It was good to be back in the mountains again, especially considering how busy he'd been with work and school over the summer. Chris Knight looked around him at the scenery and breathed the cool mountain air in deep. The fall colors were in full array, creating an enchanting landscape he was eager to explore. Beside him lay the lake he had come to regard as his second home. He could always come up here for reflection when he needed it most.
Coming home early from his mission had been rough at first, but that mess was now almost two years behind him. Still, almost every time he climbed this trail, his favorite trail, he remembered the day before he left for his mission when he had been forced to return home early from his hike. He had reasoned the mountain would still be there for him when he finished his mission, and it had seemed an easy decision at the time.
He now thought could trace nearly everything he had done wrong on his mission back to that apparently trivial decision. He had never left a hike unfinished prior to that one, and it had created a pattern by which he started to live his life. As far as his duty to the church was concerned, everything else could be done half-assed. He hated who he had become over those twelve weeks in the MTC. He now understood it had been a mistake to help Gary and Luke cover up their relationship, though not for the reasons the church saw. Even when facing the disciplinary hearing after his return, Chris refused to consider homosexuality a sin and had refused to back down when his church leaders demanded he believe otherwise.
No, it had been a mistake because he should never have put that pressure on Gary. He'd had to stand by and watch as Gary's joy in life had evaporated and his spirit was slowly crushed over the remaining weeks at MTC, and at the time he hadn't understood why. Now he understood that Gary had been a victim of the system oppressing him, and Chris had only reinforced that oppression. While Chris had thought adhering to mission rules was what was overridingly important, he had contributed to making Gary feel unworthy, helpless, and that he was lost in sin. It had been the last thing Chris had wanted, but when he saw Gary after they had all told the truth, the reality of the situation hit him hard.
Gary was far better off for having told the truth. Chris had seen him frequently since, and he was a completely different from the shy and scared boy he had been upon entering the MTC. Now that he was being true to himself, Gary's personality had blossomed and he had become stronger and livelier than anyone could imagine. No one who knew him from before could miss the change, he had a bounce to his step and an infectious grin; and he was evidently enjoying life as the person he was always meant/supposed to be. He had made great strides in his family life and in his schooling too, and now had a large support network of friends who loved him for who he was.
Chris had invited Gary over for dinner a number of times and introduced him to his dads. They had practically adopted Gary and made it their goal to show him what it meant to be a gay man living in Salt Lake City. Gary had received no shortage of attention from other men his age, but he also wasted no time in breaking their hearts by letting them know he was spoken for.
That thought made Chris think of Luke, and he smiled fondly. While there had been some initial fallout between them after the MTC, they had patched things up through their mutual concern for Gary after only a few months. Chris now regarded Luke as a brother almost as closely as he did Gary, and was delighted to see the changes which had come over the young Californian as well.
His phone vibrated in his pocket, and he drew it out to see his father's name on the screen. He answered the call quickly and put the phone to his ear. "Hey Dad."
"You better not be on top of a mountain right now," Chris' dad said, chuckling. "Of course, we both know that's exactly where you are. You asked me to give you a reminder call. Are you going to make it down the mountain in time?"
"Have you met me?" Chris replied, laughing. "Of course I will. Don't worry. I'll be there."
"Good. You don't want to leave your friend hanging," his dad replied. "We've gotta take care of our own."
"You're just excited there's going to be more gay blood arriving in Salt Lake, I know it," Chris taunted.
"Shush. Don't tell Mike. He'll get jealous," his dad said. Chris heard a laugh in the background and knew Mike was listening to every word.
"Yeah, I bet he's just as excited as you are," Chris replied, grinning from ear to ear. "I'll see you in a bit."
His stomach was bothering him for more reasons than the flying. Luke Phillips had never felt more nervous in his life about what would await him when he landed. His mother and stepfather had made it clear they did not agree with his actions, though they swore they still loved him and wanted him to be happy.
Things were a lot better now than they had been almost two years before, when he was coming home early from the MTC. His parents had been livid then, and his amazing little brother had been the only one in his family to receive him with any love whatsoever. He could still remember that long walk through the LAX terminal to where his family waited to collect him. His mother couldn't even meet his eyes, and his stepfather's stern glare sent shivers down his spine.
But Jordan had rushed forward and jumped into his arms, giving him a mighty bear hug, holding onto him for nearly a minute before finally pulling away and looking up at his big brother with misty eyes. "I missed you," he had said, nearly choking on the words. "I'm so glad you could be home for Christmas."
That Christmas had been hell for Luke, but every time he had another judgmental conversation with his parents or with a confrontation with a member of his extended family, Jordan was there to console him afterwards and remind him that it didn't matter what everyone else thought. Love would always win in the end.
It was the same reason he was on the plane and flying to Salt Lake City. He and Gary had kept in contact since the MTC, initially by email and then through Skype and phone calls. Luke's parents hadn't approved, but they also hadn't tried to stop him, and for that he was grateful. There wasn't much they could have done about it anyway. He had paid for the plane ticket with his own money, and he was no longer living under his parents' roof. The previous year, he and several friends from his first two years at college had gotten a place together in Stanford, and he had been pleasantly surprised that this time his college experience wasn't a nightmare. He had joined a number of LGBT clubs and participated more and more in their activities, openly embracing his sexuality and helping to mentor those who were new to the community. He was truly happy now that he was no longer trying to hide who he was.
His nausea was from a different source. This would be the first time that he and Gary had shared the same space since their parting at the MTC, and he didn't know what to expect. He felt the same way about Gary as he had then. No, his feelings had only multiplied since then, and he wanted Gary in his life more than anything. What he didn't know was if Gary felt the same way, whether their relationship was at last about to move to the next level. They had discussed plans for one of them to transfer to the other's school so that they could be together, but somehow those plans had never quite materialized and he was concerned that the new out, proud and exuberant version of Gary was enjoying life without him around to support him. He'd been the strong one at the MTC and he'd survived his family's displeasure afterwards too, but now here he was acting like a wimp, tearing himself to pieces worrying, believing the worst, doing exactly what he'd chastised Gary for doing back at MTC. 'Being in love really sucks sometimes' he mused with a wistful smile.
Turbulence struck the plane, and Luke nearly lost the contents of his stomach into the bag the airline had thoughtfully provided. He had eaten only a light lunch several hours before, as much a result of his lack of appetite as it was his preparation for the flight ahead, but he still preferred to keep it inside of him if possible. The last thing he wanted when he saw Gary again was for his breath to smell like bile.
The turbulence subsided and Luke began to breathe easily again. He hoped the rest of the flight would go more smoothly, and as they were beginning the descent into Salt Lake City he thought it more likely than not. With that thought in mind, he retrieved the letter from his pocket and read it again for what seemed like the hundredth time since he had received it a few days ago. He still couldn't believe Jason Hadley had sent him a letter at all, but the contents were even more surprising.
I think that's the first time I ever referred to you as something other than 'Elder'. It's been a while, two years almost, since we last spoke. We didn't part under the best of circumstances, and it took me a long time to come to terms with what happened between the four of us at the MTC. I don't know if you have or not, but I'd like to think someone as strong-willed as you would have already put it all behind him and forged ahead to something greater.
I'm sorry that I didn't write to you sooner. Maybe I was offended, I don't know, but I should not have been. What was it that President Hinckley said? "One who takes offense when it wasn't intended is a fool, and one who takes offense when it was intended is an even greater fool." I've been a fool, Luke. I've done some things I'm not proud of, and made a lot of mistakes, especially in how I treated you and Gary. You were my friends, and yet I treated you as if you were two of the worst people I'd ever met. That was not Christ-like. That was not the way of peace, love, and charity.
I learned a great deal while I was in Korea. I learned to love people regardless of their choices. I made great friends both inside the church and outside, and I wouldn't give up any of them. Through all of this, you, Gary, and Chris were in the back of my mind, and I couldn't help but wonder what became of all of you.
I know it's a longshot that you'd be able to make it to my homecoming, but I'd like you to be there if you happen to be in town. I have a lot to say to you, Gary, and Chris. If you don't make it, I'll send you another letter but...
I'm keeping my words hostage, hoping it will incentivize you to come. I look forward to seeing you again someday, Luke. Hopefully it will be sooner rather than later.
He put the letter away as he realized the plane would soon be landing. Landing was the best part of every flight, as it meant he'd be done flying, and he eagerly anticipated the thump and roar which indicated contact with the runway. As the plane touched down, he breathed a sigh of relief and clutched the arms of his seat until the plane stopped moving altogether.
In a matter of minutes he was off the plane and headed into the terminal. He smirked as he saw hordes of young missionaries around him. The Salt Lake City airport always seemed to be filled with them, and it made Luke wonder what might have been if he'd stayed on his own mission. He doubted he'd be as content as he was now, and that was what mattered to him most.
He turned toward the call and saw a smiling Chris waving at him. Luke smiled wide and went straight to him. They embraced and then stepped back to get a better look at each other.
"It's good to see you, Chris," Luke said, grinning wide. "Thanks for coming to pick me up."
"Well, you know I'd do anything if it would make our Gary happy. He's like a brother to me," Chris said with a shrug. Luke gave him an incredulous look and Chris chuckled. "All right, I'm doing it for you too."
"Good. Now, can we get going?" Luke asked. He glanced out the window and saw an airplane coming in for a landing, which induced a shudder. "The quicker we get away from this airport, the better."
"You almost look ill," Grandpa Dumont said with a chuckle. Gary turned toward him, his eyes flashing with amusement. His grandfather was sitting at the side of the room while the rest of the family milled about. Over the last two years, Gary's grandfather hadn't changed much, and he still preferred to avoid being the center of attention during family parties.
"I still don't know what to do at parties," Gary said, shrugging. He walked toward his grandfather and took the seat next to him. They were in Gary's parent's home, and the atmosphere was warm and inviting, but the sheer amount of people nearly overwhelmed him.
"You and me both, Gary," Grandpa Dumont snorted. "I've always thought you took after me."
"Well, that didn't happen entirely," Gary said, smiling sadly. They had conversed on this topic many times since he'd come home, and he knew his grandfather would catch on to what he was talking about. Gary had been amazed his parents had accepted him as their gay son so readily, but he'd been fearful he might lose his much adored grandfather. He'd always seemed so hostile to gays and gay rights whenever the subject came up. Thankfully it hadn't worked out like that and his grandfather had been accepting, even if he still wasn't completely supportive.
"It's okay, Gary," Grandpa Dumont said quietly. "You know I only want you to be happy, right? You're my grandson, and I love you."
"Thanks. And I am happy," Gary said with a smile. "Luke makes me happier than I could have imagined possible, two years ago."
"And I just have to accept that," Grandpa Dumont said with a shrug. "I may struggle with it, but I'm not going to stop you from doing what you think will make you happy, and your parents sure support you. You've got a lot of people in your corner, Gary, myself included."
"Yeah. I never knew my mother had a gay cousin," Gary said, chuckling. "It's too bad she never told me that while I was growing up. I might not have been as scared."
"I'm glad you feel better, Gary," Grandpa Dumont said, laying a hand on Gary's shoulder and giving it a squeeze. "I'm surprised you're still a member of the church, though. Your parents too. After the hell the church put you through when you got sent home from the MTC?"
"I still believe," Gary replied, shrugging. "Mom and Dad do too. We merely refuse to accept that God hates gay people."
"What would it take for you to accept my relationship with Luke?" Gary asked, turning a quizzical eye on his grandfather.
"I don't know," Grandpa Dumont said thoughtfully. "Maybe some sort of proof that it's really love and not just youthful lust or infatuation?"
Gary was about to respond when his mother walked up to them, smiling and happy. "Gary, Chris is here for you."
"Oh? I didn't know he was planning on coming today," Gary said. He stood and excused himself to follow his mother to the door. He almost collapsed from shock as he saw a surprisingly bashful and queasy-looking Luke standing on the doorstep next to Chris. He recovered quickly and stepped onto the porch, wrapping Luke in a tight hug and then pulling back to look him in the eye.
"What are you doing here? You weren't supposed to fly in until tomorrow!" Gary was so excited, rather than letting Luke answer, he immediately kissed him and then pulled back bashfully, glancing at the open door and his family members milling about inside.
"I managed to get an earlier flight, and Chris was kind enough to pick me up so that I could surprise you," Luke replied, breathing deeply and grinning wide. "I hope this isn't bad timing?"
"For you, there's no such thing," Gary said. "Come on, let me introduce you to everyone. But first I need to kiss my prince charming properly to make sure I'm not dreaming, and then later we've got a lot of catching up to do, lover boy." Gary pulled the front door shut behind him to give them a modicum of privacy. He ignored the fact that Chris was standing on the porch too. After all, Chris had caught them in the act before, and he ought to be getting used to the idea of them kissing and groping one another by now.
Luke's heart soared, it was all going to be ok. Gary did still want him. Luke swooned and swayed alarmingly as a surge of emotion swept through him, Gary grabbed hold of him to steady him and in the same deft move planted a delicate lover's kiss on Luke's beautiful lips. Startled, Luke recovered in an instant, returning the kiss with all the pent up passion of two years separation, nearly crushing Gary in the process as he squeezed him with all his might.
Tears of joy and relief rolled unbidden down Luke's face. Chris looked on, smiling broadly, shuffling his feet with embarrassment. He then closed his eyes to the passionate exchange in front of him, silently offering a prayer of thanks to his God; a God who obviously did move in the most mysterious of ways.
It was over far too quickly for Luke, but he and Chris followed him inside and he stood proudly beside Gary as he went the rounds of introducing Luke to his family. His parents were eager to finally meet the boy their son had fallen in love with and welcomed him warmly. His aunts, uncles, and cousins were similarly gracious. Gary saved his grandfather for last, and as he approached his grandfather he noticed that Grandpa Dumont was looking Luke up and down with a most critical eye.
"Grandpa, this is Luke. Luke, this is my grandfather," Gary said with a hopeful smile.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Dumont," Luke said. They shook hands as Grandpa Dumont nodded slowly.
"So . . . You're the one, huh?" he said neutrally. "Well, at least you're not ugly."
Luke laughed, his eyes widening in surprise. "Thanks, I suppose."
"You're right, he's definitely not ugly," Gary said with a grin as he spun Luke around and kissed him quickly. They smiled and stared into each other's eyes until Grandpa Dumont coughed to get their attention.
"Point taken," he said, smiling thoughtfully. "Welcome to the family, Luke."
Luke and Gary spoke with Grandpa Dumont for ten minutes before Chris joined in the conversation. The four chatted for nearly an hour until Chris looked at his watch and said that he needed to get home, and as Luke was staying with him and his Dads he'd have to drag Luke away as well. They headed toward the door as Gary was held back for a moment by his grandfather.
"You know, he's not bad," Grandpa Dumont said with a smile. "You could do a lot worse."
"It's a start," Gary replied, laughing. "Does that mean you like him?"
"He makes you happy, Gary," Grandpa Dumont said. "That's all that matters."
Moments later, Gary was on the porch with Chris and Luke, smiling wide and holding back happy tears. Luke gave him a questioning look, but Gary raised his hand and said, "I'll explain tomorrow. My grandpa is just awesome. We need to talk about our plans for tomorrow."
"So, are we officially going then?" Luke asked, breathing out slowly.
"I plan on it, and I think we should all go," Chris replied, nodding solemnly. "I think he deserves our giving him a chance, especially since he went through the trouble to invite us all personally."
"I agree," Gary said with a shrug. "Just because Jason was an asshole when we knew him in the MTC doesn't mean we should assume he's still one now."
"All right, if you two are in, I'm in," Luke replied. "Maybe we'll get lucky and he'll surprise us."
Jason looked out over the congregation as he sat up on the stand, waiting for his turn to speak. His knees no longer shook as they had years ago when called upon to address a crowd, but there was a certain anxiety which had never left him. He was still afraid of disappointing those who were listening. The primary difference was he no longer let that fear keep him from speaking the truth as he saw it.
But he still wished certain people were there to hear the message. The sacrament was being passed to the congregation, and he'd be speaking as soon as it was done. As of yet, Zach hadn't shown up despite Jason's heartfelt invitation he had delivered personally to Zach's home. Luke, Chris, and Gary were similarly missing, and it filled his heart with sorrow.
Before he knew it, the sacrament was over and he was being called to the pulpit. He sighed, realizing it was likely too late for him to salvage any of those friendships. Remorse overwhelmed him, the stark cold bitterness of his loss and his own stupidity cut him to the core, and he knew he'd been such a fool to spurn them. He'd had to learn the hard way that genuine friendship wasn't something to be tossed away lightly. It wouldn't change anything about his talk. He was still going to speak the truth for anyone who would hear it.
"Good morning, Brothers and Sisters," He began, forcing a smile and looking out at the crowd. "It's been two years since I've spoken to you, and I'm grateful that I could . . ." the door in the back creaked open, and his smile widened as Chris entered the chapel, followed immediately by Gary and then Luke. They took seats on the back row and turned their attention to him. He felt a surge of emotion, beginning to tear up with tears of joy at their presence, but managed to keep it under control as he began again. "I'm grateful to have this opportunity to speak to you today. I have a lot to say on the topic I was given, and I hope you'll bear with me."
"I was asked to speak on what it means to 'return with honor'." Jason tried to suppress his reaction to Luke's wince, and he found his smile faltering slightly. He pressed on. "This topic surprised me, not because it isn't a valid one, but because this is something I've spent nearly my entire mission analyzing. A few days before leaving the MTC, a good friend of mine gave me a note which significantly altered my perspective."
Chris looked intrigued at Jason's mention of his note, and his eyes slowly widened as Jason continued. "This friend ended up leaving the MTC early, along with two of my other friends with whom I had become close. At the time, it was hard for me, but I've learned a lot since then, and I want to tell you something which may come as a shock. All three of them, though they did not complete their missions, also returned with honor."
Murmurs rippled through the congregation, and some from behind him as well as the Bishopric reacted to the unexpected proclamation, but no reaction affected him more than that of his three friends on the back row. They shared looks of complete astonishment before returning their attention to him, leaning forward on the bench as they waited for him to continue.
"What does honor mean?" Jason posed the question and let it sink into the minds of the congregation for a moment before he continued. "The dictionary defines it as high esteem; respect. These missionaries left the MTC because of breaking mission rules, and I know you may ask how I can respect them? I hold them in high esteem, because in the end they were honest with themselves, and with others, and they were unashamed to face the consequences of their actions."
The Bishopric shifted uncomfortably behind him, and Jason knew that if he didn't address their concerns they might try to interrupt him before he had a chance to say what he had come to say.
"Now, before you question whether I hold this stance simply as a matter of opinion, I refer you to Peter," Jason continued, opening his scriptures, though he already had the passage memorized. He felt it added credibility to the passage if it seemed that he was reading directly from the scriptures. "In First Peter, chapter two verse seventeen, Peter calls upon us to 'Honor all people, and to respect the brotherhood. Similarly," he flipped a few pages until he arrived at his next bookmarked verse. "Paul said in Romans, Chapter twelve verse ten commanded us 'be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves'."
"With these words in mind, how should we as Christians view the sinner?" he paused for only a second before asking, "Are we not our brother's keeper?" he paused for even longer, knowing that this familiar question would resonate stronger with the congregation than the previous one had. "Should we not be devoted to one another in brotherly love, and honor one another above ourselves?" His final question posed, he let his words settle before continuing.
He let his emotions come to the forefront, and his voice threatened to break as he stated, "I made a mistake when I gave my farewell talk, and I aim to correct that mistake today. I made another mistake when I served with my brothers in the MTC, and I aim to correct that mistake today, too." He looked directly at Luke and breathed deeply, then exhaled slowly. Luke was smiling, dumbfounded as Jason continued, "I am speaking of the issue of homosexuality, and how we as a church view it. There was a time when I believed it was my responsibility to oppose it as a sin, and to preach to the sinner until they repented. I want to tell you now that I no longer view this as my responsibility." There were gasps in the crowd, but Jason was pleased to see there were more than a few nods of agreement as well. "It is my responsibility to love, and to honor my brother. It is my responsibility to love my neighbor as myself, and to embrace them into the brotherhood of man."
"I lost the best of friends, because I chose dogma over love. My friends in the MTC were sent home because they chose truth, honesty, and love over dogma." He scanned the congregation, seeing everyone was looking up at him with rapt attention. "I will no longer make the wrong choice, and so, for anyone of you in this congregation who feels attractions which you've been told makes you unworthy of love, I want you to know that I love you, and God loves you."
The bishopric stirred, and Jason wasn't about to risk them cutting him short, so he hurried to add his final words. "I say these things in the name of Christ, because I believe he would be ashamed of how we have spurned those who need our love and charity the most. Proverbs, chapter sixteen verse five states: 'Everyone who is arrogant in heart is an abomination to the Lord; be assured, he will not go unpunished'. I urge those of you who are as arrogant as I was, will repent and seek to love your neighbor, rather than push them away. May we all learn to love in the name of Christ. Amen."
He pulled away from the pulpit and returned to his seat on the stand, noting the looks of disapproval from the Bishopric. He didn't care what they thought, he had spoken the truth as he saw it. He'd had to learn the hard way that love shouldn't be rationed by man's intolerance, and he hoped he had made a difference.
Jason walked into the foyer after being mobbed by members who were welcoming him home. Some were sincere in telling him his talk was great, while others merely politely welcomed him back. He was glad people cared, but he was grateful to get away from them to where his friends waited.
"Jason!" Chris called over the crowd, and Jason quickly dodged through the people between them to arrive at where Chris, Luke, and Gary were standing. "I must say I'm speechless," Chris said as he shook Jason's hand. "That was very well said."
"Thank you, Chris," Jason replied, bowing his head slightly. "I hope you know I meant every word."
"I believe you," Chris replied.
"Jason," Luke said, drawing Jason's attention. "I hope you'll spend some time with us this week. I'm here until next Saturday, and then Gary will be flying back out with me to California."
"So the two of you are still together, huh?" Jason said, looking from Luke to Gary. "I'm happy for you."
"Thanks," Gary said, blushing. "For what you said."
"Ió" Jason stopped short as a pair of arms wrapped around him from behind.
"I can't believe it, Jason Hadley," a familiar voice said. "I didn't know you had it in you."
Jason started to turn and the arms released him, and he stared into the face of his best friend whom he hadn't seen in two years. "Zach! I can't believe you're here."
"Well, I had to see if you were sincere or not . . ." Zach replied, his eyes red from recent crying. "I've read your letter over and over again and now I've heard you say it all out loud in public, to your congregation no less. I'm convinced," he said resolutely. "Kai and I would like to take you to dinner if you're free."
"We'll catch up with you later, Jason," Chris said as he patted Jason on the arm. Jason turned toward him and Chris handed him a folded piece of paper. "Here's my number."
"Thank you for coming," Jason said as he turned back to the trio of former missionaries.
"It was our pleasure," Luke said, grinning. "We'll see you soon."
"Who were they?" Zach asked, watching them leave. "The blonde one's cute."
"He's taken," Jason laughed. "By the dark-haired one."
"You have changed, Jason," Zach said, shaking his head in wonder. His face grew more serious as he added, "I'm sorry I never wrote you back."
"It's okay, Zach, I understand," Jason replied, resting his hand on Zach's shoulder. "Let's focus on the future, rather than the mistakes of the past. I want to know everything. I've been in the dark far too long."