“Let me take you out to dinner.”
Technically it's an invitation, but only just. The way Christophe inserts himself into Seung-Gil's field of vision, he makes it clear he isn't intending to take “no” for an answer.
But that's the answer Seung-Gil gives him. Quick and flat: “Pass.”
A little pout. “Why not?”
Because I said so. Because it's what's comfortable. An automated response. The same one everyone gets. What makes Christophe Giacometti so special he deserves a better explanation than everyone else?
But the why won't come, so Seung-Gil just sighs and pushes past him, and prays that Christophe will find the compassion deep within him to let it go. Before the tears Seung-Gil was quick to wipe away start to replenish themselves.
No such luck.
“Hey.” Christophe touches his arm. “Come on. I'm buying. Anything you want.” How can Seung-Gil possibly turn him down? Like he should be so lucky that Christophe even acknowledged he exists.
“Why are you asking me and not Victor or Yuuri or literally anyone else? You never talk to me.”
“Maybe I figured it's time for a change.”
Seung-Gil rolls his eyes.
“Alright,” Christophe tries again, “my motives are entirely selfish. I was looking forward to enjoying some authentic Korean food while I'm here, but, alas, I don't read a lick of Korean.”
“Ah. Okay. So you thought I could translate for you, since I'm the only Korean you know.” At least that's a reason Seung-Gil can actually believe.
The guilty look on Christophe's face, not as much. “What do you say? Feel like playing tour guide for the evening? I leave the establishment, the order, everything, entirely to you. All you have to do is talk to me. Let's get to know one another like we should have years ago.”
“Maybe I don't feel like talking right now.”
“Still, I think you should. You'll feel better after. Believe me, it's better than moping around here by yourself all night, beating yourself up over what you can't change.”
His words hit Seung-Gil like an arrow to its mark, and he looks up before he can stop himself, straight into Christophe's eyes. Only realizing once he's done it that he's given himself away.
No. Seung-Gil's red, puffy eyes must have already done that for him, or the dark spots on the wrists of his jacket sleeves.
But. “I don't need your false sympathy.”
“Who said it was false? You don't think I know what it feels like? To fuck up royally when it really counts?”
Who, Christophe? The guy who's always bragging he can skate exactly how he wants—who deliberately under-performs in his short programs just for the pleasure of a come-from-behind victory in the free? No, Seung-Gil isn't sure Christophe is entirely capable of understanding how he's feeling at the moment.
The promise of a free meal, on the other hand . . .
“You're not going to let me go until I say yes, are you?”
At the restaurant, Seung-Gil orders prime rib, pork belly, and beers for both of them. If Christophe is paying, he may as well get his money's worth.
Christophe watches the exchange in Korean in patient silence, waits until the end of it to say in English, “I want that thing (what's it called again?),” and he's miming for good measure, “with all the vegetables and rice and egg in one bowl . . .”
“Bibimbap?” the waitress asks.
And Christophe turns on his most charming smile as he looks into her eyes. “Yes, that's it. One of those, please.”
It seems to Seung-Gil that Christophe didn't really need him here after all, if he already knew what he wanted, but Seung-Gil isn't about to complain about free meat.
They talk about trivial, impersonal things until their server comes back: the facilities, the frigid weather, those phallic Bullet Men statues that are blowing up the Internet. Everything about the free skate but their own performances.
Then the beers arrive with the banchan, and Christophe raises a toast. “To our parts being done and the pressure off. Now we can just sit back, enjoy ourselves, and eat things that are bad for us. Until the exhibition, anyway.”
“I hope you have fun,” Seung-Gil says after they drink. “I'm not sticking around.”
“You're kidding, right?” By Christophe's tone, his almost double-take of a blink, one would think Seung-Gil just said something blasphemous, like “Victor Nikiforov is overrated”.
But why should Seung-Gil's decision come as any surprise? “Not after humiliating myself like that.”
“So you had one bad free skate. Happens to all of us at some time or another.”
“I went from fourth after the short to eleventh. 'One bad skate' is an understatement.”
“Alright, I did expect you to pass me in the free.” Says the man who ended up in that fourth-place slot when all was said and done. Christophe shrugs. “On paper, you had the base points to medal, easily. It just wasn't your day. That's what makes these Games so exciting—you never know what's going to happen or who's going to shake out on top. Just because it wasn't you doesn't mean you should turn tail and run.”
“That's easy for you to say,” Seung-Gil tells him. “You surpassed expectations. But I can't exactly go back and do a better job, now, can I? I had this one chance, and I blew it and let everyone who got me here down. So as far as I'm concerned, there's no reason for me to stick around. Not when I could be home tomorrow and preparing for Worlds.”
Even if it won't be in Korea, Seung-Gil can still win a medal for Korea there. But only if he puts in the effort. “Or else I might finish in twenty-third, at the rate I'm going.”
Christophe must know there's nothing in what Seung-Gil said that he can put up a decent argument against, so he says nothing. Just sits there staring at Seung-Gil like he's waiting for the right words to come to him.
Thankfully, the food arrives before they can. A wink and a husky “Merci vilmal” sends their waitress off with a blush this time.
When Christophe starts poking tentatively at his bibimbap with his chopsticks, Seung-Gil feels like he has to say something. “Use your spoon.”
“You eat it with your spoon. That's why they gave you one.” Christophe isn't the first waegukin Seung-Gil's met who seems to think it's off-limits.
He tries not to seem like he's paying too much attention, but the more he watches Christophe over the grill he's seasoning, the less Seung-Gil can resist butting in. “You shouldn't scrape the bottom of the bowl as you're mixing, either. Save that for last and you should wind up with a nice toasted rice cracker.”
“Ah. Sort of a rice religieuse.”
Now it's Seung-Gil's turn for “What?” That last part didn't sound like English.
“Religieuse? It's the crispy layer of cheese left at the bottom of a fondue pot. If you do it well,” Christophe says.
“What do you mean, if you do it well? Is there a learning curve to fondue or something?”
“I would say come over to the House of Switzerland sometime and find out. That is,” Christophe gives Seung-Gil a meaningful look, “if you were sticking around.”
Right. There is that, Seung-Gil reminds himself, looking away. For a second, though, he had started to look forward to it.
“Just supposing for a minute you were going to stay,” Christophe says, “what would you have done for the exhibition? Reprise your 'Arirang' program?”
Seung-Gil's almost ashamed to say it with his disastrous free skate not so far behind him. “Actually I was thinking 'Freedom! '90'.”
“George Michael?” Christophe lights up, but he sounds skeptical. “I mean, I applaud your taste, obviously, but what inspired you to choose that?”
And Seung-Gil wonders if Christophe can see the heat rushing to his cheeks. He wonders if he could blame it on the steam rising from the onions on the grill. “You. Your solo skate at Victor's ice show last summer, to be precise.”
Christophe nods. “'Cowboys and Angels'. I didn't realize it was that memorable.”
Yes, he did. That was the point.
Seung-Gil can still see it in his mind—the way Christophe's shoulders sparkled under the spotlight, his eyes shadowed by the Stetson hat he skated the first half with, like a mask to hide the pain. Seung-Gil can still hear that melancholic waltz: Cowboys and angels/ They all have the time for you/ Why should I imagine that I'd be a find for you. . . . Every time he comes to that part of the song, he remembers the shitkicking swagger that went with it. Even if he isn't the one who was meant to remember it.
Time and distance seem to have removed Christophe from the emotion of that skate. But not Seung-Gil. “I listened to the album on repeat the whole flight home,” he confesses, “and when I heard 'Freedom!' I knew I wanted to skate to it. I just didn't know when.”
“No better time and stage to do it justice than the Olympics.”
“That's what I thought, too. But. . . .” Seung-Gil shakes his head. Concentrates on getting a nice sear on his meat so he won't have to feel the words. “I couldn't do it now. Not after my performance today. That song deserves better than what I could bring to it.”
“I don't buy that.”
Seung-Gil looks up to Christophe wagging his spoon at him. “If that's your excuse for sitting out the gala, try again.”
“Why would they even want me in the exhibition?”
“Of course they'll want you in it.”
“But after my finish—”
“Who cares about that! You're the native son. And people love watching you skate.”
Does Christophe include himself in that “people”? The way he puts down his utensils and leans closer to Seung-Gil, he must. Seung-Gil can't remember ever seeing Christophe so serious.
“Think about it, SG. How often do the Games come to your home country—let alone when you're young and fit enough to compete in them?”
Apparently that's a rhetorical question, because when Seung-Gil opens his mouth to respond, Christophe answers anyway: “You're never going to get a chance like this again. Hell, you're lucky you get this chance at all. I'm afraid if you don't take it, you'll regret it. You might not feel that way now, but someday, when all this is far behind you, you'll wish you'd ridden this Olympic train to the end of the tracks.”
“Did you just call me 'SG'?” They've barely said ten words to each other outside the rink before tonight, and Christophe is already giving him a nickname?
Christophe chuckles. “That's your takeaway from what I just said? How do I get this through to you. . . .”
But he's already gotten it through just fine. It's just that Seung-Gil doesn't know what to say. Just when he thinks he's made it through the worst of the pressure of an Olympic season, Christophe sends him on this guilt trip. Seung-Gil knows his coach would only agree, too. He's already let his fans and his country down once. Does he really want to disappoint them again by hiding himself away?
But that's just the problem. What if they don't like what he has to give them? What if it's not enough to make up for his failure today? What if he puts his heart and soul into “Freedom!” and he just comes across like a sad pretender? He's not sure his ego could survive that blow.
Suddenly the aroma and sizzling of the beef is too much for Seung-Gil's empty stomach.
“I promise I'll think about it,” he says. He picks out the smallest leaf of lettuce on the platter and folds his slice of meat into it, even if it's not as done as he usually likes it. “But that's all I'll promise.”
Christophe leans back again, hands raised in surrender. “That's a start. But, hey. Even if you decide not to participate,” he adds with a wink, “at least come watch me skate. Non?”
“We'll see,” Seung-Gil says and takes a bite.
Then, just when he thought his tears were done for the day, he feels like crying all over again. The prime rib is juicy and beefy and beautiful, exactly what his body and spirit need after all the tension and emotional ups and downs of the free skate. It's like getting a hug from his grandmother, or a nuzzle from his dog—both of which he would give anything to have right now.
Seung-Gil clenches his fist on the tabletop as the flavors melt on his tongue, squeezing his eyes shut, just trying to hold on to that feeling for as long as possible.
Unaware that Christophe is watching him with mild concern. “That good, huh?”
“Have some,” Seung-Gil tells him after he's swallowed. “I ordered it for both of us, before you decided to get bibimbap. And someone has to eat the vegetables.”
“What's wrong with vegetables?” Christophe says. “They're good for you.” But he, too, reaches eagerly for the prime rib.
Seung-Gil can't sleep. Every time he closes his eyes, he gets pulled back to his free skate.
To that opening quad loop. The one he flubbed.
His jump. The quad that he pioneered. Now Emil's doing it. Yuri's doing it. JJ has it in both his programs this year. Seung-Gil's happy for them—it makes things more interesting when he's not the only one who can land it in competition—and proud that he could be the one who opened that door.
All the more reason he can't let his mistake go.
Just like he couldn't let it go then.
Confidence shaken, he pops his next jump. One downgrade in difficulty he can live with, but two is disastrous. How do I claw my way back up from this?
I know. I could put the loop back in in the second half, do it instead of the quad Sal. The ten-percent bonus might help close the gap a little. Change the first triple toe in the last combination to a flip. . . .
New battle plan in his head, he's able to pull it back together. The next few jump passes and combination spin are solid. Positive GOEs the whole way, unless the judges are blind.
“Obsession” is the theme he chose for the season. For the last four years, everything Seung-Gil did was building to the moment of his free skate on the world stage, in his home nation, in Pyeongchang. His coach and Korea's media outlets, everyone he knows and passing strangers reminded him of that every opportunity they got. Expectations couldn't be higher. And he knew he was finally at a level physically, mentally, artistically not just to meet them, but to exceed them.
Seung-Gil proved that in the Grand Prix, taking silver in both his events and making it to the Final with points to spare. He proved it with an easy gold in Nationals. And at Four Continents, where he won not just a bronze medal but a standing ovation.
And after the short program a few days ago, he found himself a mere few tenths of a point away from medal contention.
Until that downgraded loop.
Like a ghost he just can't shake, as soon as it enters his mind, the doubt comes back again. His final jump pass—incomplete. Down on a fall on the flip. Minus three on the grade of execution, mandatory one-point deduction, no second jump—
Damn it, get up! You can still save this.
But Seung-Gil can feel his name slipping down the rankings as he bleeds points onto the ice. Tears burn his eyes as he goes into one last, impassioned choreo sequence, and he trips on a step that should be nothing.
Down goes the hand. He sees it coming, pounds the ice in frustration and grits his teeth so hard they ache, and the whole thing falls right in time with the “C’est ça! je suis malade!” in his program music, so maybe the audience will think he meant to do it.
But the judges know better.
And while he's thinking about that, he misses the end of his song and finishes his spin a full three seconds behind it. Not enough to earn him another deduction, but not the last impression he wants to leave on the ice either.
The next few minutes are the longest Seung-Gil can remember. He spends them staring into the face of the Soohorang doll someone handed to him on his way to the kiss and cry because he can't bear to look up at the stands. But it feels like that plush tiger's little black eyes judge him enough for a whole country anyway.
He wishes he could say he doesn't remember his score, but the numbers are there like an afterimage when he closes his eyes. His lowest all season. He hates them.
He hates himself for earning them.
So he won't close his eyes. He shoots out of bed, pulls on some sweat pants and a zip-up, thinking a walk around the dorms might be just what he needs to clear his head.
It's 0300. There's no one up. Even the athletes who come to these games to enjoy the party atmosphere have already stumbled back into their or someone else's bed. Seung-Gil wonders if he would wake them if he just jogged up and down the halls for a bit. Probably. And he doesn't want to get into it with anyone at this hour.
He ends up on the couch in the commons area, scrolling through social media on his phone and missing the weight of his dog on his lap. Someone who won't judge him except to love him, no matter what he does.
Social was a bad idea. His feed is full of news of his free skate, his disappointing finish. Close-ups of his face during that last minute of his program, when he was afraid he was going to lose it right there on the ice. Has he always been such an ugly crier? Fans wonder if he's OK. But weren't they listening to his music?
I am sick.
Seung-Gil knows he shouldn't. But he can't read about himself any more and it's the only thing he can think of that will take his mind off his performance.
He pulls up Nishigori Takeshi's page, reads through the posts. Some he missed during the free skate today, some he's already read a dozen times over.
Lots of pictures of “ma boi” Yuuri and his new medal, but Seung-Gil wouldn't expect anything less. For a second he's heartbroken that there's not a single mention of him. Never mind, why would there be? But that means there's nothing about Seung-Gil's failure, either. Better for Takeshi to not think of him at all than to think of him as a failure.
The last post for the night is a photo of the Nishigori triplets in Team Japan gear, posing with their selfie sticks and the hotel room coffee pot like they're set to play a round of . . . something. Normally Seung-Gil would skip over the triplet posts, but he's desperate for new material. He hits “translate this”.
“Pumped for curling tomorrow with the fam! Japan versus South Korea”.
So it was nothing after all.
Seung-Gil sighs, leans back against the sofa. The highs of reading Takeshi's posts seem to get shorter and shorter, and when it comes, that lost, aimless feeling he gets when there's nothing more to see hits him like a truck. A shower might do the trick. A hot shower and then bed almost never fails to knock him out.
But it isn't long before that song catches up with him again under the spray—Comme à un rocher/ Comme à un péché/ Je suis accroché à toi—threatening to drag him down with it, and the only thing Seung-Gil can think of to banish it is a good jerk session. There's no one around; it might be the best chance he gets until he's back home.
He's slow to get off the ground tonight, but he does what he always does when he needs inspiration: thinks of that kiss last summer. Of Takeshi's lips under his that taste of beer and sake, his jaw beneath Seung-Gil's thumbs, hard and jutting and masculine. Takeshi's strong hands digging into his arms, unsure whether to push Seung-Gil away or keep him from escaping.
In Seung-Gil's mind, there's no separating the two. He imagines that night at Yu-topia Katsuki ending differently, with Takeshi sneaking into his futon to say he can't stop thinking about that kiss either, that he can't stop thinking about Seung-Gil. That he's conflicted by this desire—desire he's never felt for another man—and it won't let him sleep.
It's OK, Seung-Gil assures him, Yuuko will never know, even while Takeshi tugs down Seung-Gil's pants, kneads his thighs, his ass, buries his face in Seung-Gil's bare skin. Like a man who's forgotten the taste of red meat until someone offers him a bite.
Seung-Gil closes his eyes and leans against the wall as he strokes himself, imagining it's Takeshi's thick fingers around his dick. That never fails to get him fully hard. Those thick fingers, tugging and squeezing him nice and thorough and slow while Takeshi presses hot, breathy kisses to every inch of Seung-Gil he can reach. Yes, Seung-Gil thinks when that song invades again, I am sick. Complètement malade. Dreaming of a married man he knows he will never have at three in the morning.
Except somehow Christophe manages to butt in on even that. And the harder Seung-Gil tries to hold on to Takeshi's image, the more insistent Christophe's becomes.
Christophe on his knees, in his “Cowboys and Angels” costume that's all rhinestone roses and black sheer above the belt. Christophe with his lashes and that might-be-condescending smile that only goes away when he leans in and swallows Seung-Gil whole.
Seung-Gil ups his pace, the excitement of something new curling behind his navel. But Christophe's just a pinch hitter, just something to get him through tonight. Nothing more.
So Seung-Gil tells himself, and the Takeshi who exists only in his dreams, when he comes thinking about Christophe's mouth; he'll be faithful again next time. He can't be the only one among their colleagues who's used Christophe this way. The way that man acts, Seung-Gil wouldn't be surprised if Christophe found the fantasies flattering.
When Seung-Gil returns to his bed, warm and damp and empty, he's asleep within minutes.
In the morning, he calls his coach and tells her he's going to stay for the gala.