"What the hell?"
Chris' question hung in the air as Gary sprang into action, reaching for his shirt and throwing it on as quickly as possible, almost as if he thought he could somehow pretend that he and Luke weren't doing what Chris clearly knew they were doing.
Luke knew better, and he shook his head helplessly and whispered under his breath, "Shit..."
"Elder Knight!" Gary said as he slid his head through the collar of his T-shirt, "We were, uh, we were..."
"Gary, stop," Luke said gently, reaching for his own shirt slowly. He didn't see why there was any point in rushing to cover up now. They were found out. They were done. "Don't waste your breath, Gary. Chris isn't blind or stupid. He caught us. There's really no point in pretending otherwise."
"No, you can't be..." Gary protested, turning to Luke. He saw the resignation in Luke's expression and turned back to Chris, his eyes pleading. "Chris, please..."
"How long has this been going on?" Chris asked, his voice sounding surprisingly calm to Luke's ears. Luke considered arching an eyebrow at that question, but decided it was better to answer Chris' question straightforwardly before he made any assumptions about what was going on in his mind.
"It..." Luke began, and then took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. "This was the first time."
"The first time for what?" Chris asked, switching from looking at Luke to staring hard at Gary's guilty face. "Did you guys lie to me about that first night in the MTC?"
"No, we didn't," Gary protested, raising his hands defensively. "I swear."
"You'd better hurry up and get dressed," Chris said neutrally, turning back to Luke. "I don't know how long it's going to take Elder Hadley to finish in the bathroom, but if he finds you like this he'll go off the deep end, and you know that's the end for you two."
"But what are you going to do?" Luke asked as he started sliding into his dress shirt.
"I don't know. I haven't determined that yet," Chris replied as he walked over to his wardrobe and started gathering his shower supplies. "This is really serious, and you both get that, right?" He asked, meeting Luke's eyes steadily. "What I'm going to do is think about this for a moment. Maybe pray about it. I'm still trying to process it."
"Chris, I know you're a good guy, and I won't blame you for whatever you decide. I know that you've got to do whatever feels right to you," Luke said as Gary looked between the two of them, appearing to be on the brink of tears. "But I need you to consider something for me, please?"
"Go on," Chris said, as he folded his towel over his arm.
"Gary's going to have a hell of a time being sent home, especially for this reason," Luke continued, pointedly avoiding looking at Gary. "If you turn us in, then he's going to be put in serious jeopardy. I don't care what happens to me, but I seduced him, so please don't do anything that would put him in trouble."
"Luke, what are you saying?" Gary asked, suppressing a sob.
"Elder Phillips, what exactly would you expect me to do instead? I can't tell anyone that 'Elder Phillips was making out all by himself'." Chris laughed mirthlessly. "I'm pretty much one hundred percent positive that they would just talk to you about masturbation or something, and we both know this is a far more serious breach of missionary rules."
"Tell them that Gary was trying to fight me off then," Luke suggested with a shrug. "Tell them I was forcing myself on him."
"I wasnó" Gary protested, but Luke cut him off with a snarl.
"Shush, Gary," Luke barked. "He technically doesn't know for sure how complicit you were, and as long as he doesn't, then he can rationalize telling them only the facts he does know. We both know that I seduced you."
Gary remained silent and Luke was satisfied he'd continue to hold his tongue for the time being. He returned his gaze to Chris who was studying them both intently, a thoughtful frown on his face, though his eyes seemed to hold compassion. Luke cocked his head to one side as he studied that expression, wondering what was going through Chris' mind.
"You're really willing to take the fall to protect Elder Dumont?" Chris asked. Gary twitched as if he had been jolted by electricity. Luke sensed Gary's alarm and a split second glance confirmed Gary's knees were starting to shake and he was now hanging onto the desk trying to steady himself while he starred back at Luke helplessly.
"Yes. If you feel you have to tell anyone, then I'm willing to take the fall," Luke said, returning his full attention to Chris and vowing not to look at Gary again until the situation was resolved. Gary's fear was starting to become contagious, and Luke willed it away from his thoughts as he firmed up his resolve to save Gary. "I don't want Gary to get in trouble for any of this," he added with more conviction than he felt.
A profound silence overtook the room as Chris stared at Luke and Luke stared back. Gary almost made himself dizzy as he looked back and forth between them. Luke wanted to go to him, to hold him and attempt to soothe his nerves, but he couldn't do that unless Chris told them he was going to inform the administration. Otherwise, he knew being physically intimate in front of Chris would seal their fates and send them both home for sure.
"Okay," Chris said. The word came out of nowhere and caught Luke off guard, and he snapped out of his internal worries and gave his full attention to Chris.
"Okay what?" Gary asked, his voice breaking nervously.
"I'm not going to out either of you," Chris said, sighing deeply. He ran his hand through his hair and scratched the back of his head. "I may live to regret this, and I'm not entirely sold on the idea, but I'm willing to give you both a second chance." He regarded Luke with a critical eye. "You're clearly demonstrating charity by being willing to sacrifice yourself, and so I know that you're a good guy, Elder Phillips, that being said..." He trailed off with another sigh.
"What?" Gary asked. Luke remained silent as he waited for Chris to continue. Outwardly, he was surprisingly calm as he waited to hear the conditions of Chris' mercy, but he felt a surge of relief as if he had just dodged a bullet and more importantly saved Gary from one, too.
"That being said," Chris continued, his eyes now locked on Gary's. "This kind of behavior can't keep happening, either. You two are missionaries, and you need to act like it. This can't happen again, and if I even see a hint of it then you have to know I'll be forced to report you both. This means if you want to save Gary from that fate, Elder Phillips, then you have to keep from 'seducing' him again."
"Chris..." Gary said, fresh tears falling down his cheeks as he approached Chris and wrapped him in an embrace. "Thank you."
"Gary," Chris said as he lightly patted Gary's arm but otherwise did not return the embrace, "I think you should go and take a shower. I need to talk to Elder Phillips alone for a second."
Gary pulled away and wiped his face with his arm, nodding emphatically. He gathered his shower supplies and left, giving one quick but intense glance at both Luke and Chris. Chris smiled weakly in response, and Luke remained stony faced until Gary had left the room. Once he was gone, Luke turned that same hard expression on Chris but his eyes were questioning.
"Did you really seduce him?" Chris asked, wasting no time in asking the question which had been on his mind since Luke had suggested the notion.
"Of course," Luke replied cautiously, but he could tell immediately that Chris wasn't convinced.
"Why would you protect him?" Chris asked, his expression showing not only confusion but also a sense of respect, which Luke found perplexing.
"He deserves to be here," Luke said, shrugging. "He came for the right reasons." While he knew the words had some sense of truth to them, the reason he kept silent from Chris was that he had already developed a deep level of feeling for Gary and he couldn't bear to see him in pain. If that meant selling himself out to protect Gary from the fate of being sent home to his parents in disgrace, then so be it.
"And you didn't come for the right reasons?" Chris asked.
"I think we both know by now what the answer to that is," Luke said, laughing bitterly.
Chris nodded and pursed his lips thoughtfully. "Maybe, but I think you should take this chance to think about what kind of life you want to lead," he suggested, his voice taking on a paternal tone. "Do you want to be a guy who is always breaking the rules? Do you want to be the guy who is always getting himself into trouble? Is being a rebel really so important to you that you risk putting people you care about in danger?"
"Don't try to big brother me, Elder Knight," Luke said through gritted teeth. As merciful and kind as Chris was being with not reporting them, Luke resented his assumption that he needed someone to look out for him. "I don't need your protection. Save it for Gary."
Chris' face grew tight and his eyes hardened. Luke knew he had hit a nerve with his feisty response, but he didn't care. Chris wasn't one to go back on his word; he had far too much integrity. But that didn't mean he was going to make Luke's life any easier, either. He opened his mouth to respond when the doorknob twisted and Jason stepped into the room.
"Hey," Jason said as he looked between Luke and Chris, both of whom were now wearing fake smiles as if their conversation had been a pleasant one. "How come neither of you are in the shower yet?"
"Oh, I was just telling Elder Phillips about how we would all walk in together, and we got distracted," Chris said as he readjusted the towel hanging over his arm. The action drew Luke's attention and he noticed the white-knuckled grip with which Chris was clenching his bottle of shampoo in his other hand. "I suppose it's time now, though, or we're going to be really late, huh?" Chris asked, laughing as he walked toward the door, clapping Jason on the shoulder as he walked past.
"That's right," Jason said, sharing in the laugh. "I don't really want to know what Evans Hyongjaenim will think if we're late by more than ten minutes."
"He'll think the truth," Chris said, turning back to Luke with a knowing look. "We were helping Elder Phillips, even though we all know he can be a bit stubborn about accepting it."
Jason was completely oblivious to Luke's scowl as he faced Chris and said with a grin, "Well, at least he's got friends."
Sunday meant devotionals in the MTC. Every missionary training at the center would take the long walk to the Marriott Center at Brigham Young University to hear General Authorities, members of the leading body of the church, speak about a wide range of spiritual subjects. It seemed to Gary that Elder Knight and Elder Hadley both considered it their favorite part of the week, and he normally agreed as it meant a break from classwork.
The Sunday after he was caught making out with Luke, however, his heart was heavy and so was his step. He and Luke hadn't spoken since the incident except when called upon by Brother Evans to practice Korean with each other the day before. Chris had made his conditions for silence clear, and the last thing Gary wanted to do was give Chris the impression that there was still something going on between them.
The walk in the cold November air did little to cool his nerves. He had been a nervous wreck ever since Chris had walked in on them, and he was sure everyone around him was beginning to notice how he was behaving. What their thoughts were on why he was acting that way, he couldn't guess, but questions would begin to come his way in time if he didn't figure out some way to overcome his anxiety.
When they arrived in the large auditorium, he doubted that the devotional was going to help. He was sure he was in for another guilt-laden sermon like he had grown accustomed to over his years in the church, and once it was over he would feel even worse than he had before it began.
Gary glanced over his shoulder to see that Jason and Luke were still right behind them, and he made a split-second decision to press into the crowd, knowing that the ever vigilant Chris would see him disappearing and follow after him. Jason would question where they were going without them, but Gary didn't care. He would find an explanation for that later if Jason decided to ask about it. He had to get away from Luke if he wanted to have any chance at all of reconciling his feelings.
He looked behind him again to see that Chris had a few missionaries between them and was trying to catch up, but Luke and Jason were much farther back in the crowd. As Luke was still on his crutches there was no way he'd make the same progress through the crowd as Gary and Chris could, and Gary was pleased his maneuver had worked so well. Wanting to ensure they wouldn't be able to find him, however, he continued to press through the crowd, moving as far as he could before the conductor of the meeting stood at the pulpit and addressed the crowd, asking for everyone to find their seats.
With a final look around he was pleased to find that Luke and Jason were nowhere to be seen and had likely given up on trying to find them long ago. With a satisfied nod to Chris, Gary slid down one of the rows of seats to where two empty seats were available next to each other.
As soon as they were seated, Chris leaned over and spoke into Gary's ear. "Were you trying to lose the others, or was that just an accident?"
Gary saw no reason to lie about his intentions, least of all to Chris, who knew the whole story. "I wanted to get away from Elder Phillips. I haven't been able to think straight since the other day, and I need some time away from him, which isn't easy to get."
"I understand," Chris replied with a solemn nod and the first sincere smile Gary had seen on his face since the day Chris walked in on them. "Maybe you'll get some direction here today, too."
"I can only hope," Gary said, not wanting to express his doubts to Chris.
They turned their attention to the conductor as the meeting started. As per the usual program, the devotional began with the singing of a hymn followed by a prayer. Gary said a silent prayer of his own while his head was bowed, asking for the direction that Chris had implied he might receive. As the prayer finished and the speaker for the night took the stand, Chris was ready to listen to every word.
"Good evening, Elders and Sisters," the speaker began, scanning over the crowd slowly. He had a small smile which almost seemed to be a conceited smirk, but Gary tried to focus less on the expression and more on the words the man was saying. "It's a bit cold outside, isn't it?" the speaker continued, drawing a few laughs from the crowd, though his next words brought even more. "I envy those of you who will be serving in the tropics over the next few months and who will avoid a Utah winter."
Gary smiled at the thought but didn't laugh. He didn't feel like laughing. The last time he had been able to laugh was when... He remembered it clearly now; it was when he had been kissing Luke. "Whichever part of the world the Lord has called you to, there is one thing that is the same everywhere you go," the speaker continued, drawing Gary's attention again. "You are called to serve as representatives of the Lord, and you must seek to be as diligent in pursuing a Christ-like life as you have been diligent in seeking to do the Lord's work."
The familiar feelings of guilt and unworthiness began to take over Gary. He didn't feel he had been diligent at all, and he definitely didn't feel as if he had been a proper representative of God.
"The missionary handbook must become an important part of your day. It must be studied with a diligence second only to the diligence with which you study the Book of Mormon," the speaker continued.
The speaker's smile was definitely a smirk, Gary decided, but wasn't this a man of God? Didn't he deserve to feel as if he were better than the people he was addressing? Especially a sinner like me, Gary thought.
"The rules are there to help you; to keep you from making mistakes that could jeopardize your ability to work with the Spirit," the speaker went on, jarring Gary from his thoughts, and then his next sentence sent Gary into a spiral of self-doubt and guilt that shook him to his core.
"Any misconduct, Elders and Sisters," the speaker said with that same self-satisfied smirk. Gary associated the expression with authority, and it lent weight to each word the speaker said. "Any misconduct-" the man drew out the words dramatically and then paused for effect, "-can prevent you from doing the Lord's work."
"That was a powerful devotional," Chris breathed after the closing hymn was sung and the benediction was given. He looked over to see that Gary was practically shaking as he stared down at the floor in front of him, his head bowed and his hands clasping his knees with a white-knuckled grip.
"Yeah," Gary said quietly, "I guess it was."
"I trust it resonated with you, then?" Chris asked, putting a hand on Gary's shoulder in an attempt to comfort him. On the one hand he was concerned for Gary, but on the other he was glad Gary had learned something. He hoped it would be a lesson that would make Gary's missionary work easier to perform, and repentance easier for him to obtain.
"Yes. I know what I have to do, now," Gary said as he looked up and met Chris' eyes. Chris winced at the sight of the shame and pain he could see in Gary's soul. He began to question if he was being too hard on Gary, but he didn't have a chance to voice his concerns as Gary continued. "I don't know why I didn't see it before, but I guess if I really want to be here I can't take any chances, right?"
"But do you still want to?" Chris asked, hoping that he'd see something other than the aura of sadness and hopelessness emanating from his companion. While he was serious about his commitment to the mission rules, the last thing he wanted was for Gary to start hating himself.
"But I'm not going to," Gary replied, shaking his head emphatically. "Don't worry about me, Elder Knight. I know that you're thinking Elder Phillips and I are tempting fate, but I'm not going to do it again, okay?"
"I trust you, Elder Dumont," Chris said with concern, but Gary didn't seem to notice the emotion he was trying to convey, and returned to staring at the floor. "You know I'm just trying to watch out for you, right?" Chris continued, squeezing Gary's shoulder gently. "I want you to be safe, and I want you to be true to yourself and feel free to be who you are, but I also want you to be keeping the mission rules."
"I get it," Gary nodded robotically. He then looked around to make sure that no missionaries were in earshot inside the steadily emptying auditorium, only then did he look up at Chris again and continue. "I'm going to write a letter to Elder Phillips and tell him no matter what else happens, we can't pursue our feelings any further."
"I think that's a wise idea," Chris said cautiously, "But try to remember that there's nothing wrong with those feelings, only-"
"I think we should get back to the room, Elder Knight," Gary said as he sprung to his feet, overriding what Chris was trying to say. "I need to write that letter as soon as possible."
Chris sighed and then gave a quick nod before standing and following Gary as he led the way out of the auditorium. They walked back to the MTC in silence, and every time Chris opened his mouth to speak he could have sworn Gary quickened his pace to get a step ahead so he wouldn't have to listen to what Chris had to say.
This depressing game continued until they made it back to the room, and Gary walked immediately to his desk, sat down, and pulled out a piece of paper. Chris watched him scribble away for a moment, wondering if he should try to press the subject further, but he eventually decided that in Gary's current mental state, he was unlikely to listen to anything that didn't reinforce the guilt and self-loathing he was burying himself under.
Gary finished his letter and took it over to Luke and Jason's desk, sliding it into place in Luke's language notebook only moments before the door started to open. Gary quickly set the notebook back onto the desk before stepping away just in time for Jason to step inside of the room.
"Hey, why didn't you guys wait for us?" Jason asked as Gary moved back toward his bed and sat down on it, ignoring them completely.
Chris sighed and answered for them, looking toward Jason and then past to see Luke standing on his crutches and watching Gary with a look of concern. "Sorry, Elder Hadley. With everything going on we were lost in the confusion. At least we all made it back, right?"
"Do you have everything?" Jason asked Luke as they were standing next to the door. Gary and Chris had left several minutes before without any explanation, and Jason was curious why they hadn't waited. He and Luke had gotten ready early enough so they were guaranteed to get to class on time despite Luke's injured foot, and that was normally the only reason they gave for not wanting to wait.
"Yeah, I think so," Luke said, nodding. He glanced at his backpack which sat next to his desk chair. "Just get my backpack for me and we can go."
"Didn't they ask us to stop using backpacks in favor of shoulder bags?" Jason asked as he retrieved the bag and brought it to Luke.
"Yeah, but thankfully this one can convert into either," Luke replied as he leaned his crutches against the wall and slid his arms into the straps of the backpack. He retrieved his crutches and smiled at Jason. "Right now I'm kind of glad it has the backpack option, and I'd think you would be too, as otherwise I'd need you to carry my bag."
"Point taken," Jason said, bowing his agreement. "I'm trying to be a bit more open-minded in general about the rules, but you know that I'm conditioned to think the other way. I'm sorry, Elder Phillips."
"It's all good," Luke replied. "Let's just get to class."
"I wonder why Elder Knight and Elder Dumont didn't wait for us?" Jason asked, holding the door open for Luke to move through it.
"Probably had to go to the bookstore or something," Luke said, forcing a smile. Jason interpreted it as a result of exertion, but then wondered if there was any bitterness behind the tightness of the expression as Luke continued, "Or they're sick of me taking forever. I'm looking forward to getting rid of these crutches, I'll tell you that."
"I think we all are," Jason laughed as he followed Luke out the door and then started to lock it. "Then you'll stop complaining, we hope."
"Yeah, whatever, Elder Hadley," Luke replied, rolling his eyes as he took another step down the hallway. "Like I'm the only one who complains."
"You are..." Jason paused until Luke gave him an incredulous look, and then continued with a grin, "...not. Anyway, let's get out of here."
"Hey, my backpack feels a little off. Is the back pocket open?" Luke asked after propelling himself forward another step.
"Yeah, it is," Jason said as he reached up and started to close it. "It's pretty much empty though, so it's not like you were going to lose anything."
"Shoot, I don't have my Korean notebook. It's supposed to be in there," Luke said as he turned back toward the room."
"I thought you said you had everything," Jason replied, annoyed.
"I thought I did, but now that I think about it, I remember seeing that notebook in a weird spot this morning and I must have forgotten to grab it when I was getting my things together," Luke said, shrugging. "Having two extra things to remember all the time must be affecting my brain."
"Okay," Jason sighed. "You stay here and I'll go get it."
"Thanks, Elder Hadley," Luke replied with a weak smile. "I appreciate everything you've been doing for me."
"Don't mention it," Jason said as he turned around and put his key back into the lock of their room. As he opened the door he added, "That's what companions are supposed to be for, right?"
Luke smiled and Jason turned to enter the room, hoping that this delay wouldn't prevent them from making it to class on time. The door closed behind him as he moved toward the desk to look for Luke's notebook. He found it quickly and picked it up, but only managed to grip the front cover and as he slid it off the desk, it opened and a folded piece of paper fell onto the floor.
Grumbling about unnecessary delays, Jason bent and picked up the paper, but then froze as he saw the name written on it. He had seen Gary's handwriting in class, but to see Luke's name written in that same handwriting felt strange to him. Curious, and without giving it much thought, he unfolded the letter.
His eyes widened as he skimmed the first paragraph, and by sheer force of will he managed to stop himself and fold the letter back to its original position. Luke was waiting for him in the hall and would soon come and find him if he took any longer. He didn't have time to determine what he was going to do about what he had just read.
He shook his head, hoping that it was all in his mind and shoved the letter into the inner pocket of his jacket. The letter safely tucked away, he picked up Luke's Korean notebook again and left the room, trying to keep his mind from dwelling on the letter resting next to his heart.
His worry was etched into his face, and Luke noted that something was off. Jason started as Luke asked, "Is everything all right?"
"Perfectly fine, I was just lost in thought," Jason replied, smiling weakly. He stepped behind Luke and placed the notebook in his backpack but then paused before zipping it up, wondering if he should add the letter.
His hand was about to reach into his pocket when Luke said, "Well come on then, let's go. Zip it up."
Jason nodded and did as he was told. It was better he hold onto the letter until he was sure of its contents. As much as he loved his companion, there were certain things which simply could not be allowed.