Tragic death of local 16 year old Pete Pumps during a stunt plane flight yesterday. The paper was dated November 17, 2005. There was a short accompanying article and a blurb in the obituary section: Survived by his mother and father.
Survived by me.
Here it was November 15, 2006 and she was walking through a cemetery in Toronto, holding a bouquet of sunflowers in one hand and searching for his grave.
Over there, a little voice suggested. She started, but the words were merely her own thoughts echoing. She looked, however, and sure enough, there it was: some grass, a marker, his name and two dates. A quote: "I climbed the sky, I made the flight."
A strange feeling rose up in her as though she were standing over her own grave and she wondered how she had expected to feel. This mound of earth wasn't proof that he had lived. She was the living proof; together they had been alive.
She knelt and set the flowers in the ground. "I didn't know what to bring so I got sunflowers, because they're happy and cheerful and always watch the sky. Sound familiar?"
"Ex . . . cuse me?" a voice said in halting Japanese and she straightened and turned to see a woman who could only be Pete's mother, their features were so similar. "Oh my," the woman said, "aren't you Sakurano Tazusa, the Olympic skater? I'm afraid there must be some mista-"
"He hated tomatoes, didn't he?" she said, smiling as she struggled to remember the English words. "He loved to fly."
She hadn't wanted to meet his family. It was why she had come a day early. She was scared to meet them and realize that she didn't know him at all.
But sitting in Pete's living room listening to Pete's mother and father (he had a big, booming voice and Pete's mischievous smile, and his Japanese was much better than his wife's) as they sat and reminisced about Pete, she realized that just the opposite was true.
Tazusa laughed, really laughed, listening to their stories of Pete, feeling his presence warm and immediate all around her.
What a nice family you have, she thought quietly. And yet, God sent you to spend your hundred days with me.
Selfishly, she was glad.
They asked her to stay to dinner, and afterwards, they asked her to stay the night. With mixed feelings she said yes.
She didn't want to stay, but she also didn't want to go.
She sat in her flannel pajamas on Pete's bed, his room pristine as a museum and covered in flying paraphernalia, charts and blueprints on the walls, model planes and books on aviation on the shelves, and a picture done in a childish hand of a tomato with a red X drawn through it tacked above his desk. She'd laughed when she'd seen it; it was so easy to connect the Pete who would do something like that to the little Pete in the photo albums she was flipping through, one by one. Here there was a shot of him, sprawled out on his desk asleep, head pillowed on his arms, and here one of him looking off into the distance, his expression gentle. Her fingers ghosted over his face.
"He didn't show that face much," his mother said wistfully from right next to her and Tazusa jumped. "He got that way when thinking about things he loved, like flying."
I've seen that expression before, Tazusa thought, embarrassed.
With a knowing look, Mrs. Pumps handed her the glass of orange juice she was holding. "I thought you might like a drink."
"Thank you," Tazusa said, sipping at it.
Mrs. Pumps sat down next to her and took the photo album from her, fishing out the photo. "Here. For you."
"We have copies. And memories. Please take it."
Tazusa took the photo, placed it carefully on the nightstand, and said, "You've been too kind."
"Not at all. Why, you came all this way for Pete!"
No, she thought, I don't know why I came.
"How did you meet Pete?" his mother said, curious.
"In Japan we . . . Well, maybe it was fate," Tazusa said. Maybe God sent him to possess me. She couldn't say it. Not even to his parents. Not for fear of being disbelieved, but because that time had existed for the two of them alone.
"It would have been nice if Pete could have introduced us." She smiled. "I would always tease him about not having a girlfriend to bring home."
Tazusa flushed. "I'm not . . . We, we weren't. I mean, Pete never even-"
"He would yell at me for teasing you," his mother said, gently. "I . . . I think about him and wonder, where he is, now."
"He flew to Heaven."
Pete's mother looked startled. "Well, yes, I'd like to think so-"
"No," Tazusa said, shaking her head a little with a ghost of a sad smile, "I know."
The middle-aged woman looked at her, this young girl who was filled with quiet conviction, and she thought of how it was to be young and full of faith. "He was lucky," she said gently, patting her on the leg as she got up, "to have met you."
Tazusa looked up, startled, eyes moist. Mrs. Pumps was rummaging around in Pete's desk drawer. After a moment she drew out a small box and, opening it, smiled at the contents. Tazusa saw a chain, long and gleaming silver in the light, before Pete's mother draped it over her head. "It belonged to Pete's grandfather. She gave it to him when he left for the war and it kept him safe for her. He always used to say it was because her spirit was watching over him. His grandfather left it to him to give to the person he wanted to protect."
Tazusa looked down at it, the silver cross, and said, "I really can't-" but found Pete's mother tugging up her hand and closing her fingers around it.
"Keep it. Pete would want you to have it."
"Thank you." She blinked furiously, then her arms went around Pete's mother who held her as she finally let herself cry.
She wore it against her skin; the metal was slightly warped ("A bullet hit it once - saved Pete's grandfather's life.") so it did not lie altogether straight, but tugged a bit to the left, in the direction of her heart.
The years rolled on.
She finally grew exasperated enough to introduce Shitou Kyouko to a tongue-tied Nitta. They were married two years later which generated enough interest keep media tongues wagging for a few weeks. But far too soon for her own liking the media's interest focused even more firmly back on her.
"Sakurano-senshu, is it true that Nitta turned to Shitou-senshu after you rejected him?!"
"Sakurano-senshu, are you planning on getting married as well? Or is your career the only thing you love?!"
"Sakurano-senshu! Are you going to try and win Gold at the 2010 Winter Olympics?!"
The media's inane questions and her tart responses kept everyone talking, but then, she had never been the easiest person to get along with and the media had never tried. They were oil and water, cat and dog, and she rather suspected that they would be that way forever. There weren't enough Nittas in the world to change that.
Let them bark, she thought. Meanwhile she would just climb higher.
She won Silver in 2010 and it seemed like her star would keep on rising.
Silver again in 2014 and professionally her life had never been better. She was ranked right below Ria Jutiev following Shitou Kyoko's retirement, and she even had one world championship to her name.
Around her, life went through its customary changes. Mika had become a clothing designer and gotten married. Youko was at Todai studying Micro-Biology. Coach was now the proud father of two little boys, who, to his horror, had declared their intention to play hockey when they grew up because figure-skating was too "girly." Tazusa had refused to play with them for a week after that – cheeky little monsters.
On a personal level, the media tried to link her name to various men, both single and not, and Mika tried setting her up on blind dates, but after she ended up pouring water over the head of one before leaving fifteen minutes into dinner, she declined going on any more.
Not even Mika's pleading face, Coach extolling the virtues of marriage, Youko telling her she was going to end up an old maid at this rate, or the media's newest article about her supposed "secret lesbian affair" could dissuade her.
How did you explain to the world that the only man you had ever loved (and you were pretty sure the only one who would ever be able to put up with you cheerfully) had already died before you met? That after sharing everything from your breathing to your tiredness to your pain with the same person for a hundred days, you craved the sort of intimacy that it was impossible to ever have with anyone living?
God, she thought, was equal measures benevolent and cruel.
The rumors grew nastier and she did her best to ignore them and concentrate on her skating. 2018 – her last chance at Gold.
Mishiro and Youko watched her at practice the day before the short program. "She's only gotten better with age," Mishiro said softly, "but skating is a young person's sport. Even Ria Jutiev is retiring from competition this year."
"Tazu-nee'll do it," Youko said stubbornly. "This year for sure!"
"Her skating's matured, but I can't help but feel that she hit her peak in 2006. Every performance since has been an ode to that one. I see her now, and I can't help but think that then, she was complete, and now, she is-Well, never mind."
Youko didn't answer.
Ria stepped off the ice and nodded at her, before bending to unlace her skates. Tazusa nodded back. The Ice Queen was going to get close to full marks, she knew. The battle right now was down to just the two of them.
Kyouko had texted her that morning from the hospital where she was recuperating from the birth of her second child. Don't you dare lose, Sakurano Tazusa!
Things changed, she thought wryly, in ways no one ever expected.
Nitta was by the side of the rink, looking a little worse for wear having just flown in the previous night, but he was glowing with the pride of new fatherhood.
Ria's scores were coming up now and there was an appreciative roar from the audience.
Tazusa tuned it all out and rechecked her laces. Nitta gave her a thumbs-up and flashed her a smile.
Some things never changed.
Pete, she thought, stepping onto the ice, are you watching me?
In later years, people who had seen both Tazusa's long program in 2006 and her short program in 2018 would refer to them as the bookends to her career. In 2006 she had won their hearts. In 2018 she broke them . . . but they would suffer them to be broken again. Truly, one announcer cried, truly this is a performance to go down in skating history! Mika cried, her heart was so full. At the end of the night, there was not one person present who doubted what the results of the competition would be. Tazusa would have her Gold.
But it was not to be. At the end of her long program she landed her final quadruple slightly off-center, a ligament tore in her leg and she sprawled to the ice. Coach helped her off the ice as she bit back tears and waved graciously at the audience who sent her off with a standing ovation.
The results? Ria Jutiev first. Tazusa Sakurano fourth.
At the press conference Ria would say, "As always, it is a great honor, but I think, perhaps, Lady Fortune is very cruel to some. I hereby announce my retirement from competitive skating. I have spent the best years of my life battling against the best in the world. Now, we are both retired."
"Tazu-nee," Youko murmured, turning from the television, "Ria Jutiev just called you the best in the world."
But Tazusa was looking somewhere far away and running her thumb over her silver cross.
Hey Pete, now what do I do?
Her thumb paused on the cross. She pressed it against her skin, closed her eyes, and smiled.
After recovering as best she could from her injury, which was to say, she was never quite one hundred percent again, she began coaching. "I'm too old," she'd told Mika, "to learn something new. What's Sakurano Tazusa without skating?"
She had quite a few nicknames in the skating world: Devil Coach, Ice Heart, and Her Supreme Sarcasm were a few of them, but it was a fact that the skaters she took on were good and they only got better under her tutelage. It also didn't take most of them too long to get used to her poison tongue once they realized that everything she did or said was for their sake. Her relationship with the media was, if possible, even worse now that she was molding potential Olympic contenders.
But her skaters never complained, instead they adopted her method of coping. It even became a bit of a joke in skating circles that you could always tell which skaters were Coach Sakurano's by exactly how nasty the media's questions were and how acerbic the skaters' replies.
In the end she went to the Olympics five more times. Her skaters won three Bronzes, two Silvers, and one of those illusive Golds.
The winner of the Gold was her last student, Margaret Meadows, Canadian.
The irony made her smile and Margaret would remember for the rest of her life the moment Coach Crankypants Sakurano pulled her into a hug and said, "Congratulations," with tears in her eyes.
Eventually the injury that had never completely healed took its toll on her as she became less and less able to spend long hours at the rink. With her retirement from coaching everyone assumed that she would take it easy. Everyone assumed wrong.
She ended up running a handful of public charities for sick children. In her free time, despite already hitting her mid-sixties, she took flying lessons from a nice young man with a stunt plane. She never grew confident enough to fly alone, but she could fly for short stretches with her instructor watching her, and she kept her Saturday morning appointment with him faithfully for ten years. The rumor mill spun until it spun itself dry and when the media finally had no more to say, she had her long-sought peace.
Which was not to say that she was not constantly in the public eye. Her charities did well and she became the Ten Billion Dollar Woman in something close to truth. She organized fundraisers, charity events, sponsored young skaters, visited her friends' families, traveled here and there. Once a year she vanished for a few days in November. Those close to her opined that she could not bear to be still for an instant. It was as though there were something driving her. The truth was simpler; when she went home there was no one waiting for her. Youko offered her a place in her home, but Tazusa was never one to accept charity.
"I'm too old and too used to having my way to live with other people."
She did, however, accept the little yellow ball of fluff Kyouko and Nitta sent her one Christmas. She named the kitten Pete.
Three days after her seventy-eighth birthday she went to sleep and woke up feeling disoriented.
"Where am I?" she muttered, taking a step forward, only to realize that she was doing so unaided.
She experienced a sudden moment of panic at the absence of her cane. Not that she was dependent on it, but she was less independent without it. That was when she realized that her hip no longer hurt from where she had broken it the previous year. In fact, none of the aches and pains that had crept into her body these past few years were present.
So this was what it felt like to be dead.
It must certainly differ from the feeling of being a ghost, she decided, since she felt lighter but still substantial. She still had all her wrinkles too if her hands were anything to go by, she thought a little petulantly.
She looked up and could barely see the edge of something glowing above her. A halo? That was reassuring. She'd never been the easiest person to get along with during her life, so for a time she'd been a little nervous. And seeing as it was a halo she was fairly sure this wasn't the Shinto or Buddhist afterlife, either. Interesting.
The floor beneath her feet was soft and springy. Cloud, she thought, looking down. And over there, a huge set of pearly gates.
She made her way over and looked at the man (Angel? Saint?) standing before them. "You're not going to send me back for another hundred days, are you?" Because I've already spent a lifetime in Purgatory.
He looked flummoxed for a moment then his expression cleared. "Ah," he said, checking his book, "yes. Sakurano Tazusa, is it?"
She didn't know what to say so she simply nodded.
"The Ten Billion Dollar woman?"
She raised an eyebrow. "Yes?"
He looked back at her with a little smile. "We've been expecting you."
"Through those gates," he directed her, and they swung slowly open under the pressure of his fingers.
Filled with a touch of apprehension – surely this was too easy, she stepped through.
And Heaven . . . Heaven was not what she had imagined at all. It could be, she thought, whatever you wanted, but for her, alone, this would never be heaven at all. She wondered if somewhere another heaven existed, free from the existence of tomatoes. She wondered if she could visit.
Was this her reward after a lifetime of waiting? Eternity stretched out before her, empty and vast as Torino in winter. I can skate again, she knew, but even that prospect held no joy. Oh, she thought, pressing her hands to her heart, somewhere there was a heaven just for two.
Gently, warmly, she heard her name. "Tazusa."
She turned, slowly, and as she did so a lifetime fell away. She was sixteen years old again, standing in the center of a frozen lake, snow clinging wetly to her hair and lashes, and her heart shone on her face.
In an instant he had closed the gap between them, and she felt the warm touch of his hand. Skin and bone and muscle. Blood, she thought wonderingly. Flesh and blood. Well, or as close as you could get once you were dead.
"What's this?" he said softly, brushing at her eyes.
She laughed then, unmindful of her tears. "Kiss and cry!" Still smiling, she breathed out into the cold air, covered his hands with her own, and finished her confession. "I love you, Pete."
"Tazusa." She looked up, and after sixty years she saw his answering smile and heard his answer.