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Soft Heart, Tough Eyes

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It’s a hot night in Jinki’s apartment in early summer. The sharp television light rips into the dark living room, an Etude House ad for a men’s cushion foundation playing on mute. On the sofas, two human lumps hide with bowls of fried chicken and soju bottles littered between them.

Spread out on the cushions lays Jinki, holding a battered Huawei phone between his shoulder and ear so he can stuff his mouth, two hands at once. He’s a beta male of the geeky genre, with a growing tummy from too much weeknight beer bulging his stained Star Wars tee.

“Hyung, it’s your lucky night,” is Jonghyun’s mechanized voice through the speaker. “Stop what you’re doing, I got you a gig.”

“Hello you too, Jonghyun,” Jinki replies through the chicken. “You don’t mean like, right now, do you? My wife and I are having a movie night. It’s Wednesday.”

He glances at his right. On the adjacent sofa is Changsun, an early-thirties flower boy, definitely not Jinki’s wife. The guy’s eyes remain glued to his phone screen like he’s not even there. On Wednesdays, it’s tradition for the flatmates to ignore each other and the sci-fi movie on TV while playing on their phones.

Jonghyun pushes on:

“I have this dongsaeng and she’s directing a photoshoot for her shop tonight, but the person who was gonna do all the makeup and stuff just stood them up. She texted me and she’s going all crazy looking for a sub now.”

Jinki frowns in estrangement. He’s known all of Jonghyun’s friend circle since they were college roommates, ten years ago, and never heard of some girl like that.

“Her own shop? Since when do you have rich friends? Did you actually leave the house and meet people?”

He’s teasing, but the prospect of Jonghyun reaching out of his shell and making new friends after so long actually makes Jinki excited.

The man on the other side of the line lets out a frustrated whine.

“Ah, don’t be like that, hyung...” An embarrassed pause, and he adds in a meek tone, “She’s my internet friend, actually.”

Jinki sighs, baffled.

“Wait, you don’t actually know her? You want to send me on a night job for somebody you’ve never seen?”

“It’s 5 million won,” Jonghyun shuts him up in a second. “Do you want the money or not, hyung?”

Jinki feels himself standing up, reaching for his wallet on the floor like it’s a magnet. That’s more than thrice what’s he’s made in the last three months since being discharged. Changsun barely nods to acknowledge him when he announces his leave. Jinki hesitates past the center table and, on a second thought, stuffs three drumsticks into his mouth for the commute.

“Text me the address.”

 

Only 45 minutes later has Jinki standing before the building, his pro cosmetic bag hanging heavy and big as a microwave on his shoulder. The studio has a rather inconspicuous outside, barely more than a large block painted in black, ignored by all in the hustling of the night. There’s nobody outside so Jinki pushes the heavy metal doors carefully, peeking into a bare reception room. It’s silent, and he spots only a young woman typing on her phone. Checks the address on his phone and looks back out of the door, back in, shuts it.

The sound calls her attention before he can. She studies his frozen form politely, and Jinki feels a little judged. He didn’t know what sort of ambient it would be, so he got a hat and a blazer to throw over his tee, going for the comfy professional look. Maybe he just ended up looking like a gay hairdresser he isn’t. Meanwhile, the lady before him is in a fashionable red dress, the mole on her chin adding a snobby elegance to her appearance that intimidates a little.

When she speaks, however, her voice is cute with a foreign accent.

“May I help you?”

Jinki shuffles awkwardly.

“Ah, excuse me. I’m Lee Jinki, I was called for a photoshoot...?”

He pretty much just announced the second coming of Jesus. The woman grows in a smile, all but running to take him by the arm.

“Oh hello, I’m Yagi Arisa. I was waiting for you. Come quickly, please, I’ll show you the director.”

He’s led into the next room. There are dark walls and a few bustling people, bu he doesn’t get any time to check his surroundings before they intersect the director’s hurried walk tangentially. The very sight of her makes Arisa’s eyes beam. She bursts into an spontaneous salad of Korean and Japanese.

Unnie, he’s here.”

The other woman turns her head at them, so much on her mind she seems to not have noticed they were following along.

She could be a model herself — slender limbs in business casual, hair bleeding wine. She stands at Jinki’s eye-line even though she’s wearing flats. The golden ring on her nostril brings out her sophisticated features, ripped apart by a scar on the right bow.

Jinki’s taken by surprise by an unexpected firm handshake when they exchange bows. She holds up a cold professional stare at him, making clear that she owns the place, even if metaphorically, and everybody in there will listen to her.

Jinki is enamoured.

“Good evening. Thank you so much for coming in such a short notice. I’m general director Kim Gwiboon, but I sign as Key. You’re Lee Jinki, right.” It’s not a question at all. “I hope you’re ready to go right into work.”

She speaks fast and her native language is business, but she’s not rude by any means. Her busy legs pay no mind to their conversation and Jinki is forced to rush alongside her through the coming corridor, Arisa suddenly gone.

“At your service,” he offers, earnest.

They go into the next room — high ceiling, more staff, photographic tech junk everywhere. Louder. They’re walking towards a shooting set of warm pastels and piled up white cubes. Close by there’s a set up of mirror, table, makeup chair. Rows and rows of hangers sporting fashionable outfits and four models waiting on a sofa, runway-types, styled hairdoes. It’s clearly a fashion brand photoshoot.

Jinki takes it in slowly. Realises Jonghyun probably doesn’t know very much about his job and he’s certainly an idiot for not asking the details before he agreed to come.

“Oh no. Jonghyun fucked up...” he lets out as his steps falter and halt. Key turns to him for the first time since greetings, a hard question on her face. Jinki’s eyes round up when he notices he cursed at a woman and his employer; covers his mouth comically with his hand. “Oh no...”

“What’s the matter?” she presses, more impatient than affected. She stops a couple steps ahead but keeps buzzing and flying her eyes around like a hawk, too much work to do to be standing idly like this.

Jinki grimaces, trying to put it gently.

“Key-ssi, I don’t do fashion makeup. I’m a special effects artist.”

Key swallows his nervous words and for a moment her reaction unpredictable. Then, under Jinki’s stunned gaze, Key all but inhales her eyes back into whites in a tremble of pure hate.

That dumb fucking sissy.” Jinki is too shocked to decide between laughing and gaping. “Why, why would he think I need a—”

Key fumes, pacing around in a little circle, eyes shut tight in hard thought. Jinki can’t do anything but watch disconcerted.

She stops, sighs, smiles.

“Don’t panic,” she puts firmly, even though Jinki’s been in the same shocked silence for the last thirty seconds. “Let me see what you got here.”

Jinki opens his bag and lets her rummage through it. She picks up some items that interest her, and holds up his palette of gel-cream face paint.

“Do you think we could use this?”

“You can use anything. I need this money.”

He tries to play it as a joke with a shrug, but he would mop the whole studio with a handkerchief just for half the money she’s promising.

Key nods, mostly to herself, and sparks back into work mode with an idea.

“Alright, alright. Look. Over here is our collection’s mood board.”

She hurriedly guides Jinki to the makeup corner. There’s a pin board full of pictures on the table and next to it Key places a little notebook drawn from her purse.

“And here’s some of the makeup references I was thinking of. Outfits on the hangers,” she points. “You sit down and take a look at all that.”

The woman seems to be running at thrice of Jinki’s speed, so she takes it up on herself to push his stunned body on the foldable chair.

“I’ll be right back with you and we’ll come up with some ideas, alright?”

Her hands claw on his shoulders, face to face, her eyes inquiring. Pleading. Jinki assents, trying his best to put her at ease with a grin. Key attempts a tense smile back before rushing away.

Jinki watches her retreat in a daze and scans his current situation, the rhythm much slower without the director next to him. He tilts up the pin board and tries to make sense of the visual cacophony on it. There are colourful patterns, pictures of butterflies, seemingly disconnected words and sentences like ‘calling of the soul’, ‘fantasy land’, ‘raw emotion’. The hangers are reflected on the mirror behind it, and Jinki can see how those outfits have a somewhat similar motif about them. Then he notices a sauce stain on his chin and wipes it.

Next he looks through the notebook, eyebrows shooting up impressed — the pictures glued on the pages have high contrast makeup, mostly natural faces with strong colour statements on a single point. Sometimes it’s glitter, odd-coloured blush, asymmetric shadows. It’s nothing like the high-realism masks or fantasy face-painting he works with, but he feels slightly hopeful to see it has a bit of a more radical twist than what he’d usually see in women’s fashion.

Jinki deep sighs, mentally preparing himself for what might be a disastrous night. What am I doing here. He takes out his phone and opens the YouTube app, typing ‘eyeshadow blending tutorial’ on the search bar.

 

It only takes a few minutes for Key to approach him again. Jinki has his face up in the mirror, experimenting with the gel-paint on his right eye, dark blue and swirly. He spots her reflection when she sits on the makeup chair behind him and they turn to each other.

Looking a little guilty, Key’s visibly calmed down now and even her voice comes out slower than before. 

“I’m sorry for my tone before, Jinki-ssi. I’m kind of in charge of everything at the same time... That was very unprofessional of me.”

She sounds upset, and her tired, downcast eyes urge Jinki to smile with a pang of sympathy.

“You’re fine, Key-ssi.”

Key’s own smile is still a bit forced, but he’s glad to see it’s grateful. Sadly, she doesn’t linger in the moment.

“So what do you think? I like what you’re doing there.”

Her fingers gesture to Jinki’s eye. He shuts down his giddiness, instead turning to ponder over the mirror.

“I’m used to doing far more complicated things so I don’t see why I can’t figure it out... I’m just afraid the final touches might end up a little. Unusual?”

He cringes, but Key shakes her head with an extra sincerity to her tone.

“Unusual is good.”

“I’ve never done something like it before,” he continues, encouraged, “but I was thinking of feeling out each outfit and creating like — characters? For each one. Characters that fit with the concept of the outfit.”

“That’s interesting.”

Jinki looks for an example on the mood board and lands his digit on the photograph of a fringed orange dress of someone else’s collection. Key nods along enthusiastically to his words.

“This way — Let’s say, with this dress, she looks like... A ray of sunlight.” The woman’s eyes quirk up, maybe a little endeared, but he’s too focused to notice. He draws on the model’s face with white pencil as he describes: “So I could do some rays of highlight like this, a white eyeliner, nude lips. A mix of artistic and subtle so it doesn’t over-shine the outfit.”

Jinki takes a breath and wiggles with a sudden burst of humility.

“If that’s too much for Key-ssi...”

In response, Key’s eyes round up delighted.

“No, it’s a great idea. Great. We haven’t done this before, I was hoping to go wilder on the faces this time, something new. Let me show you our website.”

From under her bra strap she pulls out a red iPhone XR twice as big as her hand, making Jinki avert his eyes flustered. A website of minimalistic style is displayed on screen and Key scrolls through the past collections for him. The outfits have the avant-garde mosaic style and DIY vibe that seems to be the brand’s signature, but the makeup only goes from natural to unremarkable in all of the pictures.

“The concept point of Keyland is authenticity,” Key explains in deliberate English. “Our outfits are designed with care to be like an expression of the individuals’ style, to celebrate everyone’s personal charms. Not something like fast fashion. Every piece is only produced twice — once for the display, and once for the costumer’s measurements.”

Jinki takes it all in admired. Clothing has never come close to something he pays any interested to, but Key’s ideas really speak to his unusual tastes. It’s for the first time that he can appreciate the art in fashion in all honesty.

“Wow. It has a lot of integrity. Key-ssi seems really passionate.”

The pointed compliment flies right over her head. She puts away the phone.

“Thank you. My shop is my baby.” She sounds off-puttingly motherly when she asks: “Can I count on you?”

Jinki nods vigorously with an eager “Hng!”

Key taps his shoulder in encouragement.

“You have fifteen minutes.”

She calls one of the models on her walk out and a tall blonde lands on the makeup chair. Jinki attempts conversation only to find that she speaks barely a word of Korean. His lucky night.

Key places the first outfit on the forefront of the nearest hanger and vanishes with a forced ‘fighting!’ gesture. Jinki returns it at her back.

He centers himself for business with a hint of excitement. He starts by studying the outfit — it’s a shirt and overalls duo trying really hard to not be just a shirt and overalls duo. The top is stripped, asymmetric, cramped with safety pins; the jeans have rips and green stains laid out messily all over. The white sneakers on the floor are a little grimy.

Jinki chews it over; it’s adventurous, a little tomboyish. In his mind’s eye, a mischievous girl comes running into a field of grass under the bright sun, reveling in the freedom like a runaway.

When he looks at the model’s pale face, his character slowly starts showing herself on the features and he knows just what to do.

 

Key comes back in twelve minutes, when Jinki is landing a storm of fixing spray on the model’s face. The director hovers, obviously pressing, until the man steps back with an apprehensive gulp.

She holds the girl by the chin to examine and her expression is scarily impassive. A strong block of orange blush paints the model’s face from temples to cheek, her eyelashes are wet, and her eyebrows darkened.

“What’s this?” Key squints, turning her head to the side.

Her thumb rubs at the model’s right brow. The edge is super-glued into a fluffy pattern, creating a bald slit through it. It’s a touch of boldness in the natural landscape of her face.

Jinki had been waiting for it, buzzing.

“Ah, the eyebrow.” He readies, sets, smiles: “Key-ssi’s authenticity.”

The woman’s façade snaps before his eyes. Their gazes lock — Key is flattered; Jinki, a little victorious. There’s a wash of softness creeping up her features that she seems unable to fight.

She looks between Jinki and the model. And puts out the first genuine smile of the night.

Lee Jinki.” Key squints at him with a playful spark. “I like your sense. Keep that up.”

Jinki pretty much vibrates in glee like a praised child. He rides out the minute moment of complicity between them before Key is leading out the model to the set, shouting at her back: 

“YOOJUNG-SSI, TO THE CHAIR!”

A chubby Korean girl detaches from the group of models and skips to the makeup chair. She’s barely sitting down when Jinki zeroes in on the dusting of dark moles on one of her cheekbones, ideas flying around. Turns out this might be a fun job, after all.

 

Jinki distributes makeup wipes to the models as they walk out of set, a little sad to see his creations melt off so soon. It feels like coming home after a fun day out at the playground — his work hasn’t been this exciting since his college internships. During his visual and performing arts major he’d promised himself to never do something shallow as fashion, and there he is, adding women’s makeup to his portifolio and loving every moment of it.

He greets good job at everybody that passes by, packing up by himself. He’s surprised by Key greeting him from the back when he’s almost done.

“Great job, Jinki-ssi. You worked hard.”

Her eyebrows shoot up when Jinki bows down ninety degrees, giving her his full attention.

“I appreciate your hard work too, Key-ssi. I’m really thankful for this opportunity. I’ve been unemployed for a couple months, you know.”

“The situation isn’t very good for the youth in the country right now.”

Key looks genuinely sympathetic when she nods; her eyes get lost for a second, as if reminded of something that worries her. She blinks it out.

“How would you prefer the payment? We didn’t have time to talk it out.”

“Is bank deposit viable?”

Key nods and pulls out her wallet.

“Could I have your card?”

“My card?” He blinks.

“Your business card. With your info.”

Jinki offers an awkward smile to hide his stupidity.

“Oh, I haven’t made one yet... Let me just—”

He tries really hard to play off his negligence with the cute-clumsy act. His hands fumble around to grab an eye pencil and rip a blank page from the notebook. Key rolls her eyes, but seems amused. He notes down e-mail, phone number, bank info and Instagram handler. 

“Sorry, I’m not used to this self-management thing yet. Jonghyun’s been helping me, he set up an Instagram account to promote my stuff. I wrote it there, if Key-ssi...”

He stretches it out, uncertain but hopeful, while Key puts away the paper into her wallet.

“I’ll tag you on the pictures we post,” she answers, and Jinki doesn’t understand SNS enough to know what that means, but nods gratefully anyway. “I’ll sort your payment tomorrow and call you when it’s done, alright?”

‘Call you’ rings in his ears involuntary.

“Thank you.”

The man bows once more with a huge grin. He zips up his bag at last and turns to the exit when Key interrupts.

“You’re going out like this?”

“Uh?”

She works a chuckle out of her face and points him to the mirror. Jinki follows her finger and giggles at the screaming blue still stained around his eye, then draws a wipe for it bashfully.

Key watches him clean it off hesitantly, like it’s an evaluation.

“You said this is your first time but you have some really original ideas, Jinki-ssi. You should consider working more with this.”

“With this?”

“You know, with makeup. Maybe even with drag. You have a pretty face, it looked good on you.”

That takes Jinki by surprise, kind of expecting her to be joking, but Key is speaking seriously. He suddenly starts to rethink the way she’s looked at him the whole evening; it should be a strange feeling and it is, a little bit, but he’s also giddy to think of how she sees him. Nobody’s ever said something like that to him before and he isn’t sure how to answer.

“Drag? Drag queen?” repeats Jinki, and out of any better reaction, follows with a self-deprecating chuckle. “Ha, I can’t imagine that... being girly isn’t my style at all.”

“I think your bold style is really fit for it, actually,” Key doesn’t hesitate to reply.

They share some eye contact during an uncertain beat. It’s like neither wants to hang up first. His stomach is still fluttering from the unusual compliment and he hopes he’s not being delusional to read that she liked meeting him, too.

It’s Key who breaks the tension first.

“Well, I hope you have some better luck with jobs from now on. I’ll definitely look for you in future projects.” It’s a promise, but it comes out a bit like politeness. “Have a good night.”

Jinki bows as far as he can again and it’s worth it for Key’s final chuckle.

“It was an honour, Key-ssi.”

Before sleeping that night, he types up ‘thanks for being such a dumbass’ and sends it to Jonghyun.

 

When Key gets home, she rips out her oxfords by the entrance and sighs at the touch of the cool marble floor on her sore soles. The car’s console displayed 3:38AM when she got off it; she’s been up on her feet since 6AM.

She forgoes turning on any lights and drags her body through the dark hall, eyes half-closed. The apartment is silent, even Comme De and Garçons barely yip when they come to greet her.

All that’s on her mind is heading straight to the kitchen to sleep with her face inside a bowl of rice. Key manages to balance some petting and not tripping on the dogs until she enters the living room and almost walks into an elephantic ghost in the low light.

Fucking hell, what are you doing still up?”

Minho doesn’t even have the decency of trying to look apologetic. He’s somewhat fading into the background with his blue pajamas bleeding into the blue walls under the blue light from the windows. Key hates how comfortable he looks in the scene, as if it’s his own damn house, as if he’s her fucking husband.

“Sorry. It’s late so, I got worried over you.”

The TV is off and Key doesn’t see a phone nearby, so he might as well just have been pacing around waiting for time to pass. How typical of Minho. He’s like a loyal guard dog, always been too worried for her. It used to be more endearing back when they were together.

She glares at him tiredly.

“I’m not your wife.”

One disadvantage of knowing each other for so long is that Minho hasn’t been scared of her fake bite for years. He just steps aside and lets her move on silently.

Minho and Key broke up one year ago, a relationship of very long term. The “college sweethearts” long term, “stayed together through their military enlistments” sort of long term. But it was a civil decision that was good for both of them — they’ve promised to remain good friends. There’s absolutely no hint of hard feelings left between them.

“The shooting ran late, our MUA cancelled last minute,” says Key as she makes her way through the room, dumping her purse on the center table. It’s the apartment of a self-employed, upper-class millennial — minimalistic furniture, ornamental plants, cheeky decorations everywhere. “Jonghyun-unnie got me some charming idiot to fill up, a fucking SFX dude.”

Not that she owes Minho any explanation, but they live together now, and Key can’t resist the comfort of having someone to talk to at the end of the day. As uncomfortably nostalgic as it feels with him.

“That’s why you can’t trust people from the internet,” Minho teases, following after her with the dogs.

“I ended up liking him after all.”

Key stills the moment she steps into the kitchen. The lights are on, shining on the single serving of naengmyun on the island counter like a spotlight. Her stomach churns in both hunger and annoyance; her brain’s too exhausted to deal with Minho’s invasive chivalry right now. 

“You worked hard, eat up,” says Minho from the door.

His tone is casual, but it doesn’t sound like it matches the scene. Key stares at the food uneasily and sighs.

“Thank you,” she mumbles dryly.

It’s the first time Key sits down properly since the morning. The chopsticks are stuffing the noodles in her mouth as soon as her ass lands on the bench. Her hunger makes her eat some eight bites in rapid succession, mechanically, before she reaches for the glass of iced tea.

“This is my water glass.” She frowns.

“Uh?”

Key shakes her head in annoyance.

“The glass I leave by the sink, I told you to not use it. It’s supposed to be there for when I want water,” she complains, but drinks from it anyway.

Minho doesn’t respond for some seconds in disbelief.

“I’ll wash it,” he grunts at last.

He sits opposite to her on the counter with a water glass for himself. Key very pointedly avoids looking at his image right now — not actually out of anger, it’s just not fair how cuddly and familiar he looks in her own home at such an hour of the night.

Tall, handsome, athletic, intelligent and romantic — Minho just strikes an all-kill from school girls to grandmas, women are crazy about him. Too bad that he doesn’t like them.

“Taemin and I were chatting earlier,” he breaks after some minutes of silence. “Said they tried messaging you, but I warned you were on full work mode.”

“What do they want this time? Don’t buy it for them.”

Key scrolls through the muted notification center of her phone and surely spots their friend’s contact a few times.

“They want us for a collab.”

Key raises her eyebrows.

“What’s that?” she scoffs, “Tzeska doesn’t do collabs.”

“That’s the thing. They want to join a contest but the solo category is already closed, so they’re trying to make a group.”

It’s hard to even picture Taemin allowing themself to share the spotlight with one partner, much less a whole group. It would most likely turn into Frantzeska and the Girls, with Taemin’s unnecessary inclination for over-the-top choreographies.

“What’d you say?” Key just keeps on eating, not even crossing her mind to consider it.

“I said we’d do it,” Minho shrugs, “This is kind of my job for the time being.”

It’s still a little strange to rationalize that golden boy Choi Minho, pediatrics M.D., discharged as sergeant with honours, would end up being the unemployed queer living on Key’s empty pantry room and not the other way around. Even back when Key convinced him to create Doctor Cox to perform with her for fun, and he ended up kind of loving it, it would still have been a laughable idea to project that only a few years later he would be making a living off her name on Friday night shows in the gay scene.

“Well, that’s good for you, but who said you can volunteer me?” Key retorts. “I’m busy with the summer collection.”

She tries to play it cool, but it’s been a bummer to give up performing since Keyland started to take over her whole life. It might not pay her bills, but there’s nothing quite like being on stage — Key used to say she would’ve probably tried for the idol industry if her life had been a little different. ‘A little different’ being not spending most of it as the wrong gender or only being able to sing in baritone.

“C’mon, Key.” Minho leans over the counter and tries that charming smiley face that never worked on her, but is still annoyingly cute. “You can afford to not be a control freak 100% of the time and let Arisa-ssi handle some stuff. I thought you were associates?”

Key can’t reply because her body is overcome with a ripping yawn. He takes the opportunity to insist more:

“The prize check is good. 3 million for each.”

Minho has always been too prideful to ask for favours directly, always preferring to get fucked over by himself. But it’s been specially hard in the last couple months; he’s still hung up on Key putting him into her home after his eviction, even if it had been her to physically drag him out of the PC bang he tried setting camp in because he just wouldn’t accept help. So Minho keeps on doing these subservient things like he owes her something — cooking for her in the middle of the night, putting gas on her car without telling, cleaning the whole flat when she has someone hired for that, even while still avoiding the word “please” at all costs.

Of course she can help her friends get that money. Key wishes he would only ask. So she chews slowly in a deliberate attempt to annoy him and pretends to think it over. Then moves to slurp the tea til the bottom and Minho’s eyes fall on her lips.

“Alright, let’s do it,” she says. “It’s just one performance, anyway. When’s it for?”

Minho smiles in relief.

“The 22nd. We need one more person to qualify, though. You know anyone?”

“That’s less than two weeks from now, though. What idiot is gonna agree to that?”

She frowns in thought for a moment, attempting a mental inventory of the queens she’s friends with. Most of them have serious jobs to tend to, and the professional few would be certainly hard to reach, probably busy with preparations for Queer Month in a few weeks. After a while of silence, her phone buzzes on the table.

starjonghyun90: what did u tell jinki? why is he calling me an idiot?

Key’s eyebrows quirk with an idea.

“Actually, I happen to know one idiot who could use some cash.”