the_water_clock: abstract painting (Untitled 1958 Coffee and Cinnamon)
[personal profile] the_water_clock
Author: Clio
Title: Pulling on All Your Threads
Pairing: Lydia Martin/Erica Reyes
Rating: PG
Summary: Lydia has no doubt in her mind that she's going to win this design competition. She just needs to keep from being distracted by one of her competitors. Not that Erica's trying to distract her; she wants to win, too. Getting Lydia's attention is just a bonus. (A Project Runway AU)
Warning: No warning necessary.
Length: 8800 words
Notes: THANK YOU a million times to honestys_easy for the encouragement and the suggestions and all of her help. The first two parts were posted back in October for TW Femslash Week; thanks to everyone who read and encouraged me to press on. Now I'm happily posting the entire finished story for the first TW Femslash 4FEMSLASH!




show us your style

Erica was glad she'd gotten a new manicure; it kept her from biting her nails nervously, and bitten nails were not a great look for an aspiring fashion designer even if her work did mostly trend toward the rock chick aesthetic. But her lipstick was perfect and she was keeping it that way by sipping a protein shake and not eating anything off the very tempting craft services table. Never mind that she'd flown cross-country; she'd stopped in the bathroom to fix her hair and felt like Madonna at the beginning of Desperately Seeking Susan.

Which, really, was a good omen. She'd put on her longest earrings.

Now she was walking along Broadway toward Lincoln Center with a camera crew walking backwards in front of her, which was a weird way to experience Manhattan for the first time. But the excellent thing was that when she got to the little park next to the plaza, where they held fashion week, there was a familiar face.

"Oh my god! Erica!" Isaac shouted, and they ran toward each other. He picked her up, hugging her and twirling her in a circle, and she stopped worrying about her lipstick.

"I'm so glad you're here!" she said.

"Me too! I guess they got us in twos, because these guys know each other." He pointed at two men standing next to him, both dark-haired and reasonably good-looking. "Scott and Stiles went to FIT together."

Erica shook their hands.

"So you're from LA?" Scott asked.

"Yeah, Isaac and I are both in the rock scene, I guess you'd call it," Erica said. "When he isn't modeling anyway."

"Oh my god, of course you're a model." Stiles shook his head.

"Erica!" Isaac said.

"Like they wouldn't find out," Erica said. "He makes great clothes too! So are you from here in New York?"

"No, we grew up in California. We just went to school here," Scott said.

"Speaking of which," Stiles said, looking past Erica to the entrance of the park.

Scott looked up. "Holy shit."

"What?" Isaac asked.

Stiles grimaced. "You know how, in school, there's always that one person who aces everything, has the best show at the end, and everyone knows they're going to be amazing? The Marc Jacobs, the Proenza Schouler?"

"Yeah," Erica said.

"That redhead was our Marc Jabobs."

Erica turned and saw a small woman in boots with very high heels making her way toward them. She wore a blue dress that fluttered in the slight breeze and her hair was long and wavy, giving her a nymph effect, though with her confident stride it was obvious that she was no pushover. She seemed like the kind of good fairy who could still fuck your shit up. Next to her was a brunette who was taller, even in her flat cowboy boots.

"Hey, Lydia," Stiles said. "Didn't expect to see you here."

She shrugged. "Got to get the brand out there. Shows under the tents don't grow on trees, you know. Anyway this is Allison. We met at the auditions and she's very good. Sick jackets."

"Hi," Allison said, waiving, all dimples and girl next door charm. Erica kind of wanted to hate her, but hating other girls was a cliche she wasn't going to give into on camera.

"Hey, um, I'm Scott! Jackets are great! Did you make that one?"

Stiles turned to his friend, blinking; apparently blurting out ten words a second wasn't Scott's usual behavior. Erica smirked, and when Stiles caught her eye, he shrugged.

He was cute, too, with big bambi eyes in a pale face where his friend was darker and more classically handsome. Maybe Stiles could be her buddy; she hated that whole "I'm not here to make friends" thing.

After about twenty minutes the rest of the designers had arrived, sixteen of them in all, including one dude from San Francisco that she'd heard of before, Derek Hale. He was a certified hottie, absolutely, and had been pinned within a few minutes of his arrival by some chick from Portland named Jennifer who liked making fabrics out of trees or draping them over trees or something similarly crunchy.

Erica liked making clothes out of leather. She was okay with her position in the food chain.

Finally Tim and Heidi arrived, walking across the park from the other direction, and all the designers duly applauded. Tim had been at Erica's audition in LA so she wasn't too star-struck, and she'd never been a giant Heidi fan to begin with, so she was able to be calm and listen to the instructions, which were that they were to run over to the tent opposite them and pick a bunch of remnant fabrics to make a signature look out of.

She glanced down at Lydia's high heels, but thought they probably wouldn't be a problem for her. Lydia, seeing her, looked her up and down and then whispered, "Racing is so silly, don't you think?"

Tim had a little starter gun, and when he fired it many of the designers sprinted across the hundred yards or so of grass to get to the tent and frantically grab what they wanted. But Lydia, Erica and Allison walked—quickly, but confidently—into the tent. Hey, it looked cool and besides, Erica had known that the deep red velvet that had caught her eye would be shunned by the other designers.

"Good call," Erica said to Lydia, who had a diaphanous bit of sea-green fabric.

"I just think, if you can't make a killer dress out of any old thing, what are you doing on this show?" She looked at Erica's bolt of fabric. "Apparently you feel the same."

"You know it," Erica replied.




menswear

Lydia kept detailed notes in the back of her sketchbook, in shorthand because nobody knew how to read that anymore. (Except Stiles, but he knew better than to poke his nose in her sketchbook.) She noted what every designer had made each week, who had been in the top and the bottom, and what had been said about them during judging if she had been present (which she had been, four times out of the first six challenges, always on the top of course). She'd used the same strategy on that first team challenge (something about cars, unimportant) as she had on group projects at school, by graciously allowing others to steal her less successful ideas and think of them as their own. Her teammates said, "Oh, we thought you were a bitch but it turns out you're pretty cool" which was basically every comment in her high school yearbook.

Now there were ten designers left, the wheat mostly separated from the chaff, and as many girls as boys. She'd gotten used to the rhythm of challenge, work, runway, sleep and for the time given she considered that she was doing good work. Her picks to go to Fashion Week with her were Allison, of course, and Derek because he was surprisingly good yet very different from her, though she wouldn't mind if Scott or Stiles went in his place. Everything was going according to plan.

Which, in retrospect, was a thought she never should have had, because the next thing to come out of Tim Gunn's mouth was, "menswear."

Allison leaned into her. "Can they actually do this?" she whispered.

"Apparently!" Lydia said.

At least they weren't to make business suits or uniforms or anything else similarly boring. They were creating outfits for ballroom dancers, tight pants and tighter shirts and perhaps a vest in bright colors or black. This challenge was going to be all about fit and tailoring. They had a half hour to sketch, using as their inspiration routines from Dancing with the Stars that had been loaded onto their HP tablets (love that corporate synergy). Lydia was trying to work her way through the problem but couldn't help noticing that Erica was grinning.

Oh, right, rock stars. Damn her. Erica had been in the middle for every challenge so far, though considering the magic she'd worked with that blood-red velvet for the first challenge Lydia thought Erica should have at least made the top three. Lydia had fallen into the habit of watching Erica because like anyone she liked a bit of eye candy, but Erica might be one to keep an eye on for non-prurient reasons, too.

At Mood Erica grabbed some bit of violet silk that Lydia couldn't even picture doing anything with other than a dress. Lydia, meanwhile, found the most amazing brocade and decided the way to be safe without looking safe was to go the paso doble toreador route with a bolero jacket, which would give her time to focus on the fit of the trousers. And focus she did, whipping up the shell of the jacket quickly so it would be complete for the model fitting. She had some standard measurements to go by but they weren't enough, so she left the pants loose. Tim seemed to like the jacket, felt that trim on the trousers would not be too much for this challenge, and that was enough.

An influx of cute boy models instead of pretty girls made the workroom a little giddy, especially as they were all putting the boys in such close fitting trousers. Isaac knew some of the guys, including his own model. Stiles was outright giggly and even Derek was flirty, which put Jennifer's nose right out of joint. Matt took the opportunity to once again loudly proclaim his heterosexuality even though no one cared. (Scott was straight, but he didn't use it as a weapon, just had intense conversations with Allison during dinner breaks.)

Lydia's model was named Aiden; his twin was also there, flirting uselessly with Scott. "So I guess they keep you pretty sequestered, huh?" he asked.

"Mmm-hmm." Lydia had a mouthful of pins and was concentrating on Aiden's ass at the moment in the most dispassionate way possible. She was trying to treat it as a lump of flesh that needed fabric smoothed over it just so, and not a temptation dangling before a woman who suddenly realized she hadn't gotten laid in two weeks.

"Always on camera?"

"Pretty much.

"Even the bathroom?" he asked.

She glanced up and he was leering, not enough to be gross but enough to make his intentions known, so she smiled back. "Somehow I don't think we use the same bathroom," she said.

"Too bad."

"Isn't it?" She went back to her work, carefully pinning around his thighs.

He laughed. "I like you. You're direct."

"You have no idea," she said, and unceremoniously moved his junk out of her way.

Later that evening Lydia was sitting on her table, meticulously sewing the some of the brocade as a tuxedo stripe on the trousers, when Erica came by her workstation. "You haven't visited," she said.

Usually Lydia did take a turn around the workroom; she was a fast sewer and was often done before everyone else, so she left her things to lie and would go and see what everyone else was up to. Derek and Jennifer barely acknowledged her; Scott and Stiles and Isaac engaged her in their work; Allison and Marin chatted. Matt, of course, was gross.

Erica flirted. Which was fun because she was easy for Lydia to not take seriously.

"Haven't had time."

"Menswear's not your thing, I guess?"

"I'm making it work." Lydia shrugged.

Erica was examining the toreador jacket that hung from the dress form. "You certainly are," she said. "Anyway I don't know about the others but I missed you."

Lydia looked up then, and Erica wasn't wearing her usual sexy grin, but the tiniest of smiles. "Then I'm glad you stopped by," Lydia said, smiling back.

Lydia's jacket and trousers got her through the challenge, and as there were only four of them in the middle that was a relief. Matt, for all his proclamations of straightness, was shit at trousers and was finally sent home to the relief of many. Erica made one of those flowing rhumba shirts out of the mysterious violet silk, with a perfect deep purple pant to go with them, and deservedly got her first win. She collapsed onto the couch next to Lydia.

"So what do you do with immunity, Miss Three-Time winner?" she asked.

"Take chances," Lydia replied.

Erica grinned. "All right," she said.




unconventional

Erica stood in the middle of the florist shop and mostly felt that it was a damn good week to have immunity because fuck if she was going to make a dress out of fucking flowers. No.

She went in the opposite direction of all the hydrangeas and other nonsense that crowded the front of the shop and into the back, into dark green lushness and ... yes. She wanted leaves that dinosaurs would've been afraid to eat.

An anxious-looking shop worker, who was probably hiding from the hoards of designers grabbing roses and coxcombs, looked up at her with wide eyes. "Give me the spikiest stuff you got," she said, and he nodded, slowly and waved his hand for her to follow. When she got to the register with her cart full of green-black ferns and small, spiky Dracaena palms in red and pink and silver, Isaac laughed and said, "Oh god, of course."

By the time Tim came around she had the foundation of the dress fairly well set, the green palm fronts and ferns molded around the body like armor. Tim regarded the dress, chin in his hand, and then said, "Well, it's certainly you!"

Erica laughed. "I hope so!"

"So what are you doing with these red and pink ones? You do need some color here."

"I thought I'd use them as extensions." She held up a handful of spiky pink palm fronds to the shoulder, so they poked up past what would be the model's ears.

Tim hummed. "I want to caution you about following the lines of the ferns too closely. Be thoughtful about placement."

Erica took a step back and cocked her head. Then she put the fronds across the chest, at an angle, so they extended sideways off the shoulder.

"Yes!" Tim said, gesturing toward the dress form. "Keep going! Keep thinking! Follow that instinct!"

"Thanks, Tim!"

She couldn't help but listen in as Tim made his way around the workroom. Jennifer, Marin and Isaac were making pretty but unremarkable little dresses out of flower petals. Scott had crafted shorts and a top out of thistles, sexy almost in spite of itself. As usual Stiles's garment didn't look like actual clothing but some sort of odd sculpture; his clothes never became clothes until a person was in them, and Erica had no idea how Tim was able to give him any advice at all. Allison managed to fashion some trousers and a bandeau top out of leaves. Lydia was using the deep red coxcomb trim on her red flower petal dress like fur—a ruff at the bottom and at the wrists, something the princess from Roman Holiday might wear.

And Derek? Derek was making a goddamned wedding dress out of orchids. Sure, there were other white flowers in there; he couldn't have afforded nothing but orchids even with their flexible budgets. But that was the effect, and it was breathtaking. Tim was beside himself with joy, even though Derek, as usual, was scowling and seemed dissatisfied.

But Erica had a good feeling about her ferns and palms and she ended up as one of the top three, even though with her immunity she could easily have been back in the middle. The judges said the same thing to her as they had the previous challenge, that even though the runway shows were anonymous, and even though they'd scored her in the middle for all the challenges until that one, they always knew immediately which dress was hers.

"Very, very distinctive," Nina said. "You have a voice and you took a big chance here."

"I never want to run into your girl in a dark alley!" added Michael.

Erica laughed. "That's exactly what I was going for!"

Of course Derek won—anything else would have been an outrage; even the super-competitive Lydia agreed with that. Erica didn't mind, either; getting a "good job" from Heidi was novel enough to give her a thrill. And Stiles, Scott and Allison cheered her when she walked back into their waiting room.

Lydia came in just after, pleased with herself as always, and sat down between Erica and Allison. "Two weeks in a row!" Lydia said. "Maybe I should start worrying about you!"

Erica just smiled, hoping she looked enigmatic rather than bland; she wasn't in the mood to encourage Lydia.

The three unremarkable dresses were at the bottom, as apparently they'd reached that stage of the competition where there weren't any more disasters to score lower than the boring. Isaac came back into the room, safe, and curled up next to Erica on the couch. She crossed her fingers for Marin, but it was Jennifer who would be staying for another challenge at least.

Once they'd said their good-byes to Marin, a producer said, "When we get back to the apartments, Erica and Jennifer will be moving into Lydia and Allison's room, so be prepared for that."

Lydia muttered under her breath, something that didn't sound particularly kind, but when Erica turned to her with raised eyebrows, she smiled broadly.

"Can't wait!" she said.

And Erica didn't know what to think about that.




teamwork

Just because Lydia knew how to survive working in a team didn't mean she liked it. After all if she were the kind of designer who could just take orders and execute someone else's vision she wouldn't be on Project Runway in the first place. While Tim and Heidi talked about the challenge—day and night looks, whatever, it didn't really matter—she sized up her potential partners. Scott or Stiles would be fine, or even Isaac; they would all do as they were told. Derek, well, who knew what was going on in that head of his; he'd have to be managed. Allison and Erica would probably be reasonably good collaborators; once they found something that could unite their styles they'd just work independently and be fine. She found she wouldn't at all mind being paired up with her new friend or ... whatever Erica was.

But if she got Jennifer she could not be held responsible for her actions. Lydia had no idea how Erica had lived with her for three weeks. Marin had mentioned that Jennifer missed her girlfriend very much but that didn't explain why she was always flirting awkwardly with Derek. And as far as Lydia was concerned, the woman had created nothing of note, yet she condescended to everyone as though she'd won three challenges.

When who had won three challenges? One Lydia Martin, that's who.

Scott and Stiles drew each other, probably best for all concerned. Allison and Erica were paired up next, which made Lydia both worried and envious. Tim drew her name out of the button bag, and she held her breath.

"And ... Derek! Which leaves Isaac and Jennifer!"

Derek sighed in relief and Lydia tried not to laugh. They were sent off to sketch and consult.

"I'm doing the color story," she said. "Since you never seem to have one."

"Not true! Last week—"

"Trim doesn't count," Lydia added.

Derek raised his eyebrows. "Then we're doing separates," he replied, "since all you ever make is dresses."

"Excuse me, I made a pant."

"For the menswear challenge."

Lydia huffed but Derek said no more, focusing on his tablet. In a few quick strokes, he'd done a simple structured jacket. "I'll take the daywear," he said, and continued with a sleek pant.

She easily replicated the jacket, liking the look of it, and put it atop some evening shorts. "Blue and green," she said.

Derek picked up a lock of her hair. "I wonder why."

"Really?" Lydia asked.

But much as she'd taken his lead with the shape of their garment, he let her make the decisions at Mood, trotting along behind her and holding the bolts of fabric. They were second to the register behind Erica and Allison, who were also making their partnership work.

"Did you hear the way Jennifer was lecturing Isaac?" Erica asked.

"Did you expect anything different?" Lydia replied.

Scott and Stiles came to the register with bits of seemingly every fabric in the store, talking to each other in words and gestures that none of the rest of them could even hope to understand. Jennifer, on the other hand, was still shouting at Isaac right to the end, as they rushed to the register with Tim calling out that their time was up.

Allison shook her head. "I can't decide which is sublime and which is ridiculous."

"Can't they both be ridiculous?" Erica asked.

"Actually," Lydia said, "at school Stiles and Scott were often partners. I wondered why they didn't just go in together."

Derek looked dubious. "Better than the sum of their parts?" he asked.

"You'll see," Lydia said.

And indeed by the time Tim came to visit late that evening the teams had shaken out into what would likely be the result on the runway. Scott and Stiles were creating clothes so perfectly suited to the challenge that even Derek had to admit he was impressed. Erica and Allison and Derek and Lydia were the competent middle, making simple ensembles with just enough personality not to be boring. And Jennifer and Isaac, to put it bluntly, were a shit show. Tim spoke to them sternly about how concerned he was, how this was the partnership they were stuck with and they needed to make it work. He told Jennifer that she shouldn't confuse leading with bullying and Isaac that he needed to push back when necessary and make sure his design sense was observable in the clothes.

During all of this Lydia sat cross-legged atop her workstation, setting the collar of her jacket by hand as she'd never gotten the hang of doing it on the machine. Erica sidled up next to her, fashioning tiny rosettes for the neckline of her dress.

"Come for the show?" Lydia whispered. She might have thought that everyone would be surreptitiously watching, but Derek and Allison had fled to the machines as soon as Tim was done with them and Scott and Stiles were oblivious as ever.

"If Jennifer is the reason that Isaac goes home I swear I will stab her in the night with the tackiest decorative scissors that I can find," Erica replied, scowling.

Lydia blinked, wide-eyed. "That's … specific."

Erica flashed a chilling smile. "I've been thinking about it for a while," she admitted. "But anyone messes with Isaac, I will fuck up their shit."

"I can see that," Lydia said. "Is that how you managed to live with her for so long, planning her death?"

"Generally. How did you manage to live with Kali?"

"Luckily the competition took care of that for me before I had any problem," Lydia said with her own malicious grin. "Also I have Allison."

"Oh?" Erica asked, her affect just a little too casual.

"Not like that, sweetie."

"I was going to say, Allison must be awfully busy," Erica replied. They smiled at each other, genuinely this time, because Allison and Scott's flirtation was too sweet for words—the yang to Jennifer and Derek's messy yin. "So that makes you …"

"Available," Lydia said.

"How about that," Erica said. "So am I."

"Interesting," Lydia replied.

The next day on the runway went precisely as Lydia had anticipated. Erica, Allison, Derek and Lydia were declared safe. Scott and Stiles were at the top, and since even the pointed questions of the judges couldn't unearth who was the leader of their team, they just awarded immunity to both of them. Then the six saved designers sat in the break room, Erica holding Derek and Lydia's hands as they awaited Isaac's fate.

Happily, he returned from the runway first, and could barely get out the words, "I'm safe" before Erica was launching herself at him, wrapping her arms around his neck.

Lydia looked around the room, at Stiles and Scott huddled together on a corner of the couch, and at Allison beside her. Given how well Derek was doing, next week at least one of their little dyads would be split up when someone went home. She didn't want to lose Allison, but she realized she didn't like the idea of Erica going home any better.

She was glad she hadn't used that old cliche that she wasn't there to make friends; she'd have been proven wrong long before now. But maybe she'd be getting even more than that out of the experience.

On top of the cash and prizes awarded to the winner, of course.




real people

Erica woke up the next morning feeling peaceful and well-rested even though she'd only had the usual five or so hours of sleep. She wished Marin were still there to experience Project Runway without Jennifer, but at least she still had Isaac after an awfully close call. And her roommates wanted to win with their skills, not unnecessary mind games. It was downright pleasant to shower and get ready to go to Parson's while chatting with Allison and Lydia. They were catty and snarky, but they were also funny rather than scary.

Best of all, they found out that their next challenge was to design clothes for real people: women who were finishing school and needed interview clothes. Erica was used to working with regular folks—musicians, yes, but they all had bits they wanted to feature or to hide. It was fun to be able to sit down with a client and tailor something to their interests for a change.

Erica's client was going into finance, but had a very feminine personal style, which was also a good challenge. She'd asked for a pantsuit, even though she was self-conscious about her pear shape, but Erica managed to talk her into an a-line dress and jacket in a deep green that looked elegant against her dark skin. Matte copper buttons made the suit even more directly a riff on the blue-suit-gold-button power dressing cliche. Erica was pretty damn pleased with herself, and at the fitting her client was pleased, too.

While Erica felt like herself again, finally, the other designers behaved entirely differently with their clients than when they had just been creating for themselves. Derek was all smiles and charm and attentiveness. Scott turned up the positivity, making his client feel confident enough to try something just a little daring. Stiles treated his client like a co-conspirator, kept saying they were in this together, which got his client to open up about all her worries and concerns. Allison acted as though she were her client's best girlfriend.

Unsurprisingly Lydia was her usual dictatorial-for-your-own-good self, and while she listened to her client she clearly had her own vision of what the interview ensemble should be. What was surprising was that when they were choosing clients Lydia without hesitation selected the heaviest of the seven women, and the only time she had any concern was when she was making sure with the producers that she would be provided with a larger-sized dress form.

When Erica took a break to wander around the room, Lydia was draping a bright fuchsia dress; on her table was the cobalt-blue fabric she was fashioning into a wrap.

"You seem to know what you're doing," Erica said.

Lydia shrugged. "One of my best friends is a larger size and I make things for her all the time," she said. "Such an underserved market. It's bad business to ignore it." She smiled. "Besides, I got the one woman who's going into the arts, so I can make any damn crazy thing I want and it will still be appropriate. It's called strategy."

Lydia did always seem to be about five steps ahead of everyone else on that score.

What was even more surprising than Lydia's comfort and experience with plus-sized clothing was Isaac's total inability to deal with the challenge. His client was a size eight, probably, and just needed a stylish suit for her interviews with entertainment law firms. But Isaac was having a total breakdown. The fitting hadn't gone well at all, everything a bit too small and too boxy to be flattering. Erica tried to calm him down over their dinner break, but there wasn't much she could say.

"All my friends are models," Isaac said. "The largest person I've ever made anything for was you."

Erica blinked.

"Not that—I mean of course you're not—but see what I mean? And work clothes? I've never worked in an office! I'm trying to sort of dress her like a fashion editor and hoping that will be okay."

That certainly explained the palazzo pant. "Well," Erica said, then sighed. There was no margin of error now that there were only seven designers left. And unless Lydia or Derek put a foot wrong—which was highly unlikely—that meant the rest of them were fighting for one, or at most two, remaining slots.

Isaac looked down at his salad. "Yeah. I guess I'll just make it all a little too big and then fit it on her tomorrow?"

"Especially the top. If the top is well-fitted then the pant might work."

"I suppose," Isaac said, "but …" He cupped his hands over his chest.

"When we get back to LA," Erica said, pointing at Isaac with her fork, "you are going to find people to make clothing for who don't look like models!"

"In LA?" Isaac asked, cocking his head.

"Exactly what I mean!" Erica replied.

Erica was safe in the middle, like just about always, but her client adored the outfit so she was counting it as a win. Scott and Stiles had immunity, so they put Derek in the bottom for no reason apparent to anyone as his look was perfectly adorable if a bit on the dull side. Allison and Lydia were on the top, and Allison won; her client was giddy with excitement over her little black pantsuit.

While in the previous challenge Erica had been worried and angry when Isaac was on the bottom, this time she was just resigned. She knew, he knew, everyone knew, and when he came to say goodbye she just said, "I'll see you soon."

"You know you can win this, right?" Isaac said. "Now win it for both of us."




prints

Lydia sat at her worktable, stylus in her hand, and frowned. Panic was not a word in her vocabulary, but she was experiencing a high level of anxiety. She was supposed to design a print, and while she'd quickly come up with a color palette, she was now drawing a complete blank. Everything she tried to sketch just looked like kitchy wallpaper when she repeated the pattern. She was so close—just two challenges left before the finals—so now was not the time.

She glanced up at Erica, as she so often did when she was thinking. Erica had finished, of course, and was merely making refinements. She was a genius with prints; they all knew this.

A producer popped her head in through the door. "Fifteen minutes," she said.

Wildly, Lydia thought of Erica's ever-present hoop earrings and drew a series of interlocking circles, then made the circles smaller and smaller. It wasn't quite a polka dot, because the pattern was irregular, but it wasn't particularly distinctive, either. She hoped that when she got the fabric it wouldn't be too terrible, and concentrated on her shopping trip to Mood—maybe she'd be able to make up for it.

Then she got the fabric back.

Stiles cocked his head. "It kinda looks like the Olympics logo, if it was designed by Gucci."

Her heart sank. How could she have missed this? The colors were different of course—greens and violets—but he was absolutely right. She sighed.

"So that … wasn't what you were going for?" he asked.

She looked at him and crossed her arms.

He sucked in his breath through his teeth. "Yikes," he said, and then, suddenly softened. "But if anyone can make it work, Lydia, it's absolutely you!"

"Thanks," Lydia said dryly, then looked down at Stiles's own print. "Did someone vomit spray paint all over your fabric?"

Stiles grinned. "Yes!" he said. "That's exactly what I wanted!"

Why she'd thought that Stiles would make sense now, when he never had at any point since she'd met him, was beyond her. But at least if he went out with that loud print of his he'd go down swinging. As he walked away she looked around the room, desperately hoping she'd find something worse than her own print, but to no avail. Allison had a completely sweet blue and white plaid with a hint of green that she was making into trousers; Derek had of course made some sort of stark black and white asymmetrical graphic print. Scott's—well, actually, she wasn't sure Scott had made a pattern; his fabric was dark brown with the faintest of windowpane checks in pale grey.

And Erica? Erica had bought more prints to go with the print she'd created. Erica was making a color-blocked dress and a shawl, only entirely of contrasting prints. Lydia couldn't even look at her, or maybe, wouldn't watch her work, shouldn't watch her, except that in the past few weeks she'd developed the habit of looking at her, because she was far and away the most interesting thing in the room.

Well. Lydia would make a sweet dress, focus on construction, and hope for the best. She'd put the pattern as a sash between the contrasting colors that made up the pattern, perhaps some trim at the hem and the cuffs, maybe even a little neckerchief or a head scarf. She'd put pockets in it, and if she was very lucky, Michael Kors would call it "what Zooey Deschanel might wear to Rio 2016."

Lydia tried to work through most of Tim's visit, so she didn't have to listen to him gush over the others. The sinking feeling in her stomach was getting worse as the evening wore on and she just wanted to get this one over with. When he got to her he hummed, arms crossed.

"I have to admit I'm very concerned," he said at last. "The judges notice when you only use the print as an accent. It isn't in the spirit of the challenge."

Lydia handed him a larger piece of the fabric, and he stretched it between his hands, holding it out in the light.

"Oh dear," he said. "This looks like—"

"I know," Lydia said.

"Well," Tim said, and then seemed at a loss.

"Head scarf or neckerchief?" she asked.

"Neckerchief could be a kind of relaxed Audrey Hepburn-ish look," Tim said.

"Rome 1960?" Lydia said, and Tim laughed.

Lydia saw Erica just before the runway show, when they had their models in hair and makeup. Not that she'd been avoiding her exactly, but—

"Missed your visit today," Erica said.

Lydia shrugged and tried to smile despite her nerves. "Now that there are fewer of us I can see just fine from my workspace." Then, before she could think about it too much, she added, "Yours is fantastic, by the way."

Erica looked surprised, then smiled, bright and sunny. "You think so?" she asked.

"Of course. If you don't win it would be a travesty."

"Thanks!" Erica looked at Lydia's model.

"You don't have to say anything," Lydia said, sighing.

"Promise me," Erica said, taking her hand, "that the next time you design a print you'll run it past me?"

Now it was Lydia's turn to be surprised. "If you like," she replied, and Erica nodded.

This time, no one was safe. All six designers stayed on the runway and heard the critiques, and the most Lydia could say for herself was that she went first, so she didn't have to cringe through the other crits while dreading her own. The judges gushed just as much as Tim had over Erica and Derek, and Nina declared that she wanted to wear Allison's trousers. They expressed confusion over both Stiles and Scott's prints, thought they felt that even if Stiles's print was ridiculously loud he'd made a design that used it well.

When they left the runway she couldn't talk to anyone, couldn't even make eye contact. She hadn't been in the bottom even once in the entire course of the competition, and she was not going home today. It wasn't in the plan. She wished she could see past that enough to be happy for Erica, but at the moment she couldn't.

Back on the runway, Allison was declared safe, Erica won, Derek was praised, and Stiles was told to be careful about overdoing it before being sent to safety. She wished that she wasn't standing so far from Scott; she had the urge to hold someone's hand. Then, after what seemed like an eternity, Heidi said her name, and she looked up.

"You are in. Please leave the runway."

Lydia nodded, and immediately went to Scott, giving him the biggest hug she could before walking backstage. Allison was sitting on the couch, already in tears, and Lydia realized that neither outcome would be good news for her.

"I'm so sorry," she said.

Allison jumped up, shaking her head. "No, I'm glad you're here," she said, and hugged Lydia. "Don't be sorry."

It was hard for all of them to say goodbye to Scott. Lydia realized how much she'd relied on his steady, positive presence in a room full of drama queens, Stiles was nearly inconsolable, and even Derek and Erica were glum.

"It's okay, really," Allison said. "There just aren't any eliminations that won't be terrible."

"Yeah," Erica said, and took Lydia's hand. "At least there's only one left."

Lydia looked at her and thought, men be damned. She wanted both her ladies in the finale. It was the only acceptable outcome.




avant-garde

Trust Erica to win in one of the weeks that immunity was off the table. Not that she'd want to immunity herself into the finale, and it was flattering that her print would be produced on a larger scale and sold in a chain of fabric stores, but still. It would be nice to not have to worry.

Besides, she had plenty of ideas for the avant-garde challenge; if anything, she had too many. They'd been sent to the Chrysler Building, and Erica hadn't left the lobby, so struck was she by the way the intricate wood veneers played against the chrome on the elevator doors. She sketched shape after shape, color blocking each, thinking about the various prints she'd seen at Mood. There was nothing that would give her this precise feel, but she could combine a few things.

Then, while they drove their sponsor-supplied cars down to Mood, it began to rain. Lydia was driving, so Erica could just sit and stare out the window at all the umbrellas springing up as people tried to keep their suits dry.

A hat. She was going to make a giant hat and the narrowest of curving dresses in warm brown and silver, and as long as she kept it from looking too much like My Fair Lady, it would be awesome.

Lydia glanced at her when they stopped at a red light. "I recognize that look by now," she said. "You know what you're going to do."

"So do you," Erica replied, grinning. "You've been humming."

Lydia smiled back, then glanced in the rear view. "What about you, Allison?"

"Mood isn't going to know what hit it," she said, determined.

"Good," Lydia replied, "because I've decided that it should be the three of us in the finale."

Erica looked at Allison, and then back at Lydia. "You say that as though that makes it so."

"Doesn't it?" Lydia said.

Mood was less frenetic than it had been for any other challenge; the designers were focused and by now intimately familiar with the fabrics available. They also had a lot of money to spend, as all of them had been steadily saving money at each of the other challenges.

The workroom was quiet, too; even Stiles didn't spend much time joking. Instead he was busy constructing a frame for some sort of massive hood that Erica couldn't imagine wouldn't be top-heavy. She focused on making sure her own hat was as light as possible, decided she should ask Tim about the fringe trim because she went back and forth on it. She also made corseting for the dress, so the whole thing would be an exaggerated series of curves and whorls, like an art nouveau illustration. Luckily her model had a curvier shape, so Erica could create the illusion that her breasts might spill out of the top at any moment.

Lydia came by for her usual tour of the room a bit early. She was working on some kind of ethereal, floaty, sea-foam green thing that looked less like a dress and more like a watercolor, probably wouldn't make any kind of real sense until it was on the model. Erica was piecing together her own dress, four different silver and brown patterns coming together like a jigsaw puzzle.

"I still don't know how you do that," Lydia said, shaking her head.

Erica shrugged. "It's my superpower. What do you think?"

"It's really beautiful."

"So is yours," Erica replied, looking over toward Lydia's workspace. "Everyone's is, in its own way."

"Even Stiles?" Lydia asked.

"Yeah. It's like a weird animated character, but I kinda like it. It's certainly Stiles."

"That, I would agree with." Lydia paused, then said, "So I wanted to ask, since we'll both be under the tents at Lincoln Center anyway …"

"True," Erica said, nodding. Marin, Isaac, Jennifer, Scott and whomever was eliminated today would all have decoy collections, which was an amazing prize in and of itself.

"So I just—we should keep in touch, while we're home working."

Erica met Lydia's stare, and she seemed surprisingly unsure, especially for Lydia. "Of course."

"Good," Lydia said, nodding.

Then, because Erica had a penchant for getting ahead of herself and wanted to make sure, she asked, "Did you mean everyone, or us in particular?"

Lydia smiled. "I meant everyone and us in particular."

"Good," Erica said, grinning.

Lydia looked at the hat then, cocking her head. "You don't need the fringe," she said, and walked away.

(Tim agreed. The fringe went.)

The runway was two parts amazing show—Derek made a dress covered in feathers, and Allison a sleek jumpsuit and a cloak that looked like the outfit for a super spy—one part anticlimax—Derek was in, Stiles was out (his model really couldn't walk in that giant hood and hobbled dress), and Lydia won—and two parts intense anxiety while Allison and Erica waited to hear their fate.

Heidi looked back and forth between them, and then smiled. "You are both in! We will be taking four designers to Lincoln Center this year!"

Erica heard a scream, wasn't sure it was her or Allison, and wasn't sure it mattered, really. They were hugging and laughing in the middle of the runway, and then ran back stage full of good spirits.

Stiles was a surprisingly good sport about it, probably because of the decoy collections they couldn't talk about on camera. He and Derek hugged for a very long time. after Tim came to get Stiles, Derek excused himself and wandered out into the hallway.

Lydia waited until their mic packs were collected, then turned to Allison. "What was that?"

"They've been fucking for weeks. You didn't know?"

"How did they manage that?" Erica asked, feeling as surprised as Lydia looked.

"After Matt left and Derek moved into the room, they took all their showers together. They didn't want it to be part of their storyline on the show so they kept it quiet. I found out from Scott. Isaac didn't tell you?"

"No he didn't!" Erica said, and resolved to text him just as soon as she had access to her phone.

Back at the apartments, Erica was wondering how she'd fit everything back into her small bag. Allison was some kind of packing machine and had been done for a while when she got a text.

"I'm going to run next door," she said. "Stiles asked Scott to ask me to check in on Derek."

"That's really sort of sweet," Erica said.

"I don't remember Scott asking Stiles to check in on you," Lydia said.

Allison shrugged. "Scott knew I had you," she said, smiling as she left the room.

Lydia turned to Erica. "There aren't any cameras anyway, but would you like to join me in the bathroom?"

Erica blinked. "I … um, yes?" she said, and followed her.

Inside, Lydia pinned Erica to the back of the door. "I don't like finding out that other people are ahead of me," she said, and pulled Erica down so she could kiss her.

"You're doing this because they did it?" Erica asked between kisses, breathless though she was.

"No, I'm doing it because I want to. I'm doing it now because they did it. If I'd thought of doing it in the bathroom I would have jumped you as soon as Jennifer left." She started unbuttoning Erica's jeans.

"Are we—do we have time for this?" Erica asked, though she was pulling off Lydia's shirt.

"Allison won't mind," Lydia said.

Later, in the cars to the airport, Allison said that it wasn't a big deal except that she'd had to go back to the boy's room to pee, and their bathroom was "kind of gross."

But Erica was okay with owing her one. It was worth it.




collections

They talked on Skype a lot. And not just the two of them; they made a weekly group chat with all the designers coming back for Fashion Week (well, except Jennifer, and Lydia wasn't sure if she wasn't invited or declined). They showed each other everything because there was no real reason not to now that they were all executing their own personal visions, rather than responding to a common challenge. Scott and Stiles worked as a team, trying to talk the producers into letting them show if not together at least back-to-back so that it would look like one larger cohesive collection. On top of the work was a lot of cross-country yearning; Scott, Stiles and Lydia were in New York while Allison, Erica and Derek were all in California. But Lydia wasn't too worried about that, at least, not at the moment.

Besides, there were plenty of rock stars in New York. Cooler ones, even.

When she saw that Derek was incorporating color into his collection—red, somewhat obvious when your palette was black and white but, baby steps—Lydia bit the bullet and decided to design a print. It was the only challenge that had truly defeated her, and she took these things personally. Erica was as good as her word, helping Lydia avoid her previous mistakes, and also showed her own prints to Lydia. Of course they were amazing. They all debriefed after their Tim's visits, which gave everyone a burst of renewed energy. Between work and chatting the three months went quickly.

It was strange to get re-accustomed to filming. The four of them who were still in the competition shared one large suite, while the five decoy designers were just down the hall. This made for a good deal of surreptitious late night running back and forth, like some sort of French farce. There was also the one last challenge, where they had to make a look in a few hours but were able to use one of those decoy designers to help them; Allison and Derek immediately took their secret paramours and Erica nabbed Isaac, so Lydia was just relieved that she got along with Marin because Jennifer? No. The final challenge also had to be done in a washable fabric but that was easy; Lydia loved a floaty cotton maxi dress.

Model selection was a new sort of stress, but at least the four of them were after different things. Derek gravitated toward the girls that gave good bitchface, while Erica wanted an edgier, quirky look and Allison snapped up all the fresh-faced well-scrubbed girls next door that she could (she even asked them to smile for her). Lydia wanted the faeries, the ethereal ones with billowy hair who looked like they might float away, and dark skin or freckles that could absorb her bright colors.

Under the tents Lydia was too busy dealing with her own final disasters, the model that didn't show up and the last fittings and hair, to be able to watch the collections that went before her. But that was what video was for, right? And her own show went in the blink of an eye, like a dream, like no time at all passed between when she came out with her little microphone to talk about floating on air and when she came out and gave a wave after it was over.

She did manage to see Derek's, and it was impressive, the kind of classic American ready-to-wear that Michael Kors would eat with a spoon. Scott and Stiles got their wish to show back to back and Lydia was glad they were going in together—if the producers had allowed that on the show, the pair might have won. Erica's was last, all flash and skin and fuck you, and Lydia couldn't be prouder. People poured backstage to congratulate everyone, family members and designers from previous seasons, but they couldn't bask in their triumph for long before they were being pulled away, back to the runway set at Parson's, which seemed tiny after the expanse of the tents.

The guest judge that was to help decide their fate was some sort of pop star who according to Erica had made a splash on the VMA's the week before, and so was quite a hot commodity. But Lydia knew that really, as it had been all season, it was down to her and Derek. Erica was just a little too rocker-girl, Allison too mainstream, and while they were both highly praised, they were eliminated just as soon as the four of them came back to the runway once the decision was made.

Derek and Lydia walked toward each other and held hands, and Lydia tried not to hold her breath, tried to remember to be a good sport if she lost, though she couldn't imagine that she would.

Then they said her name, and she started to cry. Derek gave her a hug so big it lifted her off her feet, and he was even smiling as he did, so for a moment she thought that maybe they'd said he was the winner, until he thanked the judges and left the runway.

She thanked the judges herself—or at least, she was pretty sure she did; she felt a little disconnected to the proceedings until her sister came out from backstage to embrace her. Her parents were there, too, and Tim, and wow. She'd just won Project Runway.

Much later, at the after party, Erica said, "So you're taking me with you on that trip to Fiji you just won, right? Because I need to see their prints up close and personal."

Lydia laughed. "Make me a bikini, and we'll talk."

"You sure you want that kind of attention?" Erica asked, raising her eyebrows. "You know I make clothes that make people stare."

"Please," Lydia said. "You and me together on a beach? They're going to stare anyway."

"I suppose that's true," Erica replied. "Can we make them stare now?"

"Why not?" Lydia said, and kissed her.


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