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light stealing under water

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Taehyun remembers that there used to be a point in his life when he liked Christmas. More than liking Christmas even; he can still vividly recall the excited bubbling in his stomach, counting down the days on his advent calendar, the taste of chocolate lingering ghostly sweet on his tongue. He remembers lying in bed, eyes wide open as he tried to stay awake long enough to hear Santa Claus come down the chimney. Every year he would promise himself that this would be the year he managed to stay awake, and every year he would wake up in the morning, dashing down to the living room to check that yes, the milk and cookies were gone and yes, the presents had arrived, arranged in small mountain ranges beneath the lights of the tree.

Now, lying awake in his bed, crumpled sheets forming an uncomfortable ridge beneath the knobs of his spine, he turns his head to watch the display on his phone tick down the seconds to midnight.

It’s the 24th of December and he’s all alone in his dark flat, cheek pressed to the creases in the pillowcase.

Five, four, three, two, one.

00:00 his phone says. Outside the window, streaks of colour split the sky.

Taehyun closes his eyes.

 

The morning dawns pale, light filtered grey through the translucent curtains that drape across the windowpanes. His eyes are gritty, mind foggy with hours spent awake, staring at the emptiness hanging above his bed before he must have drifted into fitful dreams shortly before sunrise. Faint shadows of tangled dreams lurk in the corners of his thoughts, dispersing into nothing more than a weary tiredness as he tries to focus on each in turn.

He shifts, tangled in the web of sheets, and draws a hand over his eyes. They’re damp, eyelashes tangled, and he wonders what he was dreaming about. Just as well he doesn’t remember. His mouth tastes like sand, lips cracked. A finger comes away with a tinge of red: for the holiday, perhaps.

Taehyun’s stomach gives a weak lurch. Breakfast would call but his appetite has gone the way of presents beneath the tree. Nothing remains of either, this year. He turns over in bed instead, letting the crumpled sheets twist around his legs, keeping him even closer. He’s tired, but there’s no sleep hiding in the folds of the pillow.

Unintentionally, his mind wanders back along dangerous paths, the sound of his mother’s voice, the warmth—

He’s interrupted by the sharp retort of a doorbell, too loud to be that of either neighbour. They’re all away for the holidays anyway. His face is wet. He stares at the ceiling, waiting for the unexpected disturbance to realize their mistake and leave.

Rather than the faint sound of footsteps retreating along the corridor, now that he’s paying attention, the doorbell groans again. Taehyun feels likewise. Can’t the intruder get the hint? No one is home. A trickle of irritation worms its way up his back; without consciously thinking about it, he wipes away the new traces of tears from his face with the edge of the bedsheet.

The doorbell whines, tone increasing almost to a scream. Taehyun grumbles under his breath, inhaling sharply. The floor is cold beneath the bottoms of his feet. A few minutes ago, that would have convinced him back into the cold comfort of his bed, but now it’s just another minor inconvenience in a growing frustration. A morning of languishing, interrupted.

He barely remembers to snag a t-shirt from the back of a chair, shoving it over his head as he checks the viewscreen. It’s been too long however, fifteen seconds have passed and the screen is black once more. Taehyun rolls his eyes at the electronics, reaching out to swing the door open despite overlapping childhood rebukes to the contrary.

It’s Christmas, after all.

 

“Merry Christmas!”

Taehyun blinks at the sight of the young man standing in the corridor outside his front door. The man is familiar, a few years older than himself, and possible a neighbour? From across the hall, he realizes, noting the door that stands ajar. He can’t remember the man’s name, if he ever knew it at all.

“Merry Christmas?” he says, bemusement making the statement a question. Rather than a mistaken delivery person, upon whose imposition he’d been prepared to be understandably although perhaps uncharitably irritated, he has no prepared response for this type of eventuality.

“Oh dear, I’m sorry,” his neighbour says, left hand tapping right forearm in apparent consternation. “Did I wake you?” His expression is transparent, friendly. Taehyun can’t bring himself to be gruff.

“It was more of a failed lie-in,” he says, mostly true if he ignores the fact that he hadn’t slept at all. In any case, the bags under his eyes are honest enough.

The man smiles, just a little, but he seems sympathetic more than amused at Taehyun’s expense. It’s almost alarming when he realizes how much he’s conditioned himself to think the latter.

“I noticed that you were here,” he continues, “since your mail box in the lobby isn’t full, so I—ah—thought I might invite you for brunch. Today. For Christmas.” He rubs the fingers of his right hand along his sleeve; Taehyun realizes it’s of a fuzzy Christmas variety, the blue knit interspersed with snowflakes. Somehow, the man’s mild embarrassment is welcoming. Or perhaps he’s just hungry.

“Oh,” he says, eloquently. “I—”

The man interrupts, waving a hand. “It’s okay to refuse,” he says, the words tumbling over each other. “I know we’re hardly acquaintances and I just thought—”

“Brunch sounds good,” Taehyun interrupts in return, heading off what looks like overly polite waffling. “I’m Taehyun, by the way.” He mentally crosses his fingers that his neighbour will take the hint.

“Ah, right,” the man says, flushing, but only barely. “I’m Jinwoo. I’ll—ah—just let you get dressed then?”

“Right,” Taehyun says, nodding. He only now realizes that he’s standing in the open doorway in a thin white top, underwear barely showing below the hemline. He lets the door swing shut behind him too forcefully in his embarrassment, and winces at the sound.

“Taehyun, you ass,” he says to the empty flat. The misery of this morning has been evaporated by the promise of brunch and, more importantly, the promise of a friendly face across the table.