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"Oh my god...!" Rodney is staring at the raised pallet in the middle of the cabin, covered with furs and decorative blankets. There's nothing much else inside except for a collection of finger-paintings on the walls, a couple of wooden bowls of what looks like paste and oil on the floor next to the bed, and an incongruous-looking electric standing lamp glowing from the corner.

Rodney continues hyperventilating. "This is-- No, this is ridiculous. We can't-- Are you insane, Major?"

John holds back the ever ready jibe.

He can tell that this is more than just McKay Freaking Out. Rodney's eyes are a little too wide and his mouth is hanging open more than it's being used to lob acerbic comments in John's general direction.

"Hey, calm down," he says. "It's better than the other choice they gave us, right?"

"Yes, yes, and thank you so much for making that choice for both of us. Really."

John leans back on his heels, surprised. He's just a little hurt at what Rodney's implying. Honestly, this is Rodney we're talking about here, who panics at the threat of sunburn, paper cuts, and carrying objects over 5.4 pounds (i.e. the weight of his notebook). John finds it slightly unbelievable that Rodney would opt to be cut with eight nasty-looking knives rather than have sex with him.

"So you're saying you'd rather we draw fancy symbols on each other using our own blood." John tries to communicate duh to Rodney with his eyebrows. He crosses his arms and tries not to wonder about where his P-90's gone.

"Well, it doesn't matter what I would have preferred, now does it?" Rodney crosses his arms too. John studies him. The downturn of his lip is pulled especially low, and he looks like he's about to pass out.

"You're really not okay with this, are you?" John says.

"What was your first clue?" Rodney scowls, but it isn't on par with his usual looks of scorn.

John empties his lungs in a whoosh and strides to the doorway. He's pulled the rug covering aside to call for someone by the time Rodney is waving his arms next to him.

"What are you doing?"

John turns to him, back utterly straight. "I'm going to tell them we've changed our minds. We can still do the other thing." The natives had been insistent. They had to do one or the other, but they could choose. John's not much for blood-letting, but a few more scars won't hurt him, and besides, when he'd chosen this option, he'd really thought that it'd be what Rodney would prefer.

Rodney closes his mouth and looks stunned, then thoughtful. "I." He stares at a painting of a stylized boar on the wall. "Actually, you're right. I'd rather skip the knives thing." He looks so miserable that John steps into his space and puts a hand on his shoulder.

"Hey," he says, at Rodney's startled expression. "We can still try busting out of here."

"Are you kidding? And risk getting a five-centimeter hole blown through my sternum at close range? I don't think so." The natives remind John, if anything, of New Age hippies with guns, like an entire planet gone Zen. They live in longhouses and build wood fires, but in an outright fight, John has unfortunately no illusions of pulling out unharmed.

Rodney waves small circles in the air. "So, we should, uh." He freezes abruptly. "Un-Unless you--"

"No. This is cool." John still doesn't like the slightly pasty look to his face, but Rodney nods, turns his back and begins fumbling with his boots.

John can't really do anything but follow suit.

A minute later, John nearly strangles himself on the T-shirt he's pulling over his head when Rodney says, out of the blue, "You're going to have to tie me up."


"You can use my shirt." Rodney is bunching said shirt up in his hands and looking at it in great concentration. "Or my pants, yes, that'd work better. Longer. Though not as soft."

John pulls his shirt off the rest of the way and lets it drop somewhere unimportant. "McKay, this is really more information about your kinks than I ever wanted to know."

Rodney snaps his eyes up, and John is shocked by the fury that flashes there for a moment. It burns out quickly, leaving behind a sharp red flush across Rodney's fair skin. "That's not it. It's just that... I don't think I can let you."

This time it is John who is open-mouthed. "Jesus. Rodney." He runs his hands through his hair, trying to make sense of it all. "I'm not going to rape you." Rodney does not look repentant. "Who says you're on the bottom, anyway?" he thinks to say, because they hadn't talked about that yet, had they?

Rodney looks stunned, and John wants to slug him. What kind of asshole does he think John is, exactly?

But the next moment, Rodney is shaking his head. "No," he says. "I don't want to top. I couldn't... anyway," he adds, gesturing downwards with a listless hand.

John narrows his eyes, deliberately. "I'm still not going to tie you up," he says, and waits. Rodney opens his mouth to breathe, but he does not repeat his-- his what, exactly. Suggestion? Request? Finally he jerks out a nod, which John returns. He slides his gaze away when Rodney starts floundering at his pants, the sight hurting something weird in his throat.

There's a moment when they're both naked and they're staring awkwardly at each other. Then Rodney is suddenly moving, and John watches, perplexed, as McKay begins picking up the colorful hand-woven blankets strewing the bed, and shaking them out one by one.

"What are you doing?"

"Reptiles, rodents. Who knows what they have here?"

John raises his eyebrows. He is unpleasantly reminded of dusting his tent for scorpions before bedding down, where six out of eight times you were glad that you had. Paranoia for John is a survival instinct. McKay seems to have embraced it as a habit of life.

By the time they are absurdly assured of being pest-free, Rodney is breathing hard from the wrong kind of exertion, as far as John is concerned.

Rodney stumbles down on the rumpled bed. His hands come up to cover himself, and John finds this a little sweet and a lot superfluous. He moves over to sit beside him, lowering himself slowly and staying just short of where their thighs would brush.

"Have you ever?" he asks.

He sees the lie flash across Rodney's face, lingering around his twitching eyes for a second, before Rodney shrugs. "Technically. I guess. It wasn't--" He makes a face.

John makes a face, too, understanding. All the guy sex he's ever had himself has been in situations and locales that could qualify for bad porn.

After it becomes obvious that McKay isn't going to start things, John reaches out and turns Rodney's face towards his own with firm pressure from his fingertips. He's never kissed a guy before, but now seems like the time to do it if ever. Rodney's eyes widen enormously, and he opens his mouth to say something, which is perfect as John dives in for a kiss. Their lips touch and he reaches just a bit farther, licking carefully--

--only to barely catch himself from falling on his ass a split-second later. He sits up, rubbing his chest where Rodney had definitely remembered to use the stronger heels of his hands instead of his fingers.


Rodney is standing up, hands back in place, eyes fixed on him. He stutters something, but before he can blurt something ridiculous, John holds up one hand.

Whatever's up with McKay, it's obvious he's not as experienced as he's pretending to be. He's nothing like the hard-boiled men John has slept with before, and he figures that's just par for the course in McKay County.

John thinks for a moment, taking in McKay's tight lips and flickering eyes. Then he bends down and retrieves the bowl of black paste next to the bed, holding it comfortably in one hand. "Tell you what," he says. "Let's start with this."

Rodney's eyes are on the bowl as he nods in agreement, mute. When John gestures with his chin, Rodney shuffles back as if entranced.

The paste is slightly greasy but feels like powder, like a mix between oil paints and clay. Rodney tracks John's black-stained fingers as they approach. At the last moment, he shies away, then coughs, self-conscious. "What's-- You think there's citrus in there?" he asks. "Or, or basil?"

"You're allergic to basil?" John asks, even as he wonders why on Earth anyone might put it in body paint.

"No, I just don't like it."

John rolls his eyes, but the thought really hadn't occurred to him, so he sniffs the bowl to make sure. It smells like rain and sunflowers. "It's fine." For good measure, he pauses to sniff the bowl of oil too. Honey-ish.

"Are you sure?" The peevish tone is tinged with enough of something else that John takes no offense.

"Don't you trust me?" he asks.

He'd meant about the paste, but Rodney seems to be thinking of something else, because he cants his head and he doesn't blink, and it takes him a long, long time before he answers,


This time, when John touches his left shoulder, he does not move away.

John traces out the patterns over Rodney's skin that the natives had shown them, the ones that symbolize harmony and keep the Wraith at bay.

The ceremony in this earthy warm room is one that each and every one of the members of this tribe go through at the threshold between childhood and adulthood. From what they can gather, the bonding ceremony is somewhere between an oath of loyalty and a marriage. Unbonded adults are spiritually and emotionally unbalanced, and not only are unbalanced people less able to fight the Wraith, but the 'chaos in their hearts' invites them.

The symbols would have been painted in their own blood if they'd taken the other route -- requiring more courage and therefore bestowing more honor. He remembers the eight parallel white lines on the chief's forearm, thinking that the one scar on Rodney's will be enough honor for the both of them.

Slowly, John urges Rodney to relax, tracing a figure of a man on his shoulder, a bird on his chest, a boar on his stomach. John matches the patterns he draws with the ones painted into the walls. He's glad for the cheat notes, because he's sure he couldn't remember them otherwise. The partner chosen here is supposed to be for life.

John doesn't want to get this wrong.

Gently, he encourages Rodney's legs apart to paint a tree on his thigh, then a lightning bolt on the inside of one ankle. The forces of nature. Rodney's solid legs lie still for John, and John feels the thrum of his pulse under his hands.

John stands and moves to paint the woman on Rodney's opposite shoulder, which is now much less tensed than its mate had been. When he brushes Rodney's cheek with the back of his hand, Rodney closes his eyes and upturns his face, allowing John to sketch out the combined sun and moon on his forehead with careful strokes.

Rodney's lashes are dark and long, and the black paint of the alien symbols seems to glow.

"Your turn." John whispers, the moment seeming to require it. Rodney jolts as if waking, and he fumbles but finally lifts both hands away from his lap to take the proffered bowl.

Rodney's hands on him are sure and steady, not awkward as he had expected. He remembers that Rodney can adjust sensitive Ancient equipment with those hands even as he is shaking inside. Rodney never tells him about the shaking, but John always knows.

McKay draws in the same order as John did, and so he ends with John's face as well. As he traces the curve of the quarter moon, his fingers skim along John's cheek, and John shivers. He blinks his eyes open and realizes that he is half-hard.

A not-so-involuntary glance shows him that McKay is, too.

Rodney puts the paste down and wipes his fingers on the furs with overly meticulous movements. He attempts a grin. "Why can't we just exchange secret handshakes or something?" He looks at the center of the bed. "Or rings, I guess."

Johns find himself not returning Rodney's forced casualness. He runs his eyes down the both of them, decorated, before lifting his gaze to Rodney's. He thinks that there are worse things than choosing your best friend for life. "I think this is nice," he says, truthful.

Rodney takes a sharp breath, and this time, John has only to press ever-so-lightly on the pattern over Rodney's heart to have him lie back on the bed. Freedom.

"What do you like?"

Rodney looks uncertain. "I don't... Just..." Rodney's eyes flick down to where John hasn't moved his hand from, and he blurts, "My hands." His face is red.

John thinks he gets it. He reaches out, slow, and lays his hand on Rodney's left one. He rubs the knuckles of McKay's clenched fist, and when it loosens up enough, he slips his thumb to the underside to stroke his palm. It is warm and slightly damp with sweat, with a comfortable hollow for John to run a nail over. The breath stutters in Rodney's throat.

Bolder now and meeting with less resistance, John picks up the hand and brings it to his face. Rodney does not pull away, although his eyes are wide. John flicks his tongue at the index finger, just a quick snake-taste, enjoying Rodney's hard and obvious swallow. Then he takes the digit in his mouth and slowly sucks his way down to the second knuckle.

"Oh... oh, god. No one's ever..." The sentence dies away in a groan. Ever? John doesn't ask out loud.

This is Rodney, of course, who in the midst of any situation babbles away honesties left and right.

He gives each of Rodney's fingers the same tender treatment, then starts over with the other hand. He imagines the confident, intelligent women who are attracted to Doctor McKay. He can see Rodney stumbling over himself to please them, and the powerful, no doubt constantly stressed women whom he likes must be too happy to sit back and let him.

By the time he's finished, Rodney is shuddering and looking at John with eyes so reverant it makes John smile. It occurs to him that they haven't actually kissed yet, and Rodney seems to realize the same thing, because he flicks his tongue out to wet his lips, the movement drawing John to him like a wolf to the kill. He braces himself on Rodney's shoulders, which tense underneath him but relax in the next instant, thick sensitive hands coming up to mirror John's grasp.

The symbols of Kinship might have smeared a bit, but neither of them care as they devour each other's mouths.

Rodney McKay tastes of wheat and something that John associates with paperback novels. McKay's a terrible kisser, which is expected, but he also has a lot of enthusiasm, which is equally expected. "Well... wow, I mean. This is... Hm," he murmurs in between bouts, and John wonders how he can never shut up in any situation.

In moments, though, Rodney is whimpering more than talking and John has only just enough awareness himself to appreciate this. He leans back and runs his fingers over Rodney's face, shivering as he does, moaning as he moans. Opaque black Unity on Rodney's forehead looks primal and sexy, and John wonders briefly if he looks the same.

He smooths his thumbs over the fleshy bottoms of Rodney's palms, enjoying the shivers and the stuttered protests. "What else do you like?" he leans forward to breathe into Rodney's left ear. Rodney shudders all over and lets out a high moan. John is delighted. "Yeah?" His own voice comes out raspy.

John noses the shell of Rodney's ear, licks down the curve, then nips at the lobe, enjoying the escalating noises of pleasure that zing straight down to where they're moving against each other. He tongues Rodney's ear at the same time as he slides his hands up to fit into the curls of Rodney's fingers, and he rubs his callouses over the sensitive webbed valleys between them.

Rodney cries out and nearly flings John off. The painted bird on his chest ripples with his panting breaths, looking alive and ready to fly.

"Major, John..." Rodney jerks one hand free, and in a move that's as surprising as it is erotic, he licks it hot and glistening before placing it on John's cock.

"Nnnnnnnugh." John loses control of his knees and falls forward. Rodney looks alarmed and snatches his hand away. Instead of wasting time on arguing or explaining, John lunges forward and captures his mouth, taking that wide flat tongue for a different use.

Rodney picks up the rhythm effortlessly, and John feels him trying to worm his hand back in between them, but that isn't what John wants right now.

"Turn over," he says, once he's freed his mouth for speech, and if Rodney's eyes were wide before, they're saucers now.

"Can't we--"


"I'd really rather stay--" John growls, frustrated. He's never done a guy face to face, and he doesn't want to risk doing it wrong now, but Rodney's eyes are a little wild even as his mouth is set, and John feels like he is about to explode.

"Fine, whatever." John shoves McKay's legs up with his shoulders and slides one hand down the line between Rodney's ass. Rodney's entire body shudders.

"Wait, wait, I..." But John doesn't give him any time to back out, taking only a brief detour to the bowl of oil before he is pushing two fingers inside.

"Oh my God," Rodney gasps, and John feels the spasms like a squeeze on his cock. He pushes in farther and it's been a long time but some things must be instinct, because it's not long at all before Rodney is writhing with something that John is smugly certain is not nerves.

"Oh, oh... This is... I see, ohhh, this is why men do the, unh..." Rodney's voice trails off into half-coherant grunts and then entirely incoherant moans.

"Give it to me, Rodney." John hisses between his teeth, watching as Rodney twists underneath him. The sweat stands out on the dusting of hair across his chest and down his arms, making the black marks on him stand out slick and unearthly, and the muscles are corded all along his throat as he twists his square hands into the blankets.

With a cry that John will remember forever, he comes. John grips Rodney's thigh for Stability, concentrating on holding himself back, but Rodney's calf twitching once against John's face almost does him in. The lightning bolt quivers just at the edge of John's peripheral vision -- unleashed Power.

Rodney moans when John pulls his fingers out, and it is the most erotic thing John has ever heard. He spills half the bowl before he slicks himself up, and he's pushing inside before Rodney has fully recovered from his post-coital daze.

"Wha...?" Rodney seems to wake up just as John slides home. He's staring at John, and John leans down and silences McKay with a kiss. He has just enough presence of mind to move his mouth back to McKay's earlobe -- getting him to mumble incoherant half-syllables again -- before he can lose it entirely. He is already groaning with gasping irregular strokes.

And Rodney, Rodney has always given him everything, even when it was impossible. Rodney can talk forever, can bitch non-stop until the surreptitious moment when he sacrifices himself. Rodney has a cat, and he detests vodka but he misses latkes, and he's never been to Niagra Falls, and, and...

John can't take it anymore, and he's flying and Rodney is wrapped around him, and when it's over John realizes that both of their faces are wet.


"Sorry about getting, um, emotional back there."

Rodney is standing in John's doorway, looking bed-rumpled and shy. It's three hours past midnight, Atlantis time, and John can't sleep either. He tips one shoulder up -- having learned how to shrug with the least effort. He doesn't mention out loud that he hadn't been in any better state.

"So, I thought I ought to explain it a little, so you don't misunderstand me."

"Oh, I'm sure no one misunderstands you, ever," John drawls. He steps back and waves Rodney in.

They collapse in their usual insomniac positions, John at the head of his bed and Rodney in the desk chair, pulled out against the wall.

John waits for it, but McKay, against all precedent, looks like he doesn't know what to say. He fumbles through a variety of opening prepositions and disjointed subjects, before John reminds him, "Whatever it is, saying it can't possibly be worse than the 'after-event' today." He enjoys the way Rodney's face colors.

The entire council of eight had had to personally confirm that the two of them had finished the bonding ceremony, inspecting them for 'vital fluids' before letting them go. John supposes it's a godsend that they hadn't insisted on watching the whole thing as it happened.

Rodney laughs, only slightly hysterically, and he finally throws out: "I told you about the orange jello, right?"

John has to think about this for a moment. "The thing with the babysitter?" So apparently they don't use entirely artificial flavoring, after all.

"Yes, good, you remember. Okay. The thing is, I never hated jello. I mean, the babysitter I tried to electrocute with hairdryer parts, but jello -- other flavors of jello -- I knew was perfectly safe. It just de facto became something that I didn't do anymore, you understand?"

John, doesn't, not really. Or rather, he understands the words, but he has no idea where this is going. He leans back against the pillows, giving Rodney his best go on expression, and Rodney nods rapidly as if he heard that out loud.

"But then, nine years later-- It was a complete accident. Who ever knew what an inducement--"

"Grandmother. Grass. Jello or starve." He remembers.

Rodney's lips quirk at that, but his heart's not in it. "The point is, I like jello. I would go so far as to say they are second only to MRE cookies." Rodney beams as much as Rodney McKay ever beams, which looks smug on him.

John is happy to bask in that look, but he figures Rodney had to have come over at three in the morning for something other than sharing his love of gelatinized cow bones. "So...?" he prompts. Rodney's face falls slightly. His gaze wanders around the room.

"When I was twelve. I was in high school. I skipped a few grades. I'm sure you already knew that, or you must have expected. Anyway, there was this guy who was, well, imagine gorilla-in-a-track-suit with an IQ of about 10." John grins, imagining just that and how mini Rodney must have reacted. "I might have insulted his primate heritage on more than one occasion. One thing led to another, and one day he caught me after school and, you know, teenagers are all into the alpha male image."

The humor evaporates.

"He beat you up." John knows as well as anyone or maybe better than some about how the world works, but he can't help but feel the knot of anger inside.

"Yes." Rodney sits back and sighs. "Well, no. I mean, yes, also. But from what I could gather of his bad paraphrasing of the Discovery Channel, he was apparently of the opinion that nothing quite establishes one's badassness as-- Did you know that wolves will actually hump other wolves lower down the pecking order?” he interrupts himself. “This is why biology and other soft sciences are not my favorite--"

John sits up stiffly, putting it together -- bang bang bang -- in his head. "He raped you?"

"Well, no, of course not." Rodney sits back, frowns as if John is slow on the uptake. "There were more than enough threats, and a little groping, as I recall, but it wasn't really... I mean, he had the brains and the automotive control of a gerbil. I'm surprised he even figured out how to get a slipknot undone."

"So you were molested. When you were twelve."

Rodney opens his mouth, then snaps it closed. He seems to deflate as he drops his gaze to John's socks. "It wasn't exactly fun and games, no. But like I said, he was hardly a specimen Darwin would have been proud of. I managed to convince him how bad it would be if he got caught rap-- 'molesting' someone." He makes the fingerquotes, as if out of habit. John wants to grab him and shake him until his teeth rattle in that idiotic genius head of his.

"So he let you go, right?" He's sure the threat in his voice comes out loud and clear.

"Not... exactly. He was spooked when Anny-- Stray cat, it's not important. Anyway, the only meaningful upshot of it all was the guy thing."

"That you didn't... do anymore." John thinks he gets it, and he's never wanted to kill a high school kid before but there's a first time for everything.

"Until today." Rodney stares at him with expressionless eyes. His hands are clenched tightly over his stomach, and the memory snaps into John's head -- a boar for Courage.

John scrubs his face with his hands. "God..." He imagines a shrimpy twelve-year-old Rodney, or no, maybe a pudgy one, telling off the high-school track star and getting beaten to hell and more for it. "Why didn't you..." John opens his mouth in incredulous horror as his memories catch up with him. It wasn't-- "Why didn't you just say something?"

Rodney, of all things, looks impatient. "I couldn't have, and you know it. You'd never have gone through with it if I'd told you."

"We didn't have to do it at all!"

Rodney frowns. "Two options, remember, and the other one involved blood and pain. Two of my least favorite things in the universe. I'm sure you know that, Major. Some people have assured me that I always make my dislikes more than clear." The slightly vulnerable tone has changed into one that sounds like he is trying to explain physics problems to a slow two-year-old. John has never liked that tone of voice coming from Rodney, and he hates it now with unsurpassed intensity.

He points accusingly. "So why didn't you want to top?" He would have let him. He realizes with belated belligerance that he would have let Rodney do anything.

Rodney looks a little belligerant himself. "You really think I could do that to another person after what happened?" he says.

"And what I did to you today was pretty awful, wasn't it?" John snaps.

"Uh?” Rodney looks bewildered, off balance, and John is childishly pleased. “Major. What we did was-- good, okay? I mean, really. It's back on the list of viable desserts now." He at least has the grace to wince at the horrible metaphor. On any other day, John might've given him the eyebrow until he cracked. But not today.

Today he wants to strangle him.

"Congratulations, Dr. McKay. I'll get your Can-Fuck-Men-Now certificate printed up right away." Glad to be of service.

"What-- What? What the hell is wrong with you? I thought-- You're not even a little bit happy?" Rodney's mouth looks indignant, and he keeps blinking his eyes like a broken mama doll.

"I'm jumping with joy here. Was there anything else you wanted to let me in on?"

Rodney obviously senses John's mood because he is leaning away from him. He flicks his tongue over his lips, and it's not a good reminder. It makes John helplessly madder, because he's done the intimidation thing with McKay lots of times over dozens of stupid disputes, and even from the very beginning, McKay has never backed down from him like this.

"I think I just want you to know," McKay says, his voice not quite steady, "it wasn't anything personal. About you. Us."

"Yeah, I got that." John knows that he's laying it on thick, but he can't help himself.

At the end, the hippy people had had them draw one more symbol on each other with the council bearing witness. The shape of the final symbol had been completely unlike the others. John had thought the two bent stick figures looked vaguely familiar, but it hadn't come to him until he noticed Rodney hyperventilating and heard him whisper: "Atlantis."

John doesn't think the natives know what it means, but he had felt a soft warm pleasure at the thought of smoothing out the star symbol for home onto the small of Rodney's back.

Rodney, however, had been tense and shivering the whole time.

He hunches into himself now, much as he had then, and he points vaguely with a white fluttering hand. "I guess I'll be..." The direction he indicates is about forty degrees off from the door, but John gets the idea and shrugs him away. There's a wound-up ball of something fierce inside him, and he's planning a trip to the gym as soon as Rodney clears out.

Something about Rodney's body language as he leaves makes John hesitate, however, and in that moment of indecision, his feet have propelled him off the bed and he's grabbed onto Rodney's retreating shoulder to stop him. "Wait." He sees the flinch and curses himself, knowing what he knows now. But Rodney just turns around and gives him an inmitible look.


John flounders between his first reaction and the other, far saner one of letting Rodney go. It's a losing battle and he's cursing himself even as he lunges forward to capture Rodney's lips.

He fights his tongue along the opening to warmth and coffee and paperback novels, expecting resistance and not sure if he can hold back if there is. To his surprise, though, Rodney opens immediately to him and gives as good as he gets, muttering, "Yes, oh... Oh, wow," in between breaths.

When they finally separate, John feels so discombobulated that he immediately blurts out, "I really suck at this," then fumbles for a follow-up. He can't think of one, none that he can articulate. He can only run his hands down Rodney's back, desperate.

Rodney's face is blank, and John can see his lips forming the question, but then Rodney seems to get it. "Oh," he breathes, and John doesn't have much time to wonder what that means before Rodney has pulled him into a full-body hug. "I thought when we got back you would-- I thought you-- You were so casual about it."

"I wasn't. I'm sorry." John squeezes him back, not quite sure if he gets it himself but certainly not about to screw up what he realizes is a good thing.

Because this is Rodney, Rodney who tells him everything without hiding, even when it's hard. Rodney, who still insults people who could beat him up every day. Rodney, who likes cats, who's afraid of everything, who eats jello with a smile like nothing else in the world.

"Rodney," he strains into one sensitive ear. "You and me, we're okay, right?"

Rodney swallows, and he replies, equally soft, "Yeah, we're okay."

And they really, really are.