Chapter 130: Unadorned

Chapter 130: Unadorned

A shard of sky rests at the bottom of the volcano’s caldera, the smooth lake at its center reflecting the slow drift of the clouds above Cinnabar’s highest peak. Taming the volcano was a major step in establishing the gym on Cinnabar in the first place, and now the inner caldera has been converted from its role as a natural habitat for rare and powerful wild pokemon to a massive stable for tamed ones.

All of which means the view would be more impressive than Misty’s oceanside arena even without the occasional sight of a charizard flying in the distance. Building Cinnabar’s arena in the caldera would be pretty reckless, even in a long-dormant volcano, which is why Blaine had it built around the lip instead.

One of the camera drones buzzes slowly by as Blue climbs the stairs to his podium, and he forces a smile despite the biting cold. The volcano isn’t high enough to be capped by snow, but it’s still nearly winter, and only his thermal jacket and pants make it mostly comfortable being this high. A while back he bought the best trainer gloves he could find, insulating ones that barely reduce his dexterity, while also having better grip than bare fingers, but they still feel slightly off compared to the thousands of hours of experience he has bare handed. He’s glad he’s practiced with the gloves as much as he has; their handicap is still way better than frozen fingers, and he’s trained with someday battling in Articuno’s blizzards in mind.

From the top of his podium he can see Blaine standing opposite him, white labcoat worn over a thick red turtleneck instead of his usual button up and tie. Blue has always thought the coat stands out on a Leader who otherwise seems allergic to presentation and theatrics, but despite the months he’s been here, it’s only seeing Blaine wearing it again here, combined with the breath-taking view of the island and ocean spread around them, that he wonders what it means to Blaine rather than what it might be signaling to others.

The stands are packed despite the remote location, everyone bundled up against the cold, with some holding flameless Fire pokemon in their laps for warmth. There’s extra distance between the arena and the audience compared to other gyms, and he can’t make out any of his friends in the bleachers, but Leaf said she’d try to make it, and he knows the rest of his crew are here.

Red isn’t. Too predictable a time and place where he might be, too much risk of Rocket trying to take him out.

But he’ll be watching, Blue knows, him and Gramps and Daisy and others.

“Blue Oak,” Blaine suddenly says. “What is your Challenge?”

Blue manages to hold in his laugh. The lack of prebattle speeches is one of the more infamous aspects of Blaine’s Leadership, and Blue isn’t actually surprised that the man wouldn’t break that norm for him… even if he did help revolutionize the island’s recruitment and defenses.

Once Brightfire and his “clan” showed up, other online influencers were close behind. Some were people Blue had on his list of influencers to reach out to, others were the kind he considered too volatile or unserious to be a good influence on the younger trainers in the program. It’s been taking a lot of time and effort, along with social nudges and maneuvering, to ensure they don’t destabilize the process.

But overall, it’s been working so far. Dozens of trainers, working together in coordinated teams to help maintain control of the island, turning yellow zones green and orange zones yellow and red zones… mostly orange, with some exceptions.

Maybe it’s those exceptions that led to Blaine not acknowledging what he’s done. In the end, Blue failed to deliver an island at peace, even if he helped it get stabilized enough for Blaine to resume his challenge matches at a pre-Ditto pace. In a sense, Blue is only here because his number finally came up… but he still feels like he earned this match in a way that part of him wishes would get some public acknowledgement from Blaine.

“I challenge for Mastery.”

“Cinnabar accepts. You may use three pokemon against my six. The first trainer to achieve three knockouts wins. If any pokemon is killed, their trainer loses.”

“So what’s your plan?”

“Rule one of battling trainers: you don’t go in with a plan.”

That’s rule one? And I’m only learning it now?”

It was their fourth time meeting to teach Leaf trainer battle tactics, and the first time she managed put up at least a bit of a real “fight” against Blue. She still hesitated too much, didn’t seem to notice most of the paths to victory that were available to her pokemon… but she was improving, and Red had started out mostly the same, if with a somewhat different set of blind spots. A younger Blue might have found the sessions a waste of time, especially with a gym challenge coming up, but he’s been using them as opportunities to train up some of his weaker pokemon, as well as practice less common combat commands… plus, it felt good to help Leaf get up to speed in her battle tactics.

And strange; he’s never coached someone who was so skilled as a trainer but so bad at this particular aspect before, and it felt like a fun puzzle in itself to figure out the best ways to help her close the gaps.

“It wasn’t relevant before now.” He shrugged. “If you’re only fighting one pokemon at a time, and you know what it is ahead of time, sure, you can strategize. A trained mon will do stuff a wild one won’t, and will have TM moves, but you can learn all that, make a spreadsheet or whatever. But you can’t do that against a whole trainer team.

And, he didn’t add, renegades add an extra layer to all that, doing even more things than most trainers, being an extra element as a direct threat… but they’d get to that part later, and a couple battles didn’t make him an expert. If she stayed serious about it, there are renegade defense training courses taught by police that she could attend, or some ex-hunter she could hire as a tutor.

But all that could come later. First they’d cover basic stuff.

Leaf was giving him a skeptical look as she tossed a handful of berries at Raff, who finally evolved into a venusaur after their third day of battles. “I’ve seen you poring over spreadsheets ahead of gym challenges, back in Vermilion with Red and…”

“Aiko.” For all the good that did, given the surprise Membership battle that was itself cut short by Zapdos. “Yeah, but remember what I said? You don’t go in with a plan.” He gave it a moment, and when she continued to frown, “You go in with—”

“—multiple plans, ugh, Blue, having multiple ‘plans’ in one flowchart is still ‘a plan!’ Even multiple flowcharts could still be called ‘a plan!'”

“Details,” he said, waving it all away with a smile to match hers. “Point is, even knowing what type a leader will use, even predicting every mon on their belt, any plan I put together needs to be ready to get dropped. What if I rely on Soul acting as a pivot to absorb fire attacks, and he gets taken out by an unexpected matchup? What if I use my whole team to set up a sweep, and Blaine has the perfect tank to fully wall it?”

“Well… I remember you once ranted at Red to not become ‘one of those bigbrains’ who… relies on too many pokemon to set up a sweep, or something?”

Wow, you didn’t tune me out nearly as much as I thought when I talked about battle stuff.”

She smiled, brushing windblown hair out of her face. “Or you underestimate how much battle stuff you rant about.”

Nah, I’m fully aware. But yeah, any more than two pokemon per strat is just showing off, I think. Not just for sweepers. A hazard team maybe gets better with three to set up, but I think two is enough, with the rest as redundancies or an alternate strategy.”

“So that leaves you with three sets of potential winning conditions, at most? Or maybe one win condition and multiple ways to achieve it?”

“That’s one way to do it, yeah. But that assumes you’ll be using a full belt. One of the reasons you can’t rely on any single plan is you never know exactly what kind of battle you’re walking into, which is why different formats exist; to simulate different circumstances you might face outside of a battle arena.”

Even at this distance, the air is still enough that Blue hears the murmur go through the crowd. He keeps his expression steady, pulse having spiked only a little at the verbal confirmation that Blaine would be going… not all out, but close. It wasn’t entirely unexpected; 8th badges are when the safety bars usually start dropping, but Blaine has been known to do it on 7th badges before, as have Giovanni and Surge.

As an admission of Blue’s skill, it’s gratifying. But as a sign of what Blaine has planned for him…

Three pokemon against six.

But still only three knockouts to win. Which means Blaine has twice as much leeway to go all-out with his pokemon, since he doesn’t need to conserve strength or stamina… and because, much as it would be a mark against the Leader if he kills a challenger’s pokemon, it’s generally seen, fairly or not, as a slap-down against someone who wasn’t ready. Blue’s not tempted at all by the victory he could get by killing one of Blaine’s pokemon—the mark of that would follow him worse than a loss (and would be a waste of a powerful pokemon, besides), not just in public perception, but in the way it would justify the next Leader or Elite he faces in coming down even harder on him.

Blue’s mind races through his plans, discarding them as Blaine reaches for his belt. The battle calm is slow to descend as his own fingers trace over his pokeballs. Maturin, Rive, and Soul are the powerhouses on his left hip, while his newer sandslash, pelipper, and poliwrath are on his right. Should he go more defensive, in case he’s about to get hammered? But if Blaine tries to stall, he’ll have twice the ability to. It may come down to what Blaine sends out first…

Fire/Grass can handle Water and Ground types and Fire/Ground or Fire/Fighting will cover Rock but he can’t cover all three at once…

Blaine is unclipping a ball from his belt—

Rock/Ground is my best bet but he knows that and—

Blue almost unclips Soul’s ball for the safety of matching Fire against Fire, but Blaine locking Blue into the first three pokemon he swaps between makes each non-coverage ‘mon far less valuable—

Blaine is throwing—

—and Blue snap-decides on the double Rock/Ground coverage, with only 3 pokemon he has much less to gain by holding a particular counter back as a surprise sweep—

“Go, Coalossal!”

“Go, Rive!”

His rhyperior materializes on his hind legs, arms extended and ready to blast stones out at whatever Blue summoned him for… in this case a walking mountain of glowing coal, with the fairly unique capability among Fire pokemon of shooting not just fire and tar out, but jets of steaming water.

Which on its own is often enough to take a Rock/Ground pokemon down in one hit.

He has moments to predict how Blaine might have trained it. Speed or Durability? Preservation or the long game?

The choices narrow in the space of heartbeats, and Blue yells “Ras!” just as Blaine shouts his own command. Scalding water blasts out at Rive while he slams his fists into his own body in a rapid staccato that sends chips of stone flying forward in a cone that coats the battlefield.

Rive roars in pain as the water hits, white cracks snaking over his torso… but his body is extra compact compared to most Rock types, heavy scales arranged to minimize gaps in his armor, and a shout of “Rad!” sends him barreling forward on all fours, horn spinning.

A second gout of scalding water jerks to the side as the titans clash, water and steam and flames venting from the coalossal as its body is torn into, and a moment later it’s withdrawn, while Rive manages to rise onto its back legs with a groan.


“So okay, both trainers are trying to set up sweepers or hazards or whatever, while denying the enemy whatever they need. Is it basically just a more complex Fire-Water-Grass? Do sweeper teams beat hazard teams but lose to stall, which are beaten in turn by hazards?”

Sort of, except each mon is its own thing too, and there are brawlers who are just there to wade in and wreck shit. That’s Soul, for me, and Maturin a bit too. Well rounded bulk and speed and damage, plus decent coverage options just makes them a pain to try to set up around. You might do it, but it’ll cost, and enough costs add up to bring everything collapsing down. Some people form entire teams of them, each there to wreck a different strategy up by brute force.”

Why isn’t that the default, then?”

Well, because they’re vulnerable to all three if they get unlucky. If Blaine has a Volcarona that starts Quiver Dancing, I’ve got Rive and Soul to take it down, but if I lose them before it’s sent out, or they’re too weak to beat it even un-boosted? Good sweeper teams are built with a win condition in mind, and the rest of the team is there to get them to it. Or look for opportunities to sneak it in if the enemy missteps.”

Huh. So that’s your plan for Blaine? Fire pokemon don’t really do hazards or walls, right?”

They have a few, but yeah it’s not really their thing. And Blaine should have a good sense of my capabilities, even if he doesn’t know what’s on my team—that’s part of the point of having challengers fight competent gym members first—so he should know that anything too obvious won’t work on me.”

Unless that’s what he wants you to think, and you prepare for something less obvious, and—”

Yeah, yeah. So it goes.”

Blue watches Rive sway slightly, then stabilize, and lets a slow breath out, pulse quick even through his calm. It was a gamble that the coalossal would be slow enough for Rive to use Stealth Rocks and take it out after. If he’d been wrong, he would be down to two pokemon and not have put a scratch on Blaine’s frontrunner… but he knew Rive could take at least one hit, and he’d gain the field advantage either way, one that will be particularly important if Blaine ends up swapping pokemon a lot.

But Rive won’t take much more, even against a Fire pokemon, and the part of Blue that wants the cleanest win regrets letting him take that hit when he could have knocked out the enemy instead, leaving him with an easy 3v5 and the ability to set up the rocks on whoever is sent out next.

He doesn’t need Red to poke him about hindsight bias to notice that the train of thought isn’t helpful, and toss it aside. That battle’s done, the next is coming, and he’s still well positioned. Not the best he could be, but he avoided disaster, and Rive may be able to help soften up one more—

“Go, Blaziken!”

“Return!” Blue’s arms snap into position to withdraw Rive before he gets pummeled unconscious. His new Fire/Fighting opponent manages to dodge most of the floating rocks that immediately zip toward it, and Blue barely has any time to pick the replacement pokemon, but he knows there’s a Scovillain waiting for any Water pokemon he sends out and so instead he sends—

“Go, Gulper!”

His pelipper appears over the battlefield and immediately banks to the side, managing to avoid a direct hit by the blaziken’s leaping kick. Blaine probably doesn’t have another Rock type to send out, which means Gulper should be mostly safe—

“Return!” Blaine throws as Blue brings the whistle necklace to his lips and blows a command for Water Pulse—

“Go, Rotom!”

—which hits the newly summoned… levitating convection microwave, which


in Blue’s vision, like one eye is seeing the microwave and the other is seeing something wearing a microwave costume that’s too small for it as it thrashes inside.

The two overlapping realities snap together as the microwave suddenly turns on, lights blinking rapidly as the cover opens, bright with heat.

And the trap becomes clear.

And what’s his plan for you?”

Dunno. Blaine isn’t exactly the most attentive Leader, wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t even know my starter is a blastoise, let alone that I have a rhyperior. But Fire having only three weaknesses does help with predictability.”

Not a lot of Fire pokemon that can handle those weaknesses, though.”

Yeah, and there’s basically zero overlap in the types that resist each, so he has to choose with each one. Maybe that’s why, when you look at his past battles, sometimes Blaine is the most straightforward Leader. No fancy strats, just spamming Overheat and Flare Blitz and Burn Up, not trying for sustainability, just keeping the pressure on, Fire Blasting his way through any Type resistances. Other times he’s definitely got a well crafted team, like you can see the thought he put into building it, and sometimes it’s brilliant, but he’s not Erika or Koga.”

Tactics over strategy?”

Exactly. I’ll be pretty surprised if he’s got some trap in mind, especially if he’s got one prepared for me, specifically. I’d guess that in his head, it would be showing favoritism or something, boosting my status even more, and I especially doubt he’ll do something like that given I failed to make the island safe fast enough to skip the queue.”

The rotom’s obvious upcoming move, despite appearances, would be an electric attack that would take Gulper out in one hit. Blue could swap to Rive to negate it… but there’s no chance Rive will outspeed it to get another KO, and an Overheat would take his injured rhyperior the rest of the way down, even through his resistance.

Which means Blue has to swap in a third pokemon, and lock himself in for the rest of the match despite only seeing half of Blaine’s pokemon.

“Return!” Blue yells before his pelipper gets electrified, fingers of his other hand twitching from one ball to another.

Blastoise, sandslash, poliwrath…

“Go, Soul!”

His arcanine appears just in time to catch the bolt, muscles locking up and hair sticking up all over his body. Once it passes, he shakes himself and roars.

Blastoise and poliwrath would be so damaged by the thunderbolt that they might not be able to withstand an Overheat after any better than Rive would. Sandslash could take the thunderbolt instead of Rive, and (probably barely) withstand an Overheat to finish off the rotom… but being stuck with a Ground type would make an enemy Fire/Flying or Fire/Grass twice as dangerous to him.

It had to be Soul, who on top of everything else—



—is fast enough to take the rotom down before it can get another attack off, forcing Blaine to withdraw it.

3v4. Sort of. He still needs two knockouts, but the rotom can’t come back out without being taken down by the Stealth Rocks, so it’s effectively out of play…

“Go, Turtonator!”

Unless Blaine can clear the field.

Soul’s jaws close around the Fire/Dragon turtle that appears, Crunching hard enough into the thick, spikey shell it keeps between them that a crack runs through it.

It wouldn’t matter. Turtonators have the toughest hides of any Dragon in the world, their shells even harder than the metal scales of an archaludon—even Rhyperior would struggle to break through it with a Drill Run, and the resulting Shell Trap explosion would give nearly as good as it got.

And thanks to its Dragon blood, even Maturin, if Blue could use her, would have to spam multiple Hydro Pumps to take it down. Gulper doesn’t stand nearly as good of a chance.


Dragon blood comes with its own weakness, besides the Ice attacks that turtonator’s heat protects it from.

And combined with the damage from Stealth Rocks and Crunch…

It’s starting to sound like you’re saying there’s basically nothing you can do to prepare.”

Nah, not quite. There are some things that are easy enough to predict that they’re worth preparing specifically for… and of course, some things are just a good idea to train regardless, if you have the time and money.”

It should be a more dramatic moment, this reveal. He hasn’t talked as much as he could have, about the anger that used to pace inside him, anger he always imagined taking an arcanine’s form. A couple off-hand mentions, once in an interview, once in a blog post after he caught Soul.

It felt too private, most of the time, and a little embarrassing. He was still half a kid, two years ago, and a lot of things from that time feel farther away every day.

But a part of it all still feels real, a core part of how he experiences himself, and that part feels there’s something special about this moment, even if Blaine’s unadorned directness forces Blue to match it.

“Soul,” Blue shouts, just as Blaine gives his own command. “Rage!

Flickers of purple flame start to lick around Soul’s body, and then the arcanine bursts into motion as they spread and connect all around him. He lifts the turtonator off the ground and slams it back down to the side, then lifts it up to do it again, and again, whole body bending from side to side as he kicks off with his hind legs.

The turtonator tries using its rock-hard head to smash Soul away, but can’t get the right angle to make contact. Blaine gives another command, and instead the turtonator jabs its beak into the ground the next time it’s slammed into it. The earth below them explodes upward and outward, flinging Soul across the arena as the purple flames around him flicker and fade.

The crowd gasps, and Blue tracks his arcanine with his ball… but Soul rolls to his feet upon landing, patches of fur blasted off by coarse, heated earth. Blue almost withdraws him anyway—his pokemon is clearly dazed and confused, shifting unsteadily between his feet and shaking his head—but a glance at the turtonator makes it clear that his opponent is down for the count, and Blue wants to give Soul at least a few moments to recover before he’s withdrawn for later.

Now it’s 3v4, with only 3 viable pokemon left, thanks to another risk paying off. The path to victory should be clear by now. Just take down one of the remaining three pokemon Blaine sends out next, using all three of his pokemon to do it if he has to.

But he knows it won’t be that simple. Two of his pokemon are weak, and the Blaziken could possibly sweep both, depending on how long Soul takes to regain his senses. That would leave Gulper against three opponents who could each probably trade a free blow or two with it before being safely taken out…

Blue blinks as he realizes a few seconds have passed. Longer than the usual swap-in time, though not in a way that would call in a penalty; Soul isn’t poisoned or bleeding out, if anything the extra time helps him.

“If you’d used such a powerful attack against an even slightly weaker pokemon, you might have killed it. Especially after it was hurt, and its defenses damaged,” Blaine says.

Now they’re talking? Blaine doesn’t do half-time speeches any more than he does pre-battle ones… not unless he’s delivering a browbeating.

A cold hand clenches around Blue’s heart—did the turtonator actually die? But no, Blaine didn’t check with his pokedex, it’s probably fine…

Blue does his best to keep his face calm as he breathes past his quickening pulse, the cold air stinging his nose as the battle calm slowly fades. “I taught Soul to use Outrage specifically to face a turtonator—a pokemon I believe couldn’t be stopped in any other way.” And he’d needed to stop it. If he’d let it stay on the field, it would have likely used Rapid Spin to clear out the stealth rocks, bringing the rotom back into potential play (and being an unstoppable ongoing nuisance, besides).

Maybe now is the time to say more, about how rage against the unfairness of the world has always been a motivating part of his soul, or how he wanted to prove that impossible-seeming things could be done… but the words die on his lips, attention drawn again to their surroundings.

The island stretched out below. The distant lake, reflecting the sky, with a couple charizard flying in a slow loop around it. The sound of the cold wind, filling the silence without taking away from it.

And he thinks he gets it. The reason Blaine built his arena here. The reason he’s so anti-showmanship or attempts to persuade… which are different to being anti-appearances, or anti-presentation, maybe.

Because this volcano, it is a spectacle. The view from here, the experience of being so high up and feeling it, both literally in the cold air and somewhere in the deeper stillness… it’s just not one that needs creating, or gets meaningfully added to by anything else Blaine could do. Or anything Blue can do.

Blue lets it in, a different sort of calm, and says nothing, simply watching Leader Blaine across the arena. Letting his actions speak for him, and keeping his words a simple explanation of those actions.

Leader Blaine looks back at him, though it’s hard to make out his expression from this distance, especially through his sunglasses. But through the corner of his eye, on the monitors for the viewers, Blue catches the eventual nod.

A test? If so, it’s not hard to guess; Blaine’s virtue is responsibility, and Blue squarely took it. Not just in retrospect, with a turtonator who survived the use of such a powerful attack, but by binding himself by his word that it was a move learned for the turtonator, and thus would not be used against other pokemon.

And what does passing mean, given they’re already in the middle of the match?

Maybe it’s just this moment to rest. Down below, Soul stops his confused swaying, regaining some balance as he moves to stand guard in front of Blue, who continues to take in the silence, letting go of any anticipation or stress about it. His hands casually move to rearrange his belt, putting Rive and Gulper on his right together, Soul on the front of his left. Sorry, Maturin. Next time.

It feels like an age has passed, but in reality it’s probably less than a minute from withdrawing his pokemon before Blaine unclips a new ball. “This match result has likely been decided, and I dislike wasting time—”

Another spike of panic. Decided which way?

“—but you have yet to show the pivotal pokemon’s mettle. Bring out your pelipper, and see if it can secure your victory.”

Blue hesitates for half a breath before his hands start moving, confused but willing to trust… whatever is happening, even if it slightly disadvantages him. A quick withdraw of Soul, which he expected to do anyway, and then:

“Go, Gulper!”

“Go, Charizard!”

It’s large, almost a quarter the size of the arena, and its roar shakes the stillness from the air. A second roar follows the first, this one of pain, and the air grows hotter with the sound, warmth spreading over Blue’s face as he watches the Stealth Rocks puncture the great lizard’s tough hide.

Gulper is about half its size, but to her credit she barely reacts to the roars (a third one sounds, far in the distance), and Blue quickly brings his whistle to his lips to blow another Water Pulse, which thankfully comes after the overwhelming blast of fire that’s sent in her direction, heating the air further and blowing Blue’s hair back.

Now whose moves are capable of killing?! he doesn’t yell, watching through the returned calm as his pokemon catches itself out of a plummet, burnt feathers falling in a cloud, then retaliates. The charizard recoils as the ring of water hits, and tries to launch itself up after the struggling pelipper… but its wings are in tatters from the rocks, and a quick whistle from Blue has Gulper banking around to dodge the second Overheat, which is thankfully weaker than the first, and looks like it just grazes Gulper.

The two pokemon fly above them and Blue relies on Gulper’s easier turning ability to get behind the charizard and divebomb it with another Water Pulse. A sharp whistle from Blaine has the charizard flip itself over and smack Gulper out of the air with its tail, in a maneuver that would be awesome if not for the fact that the combined damage sends the charizard plummeting down after to crash against the arena floor.

Even with that, it still turned out pretty cool.

Blue blows a new tune for his pokemon to Roost while their opponent picks itself up, looking at least as unsteady as Soul had. Blue is distantly shocked it’s still able to lift its head at all, and knows in his gut that without the Stealth Rocks, this thing would have (metaphorically) eaten Gulper alive. Maturin or Rive could probably match it, but if Blaine used a TM to teach it Solar Beam… would he, for a 7th badge challenge? (Come to think of it, that’s another reason this arena was probably set here…)

Gulper is resting on the ground, shedding burnt and broken feathers as new ones quickly regrow, and Blue is ready to end the Roost as the charizard regains its focus—

—”Return! Go, Scovillain!”—

There it is, and unfortunately for it his quick whistle gets Gulper out of the way of most of its Bullet Seeds. They practiced for hours on those tight spiral climbs and dives, which can be easily followed up with an Air Slash, itself enough combined with the Stealth Rock to nearly take the scovillain down—

—quick check that Gulper can survive another Bullet Seed, maybe not a direct one but—

—”Return, go Blaziken! Brave Bird!”


The flaming, wingless bird crouches down, then leaps in a blur to meet Gulper mid-air, and Blue’s pelipper is knocked out of the sky for the second time in under a minute. Blue’s heart leaps as she flaps rapidly to catch herself… and retaliates with another Water Pulse—

“Blaziken, return.” Blaine’s voice cuts through the roaring in Blue’s ears, and he’s ready for whatever comes next—the charizard again? No, the rocks… the scovillain?

Instead nothing comes but words, the words: “I consider all my pokemon unable to fight, and forfeit. Blue Oak has earned the Volcano Badge.”

And then the wind is drowned out by the cheers, and Blue lets himself sag against the banister. No tricks, no posturing. Just relief, and a wide, open smile.

One more.