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Lateral Steps

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It wasn’t like he hadn’t seen it coming. With all that had been going on everyone had been a little distracted of late, sure, but the looks were hard to miss, the long gazes, the suggestive smiles. And it wasn’t as though he had done much to prevent it so he couldn’t exactly claim any sort of moral high ground. Or… no, not high ground, but a lateral ground. No better or worse than anybody else, but just a few steps in a different direction.

At any rate, he was at least partially at fault. The farther he looked back the more at fault he seemed to be because, after all, a religious uprising doesn’t start itself. He had no way if knowing it would lead this way, but he had started something and he needed to take responsibility for the repercussions. Especially ones he had seen coming and had done nothing to prevent.

Kevin had been the first to say, “No more rules,” and he had been the first to encourage his fellow missionaries to embrace those small things about themselves that their faith had always told them not to. They had all shed at least a small portion of their uniforms in favour of something more expressive. They had all agreed that gender and sexuality was nobody’s business other than those to whom it belonged. They all accepted that caffeine was, while not particularly popular even after so long, not a trick of Satan, and though they couldn’t get a hold of a coffee machine Kevin had learned to grind and strain beans himself so that he could have a fresh cup any time he couldn’t get to a café. And no one minded. No one made a fuss.

There were things that were off limits, certainly, the Book of Arnold wasn’t entirely devoid of restraint, but in comparison to how they had been living before it was as though the shackles had been removed. No more schedules, no more set bedtimes, no more anything that they didn’t want to do. And after a few weeks of absolute mayhem and a few rules devised to keep them alive at the very least, they had settled into their new way of life and Kevin was proud of his friends (nearly family by this point) and he, perhaps, let himself get a little careless.

Davis got his ears pierced. That was the first major rebellion.

He had walked through the door one day looking immeasurably proud and was at once swarmed by young men vying to get a closer look at the tiny studs. They were infected by the end of the week, but it didn’t stop the boys from getting riled up at the mere mention, and once they were removed they were set in a tiny box on a window ledge in the living room as a sort of reminder of who they had become.

There came a Sunday where Schrader decided not to go to church. Another major step. Instead he stayed home and read his book, followed by a stroll through the town and some sunbathing by the community garden. Any moment he passed in view of the congregation small groups would murmur to one another and watch in awe as he appeared to have not a single care in the world. No one else was able to make that step, but they all praised and celebrated Schrader’s small act of defiance when they had returned that night.

Before they knew it, a month had passed without the traditional 24 hour fast and, though no one made mention of it, there were looks of mischief passed around the hut of boys who had misbehaved and found themselves addicted.

And with all these small revolts it was only a matter of time before they shed nearly all of their old rules and found themselves oddly at ease. There were moments, certainly, where one or several of the mission would find themselves in a panic at the belief that they would all wind up in Hell, but the moments passed and the group was always ready to pick up the pieces yet again.

Kevin was proud of them. He told them so on multiple occasions, cited specific rules they had broken or that had been made to be obsolete, and the rest of them would applaud themselves and preen under Kevin’s praise. None so much as Elder McKinley.

At first Kevin didn’t mind so much, enjoyed having someone look up to him, come to him for guidance, pay him compliments, and look at him like he was a divine creature sent from the heavens. But there came a point where he realized that it wasn’t all so innocent as he had at first believed.

Arnold went on dates with Nabulungi. Mormons weren’t meant to do that, go on dates alone, just two people, but he did it and she did it and every day they fell more and more in love. And many of the church followed suit. It didn’t take long for Michaels to find a sweet young lady from the village who thought he was quite charming and giggled at his attempts at flirting. Church clearly had his eye on someone, but no one was certain who, and when asked he would only give a knowing smile and say, “I’ll tell you when you’re older.” There was no stigma around romance anymore and everyone seemed infinitely happier for it, but Kevin appeared to be the only one not embracing that particular abolishment.

Perhaps McKinley’s behaviour was innocent. Perhaps there was nothing wrong with that way of thinking and it was merely infatuation, just a crush that would wear off eventually. But in Kevin’s mind there was something about it that made him a little uneasy.

“It’s the church,” he told himself. “It’s gotten into your head. There’s nothing wrong with dating and nothing wrong with men liking men just as there isn’t anything wrong with a missionary going swimming.”

And he didn’t particularly think that McKinley was all that bad looking. In fact he had a rather sweet face and a good body (if television had taught him anything) and so why not pursue it? If it encouraged the looks at the admiration then Kevin couldn’t think of a real reason to put it to an end.

So he returned the looks. He flashed him smiles. He let his hand run across McKinley’s back as he passed him by and enjoyed the blush it caused on his face. And he never really expected it to amount to anything, not that he would mind if it did, so when McKinley became more bold he didn’t even attempt to tone it down. If anything, he redoubled his efforts.

Had anyone asked him why at the time he wouldn’t have been able to give a clear answer. “I like him,” Kevin would have said, though if he had been asked what about him he liked he wouldn’t have been able to say. “He’s good looking,” he would say. “I like how he speaks to me.” Kevin liked being liked was the truth of it. He could admit it later on, but at the time it wasn’t something he was really able to discern. He liked being liked and McKinley liked him and so who was he to dislike McKinley.

It never occurred to him that there was an option other than like or dislike.

So, on New Years Eve, with a storm raging outside and a party raging inside, alcohol on their breath (the first and only occasion they had ever tried it), when McKinley tried to kiss him, Kevin went along with it. They had held hands before, briefly and with McKinley’s initiation, and they had hugged, certainly, but they had never kissed before. And when they kissed there was a certain elation in his chest and Kevin could only assume it was caused by the act and not by the buzz from Gotswana’s dubious wine or from the cheers and shouts resounding from the rest of the missionaries as they cried out “Happy New Year!”

And so Kevin could only assume that he liked McKinley in the way that McKinley liked him.

One week later when they found themselves alone in the kitchen of the hut, McKinley once again kissed Kevin. The anticipation had been the best part, the thrill leading up to the fact, but at contact Kevin could only wonder what people saw in kissing. It was wet and awkward and he didn’t particularly like having a face so close to his own.

But he let it happen for as long as McKinley wanted it to happen because he was cute and they had good conversation and he was worried that if he didn’t then McKinley would stop looking at him in the way that he did.

Word got around.

In a hut as small as theirs it was impossible for news to stay confined. Everyone knew everyone’s business, so before Kevin knew it, he and McKinley were officially a couple. And he didn’t know how to feel about that. But when they were teased for it and when they were together McKinley would produce a very particular smile that made Kevin inexplicably happy in spite of the fact that it was never directed specifically at him. So he let it happen.

The longer Kevin spent with McKinley the more he came to realize that his feelings were changing. He started to like particular things about him. He liked the way he laughed, he liked the way he walked, he liked the way his hair looked in the sun. And very quickly he came to realize that the way in which he liked McKinley was evolving from something he hadn’t been quite able to name to something that made him a little frightened. And it started to worry him that he didn’t like kissing him.

It was something he thought about quite often. He liked spending time with McKinley, he liked holding hands, he liked most everything about him, but he didn’t like to kiss him. And he didn’t like other people to be looking at them in that way. But most of all, he didn’t like the way McKinley sometimes looked at him.

Most looks that McKinley gave him could be divided into one of three categories: affection, frustration, and neutral. But there was a fourth category that was becoming more and more apparent, and every time it emerged it made Kevin deeply and frighteningly uncomfortable.

He saw that look in other people too, directed at the people they liked. He saw it in Arnold sometimes when he looked at Nabulungi and vice versa. He saw it in Michaels when he looked at his young lady. He saw it in a few other inhabitants of the hut when they met certain members of the community. And the only way he could describe it was hunger.

And Kevin knew he never looked at McKinley that way because he had never felt anything similar to hunger towards him. He was barely in the realm of attraction, let alone the particular kind that kindled that look. And he couldn’t understand what it was they were all feeling that he wasn’t.

But he continued to kiss McKinley, but only at the other’s initiation, and he continued to find it rather unpleasant. And he knew that other people didn’t feel the same way, could see it in Arnold, in Nabulungi, in Michaels and Church and so on and so on. He saw it on TV and he read about it in books, and it terrified him that he wasn’t feeling any of it. Whenever they kissed all he could feel was the rough pull of skin on skin and the dampness of saliva that made him want to sneer.

But it made McKinley happy. And it fueled all of his looks. Especially the hunger.

It was the church, he told himself. It was the influence of his pastors and parents and bishops all holding him back from feeling what he was meant to feel, and he was certain that if he just kept trying then he would eventually learn to like it. And he tried not to let it gnaw away at him at night wondering what it was he was missing that all the stars in his favourite movies seemed to have that made them happy and made them hungry and made them love.

It was inevitable.

McKinley was getting insistent with his kisses. He would move his mouth and touch Kevin and though Kevin liked the contact he found it difficult to focus on both keeping his mouth moving at the right rhythm and keep his hands in places that made McKinley happy and they often wound up out of sync, which McKinley seemed to interpret as something altogether different.

“I really like you, you know,” McKinley told him once.

“I like you too,” Kevin told him. And he wondered if that was true.

Of course it’s true, he would tell himself. I like Connor I’m just not used to it yet.

So he kept trying.

And as the moment approached he could see it coming, the inevitable moment wherein McKinley would give in to the hunger and Kevin would have to pretend. Perhaps that was all it was, he thought, perhaps they’re all just pretending because they see each other do it and want to be the same. And he would have asked Arnold if that were true had it not made him so strangely nervous.

But what did he have to be nervous about?

That there was something wrong with him.

So he kept pretending. He pretended to like kissing, he pretended to enjoy the hands sneaking beneath his shirt, and he steeled himself for the moment he would have to pretend to be hungry too.

It came altogether too soon.

They were kissing on McKinley’s bed. It was late afternoon, the rest of the mission was going about their daily lives, enjoying freedom and the opportunity to be bored, and the little room felt isolated. For Kevin, nothing existed beyond that door and books had told him that was the right way to feel, but his chest was telling him he was feeling it for the wrong reason. Anxiety coursed through him. He knew this was it. He knew it was coming. He had tried to prepare, tried to practice, but found he couldn’t bring himself to simulate the motions, not even on himself. And so he felt entirely blind going into it.

Evidently his hands weren’t moving in the right way because as he poured all of his focus into keeping pace with McKinley’s lips a hand wrapped itself around his wrist and pulled his palm towards the crotch of McKinley’s trousers. McKinley groaned and rose up into the hand, releasing it to continue his explorations of Kevin’s body, but Kevin found himself frozen. All he could feel was something hard beneath the fabric and his arm was shot through with static. Every ounce of effort was directed at just keeping his hand there, at not yanking it away the way he wanted to, and so his mouth had stopped moving and his body had seized up like a victim of Medusa.

It took only a moment for McKinley to become aware that something was wrong. He pulled back, looking Kevin in his permanently open eyes, and frowned as he said, “Kevin? What’s-“

And that was all he could handle.

His hand recoiled instantly, rubbing his palm against the leg of his trousers, begging the rough fabric to rid his skin of the ghost sensation, and he couldn’t look McKinley in the eye as he very nearly sobbed, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m trying. I promise, I’m trying.”

McKinley reached down to still the frantic motion of Kevin’s hand and he tried to tilt Kevin’s chin up to look him in the eyes, but the contact was suddenly too much. That brief moment of intimacy had taken it all out of him. He was suddenly unable to sit on the bed anymore, was incapable of enduring any touch that was remotely warm, and he leapt up from the bed, found there was no real space in the room to pace, and instead sat down on the bed opposite. His hand, tingling from his feverish rubbing, was held to his breast and there was a great deal welling up in his chest that he hadn’t been prepared for.

“Kevin what’s wrong?” McKinley tried again, voice edging from concerned into frustrated and all of it was making Kevin feel so unbelievably guilty.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m really- I can’t do it, but I’m trying, okay? I promise I won’t-“

McKinley had risen from his bed and come over to sit next to Kevin and, in a rush of embarrassment, he stood up and retreated to stand near the wall. Now that the initial shock had worn off he was filling up with disappointment in his own inability to power through and worry that he had irreparably given himself away. Apologizing seemed to be the only thing his mouth was capable of doing at the time.

“Kevin, stop apologizing,” McKinley commanded, and though he was no longer their leader, a hint of the authoritarian remained in those words. “I didn’t mean to do anything that would upset you. I’m sorry, I should have asked.”

And Kevin didn’t have the words to describe how little asking would have helped. But he nodded and continued to avoid McKinley’s gaze, terrified that there would be anger in his eyes in spite of the lack of it in his voice.

“We can wait. I’m willing to wait. If you’re not ready right now we don’t have to do anything, I just got… carried away.”

“It won’t help,” Kevin muttered.

There was a long pause and Kevin shut his eyes tight against the regret of letting those words slip out.

“What do you mean? What won’t help?” McKinley asked, and Kevin had to take a deep breath to keep his voice steady. His eyes tried to look up at McKinley, but all they could do was continue up to the ceiling where it was safe.

“Waiting isn’t going to help,” he said, louder, and for the first time in months he wondered if perhaps that was true. “Maybe it will, though, who knows. I’m just- I’m trying to want to, Connor, really, I am. It’s just… really hard.”

“There’s no rules against it, Kevin,” McKinley replied, sounding almost amazed, and when Kevin found the courage to look at him he found his expression was one of quiet concern. “We got rid of those rules. There’s nothing wrong with doing this if that’s what’s stopping you.”

“No, I know,” Kevin said. He had been repeating that to himself for weeks, trying to get his brain and body to cooperate with their new way of living. But somehow it never managed to budge him an inch. “I know it’s okay. I know I’m not going to get… boiled in the pit of Hell, or whatever, for doing something like this, I just…”

“It takes time,” McKinley finished for him, brow furrowed.

And Kevin nodded, grateful to McKinley for understanding, terrified that time wasn’t going to fix anything.

“Really, Kevin, I don’t mind. I’m willing to wait, it’s okay.”

And Kevin nodded again and felt terrified of the moment when McKinley would no longer be willing to wait.

For the better part of a week McKinley didn’t touch him. They didn’t kiss, didn’t hold hands, didn’t stand closer together than a few feet. And Kevin found he missed it. He didn’t miss the acts themselves, but he missed having McKinley solidly and undeniably there, and he missed the meaning behind the acts. But that didn’t stop him from feeling dread when they returned, overwhelming frustration that, even after so long he wasn’t able to find any pleasure in kissing or touching or anything else that McKinley seemed to enjoy.

None of it seemed to be changing for him, no matter how much he tried. He tried logic, reasoning with himself that it was only good things, that he had no reason not to like them, that if McKinley was happy then he should be happy, but somehow that only made things worse.

As they drew closer again, the carefulness that had surrounded their relationship following his slipup dissipating with time, Kevin tried other things. He bought a book at the market one day on his downtime, a paperback romance that looked dramatic and beaten and cheap. He read it cover to cover at night when no one was awake to see it and hid it under his mattress during the day. He tried to imitate some of the things inside it and while some of it made McKinley smile and kiss, there was yet other things that only made him laugh or ask if he was okay.

He bought another book, one that bordered more on erotica than romance and try as he might he couldn’t get through it. Every word that took place in passion behind closed doors made him feel guilty and slightly nauseous and like he was seeing something extremely private that belonged to someone else. He wound up throwing it away and burying his head in his hands as he wondered what was wrong with him.

And he never told McKinley. He wouldn’t dare. The constant fear hung about him that McKinley would find out and decide that Kevin wasn’t worth his time and, very suddenly and unexpectedly, Kevin was afraid that he would wind up alone.

What if he could never change? What if he was doomed to be incapable of intimacy for the rest of his life? Who would be willing to put up with that? He couldn’t even imagine trying to explain it to someone.

So when the time came again he committed himself. He would go through with it, he decided, whether he liked it or not because it was what McKinley wanted. And for all he knew he would wind up liking it too. It was only a barrier, he reasoned, like any other they had encountered, just something to be conquered.

McKinley was on top of him. They were kissing in Kevin’s bed this time, in the early evening, certain that Arnold was busy with his own affairs, and Kevin was afraid. He tried to push it down, swallow back the fear. He retaliated against it, rolling them over to take the dominant position above McKinley and tried to will himself to make the first move.

But his hand wouldn’t budge.

He had gotten better at coordinating his mouth and his hands, but even so he found that no matter how hard he tried he couldn’t get his hand to move south. Fear kept it firmly in place on McKinley’s waist.

Impatient, McKinley flipped them again, kissing insistently as his own hands found no hesitation in their quest across Kevin’s chest. And when he brought his hips down to grind against Kevin, Kevin could only squeeze his eyes shut even tighter and try to keep himself calm.

Apparently unsatisfied with Kevin being merely calm, McKinley parted their hips and reached down. The deliberate and persuasive contact was too much for Kevin.

“No,” he said, voice wobbling as he drew back. And as he scrambled up to sit, trying to get away from that hand, he continued to mutter, “No, no, no…”

McKinley sat back on Kevin’s legs and stared at him in dismay. “Why not?” he asked.

Kevin shook his head, swallowing thickly. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I just… can’t.”

“Kevin, you know there’s nothing wrong with it,” McKinley said, clearly frustrated. “You’re always the first one to tell us, ‘to hell with the rules,’ I mean… Heck, Kevin, what’s so wrong with me that you can’t? How long do I have to wait?”

And Kevin couldn’t reply. Could only look down at the bedspread as his breath shook in his chest and he felt disappointed and sick and devastated. How could he be so weak, he wondered, how could he be so pathetic?

With a sigh, McKinley clambered off Kevin’s legs and off the bed and started for the door and Kevin couldn’t watch. He could only put a hand to his own forehead and shut his eyes against tears. The door opened and shut and Kevin let out a sob.

What was wrong with him? Why couldn’t he do that one simple thing? Why couldn’t he just get over himself?

The bed dipped and Kevin suddenly realized he wasn’t alone yet. He peered up through his wet eyelashes to find McKinley frowning at him in what could be either anger or worry.

“What’s wrong?” he asked quietly, and Kevin couldn’t for the life of him figure out what tone was being used.

“I’m sorry,” Kevin said back, voice a creak in his throat. He took a deep breath and let his hand fall to his lap. “I’m trying,” he said. “Really, I’m trying, Connor.”

“Trying to do what?”

And suddenly Kevin could recognize that frown. Distrust.

“I’m trying to want what you want,” he said. “I’m trying to give you that, but I just… I can’t. I’m trying so fucking hard, but I just can’t do it.”

McKinley shifted in his seat and shrugged and shook his head and frowned in what might be confusion. “It’s difficult,” he said, “when you’ve been raised a certain way your whole life. When you’ve grown up with people telling you that something is wrong or disgusting. It’s hard to let that go.”

Tears welled up in Kevin’s eyes again and he wiped at them hard with the back of his hand. “It’s not that,” he said. “Or, it’s not only that, it’s… I don’t know what it is.” He sat up a bit more, trying to face McKinley more fully, but his eyes, heavy and sore with unshed tears were refusing to look up. “I know there’s nothing wrong with it,” he said. “I know that things are different now, but…” He shook his head in frustration, not exactly sure of how he could explain this properly when he didn’t fully understand it himself. “In Sunday School and Church Group and all that, they told us that everyone has urges… And that it’s our jobs to control those urges. …Towards other people, I mean, urges towards…”

“I get it,” McKinley said, tentative and gentle, but the frown wouldn’t leave him.

“I never had those urges,” Kevin explained. “I never wanted those things.”

McKinley laughed through his frown, a low and uncomfortable laugh. “Everyone has those urges, Kevin. It’s normal.”

“But I didn’t,” Kevin insisted, finally looking McKinley in the eye. “I never did and I thought it was just because, you know, I was so good at that sort of thing, I was always the best at following the rules and being what they wanted me to be, I just thought… I thought I was just resisting the urges, I didn’t really ever think about it, to be honest.”

McKinley swallowed. “And now?”

Kevin shook his head again and tried to show how baffled he was through just his face as he said, “I don’t know. I don’t know what it’s supposed to feel like, so… how am I supposed to recognize that kind of thing, right? How am I supposed to know what something feels like if I’ve never paid attention to it before? If I’ve-“ He stopped and looked up at McKinley sharply. “Do you think maybe I turned it off?” he asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Maybe I did, maybe I turned it off without realizing and- and-“ He scrambled onto his knees, trying to grasp at the idea as it hit him because it was an explanation, a reason, if he turned it off then he could just turn it back on again, he could be normal. “You can show me how to turn it back on,” he said, desperately. “You did it yourself, you can teach me!”

“Kevin,” McKinley said, voice uncertain.

“No, really! I know it wasn’t exactly the same for you, but it’s something, right? You can help me!”

“Kevin, I’m not sure if-“

“No!” Kevin cried out, refusing to let McKinley take this possibility away from him. He knew it was true, he knew it was just something he needed to find the right solution to. “I’m gonna fix this,” he said. “I’m gonna figure out what’s wrong with me and I’m gonna fix it. And if you don’t want to help me, then that’s fine, but I’m not just going to let it happen like this.”

“Kevin, it’s really not that big a deal…”

“No, it is! Because if I’m broken, if something is wrong with me, then I’ve got to make it better.”

“Something’s wrong with you, but I don’t think it’s not wanting to have sex.”

Kevin fell silent, unsure if he should be heartbroken by the statement, searching for a response that wasn’t there.

“I don’t mean-“ McKinley started, but he seemed unsatisfied with the words he was about to say and tried again. “There’s more to it than that,” he settled on. “There’s more than just the urge, you know? There’s the want and the excitement and- and the happiness that… that it’s you.”

Kevin sat, breathing hard, trying to understand what McKinley, what Connor, was saying to him.

“You can’t sit there and tell me that you want me in one way, but not in another.”

“But it’s true.”

“Are you sure?” Connor asked. “Because I know you didn’t like me so much when we met, I know it took you longer to like me than it took me to like you. And I sometimes get this feeling that you don’t really like me at all. That you just say you do because you think you’re supposed to.”

“I don’t, though.” And the words came out weakly, because Kevin couldn’t be certain in them. Because Connor was right, because books and movies had always told him that liking someone the way he was meant to like Connor meant he was supposed to like kissing them and he was supposed to like touching them in intimate ways, and he had never liked that, never wanted that. So how could he be certain that he wanted Connor in any way at all?

“Tell me what you like about me.”

Kevin faltered for only a moment before he said, “I like your laugh. I like the way you smile. I like holding your hand and the way you look at me and how your brain works.”

“None of that means anything.”

“It does.”

“Friends like those things, Kevin. I love how my friends smile and laugh and think, it’s why I’m friends with them.”

A pit, more like a black hole, had formed in Kevin’s chest and even though he knew Connor was wrong he couldn’t exactly describe how. His brain felt hazy with the storm of things he knew and thought that didn’t have words to express themselves and grasping at them was like grasping at fog.

“I’m going to Kampala tomorrow,” Connor said quietly, but not gently. “I’m getting supplies for the hut. If you can prove to me that you actually do care about me as more than just a friend or someone to worship you then… we can figure it out. If not…” He swallowed again and his eyes fell to the bedspread under the wrinkle of his brow. “I’m not going to waste any more of my time with someone who doesn’t want me.”

After a long and painful silence, in which Kevin could barely breathe let alone speak, Connor got up from the bed and walked to the door.

At the sight of his retreating back, Kevin found his voice. “You can’t honestly tell me that the only reason you want me is for sex.”

And Connor paused, his hand on the doorknob. Then he turned it and left, leaving the door open behind him.

It was like someone had torn his heart out. He couldn’t explain why and he was so sick of not being able to explain the things he was feeling. But the next day when McKinley and Elder Thomas left on the bus to Kampala he was still devastated, and the only reason he could see for feeling that way was that he was worried that Connor might be right.

It would be a lie to say he had felt the same way about Connor all the time they were together. It would be a lie to say he hadn’t started the relationship because he simply enjoyed being doted over. But it would also be a lie to say he didn’t care. He was surprised by how much he cared. As the day went on he missed Connor being there and wished his problem wasn’t so closely tied to their relationship because there was no one he would rather talk to about it.

As it was, he only had so many options.

The first night Connor was away, Kevin talked to Arnold.

“Do you think it’s possible to like someone without wanting to have sex with them?” he said, and with Arnold being who he was it was no surprise when he answered in the most uncomfortable possible way.

“I mean… you don’t want to have sex with me… right?”

Kevin threw a pillow at him from where he lay on his bed and said, “I’m serious, Arnold. I don’t mean like as in friends I mean like as in… more than friends. Like you and Nabulungi or…”

“You and Elder McKinley?”

“…Yeah.”

“I guess so,” Arnold said, flopping down on his own bed before rolling over to look at Kevin. “I mean, liking somebody isn’t all about that, right?”

“That’s what I said.”

“And, like, if people can like other people only for that then why can’t they like them for only the stuff that’s not that.”

Kevin turned his head to return Arnold’s gaze and found reassurance in those round features, as he always did. “Do you think there’s something wrong with a person who doesn’t want sex?”

“Bishop Harrigan always told us we weren’t supposed to want sex until we were older, but he was part of the Church so…”

“But I don’t mean like that,” Kevin said, growing frustrated, but not in the same way he did with himself or with Connor. Arnold frustration was an entirely different species and it lived in Kevin’s head in abundance, but it was harmless as it was annoying. “I’m not talking about, like, sin kind of wrong, but more like medically wrong or psychologically wrong. I mean is there something wrong with the way I was built or am I just making myself this way?”

Arnold stared at him hard for a moment and Kevin waited for the inevitable, yet dubiously effective, pep talk that Arnold had quickly made himself known for. Then Arnold got up from his bed, saying, “Scootch over.” Kevin made as much space on the tiny mattress as was possible, but when Arnold climbed in next to him he was pushed back far enough to be at danger of falling out. Their faces mere inches from one another, Kevin wouldn’t have been able to stand it from anyone else, but with Arnold he had become desensitized.

“You’ve gotta stop thinking, man,” Arnold told him, eyes the only thing Kevin could see, breath the only thing Kevin could smell. “Like you did this when we first got here too, you did something that didn’t make sense to you so you spent days beating yourself up over it and trying to figure out ‘where I went wrong.’” His attempt at mimicking Kevin was ridiculous enough for Kevin to relax a little and even laugh, but his heart was heavy as he listened, hopeful it would help, but scared that it wouldn’t. “And what did you do about it?”

“I ran away?”

“No, after that, after you tried to run away and passed out at the bus stop.”

“I…”

“You got over it.”

Kevin laughed. “Did I?”

“Yeah, dude, you packed it in and decided to just go with it.”

“I’m not sure that’s gonna work here.”

“You always think way too hard about everything,” Arnold said, prodding Kevin’s chest, and Kevin had to grip the sheets to keep from toppling off the side. “You’re always happiest when you stop thinking about it. Just accept things as the way they are and you’ll be way happier, trust me.”

“You are weirdly insightful for someone who’s main life goal is meeting someone who was on Star Trek once.”

“First of all, Nichelle Nichols wasn’t just ‘some person’ who was ‘on Star Trek once,’ she changed the face of science fiction forever and if Majel Barrett was still alive I would have two life goals. Now get up, we’re going to the kitchen.”

“Why are we going to the kitchen?” Kevin asked even as he let Arnold essentially lift him up out of bed.

“We’re making coffee because coffee makes you happy.”

“It’s nine at night.”

“But it makes you happy so we’re making coffee, come on.”

Arnold was always easy like that. He was accepting no matter the situation and Kevin couldn’t me more grateful to the will of the universe for making them companions, for giving him that one grace. But telling him to just accept it and “go with it” wasn’t exactly the solid pathway he had been looking for.

If Arnold was right and there really was nothing wrong with him then why did Kevin feel wrong? And that night as he lay awake, the caffeine he knew would be his downfall refusing to let him sleep, he once again looked through the romance novel he had bought at the market and searched his heart for something. Anything. A connection, a blip, a stumble. But nothing happened.

It wasn’t long before he found his face was collapsing as frustration overtook him and he wished with every fibre of his being that he could feel the things the characters in his book were feeling. He could feel their affection, he could feel their devotion to one another, but their longing and wistful gazes left him standing empty and alone. Tears burned at his eyes and he wondered why a book would ever promise him something that he could never have.

He wound up tossing it, just like the other, almost angry with the people it contained for being able to do something he couldn’t ever force his own body to do. Because he was Kevin Price, dammit, there wasn’t supposed to be anything he couldn’t do. And as the night wore on the feelings of anger and frustration altered in the darkness of his room and he lay there, pillow damp and chest empty, feeling guilty. Because even if he did like Connor the way he said he did, which he still wasn’t certain about, how could he be so cruel as to force him back into celibacy? Break all the rules, Kevin preached every day, except now it was like he was taking that one freedom back.

Did Connor deserve that? Kevin didn’t feel like either of them deserved it, but most of all it was not Connor’s cross to bear. If this was Kevin’s hubris then it wasn’t his right to take Connor down with him. Wasn’t his right to take anyone down with him, as a matter of fact. And, feeling like he was just about the only person in the world, he let out a string of strangled sobs into his pillow and waited for the sun to rise.

He spent the next day in a fog. The others seemed to understand there was something wrong and graciously gave him space, an act that he both appreciated and despised. It made him feel respected. It made him feel impossibly lonely.

Late that afternoon their absent friends returned. McKinley was amicable, he was good at that, but he didn’t ever progress beyond that point. Kevin wasn’t sure at what point they were meant to talk and, having been unable to figure out what he wanted to say, he was dreading it. But at the same time he almost wanted to get it over with and it was a strange feeling to suddenly be so upset that he was going to lose Connor. Because it was true that he wanted him with him, and he wanted him probably more than a friend wants someone, but he couldn’t express how and in that inability was the certainty that he would wind up alone.

“Kevin.”

It was past sundown. Everyone had gone to their rooms, not because they had to, but because they had made it a habit and it was not one they felt any need to break. Kevin had just been taking his shoes off at the end of his bed as Arnold fooled around with a puzzle book he had found at the market a few weeks back, and they both looked up to find McKinley standing in the doorway.

“Connor.”

“Can I talk to you for a second in the living room?”

Kevin cast a glance to Arnold, trying to draw strength from those wide eyes, before nodding and following McKinley back out into the other room.

Lack of overhead lights meant the room was dim, lit by only lamps, and though it was the most public place in the hut it felt all too isolated. They sat together on the couch, not far apart, but certainly not close.

“I’ve been doing a lot of thinking,” Connor said quietly and Kevin swallowed as he braced himself for the argument he was certain was coming. The judgment and the blame and the disappointment. But Connor remained subdued as he continued. “I wasn’t exactly fair to you,” he said. “I got a little, um, entitled I guess, and I decided I had earned something that wasn’t mine to take. Um…”

“You were right.”

Connor fell silent and his eyes locked on Kevin’s, the ground too delicate to tread.

It was for the best just to get it over with, Kevin thought, to be the first to say it if only to spare himself the pain of drawing out the conclusion. “You have been waiting 19 years,” Kevin said. “And now that you’ve finally gotten here, to a point where it’s not off limits anymore, I tell you you can’t. And that’s not fair.”

“Kevin, no.”

“You deserve to be with someone who can give you what you want and that’s not me. I can’t make myself into something I’m not and neither can you and, uh…” he sniffed and wiped a hand across his nose, the dread settling like lead in his stomach, a familiar weight that he didn’t have the energy to fight. “I’m not going to tie you down to a relationship that- it’s not even real, is it? It doesn’t count.”

Connor’s eyebrows were slowly descending into a concerned frown, but he didn’t move to interrupt again.

“You deserve a real relationship with a real partner who can give you everything you want. Not some… broken stand-in who just keeps making you wait.”

“Kevin, you’re not broken.”

“No, I am,” Kevin insisted, because after days, after weeks of thinking about it and trying to puzzle it out, it seemed to be the only explanation that made sense. “I was built wrong in- in my head or in my body that made me, just, bad. Made me not right. And I’m not going to force you to deal with this just because I say I like you the way you like me, when clearly I don’t. Clearly I’m just… making it up or fooling myself into thinking it because I’m never… I’m not…” He had to sniff harder to keep his nose from dripping, but the tears were starting to make slow paths down his cheeks and he wished he could just, for once, be good under pressure and know what to say when it mattered most. Because it was true what Arnold said, that this was just like when he couldn’t convert any villagers, except this time ‘going with it’ wasn’t going to solve anything.

‘Going with it’ wasn’t going to make his body work the way it was supposed to and accepting things as they were wasn’t going to help anybody. He was just going to have to get used to the idea that he was going to be alone forever and it was nobody’s fault but his own. His own stupid body and his own stupid brain and the stupid thought that he could make a difference.

“You’re not broken, Kevin,” Connor repeated. “Just because you’re different from some people doesn’t mean you’re broken.”

“It’s not just ‘some people’ though, is it?” Kevin asked, incapable of containing his distress any longer and he could feel how disgusting he looked. But what did it matter if it was never going to get him anywhere anyways? Looking bad, looking good, it was all the same because it hadn’t mattered before and it didn’t matter now, nothing that Kevin ever thought was important ever turned out to be, it was always the things he didn’t really think about until suddenly it blew up in his face. “It’s everybody,” he said. “You and Arnold and Nabulungi and Michaels and Church and Poptarts and the people in books and movies and tv shows. It’s all of them, all of you, and I’m just-“ He threw his hands up weakly and gave a watery laugh. “I’m the outlier, yet again. I can’t do anything half-assed, can I? I’ve got to have the biggest breakdowns, the best records, the shittiest fucking brain.” His whole body was shaking with sobs now and he hid his face as best he could in the palm of his hand. “You don’t deserve to be stuck with me. I’m a goddamn nightmare.”

And even when Connor took him in his arms and stroked his hair and let him cry, Kevin felt alone. Well, he was going to die alone, might as well get used to it.

“Kevin, I don’t deserve you, period,” Connor said into his shoulder. “Because you’re amazing and genuine and you’re not afraid to mess up, you know? And it doesn’t matter if we never have sex because that’s not the point of a relationship, is it?”

“It is, it is, you said it is.”

“Well, I was wrong, wasn’t I?” His hand ran up and down Kevin’s back and it was the kind of contact he didn’t mind so much. “And if you had let me finish what I was saying I would have told you that. I made a really big deal out of something that really didn’t matter and that was my fault. It had nothing to do with you. Like you said, you can’t control who you are and I’m glad for that because I would never want you to change.”

“What’s wrong with me?” Kevin croaked into the darkness of Connor’s chest.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with you,” he replied. “Though, I think you’ve managed to convince yourself that something is.”

He tried to lean back to see Kevin’s face, but Kevin refused to be budged from the safety of Connor’s shirt. “You think I didn’t feel like that growing up? You think I didn’t wonder why I couldn’t make myself like girls instead of boys? I thought there was maybe something wrong with me, too. My parents definitely did. Thinking there’s something wrong with you just because you’re who you were meant to be doesn’t fix anything, it just makes you hate yourself.”

Kevin sat back a little, though his hands still clung to Connor like he was worried he would change his mind and leave. “I guess I can’t really blame God for this one.”

“Not when you’ve denounced him, no.”

His cheeks were wet and hot, tears making skin feel tight, and he tried to wipe them away as well as he could. Another hand began to scrub at his cheek and he realized Connor was trying to help him. Not that it did much good, but the sincerity of the action warmed him slightly and he could only stare at that look of concerned concentration on Connor’s face as he wiped Kevin’s tears away. It was how his mother looked at him when he was young and crying over a scraped knee, when she was cleaning the wound and saying calming things. And it was never the things she said that made him feel better, it was always just the sound of her voice and the closeness of her and the care with which she helped him.

“Do you ever think about home?” Kevin asked, voice a croak in his tight throat.

“Every day,” Connor replied.

“Sometimes I miss it. I get, like, this ache in my chest when I think about my family and my house and my friends. And for just a moment I forget how scared I am to go home.”

“What are you scared of?” Connor asked, though he knew the answer well. Kevin talked about home every time they wound up alone and quiet and full of thought. Home was ingrained in him and the fear ran just as deep.

“I’m scared of what they’ll think of me,” he said. “I’m scared that they’ll never forgive me for what I’ve done. I’m scared that I’m going to lose all of my freedom and new friends and I’ll just go right back to square one.”

Connor nodded and his eyes wandered slowly about the couch cushions. “We can’t stay here forever,” he said softly.

“What’s going to happen to us?”

Connor took a deep breath and shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said. “We’ll go home. We’ll face it all. We’ll… accept the blame for what we’ve done.”

“If there’s nothing wrong with me, then… What is it?”

“I’m not sure. I sincerely doubt you’re the only person in the world who feels this way.”

“I don’t like girls,” Kevin said slowly. “But I don’t like boys either.” He looked up at Connor intently. “I like you though. But not in the way the people in movies like each other.”

“They’re movies, Kevin, they’re not real.”

They sat in silence for a moment, gazing at one another for a long time, waiting for sense to appear, but it never came. But by that point, Kevin had become accustomed to things in his life not really making sense. It didn’t make it any easier to bear, however.

“We’re only here another year,” Kevin said, thumbs fiddling in his lap as he tried to figure out what, exactly, it was he wanted to say. It felt like they had been walking for ages and suddenly come to a dead end. Like the fork they had meant to take was eons back and hardly worth returning too, if returning was even possible. “If you’re willing to put up with me for that long-“

“I’m not putting up with you, Kevin,” Connor said, almost in annoyance at having to repeat himself. “I’m being with you. You’re not someone that needs… putting up with, you’re someone who makes me feel really good and I want you to feel really good too.”

“I can’t.”

“Not in that way. I want you to like yourself as much as I like you. I want you to realize there’s more to you than just this one thing and I’m not putting up with it because you don’t put up with someone you genuinely want to be with.” Heartbeats passed and Kevin felt like Connor was wrong about something, but that it would be useless to argue it. “Even if it’s only for another year.”

“A year is a long time.”

“It’s hardly any time at all.”

Kevin nodded and looked down at his hands. “Why does a year for a relationship feel like so long, but a year of being in Uganda feels like hardly any time at all?”

Connor took his hand gently and Kevin let him because he needed it. An anchor. “Isn’t longer better?” Connor asked.

Perhaps it was.

A lot could change in a year and that prospect was both terrifying and exhilarating. They were still getting used to the way things were now, their little rebellions piling up by the day, and the little box on the windowsill holding Davis’ earrings, gathering dust, was like a tiny foundation stone. The first brick lain in the house they were building. A house Kevin had led into existence.

But with every inch that went up he became less and less certain. He didn’t know how to build a house, he didn’t know if it was getting too tall, he didn’t know if it would all wash away at the first rain. And he knew it wouldn’t last forever. No matter the details.

It would be one month until Connor went back to Kampala. One month until he came to Kevin with information he had found online, printed out on sheets that he had kept hidden from Elder Thomas. One month until Kevin would break into sobs not because he felt alone or broken, but because he had a word for what he was. And Connor cried with him, not because the information upset him, but because Kevin was crying and there was no more bittersweet a sight.

For one month Kevin fought against his anxieties and worries, constantly asking Connor and himself “Is this enough?”

“Yes,” Connor would say. And he would say it every time because it was always true.

But Kevin’s mind could never give a clear answer. The question of whether or not he was enough became as familiar to him as the box on the windowsill. And seeing that word written on that sheet of paper, seeing his experiences written out by someone else, confirming solidly and without doubt that, yes, he was enough, was almost too much to bear. The question of “why can’t I be like everyone else?” wouldn’t appear for several more months. Eleven months exactly.

“It’s not your fault,” he would whisper to himself at night as the self-doubt clawed its way up his ribcage and into his throat. “It’s just the way things are.”

And maybe he never really believed that. Maybe he always had some small piece of doubt, but the words soothed him some and so he kept saying them. “It’s just the way things are.”

It was neither good nor bad. Neither right nor wrong. It was a lateral position. Just a few steps in a different direction.