REALITY in the dim glow of a bedside lamp
Ice liked people. He liked the way they looked and loved and laughed and how they tried to smile even when they knew things sucked. He liked the way they smelled, all soap and scented oils. He liked how they always knew to scratch that spot just behind his left ear.
Ice didn’t know why he’d picked Ceasar out of all the people in Poseidon Academy. Upon reflection, Ice supposed that Ceasar reminded him of the sad little boys in the park who looked at him with envy and longing, the ones who asked Santa every Christmas for a puppy and always ended up with the latest plastic piece of garbage that every kid was supposed to want. Ice would often nuzzle up against them, let them dig their fingers in his thick, coarse fur and feel his solid, comfortable bulk pressed against them for a moment. It made them happy, it made him happy, that lovely fleeting moment of understanding and blind compassion.
Ceasar was the first one he didn’t want to leave.
* * *
“Check.” Rose slid a bishop into position. “You’re not even trying.”
“I’m just having trouble focusing is all.” Ceasar stared at the board, then sighed and knocked his king over. “Come on, one more time. I would have had you if I weren’t distracted.”
“No you wouldn’t have.” Rose swept the pieces into their box, to later be fitted into their separate felt-lined slots. “Come on, my dear nephew,” she said, setting aside the checkered board and patting the spot next to her invitingly. “Tell your favourite auntie all about it.”
Ceasar flushed red and sputtered that it wasn’t the sort of thing one spoke about in mixed company, especially when that mixed company is family or teachers or both.
“Oh, it’s about something naughty, isn’t it?” Rose grinned and twirled a lock of her hair between her pale slender fingers. “Don’t worry, you know I won’t go blabbing about your illicit extracurricular activities to the principal. I know all about your virus already, don’t I? It can’t be anything worse than that.”
Ceasar picked at the blanket. “It’s not even the naughty stuff that’s the problem,” he muttered, “it’s all the other things.”
Rose arranged her skirt expertly over her crossed legs and tucked her long brown curls behind her ears before leaning forward. “Go on.”
* * *
It was one of those arrangements you always see in trashy romance novels or edgy sitcoms, but doubt ever occur in real life. Ice and Ceasar had been lounging about in Ice’s room. Teddy was hardly ever in, and Fleance’s servant was prone to bite, so it had become routine for the two of them to migrate to Ice’s dorm in the late evenings to swap anecdotes and drink bottle after bottle of coke smuggled up from the cafeteria.
Ice liked those moments. The Ceasar who sat cross-legged on his bed and laughed at his jokes smiled more brightly, and more readily, than the Ceasar who groped people in the halls. He was kind, he was attentive, and he was even the slightest bit shy in his actions. He was the guy Ice had always known he was.
Ceasar liked those moments because when he sat cross-legged on Ice’s bed and laughed at his stupid jokes he felt almost like himself again—whoever that was.
That night was no different than a dozen nights before it, drinking and laughing and telling stories that all started to blend together. Perhaps that night Ceasar laughed a little harder, and maybe Ice sat a little closer, and they shared a look in the dim glow of Ice’s bedside lamp that was different from the looks they’d shared a hundred times on a dozen nights just like that one. Whatever the case, Ice put a hand on Ceasar’s thigh, leaned forward, and all at once they fell together, all heat and gasping.
It wasn’t a big surprise, to them or the ones who found out afterward, adding two and two together and unsurprisingly arriving at four. They were, after all, young and comfortable and sexually frustrated, and they wanted all the damn time.
Afterwards, Ceasar gathered his rumpled clothes together and stumbled back to his dorm, unsure whether to swagger or blush, in the end just ducking his head and grinning like an idiot and pretending that it wasn’t obvious what he’d been up to. Ice just lay in bed, staring at the ceiling and pretending not to think.
The next day, everything was exactly the same as it had always been, really the same. They laughed and ribbed each other and Ceasar checked over Ice’s math homework and Ice got Ceasar out of trouble with the hall monitors for what must have been the hundredth time. It was almost like that night had never happened, like they’d never pressed together in blind desperation, twined in Ice’s sheets—almost, except that three nights later they did it again.
* * *
Theo’s body sprawled out in splendid indifference as Venus frowned. “Why are you telling me all this?”
“I dunno.” Ice dug his fingers into the sand and scrubby grasses that grew in ragged clumps along the beach. “I guess I thought you’d know best about this kind of thing.”
Venus tucked her knees to her chest and scowled at Ice, but she sounded intrigued when she asked, “You want my advice?”
“I would ask my friends,” Ice explained, “but one would just pat my back and tell me to work things out on my own, the other is a social retard, and the third one—”
* * *
Most of the time Ceasar felt the way he’d always felt. He would sit cross-legged on Ice’s bed and laugh at his stupid jokes and no look in the half-dark of the dim bedside lamp could make him want to call Ice anything but a friend, one of the few, one of the only in a long, long time. He liked having a friend. It made him feel safe. It made him feel normal.
And then there were times when he wanted Ice’s touch so bad he ached all over, head to toe.
* * *
“And now I don’t know whether I always liked him or never liked him and still don’t like him, and maybe I’m just confused about the whole thing.” Ceasar’s head rested on his aunt’s shoulder as he slumped over in miserable defeat. “I just… please just tell me what I’m supposed to do. ‘Cos I don’t get it, I don’t, it’s too hard. Why is it so hard?”
“Poor baby.” Rose ruffled Ceasar’s hair like she used to do when he was younger, before it was dyed and styled and too stiff with hairspray to muss. “You know exactly why it’s so hard.”
“Don’t say that,” Ceasar groaned, “I don’t want to be right.”
* * *
It might have been something right from the start, if they’d had the guts to talk it out. But they were boys who thought they were men, and men don’t talk about things like that. It was sex and it was fun and it felt so damn good, but they both laboured under the assumption that it wasn’t anything real.
* * *
“If you could do it all over,” Ice asked, “would you still go with him?”
Venus stared out across the water. “I’m not going to pretend like I didn’t make a lot of mistakes,” she said, softly, “because I know I did. I made a lot of stupid decisions, and let others make even more stupid ones on my behalf. But even after all that… even after everything that’s happened, I still don’t think that loving him was wrong.”
“But he pretends like you don’t even exist!” Ice exclaimed, leaning in closer to her, shocked. “How can you say that it wasn’t a mistake? Is a jerk like that really worth everything you’ve been through?”
“It’s not about him, or how he’s acted since I was trapped in my brother’s body, no matter how much I hate him for that now,” she said, calmer than Ice had ever seen her. “It’s about the feeling I had when he held me in his arms and told me he loved me. No matter what he says now, those moments were real, more real to me than anything that’s happened since the pregnancy.” She reached out and squeezed Ice’s hand. “And it was right. I know it was. No matter how I screwed up in the end, I know that there’s no way that I did that part wrong.”
Ice licked his lips. “Real?”
* * *
Ceasar kept to his room more and more often as the weeks wore on. He had homework, he was too tired, the pub didn’t have any tempting specials. Ceasar didn’t mind. Fleance was there—stoic, to be sure, but a presence. The girl with the kitty backpack that Fleance was so unnatural fond of stopped by often enough. Vanessa, her name was. Ceasar liked her. She was funny, and pretty, and she wasn’t scared of anything.
Ice came over all the time, which almost defeated the purpose. At least Ceasar’s room was always brightly lit.
* * *
“I wondered why I didn’t see the two of you together much anymore,” Rose said.
“I know it’s dumb,” Ceasar muttered, sorting out chess pieces and trying not to look at his aunt, “but what if I screw up and say something and he figures it out?”
“What if he does? Ceasar, at this rate—”
A white knight slipped out of Ceasar’s grasp and tumbled to the floor. He scrambled to retrieve it.
* * *
Ceasar liked to shower before he came over. Ice’s spare pillow would smell like green apple shampoo for days and days, and he’d sleep curled against it and remember.
* * *
“Real,” Venus said.
* * *
“You’re going to lose him either way,” Rose said.
* * *
“Sleep here tonight,” Ice said, his fingers at Ceasar’s wrist. “It’s fine.”
Ceasar’s bare skin shimmered in the dim glow of the bedside lamp. “Your roommate’ll be back soon. He’s still mad at me for harassing that other hall monitor, you know.”
“So you’ll leave?”
Ceasar’s free hand twisted in the sheets. He bit his lip. “I think I should.”
There was a pause, and Ice didn’t wouldn’t couldn’t let go of Ceasar’s hand. “I don’t get this stuff very well,” he said finally, eyes straight ahead, focused, Ceasar wanted to look away, “but this is real, isn’t it? I mean there’s like a thousand reasons why this’ll all fall apart and I can’t tell you anything about why, but I think if this is real then it’ll all be okay somehow.”
“I love you,” Ceasar said.
Ice pulled him down to the bed, laughing, all smiles even though he knew how much it was all going to suck in the end. “That works.”