EVERYONE: Star Performer <Ch. 10>

I was thinking it's time for some evil.
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Hey, thanks for these! Some good points, and I'm particularly glad that you liked Six. Though it was ultimately released in a state I'm more or less happy with, I was a little worried since it's the first one I've written entirely since coming back to the story. Perhaps that's why the tone/pacing feels a bit different in the last chapter and a half, but it seems that it was successful so I'll remain cautiously optimistic.

It's been a while. I think I recall the pertinent points from the story, and in any case Chapter Five picks up after the Contest business.

Anyway. Overall I liked this chapter. If I remember correctly your previous chapters tended to ramble a bit. The pacing of Five was much more on point - bit of worldbuilding, a battle that went on as long as it needed to, etc. At first, I was going to criticise the continued idealised view of Kalos (I think I touched on this once before). But then I decided against it, on the basis that this is from Alex's point of view. It reminds me of retired British expats who rhapsodise about how much better Spanish life is, when all they really do is spend their days guzzling rioja and smugly shooting the breeze in pidgin Spanish with the locals. Alex is essentially on holiday here, not working because he has to.
This is pretty much what I was going for, yeah. I don't feel like it's too much of a spoiler to tell you that hey, Alex isn't gonna stay idyllically kicking around Coumarine forever, and as he gets more accustomed to the region, those flashes of reality are naturally going to become more and more commonplace. The episode at the Showcase Theatre is basically set up as a 'hey, shit's gonna get rough' flag.

Battle-wise, not a lot to say either way, funnily enough. I know to my cost that double battles are tricky (Though double battles with two trainers are harder still, alas). I didn't notice any obvious gaps in the battle where pokémon were just standing around doing nothing. One possible error though - did you intend Minun to use Reflect? The shield is blue and it defends against Fury Cutter, so I presume Light Screen is a typo.
Ah, yep, that's a whoopsie. I always get those two mixed up, even in game.

The story's shaping up to be an unusual one in terms of the perspective - in another story Alex would be a supporting character there to say wise things and not much else. In a sense that's what he's doing here, I suppose, since for most of the story he's not really been all that proactive.
I think this is just my curse when it comes to protagonists; Ren Goodwin is a bit like this as well. Probably not a good thing to persist all the way through, so I'll be focusing more on giving Alex some agency in coming chapters.

I'm pretty much sold on Xavier and Yvette - and I've just realised the significance of those initials, which is a good thing - insofar as their interactions are the kind of faintly annoying things couples do that make hanging out in a group of three tiresome.
Glad they're believable, and glad the names weren't so on-the-nose that you groaned as soon as you saw them. I came back after a year and a half hiatus, remembered that I'd given them those names and thought "Really, me? X and Y? Really?"

Coming back to the language issue - and this is a point that will probably come across as nitpicky - I forget how fluent Alex is supposed to be, but, bear in mind that casual chit-chat's a lot easier to translate than the kind of concepts that are coming up in the training talk. You can be tripped up by the oddest of things this way - idioms that are so common you forget they don't have an equivalent in another language, verbs that are used completely differently from the literal ... even cultural references that don't quite make sense out of context. Whether Alex is speaking Kalosian or Yvette English, the issue's going to come up either way. The best way to treat it, I think, is as an opportunity. The devil is in the detail, something this story's strong on, so there's nothing jarring about (For example) Alex having trouble explaining his point to Xavier.
As before, I'm still not sure how to approach this one to be perfectly honest. In a shorter fic, I'd be comfortable having some language barriers to overcome. In a proper epic of a fic, also I'd consider having Alex explicitly learning and improving his Kalosian as he goes along, going from a stumbling block to a non-issue over the course of his journey. As things stand, however, neither of those really slot in with the sort of fic I'm trying to write. I also feel like if he's going to have trouble, it would have come up already in the early chapters, so I may have to retcon a little bit.

One thing I did do, though, was deliberately give Alex a Kalosian-sounding surname (Thoreau) and mention that his family and the Vincents were close, so it wouldn't be too unrealistic to imagine that both families originally moved to Hoenn from Kalos, just at different times. That, along with spending so much with Veronique and her family, could explain his proficiency somewhat. It is a little up in the air right now, which I suppose echoes my usual lack of careful planning. I'll have to do some work on that in the future.

Regardless, again I'm grateful for your comments, particularly on Chapter Six, which, as I say, I was worried about.
 
shame personified
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Probs not gonna crosspost after all since you're still not caught up over there, and no point in making you wait for a review. :p

Feeling more than glad to be out of the spotlight for once, Alex stepped back and allowed the focus to switch back to the new Top Coordinator, a fourteen-year-old girl by the name of . . . what was it again? Maxine? Martine? Everything was slipping out of his head.
You do a good job showing Alex's despair over losing. The lack of dialogue from the announcer works well, honestly, as does the lack of any dialogue at all. It shows just how immersed in his own head Alex is.

Without meaning to, he echoed the hollow words that had been bouncing around his skull all evening. Next year. What did that even mean?
"next year" seems like a simple enough phrasing, but in Alex's current situation, not so much. This only adds to how devastated and confused he is, so kudos there.

“Sure, you could say that. You’ll have to get Veronique to explain them to you in detail, though. She’s the one most interested in that kind of thing.”
Ohh, I like the use of these game mechanics. :3 The whole bakery thing and showing that Poke Puffs are for either humans or pokemon is a fun addition to the story. It also adds a lot of depth to the character's backstories. I get the feeling Veronique has a little crush on Alex, which makes it all the sweeter, to be honest, seeing how they interact and then going back to a the place they grew up together. Basically, I love their dynamic and reading about them. XD

“Wait, we’re what?” Alex asked as he headed off to comply. Digging through stacks of boxes and tubs, he found the one labelled ‘RAWST/FRAIVE’ and extricated it carefully. “Aren’t we just delivering Poké Puffs?”
I know a fair bit of French, so I get all the references, haha. I enjoy them a lot and think they fit what I'd expect of the Kalosian culture, though you also do a good job not going overboard for someone who doesn't know a lick of French at all. :p

“Okay,” Alex breathed. “Time to bring out the big guns. Minun, get Rain Dance up!”
I like Alex's strategies. They're pretty interesting to read. I get the feeling this fic is going down the route of "Alex decides to become a full-fledged trainer after all," and I'd be okay with that, haha. He's clearly got a lot of potential for it, and he's lost in terms of what direction he wants his life to go in, anyway.

Also, re: this scene, the kids being this open about his appearance was super awkward, cute, and realistic all at once. XD Kids have no shame and don't mind asking questions like that. Poor Alex, facing gender stereotypes. You handle it respectfully.

Alex blinked, then smiled glibly and launched into the explanation that he was coming dangerously close to knowing by heart. How Contests were kind of similar to Showcases, he supposed, but from what he’d heard there was distinctly more Pokémon battling involved.
I like the regional differences you've got here between Contests versus Showcases. We honestly don't see a lot of actual coordinating or performing happening, if any at all, so kudos to being able to show those differences outside of that. ^^

I... didn't make many other notes outside of these when reading. This fic flowed from start to finish - or from chapters 1 through 6, rather. :p I was immersed in the story, I connected with the characters, the pacing felt perfect, the description's always just enough, the dialogue's realistic and flows beautifully, etc. I'll be keeping an eye on this for sure.
 
The acest of trainers
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Finally caught up and ready to review!

The main reason it took me so long to get back into reviewing was the length of Chapter Three. I tried a few times before I forced myself to sit down and not lose focus, but the lengthy baking descriptions didn't really draw me in. They felt a tad too drawn out and was a sequence that ultimately filled in some information about how the puffs are made but it wasn't wholly necessary to the overall story, even with Alex's thoughts. It is a shame because when I finally read through and got to the battle, I was hooked once again. It was an unexpected twist in a story that has been mostly character focused so far, but the idea of performers and their precious Pokemon being robbed fit naturally into this world.

I don't see why you split the battle between the third and fourth chapters. I would maybe wait for the battle to start at the beginning of Chapter Four rather splitting things like that; if I had not been binge-reading, I would have been rather thrown by the sudden stop. However, the battle was wonderfully written - you have an excellent style for those scenes, and I never lost my interest. It was nice to see a different side to Alex and get the nastiness of the mysterious robber to shake things up. The use of two Unova Pokemon did not go unnoticed by me - a coincidence, or something more?

His reaction at the impatience of the police was a nice touch, though given it is such a big industry, I feel the police might have been more interested? It was good to shake things up for Alex though and give him something different to consider, and his reactions the next day felt very in character. It was nice to see a different side of Veronique as well, but I hope she has a storyline or plot outside of Alex to help further her; or, at the very least, she addresses more the fact she has dedicated her life to making him a better person. It is an interesting character type and I look forward to see more of her sass and wit as things progress.

You write little kids fairly well; I totally believed they would ask questions like that and be that insecure and eager to battle. I also liked getting more signs of Alex's past and his growing up and how being a coordinator has affected him. It's not a side you normally see in stories around contests, and it is a subplot I am greatly enjoying. I am not sure if Alex is gay or straight; he seems to have a more than friendly relationship with Veronique, but some of his backstory and reactions make me wonder otherwise. If you had clarified that and I missed something, let me know. If he's not gay, it is probably even better to see a male character with a more fluid gender role.

Xavier and Yvette were interesting additions. I liked the tow battle scenes involving Xavier, it was a nice opportunity to draw out some more character in all players involved and show some different styles of battling. Yvette's sass and personality is amongst the most believable in the story, and I loved her relationship with Xavier. However, their inclusion and the gym battle in the latest chapter have me a bit worried. Six chapters in and I am not sure where the story is going next. The burglary at the performers was a neat angle, but now Alex seems to be heading towards a different path with his views on Xavier? I am yet to see how these two storylines tie into his backstory and overall development, and I am hoping that things are not getting sidetracked. I also, perhaps quite personally, found the fact this new chapter is meant to be the start of a second arc a bit odd; there was no conclusion/resolution, if you will, to the last one. It just seemed to end, and now a new storyline has begun?

I do still love this story, mainly because your writing is so good. Your characters are very believable and you have wonderful worldbuilding; I have not played X/Y yet, but I can imagine this world so vividly and that is a credit to your skill. I also rarely see battles this excellent on the site, so kudos for that side of the story as well. I would like to see more directioon and purpose to the events as things carry on, but I will keep reading regardless (as long as you keep up the quality ;P )
 
Chapter 7 - Lessons in Losing
I was thinking it's time for some evil.
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Bit of a talky chapter this time round, I'm afraid. Things need to be said, however. I'm also becoming conscious of the pacing, and returning from a hiatus to write this doesn't help either. I hope everything is still feeling peachy, though.

Big thanks to DP and AT, whom I didn't manage to respond to before dropping off the face of the planet last time. Long story short on the hiatus: I started my new job in late January and who knew? Being a high school English teacher is a really busy job. But lately - while teaching the creative writing unit, incidentally - I felt the itch, and had to come back to my beloved Star Performer. I still want to finish a long chapter fic one day, and I intend it to be this one - though I currently have over 70 chapters planned with no real conclusion in sight.

Enough chit-chat. Chapter, I choose you!

Chapter 7
Lessons in Losing

Xavier’s eyes narrowed. “You want me to what?”

Alex took a deep breath, leaning back against the glass wall of the monorail station. This was going about as well as he’d expected. Casting his eyes briefly over Xavier’s shoulder, he caught Yvette’s encouraging nod and forged ahead. “You need to get stronger before challenging Ramos again. Leave Coumarine for a while, go catch some more Pokémon, maybe even challenge other Gyms.”

Shaking his head resolutely, Xavier folded his arms across his chest and glared at Alex. “I can beat him. I’ll get that badge next time!”

“And how many times have you said that? How many times have you challenged him and lost now?”

“That’s beside the point! Next time, it’ll be different! I just know it. I can feel it!” Xavier said forcefully. “You don’t understand, you’re not a Trainer.”

“Xavier!” Yvette cut in sharply, looking scandalised.

“What?” he demanded. “It’s true, right Alex? I mean, you’re good at what you do, but it’s completely different to what we do!”

“Oh, really?” Alex shot back. “So I guess I just imagined beating you in that battle this morning?”

“That’s different! You even said yourself you would have lost a proper battle,” Xavier snapped. “So what makes you think you can give me advice on this? How many Gym badges do you have?”

“Xavier!” Yvette repeated, trying to step in between the two of them, but Xavier pushed her aside, taking a step towards Alex.

“No, come on. Where do you get off talking like you know what’s best for me? We told you we’re not leaving Coumarine until I get that Plant Badge!”

An faint surge of anger crept through Alex’s body; he involuntarily clenched his fist, stepping forward to answer Xavier’s challenge. Though he was a good six inches shorter and not nearly as broad, he looked the Kalosian straight in the eye. “You wanna know how many badges I have, Xavier? More than you, that’s how many.”

Xavier reeled as if he’d been slapped in the face. “You mean that you-”

“Yeah!” Alex said. “Yeah, I have a Gym badge. Just the one, but guess what, I battled the Gym Leader for it, and I won fair and square - something which you seem to be having trouble with. So no, I’m no expert, but if I’m being honest it’s not hard to see what’s going on here. So it’s time for you to answer my question: how many times have you tried to beat Ramos?”

Xavier at least had the decency to look slightly ashamed of himself, but there was still a spark of irritation in his eyes. “Seven times.”

“And have you ever beaten more than one of his Pokémon?”

Silence.

“And you think you’re going to beat him next time because... why, exactly?”

“I have a - a good feeling about the next time. It’ll be different!” Xavier repeated stubbornly, though he didn’t sound quite as sure of himself.

Alex shook his head. “It won’t. You’re not learning or improving by doing this, you’re just bashing your head against a wall.”

“You don’t know that!”

Alex couldn’t quite withhold the sigh that welled up inside him. “No, I suppose I don’t. For all I know, you could walk back up to the Gym tomorrow and win. But I don’t see that happening. You’re good, Xavier. Your Pokémon are strong and you work well together, but Ramos has decades of experience, and he sees right through you. You need to leave Coumarine for a while. Start that journey with Yvette, go challenge some other Gyms, catch some more Pokémon, and come back with a plan. The Gym isn’t going anywhere.”

Xavier ground his teeth. “That’s how you really feel?”

“Sorry,” Alex said with a shrug. “I know I probably don’t know you well enough to be saying stuff like this, but that battle was hard to watch.”

Fury flared anew in Xavier’s eyes, visible for only a split second before he turned his back on Alex. “Come on, Yvette,” he said tightly. “We’ll walk home.” Without waiting for her response, he marched away down the platform, his steps swift and heavy with overt rage.

Alex winced, glancing at Yvette with a mixture of guilt and reproach. “That went really well,” he said, the words bitter in his mouth.

Yvette pursed her lips. “He’ll come around,” she said. “I… I think. I’ll talk to him once he’s calmed down.”

“Good luck.” Alex could only grimace as Yvette bounced uncertainly on the balls of her feet, glancing between him and her rapidly retreating boyfriend. “Go, I’ll be fine!” he said, giving her a quick shooing motion.

Yvette paused. “I gave you my number before, right? At the cafe?”

“Yep, and you’ve got mine. Text me and let me know how it goes,” Alex said.

“Right. Look… I’m sorry. And thank you,” Yvette said. “I’ll make this up to you next time.” With that, she was gone, dashing to catch up with Xavier as he stormed down the road, muttering darkly.

Shaking his head, Alex took a seat in the glass-roofed shelter and stared through it at the open sky, wondering how exactly a quiet morning stroll through the city had gotten so out of hand.

***​

Veronique met Alex as he stepped off the monorail at the bottom of the hill, evidently having been freed from her shift in the pâtisserie’s kitchen. Dressed casually in dark wash skinny jeans and a purple tank top, she looked almost summery for once. Her straight black hair and blunt bangs were just as severe as ever, though, and she fixed him with a piercing, managerial glare. “What is it?” she said immediately, jerking her head to indicate the direction they should walk.

It was probably around noon now, and Coumarine had finally broken through its lethargy to take on all the hustle and bustle of a small oceanside city. The streets were far from crammed, but Alex breathed an inexplicable sigh of relief as normality resumed around him. He hadn’t realised it, but the quiet, laid-back pace of life in Coumarine’s warren of cobbled streets had set him on edge. Now that he was back among bustle of something resembling reality, he felt his shoulders unknot - relieving pressure he hadn’t realised was there.

“Made some new friends,” he said cryptically. Realising Veronique was still looking at him askance, he elaborated. “Then possibly lost them for good.”

She scowled. “That doesn’t explain anything, you realise.”

Letting a grin creep onto his face, Alex briefly related the events of the morning.

Veronique frowned slightly, but shrugged. “Sounds like they have their own problems to deal with. What about you, though?”

Blinking in surprise, Alex almost tripped on a cobblestone. “I’m not sure what you mean,” he said carefully.

“Don’t try and get cute with me, Alex.” Veronique elbowed him in the ribs, a gesture that seemed equal parts playful and reproachful. “You’re no better than them, you know. You’ve been drifting since you got here.”

“Oh.” Alex felt like he should be snapping back with something smart, but he found himself unable to find the words. “Have I?”

A light grimace. “Like a Chimecho in a hurricane. I brought you along to keep you from moping, but you just seem determined to mope in Kalos instead.”

“I don’t mean to,” he said quickly. “In fact, I’ve been trying not to think about… the Contests and everything.”

There almost seemed to be a hint of pity in Veronique’s eyes as she regarded him silently for a moment, but it was soon replaced by steely disapproval. “And that’s exactly the problem. I’ve been around you long enough to know a funk when I see one - and to know that unless you figure it out soon, you’re just going to keep floating aimlessly.”

“Then what should I do, oh wise sage?”

“We’ll start with lunch,” Veronique decided, steering him towards a snappy little cafe that she had evidently been on the lookout for. “Here, this place does great Pokémon food too, apparently.”

Ten minutes later, Alex was watching with some amusement as his Pokémon team proved Veronique right. Four bowls of altogether-too-expensive Pokémon food sat beside their table on the sidewalk, upon which Azumarill, Swablu, Plusle and Minun were gladly gorging themselves. This left Alex and Veronique almost as alone as they had been before, sitting opposite each other at the too-small table as the lunchtime crowds eddied past them like a rock in a stream.

“So,” Alex said at length, carefully placing his coffee down on the saucer. Its bitter taste clung to the inside of his mouth as he tried to pick his next words carefully. “What’s your take on… everything?” He gestured vaguely, uncertain how to proceed.

Veronique pursed her lips. “I’m going to be honest with you, Alex. I brought you to Kalos because I knew you’d do this anyway, but I wanted you to be within reach for a swift kick up the ass if you needed one.”

“Right.” Alex swallowed. “And that would be what this is.”

“Indeed.”

“I see.”

Veronique looked him straight in the eye. “Let me ask you one question: What have you done since coming here? We’ve been here a week, and you’ve hardly taken any time to do the things you’re interested in.”

“The pâtisserie-”

“-has always managed just fine without you, and will continue to do so.”

“I went with you to the Showcase!” Alex protested.

“Which lasted all of half an hour and just about got us involved in a kidnapping,” she snapped. “Honestly, I was hoping that today you might finally get out of the house and do something.”

“And I did! I had a battle, went up to the Gym…”

Veronique’s glare hardened. She had a way of looking right through him that made him shiver, though he could tell she wasn’t exactly angry. He had seen Veronique angry before, and it wasn’t an experience one could forget so easily. Instead, she just shook her head. “I’m still disappointed, Alex. How can you have so much insight into other people’s problems but not stop to think that maybe - just maybe - you should take your own advice?”

That gave him pause. Luckily, it was at this time that the waitress stopped by with their food, giving him an excuse to fall silent for a few minutes. Eventually he put down his fork and sighed. “You’re trying to say I should do… something else? Like what?”

Taking a sip of water, Veronique twirled her hand airily. “Anything! Go challenge the Gym yourself, get back into Contest training, go backpacking. Whatever! Don’t just expect to loiter around here until we go back to Hoenn.”

Alex tried to speak, but Veronique held up a hand. “Not finished. Look, it’s lovely of you to help out in the shop. Mama loves you for it, and we really do appreciate the help. But I didn’t bring you all the way to Kalos for a part-time job. As your manager, I have to insist you actually take the holiday you’re supposed to be on. So to that end…”

“Uh-oh.” Alex recognised that glint in her eye. “You’ve signed me up for something again, haven’t you?”

“Muahaha!” Veronique chuckled with just a hint of her typical dryness. “You know me too well. Actually… Étoile dropped by the shop again this morning.”

Alex winced slightly at the bite in Veronique’s voice. “I’m surprised she had the time after all the fuss last night.”

“Yes, well… she said she wanted to apologise, but she didn’t sound particularly apologetic. But in any case, she reiterated that we’re invited to the Showcase next week in Lumiose. Backstage passes, VIP seats, all the bells and whistles. So... I told her we’d go.”

Alex had to admit that he was still curious about the mysterious Showcases, so he nodded. “Sounds like a plan.”

“Indeed! And that, Monsieur Dreary, is exactly what you need. So I’ve booked us tickets and everything.” She reached into her pocket and waved a pair of colourful stubs at Alex. “Think you can handle the train?”

Alex took one of the proffered tickets and glanced over it quickly. “I suppose - wait, Battle Train? What’s this supposed to be?” he asked.

Veronique grinned, suddenly back to her mischievous self. “The other thing that you need - a challenge!”

Despite himself, Alex felt the corner of his mouth crooking into a smile. “A plan and a challenge, huh?” he mused.

“Baby steps, ma amie,” Veronique said, patting his hand reassuringly.

Alex wasn’t sure if the gesture was necessary, but somehow it made him feel better. He honestly hadn’t realised he was moping, but Veronique always seemed to see through him. He wondered if it was something to do with being an outside observer looking in, but if that were the case, wouldn’t he be able to read Veronique as easily as she read him? And yet, she was still an enigma in many ways. As he watched her return to her toasted brioche, Alex studied his oldest friend’s face. It was strange, really, how inscrutable she could still be after all these years. Every inch of her face was intimately familiar, from the gentle sweep of her cheek to the way her eyes - green like his own, but darker - shifted as she talked. Even today, when Veronique’s makeup was relatively minimal, those eyes stood out against her pale skin, expressive and dark. Hers was a face that he knew better than his own, for sure, but it betrayed no unusual emotion that he could divine.

“Something on my face?”

Alex blinked, feeling himself flush as he returned his attention to his own lunch. Sure, just gaze intensely into her eyes while she eats. That’s not weird.

Veronique quirked an eyebrow, and Alex again had the uncomfortable feeling that she could see right through him.

***​

The rest of the afternoon passed without major incident. Veronique took advantage of the rare time off to properly show Alex around her hometown. While his early-morning wanderings had taken him to quite a few of the local landmarks, it was newly interesting to hear Veronique’s take, which always included stories from her childhood - those few half-remembered years before the Vincents had moved all the way to Hoenn, winding up next door to Alex’s own family. Here was the park where she had run off and gotten separated from her parents, over there was the shopping centre where Jean had taken his eye off her for two seconds, and round the corner was the plaza where she had wandered off chasing a Fletchling, causing her mother to start a mass panic until four-year-old Veronique was found.

“I’m starting to sense a theme here,” Alex commented, earning himself a punch in the arm.

The two of them eventually returned to Le Pâtisserie Vincent with weary feet as the sun was setting. Before bed, Veronique extracted a promise from Alex that he would take his Pokémon out for some training the following day. “You’ve been too negligent,” she scolded him. “I know we’re technically on holiday, but that’s no reason to neglect your training regimen - or your Pokémon.”

The only further event was a brief text from Yvette, which arrived just as Alex was settling down to sleep on his camp stretcher in Jean’s room: <X still pissed. Wants 2 challenge Ramos again tomorrow. Think it mite be last time tho. U coming?>

Wincing, Alex flicked back a quick <Better not. Wish him luck tho> before rolling over and drifting off to sleep.

Sunday dawned bright and cold, with a slightly bitter edge to the breeze that rolled in from the north. Still, Alex took Veronique’s advice to heart and found himself once again standing in the park - alone this time, with no sign of Xavier, Yvette or their tiny hangers-on. Instead, Alex faced down his Pokémon with no small amount of trepidation.

“I haven’t been fair to you guys,” he confessed. Interesting start to a pep talk, some part of him acknowledged.

For their part, his Pokémon seemed unfazed. Plusle and Minun were busy rubbing cheeks, trying to see who could conjure the biggest static discharge. Azumarill listened intently, but seemed unconcerned with such lofty concepts as ‘fairness’, and Swablu… Swablu settled itself on Alex’s head and cooed softly in a way that he could only imagine was meant to be gently reassuring.

“Still,” he continued, “I should’ve given you guys more attention. You fought hard for me in the Grand Festival, and we almost made it. You didn’t let me down, so I can’t let you down either. Let’s get back into it!” He clapped his hands, earning a delighted chorus of squealing from Plusle and Minun. The twin troublemakers bounded up onto Azumarill’s head, each taking hold of one of its long, upright ears and swinging in tandem as they jittered with anticipation.

Alex grinned. Their enthusiasm was infectious; even Azumarill seemed set on training. “Okay,” he said. “Swablu, I want to put you through some movement exercises. Melanie’s Tropius flew rings around you in Lilycove. Azumarill will provide obstacles for you. Plusle, Minun, tumbling. The usual routine - I’ll come around to help you in a minute once I’ve got these two going. Alright? Let’s get you all in top shape!”
 
Chapter 8 - Obligatory Training Sequence
I was thinking it's time for some evil.
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A/N: Okay, with a bit of luck this should be the start of a regular update schedule - at least for a while. I found some discarded cuttings that were originally meant to be in Chapter 3 before I decided to re-pace the first couple of arcs, and together with new original writing, they now make up Chapters 9 and 10. 11 is underway, so I have the rest of September covered at the very least - one chapter each Saturday.

In other news, I've updated the first post with all the chapter titles as far ahead as I've planned them. They are mostly spoiler-free, so feel free to speculate. Muahaha. I've also started using threadmarks for navigation, so if you're binging, there's no need to constantly refer to the index - you can just click the arrow at the bottom of each chapter to jump to the next one!

Chapter 8

Obligatory Training Sequence

Thursday

Alex ducked as a Hyper Beam sliced past his ear, slamming into the curved wall of the train carriage and dissipating on its surface, just one more bang in the clattering cacophony that was the Lumiose Battle Train. Rather than using magnets to zoom between cities, the bulky electric locomotive and its series of reinforced carriages clickety-clacked directly along the rails, causing a slight but constant juddering that was only exacerbated by the fierce battles being waged up and down the train.

"Swablu, Disarming Voice! Pummel it while it's recharging!" Alex bellowed, clinging to the handholds hanging from the ceiling and doing his best not to throw up as the Kalosian countryside whizzed by outside the long, narrow windows.

Trilling excitedly, Swablu pulsed sound waves from its stubby beak, fluttering in close to its opponent, a dazed Reuniclus, in order to guarantee a solid hit. Flailing wildly, the blobby Psychic-type waved its amoeba-like arms in distress, but despite its Trainer's exhortations was unable to retaliate as Swablu's shrieks compressed the air around it, slamming into it with force that was almost physical.

"Come on! Use Recover!" Reuniclus' Trainer, a sharply dressed woman in her thirties, set her jaw and clenched a fist as she continued to bark orders. Eventually, Reuniclus seemed to shake itself out of its stupor, levitating a little higher in the carriage as a gentle green glow - almost invisible against its fluid body - limned its amorphous form, sparkling softly as it tried to counteract the damage.

"I don't think so!" Alex snapped. "Dragon Pulse!"

Repositioning itself, Swablu opened its beak again and sang out one more time - but this time, the note that came out sounded much deeper and somehow ancient, a thrumming callback in to Swablu's draconic ancestry. Accompanied by a spectacular beam of twisting, purplish-blue light, the attack slammed directly into Reuniclus, which was making no effort to protect itself - and had in fact closed its eyes to facilitate its self-healing.

"Signal Beam!" shrieked Reuniclus' Trainer, but it was too late. Swablu's continuous barrage of sonic attacks finally took its toll. Unable to sustain itself through a direct hit from Dragon Pulse, the Psychic-type withered before its much smaller opponent, making a loud squelching noise as Swablu's energy beam forced it back against the wall, where it stuck and slowly slid to the ground, its beady eyes flickering shut.

A siren blared and red lights flashed as a flat-screen monitor burst to life at the carriage's midpoint. "CHALLENGER A HAS ONE POKÉMON REMAINING!" howled an electronic voice with great excitement. "WILL YOU CONTINUE?"

"Of course!" The woman - Alex thought she might have introduced herself as Adelaide, but the swaying of the train, the noise of the battles, the flashing lights - none of which were helping his nausea - made it hard to remember exactly. Adelaide scowled as she returned Reuniclus to its Poké Ball, but she patted the capsule absently as she returned it to her purse, switching it for another. "Malamar!"

Alex blinked at the unfamiliar Pokémon that erupted from its ball before him. Even larger than the bulky Reuniclus, it was all tentacles and pulsing lights, with an undulating invertebrate body and a wicked-looking beak. Somehow, however, he didn't think that was what he needed to worry about.

As the lights flared green and a horn blasted, signalling the start of the next round, Alex took the initiative. "Swablu, Cotton Guard! Get ready for whatever's coming!"

Trilling boldly, Swablu ceased its figure-eight swooping and fluttered in place, pumping its nebulous spun-cotton wings as it focused its defense, humming in concentration.

Strangely, Adelaide seemed pleased by this. She grinned and pumped her fist, barking, "Malamar! Topsy-Turvy!"

The beaked monstrosity ululated threateningly, rotating on its axis until it floated completely upside down. The movement was slow and ponderous, but precise. Just then, the train barrelled into a tunnel, plunging the carriage into semi-darkness. Dim lights built into the walls lit the whole compartment in ghostly orange, throwing a flickering chiaroscuro across the walls. The golden lights on Malamar's torso flared brightly as it turned in place, thousand-watt bulbs that created a strobing effect, mingling with the electric cabin lights to create a spinning phantasmagoria only exacerbated by the eerie howling of the bizarre upside-down Pokémon.

Swablu shuddered visibly as the rattling lights barraged it with psychic energy, its movements becoming sluggish as it drifted towards the ground. Rather than having its defenses up, Alex saw its wings dropping and eyelids fluttering, evidently having trouble staying airborne. "Dragon Pulse!" he tried, but Swablu seemed too weak to hear him as the whole world seemed to sway around them.

"Finish it! Psyshock!" Adelaide's voice was clipped, controlled. Her Pokémon, despite being upside down, screeched assent as its lights switched from gold to pink, flooding the entire carriage with light.

Alex closed his eyes on reflex, bright spots dancing in his vision as he stumbled, hearing Swablu screech in pain. Psyshock… That's nasty. If that other move did something to Swablu…

He dreaded opening his eyes, but the light did not abate. When he managed to crack his lids open, he realised the train had shot out of the tunnel, returning the lighting to normal. As he rubbed his eyes to dissipate the stinging afterimage of Malamar's attack, Alex realised that the ringing in his ears was not part of the effect. A klaxon blared and the computer flared to life, proclaiming with almost unsettling glee: "CHALLENGER B HAS ONE POKÉMON REMAINING! WILL YOU CONTINUE?"

Swablu had hit the deck, hard. Little more than a feathery, fluffy bundle of clouds, it lay in a trembling heap right by Alex's feet. He ground his teeth, squatting down to gently pick up the brave little Flying-type, tapping its Poké Ball against its head to return it to stasis. "You'll be fine," he told it quietly. "Yeah, I'll continue."

A second Poké Ball, a second chance. Azumarill practically bounded from its capsule, staring down the unfamiliar Pokémon without fear. Malamar loomed tall over Alex's Pokémon, particularly as it levitated in the middle of the carriage, but Azumarill's stubby blue paws gripped the floor defiantly as it stared its enemy down.

The klaxon sounded the start of the final round, and Alex leapt into action. "Aqua Jet!" Test the waters, probe its defenses. With a flick of his finger, he sketched out an angle of attack, and Azumarill followed, surrounding its body with a cone of water and blasting off like a rocket, imitating the denoted trajectory.

Malamar seemed quite content to take the hit, forming an X shape with its two largest tentacles to cushion the brunt of the blow. Azumarill slammed into it with corkscrewing force and continued to spin as its attack failed to penetrate properly. After a moment, Malamar gave a great heave and threw Azumarill off it, leaving it dripping wet and irritated, but not particularly damaged. At its Trainer's command, it lashed out with its tentacles again, grappling Azumarill and yanking it out of the air before slamming it into the wall of the train carriage.

"Defense Curl! Get out of its grip!" Alex called out, but it was easier said than done. Azumarill tucked its limbs as best it could, rolling into a ball and attempting to slip out of Malamar's grasp. The suction cups on its tentacles, however, kept the Water-type tightly ensnared.

"Again!" Adelaide commanded. "Superpower!"

Alex's eyes grew wide even as he felt the set of his jaw involuntarily turn grim. "Defense Curl!"

Once again, Malamar hoisted Azumarill effortlessly off the ground, yanking it into the air before slinging it down again, this time aiming directly at the floor. Azumarill screeched defiantly as it reinforced its entire body, but Malamar gave no quarter as it slammed Alex's Pokémon right into the metal floor, causing the entire carriage to shudder.

Alex frowned. That was a little stronger than the first time, he noted with some concern. He didn't know what Malamar's deal was, and that was starting to look like his undoing. First the strange attack, Topsy-Turvy. Then the bizarrely powerful Psyshock, which shouldn't have been able to knock Swablu out in one hit, especially with Cotton Guard up. Now its attacks seemed to be growing in intensity as each one landed.

A spark of hope presented itself, however, as the impact of Azumarill's rotund body on the floor jarred it loose from Malamar's grip, giving it just enough purchase to shake off the tentacles and return to a safer distance. It looked slightly worse for wear after being pummelled twice, but it gamely faced down its opponent once again.

This was not a good matchup. Malamar's reach was longer, its sphere of attack larger. Azumarill was a brawler, a compact Pokémon that specialised in getting close to its enemy and battering it down directly. If it wasn't able to get close without getting grappled, it would be futile.

Still, Alex was running out of ideas. He had trained Azumarill to be excellent at that one aspect of combat, covering for its weaknesses in double battles with the supportive specialties of Swablu and the tumbling twins - but in a one-on-one with an area control specialist with apparent hypnotic powers, it was clearly struggling.

Azumarill looked back over its shoulder and squeaked, a sound that had to be somewhere between a rebuke and a cry for help.

Alex straightened up. His Pokémon was counting on him; he couldn't afford to be indecisive. He filed away the handful of potential long-term solutions and focused on what was happening right now. Malamar was an oppressive presence in more ways than one, hovering in the middle of the carriage. It and Adelaide seemed perfectly happy to hold their position, and he couldn't blame them. Moving in to try and finish off Azumarill would only open them up to a counterattack.

The seed of an idea sprouted in his mind. "Okay, Azu," he said quietly, his voice barely audible over the clattering of train tracks beneath their feet. "I need you to build up some speed. Rollout!"

Intuiting his meaning, Azumarill gave a much more determined chirp as it began to spin again. Its body was already limber from curling into a ball before, so it took easily to the spinning as it tucked and rolled, shooting not directly towards Malamar, but aiming right past it. Azumarill rocketed like a cannonball through the air, shearing past Malamar and almost clipping the side of its bizarrely-shaped head. The larger Pokémon lashed out with its tentacles again, but Azumarill was gone before it could find purchase, zooming past Malamar and Adelaide both to impact on the wall of the carriage behind them.

Rather than commit to the impact, however, Azumarill pushed off with a subtle kick, directing itself back towards Malamar. Shooting over its other shoulder - well, what passed for a shoulder amid the wriggling crown of tentacles - it made a second glancing impact on the wall of the train carriage. Subtly, Alex directed its moves, brief, almost imperceptible movements of his eyes identifying new targets around the entire three-hundred-and-sixty-degree surface of the carriage. Azumarill ricocheted off the walls, floor, ceiling and doors - all specially reinforced, thankfully - gaining speed and momentum with each contact as it ran rings around Malamar.

The whole time, its attack never landed. It came close to clipping the waving tentacles of its opponent several times, but Alex's directions kept it on the move, never quite converting its motion into a final strike. Apparently Adelaide had realised this, because she stopped calling frantic orders and simply instructed her Pokémon to ready itself for the inevitable finale. Every student at Pokémon Trainer School knew that Rollout was a move which rapidly ramped up in power with every second it wound up, and more advanced Trainers would also know that preparing with a Defense Curl increased the aerodynamics of the Pokémon executing the move. She would be counting on her Pokémon's tentacles to arrest Azumarill's movement at the last second, just like it had done with the Aqua Jet.

Alex would be a fool to let all the setup go to waste.

Unfortunately for Adelaide - and Malamar - Alex had no illusions to the contrary. With one final twitch of his right hand, he sent Azumarill barrelling straight for Malamar's face, flying head-on with a victorious screech. No subtlety, no tricks. A full-frontal, head-on attack without a shred of deceit. Even though Azumarill had built up enough speed to be little more than a blur to the human eye, Malamar would easily be able to deflect its attack.

Breaking its almost meditative trance, Malamar let out a psychic shriek and lashed out with its suction-cupped tentacles, coiling out around the charging Azumarill and encircling it, stretching towards it, forming a fleshy white cage of rapidly tightening-

"Now!" Alex roared. "Play Rough!"

Azumarill, having cottoned on to his plan, had been expecting this command. Instantly, it unrolled itself in midair, losing all rotational momentum but continuing forwards, now diving headfirst towards Malamar. At the same time, it reached out to both sides, grabbing Malamar's tentacles even as they sought to imprison it in turn.

The trap had been sprung.

Holding the two wiggling tentacles tightly, Azumarill rammed headfirst into Malamar's face, driving its tough skull right beneath the monstrous creature's eyes. Reeling, Malamar tried to tighten its grip, but Azumarill had a solid hold on its main defensive weapons. Carrying on the momentum from its charge, Azumarill heaved on the tentacles, yanking the pair of them into a vertical spin like a pair of trapeze dancers - except without the safety net.

Malamar found itself completely off-balance, Azumarill holding it fast from above. The two spun a full three hundred and sixty degrees before Azumarill let go, hurling its larger opponent through the air at blistering speed and slamming it against the end of the carriage behind its Trainer with a painful thooom.

As the wind was driven from its body, Malamar opened its beak wide and screeched, a dual shriek that pierced the ears and the mind at the same time. Alex winced, but he could tell the battle was not yet won. The once-floating Pokémon, now with its lights flickering feebly, was beginning to pry itself off the wall, the tentacles on its head wriggling in pain and anger.

Azumarill seemed to be on the same page. As Alex nodded grimly, it twisted in midair, not even touching the ground before it cloaked itself in churning water again, screeching triumphantly as it corkscrewed through the air, drilling directly into Malamar's body and slamming it back against the wall once more.

Malamar croaked out one final, plaintive squawk and passed out, sliding to the floor in a rubbery tangle of tentacles. Azumarill flipped backwards, landing en pointe right in the centre of the carriage to take its bow before the imaginary audience.

For a moment, all was silent save for the rhythmic clacking of the train along the track. Then, as if it had just been reminded that it had a job to do - as if it had been stunned into awed silence by the battle in front of it - the train's computer system burst to life. "CHALLENGER B IS VICTORIOUS!" it wailed, a middle school disco's worth of flashing neon lights dancing across the carriage. Alex winced. He already had a slight headache from the Malamar's flashing lights.

Mercifully, the computer called down before continuing. "Challengers, please enjoy the rest of your trip. Prizes for the victorious battler may be collected once we arrive at Lumiose North Station. If any of your Pokémon require immediate medical attention, please place them in the healing pod." A tray slid out of the wall beside Alex with a quiet whoosh, two hemisphere-shaped depressions in its surface. After a moment's consideration, he slotted both of his Poké Balls into the tray and watched as Adelaide did the same at the other end.

The computer paused for a moment, then bleeped pleasantly as the trays slid back into their housing. "Reuniclus. Malamar. Azumarill. Swablu. Confirmed. Please collect your Pokémon from the medical car before exiting the train. Enjoy the rest of your trip."

As the Poké Ball trays disappeared, their outer edges landing flush with the wall, larger panels along the sides of the carriage folded down, turning into two parallel rows of inward-facing seats. Suddenly very glad he didn't have to swing from the handrails any longer, Alex gratefully sat, watching with only the slightest concern as Adelaide took a seat opposite him.

Behind her, Kalos whizzed past, lush and green. The car was silent, though if Alex strained his ears, he was able to faintly hear the sounds of battle from other carriages behind or ahead of them.

Just moments later, the door behind where Alex had been standing ground open, the heavy reinforced metal seeming to battle against its automated mechanism.

"Alex!" Veronique squeezed her way through from the spectator's booth, dropping into the seat next to him and throwing an arm around his shoulders and squeezing casually. "You guys nailed it! That's awesome!"

Now that the battle was over, Alex felt his adrenaline recede. Rather than feeling drained like usual, though, he found himself oddly relaxed. "Yeah," he said with a light sigh. "It was touch and go for a while there, though."

"You and your Pokémon are strong," Adelaide agreed, smiling indulgently at the two of them. There was a slight edge to her grin, but she inclined her head gracefully and continued, "There are not many who can deal with Malamar's hypnotic lights and its tentacles."

"Don't feel bad, Alex is just that good," Veronique said, matching Adelaide's grin with one of her own.

Alex elbowed her in the ribs. "Do you mind?" he muttered.

It seemed like Veronique, for one, was back to her normal self. She had once again abandoned the more conservative look she adopted during their time in Coumarine. A tight-fitting band tee, ripped jeans and dark makeup, topped with a smirk to complete the ensemble. She rolled her eyes. "Fine," she grumbled, but she kept her arm slung proudly across Alex's shoulders, grinning as if she had won the battle herself.

"Your Malamar was very impressive." Alex took the opportunity to steer the conversation into safer waters. "I've never seen a Pokémon like that before."

Adelaide preened. "It's awfully rare, even in the Kalos region," she informed him. "Getting an Inkay to evolve is… tricky."

"I keep getting caught off guard by Pokémon I've never seen before," Alex admitted. "Kalos is a long way from home."

"Well, that's easily fixed," Adelaide said, holding up a finger while she rummaged in her purse with the other hand. When she withdrew it, she was holding a small, red, cellphone-like device, sleek and compact. "You should get yourself one of these."

Veronique squinted. "A Pokédex? I thought you had to be on one of Sycamore's special research teams to get those."

"They just hit the market." Adelaide seemed to enjoy knowing something that Veronique didn't. "Sycamore and his crew finally decided to release a beta version to the public. They're expensive - mostly because of the hardware, I guess - but worth it, especially if you aren't from around here."

"I'll look into it, thanks," Alex put in before Veronique could say anything else. "I'll have to look up your Pokémon and that move you used in case I run into it again."

"Oh?" Adelaide tucked a strand of blonde hair behind her ear as she leaned in. "Well, seeing as you beat me already, I suppose there's no harm in sharing a little…"

The final twenty minutes of the ride to Lumiose was spent exchanging tips and strategies. Veronique grumbled and made passing comments, but for the most part she let the two Trainers carry the conversation.

She certainly seemed to be in a better mood than she had at the weekend, Alex reflected. Indeed, by the time they parted ways with Adelaide at Lumiose North Station, she was positively brimming with energy. After Alex collected his Pokémon from the medical car - in perfect health, no less - she all but dragged him to collect his prizes.

As it turned out, the prize for winning a round on the Battle Train was a refund on your tickets - which explained why she had been so eager to collect - and a punch on his membership card.

"Great," he said, stashing the card in his wallet. "If I force myself to endure that another nine times, I could win a stuffed toy."

Veronique snorted, nudging him with her hip. "Aw, c'mon! You had fun, admit it. It was a good battle!"

"I guess so."

The two of them joined the crowd passing through the arched gateway, letting the flow of people carry them through and spit them out on the sidewalk. Alex could only blink as the late afternoon sun lanced through the forest of buildings, tossing threads of gold across the streets and boulevards. Seeing Lumiose up close and in person, he was struck by how different it was from even the neighbouring city of Coumarine. Where the seaside port city had kept its old town separate, Lumiose had no qualms about cramming its two worlds together. Sparkling turrets of aluminium and glass jostled for space with low, sprawling complexes fashioned from stone. A museum, its frontage wrought from carved marble, could be seen a block or two to the west along the gently curved ring road that encircled the main body of the city.

Alex had spent some time looking over a map before boarding the Battle Train, but Lumiose had a readily apparent knack for disorienting those who were not intimately familiar with its twists and turns. Despite its entirely sensible layout - like a spoked wheel, with the ever-present Lumiose Tower at its heart - there were more side streets and alleyways and plazas than a Sudowoodo could shake at. Thankfully, Veronique seemed to keep her bearings as she guided him through the maze of streets, apparently more than happy to traverse the city on foot. She paused from time to time to consult the GPS on her phone, but she had clearly visited before - and as a result, was not overly awed by the convoluted city and its many attractions, unlike Alex and the scores of other tourists that milled around on every street, oohing and aahing without concern for such petty things as whether they were blocking an entire sidewalk.

"Where...exactly are we going?" Alex wondered aloud after fifteen minutes of this. "The Showcase Theater was supposed to be quite near the station, wasn't it?"

"Sure," Veronique agreed, "but we have two hours before anything starts, even with the backstage passes, so I thought we should eat, do some shopping, maybe drop our stuff at the hotel."

Alex hoisted his oversized pack, frowning. He had almost forgotten he was carrying it. "I suppose I'd rather not look any more like a tourist than I have to," he confessed.

Veronique clapped her hands. "Great! Let's get settled, and we can get to the Showcase by six thirty."
 
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Bringing this over from elsewhere. :V

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.

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

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
 
Chapter 9 - Crossed Wires
I was thinking it's time for some evil.
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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 SHIT' 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."
 
Thesaurus rex
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Well! It's been sufficiently long that it takes me a while to recall the details of the story, so a somewhat shorter review is on the cards.

As far as Chapter Seven is concerned, you rather apologetically call it a talky one, but ... well, you and I both know that talky isn't inherently a sin. True, in anime parlance this chapter would be labelled as filler - implicitly disposable - but you're not writing a silly shonen fighty show aimed at twelve-year-olds. As it happens I thought the chapter was a fairly swift one.

Thinking about Alex and Veronique, on paper their friendship is a pretty clichéd one. And if that's the case, then I'm bloody guilty of it as well. But it goes to show that if you hit enough sincere and/or relateable notes you can get away with some very familiar tropes. The shrewd and slightly matronly girl best friend, for example. I suppose it's the same kind of genre and target audience as The Long Walk (Apologies for bringing my story into this, but there is a point) - aimed at the more grown-up fan who likes the escapism of Pokémon, just with some emotional maturity to it.

Right. Chapter Eight:

Style
Before I even start, this:

chiaroscuro
I only point out because I've been banging the drum for unapologetically using a large vocabulary (Hence Word of the Week), and it's nice to see this and not merely "shadows".

Anyway, I liked the manic atmosphere on the train (Oh please, run by SNCK). It's completely unlike anything you'd expect from Kalos, which I find refreshing. I think I said in a previous review how the canonical Kalos is just a bit too refined and cute and cultured, perhaps to the point of being slightly smug. The battle needs no going over. I do remember saying before that you do battles well, and clearly nothing's changed in the interim.

Setting

ring road
I can't help but feel this description cried out for "boulevard".

Story
Getting a couple of disconnected comments out of the way:

sharply dressed woman in her thirties
I have a bit of a soft spot for trainers who aren't teenagers.

but this time, the note that came out sounded much deeper and somehow ancient, a thrumming callback in to Swablu's draconic ancestry
Now that's an interesting interpretation. So Swablu's attacks are all to some degree sound-based, regardless of what the games say they are?

Subtly, Alex directed its moves, brief, almost imperceptible movements of his eyes identifying new targets around the entire three-hundred-and-sixty-degree surface of the carriage.
This point I did have some issue with, though. To a great extent pokémon battles need a healthy degree of suspension of disbelief, so they can have pokémon-trainer interactions more interesting than yelling out things. In this case I don't see a rapidly-spinning Azumarill as being able to follow those kinds of directions.

And finally Chapter Nine. I'm not sure how to feel about this one (Which is possibly a a bit rich, given the latest arc in my story). I don't think crossdressing necessarily needs an in-depth look at the art of "passing", and on that I'm prepared to suspend my disbelief, though I can guarantee other readers won't. I'm not sure whether I like Veronique's attitude, or even whether I'm supposed to. Her little pep-speech comes across as sincere enough, but it feels like it's undermined by her gleeful determination to revel in Alex's discomfort.
 
shame personified
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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~
 
Don't Look Away
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Well it’s been a long time since I first read this story. Two years to be specific. That being said, I see that you yourself have had trouble getting it in gear xD but well, since it’s been so long I figured I’d read the story from the start, meaning I read 9 (technically ten, you’re not fooling anyone with chapter 0) chapters.

Chapter 0


So chapters of this story come in two ways, there’s the really long ones and then the really short ones that usually come after a really long one. You start off with the latter with chapter 0 since it’s basically just Alex’s reaction to losing the Grand Festival.

This chapter gives us a good way to enter Alex’s head and it tells us a few things about him and his life, particularly what’s led to this point. I particularly like the way you’re able to seamlessly convey Alex’s emotions and the feeling of loss and frustration and tell us an important part of the story behind the career without it dragging the chapter.

My one complain with Chapter 0 is that it’s really short and I don’t think I really needs to stand on its own. Like, calling it Chapter 0 is already kind of weird when you could’ve just made it a Prologue. Not just that but chapter 1 starts immediately after so you could technically have chapter 0 at the start and just make it slightly longer.

Chapter 1

This chapter acts as our proper introduction to Alex and Veronique and immediately I liked the way the two interacted and came off from each other. I don’t know how to feel too much about Alex since his personality seems kind of barebones, being basically your typical meek and shy Protagonist, though I like how he has that edge of knowing how to manage a crowd.

Standing almost a complete opposite to Alex is Veronique, who’s so bubbly and everything she does has so much emotion behind it that I immediately wonder why she chooses to have a punk fashion style since her personality really doesn’t match that.

You added a lot of aspects of real world sports into this chapter with the news reporters for different channels, as well as the girl with the blog. Though I kind of feel like she comes off as too much of a typical fan girl, which I guess is kind of the point at the end of the day. The scene with the reporters also drags a little bit, particularly when we get multiple sentences pointing out Alex’s insecurity and how he’s trying to not break down. It works the first few times but after a while it starts to wear thin.

Again, the highlight of this chapter are Alex and Veronique, particularly the last scene. In fact, it feels really weird for the two of them to not outwardly date at this point, like later chapters also have these scenes where they both clearly have feelings with each other but none of them really seem to want to accept that fact. I think it’ll probably be better if you decide to not drag that out cause it otherwise makes their relationship feel over dramatic.

Chapter 2

I didn’t pay too much attention to it when I first read it. I don’t know if it was me at the time or if you’ve reworked the chapter over the years but I enjoyed the way you described Coumarine. In general the flow behind your description is very fluid, giving enough information while also leaving things to the imagination. It’s simple but manages to convey a lot without having to overstay its welcome.

There’s not much else to comment on in this chapter since it’s mostly a transition chapter, but you did get a pretty good hang of the homely feel of the pattesiere and the descriptions for the pastries, especially the poffins were a lot more detailed than I thought. Anyone would think you’re some kind of expert baker or something. The chapter also made Veronique’s relationship with her family believable, if not exactly overly realistic. I feel like there’s something we’re not being told because otherwise her family just seems like the loveliest family ever, though her mom can be a little pushy.

One complain I do have to this chapter is that it’s the first chapter where Alex’s characterization issues pop up. A lot of the time it feels like Alex’s personality just kind, comes to a halt. I understand that he’s stuck in a rut at the moment, but we don’t actually get too much of a focus on his emotions and how they’re affecting it outside of a couple of comments and it really just makes him come off as a simpler character that he is. I have a few more comments in regards to Alex’s rut and how it affects him but I’ll save that for later chapters.

Chapter 3

This chapter is sort of another transition chapter in a way. It does get things going by introducing us to Performances and then having an actual plot, even if said plot comes out pretty suddenly. Really in retrospect the whole kidnapping thing feels a little out of left field. That being said, much like chapter two, the scenes taking place are the bakery were pretty well done and you’re really in your groove when you get to show your characters just interacting with one another doing normal everyday stuff, no wonder all of your fics put a big emphasis on the character’s lives.

The scene at the showcase was…interesting to say the least. You got the feeling of it being a more sophisticated type of event down, and if it feels like they’re being compared a lot to beauty pageants maybe it’s because they are. Granted, that’s mainly cause you went with the anime’s rendition of Contests in this story as opposed to the games. I mean, let’s be honest, Performances were introduced in the XY anime around the time ORAS was in development, probably as a way to justify having something that was like Contests without having to go back to them or having to go to Hoenn.

This is also the first chapter where we get to see actual Pokemon for the first time! It’s kind of weird to realize that we’ve heard the word Pokemon being turn around a couple of times throughout the last few chapters but still hadn’t seen a single one.

Much like your slice of life scenes, the battle here flows smoothly, it does get a bit hard to keep track of towards the end when Azumarill really starts tugging against Bisharp, but it’s otherwise a pretty serviceable battle that paints a clear picture of what’s going on in the scene. It does stretch the chapter out quite a bit though.

Chapter 4

And almost as if you yourself knew how long chapter 3 was, Chapter 4 is considerably shorter, mainly acting as just the resolution to chapter 3. In fact, I’d say that much like chapter 0, Chapter 4 could probably be tacked on at the end of chapter 3 without much issue. Yes, Chapter 3 is plenty long as is, but at that point it being longer doesn’t really make a difference and it does feel weird to have a chapter that’s barely a couple of pages long after such a long one.

Aside from that, the more stand out aspect of this chapter is the introduction of Etoile, who is a very critic if someone scary figure. It’s kind of weird to see Veronique scared, which just drives home just how much of a enigma Etoile is. I do wonder what we’ll see of her.

I’m also curious as to why that guy was trying to kidnap Performers, it seemed like any Performer would do. That coupled with a few other off hand comments about Performers in Kalos makes me really curious as to what you have planned regarding their portrayal.

Chapter 5 and 6

I’m doing this as a double feature because in closer inspection I think it’s probably better to do these chapters together than separate since they both tell a complete story.

So the thing with Xavier and Yvette feels like both a side story somewhat but also as like a way for the story to indirectly tell us what Alex’s issue is, something that Veronique is quick to point out later on. I think that the way Alex gets off to his friendship with these two is nice enough, even if I think they probably became a bit too friendly really quickly, in fact it kind of felt a bit like how people meet in the anime if anything. The battle between Alex and Xavier was pretty good and I in particular liked how you made use of Plusle and Minun’s abilities as a team for it. I will say, at some point you stopped calling Doublade by its name and started calling it Honedge which took me out of the fight pretty quickly.

What Xavier’s and Yvette’s scenes did show us was the juxtaposition between new and old Kalos and what its inhabitants feel about it as well as allowing us to see Alex as a mentor figure. These chapters really highlight his experience and how he’s able to discern situations relatively quickly thanks to all the time he’s spent as a Coordinator.

All of that being said, if there’s one glaring issue with these two chapters for me is that their personalities can be a bit inconsistent. One moment Xavier seems pretty serious and antisocial, but the next he turns into a bit of a stubborn musclehead who’s too thick headed to take advice. Granted, that can just be chalked up to him having a temper, but the shift here feels a bit sudden. The other thing is how overdramatic things get once Xavier’s issues crop up, obviously he’d feel insulted by Alex’s words but, again, the shift happens really quickly, much like before.

Chapter 7

You know, you say you have a ton of chapters planned but it’s easy to tell where your priorities lie every time you come back from a hiatus. The first time you came back was with the Xavier and Yvette chapters, as a way to reintroduce people to the story and such, now you come in with Chapter 7 which picks up the story and does some pretty interesting reveals.

Here Veronique comes back into the picture and she and Alex get to have a heart to heart about Alex’s loss at the Grand Festival. Seeing the two together again was pretty good as the two do have some chemistry. However, so far with Veronique it feels…a bit weird, I don’t know how to put it. Her personality is charming but it almost feels like she’s a little too charming and cute, so you should probably work on fleshing out more aspects of her personality, or maybe you already have and I’m just assuming stuff.

Other than that, her conversation with Alex is interesting and does bring up the themes of the story forward. Plus it kind of does undo my earlier criticism by showing that Veronique is more perceptive and has trouble really talking about her feelings.

However, I do have one issue with this. Veronique points out that Alex’s problem is the same as Xavier. The problem is that, prior to Alex bringing it up with him, we hadn’t actually seen how Alex was affected prior to the Grand Festival. He lost, but we don’t know much about the condition he was in before he lost and we haven’t really seen him do anything that might tell us that. Sure, Veronique points out that him working at the bakery is him avoiding his problems, but the story never framed it as such so it’s a bit weird when we’re suddenly told that. I think you should show a bit more of Alex’s struggles in regards to why he lost and maybe also give us more info on how he just wants to avoid Coordinating for a bit. That would help that scene carry a lot more weight.

Chapter 8

This one was entirely a battling chapter with the exception of the final scene. There isn’t really much for me to say here except that I like how you highlight the differences between the region and Alex’s knowledge based on that. It did surprise me a bit to see that Pokedexes weren’t a common thing at this point, but it was a nice bit of world building.

The battle itself flowed well, though the fight against Malamar, particularly how its light abilities worked, did feel a bit odd when it came to the description. It’s also kind of weird to picture where the audience stands were considering they’re on a train.

Chapter 9

Now Chapter 9 is…interesting. By all accounts the chapter serves mostly as a transition and it finally takes us to the crux of the story. I don’t know if Alex doing Performances will be a main thing but you did foreshadow this in previous chapters.

But…well, I have a couple of issues. While it is pretty funny to see Alex in a more outwardly awkward position, the whole cliché of an effeminate male character dressing up as a woman and it being used for comedy is well…let’s just say it has some issues. I’m not saying the chapter was bad or that you handled it in a way where you’re trying to offend others, but I do think you should thread pretty carefully if this is going to be a main thing, especially since there are a lot of jokes at the expense of how feminine Alex look and well…there are quite a few stereotypes tied here.

Also, while this does show another side of Veronique it also made her seem as a little too maniacal in a way, like Alex is clearly uncomfortable and she practically forced him to agree, then when it seemed like he would turn back she turned on the waterworks to get him to finish agreeing. I don’t know, it just kind of sits wrong with me.

But well, I’m curious as to where you’re taking it so I’ll be waiting for chapter 10.

Overall your fic is pretty fun, you have a nice flow that allows the chapters to pass by very quickly and they’re generally entertaining. I think the story does move a bit slow, especially considering how long the chapters can get, but the character interactions and battle are able to lift it up most of the time.

I am really curious as to where this is gonna go though so I’ll be tuning in.
 
ready as i'll ever be
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hey!! I really loved this fic and I'm so excited to see it back

chapter seven

A light grimace. “Like a Chimecho in a hurricane. I brought you along to keep you from moping, but you just seem determined to mope in Kalos instead.”
I dig this line. It's got a lot of character in the phrasing, but it also shows how closely Veronique's been looking after Alex.

As for this chapter's positioning in the story -- I get why you'd be a bit leery of having a quiet chapter this early, but I appreciated the breather here. Alex's moperage is realistic, but so is Veronique's reaction to it, and overall I'm not sure if there's a better way to sell an upcoming montage chapter than how you just did. Idk if I ever said this earlier but I'm a huge fan of the route you're taking with this fic -- I like the focus on the upward climb and the elements of the Pokemon universe that often get overlooked in fic.

chapter eight

Alex thought she might have introduced herself as Adelaide, but the swaying of the train, the noise of the battles, the flashing lights - none of which were helping his nausea - made it hard to remember exactly.
This really does beg a question -- why is there a battle train in the first place? In the vidyagames it makes sense 'cause it's just a flash location with a strange gimmick, but you've done a pretty good job of portraying a realistic Pokemon universe/locale (people need to sleep, the patisserie, competent gym leaders), so a direct port of a battle train feels a bit too comical. What if someone uses Earthquake and the entire train implodes? If the walls can shrug off a Hyper Beam, why isn't this tech used everywhere/as a prevention mechanism for any Nefarious Evil Teams trying to storm buildings? Why even have the thing on a train when a stationary facility is probably a lot safer, less costly, and a more stable battle environment?

Dunno; it feels like a bit of a nitpick even as I write it out, but the rest of the realism in this fic is done pretty well, so this particular setting stood out as a bit outlandish.

The rest of this chapter is really good though! I like the energy you establish; it'd be pretty easy to dismiss this as filler, but you do a good job of weaving in action with the Malamar battle, important power-ups with the Pokedex, and some more character interactions in the dialouge. My one complaint would be that it feels a little too abrupt for "solving" Alex's in-the-slumps mood that's apparently been building up for a few chapters, but I'm still really curious to see where this goes!

chapter nine

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 feel like byes could still be a thing, even in a three-person heat? And wouldn't removing one of the heats by forcing two people to forfeit just mean that you've got to deal with 5 people advancing from each heat instead of 6, which is still a really bad plan?

I've historically been really bad at gauging whether or not crossdressing arcs are good for a story (oddly specific, I know), so I'm not sure how I feel about this one yet? A few more chapters will probably help with things, but there's a lot of weird questions that an arc like this tends to introduce -- why certain events are gendered in the first place, what reasoning the protagonist actually has on intruding in these events, and a bunch of random iterations on social norms -- and the answers can vary from "lol a man is in a dress that's hilarious" to deeply-nuanced critiques on gender and sexuality. Again, curious to see where this one ends up going.

overall
I'm really glad this is back! At its core this is a delightful read with engaging characters and a non-conventional narrative; thanks so much for resurrecting it for us!
 
I was thinking it's time for some evil.
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Although I am super late coming back to this, feedback is greatly appreciated. A lot of what you guys are saying revolves around pacing and balancing of different story elements - and I tell you, this fic is a hell of a juggling act in that respect. Probably the most ambitious thing I've ever written, which is a big claim considering Champion Game was a dimension-spanning fantasy epic that didn't even feel like a Pokemon fic at times. Nevertheless! I'm taking this all onboard with gratitude, and I just want to say - without spoiling anything - that several things people have picked up on as plot holes or errors are in fact intentional (things like @diamondpearl876 noticing Veronique switching nicknames for Alex when he's 'Alexandra') or will bear fruit later.

Others are just errors. Whoopsie.

Overall your fic is pretty fun, you have a nice flow that allows the chapters to pass by very quickly and they’re generally entertaining. I think the story does move a bit slow, especially considering how long the chapters can get, but the character interactions and battle are able to lift it up most of the time.
Thanks for this and for the chapter-specific feedback. If I can actually get this damn thing off the ground and not be swept up by life again, it is gonna be a long-runner, hence the sedate pace in early chapters. I have some seventy-plus chapters sketched out so far, and I'm really excited to write them. Have been for a few years now. >.>

I've historically been really bad at gauging whether or not crossdressing arcs are good for a story (oddly specific, I know), so I'm not sure how I feel about this one yet? A few more chapters will probably help with things, but there's a lot of weird questions that an arc like this tends to introduce -- why certain events are gendered in the first place, what reasoning the protagonist actually has on intruding in these events, and a bunch of random iterations on social norms -- and the answers can vary from "lol a man is in a dress that's hilarious" to deeply-nuanced critiques on gender and sexuality. Again, curious to see where this one ends up going.
Also, I really, truly intend to lean towards the latter. This fic has gone through several iterations of drafting (far from complete drafts, but still) and planning before it saw the light of day, and the long hiatuses have given me extra time to grow, mature and reflect on the direction I'm taking it in. Issues of gender and identity are close to my heart and I'm drawing on second-hand experience via a very close friend of mine to construct the ideas surrounding Alex's character. So while I'm not intending to spoil exactly where it's going, rest assured that I'm approaching it with all the sensitivity you could hope for. Even if Alex himself doesn't.

Anyway, Chapter 10 incoming. Gonna double-post it in a second just to keep the threadmarks clean, rather than lumping it all in with the feedback.
 
Chapter 10 - The Night of Nights
I was thinking it's time for some evil.
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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.
 
Thesaurus rex
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Every time I think this story is dead ...

“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.”
I'm sure spelling Katie with a C, two Is and no e is easier.

Jabs at the character aside, I'm reminded that Contests and similar performances are one of those that don't want to be easily narrated in prose. I think you did a reasonable job of putting the Showcase on the page, although it has to be acknowledged that I never saw them in the anime, so some of the description may have made more sense to someone who had. I don't know if I'd want to read about them repeatedly - the whole thing's so aggressively girly (Again, something I suspect is really the fault with the source material).

Coming back to the crossdressing theme. I've not long finished my own 'crossdressing arc', and looking back, my feeling is that there is no one right way to do it. I think the biggest hurdle is the suspension of disbelief aspect, given that this is very much impromptu and Alex is very much trying to 'pass'. I'm prepared to suspend at this point in the narrative - others might not, it's a tricky thing. It looks like the arc is shaping up to be a device to have Alex look again at what it felt like to be a Coordinator
 
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