Day 1: Fake Relationship AU
“Happy Birthday, Mae,” Arthit greets his mother with a firm hug as she opens the door for them. Kongpob, just a step behind him with a fresh, modest bouquet of pink carnations, echoes his senior’s words and squeaks a little in the small woman’s embrace.
“Oh, Oon, Kongpob! Are those for me? They’re beautiful! Did you run into traffic on the way? You must be so tired from work. Do you want anything to drink? Come in, come in! Oon, N’Kaofang has been asking about you non-stop since she arrived.”
I’m sure she has.
“I’ll go see to her immediately, then,” Arthit laughs with a shake of his head.
“I’ll put these in water for you, Mae,” Kongpob holds up the flowers, carefully wrapped in pretty yellow paper. He’d suggested something a little more elaborate at the florist, but Arthit had insisted on the simple arrangement, garnished with baby’s breath.
Trust me, Arthit had said. She’ll love them, especially if they’re from you.
“You look lovely, by the way. Not a day over eighteen.”
“Oh, you!” the dimpled woman giggles, clearly pleased. “You must give my son a toothache with such flattery.”
He smiles at her delighted laughter but makes no comment. She means well, after all.
They’d gathered at Todd and Earth’s rather spacious townhouse for the evening to celebrate. By now, they know exactly how things work.
Arrive together, make polite chit-chat with the relatives, display light touches and playful comments here and there, smile and laugh at whatever anyone says, then make hinting eye contact at around ten with the intent to leave, driving to their shared apartment to fall asleep in their separate bedrooms.
Over time, though, the entire farce had become so deeply ingrained in their second nature that nobody even questions the legitimacy of their romance anymore. Not that they ever had, but one would think they would occasionally slip up either merely by chance or by persuasion of other temptations.
For a pair of industrial engineers, they certainly have impressive acting chops.
One particularly helpful factor (depending on how one would see it) in their enactment is that boyfriend or not, Kongpob has utterly enchanted his faux partner’s family, and Arthit frequents as the subject of prideful boasting at dinner with Kongpob’s father.
And because, according to Arthit’s eccentric niece, he has a boyfriend, that makes him an expert confidante in matters of the heart.
As Arthit peeks his head around the corner of her bedroom door, he’s met with a deeply unimpressed scowl and arms folded across the chest of an alarmingly gory zombie T-shirt that only someone like Todd would buy their young child.
“You’re late,” says Kaofang, now a very serious seven years old and deeply in touch with the pot of purple cosmetic glitter she’d been gifted for her birthday. “Come into my office.”
She gestures stiffly at the green plastic stool across from her at a square table standing a foot tall, the same one that just about every child has from the children’s section of IKEA.
Arthit nods astutely in apology, then gingerly crouches down until he’s practically squatting in the tiny chair, knees protruding uncomfortably above the surface of the ‘desk’. He deliberately fails to comment on the violet streaks messily, generously swept across both eyelids and over parts of her thin brows.
“I’m deeply sorry, Khun Kaofang. You wanted to see me?”
“Yes,” she feigns exaggerated melancholy, turning her head away with a pout. “I require your advice, Khun Arthit.”
Her uncle suppresses a grin.
“What might be troubling you?”
Kaofang sighs heavily and rests her chin in her palm, leaning her elbow on the table.
“I have an uninvited love,” she finally says after a moment’s quiet.
“Someone likes you but you don’t like them?” Arthit is already intrigued with what is sure to be an epic tale of playground romance.
“No, the other way around.”
“Ah, so…an unrequited love.”
“That’s what I said.”
It’s better not to argue with her, he’s come to learn.
“Anyway, I gave Boun my snack at recess,” she explains, obviously distressed. “My favourite flavour of Fun-O’s. He likes those. He said so one time.”
“That was very nice of you.”
“Then, we played tag, and he won. He’s very fast at running. So I kissed his cheek and asked him to be my boyfriend. He said no.”
“Wait, you kissed him?! Kaofa—“
“Sorry, Khun Kaofang. You can’t just kiss people without their permission. It’s not okay.”
“I thought you said that’s how P’Kongpob asked you to be his boyfriend.”
That had, indeed, been what he’d told her when he’d first brought Kongpob to meet his extended family for the first time at New Year’s Eve two years ago.
It had been so long since they’d been doing this that he now sometimes muddles up the supposed narrative they’d carefully constructed.
“That’s…not the same.”
“Why? He kissed you, and now you’re his boyfriend.”
“Uh, well,” he lowers his knees to the ground now to sit up a bit straighter. “It wasn’t that simple. We…it was more like we already knew we liked each other, so he, uh, understood that I wouldn’t mind.”
“But how did he know? Did you talk about it?”
“No,” he chuckles at the absurdity of how he’s sharing a completely fictional recount of his and Kongpob’s first kiss as an example for his very young niece. And yet, his cheeks warm with a shyness that he has nothing to attribute to. How deep is a grave? “It’s just…you can feel it.”
The girl frowns in thought, then twists her lips to the side.
“So I have to make sure he likes me back before I kiss him?”
“Well, yes. That would be best.”
“And what if I’m wrong?”
Arthit smiles in sympathy.
“Then…you have to respect that. Even if it hurts. Sometimes, loving someone means wanting them to be happy, even if you’re not the one who’s making them happy.”
Kaofang goes quiet, observing the sudden shift in her uncle’s tone. He’s no longer teasing; she can sense it.
“Have you ever been wrong, Lung Arthit?”
Arthit pulls his distracted gaze up from the table, considering her question.
“Oon! Kaofang! Dinner’s ready!”
Earth’s voice rings from downstairs, alerting both lovesick fools to the mouth-watering fragrance of green curry.
As the evening winds down and the small children have nodded off to sleep on the sofa, the adults and older kids sit around the dining room table with cups of tea and empty plates where birthday cake had once been, engaging in soft laughter and heartfelt chatter.
Arthit, light-headed with enough socialising to fill a month’s quota, raps lightly on the kitchen door frame. He tilts his head slightly in greeting as his cousin turns around to look at him. Her grin widens and she not-so-successfully tucks a strand of hair behind her ear with her forearm.
Earth’s hands are otherwise occupied with soapy rubber gloves as she attacks a particularly stubborn spot at the base of her trusty clay pot with a scrubbing brush.
“Need some help?”
“I wouldn’t mind.”
He unbuttons the cuffs of his shirt, folding his sleeves up so they reach just below his elbows. Then, grabbing a sudsy plate out of the basin, he runs it under the moderately low trickle of water in the other half of the large kitchen sink.
“Thanks for dinner. I really missed your cooking,” he says, brushing away a stray bubble with his thumb.
“Well, I keep telling you to come over, but you always seem to have other plans.”
“That, and your husband is constantly trying to get me to drink with him. I’m not young enough to get away with boozing on weekdays anymore.”
Can he really consider himself too old? He’s only nearing thirty, but he’s certainly not as keen for a beer on a Wednesday night as he once might have been on the night before a day with no morning classes.
Despite the fine lines forming in the corners of his eyes when he smiles, and his dimples beginning to form a semi-permanent crease in his soft cheeks, he still possesses a boyish charm that devastates the hearts of everyone around him.
In fact, that’s how it had all started, at an office party where at least three of his colleagues had placed an unwanted hand on his arm, or leaned a little to close, one even going so far as to ask him about his plans for the evening.
I’m not interested in any of them. They don’t even know anything about me.
Just pretend you’re taken.
I don’t know. Tell them you’re dating me.
Don’t be ridiculous.
What, then? Would you rather all the shallow attention?
What’s in it for you?
Squashing my parents’ hopes that I’ll marry their friend’s daughter.
Kongpob had made it sound so simple, and for the most part, he’d been right.
Five years of being each other’s default date at family holiday parties, a built-in companion at work events, an automatic shield from overly eager hands of strangers at the bar. So deeply convenient, given that they already live together, and so believable when they genuinely enjoy each other’s presence.
And it had been just as easy to tip the scale.
The door slides open again, and Arthit’s pseudo partner steps in from the muted laughter outside the kitchen, a gentle hand making home at Arthit’s waist. Noting Earth’s presence, Kongpob plants the briefest of performative kisses on his temple.
“Hi, Kong,” Earth shakes her head at the two. “Did you come in here to help me dry dishes, or should I worry about my smoke alarm going off?”
“That would truly be a miracle to witness,” he rolls his eyes a little, but a toothy, white smile still spreads across his face. “Anyhow, I just came to tell P’Arthit that I’m going to help drop your other cousins off at their place. I’ll be back later so we can head home.”
He leans against the counter, smiling when Arthit nods with the briefest of glances at him, before turning his attention back to placing each of the clean dishes on the drying rack.
“Don’t be too long,” Arthit says after a moment, either a warning for his driving safety, or a plea to not leave him alone with his cousin’s beer-happy husband. Kongpob parses the latter, and chuckles.
“Todd is driving your parents, so I doubt he’ll be trying to pry any embarrassing secrets from you this evening.”
He knows one, and that’s plenty, Arthit thinks.
“I’m heading out now,” Kongpob leans in. “Kiss?” he says softly, slightly pursing his lips in anticipation. Earth keeps her gaze on the pot and sponge in her hand as Arthit hesitates.
Kongpob looks eager, almost pouting with flirtation, and as always, Arthit’s resolve shatters. He leans in and pecks his mouth briefly, but its impact leaves an invisible crater on his tingling lips.
And then the warmth disappears from his hip and it’s just him and Earth at the sink again. Then, like clockwork, she asks him a dreaded question as soon as she hears the front door click shut.
“Are you ever going to tell him?”
“Don’t start,” he groans. It’s as though she expects a different response every time she asks.
“P’Earth, just—there’s no point, okay?”
“So, what? You’re just going to use each other until…?”
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
“He feels the same about you,” she says simply, without a hint of question.
Earth sighs, dropping the scourer in the sink and shucking off her gloves.
“I just don’t understand.”
“There’s nothing to understand. If he really felt that way, he would’ve said something ages ago. You know how he is.”
“I know that you two are lying to yourselves and to everyone. What about your mother, Arthit? You know she’s been asking me if you’ve hinted at getting married soon? She even asked me if you’re struggling with money so she can help you buy a ring.”
Arthit gulps down the lump in his throat that’s threatening to erupt in a sob. Of all people, he feels worst keeping secrets from Mae.
Honestly, he could’ve suffered far worse in his teen years of self-discovery as far as parents go. But instead of throwing a tantrum or shaming him for the racy magazines under his bed of scantily clothed (and some completely undressed) men, she’d wrapped the covers in newspaper, and left a sticky note in his sock drawer: Your father doesn’t read the entertainment section.
Earth’s question goes unanswered, and the dishwashing resumes.
She isn’t trying to be pushy; he knows that much. In fact, she and Todd have been Arthit’s only confidantes in the matter ever since he’d had one too many slices of spiked watermelon while watching a basketball game at their then-apartment, ending the evening curled up on their sofa and crying about how Kongpob would never love him for real.
He’d had much explaining to do the next morning.
“I just want you to be happy, Oon,” she says quietly.
“I am,” he replies firmly. “Happy, I mean.”
But perhaps, he dreads, happiness is selfish.
The drive home is distinctly quiet, the streets mostly clear of the peak hour traffic, but also because Kongpob falls asleep in the passenger seat, his head lolling off to the side. Arthit is silently thankful; any conversation right now would be too much for him, especially with P’Earth’s earlier comments about marriage throwing an attention-seeking tantrum among the other anxieties that set up camp in his mind.
Kongpob had spent much of the early days of their arrangement moaning to Arthit about his resentment towards the idea, hanging up on phone conversations with his parents with a roll of his eyes. If there’s one thing that Arthit is certain of, it’s that Kongpob would rather permanently ordain as a monk than get married, let alone to him.
After clicking the engine off, Arthit waits, basking in the compressed silence of the parking lot.
It’s self-indulgent and, he can perhaps admit, a little creepy, but every now and then when Kongpob naps on the sofa or in the car, Arthit takes the liberty of drinking in every last detail.
His firm, bony hands, with tan skin that looks so pretty against his own softer, larger palm, are well acquainted with his arm, his shoulder, his waist.
The swell of his chest, firm with hundreds of bench presses and chest flys at the gym, oftentimes press warmly into Arthit’s back when arms circle around to meet at his front.
Soft cheeks despite an angular jawline, and a dimple to match the one in his chin that comes out from hiding to witness his widest grins.
This is where Arthit always ends his visual tour before forcing himself to shake himself of any lewd thoughts, gently shaking Kongpob awake to either properly rest in his own room, or to let him know that dinner is ready.
Tonight, though, he allows himself the last part of his spectatorship. And where there usually sparks restrained lust and desperation, there is despair and a stray tear threatening to spill.
But before it does, a car horn blares from the other side of the car park, stirring Kongpob out of his slumber.
“Oh, we’re here,” he says, voice still thick with sleep. “Why didn’t you wake me?”
Arthit forms a tight grin, blinking away the ache in his eyes.
“You seemed tired.”
“Thank you,” Kongpob smiles gently, reaching across the handbrake to pat Arthit’s thigh. “Tonight was nice.”
“Your Mae really has a sweet tooth like you. She had three slices of that cake!”
“Yeah?” Arthit laughs noncommittally as he unbuckles his seatbelt.
“She even offered to let us take some home, but we don’t really do dessert usually. It was nice of her to offer, though. She must know you like chocolate,” Kongpob rambles on as they climb out of the car, the headlights blinking as the doors lock. “Oh, by the way, your uncle said he’s building a new construction near our office? The suburb in the next street over. It’s a nice area, actually. You wouldn’t think that there’s a suburb there, what with how it’s just a street over from the main road. Maybe we should look into moving there; it would be a closer commute to work each day, so you could sleep in a little longer, and…”
Arthit barely registers anything Kongpob is saying, exhaling noisily through his nose as a response.
It’s time, isn’t it?
“P’Arthit? Is something wrong?”
Arthit watches as a stray cat saunters across the row of cars, slowly, carefully, before leaping onto the hood of a red car near the exit. It follows its own tail in a circle, then with a stretch and a yawn, curls up by the windshield to rest.
“Kongpob…I think we should break up.”