It's a preparation-day three months after Kevin and Arnold arrived in Uganda. Three sets of companions sit at the Kigali Café, maps and forms and brochures in front of them, going over the logistics of the Church of Arnold's volunteer efforts.
"All right," says Rob McKinley, "let's pray."
Everyone except Kevin bows their head immediately. Kevin takes a long sip of his coffee and for one shining moment feels no guilt—until he notices Sister Kimbay watching him from behind the cash register. He quickly bows his head.
"Heavenly Father," Rob says, "give us the wisdom to choose where we are most needed, that we might best serve you." He pauses—Kevin can imagine his grimace—then adds, "May the Force be with us, that we shall live long and prosper." Despite being pro-Church of Arnold, Rob hasn't been able to adjust to everything about his new faith.
"Live long and prosper," everyone parrots.
"So, all in favour of the orphanage?" Rob says, holding up the pamphlet.
Arnold, Mafala, and Nabulungi put their hands up almost in time with Rob. Nabulungi beams; that one had been her suggestion. Kevin and Elder Eric "Poptarts" Thomas are the only ones that liked Kevin's idea of the work skills program with the Red Cross. Which is fine. Helping people is all that matters.
"All right," Rob says, smiling. "Kids win the day!"
"I'll text the schedule to everyone," Nabulungi says—a running joke, since she learned months ago what texting really was.
Arnold explodes with laughter; Kevin flinches at the sound. Some of his coffee spills down the side of his cup. As Kevin wipes off the table, everyone except him and Arnold gets up to leave. Suddenly, Arnold blurts out, "Oh! Sister Hatimbi! I think I need you today to type out God's newest revelation: the Song of Galactica."
The coffee taste in Kevin's mouth becomes a hundred times more bitter. Arnold usually runs every new book or verse by Kevin—unless it's something he thinks up on the spot to spend time with Nabulungi, which, unfortunately, results in stories that are either unintelligible or inappropriate for a holy book. This is the first Kevin has heard of any Song of Galactica.
Nabulungi practically bounces onto the balls of her feet with excitement. "Of course, Elder Cunningham. I'm free at four o'clock, if you are."
"Yeah, that works great," he says softly. The two stare into each other's eyes.
Kevin speaks up. "So am I, if you'd like some help."
Arnold doesn't shift his gaze from Nabalungi for a second. "Oh, no thanks, buddy."
With a, "Live long and prosper, brothers," Mafala starts to leave. Nabulungi follows her father, flashing Arnold a grin over her shoulder. A flush creeps up Arnold's neck and Kevin wrestles down a sigh.
"Another verse to the Book!" Rob grins. "Such a blessed day!" Rob doesn't seem to mind Arnold wasting everyone's time. He turned a blind eye to Arnold and Nabulungi's romance when they were still Mormon missionaries; now, he's actively supportive. He calls it "sweet," and jokes about how jealous he is.
"I'm so excited!" says Arnold. "Last time I was over at her dad's place..." Kevin has already heard the mind-numbing details, and tunes Arnold out. He only begins listening when Arnold blushes and says, "Um, well, not like I need to tell you guys about kissing." Kevin's stomach clenches as it always does whenever Arnold talks about that.
Kevin says what always won him praise at home: "My first kiss is going to be on my wedding day."
He senses Rob glance his way. Eric looks surprised and a touch disbelieving; Arnold looks surprised then impressed.
"Really?" Arnold says. "In front of everyone? Aren't you worried you won't be good at it?"
The idea makes him laugh. "No, I'm not."
Rob says, "I've only ever kissed," he shudders melodramatically, "girls. They don't count."
"And you've got your girlfriend—Clarissa, right?" Arnold says to Eric.
Eric pauses, then says, "Had."
Kevin winces in sympathy. Arnold gasps, saying, "Oh gosh, that sucks! What happened?"
"'We're two different people now,' she says." Eric glares at the tabletop.
Kevin knows what question Arnold is going to ask next, and tries to stop him. "So—"
But Arnold speaks over him. "It's not because of the Church of Arnold, is it?"
Eric shakes his head. "Of course not." He glances above, as if checking that God's not readying a lightningbolt to smite him with. Eric Thomas should never play poker.
Arnold flinches. For a second, Kevin hates Eric for being a poor liar and Clarissa for dumping him.
Eric quickly adds, "I think both of us always knew our love wasn't strong enough to last my mission. Not like you and Sister Hatimbi, prophet."
It's the one subject that can always be counted on to brighten Arnold's mood. "Did you notice she's done something to her hair?" he blurts out. "She looks a lot more like Zoe from Firefly, and that's, well, that's really..." his face flushes bright red and Kevin scowls, "um...great."
Eric grins wolfishly and says, "Nice." He holds out his fist; Arnold fist-bumps with a loud giggle.
Kevin has to interrupt before this goes any further. "Guys, we call the women in our church 'sisters' for a reason. Let's cool it on that sort of talk, all right?" He can feel Rob's gaze on him, though he doesn't acknowledge it.
"Oh, sorry," Eric says. "Although...well, I didn't think we were being too rude..." He glances at Rob, then says, "Huh—you know, Elder Cunningham, can we talk more about this? Privately?"
Kevin catches Rob giving Eric a good job! nod. Eric stands and goes to the counter. Arnold follows with a sympathetic frown. Even just a few weeks ago, he would've been signalling for Kevin to follow, terrified that he'd make a mistake. Now, he's gotten a lot more comfortable helping others. Kevin's chest warms with pride.
Rob's knee bumps against Kevin's despite their table being much less crowded than it was a second ago. Kevin tries not to grit his teeth.
"I always felt uncomfortable in these conversations, too," Rob says sympathetically.
Kevin forces his smile to remain. His and Rob's unfortunate misunderstanding when Kevin first arrived has only gotten worse. With the creation of the Church of Arnold, Rob no longer represses his gayness nor tells Kevin to repress his own; instead, he treats Kevin as if Kevin is a baby bird that needs to be coaxed out of its nest.
"I remember those chats with other guys," Rob reminisces. "Desperately trying to think of what to say if someone asked me who I 'liked,' always wondering if I was going to say something wrong, looking at girls and trying to force myself to see what other guys saw in them."
Kevin's heart skips a beat. This does sound familiar—except for that last point. He's never forced himself to look at girls. He's never wanted to.
"Of course," Rob continues, "being a Mormon, I could usually duck out of the conversation. Say something about God, or Jesus, or keeping myself pure."
Right again. Kevin takes a sip of his coffee to hide his face from Rob's sympathetic smile and probing blue eyes. If he's not gay, why on earth does he have so much in common with Rob?
"And then I'd lie awake wondering why I wasn't normal, wondering why God had made me something he hated," says Rob.
Kevin has never done this. He just assumed God was looking out for him, keeping his soul and body pure for the day he met his future wife. It was part of what made Kevin special. But, if, as Kevin is beginning to suspect, there is no God, then what's keeping him from thinking about girls the way Arnold and Eric do?
"I've dated girls." Kevin's words sound weak in his own ears.
"And won't kiss any until your wedding day."
"Heck, I liked them, but," he shrugs, "I wasn't in love with any of them."
"Did you ever want to kiss them?"
Kevin says, "I'll want to when I meet that special someone," but his mouth is dry because he realizes he's lying. He gulps his coffee.
"I'm just wondering," Rob grins, friendly and open, "just a teensy, itsy-bitsy little thought: Can you picture it? Kissing a woman? Holding her?"
No. Am I supposed to be able to? He does not want to feel this exposed in front of Rob McKinley. Rob always laughs a few seconds too long at Kevin's jokes, always finds some excuse to touch Kevin, and always watches Kevin with an attentiveness that makes him uncomfortable.
But if I were gay, Kevin realizes, it wouldn't be uncomfortable, would it? I'd like it.
Relief washes over him, giving him the strength to say, "Elder McKinley, I appreciate your good intentions, but I'm not gay."
Worryingly, Rob's sympathy doesn't falter. "Of course you're not, Elder Price. Still, I'm glad we had this talk. If, someday, you ever want to continue it, well! You know where I am." He giggles as he stands up.
Arnold and Eric are talking with Sister Kimbay. Eric turns to Rob when he stands.
"Thanks, Elder Cunningham!" Eric says.
Everyone says goodbye. Rob gives Kevin's shoulder a small squeeze before he and Eric leave. He thinks I'm in denial. But Kevin isn't. Right?
"Want to go check out some blankets?" Arnold says.
They leave the café and walk into the street, heading to Sister Ameya's stall. Before Kevin realized he would need every penny he'd ever saved to complete his two-year mission, he dreamed of shipping one of these blankets home. Now, he wouldn't even if he could. Sister Ameya's new religion influences her craft: there's a blanket depicting Moroni descending from the Enterprise, one of Jesus bringing Lazarus out of a blue box Arnold calls a TARDIS, another of Joseph Smith becoming intimate with a frog. They wouldn't fit in well back in Salt Lake City.
Kevin asks, "So, what'd you and Elder Thomas talk about?"
"Oh, he asked if he could date somebody on his mission if he finds someone he likes. I said sure, as long as it doesn't interfere with our mission. Like the way me and Nabulungi do it."
Kevin sighs. "About that...I have to say, I'm a little worried about this Song of Galactica. Remember those verses about Piers Anthony?"
"I tore them up before it got into the actual book," Arnold mumbles. He can't even meet Kevin's gaze.
"And the Visitation of Lazarus Long among the Nephites?"
"God revealed to me to delete it, so it worked out!"
"Every time you visit her without an idea, we get a book that either makes no sense, or contradicts what comes before."
"It'll be different this time! Really!"
Kevin raises his eyebrows.
"I'll pray on it?" Arnold stares at Kevin so pleadingly, so hopefully, that Kevin's misgivings become whispers. Maybe this time it really will be different. Kevin can't stay mad at him for long.
The two turn back to the mission. They smile and wave at villagers as they pass. After a while, Arnold asks, "So, um, what did you and Elder McKinley talk about?"
If Kevin could ask this question of anyone, it'd be Arnold. A few moments pass before it comes out. "Do you think I'm...you know...gay?"
Arnold doesn't say no. Damn him, he doesn't say no. "The Book of Arnold says that the angel Namaah came down among the Mormons and said, 'Love as thou wilt. All shipping and kinks are cool in God's eyes, excepting underage, incest and dubcon.' That includes if you like guys, or, heck, if you have feelings for girls who maybe aren't going to be your future wife. It's healthy! It's normal."
And if I don't have these feelings...does that mean I'm not healthy or abnormal?
Some of this must show on his face, for Arnold quickly grabs his hand and squeezes. "You're struggling. I get that. This isn't what we were told by our bishops or our parents. But it feels right. God can't punish us for feeling what comes naturally. What loving father would do that to his children? Elder Price, whatever your feelings are, you don't have to turn them off anymore."
Kevin can't help but admire Arnold's confidence even through his confusion. "What if there's nothing to turn off?" He grins, trying to make it sound like a joke.
Arnold stares at him like he's speaking a foreign language. Kevin's heart sinks until Arnold says, "Oh!" like he's figured it out. "Do things," he starts whispering, "not work right?"
Now Kevin has no idea what he's talking about.
Arnold gulps. "Um." He glances around. When no one's nearby, he whispers, "Down there?"
That question is so startling, so beyond any discussion Kevin has ever had, that he blurts out the truth.
"Of course they work—" His senses return a second later. "Jeez! Elder Cunningham, that question is completely inappropriate. Remember our 'even best friends have boundaries' talk?"
Unbidden, he remembers his fourteen-year-old self confessing to his father that he sinned in his sleep that night. "We can't control what happens in our sleep, son," Dad replied, calm and steadying. "Not our dreams, not our bodies. God understands and forgives." Kevin feels a sudden, powerful longing for his father, who'd know just what to say to set his world right.
Instead, he has Arnold, who mumbles, "Sorry," and looks at him worriedly—as if Kevin's sick. As if something's wrong with him. "But...you've never wanted to look at girls or guys? Or touch them?"
Kevin shrugs, giving a hollow-sounding laugh. "Maybe we should do some work on this Song of Galactica. What's this show about, pal?"
For a terrible moment, Arnold keeps looking worried. Then he smiles cheerily. "Oh, there are these Twelve Colonies that've made these robots called Cylons..."