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Old January 8th, 2018 (1:10 PM). Edited September 14th, 2018 by Misheard Whisper.
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Misheard Whisper Misheard Whisper is offline
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A crushing defeat in the final round of Hoenn's Grand Festival threatens to send rising star Coordinator Alex into a downward spiral until his manager suggests an alternative - a holiday in the Kalos region! But it seems the surprises don't end there, as what was meant to be some peaceful R&R ends up being far more eventful than Alex had ever imagined.

Rated T for mild weirdness and occasional language.


Contents

Arc 1

0 - The End (below)
1 - In Between
2 - The Hook
3 - The Rush
4 - The Beginning
5 - Respite

Arc 2
6 - Roots
7 - Lessons in Losing
8 - Obligatory Training Sequence
9 - Crossed Wires
10 - The Night of Nights

Future chapters:
Spoiler:
10.5 - Interlude I

Arc 3
11 - The Highs, The Lows
12 - A Business Proposition
13 - A New Old Friend
14 - Whispers
15 - An Offer You Should Probably Refuse

Arc 4
16 - First Time in a While
17 - A Familiar Face
18 - Till You Drop
19 - Pop Quiz!
20 - That Part's New

20.5 - Interlude II

Arc 5
21 - Chasing Waterfalls
22 - Paths With Starlight
23 - The Third Rescue
24 - The Big Sleet
25 - A New Old 'Friend'

Arc 6
26 - The Show Must Go On
27 - Family Recipe
28 - One
29 - Eternal Autumn
30 - Ominous Portents

30.5 - Interlude III

Arc 7
31 - Breather
32 - Where Yonder Garden Grows
33 - A Separation
34 - We Meet Again
35 - Powder Keg

Arc 8
36 - Supernova
37 - United We Stand
38 - Last Chance
39 - Burn Heal
40 - A Parting Gift

40.5 - Interlude IV

Arc 9
41 - Something’s Got To Give
42 - Something Gave
43 - A New (Hopefully Temporary) Direction
44 - Shocking
45 - The Same Cloth

Arc 10
46 - Fight Dirty
47 - If Things Were Different
48 - Sage Advice
49 - Bear With Me Here
50 - Go On Without Me

50.5 - Interlude V

Arc 11
51 - The One Person I Didn’t Want to See
52 - The Other Person I Didn’t Want to See
53 - My Cup Stunneth
54 - Friendly Fire
55 - Rematch

Arc 12
56 - Blue Screen
57 - Hell in a Handcart
58 - Suspicious Woman
59 - The Strength to Protect
60 - No Retreat

60.5 - Interlude VI

Arc 13
61 - Action
62 - Double Back
63 - Distressing Damsel
64 - Is There Such A Thing As Normal?
65 - Just to Sweeten the Deal

Arc 14
66 - Execute
67 - You Did This to Yourself
68 - Carnival Craze
69 - Will They, Won't They
70 - Embers Dance

70.5 - Interlude 2

Arc 15
71 - The Next Level
72 - Rock, Then Roll
73 - Delve
74 - The Climb
---

Chapter 0

The End

Confetti cannons boomed at all corners of the stadium, sending their payload scattering over the battlefield below, millions of scraps of coloured paper fluttering and eddying in the last vestiges of the ocean breeze. The sky was a classical study in twilight, purples and golds lifted straight out of a painting, a smooth evening gradient broken only by the occasional wispy cloud. The setting sun cast a long shadow where it was blocked by the high walls of the stadium, plunging almost the whole field into a strange, false darkness. Somewhere, a band began to play, a rousing, triumphant march that pierced Alex’s heart like a knife.

Sound faded away. The roar of the crowd, the heavy percussion of the brass band, the uneven thumping of the confetti cannons, even the announcer’s voice all faded to a dull groan, allowing the noise of his heartbeat to take over. Thud, thud, thud. Thud. Alex felt his pulse begin to slow as the adrenaline that had allowed him to push this far evaporated. The numbness that he had felt since the battle began was waning now, giving way to bitterness.

Somehow, Alex forced himself to smile, waving graciously at the crowd - which way is the crowd again? Everywhere, I guess - as the sound of his own name penetrated the sound of blood rushing in his ears. Taking a deep breath, he dragged himself back from the brink, bringing his mind back into focus. There would be time for self-loathing later.

Still, he bit the inside of his cheek hard enough to draw blood as he stepped forward to receive his accolades, a long-practiced grin plastered on his face. Shaking hands with the President of the Hoenn Contest Organisation, he nodded graciously at her words of congratulations. Realising that a microphone had been thrust into his face, Alex willed his jaw to unhinge. Why was everything so difficult all of a sudden? He had lost before.

“I think all I can really say,” he forced out, surprising himself with how level and cheerful he sounded, “is that the better Coordinator won today. I’d hoped that this would be my year, being my third Grand Festival in a row reaching the final eight, but I wasn’t counting on the calibre of competition that showed up . . .” He continued on for a minute or so, fulfilling his obligations as runner-up, then, noting a subtle eye movement from the woman holding the microphone, wrapped it up succinctly by congratulating his opponent again. 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.

Closing his eyes, Alex took another deep breath. He would be lying if he said it didn’t gall him a little, being defeated like this on such a large stage by a child five years his junior. He had been in the game for long enough to recognise a prodigy when he saw one, though, and he realised he had been outclassed. Some people just have it so easy. Those blessed with talent make fools of the rest of us every day - no matter how hard I work to catch up, people like her are always just out of reach.

It was a complicated maelstrom of emotions that whirled inside him now: anger tempered by disappointment, wounded pride, and even a little relief, all tinged with guilt. He wasn’t angry at her - Melanie, he remembered now - but at himself, he realised. Six years he had been working towards this, getting closer every day - and he had fallen at the last hurdle.

There’s always next year. That was true, but he was sick and tired of waiting for ‘next year’. Last year, this year had been next year! And yet, he had failed once again. Gritting his teeth, Alex stared up at the rapidly dimming sky over Lilycove - past the stadium’s oppressively rising walls, past the wall of humans and Pokemon that filled the stands, even past the clouds that scudded by.

“One final time! Congratulations to Melanie Little from Slateport City, winner of the 2015 Hoenn Grand Festival and our newest Top Coordinator!”

The crowd yelled itself hoarse, and Alex bowed his head.
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  #2    
Old January 8th, 2018 (1:23 PM).
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Misheard Whisper Misheard Whisper is offline
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Chapter 1
In Between

“...lex. Alexander! Oi, Earth to Alex!”

Alex jumped violently as someone poked him in the forehead. Scowling, he batted the offending hand away. “What’s the big deal?”

“You’re sleeping on the job, that’s the big deal!” Drawing herself up to her full height of five foot nothing, Veronique Vincent crossed her arms and raised one carefully manicured eyebrow.

Alex pushed a lock of limp blond hair out of his face, glancing up at her with no little irritation. “I’m not ‘on the job’, Veronique. I haven’t been ‘on the job’ since five o’clock and it’s now . . . nearly nine thirty,” he grumbled, checking his watch tiredly.

Raising her eyebrow even further than Alex would have thought possible, Veronique spoke with a touch of ice. “Your job does not end until the doors close, Mr. Grand-Festival-Runner-Up. The media are waiting outside that door right now to get your statement, and the only person keeping them out is also rapidly losing her patience with you.”

Sighing, Alex dragged himself to his feet and ran a hand through his hair, nodding in reluctant acquiescence. At five feet four inches, he was noticeably taller than the girl scowling at him across the dressing room, though still shorter than most. A light-featured, feminine face with piercing green eyes framed by floppy blond hair that had once combined to attract the ire of bullies at several different schools now served to make him one of the most popular Contest stars in the Hoenn region - especially among young women. Last he’d heard, his fan club’s membership was some two-thirds the size of Wallace’s, the famous Sootopolis Coordinator and Gym Leader against whom all rising stars measured themselves. He would not have known any of this, of course - he had no real interest in his legions of admirers - had it not been for Mlle. Vincent here, fan club member #00001, incumbent president, and his self-appointed manager.

“Fine, fine,” Alex said with a grimace. “I’ll talk to them.”

Veronique nodded, pleased. “And?” she prompted.

Alex blinked. “And?” he repeated blankly.

“‘Merci, Veronique, for letting me sleep off my angst and run away from my problems’,” she suggested with a grin, poking him in the chest with her index finger.

Sighing again - but in better humour this time - Alex snaked a hand past Veronique’s guard and ruffled her blue-black hair affectionately. “Thank you, Veronique,” he said, and he meant it. He wasn’t quite sure what he was going to do about this whole thing yet, but there was a part of him that knew he’d be able to get through it, so long as Veronique was there to pick him up every time he stumbled. He’d be damned if he let her know that, though; her smugness could be unbearable as it was.

“There’s one more thing,” she said, a shadow crossing her face as she shook his hand off. “We need to talk.”

Alex cocked his head curiously. “Oh? What is it?”

Veronique bit her lip, clearly debating whether to spit it out. After a few seconds, though, she shook her head, jerking a thumb over her shoulder at the door. “You don’t get to distract me that easily, mon ami. Go give your interviews while I call a taxi. We can talk back at the hotel.”

“Right,” Alex said. Turning to the floor-to-ceiling mirror that covered an entire wall of the dressing room, he fiddled with his hair and did his best to smooth his crumpled jacket. “Do I look . . . presentable?”

Veronique chuckled, a warm, genuine sound tinged with the barest hint of sarcasm. “Your eyes are red and your outfit looks like it hasn’t been pressed in a week. Other than that, you’re perfectly handsome.” Gripping the tails of his jacket, she yanked on them sharply in an attempt to straighten the garment out, but only succeeded in almost unbalancing Alex, who could only yelp and cling to his chair to stay upright.

“Gods, woman,” he grumbled, giving Veronique a light shove in the small of her back to steer her towards the side door. “All right, go call our taxi. I’ll meet you out front in ten minutes.”

Veronique rolled her eyes. “That’s optimistic. You just placed second at the Grand Festival, they’re not gonna let you go that easily!” she called over her shoulder as she exited, already fiddling with her cellphone.

“Oh, I’ll make them,” he muttered darkly as he strode towards the door.

To Alex’s surprise and dull delight, there were only three journalists waiting in the hallway, pretty young women like he had seen at every Contest and society event ever. Despite varying greatly in looks, stature and dress, something about their bearing seemed oddly identical. Perhaps it was the way they all looked up as he opened the door, necks twisting at the same attentive angle. Maybe the way they all hurriedly flipped open their notepads and tore off pages of scribbles as they hurried over to him. Mentally slapping himself on both cheeks, Alex forced himself to focus, turning on his thousand-watt grin and greeting them with as much warmth as he could muster. “Good evening, ladies - and gentlemen,” he added, seeing an older man with a portable - yet still enormous - TV camera lurking behind the others. “I’m sorry for the delay, as I’m sure you must all want to be at home right now. What can I do for you all?”

The first woman, a slim brunette with her hair in a stiff, professional bun, stepped forward and proffered a portable voice recorder. “I’m Claire Jones, from the Lilycove Bugle. Our readers will remember you from previous years - how does it feel to come up short for the third Grand Festival in a row?”

Alex felt a vein in his forehead twitch with irritation, but refused to let his smile falter. “It’s only a little disheartening, I guess,” he lied. “If I felt like the outcome was unfair, I’d be more upset, but in truth, I was pretty soundly defeated. I have no regrets on that front. It does sting a little to lose after making the final eight yet again, but there’s always next year.” Without meaning to, he echoed the hollow words that had been bouncing around his skull all evening. Next year. What did that even mean?

Apparently Claire Jones was on the same wavelength, because she immediately pressed on. “So you’re planning to compete in next year’s Grand Festival in Slateport? Could this defeat be the motivation you need to finally make it to the top?”

“I . . . have no plans set in stone right now,” Alex said carefully. “I think, at the very least, I need a holiday. It’s been a tiring few months leading up to this year’s Grand Festival, so I need to unwind a little.”

The second woman smoothly elbowed her way past Claire. She didn’t have a voice recorder, but she directed Alex’s attention to the TV camera with a subtle gesture as she introduced herself. “Bibi Cheltenham, Channel Five News. Can I take this opportunity to address certain rumours that have been circulating lately regarding your retirement?”

Alex frowned, genuinely caught off guard as he attempted to turn his good side to the camera. “I’ve heard no such rumours,” he said with complete honesty. “I’m nearing the peak of my career, if today’s performance is anything to go by. I’d have to be mad to consider retiring now.”

With a slightly sly grin, Bibi Cheltenham started in on another question, but she was interrupted by the third woman - no, a girl, Alex realised, probably about his age or even younger. “Um, hi! I’m Katie, from your fanclub. Number 87. I’m not from a newspaper or anything, but I have a blog, and, uh, I was hoping you’d let me, um . . .” She tailed off meekly under the glares of the two other women, but Alex welcomed the distraction.

“Of course, Katie,” he said kindly, offering her an encouraging smile. “What was your question?”

Brushing a wild strand of curly blonde hair behind her ear - a strangely endearing gesture, Alex thought idly - Katie blushed crimson and flipped rapidly through her notebook. “Uh, it’s here somewhere! I’m sorry, I just - I had it written down so I wouldn’t forget it and oh, gosh! I just- ah, here it is!”

“Take your time,” Alex said. He felt that strange irritation gnawing at him again, a sort of baseless annoyance he couldn’t quite quantify. He should be used to this by now, right?

“Right!” Katie cleared her throat, took several deep breaths, then cleared her throat again. “Okay. So, like, the retirement thing. I’m, wow, I’m glad you’re not thinking about retiring. But it’s true that people online - on the forums and stuff - have been, like, talking about it. Some people - not me, just some people - are saying that if you were ever gonna win a Grand Festival, you would have done it already, and that it’s never going to happen now because you’re past your prime and, like, on the decline.” The words came out in a torrent as Alex fought to keep his face straight. She continued, “I mean, obviously I don’t believe any of that or anything! You nearly won today, after all! I just wondered, if you could give one message to the people saying those things, what would it be?”

Alex blinked, trying not to let on how much the question had rattled him. She doesn’t mean anything by it, he reminded himself. She doesn’t know that nobody thinks that more than I do. She doesn’t know I’ve told myself those things every day for the last year. How could she? Even Veronique doesn’t . . .

Realising that Katie and the others were still waiting on a reply, Alex forced a chuckle. “I’d tell them to watch the VOD from this week’s matches, because they clearly haven’t been keeping up with the times. I’ll-”

Alex choked, his mouth suddenly dry. Covering the pause up with a demure cough, he continued on a different tack. “I’ve still got a lot of work to do with my Pokémon, but I’ll keep moving forward. I’m really grateful to those who’ve supported me so far, and I hope they’ll continue to do so in the future.”

Why? Why couldn’t I say ‘I’ll definitely come back and win the Grand Festival next year’ like I do every year? Is this really the last time?

Bibi Cheltenham of Channel Five re-inserted herself into his field of vision, steering him back towards the camera. “So, about your opponent in this evening’s final . . .”

---

The knock on Alex’s door came just as he was getting into bed. He had almost forgotten that Veronique wanted to talk, but the details came rushing back into his sleepy mind in a split second.

“Come in,” he called, after making sure he was decent and everything was more or less tidy. Veronique entered, looking rather less glamorous than usual in blue flannel pajamas and wooly socks. Her silky dark hair was tied back in a loose ponytail, and her usual harsh makeup had been scrubbed off. For a second, she was the girl he remembered from fifteen years ago, innocent and unguarded. Then she shot him a glare, and the illusion disappeared.

“What are you smirking at?” she asked, seating herself primly at the foot of his bed and scowling suspiciously.

“Nothing much,” he said blithely. “Just wondering what the rest of the fanclub would think if they saw us now.”

“Oh?” Veronique’s tone took on a dangerous edge as her eyes narrowed. “And just what might they be thinking?”

“I’m sure they’d be jealous. I’ve read some of those blogs, you know. I can’t even look sideways at a girl without starting the rumour mill, and here you are sneaking into my room in the middle of the night.”

Veronique let out a bark of laughter. “You’re incorrigible.”

“You wouldn’t have me any other way,” Alex retorted, waggling his eyebrows.

Laughter turned to mock gagging as Veronique leaned forward and punched him in the arm. “Blech! You are incorrigible.”

“That your new favourite word?”

“It’s a classic, actually. Did you know it came from Old Kalosian?”

“I absolutely did not,” he admitted. “That would explain why you like it so much, at least.”

“Yeah . . .” Veronique took a deep breath, a shadow passing across her face. “Look, Alex, I’ve been meaning to bring this up for a while now, but there was never a good time to do it, what with the Grand Festival and everything keeping us so busy.”

Alex tilted his head slightly, but remained silent. Veronique enjoyed their back-and-forth ribbing - he wouldn’t bother to do it otherwise - but it was plain that she was getting ready to do some serious talking.

“I’m . . . going home to Coumarine. In Kalos.”

“Oh.” That’s all you’re going to say?

“Yeah. Next week. I’ve been . . . called back.”

“Called back?” Stumped, Alex could do little more than echo Veronique’s words back at her.

“By my mother. Papa is ill, and I need to come home to help support the family business until he gets better. Or . . .”

She had let the alternative go unspoken, but Alex read it in her face. And if he doesn’t get better? He kept that quiet too. “The bakery, right?”

“It’s a pâtisserie, technically, but yes.”

Alex chewed this over for a moment. “Well, that’s difficult,” was all he could say. He cursed his lack of eloquence and continued hurriedly, “I mean, it’s not like I have any claim on you. You do a lot for me, but it’s not like you have to. And I could manage without you for a while. I’m not going to be entering any Contests for a month or two at least.” The words sounded hollow, even to him. As much as he hated to admit it, he relied heavily on Veronique’s help.

“You misunderstand me, mon ami,” she said, holding up a single index finger to silence him. There was a glint in her eye now, the darkness passing. “I have an idea. I just read Katie’s blog, you know.”

“Katie . . . that girl from before? Wait, already? She works fast!” Alex exclaimed.

“What do I always tell you? Don’t underestimate fangirls,” Veronique admonished him. “Anyway, seems like you had some interesting things to say in that interview. I let you out of my sight for ten minutes . . .”

Alex did his best to look guilty. “Sorry. I was really tired. I still am, to be honest. This is taking a lot of processing. Did I say something bad?”

Veronique tapped her chin with a finger. “Non. Not bad, no. Just curious. So you were serious about taking a break?”

Alex nodded. “For a little while, at least. I’m burned out on Contests right now, I’d just run myself into the ground if I tried to keep competing right now - especially without you around.” He noticed her swell slightly with pride at the comment, but he felt she needed the boost. Despite the mischievous sparkle in her eyes, she still seemed a little melancholy.

“Oh, you flatterer! But listen, hey . . .” Veronique actually looked uncomfortable now, refusing to meet his eyes. She took a deep breath, then blurted out, “How about you come and take that holiday in Kalos?”

Alex blinked. For a moment, he was dumbfounded. “Are you serious?” It was so far out of left field, he hadn’t even considered it. Travelling to the other side of the world for R&R? He had been thinking more . . . Pacifidlog, or somewhere equally remote - but still local! Kalos was hundreds, if not thousands of miles away. An entirely different culture, different people, different Pokémon . . .

“Completely serious!” Veronique leaned forward, seizing his hand in both of hers with a sudden eagerness. “Come on, it’ll be fun! There’s nothing like a Kalos holiday to take your mind off things. Plus you can meet my parents again. How long has it been now since they’ve seen you?”

Alex frowned, trying not to focus on how uncomfortably close she was. “Five years, maybe? The last time you moved back here?”

“Exactly! They’d love to see you. And it’s perfect timing, since the Grand Festival is over and you wanted to take some time off anyway. We can hang out in Coumarine, I’ll introduce you to some of my old friends. We can go see the Gyms, watch a Pokémon Showcase, maybe even take a day trip to Lumiose! It’ll be amazing!”

At some point, Alex noticed, the promise to work in her parents’ pâtisserie had fallen by the wayside. “I don’t know,” he said slowly. “It’s not like I can’t afford it, but the time . . .”

“Alex,” Veronique said seriously. “I’m not just saying this for my sake, you know. I’ve been watching you more closely than anyone else, and you’re going to self-destruct if you keep this up. Like an Electrode. Boom! I can’t let you do that. This trip will be good for you, and it’s not like you have to stay. Once you’re properly relaxed and unwound, you can come back to Hoenn ahead of me. Even if I have to stay on in Kalos . . .” She trailed off, having talked herself into a dark corner again.

Alex nodded. It made perfect sense. More than that, he had no reason to refuse. It was true that if he let her go by herself, he would just end up wasting time in some quiet corner of Hoenn. “Maybe Kalos is what I need after all.”

Veronique brightened up instantly. “So you’ll go?” she said excitedly.

Alex smiled, and for the first time that night, it felt real. “Yeah. Let’s go to Kalos.”
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  #3    
Old January 10th, 2018 (7:40 AM). Edited January 10th, 2018 by Cavespider_17.
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Cavespider_17 Cavespider_17 is offline
Charlie
     
    Join Date: May 2017
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    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Misheard Whisper View Post
    she called over her shoulder as she exited, already fiddling with her cellphone.
    One minor error. This should be "She". You ended both the speech and the previous sentence. Therefore this is the start of a new one.

    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Misheard Whisper View Post
    Contest and society event
    Minor mistake. Should either be "Contest and Society" or "contest and society". Since you are naming it specifically you have to do both or neither.


    Summary:
    -> Overall chapter one wasn't bad. It had a strange start that took me a second read through to understand they were talking about a contest rather than a battle based festival.

    -> Good realism regarding the fact that Alex does have a job, he cannot spend all the time goofing off (like what happens with with assumptions about most celebrities).

    -> Generally an interesting start to the story. I can assume what the plot will be but i'm not quite 100% sure yet. Hopefully all will become clear shortly.

    All the best,

    Cavespider_17
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      #4    
    Old January 10th, 2018 (12:06 PM).
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    Aisu Aisu is offline
       
      Join Date: Dec 2011
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      Posts: 1,866
      Saw your name and just recognized you as "that guy that wrote Champion Game." (Where has it gone anyway?) But this story is no less well-written and had me hooked. I especially like Alex's character and Katie's dialogue - that one was very realistic. The first chapter runs slow to me, but it's build up for the rest of the story, so I can see why. Anyhow, I'm anticipating the rest of the story.
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        #5    
      Old January 10th, 2018 (3:22 PM).
      Misheard Whisper's Avatar
      Misheard Whisper Misheard Whisper is offline
      I also happen to be a model.
       
      Join Date: Jan 2009
      Location: Nimbasa Gym
      Age: 23
      Gender: Male
      Nature: Relaxed
      Posts: 3,486
      Quote:
      Originally Posted by Cavespider_17 View Post
      Summary:
      -> Overall chapter one wasn't bad. It had a strange start that took me a second read through to understand they were talking about a contest rather than a battle based festival.

      -> Good realism regarding the fact that Alex does have a job, he cannot spend all the time goofing off (like what happens with with assumptions about most celebrities).

      -> Generally an interesting start to the story. I can assume what the plot will be but i'm not quite 100% sure yet. Hopefully all will become clear shortly.

      All the best,

      Cavespider_17
      Hm, maybe I could make that first point a little clearer. Pretty much on track though and I'm glad it caught your interest, thanks for reading!

      Quote:
      Originally Posted by Aisu View Post
      Saw your name and just recognized you as "that guy that wrote Champion Game." (Where has it gone anyway?) But this story is no less well-written and had me hooked. I especially like Alex's character and Katie's dialogue - that one was very realistic. The first chapter runs slow to me, but it's build up for the rest of the story, so I can see why. Anyhow, I'm anticipating the rest of the story.
      Ah yes, Champion Game. Regrettably, I had to let that one die. I tried to resuscitate it once or twice over the last few years, but it's too far gone now. Perhaps one day I'll do a full rewrite, but for now I have a sort of sequel going on in Champion's Legacy - though without the supernatural elements. That aside, Star Performer is my main focus at the moment so I'm glad it's hooked you in.

      I'm also a few chapters ahead on another site, so I'm gonna post them here reasonably quickly to get caught up. Just giving it a couple of days to avoid oversaturation.
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        #6    
      Old January 11th, 2018 (3:09 AM).
      Misheard Whisper's Avatar
      Misheard Whisper Misheard Whisper is offline
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      Chapter 2
      The Hook

      “You know, I never realised just how damn far away Kalos was,” Alex said conversationally as he stepped out onto the tarmac at Lumiose Airport, shading his eyes against the bright morning sun. “Part of me was expecting, like, an eight-hour flight, but that had to be at least double that.”

      “Fifteen and a half, if you don’t count the layover,” Veronique corrected him. “But yes, it’s a long way home, and tickets are pricey too. There’s a reason I only come back every few years.”

      Alex frowned, feeling a little guilty. “You know, I could’ve bought your ticket too. It’s not as big as the winner’s pot, but I got a decent payout from coming in second at the Grand Festival.”

      Laughing, Veronique gave him a playful shove towards the terminal. “But then I’d owe you! Yuck.”

      Alex opened his mouth to protest, but decided against it. She tended to be hard-headed about things like this. “Fine,” he said with mock haughtiness. “I guess I won’t offer to help you out again, then.”

      “Well, if you’re going to be like that!” she grumbled, but he spotted a flash of relief in her eyes as he decided not to push the topic. “Come on, let’s get our bags. Our cab should be here soon, I booked it online before we came.”

      Shaking his head in wonder, Alex followed Veronique inside the airport building. “You’ve grown up, V,” he said quietly as he watched her back. The Veronique he remembered from middle school was gone, in many ways. She still favoured dark colours and wore a perpetual scowl, but working as his manager for four years had brought out a surprising amount of maturity and attention to detail that had never been evident before.

      On the other hand, I’m no different than I was back then. Still wimpy, short and effeminate, still lying awake arguing with myself every night. Shaking himself out of the temporary fugue, Alex made himself look forwards instead. He was supposed to be on holiday. This was a golden opportunity to get back in the right headspace for competing, and Arceus knew he needed it.

      There was indeed a taxi waiting for them outside the baggage claim, so after loading their bags into the boot they piled into the back and directed the driver to the Lumiose Station. Alex pressed his nose to the window curiously as they drove, trying to take in as much of the city as he could. There was nothing like this in Hoenn - even Mauville, the region’s largest metropolis, paled in comparison to the warren of cobbled streets and alleyways that made up this nexus of the Kalos region. It was a strange mish-mash of the modern and the classic; cautiously elegant office buildings rubbed elbows with precarious edifices of stone or even wood. The wider avenues were lined with trees and gardens, splashes of colour that lent a festive touch of life to the city.

      “We can explore all you want later,” Veronique said with amusement. “We’ll come back for a proper visit on the weekend, perhaps.”

      “I look forward to it,” Alex grinned. “This place looks amazing just from what I’ve seen so - hey, is that Prism Tower?” He cut himself off suddenly, twisting his neck to catch a glimpse of the instantly recognisable spire that had slipped out from behind the cityscape.

      “You’re like a little kid sometimes,” Veronique said, stifling a giggle. “We’ll go visit the tower some other time. It’s a Pokémon Gym and everything, so you can go inside and take a tour.”

      Alex nodded. “Sounds good. Man, I haven’t been to a Gym in ages. Since I started doing Contests professionally, I haven’t had the time.”

      “I can’t imagine you challenging Gyms! Man, I wish I’d been there when you went through that phase.” Veronique seemed to be in good humour today, despite the situation with her family. Alex had known the Vincents long enough to know they got along well enough, but Veronique would not enjoy being tied down. She had brightened up considerably about returning home after he’d agreed to come with her, but their fifteen and a half hour flight had been marked by much grumbling and harrumphing - when she thought he wasn’t listening, that is.

      “There was really nothing to see!” he said hurriedly. “I only ever got one badge, you know.”

      “Mossdeep, right?”

      “Yeah, somehow. It was a double battle, just like a Contest, which made it easier. It still kinda felt like a fluke, though. I do like battling, but Gyms were always just . . . another world, really. Too intense.”

      Mon ami, you’re at the top of the Contest game right now. Your appeals and battling skill are both at a ridiculously high level, and you’ve literally just come from a runner-up performance at the biggest Contest event in Hoenn - and you’re trying to tell me Gym battles are ‘too intense’? Give me a break!” Veronique said with a snort. “Ah, never mind. We’re here. You ever ride a train before, country boy?”

      ***

      “Okay,” Alex said levelly, setting his luggage down on the platform at Coumarine’s railway station. “I wasn’t lying when I said I’d been on a train before, but that was completely different to anything I have ever experienced.”

      “Why, Alex, you look a little green! Don’t tell me the maglev was too much for you to handle?”

      Alex just shook his head, not even daring to snap back at her. In truth, he was feeling more than a little queasy. Thankfully, he was saved from any further teasing by the appearance of their final ride of the day.

      “Veronique, ma cherie!” A heavyset, middle-aged woman with her auburn hair in curls came bustling through the throng crowding the platform, fairly sweeping Veronique off her feet in an almost violently affectionate bear hug. Renée Vincent showered her daughter’s face with kisses before plonking her back on her feet and holding her at arm’s length. “Goodness, dear, how you have grown!”

      “I came to visit last summer, Mama! I haven’t grown that much!” Veronique protested, gracefully managing to extricate herself and sliding casually behind Alex, elbowing him forwards. “But look who else I brought with me!”

      “Ah! Now there’s a fine young man! I almost didn’t recognise you, Alexandre! How tall and handsome you’ve become!”

      Alex chuckled at the corruption of his name. “I only look tall because I’m standing next to Veronique, tata Renée,” he said, using the informal address Veronique had taught him so many years ago. Before he could continue, however, he was having the wind crushed out of him by a maternal hug almost as fierce as the one Veronique had received.

      Non, little Alex! You are taller than me now, and that is more than tall enough! But come, we can talk more at home. Veronique, your papa is most excited to see you - I cannot keep you two all to myself today!” Renée drew back and took a deep breath, beaming from ear to ear. She clasped her hands joyfully in front of her and for a moment, looked as if she would burst into song. “Ah, I am so happy! Not one, but two of my little hatchlings return to the nest today! Come, come, we must go back. I have left Jean in charge of the pâtisserie, but he cannot handle it by himself for long.”

      “Oh, Jean is home too?” Veronique asked as Renée led the two of them out of the station. “I thought he was working at that marine bio lab out in Cyllage?”

      “He’s taken a couple of weeks of paid leave, plus some vacation time to come home and help while your father is unwell. I wouldn’t have had to ask him, but since you couldn’t make it home until after Alex’s competition . . .”

      Alex frowned privately as he saw a flash of guilt cross Veronique’s face. Interesting. It sounded like Renée had wanted Veronique to come home earlier, but she had put it off until after the Grand Festival for his sake. There had been no malice in Renée’s voice as she spoke, but it was obvious Veronique felt more than a little bad about it.

      “How is uncle Christophe, then?” Alex asked carefully as they crammed their suitcases into the back of Renée’s small car. “I hope it’s nothing too serious.”

      “You are sweet, Alex, but it’s really nothing to worry about at this stage. It was a nasty case of bronchitis, but he’s actually on the mend now. It could still be another few weeks before he’s ready to work again, though, so it’s good to have Veronique here - and you too, if you’d like to help out.”

      “I don’t have a problem with that,” Alex said easily. There were worse fates in the world than part-time work in a cake shop in a seaside town like this. As they peeled away from the station, Alex found himself once again doing his level best to explore the city with his eyes. He could tell immediately that Coumarine was much less urbanised than Lumiose; the city centre was full of open plazas and wide avenues, sweeping boulevards and charming little parks. A few shiny glass-fronted buildings clustered together in a downtown business district, but they were tasteful and confined to their own area. The most obvious concession to the twenty-first century was a state-of-the-art monorail system that wended its way through the hills and cliffs upon which the seaside city was built. Thankfully, it didn’t appear to move anywhere near as fast as the maglev train which had brought them here.

      A short while later, they pulled to a halt in front of the most rustic shopping strip available. A mere couple of blocks from the seafront, Le Pâtisserie Vincent nestled comfortably between a kitsch cafe and a trendy clothing boutique, boasting a colourful, vibrant storefront topped by a striped awning. A selection of cakes and pastries adorned the window display, ranging from the classic and demure to the garish and modern. The sea breeze filtered down the street, softened by the twisting maze of the shopping district, but still carrying with it the distinctive briny scent that had been everywhere in Hoenn. It was comfortingly familiar among the bizarre and alien world in which he now found himself.

      Alex let out a low whistle as Renée led them inside. “You know, this is exactly how I’d always expected a real Kalosian pâtisserie to be. We have things like this in Hoenn, but at the same time . . . they’re nothing like this.”

      Renée smiled indulgently. “You won’t find anything like this overseas, mon cher. Oh, leave your bags, loves, you can bring them in later.”

      Following Renée and Veronique inside, Alex saw a handful of customers lined up in front of a glass display case packed with still more pastries and desserts, being attended to by a tall young man with strawberry blond hair that he recognised vaguely. “Jean?”

      At the sound of his name, Jean jumped visibly, then broke into a grin as he saw the newcomers. “Little Alex! Good to see you, but we’ll have to catch up later. Mama, thank heavens you’re back. Could you . . . ?” He gestured uncomfortably at the till in front of him.

      Renée rolled her eyes with exaggerated exasperation. “Well, I suppose it’s business as usual. Veronique, go and see your father. He’s upstairs in bed right now, if he actually listened to me. Alex, you can wait around here for the moment.”

      “No worries,” Alex said with a smile, backing up against the wall and observing the maelstrom of activity with some nostalgia. He had never been to the shop before, of course, but Renée and her son filled it with the same frantic energy that they had brought with them to every kitchen they visited. A cook by nature, Renée Vincent had been baking up a storm even when living in Hoenn as a full-time mother. The Vincent household had been the envy of every kid on the street, not least Alex himself, who had always had something of a sweet tooth. He watched with a quiet amusement as Renée ordered her son - some seven years Alex’s senior - back into the kitchen and took over dealing with the customers, who, while polite, seemed relieved to have been spared from Jean’s customer service.

      As his eyes wandered across the array of treats in the display, Alex frowned. Tucked away among the familiar products of Kalosian baking - mille-feuille, madeleines, éclairs, and macarons - was a whole section dedicated to something he didn’t recognise. Sidling closer, he bent over to examine the case. Rows upon rows of glistening, colourful orbs lined the shelves. They resembled macarons at a glance, but the texture seemed different somehow and they weren’t split in two. Actually, upon closer inspection, they were all different, and not only in colour. Some seemed to be more biscuity, while others could have been cupcakes. Roughly ovoid, the one thing they all shared was a layer of icing on top, surmounted by various decorations: more frosting, edible flowers, berries, chocolate or spun sugar.

      “Interested in our Poké Puffs, hmm?”

      Alex glanced up almost guiltily to see that Renée had already sent the customers on their way. “Poké what now?” he said blankly. “I was just curious, since I’ve never seen anything like these before.”

      “Ah, oui, it would be like that, wouldn’t it? These Poké Puffs never really took off overseas. I tried to sell some back in Hoenn once, but people just looked at me like I was crazy. Pastries for Pokémon? The very idea was foreign to them. Maybe one day . . . but for now, we will sell them here. They’ve been extra popular ever since the Showcase Theatre opened up in town.” Renée gestured vaguely eastwards, further along the waterfront.

      “All right, hold up. You’re gonna have to start over from the beginning,” Alex laughed, holding up his hands in surrender. “I’m totally lost. You make these for Pokémon? Are they made of, like, normal Pokémon food?”

      “You might think that. Here,” Renée said with a laugh, reaching into the display cabinet and withdrawing a simple pink Puff, which she handed to Alex.

      He took it hesitantly, examining it closely. It was crumbly and gently perfumed, a sweet, light scent that made his mouth water. “Well, it certainly seems edible,” he said dubiously.

      Renée was evidently enjoying his confusion. “Most of them are,” she said. “You can make Poké Puffs out of all sorts of things, but the majority are just your usual baked goods. That one’s a Pink Lady, made with shredded coconut. Other varieties are denser, more like breads or biscuits than cakes. Most of them use some kind of berry for flavouring, but the possibilities are really only limited by your imagination. Eat it, boy. It won’t kill you,” she added, seeing him still hesitating.

      Just a cupcake, right? Screwing up his courage, Alex took a bite of the Puff, then chewed carefully and swallowed. Spongy and crumbly, it had a surprisingly rich, buttery flavour offset by the coconut. The icing was soft and sweet as well. “It’s delicious,” he admitted. “You used to make this as a proper cake back in Petalburg, right?”

      “I had a feeling you’d remember.” Renée sounded pleased. “The recipe has been tweaked a little, but it’s still the same Pink Lady you kids always enjoyed.”

      “And you feed these to Pokémon?” Alex asked between bites as he polished off the rest of the pastry. “Forgive me, but that just seems a little . . . weird. The line between human and Pokémon food isn’t that thin.”

      “It’s thinner than you might think, and blurry too,” Renée informed him. “Veronique told me you participate in Contests, right? What do you feed your Pokémon to improve their condition?”

      Alex shrugged. “Pokéblocks, sometimes Poffins. Different berries make different flavours, different flavours are favoured by different Pokémon. That’s a bit different, though.”

      “Is it?” Renée grinned mischievously in a way that resembled her daughter to a frightening degree. “Poké Puffs work on a similar principle. Here in Kalos, they are the premier food for Pokémon competing in Showcases - so much so that some Showcases actually have events revolving around preparing them.”

      “That sounds . . .” Ridiculous, he wanted to say. “. . . unique. What’s the deal with Showcases, anyway? I guess they’re kind of like Contests, right?”

      “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.”

      Alex nodded slowly, casting an eye over the laden shelves of Poké Puffs with a newly critical eye. “Thanks, tata Renée. I’ll do that.” As another customer entered the store, he returned once more to his position on the far wall, observing - but also thinking. He didn’t get to think for long, though, as Jean soon poked his head out of the kitchen behind Renée.

      “‘Allo? A little help in here, if you could?” he called.

      Realising that the plea was directed at him - Renée was still busy serving customers - Alex raised an eyebrow, but slipped behind the counter and followed Jean into the kitchen. A surprisingly small area made even smaller by the presence of several large, complicated-looking ovens and other machines that loomed against the brick walls like robotic invaders.

      “Sorry to drag you in here, Alex, but I got so far behind while I was working front of house . . . do you think you could help me?” Jean winced as he asked for Alex’s help. There was buttercream splattered across his chest that hadn’t been there five minutes earlier.

      “I haven’t baked anything bigger than a Poffin in a few years,” Alex said wryly, but he gamely rolled up his sleeves and accepted the white apron that Jean handed him.

      “Not to worry, I just need you to back me up,” Jean said. “Roll this out, stir that, pull those out of the oven, that sort of thing. You down?”

      “Sounds like a cakewalk.”

      Jean rolled his eyes. “Don’t let my darling sister hear you making jokes like that, or she’ll kick your ass five ways to next Wednesday.”

      “Don’t I know it,” Alex said with a grin. “Where do I start?”

      ***

      In the end, it took them a little over an hour before Mme. Vincent decided the kitchen was back up to speed. The pace had been frantic, but surprisingly enjoyable. Exhausted, Alex cleaned down his bench and washed his hands before shedding his apron and stepping back out into the shop, where Veronique was standing and talking to her mother.

      “I know I said Alex wouldn’t mind helping, but I didn’t mean as soon as we got here, Mama!” she was saying, her familiar scowl back in place. “At least let us get one good night’s sleep in before you start working us to the bone!”

      “Don’t worry about it, V,” Alex said, waving a hand dismissively. “I slept on the plane, so I’m hardly tired at all. Besides, it’s partly my fault Jean had to hold down the fort on his own, right?”

      “But-”

      “Listen to little Alex, ma cherie,” Renée cut her daughter off. “He’s a good boy, and he’s been a big help already. You could learn from him!”

      Veronique continued to grumble inaudibly, but faced with the two of them, she backed down. “Fine.”

      Turning to Alex, Renée smiled as if nothing had happened. “I had Veronique bring your things inside while you were helping out, dear. You’ll have to share with Jean, if that’s all right?”

      “No worries,” Alex said. Back when they had all lived in the same neighbourhood in Hoenn, the age gap had made it difficult for Alex and Jean to get along. That didn’t seem to matter now, though, and he had gained a newfound respect for the guy after working together like that. For a man who was supposed to be a marine biologist by trade, Jean worked like a maniac in the kitchen. He supposed it came with the territory, growing up in a house run by Renée Vincent. “How is uncle Christophe, by the way?”

      “He’s sleeping now, I think,” Veronique said, a touch of softness creeping into her voice. “You can talk to him tomorrow.”

      Alex nodded. “Of course. Wouldn’t want to bother him just yet.”

      “Right!” Veronique declared, suddenly animated. She seized his arm, yanking him towards the door that led up into the residence. “You’re meant to be on holiday, mister, so as your manager, I am officially prescribing an evening off! Dinner's at eight. Head upstairs and get some rest.”

      “I don’t mind, but what are you going to do?” Alex asked as she shoved him towards the stairs.

      Grimacing, Veronique half-turned back towards the kitchen. “Looks like it’s my turn to play kitchen rattata. Go on, I’ll catch up later. Jean’s room is the second door on the right.”

      Arms aching - mixing batter was surprisingly physical work, and he was unfit at the best of times - Alex acquiesced and climbed the stairs, out of the light and bustle of the shop and into a cool, dim hallway. Taking a long, deep breath, Alex found the right door and slipped inside. A camp stretcher had been neatly set up along one wall, with his bags arrayed next to it. Suddenly very tired, he flopped down on the temporary bed.

      Just a quick nap, then . . .

      In the last seconds before he drifted off to sleep, Alex faintly realised that he hadn’t once thought about his defeat in the Grand Festival since setting foot in Coumarine City. Maybe there was something to Veronique’s idea, after all.

      He would still have to confront his demons at some point, though. The thought caused his gut to twist uncomfortably, but he rolled over and tried to ignore it. There would be plenty of time for that later.

      ***

      (Alternate chapter title: Wait, this is a Pokémon fic, right?)
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        #7    
      Old January 13th, 2018 (7:52 PM).
      Misheard Whisper's Avatar
      Misheard Whisper Misheard Whisper is offline
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      Join Date: Jan 2009
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      Chapter 3
      The Rush

      Thanks to some weirdness with timezones and the length of their trip, it had already been Tuesday in Kalos when Alex and Veronique had arrived in the region. For that reason, the weekend seemed to approach faster than the two of them had anticipated. Almost before Alex realised it, it was Friday morning, and he was once again helping Jean in the kitchen while Veronique and her mother dealt with customers in the shop. There had been no time to breathe in the three days he’d been here; business apparently boomed in the pâtisserie at this time of year, and Renée had kept all of them working around the clock.

      Despite it all, though, Alex realised that he was content. There were no crushing expectations on him here, no responsibilities but making sure the next batch of cakes didn’t burn. He was more than happy to play second fiddle to Jean, the more experienced baker. For more complicated or specialty orders, Renée sometimes took over the kitchen for hours at a time, sending Alex out to deal with customers. The four of them soon fell into a comfortable rhythm; there was little time for breaks, but there was almost no need. After the shop closed in the evenings, Alex had found a little time to wander the shopping district with his Pokémon, but it was a quiet, almost solitary pursuit. The four of them ate dinner together - sometimes along with Christophe, who was still coughing and hacking but occasionally able to join them.

      It was an incredibly nostalgic, almost idyllic lifestyle, Alex thought. He was forcefully reminded of his childhood in Petalburg, when the two families - Alex’s own parents and older sister included - had been practically interchangeable. Veronique aside, he had not seen the Vincents in five years at least - longer in Jean’s case - and it had been nearly a decade since they had moved back to Kalos, but they had welcomed him back into their home without a moment’s hesitation.

      “Alex, can you check those madeleines for me, s’il vous plait?” Jean’s voice broke through Alex’s ruminations, causing him to blink and almost drop the bowl he was absently stirring.

      “Crap! Sure thing!” he said hurriedly, plonking the mixture down on the nearest flat surface and turning to check the oven. As he was retrieving the tray of miniature cakes, the kitchen door burst open and Renée blew in like a hurricane, practically dragging Veronique behind her. There was a glint in the older woman’s eye as she doled out orders.

      Arrêtez, change! Veronique is now pâtissier du jour. Jean, I’m going to teach you how to use this cash register if it’s the last thing I do. Alex, dear, you carry on as you were. We’ve got a big order come in, so I want you two to fill it once you’re done with the current batch.”

      Alex frowned. “A special order? Shouldn’t you be in charge of those, tata Renée?”

      “I would be, but I have some things to take care of, and this isn’t exactly difficult, just large. Two hundred assorted Poké Puffs, to be delivered to the Showcase Theatre by four p.m. for the competition tonight!”

      “Two hundred?” Alex gaped. “How the hell are we supposed to do that?”

      Veronique smirked as she firmly secured her apron strings. “It’s not as bad as it sounds, rookie,” she said airily. “We’ll make several batches, maybe twenty puffs in each. Each batch shouldn’t take more than twenty minutes from start to finish, less if we stagger them properly. Then I’ll have you decorate them, and we can pull Jean in later to help finish if we need to.”

      Sticking his tongue out at her, Alex glanced at the clock on the wall: eleven thirty. Four and a half hours, ten batches, twenty minutes per batch. He quickly did the math. “That leaves us with a little over an hour to spare for delivery. Will that be enough?”

      “It’ll have to be,” Renée said with a strangely knowing smile, nudging Jean out into the shop. “Have fun now, you two. I’m counting on you both.”

      “Great,” Alex said flatly, turning back to Veronique, who was already pulling out new drums of flour and sugar from the storeroom. “You said all that, but did we just bite off more than we can chew? I’m no baker, and you haven’t made Poké Puffs in . . . how long?”

      “Don’t underestimate me,” Veronique snapped. “I spent four years helping out here before I came back to Hoenn to chase your sorry ass. All the recipes are burned into my brain.”

      Alex blinked, suddenly forgetting all about baking. “Came back to Hoenn to . . . what?”

      “Uh . . . anyway!” Veronique yelped hurriedly, dumping a large bag of chocolate chips into his arms. “Melt those! One kilogram, in 200 gram batches. Don’t you dare burn it!” Refusing to meet his eyes, she rushed back over to her own workstation and began mixing dry ingredients.

      Shrugging, Alex turned to the stovetop and flicked the gas element on, filling a pot with water and setting it to boil. There would be time to puzzle the mysteries of the universe later. And surely, he thought wryly as he measured out 200 grams of chocolate into a glass bowl, there is no mystery greater than the mind of a teenage girl. Pushing it aside for the moment - into the same corner of his mind where he kept the nagging, ever-present doubts and angst from his Grand Festival loss - he focused on the task at hand. If he’d learned one thing from Jean in the last week, it was that baking was more of a science than an art. Getting distracted wasn’t an option.

      The melted chocolate was for a batch of spiced cocoa swirl Poké Puffs, as it turned out. Pulling them out of the oven and carefully turning them out onto a cooling tray, Alex marvelled at the surreality of it all. He knew that Pokémon could enjoy sweet foods, that was natural enough. His own Plusle was partial to the pink candied Pokéblocks, after all. They just tended to turn their noses up at ‘human’ food, so he couldn’t imagine a Pokémon devouring these with any enthusiasm. Nonetheless, he had seen them selling like hotcakes over the counter of Le Pâtisserie Vincent these past few days, so there had to be some truth to it. The aromatic swirl of warmth spiralling through the air from this first batch was certainly alluring enough for him, and he had to exercise all his self-control not to swipe one right then and there.

      “Shall I start icing these, V?” he called over his shoulder.

      “Let them cool first, moron. The icing will just melt and run everywhere if you do it now!” she shot back, already working on a third batch while the second was still baking. “Just remember what order they came out in, and I’ll tell you when to start decorating them.”

      Alex winced. “Right. Forgot about that. I’ll make the icing and have it ready, then. Anything special?”

      “Just basic chocolate for those ones. Icing sugar, cocoa, butter and milk. Make enough for the next batch coming through, too, then we’ll be onto the mint ones.”

      The next few hours passed in a blur of activity as Alex watched Veronique work with awe. She had always taken things seriously when helping him train and prepare for Contests, but there was something different about her demeanour here. Perhaps it was the influence of being back with her family, but she seemed to be far more in her element. She had always wanted to follow in her mother’s footsteps as a pastry chef, he remembered. Since she had given up working in the pâtisserie to return to Hoenn, he thought she had decided on a different path in life. Right now, though, she looked far more alive than he had ever seen her. There was a slight smile on her face as she stirred yet another bowl of cake batter, a determination in her eyes that Alex recognised as a mirror of his own.

      Well, not these days. That was the look he had seen in the mirror when preparing for his very first Grand Festival, more than three years ago now. The sort of pride that could only come from striving to achieve at something that you felt true passion for. When had been the last time he had seen that?

      Working silently, Alex turned away from Veronique, his eyes stinging unexpectedly. What the hell? Don’t start blubbering now. The batch of Poké Puffs in front of him now were meant to be salted caramel, but he didn’t think they needed any extra salt.

      “Last batch in the oven!” Veronique announced triumphantly a couple of minutes later, making Alex jump and nearly drop the Puff he was working on. “How are you going over here?”

      Alex shrugged. “I think they’re on track, icing is done for all of them - except a couple batches which are still cooling. You want to do the final touches?”

      Veronique peered over his shoulder, her flushed face much too close to his own. “Hmm, you’re doing well! We’ll make a pâtissier of you yet.” She nodded self-indulgently, as if it was solely her guidance and wisdom that had brought him this far.

      “I’m meant to be here for a holiday, you know,” Alex grumbled lightheartedly. He wasn’t actually bothered by being made to work in the pâtisserie, of course, but it was fun to needle Veronique.

      “Which is why we’re going to the Showcase tonight!” Veronique announced with a grin as she slapped him on the back. “Oh yeah, go grab me some of those Rawst berries from the fridge. I’ll need them for toppings.”

      “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?”

      “Didn’t Mama tell you? The folks at the theatre provided us with some tickets to tonight's Showcase as thanks for taking their order on such short notice. Once we're finished here, we'll go get changed and I'll drive us over there with the Poké Puffs. You did say you were interested in Showcases, right?”

      “Well, yeah. I guess so. Is that really okay, though?” Alex frowned anxiously. “I mean, will Jean and tata Renée be able to finish up without us? We haven't baked any more stock today, so they must be running low out there already.”

      “Eh, they'll be fine!” Veronique said, waving a dismissive hand as she started delicately slicing the Rawst berries into wafer-thin discs. “We close early on Fridays anyway.”

      “Oh, right. Hold on,” Alex said quickly. “Aren't Rawst berries really bitter when they're that ripe? They'll ruin the flavour of those Puffs!”

      Au contraire, my foolish apprentice!” Veronique declared smugly, indicating a tray of Poké Puffs in a rich pink. “I made these ones over here extra sweet, so topping them with bitter Rawst berries will balance out the flavours and offer a far more interesting palate.”

      Alex rolled his eyes but said no more, recognising that Veronique’s skill in this regard was far beyond his ken. The next half an hour was spent in a flurry of fine detail work, mostly on Veronique’s part. Alex learned to spin sugar for the mocha Puffs - well, sort of. After burning the toffee twice, he had given up and allowed Veronique to finish it while he piped buttercream icing onto the mint Puffs with a star-shaped nozzle.

      By three thirty, all two hundred Poké Puffs had been packed into specially chilled crates and crammed carefully into the boot of Renée’s tiny car. Alex hovered by the pâtisserie’s front door, anxiously checking his watch. Veronique had advised him that there was no formal dress code for spectators, but he had never been one to do things by halves. He hadn’t brought all of his Contest outfits along with him - the luggage weight limit never would have allowed for it - but one of his less ornate costumes had caught his eye. After giving it a quick press, he had thrown it on and dashed down to the front only to find that Veronique had still not appeared. Now he could do nothing but skulk awkwardly outside the shop in his white waistcoat and chartreuse undershirt, feeling distinctly out of place. He had always thought of Kalos as the pinnacle of high fashion - or haute couture, as they called it here - but the people giving him strange looks in the street were dressed no differently to everyday passersby in any city in Hoenn.

      “You look ridiculous, you know,” came Veronique’s voice from behind him. He was about to bite back with a grouchy retort, but two things stopped him. First, there was no sharp edge to her voice. Normally, she would have delivered such biting criticism with an equally pointed tone, but this time she just sounded faintly amused. Secondly, as he turned to open his mouth, her appearance caught him off guard.

      Gone were the tight black jeans and leather jackets, the artfully ripped band t-shirts and heavy, practical boots. Instead, she wore a slinky purple evening dress that looked as if it were brand new, reaching just below her knees and leaving her calves bare. Her liberal use of makeup had been toned down as well, he noticed - though that had been true every day they’d been here. Today, though, she was actually wearing lipstick in a colour other than black. “And you look . . . incredibly uncomfortable,” was all he could manage.

      Flushing red from her eyes to her collarbone, Veronique glowered at him furiously. “Jackass. At least force yourself to say it looks good or something.”

      “Well, it does,” Alex admitted, suddenly becoming very interested in the cobblestones around Veronique’s feet. “I just - wait, are you wearing heels? Who are you and what have you done with V?”

      “Ugh! Honestly, Alexander, I swear . . .” Veronique made to brush past him and get in the car, but her unfamiliar footwear caught on the rough cobbled street and she pitched forward.

      “Whoops,” Alex said, grasping Veronique’s upper arm to steady her. “Are you okay?”

      “Uh . . . yeah. I’m gonna . . . I’ll drive barefoot,” she said shakily.

      “I think that’s a good idea.”

      There was a pause that lasted far too many seconds. Unsure whether breaking the silence would only embarrass Veronique more, Alex simply bit his tongue.

      “Alex . . .”

      “What?” he yelped.

      “You can let go of me now.”

      “Ah. Right.” Realising that he was still clinging to Veronique’s arm, Alex rapidly relinquished his grip. “We should be going.”

      The car ride was completed in the thickest awkward silence that Alex had ever experienced. As Veronique drove, he acted very interested in the ocean out the window, glittering in the afternoon sun. A long Wingull arced across the bay in lazy circles, swooping down from time to time in pursuit of a glint of silvery fish.

      “Here we are!” Veronique said with slightly forced levity, pulling Alex’s attention back to the landward side of the ocean road. “Welcome to Coumarine’s latest transparent attempt to bring in that sweet, sweet tourism money.”

      Backed by lush green cliffs, the Coumarine Showcase Theatre stood on its own large swath of land amid a semi-residential area of the city, surrounded by a large paved area lined with neatly manicured stands of trees. The building itself superficially resembled a Contest Hall: three or four stories tall, round and squat, with large curved windows that ran around the top half. The whole building was topped by curved prongs obviously meant to bring to mind the shape of a crown or tiara. A large, sweeping flight of stairs gently sloped up to ornate double doors that already stood open. Digital billboards running along the side of the structure read ‘POKÉMON SHOWCASE TONIGHT - 7:00 PM - ROOKIE CLASS ’.

      “You guys don’t do anything by halves, do you?” Alex commented, indicating an assortment of enormous balloons that were anchored to various points around the theatre, giant gold and pink globes emblazoned with what appeared to the logo of the Pokémon Showcase: a large ‘P’ contained within a scrollwork heart decorated with ribbons.

      “Pokémon Showcases are big business,” Veronique said as she steered them down a driveway towards the back of the building. “They’re streamed live on the internet as well as conventional TV, and the Master Class tournaments can draw hundreds of thousands of viewers all across Kalos.”

      “So tell me,” Alex said, glad that the mood between them seemed to have returned to normal. “How exactly do these Showcases work? You keep saying it’s ‘like a Contest’, but there has to be some difference, right?”

      “Of course, but I think you’d better see for yourself. No time now, anyway. Here we are!” Pulling up to a service entrance at the back of the building, Veronique popped the boot and started unloading boxes of Poké Puffs onto a cart that stood nearby. Alex checked each crate as it was placed on the tray, flipping each lid to make sure the contents were still intact. Miraculously, the Poké Puffs still looked as fresh and pristine as when they had come out of the oven.

      “Mademoiselle Vincent, I presume.” A tall, austere gentleman in a coat and tails approached from the service entrance, inclining his greying head politely. “Madame informed us that the order would be delivered by her daughter today,” he explained, seeing Veronique’s questioning look.

      “Yes, that’s me, Veronique Vincent. This is my friend, Alex Thoreau, from the Hoenn region.”

      Enchanté.” The gentleman inclined his head once again. “My name is Montblanc, and I am the stage manager for tonight’s event. I must apologise once again for asking you to take on such an order at short notice. Usually, our onsite kitchens would be available for contestants to create their own personalised Poké Puffs, but there has been an . . . incident.” He curled his lip regretfully.

      “Oh dear,” Veronique said, frowning. “Nothing that will affect the Showcase itself, I hope?”

      “Nothing so serious, non. Some of the Performers have expressed their discontent at the state of affairs, but the show will continue as scheduled. Fortunately, Poké Puffs are not a key part of tonight’s themed round.”

      Alex cocked his head. “Forgive me, Monsieur Montblanc, but are baked goods usually a part of the Showcase?”

      Montblanc raised an eyebrow. “Ah, of course. Being from Hoenn, you would not have experienced a Showcase before, yes?” At Alex’s slightly embarrassed nod, he continued: “The themed round of each Showcase varies from event to event, but it often involves highlighting various key skills involved in ensuring one’s Pokémon are competition-ready. Grooming, costuming, and indeed, the ability to provide your Pokémon with proper nutrition are all common themes for this round. On top of that, the ability to create quality Poké Puffs under such intense pressure is a skill in itself.”

      Alex nodded thoughtfully. “I’ve been competing in Pokémon Contests in Hoenn for a few years now, so I can see how all of those things are important. It’s a novel idea to make them part of the competition itself, though.”

      “Oh, a Coordinator?” Montblanc seemed a little surprised, but he smiled graciously. “Then I hope you will enjoy your first experience with Pokémon Showcases. Please, bring the trolley this way. We will deliver the Poké Puffs to the contestants’ dressing rooms, if you don’t mind.”

      As Alex grasped the fully loaded trolley and made to follow Montblanc inside, he caught a glimpse of the strangest look on Veronique’s face. She saw him looking and hastily flashed him an innocent smile, but it was too late. “What’s so funny?” he muttered as she fell into step alongside his trolley.

      “Nothing,” she said in a sing-song voice, dragging out the first syllable. “Just thought you two seem to be getting along well already.”

      “Hmm,” Alex droned, but he didn’t have time to wonder what she was up to right now. Following Montblanc in through the service entrance, Alex suddenly found himself in a warren of hallways that could have been the underbelly of any Contest Hall in Hoenn. He had spent more than his fair share of time behind the scenes, doing volunteer work at Contests when he wasn’t competing. Just being close to the action had always excited him, running errands or lending a hand to caterers, cleaners and management alike. When was the last time he had done that, though?

      Montblanc led them at a rapid clip through the building, his back ramrod-straight and his shoes clicking on the tiles. Alex kept up as best he could while pushing the heavy trolley, Veronique somehow managing not to trip over her own shoes beside him.

      “We have eighteen Performers competing in tonight’s Rookie Class Showcase,” Montblanc explained as they walked, voice echoing in the empty hallways. “Several are even making their Showcase debut, so it is very important that the event runs smoothly for all their sakes. I will have each of them choose ten assorted Poké Puffs from your selection as an apology for our failure to provide proper kitchen facilities today.” The same note of displeasure that Alex had heard when he mentioned the kitchen before had returned.

      “That will work,” Veronique said. “The order was for two hundred, so there will be some left over.”

      “I am sure our stage crew will gladly take them off your hands if that is the case,” Montblanc said with wry humour. “My superior is a frequent customer of your pâtisserie, and she recommended your Poké Puffs highly. Here we are.” He stopped in front of a door marked ‘Dressing Room #1’; a small cardboard placard had been affixed below the number, bearing a handwritten ‘Caiti Merrow’.

      Knocking crisply on the door, Montblanc waited until it opened, revealing a girl of about seventeen, still dragging a brush through her shock of curly red hair as she greeted them. “Mister Montblanc!” she said brightly, her accent decidedly not local. “What can Teddi and I do for you?” A small brown Pokémon poked its head out from behind her legs, chattering curiously. A honey-coloured crescent adorned its forehead, and green ribbons trailed from its rounded ears.

      “Mademoiselle Merrow,” Montblanc said with a courteous bow. “I’ve brought some Poké Puffs, as we discussed earlier, to apologise for the shameful state of our facilities today.”

      “Oh!” Caiti exclaimed, nearly dropping the hairbrush. “Goodness, Mister Montblanc, you didn’t really have to do that! I told you it wouldn’t be a problem at all.”

      “Nevertheless,” Montblanc said, “I must at least offer.”

      Clapping her hands decisively, Caiti smiled sweetly. “Well, we do love Poké Puffs, don’t we Teddi? I’ll gladly take you up on that offer. Oh, hello! I didn’t see you two back there!” she said as she stepped out into the corridor, Teddi trailing her like a tiny shadow.

      Alex nodded, but glanced to Veronique for introductions as he began uncovering the various boxes. She rolled her eyes almost imperceptibly, but complied. “I’m Veronique, and this is Alex. We’re from Le Pâtisserie Vincent, glad to meet you.”

      “I’m Caiti, but I guess you knew that! Thank you so much for bringing these! Look, Teddi, they have so many different kinds!” The little Teddiursa squeaked excitedly, finally drawn forth from behind Caiti’s heels by the smells wafting from the boxes.

      After selecting a small tray of Poké Puffs with the help of her Pokémon - Teddi appeared to be fond of the sweet pink ones - Caiti waved cheerily as they took their leave to visit the next contestant.

      As it turned out, not everyone was quite as forgiving as Caiti regarding the lack of kitchen facilities. Several of the young women that opened the doors sniffed at the offered gifts, though they all took them anyway, with the exception of one woman - older than most, being in her mid-thirties at least - who slammed the door in Montblanc’s face while he was trying to explain the situation. He knocked one more time, but there was no response.

      “She seemed lovely,” Alex commented drily once he was sure they were out of earshot.

      “I have worked with Mademoiselle Chapin on occasion before,” Montblanc said neutrally. “She is a true artiste, and there is no greater compliment I can possibly pay her than that.”

      Veronique snickered quietly at this, but Montblanc seemed unfazed. “This will be our last stop,” he said as they approached a final door. “I thank you for your patience.”

      Before the stage manager could knock, however, the door flew open and a young blonde woman stumbled out backwards, bumping into Montblanc and falling to the floor with a shriek. “Help! Somebody!”

      Frowning, Alex turned back to the door. A man in dark clothes stood a few feet inside the room, unmoving. There was a Poké Ball in his left hand, his eyes flicking back and forwards between Alex, Montblanc, and the fleeing girl, who was now doing her best to hide behind Veronique. He seemed frozen, undecided.

      Stepping imperiously forward, Montblanc barred the man’s way out of the dressing room. His taut jaw even stiffer than usual, he glared coldly at the intruder. His voice was level as always, but the slightest hint of menace crept into his words. “What is the meaning of this?”

      The stranger didn’t answer, turning instead to look around the dressing room in evident panic. He was breathing heavily, as if he had just run a marathon. Evidently realising that there was no other way out, he made as if to push past Montblanc, but the stage manager did not budge, grabbing the other man’s left wrist in an iron grip.

      “You are trespassing, monsieur, and I expect an explanation.”

      “Like hell I can explain this, old man!” the stranger ground out, straining against Montblanc’s grip. Twisting, he managed to slam a finger onto the release button of his Poké Ball, loosing a flash of white light that caused Montblanc to flinch away and release him. The Pokémon that materialised between them in the doorway was humanoid, about as tall as Alex, and adorned with multiple silver blades. Its black and red body was shiny and armoured, with a bullishly pointed helmet on its domed head. At a flick of the strange Trainer’s wrist, it drove forward with one gauntleted arm, slamming into Montblanc’s torso and throwing him backwards with a grunt.

      Taking a deep breath, the strange man collected himself, rubbing his wrist absently where Montblanc had grabbed him. He glanced at the three of them that remained standing. “Well, I don’t expect you to understand any of this,” he said cryptically, pointing at the blonde, who was still shivering and clinging to Veronique, “but I’m taking her. Bisharp!”

      Alex bit his lip as the heavily-armed Pokémon stepped forward, its footsteps clanking loudly in the echoey hallway. This was happening too fast. He couldn’t just let this happen, but he had to worry about the others as well. Veronique didn’t have any Pokémon, and the other girl didn’t seem to be in any shape to fight either.

      Sighing lightly, Alex shifted his feet, placing himself subtly but very deliberately in Bisharp’s path. The Pokémon stopped, awaiting orders as it regarded him dangerously. Alex’s hand went to his waist, where his four Poké Balls waited. “You’re right to say I don’t understand,” he said, “but I’m afraid I can’t let you do this either way.”

      The man sighed, seeming to relax slightly now that he was out in the open. No longer cornered, the corridor stretched away behind him, leading deeper into the warren of facilities that made up the underbelly of the Showcase Theatre. “And I suppose you’re planning to stop me,” he said. It wasn’t a question.

      Alex answered anyway. “I am,” he said.

      “You think you stand a chance? None of you useless Performers can battle worth a damn! I’ve made a habit of taking you prissy weaklings down.”

      “That’s where you’re wrong,” Alex said, grinning wryly. He couldn’t help but see the humour. “I’m no Performer. Veronique?” he added, raising his voice slightly.

      “I’m here,” she said tightly. All levity had vanished from her voice.

      “Take that girl and head outside. Pick up any of the other Performers you see. I’ll catch up with you later.” Alex paused, hoping she wouldn’t raise a fuss. This wasn’t the time to get snippy.

      “But Montblanc-”

      “- will be just fine with me,” Alex said firmly, glancing at where the older man sprawled against the wall, groaning.

      “Fine. Just, please . . . don’t do anything stupid,” Veronique said.

      “I already did,” Alex murmured as he heard the two of them retreating along the hallway. Silence fell as he locked eyes with the strange man. For a good ten seconds, neither of them moved or spoke.

      “Awfully kind of you to just let them go like that,” Alex said, narrowing his eyes.

      The man shrugged. “Not a big deal. I’ll just take you instead. Doesn’t really matter to me which stupid Performer I end up with.”

      Something burned inside Alex, a quiet anger that had lain dormant for years. Abruptly, he realised what it was. Despite the very real danger of the situation, this man forcefully reminded him of the kids he had gone to school with in Hoenn. The ones who had called him ‘queer’ for watching Contests, who had hidden his bag and dumped his books in the pond. He couldn’t help but chuckle as his stomach unknotted. It was strangely relaxing. “So you’ve obviously got some kind of chip on your shoulder. Why are you targeting Performers?”

      “Okay, let me rephrase,” the man said. “I don’t have to explain muk to you. Now send out your Pokémon so Bisharp can tear it to shreds, then you’re coming with me.”

      Alex nodded. He had never been one to talk trash, but this guy was really getting on his nerves. “I wonder if it’ll be as easy as you think. Azumarill, go! Aqua Jet!”

      Snap-hiss. A swift crack, a flash of light, and Alex’s keenest battler was launching itself towards Bisharp in a watery blur. Slamming into Bisharp’s solar plexus with a wham, it drove them both backwards several feet until Bisharp’s bladed heels dug into the floor, bringing them to a screeching halt. Azumarill tucked and rolled, falling back lightly onto its feet in front of its opponent.

      “Bisharp, get it! Pin that prancing fairy to the wall!” the man roared. Bisharp hissed and sprang forward, razor-sharp blades extending from its hands and whistling through the air.

      “Defense Curl!” Alex barked. Azumarill tucked its body over itself as it leapt once again, spinning in midair as it met Bisharp’s onslaught. A shrieking sound, like blades on a whirling grindstone, pierced the air as they made contact, and the momentum threw Bisharp away, towards Alex. In the cramped corridor, Alex did his best to leap out of the way. “Follow up with Rollout!”

      Azumarill’s spin increased in speed as it pushed off from the nearest wall and barrelled towards Bisharp again. The other Pokémon only had time to throw up its crossed arms in defense before Azumarill slammed into it, transferring its momentum across their point of contact. Bisharp buckled but did not fall, keeping its legs locked as it leaned backwards, catapulting Azumarill upwards as it did so. Azumarill kept spinning, ricocheting off the ceiling, floor and walls, building up momentum as it did so. Guiding its trajectory by gently pushing against each surface as it bounced, Azumarill made another pass at Bisharp, moving even faster.

      This time, it hit lower, slamming directly into the bladed portion of Bisharp’s torso. With its body reinforced by Defense Curl, Azumarill ignored the sharp, axe-like protrusions and drove Bisharp backwards. It tried to deflect the onslaught again, but its centre of gravity was now above Azumarill’s attack, meaning that it lost its footing and was slammed unceremoniously against the wall, causing the corridor to shake. Azumarill spun away, landing on its feet next to Alex with a triumphant grin.

      Alex mirrored the expression unconsciously, turning to look at the unidentified Trainer. “Your move.”

      ***

      (Alternate chapter title: Finally! I told you there were Pokémon.)
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        #8    
      Old January 18th, 2018 (1:18 AM). Edited January 18th, 2018 by Misheard Whisper.
      Misheard Whisper's Avatar
      Misheard Whisper Misheard Whisper is offline
      I also happen to be a model.
       
      Join Date: Jan 2009
      Location: Nimbasa Gym
      Age: 23
      Gender: Male
      Nature: Relaxed
      Posts: 3,486
      Note: two more chapters until we're fully caught up, and then Star Performer will be returning to a more sedate schedule of roughly one or two chapters per month.

      Chapter 4
      The Beginning

      “You’re different,” the man said, watching with little concern as his Bisharp wrenched itself out of the crater its impact had driven into the wall.

      “I told you I’m not a Performer, right?” Alex said, feeling more than a little irritated.

      He shook his head. “You can’t fool me. The way you stand, the way you talk, it’s obvious. You might be a little different to the others, but it’s plain to see you’ve spent your life on stage, prancing around with your Pokémon without a care in the world.”

      Alex sighed. Listening was not this guy’s strong suit. “And if I am . . . what then?”

      “Then you’re coming with me! Bisharp, Metal Claw!” At its Trainer’s words, the immobile Bisharp sprang into action; large, scythe-like blades slid out of grooves on its armguards with a crisp schick, and it leapt for Azumarill with a roar, slashing with deadly accuracy once, twice, three times. Azumarill evaded as best it could, diving to one side and pushing off the wall. The narrow width of the corridor had its benefits, but it also constricted the movements of both Pokémon. Unable to put enough distance between itself and Bisharp, Azumarill took a glancing blow and tumbled to the floor.

      Alex winced as he watched his Pokémon stagger back to its feet. The damage didn’t look too serious, but they couldn’t keep this up too long. “Aqua Jet!” he ordered. Azumarill trilled and threw itself into a headlong charge, enveloping its spinning body in a jet of water that slammed into Bisharp at great speed, driving it backwards once more. Even as it made to disengage, however, Bisharp plunged its gauntleted hands into the torrent of water and grabbed Azumarill’s bulbous tail, hauling it out of its arc and slamming it into the floor.

      “That’s it!” Bisharp’s Trainer roared, punching the air in wild glee. “Poison Jab, now!” Pinning Azumarill to the ground with one steel fist at its throat, Bisharp drew back its other arm to strike, a sickly purple aura enveloping its bladed hand.

      Alex bit his lip. Only one way out of this. “Azumarill, use Play Rough!”

      Bisharp’s hand swept down like a guillotine, but it met only concrete as Azumarill seemed to vanish instantly. Using its opponent’s weight as a counterbalance, Azumarill swung itself out from under Bisharp. Grasping the rigid helmet on the Dark-type’s head, it continued its swing until the two Pokémon had reversed positions. Drawing on its supernatural strength, Azumarill slammed Bisharp face-first into the concrete floor before yanking it back upright again and hurling it into first one wall, then the other. Stone dust and chips of rock flew everywhere, causing Alex to cover his face with one arm.

      When silence fell, he cracked open his eyes to see what resembled no less than a warzone. Triumphant and proud, Azumarill stood in the midst of a destroyed passageway with its chest puffed out. At its feet lay Bisharp, unresponsive to its Trainer’s disbelieving howls.

      “This isn’t possible! What the hell are you?” he snarled, glaring at Alex and Azumarill.

      “I told you, didn’t I?” Alex said with a wry smile. “You came here looking for Performers who don’t battle, right? Thought they’d be easy targets for . . . whatever it is you’re doing?”

      The man didn’t reply in words, but the grimace on his face told Alex all he needed to know. “Where I come from, we don’t have people like that. I’m a Coordinator, which means I can throw down with the best. Now tell me . . . who are you supposed to be?”

      The man spat on the floor as he returned Bisharp to its Poké Ball, drawing a second one from his pocket. “Guess I psyducked up. No big deal. You won’t always be around to play white knight.”

      “Hey!” Alex made to step forward, but the man hurled his second Poké Ball.

      “I haven’t got time for this. Garbodor! Poison Gas, now!” he spat.

      Alex caught a brief glimpse of a Pokémon that resembled nothing more than a heaping pile of rotten, decomposing trash with eyes before it belched a foul cloud of black smog into the air, stinging Alex’s eyes and throat. He doubled over, coughing involuntarily, and backed up. By the time he was able to shake the slowly dissipating vapour off, the destroyed hallway was empty but for himself, Azumarill, and the unmoving Montblanc. Nothing remained of the intruder except a foul smell.

      “Alex! Are you okay?” Veronique reappeared at the end of the hallway, approaching at a jog. She had discarded her high heels to go barefoot, and her hair had fallen out of its elaborate arrangement.

      “We’re fine,” Alex said, rubbing his still-smarting eyes. “That guy bolted, though. Didn’t I tell you to stay away?”

      “You don’t get to tell me what to do!” Veronique snapped. “I shouldn’t have left you alone in the first place. I’m just - I’m glad nothing happened to you.”

      “It seems I was the lucky one,” Alex said, moving to check on Montblanc. The stage manager was older than he had initially thought, he realised. Without his calm mask of poise and decorum, the lines and grooves on Montblanc’s face looked much deeper. He was still conscious, but his breath was ragged.

      “He should be fine,” Veronique said, “but I’ve called an ambulance just in case. The police will be here soon, too.”

      “And the girls?” Alex asked. “With that guy still on the loose, I hope none of them are alone.”

      “They should all be in one of the dressing rooms,” Veronique said absently as she crouched to examine one of Montblanc’s pupils, holding his eye open with her fingers. “I told them to stay there until security and the police arrived to sort things out.”

      “They have security here? They’re doing a bang-up job, aren’t they?” Alex grumbled, patting Azumarill absently on the head as he stared down the corridor towards where the strangely antagonistic intruder had disappeared. There was clearly something untoward going on here. A strange suspicion began to gnaw at him, but he put it aside for the moment. He was here to see a show, not play detective.

      ***

      An hour later, Alex stood with Veronique outside the Showcase Theatre’s stage entrance, waiting for a pair of dour police officers to finish interviewing the theatre’s occupants. After making sure that Montblanc and the girl who had been the intruder’s intended victim were taken care of by paramedics, Alex had spent thirty minutes talking to the officers, though he grew more and more frustrated by their stone-faced reluctance to listen to even the most basic statements until they were repeated half a dozen times.

      The sun was sinking rapidly towards the horizon as they stood in the carpark, throwing long shadows through the trees. Veronique sighed, clapping Alex on the shoulder in a sisterly fashion. “I think it’s about time we head home, mon ami. Show’s cancelled after all that.”

      “I suppose it would be,” Alex grumbled. “I was finally starting to look forward to it, too.”

      “Don’t worry,” Veronique said, steering him gently back towards the car. “We’ll have another chance while you’re here, I’m sure. Hopefully without any rude interruptions.”

      “Excuse me, you two.” A clipped, arresting voice caused them to freeze.

      Alex turned around to see an older woman striding towards them. She wore a sharp black skirt suit and her iron-grey hair was curled into a tight bob. Violet earrings glinted, catching the light as she strode briskly towards them. Alex nodded politely. “Good evening. Can we help you with something else?”

      “Oh, don’t worry,” the woman said, pausing as she saw the concerned look on his face. “I’m not with the police. My name is Étoile, and I am the organiser of today’s Showcase. I’m told you two did us a great service today.”

      “It was nothing, really!” Veronique cut in hurriedly before Alex could say anything. “It’s a pity the Showcase can’t continue, but we really ought to be leaving now.”

      Alex felt Veronique tugging surreptitiously at his sleeve again, but he stood his ground as Étoile narrowed her silvery eyes at him. They were shrewd and piercing, and Alex wondered if she saw something more than he had been trying to show. “A pity indeed,” she droned, though she didn’t seem too concerned. “Nevertheless, our Performers are all safe thanks to you. That is what is most important, after all. I would normally say that the show must go on, but since our security has apparently been compromised twice now, we cannot in good conscience allow it to continue. I hope that this does not spell the end of Coumarine’s Showcases, for I do so enjoy my visits to this city.” Her eyes slid across to Veronique. “You would be the pâtissier’s girl, I presume?”

      Veronique swallowed before answering. “Yes. I don’t believe we’ve met. M-my name is Veronique Vincent.”

      Alex frowned internally, though he was careful not to let it show on his face. Something had Veronique spooked. “I’m Alex Thoreau,” he put in, smoothly redirecting Étoile’s attention as he subtly stepped between the two women. “I’ve been competing in Pokémon Contests in the Hoenn region, but at the moment I’m here on holiday and working part-time at the pâtisserie. I understand we have you to thank for recommending us to Monsieur Montblanc?”

      Étoile smiled, though it did not extend to her eyes, which remained sharp and even. “Indeed. I always visit when I am in town on business. Le Pâtisserie Vincent has never let me down, and I see tonight is no exception. Maybe I should hire my security from local cake shops in the future.”

      Alex smiled uneasily. Was that meant to be a joke? There was certainly no humour in her voice. Dialling up his politeness, Alex proffered a quick bow. “We’re glad to be of service, of course. I’m just happy nobody got hurt. Unless there’s anything else you need, however, I feel like we should let your staff and the police continue with their investigation.” The meaning was implicit, and Alex felt Veronique’s grateful hand grip his elbow.

      Étoile paused, regarding Alex much as if he were a particularly interesting specimen upon a dissection table. He barely suppressed a shiver as her eyes raked over him, giving the unshakable feeling that she had pierced his facade. “But of course,” she said at length. “I simply felt the need to extend my thanks in person. Also, the complimentary tickets we provided you for tonight will not expire. Though it is small recompense, I hope you will join us for another show in the future. Perhaps next weekend in Lumiose, even. Good day to you both.”

      With that, she was gone as swiftly as she had arrived. Alex felt Veronique deflate slightly next to him, and turned to arch an eyebrow at her. “What’s your problem?” he asked, half-teasing.

      Veronique shook her head, tight-lipped. “That woman scares me,” she muttered, her face a strange shade of grey.

      “You did know her, then?”

      “I doubt she’d remember, but yes. She used to come to the pâtisserie a lot when I was little. She always seemed so . . . so tall and cruel.” She laughed hoarsely. “It sounds stupid, but that was the impression she left on me, somehow.”

      “Hmm.” Alex watched silently for a moment as Étoile rejoined the main group, snapping orders to a couple of hapless stagehands. “I can see where you're coming from, but at the same time . . . That's just what this industry does to some people. I've seen it in Contest organisers back in Hoenn, too. They don't mean to be so brusque, they're just used to people doing exactly what they're told. A disaster of these proportions would really throw you off.”

      Veronique shivered perceptibly. “Hey, Alex?”

      “What is it, V?”

      “If I ever turn out like that, I want you to shoot me.”

      Alex snorted. “Deal.”

      ***

      Saturday morning dawned bright and clear, an already temperate breeze wafting through the shopping district. Alex stretched luxuriously as he exited Le Pâtisserie Vincent, stifling a yawn. At his side, Azumarill mirrored the gesture, stretching its stubby arms toward the sky and trilling exultantly.

      “Feeling alright this morning, are we?” Alex said with a grin, ruffling its fuzzy head affectionately. A quick stop by the Pokémon Centre the previous evening had given Azumarill a clean bill of health after the battle with Bisharp, but worrying about his Pokémon had become habitual for Alex by now. Still, it seemed that Azumarill was feeling no ill effects whatsoever, and had in fact relished the chance to stretch its legs.

      “You know, I did say you could sleep in today.”

      Alex turned to find Veronique standing at the door, looking faintly amused. She already had an apron cinched tightly around her waist, clearly preparing for a busy Saturday. “I know,” Alex admitted, “but it doesn’t feel right. That aside, are you sure it’s okay for me to take the weekend off?”

      Veronique waved a hand dismissively. “Mama has a couple of kids from the local high school coming in to help today and tomorrow. I’m starting to think she didn’t really need me to come back after all, but . . . well, what can I do?” She smiled wanly.

      Alex raised an eyebrow. “I think it’s good we came, regardless. They’ve clearly been missing you. Since you’ve spent a lot of time in Hoenn these past few years, and all.”

      “And whose fault is that?” she grumbled. “Honestly. Sometimes I wonder why I bother with you.”

      Alex was silent for a moment. “Sometimes I wonder, too,” he said eventually.

      “Hey! You’re not supposed to agree with me!” Veronique snapped, poking him in the chest with her index finger. “Now go on, have your day off. I kind of wanted to show you around, but you’ll just have to make do without me for once.”

      “Sure.” Alex nodded. “Just . . . about last night.”

      “I know,” Veronique said, her tone suddenly becoming serious. “I have no idea what that was all about, but I have the strangest feeling we haven’t seen the end of it yet.”

      “Should we take Ms. Étoile’s invitation to see the Showcase in Lumiose next weekend, then? Or is it safer to take a pass?”

      Veronique chewed her lip thoughtfully. “Part of me doesn’t want to get involved, on the off-chance that something else does happen … but I really wanted you to experience the Showcases while you’re here.”

      “Think about it, then,” Alex said. “I don’t mind either way.”

      “I will.” Nodding, Veronique made to step back inside, but paused with her hand on the door. “Hey, look… I’m sorry this hasn’t turned out to be much of a holiday. Tomorrow we can go and do something fun, okay?”

      Before Alex could reply, she was gone. A slight bittersweet pang jabbed at his subconscious as he glanced down at Azumarill, which cocked its head curiously.

      “I know,” Alex agreed. “She’s definitely got something on her mind.”

      He’d ask her tomorrow, he decided. Or at least, he’d see if she’d be willing to open up about it. Demanding straight answers from Veronique rarely ended up well.

      ***

      (Alternate chapter title: The awkwardly short one that comes after the awkwardly long one)
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        #9    
      Old January 21st, 2018 (1:52 PM).
      Misheard Whisper's Avatar
      Misheard Whisper Misheard Whisper is offline
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      Join Date: Jan 2009
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      Chapter 5
      Respite

      Alex wandered aimlessly, letting the twisted gauntlet of seaward Coumarine’s streets take him where they willed, Pokémon at his side. Plusle and Minun skipped happily in circles around him as he walked, stumbling on the unfamiliar cobblestones and shrieking happily as they tumbled and frolicked. Azumarill maintained a more sedate pace at his side while his final Pokémon, Swablu, perched on his head like a fluffy white hat.

      Alex had half expected to be lost in thought as he walked, but the colour and charm of Kalos distracted him too easily. Coumarine had a strangely organic feeling to it that few places in Hoenn could match. It was at the same time rustic and modern, blending cobbled streets and lush greenery with ritzy fashion boutiques and posh cafes. Thanks to the early hour the streets were quiet, but as the clock struck eight the city lazily began to stir itself awake. Grilles on shopfronts rattled upwards, signs were carried out and scribbled on with chalk. An occasional pair of shutters banged open, letting the morning sun filter through into second-floor apartments.

      Despite these first stirrings of activity, the streets that Alex and his Pokémon walked remained quiet by and large, disturbed only by the restless murmuring of a half-awake city. Pausing under one of the many trees lining the road, Alex watched a family of red-breasted bird Pokémon fluttering about in its branches. Truly, no matter what corner of the world, Pokémon could be counted on to be noisy.

      Letting them be, Alex moved on with his own little gaggle of Pokémon. They had managed to explore these streets together in the evenings this past week, but most everything had already been closed. Picking a direction mostly at random, Alex ducked down a side street, almost forced to break into a jog as it dipped steeply downhill. Breaking out of the shadow between two tall, leaning rows of buildings, he found himself arrested by a salty breeze that seized and toyed with his loose ponytail. He crossed the oceanfront street quickly then paused on the boardwalk that snaked along the narrow beach.

      The sea was flinty this morning, its deep blue tempered by a bleak, iron-grey undertone. The sun was steadily climbing over the hills on the eastern side of the bay, but the waves were far from hospitable yet. The beaches were nicer in the southern region of Kalos, he’d heard. The wind continued to nip at him as he turned to follow the winding path towards the city centre, though it lacked real teeth. It was perhaps a little cooler here on the northern coast, but overall Kalos had a fairly comparable climate to his native Hoenn, so Alex hadn’t found it particularly difficult to adjust. Still he continued to wander, letting the sun warm his back as he meandered along the beachfront.

      Occasionally he passed other walkers, early birds on their way to work or getting in some morning exercise. It had taken Alex some time to adjust to the relaxed pace of life here, and he suspected he would never truly come to terms with it. A lot of shops opened late, closed for long lunch breaks and closed for the day as early as four. Of course, the amount of work and preparation involved in running a bakery like Le Pâtisserie Vincent meant that Renée had had him and Veronique out of bed and working by seven every day the past week, but he’d had time to glimpse the Kalosian way of life while on his breaks or running deliveries to nearby cafes.

      Some thirty minutes at a relaxed stroll brought Alex to the edge of the business district, that nest of twisting, elegant spires that rolled up from the seafront, climbing to a modest height that didn’t quite manage to tower over the rest of the city. The carpet of glimmering glass and steel spread to the bottom of the foothills that surrounded Coumarine Bay, paring down to a single, mercurial thread that wended its convoluted way over to the hillcrest district: the monorail he had glimpsed on their way in.

      “Hey! Hey, mister!”

      Alex blinked at the sudden shout, jolting out of his mildly soporific reverie. Turning to face the speaker, he saw that it was a small boy of about eight. Dark-haired and blue-eyed, he seemed to be the leader of a group - about five or six others hung back behind him, all watching Alex curiously. “Yes?” Alex said politely, trying not to look too exasperated.

      “Mister, are you a girl?” the kid asked, causing the small group of hangers-on to explode into poorly-hushed titters and giggles.

      Though it galled him slightly, Alex smiled blithely, deciding not to attribute to spite what could easily be caused by honest confusion. “Not at all, my friend,” he said.

      “Oh.” The kid looked as if he’d had the wind taken out of his sails. “How come you got long hair then?”

      “Good question,” Alex said wryly. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t considered cutting it, especially when puberty came and went, leaving him with no new tools to assert his manhood. For a while he had lamented the fact that his voice remained soft, wished for hair to sprout on his face and done everything he could to grow past five foot four. At some point, though, he’d just come to terms with it without realising it. Am I really that androgynous? he wondered from time to time. Looking in the mirror, he only ever saw Alex the boy, now halfway to Alex the man, but he had to wonder if that was just born from familiarity. “Let’s just say it’s my trademark.”

      “What, you famous or something then, mister?” a girl from the group piped up. A blonde, she looked to be a little older than the boy who had called out to him.

      “Uh, I wouldn’t say that,” Alex said innocently, mentally kicking himself. Azumarill seemed to be hiding a smirk, but he shot it a look. Plusle and Minun took the opportunity to bound over to the group of kids, dancing in circles around them in evident delight. The youngsters seemed to respond in kind, eagerly watching and clapping as Alex’s Pokémon put on an impromptu tumbling routine.

      “So . . .” Apparently trying very hard not to be distracted, the boy who had spoken first came forward a little further, squinting at Alex. “You’re a Pokémon Trainer?”

      “Something like that, yes. We’re performers, kind of.”

      “Performers can only be girls, though! You said you weren’t a girl!”

      Alex winced. “Okay, fair enough. That’s how it is here, I suppose. But where I come from, boys are allowed to perform too.”

      “Do you come from far away?” The girl had stepped forward as well, leaving the other four or five enthralled by Plusle and Minun’s routine. “Is that why you have such weird Pokémon?”

      “They’re not weird! I just don’t know if you can find Pokémon like this in Kalos,” Alex said. “This here is my partner Azumarill; the one on my head is a Swablu; and those two are Plusle and Minun, my troublemakers. My name’s Alex, by the way.”

      “I’m Aidan, and that’s Mimi.” The boy pointed at the girl next to him. “Hey, you should battle her! She’s strong!”

      Alex raised an eyebrow. “Mimi, you’re a Pokémon Trainer?”

      Mimi looked bashful, but she nodded, reaching into her pocket to reveal two Poké Balls. “I’ll . . . I’ll battle you!” she said, though her voice wobbled a little.

      “Hey, if you don’t want to, it’s okay,” Alex said, crouching down a little and putting on a soothing voice. Even though he wasn’t particularly sure of his battling skills, he could still see the outcome a mile away. Sensing the girl’s concern, Swablu fluttered anxiously on his head. “You don’t have to battle everyone just because you’re a Trainer, right? It’s your choice, you know.”

      Shaking her head, Mimi drew herself up to her full height and set her jaw, though Alex could see she was still trembling slightly. “It’s fine. I have to practice Pokémon battling anyway, if I want to beat Ramos one day.”

      “Ramos . . . that’s the Gym Leader here in Coumarine, right?” Alex frowned for a moment, then smiled as he stood back up, clapping his hands. “All right! If you want to challenge him one day, then I’ll be happy to help you practice. That’s a great goal to have.”

      The other children crowded around at Alex’s announcement, Plusle and Minun bouncing cheerfully upon their shoulders. “There’s a park round the corner,” Aidan suggested, grabbing Alex’s sleeve and tugging him along. “You can battle there!”

      Alex allowed himself to be pulled, laughing as the children’s contagious excitement rubbed off on him. Kids in Kalos sure are comfortable with strangers, he thought idly.

      The park was little more than a small stand of trees, as it turned out. A roughly oblong area of grass in the middle had been left bare, though, to serve as a makeshift battlefield. Surrounded by leafy trees on all sides, it let the morning sun filter through, shifting its mottled pattern as the sea breeze played through the boughs. As it turned out, however, Alex’s new friends were not the first to suggest a battle this morning.

      A young man of about Alex’s age stood at the near end of the field, his dark, handsome face set as he concentrated on the scene in front of him. Two Pokémon circled cautiously, poised as if to strike at any moment. One Alex recognised as an Arcanine, a massive, leonine Pokémon with a strong, proud bearing and cream-coloured tufts of fur that contrasted with its orange-and-black striped coat. Its muscles rippled powerfully as it tensed, then sprang with a howl, jaws stretched wide as it pounced upon its opponent -

      Alex had to squint to see the other Pokémon. Not even a foot tall, it zipped nimbly around Arcanine’s head, leaving a spray of sparkling pink dust behind as it did so. Arcanine stopped in its tracks, huffing and sneezing irritably as it shook the dust out of its eyes. The tiny Pokémon paused, floating in midair as it giggled at its opponent’s predicament. Appearing to be nothing less than a tiny sprite hanging onto a large flower, it bobbed around just out of reach as Arcanine swiped and snarled at it.

      “Focus, Floette!” the young man said, his voice strong and level. “You’re never going to win just by being annoying.”

      Alex watched curiously as the dance continued, both Pokémon circling and ducking in perfect rhythm. Neither Floette’s Trainer nor Arcanine’s - a redheaded girl at the other end of the field - gave any commands, seeming quite content just to let their Pokémon duke it out. Alex noted that Aidan, Mimi and the others had taken a seat on a nearby bench to watch quietly. Although he couldn’t help but feel he was intruding, he did the same.

      Arcanine made another swipe at Floette, coming dangerously close to connecting with its murderous-looking claws, but the Fairy-type swooped away, hurling a stinging barrage of razor-sharp leaves as it did. They battered Arcanine around the head, causing it to snarl and whip its head back and forth as if trying to dislodge a fly. The attack didn’t appear to do much damage, though, and within a moment Arcanine was back on the offense, leaping high above its opponent before diving on it. This time it connected with one outstretched paw, driving Floette to the ground with a thud and pinning it there, one massive claw on each side of the little Pokémon’s body. Drawing its snout close, it snorted triumphantly, crimson flames flickering at the corners of its mouth.

      The young man sighed, raising a hand to concede defeat. At a whistle from Arcanine’s Trainer, the bigger Pokémon sat back on its haunches, allowing Floette to float shakily back to its owner. “What did I tell you about getting cocky?” he said, poking it gently in the torso. “I can’t let you battle properly until you get over that.” Looking appropriately chastised, the little Pokémon allowed itself to be sucked back into its Poké Ball.

      The Trainer looked up as if noticing his audience for the first time. “Aidan! What are you guys up to? Who’s your new friend?”

      “This is Alex!” Aidan said, grinning widely. “He’s a really strong Trainer and we think he might be a girl.”

      Alex raised an eyebrow in slight exasperation, but raised a hand in greeting. “Heya. Sorry for barging in on you guys like that.”

      “No big.” The Arcanine’s Trainer stepped forward, one hand scratching her enormous Pokémon behind the ears. “These kids are like family. Hope they didn’t bother you.”

      “Not at all,” Alex said. “They challenged me to a battle, though, which is why we came here in the first place.”

      “Good timing, then,” said Floette’s Trainer, stepping across to give Arcanine an appreciative pat as well. “I’m Xavier, by the way. Aidan’s actually my little brother, but like Yvette said, all of these ones are like family. They talked you into battling Mimi, then?”

      “Yes,” Alex said, glancing hesitantly at the small blonde girl. “Uh, is this okay?” he added quietly. “I mean, she’s just a kid and all…”

      Xavier rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “You’ve got a point. You been training Pokémon for long?”

      “Uh, about eight years,” Alex said half-apologetically.

      “Hmm.” Xavier frowned, then a grin sprang onto his face and he clapped his hands. “Got it! I’ll battle you instead!”

      “Perfect!” Yvette chipped in, lifting Mimi up and putting her on Arcanine’s back. “We’ll watch from over here with the others, okay?”

      “But-” Mimi started to complain, but Xavier reached up to ruffle her hair affectionately.

      “Practice is good, Mims, but in this case I think you’ll learn more by watching. Alright?”

      Mimi nodded quietly and let Arcanine carry her back over to the spectators. Alex wondered if it was just his imagination that she looked faintly relieved.

      “Xavier,” Alex said quickly. “Do you think we could make this a double battle?”

      Xavier regarded him curiously. “A specialist, eh? I reckon I could live with that. Two versus two sound alright with you?”

      “Sure. Plusle, Minun!” Alex called, beckoning his Pokémon over from where they were still playing with the children. “You two are up. Azu, Swablu, I want you two to watch this.” Before he realised it, his heart was thumping in his chest. A strange thrill started to creep up on him as Xavier took up a ready stance at the opposite end of the field. How long has it been since I had a real battle? Plusle and Minun bounced and squeaked, evidently raring to go. They evidently felt none of his jittery nerves, natural performers that they were. Alex envied them. Even after six years on the Contest circuit, he still wasn’t completely comfortable with Pokémon battles.

      “Guess it’s time that changed,” he muttered, not loud enough for anybody but his Pokémon to hear. As Plusle and Minun took up their practiced battle positions - six feet in front of Alex, six feet apart in a perfect triangle - he raised a hand to signal his readiness.

      Xavier nodded coolly and returned the gesture as he tossed forward two Poké Balls. “Pangoro and Doublade, let’s go!” he called.

      Alex blinked as two totally unfamiliar Pokémon burst onto the battlefield. One was a massive, angry-looking, black and white bear that roared a defiant challenge as it stepped forth. Chewing on a twig, it regarded him with a rough sort of intelligence in its gleaming black eyes. The second Pokémon was smaller, but struck Alex as no less dangerous. Floating in midair, it seemed to be a pair of ornate swords in their scabbards, crossed in an X formation. Pink and gold banners hung from the hilts, fluttering in the morning breeze, and as Alex watched, a pair of eyes on each hilt flickered open, scanning the battlefield quietly.

      “Hey, Alex,” Xavier called. “You’re not from around here, huh?”

      “That’s right,” Alex admitted. “I’m just here on holiday from the Hoenn region.”

      “Then you haven’t seen these Pokémon before either, right?” When Alex shook his head, Xavier continued: “Well, in the spirit of a fair battle, I’ll introduce you. The big guy over here is Pangoro, and he’s a Fighting and Dark type. Honedge is Ghost and Steel.”

      “I see,” Alex said. “And you have Plusle and Minun here, right? I’ve seen some in the city already.”

      “Yeah, I’m familiar with yours,” Xavier said. “But tell me, Alex... Do you think you can win with Pokémon like that?” There was a slight teasing tone in his voice that suggested he wasn’t entirely serious, but Alex still frowned.

      “We’ll just have to find out, won’t we,” he said. “You can take the first move, Xavier!”

      “I’ll take you up on that, then!” Xavier punched the air and roared, “Pangoro, use Hammer Arm on Plusle! Doublade, Swords Dance!”

      Alex read the combination instantly. One of his opponents at the previous year’s Grand Festival had used an almost identical strategy. It was sound in concept, but it was easy to work around. “Over the top!”

      Pangoro was big, but as he’d suspected, it wasn’t fast. Charging toward Plusle, it had barely raised its arm to attack when Alex’s Pokémon leapt, both Plusle and Minun responding to his call. Agile and tiny, barely a foot high, they were dwarfed by the rampaging Pangoro. Still, they gamely tumbled through the air, used their opponent’s face as a springboard, then dived forward again, both aiming straight for Honedge, which was busy preparing itself to attack.

      Honedge unsheathed its naked blades and tried to carry out Xavier’s order, but Alex was having none of it. “Plusle, Nuzzle! Minun, Helping Hand!” Working in tandem, Plusle and Minun rubbed the electric sacs on their cheeks together, building up a sizzling aura of static electricity. Slingshotting Plusle forward like a trapeze artist, Minun let itself fall to the ground as Plusle carried on, ramming full-force into the disoriented Honedge in a burst of static.

      “Guess we underestimated you,” Xavier growled as Honedge spun out of control, almost collapsing to the ground as it fought the paralysing effect of the Electric attack. “Come on, Fury Cutter!”

      Honedge yanked itself upwards, blades flashing in a deadly arc as it dived towards Plusle. “Minun, use Light Screen to help out!” Alex ordered, keeping a close eye on the disoriented Pangoro as it closed back in on the fight. Diving towards its partner, Minun conjured a shimmering blue barrier between itself and Honedge, blunting the blow but not quite managing to stop it. Plusle took a sword strike to the midriff and went flying, landing awkwardly on the grass near Pangoro.

      Xavier saw this at the exact time Alex did. “Pangoro, Slash!” Unclenching its mallet-like fist, Pangoro struck out with its wicked claws. In his mind’s eye, Alex saw his Contest battle score trickling away. He had to do something quickly; Honedge had been effectively neutered, but Pangoro was more than capable of turning both his Pokémon into pancakes by itself.

      Flicking his wrist, Alex directed Plusle to evade. Pushing itself off the ground with one stubby arm, it danced out of Pangoro’s reach with milliseconds to spare, leaving the behemoth to howl in frustration as another of its attacks failed to connect. Across the battlefield, Minun still ran interference, taunting the crippled Honedge with weak jolts of electricity.

      “Okay,” Alex breathed. “Time to bring out the big guns. Minun, get Rain Dance up!”

      Still running rings around its opponent, Minun squeaked assent. Leaping to a branch on one of the surrounding trees, it raised its little arms to the sky and sang out, a single, piercing note that echoed through the trees and was swallowed up by the sky. A booming crash of artificial thunder could be heard as the sky darkened. The park was shaded from the morning sun, but its foliage offered little protection from the deluge that was immediately unloaded onto the battlefield. Spectators shrieked and ran for cover as the heavens opened up, drenching the park in torrential rain. Within seconds, the arena was plunged into darkness.

      “Pangoro, grab that Plusle!” Xavier bellowed, clearly sensing something was afoot. Roaring wildly, Pangoro charged for a third time, arms outstretched and paws thudding on the freshly-soaked grass. It was far too slow and lumbering, though, and Alex and Plusle both knew it.

      Alex swept his hand upwards, a habitual flourish from years of Contest showboating. “Thunder!”

      Ignoring, or even embracing, the pelting rain, Plusle stood its ground as Pangoro bore down on it, electricity flaring at its cheeks. Time seemed to slow down; drops of rain fizzled and spat as the electric current sparked them off, an aura of power roiling and growing as the Electric-type sucked in the power of the storm. Threads of barely-visible lightning sprang between Plusle and the conjured stormclouds above, hissing and roaring as the storm built to a fever pitch.

      Abruptly, time snapped back to its normal speed. Pangoro dived forward, but it was too late. Plusle screeched as it loosed a cannon blast of electricity that leapt across the gap between the two Pokémon, arresting the behemoth in its tracks with a bone-rattling burst. Staccato flashes of lightning crashed through the arena, painting the rain-battered trees in a painfully beautiful chiaroscuro.

      Convulsing and jerking, Xavier’s Pangoro crashed to the ground with a thud that could be heard even over the thunderstorm. Turning his attention to the distracted Honedge, Alex began to direct his Pokémon back into battle. Minun had read the situation well, continuing to run interference and keeping Honedge separated from its partner. Before he could say a word, however, he saw Xavier, curly dark hair drenched by the rain, raising his arm to concede. “It’s your win!” he called, raising his voice to be heard over the howling storm.

      All tension in the arena evaporated instantly, shortly followed by the rain. The stormy clouds parted, dissipating as swiftly as they had appeared. The downpour that had lashed the trees and soaked the grass dried up, leaving behind only a faint slick of precipitation clinging to the ground like a morning dew.

      As blue skies and morning sun returned to prominence once more, Xavier stepped forward, his face set in a curious expression as he returned his Pokémon to their capsules. “You battle well,” he said, his tone carefully neutral.

      Alex nodded in acknowledgement as his own Pokémon practically bounded back over to him, climbing to sit on his shoulders and squeak ecstatically as he scratched their heads in congratulations. “You’re not bad yourself,” he said. “That was a solid doubles strategy, but like you figured, I’m a specialist, so… seen it before. Sorry.”

      Grinning, Xavier extended his right hand in a friendly gesture. “Don’t be sorry, man! I underestimated you and even talked trash about your Pokémon. My bad.”

      Alex took Xavier’s hand gladly, letting the taller boy shake it enthusiastically. “Hey, it’s cool. If I had Pokémon as big and tough as yours, I’d be confident too.”

      “Whole lot of good it did me, huh,” Xavier said drily, turning to rejoin Yvette and the kids. “Sorry you guys had to see me being so uncool!”

      Yvette looked mildly amused by the situation, but she kept her mouth shut, mischief dancing in her eyes. The younger spectators, however, were not so tactful.

      “How did you lose, bro?” Aidan asked bluntly. “I thought you said you couldn’t lose to anybody in a proper battle!”

      Wincing slightly, Xavier raised his hands in supplication. “I, uh, don’t think I said-”

      “You did!” Mimi piped up. “Last week when you beat Yvette! You said that if, uh, if she couldn’t beat you, then nobody else stood a chance!”

      Alex watched with some amusement as Xavier continued making excuses, laughing along with the kids as they continued to lambast him for letting down their expectations.

      “Nice job.” A voice at his side caused Alex to jump. He hadn’t seen Yvette get up, but now she stood casually beside him, watching Xavier and the children with that same half-smile on her face. She was a good couple of inches taller than Alex, and the volume of her curly red hair somehow made her seem much larger and more imposing. “Xavier talks a big game, but he really is that good. Other than me and Ramos up at the Gym, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him lose to anyone before.”

      Alex nodded slowly. “I can see that. His Pokémon are really strong. I’d go so far as to say I only won because it was a double battle. I doubt I could take him in a one-on-one format.”

      Yvette glanced at him sideways, her sharp blue eyes scanning him thoughtfully. “Interesting,” she said. “Most Trainers wouldn’t be so quick to admit that.”

      “I’m not most Trainers,” Alex said, rolling his eyes slightly even as he said it. What a line. “I’m not even a Trainer at all, really. My specialty is Contest battles, so I’m used to 2v2s.”

      “Makes sense,” Yvette said. “I must pick your brain regarding nonverbal commands sometime.”

      A flash of realisation. “That’s what you two were practicing before, with Arcanine and… Floette, was it?”

      Nodding, the redhead continued to scrutinise him with visible curiosity. “That’s right. Your Pokémon responded to spoken and silent commands equally well. I’d like to hear more about how you do that.”

      “Sure,” Alex said easily. “Your Arcanine looked like it was really well trained, as well. I’d love to swap notes.”

      A silent understanding passed between the two as they lapsed into silence again, watching Xavier and his gaggle of disappointed fans with some amusement.
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        #10    
      Old September 3rd, 2018 (2:29 AM).
      Misheard Whisper's Avatar
      Misheard Whisper Misheard Whisper is offline
      I also happen to be a model.
       
      Join Date: Jan 2009
      Location: Nimbasa Gym
      Age: 23
      Gender: Male
      Nature: Relaxed
      Posts: 3,486
      (Oops I got a job and forgot...everything else that was once a life.)

      Chapter 6
      Roots

      “So you’re kind of a big deal back in Hoenn, are ya?” Xavier teased. “Should’ve known I’d pick a fight with some kinda celebrity.” Having sent the younger kids on their way and briefly stopped by a Pokémon Centre to check up on the battlers, the three of them were now sitting around a small glass table at a waterfront cafe not too far from the park. The cool breeze from earlier had warmed up a little, leaving quite a pleasant Saturday morning under gentle sunlight.

      “Really, it’s not that big a deal!” Alex protested, waving a hand dismissively. “I only mention it because, well… that’s the only reason I’m any good at double battles. Contests are all about that format, so it feels more comfortable for me.”

      “Even so,” Yvette put in, setting her coffee down for a moment and grinning at Xavier, “I’m pretty sure you said you’d never be beaten.”

      Xavier groaned exaggeratedly. “Babe, I-”

      “By anybody, in any kind of battle. Wasn’t that what you said?”

      “Not in so many words, but-”

      “No, you were pretty specific.” Yvette’s eyes were alight with mischief as she slipped Alex a quick wink, seemingly enjoying seeing her companion squirm. “You even went ahead and said something cool like ‘Watch me, Yvette! I’m going to keep winning and winning until I’m the League Champion!’, right?”

      Deflated, Xavier laid his forehead on the frosted glass tabletop and let out an overdramatic sob. “I get it and I’m sorry, so leave me be already!”

      Turning to Alex as if nothing was amiss, Yvette changed tack - although the smug grin on her face betrayed her mirth. “So, Alex, you were a Coordinator in Hoenn, you say? I can’t say I’ve watched many Contests, certainly not in person. It’s sort of like a Showcase, right?”

      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.

      “Any at all, really,” Yvette said, nodding as she leaned back in her chair, soaking in the morning sun with apparent lazy delight. Closing her eyes, she stretched her arms back over her head and yawned, but kept talking through it. “I’ve met Performers before, and well… half of them won’t even battle with their Pokémon.”

      Alex raised an eyebrow. “Really?” That sounded a little far-fetched, even for the… interesting characters he had met at the theatre last night. But then, it certainly lined up with what the wannabe kidnapper had been saying.

      “Mm. They treat their Pokémon like royalty. Never let them walk outside in case they get muddy, never battle with them in case they get hurt. They spend so long bathing and feeding and grooming and cooking for them, it’s a wonder they have any time left to compete, let alone have a life.” There was a noticeable hint of derision in her voice now.

      “Sounds terrible,” Alex said sympathetically, though in all honesty he had to agree. As much as he enjoyed showbusiness, he couldn’t imagine getting so invested in it that he forgot to let his Pokémon be Pokémon. He had to wonder, however, if Yvette’s point of view was entirely objective. There was an undertone of bitterness in it that he was hesitant to explore, especially as they were still basically strangers. Instead, he changed the subject. “Kalos really is quite different to Hoenn, I’ve noticed. I didn’t think it would be this pronounced, but it feels like I’m in a completely different world.”

      “I guess that’s natural when you consider how far apart the two regions are,” Yvette said with a shrug. “I haven’t been to Hoenn myself, but I hear it’s a lot more modern.”

      Glancing up and down the seafront boulevard - which was neatly cobbled rather than tar-sealed and didn’t appear to have any traffic to speak of - Alex was inclined to agree, though Xavier cut in before he could vocalise anything, apparently having given up on sulking after being ignored. “You want modern, you go to Unova. That place is nuts.”

      Yvette rolled her eyes. “Just because you went to Castelia on vacation that one time.” She leaned closer to Alex. “He knows I’ve always wanted to go there, so he takes every opportunity he can to remind me of it.”

      “I see,” Alex said, though in all honesty he was feeling slightly overwhelmed by the number of sudden twists and turns the conversation was taking. In a final attempt to steer the conversation back to something manageable, he tried to appeal to Xavier’s evidently competitive nature. “So I guess you’re taking the Gym challenge here in Kalos, right? What’s that like?”

      Xavier’s brow wrinkled. “What’s it like? I mean, I guess it’s about the same as anywhere else. Right, babe?"

      “Yeah, I’d think so,” Yvette agreed, folding her arms thoughtfully. “We’re both challenging Gyms, actually. Well, at least, that’s the plan. We’re both from here in Coumarine, so we thought we’d set out after winning the Plant Badge from Ramos up at the Gym… but one of us hasn’t managed to beat the old guy yet.” She shot an amused look at Xavier, who looked appropriately embarrassed.

      “You had it easy with the type matchup,” he grumbled, though there was no genuine resentment in his voice. Rather, Alex thought he sounded like someone who was more than used to this kind of gentle teasing.

      “I suppose having a strong Fire-type like Arcanine would make things easier,” Alex suggested. “Xavier, don’t you have any Pokémon with a type advantage like that?”

      Xavier, who had been taking a gulp of his coffee, pulled a face. “Ugh, it got cold. No, you’ve seen my whole team so far. Just Pangoro, Doublade and Floette.”

      “Hmm.” Alex rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “That’s a tough one. Of course, type advantages aren’t the only way to win a battle, but they do make things easier. If only there were some way to get around that...”

      Chuckling, Xavier leaned across the table to flick Alex on the forehead. “Hey, you don’t have to coach me or anything. I’m not whining because I want someone else to solve my problems for me.”

      “Yeah, he just likes to whine for the sake of whining,” Yvette added, swiftly dodging a follow-up flick from Xavier but unable to avoid the scowl he sent her way alongside it. “Really though, Alex, it’s fine. He’ll get his badge eventually, and then we can finally head out to travel the rest of Kalos.”

      “How nice,” Alex said, a touch of nostalgia creeping over him. Though he figured Xavier and Yvette were about his age, he had already spent his time journeying some years ago. He still travelled to Contests in all corners of Hoenn, but the demanding schedule of a professional Coordinator made trekking overland impractical. “When are you challenging Ramos, then?”

      Xavier grinned. “In about an hour and a half, actually. We were just wrapping up our warm-up when you and the kids showed up.”

      As if reading Alex’s mind, Yvette raised a finger. “And don’t even think about apologising for interrupting,” she said knowingly. “I can see it in your face. This guy doesn’t even consider it a worthwhile day unless he’s had three battles by lunchtime.”

      “Yep! And my Pokémon are at 100% again, so I’m good to go! Hey, Alex, you should come and watch the battle.”

      “You don’t mind?”

      “Not at all!” Standing, Xavier drained his cup, though he immediately looked like he regretted it. “In fact, I’d prefer it. It’s always nice to have more people in your corner, isn’t it?”

      For a moment, Alex’s mind went to his fan club, the gaggle of primarily teenage girls that seemed to be in attendance at all of his Contests. Of course, the only person who had truly never missed an event was Veronique...

      “Yeah. Yeah, it is.”

      ***

      The Coumarine Gym, as it turned out, was not at the base of the tree that towered over the hilltop district, as Alex had suspected. In truth, it was a garden complex suspended in the branches, the sheer size of the tree allowing the canopy to be fitted with a vertiginous battlefield surrounded on all sides by nature. At the end of a dizzying climb, Alex and his new Kalosian friends found themselves at one end of a battlefield of hard-packed earth, much like any other Pokémon Gym in the world. Rather than bleachers or stands, however, the field was surrounded by grass and trees, open to the sky yet sheltered from the winds by the thick greenery on all sides. A small cottage sat a short distance from the battlefield, alongside an open-air garden and a greenhouse.

      Alex took all this in curiously, letting his eyes wander - from the startling array of flowers and vegetables in the garden, to the two men who waited for them on the battlefield, to the cluster of Grass-type Pokémon meeting his interested gaze with their own - but next to him, Xavier was laser-focused and wound tight as a coiled spring, his eyes locked on the Gym Leader.

      Despite his diminutive height and advanced age, it was obvious that Ramos was sharp as a tack, and just as dangerous. His squinty eyes scanned the three teenagers as they approached, but he did not move from his place. “So,” he said, a grin on his wizened old face. “Ye’ve brought another whippersnapper with ye this time.”

      Alex nodded politely, but there was apparently no time for introductions.

      “I’m winning this time, old man,” growled Xavier, who had been wound as tight as a coiled spring since they had reached the base of the tree. “Let’s go.”

      The battle was swift and fierce. Once Yvette and Alex had retreated to the sidelines - the former leaving Xavier with a quick good-luck kiss on the cheek, the latter opting for a reassuring handshake - the younger man, who was apparently an official League referee, separated the two Trainers and spelled out the rules. The battle would be three on three, with only the challenger allowed to substitute Pokémon. Xavier’s first choice was his Doublade, while Ramos sent out Victreebel.

      Alex watched with interest as the battle erupted before him. Though as a Coordinator he naturally participated in a lot of battles, the fact remained that his objective had always been not only to win, but to make sure his Pokémon looked good doing it. There was none of that today; Xavier seemed totally focused on destroying the opponent in front of him.

      There were no wasted movements as Doublade sliced and twirled its way around the Grass-type. Even as Alex saw a thousand opportunities opening up for a flourish or an extra spin from the naturally flashy Steel-type, additions that would score solid points in a Contest battle, Xavier ignored them all, hammering home attack after brutal attack. Every strike was called with conviction and delivered with purpose, eschewing style for efficiency as Doublade mercilessly slashed its way through Victreebel’s defenses, leaving it unable to fight back within minutes.

      As the flag went up, Alex and Yvette applauded, though Alex narrowed his eyes slightly. “That’s a good start,” he commented carefully.

      “Yep!” agreed Yvette brightly.

      “So why doesn’t Xavier look happy?”

      Yvette cast her eyes over to Xavier, whose brow was still set in the same intense scowl he had been wearing since they arrived at the Gym. “This is how it usually goes,” she admitted. “And being a Pokémon down from the start…”

      Frowning, Alex counted off on his fingers. “Xavier has three, right?”

      Shaking her head as they watched Ramos recall his first Pokémon, Yvette said tightly, “Xavier won’t let Floette battle yet. Not in a big match like this.”

      Ramos mounted a blistering assault with his Jumpluff, forcing Doublade to go on the defensive, blocking and parrying a flurry of lightning-fast attacks as best it could. Alex bit his lip, unable to stop himself from visualising a Contest performance bar over Xavier’s head, draining swiftly as his Pokémon was harried backwards through the air. If Xavier was really hoping to win this battle with just Doublade and Pangoro, he would have to make something happen soon.

      “Doublade’s already tired from taking down Victreebel,” he said, almost unconsciously voicing his thoughts. “It can’t take much more of this. He needs to switch it out and let it rest.”

      Yvette sucked in a deep breath between her teeth, shrugging hopelessly as Xavier continued to stare resolutely ahead. “I vote you tell him that,” she said, her voice almost completely humorless for once. Alex noticed that her knuckles were white as she gripped the edge of her shirt.

      As predicted, Doublade was only able to withstand Jumpluff’s attacks for a few more seconds before its guard broke. The X formation of the two blades that made up the strange Pokémon’s body wavered, and Ramos pressed his attack, directing Jumpluff to drive relentlessly through the opening with an almost supersonic Acrobatics attack. Doublade tumbled to the ground, blades clattering hollowly.

      Yvette cursed under her breath. “It’s just like last time!”

      “You mean he didn’t change his strategy at all?” Alex asked, frowning. “I figured he at least had something planned, if this is how it usually goes.”

      Shaking her head, Yvette sighed wearily. “He’s just too competitive. He’s a gifted Trainer, but even if I talk strategy with him until I’m blue in the face, he never seems to apply any of it.”

      Pangoro took the field with a roar that shook the leaves all around the arena, slamming both its massive fists into the ground in challenge. Ramos’ Jumpluff, however, seemed unfazed as the battle resumed, darting teasingly around the larger Pokémon’s head and irritating it with light, almost playful strikes as it effortlessly dodged Pangoro’s clumsy swipes. When Xavier wised up and stopped calling attacks, Ramos simply had Jumpluff back off and charge up a Solar Beam, forcing the challenger to go on the offensive.

      Chewing her lip, Yvette muttered darkly to herself, quietly chastising Xavier as if she had forgotten Alex were there. “Stupid, cocky, arrogant idiot,” she grumbled. “You’re going to lose if you keep this up.”

      Privately, Alex was pretty sure the result of the battle was settled already; in fact, it may even have been a foregone conclusion. “Does he really think this will work?”

      Yvette blinked, thrown off in the middle of her muttering. “Sorry?”

      “Does Xavier really think he can win with only two Pokémon and no strategy at all?” The words sounded a touch cruel, even to him, but he had to say them. He winced as Jumpluff continued wearing down Pangoro’s defenses, leaving it reeling. Xavier, too, looked slightly stunned as the battle collapsed around his ears, as if he were the one being pelted with attacks.

      “He does.” Yvette’s mouth was a thin line, curving into the faintest hint of a bitter smile as she watched Xavier bellowing orders to his Pokémon. “No matter how dire it gets, he believes in himself and his Pokémon to the very end, one hundred percent.”

      “I, uh, didn’t mean-” Alex said quickly, but Yvette shook her head.

      “Oh, no, you’re absolutely right that there’s no way he’s going to win here. I won’t argue with you on that one."

      “So why?” Alex turned his attention from the battle, looking directly up at the tall redhead. “Why let him keep doing this?

      “Look at him. Do you think I could stop him?” There was a resigned edge to Yvette’s voice that made Alex frown.

      “You have to,” he said. “If this is what happens every single time, you have to help him break out of the pattern or he’ll keep this up till he self-destructs. I’ve seen it happen before, mostly to Coordinators like me - but Trainers are just as vulnerable to it.” It felt weird to be handing out advice like this, but Alex had a feeling he was only confirming something that Yvette already knew. “Look, I’m sorry if this comes off as rude, or crossing some sort of line. I don’t even know you guys that well. But I’ve been around Pokémon for years, and I’ve known Trainers who go right up to the professional level - and this is the same sort of thing that I’ve seen a dozen times over. He’s got no chance of beating Ramos as he is now, and if he just keeps trying again and again without changing anything... it’s not gonna end well.”

      The battlefield trembled as a brilliant flash of light filled the arena, instantly followed by an earth-shattering boom as Jumpluff’s Solar Beam slammed squarely into Pangoro, bowling it off its feet and sending it skidding and rolling across the battlefield before finally coming to a rest, unmoving. Alex winced as the referee’s flag went up, signalling the end of the round.

      Xavier glanced down at his belt for a second, his gaze lingering on the third Poké Ball clipped there. After a moment, however, he simply raised a hand in surrender, his face grim and cold.

      Alex sighed as the two Trainers met in the middle of the field to shake hands. “I should let you guys talk it out. This won’t mean anything if he hears it from me.”

      Yvette chewed on her lip. “What can I say, though? I’m pretty sure I’ve tried everything.”

      “I’m not exactly in any position to be giving suggestions.” Alex chuckled ruefully. “Even though that seems like all I’ve been doing. But if you do want my advice..."

      Yvette held up a hand. “Wait.”

      Slightly taken aback, Alex quickly bit his tongue. “Sorry. Guess I did go a bit far.”

      “No, that’s not it,” Yvette sighed. “I just think that if you have something to say, you should say it to him - to us - directly.”

      “You think it’ll work?”

      “I don’t know, Alex. Maybe he just needs to hear it from someone other than me.” A tinge of hopelessness crept into her voice, but Yvette smiled as she stepped forward, eyes fixed on the defeated Xavier.
      __________________
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        #11    
      Old September 4th, 2018 (1:37 AM).
      Misheard Whisper's Avatar
      Misheard Whisper Misheard Whisper is offline
      I also happen to be a model.
       
      Join Date: Jan 2009
      Location: Nimbasa Gym
      Age: 23
      Gender: Male
      Nature: Relaxed
      Posts: 3,486
      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. We are also now up to date (finally), so no more double-chapter weeks (I hope).

      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!”
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        #12    
      Old September 7th, 2018 (5:35 PM). Edited September 7th, 2018 by Misheard Whisper.
      Misheard Whisper's Avatar
      Misheard Whisper Misheard Whisper is offline
      I also happen to be a model.
       
      Join Date: Jan 2009
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      Age: 23
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      Posts: 3,486
      All caught up now, guys! 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.

      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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        #13    
      Old September 14th, 2018 (10:59 PM).
      Misheard Whisper's Avatar
      Misheard Whisper Misheard Whisper is offline
      I also happen to be a model.
       
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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 MUK' 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."
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      Old 2 Weeks Ago (10:07 AM).
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      Venia Silente Venia Silente is offline
      Worrisome, but also Charming
       
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      Well, I caught this story just a few days ago because of a promising quickie look so, here I am after looking at the first ah... two chapters. Yeah.

      I gotta say I start liking it expecting some action but then I realize it's the story where I hope to see some awkward relaxation. Like vacations, but the kind of vacations you need to take vacations from afterward.

      Okay, so...

      Starts with "Chapter 0 - The End". Ominous! And it starts with the sound of battle - but not merely the sound of battle, but the sound of structure, marching and celebration that gives this a feel for the battles of old. Oh and a loss. Certainly a different kind of instant grab than the ones people tend to see currently, and a good narrative indicator of where are the characters supposed to be placed in this story.

      I like how this is suddenly all hard for this boy Alex. Breathing, speaking, sounding sportmanlike. Final (*final*) defeats are not like your common Route 13 kind of defeat and it shows. He goes on some personal tangents in mindscape and really, who can help but flashbackbackbackback at the worst possible time with National TV set on your face and...

      Earth to Alexander! Let's continue! With overtime it seems. So... Chapter One After-The-End™ (really, I liked that The End thing) starts with the denoument of this story and this battle of Coordinators we missed. We can see here Alex is well genuinely affected by the defeat and by the further mark of it being the latest in a series of defeats that render him barely a bit more than a statistic in the history of Hoenn Coordinator contests. It's a bit fun to read how it stings him because admittedly people in his position should know better: being the first place is notoriously overvalued and oversold, and not worth the hassle; the ones that truly manage to make it to the end are the ones that keep recurringly pressing for top positions, no matter how close to the first place. Wound that won't kill you and all that.

      He's also with a girl, son fan numéro un (or whatever does one say that in French, really) and working very very closely with her. Interesting...

      Quote:
      - had it not been for Mlle. Vincent here, fan club member #00001, incumbent president, and his self-appointed manager.
      ...Yup! Might become sliiiightly more than just admirer numero uno, calling it now :p

      (Also lol @ fan club officially have membership in the five-digits, and people keeping count! I wonder how many digits does Wallace's fan club membership have...)

      Now, as for a few of my favourite pieces, there's the interviewers, really...


      Quote:
      The first woman, a slim brunette with her hair in a stiff, professional bun, stepped forward and proffered a portable voice recorder. “I’m Claire Jones, from the Lilycove Bugle. Our readers will remember you from previous years - how does it feel to come up short for the third Grand Festival in a row?”
      Straight to the point, this one. She bites fast and hard and her question leaves very little room for recovery. I'll give her three chapters before she's killed while trying to interview a rampaging Salamence.

      Quote:
      “Right!” Katie cleared her throat, took several deep breaths, then cleared her throat again. “Okay. So, like, the retirement thing. I’m, wow, I’m glad you’re not thinking about retiring. But [ ... ] You nearly won today, after all! I just wondered, if you could give one message to the people saying those things, what would it be?”
      You know what? Scratch the above, Claire will be covering *this* girl's death at the jaws of a Salamence. With the stares the other two gave to her and the patience everyone had to have with her... XD

      But yeah. I found this story interesting because it tackles from the top and then instead of keeping in that path, going either further up or waning, it literally goes to the wayside. Vacation time, a promise of some time in Kalos and I'm sure veeeeery interpresonal time with Veronique. In Kalos. Pays d'amour. Let's not fool ourselves. And I'll be seeing over time what more does this story bring.
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