A/N: Next story installment. I lost the "gay/not gay" game this time, although I was FAR less subtle on the subtext this time. And sometimes it wasn't even subtext. Anyway, most of the class picked up on it, and the general consensus seemed to be that they wanted MORE gay. Which was…surprising. And interesting. My class, man.

Title: The Kingdom

Author: Alyn Drasil

Rating: PG-13

Disclaimer: Mine, continually.

Warnings: words and GAY

There was a bird's nest on the branch outside the window. Rowan had been watching it for more than half an hour now. Two small, brick-breasted birds flicked in and out of it, sometimes revealing a glimpse of bright blue in the twist of sticks and fluff. The paler bird with the more brownish hue settled itself down at the bottom of the nest, fluffing its feathers and shutting its black beady eyes. Rowan watched the other bird, which was down on the ground, yank a thrashing worm out of the dirt.

"Sweetie? Sweetie. Sweetie. Rowan!"

Rowan jumped, and turned. Marissa's back was posed in the doorway, her hands resting on the sides of the frame. The zipper of her dress was done only halfway up to between her shoulder blades. She twisted her head over her shoulders and smiled.

"Can you zip me up?" she said.

Rowan got off the bed and went to her, fumbling with the tiny zipper tag until it slid up to the nape of her neck. Marissa's dark brown hair was swept up into a glossy ponytail, revealing the fine baby hairs at the edge of her hairline. Rowan rubbed his thumb over her neck, and Marissa stepped away and batted at him.

"Don't!" she said. "That tickles."

Rowan dropped his hand. "Are you almost ready?"

"Almost," Marissa said, swishing out the door. She went back into the bathroom—this time Rowan followed her.

"What have you got to do? You look ready. You said we had to get going an hour ago."

Marissa laughed. Her hands were dipping into the rows of bottles and tubes and plastic boxes lined up against the bottom of the mirror.

"Just a few more minutes," she said. She flicked one hand at him, motioning him away. "Go, go, don't watch over my shoulder! I'll be right out."

"Okay, okay." Rowan retreated, and Marissa shut the bathroom door after him.

He wandered down the hallway to the living room. The couch squeaked and hissed when he sank down onto it, spreading the smell of new leather into the air. Rowan stretched his legs out in front of him and studied his worn trainers, ticking off minutes in his head. He could still hear Marissa rummaging in the bathroom.

Rowan panned his gaze aimlessly around the room. The kit-cat clock on the wall above the TV tocked softly as its large, slitted eyes clicked back and forth. It was one of the few things of his that Marissa had allowed into her apartment, although she still occasionally complained of its creepiness.

He had followed the minute hand until it had moved fourteen places, before he processed the time. 2:03.

He heard the bathroom door creak open.

"Hey," he called. "Aren't we like, four hours too early anyway? What are you getting ready now for?"

"We're not going to the party yet," Marissa said from somewhere in the back bedroom. "I need to go shopping."

"Oh." Rowan tipped his head onto the back of the couch. "For what?"

"Just a few things." Her voice came from the bathroom.

"Things like what? And why do you need forty minutes to get ready for shopping?"

"Things like a dress for tonight, and because I just do."

"Fine." Rowan stood, dusting his hands off on his jeans. "I'll be in the jeep."

"Oh, don't be like that," Marissa said, again from the bedroom.

"Like what? I'll just be in the jeep."

Rowan scooped his keys off the counter and snagged his jacket off the hook as he headed out the door to the garage.

His battered '97 Jeep Wrangler had been exiled to the spot furthest from the door by Marissa's shiny little sports car. It was further shunned by a blue tarp that Marissa insisted he keep it covered with when not in use. Rowan dragged the tarp off and crushed it up into the garage corner, then swung himself into the driver's seat. He stuck the key in the ignition and sat back to wait.

The door back to the apartment swung open and closed. Marissa stumbled across the garage, balancing her purse, cell phone, keys, and various other small objects in her hands. She got around to the other side of the jeep, tucked her purse under her chin and yanked open the handle with her freed hand.

"Fine, fine," she huffed, swinging up into the seat, everything she was holding spilling across her lap. "I'm still a mess, I hope you're happy—"

"You look fine." He leaned over to kiss her cheek, but she leaned away and pushed him back to his side of the car. Rowan sighed and shoved the gear into reverse.

"Where to?" he said.

Marissa first directed him to the apartment of her friend Starla, who came down to the jeep in a pair of sunglasses that eclipsed half her face.

"Oh, Ronan," she said, when Marissa had introduced them. "I've heard about you."

"Ah. Sure," Rowan said. "My name's actually—"

"Oh my God," Starla said, staring at the jeep. "This thing is really small. Where do I sit?"

"There's a backseat," Rowan said. "Need a hand up?"

He got out and helped Starla clamber into the backseat via the front, as the Wrangler only had two doors. She tumbled into the back, then gazed around critically.

"Well," she said. "I guess it's not bad."

"I'm glad you approve," Rowan said. He swung back into the driver's seat, and followed Marissa's next direction towards the mall, where Rowan could only manage to find a parking spot in the farthest lot.

"You know, I hate this piece of junk," Marissa said. She slid off the cracked leather seat down to the ground, adjusting her skirt around her thighs.

"I know you do," Rowan said. He helped Starla out of the backseat. She caught her foot on the rollbar and tumbled out of the backseat. Rowan caught her, barely.

"What happened to the Benz, 'rissa?" Starla said, once she had gained her footing.

"Oh," Marissa said. "Saving it for tonight."

"Oh," said Starla, and winked. "Sexy."

Rowan had been planted on a bench across from the pet store for the better part of an hour. Marissa and Starla had gone off somewhere, and he had no idea where to track them down. He would wait until they eventually found him. If he stayed in one place, it would happen.

He had been watching a gaggle of children collect around the bottom of the large display window, peering in at whatever was rooting around in the sawdust. Their hands left greasy smudges across the glass as they jostled each other, piping at each other in high-pitched voices.

After a while, Rowan stood and meandered closer to the window, looking over the heads of the children. The sawdust case was filled with emptied Kleenex boxes and dishes of food and water. The animals themselves were nestling against the side walls, almost the same color as the sawdust. Greyish-beige rabbits, nuzzling and snuffling at each other, each one about the size of Rowan's closed fist.

"Baby bunnies!" a girl near his knees shrieked, and threw herself forward, her arms thudding against the case. The rabbits inside jerked and scattered, burrowing into Kleenex boxes and sawdust.


Rowan turned. Marissa and Starla were approaching from the right, trailing various bags. Marissa was on her cell phone—Starla was the one who had called. Rowan raised one hand.

"You two done?" he said, as Marissa and Starla set their bags down all around their feet.

"Not really," Starla said.

"Oh, my God," Marissa said, slapping her cell phone abruptly shut. "You have got to hear what Jenny just told me."

"As we walk," Starla said. "Party in three, remember?"

"Right," Marissa said. "Right. Rowan, would you—"

"Sure," Rowan said, grabbing all of Marissa's bags. Starla lifted her eyebrows and smirked. Rowan sighed, and fell into step behind them.

After having an urgent, whispered conversation, Marissa and Starla were both on their cell phones, their separate conversations almost sounding relevant to each other.

"—and so he said we should take the jeep because it gets better mileage—"

"—of course I don't believe that—"

"—but we're taking the Benz to the Stein's party tonight—"

"—well, naturally—"

"—but Jenny just told me that she heard my ex is going to be there—"

"—you're kidding—"

Rowan tuned them out again. Then—

"Sweetie. Rowan. Rowan!"

"Yeah, what?" Rowan started. Marissa was staring at him.

"I said," she said, "that we're going to get you some new things for tonight."

"No," Rowan said. "I have nice clothes, I don't need new nice clothes—"

But Starla had his arm and Marissa his hand, and together they effectively towed him towards where they wanted to take him.

"Yes, you do," Marissa said. "Not up for discussion."

"I really, really don't think I needed these," Rowan said, using one hand to tug on the starchy collar of his new dress shirt, the other hand occupied with steering the Benz down the forested road.

"Shut up, they look great," Marissa said, slapping his arm. "You will be the most stunning man there."

"Also the only one under thirty," Rowan muttered.

"Don't worry," Marissa said. "It'll be fine. You'll have a good time. There's a free bar, even."

"You know I don't—"

"This is the road, turn here!" Marissa said, and Rowan obliged. The car crept up a slope, approaching a large mansion spreading across the crest of the hill.

"Whoa," Rowan said. "Is Mr. Body hosting?"

"It's the Steins, you know them, you met them at the—"

"I'm sure I did," Rowan said. They were pulling up into a carpark, and a young man in a black jacket and trousers was coming towards them. "Who's this guy?"

"The valet," Marissa said, as the man went around to open her door. "Just give him the keys and he'll park the car."

"You—okay," Rowan said, and handed over the keys. He watched as the valet jumped in the Benz and drove it off. "As long as you don't mind. It's your car."

"It'll be fine," Marissa said, and linked her arm with his. "Just remember—no going off to back rooms to hide. You can't be anti-social."

"I never am," Rowan said, as they passed through the front doors and went inside.

The front doors opened up to a huge ballroom, with crystal chandeliers and sweeping staircases along the sides that led up to a half-floor above. Already a swarm of people—men in black tie attire, women in all colors of gauzy, shimmery, sparkly, or satiny dresses—were thronging in the center. A waltz played above it all, echoing from an invisible source. The whole room gave off a golden, hazy glow, and light reflected off hundreds of pieces of jewelry around hundreds of necks and wrists.

"Man," Rowan said, staring around until Marissa tugged on his arm and he staggered after her, barely dodging a waiter with a tray of hors d'oeuvres. As Marissa towed him through the crowd, he saw only a distressing number of men with grayish hair, graying hair, or just gray all around hair. Not the same for the women, who sported hair colors as varied as their dresses.

"Marissa," he said, sliding his arm out of hers. "Marissa, I'm going to go find something to drink, okay?"

She fished onward through the crowd without a response. Rowan shrugged, and headed the opposite direction. The first person he saw with a drink was a tall, rod-thin man with an acutely wrinkled face and flat mouth, who looked something like John Gielgud.

"Excuse me," Rowan said to the man, who swiveled to face him with a solid, unmoving expression. "Er. Can I ask…where you got that?"

"There is a bar on the mezzanine, sir," a waiter said as he walked past.

"Whoa, wait," Rowan said, not catching the man's attention before he disappeared into the crowd. "What the hell's a mezzanine?"

Ten minutes later he found the bar upstairs, on the weird half-floor that wasn't the ground floor and wasn't a second floor either. But it contained the promised bar, and a man to tend it, and Rowan got a drink and slouched downstairs with it, skirting the walls and avoiding anyone who looked anything like Marissa's parents. With every male in the room in the same basic fancy dress clothes, every man looked vaguely like Marissa's father.

He bumped into the grouchy John Gielgud again on his way across the room. Rowan apologized profusely for the drink he had sloshed on the man's suit-jacket, while the man peered and pursed down his nose at him and looked ready to call some sort of house security. Excusing himself hurriedly, Rowan stumbled through the first set of doors he could find to escape.

He found himself in an empty drawing room, inhabited mostly by bookcases and spindly furniture. There was a marble fireplace against one wall. Rowan walked past it, towards the other set of double glass doors on the other wall.

The doors led out to a semicircular brick patio. The sun hadn't set fully, and the sky was purpleish-yellow, the color of a faded bruise. The air sky was light enough to see the spread of the back garden, a maze of low hedges and grass that ran up to the edge of the patio. Yellow glowing lanterns sprung up along the edge, casting circles of light back onto the bricks and into the grass of the garden. Dim shapes rustled around in the plants, thin-necked birds with wide, dragging tails.

Rowan posed himself on the edge of the bricks and stared into the garden. The peacocks pecked around in the undergrowth, one creeping its way up the lawn towards the porch. The feathers flaying off its deep blue head bobbed along with its jerky movements. Rowan stepped down onto the grass, to see if the bird would startle. It didn't, just kept plucking its way towards him.

The bird drew level with him, lowing its gangly neck down to the shined surface of his shoes. The head tilted back and forth, then jerked forward to nip at the cuff of Rowan's pants.

"Whoa, girl," Rowan said, backing away. His heels hit the raised edge of the brick porch and he stepped up, wiggling his foot at the bird. "Hey, now. Go away. Nice peacock. Get the hell off my pants."

"Actually," said a voice from behind him. "That bird is male. The females are called peahens. And they're brown. And if there were any here, they'd be on the nests."

"Thanks, Jack Hanna," Rowan said, and kicked at the bird again. The peacock made a shrill honking sound and abruptly rustled off in the opposite direction, its tail dragging over the grass.

"Actually," said the voice again, and stepped out of the shadowed columns of the porch. He was holding an amber-colored drink in his hand, and was blond, with a speck of a mole by his right eye. He was definitely under thirty. And he was grinning. "My name's Charlie."

"Oh, shit," Rowan said. "I remember who you are."

"Good," Charlie said. "Because I remember who you are."

Charlie followed Rowan off the brick porch and back into the empty drawing room. Rowan stopped next to a settee while Charlie strolled over a bookcase on the other side of the room, leant against it, and looked at him.

"Going to punch me again?" Rowan said. "S'that why you're following me?"

"No, and…" Charlie paused as he ran a finger along the top of the bookcase, "no." He rubbed his finger and thumb together. "Hmm."

Rowan went to the fireplace on the other side of the room and stared at the bronze bust of a lion mounted above a bookshelf. There was dust in between the snarling teeth, and something that looked like half a sunflower seed shell on its slathering tongue. Through the glass doors that lead further into the house, he could hear sounds of the party—the rise and fall of voices, glasses clinking, and the waltz.

"I'm over it," Charlie's voice said, right behind him, and Rowan started and clutched at his glass.

"Over what," he muttered, setting the glass safely on the bookcase under the lion bust.

"Marissa, and you, and the whole Christmas-party-you-stole-my-girlfriend thing. You know. Really, way over it." Charlie grinned and took a drink of whatever the gold-orange liquid in his glass was. "I forgive you for making me punch you."

Rowan stared at him. "Fantastic."

"Isn't it," Charlie said, and looked around. His gaze rested on the double glass doors leading back inside.

"Speak of the devil," he said.

"Hm," Rowan said, not looking.

"She looks pretty," Charlie said, gesturing with his glass. Rowan took a swig from his own drink.

Charlie eyed him. "What's with the tonic water there? Nothing stronger?"

"No," Rowan said, then added, "I don't drink anymore."

"Not after—"

Rowan tipped his head vaguely towards Marissa beyond the doors. "I don't need to start any more relationships like that."

"Ouch," Charlie said, and laughed. "Harsh."

"I didn't mean anything against her."

"Of course not," Charlie said.

Rowan glanced around, and looked through the double glass doors. The deep purple and red of Marissa's dress was surrounded by a sea of black and white formal wear. Rowan spotted grouchy John Gielgud over her shoulder and took a step further towards the fireplace, putting the lion bust between them. The bronze eye of the bust had a hollowed pupil, and it was also filled with dust.

He could still see Marissa, a purple-red blur between the lion's gaping jaws. The bright lighting flashed off her as she talked, off her earrings, the gloss on her lips, even her smoothly styled hair.

"Life of the party," he said.

"Always," Charlie said.

Rowan frowned at him, but didn't reply. There was a row of books along the top of the bookshelf behind Charlie, held in place by two silvery-colored bookends, shaped like penguins. Charlie was examining them.

"You know, penguins," Charlie said, tapping one of the bookends on its silver head, "have scientifically documented homosexual couplings."

"What," Rowan said.

"It's true," Charlie said. "Males can mate for life, build nests, and everything. It's fascinating. Sometimes they'll even use a stone as a surrogate egg." He took a long drink, then glanced over Rowan's shoulder. "Lions, too."

"Gay lions use stones as foster eggs," Rowan said, and one side of Charlie's mouth folded up.

Before he could say anything, the glass doors shoved open. The sound of the party spilled through along with Marissa, whose cheeks were flushed and hair falling a little out of place.

"There you are, Rowan," she said, breathless. "And—oh. Charlie."

Charlie canted his glass at her in acknowledgement and went back to examining the penguin bookends. Marissa rustled forward and slid her arm through Rowan's.

"I can't believe you've been hiding in here this whole time, I told you my parents wanted to see you, I've been looking everywhere for you, I told you not to be anti-social tonight—"

Rowan heard Charlie laugh as Marissa herded him out of the room, his arm clamped tightly beneath hers. She snaked them through the milling bunches of people, her grip getting tighter, her nails digging little crescents into his skin. Rowan winced.

"What were you doing in there with Charlie?" she asked, finally, once they were across the main floor, around fewer people.

"What?" Rowan said. "Shouldn't I have to ask you that kind of thing? He's not my ex. I'm allowed to talk to him."

"He's completely unstable! He hit you! You can't have forgotten that!"

"No, but I—hey, where are your parents? I thought you wanted me to—"

"We're talking rightnow," Marissa said. "What were you doing with Charlie?"

Rowan frowned. "Talking about gay lions." He dislodged Marissa's clawing fingers from his arm. "It's all right," he said. "I wasn't trying to like—barter you back to him or anything. Is that what you think?"

Marissa's face flushed darkly red. She shoved Rowan away and whirled, striding back across the ballroom floor.

"That was nicely insensitive," said Charlie's voice from behind him. Rowan spun.

"Where do you keep coming from?"

Charlie grinned. "This time I did follow you."

"Great. Fantastic. Come to watch me be insensitive?"

"Sure." Charlie tilted back the final sip of his drink. "Something like that."

"Well, fine. What would you have said?"

"I don't know—told her we were discussing mammalian alternative lifestyles and then lavished her with assurances of my undying passion?"

Rowan grimaced, and went to go find the bar again.

He had assured the bartender three times that no, he didn't want anything stronger than tonic water before the man had finally filled his glass. Then he'd slunk over to lean on the railing of the weird half-floor and lap distractedly at the tonic while staring down at the party below.

It was only a few minutes later that his isolation was interrupted again.

"You know, knocking back drinks won't do anything if your shots are only tonic water."

"Go," Rowan said, "away."

"I'm just here to get a drink," Charlie said. "And point out the inadequacies of yours."

"Could you just punch me again," Rowan said, "instead of stalking me? It would be easier, honestly."

"Honestly?" Charlie said. "You're the only other person I know here, besides Marissa, and the person who invited me would rather chat up that John Gielgud looking guy than me."

Rowan snorted into his tonic water and started to cough. Charlie whacked him on the back.

"Suck it up," he said. "Be a man, man."

"Is there another option?"

"I'll answer that," Charlie said, "once I've gotten my drink." He went over to the bar. Rowan slumped against the balcony railing and dug his hands into his hair.

Charlie returned too soon, holding a thinner, taller glass that fizzed with a clear liquid.

"Tonic water?" Rowan said, when Charlie leaned against the rail beside him.

"Hey, who knows," Charlie grinned. "Maybe I'll get a buzz."

"Keep wishing."

Charlie kept grinning, even as he downed half the tonic in one gulp.

"To quinine," he said, toasting the air over the railing with his glass.

"Drop that," Rowan said, looking down at the flock of tailored suits below. "I almost beg you."

Charlie followed his gaze, and snorted. "Speaking of penguins," he said.

"Yeah, but I'm sure none of them have got," Rowan gestured, "surrogate egg stones."

"No," Charlie said. "But we are just animals, in the end."

"Huh," Rowan said. He looked around, then back down at the ballroom below. He was aware of Charlie watching him. Finally, he downed the rest of his tonic and grimaced.

"Who builds a floor in the middle of a floor anyway?" he said.

"It's called a mezzanine," Charlie said. "And rich people do it. Also lobbies. And airports."

"Why are you even here?" Rowan said. "You're not dating Marissa anymore."

"This is not Marissa's party," Charlie said. "And I told you. My date brought me. And then abandoned me in the hands of all these rich bastards. I'm bored. I'm bothering you, resultingly. Accept it, or go be with Marissa, because I won't get anywhere near her."

"Sounds promising."

"No, it doesn't," Charlie said. "Or you'd already be down there."

When Marissa finally located him again, pulled him aside, and demanded that they leave, Rowan didn't protest. He had spent a prolonged period of time drinking tonic with Charlie up on the balcony and barely remembered the past few hours, even though there was a complete impossibility of him being inebriated.

Marissa, however, had had several drinks. She handed him the keys to the Benz when the valet brought it around, and sat quietly in the passenger seat until they were out of range of human ears. Then she went off.

Rowan let Marissa's tirade of chastisement skim over him, picking out the key words of her annoyance. "Parents" was a main one, followed up by "anti-social", and then "Charlie."

"I don't know why you're so worked up about Charlie," Rowan said, interrupting her finally. "I feel like maybe I should be jealous, or something."

"I just can't believe you'll forgive him something like punching you so easily!"

"It was almost five months ago—"

"—but I'm more upset that you completely avoided my parents and I really don't like—watch out!"

Rowan was already slamming down on the brakes, his nerves jumping up from the ghostly white shape that had reared up in the beam of the headlights. The Benz's tired squealed and the end fishtailed, pitching Rowan and Marissa forward. Rowan's belt caught him hard across the chest and squeezed the breath from his lungs.

The Benz slid to a stop, straddling the divider line, the headlights still illuminating the road ahead. The front half of an enormous stag standing in the road glowed white in the light, its rack of antlers gleaming velvet. Rowan felt his heart beating thickly in his throat, and smelled burnt rubber. The animal swiveled its adorned head around, then bent to sniff at something on the pavement.

"Stupid goddamned animal!" Marissa suddenly shrieked, her fingers clawed into the material of her skirt. "Can't they stay out of the goddamned road?"

The stag picked its way across the road, out of the light of the car. Rowan watched as it loped into the underbrush on the other side, pausing to lift its antlered head and look back at the Benz. Then it jumped away into the foliage, the flick of its white tail the last to disappear.

Beside him, Marissa was still railing. "Why do they always have to do that? Don't they ever learn anything?"

"No," Rowan said. He looked at her, her face flushed and her hair coming down in frazzled ringlets, the tight press of her lips. "They don't."

Probably two or so more in this little series. There's one I'm probably not going to post because it's just so BORING. But I might, at the end or something.