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Involuntary Response

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They're in New York when they find out they're cancelled. The ratings weren't great; they all knew it, so it doesn't really come as a surprise. But it still sits heavy in Santino's gut. They have the wake at The Dove, drinking champagne and smiling and talking about the jobs they have lined up, pretending it doesn't sting.

"It was fun while it lasted," Austin says. He raises his glass dramatically. Austin does most things dramatically, just the slightest bit self-conscious, like there's a spotlight on him at all times and he knows it. "To other people paying for your vacations."

"If you call that a vacation," Santino grumbles.

"Well," Austin corrects himself. "Sort of a working vacation."

"Oxymoron."

"Fine, darling," Austin says. "It was a job on wheels. And we slaved and we worked our fingers to the bone and we got paid basic cable money, only less. And we should both be relieved it's over." He lifts his glass again, his eyebrows raised challengingly.

A little smile twists on Santino's lips. "I wouldn't go that far." He lifts his glass. "Let's say, to the most fun I've had at work in a while."

Austin shrugs, noncommittal, but Santino can see he's right on the edge of smiling. He just needs a little push.

"In fact," Santino says expansively, leaning forward, getting into it. "It was the most life-changing, the most earth-shattering job I've ever had. So you know what I say? Who needs the TV cameras? Let's keep going!" He's laughing, but it doesn't feel as much like a joke as he thought it would. "Let's drive around the country, showing up with no warning on women's doorsteps. Forcing them to let us make them dresses!" He tips his glass forward, clinks it against Austin's. "How's that for a toast?"

Austin takes a sip of his champagne, long pale throat thrown back. He smirks at Santino over the edge of the flute. "It'll do."

*

Santino and Austin have been friends for years. They see each other at parties and at shows. Sometimes they grab dinner with a group of their friends. He's seen Austin drunk, and he's seen Austin cry, and they both know one or two of the kind of embarrassing details that come with familiarity. But their friendship had always been a casual every now and then kind of thing. The show was something else, this weird thing where they were together all day, every day. It was less voluntary than friendship.

Santino figures now that it's over, they'll slip back into what they were before. He remembers how it was after Project Runway. Reality TV friendships are kind of like the friendships you make at summer camp. You leave camp promising to keep in touch, and a couple months later you're back in your life and the summer slips your mind.

A couple months later he doesn't miss the cameras that much but it still feels weird to take a nap in his studio and not get hassled for it. To wake up and not see Austin bent over a sewing machine or pinning something to a dress form. To know that no one's going to argue with him over his fabric choices or put the wrong kind of sleeves on something or try to add a cape even though adding a cape is almost never appropriate. He calls Austin while he's at the fabric store, hesitating between a couple bolts of fabric.

"What do you think? Chiffon or mousseline?"

"Chiffon," Austin says immediately.

Santino looks between the bolts for a long moment. "I'm getting the mousseline." He can actually hear Austin rolling his eyes on the other end of the line.

"Is the mousseline fuchsia?" he says.

Santino briefly considers lying. "Yes," he admits a little grudgingly.

"So predictable, my dear."

Santino's laughing as he carries the mousseline to the counter. He gets a little of the chiffon too, just in case he needs it.

*

He starts sending Austin these texts, pictures of stuff he sees on the street, a tiny little white haired dog in a hat (reminded me of you) or his half eaten lunch (hashed browns weren't crispy enough) or a pair of boots he likes that he can't afford to buy (if only I were still making basic cable money).

Austin replies with ridiculous e-mails that have nothing to do with anything Santino sends, these way too long stream of consciousness things where Austin talks himself into or out of taking a job or firing his agent or renewing his gym membership. Like he needs a witness to his decision making process or something. Santino would call him on the fact that there's no reason to hit send on these e-mails when they so clearly don't require a response, but he doesn't actually want Austin to stop. He doesn't delete any of them either. It's just that Austin's so sure of himself most of the time; Santino kind of likes getting that glimpse of uncertainty before Austin's made his mind up.

*

Austin invites Santino over to his workspace. Santinos's not sure why, probably a fit of nostalgia or something, since Santino's pretty sure Austin doesn't want his honest opinion on the costumes he's in the middle of putting together for Parsons Dance. They end up getting into an argument over pintucks that somehow devolves into Santino yelling things about Vionnet and then storming out while Austin ignores him completely, his mouth a thin pinched line the way it gets when he's truly pissed off.

Santino invites himself back the next day with a box of semi-apology éclairs (even though he was right about the tucks).

He invites himself back a lot after that. Occasionally Austin's not there working when he drops by unannounced, and it's a wasted trip across the city; but Santino likes the spur of the moment feel of not calling ahead. It makes it seem less like he planned it. Less like he thinks about going back when he's not there, like he thinks a little too much about when he's going to see Austin again.

Austin never tells him he's too busy or says, "By the way, that one time I said you could come over was not an unlimited lifetime pass," so Santino starts to bring over bits and pieces of projects he's working on. He starts to leave them there as if by accident, the table over by the window taken over by his fabrics, his sketches. It's an invasion by inches. He doesn't ask for permission, and Austin doesn't give it. But he smiles when Santino shows up, like he was expecting him.

Mostly they spend long hours with the machines whirring, taking breaks in the middle of the night to go for coffee at the place three blocks down. Austin gets snow stuck in his eyelashes, bundled up like an Eskimo in fluffy white, his hair glowing in the streetlights where it sticks out from his hood. The two of them skip, laughter muffled in the snow, leaving uneven tracks that they follow to the studio on their way back.

*

Today Santino is making a nuisance of himself. He's feeling punchy, one of those days when he has too much energy to sit still. He has, admittedly, a lot of those days. He sings loudly, made up songs about the pencil stuck into the little sprout of a top knot in Austin's hair, the sad life it leads trapped above the world, looking down past Austin's nose, watching life pass it by. It's a surprisingly upbeat number considering the subject matter. Santino does a little bit of soft shoe with one of the dress forms, catching the quick moment when Austin stops ignoring him long enough to glance up and shake his head.

Santino takes that as an invitation to high step his way over to Austin's table. Austin keeps working on his beading while Santino plucks the pencil from his hair. He pokes at Austin's earlobe with the eraser until Austin starts to frown. And then he cradles the pencil in his hand, twirls with it for a moment, waltzing it between the tables. At some point he starts singing "Part of Your World." Austin's smiling a little warily as Santino returns to him. Santino lifts an imaginary hat even though he's wearing an actual hat underneath, and bows.

Austin really is probably the most terrible dancer in the world. Looking at him sitting still, all sleek and long-limbed you'd never guess what a gawky flurry of knees and elbows he's going to be once he starts moving. But he's pretty much willing to throw himself into anything head first. It's one of Santino's very favorite things about him.

He takes Santino's hand immediately, the dress carefully set aside. "Oh, Mr. Rice," he says, his voice going Southern. "I do declare."

Santino manages to keep them both upright as they twirl, despite Austin's best efforts to catch his foot on a chair leg. Austin laughs, spinning under Santino's arm. Santino dips him low, hesitating with Austin's slight weight in his arms. Austin looks up at him, thick rimmed glasses on his face, his hair sticking up in a Pebbles-ish sprout. His lips are tinted pink, parted in a grin. A little line sinks down between his sculpted eyebrows when Santino keeps holding him there, hesitating too long. His fingers are tight around Santino's arms. Santino touches his lips to the very center of Austin's smile, a quick press that can be laughed off as he pulls Austin back to his feet. Austin simpers, pressing long fingers to his mouth, playing it up. There's an odd heat on Santino's cheeks, a hot tightness in his gut. It doesn't feel enough like a joke.

*

One of Austin's e-mails is talking himself into or out of going out with this guy they both know second-hand through Musician John (not to be confused with Publisher's Assistant John who is kind of an asshole). Santino doesn't really know the guy outside of the fact that he works for one of those investment firms and he's good-looking in a way Santino never will be, all broad shouldered and square-jawed. Santino skips ahead to the bottom of the e-mail, too impatient to scan through Austin's entire thought process. He gets this weird rush when he finds Austin settled on no, like his whole body is going loose with relief and tight with triumph at the same time. He kind of wants to shout, "Fuck yeah, motherfucker!"

He thinks this is probably not a good sign.

*

Santino sits across from Austin at Nomad. Technically they're here celebrating Bradon getting a job at Carolina Herrera, but Bradon went home a half an hour ago so now they're celebrating the fact that they're all well on their way to quite drunk. Austin's telling a story, a couple of their friends sitting next to him on the other side of the table, leaning in to catch what he's saying over the hum of the restaurant. There's candlelight on his skin, glinting in his hair. Santino watches the way the light shifts, feeling slow, his eyelids heavy. Austin's hands move in these elegant, precise swoops. When one of them settles on the table for a moment, Santino reaches out, cradling it in his palm, touching at the calluses on Austin's fingertips. Austin smiles at him distractedly. He watches Austin's mouth move as he starts talking again, intent. Even through the alcohol he can feel himself at the edge of something dangerous, something futile and not just a little bit dumb; but he can't seem to stop watching the shape of Austin's mouth.

It feels less voluntary than friendship.

end