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Hold Me Up for All the World to See

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It starts in the water. It starts in the beating thrum of the shower as he’s washing away short program sweat. 93.7 took 3rd today, but Seung-gil didn’t come to Japan for bronze. Korea expects more. He wants more.

What does he need for gold?

What kind of numbers can he put up?

It’s always a struggle during the first competition of the season, when he has no idea what kind of scores he’ll get. Technical points and multipliers are easy to estimate, but PCS is a capricious, nebulous beast. Today’s presentation score was lower than usual, even with his ‘pandering sexy mambo.’

Coach Min-so had pushed the Almavivo program to cash in on his banked sex appeal and popularity among fans, let everyone know he had an exciting side, unexplored layers. Something beyond skating technique.

Maybe it was better if they thought that was true.

But no. His goal was to expand his skating repertoire. Trying something new for himself, not for his fans or even the judges. He wanted the points, he wanted the gold, and he wanted to do something different.

Last year he landed the first ratified quad loop. This year he had to top that somehow. Add something incredible to his skillset. But was this foray into Latin enough? A riot of rainbow feathers and quick sensual movements seemed like a poor substitute for a history making quad. Apparently the judges thought so, too.

What does he need?

What does he need?

A shining droplet from his paraded toiletries catches his eye. It hangs from the tip of a set of replacement laces that turned out to be too long, 330cm instead of his preferred 240s. He reaches for the laces knowing they’ll leave him frustrated, just on the edge of calm. It’s still better than drowning in restlessness now.

Ten minutes of struggling with the doubled loops and he’s almost got it. So close. If he could just pull it taut with his teeth and knot the line. But he can’t really see what he’s doing, which is both unfortunate and predictable.

There isn’t a formula in his head, however, that can calculate the likelihood of Otabek walking in, entering his shower stall and then halting his quick apology to ask, “Umm kidnapping?”

Kazakhstan’s sole representative skater in the Grand Prix series was already scanning beyond the shower curtain for some would-be shoelace assailant.

“No,” Seung-gil spits out along with the lace, throwing an annoyed look over his shoulder.

Otabek glances back, raises a clipped brow. “Ok...”

“It isn’t some sex thing,” Seung-gil feels compelled to clarify. He doesn’t need the competition thinking they have some kind of edge on him.

Otabek says nothing as he approaches. He picks up the stray ends of the laces—Seung-gil will look back at this moment with wonder—and asks, “Where did you want these?”

The answer was back in his mouth, but that felt weird to say.

“I was just trying to get it tight and tie it off, but—”

But you busted in was his unnecessary, unspoken finish.

“Got it. Uh. Let me know when?”

The pull Otabek provides is exquisite. Wet laces dig under his arms, against his collarbone, and across his chest and back. He uses his hands to feed the slack through while still being able to look down and see what he’s doing. At least until his fingertips start to numb out.

“Hey,” Otabek says, his alarmed voice far away and in his ear at once, “that’s enough right?”

It isn’t, but Seung-gil nods and Otabek ties a simple knot. The finish is more loose than he’d like, though he isn’t about to complain. No sense in stretching out this strange situation any longer than necessary.

“So now what?” Otabek says, expectant.

“I said it’s not a sex thing.”

“I heard you.”

“It’s for relaxation. It’s soothing.”

“Ok,” Otabek says like he doesn’t care either way. “You do this every day or just after competitions?”

He sighs and leans his tied torso back against the shower tiles, wishing he could fully enjoy the experience instead of answering. “I don’t see how that’s any of your business?”

“I was going to offer to help next time.”

Red flag. “What do you want from me?”

“What?”

“What do you want from me? For doing this.”

A dark look passes over Otabek’s face, pins at the corner of his hard mouth. He wonders what terrible things Otabek will ask of him for keeping such a secret.

“Who said I wanted anything?” Otabek asks. “You looked… distressed. I wanted to help. Pretty simple.”

Seung-gil crosses his arms, feels the little knots press into him. “I don’t understand. You don’t even know me.”

“We’re not exactly strangers either.”

There’s something about this man that reads as dangerous. Something that sets off warning bells. But Seung-gil doesn’t know if it’s true instinct or one generated from years of his mother cautioning him of bad boys leading him down the wrong path. He doesn’t even know how much of Otabek’s 80’s antihero aesthetic is genuine and how much is a manufactured performance off the ice. And if anyone is leading another astray, maybe Seung-gil is the one reaching back from a dark place to pull Otabek along.

Seung-gil wets his lips, and takes.

“I do this for competitions and other... stressful events. Today I could’ve used it before the Short, but it was hard to get away.”

“Ok. Get to the rink early tomorrow and text me when you're ready.” Otabek hands over his phone, set to Create Contact.

“Why tomorrow?” Seung-gil says, thumb hovering over the keypad.

“Practice.”

____

 

Four lacings later, Seung-gil flexes against his bonds, feels them dig into his ribs as he arches backward. They’d switched to a rope this time, some neon orange length Otabek picked up in a bike shop. It’s thicker than the laces, adding to the learning curve.

“Are they tight enough?” Otabek asks, calm as ever.

“No.”

Otabek shoots him a look, asking for a bit more direction.

“Too loose around the shoulders. Consult the diagram.”

“I did,” Otabek says, analyzing a rope bondage message board.

Otabek dressed as a prince and played up his masculinity, put himself on display with his chest puffed out and skated warhorse after warhorse. Following step-by-step instructions should come as easy to him as breathing.

“Tighter.”

“Well, I can’t make them tighter without pulling this line around your chest, and then your lungs can’t fully expand.”

“A little is fine. Do it.”

“I’m not going to restrict your breathing.”

Seung-gil opens his mouth to argue and Otabek holds up a hand.

“Absolutely not. This part around your neck already has me on edge.” His fingers trail along, ghosting across Seung-gil’s risky throat. He stops to flip through his compilation of internet tips.

“I think we can get it tighter but still safe if we have more of a base.”

Otabek turns the screen towards him revealing a full-body tie. It includes two versions: one with the torso, arms, legs, and groin and another with just the torso and groin.

“This more minimal one will be fine.”

It’s like a bodysuit or a leotard, wrapping around the shoulders, chest, and stomach as usual before slipping between the legs for added leverage.

Otabek doesn’t get that far. He finishes at the stomach where the centered double-column tie then divides into individual ropes, and pauses. The next page has examples of groin ties. In the demonstration photos, their purpose is incredibly, obviously sexual, either splitting the female form apart or wrapping around aroused men.

Otabek passes them all by. “Let's do the legs instead.”

The simple transitions to the thighs are fairly innocent but there’s something to the way Otabek looks going down on his knees. Something that pulls at Seung-gil, taut and tense as the bonds. Something that doesn’t go away when he silently chants, not now.

Otabek ignores the visible arousal in front of him until he’s done with the ties. It’s not awkward. It should be awkward, strange. Instead it’s exciting. Adventurous. Invigorating. Otabek between his knees, full erection jutting out as if to meet him.

“I thought you said this isn’t a sex thing.”

Otabek’s smiling, joking about it. Willing to laugh it off.

“It wasn’t,” Seung-gil says anyway.

The overture was careless and honest, and Seung-gil doesn’t know what to do now. He’s never really flirted, just accepted or refused the advances of potential partners.

But one hand grazes his thigh and he can’t seem to look away from Otabek’s face, heavy lidded, mouth gone slack like spare lacing.

“This ok?” Otabek asks, the heat of his breath close, his stupid hot mouth open enough to give Seung-gil ideas.

He nods and Otabek tongues him through his briefs. Hands firm, grip sure, he’s taken out quickly and swallowed down.

Otabek works him until everything is hazy and buzzing and he has to bite against his own hand to keep quiet.

“Too much?” smirking wet lips ask.

It’s a challenge if he’s ever heard one. He slots his leg between Otabek’s, gives him something to thrust against, and grabs him by the hair to carefully guide that mouth back where he wants it.

“More.”

____

 

He takes silver. He barebacks gold. It’s not so bad coming just underneath a really hot Kazakhstani skater with solid technique, but he’s definitely going to be on top in Barcelona.

Otabek laughs when he says all this in bed, then snatches up his hand to kiss over the riot of bite marks. “Were the sequined gloves original to the costume, or did you add them last minute to cover these?”

“Original.” He holds his hand up high, out of Otabek’s reach, turning it so they can see the flecked indents on both sides.

“You should tell your costume designer gloves are your signature look from now on.” He mouths at the column of Seung-gil’s neck, teasing. “And high collars, just in case.”

“Hmm, maybe. And you?”

“As long as my knees are covered, I’m good.”

Otabek moves the sheets to reveal his knees. Like his feet, they’re dark and bruised from being crushed against hard floors.

“Sorry, I didn’t think. Should we—”

He doesn’t get to finish. Otabek pushes him down into the mattress, the knots and lines of the rope pressing delicious patterns into his skin.

“Do you hear me complaining?”

And maybe Seung-gil doesn’t wait until Barcelona to switch things up.

Otabek looks as good on his back as he does on his knees. 

____

 

He thought Otabek was the strong silent type but in fact, once he starts talking, he doesn’t shut up. They text back and forth across time zones, sending selfies, food porn, bondage #goals. Sometimes they skype about tying, which usually leads to sexy demonstrations.

“Hold on, my headphones are stuck in my hair again.”

This isn’t one of those times.

“Your hair is so gross.” Seung-gil winces as Otabek untangles himself from his tech.

“It’s pomade.”

“It’s still gross.”

“I don’t have silky hair like you. Mine’s rough. And stubborn.”

“I can send you some hair care sponsorship swag. The scalp treatments are nice and the packs make it soft.”

“Packs?”

“Uh… a deep conditioning hair mask,” Seung-gil translates.

“You know I only use shampoo, right?”

“Obviously.”

“I’ll try your fancy stuff at the Final. You can wash my hair.” Otabek says it like it’s a gift.

“What do I get out of washing your greasy hair?”

“Hmm… it’ll be softer when you pull it?”

Seung-gil just laughs. “You act like that’s not your kink.”

____

 

Rostelecom is a nightmare. There’s storms and turbulence on the flight over, the open ocean below choppy, hungry, menacing. Otabek isn’t there to ease him back down once he’s on solid ground.

Self-tying, which he hadn’t attempted since NHK, is even less satisfying than before. Restlessness and insomnia take over, followed by exhaustion. He’s a mess on precision-sharp blades. Thousands of hours consolidate into seven minutes and somehow he has to act like this is fine.

It’s not fine.

It’s a blur of math and mistakes. One minute he’s tabulating multipliers, the next he’s murdered the triple axel. It wasn’t just a hand down or a two-footed landing. He completely botched it.

Smug ass J.J. takes gold, the fifteen-year-old Russian who probably sleeps in skates takes silver. Crispino and Katsuki practically tie, but it’s Katsuki with his silver from China who squeaks by.

Seung-gil stares at the screen as the scores roll in, tired eyes burning. Twenty-seven points behind. There’s no place for him in the GPF.

 

____

 

Otabek
>> you must be on the plane. Have a safe flight and get some rest
>> how was practice?
>> text me when you get a chance
>> good luck today! can’t wait to see your 4Lo
>> trying to watch the stream
>> the ISO hates fans
>> got it!!
>> you look rough, are you ok?
>> don’t worry, you can rise up in the free skate. You’re a fighter and you definitely have what it takes to medal. Just don’t give up.
>> keep fighting!!!
>> can you call me back when you have a minute?
>> I should have been there
>> please call me
>> I’m here when you need me, always, ok?

 

____

 

His parents insist he comes home to lick his wounds. Watching melodramatic romcoms with his sister-in-law doesn’t make him feel better. Neither do the texts Otabek sends to cheer him up. The phone rings again and Seung-gil, knowing that Otabek’s going to keep calling, answers.

“Hey.”

“Hey.”

Otabek doesn’t give him hell for ghosting. Instead he speaks in calm tones, slowly building up both his voice and Seung-gil’s shattered confidence. He doesn’t say anything that hasn’t been said, but it means more coming from him.

“I’m doing Coupe de Nice,” Seung-gil says to prove he’s done wallowing. “It starts the day before the GPF, so I’ll miss your short program, but I’ll definitely catch the free.”

Otabek hums in his ear, low and sensual, “I’ll watch you, too.”

“You’re blushing so much,” his sister-in-law coos when they hang up. “Did you get a girlfriend?”

Seung-gil corrects her, “Boyfriend.”

 

____

 

Otabek
<< Flying out to Nice in a few. Text you when I land
>> I think our flights overlapped
>> Call me, I miss your voice

 

____

 

The Coupe’s gold medal is a life jacket around his neck. It feels like coming up for air after treading water for weeks—amazing and necessary, and too short lived.

Because Plisetsky’s smart. He stakes his claim of Otabek during his exhibition skate knowing everyone’s watching. He’s trying so hard to be edgy that Seung-gil can’t even be mad about it. If he’d made it to the GPF, none of this would be happening. Not the flirtatious choreography, not Otabek biting a fucking glove off another guy’s hand. That rests squarely on his shoulders.

Then the notifications come on Instagram and Twitter. Not just that weekend, but slowly, as others post and tag Otabek in pictures from the GPF.

He’s with Plisetsky, doing things they’ve never done together. Out on a date at a cafe. Arms around one another in suits that signify the gala. Riding double on a motorcycle. People comment about how good they look as a couple.

It hurts.

He keeps looking at them anyway.

 

____

 

Min-so’s voice is relentless noise he can’t escape.

“Where is your head these days? I need you 100% present. PyeongChang is within reach, but only if you stay hungry for it!”

She pauses to add, “There will be plenty of time for boys after the Olympics.”

This gets his attention. Min-so has never overstepped like this. It’s not her place, but deep down he knows she’s right. All of this—Otabek and his battered knees and ocean sheets and neon orange ropes, Yuri Plisetsky on the back of a rented motorcycle, 15 years old and taking everything Seung-gil wants—all of it is just a distraction.

 

____

 

“Hey,” Otabek says at the first 4CC practice, like nothing’s changed since NHK.

“Hey.” He swerves around this conversation and settles into a corner near J.J. to run spins.

When practice ends, it’s Otabek who leans in close to ask, “What’re you doing after this?”

Both the rope and the sex are deliriously good, but when he moves to put his hand against his mouth, Otabek pulls it away and offers his lips instead.

“Your short program doesn’t have gloves,” he whispers between biting kisses that are painful for both of them.

Otabek’s shoulders are much easier to cover than his hands. Marked up as they are, Otabek isn’t his.

Katsuki proposed to Nikiforov in Barcelona and Seung-gil knows the difference between them: one is forever and the other is what he has. Watching the happy couple flaunt their relationship at every possible opportunity is annoying, though it shouldn’t be. He and Otabek—it isn't some kind of love affair. No sweet hand holding or hushed affections. It’s late nights and in-betweens and pretending not to know one another when they’re interviewed for TV.

“How does it feel bringing home bronze for South Korea tonight?”

He says something cerebral about truly understanding greed.

But it feels like rope burn. It feels like regret over trashed laces and a full voicemail box and searching flights to Kazakhstan at 3am.

None of that stops him from leaving the press junket with the silver medalist.

 

____

 

Darkness.

Saltwater.

Neon orange.

The sound of his sister crying.

Then, nothing but cold, jostling waves.

He wakes with a start and Otabek is already on him, wrapped tight with their shoulders pressing together and it’s hard to drag in too much oxygen with the full weight of a man on his chest.

“Shh… It’s just a nightmare,” Otabek says over his heavy breathing. “I’ve got you.”

Seung-gil tries to rationalize these words through blind confusion. Fingers play in his hair, a comfort he leans into while trying not to shake.

“Talk to me about it. Get it out of your head.”

Seung-gil doesn’t remember everything about that night in the sea. What he does he tells Otabek in the dark.

It comes out in stuttered flashes. The smell of smoke and panic, the life jackets—one size. He touches his chest where the buckle had clipped around him, the hard foam pressing under his arms and jaw, the knot tied close to his neck. He doesn’t remember jumping. One moment he was dry and the next he was wet and weightless, just one of the dozens of neon orange lights blinking against pitched waves.

He does remember how it felt as he drifted off, away from the others. The way the life jacket held him and the only light he could see was his own.

He doesn’t need to say that years later, he would crave that hold in slips and breaks of his mind, when the pressure to jump and spin and land over and over would push him underwater.

They lie in bed together and breathe. He still feels explosive, like something that will burst into far-flung fragments if not held together properly. And Otabek does everything properly, with arms solid as steel welded around him.

He doesn’t budge until Seung-gil pushes him away.

____

 

Halfway through his flight to Sapporo, Seung-gil leans away from the windows. The pilot promised beautiful ocean views but the only water he wants to see is frozen, sleek and finite, not endlessly savage like open water.

Being back in Japan reminds him of those first few days with Otabek, haphazardly dodging their coaches for illicit sex and carbs. Four months later, they have it down to a science. Otabek will go to Seung-gil’s room with everything they need. Seung-gil will hand off an extra keycard so Otabek can slip in again after their skate or, occasionally, late night DJing. They’ll meet in the locker room ahead of the short and free programs for tying.

It’s a formula that works until it doesn’t.

Seung-gil bursts into the locker room to find Otabek waiting.

“Interview ran over. We don’t have much time.”

“We have time,” Otabek insists. “Relax.”

He’s got the rope neatly coiled around his shoulder, tight grip already making promises. Seung-gil strips down fast.

“Hey. Hurry up.”

“Hey,” Otabek says when they’ve taken refuge behind the shower curtain, “Kiss me.”

“No.” He says it automatically, petulantly, and Otabek must think it’s teasing because he only falters for a moment before smiling again.

“Fine. You’re nicer when you’re tied up anyway.”

They’re both late to the six minute warmup. He doesn’t like merging into ice traffic at all, much less when everyone’s so aggressive with their space. Katsuki’s throwing down intimidation quads. Guang-Hong and Phichit look determined to clap back. Otabek’s oblivious, running long, interruptive step sequences. They nearly collide twice.

Seung-gil can’t shake the practice. He skates that aggression in place of sensuality but the judges must crave unrestrained testosterone today because it’s a season’s best for him.

Otabek doesn’t fair as well. His usual intensity just isn’t there, though he pulls himself together in the second half. Phichit falls on a 3S3T, which is awful because Thailand has never medaled here, but it takes some of the pressure off. He and Otabek are in the top three along with Katsuki, same as 4CC.

The podium will be knife-edge close and Seung-gil knows they can’t continue like this.

 

____

 

They’re in the showers before the free and Otabek seems ready to repeat history rather than make it.

He’s done the torso ties in a pattern they haven’t tried before. It goes together quickly, like Otabek’s been practicing for speed, but they’re both hard and Seung-gil needs to say something.

Is it selfish to wait until after the competition?

Otabek presses a tender kiss to the soft part of his stomach, a pliant camber just above the waistband of his boxers. Seung-gil stills, reflexively shoves at Otabek’s immovable shoulder. It’s selfish either way.

“Stop. We’ll be late again,” Seung-gil says with every bit of restraint he has.

“We have—38 minutes.”

“Tie me up and get out.”

He doesn’t know what kind of expression he’s wearing to make Otabek look so defeated, but it’s enough for the man to look down at his feet, to sag against him. Forehead lolling against his hip, he feels Otabek’s controlled breathing.

“I don’t understand what changed.”

“Nothing changed, I just—”

“Bullshit! We used to talk all the time! And now—Now it’s like you only want me for this.”

Seung-gil is quiet, calculating. He needs this and he needs this to end. So he says the most hurtful thing he can think of. “I don’t see the point of pretending to love you when that’s not necessary to get what I want.”

Regret is instant and razor sharp as Otabek’s face breaks. He turns away and Otabek stands slowly, like he isn’t composed of solid muscle. When he speaks it’s difficult to hear.
“Finish the ties yourself. I can’t.”

Otabek slips on his jacket, slow, checks his duffel bag, slow. Like he’s waiting for Seung-gil to change his mind.

And it’s working.

The thought of never seeing this man smile just for him is—no. No. He can’t bend here, can’t reach out and pull Otabek back under again.

Their relationship, whatever it was, dies silent inside of him when the door closes. Otabek is out of his sight, his life. It’s done.

All that’s left is this rope.

Neon orange.

Saltwater.

Darkness.

____

 

Pavane Pour une Infante Défunte is more typical of Seung-gil’s programs. It’s dignified and sedate, which is fortunate because right now he feels nothing. Unmoored from the emotions that have driven him to distraction, his movements are too sharp. But he can’t be delicate. Not now.

His mind zeros out to just the ice beneath him, his tight form launching into jumps, cool air hitting his face as he spins. He misses a combination and goes for it again, tacking on a double to sync up with the music. It jars him back into the moment and then he knows this isn't nothing he feels.

It’s loss.

He breaks out of his finishing pose too soon and bows as galantly as he can manage before heading for the Kiss and Cry.

Min-so berates him passively with some jibe about ‘going Nikiforov’ and choreographing his own routines now. That repeated jump drags him over Otabek’s score. Seung-gil stands. He wants to see the judges’ score sheets, have the standings explained in neat synopsis.

The black and white decimals do nothing to assuage this strange guilt. 

 

____

 

Otabek congratulates him on the podium and now Seung-gil knows misery while medaling. The ceremony is a production and there are cameras everywhere. He can’t run away.

Katsuki is the only buffer between them with his gold. He still feels Otabek’s arm as they lean in for pictures. He is never getting involved with another skater ever again.

As soon as he’s allowed, he takes off. His schedule includes meat, a nap, and avoiding other skaters. The escape plan only lasts seconds because Phichit Chulanont grabs him bodily and herds him into a taxi van.

Of course he’s sitting next to Otabek. Of course.

“Hey.”

“...Hey.”

It’s awkward. And it should be. Seung-gil holds his body ridgid, their bodies separate. This is as close as they’ll ever be again because he can’t fix this. They’re too far gone.

Then the world tilts as their taxi crosses a large bridge. Otabek reaches out to tuck Seung-gil against his shoulder, whispering, “Don’t look.”

He doesn’t need to look—he can smell the smoke, the burning fuel. The hair on the back of his neck stands on end.

“It’s ok. You’re safe.” Otabek even rubs his back to soothe him.

God, he really screwed up.

Seung-gil grabs a fistful of leather jacket and whispers, “I’m sorry,” quiet enough that the others don’t hear over the commotion of the accident.

“I know.”

“I didn’t mean it.”

“I know,” Otabek says again.

He leans forward and presses a kiss to Otabek’s soft throat.

This is the part of Otabek that feels the truest. This and his dry hands and sunburned nose, and the way he has to ask “what?” over and over after a long night of spinning in some too loud, too edgy club that’s split his eardrums in half. Somehow every little thing about him became essential.

“You love me,” Otabek states as a fact. “Your face goes soft whenever you see me, even from far away. You don’t really pay attention to other people, but when you notice me…”

“Yeah. Yeah. It’s just you.”

“Can I kiss you?”

He nods and shuts his mind down from its calculation of time zones, the harsh subtracting of seconds left between them until their next competition together, knowing that time will seem short now and then long, long, endlessly long.

Worlds is worlds away. They only have tonight.