“Hiding true colours made you fall apart
In the mirror you’re a work of art
But this is real life, real life”
- Oh Wonder, “Dazzle”
Spring in Italy comes with a promise of love in the polluted air and something tragic on city streets. A new rendition of the well-known story about star-crossed lovers could happen any moment now. It's truly a pity that fair Verona is so far away.
Namjoon lands in Milan two hours too late and heads to the customs with a small suitcase filled to the brim with things he won't need. Never does. It's just to pass the time, really, all the books and magazines he carries around. Some of them are in English, a few of them in French if, by any chance, he wants to practice the language, while the others are in Korean. He cherishes those more despite the fact that pages have started to tear. They're like a piece of home away from home even though the apartment he rents in a skyscraper in the suburb of Seoul with its bare walls and lack of furniture would never count as one.
Customs pass in a flash, and then the ride to the hotel he'd be staying in does too. The scenery he sees through tinted windows of the cab is nothing spectacular. Definitely not the type that ends up on postcards hungry tourists buy and send home to their loved ones. Namjoon isn't sure if they still make them. He doesn't pay attention to the type of souvenirs being sold in corner shops. He has nobody to write to. His family has stopped expecting small gifts from his travels a long time ago. A few text messages are all it takes to say "i miss you" and "i'm back but not for long, i can't come home".
Another thing about Italy in spring is that is not really spring even though it's warm and the only snow left in the city are black piles at the street corners. The blue sky is a shade too dark but then again, it's the middle of January. The prime time for men's fashion week in Milan. By now, Namjoon is a regular. One of the rare Korean models walking down the runways of European fashion shows – Paris, Milan, London. The high couture here is different, always striving to be pure art, playing the role of something bigger than life and finer than silk. Something out of reach. Divine. Untouchable.
“As if,” make-up artists scoff while pampering egoistic fashion icons.
Namjoon knows the scene. The tall models with their high cheekbones and chiselled jawlines smiling big and bright for the cameras while talking about the latest trends. The bathrooms full of people with long elegant fingers waiting their turn to shove those same manicured fingers down raw throats until all that's left in their stomachs are acid and a few mint candies.
"You look tired," his stylist says in English that's too soft. "Have you eaten anything since you arrived? We don't want you to faint out there." She gestures to the stage and the long runway, to the harsh neon lights that make their skin look almost translucent, paper thin.
There's a table in the corner of the dressing room filled with water and soda bottles, with snacks that have more calories than a vegetarian meal, with fruits so perfect they look plastic. Namjoon grabs a bottle of Evian and says that he's fine. This is okay. Normal.
It starts with Armani. As it always does for Namjoon. The faces walking down the runway are familiar even under the layers of make-up whose only purpose is to make them seem normal. Natural look is the trend even though it has to be accomplished with so much make-up it takes them nearly twenty minutes to take it all off. Models greet each other backstage with practised lines that consist of "great to see you" and "how are you" with "oh how wonderful" and "I can't wait to see you in Tokyo" on the side. The conversation they have is frivolous, easy to forget. Namjoon rarely indulges in it and when he does, it's just to pass the time between fashion shows.
It continues with something more modern. Bleached-out, subdued palette of colours has been replaced with vibrant, almost electric shades of orange and blue. And usually, Namjoon isn't the one to walk for Moschino. With all the photos in his portfolio done in black and white with simple backdrop of plain texture and occasional statement piece in rich red or green, he isn't somebody they book. Not fun enough or simply, not the type of beauty they look for. But January is fickle, the weather changes every hour and after yet another model calls in sick, they have no other choice but to look for replacements.
Nobody talks about it. About models used to Versace and Armani, to cold palettes and clothing that hugs but never grips the body, to the fabrics that fall elegantly and fit just right. They look out of place even when they're dolled up. Stylists observe them with something akin to fear, like all their hard work could dissipate once they step under the unrelenting lights of the runway. They crack their fingers, pray to whichever god they believe in, but it doesn't help because not even models are sure in themselves as they check their pose in the mirror stretching on the wall.
Keeping an eye on the models and the clock ticking away minutes to the start of the show, stylists pick at their cuticles and wait. Stress is evident on their worried faces as they murmur something under their breath. When a slender hand comes down on the shoulder of one of the stylists, she turns around and collides with a newcomer. The smile that spreads on her face is more blinding than the lights in the dressing room and she screams in joy.
"Thank God, you made it!" she exclaims, her voice loud enough for everybody to hear. It catches Namjoon's attention too and he cranes his neck to see what the commotion is all about.
There's a boy standing by the make-up station. He's younger than Namjoon, probably younger than everybody in the room judging by the way he smiles – easy and innocent. Stylists gather around him proclaiming that the fashion show is saved and that everything will be just perfect, there's enough time for him to change into new clothes and they'll manage to put the make-up on his pretty face and thank heavens, everything is going be a huge success...
Namjoon tunes them out and reaches for the magazine on the glass table.
- - -
Backstage Moschino is hectic as the show itself, but the boy opening it returns to the dressing room with a blinding smile. Not caring about the expensive clothes he's wearing, he squeezes himself in the small space on the sofa between Namjoon and the wall. His hand comes to rest on Namjoon's knee, fingers splayed over the fabric of his pants. When Namjoon doesn't react, the boy moves closer, his hand trailing up Namjoon's thigh. They're too close for comfort but nobody pays them any attention as make-up artists rush to fix smudged eyeliner and foundations that aren't bright enough.
Before the boy's hand reaches Namjoon's crotch, Namjoon covers it with his own. The boy pouts when his attempt at whatever he wanted is effectively stopped. He wiggles his fingers, trying to get free but it is useless.
"Miss me so much you can't keep your hands to yourself, Taehyung?" Namjoon asks, closing the magazine and dropping it to the floor.
"I always do," Taehyung replies. "But I didn't expect to see you here. This—," and he points to the colourful clothes hanging from every surface, to neon blue and green, "—isn't your thing."
"People called in sick and you were late. Organizers panicked. The rest is history."
Taehyung hums in reply. "We got snowed in in Moscow. It was a lot of fun."
"For you or the others?"
"For me, of course," Taehyung grins, and then his smile falters. He twists his hand until his palm is facing Namjoon's and then slots their fingers together, seeking warmth and comfort, something tangible to anchor him. "Which hotel you're in?"
- - -
As all things that are supposed to be only temporary, they start out as a fling. A one-time deal in the after-party of Vivienne Westwood where music is too loud and people have traded small talk for dancing. Taehyung is too drunk and too happy and Namjoon doesn't want to think about connecting flights between New York and Moscow and the passport he lost not even a week ago.
Taehyung nearly falls in Namjoon's lap, his drink forgotten on the bar counter. He laughs in Namjoon's ear. Tells him the perfume he has on compliments his style. Bites at Namjoon's earlobe murmuring how he wants to see Namjoon wearing nothing at all. For some reason, Namjoon complies.
It's easy. Kissing. Fucking. Even the morning after.
When Namjoon leaves the bed to throw the used condom in the trash, Taehyung reaches out to him with grabby hands. He wants to cuddle despite the fact that they smell like expensive champagne and sex and that there's dried cum on their bodies. Namjoon obliges and Taehyung pulls him in for a sloppy kiss, more teeth than anything else. Tangling his fingers in Namjoon's hair, he whispers something like "don't forget me" and "this was nice" and “let's do it again”.
When Taehyung leaves Namjoon's hotel room, it's past noon and he's wearing Namjoon's hoodie over his silk dress shirt because he has forgotten his jacket at the reception.
- - -
They only ever meet in Tokyo, in a city that's too big to be alone in but also where it is too convenient to get lost. They open the shows together, walking one behind the other. The order depends on the designer and whether they want to start the show with juvenile innocence from Mark Twain's novels or refined version of the roaring twenties.
It is in the backstage of a show like that that Taehyung gets a hold of Namjoon's ID. The photo on it shares the smallest semblance to the man standing only a few feet away. The features are similar, but gone is the baby fat and that naive look in bright eyes. Taehyung traces his finger over the roundness of Namjoon's cheeks on the photograph and briefly wonders if he could get away with touching Namjoon's dimples some time in the future.
"You're one year my senior," Taehyung tells him later that night. His voice is wrecked from screaming Namjoon's name and begging him for more, to fuck him harder.
Dim light coming through the open window casts Namjoon's face in shadows and Taehyung maps the bridge of his nose and the edge of his mouth with his fingers like Namjoon is a marble statue worthy of worshipping.
"I should call you hyung," he adds, turning Namjoon's head around so that he can kiss him properly. "Or maybe daddy. Would you like that?"
Taehyung wouldn't mind it. Not one bit. After all, he is a needy and whiny creature sometimes. He looks Namjoon in the eyes, seeking answers but all he finds is emptiness. Something hallow and dark like stars come to die in the depth of his irises.
"No," Namjoon says, distracting Taehyung with a kiss.
- - -
When Namjoon was starting, the policy of his modelling agency was to forget everything that made him an individual.
"You have to become who you're not. Be it a Sicilian boy in early summer or a ruler of some forgotten country. You're living a concept, my dear. That's the only thing people looking at you care about. So why bother with trying to have a solid identity. It would do you no good," the woman in charge of booking had told him.
And she was right.
For his first show, he was a businessman, charming as Gatsby and dangerous as Corleone. The suit he wore was tight, made of cashmere. The silk tie felt suffocating around his neck. But once he stepped under the lights and walked down the runway with the clicking of camera shutters as background music, he forgot conflicting emotions he felt while signing his contract. Heated gazes were all over him, observing him, lusting over the concept he wore like a second skin. It felt good. Wonderful even. So he continued.
With every concept, came another set of qualities he had to adopt to. In interviews they never asked him who he was but rather who he played.
Kim Namjoon had turned into the model on the cover of Vogue, High Cut, Bazaar. A famous face on the billboards and in commercials. Somebody to adore and dream about in cold monochrome palette.
- - -
Taehyung's story isn't much different. After all, in the world revolving around portraying unreachable ideals as common dreams and creating beauty standards that rarely make any sense, everything can be summed up in the word concept.
The idea of reducing people to a set of qualities written on a piece of paper is a wild and dangerous one but it works. Models transform according to the designer's wishes. They're hand-picked from hundreds, if not thousands, young people waiting for a chance to break into the fashion industry.
So when the news of Kim Taehyung opening a Gucci show during Seoul fashion week go viral and his name trends on multiple social networks, Taehyung buys two black garbage bags and a dozen bottles of mineral water along with some carrots and celery sticks at the local market. When he returns to his apartment, he empties his fridge in those bags and goes on a diet.
At the end of the day, a pretty face is worth as much as wrists the size of toothpicks.
- - -
Seoul is home. Or the closest thing to it they have.
Taehyung moves in without saying a word. He appears unannounced on Namjoon's doorstep one sunny afternoon in the middle of summer. It's not a bad moment since neither of them has anything scheduled for a few weeks which is enough time for them to adjust to each other.
But they don't really have to do it. Coffee they drink every morning is bitter and with no cream. Bottled water they buy is the same brand. Diet yoghurt tastes the same regardless of which company produces it. The only thing they don't agree on is the guilty pleasure they have.
Taehyung likes sweet things while Namjoon likes sour. But the smallest bag of candy is still shared because sometimes even that is too much for one person.
Cigarettes are shared too, passed from one mouth to the other. Taehyung hates them, but they help when hunger becomes too much. At times like that, Namjoon kisses him slow and gentle, pours all the love he has into Taehyung and tells him how pretty he is. How stunning and brilliant and gorgeous and how much Taehyung means to him. He holds Taehyung tight as they share a cigarette after a cigarette while the night falls on Seoul and their apartment. At nights like those, they make love with the lights turned off and Taehyung wakes up in Namjoon's embrace in the morning.
- - -
One way or the other, perfection corrodes to dust. Concept disappears down the drain with make-up and all that is left is an imperfect canvas. Taehyung can't look away from the mirror as a make-up artist removes layers of foundation from his face, leaving behind blemishes and little imperfections that dot his skin. The longer he stares at his reflection, the bigger his flaws become until all he can see are them. Once she's finished, the visagist taps him on the shoulder and spins his chair around.
“There. All done,” she says, voice tired but still stressed. The shooting is done for the day. By the time is starts tomorrow, she has to have a whole new plan on how to transform Taehyung into somebody he is not. But it shouldn't be too hard to think of new ways to make him a different person. After all, he is living a concept, his face an empty canvas day after day, season after season until he is replaced with somebody younger.
Taehyung leaves the dressing room wearing loose pants and a hoodie stolen from Namjoon some months ago. It has been washed countless of times after Taehyung took it, but he still digs his nose into the soft fabric, seeking something to remind him of Namjoon.
When he returns to the hotel, Taehyung forgets all unwritten rules they ever made as he brings a plush chair to the terrace of his room. He sits down and pulls his knees up to rest his chin on them. The city in front of him spreads in all directions for as long as Taehyung can see. London is a metropolis, just like Paris or Moscow or Rome, but London is so unbelievably cold, built out of concrete and iron. Nothing like the cities Taehyung loves. The streets of London are foreign and unwelcome, without any similarities with the streets he so willingly got lost in, walking hand in hand with Namjoon. He misses it – the way he could convince Namjoon to go out in Tokyo after midnight or lurk New York in dawn.
Gnawing at his bottom lip, Taehyung pulls out a phone from his pocket and presses speed-dial one. A part of him expects Namjoon to ignore the call, while a significantly larger part prays that for once Namjoon misses him too. He's not sure what time it is in Seoul or if Namjoon is there to begin with. Looking at the billboards bleeding neon colors over indigo backdrop, everything feels surreal, straight out of some dystopia novel Taehyung devoured as a kid. Everything is close and yet not close enough, everything shifts and moves and rearranges itself with the sound of phone ringing at some part of the world where Namjoon is.
Taehyung waits and waits, listening to the same old sound. With every minute that passes, he feels like this whole thing was a mistake, nothing but a caprice of his foolish heart. He was happier when he had nobody to return to. Now—now he just feels lonely. A little boy lost in a big city.
“Tae?” Namjoon picks up on the seventh ring.
There's music in the background, some chill indie track. One time Taehyung had asked Namjoon how he managed not to fall asleep during fitting with music like that. Namjoon had chuckled, kissed his temple and called him cute. Taehyung never got his reply but things were like that with Namjoon. Never transparent, never out in the open.
Another moment passes in which he says nothing, just listens to the echo of Namjoon's voice in the receiver and honking of cars at the crossroad twenty meters below. Static cracks in his ear and the next time Namjoon speaks, his voice is lower, reminiscent. Taehyung clings to every syllable that falls from his lips.
“Tae, are you okay? You're in London, right? Do you like it?”
I miss you.
I need you.
I'm lost or lonely.
I don't know which.
I don't think it matters.
Taehyung clears his throat, dabs his eyes with his fingertips. They come off wet and salty. Like tears. Fuck.
“I'm good. Everything is okay. Actually, I called you by accident. Sorry,” he blurs out, hoping that his words make some sense.
“Really?” comes the voice from the other end of the line. Worry fills the spaces between letters.
Taehyung curls up tighter in a ball, hugging his knees. He wipes his cheeks with the sleeve of Namjoon's hoodie and everything is stupid. So stupid and childish and so not him.
“Yeah, totally,” he says, hoping that his voice sounds cheerful enough to convince Namjoon.
“Good. Is it raining? It did the last time I was there.”
At Namjoon's question, Taehyung looks up. Raindrops hit his face, sliding down his cheeks like tears. Perhaps the sky has been crying the whole time and not him. Closing his eyes, he lets the rain fall down on him.
“It is,” he tells Namjoon. “It's a rainy day, but they promised us some sun tomorrow.”
- - -
Sometimes Taehyung stops midway between fashion shows and tucks himself in some quiet little corner of the world where layovers last more than 24 hours and where nobody knows him. He never plans it, but somehow it always happens on purpose.
During moments when he's free, time slows down, hands of clocks stop moving and Taehyung walks through alleyways in foreign towns, getting by with the little English and French he knows.
Tourist attractions lurk him in with flamboyant colours and sparkly crystals and he returns to the airport with a bag full of souvenirs and an unspoken promise to return with somebody one day.
- - -
Usually, they don't get invited to the same shows. Taehyung heads to New York while Namjoon boards the plane for some part of Europe. They say goodbye at airports – in front of duty-free shops and tourist information centres – and it resembles romantic movies so much that Taehyung smiles in the last kiss they share before he heads to the customs.
"See you soon," Taehyung says with a wave of his hand and Namjoon nods.
They don't message each other often. Constant communication ruins relationships, Namjoon has learned that the hard way, so he reads books in the backstage of fashion shows while make-up artists gush over new creations of established designers and talk about front pages of high couture magazines. He catches mentions of Taehyung's name here and there, always in passing, and something like yearning scorches his insides. The burns stop hurting only after calling Taehyung and hearing his voice.
Namjoon is the first one to return to Seoul. He takes off white sheets from the furniture and opens all windows to let the fresh air in. He's not sure when Taehyung will come back, but it could be soon.
- - -
Flight from New York lands half an hour early and Taehyung wakes up to the sun rising over Seoul. It's early, terribly so, but he is excited, buzzing with positive energy even though black circles under his eyes tell a different story. It's good to be able to hear Korean again after two months of listening to only English. Jet leg sinks into his bones on the way home, making them heavy like lead, but Taehyung fights the fatigue and entertains himself with thoughts of what he'll find home. Maybe something has changed, he thinks as he runs his fingers through his orange hair. Maybe Namjoon will still be in bed when he comes home and then he'll crawl in bed next to his boyfriend and fall asleep with his front pressed to Namjoon's back.
Once in front of their building, Taehyung exists the taxi without waiting for the change, thanking the driver for the ride as he hauls his luggage from the back seat before he goes inside. The elevator is small but his suitcase is even smaller, just a change of clothes and some presents because Taehyung likes bringing home little pieces of the cities he visits unlike Namjoon.
Once he's standing in front of their apartment, he reaches for the doorknob trying his luck. Sometimes Namjoon forgets to lock the door after returning home from the grocery store and today just happens to be one of those days. Taehyung smiles as he opens the door and steps inside. The apartment is just like he remembers. Nothing changed except the colour of curtains. Namjoon's mum must have come to visit. He leaves his suitcase in the hallway and takes off his shoes. His keys end up in the crystal bowl on the shoe rack, right next to Namjoon's. Taehyung walks in the living room only to find it empty. He can hear Namjoon making coffee in the kitchen and that's the moment when fatigue finally catches up with Taehyung. He throws himself on the sofa and buries his face in the soft cushion.
Namjoon's voice floats through the air before Taehyung can even hear his footsteps. When he comes to the living room, it's with a cup of steaming coffee in hand. It smells divine but Taehyung is too tired to care about it.
"They dyed your hair,” Namjoon says after putting the cup aside. He runs his long fingers through the orange strands on Taehyung’s nape. Taehyung groans into the sofa cushion and turns his head to look at Namjoon. He's sitting on the edge of the coffee table, on the last month’s issues of Vogue and Esquire.
“Yeah,” Taehyung hums and then adds “Jeremy wanted it orange and they run out of colour shampoo” as an afterthought.
Namjoon chuckles, his fingers still moving through Taehyung’s hair, massaging his scalp and the feeling is so nice Taehyung doesn't want him to stop any time soon. Closing his eyes, he finally gets to enjoy the warmth after a few weeks of cold American weather. Melting snow in the afternoons, ice on the sidewalks in early mornings. Chicago was cold, as always, and Taehyung exhaled white smoke into smog and watched the lights of the city reflect on the dark water of the lake.
“It suits you,” Namjoon says. “I like it.”
“Don’t you like everything about me?” Taehyung asks, tone of his voice teasing, cheerfulness trying to break through fatigue and jet lag. His lips are curled upwards in the corners, a pretty sight.
Namjoon wants to lean down and kiss him, slow and gentle, like Taehyung is a porcelain doll in the hands of an excited child and the little one has to be careful, has to stop their hands from squeezing too tight unless they want to end up with cuts on their hands when the porcelain shutters and white becomes smudged with crimson red.
“I do,” Namjoon answers. “I always will.”