"Chii!" Alice glanced up from the musical score she was jotting notes on to see Chimchar make an impressive leap and shoot a blast of flame in Darkrai's direction. The shadowy Pokémon dodged at the last moment and shouted something down at Chimchar, motioning with his hands. His still-bandaged arms were protected with some scraps of nonflammable fabric Alice had brought from home. (Living with Chimchar, she had plenty of the stuff.) Alice sighed and turned back to her work.

Training was the first item on the roster, according to Darkrai. He couldn't be around to keep an eye on Alice all the time, and so Chimchar had to learn to hold his own in case Alice found herself in danger. The two Pokémon had been sparring all morning in a large, bare clearing deep in Darkrai's territory. Chimchar hadn't made a whole lot of progress, but he had set the trees on fire three times. It would have been much safer to practice in a more non-flammable area, like down by the ponds, but they all agreed that the Marill families there probably wouldn't take kindly to having their backyard being made into target practice (or having a terrifying nightmare Pokémon flitting around their homes).

Alice tried to tune out the sounds of their battling as she attempted to do her homework. She reached down to pick up the leaf whistle she was using to test notes, and suddenly the scraggly grass a few feet away exploded in a flash of heat and flame. She gasped and scrambled backwards as scorched plant bits pelted the ground around her.

"Chi!" Chimchar screeched and raced over to her side. "Chii?" He looked up at her, eyes wide.

Alice let out a shaky breath and tried to slow her racing heart. "No, I'm fine." she managed, and gave Chimchar a pat on the head. Darkrai swooped next to her and looked her up and down, then, seemingly satisfied that she was unhurt, turned towards the now smoldering patch of grass and began to pat it out.

Chimchar has good control over his fire abilities, he said, but only if he is standing completely still. He is not very agile. Chimchar shot a glare at the nightmare Pokémon and gave an affronted growl, and Darkrai rumbled back a languid response in his own tongue.

Alice laughed. "That's for sure." She gathered her slightly singed homework from where it had scattered. "Hey, Darkrai." she said. The Pokémon stopped what he was doing and turned to her. "Shouldn't I be... I don't know, participating more with you two?"

Darkrai tilted his head. Why.

"I mean, I'm Chimchar's trainer..." Alice began. Darkrai didn't respond, just looked at her as if asking her to explain herself. She wasn't sure what more there was to explain. "I mean, shouldn't I be learning how to command him?"

Darkrai gave her a look that made it apparent she'd said something wrong. I have never understood why humans insist on commanding Pokémon. he said. Do you think they are too stupid to battle on their own? His tone wasn't condescending, but the words stung all the same.

Alice's jaw dropped. "No! When did I ever say that?"

You are not the one battling. You do not know what it feels like to battle. What possible advantage could you give your Pokémon, besides distracting him?

Alice opened her mouth, slightly outraged despite herself, but realized she had no real response. She'd never really thought about it. Nobody ever said why trainers and Pokémon fought together... they just did. When she didn't say anything back, Darkrai turned and floated back to the center of the clearing, saying something in the Pokémon tongue to Chimchar. Her Pokémon glanced at her with an apologetic look before following.

"Could you at least speak English so I can understand you?" Alice shouted behind them. Darkrai didn't respond, but the next time he spoke to Chimchar, it was in his universal telepathic voice. Alice scowled and let out a huffy sigh before picking up her work and moving further back, near the treeline. The last thing she needed was to have her homeworkor herselfincinerated by another wayward attack.

She idly watched the two as they trained. Darkrai had proposed that they stop the fire practice after their near miss, and they decided to work on recovery instead. It was vital to keep moving after taking an attack, Darkrai explained to Chimchar. Alice felt the undercurrent of urgency in his tone. He seemed to have far too much personal experience in the matter.

He started off with gentle pushes and shoves meant to unbalance Chimchar in novel ways. Chimchar tripped and stumbled and fell on his face at the slightest provocation. He had always been clumsy. He was very sensitive about it, especially since his species was supposed to be agile and quick on their feet. Alice could see the embarrassment on Chimchar's face as he lost his balance yet again. Darkrai was clearly frustrated at Chimchar's ineptitude, but admitted that he couldn't give very good advice. His version of agility largely consisted of "float through the air," which wasn't a whole lot of help to his gravity-bound student.

They moved onto dodging. That, Darkrai could teachor at least, would have been able to teach if Chimchar didn't have two left feet. He spoke about understanding the different types of attacks a Pokémon could unleash, how important it was to listen, to feel the slightest movement of air that could signal an impending strike. He covered Chimchar's eyes with one of the pieces of nonflammable fabric, and sank into the ground, to pop up at random places around Chimchar like they were playing some kind of bizarre game of Whack-a-Diglett. Chimchar's objective was to locate and avoid him. He materialized behind Chimchar, and the smaller Pokémon shrieked and flailed, tripping and landing face-first in the grass.

After that, Alice could tell Chimchar's embarrassment had reached its limits. Chimchar halfheartedly attempted to dodge a few more times, but it was clear his heart wasn't in it. He always got discouraged when people pointed out his shortcomings. Finally, Darkrai was fed up. He snatched the blindfold off Chimchar's face. What are you doing? he snapped. Chimchar mumbled something under his breath. Do you think they will care? Do you think they will feel sorry for you? Chimchar dropped his gaze and squeaked out a half-sincere apology. But Darkrai would have none of it. If Alice was in danger, would you roll over and give up because you think you are not as agile as other Pokémon? At that, Chimchar screeched in reply, anger on his face. Alice got to her feet. This training was edging uncomfortably close into a real conflict. But Darkrai's next words made her pause. I know you wouldn't. he said to Chimchar. You were brave in front of Luxio. Braver than I would have been.

The two of them stared at each other. Chimchar looked like he didn't know what to say. Then Darkrai floated backwards, into the sky. Show me that bravery again. he commanded. Defend yourself! And he shot down towards the smaller Pokémon.

Alice's eyes widened. "Hey!" she cried. Chimchar squealed and stumbled backwards at the sudden aggression. Darkrai swung an outstretched arm and sent the Pokémon tumbling head-over-heels across the clearing. Chimchar managed to find his feet, but Darkrai was already behind him. He lashed out, knocking Chimchar's legs out from under him, then sent him flying once more. "Hey! Stop it!" Alice cried. But Darkrai ignored her. He wasn't using his full strengthfar from itand it looked like he was specifically angling his blows to avoid touching Chimchar with his claws. But he was still sending her Pokémon meters into the air, and those landings didn't look soft.

Chimchar wasn't fighting back. He keened in fear as he was sent bouncing across the grass like the ball in a pinball machine. Alice stood frozen, not knowing what to do. And then, unbidden, a memory sprang into her mind.

"How do you do it?" the elderly man asked Alice, watching as Chimchar leapt effortlessly across the scaffolding of the hot air balloon and blew a stream of flame into the envelope. They floated a dizzying height above the ground, and a single misstep would mean a long, fatal fall. "I can't even get my Skitty to ride in the car with me, and here your Pokémon's taking orders like it's nothing while we're kilometers up in the air."

Alice smiled. "It's funny, actually. Chimchar used to be afraid of the balloon. But I promised him that I'd stick with him, and no matter where we were, we'd get through things together." Chimchar hopped down into the basket, and she gave him a scratch on the head. "He keeps me safe, and I keep him safe. We've been able to do things together that we never would have managed alone."

The tourist nodded. "That's what my son says about his Pokémon too. He's a trainer, you know." he remarked. "So how long did it take Chimchar to become the little master pilot he is now?"

Alice laughed. "Took a month to convince him to get within ten meters of the balloon." she said. Chimchar glowered at her, and she ruffled his hair. "But I wouldn't have cared even if he never got in the basket."

Alice took a step forward, her mouth set in a thin line. Across the clearing, Chimchar lay curled in a ball. Darkrai hovered, ready to dive again. Alice let out a shout.

"Chimchar, get up!" Her voice rang across the clearing.

Chimchar's eyes snapped open at her voice and he scrambled to his feet as if by instinct. Darkrai shot Alice a questioning look. She met his gaze evenly. The nightmare Pokémon frowned, then focused his attention back on Chimchar and lunged straight down. Chimchar froze in fear as the black form hurtled towards him.

"Use your fire!" Alice shouted, and Chimchar snapped out of his daze. He took a quick breath and blew a hurried gust of flame into the air. It was messy and uncoordinated, but it forced Darkrai to dodge to the side. "Keep your eyes on him!" Alice called. "Don't let him get behind you!" Chimchar obeyed, circling on all fours as Darkrai hovered above him. The nightmare Pokémon weaved back and forth, trying to find an opening, but every time he darted forward, Chimchar sent him scrambling out of reach again with a breath of flame. The smaller Pokémon glanced back at Alice with a grin, and she smiled encouragingly.

Then Darkrai swooped fast, behind Chimchar, and the little Pokémon stumbled and tripped as he tried to turn to follow. In a flash, Darkrai was bearing down on him. "Your tail!" Alice cried. Darkrai swung an arm back as he rushed forward, preparing to knock Chimchar across the clearing again, when Chimchar's tail flame roared into a mini-inferno. Darkrai threw himself out of the way at the last second. He skidded several meters in midair from his own momentum before coming to a stop.

Chimchar peeked out from behind his hands as if amazed to be still alive, and Darkrai shot Alice a withering glare. Alice merely gave the black Pokémon an innocent smile. Then Darkrai changed tactics. He sank into the ground, becoming a wraithlike shadow on the grass, and weaved forward, ghosting around Chimchar like a Sharpedo circling its prey. Chimchar chittered nervously as he tried to track the shadow's path.

Without warning, the shadow shot across Chimchar's path. Chimchar crashed to the ground in a heap as if he'd fallen over a tripwire. Darkrai abruptly reversed direction and crested partway out of the shadow, flinging the fire Pokémon halfway across the clearing as effortlessly as if he were tossing a rubber ball. Chimchar screeched as he bounced painfully to a halt. "Chimchar!" Alice cried. Training or not, her friend was getting hurt. Darkrai sank back into the ground and shot in a zigzagging line towards Chimchar, who was laboriously picking himself up. Half a second and Darkrai would be on top of Chimchar again. "Behind you!" Alice yelled. Chimchar's ears perked, and without even turning to look at what he was aiming for, he twisted, flinging his fist backwards. Darkrai chose that instant to pounce from the shadows.

A thud reverberated through the clearing. Chimchar fell sprawling on his back, and Darkrai recoiled, clutching his face. Time froze for a second. Chimchar stared at the larger Pokémon, his breathing quick and labored, and Darkrai hovered half-submerged in his shadow, a hand over his eye.

Then Darkrai held out his hand to the smaller Pokémon. After a moment's hesitation, Chimchar took it, and Darkrai helped him to his feet.

The battle was over. Alice ran over to the two of them. Chimchar hopped gratefully into her arms and she gave him a gentle squeeze. "You all right?" she asked. "You did really well!" Chimchar responded by clinging to her arm and burying his face in her shirt with a groan. She leveled a stony glare at Darkrai.

"That was too harsh." she said.

Darkrai was unapologetic as he rubbed his eye with the back of his hand. Battles are harsh. he replied. And you cheated.

Alice glowered. She hoped he got a black eye. "We didn't cheat." she said. "We worked together. That's what trainers are for."

So trainers are an excuse for Pokémon to be inept on their own.

"No," Alice fought to keep her voice even. "I wasn't trying to make him depend on me. He wouldn't have needed me if he had more experience. But right then, he needed someone to help him." She looked the nightmare Pokémon in the eye. "Sometimes, we can't always do everything alone." she said.

Darkrai didn't respond, just stared at her with a skeptical gaze. "You know, I think that's the answer to what you asked before." she mused. She looked down at Chimchar as she stroked his orange fur. "Pokémon have trainers... so they don't have to fight alone. Even if they have weaknesses, they know they have a friend who believes in them. Someone who can give them answers they might not have... who can celebrate with them when they win and share the blame when they don't." She paused. "I know that sounds cheesy, but it really can be powerful. Just the knowledge that you're not on your own."

She glanced back up, expecting a sarcastic reply or a bored stare, but Darkrai's gaze had become solemn as he looked at the two of them. She felt a gaping sense of distance, although he was only a meter away, as if they were standing on opposite sides of a chasm that nothing could bridge. She felt the fleeting glimpse of a hundred moments spent watching silently from the shadows, and realized just how damning her words must have sounded to someone who had spent his life utterly alone.

It does sound silly. Darkrai finally said. But I believe you.

Each of these scenes are ending up taking a chapter's worth of text to write. But with finals over, it should go more quickly. We're about halfway through now, chapter-wise, if my outlines are any indication. (Which they probably aren't.)

A hundred thanks to all of you who have read and reviewed. I'm so happy to see all the positive reactions to my humble little story. I hope you'll continue to enjoy it as it winds up to its grand finale.