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Star Performer <Ch. 10>

M-Dub

Μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω ᾿Αχιλῆος
It has been awhile, hasn't it? Let me know if you're okay with me cross-posting this stuff to Bulba to get you attention there, too.
I didn't think of that, but sure! Feel free, and thanks.

Ch 6
I think what I liked most was the give and take in this chapter. Like, you mixed things up with the prose and dialogue without leaning too forcefully on one subject in particular. You conveyed some emotions through body language and others through Alex's internal monologue and I thought you had a healthy balance of the two. And Xavier's and Yvette's relationship had some snark to it without there being so much that you veered into romantic comedy territory. Not sure if it was intentional, but the third wheel vibes were really strong with Alex throughout the chapter, especially as they were getting coffee. If I had to nitpick, the actual gym battle was spotty for me. Too many times you relied on really vague descriptors like "blows" and "attacks," without actually describing what sorts of attacks were being used. It almost felt like you had hit a metaphorical fast forward button on the gym battle so you could skip to the parts where Yvette and Alex got to interact.
I'm glad that this chapter worked for you, since it was probably the one that went through the most rewrites, with more cut scenes than Battle of the Five Armies. There were expositional conversations while climbing the tree, a longer conversation at the cafe, Yvette had a battle, the Gym Battle was done in full... It could have been two chapters or more, and in the end, I didn't want that - so yeah, a fast forward button is probably a good way to put it. I definitely wanted to focus more on the conversation between the spectators as Xavier played out a set-piece battle that was practically destined to end in failure in the background.

Ch 7
Not terribly much to say about this one. Both Alex and Veronique got their respective points and managed to do so without launching into ridiculous monologues or some sort of "rule of drama" stereotype. I couldn't help but wonder if Alex's little spiel (and Xavier's stubborn reaction) is somewhat of a metatextual approach to the anime's logic of "You can win if you just believe in your Pokémon partners." Xavier sure sounded like Ash when he was getting upset. XD
Would I be so petty as to rag on the anime's relentless optimism?

You bet your butt I would.

Ch 8
Ah, now this battle was much more like it! All the move descriptions packed quite the punch and I really liked the added dynamic of the moving train with its cramped compartment and the part where it proceeds through the tunnel and creates a less than ideal lighting situation for Alex. Really good use of Malamar, too. Alex was never able to pick up on what Topsy-Turvy did and clearly didn't understand that Malamar had Contrary. Yet, he was still able to work up a strategy to deal with it without, y'know, figuring out Malamar's shtick. I suppose the intent there was to have him use a brute force approach... aka more like a gym battle than a contest battle? That's what I took from it anyway. I espect Lumiose will get more thorough desciprtions in the next chapter, though why do I have this strange feeling Alex will be doing a little more than observing this upcoming Showcase? XP
Finally, somebody mentions it. It's like the title of the fic has been just for show all this time. :p I've just been posting chapter after chapter going 'Hmm... should I have been even more overt with describing how androgynous Alex is?'

And actually, I'm glad it reads more like a Gym battle than a Contest one. That plays into something I'm gently pushing towards behind the scenes, though I won't go into detail now for obvious reasons. Spoilers!

Thanks for reading!
 

M-Dub

Μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω ᾿Αχιλῆος
Chapter 9
Crossed Wires

The first thing Alex did in Lumiose - after finding a crepe stand on the side of the road - was buy himself a Pokédex. A little cellphone booth on the side of Estival Avenue yielded the prize he'd been looking for since talking to Adelaide on the train. As she had said, the little machines were expensive; nevertheless, Alex sprang for the Coastal and Mountain Dex add-ons, on top of the Central Dex that came pre-installed. To his delight, the cases were customisable, so he paid a little extra for a device in his favourite colour, green.

It really was a marvellous little gadget, he decided as he followed Veronique distractedly through the streets to their hotel. Even the wonders of Lumiose, the City of Lights, seemed to fade into the background as he fiddled with his new purchase. He pointed it at random Pokémon that they passed in the street, the Pokédex's impressively swift processor scanning the world around it, categorising it and providing pop-up information windows.

Alex quickly turned off the robotic voice function.

"Stop staring at that thing!" Veronique chided him, tugging on his wrist to stop him from walking into traffic. "You're going to get yourself killed."

Alex grinned and slipped the Pokédex guiltily into his pocket. "Sorry!"

Veronique rolled her eyes. "Come on, we need to get a move on."

"I thought there was plenty of time before the Showcase?"

"Not unless you plan to show up without showering and changing," she said, the edge on her voice unequivocally implying that he had better not be planning anything of the sort.

As it turned out, they made it to the Theatre in plenty of time. At about six fifteen, Alex and Veronique stepped out of a taxi; she had insisted upon not walking any more, especially since she was once again wearing what Alex could now only assume was her only nice dress - with flats this time.

He elected not to comment on that fact, especially as the slinky violet dress did suit her remarkably well. In fact, he found it a little hard not to stare as he followed her around to the stage door. For his part, Alex had quietly chosen to match his companion with a deep purple shirt beneath the usual off-white vest.

The stagehand at the side door checked their tickets and identified them as VIPs, ushering them inside with a smile. Before she could even reach for the pager at her hip, however, a familiar face materialised before them as if summoned from the ether.

"Ah! Our most treasured guests!" Montblanc said, a note of warmth evident in his voice despite his professional demeanour and ramrod-straight posture.

"Montblanc!" Alex couldn't keep the surprise from his voice. "Should you really be back at work already?"

"I thank you for your concern, Alex Thoreau," the older man returned, accompanying the acknowledgement with a stiff, shallow bow, "but the show must go on. Stages must be managed, and the less one rocks the boat at this late hour, the smoother the sailing shall be."

Alex frowned. That didn't sound like a man who was ready to go back to work. "But-"

"I assure you, I am more than capable of performing my duties." Montblanc's words were gently reproachful. "Nonetheless, I am delighted to see you both - and I am certain that Madame Étoile will feel the same. If you wish, you may accompany me as I make my rounds once again. This time, however, I hope we shall not be so rudely interrupted."

Alex let a wry grin slip. "Monsieur Montblanc, I am starting to think that you are tempting fate."

A perfectly groomed eyebrow, silver and thick, rose fractionally on the older man's face. "I should not be so bold," he said. "Please, come." Without a further word, he turned and led them deeper into the belly of the Theatre.

The corridors were more brightly lit than Coumarine's venue, the plasterwork on the walls less slipshod. The carpet was softer underfoot, and the warren of hallways felt less like the convoluted underbelly of the sparkling attraction above and more like an extension of it.

"I have almost finished my preliminary rounds for the evening, as a matter of fact." Montblanc's stride was a little more halting this week, but it would only be noticeable if you were looking for it. "I have only a couple more Performers to call upon, and then I shall show you to the reception area."

As the silver-haired stage manager explained this, however, another stagehand came jogging along the corridor towards them, floppy brown hair bouncing. "Sir!" he called, evidently too distressed to remember he had a pager at his side. "It's Selene Wiley, sir!"

Montblanc stopped in his tracks, the narrowing of his eyes the only perceptible sign of alarm. "Not another intruder, surely? We have security at every entrance."

"No, sir!" The stagehand reached them, bending over to lend on his knees and gasp in a quick breath. "At least, I don't think so. It's - you should come and see."

As Montblanc set off, Alex exchanged a quick glance with Veronique. They both followed, Alex cautiously tracing his fingers across his Poké Balls. "Who is Selene Wiley?" he had to ask.

"One of our Performers for tonight," Montblanc replied, his voice tight as he hurried through the halls, apparently knowing exactly where he was going. Just a corner or two later, he came to a dressing room door that had been left ajar, its placard holder empty - nameless.

"Hmm." Montblanc didn't comment, but rapped smartly on the door. "Excusez-moi, Mademoiselle Wiley?"

Silence. Montblanc knocked again. This time, the latch on the door, which had apparently not been secured, clicked open under the force of his hand, drifting open a few inches. Alex exchanged a perturbed glance with Veronique.

Montblanc sighed and pushed the door open. "Oh dear," he said stiffly, upon seeing the interior. Unlike the mostly orderly dressing rooms they had seen in Coumarine, this one had been trashed. Chairs were upended, the bench was covered in spilled coffee and wadded-up tissues, and various articles of clothing had been haphazardly dumped on the floor. Something that could have been a burn mark covered one wall, blistering the white paint black, and 'EAT ****' had been written on the mirror in three-foot-high letters with what appeared to be lipstick.

"Ah." Alex looked at the room in stunned wonder. What the hell?

"I do recall," Montblanc said carefully, backing out of the dressing room and pausing in the hallway, "that Mademoiselle Wiley was most vexed when informed that she would not be able to choose her opponents for this evening, despite her Performer pedigree. It would appear I was not swift enough in offering an apology."

"Monsieur Montblanc!" A panicked shout from the end of the hallway caused them all to look around. A young man in an usher's uniform jogged towards them, somewhat out of breath. "Thank heavens I found you. Selene Wiley just stormed out the front door! I don't think she's coming back."

Montblanc simply nodded towards the destroyed dressing room. "It would appear not," he said by way of explanation.

The usher peered inside and cringed visibly. "Mon Dieu! What do we do now?"

"It was difficult enough to find eighteen Performers in the first place," Montblanc said sadly. "I doubt we will find another ready to compete at this late hour."

"Can't it just be seventeen?" Alex asked.

Montblanc shook his head regretfully. "The format of tonight's Showcase - indeed, most Showcases - calls for a number of heats with three Performers each. We must either find one more, tell two of the others that they must retire, or sacrifice our integrity by fielding a round with only two Performers. I find we are plagued with misfortune after misfortune lately. Ah, but I should not trouble you two with this. This young man will show you to the reception room to wait until the Showcase begins. The show must go on, after all."

Alex began to agree, but Veronique put a hand on his arm to bring him up short. "Hold on," she said, and Alex shivered at the sudden, almost amused determination in her voice. "I have an idea."

For some reason, I don't like where this is going. Alex wanted to protest, to shut down whatever Veronique was up to before she could get rolling, but her nails dug into his arm with a finality that brooked no argument.

"Why don't you let Alex compete in that final slot? Professional Coordinator, remember?"

There it is.

Montblanc tapped his chin. "Of course, I had forgotten. But Pokémon Contests and Showcases are very different art forms. Even for the Rookie Class, I would hesitate to enter an amateur. No offense, of course."

"None taken," Alex replied automatically, "but-"

"She's a consummate pro, I promise!" Veronique cut him off. "And she learns quick."

Wait.

"Her Pokémon are top-quality as well," she continued, still leaning on Alex's arm with pointed intensity. "They've been competing together for years now, and I've never seen anyone else who takes so much care in grooming and looking after them."

Wait. No no no no no. What the hell is going on? Alex tried to protest, but his jaw appeared to have gotten stuck. He could only watch with wide eyes as Veronique blithely gave the most ridiculous speech he had ever heard.

At length, Montblanc gave a thin-lipped nod. "Normally it would be the furthest thing from my mind, to request the aid of an amateur like this. But the hour grows late, and if Mademoiselle Thoreau is willing, I would make an exception to maintain the status quo."

Mademoiselle? Hold on just a second! "But I'm not-" he finally managed to stammer out before Veronique clamped a hand over his mouth.

"She's just shy, really!" she said, smiling widely at Montblanc. "The truth is, she was hoping to enter tonight's Showcase anyway, but we arrived from Hoenn too late to sign up."

Montblanc looked Alex directly in the eyes for a moment, then nodded once more, evidently seeing no other way out of the predicament. "Very well. I thank you for your assistance in this matter. Please, use dressing room twenty-three down the hall to prepare yourself. I will go and make the necessary arrangements and send a runner with details of tonight's programme."

"Thank you!" Veronique said sweetly, waving Montblanc, the stagehand, and the usher off with the hand that wasn't still clamped over Alex's mouth. Once they were out of sight, she dragged him to the indicated dressing room, closing the door behind them before bursting into unrestrained laughter.

Alex watched coldly as Veronique collapsed into a chair in front of the mirror, howling with mirth. He was starting to get an inkling of what had just happened, but he didn't quite want to accept it. "I think I'm owed several explanations," he said tightly.

"Oh my goodness, this is just too perfect," Veronique wheezed. "I was hoping to get you into one of these things eventually, but I didn't think we'd get the chance so soon!"

Alex ran an exasperated hand through his hair, raising his eyes to the ceiling in supplication. "Give me strength," he muttered. "Okay, I understand you managed to talk Montblanc into having me compete. Let's imagine for a second that I'm okay with that - which I'm not, by the way, but let's just pretend. There's still one more thing that I think you need to explain."

Veronique wiped a tear from her eye, carefully avoiding her mascara. She was still giggling like a schoolgirl. "Okay, well, uh . . . buckle up, because there's one more thing I didn't tell you about Pokémon Showcases, and you're not going to like it."

"Nope," Alex said flatly. "There's no way in hell. I'm not doing it. How could you possibly think that this was a good idea?"

Veronique at least had the decency to look mildly ashamed, but she remained adamant. "You heard Montblanc, it's done now. You don't want the Showcase to be ruined, do you?"

"Honestly, I don't really give a damn about the Showcase. I wanted to watch it, not participate! And if you think I'm going to do it in a dress, you are sorely mistaken."

Veronique sighed. "Okay, fine, I won't make you crossdress. You can just wear what you have on, but you at least have to let me do your hair. You already pass for a girl, we just have to sell it a little more."

"I cannot believe you're doing this," Alex groaned, flopping down in a chair in front of the mirror. "Do you have any idea how much damage this is doing to my already fragile masculinity?"

"In the nicest possible way, ma amie, you never had any masculinity to speak of." Veronique sidled up behind Alex with a brush in her hand and began attacking his hair. "I think Montblanc mistook you for a slightly mannish girl in the first place, or else he wouldn't have fallen for it."

"Ouch," Alex said. "So you just expect me to go along with this? I think the thing I find hardest to swallow here is the fact that you think I would ever be anything resembling okay with participating in this madness."

"Hmm, I'd like to curl it, but I don't have the time or a proper iron," Veronique mused, weighing a lock of Alex's hair in her hand. "I guess we could just go with a ponytail like normal, but that'd probably just make you look more like a dude . . ."

Alex sighed. "You're not listening to me, are you?"

"Not unless you're going to say 'Why yes, Veronique, I'm thankful for the opportunity you've found for me', no."

"Why would I say that?"

Huffing, Veronique let Alex's hair drop and folded her arms, looking him in the eye via the mirror in front of them. "Look. If you were really, genuinely, 100% opposed to this, you could have walked out that door at any point. Admit it, you actually want to do this."

Alex attempted to protest, but couldn't find the words. Why am I even still here? As soon as she said that only women could compete in Pokémon Showcases, I should've been out of here.

"All right," he said at length. "I'll play along."

"Really?" Veronique seemed slightly taken aback. "Honestly, I didn't expect you to agree that easily."

"You have that look in your eyes," Alex said tiredly, "that says no matter what I do, no matter what I say, you're not backing down on this. Normally I'd argue with you, but right now I'm just not feeling up to it. Plus, you know . . . I'm always interested in things like this."

"Like crossdressing?"

"Like hell!" Alex snapped. "I told you I'm not wearing a dress already!" He pouted indignantly as Veronique began playing with his hair again.

"All right, all right!" she said with barely constrained laughter. "I'll let you off this time, but I still have to do something about this hair. Of course, it can't be too girly or it'll clash with your outfit. Any ideas, mademoiselle Performer?"

". . . Plait it," Alex mumbled. "At least then I can pretend it's a ponytail."

"Oh? Getting into it now, are we?" Veronique nudged him archly.

Fully aware of the hot flush of redness creeping up his neck, Alex didn't deign to reply. Instead, he simply chewed his lip as he watched Veronique's reflection gather his hair into a tight bundle - why the hell did I grow it so long? I could've avoided all this - and deftly split it into three strands, weaving them together with practised ease.

"Why do I have the feeling," he asked at length, "that I'm slowly but surely approaching my certain doom?"

Veronique sighed heavily. Her hands stopped moving, but she didn't release her grip on Alex's half-complete braid. "Look, Alex . . ." she said softly. Trailing off, she swallowed and started again. "Look. If you're really that uncomfortable with this, we can drop it. I won't pretend that this isn't absolutely hilarious to me, because it kind of is. But what's important is how you feel about it. This is all supposed to be for you, remember? To help you get back on track after the Grand Festival. I know you've been struggling, so I brought you out here to get refocused. When was the last time you actually competed in a Contest and really enjoyed yourself?"

"So you even noticed that much," Alex said heavily. It wasn't a question.

"How could I not, stupid?" There was none of the usual contempt or playfulness in Veronique's voice now, just an edge of sadness. Her eyes met his in the mirror. "I'm your best friend and your manager - it's my job to make sure you're healthy and happy. Plus I spend more time around you than anybody else in the world. If I don't notice you slipping, who will?"

"Right. I mean, you did bring me out here to Kalos and everything."

"That's just the beginning. Listen to me, Alex." Veronique put her free hand on his shoulder, squeezing tightly. A touch of crimson at the tips of her ears betrayed her embarrassment, but she pressed on, her tone soft but insistent. "This isn't easy for me, either. I've been with you for five years now, as your friend and manager, not to mention your number one fan. I know we fight, and we take the piss out of each other a lot, but I wouldn't still be around if I didn't care for you . . . deeply." Before either of them realised it, the words were tumbling out of her in a torrent, seemingly independent of her own will.

Alex's mouth was dry. "V, I didn't realise . . ."

"You're like my brother, Alex," she continued. "Mama and the others too, they see you as a second son they never had. But I've been here beside you all this time, and I've watched you go from a happy little kid to a really troubled guy. I didn't see it for far too long, and I'm still working out how to deal with it. But I'm not going to let you slip away any more than you already have, okay? I brought you out to Kalos because it's all I know. This place always makes me feel better. Perhaps that's just because it's home to me, I don't know. I thought if I brought you here and showed you around my hometown, took you to see Lumiose, introduced you to Pokémon Showcases . . . you might find something to grab onto. I don't expect miracles. I don't expect anything to change overnight. You've been enjoying yourself working in the pâtisserie, and that's great, but you're still not actually confronting the problem. I'm losing you, Alex, and I don't want that."

The silence hovered between them, precariously balanced on a knife's edge. Alex bit his lip and bowed his head, inhaling deeply as he tried to summon up a response. He didn't know what he could possibly say, though. At least one thing was clear: he could hardly refuse now.

"You don't have to say anything now," Veronique said, her nimble fingers resuming their work on his hair. "In fact, you can forget this whole conversation ever happened if you want. Go back to just ragging on each other like we normally do. I'd be happy with that, provided that you let me help you. Right now you're resisting me, and I have a vague idea why. But you need to let me in, Alex. You're . . . very important to me, and I don't like being shut out."

Alex nodded slightly, as much as he could with his hair in Veronique's grip. "I'll try," was all he said, but it was enough. Veronique's face slackened with relief, her tight-lipped not-quite-glare breaking into a watery smile. Alex decided it would be unwise to mention the tears in her eyes as she carefully blinked them away.

"That's all I ask," she said, her voice unsteady.

"And . . ." Alex winced. He was going to regret this. "Find me a dress."

Veronique perked up immediately, seeming to instantly forget all her concerns. "Oh my God! Really?"

"I saw what those other girls were wearing last week," he said. "I'll stick out like a sore thumb in this. Just . . . nothing too crazy, please. I do still have some smidgen of pride left, you know."

As Veronique practically skipped out of the room, Alex dropped his head into his hands, the unfinished braid coming loose over his shoulder as he did so. Ugh. He really hadn't want to make that concession, but Veronique had seemed so uncharacteristically vulnerable that an unfamiliar feeling had welled up inside him. He couldn't quite place it: a strange sort of sympathy mixed with guilt, the end result being a strangely powerful desire to cheer her up. Isn't that ironic? She's doing all this to make me feel better, and here's me worrying about her.

Guess I should be working out how I'm going to deal with the Showcase instead. Just as he was trying to remember what Montblanc had said about the various stages of the competition, a knock came at the door. Opening it, Alex found himself face to face with the young usher from before.

"Mademoiselle Thoreau," he said, bobbing his head slightly. "Monsieur Montblanc sent me to tell you that your application has been fully processed. You are now a registered Pokémon Performer, and you've been officially entered in tonight's Showcase."

"That's . . . wonderful," Alex said weakly.

"He also asked me to give you this." The young man handed over a stapled pile of printouts. "It's some general information on Pokémon Showcases, plus the schedule for tonight's event. Best of luck." With that, he bowed swiftly and dashed away, almost colliding with Veronique, who was returning with an armful of colourful garments.

"What's all that about?" she asked as they retreated back inside the dressing room once more.

"Stuff about the Showcase," Alex said, flicking absently through the booklet. Theme Performance, Freestyle Performance . . . He frowned. "Wait, there's no battle round?"

"Nope!" Veronique said brightly, laying her acquisitions out on a table with great care. "It's all based on audience voting, you see, so something like battling wouldn't fly."

"So it's basically a popularity contest?"

Veronique shrugged. "Yes, I suppose you could say that. What's tonight's theme round?"

"Uhh . . ." Alex flicked to the back of the booklet, finding the evening's itinerary. "8:10 p.m., Pokémon Styling."

"Ooh, that's a good one!" Veronique sounded delighted. "You'd be good at that, too. It's very creative."

"I don't know about that," Alex said, feeling more and more dubious by the second - and simultaneously trying to ignore the selection of very feminine outfits that Veronique was arraying before him. "I know some Coordinators make a habit of it, but I was never one for playing dress-ups. It always felt a bit tacky."

"Well, we do things differently here. You have good fashion sense and a good eye, though, so I think you'll be fine. Which Pokémon were you planning to use, by the way?"

"I hadn't really thought about it," Alex admitted. "Since I've only just seen what I'm expected to do . . ."

"How about you ask them, then?" Veronique suggested. "You can get their input on these outfits, too."

Oh, right. It's not just a bunch of strangers I have to embarrass myself in front of. It's my Pokémon, too. Steeling himself, Alex thumbed the release switches at his belt, where his four Poké Balls were habitually concealed in minimised form. A tingle of anticipatory embarrassment washed over him as his Pokémon materialised in matching flashes of blue light: Plusle and Minun, his patented tag-battle combination, on the makeup table in front of the mirror; Azumarill suspiciously eyeing the row of dresses; and Swablu perched comfortably on his head, arranging its fluffy white wings into an approximation of a Cossack hat.

"Well, guys," Alex said, "I hope you're all ready for something new, because I'm sure as hell not."

"There's no reason for you to laugh," Alex said, with as much dignity as he could muster. It wasn't helping, though. Plusle and Minun rolled back and forth on the vanity, stubby arms and legs flailing helplessly as they cackled with laughter. Even the usually jocular Azumarill wouldn't quite meet his eye. Swablu alone seemed unperturbed, having lifted off and fluttered around the room only long enough for Alex to change behind a screen.

"So?" Veronique prompted, doing a poor job at hiding her own grin. "How does it feel?"

"It's . . . drafty." Alex grasped the edges of his skirts and swished them around a little, the breezy sensation making him wince slightly. Out of the several outfits that Veronique had found for him, the one that fit best was also the laciest. A frilly black dress that nearly reached his ankles, the garment would have been positively funereal if it hadn't been quite so flashy. Black ribbons criss-crossed the chest portion, holding a mercifully high collar in place. Trimmings of white lace adorned the shoulders and waist, and the skirt fanned naturally out from the hips down, boosted by multiple layers of airy fabric that would be invisible to any observer.

"Hmm," Veronique said, looking him up and down critically. "It would look a lot better if you'd wear those extra petticoats."

"I can't believe I'm even entertaining the thought, but no. I draw the line at petticoats!" Alex flushed, clenching his fists involuntarily as he tried not to think about what he was doing. Mom, Dad, I'm sorry. Your son turned out weird after all. Well, it wasn't like he was doing this because he wanted to. Alex clung to that thought desperately.

"All right, all right!" Veronique chuckled merrily, her earlier melancholy nowhere to be seen. "You look lovely, Alex ma cherie."

Alex stuck his tongue out at her, but didn't otherwise rise to the bait.

"I mean it. Anyone would think you were a girl if they saw you now. Once I'm finished with your hair and makeup, it'll be impossible to tell that you aren't!"

"Is that supposed to make me happy? Because it doesn't." While he had been joking earlier about his 'fragile masculinity', the truth was that Alex's pride was a little wounded. Some part of him had been waiting for Veronique to admit that it wasn't going to work. To throw up her hands and complain that 'Oh, well, your jawline's just too rugged', or maybe 'You carry yourself like a man, so you're not fooling anyone'. Instead, she just kept smiling like all her Christmases had come at once.

"So! Time to get moving," Veronique said, fussing over the extremities of Alex's costume. "We have a little over an hour until the Showcase starts. In that time, you need to read all the rules, choose which Pokémon you're going to use, and figure out a strategy. I'll do your hair and makeup, so just sit down right here and get your thinking cap on!" She spun a chair around so that it faced towards the centre of the room, patting the seat encouragingly.

Sighing with painful resignation, Alex sat down - wrestling with his skirts - and faced his Pokémon. "Okay," he said, and forced himself to focus, compartmentalising his qualms and pushing them aside for now. "I need one volunteer to be groomed and dressed up on stage for the first round. If we get past there, I'll probably go with Plusle and Minun for the performance round. We've been working on that double appeal concept for a while now, so if we can adapt that into a performance we'll at least have a leg to stand on. We don't have to win tonight - in fact, I'd be beyond astounded if we did - but I don't want to embarrass myself."

Azumarill chirped snidely, looking Alex's frilly ensemble up and down as if to say 'You're worried about that now?'. Alex shot it a glare. "Looks like you just volunteered yourself for beautification," he said. "Which means Swablu, you can sit and watch with Veronique."

Trilling contentedly, the Flying-type snuggled further into Alex's hair.

"And don't think you'll be doing that with my hair, either!" Veronique said icily. "You can have Alex's seat. For that matter, shoo! I need to start working on our princess now." Veronique chivvied Swablu off Alex's head, tutting about 'foutu featherbrains', then started running a brush through his hair.

For his part, Alex turned his attention back to Azumarill - now wearing an indignant fluffy Swablu-hat between its ears - Plusle, and Minun. He flicked through his leaflet, finding the appropriate page. "Okay, so Azumarill will come on stage with me for the first round. It looks like the results are based on audience voting, so with a bit of luck we'll make it through there. I have a few ideas for what to do, but it depends on the tools they provide us. If we do make it through to the appeals round, I'm gonna be relying on you two. Think you can handle it?"

Plusle and Minun squealed happily, bouncing up and down in their eagerness to be back on stage. "Okay," Alex said, "but we're gonna have to do some brainstorming. It's a bit like a Contest appeals round, except . . . 'the Performer should participate equally in the performance with her Pokémon', apparently," he read from the booklet.

"As soon as I'm finished here, you can get practising!" Veronique said brightly, rattling a can of hairspray and blasting the acrid-smelling vapour across Alex's head, causing him to cough and wave his papers furiously in front of his face.

"Is that really necessary?" he grumbled.

"It is if you don't want your 'do to fall out of place!" Veronique reminded him.

"What are you even doing back there?" Alex tried to lean around to catch a glimpse in the mirror, but Veronique seized the sides of his head and held him still.

"Eyes front!" she snapped. "It's hard enough doing this with borrowed tools and a time limit, I don't need you wobbling all over the place too!"

"Fine . . ." Alex rolled his eyes and turned back to his Pokémon. "All right. I have a few ideas."
 

diamondpearl876

→ follow your fire.
I asked forever ago if cross-posting was okay. Let me know if that's changed! I just forgot because the chapters here weren't caught up at the time and I'd been waiting.

CHAPTER 7

This little gym battle ordeal between Xavier, Yvette, and Alex is... interesting, to say the least. You bring in an interesting dynamic in the sense that it's normal for trainers to bump into each other largely as strangers on the road. Alex blatantly points out he doesn't know Xavier well, but he gives this kind of advice anyway. Sometimes this kind of thing just pisses people off. Sometimes you just need an unbiased third party to beat the point into your skull, even if it's a fine line to tread properly. It's a pretty prevalent aspect of the franchise canon and a dynamic I kinda wish was explored more often, to be honest. Later, the contrast between Xavier not listening to Yvette versus Alex listening to Veronique is an apt and well written one, so kudos there!

You mentioned this chapter being dialogue heavy, and I agree for the most part, it is, and again, for the most part, it's fine. I think you did miss an opportunity to balance things out more with the description of Veronique showing her hometown. You did a good job showing her family dynamic and her personality with what's there, but I think there could've been more.

Last thing: had Alex at least been letting his Pokémon out to feed them? He mentioned not seeing them for days, and when I see that kind of thing in a fic, I have to wonder how the Pokémon sustain themselves and are prepared for performing/battling/training/whatever the moment they're released.

CHAPTER 8

I like the chapter's contents. What stopped me short pretty quickly was the long winded and over complicated sentences. A lot happens in most of them, and for action scenes in particular, that gets overwhelming quick. There's good battle strategy concepts and lovely wording in there (like "a thrumming callback in to Swablu's draconic ancestry" omgosh), but I'd suggest splitting things up into more varying sentence structures, with a focus on shorter sentences in the battle scene.

Anyway, I like that after each round, the trainer's asked if their Pokémon would continue. It seems like a good way to nip pride in the bud for trainers who don't wanna back down, and it forces them to think about the situation their Pokémon is in without the danger of being attacked if they take too long to think about it.

The description of Lumiose was also beautiful. <3 You really paint a vivid picture of Kalos in general throughout the fic. Good stuff.

CHAPTER 9

Ohhh, I like the little add-ons and installation details about the Pokédex! It makes it feel like a more realistic machine that people actually use instead of having just to say they have one. :p And the specific homage to local versions of the dex like they have in Alola is nice.

I'm slightly torn on the crossdressing conversation. It adds depth to their dynamic and Alex's character in terms of lost masculinity, plus Veronique's character by kinda being pushy. She just gives Alex a choice way too late, I feel. She's already practically got him ready to perform appearance-wise before she offers the choice. I'd argue this is part of her pushiness, but the transition from jovial conversation to a serious one was a tad jarring. Also, am I right to assume Alex has an androgynous voice as well as appearance for people to buy the "he's a girl" idea?

One last note... the "ma amie" thing should be "mon ami", I believe? It can't be "ma" by French rules, since "amie" starts with a vowel, and you'd remove the "e" in "amie" to refer to a male friend (although Veronique might be doing the female thing on purpose, given the crossdressing theme in this chapter, heh). I've done a double take each time the phrase has come up, and feel free to ignore this comment, but I thought I'd bring it up just in case. ><

Till next time~
 

Firaga Metagross

Auferstanden Aus Ruinen
I finally got around to reviewing your fic and, wow, what a chapter to do so! I knew Alex would have to participate but I didn't know that the showcases were for women only, so this whole chapter involved me being very pleasantly surprised about Alex crossdressing.

Montblanc sighed and pushed the door open. "Oh dear," he said stiffly, upon seeing the interior. Unlike the mostly orderly dressing rooms they had seen in Coumarine, this one had been trashed. Chairs were upended, the bench was covered in spilled coffee and wadded-up tissues, and various articles of clothing had been haphazardly dumped on the floor. Something that could have been a burn mark covered one wall, blistering the white paint black, and 'EAT ****' had been written on the mirror in three-foot-high letters with what appeared to be lipstick.

"Ah." Alex looked at the room in stunned wonder. What the hell?

"I do recall," Montblanc said carefully, backing out of the dressing room and pausing in the hallway, "that Mademoiselle Wiley was most vexed when informed that she would not be able to choose her opponents for this evening, despite her Performer pedigree. It would appear I was not swift enough in offering an apology."

"Monsieur Montblanc!" A panicked shout from the end of the hallway caused them all to look around. A young man in an usher's uniform jogged towards them, somewhat out of breath. "Thank heavens I found you. Selene Wiley just stormed out the front door! I don't think she's coming back."
The description of the room made this person's tantrum come off as really cartoonish in a way that drew unnecessary attention to the scene. Selene's trashing things and leaving so that Alex could perform felt also felt a smidgen forced, although given the gender restrictions on participating, I get why it happened.


"You're like my brother, Alex," she continued. "Mama and the others too, they see you as a second son they never had. But I've been here beside you all this time, and I've watched you go from a happy little kid to a really troubled guy. I didn't see it for far too long, and I'm still working out how to deal with it. But I'm not going to let you slip away any more than you already have, okay? I brought you out to Kalos because it's all I know. This place always makes me feel better. Perhaps that's just because it's home to me, I don't know. I thought if I brought you here and showed you around my hometown, took you to see Lumiose, introduced you to Pokémon Showcases . . . you might find something to grab onto. I don't expect miracles. I don't expect anything to change overnight. You've been enjoying yourself working in the pâtisserie, and that's great, but you're still not actually confronting the problem. I'm losing you, Alex, and I don't want that."
I'm glad that you added some heart to heart between Alex and Veronique cuz I'm a sucker for close-people-feelings-time, even if it sorta came outta nowhere. I like the advancing of characterization for the pair, but I feel like Alex doesn't really project as much of a "I've lost my purpose in life" attitude. It might be the relatively low tension of the story or the format or my own obliviousness, but this is how I feel on the matter.

"And . . ." Alex winced. He was going to regret this. "Find me a dress."
I giggled with joy reading this. I hope he gets in it and never leaves.

Also, I'd kill for a friend who'd dress me up for fun, Alex doesn't know what he has :p

Overall, it's a fun chapter. Hoping you write more of them.
 

Manchee

extra toasty
Hello! Just wanted to say that I'm still here. I reviewed back in the beginning of the year and honestly got really busy as well and only just revisited this. I've read through chapter six and I wanted to leave a few comments in case I don't get all caught up soon. I can't remember exactly when things happened, but overall I think this is a really great story. The friendship/potential relationship between the two main characters is cute, and while I'm not totally expecting them to end up together, I won't be mad if it happens. Their interactions feel genuine and you can tell they've been friends for years. It's also great to see Alex interacting with Veronique's parents/family because I'm sure most of us have those best friends whose families we also feel close with. Even though some of the beginning chapters were spent in the pâtisserie, most of my favorite scenes occurred during that time. It was a lot of fun to read and I liked all of your descriptions of the different puffs made it even better.

Getting into the Showcase, I liked that you included that realm of Kalos into this story. I'm looking forward to Alex's involvement with Showcases, because with his Coordinator background it really feels like the natural progression of things here. A lot of the dialogue between Alex and the intruder felt very over-the-top, but I kind of loved it. The whole situation felt like a bit much, so reading their comebacks to each other made it more entertaining to say the least. Outside of that, I also really liked the women who were scheduled to participate. We didn't see a lot of them but they felt real. Part of the reason I hope we see more of the Showcases is because I want to see more of those who participate in them haha

I'm excited to see multiple parts of Kalos in this fic, already getting the pâtisserie, a Showcase (or, sort of), and now gym battles are coming into it. I enjoy fics that don't stick too heavily to one focus and don't see it very often. Really looking forward to more of this!
 
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M-Dub

Μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω ᾿Αχιλῆος
Long chapter!
Chapter 10
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 fashion?

“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?”

Oui. 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.”

Merci,” 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-gilt bronze.

“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!”

No pressure, 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.
 
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