Taehyung doesn’t mean to fall in love with a pastor’s son. If falling in love with a man is blasphemy, falling love with the holy son of an equally holy man is sin of the highest degree. He could be expelled from church.
But Jeon Jungkook is gentle and kind, self-assured and wholesome in a way Taehyung knows he will never be. They grew up together, were neighbours from the time Taehyung moved in to the house beside the pastor’s white, stately one. They played in the dirty sandbox behind the church, went to Sunday school and sang hymns together, held hands in kindergarten as they headed to recess in neat lines. The scrawny boy with the high-pitched voice Taehyung knew grew more confident with each year, as his shoulders filled out to a breadth Taehyung could only dream of, a product of captaining the soccer team, and his voice dropped to a depth that sends shivers up Taehyung’s spine.
Taehyung, though, is another matter. When he turns fifteen, his shoulders remain narrow, and the only other exercise he gets, gym period aside, is the daily five-minute walk to the convenience store. He should feel ashamed when Jungkook comes with him, ridiculously broad shoulders bumping into his bony frame every other second, but instead of being irritated he finds himself staring too long at the prominent protrusion at the top of Jungkook’s neck. A flush spreads across his cheeks when his eyes trail down to pretty collarbones and wide shoulders, and he brushes it off as admiration.
“Like what you see?” Jungkook’s amused voice breaks him out of his daze, and he blushes even harder. It’s been happening a lot lately, this uncontrollable blushing. He hits Jungkook on the back of his head, because if there’s anything he can lord over Jungkook at all, it’s his age. Jungkook glares and Taehyung’s heartbeat accelerates.
“How did you get so big,” Taehyung mumbles, crushing the innocent leaves beneath his feet. Jungkook grabs his hand and swings it, his age-old method of appeasing Taehyung that has proven effective time and again. It doesn’t mean anything, Taehyung has to remind himself. They’re best friends, and hand-holding is nothing out of the ordinary.
“It’s something called exercise, you can do it too,” Jungkook says cheerfully, flexing his arms for emphasis. Taehyung rolls his eyes at the subtle sarcasm, but still they linger on Jungkook’s biceps long after he relaxes them.
It’s hard to break away.
After years in church, Taehyung likes to think he knows all there is to know about God. Sometimes he comes to you in your dreams, sometimes he is a voice that speaks to you, sometimes he is the warmth that spreads through your entire body and makes you feel that everything will be alright. But Taehyung can’t help but wonder if his relationship with God is real, or just a very real product of his imagination. Maybe the dreams, the voices, the warmth, are merely part of his subconsciousness.
It scares him, the thought that his faith is wavering, and it plagues him for weeks. There’s no one to bring it up to, because Taehyung fears the disappointed gaze of his pastor, the accusatory glances of his cell-group mates. Everyone is judgmental and no one is innocent. He still remembers the remark his pastor made about men liking men being disgusting.
At the end of two concurrent services, Taehyung looks down at his open notebook and realises that today’s page is empty. He flips through previous pages and sighs. They’re filled with neat black writing of the pastor’s words, pertinent bible passages and his own revelations. He tries to write down something, anything he might have remembered. His mind draws a blank, and the only thing he remembers is that Jungkook led worship for the first time today. The pride that fills his chest is not unfamiliar.
“Did you enjoy service?” Speak of the devil. Jungkook’s eyes are bright and his face red as he tries to regain his breath from the excitement. He waits at the side as Taehyung gathers his things and slides out of the pew. “So?” he asks again, enthusiasm not dampened by Taehyung’s silence.
Taehyung trusts Jungkook, more than he does any other person. “Can I talk to you about something?”
Jungkook must see the turmoil happening in Taehyung’s head, because his features soften into a gentle gaze that makes Taehyung want to scream in frustration these days. “Sure,” he replies, warm fingers curling around Taehyung’s wrist. He pulls him to the back of the church and up the old wooden stairs, whose creaking sounds still warm Taehyung’s heart like the first time he stepped on them. They head to the third room on the right, one of the music rooms that have been emptied out since service ended some time ago.
“So what did you want to talk about,” Jungkook asks kindly, as soon as they’re seated comfortably on the wooden floor. The colour of the wood has darkened considerably from the time they used to have Sunday school lessons here, mellowing into a warm hue that makes the floor look almost orange. Taehyung absentmindedly traces the lines in the wood, haphazard circles and swirls that were part of a living tree, once. Now they’re a part of the dead floor, but Taehyung wonders if they would have liked to be immortalised in this holy place.
Jungkook prods him then, and Taehyung looks up abruptly. “Um. I just, I think I’m having some trouble. I can’t feel him.” The good thing about confiding in your best friend, is that he automatically understands what you’re talking about, no questions asked. No clarifications are needed nor justifications sought.
“Do you think, maybe,” Jungkook says carefully, “it’s because you don’t believe he’s there? I mean, you remember what they told us in Sunday school, it’s only when we truly believe in him that his presence comes through.” The words are familiar, recycled and reused countless times to minister to those in doubt. They are empty words that mean nothing to Taehyung, who has never found himself in a situation to be counselled, because his faith has never wavered once in ten years.
Jungkook is looking at him with so much hope in his bright eyes, so full of life and expectation that he will one day be a man as holy as his father, that Taehyung drops it. He smiles at Jungkook like his problems are solved, that Jungkook is the one who has made his worries dissolve. The smile he receives in return is both a gift and a curse, warming his heart at the same time it pricks it. Taehyung knows that he will have to deal with this alone.
The irony, Taehyung thinks, that a pastor’s son is what stands between him and God.
Jungkook gets his first girlfriend when he’s 17 and Taehyung’s faith has faded into nothing more than attending weekly services he hardly pays attention to. She’s everything Taehyung expects – gentle, kind, Christian, female. When Jungkook introduces her to him, it takes four glasses of boiling hot tea to burn the hateful words that threaten to leak out his mouth. He doesn’t know anything about Yerin, but he knows that she’s something he will never be.
Maybe in another lifetime he could be a pretty girl, he thinks, as Jungkook pecks Yerin on the cheek, radiating happiness that Taehyung can’t share. He could be Taehee, or Taeri, a nice Christian girl who belongs to Jungkook. He could be Jungkook’s, not Jungkook’s childhood friend, or church friend, or best friend, because those are no longer good enough, but just Jungkook’s. They would be a match made in heaven.
Another lifetime, another universe, maybe hell.
Something red hot bubbles in Taehyung’s chest, simmering and rising with vengeance each time Jungkook sends a look of adoration Yerin’s way. It stings as much as the first time, fresh wounds appearing on every inch of Taehyung’s heart. He stamps it down, keeps it in with all his determination not to lose Jungkook. He hates that he’s become so angry, so evil, so ready to hate when he’s been taught to always forgive and forget.
But that’s the way things have turned out, and if Taehyung’s already damned he might as well stop struggling. There’s no point believing in something that doesn’t believe in you, even if it’s just as much a part of you as every other part.
“I’m gay,” Taehyung declares at service, in front of the people he would not have grown up with, the people whose care he would not have had, had he known in his mother’s womb. To be fair, Taehyung has never been a rebel, would never question authority in the face of authority. But his pastor’s a homophobic dick for making a joke out of homosexuals and the rest of his church even bigger dicks for laughing along with him.
Taehyung has had enough.
He doesn’t bat an eyelash when his pastors storm up to him demanding an explanation, doesn’t fall to his knees under the condescending gazes of people who were family, doesn’t turn to look back at the shock and disapproval he imagines on God’s face. What does God look like, Taehyung wonders, stepping out from Sunday service and into the sun. The face of a white-haired, bearded man, the face that Taehyung has seen so often in depictions, comes to mind. But long white hair becomes short and black, and the strands on his chin fall off. His face morphs into Jungkook’s, mirroring the disappointment and disgust Taehyung had glimpsed after his confession.
Taehyung barks out a bitter laugh, because unrequited love is bad religion. Nothing but a one-man cult, and cyanide in his Styrofoam cup. He’s lost two parts of himself today – the part that loves God, and the part that loves Jungkook. But he’s kept the part that loves himself, and that’s all that matters.
The end is surprisingly simple.