Wednesday, 3:45 p.m.
Stepping inside the Cybercafe, Blake Bradley sighed.
The dimly lit room was a haven from the harsh sunlight outside, and the air-conditioning was a welcome change from the oppressive heat of the California afternoon.
Even after showering and getting a change of clothes, he still felt the sweat from the track.
"Man, I need something cold to drink," Jesse said. "How about you?"
"Sure," Blake replied, and followed his teammate toward the counter, rolling his shoulder to work out the kinks from practice that morning.
A drink would be good, but what he really needed was some sleep.
Preferably in his own bed, rather than on a lumpy fold-out in the team bus or in a motel room full of rowdy teammates.
Sometimes being on the road wasn't all it was cracked up to be.
Blake liked the other Factory Blue riders, he'd made friends among the team and Roger Hanna was good to his riders, especially when his riders continued to bring in victories at one race after another, but he missed Blue Bay Harbor.
He hadn't been home in over a month, and weekend visits were the most he'd been able to manage in the months before that.
It was a busy time of year in the motocross world.
But after Nationals he'd be able to take a break and spend some time back home.
The off-season was what got him through the five months out of the year that he was constantly on the go, but it still wasn't enough, it never would be.
You can't have your cake and eat it to, bro, he could almost hear Hunter saying.
It was the price he paid to do what he loved.
But, as Hunter liked to so tactfully point out every once and while, the people he loved were paying for it, too.
His heart ached at the thought of Tori's smile and her bubbly laughter, which just didn't sound the same on the phone. He called every night before he went to sleep, it was part of their routine, but it was a cheap replacement for being there with her.
When it was first announced that the AMA Motocross Championship was going to be held in California, Blake had been ecstatic.
Reefside was only a few hours drive up the coast from Blue Bay Harbor, after all.
But it turned out it wasn't easy for a bunch of senseis to get away from their duties at a Ninja Academy, there were classes to teach and students to attend to, so even though Blake had been able to get passes for the entire week, Tori, Hunter and the others wouldn't be able to make it up until the finals.
He was disappointed, of course, but he understood.
Responsibility was central to a ninja's life.
"Here you boys go," the girl behind the counter said with a smile, setting down two drinks in front of them. "Hope you enjoy."
"Thanks," Blake said, and Jesse pulled out his wallet to pay.
Turning, Blake found himself face-to-face with a girl a few years younger than he was, dressed in yellow and black, wavy brown hair framing a pretty face with big brown eyes and a slightly awkward expression.
"Do we... know each other?" the girl asked, biting her lip.
"I don't think so," he said, trying not to smile at the line. "I'm Blake," he shook her hand, then gestured at Jesse, who lifted a hand in greeting. "This is Jesse."
Jesse, ever the mysterious one, just nodded.
"I'm Kira," the girl said, nodding back, then returned her attention to Blake, frowning. "You just look so familiar to me," she insisted.
"Do you follow motocross?" he asked, taking off his hat.
He half-expected her to recognize him once she got a good look at his face, that was how the girls following the tour usually played it, but this girl surprised him by shaking her head, looking more confused than ever.
"No," she said. "Why is that what you do?"
Okay, so maybe she wasn't a groupie, after all.
Blake opened his mouth to answer, but a lanky teenage boy popped up just then, sporting a t-shirt with a LaRocca slogan.
"Can you sign this, man?" the kid asked breathlessly.
"Sure," Blake agreed, but instead of reaching for the napkin the kid was offering, he grabbed his hat off the counter and signed it with the pen the kid was holding. "There you go."
"Dude, this is totally sick!" the kid cried enthusiastically. "You rock!"
The kid reminded him of Dustin and, unable to keep from grinning, Blake watched as he scurried off to a table where his friends were waiting, and a chorus of whoops erupted from their side of the room, making him shake his head ruefully.
Hunter and Shane were going to rib on him, if they ever heard about this.
And knowing Jesse, his teammate would be more than happy to inform them about it after the finals.
"Okay," Kira said slowly. "So you're famous for riding a motorcycle?"
Jesse snickered, making his way to the fuseball table.
"Don't be so surprised," Blake said dryly, touching her arm gently to brush past her as he joined Jesse at the fuseball table.
They had a smaller table on the bus, and it had become sort of a rivalry among the guys.
Jesse thought he was some sort of prophesized fuseball player, since no one ever beat him, and one of these days Blake was going to have to get Dustin to play him, just so they could bring Jesse's ego down a notch or two.
"Oh, no," Kira said, following them. "It's just I didn't know you could be famous for that."
Fair enough, most people didn't.
Besides, she was cute when she stammered, kind of like Tori.
"Well, why don't you come see for yourself?" Blake suggested. "The Nationals are this week at Reefside MX Park."
With Tori, Dustin and Shane unable to get away from the Wind Academy until the weekend, and Hunter just as obligated to finish teaching his weekly classes at the Thunder Academy before heading up, it would be nice to have people around to watch him race.
And this girl, Kira, she seemed like a pretty cool girl.
In fact, she really did kind of remind him of Tori, in a way he couldn't quite define.
Which meant she was bound to have some decent friends.
"Bring some friends," he told her with a smile. "I'll get you passes."
"Are you asking me out?" Kira asked.
Blake almost laughed, but there was a hint of shyness in her eyes that made him take extra care to contain his amusement. "No," he assured her lightly. "It's nothing like that. Look, part of being a rider is spreading the word about our sport. To get people to come out who never would on their own."
People like Cam, who would never have been caught dead at a track before meeting them.
"I promise you, you'll totally be into it," Blake told her, seeing her hesitance.
"Here you go," Jesse spoke up, holding out a couple of passes to her, and Blake rolled his eyes, knowing the reason his teammate carried extra passes around whenever a race was coming up.
For a notorious flirt like Jesse, those passes came in handy.
"Okay, thanks," Kira said, and gave a little wave as she turned and headed back to her friend.
Blake watched her go, not oblivious to the murderous look that the guy waiting for her was giving him, and shook his head, smiling, before turning back to Jesse.
His teammate was smirking, eyes bright with amusement. "I can't wait to tell Tori you're picking up chicks in a cybercafe."
"Ha ha, very funny," Blake said, reaching over to punch him in the arm. "You know, she kind of reminds of Tor... I can't figure out what it is, though. There's just something about her that's really familiar."
Jesse looked after Kira and shrugged. "I don't see it, man."
"That's because you don't know Tori like I do," Blake pointed out with a chuckle.
"Lucky for you," Jesse quipped, flashing one of his lopsided smiles. "One of these days I might just steal your wife away."
Blake just rolled his eyes.
Satisfied with himself, Jesse gave the nearest handle a sharp, expert twist and the ball shot across the table, squeezing through the spaces between the players, and shot into the hole in front of Blake with a loud clunk.
"Cheater," Blake accused wryly.
"Sore loser," Jesse threw back in kind.
"That doesn't count," Blake declared, moving to his side of the table. "We're starting over."
"Sure," Jesse sneered. "Like that's going to help you."
Sure enough, it didn't really help him, and five minutes later Jesse was pumping his fists into the air, partaking in a dramatic victory celebration, and Blake was vowing that it didn't matter because he was going to kick his ass on the track this week anyway.
As they made their way out the door, Kira looked up from her books and waved, and Blake nodded back with a smile.
He hoped she did show up at the race, even if she brought the surly looking kid next to her.
Hanging out with some cool people like Kira would kill some time until the weekend, until his brother and friends were there to cheer him on instead.
Until Tori was there to kiss him for luck.
Stepping out into the sunlight, Blake absently reached a hand to the chain around his neck, feeling the familiar shape of the ring attached to it beneath his shirt. The chain had come after the ring, a present from Hunter after his brother had seen how easy it was to lose a ring at the track.
Days that he was going to be in gear most of the time, like today, he normally kept the ring at his neck all day.
But suddenly his chest was feeling empty, and his left hand bare, so Blake unclapsed the chain and slid off the golden wedding band, placing it back onto his finger where it belonged.
He brushed the smooth surface with his fingertips and sighed.
It was going to be a long week, knowing how close he was to being reunited with Tori again, but it would be worth the wait.
And once they were together, everything would be perfect.