The Night of Nights
At seven forty, a knock came at the door, followed by Montblanc’s muffled voice. “Mademoiselle Alex Thoreau, excusez-moi.
“Coming!” Alex called, swallowing hard as he stood up, smoothed his skirts - how was this already becoming habitual? - and crossed to the door, pausing in front of it with his hand outstretched. He was shaking, he realised. Keenly aware of the rippling layers of fabric he was wearing, as well as the layer of makeup on his face, Alex summoned up all his courage and opened the door. “Monsieur Montblanc,” he said by way of greeting, fixing his face in a false smile.
The dapper gentleman smiled. “Mademoiselle Thoreau, if you don’t mind me saying, your transformation is quite exceptional,” he said, his voice betraying only the utmost sincerity.
“You can thank Veronique for that,” Alex said. “I didn’t have my wardrobe with me, but she managed to scrounge up this ensemble from some of the costumes on-site. The fit is a little off, but not enough that anybody would notice, I think.” You can thank Veronique for all that insight, as well
, he added privately. He would have had no idea about the fit of the clothing, the line of the sleeves, or any of the other dozens of things Veronique had primed him on before leaving to find her seat with Swablu. He liked to think he was fairly knowledgeable about fashion, but women’s
“She has done marvellously,” Montblanc said. “I came to fetch you personally in order to once again convey my thanks for your willingness to step in and fill the gap this evening. I have spoken to the organisers and the host for tonight, so they are aware of your circumstances. They also asked me to express their gratitude.”
“Of course,” Alex said graciously. “It’s almost time, then, is it?”
. The show will begin in twenty minutes, and the performances ten minutes after that, so all the Performers are asked to make their way to the waiting room.” Montblanc took a pace backwards and bowed, indicating that Alex should proceed.
Alex swallowed, his mouth dry. “Very well,” he said. “Come along, Azumarill.” Plusle and Minun had already been returned to their Poké Balls, attached discreetly to his waist. With Azumarill keeping pace beside him, Alex closed the door to his dressing room and carefully followed Montblanc down the hallway, thanking the heavens that he had talked Veronique out of making him wear heels. These black boots were unfamiliar and discomforting to walk in - plus a good inch or two taller than he was used to - but at least they had flat soles. Veronique had said something about ‘gothic lolita’, but he had been very much tuned out by that point.
“I trust you have had time to familiarise yourself with the relevant rules and regulations?” Montblanc asked as they walked.
“Naturally,” Alex said with more confidence than he felt. Almost without realising it, he was adjusting his speech patterns as well. “I expect it shall be a very different experience to the Contests I took part in while I was in Hoenn, but I have every confidence I shall not embarrass myself - or you, for that matter.”
“Me, Mademoiselle?” Montblanc seemed a little taken aback, though it was barely detectable in his impassive face. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”
“Monsieur Montblanc, it was at my - or rather, Veronique’s insistence that you even allowed me to participate, and it seems you have spoken to the organisers on my behalf as well. I am grateful to you for that, and I do not intend to repay you by making a fool of myself on stage. That would reflect poorly on both of us, wouldn’t you say?”
Montblanc regarded him for a second, then showed a brief ghost of a smile, quickly suppressed. “I daresay it would, Mademoiselle.”
Alex managed to smile back. Against all his better judgement, he was enjoying this a little. It’s like acting. Right! I’m just playing a part. I know the steps, I know my lines - all I have to do is perform convincingly.
If he looked at it like that, it was much easier to swallow. Still, he felt a tingling sense of uneasiness creeping up on him as they came to a halt in front of another door. This part of the building was noticeably nicer, with windows along one wall, showing the glittering lights of Lumiose.
“Most of the other contestants should be inside by now,” Montblanc said. “There are refreshments, seating, and screens to watch the show. Please make yourself comfortable and wait for a runner to fetch you before your turn arrives.”
“Thank you, Monsieur Montblanc,” Alex said. His heart was pounding, blood rushing in his ears. He felt like a fraud, an impostor in his own skin. He didn’t belong here. This was so wrong. Squeezing his eyes shut for a moment, Alex pushed the traitorous thoughts back down inside him, taking a deep breath before continuing. “I will see you again throughout the evening, I expect?”
“I expect so, Mademoiselle, but it will be brief. My real job begins now,” Montblanc admitted. With another bow, he took his leave. “Bon courage
, Alex Thoreau.”
,” Alex replied habitually, looking up at the door with some trepidation. I could run, right now. I could leave and never come back, and nobody would be any the wiser, whispered the subversive voice inside his head. Shut up, Alex told it. He felt a pinch on his stockinged calf, just below the line of his skirts. “Ouch!”
He looked down to see Azumarill watching him with some concern in its small, expressive eyes, albeit still mixed with a faint trace of amusement. Tugging gently on his dress, it indicated the door.
“You’re right,” Alex said. “We have to do this. You’re with me?” Still looking a little uncertain, Azumarill nevertheless nodded firmly. The message was clear: no matter what. Alex took another deep breath, then pushed the door open and stepped inside, making sure to keep his stride even.
The waiting room resembled nothing less than an extraordinarily large sitting room, done up in classic Kalosian style. An entire wall of curved windows, looking out from the front of the Showcase Theatre, was the only concession to modernity. Bathed in the evening light, the space was decorated in soft creams and beiges that seemed to give off a soft glow. A number of plush couches and chairs, most of them occupied by the other Performers, were arranged in two rough semicircles, facing away from the windows to afford views of a pair of large screens on the inside wall. In the centre of each open area was a small, delicate table carefully set with teapots, china cups, and trays of sweets and pastries.
Realising that he had frozen almost mid-step, Alex made himself keep walking. He had just started to worry about where he was going to sit when he heard somebody call his name.
“Alex, is that you? Over here!” It was the red-haired girl that they had delivered the first Poké Puffs to back in Coumarine, Caiti Merrow. Now dressed in a blue pinafore and white blouse, she sat on one of the far couches with her Teddiursa, waving him over with a smile on her face.
Carefully, Alex picked his way across the room to join her, thankful for the invitation. As he walked, he felt the gaze of almost every woman in the room boring into him. He didn’t blame them. Here was an unknown quantity, a stranger who had appeared in their midst. If Performers were anything like Coordinators, the more serious among them would have researched their competition carefully. They would have been expecting Selene Wiley, infamous diva and drama queen, not some nobody who had brought the refreshments around last week.
“Good evening, Caiti,” Alex said politely. “I’m sorry for not introducing myself earlier - I can be terribly shy at times.” That had been the excuse Veronique had used for his reticence, so he stuck to it. He had had little need to practice his code-switching since arriving in Kalos, but he found himself slipping comfortably back into the more formal register he used for interviews and performances, accenting it with what he hoped was an appropriately feminine touch.
“Don’t worry about it! Here, sit down, sit down!” Caiti patted the couch beside her, smiling broadly. “I had no idea you were a Pokémon Performer!” she continued as Alex cautiously took a seat, Azumarill plopping itself down at his feet and leaning forward to help itself to the pastries on the table.
“I’m not, really,” Alex admitted, making sure his voice was pitched just loud enough for the others around them to hear. He didn’t want to make any enemies here, so he figured his best bet was to be as non-threatening as possible. “I compete in Contests in the Hoenn region, but I’ve never even seen a Showcase before. I’m just filling in to make up the numbers.”
“Oh, I heard. Mister Montblanc told me about it earlier. I have to thank you, really!” Caiti clasped his hands between hers excitedly. “I was the last Performer to sign up, so I almost certainly would have had to leave if it came down to it!”
“Ah . . . don’t worry about it,” Alex said, automatically trying to withdraw his hands, but she held them tight.
“That aside . . .” she said, her voice taking on a slightly sly tone. “I didn’t realise you were such a hottie! The way you were dressed before, I almost thought you were a guy! Oh! Um, sorry.”
“It’s not a problem,” Alex demurred, while internally screaming at the irony. “I feel more comfortable in clothes that are a bit more neutral, I guess, but Veronique told me this is the expected standard for Pokémon Showcases.”
“Ooh, I see!” Caiti smiled broadly and nodded, causing her curls to bounce manically. “But you clean up alright! Oh, by the way, is Alex short for something?”
A little wrongfooted by the sudden change of direction, Alex blinked before answering. “Uh . . . Alexandra. What about you?”
“Caitlynn, but nobody calls me that. My daft old mother spelled it with a Y and two N’s, so I hate having to explain that all the time.”
“Oh, sorry,” Alex said, wincing slightly.
“Nah, no worries! A-ny-way!” she said, pumping Alex’s hands excitedly up and down with each syllable. “I’m so glad to meet you, and I hope we’ll be good friends! Whaddya say?”
Friends? Really? This girl moves fast.
She seemed nice enough, though, if a little hectic. “Sure,” he agreed.
“All right!” Caiti seemed genuinely happy, which befuddled Alex for a moment. Then, for another moment, he wondered if all women were like this when there were no men around.
“Say, Caiti,” he began, but she cut him off with a sharp yelp.
“Ah! I can’t believe I almost forgot to ask you! Did you make those Poké Puffs yourself?” she asked, leaning forward eagerly so she was almost nose-to-nose with Alex.
Forcing himself not to suspiciously back away, Alex shrugged noncommittally. “Well, it was mostly Veronique,” he said. “Her family owns Le Pâtisserie Vincent
back in Coumarine, so she’s grown up with baking. I just helped her out.”
“Well, tell her I said thank you!” Caiti said. “Those were some of the best Poké Puffs we’ve ever had, and better than anything I could make! Right, Teddi?” She looked to her Pokémon for confirmation. Sitting on the arm of the couch next to her, Teddi squeaked affirmatively, giving what might have been a thumbs-up with one stubby arm.
“I’m glad you liked them,” Alex said with a genuine smile. “I’m sure Veronique will be pleased to hear it.”
“That goes for you too, of course!” Caiti said. Before she could continue, however, she was interrupted by the viewscreens on the wall suddenly winking into life. An ornate circular stage came into view, lying in shadow but for a single spotlight that fell on a deep hole in the floor.
“Ladies and gentlemen!” a heavily accented voice boomed from the TV sets. “May I be the first to welcome you to this, a night of spectacle and romance in the dazzling Lumiose City! The sun is setting on this beautiful day, and yet our extravaganza is just beginning!” The owner of the voice appeared on the screen just then, rising steadily up through the hole in the stage on a hydraulic platform. From what Alex could see, he was a tall, slim man in an asymmetrical blue suit, wearing a matching top hat. He bowed theatrically to the audience as he rose up to stage level, doffing his hat and flourishing the staff he carried.
“Here we go!” Caiti whispered excitedly, mercifully letting go of Alex’s hands to turn her attention to the screen.
“My name is Monsieur Pierre,” the man continued, placing his hat back on his head and spreading his arms wide, “and I will be your host tonight, as with all nights, for this Lumiose Pokémon Showcase!”
The crowd cheered, and Alex gripped the arm of his couch tightly.
“Ladies and gentlemen!” Pierre continued, twirling his staff like a majorette’s baton. “Our first group of Performers are preparing in the wings with their Pokémon. Soon, they will take to the stage to wow you with their first Themed Performance of the evening. Tonight’s theme is Pokémon Styling, and we have eighteen Performers in total competing for this - the Lumiose Princess Key!”
As the camera switched to a close-up shot, Alex realised that the ring atop Pierre’s staff was in fact a Pokémon, resembling nothing more than a large, sentient keyring, which detached itself and whirled joyously through the air, coming to a halt near the camera and displaying a beautiful, ornate key that hung from its ring.
“Whoa,” Caiti breathed from next to him. “It’s beautiful!”
“Yeah,” Alex had to agree. The key - far too large for any conventional door - was wrought of the most lustrous silver, glinting majestically in the stage lights. The handle, comprising multiple scrolling whorls, was inlaid with an enormous azure jewel that had been cut to perfection, winking lazily as it caught the light. “So that’s the prize, huh?”
“Yep!” Caiti confirmed, a flash of greed burning in her eyes. “And once you collect three Princess Keys, you can enter the Master Class!”
Alex frowned. That hadn’t been in Montblanc’s hastily assembled dossier. “That would be . . . sort of like the Grand Festival, right? The final showdown between a region’s most qualified Coordinators - uh, Performers?”
“I guess it must be,” Caiti said. “The winner of a Master Class Showcase earns the title of Kalos Queen, and must defend her throne at future Master Class events.”
“Hmm.” Alex turned his attention back to the television screen as three more platforms rose up to join Pierre’s on the stage. Each bore a structure that could almost be described as a giant hexagonal birdcage, with open windows ornately wrought in ormolu
“Each of our six rounds tonight will feature three Performers,” Pierre explained, gesturing toward stage left, where three young women waited in costume with their Pokémon. “They will have ten minutes with all the resources they need to create dazzling displays of beauty with their Pokémon. With one minute remaining, the screens will fall so any final touches can be made in secret! After a brief parade, I will ask you, my dear audience, to cast your votes for the Performer you believe should advance to the next round. So, without further ado . . .” Pierre continued his patter while he gently guided the three Performers to their enclosures - which, Alex spotted in a close-up, were lined with benches of beauty products and accessories.
“Performers and Pokémon, ready? Your time begins now!” Pierre proclaimed. A screen above him on the stage burst into life, displaying a dazzling golden hourglass, sand trickling slowly from one hemisphere to another.
Alex shook his head in quiet astonishment. Everything was extravagant and glitzy, sparkling and beautiful. Even for a seasoned Coordinator like him, everything about this Showcase represented excess to the nth degree. Could he really stand on a stage next to such dazzling competition without coming up short? You’re wearing a dress
, he told himself. A bit of extra glamour won’t kill you now
. Of course. Caught up in the spectacle of the Showcase, he had almost forgotten that he was sitting here preparing to break one of its most fundamental rules - not to mention one of his own. I absolutely cannot believe I let Veronique talk me into this. No. Watch and learn now, tell Veronique off later. If I even make it out of this alive.
Alex returned his full attention to the screen, examining the three Performers in their enclosures. Each of them seemed fully focused on beautifying their Pokémon, accentuating their already immaculately groomed coats with almost nauseating amounts of glitter and hairspray, tying ribbons and bells to ears and tails, and even dressing them up in readily provided lacy frocks and shifts. Did subtlety really have no place in the Pokémon Showcase?
Caiti seemed to be thinking along the same lines, thankfully. “I think those three are on debut, just like you,” she murmured, clearly seeing the look on Alex’s face. “I’ve seen it before - Performers tend to panic and go overboard their first time.”
“I was starting to wonder if that was the norm,” Alex said with some relief as Pierre announced that nine minutes had passed. The windows on the three enclosures shimmered, a sheet of pinkish light falling into place and rendering them entirely opaque.
“One minute remains! Performers, please make your final adjustments!”
As the audience - both in the theatre and backstage in the waiting room - waited with bated breath, the hourglass continued trickling away, now with the top half nearly empty. With a final, joyous ringing sound, the hourglass abruptly disappeared, replaced by ‘TIME UP!’ in large red letters. At the same moment, the pink screens evaporated once again as the doors to each enclosure popped open, allowing each Performer and her Pokémon to step forth.
“Truly an exciting start to the evening!” Pierre gushed. “Our first Performer to take to the runway tonight is Marie from Cyllage City, together with her Emolga! I hope you will all join me in welcoming her to her first appearance at the Pokémon Showcase. Truly, she takes her first step tonight into a world of beauty and mastery together with her Pokémon!”
Alex watched as Marie stepped forward onto a short runway that extended from the front of the stage. Cameras zoomed in close to capture a better view of the girl, who couldn’t have been more than about thirteen and looked about as nervous as Alex felt. She kept her chin up as Emolga perched on her arm, trailing golden glitter from its fuzzy wings as it flapped them gently. A pink ribbon, matching its owner’s pinafore, had been affixed between its ears, and it wore a yellow cape that fluttered in tandem with its curious miniature wings. The audience applauded politely, but they didn’t sound exactly enthused.
“Hmm. It must be hard to judge something like this,” Alex murmured absently. “It’s hard to see anything, especially with such a tiny Pokémon.”
“That’s one of the reasons you overcompensate,” Caiti said knowledgeably. “The difference between rookies and experts is knowing when to stop.”
“Makes sense,” Alex said idly as he watched a second Performer take to the stage, her Houndour having been bedazzled to an extreme degree. A coat of sequins adorned its back like chainmaille, and a curious little gilt crown rested on its head. Unlike the trepidation displayed by Marie, this duo exuded confidence as they pranced up and down the runway, though Alex privately felt it might have been misplaced.
After the third contestant - a blonde girl in pigtails accompanied by a Binacle festooned with sparkling ribbons - had finished her lap, Pierre lined them all up in the centre of the stage. “Ladies and gentlemen, s’il vous plait
!” he proclaimed, as each of the three girls were illuminated with a different-coloured spotlight: blue, green and pink. “You will all find attached to your seats a remote control with several coloured buttons. Please use this to vote for the Performer who you think most elegantly brought out the potential of their Pokémon tonight!”
Orbs of brightly coloured light whirled around the open expanse of the theatre as the audience’s choices were tallied, converging on the three Performers. The screen above the stage displayed three large keyhole shapes, slowly filling with colour. As Alex watched, the pink keyhole outstripped the other two, coming to a halt about half full, with the rest of the audience’s votes split between blue and green. What a novel way of doing things, even if it is completely subjective.
“Contestants Alex, Camille and Elizabeth?” A voice sounded from the door, causing Alex to look up in confusion. “You’re up next, so please come with me.”
“Oh,” Alex said, wincing. He wished he’d had more time to study the other Performers before being pushed into the limelight himself. Nonetheless, he stood up as gracefully as he could manage, smoothing out his dress as he did so. “Come along, Azumarill. It’s our turn now!”
“Good luck, Alex!” Caiti said. “I’ll be cheering for you, so go and do your best!”
“Thanks,” Alex said, his voice wavering slightly as the reality of exactly what he was about to do started to dawn on him anew. “I’m gonna need all the luck I can get.”
Following the usher who had come to fetch them, Alex and the other two left the room. One of the women - the one who had answered to Elizabeth - was the rude woman who had slammed the door in Montblanc’s face last week. Probably in her early or mid-thirties, Elizabeth Chapin bore herself haughtily, looking down her nose at Alex as if he were an insect, or perhaps a piece of dirt on her shoe. Her coiffed hair was the colour of bronze, and her face had all the softness of a statue.
Alex didn’t flinch, though, as she swept in front of him, shoulders back and eyes set high. He had dealt with her kind before on the Hoenn Contest circuit, so she didn’t scare him in the slightest, despite the fact he had evidently gotten on her bad side somehow. No, he wasn’t scared of Elizabeth Chapin, nor of Camille, his other competitor, who at least met his eye with an encouraging smile when he glanced over at her. It was the event itself that scared him.
What in all hell am I doing?
This was no place for him. He followed the usher into the wings, the hushed world of black curtains and extra props, stagehands rushing in all directions to make sure everything was in order. Remembering his time working backstage at Contests, Alex cast his eyes downwards, barely avoiding tripping over a loosely-rolled spool of wires, probably leftover from an earlier sound check. He was directed into his own entrance, separated from Camille on his left and Elizabeth on his right by loose black drapery. An item was pressed into his hand, and Alex blinked in panic.
“What’s this?” he hissed.
“Voting key,” a stagehand whispered back. “Attach it to your clothing somewhere so the votes are tallied properly.”
Alex peered at the object in the gloom. It was a key of around the same size as the Princess Key Pierre had displayed earlier, but far less ornate. It appeared to be bronze instead of silver, and the precious stone in the head - green this time - was far smaller. There was a clasp on one side, so Alex hastily attached it to his waist alongside his Poké Balls.
If Alex craned his head, he could see Monsieur Pierre centre stage, his booming voice echoing strangely through the sound system. “While our Pokémon Styling stations are tidied, ladies and gentlemen, I will introduce our next three contestants. As beautiful as they are talented, I ask you to give them a round of applause as they make their entrances. Only one of these three can advance to the next stage, where they will join Marie and four other Performers in our Freestyle Performance round!”
Alex’s heart beat like a drum in his chest. Suddenly, he was back on the battlefield in Lilycove, facing down an insurmountable opponent once again. Calm down
, he urged himself. It’s not like that today. There’s no pressure. You just have to perform decently and not embarrass yourself!
“Our first Performer for this second round is Camille, from right here in Lumiose City. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome your hometown heroine and her Luxio!”
Alex heard the familiar, crisp snap-pop
of a Poké Ball’s switch being released behind the curtain on his left, and a brief moment later he saw his first opponent stepping forward, the feline Luxio prowling at her heel. It seemed to be well looked-after, he thought idly, noting how the Electric-type’s powder-blue coat and inky mane had been brushed until they literally sparkled with carefully controlled static electricity. Just like Plusle and Minun did, on stage at the Grand Festival. But we lost anyway.
Alex’s mouth was dry as he waited for his turn to be called. It came almost sooner than he expected.
“Our second Performer is another new face! A shocking last-minute entry from the Hoenn region, please welcome Alex and Azumarill for their debut!”
Showtime. Game face on
. Swallowing heavily, Alex stepped forward onto the stage.
The embarrassment hit him harder than he had anticipated. Thinking about standing out here in a dress, with his hair and makeup done like a girl’s, Alex had expected to feel uneasy. That much was inevitable. But the size of the crowd, the noise, the darkness in the theatre, Pierre’s welcoming gesture as he ushered Alex forward . . . everything combined to suddenly leave him feeling powerfully nauseous. Somebody would recognise him, surely. In this enormous crowd - well over five thousand people, he guessed - there would surely be at least one person who had watched the Hoenn Grand Festival on TV last week.
For a moment, Alex froze. That moment seemed to last for a lifetime. He saw Pierre, hand outstretched. He saw Camille, smiling at the crowd, not concerned with him in the least. He saw - in his mind’s eye, at least - Elizabeth, sneering triumphantly as she watched him falter.
He saw Veronique.
He didn’t actually see her, of course. He had no idea where her seat was, and the house lights were too dim to pick her out, even if he had had the time to stand and pore over the stands until he found her. Nevertheless, he saw her. Mischievous, smirking, and so goddamn sweet Veronique, grinning at him as plain as day. She had really rattled him with that speech earlier, he realised abruptly. That outpouring of feeling had made him start to doubt himself, wondering if perhaps his stubborn refusal to let her in had been the best way to go about things after all.
Something else I’ll have to think about later
, Alex grumbled internally. “Come on, Azumarill,” he said quietly, as if he hadn’t been the one holding up the proceedings. Regaining his stride, he made his way forward to take his place beside Camille, offering a wave to the crowd as gracefully as he could muster.
“And finally, our third Performer! Ladies and gentlemen, give it up for the Dangerous Diva, the Duchess of Disaster! Also hailing from the sparkling spires of Lumiose City, it’s the one and only Elizabeth Chapin!”
The applause that Elizabeth received as she swept onto the stage seemed muted in comparison to earlier. It looked like the crowd didn’t quite know what to make of this tall, imposing woman with her floor-length purple dress and tall hair.
Elizabeth ignored them. As she took up her position on Alex’s other side, she turned ever so slightly towards him and spoke in such a way that not even Monsieur Pierre could hear. “Such a shame, to see a debutante such as yourself in a group such as this. It won’t even be any fun to destroy you.”
Alex raised an eyebrow. “Oh, really? I wouldn’t be too sure of that, if I were you.”
Elizabeth sniffed elegantly. “You can talk all you want, but I will be leaving here tonight with my third Princess Key. You ought to recognise I’m on a different level to what you’ve seen so far, little girl. In fact, between me and Miss Perfect over there, you might as well give up now.”
Rolling his eyes, Alex turned back to the front of the stage. Paradoxically, Elizabeth’s taunts had relaxed him. This was better, this was familiar
. Focus on the opponent, not the audience. He had gotten over any stage fright years ago, but tonight he was forcefully reminded of his first ever Contest. It was like he was a different person, suddenly. No longer Alexander, but Alexandra. Not a ‘monsieur’, but a ‘mademoiselle’. While frightening, he still had years of experience to draw on. Alexander wasn’t dead, he’d just been buried for the moment. It was time to look forwards.
As Alex straightened his back and surveyed the audience, he felt a little weight rise off his shoulders. It was not enough to alleviate the burden he had been carrying these past months, but it was enough to let him stand tall here.
With a mechanical hum, the three platforms bearing the styling stations rose back up from the stage, evidently having been swiftly cleaned up by more invisible stagehands.
“It is time!” Pierre announced, giving his staff a joyous twirl. “Performers, please take your places and prepare yourselves to create works of art beyond our wildest dreams!”
, Alex repeated drily to himself, turning to enter his designated enclosure with Azumarill. The gate clanged shut behind them, and Alex surveyed the enclosure quickly. A truly dizzying array of decorations and beauty products surrounded him, arranged on racks that had been stacked to waist height around four of the five available walls. The fifth, directly opposite the door, bore a workstation where Azumarill quickly made itself at home, staring around at the enormous variety of items with no little trepidation.
For his part, Alex's mind was racing. His eyes whizzed from one shelf to another, picking out things he had spotted while watching remotely in the first round, noting things he had missed and assembling a strategy. He had been hoping to be paired up with other Performers making their debut, but the game had changed. He had no clue if Elizabeth was actually as good as she claimed, but if she really had two Princess Keys she was surely a force to be reckoned with. Camille carried herself with a confidence that betrayed experience as well, so she couldn't be discounted.
Taking several deep breaths while he waited for the instruction to begin, Alex drew on his long experience as a Coordinator. What did you do when your opponents were vastly more experienced than you? You didn't play it safe, that was for sure. That was a good way to get quietly and completely shut out. No, it was go big or go home.
“Begin!” Alex didn't even hear the rest of the announcement, but he didn't need to. Ten minutes
. Seizing a can of spray-on temporary fur dye, Alex turned to Azumarill with a grin.
“Ready for a legendary experience?”
By the time the one-minute chime sounded, Alex was almost finished. As the windows to his station began fizzling out into opacity, he stole one last glance at the neighbouring booth. Elizabeth's back was turned, but he caught a glimpse of her Sableye, pointy ears tinted a vicious red.
Turning his attention back inward, Alex took up another brush and began adding final touches to Azumarill's paint job. Taking just a pinch of the ubiquitous glitter, he mixed it with a water-soluble glue and daubed the concoction sparingly around his Pokémon’s eyes. As a final inspired touch, he scooped up some golden contact lenses and slipped them into Azumarill's eyes, patting it gently on the head to keep it still through the stinging sensation. “Easy, buddy,” he breathed. “Almost there now.”
Azumarill growled in protest as Alex stepped back to admire his handiwork. “Yes, I know you look ridiculous. You and me both, remember?” Alex had alarmed even himself with how quickly he had forgotten he was wearing women’s clothes. “Just bear with it for a little longer.”
“And that’s time up!” Pierre’s voice announced from somewhere outside, and the opacity on the windows fell away. “Performers, please drop all tools and come forth with your Pokémon!”
“Well, here goes nothing,” Alex murmured, stepping outside as the door swung open, Azumarill staying behind him for the moment, hidden by Alex’s voluminous skirts. To one side, Camille and Luxio exited their own booth with perfect poise, taking up their position proudly. On the other, Elizabeth also stepped forward.
This was the moment of truth. Alex found that his heart was pounding again as he took a step forward himself, gesturing Azumarill to his side with a flick of his fingers. It wasn’t fear or embarrassment this time, though, that caused his pulse to race. Those were still there, bubbling under the surface, but now it was excitement that held him in its grip, a burning energy that threatened to engulf him. This experience was simultaneously refreshingly familiar and terrifyingly new, and it caused Alex’s whole body to hum with anticipation.
“The first Performer is Camille, with her Luxio! Avancez, s’il vous plait!
As Camille confidently stepped forward, Alex got a good look at Luxio for the first time. It was wearing what appeared to be a little red and gold jacket, adorned with ribbons and buttons. Its black mane had been combed and primped to create extra volume, and it sparkled with both static electricity and tiny golden beads, creating a shimmering halo that vibrated around its head as the pair made their lap around the runway, followed by a golden spotlight. The pair paused at the end of the runway and posed, then turned and walked back, eyes level and composed. The crowd applauded as Camille and Luxio returned to their position, but they didn’t seem overly enthused.
“What a dazzling creation!” Pierre was saying. “Truly, Camille has found the best way to bring out the unique charm of her Electric-type Pokémon in this Styling round! Ladies and gentlemen, one more round of applause for the blue team!”
Alex gulped. His turn was coming up next. Time for the gamble. Looking up towards the back of the theatre, above the audience, past where he could actually make out any shapes in the darkness, he locked his eyes on the place where the lighting box should be. Camille’s not moving any more, so they should be watching me by now
. Lifting his right hand surreptitiously, he gave a couple of quick signals, making sure to keep his movements clear and visible. One of the advantages he had gained from working backstage at Contests was a broad knowledge of stage lighting, including the signals used by industry professionals when testing spots before a show. He only hoped that the Kalosian spotlight operator had learned from the same textbook.
“Our second Performer for this round is the debutante, Alex, together with her Azumarill! It appears she has chosen a transformative theme that truly encapsulates the deep history of her homeland of Hoenn!”
Mentally thanking Pierre for the quick assist, Alex stepped forward, accompanied by Azumarill, who indeed appeared to have been transformed into a completely different Pokémon. Taking advantage of Azumarill’s natural colouring, he had used temporary dyes to darken the blue and bring out the white, delineating the two with sharp red lines. More red lines played across Azumarill’s arms and sides, creating arcane designs that intentionally evoked images of Kyogre, the legendary leviathan that was said to swim the deepest parts of Hoenn’s seas. The effect was topped off by a large, squarish cape of deep blue that fluttered behind Azumarill as it walked, alluding to the flowing tail flukes that Kyogre was traditionally depicted with.
A hush fell over the crowd as Alex and Azumarill began their walk along the runway. Mercifully, it seemed the spotlight operator had understood Alex’s request, bathing the pair of them in watery blue that under any other circumstances would have been considered too weak. That sort of understated grace was precisely what Alex had been going for, however. Kyogre was not a flashy, exciting myth to draw on; rather, it spoke of great strength and potential, slumbering for aeons beneath the sea. The show was not over yet, though.
“Ready?” Alex mumbled as they approached the end of the runway. Azumarill nodded. They were surrounded by the audience on three sides now, and Alex prayed that this would work. What he had in mind had been far too complex to convey with simple hand signals - especially using his own rusty knowledge - so he just hoped his message had gotten through, trusting the professional in the lighting booth to figure out what he wanted.
Alex stopped short just before the end of the runway, sending one hand skywards as Azumarill drew on all its power, taking a great vertical leap into the air and spinning, spinning end over end. At the apex of its leap, some ten feet over Alex’s head, it forcibly halted its momentum by twisting its body with an athleticism that belied its rotund shape. As it seemed to hang in space, suspended in mid-air for the barest of moments, time slowed down for Alex. Watching from below with a real smile on his face, he watched his Pokémon finally getting into the spirit of the Showcase.
Right as Kyogre-Azumarill stopped cold in midair, the surprisingly graceful arc of its body truly emulating the curve of a giant superancient Pokémon breaching the ocean floor, a shuddering roll of red lightning seemed to split the theatre. The audience drew in a collective breath, and for a moment, Alex threw both hands into the air and laughed with a shocking, fierce rush of joy.
Then it was over. Azumarill dropped out of the air, landing beside Alex and transitioning into a perfect courtly bow, which Alex mirrored. For a moment, there was silence. Then, the crowd erupted. Among the cheers and applause, Alex turned on his heel - not as easy in these shoes as he’d expected - and marched back along the runway, reclaiming his place between Camille and Elizabeth, head held high. Another carefully considered bow, and his trial was over - for the moment at least. He gave a subtle thumbs up in the direction of the lighting booth. Perfect. Thank Arceus for the stage crew.
“Ladies and gentlemen, what a debut! What an astonishing performance for an inexperienced Performer! Truly, Alex’s skills as a Pokémon Coordinator are shining through, as well as her creativity and the masterful way she has raised her Pokémon!”
“You think you’re hot stuff, huh?” Elizabeth hissed, her voice barely audible over the still-raucous crowd. “Let me show you how a pro does it.”
Alex frowned. Emboldened by the rush of a successful performance, he bit back against his better judgement. “Do you make a habit of picking on teenagers? I suppose it’s the only way you can make yourself feel superior.”
A flash of unbridled rage flared up in Elizabeth’s eyes, but Pierre called her forward before she could respond.
“Yeesh,” Alex said quietly. “The Duchess of Disaster, is it? I wonder how on Earth she got that nickname.”
Next to him, Camille gave a nervous chuckle. “She’s quite a famous character in Showcase circles for her temper, but you can’t deny her talent.”
“Looks that way,” Alex said, as he watched Elizabeth and Sableye swish their way down the catwalk. Sableye wore deep crimson robes that draped regally on the ground, and its purple head had been tinted with red in a surprisingly restrained fashion, bringing out the brilliance of the ruby-red crystal implanted in its chest. The diamond-like stones that served as eyes had been polished to a mirror finish, gleaming ominously in the dark above a mouthful of sharp white teeth that reflected the spotlight.
“Never mind her, though. I was impressed with you and Azumarill! For a first-timer, that wasn’t half bad,” Camille said conversationally. She was being friendly, but unlike Caiti, she held her cards close to her chest. What are you after?
“I’m glad you think so,” Alex said, allowing some of his genuine relief to leak into his studied feminine tone. “I wouldn’t want to put in a disappointing performance for my debut.”
“Well, I expect we will see more of you in the future,” Camille said as Elizabeth rejoined them, still making a point to not make eye contact.
Alex rolled his eyes surreptitiously. This was one thing that he didn’t miss from Hoenn’s Contests; it seemed that in any corner of the world, divas would be divas.
“Ladies and gentlemen!” Pierre began, for what felt like the hundredth time that night. “The time to cast your votes has come! Please select either blue for Camille, green for Alex, or pink for Elizabeth. Your votes will determine the second participant in the Freestyle Performance round! Ladies, best of luck!”
At Pierre’s mark, motes of glowing light began flowing from the audience, swirling through the air like a cloud of multi-coloured fireflies. From his vantage point on the stage, Alex was able to see what he had missed before: the tiny glowing spheres were zooming inexorably towards the three Performers’ keys and being absorbed by them. Dozens of green spheres floated to the key on Alex’s waist, disappearing into the jewel on top. There seemed to be a roughly equal number of votes for each of the three of them, Alex estimated with a glance.
As the last few motes of light were sucked into the three keys, Alex twisted his neck to look up at the screen over their heads. It was difficult to tell, but it looked like-
“A tie?” boomed Pierre’s voice over the PA system. “No! It is so close, but we have a winner! Ladies and gentlemen, the next Performer to advance to the Free Performance round is Elizabeth of Lumiose City!”
Alex winced, but nodded in acceptance and applauded politely as his spotlight was shut off, leaving only Elizabeth illuminated on the dark stage.