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Cinna isn't sure how it happens, but the designers get younger every season.

"Oh, aren't they just darling, Cinna?" Effie says. She clasps her hands together and coos, somehow managing not to move her head while Flavius teases her hair into a stylish, gravity-defying updo. "I can't wait to see what they make for us this time around."

They've managed to whittle down the initial twenty-four candidates to just twelve designers. All twelve of them are sitting together in their hard plastic chairs in front of the runway, waiting for Cinna and Effie to come out and give them their assignments. Cinna can watch them chat and size each other up in the monitor of their hair and makeup room.

Cinna remembers most of them from their audition videos, and he already can tell what stories the producers will want to play up for each of them. There's the typical pack of catty, competitive fashion school graduates, out to win at any cost and convinced that the sun shines out of their ass. Rue is young and quiet, gifted but still a little green and untested. She's probably here just to see if the pressure cooker of the competition pulls something really impressive out of her. Katniss wants to win this to support her mother and sister. Thresh already has a strong if also a little cold point of view and quite a few impressive designs. Peeta studied fashion during his off-hours while working full time at a bakery.

Most bets are on one of the fashion school graduates to win -- they have for the past few seasons -- but Cinna has a feeling that this time around, the producers might nudge things towards one dark horse candidates for the top prize.

"They're going to be an interesting bunch," Cinna says.

"So exciting," Effie says with a flutter of her fingers. Her smile gets so wide it starts looking a little plastic, but Cinna knows it's genuine all the same.

---

Before being hired to this gig, Cinna had only ever known Effie by reputation only. She had been a wealthy tastemaker then, flitting about red carpets and runway shows Europe and America in only the most cutting edge and fashionable of outfits. She wasn't a designer or a model or a photographer, and yet everyone in the industry knew her or knew of her. She could make or break an excited young designer with an errant swing of her purse, and everyone wanted a piece of her because of it.

At the time, Cinna had been feeling a little bit restless. His fashion house had been booming, but he was so busy with business that he didn't have any time to sit down and really focus on working on his own designs anymore. He liked his younger staff, with their bright eyes and big dreams, but it was pretty boring, having to balance budgets and sit in meetings and work on marketing plans. Most of the time, it felt like he was just going through the motions.

Effie managed to track him down during Paris fashion week. Fashion weeks are as much about smoozing and rubbing elbows as they are about clothes, a neverending stream of parties, cocktails, important lunches, even more important dinners, and of course, runway shows. It was never a surprise when Effie showed up at all the social events (wearing a new look each time), and so Cinna wasn't surprised to see her at a Vogue luncheon, but he was surprised when she wanted to talk to him.

"Oh, Cinna," Effie said while dodging photographers and trying not to trip over Marc Jacobs' coterie of admirers. "Just the man I was looking for." Her dress was extravagant, sequins and feathers and perhaps a little too much color, though the cut of the shoulders and hips were very nice if a little over-exaggerated. Cinna saw it from when it walked the runway in Milan, though he couldn't for the life of him remember who the designer was.

Cinna didn't realize it at the time, but Effie had a tendency to do that, to find someone she'd never met before and talk to them like they were already old friends. "Hello," Cinna said. "It's a pleasure to meet you." He stuck out a hand.

She shook it in a dainty, well-mannered way that made her seem like she was auditioning for a Jane Austen movie. "You'll never believe it," she said, "but I had the most wonderful idea for a television show."

Cinna raised an eyebrow. "A television show?"

"Only the most amazing idea for a television show!" Effie said. She smiled bright enough that Cinna got a good look at her perfectly shaped teeth. "I want to pluck the best and the brightest designers out there and give them an opportunity to shine. While competing against each other, of course. A little challenge will do them some good."

"So it's a reality show, then?' Cinna said. He couldn't say that he was a fan of the trend, but he wasn't much of a TV-watcher.

"I'm not a fan of that word, reality," Effie said. "It sounds so base and degrading. No, this is about art and fashion and beauty, and I won't have it besmirched in this way." She wagged her finger in Cinna's face. "I'll have my people call your people. I know you'll be perfect for it."

Cinna wasn't entirely sure what happened, but he ended up agreeing to the eventual deal. Just one season at first, acting as a mentor for the contestants with the option to continue if the show was renewed.

And well, that was the beginning of that.

---

"For this challenge," Effie says, "your team has been given a color and a common household object. Your goal will be to create a collection of three cohesive looks that both makes use of the color and properly evokes the idea of the household object." She flutters her fingers and pivots on one of her chunky heels. "Good luck to you all."

In the workroom, the designers split up into their groups to start sketching before they make their trip to Mood for fabric. Cinna watches them work, but he knows not to peek over their shoulders until they start putting together the physical looks.

Clove, Cato, and Marvel are working with the color gold and a butter knife. They're hunched together over Cato's sketch pad, getting into a hushed, tense argument. The cameras hover, ready to catch every moment of the possible drama if it explodes later on. Katniss, Peeta, and Rue have the color brown and a plastic deck chair. There's a lot of nodding and pointing in that corner of the room, which is usually a good sign. Glimmer's team is doing something with green and a mop. They're barely even talking to one another, each of them bent over their sketch pads and lost in their own thoughts. Thresh's team needs to figure out how to turn the color red and a television set into something wearable. They're scratching their heads and shrugging, looking every bit as confused and Cinna feels right now.

Cinna still doesn't know if the producers stay up all night coming up with the challenges or if Effie makes them up on the mornings when they announce them. Both are equally likely at this point.

---

The thing about mentoring on a TV show is that it's not a whole lot like mentoring in real life. He only gets to look in for about an hour and make all of his comments before being shuffled back out again. He's become used to it over the years, going in and out of the creative process, but he's never quite gotten over how strange and artificial it feels. He always gets stuck wondering what happens in those in-between times when he's not there. The cameras always capture it, of course, but he is can't help but be keenly aware of how much gets left on the cutting room floor when the episode finally airs.

Still, he can make the most of the time that he does have. He likes being a guiding hand, a second pair of eyes on a look that's coming together. So many of the designers who come through their doors haven't ever had the chance to collaborate with anyone else, to take in other opinions and use that to make their own looks stronger. Cinna remembers Chaff from a few seasons back. He started out unable to think outside of muted, solid colors, and by the end, he was doing beautiful, ambitious things with floral prints. Finnick always had his flowing blue-green dresses, but he didn't figure out how to edit things down into something really magical until halfway through the season.

As always, Cinna steps into the workroom ready for anything. It doesn't matter what anyone does outside of the workroom. Once they end up here, it's a whole different game. Even though this is a group project, Cinna makes sure to meet with each person individually. It doesn't take him long to realize that this is going to be a difficult episode.

The group who has to make something out of red and televisions decides to go for a geometric look, all reds and blacks meeting at right angles. The three designs are bold and cohesive, but they're also all clearly from Thresh's point of view, and the other two contestants (Amber and David) are basically doing work for hire. Cinna does his best to gently nudge the other two towards a more personal flair, though he's not sure he's getting through.

The color gold in inexperienced hands is always asking for trouble, and for some reason, the unifying theme of that collection is an oval-shaped metallic-looking armband wrapped around one wrist. It does evoke the idea of a butter knife, for better or for worse. Mostly worse. Cinna focuses on the taste level, but he suspects that there's not enough time to make a turnaround here. Not that it matters. These three are the arrogant types, so convinced of their brilliance already that they won't listen to outside input. "Pull it together," Cinna tells them, but he can tell they're not really listening.

Glimmer, Jake, and Janine's collection is a mess. None of their pieces fit together outside of one color choice and stringy ropes of fabric that sort-of look mop-like. When Cinna talks to them, they all just shrug and shuffle their feet, muttering something about the difficulty of the challenge.

Katniss, Peeta, and Rue are a little better off. They've gone full avant garde with their looks, dark browns offset with white strips of fabric that imitate the curves of the deck chair. Rue even went so far as to take some of the wire clothes hangers and create a whole white structured back piece that shows over the shoulders of her model. The base dress is a little plain and dowdy, but she takes the criticism well. Peeta's look is a little more grounded, a clean, simple silhouette with an interesting patterning of the white strips, and this early in the competition, it's good enough to be in the middle of the pack but nothing particularly special.

Katniss has done something a little different.

"I think you might want to go easier on the braids," Cinna says. They do have a nice texture to them as he reaches out and smooths them with the palm of his hand. They're brown, blending into the shape of the dress, but there's too much of it. It needs editing.

Katniss frowns. She's not much of a smiler, that one, but somethingabout the intensity of her gaze charms Cinna all the same. "Yeah," she says. "Okay." She squints a little and nods.

Some of the braids come off. Some of them get rearranged, and after she's done, there's a lovely asymmetry to the piece that makes it pop. "Better?" she asks.

"Yeah," Cinna says, letting a slow smile creep over his face. Oh, she's a tough one, and she's in this to win it. He'll have to keep an eye out for her. "Looks good."

---

"Tell me all about them, Cinna!" Effie says on the morning of the judging. They get breakfast catered courtesy of the production company, and so Cinna is slathering cream cheese on his bagel while they sit at a cheap fake-wooden table. A life on television is rarely as glamorous as it seems. "I'm sure it's all fabulous, and you describe them so well."

Cinna shrugs. He never quite understands what Effie wants out of him when she asks things like that out of him. He doesn't want to influence her decision in one way or the other. That's not his job, and he doesn't want it to be. "It's the first challenge," he says. "Things are a little rough."

Effie just laughs. "That's the best part, isn't it? Watching them all grow into beautiful flowers." She claps. Her fingernails are painted in swirls today, purples and blues that match the pattern of her pants.

Cinna isn't proud to admit it, but sometimes he lets himself believe that Effie's as vapid as she presents herself as to the camera. When she's judging, she can always be counted on to say that a particular look lacks color or personality, even if it's beautifully designed and impeccably constructed. But Cinna's starting to see that it's not just ignorance or an affectation, she just wants fashion to be ambitious and strange and full of wonder. Maybe it's a little innocent and naive, the way it is for people who've never had to work hard for anything in their life, but Cinna can admire it all the same. "You're right," he says, "but they're not there yet."

A PA carrying a tablet sticks his head into the room. "Five minutes," he says.

Cinna nods. "We'll be right out there," he says. He stands up, brushes some lint and stray crumbs off his pants.

Effie stands up as well. She changes her stance, the way she tilts her head up and sets her shoulders back. Game face. Cinna holds out an arm, and she takes it.

"Time to face the cameras," Effie says. She makes it sound more like a delight than a challenge, and maybe there's something to that, to taking the best of everything as it comes.

"Ready when you are," Cinna says.

 

FIN.