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Metamorphosis

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‘Remember to finish the exercise on page 73 and revise your vocab. The test will cover the last two topics. Study hard!’

Almost drowned by the scraping of chairs, Mrs Kim’s voice is its usual blend of encouraging and no-nonsense but Dongmin is not listening anymore. He starts stuffing all books in his backpack, making sure to take his time while appearing busy at the same time.

‘You coming, Dongmin?’

Yerim turns to him, flicking her long hair over her left shoulder. Dongmin can see Kangmin piercing them both with a hard stare and almost feels bad for the school heartthrob. It’s not Kangmin’s fault that Yerim favours Dongmin, even if it’s just friendship, born out of years of living next door to each other and spending most of their lives together as a sort of proxy brother and sister.

If he were brave enough, Dongmin would tell Kangmin not to worry - that he is not interested in Yerim in that way - but he doesn’t. Mostly because Kangmin wouldn’t believe him. Dongmin doesn’t blame him; it would be difficult to explain why he is not interested in Yerim who is smart and beautiful, with a flawless face and waist-long hair that is the source of envy of all girls in her class – and who clearly likes him. Dongmin might be pretty clueless when it comes to certain things but he is not completely oblivious.

‘I’m good; you go.’ He flashes Yerim a quick smile, feeling his ears burn.

Yerim slings her backpack over her shoulders and shrugs lightly. ‘Cool. I’ll see you tomorrow.’

‘See you tomorrow.’

Yerim joins a cluster of other girls; their high-pitched giggles carry through the open classroom door even after they have left, intercepted by the loud bark of Kangmin’s laughter who didn’t waste a second and attached himself to the group.

The classroom is emptying and Dongmin makes sure he is not the last one left. Best to be inconspicuous. He bows to the teacher as he leaves, offering his best polite smile, staying true to his image of the teachers’ pet.

Out in the corridor, he heads for the toilets and takes his time, washing his hands thoroughly, until all the noises die down. Only then he pokes his head out.

The corridor is deserted, the pale green lino glistening in the dim light. Someone has turned off several of the lights and the academy feels different in the semi-darkness.

His heartbeat speeding up, Dongmin nevertheless forces himself not to run.

He might not come tonight.

Outside, the street is shining with wetness. The rain is pelting down, the spring air not cold enough to be freezing but making him shiver nevertheless.

The walk down the concrete stairs feels like forever. The umbrella he is fumbling with is keeping his hands busy and Dongmin is glad for it. His heart is thumping so loud, he can practically hear it.

Don’t look. He might not even be there.

‘Hi.’

Bin’s tall figure emerges from the shadows and Dongmin’s stomach makes a somersault.

Outwardly, there is no reason why he should feel like this. Him and Bin see each other on the bus to school every morning, Bin joining Dongmin and Yerim halfway through their journey and fighting his way through the mass of packed bodies until he reaches their spot. The morning encounters are like eggs that Dongmin likes for his breakfast, always the same, nothing memorable; they talk about stupid, everyday things – Yerim always in the middle between them, small and delicate – and they part ways when Bin gets off with a quick wave and a shy grin, two stops before Dongmin.

Wednesday nights, however, are different. It’s only been two months since Bin started waiting for Dongmin after his evening English classes and Dongmin doesn’t really want to know Bin’s reasons. It feels safer not to ask. At first, Bin muttered something about having to go somewhere after school and how he was just passing by, but even if the excuse sounded semi-plausible, with Bin’s school being nearby, Dongmin had a feeling that if he started asking more, Bin would stop turning up.

‘You ok?’

Dongmin’s fingers give up the fight with his umbrella at the sound of Bin’s voice.

‘Is it broken? Let me –‘

Bin takes the umbrella from him and fiddles with it for a second. The inanimate object succumbs to his charm – or so Dongmin tells himself – and suddenly opens, seemingly without protest.

Bin hands him the umbrella with a smile, the one that makes his eyes crinkle in a cute way and that makes Dongmin breathless.

‘How was your class?’

Dongmin shrugs. ‘It was ok, I guess. We’re having a test next week.’

Bin gives his shoulder a light poke. ‘Are you gonna beat Kangmin again?’

Dongmin laughs, feeling his cheeks growing hot. ‘Don’t say that! We are not competing. He is just jealous that my score is always better than his.’

‘But he sounds like a jerk! I want you to beat him, then maybe he will shut up and leave you alone. But I bet you will be better than him next week. You can do it!’

Dongmin wants to tell Bin that it’s not that simple, that it would take a lot more than another aced English test to make Kangmin and his snidy remarks to go away - but it’s hard to do so when faced with so much breathless enthusiasm on Bin’s face.

‘OK. I’ll try,’ he grins.

They walk in silence for a while. When Bin’s hand sometimes brushes against his Dongmin knows it’s on purpose but he doesn’t try to pull away.

‘How was band practice?’

The skip in Bin’s step is almost palpable. ‘It was great! We are practicing a new song. It’s a really nice one, has a great beat. I will have a solo,’ his voice grows sweetly shy. ‘Man, I need to practice tonight; some of the chords are quite tricky – well not the chords themselves maybe, but the combination of them and the speed – my fingers will hurt like hell again, I can feel it – ‘

‘Where’s your guitar?’

‘Oh.’

Even under the streetlamp casting sickly yellow light, Dongmin can see Bin’s blush.

‘I forgot it in the studio.’

They stop uncertainly. Dongmin watches Bin’s fringe peeking from under his hood, droplets of rain dripping off it onto his cheeks. On impulse, he steps closer, covering Bin with his umbrella.

‘You’re getting wet,’ he mumbles.

‘Thank you.’

Bin pulls off the hood and tussles his wet fringe, sending a fine mist of water right in Dongmin’s face.

He squeals a little and Bin laughs and apologises with a sweet, embarrassed grin and Dongmin doesn’t mind at all.

‘You look like a wet dog, Binnie.’

Dongmin doesn’t mention that he thinks Bin would make a very cute wet dog. No need to make a complete fool out of himself.

Hearing a mention about dogs, Bin immediately starts making strange panting noises with his tongue hanging out and Dongmin chuckles and wished they could stand there, in the pouring rain, forever.

‘Could you move out of the way, please?’

They both jump as a harassed-looking businessman sighs loudly and tries to squeeze past Dongmin’s oversized umbrella that is blocking the whole pavement.

After a heartbeat of awkward silence, they resume walking. Dongmin is super aware how close Bin suddenly is – but it’s not a bad feeling at all.

‘Do you want to go back and get your guitar?’

He feels Bin’s eyes on him. ‘But… Don’t you need to go home? I… I could still walk you to the bus stop and go and get it later.’

Maybe it’s the rain and the way everything seems different, shiny and gleaming, but Dongmin suddenly feels daring.

‘You gonna get really wet. I could… I could walk back with you.’

‘Won’t you be late home?’

Dongmin’s cheeks burn. ‘I can say we stayed behind, to practise for the test.’

Bin bites his lip as if he was contemplating a serious business offer. ‘You sure?’

‘I’m sure.’

Bin’s face lights up like he is rivalling the glow of the streetlamp above their heads. ‘Ok.’

The rain is getting heavier. On his right shoulder, Dongmin can feel the wetness seeping through the fabric of his blazer.

On impulse, he inches closer to Bin and lifts up his left arm a little. ‘Hold onto me.’

‘What?’

Emboldened by the sudden darkness as they turn into a quiet side street, he nudges Bin with his elbow. ‘Hold onto me; I don’t bite, you can come closer.’

Bin’s breath catches a little but he obediently nudges closer and links their arms together.

They walk in silence. There is something in their closeness that is making Dongmin’s throat constrict in a new, unfamiliar way. He fears his voice would completely fail him if he wanted to talk now.

For once, Bin is not trying to entertain him with endless stories that happened during their band practice and stays silent too.

As they approach Bin’s school - a performing arts school, one of the best ones in Seoul – Dongmin feels a tinge of envy. He’s always been in awe of the cool kids who go there, the dancers and singers, with their edgy clothes and effortless confidence, with the way they carry themselves – as if they were performing all the time, even when walking in the streets.

He has no reason to visit Bin’s school very often but he has been a couple of times, to watch Bin and a couple of other friends perform at school concerts and charity events and is still a little intimidated by people Bin is friends with. He wonders why Bin is interested in him at all – Dongmin thinks his life monotonous, bordering on boring, consisting mainly of school, evening classes, piano lessons and his school drama club. He might have met Bin thanks to him performing in a school play – a joint performance of all local schools last year, with Bin’s academy being the star of the evening – but Dongmin doesn’t think himself interesting at all.

They pause for a moment in front of the modern building, all artistic curves and colourful panels of glass and steel, a place that seems to be teeming with life even at nearly eight o’clock at night. Many windows are still lit, like eyes blinking into the night, and Dongmin catches a glimpse of someone practicing on the first floor, just a flurry of elegant movements, a hint of a graceful arm, the long fingers poised as wings of a bird, high above his head as the boy finishes his routine.

Next to him, Bin lets go of his arm and starts rummaging through his pockets. Dongmin watches in confusion as he pulls out a bunch of keys.

‘I was locking up,’ Bin offers as a way of explanation. ‘The practice finished at six.’

Something in the way Bin says it makes Dongmin feel hot all over. ‘You’ve waited for me?’

It’s Bin’s turn to redden. ‘Well, I have stayed behind to practice for a bit; I wanted to go over everything again while it was still fresh… and I had time…’

He trails off, most likely painfully aware how lame his excuse is.

Dongmin’s class finishes at half past seven and the knowledge that Bin has stayed in school for another hour, just for him, tightens something in his chest, a sweet pull that hasn’t been there before.

They enter the building through a wide glass door. The corridors are still brightly lit but the glow is softer somehow, more warm that the sterile glare of the any other school Dongmin has ever visited.  The walls are full of art and photographs documenting many performances; Dongmin know the displays are created by students and the feeling of awe clutches at his throat again.

Bin, on the other hand, is completely unfazed by his surroundings, numbed by the years of walking those corridors every day, and quickens the pace.

‘I can't believe I forgot my guitar,’ he throws Dongmin a shy grin.

‘It’s ok.’

Dongmin doesn’t mind. He doesn’t mind at all. If Bin forgetting his guitar means they can spend an extra hour together, he is most definitely not going to object.

At the end of what seems like an endless corridor, they stop in front of an unassuming door.

‘Here we are.’

The bundle of keys rattles as Bin opens the door. In front of them a flight of stairs is leading down, almost disappearing in the darkness, the only light coming through the glass panel in the door.

Bin watches Dongmin peering down. ‘It’s in the basement. Less noise.’

Dongmin follows Bin down the stairs. ‘That’s so cool. Like your own secret basement. You can kidnap people and keep them here.’

Bin snorts. ‘They would die of the racket we make.’

They stop at the bottom of the stairs and Bin turns bashful, uncertain all of a sudden. ‘It’s nothing much. Do you wanna have a look?’

Despite being the epitome of cool in Dongmin’s eyes, Bin looks as if he wasn’t sure of anything anymore, as if he seriously doubted the possibility of Dongmin wanting to be here with him and Dongmin nods quickly, in case Bin should change his mind and make them both go back upstairs.

Bin visibly relaxes and motions with his hand to the left. ‘That’s where the choirs and the a-capella group sometimes practise when the main hall is occupied. They moan about the acoustics but…’

He finishes with a shrug and opens the door for Dongmin to have a look. The room is spacious, almost empty - nothing remarkable, frankly – but Dongmin doesn’t complain. Being stuck in a basement with Bin is exciting, even if it meant to look at bare walls for half an hour.

‘And this is us.’

Bin opens the other door and Dongmin walks in, slowly, feeling like he is entering a shrine.

The room is almost as big as the other one but it seems much smaller, busier. There are posters of various bands decorating almost every surface available. A big keyboard on a stand occupies one corner of the room but it’s the massive drum kit across the room, an imposing, gleaming beast that mesmerises Dongmin the most.

‘Wow. This is so cool.’

Bin giggles and picks up his guitar, one of three that seem to be left behind, all propped in a neat row against the far wall

‘It’s nothing special but here, we don’t disturb anyone. Especially Jinwoo on the drums would drive everyone crazy if we were somewhere upstairs.’

Dongmin points at the other two guitars. ‘Have people forgotten them too?’

‘No,’ Bin shakes his head. ‘Jae has another two at home so he always keeps one here and the bass guitar is Brian’s. He was going on a date straight after practice so he left it here. I only have one acoustic guitar so I need to take it home tonight. I really need to practice; the spring concert is getting closer and Jae’s been pissy with me lately.’

‘Why is Jae pissy with you?’

Dongmin carefully avoids the cables that are criss-crossing the floor and leans against the wall. He know who Jae is, he remembers him from the band’s performances he came to watch, and the frontman doesn’t strike him as someone who gets angry easily.

Bin starts stuffing the guitar into the case. ‘He is angry because I have been skipping a lot of band practice in the last couple of months.’

‘Why?’

‘I need to prepare for the university entrance exam this year. And Jae can't get over the fact that I don’t have as much time anymore and, worse, that I won’t carry on with music. But I want to study dance. And there is this kid - he is one year below me - who is helping me right now. He is brilliant.’

Bin’s face lights up. ‘He might be younger than me but he is probably the best in the whole school. He’s already been doing stuff outside school, performing and even choreographing – he’ll make it far one day, I know it. He works so hard though, I don’t know how he does it. I actually spotted him thorough the window as we were coming, in one of the dance practice rooms.’

Dongmin thinks of the graceful figure he saw earlier and reckons Bin must be talking about the same person.

He smiles at Bin’s animated face. ‘So you like dance more than music?’

‘Yeah, I do,’ Bin shrugs, looking a little embarrassed. ‘It was always my main focus, to be honest – and Jae knew it. But I think it’s finally hitting him that I won’t have much time for the band this year.’

Bin rubs his forehead, as if trying to chase the troubling thoughts away. ‘And you? What do you want to study?’

Dongmin chuckles, even if the sound comes out a little bitter. ‘If I could do what I really wanted, I would study acting. But that’s not gonna happen. So I guess it’s law.’

‘Wow,’ Bin breathes in awe. ‘I mean, I would much rather if I saw you on screen – I would go and watch all your movies – but I guess courtrooms are open to public too. I’ll come to watch when you have a high-profile case and I bet you will be brilliant. You can use your acting skills.’

Dongmin laughs and feels a bit better. ‘I’ll let you know when I’m in court, prosecuting some disgraced celebrity.’

For a while, they laugh a little, then awkward silence settles in. Dongmin knows he should be going. His parents are strict and usually, he would be getting home at this time. But it’s difficult to leave when Bin’s eyes are so cute every time he laughs and when his voice is so soft and gentle - Dongmin suddenly wants to lock the door and stay in the basement forever.

‘What about you? Do you like dancing?’ Bin’s question breaks the silence, pulling Dongmin out of his reverie.

Embarrassed, he ducks his head. ‘I do, sort of, like a normal person would. We don’t do dance as a compulsory subject at our school. Although,’ he laughs, ‘all of us in the last year have compulsory ballroom dancing lessons right now. Our school has decided to have this American-style prom – but we apparently need to master some of the ‘grown-up’ dance styles too.’

Instead of laughing at him, Bin suddenly straightens up and clicks his heels together. With one arm behind his back, he offers a polite, Western-style bow – one that Dongmin has seen in old American movies – and offers Dongmin his hand with an exaggerated flourish.

‘Shall we dance?’

The question is so absurd, his stance so over-the-top, that Dongmin starts laughing. But when Bin doesn’t budge, he gingerly accepts the outstretched hand and slips into the role.

‘It would be my absolute pleasure.’

Bin starts humming a tune – Dongmin doesn’t know it but the rhythm is a Viennese waltz – and they start twirling around the room. Dongmin laughs at first but he stops soon, only too aware of Bin’s right palm just below his shoulder blades and Bin’s left hand holding his fingers.

After an elaborate spin – that he just about manages not to ruin by simply letting Bin do what he wants – Bin stops. His face is flushed a little and he watches Dongmin with a cheeky smile.

‘You were good for a beginner girl.’

Dongmin’s smile stiffens a little. He has been called ‘too pretty’ and ‘girly’ way too many times for his liking. He knows he is good-looking but the remark  - especially coming from Bin – stings more than he expected.

To his surprise, Bin pulls his hoodie over his head and flings it on a nearby chair.

‘It’s your turn now.’

‘What?’

Bin smiles softly. ‘To lead. I’m gonna be the girl now. I always wanted to see how it feels like to be led. But almost everyone at school is smaller than me and when we tried, it felt awkward, with me towering above them. I need someone taller than me, and you are. Come on, please. Dance with me.’

Dongmin spends a split of a second rearranging the scattered thoughts in his head, from almost hurt and offended to stunned to flustered, and finally takes Bin’s hand without a word.

There are no words left in his head right now.

There is only the feel of Bin’s back muscles under his palm now, through his thin school shirt, the fabric still damp from the rain outside and clinging to Bin’s skin.

There is the weight of Bin’s arm resting on his own, the feel of his hand on Dongmin’s shoulder.

There are Bin’s eyes, so close to his face that it’s almost too much and Dongmin needs to look away.

Bin leans closer and hums the tune again, so close that Dongmin can feel Bin’s breath fanning his cheek.

He does his best to lead, to impress Bin, not to embarrass himself.

‘This feels nice,’ giggles Bin into his ear. ‘I don’t need to think. I just follow.’

Dongmin feels a surge of pride at Bin’s praise.

Bin likes my dancing.

And then he stumbles over something, almost falling on his ass.

Bin manages to grab Dongmin’s arm, steadying them both, and Dongmin gapes for a moment, thoroughly shocked - then looks behind him. There in the corner are two weights, left on the floor.

‘Oh,’ Bin eyes the offending items and his face grows red. ‘They are mine. Sorry.’

Dongmin forgets about his own embarrassment in the face of Bin’s discomfort and grins. ‘Do you lift weights while playing guitar? Had no idea you were so versatile.’

Bin snorts with laughter and to Dongmin’s ears, the sound is the prettiest thing he has heard today.

‘No. But sometimes, when Jae and Jinwoo get distracted and start composing, I use the time to exercise. I need to stay fit, otherwise I won’t be able to keep up with Rocky. He is so fit, you wouldn’t believe.’

‘Who is Rocky?’

‘The dance kid. I need to be in shape; the stuff that we are practicing is not easy, I can't afford to get out of breath easily. That’s why I sometimes lift weights during band practice.’

‘Wow,’ Dongmin is impressed. ‘That’s some dedication. And they look heavy.’

Bin smiles. ‘I lift much heavier than those in the gym; actually, I could probably bench-press you.’

‘Please, don’t,’ Dongmin rolls his eyes but feels flattered for some bizarre reason.

Bin’s smirk is the only warning he gets. A moment later, Bin wraps his arms around Dongmin thighs and lifts him up.

‘Don’t!’

Panicked, Dongmin grabs Bin’s shoulders for support and feels his cheeks burn.

‘Why not?’ Bin is looking up at him, grinning widely, and it’s very hard to stay cross, or even to maintain a straight face when met with so much happiness.

‘Put me down, please! I’m… I’m really heavy.’

‘No, you’re not.’

‘I am!’

‘You’re not.’

They both burst out laughing.

Bin tries to adjust his hold and Dongmin’s cheeks burn.

‘Please, put me down,’ he squeaks, more desperate now, embarrassed at how his voice comes out unnaturally high, but Bin obeys this this time and lowers him down gently.

Instead of letting go of Bin’s shoulders, Dongmin finds he cannot. Or doesn’t want to. Or whichever.

There is not much space left between them and it’s intoxicating; Dongmin feels the air thicken, with expectation, with desire.

Bin’s chest is rising and falling sharply; Dongmin’s school blazer is pressing into it - absorbing the rhythm, up and down, up and down – and then there is no more space left, no more empty air in the tiny gap between their faces.

Bin’s lips are like two plush cushions, gloriously warm and soft, and Dongmin wants to stay glued to them forever.

Then Bin moves and their noses bump together and they break apart with an embarrassed giggle.

Bin’s ears are glowing red and he looks slightly awed. ‘Wow.’

‘What?’ Dongmin stares at Bin’s breathless expression.

‘You…’ Bin stumbles over his own words, sounding nothing like his usual assured self. ‘You look so… different. Like the villain you played last year. Dangerous.’

Dongmin has almost forgotten that Bin saw him in their school play last year but the fact that he remembers his performance makes his chest swell with pride.

He does his best villain impression – those slightly narrowed eyes, the sardonic half-smile – and steps closer, so close their chests are almost touching.

‘Maybe you shouldn’t be alone with me then,’ he whispers. ‘If I’m that dangerous.’

Bin doesn’t budge but his voice sounds as if he was getting out of breath. ‘I wouldn’t be so cocky. I can still bench-press you. Or lift you up.’

When Bin’s arms grab him for the second time, Dongmin doesn’t squeal. Instead, he wraps his legs around Bin’s waist, takes Bin’s face in his hands and kisses him again.

Bin doesn’t have an answer to that, cocky or not. He stumbles a little, as if Dongmin finally made him lose his footing, and whimpers into Dongmin’s mouth – but doesn’t pull away, doesn’t let go.

Dongmin slides his hands into Bin’s hair and it feels almost as good as kissing – the soft strands, the warmth of Bin’s skin under his icy fingers, the fact that it’s Bin right there in his arms.

Bin stumbles for real then, pressing Dongmin’s back against the wall and Dongmin feels so heady that he laughs out loud.

‘Too heavy for you, Binnie?’

‘No,’ breathes out Bin. ‘Just trying to get a better angle.’

‘Yeah, sure,’ chuckles Dongmin and tips Bin’s face up again.

The time speeds up and slows down at the same time; everything ceases to matter, everything becomes wonderfully blurred – everything but Bin and his hands digging into the back of Dongmin’s thighs, his mouth on Dongmin’s.

The sound of his phone makes them both jump.

‘Shit!’ Dongmin feels like being hit by a hammer as the reality kicks in. ‘Shit!’

Bin doesn’t ask anything; he lets Dongmin slide off him without a word, arms hanging empty.

With shaking hands, Dongmin pulls his phone out of his breast pocket.

Of course.

‘Hi, Mum.’

He can see Bin looking down on the floor and gulping uncomfortably. His lips are swollen, hair sticking in all directions, and Dongmin would love to throw the phone away and kiss those lips again but knows that right now is not the time. He does his best to calm down his breathing, to sound composed. His mother has a very fine radar for lies and he needs to lie better than ever now.

‘Yes, I’m fine. No… I have stayed behind to practise for the test… No, I’m ok…  Yes. Just wanted to go over a couple of things. Yes… I’m leaving right now, sorry I forgot to let you know. See you later, Mum.’

‘Wow.’

Bin is watching him. A little crease has settled between his brows, making him look older somehow. ‘I didn’t know you could lie this easily; you seems such goody-two-shoes. Guess the acting skills are coming in handy, huh?’

Dongmin’s face grows hot. ‘I’ve never lied to my mum before. Not since I was a little kid and once ate my baby brother’s sweets.’

Bin’s mouth hangs open for a split of a second, then his face brightens. ‘You did it for me?’

‘I did it for us,’ Dongmin smiles shyly.

Bin ducks his head, looking like a little boy all over sudden, then takes Dongmin’s hand. ‘I think we should go. Don’t want your mum to find out.’

He squeezes his fingers gently.

‘Let’s go.’

……………………….

 

Outside, the rain has stopped, leaving the pavements wet and glistening like sheets of glass.

They walk in silence. If Bin’s hand brushes against Dongmin’s more often now, he knows it’s on purpose and doesn’t pull away.

The bus comes on time, despite Dongmin praying for it to be late, and he quickly touches Bin’s fingers, just for a fleeting moment, before he gets on.

‘I’ll see you tomorrow, Binnie.’

‘See you tomorrow.’

Bin’s face is getting smaller through the misty glass, glowing like a torch under the light of the streetlamps.

When the bus rounds the corner, Dongmin sits back and touches his lips in awe.

He wonders whether he will forever look a little different after today.