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It starts, embarrassingly enough, with an ad from Craigslist:

> personals > strictly platonic > Dramatic fake date for function

I’m a 21 y.o art student (male), writing a thesis on the relationship between performance and the awareness of the audience. You don’t care about that. I’m an actor offering to give you the most dramatic night of your life. I’ll be your date to any event/function/family gathering, and convince your friends/family members that I’m either: the biggest mistake of your life or the best thing that ever happened to you. Up to you. I’m very good at what I do.


-


Damen is one bottle of wine and three shots of griva (a terrible mix, do not recommend) deep, when he decides to message the guy.

Hi. My family is hosting a valentine’s day event. In attendance will be my ex-girlfriend of the past three years who is also my brother’s current girlfriend of the past two. Do you want to come?

The reply the next morning, when Damen is nursing a very regrettable hangover, is a simple: Yes .


-

Craiglist Guy turns out to be named Laurent. He gives Damen a very complicated explanation of his thesis, but it pretty much boils down to whether a performance is still a performance if the audience doesn’t know it’s happening. Laurent is happy to make Damen’s family event his performance. He requests to see all of Damen’s social media for research and then also apparently has a long stalk of Jokaste’s instagram.

On the night of the party, Laurent arranges to meet Damen at his place, so that they can arrive together. Despite Damen giving Laurent access to his entire online life, all Laurent has given in return is his name. Damen’s not really concerned about what Laurent looks like - despite his apparent preference for blondes, Damen has dated all sorts of people. Just about anyone would be believable. Still, when there’s a knock at his door, and he comes face to face with Laurent for the first time…

“Damen,” Laurent says, after Damen has been standing silently in his doorway for an awkward amount of time.

“Uh,” Damen says. “Hi.”

Yeah, this will work. Laurent is beautiful. He’s six foot of golden glory. He looks like he was born from the ocean, fully formed and then pushed onto a catwalk. There should be a choir of angels that follow him around to really complete the look. Damen is in trouble.

“Is that what you’re wearing?” Laurent asks.

Damen looks down out himself. “...Yes?” The black suit pants, white shirt, black tie combo is a classic. Laurent does not look like he agrees.

He pushes past Damen into the apartment, and Damen would probably think that was rude but he’s also very distracted by the confidence in Laurent. Laurent takes control like it’s natural to him; he walks straight into Damen’s bedroom.

By the time Damen follows him, Laurent has opened up Damen’s closet. “Ditch the tie,” Laurent says, “and roll up your sleeves.”

Damen’s not going to pretend it isn’t kind of hot that Laurent doesn’t even turn around while Damen complies, he just expects his orders to be followed. “Why?” Damen asks.

“You look too put together in all your pictures with your ex,” Laurent says. “We’re going to present you as a happier, more relaxed version of yourself. Trust me, she’s going to hate it.”

“I’m not really…” Damen trails off.

“What.”

“I don’t want to make her unhappy,” Damen says. “I mostly just… didn’t want to go to this thing alone.”

“Do you forgive her for fucking your brother?”

“I don’t hate her.”

“You don’t forgive her though.”

Damen doesn’t reply to that. He doesn’t like to think about himself as someone who holds grudges, but he also wouldn’t be adverse to some minor misfortune befalling Jokaste. Nothing too serious. Just like, she always just misses the bus for the rest of her life or something.

Laurent tears through Damen’s wardrobe, talking as he goes. “You went to France last year with her?” The photos are on instagram still.

“It was a surprise trip,” Damen says. He doesn’t like to think of the romance, the sweet gestures that Jokaste would make that made her seem like someone he could-- He brought it up to Nikandros once, and he’d told Damen it was Jokaste being manipulative. Doing kind things to overshadow all the fights they’d had and the way she’d sometimes ignore his messages for hours on end. “French was my second major. I was going to finish my business degree over there, but…”

“But?” Laurent prompts. He considers a red shirt and then discards it.

“We had a pregnancy scare right before the cut off date, so I decided to stay.”

At that, Laurent stops and turns around to give Damen an incredulous look. “So your girlfriend faked pregnant so you wouldn’t move away to France.”

“No,” Damen says, and then he sits down on the bed. “Shit.”

“Your heart was in the right place,” Laurent says, in a very awkward tone.

Damen raises an eyebrow at him.

“I don’t know,” he says. “I’m not great at sympathy.”

“You’re an actor.”

Laurent sighs. “Alright,” he says. He faces Damen properly and walks to him slowly. “Damen,” Laurent continues, with a new kind of intensity. He rests his palm against Damen’s neck, gently prompts him to look up. “I’m sorry she did that to you. I can’t imagine how you feel but, I’ve come to know you and I know that you’ll get past this. You’re going to be amazing.”

His eyes are very blue. Damen swallows. “That was…”

Laurent drops his hand and his expression goes back to apathy. “Insincere,” he finishes for him. He goes back to the closet and pulls out a knit blue sweater. “Where’d you get this?”

It’s well worn, the collar loose from time and the sleeves hanging long. “My mother gave it to me years ago,” Damen says. He frowns. “It’s not suitable for the event.”

Laurent shrugs. Then he starts unbuttoning his own shirt.

“Oh,” Damen says, and then he, absurdly, turns away like he’s a shy thirteen year old again. “What are you doing?”

“I need a costume,” Laurent says.

“As a vagabond?”

“No,” Laurent replies, and Damen turns around because suddenly he’s speaking in a thick, French accent. “I am your young and passionate french lover and you’re the happiest you’ve ever been.”

Laurent is in tight black skinny jeans and Damen’s oversized sweater. It’s large enough on him to bare the sharp lines of his collarbones and make it obvious that he’s not wearing a shirt underneath. He looks like he belongs on the cover of a fashion magazine. Damen’s pretty sure he’s forgotten how to breathe.

“Is it okay if I kiss you?” Laurent asks.

“Yes,” Damen says.

“Oh,” Laurent looks surprised. “I assumed you weren’t a fan of public displays of affection. You and your ex look more like friends in all your pictures.”

“What?” Damen says. Then, oh. Laurent was asking if he could kiss Damen in front of his family. For the act. The acting thing. Not real kissing, in Damen’s bedroom, with Laurent wearing Damen’s clothes. “No, I mean, it’s okay. I’m meant to be cool and relaxed now right?”

Damen’s a firm believer of keeping behaviour like that in the bedroom. It’s not that he’s a prude, he just likes to think of his love as something intimate, something to be kept away from prying eyes.

Laurent gives Damen a look that lets him know that he did not pull off that excuse at all. “Do you have netflix?” Laurent asks, heading back out into the lounge room. “Let’s watch something.”

“We should leave soon,” Damen replies. As much as he’d like to Netflix and chill with Laurent, they do have a plan.

“We’re going to be late,” Laurent tells him. “We were so busy fucking all afternoon that we lost track of time. I didn’t even have a chance to go home and put on something appropriate.”

If only, Damen thinks. He sits down on the couch with Laurent and they put something mindless on while Damen pretends he’s not ridiculously attracted to the unpaid actor sitting next to him.

“Your French accent is good,” Damen says, when he finally thinks of something neutral to say.

“My mother is from Grenoble,” Laurent tells him. He hasn’t dropped out of the accent at all since he started speaking with it. “It’s convenient that you’re into France and not somewhere else. My Russian accent is a little heavy-handed.”

“How many people have you done this with?”

Laurent smiles. “Only one. Last week it was this guy who knew his family was going to be judgemental about the whole gay thing. He introduced me as his boyfriend and I took the brunt of it. I was the most awful date anyone could ask for.”

“Doesn’t being awful kind of make it worse for the guy?”

“No,” Laurent says. “Because when he introduces them to his actual boyfriend, everyone is going to be relieved that at least I’m gone.”

“Ah,” Damen nods.

“Am I going to have to deal with another coming out tonight?”

Damen can’t help it, he laughs at that. “No,” he says. “I have two mothers and a father. They were very accepting of the bisexual thing.”

“Hmm.” Laurent gives him a considering look.

“What?”

He shakes his head. “We might as well go soon.”


-

Jokaste is the first person to zero onto them because of course she is. She’s in a tight, red dress. Next to Laurent, it makes them a study in contrasts and similarities. They’re both gorgeous, but where Jokaste looks sexy in that picture perfect aloof way, Laurent looks like someone intimately beautiful. He’s more natural about his appearance: he looks like he’d be easy to fall in love with. Jokaste is more someone who emulates the femme fatale characters from films.

“Damen,” she says. “I wasn’t sure you’d make it.” As if it’s her event rather than his family’s. “Who’s this?”

“Bonsoir,” Laurent says, smiling sweetly. “My name is Laurent.”

“I’m Jokaste,” she replies, with the air of a woman who knows she’s been spoken of.

“Ahhh,” Laurent turns to Damen and says, in a not-very-private aside, “La putain.”

There’s an awkwardly long pause where no one seems to know what to say.

“Everyone knows what that means,” Jokaste says, finally.

Laurent, rather than look embarrassed, turns a delighted look on Jokaste. “You speak French!”

“No,” she says, primly. “I just know what that word means.”

Laurent ignores her response completely, turning to grab Damen’s hand and pull him away from the conversation. “Are your parents here?” he’s saying, “I want to thank them for making you.”

It takes Laurent about five minutes to charm Damen’s parents. He compliments Egeria’s flower arrangements, shakes Theomedes’s hand firmly, and lets Nessa hug him. He doesn’t balk at the clear ménage à trois arrangement they have and rather tells them it’s “refreshing to see people who aren’t afraid of true love” and that “France would approve”. Laurent keeps a hand rested on Damen’s arm the whole time and leans into him in a way that’s so natural that Damen finds himself leaning back automatically.

After that, Laurent turns his charms on the rest of the guests. Every Valentine’s day, Damen’s parents throw this party to do their own celebration of love. It was originally Nessa’s idea, who started it because her friends hadn’t been very supportive of her taking up with some newlyweds and  “if people are going to talk about us, we might as well give them something to talk about”.

Over time it’s expanded to include all of Damen’s closest family and friends. The get together is talked about now like it’s the event of the season. Laurent is a whirlwind of wit and charisma. He does shots with uncle Makedon and shows Damen’s younger cousins coin tricks. He also, notably, somehow manages to maneuver Damen and himself so that they never cross paths with Kastor. Damen didn’t ask Laurent to do that, and he finds himself grateful all the same.

“What now?” Laurent asks, after at least half the room is in love with him.

“I don’t know,” Damen says. “This isn’t my play.”

Laurent smiles slyly. “Au contraire, mon coeur. You are the director. Direct me. What would we be doing if our performance were true?”

Damen takes a glass of champagne off a passing tray and downs it. “We could dance?” he offers, feeling oddly nervous about the prospect.

Laurent holds out a hand. “Lead the way,” he says.

They walk together to the section of floor where the dancing is happening - mostly the children and also, embarrassingly, Damen’s father, twirling Nessa and Egeria under his arms and obviously a couple of glasses of wine into his evening.

Damen stops in front of Laurent and then doesn’t move. He wants to promise Laurent that he’s not normally this awkward, but Laurent just laughs and pulls them into a mockery of a ballroom dance pose.

They clumsily make their way around the floor, and Laurent attempts to twirl Damen, but Damen is too tall. And then they’re both laughing. Laurent tries to lead them in an improvised and very basic jitterbug that ends with Laurent coaxing Damen to put his hands on Laurent’s hips and lift him. There’s something about Laurent that makes him very easy to fall in line with. It doesn’t take long for Damen to forget that they aren’t this , what they’re pretending - and he finds himself genuinely having fun. There’s a moment when he looks away from Laurent and catches eyes with his birth mother, Egeria, who is smiling and watching them both with fondness.

Damen thinks of that one summer he spent with her, when he was thirteen and he’d broken his leg because Kastor had dared him to try and walk along the top of a very high wooden fence, and she’d saved him from the ensuing boredom by coddling him. He thinks of them watching Moulin Rouge together, late one night when Damen hadn’t been able to sleep because of the pain, and the way his mother had mouthed the words: “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn, is just to love and be loved in return”. That’s all his mother has ever lived by - love. And here she is, watching them and believing that Damen has finally found that.

Laurent notices the second that the guilt starts setting into Damen, and he pulls him into a spontaneous hug and forces them to turn until Damen is facing a wall. “You’re not a very good actor,” Laurent says, quietly into his shoulder.

They must truly look like lovers as they stand like this, inseparable.

“I know,” Damen says. “Everyone always tells me I wear my heart on my sleeve.”

“It’s not a bad thing,” Laurent says, momentarily without his put upon French accent, “to be true.”

Damen opens his mouth to reply but then there’s a sudden commotion and everyone is being directed to their seats in order for dinner to start. Unfortunately, the seating arrangements involve other traditions. Kastor is put next to Damen, as he has been every year, and opposite them sit their respective lovers. It’s almost frightening to look upon Jokaste and Laurent sitting side by side.

The entree course goes well enough. Laurent manages to direct things so that he and Damen get involved in a lengthy discussion with Makedon about fishing, of all things.

It isn’t until the main course that Kastor gets a chance to talk to him. Jokaste casually leans to murmur something to Laurent. Damen doesn’t know what she says, but it’s enough to take Laurent by surprise. He stops talking, mid sentence and looks at her.

“I don’t think so,” Laurent says to her in reply. He sounds more curious than upset.

That’s when Kastor strikes.

“So you’ve changed to dudes then?” Kastor says, ever the pinnacle of polite conversation starters.

He doesn’t know what it is exactly that he does to make Kastor want to pick away at him like this. “I’ve always been bisexual,” Damen says evenly.

Kastor scoffs. “A college phase doesn’t count.”

“Interesting point of view,” Damen says. “Is that a personal experience?”

“Fuck off. I like women,” Kastor says. “Which is lucky for you. It means I won’t be tempted if your latest decides to have a try with me.”

“Laurent is French,” Damen says. “They tend to have better taste in that part of the world.”

Laurent and Jokaste have stopped their little conversation and are now watching on. Laurent is listening intently, and Damen is suddenly positive that he’s on the precipice of something big.

“Apparently not, if he’s chosen to be your flavour of the week.”

It’s an old contention between them - Kastor had hated the way Damen had dated throughout highschool and college. He’s had a lot of partners in his lifetime. Kastor thought it was unseemly. Now Damen just thinks it was jealousy. Kastor isn’t fond of Damen getting more attention than him.

Damen has to tamp down on his annoyance. “Kastor,” Damen begins, evenly. “Say what you will, I’ve lost the energy in me to care about your opinions. But I’ll thank you not to have the poor manners to disparage Laurent. He’s worth more than that.”

Kastor opens his mouth.

Loudly, Laurent slams his hands down on the table and leans forward, the crockery rattling.

“Damianos,” he says, and everyone is now paying attention. Laurent is swaying towards him, looking like something out of a dream. He has an expression that makes him appear seconds away from leaping the table and tearing Damen’s clothing off. “When you talk like that,” he says in French, “it makes me want to fuck you in front of everyone here.” The tone he uses makes the gist of what he’s saying apparent to everyone, regardless of language abilities.

Damen thinks, unbidden, of Laurent’s ad. I’m very good at what I do . Damen silently agrees.

“I don’t share,” Damen replies.

“Good,” Laurent says, in English. “I am yours.”

“What the fuck,” Jokaste says quietly, under her breath.

“Damen,” Nessa sounds amused from the other end of the table. “Why don’t you go check on dessert in the kitchen?”

“Of course,” Damen replies.

Laurent, with a saucy wink to the room at large, follows Damen out.

“Ooh,” Laurent says, when they enter the kitchen, and hops up onto one of the counters. “Baklava.”

He grabs a pastry from a plate and bites into it.

“I don’t think this is what Nessa meant,” Damen says.

“It’s good,” Laurent replies. He holds the rest of the pastry to Damen’s mouth. “Try it.”

Damen does, his lips brushing Laurent’s fingertips. His heart thumps oddly in his chest. Laurent’s eyes are on Damen the entire time.

“What do you think?” Laurent asks.

“It’s very sweet,” Damen says. He’s not a fan of excess sugar, but he’d consume it day and night if it meant Laurent would keep feeding him like that.

Laurent eyes flicker very briefly, to look behind Damen, where the doorway is. “So am I,” Laurent says.

Laurent tugs Damen even closer, so that he has to step between Laurent’s spread thighs and then leans forward and kisses him. Damen can’t help it, he’s naturally passionate and Laurent has been tantalising him all night: he reacts. He surges into the kiss, bites down on Laurent’s bottom lip until he opens up in a gasp, and then Damen is licking into his mouth, tasting him like Laurent suggested he should. Laurent’s fingers are clutching at his shoulders, grasping the fine cotton like a lifeline.

A throat is cleared behind them; Laurent pushes him away.

“That’s unhygienic,” Jokaste says. Damen can barely hear her over his heartbeat.

Damen can’t turn and face her just yet - she’ll take one look at his face and see the mixture of lust and yearning that he’s sure is all over it. He drops his head to rest in the crook of Laurent’s neck, and groans. “Go away, Jokaste,” he says.

“I was hoping we could talk,” she says.

Laurent’s hands are still on his shoulders. His grip tightens briefly.

“I was hoping we wouldn’t,” Damen replies.

Laurent laughs. Damen can feel the vibrations; he buries his smile in Laurent’s shoulder.

Jokaste sighs heavily. “Stop acting like an infant,” she says. “If you’ve really moved on, then there should be no harm in a quick conversation. Unless you don’t trust him?” The last bit is aimed at Laurent.

“I trust him not to look twice at old news like you,” Laurent says.

“Since when were you even dating again, Damen? You two can’t have been together very long.”

“You’re overestimating the effect you had on me,” Damen finally picks his head and turns to face her - mournfully, he has to lose Laurent’s grip on him.

“Laurent, can you excuse us?” Jokaste insists, impatient. “We need to talk sans boy toy.”

“Oh,” Laurent says, “You should have just said so.” He kisses Damen’s cheek and hops down from the countertop. Before he leaves, he whispers as soft as a lover in Damen’s ear: “You can do this.”

Then it’s just Damen and Jokaste. The servers have all left already, having taken out the dessert plates since Jokaste arrived.

“Well,” Jokaste says. “He’s interesting, at least.”

“I don’t care what your opinion of him is. What do you want?”

Jokaste takes a step towards him, then pauses, looks away. “I was always honest with you,” she says, “when I told you that I love you.”

“And the best way of showing that was fucking my brother for two years?”

“No. The first time was two years ago, the second was when you… found out.”

“Kastor said-”

“Kastor lied, Damen!” Jokaste shakes her head. “He just wanted to hurt you when he told you that. The first time was when we’d had that big fight and I was upset. I went out afterwards and he was at the club and I didn’t know what I wanted, I just - didn’t want to go home, just for that one night.

“And I was so ashamed. I was scared you wouldn’t want me if you knew, so I promised myself I’d just forget it.”

“I don’t need the playback.”

Jokaste takes another step forward. “I know you don’t want to hear this, but I have to tell you. I think Kastor enjoyed it - having a secret against you. He’d send me looks over the dinner table and he tried to text me but I blocked his number, I swear I did. And then he must have been unsatisfied with you not knowing, because he came over that night and he was yelling at me. He kept saying he was in love with me and was going to tell you everything, and I just… I kissed him so he’d shut up. I needed time to think and then-”

“Then I came home,” Damen finishes for her, quietly.

“We haven’t been together since then, I swear it,” Jokaste says. “I only came here with him tonight because you haven’t answered any of my calls. I didn’t know how else I could talk to you.”

“Why must you tell me all this?”

“Because I love you.” Jokaste says. She’s very close to him now and she looks almost tearful. “I love you, and I’m sorry - I know what I did was awful, it was such a horrible mistake but. I’ll do anything, Damen, for just a chance that you’d consider forgiving me, I’d-”

“You want to get back together?” Damen says, shocked even though he probably shouldn’t be.

“We can fix this,” she pleads. “Please, don’t make the last three years a waste. We can fix this.”

The thing is - Damen had wanted this. When everything had first gone down, he’d wanted Jokaste to cry and beg for him back. He had wanted to forgive her. But he’d also known that that would be a mistake. It’s why he’d blocked her calls and her social media and spent a week at Nikandros’ flat to guarantee that she wouldn’t come for him.

It’s been long enough now, he realises. He can say no to this. “No,” Damen says. “I’m not angry, Jo, not anymore. I don’t feel anything about it, really. I’ve moved on.”

She bites her lip, arms crossed against her chest and looking more at Damen’s shoulder than at Damen himself. She is crying, Damen notes with some surprise. “He’s lying to you too,” she says, voice wavering. “Your new lover. I found his social media accounts. He’s not even French. He’s just some poor art student. He’s lying to you because he knows you have money.”

“Oh, well in that case,” Damen says dryly, “I suppose we can get back together after all.”

“What?” Jokaste says.

“Not really,” he replies. He’s not a good liar but, selective truth is something he can get away with, “Laurent’s an acting student. The accent is for a role. He’s very good.”

“Oh,” Jokaste steps back, her final attack defeated.

“Next time you fall in love,” Damen says, before he leaves her alone in the kitchen, “don’t fuck someone else.”


-

By the time Damen rejoins the party, Laurent has been captured by Nessa, and is nodding very seriously at whatever she’s telling him. It has to be about Damen, because once he approaches them, Nessa looks up and announces: “Ah, there he is. My baby boy.”

She holds her arms out, a little drunk, which means Egeria and Theomedes are almost definitely equally intoxicated somewhere in the room, and Damen accepts the hug and picks her up for a second or two - to remind her that while he is the baby of the family, he’s not actually a child.

She laughs and swats his arm when she’s back on the ground. “Darling, I like Laurent,” she says. “He’ll be good for you.”

She squeezes at his wrist then, and Damen is suddenly very glad for her support and love. His mothers both tried their hardest to raise Kastor and Damen as equally theirs. Still, he knows Nessa feels responsibility every time Kastor does something callous, especially when it’s to Damen.

Damen kisses her head and then takes Laurent’s hand. “Can I steal him away then? Before you scare him off?”

Nessa laughs and waves them off, which leaves Damen painfully aware of the fact that last time he was this close to Laurent - they were kissing.

“I have a confession,” Laurent says, when they have a modicum of privacy in the busy room.

“No,” Damen says, and he shouldn’t joke about this, it shouldn’t feel funny but: “You’re sleeping with my brother too?”

Laurent laughs. “You were gone for ten minutes,” he replies. “Please don’t insult my stamina again.”

“I doubt any man keeps their head very long around you,” Damen says.

“Well, I won’t hold it against you if you don’t last long. I know you have a thing for blondes.”

“And if I’d like you to hold it against me?”

Laurent is, surprisingly, the first to break under the innuendo. He goes bright red and then cracks up. “You’re awful,” Laurent says. “Stay away from me.”

Damen clutches his chest in mock heartbreak. They both smile at each other, stupidly for a moment, before Laurent seems to regain his senses.

“I have a confession,” Laurent repeats. “I may have listened at the door, when I left you two alone.”

“Ah, did you hear that she’s made your disguise?”

“No, what?” Laurent frowns. “I left when you heartlessly told her of your complete apathy. It was stone cold. I was impressed.”

“It was honest,” Damen shrugs. “Apparently you wound her up enough for her to google you. She knows you’re not French. She thought you were gold-digging me.”

Laurent laughs. “She didn’t look very deep then. What did you say?”

“That you’re an acting student. You’re French in your next role.”

“That’s honest enough,” Laurent says. He’s grinning.

There’s a commotion, they look over to see Nessa and Egeria kissing, while Theomedes valiantly tries to stop either from spilling the champagne flutes in their possession. Damen makes a face. “I think that’s our cue to leave.”


-

Damen drives them back to his apartment, and they stand outside together in the cold, near Laurent’s car.

“Thank you for this,” Damen says, finally. “I had a very good time.”

“It was adequate,” Laurent says. His cheeks are red again. He seems to be steeling himself for what he says next. “I have one critique.”

Damen smiles. “And what’s that?”

“The kissing,” Laurent replies. “You very obviously need more practice. I could be convinced to help.”

“Oh,” Damen says. His heart stops. “That would be very kind. And if I could offer a lesson in return?”

“Go ahead,” Laurent says. Damen steps closer. They’re in each other’s space, Laurent’s back pressed up against his car door.

“Your table manners are appalling. We should get dinner, so I can correct them.”

Laurent puts his arms around Damen’s neck. “What if I’m a slow learner? It could take more than one dinner.”

“I’m okay with that.”

“Me too,” Laurent says, and then Damen is leaning in and neither of them have a chance to speak anymore.