"You're going, Dean. You can't just turn them down."
Even a shitty Skype connection can't blunt Sam's tenacity. Dean's baby brother is like a draft horse, all but stomping his hooves on the other side of the internet, keyed up and raring to go. The video froze five minutes ago into pixelated abstract, but Dean doesn't need visual proof to be able to picture Sam's expression. It'll be that right mix of stubborn and concerned, perfect bait for a guilt trap.
He feeds another fold into the sewing machine, adding a contrasting seam to the lapel of the mock-up suit jacket he's making for Frank's new collection.
"You know you can't, like, literally make me go."
He has to shout a bit to be heard. In the mess of preparation for the launch of the spring line, his laptop got stashed on top of a box of fabric samples on the other side of the room, occupying the only free surface in his cramped apartment.
"Even if you flew all the way out here from California and physically packed the suitcase for me . . . I kick, man. Your shins would never make it to the airport."
The video lurches back to life for a moment as Sam flops backwards onto his bed with his phone, groan sounding like a dying cow over the connection. Staccato frames show glimpses of a blue bedspread, then the shoulder seam of Sam's grey t-shirt, then the wet ends of his droopy too-long mop of hair. Sam must have just come back from the gym before he called. Wednesdays he has an early finish, leaving him time in the afternoon to stress-lift weights and nag Dean.
"You're being ridiculous," Sam points out, all wise and patient, like he's the older sibling here. "You know that, right? You went to the auditions. And you went to the call-backs. Why bother doing any of that if you planned to turn them down when they offered you a spot?"
Dean waits, but Sam doesn't follow up, so it's not a rhetorical question. Sam wants a real answer. The thing is, Dean doesn't know if he has one.
When Sam dropped him an email last summer saying that he'd sent in the application for Dean to appear on Project Runway's new menswear season, Dean ripped him a new one. He wrote back with as many curse words and exclamation points as possible to make it clear that under no circumstances was he interested in doing the show and absolutely did not approve of Sam applying for him without his permission.
Then he got the phone call inviting him to attend the nearest auditions in Minneapolis.
He waited until six in the morning day-of before he allowed himself to be convinced to drive down. The call-backs in Chicago were the same. At the last minute he loaded up two huge suitcases of junk and ideas into the back of the Impala and took her on her first road trip in almost a decade. He talked to the judging panel of past winners whose names he was suppose to recognize but didn't, and spewed the appropriate bullshit about where he draws inspiration from, and had his tiny, embarrassing moment fangirling Tim Gunn. But he did it all knowing that it wasn't real. That it couldn't happen. That none of it meant anything.
Now he has a printed PDF stalking the corner of his cutting desk, waiting for him to sign away the rights to his life for six weeks. All in return for a free plane ride, an extended stay in the dirtiest, loudest city in America, and a chance to win a hundred grand. Who the fuck would take that deal?
Like, okay, sure: the money would be nice. Dean isn't stupid. But he's been doing fine getting by on way less for his entire life. He can live without being rich. More importantly, he has standards. He doesn't need the stress the trip would generate and he definitely doesn't need a thousand cameras pointed at him every second of the day, recording his every move. What Frank pays him is enough to cover his meager needs. Sheer practicality insists that it makes more sense to stay at his paying job than to lose two months worth of salary to gamble on a reality show that he stands no chance of winning.
Technically there's a second half to the grand prize. Not the car (because fuck if Dean would ever drive anything other than the Impala), but the chance to show a collection at New York Fashion Week. A collection that he designs. A collection that represents him: his ideas and his aesthetic. A collection that would give him the credibility to call himself a fashion designer. And, well. Maybe once in the distant past Dean might have wanted that. Back when there was something about him worth sharing with the world.
Every step of the audition process Dean was so sure that this was nothing he wants or can have, and yet every step has brought him closer to getting it. I just really didn't think about it is not an answer Sam will be happy to hear. It's that kind of thinking that screwed Dean in the first place.
The machine falls quiet as he finishes his stitch. The resulting silence hangs thick and solid in the air. Handing over the opportunity to Sam to call him out on his cowardice, he snaps the tail end of the remaining thread with his teeth and doesn't say anything.
Sam waits a few more moments, and then: "Dean? Hello? Did Skype drop?"
Dean sighs. "Yeah, I'm still here." He scrubs at his forehead. The band-aid he plastered around his finger after stitching through his nail two days ago scratches against his skin. "Look, man—"
"Hey, I get it," Sam interrupts, voice soft. Dean resents the hell out of it. "I really do, okay?" From that tone, no one would ever believe Sammy is only a third year law student. He has that patronizing, understanding lawyer shtick down. "You don't like change. You don't want to get on a plane. You don't like to leave your creepy clothes-nest of an apartment—"
"Hey! Apartment-slash-workshop-slash-home office."
"Yeah, no," Sam laments with real disappointment. "Not even as a working theory at this point."
And okay, fine. His cramped studio may be more stacks of fabric and sample boxes and racks of clothes with a single bed jammed into a spare corner than it is a traditional living space. But it's above Frank's store and that means Dean doesn't need to actually go anywhere except to the corner place maybe once a week to buy groceries. And even that he can usually get around by ordering take-out. It may not be most people's preferred lifestyle, but it's the lifestyle that works for him.
"You can't throw away an opportunity like this," Sam prattles on. "I'm not going to let you. Even if, yeah, I have to take time off school to haul your ass to New York myself. Dean, I'm serious," he tacks on, just in case Dean doubted there for a second. "You keep letting things hold you back. You deserve better than you let yourself have."
Sam's voice breaks on that last bit, like he's really upset. Like he really believes Dean's life is nothing but one long, controlled descent into a black hole, and Dean is just too stupid or stubborn to grab the last safety rope Sam keeps trying to offer to him.
It's a fantastic and flattering assumption. The fact that it may be true—well, that's just the icing on the cake.
"It wasn't a death sentence," Sam says suddenly, all quiet and delicate. "You know that. It's been eight years now and you're fine; you're completely fine. You don't have to stop living just because—"
"Just—" He bumps his fist against the desk, soundless instead of the hard thud he intended. Like he once would've done back when things were different. A decade ago he was all cocky smiles and quick one-liners, good company at the bar every night. Now he's just so tired. "Just stop talking about it, okay? Please."
There are a lot of definitions for fine and they've never agreed on one when it comes to him. The last thing he can deal with right now is a repeat conversation about how he needs to get over it already or find a therapist or take even more pills. One day he's going to close the blinds, lock the door, and stop taking Sam's calls. Retreat into this safe world he's built himself, just him and his sewing machine. That's what they advise for addicts, right? You got to go cold turkey or you'll never kick the habit. He's sure a therapist would love to hear all about his theories about how people are just like drugs. They destroy you from the inside out.
Sam probably doesn't think he gets it. But he does. He's never wondered why Sam worries about him so goddamn much. It's just that being reminded how broken he is doesn't help him figure out how to fix it.
"Look," he starts, because, shit, he tries. He's trying. "It's not about that stuff. I don't—I don't want to be on TV. I fucking hate having my picture taken. I won't even turn on my webcam for you. This isn't one of your internships, man. This isn't an opportunity. It's a freaking reality show. It's all fake. It has nothing to do with real fashion or real design. And besides, I'm not a designer, Sammy. I'm a tailor."
That should be it. Final statements made; verdict registered. Except draft horse might have been too generous for Sam when he sets his mind to something. Ravenous pit bull is more like it.
"Then where the hell is half my wardrobe from, Dean? Are you going to tell me that the Specials rack in the back of the store is all Frank's designs? That Frank's randomly experimenting with print and fabric choice now?"
Dean loves Sam but sometimes he hates the kid too. "Okay, so. So sometimes I make stuff. So whatever. That shit's personal, Sammy. Just because you and, like, two people in freaking Duluth, Minnesota like it, where it's a choice between me or Dress Barn—"
"It's not just me," Sam argues. "And it's not just a couple walk-ins. Dean—" He makes a frustrated sound, like he's trying not to swear, like a good little lawyer. Why curse when instead you can lay out a devastatingly logical argument? "If you'd move to a place that's not the back-end of nowhere, you could have your own store. The judges for the show liked your clothes. The producers liked them. All of my friends here ask where I get my clothes from. I mean, hell, people have been asking me since you started making stuff for me when I was a kid. You're a good designer, Dean. And now you have a chance to actually, for once, do what you like. Most people would be shitting themselves from excitement."
He opens his mouth to tell Sam how he's not most people anymore when Sam, probably predicting that old stand-by, overrides him.
"No, look, no. I don't care what your issues are. This is too rare a chance to let you pass on," Sam charges ahead, more determined and self-righteous than Dean's heard since Sam was fourteen and making another one of his last stands against Dad. "We'll get you some Xanax to deal with the cameras if necessary. But you're going, Dean. You're doing this."
Sam kept the part of the application that asked for personal history respectfully vague, considering.
It lists as straightforward facts the first thirty-two years of Dean's life. That he was born in Lawrence, Kansas; that they moved all over the place growing up after their mom died in a house fire; that Dean started to make clothes out of thrift store and rummage sale finds in order to keep up with his little brother's growth spurts when their budget couldn't otherwise cut it. That their father's passing when Dean was twenty-one finally let them settle down for a few years in California and gave Dean the freedom to swing his attention to fashion full-time. It mentions that Dean completed almost two years at a community college with the intention to transfer to a four-year and major in design, but dropped out in the middle of his second year due to health reasons. A few months later, he moved to Duluth and worked his way up from apprentice to master tailor under well-known designer Frank Devereaux of the international brand Devereaux Suits.
It's impersonal and dry and makes Dean sound like one of those people with their photos on the back of book jackets or grimacing in a suit on the staff section of a corporate website.
If Dean had written it, it might have said something like this:
His dad left him a black 1967 Chevy Impala when he died and his mother left him a 1974 Brother XL 2010 sewing machine when she died, and together they both gave him Sam. That totals his family, the three major loves of his life.
When he was twenty-four, and finishing midterms for his second year in school, he got sick. At first he thought it was the flu. He told his teachers it was the flu and that he'd make up the work later. The doctors at the free clinic told him it was the flu and prescribed him heavier antibiotics when two weeks passed and he was still laid up in bed. Cain made him tomato-rice soup just like his mom used to make, and put wet washcloths on his head, and held him like he meant something when they had sex and Dean was too exhausted to be into it.
Cain was his first serious relationship. Cain was his first boyfriend, the first person Dean ever lived with that wasn't blood family, the first person he ever said "I love you" to and meant it, as much as he means it in those rare times he's said it to Sam. Cain kept Dean together after Dad died, when Sam was sixteen, and still a minor, and Dean had to sue for guardianship at the same time he had to plan a funeral. Cain made them wait a whole eighteen months after the funeral before he agreed they could date, so Dean could be sure about his feelings, and the age gap, and the gay thing. Cain taught him what sex between two men looked like, and withstood all of Dean's bullshit shame issues that Dad had saddled him with over his sexuality, and over fashion, and never made a sound of hurt over the fact that Dean wanted to keep it a secret that they were dating. Cain paid his tuition to go to school and invited Dean to move in with him rent-free and photographed the first clothes Dean ever made because he wanted to and not because someone needed him to.
They were together for a year and a half by the time Dean got sick. In all that time, never once did Cain say a goddamn word that there should be a concern. Never once did Dean protest when Cain preached the superiority of barebacking, thinking that skin-on-skin meant intimacy and love, and not possession or predation.
Until the results came back. Until some clever fresh-faced doctor at the clinic finally ran the right tests. There in the exam room, clutching the paperwork still warm from the printer and smelling sickly sweet of toner, Cain had cupped Dean's tear-streaked cheek and cocked that eyebrow of his and purred, "Now you'll always carry my mark, baby boy. Just like it should be."
That's when everything came out: his relationship with Cain; all the times Cain cheated and the ways Dean chose to ignore it; the reasons Dean let someone fuck him so many times without a condom when everyone knows the basics to STD prevention.
How Dad turned out to be right, in the end. That being gay only makes you dirty and makes you dead.
Medical necessity forced Dean out of the closet, out of school, and by consequence out of California altogether. With no place to live, no job, no qualifications, and with a death sentence he might spread from something as small as drinking out of the shared milk carton in the fridge, there was no way he could stay. Eight months later, he finally found a phone to call Sam from Duluth, with a job selling suits at Frank's shop, and the potential to work his way back towards something masquerading as a real life.
He takes his pills to keep his immune system from collapsing under the harsh Minnesota winters, works his fingers to the bone translating Frank's designs from paper to tangible, wearable clothes, and is careful to not touch anyone. No one. Not ever. Doesn't even bother to look anymore. Doesn't like to leave his apartment unless it's to pick up a refill prescription or his order from the drive-thru. He learned his lesson what happens when you expose yourself to the world, and fuck everything if he's ever going to expose the world back. Cain's mark stops with him.